In this series on the summer solstice, which will run every Friday through June 21, Nina MacLaughlin wonders what summer’s made of.
The delights of summer are earthly. An older friend lives for pleasure. Just north of sixty, with a thin ponytail and a thick mustache, he does seasonal work, landscaping, collects unemployment in the winter, and pursues the perfect high. After a knee injury, beers and hallucinogens gave way to pain pills. “I’ll die of terminal boyhood,” he tells me.
Another friend floods me with her schedule, her work, her workouts, this kid at soccer practice, that kid at gymnastics, the new dog needs walking, the groceries do not buy themselves, sixty hours at her job, thirty in her car to-ing and fro-ing. “Usually I’ve reached over ten-thousand steps by seven in the morning,” she tells me.
When we were high school, in fits over too much homework, one teacher would stop us mid-whine: “Complaining or bragging?” he’d ask. It’s a question that comes to my mind when my friend enumerates her obligations. Complaining or bragging? It’s a question I try to ask myself at certain moments, too. Is it bad, or are you proud? Is it bad, or do you want others to know what you’re capable of? Is it bad, or is this how you identify yourself? How much does the toil define your life on earth? Now: It’s summer. Time to take a load off for once. The wheel of the year is rolling toward the longest day, a breath of air, a pause. We’re midway between the planting and the harvest, and it’s time for the earth—soil, rain, and sun—to do its work. Can you take rest, can you aim yourself toward pleasure? Or are your work and life too intertwined? In other words, are you the grasshopper or are you the ant?
The fable has it this way: The grasshopper parties, plays music, brings joy to the other bugs. He dances the summer away. The ant toils, tunnels, lugs crumbs. He readies himself for winter. Come late fall, the grasshopper asks the ant for aid, and the go-getter scoffs and says, You should’ve been working. James Joyce puts it like this in Finnegans Wake: “The sillybilly of a Gracehoper had jingled through a jungle of love and debts and jangled through a jumble of life in doubts afterworse, wetting with the bimblebeaks, drikking with nautonects, bilking with durrydunglecks and horing after ladybirdies.” Nice life. Meanwhile, “His Gross the Ondt, prostrandvorous upon his dhrone, in his Papylonian babooshkees, smolking a spatial brunt of Hosana cigals, with unshrinkables farfalling from his unthinkables, swarming of himself in his sunnyroom,” which doesn’t sound so bad either, but it’s a little hard to tell. The truth is this: “These twin are the twins that tick Homo Vulgaris.”
The pleasure-seeking id, a seething sack holding all the hungers, the throbbing force of now, and the nay-saying superego, severe and unremitting punisher, a strangling force that cinches closed the seething sack hissing you should be ashamed. Twin forces within us that tick back and forth as the ego tries to referee. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Maypole of Merry Mount” also reckons with this duality.
Quick history: Thomas Morton, lawyer, businessman, free spirit, crossed the seas from England in 1624 and settled in what would become Quincy, Massachusetts, having brought with him an attitude of no parents, no rules. Disdainful of the pleasure-denying Puritans, that dour lot of naysayers, he formed a colony with Captain Richard Wollaston, but split with him after finding out Wollaston had been selling indentured servants into slavery. Morton set up his own colony, Merry Mount. It was a utopian scenario, a realm with fewer strictures—there was revelry, debauch, peaceful intermingling with the Algonquin Indians. He set up a maypole, that pagan, pine tree phallus that rises ribboned to the sky, often in play during midsummer and summer solstice celebrations in northern Europe, and celebrated with settlers and Indians alike. The Puritans disapproved, particularly of the practice of marrying Indian brides. Governor William Bradford was disgusted by the “beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.” Hawthorne captures the vibe: on the summer solstice, a wild crew gathers around the Merry Mount maypole. Among them, a young man with “the head and branching antlers of a stag”; another with “the grim visage of a wolf”; another with “the beard and horns of a venerable he-goat.” Another looked like a bear, besides its pink silk stockings. And a real bear from the forest is in attendance as well, “as ready for the dance as any in that circle.” They’re governed by a “wild philosophy of pleasure.”
Had a wanderer, bewildered in the melancholy forest, heard their mirth, and stolen a half-affrighted glance, he might have fancied them the crew of Comus, some already transformed to brutes, some midway between man and beast, and the other rioting in the flow of tipsy jollity that foreran the change.
It’s a fertility fest: flowers, spinning ribbons, blooming love, lovemaking. The boundaries dissolve and we’re drawn by waist-down forces. We’re on earth alive, fleshed and smelling petals, grass, and fire smoke. Time does not get any longer than this, and fecund sounds like a swear. In Hawthorne’s story, love gets celebrated, and a young man and maiden are there to be wed. But a band of Puritans, “most dismal wretches,” lurk on the outskirts and spy on the scene. Hawthorne describes their life-denying work ethic, how they prayed in the morning, worked until evening, prayed again. “Their festivals were fast days … Woe to the youth or maiden who did but dream of a dance!”
The Puritans approach the seething midsummer celebration as “when waking thoughts start up amid the scattered fantasies of a dream.” The punishers versus the pleasure-seekers, superego versus id, swarming ants versus fiddling grasshoppers. Hawthorne details what’s at stake:
The future complexion of New England was involved in this important quarrel. Should the grizzly saints establish their jurisdiction over the gay sinners, then would their spirits darken all the clime, and make it a land of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm forever. But should the banner staff of Merry Mount be fortunate, sunshine would break up on the hills, and flowers would beautify the forest, and late posterity do homage to the Maypole.
In history, the Puritans considered Morton such a threat that they kicked him out of the country. He returned after a time, and when he did, he found his Indian friends dead from plague. He was arrested again, banished, and the Puritans burned Merry Mount to the ground. Look at the complexion of New England, look at the complexion of the United States: a land of clouded visages, a land that prizes toil, a land that espouses freedom, freedom, freedom—say what you want, marry who you want, pursue your own version of happiness—and yet, and yet—
“The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom,” writes D.H. Lawrence, who claims we are “freest when we are most unconscious of freedom.” Can we feel unconscious of freedom in the United States? Can we be unconscious of it when we are always supposed to, above all, be so conscious of it? Unfree souls go west, moving toward the setting sun, which these nights sets and sets and sets. Led Zeppelin knew: “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west and my spirit is crying for leaving.” And Lawrence observes that “Americans have always been at a certain tension. Their liberty is a thing of sheer will, sheer tension: a liberty of THOU SHALT NOT. And it has been so from the first. The land of THOU SHALT NOT.”
Land of the free, home of the ants. And the tension’s tighter this time of year. Yes, there’s license, yes, there’s freedom, yes, there’s drink and rest and sex. But the days are about to start getting shorter. Have you prepared for winter? Have you prepared to die? Can you really relax when there is so much left to do and what’s approaching is more and more darkness?
Let’s escape the shalt and shalt not. Let’s dissolve the tension for just one minute. If you want, find a boy with a beautiful mouth to kiss you, pull flowers from the ground and weave them into a crown, escape to the shadows of the woods, forget yourself with someone else, pine needles in your hair, twigs pressed into the meat of your back, dirt against your heels as you thrash, under the trees with the animals, under the stars with the trees. Everything is swelling, blooming, glowing, all about to burst, fertile, verdant, ready, wet. It’s summer! We will never have more time than we have now.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.