The first of May was seen as a time of fertility and regeneration in cultures as far back as those of Babylonia and Sumer. In these cultures, Mayday marked the end of the barren winter and was an occasion for popular, often raucous celebration. The night before, logs were burned in order to bring life to the burgeoning springtime sun. The next day, trees were carried from house to house, decorated with flowers or stripped of their branches and made into Maypoles wrapped in brightly colored ribbons for celebrants to dance around. As an essential part of these Mayday rituals, trees were seen as the embodiment of the life force and a symbol of the spirit of regeneration. That the tree was such an integral part of the celebration seems particularly fitting, as its very presence – its branches stretching up toward the sky, its roots dug deep into the earth – is a perfect visual manifestation of the celebration of life.
The act of celebrating – whether the solitary act of placing a flower on a table or under a tree to honor a special moment, or the more collective act of joining a larger group to sing, dance and make merry – is uniquely human and provides a vehicle for the expression of joy and the connection to something larger. This urge to celebrate is as natural to human beings as the urge to love, and the coming together in an expression of collective joy has been an integral part of human activity as far back as the beginning of recorded history. But in recent years, with the rise of technology, the frantic pace of modern life, the diminishing contact with the natural world, our impulse to celebrate is gradually being lost – and with it, an important part of our human heritage.
At a time that is fraught with pressure, conflict, bad news, it is more important than ever to take time to celebrate, whether with others or by yourself. So on this first day of May, take a moment to pause in honor of the spirit of celebration, the majesty of trees and the ancient ritual of Mayday. Pick a quiet place in a room of your house, on deck outside or in your yard, where you can spend a few moments undisturbed. Stand comfortably, your feet inches apart, your arms loosely at your sides. Soften your gaze, looking in front of you and slightly down. Begin to focus on your breath, breathing gently in and out. As you breathe, feel your feet firmly on the ground as if you were a fruit-bearing tree your roots stretching deep into the earth. As you breathe in, feel the energy move up from the ground, through your feet, your legs, your trunk and bursting out your head, as if coming into bloom. As you breathe out imagine gathering energy from the sun and letting it flow down through your body, your feet, and into the ground. Repeat this two more times. As you breathe in, feel a joyous energy rising up and blossoming at the tip of your head. As you breathe out, feel the energy of the universe flowing down through your body into the ground.
Next, return your attention to the stance where your feet are a few inches apart, your arms at your side, your gaze ahead and slightly down. As you breathe in, slowly raise your arms to the side, making an arc upward until they are stretching above your head. As your arms rise, let your gaze follow, until your eyes, like your head are raised up toward the sky. Feel your feet rooted in the earth. Feel your own life energy moving up through your body and flowing out your fingers. Feel this posture as a celebration of life. Stand for a few seconds like this. Then bring your hands together over your head and down in front of your chest, your palms touching, your fingers together in a prayer-like gesture. Slowly bend your torso forward at the waist, your palms together and rotating down until your fingers are pointing toward your feet. Bend down until their tips are close to the ground. Pause for a moment, breathing slowly in and out, then begin to rise, your arms moving to the side, your body straightening, until you are back to your initial pose, erect, your feet firmly on the ground, your arms loosely at your side. Repeat this whole movement two more times. As you raise your arms above your head, imagine you are a giant redwood reaching toward the sun. As your hands come together and begin to lower, imagine your fingers as the tips of branches taking the light and moisture from the air, down through your body into roots in the ground. Feel the sap rising up, the moisture flowing down.
In doing these movements, know that at any moment of the day you can take time to feel the sap of celebration flowing through you. At any time you can make any person, place, or living being, an object to be honored, any occasion a cause for celebration. Alone, you can do something as simple as putting a rock or shell on a windowsill in memory of someone you love, or as complex as building a sculpture of driftwood to honor the day. Joining with others, you can sit quietly together in silent reverence or come together in ecstatic dance. There are an infinite number of ways to celebrate. On this first day of May, discover your own.
As I write, three celebratory images come to mind. One is an image of my three-year-old twin grandsons greeting a friend of mine for the first time. Having just finished their nightly bath, their little naked bodies were still pink and glistening. As my friend and I came through the front door they studied my friend for a moment, then registering “new person”, they broke into dance, each leaping, twisting, plunging in his own unique style – a slightly African beat to one, a Gaelic lilt to the other. Watching them receive this unfamiliar person, they reminded me of pictures I’ve seen where whole villages dance out of fields and huts to welcome the new visitor. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that this particular welcoming response is inborn.
The second is an image from a weekend my son put on in New York City, honoring the original dancers from Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom (the first integrated dance hall in the US), with young performers and musicians whose work had been influenced by them coming to pay tribute. On the night of the main dinner event, the honorees arrived decked out in rhinestone jackets, feathered hats, long dresses and elegant shimmering suits – some in wheelchairs, some with walkers and canes, some shuffling along on the arm of a companion. Coming from all over the country, they greeted each other with shrieks and hoots, incredulous that they were together again after so many years. At the end of the evening after the last performers had finished, the great old dancers were brought to the front of the hall beneath the band. As they bowed to enthusiastic applause, the band started up. Rising up out of wheelchairs, putting aside their walkers and canes, they paired up. Aged men took elderly women by the hand and slowly, haltingly, they began to dance. As the music took hold, they quickened their pace, their movements became more limber, their bodies came back to life, and for a few fleeting moments they were back at their beloved Savoy Ballroom – slipping, sliding, swinging to the dances they knew so well. Looking on, I was overcome by feeling. Having been relegated to the backwaters and mostly forgotten, they were together again – their hardship, their pain, their joy, pouring out into dance. It said something to me of the resilience of spirit and the ties that endure – no matter what.
The third image is of a community of people I’m part of – gathered together on blankets and pillows under the branches of a spreading oak. For decades, this particular tree had been the central gathering place for the community. Weddings, birthday dances, fundraisers, tastings, formal dinners and countless workshops had taken place beneath its branches. It also provided sanctuary for those who came to it for solace or quiet time alone. Its aged branches spread out in a hundred foot circumference just above the ground and rose ninety feet up in a tangle of graceful twists and turns toward the sky. On special occasions, miniature white lights were draped through its branches, highlighting the graceful shape of its heavy branches and adding a magical cast to what was taking place.
On that particular night, all who had known and loved this special tree came together to honor its beauty and give testimony to its place in their lives. As we sat, the light of the setting sun slid along its branches, illuminating each branch for a few seconds then fading. Sitting in silence we watched it dim, as if the life force – once so strong – was departing bit by bit. As the sky darkened, we lit candles, turned on lanterns, and told stories of our relation to this tree – at times in laughter, at times in tears. At the end we lingered at its base, some leaving small offerings, some stroking its bark, some, leaning against it or wrapping their arms around. The next day, the oak – having developed an incurable and life-threatening fungus – was cut down.
Coming together as we did to celebrate its life, we were brought closer to each other and given memories that will linger on. Celebrations of this sort bring those who participate into a unique kind of kinship and express something that can’t be articulated about what it means to be alive. A reminder that at bottom, we are all intertwined – certainly a reason to celebrate.
Because celebration covers many different aspects of life, I have included a range of books in the list below.
DANCING IN THE STREETS; A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich. Drawing on a wealth of history and anthropology, Ehrenreich uncovers the deep origins of communal revelry in human biology and culture. She explores this human inclination from its origins through history, up to recent outbreaks of group revelry from the rock and roll explosion of the 1950’s and 60’s, to the “carnivalization” of sports events in the 1980’s and 90’s. Concluding that we are innately social beings impelled almost instinctively to share our joy, Ehrenreich writes, “My mission in this book is to speak seriously of the largely ignored and perhaps incommunicable thrill of the group deliberately united in joy and exaltation.”
AWAKENING JOY; Ten Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness by James Barez and Shoshona Alexander. This book is based on Barez’s successful Awakening Joy workshop. Each chapter consists of one step in Baraz’s ten-stop program and includes exercises and practical advice. It offers up a simple yet powerful message of hope based on the realization that joy already exists inside every one of us and only needs to be recognized, embraced and nurtured in order to grow to it’s full potential.
BEAUTY AND THE SOUL; The Extraordinary Power of Everyday Beauty to Heal Your Life by Piero Ferrucci. I include this book and one that follows because I believe that the act of recognizing and honoring beauty is an integral part of any celebration. In this book, Ferrucci posits that the expression and celebration of beauty is a genuine human need that keeps us healthy and happy. Ferrucci writes that “Beauty is not a distant satellite, but like a sun that gives light to all areas of our life . . . it is a primary principle that touches all parts of our being. It opens us to the world and brings harmony to our relation with others and with nature; it helps us reach out and touch the entire universe.”
WABI-SABI; For Aritist, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren. Kohn, an architect who lives in Pt Reyes California and produces books about design, describes first learning about Wabi Sabi in the late 1960’s in what he describes as a “youthful spiritual quest” that took him to Japan. Wabi Sabi is an ancient Japanese way of looking at life that celebrates the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. For the past five hundred years or so, Wabi Sabi has been closely linked to the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Kohn writes, “The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry . . . value can be created from life’s imperfections.”
REMARKABLE TREES OF THE WORLD by Thomas Pakenham. I include this book to demonstrate the many remarkable ways that nature celebrates and to provide examples of celebration for us all. Pakenham has spent decades investigating the lives of the world’s most dramatic trees. His odyssey took him to most of the temperate and many of the tropical regions of the worlds. Although North American trees dominate this book, Pakenham also trekked to remote regions in Mexico, all over Europe, parts of Asia including Japan, northern and southern Africa, Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand. This book, at $49, may be too expensive to buy. But I urge you to find it in a library. It is exquisite.
FINDING STILLNESS and CULTIVATING CREATIVITY are individually crafted, day-long retreats that take place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadows, oak, bay, redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. Consider giving a retreat to yourself or to someone you love. Learn lessons of celebration from nature; cultivate the spirit of celebration in yourself.