Due to a plumbing emergency this week, I found myself out in my front yard two mornings in a row. My neighbor Joe was doing the fixing part under the house, and I was there helping by periodically handing him a tool or a rag when he yelled for one. The rest of the time, I could either wait idly listening to him grunt and curse, or find something else to do.
How fortunate for me, then, to live in a place where there are literally five things that need doing per square yard. The whole “lawn,” if you can call it that, would be best served by being ripped up, graded, and re-made with fresh sod. But since that is not in the budget for this year, I entertained myself during those hours this week by preparing to mow.
Yes, that’s right: preparing to mow. This is what you do when generations of wild mustard, weird pokey hedge plants, thistles, and other valuable members of the biosphere have ensconced themselves in the place where you would like to dance, barefoot, around a maypole in a couple months time. You fetch a trowel and a wheelbarrow and dig up the offending yet essentially blameless plants before you mow their little heads off. Because if you just rip into the “lawn” with a mower at this point, you will end up at Beltane with a field of sharp, menacing, but invisible little demons tormenting your guests, and no one will have very much fun dancing.
Joe of course thought I was insane. “If you want, I could just bring my weed whacker over here and do this whole thing. No problem.” He was trying to be friendly and neighborly, and to suggest in a non-threatening way that it was stupid to pull out your whole worthless lawn piece by piece when any decent weed whacker could do the job in a half an hour. I tried to explain to him that no, I had a lawn mower and was indeed going to mow it myself, but only after I’d completely removed the really obnoxious (from a human-centered standpoint) plants.
I mostly wanted Joe to fix the leaky pipes under my house, so didn’t want to go into the whole explanation of, “Well you see, I’m a Pagan, and we celebrate seasonal festivals such as Spring Equinox, which is today incidentally, and Beltane, also known as May Day. And on that day I’m going to have lots of friends over and we’re going to put that maypole up that’s lying over on that pile of wood. Yes, but we’ll take the old ribbons off of it and put new ribbons on, and then we’ll put it in this hole that’s still here from last year, and all the little kids will have their shoes off, you see, and we’ll have music playing…”
Launching into any part of that narrative would have meant a long, no doubt fruitful discussion, but one that was tangential to the more urgent task of fixing the plumbing. So I thanked him but politely declined his offer, and went back to pulling out wild mustard plants, unperturbed by knowing that for the moment my neighbor thought I was a bit daft. Yet such are the choices we make when we decide to cast our lot with developing place-based rituals.
I love hosting May Day at my house every year. I particularly like the mixture of witches and neighbors, family, friends, and friends of friends that show up each year. It is an unorthodox mix, and my Beltane rituals are decidedly unorthodox: casual, with no obvious ritual gear save for some smudge and a long wooden pole. We make it as beautiful as we can with freshly picked flowers and colorful ribbons, put it up in the middle of the yard, set an intention for our dancing, say a blessing, cue the musicians, and bring in the May.
In my opinion, that and some good food are all that is required to satisfactorily celebrate the beginning of summer. The circle casts itself with the dance, and the desired outcome is always achieved: sharing joy and celebrating the Earth’s beauty. I used to be worried that the mix of people wouldn’t work, that my kids’ friends’ parents would get strange, my neighbors would shun me, my new friends wouldn’t fit in with my old friends, etc. But year by year I’ve realized what a waste of energy that is. Almost everybody loves dancing around a maypole, and those that don’t generally enjoy watching other people do it. So it all works out in the end, and for weeks afterward I can look out my front window at the beautifully woven maypole in my yard.
Cultivating a seasonal ritual on your property takes a lot of work, though. Mostly it takes reminding yourself, as this week reminded me, that preparations for Beltane begin on the Equinox. The festival is not a single day, but a full season (or half-season) leading up to a single day. During that season we need to pay attention, heed the signs, and prepare in ways large and small for what will be, however informal it may seem on the surface, the sacred act of turning the wheel of the year.
This week I completed several essential tasks; next week I will do more, and still more in the weeks to come. Closer to the day, I will invite Joe and his wife and a few other neighbors to come over and join us. It is my way to invite people to the party and save the long discussions for later, after they’ve met my friends, seen me in action, and experienced the magic of a maypole dance. Because in the long run, it’s not what we believe or what we say but who we are and how we live our lives that makes a difference. And that ability to build bridges, to change perceptions and forge alliances, is easily worth a few weeks of toil each year, especially now that the plumbing is fixed.