Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Savoring a Midsummer Day.

In this never-to-be-forgotten year, we have reached the midpoint – called, quite literally in Europe – Midsummer Eve. June 23 or 24th is the ancient celebration of the beginning of summer, and the traditional celebration of Midsummer Day. This is the mid-point of the calendar year, on or around the summer solstice – the longest day of year when the sun is at its northern-most point in the sky. These are the days when the light lingers long in the sky and hesitates to give up its warmth or it's clarity.

Considered by many Northern and Eastern European countries as one of the greatest festivals of the year, Midsummer Eve origins date from neolithic times. It has always been focused on new life and the fertility of growing things, although in the Christian era there has been an attempt to add a veneer of modern religion to it as the Feast of st. John the Baptist.

Every country has its own customs, but every one of them has some aspect of light in the celebration. This is the time for great fairs and feasting. Enormous bonfires are built and to them are added savory grasses and herbs. In the north, Midsummer is also called “White Nights” because the sun, which hid away during the dark winter, returns. So far north is the sun toward the Arctic Circle during those weeks, that in cities like St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo, it never really sets at night.

Tradition says that this is the time of year when magic is at its strongest; it's a time for Will-o-wisps and fairies, witches and the legends of the fern blossoms. Shakespeare recognized its influence so much that he named his famous play “A Midsummer Night's Dream” after it.

In Norway Midsumer's Eve is called Sankthansaften. In Finland Ukko-kokko. In Russia and Ukraine, Midsummer is Ivan Kupala day, when girls float garlands in the rivers and from the direction they drift, tell their marital fortunes. People build great bonfires and then dance around them and leap over them as night falls. In Sweden, dancing to traditional music around a maypole (majstång or midsommarstång) is a family activity and many wear traditional folk costumes. As in Russia, the year's first potatoes, pickled herring, sour cream, and if possible the first strawberries of the season are on the menu.

This year I arrived at Midsummer Eve breathlessly, because the schedule for the past several days has been breakneck. Swim meets, Father's Day, a special family wedding shower for my soon-to-be daughter-in-law. College orientation for my daughter. A mad dash across part of the state through thundering storms to coordinate rides to a wedding in the mountains.

We have certainly been celebrating. Last night, we did a bit of dancing and feasting as well. What we haven't done, is to reflect on this very special summer. We haven't paused to savor the flavor and texture of the precious moments that make up our days. Rushing, rushing, always rushing, our days go by and before we know it – those days that seemed as if they could last forever – those days are gone. For me, at Midsummer, I am choosing to pause – and consider the deep magic of the moments given me. I invite you to do the same.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bridges and Dots and Lines – Oh My!

I've been thinking about bridges. The wise journeyer learns to differentiate between bridges that connect with your future -- intimate passageways to new beginnings -- and those that allow you escape, but no forward progress.

May was my bridge month. In fact, this summer is my bridge summer. I am crossing from one stage of my life into another. The crossing has its smooth, “yellow brick road” moments and it's scary, bumpy parts. Does yours as well?

It was the intimate bridges that cross Paris' Seine River that got me thinking; the Pont Des Invalides, the Pont Arch, the Pont St. Louis. They're human, small-scale, walkable and they come with that world-famous scenery!

I've crossed all sorts of bridges. The formidable Brooklyn Bridge, the covered bridges of Madison County, the Minneapolis bridge that famously collapsed last year, the fog-shrouded Golden Gate connecting San Francisco with Marin County, the world's highest suspension bridge over the Colorado River. Just last week, I crossed Iowa's modest freeway bridges over the North Skunk and the Middle Raccoon (or was it the South Skunk and the North Racoon? I can't recall.) Those last bridges I crossed out of love – traveling to and from my son's college graduation.

Bridges exemplify the fundamental shift that occurs in passing over from one place to another. And this is the thing about bridges. The best don't just allow you passage, they sometimes give you moments to pause, reflect and relate. The best are all about relationships.

My new favorite bridge, the Pont St. Louis, straddles the islands in the Seine called the Ile de la Cite and the Ile Saint Louis, upon which sits Notre Dame. The bridge is tiny. Just a bit of an arched segment less than a hundred meters long. History likes this spot; a bridge has occupied this place for a thousand years.

Every person who comes to Paris walks across this bridge. It is full of multi-nation strollers and Czech jugglers, struggling artists and American jazz musicians performing for thrown Francs. It holds tourists peering at maps held upside down and iPod-toting teens sizing another digital shot of the backside of Notre Dame. Confused Japanese tourists puzzle on it and German travelers argue there. People dine at the sidewalk cafes and Brasseries that border it. Children do somersaults and dance to the music on it. Twilight lovers stroll hand-in-hand. My family waited on it for me to return from a Left Bank forage on the St. Germain and the Rive Gauche. As I crossed the Pont Arch toward them from the Left Bank booksellers, I observed them, people-watching, patient. My people. This bridge is like them – human and alive and connected with MY life.

Another day while on the Pont St. Louis I wrote for a bit. I found myself musing that someone must have written a book called Islands in the Seine. Then I realized that I had mixed this thought with Ernest Hemmingway's Islands in the Sun. But he wrote in Paris, so we know he crossed this way too!

The artist Paul Klee traveled to Paris in 1912 and famously observed that “a line is a dot that takes a walk.” I like to think that that walk also crossed this bridge. Many of us have days when we feel like the smallest, most insignificant dot on the planet. If we consider that our place in time is moving and changing as we change, then what each of us is, really, is a line. Yes, there's a beginning. And an end. But our mark is bigger than that dot. And oh, the bridges we can cross....that magnificent, wandering line of our lives!

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra