The full animality of the body looms in the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer. Thriving, for anything other than vegetable matter (and bugs), I believe, is impossible. Striving, too. Everything goes slack; ‘effort-ing’ is pointless, resistance futile and there’s a great sense of (rather unpleasant) melting that comes over many of us.
No-one would tell you that the season is without its charms – but as exhausted as we mostly are, the simpler, the better. One desires, above all, relief and refreshment, to be transported to more pleasant, airier climes. We do not want this humiliation, being reminded of our human condition so rudely. But here we are: human. And, being human, escape comes via the gifts of imagination and story. We cross from the vividly-hued, hulking, hot, sensory bodies to the cool softnesses of the skies, greys and blues and pinks, pale watery colours, and nights with silvery streams of story easing our plight.
We wake in the dark, the coolest part of the day, before dawn, and take a slow walk, say, to gardens, along jasmine scented paths, green air hanging heavily, to contemplate beside ponds filled with lotus blossoms, as the sky turns rosy, listening quietly for that opening ‘pop’, the sound of a lotus blooming. The sound of a heart opening.
(Even the cicadas hold silence for this!)
Poems are woven for the gods at this time of year and hung onto ‘Wish Trees’, tall stalks of bamboo. Bamboo, of course, because it is a reliably strong yet flexible thread between the terrestrial and celestial worlds. It grows tall and is sure to reach the heavens, enter the current of breezes and deliver our messages to the gods.You don’t have to write to send your message to the gods; everyone gets to send their prayers heavenward. The weavers hang colourful streamers on the bamboo, remembering the Goddess Weaver, a heavenly princess; the fisher-folk hang gossamer threads reminiscent of their nets, hoping for good catches. Some hang little origami bags wishing for prosperity; some, paper cranes hoping for longevity.
For our entertainments we recall ancient aristocrats sitting beside small streams, wind-chimes tinkling intermittently to mimic the water flowing over rocks. Gazing at the stars stories are told, poetry is written, saké is sipped. There’s one night of the summer, the seventh day of the seventh month, that is especially powerful. On this night brushes sweep hearts lightly loaded with ink ground and mixed with dew collected from a lotus leaf into poems elegantly written on coloured paper. Amid laughter, I hear, each poem-a prayer, a wish, a gratitude-is tied to a tall stalk of bamboo which is propped up and left outdoors as the party wobbles its merry way home.
On the seventh day of the seventh month we remember the story of the Milky Way and the star-crossed lovers. There are two main variants of the story. The classic and better known one  concerns a working girl who begins to feel lonely and her father, worrying for her, finds her a mate. Married life is an absolute hoot and, alas, the duties of the couple go by the wayside – no more fine cloth from her and his cows are all over the place! Daddy is displeased and, as King of the Heavens, is sufficiently annoyed that he decides to separate the two—across the Milky Way. Lots of tears ensue. He is persuaded to soften his stance (a little) and agrees to let the lovers meet once a year provided all is in order with the world. This is all well and good except that crossing the Milky Way is no small feat. For one thing, a bridge is needed. When Princess discovers this lack she makes such a racket with her crying that some sympathetic feathered allies, magpies, arrive and make a bridge with their wings so that the lovers can meet.
The second (and new-to-me version)  reminded me of the selkie stories of the Celts. It concerns a young farmer who lies about finding a gorgeous robe but who promises to help the beautiful woman (a goddess!) to look for it. They fall in love, but then she finds out that he has lied and cannot stay. For him to make it up to her she instructs him to weave a thousand straw sandals and bury them under a bamboo grove. Filled with remorse, he sets about the task and when, after a long, long time he finishes, he shimmies up the bamboo only to find that he’d lost count of the sandals, made only 999, and is now one step short of heaven. He calls out to the goddess who gives him a hand and helps him over. Then he comes nose to nose with her father who, none too pleased to see him, sets him a test: watching the melon patch for three days. (No touching.) He fails. The lovers are forever separated when the melon he touches, splits open and out spills the Milky Way. As in the classic story, the father’s heart does not stay hardened and one day a year permission is granted for a reunion between the lovers.
All these decorated trees make me think of Christmas. Being from the Southern Hemisphere, yes, I am used to Christmas falling near midsummer. The Tanabata stories bear resonance of the Edenic myth, separation and the longing that attends it; the folly that causes it, the hunger for connection that proceeds it. The attitude of the father-king got my attention. His heart does not stay hardened; he is moved by emotion and he allows a day a year for the two lovers to meet again, but does nothing else: they have to work out how to actually make it happen. The first story shows how; the second stretches us further.
Perhaps, too, there is something about the (difficulty of the) crossing that reminds us of Christ’s story? Tanabata is a love-story; stars feature prominently; it centres on the desire to bring things together.
Summertime, the full force of the sun upon us, in the north, is a time of growth and meshing, of hopeful bridge-building, of opportunities for crossing over, and finding ways to reunite all number of things, not least the mind (Vega) and the body (Altair).
May it be so.
 Okumura Masanobu, Art Institute Chicago