The Start of Summer


Summer Solstice

In this series on the summer solstice, which will run every Friday through June 21, Nina MacLaughlin wonders what summer’s made of.

Max Pechstein, Summer in Nidden. 1919-1920

It was early June, Saturday, midmorning on the Red Line. I was moving through tunnels beneath Cambridge when a teenager approached and asked if I wanted to take part in a memory project. Take an index card and a pen and write down a memory, any memory at all, and get one from a stranger in return. I took a card, a pen, and wrote. I handed it to her, and before we reached the next stop she returned and handed me a memory that belonged to another person on the subway car. It was written on an index card folded in half:

On the last night of summer camp, my best friends and I snuck out of our cabins and slept on the tennis courts so we could stargaze and spoon with each other all night. I saw 6 shooting stars that night.

Such is summer. Unroofed, under stars, away from parents, away from rules, pressing against friends, laughing, urgent whispers—did you hear that?—quiet, quiet, earth as bed and sky as blanket. The stars sweep across the sky in silence, heaven’s hemispheric map-makers, time-tellers, their positions revealing where in the year we are.

Where in the year are we? We don’t need to track the stars to know. Here in the northern hemisphere, each evening’s longer light alerts us. Right now the year is skipping toward the opening of the heated season. Which, for some, begins tomorrow, June 1. Where you define the start of the summer depends on whether you align yourself with the meteorological calendar, which is used by climatologists and meteorologists, or the astronomical calendar. If you stand with the scientists, June 1 starts summer (and September 1 starts fall, December 1, winter, and March 1, spring). If you base your seasonal switches on the earth’s tilt and changing relationship to the sun, the solstice opens the season, this year on June 21, when, in the northern hemisphere, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, and light lasts longer than any day of the year.

We’re getting there. Tomorrow, here in this small city in the northeastern United States where I write from, the sun will rise at 5:10 AM and set at 8:14 at night, which is one minute and seventeen seconds longer than today. For a stretch of seventeen days in March, daylight lengthens by two minutes and fifty-two seconds every day. That’s close to fifty minutes more daylight in just over two weeks. March is one of my least favorite months. Too much flat, pale light all at once. Now’s different. “June was white,” writes Virginia Woolf in The Waves. “I see the fields white with daisies, and white with dresses; and tennis courts marked with white. Then there was wind and violent thunder. There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, ‘Consume me.’” What else can you say to a star?

Long light and there’s something in the air. Frog-song and bug-song. Honeysuckle. Dew in the air and beading on the tips of petal tongues. Soon, maybe, campfire smoke in the shoulder of the sweatshirt of the person laying next to you on the tennis court, in their hair, smoke in their hair. And now and then, above, a whisking line of light across the darkness, evanescent, effervescent as a soda bubble at the back of the nose—did you see that?—there, gone, perception at the edge of the senses, a wish, and it is summer and there is freedom, and time, and luck to be had.

What’s the start of summer for you, the signal that it’s here? Is it the last day of school? The lilacs or day lilies? First sleep with the windows open? Smell of cut grass behind the gasoline of the lawnmower? The fat red tomato sliced thin and salted? A sunburn? Shins sweating? The first swim? The first hotdog off the grill? Throbbing light from the fireflies? Campfire smoke in your hair? Is it the first day of June? Is it the day when light’s longest? When your midday shadow’s shorter than any other day? When the sun sets and sets and sets?

In summer we tend skyward. It invites us out and up. We no longer hunch against the cold. We can stand outside when it’s dark and lift our faces to the sky and get spun back to childhood or swung into the swishing infinity above. Aimee Nezhukumatathil turns her eyes upward in her poem “Summer Haibun”:

There are not enough jam jars to can this summer sky at night. I want to spread those little meteors on a hunk of still-warm bread this winter. Any trace left on the knife will make a kitchen sink like that evening air

the cool night before
star showers: so sticky so
warm so full of light

The grandfather of someone I knew filled ice trays with pesto made from the basil in his garden so that in the cold crust of winter he could pull a tray from the freezer, twist out a green-black cube, soften it with heat, and return to sitting shirtless at the table on the patio, limbs loosened. The buttery warmth, harvested and jarred, and spread on bread in winter. There’s warmth enough to look up when the sun’s down. And the sense, in summer, that there’s time enough to do so, too, time enough for all of it, in a languid, damp, and heat-fuzzed way. An atmosphere of, I’ll get to it but right now, a beer before dinner and warmth on bare legs and everything can just go a little slower for a moment. The light lasts forever, life lasts forever. Do you feel young? I promise, the start of summer whispers, you are young.

Summer strums the loose low chords of freedom. Feel it in the space between your shoulders. It’s the nostalgic season, arriving all warm-breezed and verdant, putting its heavy arm around you and whispering, Come on, come on, remember? Let’s return to the screen door slamming, bare feet on the porch floor, peach juice sticky on the chin, sun on the back of your neck. You can return to a time of more time. Summer brings the memory of summer, a gentle flight backward. It’s the season when a person can feel their wingspan again.

At a museum in Salem, Massachusetts, an interactive wind display—move the small steering wheel, see the way the movement of air shifts the find white sand. The height of the wheel prescribes the age of those interacting with it. One afternoon, a toddler, three feet high, in checkered overalls, twisted the wheel this way, that, back forth, and the fan inside flung the sand into rippled dunes. The toddler’s father crouched behind him and spoke quietly in the small boy’s ear. “See it move?” he said. “You’re doing that.”

In “Jet,” Tony Hoagland moves upward into the air and sky, writing of being on the back porch with beers and friends; they “soar up into the summer stars. / Summer. The big sky river rushes overhead, / bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish / and old space suits with skeletons inside.” The skeletons collect and the summer sky at night brings him forward and back.

We gaze into the night
as if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from,
to which we will never
be permitted to return.
We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.

Summer whispers away, making promises about returning to that unbroken planet—is it youth, maybe? Or further back, the muggy warmth of the womb? Or is it the pre-broken planet of our own cracked and divided selves? Is there any going back? Only by way of the green-hedged memories of what was. But what’s the harm in trusting summer’s lull for a night or two? Release yourself into the sky and feel, for a moment: there’s time. The faded smell of grill smoke and sunscreen in the air. The buttery spread of stars in the air. The oak leaves touching oak leaves on branches in the air. We have the rest of the year to hurry, to be nagged by the feeling of a promise unkept. We start summer as we end: empty-handed, trying to steer the wind.


Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.