The Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, falls this year on the 21st of June, not to be confused, by the way, with the day often referred to as the Midsummer Festival. The latter event is traditionally marked on June 24th, and celebrations of the day begin on Midsummer’s Eve, the night before, in England and elsewhere referred to as St. John’s Eve because the 24th of June is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Many, if not most, pagan peoples celebrated the solstices, both summer and the winter, as important markers in their lives and in the continued health and wellbeing of the world itself. This was true especially in agricultural societies, where summer was of course the time when most crops were planted, grew, and flourished. The crops were then harvested and, as often as not, preserved to feed the community during the colder months of the year. In some cultures, sacrifices – human or animal or plant — were made to the various gods ruling the sun and the seasons in order to maintain the continuity and the regularity of this all-important timing. But even hunter-gather societies noted the solstices, because the animals they hunted, and the plants they gathered, were also dependent on seasonal regularity for life and food and reproductive purposes.
Nowadays, for the most part, midsummer passes us by with hardly a nod of the head, except for the fact that we may recognize that school is out and the kids are underfoot. I wandered, for example, into the locker room at my gym the other day (part of a community center), only to find a pack of 20 to 25 screaming, yammering, roiling 7 to 8 year old boys, very much like a marauding pack, overseen by teenaged “Camp Counselors,” who, I fear, appeared more dazed and daunted than dutiful (and who could blame them?). But the ears especially of someone in his late 60’s are not, I can tell you, well suited to endure the high-pitched screeching of 7 year old voices bouncing off the bare walls of a locker room. Note to self: arrive earlier, or later in the afternoon, and hope for some semblance of relative, longed-for peace and quiet.
But, in a city at least, peace and quiet appear seldom to be what can be expected from those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Windows, for one thing, are open, and we hear the comings and goings, the doings and sometimes the shenanigans of raucous and rowdy neighbors, their dogs, their televisions, their stereos (do people still have stereos?), to say nothing of the unfortunate clatter and cacophony of occasional familial dissent, disagreement, and disaffection.
When I was a child in upstate New York many years ago, I remember summer nights sitting on the back porch, with my father pacing slowly, always with a glass of beer in his hand, and my mother swinging silently on what was known as a glider. The town, I suppose, was small enough, or the era innocent enough, that evenings were quiet, with just the occasional whoosh of cars driving by on 19th Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, out in front of our house. We were far enough north too that darkness didn’t actually arrive until close to 10:00 PM, which is when we kids would normally go to bed. But who could sleep on those slow, sultry nights, filled with humidity and the lingering heat of the day, and with that inexpressible longing for something bigger and wider and somehow more important, more exciting, more engaging and fulfilling, or so it seemed, than a silent, small town’s summer’s night? I would gaze out the window at the fireflies, busy at some task that I knew must have carried with it a weight that counterbalanced the listless lassitude of my longing and my wishing for something urgent and fulfilling, something of import and eminence in what seemed to be my otherwise languorous and lethargic life. Mine was, I suppose, the eternal complaint of children the world over: nothing ever, ever happens here!
Later, after I’d joined the monastery and lived with other teenage boys in a kind of supremely strict religious boarding school called a Junior Novitiate, we were sure to be kept busy during the summer. We worked and occasionally played and of course prayed, but the nights, those long summer nights, were always there to haunt the still, silent chambers of the mind with unexpressed and inexplicable longing, the things of the hungry heart. Bedtime was 9:00 PM, and at the time of the Summer Solstice, still in upstate New York as we were, the sun had not yet set. No boy in his lonely bed can sleep under such conditions, so a Brother Prefect patrolled the dormitory in order to assure quiet and order and, let us not forget, sinlessness, as much as he was, even with all of his authority, incapable of peering into the meandering, unruly, and anarchic minds of adolescents.
Summer can still be like that. It somehow strikes me as a time of longing, of wishing and of wanting, but who can say for what? Perhaps it’s brought on by the lush greenness and the verdant luxuriousness of the plant world, busy as it always is with all of its growth and its flowering and its unending fecundity. Plants can shame us, it seems, with their ceaseless growth, their never-ending industriousness, their sprouting and thriving and flourishing and blooming and germinating. And they die back, simply, naturally, uncomplainingly, unconcerned about any time afterwards, here or on another plane of existence. Their last job, seemingly, that of providing nutrients for the next generation.
All this the world does while we, humans, ponder and wonder and speculate and plan for old age, and hope that what we have done in life has amounted to something. Summer occasions us to think about these things: what fruit have I borne? Of what use, or what good, has my life been? The light of a summer’s evening has that quality about it. It can penetrate and illuminate the darker corners of the psyche, where lie hidden doubts and fears and all manner of secret, silent questions we have about ourselves, our purpose, our meaning. And God forbid that the answer be to make money, or to gain power. Of what use is that, with the sun sitting unyieldingly on the horizon, and the bright summer twilight no longer allowing us to hide what we wish might never appear to our startled gaze?
In the end, winter may be kinder to us. Its darkness fits our penchant for obscurancy, for murkiness, and shadow. The Summer Solstice shines its light on all things, and in Midsummer we cannot camouflage for long the secretive and the conveniently tucked away.
We are, perhaps, not so far removed from our forebears, who made sacrifice to the sun, high in the sky. At least it’s something to think about and to ponder on the Summer Solstice, and on Midsummer Night’s Eve. A time to stop and to listen, and, if we are lucky, not to hear the cacophony of the outer world, but instead the chthonic inner voice of growth, of maturation, perhaps even of meaning, and of life-giving fecundity.