By Paul M. Lewis
Summer is both a time of year and a state of mind. I suppose the same could be said about every season, but somehow summer seems to loom larger, brighter, more luminous. It surprised me when I first heard that Midsummer was—and still is—celebrated on June 24th . In traditionally Christian countries, this is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, sometimes called St. John’s Day. I was surprised because on or about June 21st is, scientifically speaking, the day of the Summer Solstice, its official beginning. I suppose the explanation is that, in most countries of the northern hemisphere, heading toward the end of the month of June feels like we’ve been at it for a while, as if we’ve more or less reached the middle.
When I was a boy, living in the all-Catholic-all-the-time enclave of an old industrial town of upstate New York, June was a glorious month. The first leafing out of the trees and the spring flowers were long gone. That was the job mostly of late April and early May, the Month of Mary, when we crowned the statue of the Blessed Mother with lilacs and lilies of the valley. By June, everything that grew and blossomed was at its height, and yet the leaves were still new and clean, of an ebullient verdure that made you think the world could not be a better place to live in. At last, school was finally out, and even the nuns appeared to be in a happier mood. They waved us good-bye at the classroom door, and we ran out into the wild world, free at last to explore what and when and wherever our hearts led us. It never occurred to us then that they too may have been hugely relieved to be rid of us, although from my seventy-one year old perspective today I am sure that was true. What nuns did in the summertime I never found out, but perhaps just being away from screaming children was vacation enough.
Even my parents were in a better mood. Summer was a time when we were free of the terrible burden that came with heating the house during the freezing months of winter, bills we could never somehow afford. In summer, money seemed a little less tight. And although my mother still worked—always a great sorrow to me, because I wanted her at home with us—she seemed to walk with a lighter step. As much as she could not buy the lovely clothes she probably wanted, nonetheless she always had an excellent sense of style. She liked looking good, and I always thought her especially beautiful in the flowery, light-colored dresses of summer. On the other hand, my father never dressed in anything but the same work pants and white tee shirts, sitting at home of an evening at the kitchen table after work, drinking glass after glass of Ballantine Ale. Even on his annual, single week of vacation, this is what he did, as going away on a vacation was never even dreamed of in my house. Such a thing was reserved for the houses of the rich, or so we believed. My older brother would play baseball with his buddies, while my younger sister drew hopscotch designs on the sidewalks, skipping and singing rhymes, and I and my friends would ride our bikes to the nether reaches of the city, where we were forbidden to go. Or we would build forts in a local vacant lot, filled with sumac and other trees that needed no tending to and that thrived in poor soil, but which represented jungles and forests, exotic realms of the imagination existing far, far away from where we lived our everyday lives.
Midsummer, in this sense, was a hopeful time of new beginnings. The world had miraculously come round fresh once again after the long gray winter, filled with freezing nights and snowy days, or the half-forgotten ice that turned into the dirty slush of late March and early April. We rejoiced in the heady scent of the roses, carnations and the bachelor buttons that filled people’s gardens. At night, the family would sit on the back porch, listening to the silence (no one watched television in the summer in those years, or no one we knew; that was a diversion saved only for the cold months); and we children seemed entertained enough by chasing after fireflies and enclosing them in glass jars (cruelly so, as I now think). Later, we would lie in bed, sweating in the humid air, hoping for a breeze to come through the window, or for the blessings of thunder and lightning and a great downpour of rain to cool things off. Yet, in spite of the heat and discomfort, we rejoiced in remembering the next morning was not a school day; nor did we have to face the dreaded, unmerciful Sisters of Mercy.
But by the middle of August, something had begun to change. Although we could never pinpoint exactly when that happened, suddenly we realized that the leaves were starting to look dusty, a little bedraggled, as if they had given their best and were beginning to feel the effort. The warm nights had begun to cloy and take their toll, and secretly we longed for the cooler temperatures of the coming autumn. The 15th of August was for us, in those years, that day of days, when we knew the idle moments of summer were coming to an end. Midsummer was long gone, that beginning of endless excess, at least if the very definition of excess could be doing nothing at all. The Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary had arrived, seemingly as a warning. And as if to underline and reinforce the warning, this was a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church. That meant it was a day when we were required to attend mass, on pain of mortal sin. Of course, the nuns, too, were there (where had they gone all summer?), and once again we glimpsed, for the first time since the beginning of our halcyon days of freedom, those harsh representatives of discipline, control, authority, strictness, and the punishing regimen of school, class schedules and homework. In other words, what we saw before us was, in essence, the loss of freedom, descending into what Walt Whitman called “the life that exhibits itself,”—against which he railed in Leaves of Grass.
Why does all this come back to me, now that I am gray of hair and long retired from a life of work? I no longer need to care about the assignments Sister Clotilda gave us that I feared I did not know how to complete. Sister Jacinta no longer towers over me, ruler in hand, nor does Sister Barbara quote her favorite phrase to me: “the empty barrel makes the most noise.” My parents, too, are long gone, coming up on fifty years for my father, and forty-five for my mother. My brother, too, is dead, and my sister has her own physical problems. It has been decades, lifetimes it seems, since I felt I obliged to attend mass.
But summer itself still marches on, unconcerned. Here in Southern California, mid-August feels like the real Midsummer. It’s ninety degrees outside, and even September—or on into October—looms large and heat filled. And yet, I remember those far off days of childhood as if they were last week, when we ran and played and biked and explored a world of endless surprises and magical mystery.
Nowadays, I roam elsewhere, traveling the world, as I have done in the past and hope to continue doing. Yet, there is also another kind of travel that I have learned, an interior kind, one that roams the great universe. To quote Whitman again, from the “Calamus” section of his great poem:
“In paths untrodden,
In the growth by margins of pond waters…
Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world,
Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,
No longer abash’d—for in this secluded spot I can
respond as I would not dare elsewhere,
Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself,
yet contains all the rest.”
“Yet contains all the rest.” This is the secret of the Leaves of Grass, after all, that the leaves are, themselves, all there is. Another way to say it is the whole universe is contained in every atom, in every subatomic particle. As it is in every summer, and each autumn and winter, every radiant, verdant spring. In the eternity of the moment, it is always Midsummer, or any other time of our choosing. One moment expands to fill all time, and every day is a Holy Day—though one, thankfully, with no obligation.