FIVE seconds of summer and in the high latitudes we expose ourselves to the sunlight, as antidote to the blue light and backlight of Zoom, Teams and Facetime that have left us, after 18 months, underexamined, overexposed. If we are lucky enough to work from home, this year has been a humdinger for creep and reach into our private lives; the all-seeing eye of company, the company, pursuing us to kitchen tables, box rooms and bedrooms, shrinking us to fit our new existence as a nodding, talking head in centimetres squared.
Before Blur Your Background became a thing, left us looming at each other like holograms or the resurrected, I chose a curtain so dreary it signalled ‘hostage’ or ‘undertakers’: work is work, but home is home. Yet, like everyone else, I gawped at the curated lives flashing on TV, wondering if, in the meta-realm, the guitars so perfectly pitched were left untuned, the pianos unplayed, the Proust unread.
In Ireland this virus summer, the temperature is rising. 28 degrees. Scorchio! Factor 50 the nation. Wet-wrap your children up to age 35. Pack your elderly in ice. Turbo-fan your pets. There’s a call from a coastal town on the Mediterranean. ‘Unbelievable. High 30s for weeks but in the only time off in this lousy year it’s 28. Freezing. I bought a hoodie.’ On the Med, summer is all about al mare. Not only the sea itself but what you do there, what you eat there, who you read there, who you meet there, how you look there.
So, thank God for home where ‘beach ready’ means wrestling wringing-black togs, over blue, puckered thighs, Houdini-style moves under a beach-towel burka, while battling high-friction sand that smuggles itself deep inside the crevices of the human body. And their crevices again.
But not this year, when the Atlantic coast is a costa and the week is the summer and a fortnight is forever. Only perhaps, as we sizzle. Warmer than Paris! Hotter than Venice! It’s not factor 50 we need, but vanishing cream, to disappear ourselves from a world, where too much now is public and not enough is private. Yet, weirdly, it is when we are at our most exposed, lying out, eyes closed, on the public sand or grass, that we can be at our most private; not so much remembering, as reliving, the moments that make a summer and a life.
For me, summer is my father in the long evenings, blue-overalled, with his spade, edging the flowerbeds along a plank, the roses in their pink velvet, smelling of Lemonade and Turkish Delight. It’s the swallows returning to 68 Blarney Street, the moon landing in ’69, the owls in the North Mon, the garden after the rain. Petrichor: we knew its scent before its name.
Now, here’s a man and a small girl on the forest path in Castlefreke with its German campers impossibly tall, impossibly blond, impossibly wet. There they are on the boreen to Redbarn just after dawn. The summer houses – converted railway carriages – oblongs of red and green, like building bricks from school, low-slung in the salty fields.
And here come my own children camping out in the garden in the rain, rasher-fishing for crabs at Seapoint, racing home in the evening with their jam jars and their catch, and back in the morning to release it alive. Now, in the quantum time of parenting, one will be off to work, pulling other life from other seas.
In summer, we time travel. A few days off work, a chance to ‘be’ instead of ‘do’, we catch up with the ancestors, the descendants, the same sun shining on all our joys, dreams, disappointments, inherited faces, features. That look, that turn of a head, that inflection of a voice from summer 1721 still there in 2021. And hopefully in 2121, if we are prepared to dowse the Earth for wisdom and humility instead of dousing it with petrol and arrogance.
This summer, whether it’s taking the Dart to Bray or smelling horses in a field, or watching swallows wittering or witnessing day become night become day again in a moment, reminds us that we exist in the world and the universe; we are part of them, belong to them, this, despite our short stay or our ephemeral identities on-screen, on-line, on-demand, acquired, imposed or shed, like a virus.
If we can observe us, stomach us, protect us, the ultimate staycation is within ourselves. And for five-star accommodation there, in the common era of Covid and climate An Ghaeilge has it: a single letter between Ainm and Anam.
This week, Ireland is no longer an Atlantic island, but the Hy-Brasil of what and who we become when the sun shines hot, and joy and suffocation are general all over Ireland, and windows are flung open to the night and we sit out on kitchen chairs in the street, like the Spaniards whose epigenetic memory we carry.
For generations we sang an ancient song, Iarla Ó Lionáird and The Gloaming working their magic on Thugamar Féin an Samhradh Linn today.
The song survives a certain desire to diminish our language, relegate it in the curriculum, in favour of commercially ‘useful’ economics or Mandarin. This summer, the propensity to bend everything to our commercial ‘use’ is felt in killer heat-domes to the north, fatal flooding to the east.
For centuries, with “the Mayday dolls.. and bright maidens…and daisies, thugamar féin an samhradh linn”. If we find what is of eternal value, the anatomy of a virus and climate crisis need not be ‘the anatomy of melancholy’.
We brought the summer with us before. We will do it again.