I woke this morning to the usual American holiday mash up of the hallowed and the commercialized, especially poignant this year.
The entire front page of the New York Times was devoted to listing 1,000 of the 100,000 people in this country who have died so far in the pandemic — their names, their ages, where they lived, and something from their obituaries. Memorializing them this weekend when the usual ways of remembering our military dead have been suspended — VA cemeteries closed, other cemeteries open only under strict size and social distancing restrictions. Many more private wreath layings. All to prevent more viral infections, more needless deaths.
And at the same time, in our local Sunday paper, an admittedly skimpier than usual stack of inserts advertising patio furniture, charcoal lighter, rubber flip flops. Insect repellents to stave off mosquitoes and ticks and other ordinary summer plagues.
A wise Greek wrote that all is one yet everything comes in season.
And despite the fact that summer does not officially begin until June 21, we all know that it really starts Memorial Day Weekend. That’s when you can wear white shoes with fashion confidence.
The calendar may say spring for nearly another month but that doesn’t fool me — summer may still be just a faint hope for New Englanders who woke up this morning to temperatures stuck in the mid-sixties, but longtime Georgian that I am I am so not fooled.
Nor does it fool you Northern Floridians who told me that summer starts in the middle of May, some among you saying as early as April, or whenever as one of you told me when you walk outside at day break and it feels like a sauna. Or when you can’t stand barefoot on the driveway without the flesh searing.
Fish jumping, high cotton.
Not my favorite month in my least favorite season.
Too hot, sluggish, unfettered. I was, you see, the kind of kid who pretended to look forward to the end of school and then eagerly registered for the very first summer school session, the kind of kid whose scary Aunt Doris had to order to go outside in the fresh air and sunshine when I had spent an entire week holed up in her guest bedroom reading, unappreciative she scolded me, of the rare good August weather in her corner of Massachusetts. The kind of kid, the kind of adult who has little or no use for sand, which always comes with beaches.
I am, by the way, not alone in not preferring summer: in fact I am in rather good literary company. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our Unitarian heroes, wrote that do what we can, summer will have its flies. Samuel Taylor Coleridge reported that summer has set in with its usual severity. Sydney Smith in Lady Holland’s Memoir declared “Heat Ma’m! It’s so dreadful here that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit on my bones.”
For every one of us for whom summer is more a trial than a gift, there are also those among us who await it and relish it. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote that in summer, the song sings itself and Ada Louise Huxtable that summer is the time when one shed’s ones tension with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world.
For the Celts, the metaphor for human creation is that of being shaped from clay, and as we are formed from clay, the rhythm of the seasons outside nature is also active within our own hearts. There are four seasons within the clay heart — each of them provide different fodder, with different challenges and gifts for the soul.
Spring blossoms and grows into summertime, with a great lushness everywhere, a richness and depth of texture. A time of light, growth, and arrival. It is a time of great balance. You are in the flow of your own nature. You can take as many risks as you like, the Celts believe, and always land on your feet. There is enough shelter and depth of texture around you to balance, ground, and mind you.
Summer as a time to take risks. What does that look like?
In this already precarious time.
In other times, in other years, it might look like seeking out a particularly thrilling amusement park ride, that roller coaster of all roller coasters, or for my husband one summer a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge for someone who is heights challenged.
For a real walk on the cultural wild side in years past, I had at least considered a visit to the NASCAR museum when we were in Charlotte for that year’s General Assembly. If I could love Graceland — which I did — who knows? Dollywood still lies out there in Tennessee.
But not this summer in this year.
A recent study proposed that on a relative safety scale, that walking a relatively uncrowded beach, or camping, or being outdoors in general with family or what we are calling our pod — a few either tested or long quarantined friends — might be a risk we could take.
But beyond or in addition to physical or cultural risk-taking, there’s theological risk-taking. Consider re-reading or reading Huston Smith’s book on World Religions and visit or re-visit the religions or aspect of a religion that is the most difficult for or puzzling to you. Or explore — from a place of curiosity — a belief that you absolutely don’t get.
For me, it might be picking up a book on past lives or at least leafing through the pages of a Left Behind novel. Or the notion of a real heaven or hell. What would it be for you?
And then there’s spiritual risk-taking in the summer season, for the sake of balance deliberately switching out one form of practice, of getting whole and connected, for another.
Rev. Peter Tufts Richardson, a UU minister, developed what has been lauded as an ingenious way of using a combination of Jungian psychology and personality types to delineate four types of spiritual journeys parallel to the four seasons. What he has called The Four Ways: meditation, intellect, devotion or love, and works.
While we begin with strong and basic or native spiritual preferences and practices that attach to them, he is convinced that each one of us can develop what he describes as considerable spiritual poise, coming from a place of creative understanding of the three other spiritualities that are not primarily our own, moving around a circle, like a mandala, like the seasons of the year.
The summer season then may be the best time, as we are supported and grounded, to deliberately try out opposite practices. For me, whose native, comfortable spirituality is a Journey of Unity, with reading and silent meditation, or reflection on a single word or picture adding the most clarity, balance and symmetry to my life, the practices of a Journey of Devotion, with hands on, direct experiences — music, dancing, exultant singing, even the swinging of incense would be a risk and an enrichment.
For some, whose primary practice is action, whether swimming laps, or walking meditation, or protesting injustice, a quieter reflective time of silence, yoga, or devotional reading would be that kind of summer risk we are being encouraged to take.
Without traveling anywhere. Without risking our health or that of others.
Take this season as it is given us: hot and humid, indolent and fertile, lushness everywhere, and a depth of texture. Even this year a time of light, growth, and renewal in the cycle of life.