How to find joy in an unconventional summer

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
Summer is usually a joyful time of year, but this one is starting off with a complicated mix of emotions. Still, there are ways to find joy even in this complex time. Read on for tips and a free downloadable guide to help you cultivate joy in safe and fun ways for yourself and your family during summer 2020.

Summer is usually a joyful time of year, but this one is starting off with a complex mix of emotions. As protests for racial justice continue across the US, many of us are feeling the need to sustain the momentum and dig in to the deeper work of dismantling systemic racism in our communities, and in ourselves. Your summer reading list may have shifted to titles reflecting your commitments to anti-racism, and you may be spending more time than usual scrolling the news. And with Covid-19 still spreading in many communities, some classic summer joys may be temporarily on hold. Summer travels are likely to be postponed. Beaches in many areas are closed or limited to walking only, and BBQs are socially distanced. In many places, summer camps are going virtual, much to the chagrin of Zoom-weary kids and parents.

Still, we need joy. Though it may seem trivial in the face of the momentous challenges we face right now (and some of you have told me that you may feel guilty experiencing joy when others are struggling), moments of joy provide a necessary rest — physically, emotionally, and mentally — making us more resilient over the long term. And summer, even an unconventional one like this one, offers a natural point in the year to slow down, reconnect with your senses, and lean into joy.

It probably won’t look like a usual summer. There will be things you’ll need to avoid or adjust. But with a little creativity, if you’re willing to embrace the uniqueness of this moment and what you have in front of you, this could be a truly memorable summer, one marked both by challenges and growth, and deep moments of true joy.

With this in mind, we’ve created a new, free downloadable guide packed with tips and ideas for finding and creating joy this summer. You can download this guide right here:

As you compile your summer Joy List, here are a few things to keep in mind to help you make this summer a truly joyful one.

1. Put on a bathing suit

Summer isn’t just a season. It’s a mindset. And there’s a lot that you can do to cultivate this mindset in your surroundings. Summer tunes, summer breezes through the window, summer scents: all of these things can help put you in a lighter mood. (Check out the guide for a list of specific tweaks you can make to summer-ize your home.)

One of my favorite ways to create a summer mood is to put on my bathing suit first thing in the morning. Having undergone IVF treatments these last few years, I’ve often been recovering during the summer months, and each recovery requires a two-week abstention from swimming. Yet even if I wasn’t going to get anywhere near the water, I always put my bathing suit first thing anyway, (along with copious amounts of sunscreen). It made me feel like there was the possibility of a summer dip, and it inspired the kind of laid-back, layered summer dressing that’s perfect for a summer afternoon.

In her cookbook Every Day is Saturday, Sarah Copeland shares her discovery of the power of this simple ritual. She was employed as a private chef in a villa in St. Tropez, and every day she’d come to work in her heavy chef’s coat, clogs, and black and white checkered pants. On the first day, la Madame, the lady of the house, came into the kitchen, took one look at her outfit, and said, “That won’t last.” Previous chefs had cooked in a bikini and flip-flops. At first, Sarah was scandalized. But a few weeks in, while she thought everyone was out swimming, she slipped into the kitchen in a bikini and flip-flops to check on a batch of bread. And of course, who did she run into? Madame.

They laughed together, and from then on, Sarah gave in to the summer chef’s uniform. Now, whether she’s sitting at her desk writing a book, folding laundry, or whipping up dinner for ten, she relies this trick to bring a summer vibe to any situation.

2. Make the familiar strange

One of the joys of travel is that it makes the strange feel familiar. We try unique ice cream flavors and compare them to our hometown favorites. We learn the names of new foods and flowers. We smell something peculiar and follow the scent, and soon it becomes known to us.

But if we can’t travel to strange lands, we can apply this principle in reverse: we can make the familiar feel strange. By looking more closely at our immediate surroundings, we can attune ourselves to the wonders in our midst.

One way to do this is to explore the habitats in your immediate surroundings. Naturalist and children’s book author Jean Craighead George used to stock up on guidebooks about local nature on summer driving trips with her kids (which she details in this glorious essay), but why not do the same for your hometown? Getting acquainted with your natural neighbors can help you feel more connected to your home. What birds are singing in your bushes? What do they eat? What shells line your seashore? What lives do those organisms lead? Choose a topic that fascinates you (birds, trees, insects, flowers), grab a guidebook, and start joyspotting!

The legacy of this will stay with you. You’ll begin to recognize birds, like old friends, when they return for the season. Your deepened intimacy with your surroundings will make you feel more connected to your home, offering up new and different opportunities for joy throughout the year.

3. Keep it weird

This is not a normal summer. But in some ways, that may be its silver lining. As time expert Laura Vanderkam points out in her book Off the Clock, when we do the same things repeatedly, our brains save space by filing that away as a single memory. So if you engage in the same rituals each summer, your brain starts to condense those memories together, and the ultimate effect is that summer starts to feel shorter as each year goes by.

We can thwart this tendency, however, by making new memories. And this summer offers a prime opportunity. Having to change up your rhythms might be disappointing at first, but it could be exactly the jolt to your routines that helps this summer feel richer and more memorable. Don’t try to make this a normal summer. Let go of canceled plans and focus on making new memories.

What does that look like? Well, maybe it means hanging a sheet in the backyard and having movie night outside, or maybe it means camping out and telling ghost stories in your living room. Maybe it means running relay races down the sidewalk or making s’mores in your broiler. It might feel weird right now, but know that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when you, and your family members, look back with a smile and think, “Remember that summer when we…?”

4. Embrace your freedom

Of all the aesthetics of joy, freedom is the one that comes alive during the summer months. Yes, some of our freedoms are necessarily curtailed during this coronavirus summer, but summer is still a season of liberation compared with the colder months before it, so tune into the little things that make you feel free. Maybe it has to do with how you dress: wearing loose tees and swingy caftans, sandals or going barefoot. Maybe it’s swapping out heavy foundation for tinted moisturizer. Or maybe there’s a small tweak to your daily routines, like a slightly later alarm clock setting in the mornings (or going without!) or a longer walk with the dog.

When I lived alone in the city, in summers I switched to commuting by bike, a much freer mode of transportation than the subway, and I left an extra 30 minutes a few times a week to sit in the park and read a book before heading to work. This little slice of time wasn’t much, but it was enough to give the whole day a freer feeling.

Other freedoms you might think about:

  • The freedom to stay up really late
  • The freedom to eat lunch outside instead of at your computer
  • The freedom to grill your food instead of turning on a hot oven
  • The freedom to sleep with the windows open
  • The freedom to read for pleasure

What small summer freedoms give you joy? Take note, and lean into them!

5. Slow your roll

Summer heat naturally slows things down, but if you’re having trouble getting into a summer mindset, then being intentional about downshifting can help. This means not rushing or pushing yourself too hard. It means adding margin to daily life, leaving more time between activities and not over-scheduling yourself. And sometimes, it means doing nothing it all.

If you’ll be continuing to work from home through the summer, you might try giving yourself the gift of an hour (or even 30 minutes) of unscheduled time in your calendar (yes, I’m aware of the irony: schedule your unscheduled time, or it won’t happen!). You can also try scheduling a day or half-day of “no calls, no meetings” time. I tried this a couple of years ago and now it’s a weekly fixture on my calendar; not only has it made my weeks more relaxed, but way more productive.

And if the thought of doing nothing fills you with dread, look for activities that require you to take your time. This might mean drawing from life or spotting shapes in the clouds, playing music or learning a new skill. Or just let yourself linger a few minutes longer over things you’re doing anyway. Sit on the patio for a few minutes after a bike ride, or hang out in the garden after a walk. Don’t rush to clear the dishes after dinner, but give yourself a few minutes to savor the meal. The extra minutes aren’t likely to be make or break in terms of your workday, but they’ll definitely help to make your day feel more like a summer break.

6. Embrace joy, not perfection

Lastly, remember that there is no such thing as a perfect summer. If you’re like many people right now, you’re juggling a handful of things, from caregiving to cleaning to remote work, and just trying to make it all work. Yes camp is canceled and “homeschool” is out, but you don’t have to suddenly become your kids’ activity director or camp counselor. Take it from someone who spent a lot of time alone as a kid during the summer because I had two single parents who worked full-time: Boredom can often be the precursor to joy.

My parents made sure I had books and art supplies, that I was clothed and fed. I climbed trees, mucked around in the swamp at the end of the road, climbed trees, taught myself how to yo-yo, and mastered the art of blowing giant bubbles. Sometimes, I even got bored enough to lie on a towel under a tree and open up my summer reading books.

Adults, too, sometimes pin our hopes on summer. We expect to have the ideal summer body or the perfect summer vacation. But alleviating that pressure can open up more space for joy. The reality is that every body, in summer, is a summer body. And every summer vacation, no matter how flawed, can be wonderful if we focus on the small wonders of the moment, instead of trying to make it fit the image in our heads.

This is true every summer, but I think it’s especially poignant right now. When we were all picturing summer in the snows of January, I don’t think any of us were imagining attending a protest in a face mask or checking local Covid case counts before deciding whether to venture to the farmer’s market. I know I certainly wasn’t imagining introducing my baby to his grandparents over Zoom. But here we are. And I know I’ll still be able to smell the salt spray of the ocean with my face mask on. I’ll still be able to taste the ripe tomatoes, even if I have to have them handed to me in a bag instead of picking them out myself.

Taking some time for joy doesn’t have to make us blind to the struggle we face to overturn discriminatory laws, keep our neighbors safe, rebuild our communities and the economies that sustain them. Ultimately, this summer may be an opportunity to practice an essential, but elusive skill: holding the intense contrasts of the human experience together in our hands at the same time, allowing each to inform the other, letting neither overwhelm us. Life will always be lived in this balance. And this being true, I think our best hope is not let joy and sorrow blur together in a middling average, but to dance out along the edges, fully alive to the beautiful tension between them.

Don’t forget to get your free copy of the Joyful Guide to an Unconventional Summer! You can download it here.

June 13th, 2020


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    Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Marjolyn on June 13, 2020

    I always read your posts but I especially love this line you wrote; 
    “ I think our best hope is not let joy and sorrow blur together in a middling average, but to dance out along the edges, fully alive to the beautiful tension between them.” e, I think our best hope is not let joy and sorrow blur together in a middling average, but to dance out along the edges, fully alive to the beautiful tension between them.”

    It basically  sums up the summer theme   Just make sure to keep dancing and not be absorbed by the darkness. 

  2. Suzanne LaCabe on June 13, 2020

    I miss my coffee dates and water aerobics. However, this is the first time in my life I have stayed in my nightgown until it was time for the evening news and put on my lounging pajamas.(Without guilt.)The birds are singing, the flowers are blossoming, it is quiet at night for sleeping. I have clean water to drink, a roof over my head and enough food. Truly one of the privileged but not unaware of my gifts.

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on June 22, 2020

      Beautifully put, Suzanne. Like you, I’m one of the privileged. This morning as we drove to a doctor’s appt I saw the cafes I no longer visit, and I told my husband how much I craved an iced tea made for me in a to-go cup. But as much as I miss that, I’m grateful for the slow days where we get to eat lunch together, instead of one of us being on an airplane somewhere. Longing and gratitude all at once!

  3. Linda Thomas on June 13, 2020

    What an uplifting post and loved the Joy summer guide.Just what I needed Thank you


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