When summer is coming you start to see ads for tanning booths and how to lose weight and get in shape so you'll look good in a bathing suit. By summer you need to be beautiful.
No wonder I don't like summer.
In the States it begins with remembering and death: Memorial Day. We're supposed to remember our soldiers who died in wars we sent them to kill in. I sort of think of this, but not very much. I never lost anyone in a war and don't want the start of summer to bum me out. What I want is a day off work. I want someone to fix me barbecue and to eat homemade deviled eggs and pie. I want to drink gin and tonics and fall asleep in the sun and not wake up.
One summer I went to a cabin near the coast. I teach from the autumn to spring and I sometimes pretend that when summer comes, I'll get back to my own work and write. Sometimes I do, but it seems to get harder and harder. The summers get shorter and hotter and more and more I want to nap. My brain feels like soup.
In the cabin there was a mattress and toilet and hot plate and sink but the shower was at a place at the end of the parking lot. Outside, past the trees, kids played at the beach while their mothers and dads sat on chairs beneath umbrellas and slathered on suntan lotion. Teenagers got on boogie boards and some of them even surfed. They strutted around with their fit, tan, hairless bodies all glistening with oil. I stayed in my cabin away from them and dozed in and out of a big fat biography of a chubby eccentric writer. I liked being in a beautiful place and not getting out of bed to go be outside in it. I loved knowing people were all around but not having to talk or listen or be nice to anyone or pretend I was happy.
At night, after most of the day visitors had gone, I walked into town. There wasn't a restaurant or bar, just a bunch of smallish houses with satellite dishes and stuff in the yard and trucks. Sometimes people would look out their windows at me but nobody ever said anything including me.
The summer was different when I was a kid. The summer was like it was not even really real or not just a time but an actual place you could go. Where school and homework and parents and not knowing how to look never even happened.
The summer was riding bikes.
I rode my big brother's from when he was small, a giant clunky Schwinn. Lydia and Kenneth, who came after school let out to spend the summer with their dad, had cool bikes with banana seats and handlebars. Their father bought them new for them when he moved here with his new wife. When they were here to visit him it was a different place. Nobody had to go to school and nobody acted like they didn't know you. In summer parents didn't yell as much because we were outside a lot, not inside, in their hair. If we were inside it was at Lydia and Kenneth's. Their dad and his new wife didn't yell but gave us Cokes or ice cream sandwiches or frozen Snickers bars. We rode around all day everywhere, to the park and the school and the college and church then past to the land outside the edge of town. One day we found a place behind a clump of trees where someone had cut the fence so you could crawl under. We got down on our bellies and crawled then somebody brought a wire cutter from their dad's and we cut the fence up to the top and bent the wires back so we could ride through. It was dusty and dry and our legs and shorts and T-shirts got brown and scratched but nobody really noticed. The dirt got packed beneath where we rode, sometimes it even looked shiny. There were bushes and branches and nail-filled boards and crushed-up hole-filled cans. One time we found a mattress. The springs were popped through the cover and ants were crawling on it. The trees were low to the ground with long loose stretched-out branches. There were also many dogs. They were scrawny and some were frightening, with yellow teeth and scabs or places their fur was bit. We yelled at them and waved sticks and climbed trees to get away from them. We made a tree fort in one of the trees. The girls had stopped playing with dolls and with statues of horses and nobody played anymore with G.I. Joes or trucks. Crawford and Louis and Tammy and Tina, the twins, and Kenneth and Lydia and I worked on our fort then rode back to Kenneth and Lydia's. We then rode back with nails and ropes and a hammer. Some of the dogs kept being there and after a while, we petted them and brought them sandwiches.
One of the dogs started following me home but my mother would not allow the dog inside.
One of those summers, the song "The Door into Summer" came out, on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., the fourth album by the Monkees. Before we came back to the States, when we lived in Spain, there was mostly the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but after we came back there was TV after school and the Monkees and Paul Revere and everyone telling you about astrology. You were supposed to be able to figure out secret things about yourself and planets such as who you were compatible with. I knew what my sign was, and I guessed I was kind of like it, but all of the signs, depending on how you thought about them or who was telling you, could kind of apply. I didn't believe in them but I was curious about who could be compatible with me. Could anyone? I tried to ask someone their sign one time, as if it were no big deal, but then I didn't know what to say next. I didn't know how to say anything or to stand in my skin anymore. In summer you didn't see certain people but only the people you didn't feel ugly around.
The summer was crabgrass beneath your feet. You felt it on the sides of your flip-flops and sticky white broken stems of ripened figs. It was the smell of chlorine and suntan lotion at the pool. It was the smell in the bathroom of Clearasil and aftershave when your brother began to shave. The grass in the summer was hot as steam, but cooler in the evening. In the evening when fathers got home from work or brothers from summer jobs, there was the sound of the lawn mower choking then revving then whirring across the lawn. Then there was the smell then the same sound at somebody else's then somebody else's house. The fathers wore baseball caps and shirts; the brothers went shirtless and you could see their shoulder and arm muscles move and the zits on their backs. Tina and Tammy wanted to stop and get off our bikes and talk to them; Lydia and the boys and I did not.
The summer is sweet until you meet someone or find something you maybe think is love and lose or throw or give away whatever sense of you you have been starting to imagine. Something has started inside of you, inside your skin, and you want to do things you don't want but then you do. You want to go off alone or with somebody, not just anybody, else. You'd love for this person to look at you but you would be more frightened if they did. Will they? Why won't they look at you? What's wrong with you? Can everybody see?
Everyone else knows how to look. You don't.
One summer there was a giant storm. They had warned us about it so we had gone for candles and food and batteries. We'd meant to get back before it got bad but it started before they had thought. I remember not being able to see out the windshield and my mother driving through puddles that came up to the middle of the car door yelling "No brakes! No brakes!" as if anyone could hear. When we got home the yard was like a pond. The banks of the river had overflowed and lawn chairs and barbecues and garbage cans were floating. The dog that had followed me home was soaking and shivering on the porch and my mother said, yes, it could some inside, but only for the storm. We got in the house and put paper and rugs by the door to keep the water out but it didn't get that high, although almost.
The next day the streets were muddy and stank and everything was creepily, weirdly still. No one got that much damage, but we had been warned.
But nobody warns about everything.
Was that the same summer that Kenneth and Lydia stopped coming down for vacation? Their father moved somewhere and then there were no more bikes. Everyone was too cool or embarrassed to ride. We stayed in our rooms alone or with our dog to read or write in our diary. Neither Tina nor Tammy stayed in all the way through high school. One of them married her boyfriend; the other, I think, had her baby just by herself.
I wrote about things in my diary. I didn't write secrets, exactly, but kind of did. I wrote some in regular words but other things I wrote in only initials. Sometimes I even would change the initials so they were not the person's real ones. As in, instead of the initials of her name, I'd put SS for, like someone in social studies class.
Later I started to make more things up. Not just initials, but also what didn't happen. I would invent. Sometimes I would write pretend letters, like what I would say if I went away and discovered you loved me too and how we would write letters as long as we had to because we just would. I wrote some of what I wouldn't say. I kept the diaries in a secret place.
In l967, the year "The Door into Summer" was released, I was 11. I loved the Monkees' music but I did not love not knowing how to act when girls in my class got Tiger Beat not to read about how they wrote their songs but to look at the pictures of who they thought was cutest, Micky or Davy. I had weird ideas in my head and pictures of things I did not understand. I had feelings like dark and light and felt like someone was watching me or that they weren't but I wanted them to. I tried to imagine who they were or what they looked like or that they said things to me. I remember one time seeing two white doves and wanting and hoping, pretending even, they meant something—a sign!—but knowing they didn't. I felt embarrassed about this and lonely about what I wanted; I did not tell. My older siblings, who were listening to Janis Joplin by then, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, would remember that time as the Summer of Love. They knew people who drove all the way to Haight-Ashbury. I did not want to be a hippie but I did want to be something I didn't know and I wanted to go someplace I did not know either.
By the time William Blake was 11, he had seen visions: One time God was nicely looking into a window of their house; one time a bunch of shining angels were singing in a tree. When Blake told his father about what he'd seen, his father beat him and told him not to make up lies. Blake learned about who to keep silent around and what to not talk about.
Here is a poem, "Song," from his first book, Poetical Sketches, which William Blake wrote when he was 14:
How sweet I roam'd from field to field, And tasted all the summer's pride,
'Till I the prince of love beheld, Who in the sunny beams did glide!
He shew'd me lilies for my hair, And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his gardens fair, Where all his golden pleasures grow.
With sweet May dews my wings were wet, And Phoebus fir'd my vocal rage;
He caught me in his silken net, And shut me in his golden cage.
He loves to sit and hear me sing, Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing, And mocks my loss of liberty.
I bet he was starting to shave by then. A strange boy who had seen weird things and started to feel weird things in his body. They were sweet blush-making summery growing things that also could entrap you. You need to be careful to whom you tell and if, the way you tell them. He started to write poetry and paint and got himself apprenticed to an engraver.
Another poem, "To Summer," from Poetical Sketches begins like this:
O Thou who passest thro' our vallies in
Thy strength, curb thy fierce steeds, allay the heat
That flames from their large nostrils! thou, O Summer,
Oft pitched'st here thy golden tent, and oft
Beneath our oaks hast slept, while we beheld
With joy, thy ruddy limbs and flourishing hair.
The word "steed," which is Poetry for "horse," is etymologically related to the word "stud." Blake's summer steed has sweat-messed hair and ruddy—red—skin like what one gets when one has exerted oneself with work or play or sex. His isn't a little toy plastic horse girls play with when they're young, but a giant panting fire-breathing animal.
Blake fell in love deeply and passionately, possessed by the wants of his body and heart, and when he was rejected he became despondent. One time after such a rejection, he met Catherine Boucher, who, though illiterate, knew exactly how to read him. She believed he was suffering and pitied him. Their courtship was short; they married soon and stayed married all their lives. He taught her to read; she helped him to paint and print his work. The last thing he ever drew, on his deathbed, was a sketch of Catherine to whom he said, "You have ever been an angel to me." They sunbathed together in the nude (not common in 18th-century London) in their back garden. One time when a friend out for a summer walk dropped by their home unexpectedly, Blake answered the door in his birthday suit and explained to the dumbfounded visitor that he'd interrupted Blake and Catherine playing Adam and Eve in the garden.
When Denise Levertov moved to Seattle in l989, the summer felt good to her. In her late 60s and mostly retired from teaching, she found a house near Lake Washington with a view of Mount Rainier and began to write what would be her final poems. Here is the start of "Settling" from Evening Train (1992).
I was welcomed here—clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,
the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing herself unclouded, her snow
tinted apricot as she looked west,
tolerant, in her steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
Late summer is the best season in Seattle for exactly the things Levertov notices: the golden light, the apricot-looking mountain snow, the trees, the sun. She thought about seasons and cyclical time, and also in her latter years, after being received into the Roman Catholic Church, about long-term time. She saw the lights of summer as a thing that moves and illuminates impermanent things like branches and sound and air—but also remains before and after the things that it affects.
She suggested a different view of the passing and long-lastingness of things when she wrote "Living" in an earlier book, Summer Poems, 1969 (1970).
The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.
The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.
A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily
moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.
Each minute the last minute.
The summer is knowing that nothing you sense will last.
I lie half asleep on the porch out back with the cats. I have sort of been reading but sort of not. I'm lying with a book facedown on my lap pretending I'm going to pick it back up and read. I hear clicking sounds and open my eyes. It's blurry at first but when I blink I see a hummingbird. We get them around here a lot in the summer. They come to the feeder we've set out for them. Sometimes I've seen four of them at a time on it, dipping their needle-y beaks in it and lifting their heads up and drinking. If I sit out here very still for a while, sometimes one of them will come flutter up close to me and I can hear its wings. They're like little motors. Their necks and the front of them shines and I don't want to move and I don't want this moment to end.
In the United States it ends with Labor Day, our government having declared in 1894 a national holiday to celebrate the contributions made by laborers, workers, and unions to the welfare of the country. But nowadays unions are dying (I'm looking at you, Scott Walker) and most of us, if we have a job, would love to not go back to work.
We get kind of manic with summer "fun," because we're aware it won't last. We do stuff impulsively, carelessly. At Harborview, emergency room visits increase by about 20 percent in the summer. People injure themselves more often in the summer with lawn mowers, garden tools, barbecues, grills. People poke out their eyes with power tools or get burned by fireworks or fire or the sun.
One of the last songs Kurt Cobain wrote is "Do Re Mi," which has these lines:
If I say
What it's like
I might be dreaming
If I may
What is right
Summertime, see me heal
Courtney said he wrote the song in bed. They were living in Seattle in a house with a view overlooking the lake. It wasn't summer yet—he'd die in April—but sometimes Seattle gets those prescient days where you get a whiff that something else is coming. Summer can make you dozy and half in and out of sleep, half out of and half in the world.
The dog we let in when the storm arrived was pregnant. She had her puppies in what had been my father's chair before he left. Some of them survived.