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, Frische Brise, 1921
We start in the stars and move to the womb, which is to say water, which is to say swimming, which is the best part of summer.
We’ll ease in. On the dawn of the summer solstice, rouse yourself from bed and head to the lawn or the field or the garden, kneel in the grass or the mulch, and with palms open, touch the grass or leaves or petals, get the damp on your hands, and put the wetness to your face. Power lives in the solstice dew—it gives youth, beauty, health, new glow. Especially true for maidens, it’s said, but all can take part. Take a dew bath in the solstice dawn. It makes sense somehow with the residual self-evidence of childhood—oh, of course the solstice dew holds magic—like a belief in fairies or demons. There’s a lot in this world we can’t see.
Dew is the damp left behind as day is born out of night, “a child of moon and air,” according to the lyric poet Alkman, writing in the seventh century B.C. Air and moon mingle and the result is a bead on the grass blade. Haikuist Kobayashi Issa writes:
The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet—
Here, the dash is the haiku’s Rorschach test—how does your brain fill in what’s next? This world is real, but it won’t last long. This world exists and yet—we can’t enter it, and yet—we live right in it. And yet the world of dew is not a world at all. And yet what is a world and what are we doing? On the solstice, a baptism with these beads brings renewal, purification, a whole new life. We’re made fresh and ready. When Christianity took sway over paganism, there came a midsummer day, the midpoint between planting and harvest, known as Saint John’s Eve. It marks the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, he who dipped people in the river and washed them of their sin, he who rebirthed people in the water.
There’s a river in Eastern Europe. Imagine yourself on the shore, holding a crown you’ve made of flowers, and imagine the person you love, or desire, or want to kiss, is on the other side of the river with crowds of people. You are with crowds of people on your side of the shore, and you place the crown into the water and watch it float across the river to see who receives it on the other side. Imagine your hope that it’s the one person you want. Flowers floating across the river to see if you find good luck in love—this is another solstice tradition, another upping of the chances that new lives might be born.
Summer’s when the world gets born again. Tove Jansson, in The Summer Book, a novel luminous as a piece of beach glass, writes about a grandmother and granddaughter who live together on an island in Norway, and of the midsummer celebrations there. The granddaughter starts the day stormy, and the grandmother longs to tell her, “I understand how awful it is here. Here you come, headlong into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand.” She’s talking about arriving on the island, but she might as well be talking about arriving into life, the violent expelling from our original swim. Everything, even breath, is new.
Swimming offers an approximation of reentry. Is it possible to enter a body of water and not emerge altered in some way? Even to get rained on can change the vibration of an afternoon. In water, one can surrender oneself in a way not possible on a hill, or canyon, or dune. What I like best is giving my weight to it, the possibility of being held and the possibility of drowning.
A summer evening a few years ago, I sat by a lake with a friend and we talked about bodies of water. My friend likes lakes because you can see all the edges. Too much infinity with the ocean, which is just why I like it. Edgeless, endless, there’s a far shore somewhere but the in-between is incomprehensible. “Lakes are creepy,” writes Heidi Julavits. “Where do the dead things go? This is why people are buried at sea but never at lake. The sea is a clean vanisher. A lake is a morgue.”
Some summers ago, I was with two men at a beach. One on a towel on the sand, one in the waves with me. The waves were big and strong and moved us. I leapt into them, jumped, was pressed, let myself fall all the way under water. They pushed me toward land and pulled me to sea. I dove through the tallest ones, my hair moved all down my back and I was stilled, suspended parallel to earth and sky. It felt good. I laughed, even in the danger (the waves were strong, and I am not a strong swimmer). The moon was nearing full, the waves were sucked toward its faraway white weight, higher, swelling, stronger. They bashed, we let ourselves be knocked around. I like the way May Swenson puts it in her poem “Swimmers”:
by the muscular sea,
we are lost,
and glad to be lost
in troughs of rough
There was love then. Earlier in the day, the man in the waves and I had buried a geode in the yard as a marriage pact. That night, around a table, we’d made a toast to love. And that afternoon in the ocean, leaping like a child, I wondered: have I ever been this happy?
Tidal or still, river or pool, spangling bright blue in the backyard, summer water pulls us in. “The swimmer lets himself fall out of the day heat and down through a gold bath of light deepening and cooling into thousands of evenings, thousands of Augusts, thousands of human sleeps,” writes Anne Carson in Plainwater. It’s an abandonment of thought, of language, of self, through which we emerge whole. A dissolution occurs akin to entering another’s body during sex, not in the simple penetrative sense, but in the dissolving of boundaries between bones and skin. The best fucks leave us not turned to stone, but liquefied. In both water and sex, getting carried away is the point. Carson writes, “How slow is the slow trance of wisdom, which the swimmer swims into.”
We enter water and we leave ourselves. Gravity loosens and we swim into a slow trance, we swim into wisdom. And what is the wisdom? It is of being un-separate. It is a temporary return to the unbroken planet, where we exist as both whole and dissolved. In the dark-bright of water, we’re wet at the throat, at the back of the neck, in the ears, on the eyelids, and the water on the skin gives a literal cleansing. We emerge, from waves onto beach, up the shining metal ladder off the side of a pool, onto the twiggy banks of a river, onto a lakeshore surrounded by pine forest, first smoke of campfires rising on the banks, and the world is reset. We return to our selves, separate and distinct once again, severed from the All, with only the memory of that quick glimpse into the mystery of what was.
In her piece on swimming in a lake, Julavits writes of the bright green algae on the surface, and how the best thing about the swim was taking off her bathing suit to find that “the crotch was bright green … It was like getting my period for the first time and seeing the shock of color where normally there is only white.” Summer is the saturated season, the color floods back in. Each dip is another shot at being reborn, into summer where the world’s blood runs green.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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