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The Summer Solstice
Ode to the longest day
Perhaps today you will feel it, something both strange and enchanting, the usual rhythm of your day disturbed in the slightest degree. It happened to me one June twenty-first years ago and ever since, like clockwork the feeling has come, a strange visitor arriving to usher in the season.
You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.1
The solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun is at its highest position in the sky, welcomes the longest period of daylight and the shortest night of the year. Traditionally it is a time of bonfires, feasts, dancing, ritual and ceremony. There’s magic in the air: mock orange, roses on the vine. The peonies are in bloom, struggling to lift their globes of crimson and white:
The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.2
A realization arrives: the leaves whose oceanic chorus sizzles in the night breeze are here to stay, they are ours to keep until frost returns. All of this—the height of the sun, the soft grass underfoot—is a temporal gift. There is an undercurrent, on this day, of otherness. In “Mermaids & Ikons: A Greek Summer”, Gwendolyn MacEwen writes I wanted to be enormous and overwhelming, yawning and expansive like the light. The solstice is the perfect time for such feelings.
There is something undeniably other about summertime. Behind the facade of sunshine, carefree days cloak certain violences. The cicada’s exoskeleton clings to an oak trunk. There’s an ice cream cone discarded on the sidewalk. It looks like a small body and the asphalt is muddy with its raspberry blood. Children decapitate dandelions as they gleefully recite macabre age-old playground chants. June bugs strand themselves, legs in the air, buzzing in circles, praying for a return to flight.
When their blooming is complete, I strip the bouquet of peonies that I bought from the fruit market. The petals detach willingly, easily. I save them in a pouch for later, solstice night, when I’ll toss them from my balcony in silent prayer. This day—the day we tell ourselves that time is very long indeed, nearly infinite3—encourages ritual. And in our reading and writing, preference is given to the celebratory, the ecstatic.4
Audre Lorde writes in her poem Martha:
I said on the Solstice
our summer has started.
Today we are witches and with enough energy
to move mountains back.
On the solstice it feels like I am floating, drugged by the sun, delirious in a beautiful way. Everything is beautiful. Flowers are unabashed in their pageantry: they’re as close to the sun as they’ll be all year, they may as well bloom without humility. Can we do the same? Things are possible. Or at least it feels that way. There is room for magic and inanity.
The land my childhood home is situated on is laced by a river that feeds beneath cedars and pines. Though we no longer live there the last several solstices have been a family affair, a homecoming—my mother, aunt, cousin and I in the car, pulling over for wildflowers on the drive over. He weaves bands of willow and switchgrass to make the bones of a crown. I thread daisies and peonies and lobelia into the mix, whatever we can find, whatever is growing, shaking off the ants as we go. Our hands work for us; something about this feels inherent, as though our fingers recognize the work and are happy to do it. Through the afternoon—in the car, quiet conversation and observances as we drive—and by the river—combing the banks for fossils, reading, wading in the water, the smell of hot cedar in the wind—we work on the crowns, an hours-long chore. They are complete when no further decoration can be wedged between the strands of willow and grass. We wear them like helmets for the remainder of the day, neverminding the itch of insect legs in our hair, on our necks, regarding one another like mirrors, imaging that the peony petals hiding my mother’s brows are the ones hiding mine. I feel the sun beating down, its rays filtering into the crown, lending some of its magic rays. Maybe some of that will beam into me, magic by osmosis.
The first swim of the summer feels ceremonial. After visiting the river throughout winter, watching panes of ice break to allow for the sweet music of the water underneath, I imagine its December temperature as I dip my foot in for the first time. The light rushes at me as my body speeds underwater, baptized by the first swim, and when I emerge, having passed through a portal, I’m someone else, and summer has officially arrived. I’m not alone in this experience. Nina MacLaughlin’s Summer Solstice—published by Black Sparrow Press and adapted from her series at The Paris Review—summarizes the solstice swim perfectly:
I am gone. The world is gone. Everyone is gone. I have both entered and exited, and now the simplicity of hanging in space, held by the tiny silky hands of the water…I blasted through the surface, sucking air into my lungs. Had I been gone ten seconds? An hour? A year? In the moments I was out of existence, nothing had changed, and everything felt new.
By day’s end once swimming, communing with dragonflies and rummaging along the river have sufficed, we enact our own ceremonies—things that no one has taught us, things that come to us and feel true. We cast the crowns into the river’s easy current. After years of doing this I learned that ancient women also enacted this ceremony, originally a pagan fertility rite celebrated on the year’s longest day. They would enter the woods in search of the elusive fern flower, tossing their garlands to the river in hopes of finding love.
Robin Wall Kimmerer muses in Braiding Sweetgrass that the power of ceremony “marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mingled with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.”
Summer is here, at long last. It’s the season of tiger lilies, blazing heat. We listen to songs of summer wine, nights stronger than moonshine, being up on the roof. Storms are strongest, wildest now. The sky is temperamental, ruled by whims. From nowhere, it bruises violet and black, then eases sweetly, candy-spun. June, July, and August bring fields of buttercup and canola. The corn is hip-high, then we blink and it’s over our heads. The hummingbirds return, discoing from bee balm to fuchsia. The fawns we knew in spring become indiscernible, we no longer recognize them when we cross their paths. We too grow our summer legs, stalking through curtains of heat in denim cutoffs, suddenly veterans of the season.
In Summer Solstice, Nina MacLaughlin writes:
The solstice is a special day, irregular, when doors swing open that are otherwise closed, like on Halloween, like the winter solstice and the equinoxes. There are extra layers of possibility afoot. Open yourself, why not, ease yourself toward a more primal state of mind.
Go for a walk today without your phone, without earphones, without distractions. Observe your surroundings. Absorb the sounds, the smells—linden trees have shed their blossoms and now, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch honeysuckle on the breeze. If you’re somewhere near water, you can take that first swim of the season. If you’re close to a pond, you can share your secrets and wishes with creatures who can’t repeat them. From Mary Oliver’s poem Toad:
I talked about summer, and about time. The
pleasures of eating, the terrors of the night. About this cup
we call a life. About happiness. And how good it feels, the
heat of the sun between the shoulder blades.
While you’re out and about today note how you feel, what feels different, what happens, who you regard, who regards you.
“To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing,” says poet Linda Gregg in The Art of Finding. “The art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.”
This is no ordinary day.
Stay out until the sky no longer offers color. Soak up every minute. As I write this it’s nearly 9:30pm in Toronto and the sky is a tired plum hue. The light is hanging on, here on the longest day, the shortest night. Listen to the birds as they wind down for the day. Cardinal song at dusk, an errant blue jay. What do they seem to be saying? Check for cicadas—have they arrived yet where you are? The solstice, I find, is a good time for reflection. In her poem Solstice, Louise Glück seems to agree—There is in these rituals something apart from wonder: there is also a kind of preening.
Later in the poem, she continues:
But tonight we sit in the garden in our canvas chairs
so late into the evening—
why should we look either forward or backwards?
Why should we be forced to remember:
it is in our blood, this knowledge.
Shortness of the days; darkness, coldness of winter.
It is in our blood and bones; it is in our history.
It takes a genius to forget these things.
Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury
Peonies at Dusk, Jane Kenyon
Solstice, Louise Glück
Solstice, Louise Glück