Last week, I was walking home from one of the cafés where I write, and I was overcome by this eerie feeling. I had just spent six days in New York meeting with my publisher and talking to friends, being summoned to various places across the city, and while I had returned from that trip, I hadn’t yet surrendered back to the rhythm of my life. I was still in that vulnerable, porous phase where I might be apt to do anything like pick up a new habit or give up coffee or start a new television show, the kind of waking dream that is post-travel malaise.
It was evening, just over the edge of the blue hour, and the leaves overhead were one dark, fluttering surface like that over a body of water. My eyes began to sting, and I felt my throat tighten up. It was a familiar sensation. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t know why. I wasn’t sad. It was the first time in days where I wasn’t on a schedule or preparing to go out into the city. I wasn’t having to plan meals or navigate social engagements. I was utterly free and on my own. But this very freedom was driving me to the point of emotional instability. I didn’t cry because I was on the street, but the desire to cry remained with me long into the night. It occurred again the next day at almost exactly the same hour. Again and again it struck me, this weightless, hot feeling working through my face down into my throat and gut. A feeling like wanting to cry, a feeling like needing release.
It’s the same feeling I get when I read a good book or watch a movie with perfect cinematography. That feeling of wanting to reach out and touch something and be totally enmeshed in it. A recognition of like sensibility, that weird tightening at being startled by your own reflection. An uncanny, elusive feeling. It was longing. That’s what it was. I was experiencing longing, not because I had left New York or because I was suddenly alone, well, perhaps it was because of those things. The freedom of leaving New York. The joy at being suddenly alone. The whole time I was in the city, I kept wanting to leave the city. For as much fun as I had talking about my novel and seeing a handful of my friends and riding the train, I wanted every moment for it to end because I knew that I would feel relief. And the image I had in my head through those six days was the image I effectively achieved on the sidewalk: walking home from my usual café, passing under the trees, a cool breeze after a long, ugly heat of the day, the beautiful blue of late evening, and the quiet that attends a college town in late summer. The perfect, happy desolation of city streets and side neighborhoods. Knowing that I wouldn’t speak to another person for weeks at a time maybe. I had stepped right into a trap of my own making.
I should say that I belong to that odd race of human whose bodily response to getting what I want is to immediately experience melancholy because I am never happier than when I’m sad. But to go over that here would be a retread of an essay I wrote for them a while ago. It’s not unusual for melancholy to descend upon me like a visitation from an elder spirit. It comes out of the very air, it seems, like solute from an agitated solution. Happiness always transmutes to sweet melancholy. It is when I feel most myself.
And here I was after a week of travel and tense engagements, alone at last.
The summer demands so much of us—we can’t go outside without feeling its urgency. The heat, the sun, the humidity. Warnings from the weather service about lethal conditions. Half the country simmering and boiling before suddenly and violently breaking out into thunderstorms that shake windows and spawn tornados. The summer is a season of cataclysm, a constant wailing and shouting. It digs at me. I hate it. But sweater weather comes at the end of all of that. How could it be anything other than relief.
I spent my summer in melancholic longing. Wanting things, wanting other things when I achieved what I wanted, changing my mind almost the moment I made decisions, wavering, feeling awful and sweaty and miserable with no way out. It has been an ugly, bruising season for me personally, punctuated by moments of joy, moments of weird dreamlike lucidity. But mostly, all I’ve wanted is for the weather to break.
I’m relieved the summer is ending. That won’t surprise anyone. This letter is called Sweater Weather for a reason. But I think that sweater weather is more than just cool air and crisp leaves. It’s more than just evening damp and wild wind. Sweater weather comes when the days are getting shorter and the nights longer. Sweater weather is a mood, a way of being—it’s the most fragile, liminal phase of the year, where for a few weeks, the weather outside is perfect and permits one to take long walks under the sinking sun, to admire the lengthening, thickening shadows cast by the trees, and to contemplate the course of one’s life. As a way of being and seeing and doing, sweater weather is all comfort and reserve. It’s laughter, it’s crackling fires, it’s a retreat into oneself, it’s a respite from the assaults of the world.
The last couple of days have been hot except for moments, usually after two or three in the afternoon, when an almost tropical wind blows through town. I don’t know how else to describe this weird, circling breeze that feels immediately cooler, at once damp and quite dry, alive, like hope.
In the fall, I begin teaching a class on the sentence. I have a few events lined up that will require me to go to New York. I’ll be at Brooklyn Book Festival in September, and I’d love to see you if you’re around. I’m exhausted just thinking about all those planes, all those hours, the anxious anticipation of packing, boarding, takeoff and landing, the empty hours in the air. I keep thinking about it and wanting to reverse course, give up, leave it all to someone else. But this is the life I have chosen, and there are worse things than to happen to a person than success and responsibility. I’ll keep you updated as news comes in about events and book things.
I hope you are well. I hope you’re staying safe and cool. I hope we all get to take our sweaters out of the closet and withdraw into them.