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

When I was a boy, each August the 15th was a bit of a milestone for me and for all of my friends.  In the Catholic tradition, which we had grown up in and which we were so steeped in that it was a part of the very fabric of our lives, this date was what used to be called a Holy Day of Obligation.  It was the Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (for those unfamiliar with Catholic lore, this refers to the story of the taking of the living body of Mary into heaven by angels at the end of her life).  On that day, all practicing Catholics were obliged to attend mass, under pain of mortal sin, which meant that – if you died with it “on your soul” and without having confessed and received absolution – you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

But for those of us in what was still referred to in those years as Grammar School, being condemned to hell could seem almost like something of a reprieve in comparison with the reality of returning to class once again.  August the 15th meant summer was, alas, almost over, and we had only two weeks left; so better make the best possible use of these last few, final days of freedom.

All this took place in upstate New York, not far from Albany.  Even in those northern climes, it was still far too early to even think about fall color.  That wouldn’t happen until the beginning of October.  And yet, all you had to do was to look around and you could see that summer was drawing down, nearing its end.  The trees themselves had a kind of tired, shopworn look to them, as if they’d been working full bore since April or May and they were beginning to feel the effects of all that effort.  The leaves seemed drier, dustier, less verdant, a little tattered along the edges.  The oaks, sugar maples, and sycamores were drooping a little, and their leaves were beginning to make strange, rattling, almost brittle noises in the late afternoon breeze.  The light, too, was changing.  Now, almost two months past the Summer Solstice, the sun was setting earlier and earlier.  We could tell that, as we rode our bikes after dinner.  Dusk was settling in by 7:00 or 7:30, and it was getting harder to see.  Mothers were calling their children earlier to come in for the night, and somehow, as much as we might complain, we knew we were ready, too.  As we took those last bike rides of the evening, we ourselves had begun to talk about which nun we were going to have “next year,” as we still called the start of the fall term, already looming so close.  Would it be strict but unstable Sister Mary Clotilde, or bumbling but sweet Sister Mary Barbara?  It was all up to Mother Amabilis, the Principal of St. Patrick’s School, the decider of our fate.  But one way or another, we were beginning to accept the stark fact that summer was almost over, and the day of reckoning would soon be upon us.

Now, in retirement all these years later, there are no more fall classes to dread, no more wondering which of the sometimes not-so-merciful Sisters of Mercy might be standing in front of the classroom that first Tuesday after Labor Day.  And yet, August 15th somehow still stands out to me as a marked day.  It still signals the fact that, even in sunny Southern California where I live, summer cannot last forever.  It denotes, it highlights, it memorializes the fact that seasons pass, that time shows once again its frightening, fleeting evanescence, and that yet another year has flown by and is now two-thirds on its way toward completion.  Jokingly, I tell my partner that Christmas is almost here.  He tells me he doesn’t want to hear it and, when I am being most honest with myself, neither do I.

I am 68 years old, soon to turn 69.  The big seven-oh, as they say, looms on the near horizon.  I have been retired for over six and a half years.  And as lucky as I freely acknowledge myself to be, I also think, what have I done?  How have I used this precious time?  Work is over, at least in terms of the day-to-day drudgery of going into the office and dealing with one problem after another, only to come home at night, exhausted and drained.  But have I fully made use of the time I have?  I have written an unpublished novel, and it will no doubt remain unpublished, unless I choose to put it out there myself.  I write regularly on this blog, I go to the gym every day and exercise, even pretty vigorously sometimes, and I feel as though I am in good health.  I make masks and other odd creatures that stand about the house, silent watchers of my quotidian life.  And most happily, I enjoy more and more life with my partner of 33-plus years.

But, at the winding down of summer – and this may be the case with the passing of every season – I do think a lot about the question of making maximum use of whatever time is left.  I suppose it could always be said that, for most of us, there remains some not fully defined yearning, some only half-conscious desire, a hankering, a craving, a deep-seated hunger to do something bigger, to accomplish something beyond explanation, something past even the crispness and the resolute acuteness of rational thought.  To achieve something that answers an urge that transcends all else.  What is it that so calls out to us?  What is it that pulls at the heart in ways we cannot finally define?  Is this what makes us human, after all?  This profound longing for what we feel we have not yet achieved?

Maybe, all those years ago, we weren’t so wrong to mark the Feast of the Assumption as an annual milestone in our lives.  Maybe, if we think of it more symbolically, we can see that what it’s really about is an innate desire in all of us to rise above the plane of our daily lives, to reach for the stars, and to be carried on high by the angels of what is best and most perfect.  Maybe the end of summer marks the beginning of something else.  It is a time for reflection, a time for contemplation, and a time to wonder why in the first place we wonder at all – why, always and forever, we yearn for what is beyond reckoning, beyond our daily, workaday lives, out there, which is also within, to where we are borne by what is highest and brightest in all of us.


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.