Monday, May 18, 2015

May Day, Downtown Flower Baskets, and Social Connections

Did you celebrate May Day this year? Odds are that you didn't.

For one, May Day is now associated with not only the Americanized version of an ancient pagan (sometimes Christianized) holiday that is celebrated under many names across the world, but in the late 19th century May Day was also chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day. Since 2006 May Day has been a day of protest in the U.S., largely around immigration reform.

The ancient practice of celebrating May Day is tied the Festival of Flora, honoring the Roman goddess of flowers, also to the Walpurgis Night in Germanic countries, and the Gaelic Beltane celebrations to acknowledge the coming of summer.

I’m not sure I've ever really celebrated May Day. No May baskets and no dancing around the May pole. If anything, I've been more engaged in the more modern expressions of May Day as they relate to worker’s rights and immigration reform. Mostly on May 1st, I’m looking to see how many games out of first place the Mariners are already.

Just after May 1st this year, a friend told me a funny story.

As a family they assembled some May Day baskets and set out to leaving them on their neighbor’s front steps. However, their younger kids got a little confused, and after ringing the door bell, they had a flash back to Halloween and instead of running they just stood there and offered the May basket.

The neighbors were very confused. As their dog was barking crazily, they awkwardly accepted the basket, looking more annoyed then delighted. The parent had to say “It’s a May Basket, you know, for May Day”.

We Americans are prepared for strangers to come to our door on Halloween, but outside of that, the only people who knock randomly on our doors are religious missionaries, occasionally politicians, or someone doing a survey.

In the community organizing work that I do, going door to door is a primary strategy for groups trying to build social cohesion and connections in their neighborhoods. However, it scares a lot of people to begin with. An uninvited knock at the door, is always first met with suspicion and annoyance in most cases. Heck, we are even put out when people we know (family included) drop by unannounced.

As I was thinking about all of this, I began to remember some of the crazy kinds of merriment that have accompanied May Day celebrations all over the world.

They include things like a naked viewing of the sunset followed by a naked procession with torches to a location where a huge party ensues. In all cases, the celebrations are communal in nature – bringing friends together yes, but also strangers - to dance, to sing, to eat and drink, and to take in the beauty of the season.

Just this May Day, my partner Holly celebrated by gathering with friends and strangers and to hula hoop and to dance around a May pole that was lit on fire! Now, that’s the way to do it!

It has all reminded me that the most important thing in community development work is social connection. As much as people talk about the freeze in the Northwest, certainly more so in Seattle then Tacoma, we have so many opportunities in these coming months to thaw and connect with one another. In the coming weeks I’ll be writing about and highlighting many of those opportunities.

It’s always this time of year that I notice the flower baskets go up in downtown Tacoma. The BIA (in partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma), does their version of May baskets and the floral hues and shapes add to the life and color of our downtown corridor.

So maybe you don’t do May baskets, but you also don’t have to wait for the festivals and events that others plan to connect with your neighbors – you can do your own thing.

I was reminded of the housewarming party we threw in a communal living home we used to live in. Sure, we invited our friends, but we also invited all of our neighbors, and our friends invited some of their friends.

What ensued was an amazing party and a group of diverse people gathered, who didn't even realize all of the connections they had. You might realize that the people living around you, are more curious about you then you realize, and having and exploring the curiosity we have about one another is key to building community.

We just moved into a new place a few months back. We haven’t even really met all of the folks who live in our building. Our plan is to throw a little happy hour and dessert and to invite all of the folks in our building. Sure, my social anxiety kicks in a little bit, but my curiosity and my belief that knowing these folks (even a little bit) will add to the quality of life for all of us – wins out.

May baskets are great. Dancing around a May pole that is lit on fire sounds exotic and exciting. The summer festivals around Tacoma are a treat. The flower baskets in downtown add to my aesthetic pleasure of the community.

As the poet Mary Oliver says “We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it”. That is true, beauty often begets more beauty. Like the writer and ever quotable G.K. Chesterton said, “People didn't love Rome because she was beautiful, she was beautiful because people loved her.”

Still, beauty is even more beautiful when we celebrate it with new friends - with one who was once a stranger, but is no longer so.

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