Ask August to Fork Up a Fresh Start

August marks us two-thirds into the year. What will we do with this next trimester?

It has a history as a lazy month. Rarely is it said: “let’s wait until August and then we’ll work overtime, straining every nerve, to build something great.” Instead, we take holiday, sleep in, staycate, hibernate, cocoon, rest up, detach, disconnect, and disappear. We anticipate a bolder re-entry in September and that gives us permission to drop out in large and small ways. We expect little of each other and, thus, of ourselves during this month of ripe melon and sweet corn.

And yet, maybe there’s more to make of August. I’m coming to see it as the ideal month to incubate dreams. The Farmers’ Almanac says it’s the perfect time to plant a leafy green seed like kale, spinach, or collards that will flourish into autumn and sustain an early winter’s night. Can we take a lesson from nature and apply it to ourselves?

I don’t know about you but I’m weary from the pandemic and desperate for new growth that will help me move beyond the constraints and rhythms Covid days have carved into my routines. I’m planting a dream in the hot loam of summer, one that will begin to sprout in September and leaf out as the year finishes. It’s a time when, whether we do it consciously or not, we are choosing a fork in the road. One fork: keep on doing what we’ve been doing, and that might be just fine. The other fork is seeded with new intention so that when September comes, 18 months into a pandemic, we’ve got something growing. So that we’ve got a fresh start.

The “fresh start effect” is a documented and researched phenomenon which says that a temporal landmark such as a birthday, new year, or start of a school semester provides something of incalculable value — a point of demarcation that allows us to leave behind whatever disappointments, frustration, or sheer inertia have prevented us from achieving more of what we want from our days. As August becomes September, our muscle memory recalls the start of a school year whether or not we’re actively registered for class right now. It’s a time of sharpened pencils, virgin notebooks, and quiet resolutions. This new season, you resolve, will be the one where you step up, raise your hand, join a new club.

Here are five techniques I’m applying to make more of August and take advantage of the fresh start territory of these days.

1. Bury a question. Frame an issue or opportunity in your life as a “how” or “what” question. Planting a question invites your subconscious to get to work while you’re doing other things, including chilling out. “How can I advance my first draft?” “What is holding me back from taking guitar lessons?” “How do I get savvier about social media?” “What can I do to get on better footing with my project team?” Take the nagging issues and the sparky possibilities that scurry through your waking thoughts and transform them into seedlings for a fresh start come September. I’m asking myself how best to proceed with a passion project — Reclaim Plan A — now that we’re waking from the pandemic. How can I wrangle people’s heightened sense of mortality, their YOLO impulses with new activities and sharpened methods that can work remotely?

2. Take a risk. We let down our guard in August, unbuckle the tight belt of our days, and skiff about with greater ease. It’s a good time to take something that frightens you and bring it down to size with a small action. I have a lifelong issue with call reluctance — I’m afraid to ask someone for what I want because the vulnerability and fear of rejection feel greater than the possible payoff. Maybe you struggle with that, or some other conversation with yourself that’s holding you back. Take a baby step on something important to you. Research a class for that guitar you’ve always dreamed about playing or send a note to someone whose advice would be helpful. Here’s what I’ve done for a new play I penned which needs a next step: I asked a former teacher for help. She’s busy, kinda famous, and has a million other things to do than help me with my play. But still, I’ve asked. I powered through my call reluctance by sharing my “why” — I’ve never believed in a play I’ve written as fiercely as I believe in this one. It’s a story that needs telling and its time is now. I said this in the note to explain why I needed her help. Amazing, but in these slower days for her, she’s taken a concrete step on my behalf to advance the project. Can’t know the outcome, but it’s forward progress and that’s something to celebrate.

3. Meet up for no reason at all. Have you lost touch with your college roommate, your sister-in-law, that funny guy from accounting? Whether in person or by screen, have an August picnic of some kind. Invite a slow conversation about your lives. No need for it to be goal directed, leading to an outcome. Say hello, reconnect, check in. I’ve had several such encounters in the last few days including one with a writing colleague I met in class more than 15 years ago. Now living on the west coast, she and I had a lunch with a rare daytime glass of wine when she passed through town and we lingered over the stories of our days, offering encouragement, organically amplifying what’s right in each other lives. Keeping a friendship stoked can nurture our dreams with its peaty goodness.

4. Read something different. With less pressure to accomplish, you can pick up reading material you might flip past during busier times. Reading widely on different subjects, in different genres, in different media, can boost brain power, fertilizing your buried question in unexpected ways. And it yields a different kind of pleasure. I re-subscribed to the print version of the weekend New York Times and that’s introduced a new habit — a lazy slog through the paper which only a print version can deliver. The feeling of newsprint brings back memories of my parents who had a daily newspaper habit, when the flop of a newspaper sent me scurrying to the front door. I’ve taken on a long novel, something I might avoid during busier days when my attention span feels strained. The joys of reading Richard Power’s brilliant epic, The Overstory, cannot be overstated. A novel about trees in which people are somehow secondary seems prescient. It’s provoked me to get a tree identification app which I take to the park. Do you know the difference between a sycamore and a mulberry leaf? Stay tuned, I’ll let you know in my next essay.

5. Practice “soft fascination.” When we diffuse our attention, say in a stroll through nature, we are restored. It’s what researchers dub “soft fascination.” I learned about it while I was walking through the park (!) listening to this podcast where Ezra Klein chats with Annie Murphy Paul about the extended mind. It debunks a popular metaphor — that our brain is akin to a computer with linear processing and rational underpinnings. More accurately, our brains are magpies, building a nest of ideas and solving problems with the scavenged objects of our experience. That’s why going to a coffee shop or getting out of our space leads to better outcomes — it relaxes the thought process; when you’ve let go of intense focus, the brain opens up to new possibilities. Bring a slice of watermelon to the park and spit out the pits when no one’s looking. Hang a hammock between two trees and take a waking nap. Bring soft fascination into your days with easy looks at the world within blocks of where you are right now. Maybe you’ll even join me in my minor quest to name the trees?

So, I’m paying attention to the “forks of August,” the small choices I can make today to sow a more satisfying future. Time to plant a seed of possibility and then step away, letting nature take its course. When we re-enter the metaphorical “school year” in earnest in September, let’s look for something unexpected to be growing. We have survived the pandemic and the chalkboard of autumn awaits our inscription.

Janice is a founder of VisionFirst, a playwright, performer, and the pioneer of Reclaim Plan A. She relishes Central Park, good soup, and real conversation.