Sunday, June 22, 2008

Diary of Midsummer Day

4:30 am – The sky in the east has barely begun to turn oyster-gray, and the trees are black, lush cutwork before it. Already the robins are singing, that bell-like, lilting trill with which they greet every dawn from March to about mid-July, and every sunset from perhaps mid-April to September. One window, in one house down the street, is a lit gold square. Someone is up.

Around the country, right now, I have thirteen cousins – twelve, if I do not count the one I have never met – some of whom I haven’t seen in a year, or three years, or in thirty – who I suppose must be approaching their new morning’s work right now, as I am doing. Or rather, no. In California it is 2:30 in the morning. Barbara is asleep. So must be Tim and Becky in Oregon. In Florida the dawn must be even closer to breaking, and in Boston it must be full light. And behind me to the west in Iowa, a four hour drive away across the farmlands if I were to start now, the sky is, I suppose, beginning to be almost as oyster-gray as it is now.

My cousins, the children of my parents’ siblings, come in three sets: the five Smiths, the five Joneses, the three Coopers. I think of my small sets of cousins because two of the sets have lost all their parents – my aunts and uncles – in just a few years, and a cousin in the third set has just become a grandfather. One generation passes away, and the next has no pressing reason to keep in touch. To send an annual thank-you for an annual birthday card, or an announcement of the grandchild’s birth, is all that has preserved the illusion that we four families "were always so close" and always "had so much fun." When I hear the robins trill I wonder if robins live there, too, where my cousins live, elsewhere apart from the midwest. If they don’t, I wonder if my cousins have heard them sing since they left. How could you live without robins?

5: 00 a.m. The sky gradually glows into the palest orange tint. Before it the trees are silver-green. Sparrows and blue jays take over singing duties from the robins. Grackles run about the empty street, looking for something. According to the newspaper almanac, the sun will rise at 5:17, but here the suburban houses and trees stand so thick that I will not see it. I look, expecting to see an especially bright center to the amber-pink haze behind the trees, but that’s not it. At about five-thirty or a quarter to six, there is a smudge of yellow glowing on the street, and then in the trees the yellow sparkle of the sun.

It is June 24, Midsummer Day, the dawn after a midsummer night’s dream. (Rather like dutiful Lucy realizing she’s met a novelist in A Room With A View, one feels "one should read" that play now.) This is the day which Cassandra greets with shouted vowels – "Aaeeiioouu" – on a hilltop in the English countryside in Dodie Smith’s delightful novel I Capture the Castle. ("We first held the rites when I was nine – I got the idea from a book on folklore.") Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths, agrees with her. All the thirteen months of the pagan calendar and the four seasons, he says ("implicit in Greek and Latin myth and in the sacral tradition of all Europe"), are associated with the alphabet and with corresponding sacred trees: for June he gives the letter D and the oak, and for the summer solstice, U and heather. His researches appear impeccable: Hyginus, Isidore of Seville, Philostratus, Pliny, Plutarch.

For the modern person, gazing confused at the newspaper pictures of new American "pagans" holding midsummer rituals in their suburban living rooms – a large man wearing a little mask topped with undersized, fake deer antlers holds up a basket of bread toward the ceiling; the other people in the "coven" look on politely – for the modern person, it is a triumph of insight only to realize, groggily, that our remote forebears must have been more literate than we thought. They associated strange things. Trees, and the passing months, and the breaking dawn – and being able to read.

The sacral tradition of all Europe; one ought to read it, if one’s met her. Summer is for me the great time for associations with ghostly and distant Europe. The tales of Robin Hood and Maid Marian always take place in the timeless greenwood of summer. One imagines jousts and tourneys and all their waving pennons, blue skies, and smiling ladies with scarves fluttering from their conical hats, all being held in summer. One imagines princesses making their marriage journeys amid trains of palfreys and laden baggage-carts in summer. One imagines senators in togas, walking about Rome and discussing politics or Greek myth, in the heat and stately marble columns of a Roman summer. Charlemagne’s fantastic horse Bayard, of incredible swiftness, "is still alive and can be heard neighing in the Ardennes on Midsummer Day" (according to Bulfinch’s Mythology).

Somehow it seems all right for our American winters to be full of cars, stores, and bustling people shouldering their way through the wind and snow. It seems all right even for the summers to be association-less, Europe-less, if they are hot and American, chrome shining on baking cars, air conditioning thrumming, swimming pools glinting in the blinding sun, and radios blaring and children shrieking across the water. But today’s midsummer dawn is cool and fresh. No locusts yet buzz. There is, this morning, even the smell of distant things, the smell of cool asphalt and earth on the first day of school. It’s as cool as an eighteenth-century morning in a Georgian country house, the servants up and milady perhaps ready for a breakfast and a morning with Alexander Pope. A hundred years later Florence Nightingale is up and writing letters to government ministers in London, dated "before it is light." On Midsummer Day, here in a vast land where nobody stays home and we imported no rituals from the old world – or at any rate we have forgotten them – in a land whose aboriginal rituals we did not adopt, one greatly misses the most ancient things. One misses what used to be known. Poor modern pagans, do they know that their counterparts thousands of years ago sacrificed boys a few times a year, among other interesting rituals? Of course I don’t want them to do that, but do they know it?
Daisy sighs fecklessly in The Great Gatsby: "Don’t you always wait for the longest day of the year, and then miss it?"

8:30 a.m. – The duties and rituals of a modern household begin, really should have begun quite some time ago. Beds to be made, dishes washed, baking for a party planned, and groceries bought. Milady has no servants. One must look at the garden. Already I have seen a large rabbit ostentatiously eating a large weed beside the garage. He chewed and chewed, and looked at me as if to say, ‘here I am eating this awful-looking thing. I wouldn’t touch your garden.’

9:00 a.m. – If my children were not home on summer vacation and thus receptive to a bad example, I would turn on the television, as I sometimes do at this hour, to see what Oprah’s doing today. She fascinates me because she has made her unfathomable fortune by understanding and feeding the passions of a large and wealthy clientele: the middle-class, young-middle-aged, usually white American woman. Her morning television show is perfect in its weekly balance of tragedy, degradation, humor, moral uplift, celebrity gossip, and fantasy housekeeping, shopping, and personal grooming. One day she interviews a once-beautiful young woman, rendered monstrous by injuries in a car crash. The next day a homeless woman wins the lottery, and the next, a nice married couple have their ugly home redecorated and their ecstatic reaction filmed, and shown, and laughed with.

Milady in her Georgian house on a cool summer morning, or for that matter milady’s servants, up at dawn with their pots and rags, did not have this option with which to fill their time. Would they have availed themselves of it, if they had? We do. Yet there is a nagging feeling that, somewhere in the tangled cross-webbings and ruts and puddles at the beginning of the modern age, human nature changed as it poked across a new landscape. We became, unlike our busy and confident ancestors, the sort of people who would look at television. And we seem to look forward to a day when our descendants will be cured of the habit. How many characters in futuristic science fiction movies and television shows watch television? Few. If anything, they are shown outdoors, or conversing, or even reading. The beautiful young people in the latest Star Wars: Attack of the Clones romp and smile, wearing imperial robes in a grassy, stupendous landscape – Italy gone mad. They talk politics, and morals. We seem to have hope. Perhaps milady in the future will know that this strange entertainment existed, but will wonder What on earth, &c., and thank God her own generation and society have shaken off the peculiar habit. Perhaps she’ll be busy reading Pope.

10:25 am – the full blaze of morning sun, in the robust childhood of the day. A goldfinch sings, tiny and yellow in the mulberry tree. There is an elderly man running a lawnmower down the street, and American flags flying from three or four houses. The patient dog next door, "the golden dog" my children call her, has now been outside and tied up alone for two hours. It will go on for hours more. (Her name is Autumn, as it happens.) These are the neighbors we don’t speak to because of it.

12:30 p.m. – noon in the garden, or near it. Like the Titaness Rhea on Mt. Lycaeum in Arcadia, one casts no shadow (Robert Graves again, in The Greek Myths: "a fire sacrifice was probably offered there, when no creature casts a shadow – that is, at noon on midsummer day").
This is my garden’s third year. I used to call it "my pathetic little garden," while secretly being proud of it. I trusted that this year, when according to the proverb it should "leap," it would be tidy and spectacular. In fact I have learned that what I am doing is not so much gardening, as establishing a perennial garden, which is a different task entirely and will take years of nurturing before the proverbial pattern of "sleep – creep – leap" gets underway.

I have learned from experience not only what plants will not survive a Zone 5 winter (pampas grass will not, neither, evidently, will carnation or delphinium), and what will not survive any season at all in sandy soil (wandflowers and freesia will not), but more importantly I have learned what is too delicious for even the shrewdest rabbits, squirrels, and possibly deer to resist. I have an Asiatic lily, hardy to 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, which is being stripped down to its skeleton by someone. Dense blazing star, a native and wonderful for difficult soils – the same. Coreopsis, yellow and cheerful, the same. Violet foliage, rather too large actually, but at least alive, the same. All that has managed to thrive have been the simplicities of Jacob’s ladder and Shasta daisy, poppy, and – I must admit one triumph – foxglove. Milady in her cool Georgian house, with her gardener to tend the gardens, would not be impressed.

A mass of white cloud, as thick and tattered as winter, approaches from the north and west, shoveling away the blue sky. An ice-cream truck makes the rounds of the silent neighborhood, idiotically playing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." There are no children anywhere in sight, except my own, who make up games, read, listen to music, or play chase all day. Though it is scarcely past noon, I notice how simply planning the day’s work and events can make the day seem shorter: I must do this, and that, and then in a little while it will be time to start dinner. And then evening sets in, and the longest day of the year, almost, will be over.

3 p.m. – A blanket of gray cloud seems to have settled over the world, and it grows continually cooler and quieter. Birds have ceased to sing. A neighborhood that is always peaceful (and one ought to count one’s blessings) seems, this afternoon, positively grim. I know the houses contain two sorts of people: the elderly, with nothing much to do, and no one to talk to since their elderly neighbors have moved away; and the grim young families who have replaced them, and who seem not to emerge from seclusion except to take the children to some lesson or duty, and then grimly return. (And which sort am I?)

There has been a breath of rain. A full and nourishing shower would have been more cheerful. Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it: thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water (Psalm 65:9).

4:30 p.m. And what of the greater world? I have missed the 4:00 news on the radio. I lack the time to sit in front of the television, and have not yet seen the day’s paper, which will only contain yesterday’s news. I know that the South Korean man was beheaded in Iraq the day before yesterday.

But I am not sure how healthy it is anymore to know all the tragedies and griefs, most of them private, that it is possible to know through the news, or what use it is anymore to contribute, through one’s attention and money, to the clamoring and clacking organs of news that spread before us a salacious banquet made of other people’s suffering. Every moment spent reading a newspaper is not only no use to them, but is also a moment spent away from what might be much more eternal things. Including not just reading Pope, but doing some kind of local good. It’s not that one wants to escape the responsibility of knowing about human trouble; one wants to escape the pornography of knowing it all. So Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V,i,9): "One sees more devils than vast hell can hold: That is the madman."

But then, without the news, my world might be as pastoral as ------shire in a Jane Austen novel. Which in turn might be fine except that, while the great world carries on with its news as it did then, we lack her people’s habits of local gaiety – imagine adults in America, organizing a dance for themselves – and their ability to write letters out toward the greater world, and inward, to each other. So we have a mental world full of the pornography of too much news, but boasting no local fun. Now I could, for example, write letters to my twelve cousins, who live all over the country, as far as I know without robins. I have done so, once or twice, as a child eager to keep up with adult relatives, and as an adult, rather shyly proud of my own children. They would never dream of writing back, nor have I ever pursued the correspondence beyond one letter. It’s no one’s fault. We simply don’t do that, any of us. It would be so queer and cold, like dancing. The habit of response has been lost. We watch the news.

8:30 p.m. After a gray lowering day, I had an object lesson in keeping up with relatives. I went to a restaurant to buy some pies and was surprised to see my husband’s nephew come out to greet me, a young man whom I might speak to once every two years, at a family gathering, at best. It was kind of him to bother.

The sunset was a clear and fiery pink mist, all over the broad northwest sky. A handful of red geraniums on my neighbor’s porch garden turned a dusky ruby color before it, and before all the dark trees. One mourning dove whistled, and a few robins gave their last, loud chips. It was too cool for crickets to ring, or for fireflies to light up.

My cousins, I suppose, will soon all go to bed, my parents’ siblings’ children of forty and fifty years ago, whose childhood homes in the nearby suburbs I could go and look at in thirty minutes or an hour if I wanted to. Places bound in the warp and woof of their memories, which they have not seen in years. All within the sound of robins. Another day has passed without our seeing each other. It doesn’t matter so much, except when I think with what unbelieving delight and what peculiar ease we would greet each other – family – if a reunion were planned, or a special trip, or something. And how rarely that is done, increasingly rarely in proportion to the speeding years. When they pulled away from the curb in 1974 – or when we did – the barbecue smoke from the food we had eaten still lingering in the summer afternoon air, it seemed plausible that we might "get together" as soon as not. It seemed as likely as that tomorrow would come. After all, here we all were today, right? Soon I had other things to think about, like starting fourth grade. Now my children draw conclusions and ask, "So if your cousins all have kids, then we’ve got second cousins we don’t even know? So, like if we moved there, we could marry our cousins, and not know it?" Yes, in theory you could. "Eee-ew."

How nice if this midsummer day could have been crowned by a full moon, holding the place of the winter sun. Instead the moon was a crescent, hidden behind clouds in the west, and near it lay Jupiter, king of the gods, shining high above the trees, as he has been all spring. In ancient Europe we would have rolled burning wheels down hills tonight, to mimic the beginning of the decline of the sun from its highest point of the year; to remind ourselves of what we know.

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