And shall I ask at the day's end once more
What beauty is, and what I can have meant
By happiness? I cannot bite the day to the core.
Midsummer can be an unsettling time of year. The time of the greatest daylight, the longest days and shortest nights, often opens up in me an unsatisfied longing, a sense of being unable to respond as fully as I would wish to the life and natural beauty all around. Edward Thomas's lyrical poem 'The Glory' begins with The glory of the beauty of the morning / The cuckoo crying over the untouched dew... and ends with the puzzled, frustrated lines quoted above.
Sometimes, of course, Midsummer day itself is cold, grey, windy and uninspiring. Often my midsummers have been spent in an urban setting, feeling isolated and unable to immerse myself in the natural world as I would like to. This year, by contrast, I'm living and working with the Taraloka community (as a short-term volunteer) and the midsummer weather has been... perfectly perfect.
We celebrated Midsummer day with a puja at Mitchell's Fold (a Bronze Age stone circle in the South Shropshire hills). Some of us walked up Corndon Hill, with incredible views in the blue distances and the clear, clear air. Red kites circled overhead, a blue-and-green hot air balloon moved silently above the blue-green patchwork of fields. There was an evening picnic at the stone circle, and then the long, beautiful drive back to Taraloka through the gentle Shropshire countryside, the tree-and-hedge shadows lengthening, the blue-greens merging and intensifying as the enormous, molten, fire-gold sun hovered just above the horizon... If I'd ordered up my ideal day, it could not have been more perfect.
But of course... no day is completely perfect (I felt car-sick, we were all boiling hot and later chilly, the petrol tank was refilled at shocking expense and always in the background there's the knowledge of the ecological cost of driving, the knowledge of pain and difficulty far away or close at hand, the knowledge of impermanence). The word 'solstice' derives from the Latin for 'sun stand still' - but it never does, not for an instant.
The long summer evenings at Taraloka are so beautiful it almost hurts, as the sunlight and long shadows fall in luminous stripes across the brilliant green barley fields, the shimmering sherbetty pastels of flowering grasses and wild sorrel. The shapes of the summer trees against the glowing sky darken and intensify, as if they were just about to speak... but they never quite do. I can attempt to draw the trees, describe the scene, walk up the track in dressing gown and slippers - but sooner or later I have to turn back. And even if I walked all night, I wouldn't reach the source of the longing.
In 'Surprised by Joy', the Christian writer C S Lewis wrote of this unfulfillable kind of longing as the only human emotion which offers proof of the transcendental. In Sangharakshita's phrase, 'what is ultimate in us resonates with what is ultimate in the universe'. For me the luminous summer sunsets evoke the 'infinite light' of the archetypal Buddha Amitabha - no wonder I can't define, capture or keep them.
Here is a Midsummer poem of my own, with an aspiration to carry the summer light within me, as an attitude of heart/mind, not a 'thing' to keep hold of:
If summer’s a candle...
If summer’s a candle
it’s a beeswax candle,
smelling of honey
and candle flames
in summer sunlight
are a rippling, golden
disturbance of air
like the shimmer of bees’ wings
as stars at summer
dawn or twilight
are sand-grains or seed-pearls
scattered in patterns
of enormous beauty, enormous power
at the edge of the visible...
and if summer’s a candle
a beeswax candle,
may I carry that golden, honey-
scented flame in my heart
from summer to summer.