The summer’s final mass

A perfect summer moment: Blue moon rises on the last day of July 2015.

A perfect summer moment: Blue moon rises on the last day of July 2015.

T-shirts, cut-offs and a pair of thongs,
We’ve been having fun all summer long.

– Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Piecemeal the summer dies ….
The field has droned the summer’s final mass.

– Richard Wilbur

In seventeenth century landscape painting, there was a tendency to idealize, to suspend change and death by capturing an eternal present. Through meticulous depiction of nature’s details, the fantasy of a deathless Arcadia was made concrete for the viewer. Inside the frame, there was no time, no death. Gazing upon one of these pictures, a character in Dostoevsky exclaims,

Here lived beautiful men and women! They rose, they went to sleep, happy and innocent; the groves rang with their merry songs, the great overflow of unspent energies poured itself into love and simple-hearted joys… The sun poured its rays upon these isles and the sea, rejoicing in its fair children. Oh, marvelous dream, lofty illusion![i]

The painting in question was Claude’s “Acis and Galatea.” And indeed, as the lovers embrace in their tent along the shore of a lovely harbor, it seems a perfect moment of harmony and bliss. But will it last? Claude has placed subtle harbingers of change within the scene. The sun is about to set. Polyphemus, the giant who will soon despoil the lovers of their happiness, lurks in the distance – not yet arrived, but on his way. Claude seems to find a heightened sweetness in such mortality; brevity breeds intensity. But Acis and Galatea might take a different view. We’ve been having fun all summer long. Why can’t it go on forever? But there you have it: golden ages, lovers, summer idylls, T-shirts, cutoffs, thongs – all carried off by time’s merciless flow.

Last night another summer slipped away. I was sorry to see it go. If only I could make it stay a little longer. And in fact, here on my island, these first hours of autumn seem no less radiant than yesterday. A warm afternoon is promised. But the idea of summer – marvelous dream, lofty illusion! – is unsustainable. Days shorten. Vacations end. Travelers return. Work calls. Schedules resume. The Sabbath rest of carefree hours and idle days is overruled by necessity. We can no longer enjoy the fiction of having all the time in the world.

In “real” life, a perfectly carefree interval of beach time, lawn parties and magical vacations is an unattainable myth. But now and again, when we do pause to breathe, to notice, to play, to be; when we forget time, giving ourselves wholly to the present moment; when we are attentive and receptive to whatever the universe wants to show us, summer draws near to bathe us in radiance.

All we need is the gift of reverie. Henry David Thoreau spent many a summer morning by his cabin door at Walden Pond, sitting quietly in the sun, listening to birdsong, feeling the warmth on his skin. To those afflicted by the pressures of a 24/7 world, this may seem an incredible waste of time. But like the saints who aspired to pray without ceasing, Thoreau dreamt of even more radical experiments in multi-sensory contemplation:

Would it not be a luxury to stand up to one’s chin in some retired swamp for a whole summer’s day, scenting the sweet-fern and bilberry blows, and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes?… Say twelve hours of genial and familiar converse with the leopard frog. The sun to rise behind alder and dogwood, and climb buoyantly to his meridian of three hands’ breadth, and finally sink to rest behind some bold western hummock. To hear the evening chant of the mosquito from a thousand green chapels, and the bittern begin to boom from his concealed fort like a sunset gun![ii]

It’s a comic exaggeration, typically deadpan New England humor, but it makes a point. The luxuriance of summer is a standing invitation to surrender to sensation, to unlearn the cultural imperatives of useful employment in order to pay close attention, moment by moment, to the poetry of the given world. Don’t just look. Dive in and get soaked.

Jesus said, “Unless you throw away your phones and cancel your appointments, unless you go outside and let a wandering cloud be your guide, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

As a child, Mary Oliver “spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught.” When she was summoned back to the chalky classroom in the fall, she still treasured the epiphanies of leisure in her heart:

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.[iii]

And if the rest of us have been likewise receptive, we too will exit the summer laden with the gifts of deeply-lived moments. Some will call them memories and be done with them, but that would be a mistake. They can endure within us as a renewing source. Wordsworth called them “spots of time,” potent concentrations of aliveness by which we are ever “nourished and invisibly repaired.”[iv] And as Emerson recommended, on every such epiphany we should “rear a temple of wonder and joy.”[v]

This summer I never stood neck-deep in a swamp to hear mosquitoes chant, but I did keep watch in a field from midnight to dawn as meteors fell from an August sky. Some were brief flashes in the corner of my eye. Others left bright fiery trails lasting long enough for a good look. The profound nocturnal silence was broken only twice. A coyote howled in the brush around three a.m., and at four-thirty an owl whooshed close over my head – twice. That was it. Nothing much “happened.”

Or everything happened, and that night became a temple of wonder and joy I can return to again and again. Even now, as autumn sweeps in with all its portents of vanishing and loss, there is still a summer inside me.

[i] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Devils

[ii] Thoreau’s Journal, June 16, 1840

[iii] “Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer,” in Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 35

[iv] William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1799: 1.288-294)

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lecture (Dec. 19, 1838) in Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 8

Late summer days and the shadows of impermanence

Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz

It was supposed to be the Mariners’ year in major league baseball. With a few weeks still left in the regular season, Seattle’s star pitcher has 17 wins, and their best batter has hit 40 home runs. These are great numbers. But the team itself has been out of the pennant race since July. For a long time, the Mariners just couldn’t score when they needed to, lost a lot of close games, and are currently 7 games out of first place, and 6 games below .500. With only 20 games left, their chances of making the playoffs are virtually nil.

So has their season lost all its meaning? Was it all for nothing? If a season is worthwhile only if you win the championship, then only one team can ever stave off meaninglessness. But as basketball legend Bill Russell has noted, in sports “the basic unit of time is the moment. Sports fans and players appreciate each instant.”[i] We enjoy the evening highlights on ESPN even if we don’t follow a particular team, even if our own team is having a bad year, because we are witnessing the timeless essence of the sport: a great pitch, the crack of the bat, a stolen base, a diving catch.

Sportswriter Meg Rowley, in an artful post called “How I learned to stop worrying and love Nelson Cruz,” reminds us that every game, every team, has moments of pure skill and beauty with a value unto themselves, regardless of their relevance to the overall standings. We watch the games even if they don’t “matter” in the long run, because we love those moments.

I once saw Sandy Koufax strike out 18 Giants. I remember cheering and laughing with my dad from a bleacher seat high above right field. I remember Wally Moon blasting a 3-run homer to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. But I didn’t remember, until I looked it up, was the year it happened, or the fact that this dramatic win helped the Dodgers go on to win the World Series. Seasons come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but the special moments endure.

Citing the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz (40 home runs) and the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, who is hitting .351 and will probably win the batting title for a team that is 19 games out of first place, Rowley says that “every season is really about appreciating great performances in the face of eventual failure.” Every team but one will fail in the end. And even the winner is unlikely to repeat next season. “It’s all futile. But guys like Cruz and Cabrera make that futility beautiful … for a couple of at-bats every game, Cruz and Cabrera keep the futility at bay.”[ii]

As I savor the luscious local weather of late summer in Puget Sound, I am also conscious of its imminent departure. No matter how many perfect moments have adorned these summer months, no one gets a winning season in the game with time. The day will come when night falls early, the birds have gone, and it’s too cold to sit outside in the garden with a book.

Emily Dickinson, who loved the “sacrament of summer days,” was haunted by the shadow of impermanence that falls across our sunlit lawns. The times when we forget that shadow, like the brief return of balmy weather in Indian summer, are but a “fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.”[iii] Yet Dickinson’s poetry, in its act of acute noticing, in its cherishing of the beauty which is all the more precious for its brevity, keeps the futility at bay. She could not solve the puzzle of where it was all headed, this ephemeral life. She wasn’t sure whether the future would turn out to be consummation or cessation (to borrow John Dewey’s evocative duality). Despite her inheritance of Christian vocabulary, she was steeped in nineteenth century doubt. But she always stepped to the plate and took her swings, and her readers still share the pleasure of her every at-bat.

I am currently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her moving memoir of the generation who came of age on the eve of the First World War. Her descriptions of “carefree summers” before the war are especially poignant because both writer and reader know what is about to happen. When, in 1915, she received news about the death of one of her ‘summer friends’ – the kind of people “with whom one dances and plays games and perhaps flirts a little,” she wrote to her fiancé serving on the front that “it gives one the shock of incongruity to imagine the Angel of Death brooding over one’s light and pleasant acquaintances, and to think of them with all their lightness and pleasantries shed away.”[iv]

The dream of summer as a timeless sabbath from mortality soon vanished in the trenches, and with it many of Brittain’s generation, including her brother and her lover. But did the shortness of those young and precious lives invalidate whatever love and meaning and joy they did experience, however briefly?

Like Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler confronted the shadow of impermanence in all of his work. He said specifically of his Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) that he was asking the big questions: “What did you live for? Why did you suffer? Is it all only a vast terrifying joke?”[v] With the vast orchestral intensity for which he was famous, Mahler takes the listener through a sonic storm of anguish and despair, hope and fear, apocalypse and catharsis, until the extraordinary moment when the chorus refutes the turmoil with the astonishing serenity, verging on silence, of its glorious invitation: Rise again.

I first heard the Resurrection Symphony from the third row of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta conducted, and Jessye Norman led the singers in the exultant affirmation of the finale, as voices, strings, brass and percussion carried us in a gigantic wave of sound across the abyss of loss into the transcendent:

Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead,
my heart, in an instant!
What you have overcome
will carry you to God.

In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, when a fictional composer describes the final passage of his valedictory work, he captures something of what I experienced that night at the end of Mahler’s Resurrection:

It would be the hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair … Hear the close, listen to it with me! One group of instruments after the other drops out, and what remains, with which the work dies away, is the high g of a cello, the last word, and the last suspended sound, in a pianissima fermata, slowly fading. Then there is nothing more. Silence and night. But the note that continues to hang and pulsate in the silence, the note that is no more, for which only the soul listens, and which was once the expression of sorrow, is no longer that but changes its meaning, and endures like a light in the darkness.[vi]

In the emotionally charged silence which followed the Philharmonic’s inspired performance, no one dared clap or even whisper. Mehta kept his arms high and extended, seemingly frozen in his final gesture, for a very long thirty seconds, forbidding us to drown out “the note that is no more” with the harshness of applause. Norman’s eyes welled up. Some of the orchestra wiped away tears. It was the closest I’ve come to eternity.

At last, very slowly, Mehta lowered his arms. When they finally reached his side, his shoulders relaxed, and we were all released back into time. We rose to our feet and thundered our joy. Yes, that sublime moment had kept futility at bay. More than that, it had carried us to God.

[i] Bill Russell, Second Wind, quoted in Lapham’s Quarterly: Time, Vol. vii, No. 4, Fall 2014, p. 118

[ii] Posted at http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside/story/good-players-bad-teams-nelson-cruz-seattle-mariners-micuel-cabrera-detroit-tigers-090915

[iii] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), #130, p. 61

[iv] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 158

[v] q. in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 141

[vi] ibid., 178