Circle in the sand: reflecting on the summer of 2023.

The summer of 2023 has been full of disaster and pessimism, but there's also been some very good things about it.

Circle in the sand: reflecting on the summer of 2023.

Today, September 21, is the day of the equinox, when the length of day and night are exactly equal. Astronomically, tomorrow is the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere. In common discourse some people consider September 1 the first day of fall, but it really isn't--summer has just been lingering. There’s a certain wistful and romantic quality about the end of summer, the last warm days of long hours of sunlight, the last chance for those outdoor activities–beach walks, barbecues, what-have-you–that will soon be impracticable because of rain or temperature or school schedules. I named this article after a favorite song from the ’80s, by Belinda Carlisle, that captures that wistful quality. But in recent years, for me at least, the "end of summer effect" seems especially pronounced. The change of seasons is less a catharsis than an absolution, or at least the chance of one. I think that’s how a lot of us feel deep down.

Belinda Carlisle's "Circle in the Sand" has been my end-of-summer song since 1988.

The summer of 2023 has been, on a macro level, pretty terrifying. The disasters associated with human-caused global warming have been accelerating far beyond what all but the most "alarmist" scientists and observers were predicting just a few years ago. Already the eerie red skies of New York City, in early June, seem a bit quaint after the subsequent horrific events in Maui, in Italy, the wildfires in Canada and many other examples of climate-fueled disaster. Yet governments, politicians and institutions seem more steadfastly resolved than ever before not only to ignore the climate crisis, but to take affirmative actions to make it worse. For me at least, summer 2023 has made real and tangible the realization I had, years ago when I first began studying global warming, that climate effects were going to continue to get worse, year by year, markedly and noticeably. This summer has been awful for climate disasters. Imagine what 2025 is going to be like, or 2030. It's still too early to discern what shape the inevitable societal collapse, caused by global warming, is going to look like. But if there was ever any doubt that it was coming, the events of this summer should have dispelled them.

About two years ago I had a terrible reckoning with anxiety and alarm over the climate collapse. While it's not accurate to say I've "made peace" with it, as that isn't really possible, I've learned in a very difficult way how to try to prioritize things in my life that don't trigger that anxiety. (Therapy isn't as much help as you might think. Even therapists are terrified about global warming). I used to do some work in the field of climate change, and much of my old Substack blog, which I no longer actively update, dealt with climate-related issues. I simply can't do that anymore for the sake of my mental health. I haven't "given up" on climate issues by any means; doing so would be playing directly into the hands of those aforementioned institutions, particularly fossil fuel companies, that want you to do exactly that. But I can't work in that space day-to-day any longer. I'm better at working along the fringes, shaping what I can change there.

Maui, August 2023. This is what human-caused global warming looks like. All of the world's major governments, economic institutions and especially oil companies very much like this sort of thing and want it to continue.

This summer has been an unusual personal journey for me. At its beginning I was anticipating moving, in fact to another country (Canada) on a very short time frame. That fell apart in June, and I'm staying put for now, but the shift in priorities was certainly disorienting. The beginning of the summer seemed pretty bleak, to be honest. Things changed with the sudden and almost inexplicable success of my YouTube channel, which has existed for more than five years but only began getting significant traction in July 2023. My day-to-day life changed pretty dramatically. When I'm not teaching or preparing for classes, I'm now spending most of my time working on historical videos for my channel which have now found a significant audience. Probably many of you now reading this found me through my YouTube channel this summer, especially the Iran-Contra and Gulf War videos. I've been doing public-facing history work for years, but until this summer I was reaching only a very few people. My experience with YouTube has shown that the phrase "if you build it, they will come" (deriving originally from a W.P. Kinsella novel) is, in at least some limited circumstances, true.

There’s a disconnect, I think, between our public lives and our private ones. Most of the unhappiness and anxiety I experienced this summer came from without, not within. I have to think of the beauty and majesty I saw this summer–in mighty waves on the Oregon Coast, for one thing, which also makes me think of that Belinda Carlisle song which speaks of sand, waves and beaches. I spent time with my nephews, who I'm used to thinking of as babies but are now in, and one almost out of, high school. I drank wine and ate wonderful food with family and friends. I finished writing a mystery novel and published a history book. I enjoyed the love and companionship of my husband and my family. From that standpoint, summer 2023 wasn’t so bad.

Astoria, Oregon, June 2023. There were some great times this summer too.

If you’re relieved to feel a slight crispness in the morning air or spy a tree whose leaves are beginning to turn gold, I’m right there with you. There have been worse summers than 2023. Undoubtedly there will be again. But times do change. We must make the best of them.

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