Farewell to Summer: Remembering (But Not Cherishing) Our Summer in Abaddon

The Sounds of Summer Have Been Protests and Ennui, but Don’t Stop Listening.

Ian Olson / 8.31.20

What do you hear when you listen to this summer? Disappointment? Demonstration? Cancellation? Awkward exchanges between grocery staff and people who refuse to wear a mask? The basic ingredients of a summer to remember, right?

This summer hasn’t gone the way any of us imagine summer should, and all of us have had to salvage whatever refreshment and recuperation we could squeeze out of the fabric of this strange, strange time. Most of us yearned for the release of summer break to resuscitate us out of the pall of those first couple months of quarantine but instead found mostly the same. The sounds of summer have primarily been protests, furor, and ennui.

Don’t stop listening, though. Don’t tune out the outside world entirely, as ugly as it often is these days. Take care of yourself and guard your sanity, but imprint this summer on the vinyl of your heart. 

“Listening is a relation, between a sensitive organism and a sound,” Roger Scruton writes. “But it can take at least two forms: listening for the sake of information, and listening for its own sake” (The Aesthetics of Music, 218). Other creatures may listen to the calls and songs and threats of the organisms around them, to the glissando of the wind or the trickling or rushing of water and even derive a certain satisfaction from them, but humans are the creatures who hear these things as music, who pattern music after the sounds of the world and in doing so frame the world’s processes within the story they tell about themselves. Listening for its own sake is listening to the world’s time unfold, hearing this moment as the successor to the last and an anticipation of the moment to come, and grasping that there is a whole of which these are all a part.

We are the creatures who reflect upon our own time and discover something new within what is past, something that was there but incomprehensible prior to our reflection. We relive the past in miniature and in the reliving either equip ourselves for the yet-to-come or try to flee it. 

What did the songs of the summer of COVID-19 depict? Various fruits: banana time, watermelon sugar highs. Self-aggrandizement amidst incomprehension: “I’m a savage / Classy, bougie, ratchet / Sassy, moody, nasty / Acting stupid, what’s happening?” Blinding lights, fodder for TikTok dance challenges: good vibes. And hey, we’ll take them.

But another litany of summer songs from other years capture other sentiments that also ring true. “This ain’t the Garden of Eden / And this ain’t the Summer of Love” (Blue Öyster Cult). “Remember the summer in Abaddon” (Pinback). “Our summer had a violence / Our summer had a sunlight in my eyes” (Geographer). “Why are we all so alone here? / All we need is a little more hope / A little more joy / All we need is a little more light / A little less weight / A little more freedom” (A Silver Mt. Zion). 

Why would we commit this summer to memory? Or any other uncomfortable, painful time? Commenting on the emotional valence of the blues, Ralph Ellison observes:

The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. (Living with Music, 103)

When it comes to memories, sometimes you keep them alive because of that sick drive to be in pain (after all, feeling anything is pleasurable, even feeling bad). But you also maintain them in order to reach understanding, since you know your story is always in the process of being written by more authors than simply yourself. You save the memory because you recognize, however imperfectly, there’s still more to be found here. It may hurt, but this time cannot be allowed to fade into the abyss of forgetting.

Grasping a thing’s significance is almost always retrospective. Rarely do we take hold of a thing or experience something and immediately comprehend the weight of its meaning.

What story is being told in our present-becoming-future? We might hope that it’s one of slumbering justice awakening, or of a pandemic dissipating, but as of yet we have no assurance that either story will be true at the time of telling. Other stories will draw upon this summer to tell of a brave defense of law and order and the rescuing of the economy. The only way to deflate a lie is to narrate what actually happened, what it actually was like. Stories swirl around us every day, along with songs of how things were, how things ought to be, how things will be. Our souls feel tugged in a thousand different directions as we identify with them. It’s okay to be drawn out of this moment for a spell, but we can’t lose the plot, the one we typically only recognize in the rearview mirror. But when people inevitably portray this time as something other than what it was, the resources of our resistance will come out of our remembering it.

The disciples regularly witnessed things that stuck in their memory, the fuller meaning of which only came after Jesus’s resurrection (cf. Jn 2:22). Christian faith is a historical faith, not only because our faith is anchored in God becoming human in history, but because that faith opens up the possibility of right now being more than it appears. It doesn’t promise us a key to unlock the exhaustive meaning of everything on our timetable, but it does invite us to ponder the things that are happening, as Mary did (Lk 2:19). The point is not to conquer life, the universe, and everything with the stories we build. The point is to pay attention to how our story slots into the drama of God’s mission to rescue his image-bearers from death and meaninglessness.

So don’t waste your energy trying to shoo away the summer of 2020; it will fade as all other seasons do. Instead, remember the summer of your discontent in Abaddon. Store up what it was like and keep your memory honest. Remember how it felt, hold on to what happened, and carry it into the future of God’s eternal summer.