Even though it happens every year, I still find myself caught off guard in the late spring, when the day lengthens incrementally, and sunlight slinks around well past dinner time. Summer is here, and with it all our planning for three months which fly by in the blink of an eye. That’s probably where many of us find ourselves now, making plans. But whether trying to line up activities for children, organising family trips, or negotiating work responsibilities with much-needed time off, summer now can feel just as stressful as other times of our busy year. And for many of us, the busyness of planning and working is probably spent indoors.
When I was a kid, whether in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire or America, entire summers were spent outside, only running inside through the kitchen door for a drink or a bandage. The fixed boundaries of our play space, whether a few neighbourhood blocks, a back yard or a park, felt almost as much like home as my own house.
I know we can’t go back to our childhood days. But I’ve been wondering how I could bring back some element of that old summer habit of embracing the outdoors. I’m not talking about adding more sidewalk restaurant reservations to our evenings, but rather that simple pleasure of existing in the season as we did as kids. I think we underestimate how much is lost when our relationship with the natural world is left unnurtured. Even though our adult lives are full of responsibilities and worries, could a more intentional approach to how we spend the summer help us balance the concerns of our individual and collective lives? I don’t think that’s unrealistic. Rather it might require finding some imaginative and unconventional ways to break the routines of our daily lives.
In the 1980 Op Art painting, “To a Summer’s Day 2”, the British artist Bridget Riley creates an image of coloured waves that seem to move as a viewer gazes on. The pastel tones of blue, violet, pink and ochre lines seem to undulate before our eyes, like a cool river on a warm summer afternoon. It’s a spellbinding image, one to easily get lost in. The illusion of movement is dizzying, and you can’t distinguish one thing from the next without intense focus.
It reminds me of a jam-packed summer day of childhood play. But it also makes me think of how packed our adult days can be with everything we try to squeeze into the longer hours of light, on top of our already full schedules. A New York summer is replete with free concerts and outdoor movies in the park, or longer open nights at museums. Backyard or patio cookouts happen regularly and more restaurants spill on to the sidewalks, making you want to linger on over drinks into the hot evenings. Somehow in summer we tend to feel like we’re cheating ourselves if we don’t spread ourselves thin, whirling in constant motion across the light-filled days, evenings and months. Can we find ways to break up the full days of activity with pockets of engagement with the natural world?
In Winslow Homer’s 1890 painting “Summer Night”, two women are dancing together on the shore of a wild sea on a summer night. The moon lights up the surface of the water as the waves crash and foam against the dark rocks. A small group of people sits off to the right side of the canvas watching the sea and the dancing women.
It looks like a simple scene, filled with feeling. One of the dancer’s skirts is caught blowing in the breeze. The grey night looks lit up, as though there’s a glow of light hidden behind the curtain of sky. The air seems charged with a sensual energy.
I remember last summer spending the evening at the home of a friend who lived about two blocks away from the beach. After dinner on her back patio, a tableful of guests were invited to stay longer and walk down to the beach together. It was late and most people chose to head home. But I stayed and walked to the beach with a few others. It had been too long since I’d been by the ocean at night.
We could hear the roar of the ocean as we got closer. It was pitch dark except for a small fire that someone had started before we got there. As soon as I took off my shoes and stepped barefoot into the sand, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of joy, like I could have walked straight into the deep waters fully clothed with a smile on my face. It was magnetic. Nothing I could explain. I walked down to let the water wash over my feet, feeling the sand pull away gently beneath my soles as the water receded back to the ocean. It was an experience of bliss that felt both natural and foreign all at once. As though I’d stumbled back into a part of myself I hadn’t seen in ages.
I love this painting because it captures the enchanting force of water, and how being outside at night can call forth a playful dance with nature, a sense of the different elements of creation connecting with each other. Water and celestial light and Earth and humans. Summer calls us to remember ourselves back to creation. We may not have regular access to the beach, but summer can find us seeking out moments of connection with the natural world wherever we live.
The Malawi-born artist Billie Zangewa uses raw silk fabric and threads to create textile paintings depicting scenes from both her daily life at home and her experiences across the world. Her 2009 work “Sunworshipper in Central Park” shows the artist as a young woman with her eyes closed, lying on her back atop a large rock in Central Park. A forest of trees is behind her and, rising above it, the skyline of New York City skyscrapers and high-rises. Dressed in a white summer dress and strappy high heels, she looks like she’s spontaneously taken a mid-day break, one that’s likely to last only a short while.
But I can imagine the renewed charge this might bring to her day. Taking this quiet moment to herself and getting a dose of vitamin D may make all the difference in how she experiences the rest of the afternoon, how she engages with others and how she feels physically, mentally and emotionally. I think the mistake we often make is assuming we can only rest or regroup if we have a large chunk of time. So we fail to make use of the 15 or 20 minutes we might find in the course of a busy day. Doing so might be better for our well being than we realise. Studies across the world have shown that consistent engagement with natural environments can help alleviate stress and temper the symptoms of depression.
This painting makes me think about a practice I try to do myself when it’s warm outside. I lie outside on the grass for a catnap or walk barefoot around the lawn for a writing break. Feeling some part of my body connect directly to the Earth on a regular basis may sound kooky, but the practice serves many purposes for me. Foremost it reminds me through my body that I am part of created matter, a sensory knowledge that informs the way I continue to engage with the rest of creation. It makes me more aware and appreciative of other life forms: birds, trees, squirrels, dogs passing by. It expands my sense of what constitutes community, and slowly that makes me a better caretaker in general, of my own life and other lives that I encounter. This summer finding ways to renew our relationship with the great outdoors might bring more benefits than we even know.
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