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  • Aarik Danielsen

Scenes from a Cruel Summer

On a late-summer Friday night, someone sets down a church within a church.


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play their psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs beneath an Illinois sky, vibrating the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. There, most days and some nights, nine Chicago Cubs play to make sense of angle, velocity, and spin, draft poems with muscle and reflex.


But this night, the sprawling band shakes out its linens, then spreads elements across the communion table. Springsteen croons with abiding conviction and fresh gravel in the throat, still believing for the rest of us. Nils Lofgren whirls himself through the clamor and choir his own guitar makes on “Because the Night.” Saxophonist Jake Clemons breathes out a testimony, the notes ringing across generations.


 

I recreate this scene, not to review the meaning of one night—or make too much of it, as I so easily do—but because it might pass as the only pure moment within the worst summer of my adult life.

 

Young women with sundress shoulders and middle-aged men in regrettable T-shirts all sing the same words, reflecting back a vision of beloved community to the band who first unleashed this nightfall daydream.


And the good people of Chicago light their windows like prayer candles, a high-rise cloud of witnesses assuring this assembly that everything we offer—our damning confessions and fumbled praises, the unnamed desires we sing out at the top of our lungs—is safe with them, for this night at least. Because the night belongs to us.


I recreate this scene, not to review the meaning of one night—or make too much of it, as I so easily do—but because it might pass as the only pure moment within the worst summer of my adult life.


Holding fast in second place, the summer of 2011. In that godawful season, my wife and I argued our way from Missouri to Mississippi, wrote a thin treaty lasting long enough to vouch for a wedding—and long enough for me to strum an oversized guitar on a Tupelo street—then argued every mile home.


Perhaps I prefer that summer because we suffered through, made our home on the other side. Maybe I never figured out how to be content with the season.


 
Every summer cracks open something in me—something summer alone could never heal.
 

Whenever June creases the calendar, sense memories alight and age 14 passes over me. Goosebumps from cool, conditioned air resurrect across each arm; from inside out again, the oh-so-modestly furtive charge of sneaking MTV, 60 to 90 seconds a pop, when my parents left the room.


In illicit moments, Janet Jackson introduced an alluring jazz, each breath and rest as beguiling as the notes she sang. Smashing Pumpkins painted with more color than the teenage imagination conjured before Beck taught me the new abstract expressionism. Nirvana hung itself on the cross impatient while Michael Stipe played John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord along a dead-end freeway.


Early MTV summers whispered and roared. Alongside blockbuster movies, black asphalt heat, and car-radio consolations, they formed a message: This is your time. In these three months of extra sun and fathomless night, make your own destiny.


No other season makes promises only you can keep.


Autumn beckons the body to burrow. With each visible breath and undressed tree, winter bids you come, see the world learning to die. And spring builds a cathedral, housing its grand revival service. Summer elevates you, places you in charge; its chords never resolve, never leave you alone. Maybe stronger hearts bear up under this. Not me.


So, yes, every summer cracks open something in me—something summer alone could never heal. But even a single, over-the-shoulder glance at this summer, at the fevered center of 2023, clarifies its place.


This summer of growing pains, hospital food, and back muscles stretched by callous beds. This summer, with whole weeks erased by memory loss and diagnoses like trap doors. This summer with basement couches and hungry, untouched limbs. This summer of flirting with deism and vacation interruptus (or whatever the Latin is for leaving Michigan a day early). This summer, it's sun soaking through like rain, and it's rain showing up at all the wrong times.


Each of these sentences deserves its own essay and each rejects the proposition, showing concern for other people, for their rights to their own summers. So I answer summer’s charge in one way at least—I keep the car running.


 
No one’s making sense of this summer in the next 200 words. But I know one truth—maybe just the one. Describing our scenes and seasons matters.
 

Taking the wheel on a late-summer Monday morning, two days past Chicago, I steer the car the best I know how, toward the horizon and some hazy future shape. But an endless present tense surrounds, parting just enough for me to drive through.


And the clouds rend themselves, in the near heavens as it is on Earth. An old Waterdeep song strains, setting the height and depth and width of divine love to music. Making peace between my five senses and whatever memory is seems more fraught than getting through Mississippi.


Let me pull over here, empty the contents of my sleeves. If I show you what I’m up to, you’ll probably shrug. No one’s making sense of this summer in the next 200 words. But I know one truth—maybe just the one. Describing our scenes and seasons matters.


There’s something sacred in the specifics, something to the fine print. A simple spell allows Bruce Springsteen to visit the Midwest and sing of both heaven and hell as neighborhoods in New Jersey. Something sets Jason Isbell free to tell about the rough timber “shipping out of Fond du Lac” even if you’ve never been there, of longing to be carried into the Alabama pines. He knows we take on the texture of our work, that days and nights will come when a body longs to be swallowed by the wildness of wherever it calls home.


And so I write my summer scenes and send them up to you like a flare, signal I’m alive. Maybe you read this and send your flare skyward too. Another and another come in time and the colors converge, no longer a series of SOS messages but a fireworks show. Hiss and smoke, arrows, and circles of light recreate the sky.


In this, a sure and vanishing response to all the doubt and disappointment: we will take a sliver of the season back, and we’ll do it together. Here, on one more late-summer night, we make our church.



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