presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois on May 1, 2016
The opening words are from Camelot:
It’s May! It’s May!
The lusty month of May.
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.
It’s here! It’s here!
That shocking time of year.
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.
It’s May! It’s May!
The month of great dismay.
When all the world is brimming with fun,
Wholesome or un.
It’s mad! It’s gay!
A libelous display!
Those dreary vows that everyone takes,
Everyone makes divine mistakes
In the lusty month of May.
(by Henry David Thoreau)
Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?
We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.
I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.
I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.
I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear.
Nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.
I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
If it proves to be mean, then to get to the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.
Or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.
I want you to imagine that you are two years old, and running is something you have just recently gotten good at.
All the energy that someday will animate a big clunky adult body is already in you right now. It's been compressed down into a tiny package, and you’re just bursting with it.
Adults are always so tired and slow. They plop down into a chair or a couch and it seems so hard for them to move. But for you, it’s hard not to move. There’s so much energy in you, you just can’t bottle it up. So you run.
You’re not going anywhere, you’re not racing anybody, you’re just running. You run out to the fence and then run back. You chase the cat. You run around the swing set and then run around it again.
Do you know how amazing running is? Running changes the wind. The day can be perfectly still, but you run and suddenly there is wind in your face and your hair lifts off your ears and streams out behind you.
And there’s one more thing you can try that just might work. You’ve seen older kids do it and it looks so unbelievable: You could jump.
Jumping is like running, but you don’t put a foot down to catch yourself. You get going really fast, and then you just pick your feet up and let yourself be in the air.
You’ve tried it before and it hasn’t worked, you screwed the timing up or something. But that was days ago, when you were practically still a baby. You’re faster now, and this time maybe you can do it.
So you go to the top of that little incline and start running down. You push it harder than you ever have before, and when you think you just can’t go any faster you give one last push and pick up your feet.
You’re in the air.
It probably doesn’t look like much to anyone else. You don’t get very high. You don’t go very far. But for one timeless instant you are off the ground, touching nothing but air.
It’s like flying.
Arguing with that spirit of May and Thoreau's ambition to suck the marrow out of life
is the belief that a truly enlightened person, someone of broad vision, would know that it’s all pointless.
That child who runs in circles is, after all, running in circles. She’s not getting anywhere, and her feeling that what she’s doing is intensely meaningful and important is just one of those illusions that people are prone to.
To this mindset, what it means to grow up and get educated is that you expand your scale of reference beyond your self-centered frame; maybe all the way out to the Infinite and the Eternal. And when you do that, you inevitably see the sheer insignificance
of anything human beings might ever achieve.
Shelley expressed that nihilistic view in his poem Ozymandias.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
But the curmudgeonly statement that has had the most influence in Western culture comes from the Bible. According to tradition, the Book of Ecclesiastes was the last thing written by Solomon, the wisest of the kings of Israel.
“All is vanity,” he says, and it is foolish to think you are going to accomplish something that will last. Because the scale of the universe is utterly beyond you.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes,
and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down and hurries to the place where it rises again. The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing or the ear filled with hearing. What has been will be, and what has been done is what will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has already been in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.
Ecclesiastes is the voice of the old man who has seen it all and done it all and lived long enough to realize that it was all pointless. He pursued every possible pleasure, acquired every kind of possession, built great works, ruled over a kingdom.
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind.
Even then, you might think: Oh, but reaching that place of grand perspective — that must have been satisfying. Solomon denies us even that consolation.
This also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
When Ellen asked me to speak on May 1st, I warned her that the first word of the talk might be: Comrades!
Because Mayday is famous as the holiday of revolution. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union would hold huge Mayday parades in Red Square, demonstrations of military might
that promised the eventual triumph of the workers’ revolution over capitalist oppression.
But the connection between Mayday and the workers' struggle actually predates the Soviets. Here in the United States in 1885, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions threatened a general strike across the country if the 8-hour day didn’t become standard by May 1st.
The unions weren't really strong enough to pull off a nationwide strike, but some large cities did see several days of strikes and marches. In Chicago, a confrontation with police response became the Haymarket Riot, for which several labor organizers were sentenced to death. In subsequent years, the American labor movement held demonstrations on Mayday to honor the martyrs of Haymarket. The European socialist community, and eventually the Russians, picked it up from us.
But as the opening words reflected, Mayday celebrations predate the labor movement too. They go all the way back to the pagan festival of Beltane.
Beltane is the holiday of rising energy, and falls halfway between spring equinox and summer solstice. In the British Isles, where I think the growing season
runs a few weeks behind what we see here in central Illinois, Beltane marked the beginning of the season of generativity, the lusty month of May.
Beltane is a celebration of potential. In the same way that the meditation envisioned all the energy of an adult body compressed inside a two-year-old who just has to run, at Beltane the lushness and bounty of July and August and September is imagined as already existing in the Earth, waiting to explode into manifestation through these tiny sprouts and buds.
To quote another show tune, by the end of the lusty month of May, June will be busting out all over. Because all the ram-sheep and the ewe-sheep are determined there’ll be new sheep.
And so on Beltane, a maiden would be crowned Queen of the May, and would lead her village in raising a Maypole, (which is basically just a giant phallus), to remind everybody that, yeah, it’s that time of year.
It’s time to renew your fire — literally. Communities kindled a central bonfire, and households extinguished all their hearths and stoves and candles to relight them from the new flame. People would ritually walk between fires or jump over fires.
Young couples would have sex in the fields, partly to participate in the energy of the season, and partly as sympathetic magic, to make sure the plants were getting the right idea: It’s time to be fruitful and multiply.
Independent of Haymarket or any other anniversaries, it makes a certain symbolic sense that Mayday becomes the holiday of revolution. In the same way that a farmer might see the crops of the fall already existing as potential in the sprouts and buds of May, a 19th-century revolutionary might look at the discontented miners, the secret workers’ study groups, and the fledgling union organizing committees, and see the sprouts and buds
of a fully realized socialist society, where working people would not just make a subsistence wage, but would enjoy all the fruits of their labor.
Society might only have made it to May, but the imagination of a revolutionary can see August and September and October, when everything comes to fruition. All the energy needed to make that happen is already here, if we could only channel it and rise up.
Mayday is also the holiday of adolescence and first love, of the May Queen and her partners in the dance. When we use the calendar to symbolize a lifetime, May represents the adolescent. In the same way that the shoots and buds of May are ready to burst out into every kind of grain and fruit and flower, adolescents are ready to burst out into every kind of role and profession. Just as physical energy wells up inside toddlers, emotional energy and sexual energy and social energy wells up in adolescents, yearning to erupt into the world and become something.
Adolescence is a time of almost pure potential, neither anchored by manifestation nor disillusioned by experience. Nothing has happened yet, but everything seems possible,
even things that appear impractical to their more prudent elders.
Two and a half centuries ago, Adam Smith observed, “The contempt of risk, and the presumptuous hope of success, are in no period of life more active than at the age at which young people choose their professions.”
If I’m 17, I could still rule the world someday, or I could fail totally and be a complete nonentity. Day to day, and sometimes even hour to hour, an adolescent’s expectations can swing from one extreme to the other.
That unfulfilled potential is also the source of young people’s enviable resilience. A teen-ager’s dreams can crash and burnin a way that would be devastating in middle age. But in a week or two there can be new dreams, because the energy of life just keeps rising up, and it has to go somewhere.
But what about those of uswho aren’t in the May of our lives? What should Mayday or Beltane mean to us?
In a few months I’m going to turn 60, which puts me in the October of life. By October, the harvest might not all be gathered in yet, but you can pretty well see the shape of it. All around me, friends are retiring, or retired already, or bringing their careers in for a landing. Friends who raised children have seen those children graduate, and maybe even marry and have children of their own. If I'm hearing someone's plans for bigger and better things than they’ve ever done before, I'm probably talking to one of those children I watched grow up, and not to anyone my own age.
Physically, the late 50s are a period of decline. So, for example, I still go out for runs. But not with the idea that I’m going to go faster or further than ever before. Instead, I’m just trying to hang on to my vitality as long as I can. I run cautiously, with my medical insurance card in my pocket, in case I injure myself. I’ve gotten very far away from that two-year-old who runs just for the thrill of running.
By your late 50s, the rituals of Beltane have lost a lot of their appeal. Jumping over a bonfire seems like an unnecessary risk. And even the fantasy of sex in the fields sounds inconvenient and probably uncomfortable.
But getting older isn't the only reason a person may not feel like celebrating a season of unbridled potential and explosive growth. At any age, the future might not be filling you with anticipation. Maybe, instead, you’re facing defeat or recovering from failure or grieving for someone you’ve lost. Maybe the bright green cheerfulness of May doesn’t excite you, so much asit mocks your lack of excitement.
Yes, energy is rising out there in the world, but what has that got to do with me?
At such times, it is tempting to echo the curmudgeonly attitude of Ecclesiastes: Yeah, I tried all those things that people get so whipped up about, and I was even good at some of it, but now I’ve risen above all that. I’ve gotten wise enough to see that it was all pointless.
The child runs for the thrill of feeling the wind in her hair, and the old man says, “Vanity, vanity. It’s all just chasing the wind.” What does it matter than I ran and I jumped? That I ate good food and saw beautiful sunsets? That I built things or made things or owned things? That I read thick books and thought grand thoughts? The wind continues to blow this way and that, the rivers never manage to fill up the sea, and there is no new thing under the sun, or at least nothing that anybody will remember after a generation or two.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
But while I was preparing for this talk I re-read Ecclesiastes. (It’s short, you can do it in one sitting.) And this time, Solomon (or whoever the author really was) seemed to have a different message for me. He wasn’t trying to beat down my hopes or disparage my drive.
Instead, he was warning me not to try to justify my life through some external result. Because ultimately, the result of life is death. And if I think I can rise above that biological reality by getting rich or becoming famous or writing a book or building a company or even founding a dynasty, in the long run it’s not going to work. Because sooner or later the deserts return and the sands cover whatever we make.
Life is not a story where things work out in the end; in the end we die, and so does everybody we teach or help or influence. So the place where life needs to work out is in the middle. The point of life has to be in the living of it.
This time, Ecclesiastes wasn’t telling me to rise above life and all the silly things people do. Quite the opposite, it was saying that the two-year-old has it right. It’s fine to imagine
that you’re running to somewhere and that something wonderful will happen when you get there. But the best reason to run is for the joy of running.
Now, this point of view has gotten the reputation of being immature or unsophisticated. The sophisticated point of view is supposed to be that of the pessimist or the cynic.
But I think that’s because we describe it badly. The examples we usually give are like the one I just used: the two-year-old, the innocent. In the archetypes of the Tarot, the card that represents the joy of life is the Fool, who is happily striding towards the edge of a cliff.
Or we say “Eat, drink, and be merry” — something else sophisticated curmudgeons can feel superior to: Just indulge your animal desires, because if you thought about things at all, you’d realize that life is pointless and you’d get depressed. The attempt to enjoy life on the terms that it offers is sometimes portrayed as denial, like the partiers in “The Masque of the Red Death” who dance ever more frantically the clearer it becomes that something is horribly wrong.
But the physical pleasures of motion or consumption just symbolize the joy of life; they aren’t the whole story. In fact, there is no pinnacle of cold wisdom that rises above joy the way that an icy mountaintop rises above the treeline. Life-affirming experiences are possible at every level of consciousness. So on this holiday that celebrates possibilities, let’s recall a few of them.
Just as you can identify with your body and completely submerge yourself in whatever is happening physically, you can also identify with the role you’re playing, and for a period of time you can just be that role. For a moment or an hour or an afternoon, you just are a teacher or a healer or a friend. Sometimes doing the right thing, fighting for justice or uncovering the truth can give you a feeling of being exactly where you’re supposed to be, independent of how things ultimately work out.
Maybe you’re doing something entirely mundane, something you’ve done a thousand times before. You’re a plumber looking for a leak or a carpenter framing a house or a chef making a sauce, but you lose yourself in the activity, and for a while that’s all you need. Or maybe this moment is special. You are the father of the bride, or the grandmother who has brought the family back together for one perfect Thanksgiving.
Just as you can run for the joy of running, you can also think for the joy of thinking. Maybe you’re making the breakthrough that completes the Grand Theory of Everything or maybe you’re just working on the Sudoku puzzle in The Herald Whig. But you experience your mind in motion and it feels good.
Sometimes you can even blow your mind. Two or three ideas you’d always kept in their own little boxes turn out to be related, and suddenly a vast new landscape stretches out in front of you, and you have no idea how far it goes. The intricacy of the Universe is just more wonderful than you had ever imagined.
There are epiphanies of beauty. Sometimes you find them in the natural world when you look out at a sunset or up at the stars or down into a microscope. Sometimes you find them in the arts, when a painting or a sculpture hits you just right. Or you listen to a poem or a song or symphony for the hundredth time, but this time you really hear it. Such moments don’t have to mean something or lead anywhere. They just are.
There are mystical epiphanies, when you see the world in a grain of sand and discover that you love it, when you have compassion for every being that suffers, or when you make contact with a grace so enormous that it forgives everything.
And if you believe the mystics, they have maps of human experiences that keep on going from there. To tell the truth, I have no clue what some of those higher spheres or upper chakras are supposed to do. But those who claim to have experienced them describe them as bliss. There is no wisdom so advanced or enlightenment so grand, that all the joy of living is now beneath you.
So those of us who might have trouble identifying with May right now, whether because of physical decline or some other reason, if we refuse to become curmudgeons, if we refuse to use Mayday as an excuse to look down on these foolish teen-agers with all their dancing and flirting and impractical ambitions, how should we celebrate the holiday of rising energy?
I suggest that we take a broader view of what the season represents and what it might mean to us. There is a virtuous cycle, in which the energy of life rises up in you and through you. And if it manages to express itself as joy, a circuit gets completed that draws up new energy.
There are times when that process seems so easy. Energy becomes joy becomes energy,
round and round, as if it were happening on its own and didn’t require your attention at all.
But yes, there are other times, when energy and joy will not come to you no matter how loudly you call. You go through the motions of the activities that used to invoke the joy of life, but nothing happens. Poetry is boring and puzzle-solving is drudgery and every role you know feels like a trap you can never escape from. Sometimes your compassion is burned out, and even good food just makes you nauseous.
Eat, drink, and be merry indeed! As if things were just that simple.
And if someone suggests that a life-affirming experience is supposed to be available here ... that just increases the frustration and anger and despair that comes from not finding it.
One sunny day a year or so before he died, I picked my father up at Sunset Home and drove him out to the farm my grandfather bought almost a century ago, the one my father grew up on and still owned and had worked for most of his life. We looked at the fields, the crops, and the machinery, and he seemed to enjoy himself. But the next time I offered he didn’t want to go. He said it would just remind him of all the things he couldn’t do any more.
So how should we celebrate the holiday of rising energy if our own energies aren't rising? Perhaps Mayday could be a time of taking stock. Where does joy still manifest in our lives, and how can we help that process along?
It may not be happening where we’ve been expecting it, in the places where we used to find it. In a time of decline or defeat or depression, Mayday can be a reminder to search the garden of life for the shoots and buds it still produces, in whatever odd places they might be.
Socrates, when he was old and had lost his trial and was waiting in prison for his death sentence to be carried out, found himself drawn to write poetry for the first time in his life. Who would have predicted?
Those little shoots and buds, those tiny ways that small amounts of joy still enter your life, may seem unimportant, even trivial. But they are the offer Life is making, an indication of the energy it still wants to invest. And energy can become joy and draw up new energy. Small as they seem, if you nurture them, they could grow. Any tiny spark could be the beginning of new fire.
These tiny sprouts, these little flames, they may not bear comparison now or ever to what we’ve seen in the past. And they may look like nothing when viewed from the perspective of Eternity.
But they are what they are. And what they are is a sign that Life is not done with us yet. That, I believe, is worth celebrating.
The closing words are from Ecclesiastes, because after all that discouraging talk about vanity and chasing the wind, the author does not advise us to lay down and die. Quite the opposite:
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your insubstantial life.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might.