In, My Poets, Maureen McClane writes (in the beginning of a lovely essay on Bishop and Stein) that, “Depression is much worse in the summer, the sun gloats.”
A few weeks ago, while driving from Oakland to Los Angeles, I felt this gloating quite searingly. I was on the five, traveling along the Western edge of a brown and dying Central Valley. The hills around me looked so gold and thirsty it was like looking at sand. In this monotone horizon, the sun was everywhere: shining against the tops of passing cars, making wavy, mirage-like shimmers in the air, scorching the grass even more with every passing moment. Less than two hours into my journey, the skin on my left arm became so hot I could feel a burn coming on. I ran out of water and began to feel light headed. I pulled over at a rest stop and closed my eyes and blasted the A/C and hated myself for letting the pushy, bullying, unable-to-avoid sun win.
The despair hasn’t left since I returned home, worsened, even, by the 100 degree plus temperatures that have plagued Los Angeles this past week. Almost every day I look at the mountains while driving to work and feel irrationally angry the sun shines so brightly on them. When I get home, I lay on my bedroom floor and stare at the undersides of leaves out my window and wish I was just a shadow self, not something that can feel heat. I’ve begun to dream of living underground, of being somewhere cold and damp, and of course, not being seen. I only want to don large, shapeless dresses. I relish wearing my sunglasses into restaurants and stores. I love feeling less visible. I love my dark lenses dimming the brightness of the world.
In an attempt to make sense of this new emotional state, I’ve turned to paltry attempts at research. According to The Golden Bough, during times of heat and drought, some ancient civilizations were known to give up on magic and religion entirely and turn to deep fury: “being far too angry to waste their breath in prayer, they seek by threats and curses, or even downright physical force, to export the waters of heave from the super-natural being who has, so to say, cut them off at the main.”
This resonates, though for selfish reasons. While California is, of course, in a massive drought, my life has not changed as drastically as a 500 B.C. Chinese farmer’s would have under the same climate conditions. Still, their is something of a comfort in knowing that my (new) enemy, heat, has been causing actual strife for centuries.
I’ve also discovered a litany of facts about the sun— it’s size (massive with a surface area of 11,990 times the earth’s); it’s age (4.5 billion years); that it, too, will eventually decline (of course only after it gobbles the earth and all other planets in its wake). I’ve researched heatwaves, too. Apparently in 1936, during a record-breaking temperature highs in the Midwest, grasshoppers, cooked alive, began to fall out of trees. To a passerby on the sidewalk, it would have been as if little corpses were falling from the heavens.
Unfortunately, this new knowledge has yet to erase my ennui. Perhaps because I can’t stop thinking about the opening of Atonement, which takes place during a day of unbearable hotness, when Mrs. Tallis describes her late mother’s belief that girls and women should stay inside when it’s hot because morals are loosened in the summer. I envision young Victorian women wilting like flowers in their un-air-conditioned family estates. And, of course, when they did go outside, I can’t help but think how hot they must have been in long, heavy dresses, ribs smashed together by a contraption made of whale bones.
The one thing I’ve come to admire about what must have been, for them at least, a very uncomfortable existence are their beautiful hats. Until this past summer, I always assumed those elaborate head pieces were lovely, but only more evidence of a society obsessed with strict beauty ideals, with whiteness and purity. But maybe they also had a secondary purpose, as a place for their wearers to hide under on days when the sun’s arrogant gloat (and the privilege of the men around them, allowed to roam freely) was too relentless not to find shelter beneath a wide straw brim. Though I enjoy rights those women never could have dreamed of, I, too, long for a respite (however small) from these days of a heat so pervasive it’s begun to feel both uncomfortably warm and uncomfortably personal.