SUMMER AND ALL

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RUMINATIONS ON A MIDSUMMER’S REVERIE

By Paul

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.