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.








By Paul

Aside from picnics and fireworks, what the approach of the July 4th Independence Day holiday brings to mind more than anything is probably the notion of patriotism. Is it, as seems to be the common wisdom, merely a concept which lauds an expected, deep respect and unconditional love for country, or is that today more of an outmoded mindset, an excuse for exclusion, leading to a xenophobic mine-verses-theirs mentality that poisons the welcoming of whatever, or whoever, may be foreign or different? Or is it somewhere in between?

The word “patriotic” itself comes from the Latin “patris,” which is the genitive singular form of “pater,” meaning “of the father.” Some countries – Germany comes to mine – have traditionally referred to themselves in the masculine, as in the Fatherland, while others appear to prefer the feminine. Russians, for example, almost universally reference Mother Russia, and even in the United States, we often feminize reference to the country (see, for example, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America/Land that I love/Stand beside her and guide her etc.).   In French, ambiguously, “la patrie” is a feminine noun, although it is usually translated as Fatherland (note that it has the same masculine Latinate root as the English term).

But whether we envision the notion as of one gender or another in the end may make little difference. For most people, the impact of patriotism comes from much the same place as that of the camaraderie felt by soldiers who go into battle together. On the level of feeling, rather than of intellectual discourse, we are talking quite literally about where we come from, who is there to support us, and what that means for us now, in the moment. In time of war, while facing grave danger, with possible imminent loss of life or limb, what is most important is not the latest camouflage, or protective gear, or even weaponry; it’s whether or not you can count on “your brothers” (and in recent times, “sisters” as well), who are with you to support and protect you, as you support and protect them. “I’ve got your back” is not a term taken lightly under such circumstances. Neither is it for many people when it comes to one’s country as a whole.

What do you think of when you hear the word patriotism? Is it the flag, per se, or is it what that represents to any individual, the story of his or her life, a whole host of memories, of people, of events, of scenes, of sights and sounds, and smells and food, of play and contention, of life and death, and of loved ones longed for but no longer here, of war or peace, of danger or of carefree togetherness, whether all this took place in upstate New York, or California, or the American South, or France, or Russia, or Syria, or the Sudan.

Each individual has his and her own story to tell. My own started almost 70 years ago in upstate New York. Born to a father who was a factory worker and a mother employed as a saleslady in a local department store, we struggled through a life with its own degree of poverty and deprivation. Money seldom lasted all the way to the next payday, and meals approaching that day were often meager and unappealing. New clothes were a distant thought, a luxury for those with money, and doctors or dentists were professionals you saw only when the pain or discomfort was no longer bearable. And no one took what is now thought of as a vacation. In the summer, my father would get a week off, which he spent making repairs on the cold-water flat we lived in. And while I felt myself to be poor, even compared to my friends whom I went to school with, the truth is that no one I knew had any surplus money to spare.

And yet, there was family, as dysfunctional as my own often was, and friends, and other kids to play with, and the Church, Catholic in my case, that provided a kind of moral gravitational pull all its own. Later I came to see it as oppressive, repressive, and even damaging, but as a child I accepted it as a given, and for a while it provided me with a kind of empowering personal nexus.

We can all recount our own such stories which, while differing in every possible detail, carry with them the same profundity of emotional tether and draw. This is because the essentials of the story, of every story, remain the same. There is a place, a setting, a cast of characters, a drama and a plot of sorts, and even whole themes that run through a person’s life. All of the specifics add up to your own unique history, your own depiction, your own version of the greater story that happens to all of us, and it is the individual aspects of that saga that amount to the glue that holds together the idea of what we think of as patriotism.

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I remember going to a 4th of July parade in the town of Poestenkill, New York.   It’s more of a rustic hamlet than a town, with barely 4,500 people in it today, and no doubt a lot fewer back in the early 50’s. It’s located some 25 to 30 miles from the state capital of Albany. My grandmother, whose husband was a French-Canadian baseball player who had abandoned her soon after my mother’s birth, had a kind of boyfriend who came from Poestenkill, and we were visiting some of his relatives there. My recollection of the parade consists mostly of the town fire truck, a few local notables walking in their Sunday best, and a marching band consisting of no more than a dozen players. Later on, there was a picnic with hotdogs and potato salad. I still remember my brother, ever the daring adventurer, throwing a stone at a bird, By some stroke of chance or ill luck, he hit the creature. It was able to limp away, but I felt terrible about it for the rest of the day, and would not speak to him. When we got home, and it had finally gotten dark that evening around 9:30, there were sparklers. I dropped mine, and it went out. In the darkness, I reached and picked up the wrong end, and in so doing burnt my hand; payback, I thought even then, as someone in the family had to atone for the injury done to an innocent bird.

These are the kinds of memories that come to mind for me when people speak of patriotism. The childhood ties that bind you to the land, to the people, and to what happened there. This, and not some concocted idea of abstract pride in a nation, is what evokes feelings for a Motherland or a Fatherland.

As adults, the notion seems somehow less compelling, less riveting, more theoretical and conceptual. Too often these days, the 4th seems like just another excuse for a party, for drinking, and making noise late into the night, when I, at least, would prefer to be in bed asleep. We were in France a few years ago on Bastille Day, the 14th of July, and it felt like much the same thing. But maybe that was because we were in a Paris, and not in “un petit patelin,” the French equivalent of Poestenkill. Crowds and loud music and drunks and fireworks bigger and better than last year’s are not my notion of what makes for patriotism.

I see no reason not to love the land you come from, so long as it never leads to disdain for or hatred of other people or places. Every land, and every people, has its uniqueness, its own special beauty. At least so long as that land, or more specifically the people living there, have treated you decently. Some, unfortunately, have horrible memories of a dangerous and degrading past, and these are the people who need new ties that bind, and hopefully they are lucky enough to escape to a place of relative safety and freedom. Those new and better experiences then become their patriotic remembrances.

But for most of us, notions of patriotism are benign enough, and we are able to distinguish it from the overly aggressive jingoism and chauvinistic flag-waving that speaks of nothing so much as a limited worldview. In the end, it’s more about family, and childhood, and loved ones, and good and bad times, trials and joys, the effort it takes to grow up and to mature, all in a specific place and time in history, in a setting that comes to mean more than merely what it looks like. Place eventually takes on an emotional value all its own, a connectivity to feeling and sentiment, to love and loss, and to hope for a better future yet to come. That’s what I’ll think of, anyway, when I hear the word this holiday. And that’s what I will mean when I wish one and all a Happy 4th of July!


By Paul

What, really, do we mean by memory?  Without it, it seems safe to say, we would hardly be human, inasmuch as we learn from the past, or we hope to, and without the recollection of past events, of people, or of our thoughts and feelings and reactions to all that has occurred in our lives, we would in essence be starting each day anew.   It has been shown that animals also have memory, and they are more than capable of learning from past experience, just as we humans attempt to do.

Given all this, in one sense, it seems strange that we have what is called Memorial Day, a time specifically dedicated to remembering.  It has its own provenance, of course, having been created soon after the Civil War by various individuals who mourned the passing of sons and brothers and spouses and friends, who died in the horror of that terrible, fratricidal conflagration.

When I was young, in fact, as often as not the day was referred to as Decoration Day, especially by people of the older generation, because we would go to the graves of those who had died, not just soldiers in various wars, but the graves of any and all loved ones, and leave tokens of remembrance, flags mostly, or flowers.  In this sense, it is akin to the Mexican “Día de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead, when families gather at graves to eat and drink, and generally to celebrate loved ones who have moved on to a different place.

Memory is like that.  It brings to mind not just what has passed, but the emotion that surrounded, and still surrounds, those thoughts of the past.  For surely we do not remember everything that has ever happened to us, all that we have said and done and thought.  That would be too much for any individual to live with, especially as we grow older and we have done, and thought, and seen more and more of life.  The very word “recollect,” in fact, comes from the Latin “recolligere,” meaning to gather together and to collect again, even to pick and choose, which is exactly what our memory does.  Another related word in Latin is “lignum,” which means firewood.  At first, that might seem like an odd connection.  What has memory got to do with building a fire?  But its original reference was to wood that had been collected together, chosen for that particular purpose.

And is that not what we do so often with our memory?  Given various stimuli, different triggers, people, places, tastes, smells, words, songs or pieces of music, dates on the calendar, or wounds that seem only to half heal no matter how hard we try to cure or be rid of them, all these bring back a burning rush of feeling, of thought, or of sensation.  We experience, or re-experience over and over again, love and loss, pain and happiness, desire and repulsion, grief and joy, the hoped for, as well as what we most feared.  We have with us still the regrets we live with, the delight we experienced in life, people we loved and still love, those we may have fought with and those who brought us pain, and the people whom we, ourselves, have hurt, wittingly or unwittingly, our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our follies, the roads not taken and the longed-for wonder of where these roads might have led.  No one escapes the power of memory, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we talk about it, or keep it buried in the tomb of our unconscious, from whence it springs on its own like unruly and destructive weeds in an otherwise ordered and well tended garden.

In his autobiography, Mark Twain said, “I grow old and my memory is not as active as it used to be.  When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon it shall be such that I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”  These words, as ironic as they may at first seem, point up what a mishmash memory can be, how it gets intertwined with our wishes, our deepest desires and our wrenching fears.  It sometimes seems to be indistinguishable from our imagination.  Did I really do that to my friend and how did he feel, did she say that to me, did my father despise me as much as I remember, and did my mother mourn my leaving home at a young age to enter a monastery, as I recall her doing?

Some things, it would appear, are true, or at least factual, and I know they happened in exactly the way I see them in my mind, but others, more fuzzy, less precise especially as time goes by, begin to look more like barely distinguishable shapes or images in a thick fog.  When I am afraid, I may recall events in a darker light, as if they were shadows or phantoms that haunt the mansions of the mind.  When the sun of a brighter day shines and I am feeling strong and, dare I say, more fully adult, do I see the remembered past for what it was, for the real forms it took and the ways I dealt with whatever was troubling or confusing or, for good or for ill, mesmerizing?

All this to say that we must trust our memory as we would a dear friend who, we know, has his own odd tendency to exaggerate, or to embellish, or even to tell tall tales merely to entertain us.

My own memory of my parents is like this.  They died so long ago now that they have begun to take on mythic proportions in the movie of my life.  I cannot, for example, remember a single time when my father kissed me.  But that was true of all fathers I knew in those years of the 1950’s, the fathers of my friends and classmates, as well as my own.  And if he had, I – we, all of us – would not have known what to do in our embarrassment.  I do, also though, remember the blows, the harsh words, the fear with which I approached him, and the tender mercies of my mother, protecting me from him.  But were there other things that I do not remember?  Who can say what he does not remember?  And, if there are things that go unremembered, why is that so?

Memorial Day is designed to bring these things to the fore, lest we forget.  We remember those who have died, first and especially in all the hellish or the just or simply the foolish and idiotic wars the country has fought.  We recall the days in late May, when the sun was shinning and the grass grew new and green and seemingly ecstatic after a long winter covered with the snows of January and the slush of March or April.  We see in our mind once again the picnics of days gone by, a snapshot of us all gathered at the lake or in a park or simply on the back porch.  We taste again the food cooked by those who loved us, by those who looked after us, by aunts and uncles who were part of our lives, giving us unwitting lessons in how to live like adults in a world that seemed to us at times only to be overwhelming and more than we ever thought we could come to terms with.

And each new day we make yet other memories for the day after.  That is the way we live, by acting in the present, by living the moment to the fullest, but by seeing it again and feeling it, experiencing it once more later, as we sit quietly, or lie awake in the long hours of a sleepless night.  Familiar faces, long gone perhaps, but still present in the moment of memory, visit us again.  We laugh or cry or rejoice, and feel the longing for what once was, and is still, but in a way different from what had been.

That’s Memorial Day.  That’s the day of remembrance.  That’s what it means to recall who we were, who we are, who we have become, and what it means to be fully, painfully, joyously, gloriously, and so yearningly, so vulnerably human.