Simply be

“In Summer Time,” Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)

When summer time has come, and all

The world is in the magic thrall

Of perfumed airs that lull each sense

To fits of drowsy indolence;

When skies are deepest blue above,

And flow’rs aflush,—then most I love

To start, while early dews are damp,

And wend my way in woodland tramp

Where forests rustle, tree on tree,

And sing their silent songs to me;

Where pathways meet and pathways part,—

To walk with Nature heart by heart,

Till wearied out at last I lie

Where some sweet stream steals singing by

A mossy bank; where violets vie

In color with the summer sky,—

Or take my rod and line and hook,

And wander to some darkling brook,

Where all day long the willows dream,

And idly droop to kiss the stream,

And there to loll from morn till night—

Unheeding nibble, run, or bite—

Just for the joy of being there

And drinking in the summer air,

The summer sounds, and summer sights,

That set a restless mind to rights

When grief and pain and raging doubt

Of men and creeds have worn it out;

The birds’ song and the water’s drone,

The humming bee’s low monotone,

The murmur of the passing breeze,

And all the sounds akin to these,

That make a man in summer time

Feel only fit for rest and rhyme.

Joy springs all radiant in my breast;

Though pauper poor, than king more blest,

The tide beats in my soul so strong

That happiness breaks forth in song,

And rings aloud the welkin blue

With all the songs I ever knew.

O time of rapture! time of song!

How swiftly glide thy days along

Adown the current of the years,

Above the rocks of grief and tears!

‘Tis wealth enough of joy for me

In summer time to simply be.

My favorite lines in this poem are when the speaker is talking about why nature seems so beautiful to him right now–The summer sounds, and summer sights that set a restless mind to rights when grief and pain and raging doubt of men and creeds have worn it out– he retreats from civilization–he just glances off the pain of the memory– because it is too brutal to bear.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the author of this poem, was the eldest son of a woman freed from slavery in Kentucky. Although he died when he was just thirty-three, he is remembered as one of the first nationally acclaimed African American poets. Interesting fact: the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is from the first line of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”: I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, / When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, / When he beats his bars and would be free; / It is not a carol of joy or glee, / But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, / But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –/ I know why the caged bird sings.

The rest and relaxation of Dunbar’s summer is set in unstated contrast to his usual state. The conclusion of the poem invokes the image of time as a stream and the speaker as a compliant passenger–tis wealth enough of joy for me in summer time to simply be. But even as he enjoys the temporary pause in striving in the world–with the “raging doubt of men and creeds”–he suggests his intention to return. The joy he feels is as dependent upon the conclusion of rest, the fact that summertime is a concluding period of time, as upon that rest itself.

There is a sense of extended adolescence that accompanies academia–few adults get months of vacation at a time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty great. I’m not complaining. But one of the things that makes it wonderful is that I know in two months I’ll be getting back to work.

But for the mean time, I’ll simply be.

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Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head

 

O Love, be fed with apples while you may,
And feel the sun and go in royal array,
A smiling innocent on the heavenly causeway,

Though in what listening horror for the cry
That soars in outer blackness dismally,
The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury:

Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head,
Exquisite in the pulse of tainted blood,
That shivering glory not to be despised.Take your delight in momentariness,
Walk between dark and dark—a shining space
With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.
–Robert Graves
In the midst of seemingly insurmountable piles of books, fighting all of the ways this fragile body works through stress, blurry-eyed and headachey and strung out on caffeine. And how beautiful is this, and how lucky am I and what privilege to be exhausted from doing something I love so much.

No Future: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Jack Halberstam (with a little Queen Latifah in there too)

downloadFull disclosure: I spent the evening crocheting and watching The Last Holiday. I know, you didn’t think I was such a party animal. Truthfully, although the movie is somewhat horrible, I heartily enjoy the sentiment—the “why am I waiting and what am I waiting for” sentiment, when the things you are putting off in life (travel, family, free time)  seem ever so much more important than the reasons you are postponing them (education, career).

Last weekend, I seriously considered selling my somewhat meager belongings and moving to Italy. (I was reading Frances Mayes. I’m susceptible.) I still wish I could move, and the fact that I backed down seems less a triumph of common sense over recklessness than a cowardly taking of the safe track. I need a safety net and a five year plan- I hate it, but that is, apparently, who I am.

All of that goes to establishing mindset. This is why I was watching Last Holiday, a movie I’ve seen before and judged really crappy somewhat substandard then, LL Cool J notwithstanding. In case you don’t remember (and why would you?) Queen Latifah is a hardworking employee/drone, trying to protect her future by postponing all joy: terrible job? not important, it pays. cute boy? not right now, must work. And so on and so forth. Then she gets a terminal diagnosis and moves to a fancy hotel in Europe to blow through her savings and live it up while there’s time. I feel like there are a few other movies out there with a similar plot, but can’t think of them right now.

Ok, the movie is kind of terrible. I don’t remember the rest– I think LL Cool J (the aforementioned love interest) shows up in Europe to sweep her off her feet, the diagnosis was wrong, and I guess she doesn’t regret her wasted savings. Whatever. As I said, not a great cinematic masterpiece.

And honestly, I’m not interested in it because of some abstract (whatever that is) value. but I’m fascinated by the burn down the world, grab it all freedom– the impulsivity that is officially allowed (by whom? I’m not sure…society at large? community? common sense? the last, of course, is just the internalization of the former’s judgments… they- the ever-threatening “they”-catch us coming and going) when the longevity question- the planning for tomorrow bit- is taken off the table. (I’m reminded, as I so frequently am, of Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: who would I be, what would my life look like, if I weren’t so pre-occupied with my own futurity? )

In the elimination of the idea of the future in Last Holiday– and in The Blue Castle, which is what I actually want to talk about– the protagonists are given the freedom to travel, to speak their minds, to quit crap jobs, to be—truly be—in the moment.

God, that sounds hokey, but it seems to resonate, at least with me. I live so much of my life in anticipation: when my education is done, when I get a job I like, when I… whatever, that the present seems to escape me. My mother is right (gasp!)–I’m wishing my life away.

Those are problems for another time. What I am reading, however, is a reflection of those fat bubbles of unrest that are rolling to the top of my psyche. The Blue Castle has long been my favorite of L. M. Montgomery’s books; it’s just so absolutely flat-out romantic. Its premise is actually quite a bit like Last Holiday, which is why I began with the confession of my late-night TV watching: incredibly repressed woman gets a negative heath report, and decides (poster-type quote ahead) “to live before she dies.” Queen Latifah goes to some skiing resort;Valancy Stirling meets a mountain man and asks him to marry her.

Wonderful stuff…  (plot spoilers ahead)

Valancy Stirling is a skinny, sallow spinster who lives the most depressing life imaginable with her overbearing mother, sniffling aunt, and interfering, patronizing extended family. (Think Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.) After suffering a worse-than-usual chest pain, Valancy secretly goes to a specialist, who tells her that she has a serious heart condition and will die within the year. Valancy rebels at the idea of “dying before she’s lived,” and starts speaking her mind at family gatherings, leading the elderly patriarchs of the family to murmur, aghast, while her mother has hysterics.

She eventually tells her story to the town ruffian, a “sparkly-eyed backwoods man” (direct quote) who smokes a foul smelling pipe and drives the oldest car imaginable. She then proposes to, marries, and moves in with this backwoods man, the euphoniously named Barney Snaith. After several months of the most perfect health and glorious happiness, she begins to wonder about the doctor’s diagnosis–and what that might mean to her marriage.

This has been my favorite L. M. Montgomery since I was about 16–I think I identified much too strongly with that crazy family! But I’ve always thought of this as kind of a fairytale; an uncomplicated trajectory from misery to happy ending. (I realize that all those who have studied fairy tales in any depth just gasped. Shush.) I still think the story is a little simplistic, but this time I noticed (was looking for) something else kind of nonfairytaley: Valancy saves herself. She doesn’t wait for a prince to rescue her–she leaves home, she throws off convention, she proposes to Barney, she essentially creates her own Eden–or at least her own entry into Eden. She isn’t an all round strong female character–she begins quite weak and then nobly returns home “with the grey face…of a creature that has been struck a mortal blow” when she fears that Barney will feel tricked when it looks like he will get a life of marriage instead of the originally planned year. In that, I suppose, Lucy Maud has Barney play the ever-loving hero, as of course, he comes to retrieve her. (And in such a frustrating way! These books that have the male lead tenderly swearing at the blockhead who won’t believe herself loved… the “Dear little fool!” exchanges…make me a bit tired.) But still, I do appreciate that Valancy didn’t gaze out the parlor window until Prince Charming rode up. In fact, she becomes weak again when she imagines herself to have a future. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine someone as, dare I say it, staid as Lucy Maud in light of ideas of queer temporality? Lucy Maud, meet Jack.