May 1, 2019
Today is May Day. When I was a kid, we came home from school on May Day and my mother would have placed vases of flowers in our rooms. Flowers in my house were not just decorative, they were expensive and my mom bought them only for the most special occasions, milestones important enough to make the trip to the florist. The transition into spring was such an event. The first warm day. The day when spring is really here, not just a few tentative crocuses but blossoms bursting on every tree, brief harbingers of the green leafy summer to come.
My mother gave flowers to us, we gave brightly colored cone shaped baskets filled with popcorn and candy to friends. We dashed from door to door leaving our tiny gifts hanging on knobs and tucked in screens. Valentines Day mixed with Halloween and sunshine! Spring was the home stretch. Just a few more weeks of school and then we could play all day.
The history of May Day is complicated. Most ancient civilizations had a way of marking the passage from winter. The British Isles are well known for symbolic fertility rituals accompanied with adorned alters, purifying fires and literal reenactments of the God and Goddess coming together. Ribbons hanging from trees, sacrifices, lots of dancing, these wild parties seemed devilish to the Christian armies as they marched through Europe. So they draped theology around traditions and replaced them with festivals about Saints and the Virgin Mary, obscuring the older stories. Our Puritan ancestors banned everything – Pagan or Catholic – associated with Spring celebrations. In more recent history May 1st is also International Workers Day, rooted in socialism and now representative of continued efforts for labor rights and equality throughout the world. Again the US chooses not to align, moving our Labor Day as far away in the calendar as possible.
And yet school children are still running around the neighborhood with paper baskets. People still jump into cold lakes, burn wicker figures, and protest against injustice. There is something deep in our humanity that responds to warming weather more like plants and animals, the tame unravels, the mind drifts, and we desperately want to be outside.
When we lived in Japan, we went to a cherry blossom festival. There were huge crowds, spreading elaborate picnics, everyone talking and marveling at the falling “snow” of petals. My little boys held out their hands and caught pink flakes that did not melt, but drifted on their clothes and around their feet, teasing with the look of winter and the smell and feel of spring. It was a true party in the spirit of ancient times. People ventured out of their warm houses and met together without the shivering rush to get back inside, lingering, chatting, looking at the swirl of blossoms, beautiful and brief, discussing the ethereal nature of life.
Sitting here at my desk, looking out a window, with stacks of tidy, organized expectations all around me, I am dreaming of dancing with wild abandon, marching in a parade, painting myself blue and finding a partner, planting my hopes in the dark, rich earth and watching them grow into new realities. I think back to my mother’s flowers, an unusual gift, a radical act in her own small way, bringing life where there was just a waiting desk.