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The fun and possibility of summer


Even though it happens every year, I’m still blown away in late spring, when the day gradually lengthens and sunlight creeps in well past dinnertime. Summer is here, and with it all our planning for three months flying by in the blink of an eye. That’s probably where many of us are right now, making plans. But whether it’s planning activities for kids, organizing family trips, or negotiating work responsibilities with much-needed time off, summer can feel just as stressful now as other times of our busy year. And for many of us, the hustle and bustle of planning and working is likely to be spent indoors.

When I was a kid, whether I was in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, or America, I spent whole summers outside, just rushing in through the kitchen door for a drink or a bandage. The solid boundaries of our play space, whether a few neighborhood blocks, a backyard, or a park, felt almost as home-like as my own.

I know we can’t go back to our childhood. But I’ve been wondering how I might bring back some of that old summer habit of embracing the great outdoors. I’m not talking about adding more restaurant reservations to our evenings, but rather that simple pleasure of existing in season like we did as kids. I think we underestimate how much is lost if our relationship with the natural world is not nurtured. While our adult lives are full of responsibilities and worries, can a more mindful 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 may be necessary to find imaginative and unconventional ways to break out of the routines of our daily lives.

In the 1980 Op Art painting, “To a Summer’s Day 2”, British artist Bridget Riley creates an image of colored waves that seem to move as the viewer watches. The pastel shades of blue, violet, pink and ocher lines seem to ripple before our eyes, like a cool river on a warm summer afternoon. It is an enchanting image that it is easy to get lost in. The illusion of motion is dazzling and you can’t tell one from the other without intense focus.

‘To a Summer’s Day 2’ by Bridget Riley (1980) © Tate

It reminds me of a packed summer day of child’s play. But it also reminds me 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 packed schedules. A New York summer is packed with free concerts and open-air movies in the park, or extended open nights at museums. Backyard or patio cookouts are a regular occurrence and more restaurants are popping up on the sidewalks, making you want to linger with a drink into the hot evenings. Somehow in the summer we feel like we’re cheating ourselves if we don’t spread ourselves thin and swirl around the light-filled days, evenings and months in constant motion. Can we find ways to break up the full days of activity with bits of engagement with the natural world?

In Winslow Homer’s 1890 painting “Summer Night”., two women dance together on the shore of a raging sea on a summer night. The moon illuminates the surface of the water as the waves crash and foam against the dark rocks. A small group of people sit on the right side of the canvas, looking at the sea and the dancing women.

It looks like a simple scene, filled with feeling. One of the dancer’s skirts keeps blowing in the wind. The gray night seems illuminated, as if a blaze of light is hidden behind the curtain of heaven. The air seems charged with a sensual energy.

A man and a woman dance together on a boardwalk overlooking a rocky coastline at night

‘Summer Night’ (1890) by Winslow Homer © Alamy

I remember spending the evening last summer with a friend who lived about two blocks from the beach. After dinner on her back patio, a table full of guests were invited to stay longer and walk to the beach together. It was late and most people chose to go home. But I stayed and walked to the beach with a few others. It had been too long since I had been to 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 in the sand, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of joy, as if I could have walked straight into the deep water 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 and felt the sand gently recede from under the soles of my feet as the water receded to the ocean. It was an experience of bliss that felt natural and strange at the same time. As if I had stumbled back into a part of myself I hadn’t seen in ages.

I love this painting because it captures the mesmerizing power of water, and how being outside at night can evoke a playful dance with nature, a sense of the different elements of creation interconnected. Water and sky light and earth and people. Summer calls us to remind ourselves back to creation. We may not have regular access to the beach, but in the summer we can look for moments of connection with the natural world wherever we live.

Malawi-born artist Billie Zangewa uses raw silk and threads to create textile paintings depicting scenes from both her daily life at home and her experiences around the world. Her 2009 work “Sunworshipper in Central Park” depicts the artist as a young woman with her eyes closed, lying on her back atop a large boulder in Central Park. Behind her is a grove of trees and above them rises the skyline of New York City’s skyscrapers and high-rises. Dressed in a white summer dress and strappy high heels, she looks as if she’s spontaneously taken a midday break, a break that will likely be short-lived.

But I can imagine the renewed charge this could bring to her day. Taking this quiet moment for herself and getting a dose of vitamin D can make all the difference in how she experiences the rest of the afternoon, how she interacts 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 when we have a lot of time. So we don’t take advantage of the 15 or 20 minutes we can find in the course of a busy day. Doing this may be better for our well-being than we realize. Studies around the world have shown that consistent engagement with natural environments can help relieve stress and temper the symptoms of depression.

This painting makes me think about an exercise I try to do myself when it’s hot outside. I lay out on the grass for a nap or walk barefoot across the lawn for a writing break. Regularly feeling that part of my body is directly connected to the earth may sound goofy, but the exercise serves many purposes for me. It reminds me especially through my body that I am part of created matter, a sensory knowledge that determines 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, passing dogs. It broadens my sense of what community is, and slowly that makes me a better caretaker in general, of my own life and other lives I encounter. Finding ways to renew our relationship with the outdoors this summer may have more benefits than we know.

Follow Enuma on Twitter @EnumaOkoro or email her enuma.okoro@ft.com

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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