April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain./ Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.” –T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Well, Eliot certainly had a point about April. I mean I am an English teacher, after all, so I get it: The reawakening Spring brings takes us out of the comfortable hibernation of Winter. It represents promise unfulfilled, reminds us that complacency stultifies us. I could go on, and since I haven’t taught for about four weeks now, my inner English teacher is dying to pontificate. But I will spare you all. (It’s okay to look relieved!)
So, literary analysis aside, I must say if I’m to pick a cruel time of year, I choose Summer, and in particular July.
I hate July. It’s ungodly hot; I stepped outside yesterday, and the “breeze” felt like a burst from a heater. It’s barren: Nothing is in bloom; the grass dies off from too little rain. What rain arrives is accompanied by storms that invariably knock out the power. (My power went out three times today; I’ve given up setting my clocks.) Even the water in swimming pools becomes too hot to be refreshing.
Making matters more maddening, I’m a teacher, so this is my one full month of freedom. Nothing April can throw at me can top the cruel irony of having the most awful month of the year as my month off. And, yes, I heard myself. I know some people would sell a kidney to have more than a week a year off.
What’s that? Oh, yes. You’re right; August is just as infernally hot. So why pick on poor July especially? Well, there are a few reasons. First, in July cooler temperatures seem so remote that I daren’t even hope to feel that frisson of delight that a slight chill in the air brings with its promise of Holidays, Christmas carols, and the magic of snow. In August, the leaves have actually begun to turn in the highest elevations, so they provide a visual reminder that the heat will break, and they add beauty to the landscape; in July, it seems hopeless. Mostly, though, I’m so irritated by meaningless fireworks.
Now, I am not unpatriotic, nor do I dislike fireworks. In fact, the nearby amusement park (Dollywood) has a beautiful fireworks display every night in the summer that I can see from my front yard, and I step out and watch it almost every night and watch in awe as light precedes sound in proof that physics is awesomely cool! I still know the Preamble to the Constitution, which I learned from Schoolhouse Rock. (Yes, I’m that old.) I appreciate that my freedoms as an American allow me to write whatever I want here without fear of government retribution. I tear up when I hear a beautiful version of “America the Beautiful” or “The Star Spangled Banner.”
What irritates me about these July fireworks in particular is the fact that people in subdivisions all around me are exploiting and abusing the Fourth of July as an excuse to blow something up and make a lot of noise. Now, this may seem like an assumption I cannot support, but bear me out. These personal fireworks start every year several days before July 4 and don’t usually end until near August 1. Further, the people setting off fireworks in my subdivision can see a much more beautiful display just by stepping out into their yards–without the danger of blowing off their fingers or setting anything on fire (a real risk right now while everything is so dry and flame-ready). HERE is a perfect cartoon to illustrate my point, but since I’m without a paycheck until September, I’ll just have to refer you there. Yes, I realize this is awkward, but the cartoon is absolutely on point. I’d be happy to purchase it in a more fiscally fit time of year. It’s that good.
The only thing really accomplished by setting off fireworks in close quarters to one’s neighbors is diminishing a sense of community, weakening the bonds that unite us. I know I feel no sense of oneness with my neighbors when I try to go to sleep at 11:00 on July 9 while they shoot off fireworks. They obviously feel no sense of community because their actions demonstrate disregard for their neighbors. People using fireworks to celebrate July 4th use them on the 4th of July.
Gathering together to celebrate the greatness of America with the grandeur of a beautiful fireworks display can enhance our sense of community, especially if we remember that we are actually celebrating the birth of our country on July 4. What I wonder, though, is how many of the people I heard (incessantly) setting off fireworks last few nights know the words to the Preamble, which song is actually the National Anthem, or could pass the citizenship test if they had to. How about you? Did you do something patriotic on July 4 to remember the sacrifices that were made to create this great nation? Or did you “Celebrate the independence of your nation by blowing up a small part of it“? (The Simpsons, “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” Season 7, episode 25).
If my English teacher self may be allowed to re-surface for a moment, let’s return to Eliot’s The Waste Land. It is a very dense work, certainly not constrained by a simple interpretation. Eliot was, however, clearly lamenting the breakdown of society. John Cooper in T.S. Eliot and the Politics of Voice: The Argument of “The Waste Land” stated that the poem “reflect[s] the breakdown of an historical, social, and cultural order battered by violent forces operating under the name of modernity” (Modern American Poetry). I wonder what Eliot would think about how the celebration of the birth of the nation has been co-opted as an excuse to blow something up?
By the way, if you are interested in The Waste Land, the above website is a fabulous resource.