May 1, 2016
I wake up and sit by the gas fire with a book. Eventually I go into the kitchen hoping that the oatmeal Diane cooked still has enough heat left in it to melt a pat of butter in the bottom of my bowl. I’ll eventually add a little bit of sugar and some milk. It’s a routine.
Isn’t it odd that the Roman god Janus looks backward to the old year and forward to the new one just at the dead of winter? Or maybe even a little bit before the absolute dead of winter, because psychologically at least it’s going to get worse and worse at least until sometime in February. Of course we all know that this routine is highly relative. That empty set of blog readers from the Southern Hemisphere is headed out to the beach when old Janus rouses himself from slumber to announce the transition from endings to beginnings, looking forward by also looking backward.
But I persist. Why isn’t May Day the beginning, and why isn’t the night of April 30 a time for drunken revels and recalling the days gone by? It seems fitting here in Michigan at least. We’ve rounded the corner even if was below 40° out this morning. Our farmers are smart enough to anticipate a few days of frost here in May, but they’ve also been smart enough to know that they can start getting the soil ready and putting things out a good six weeks or so before May Day rolls in. I probably should be fulfilling my contractual obligation to remind you that Cinco de Mayo is even closer at hand. It’s time to see if you can find the ingredients for some pico de gallo. But I think I’ll just stick with May Day itself this time around the old calendrical continuum.
There’s nothing totally arbitrary about arbitrary distinctions. We mark these junctures on the continuum with the comings and goings of Janus or Persephone for a reason. Maybe just to express the hope that the oatmeal is ready. No reason to be too deep. For some unimportant but not altogether arbitrary reason my friend Michael Eldridge came to mind while I was sitting by the fire. We miss Mike deeply, but I recall some remarks his wife Sue made at a memorial service. She said that his family never really understood what his work as a philosophy professor was about. The just loved him as a person. Well, we all did.
To illustrate her point Sue talked about how right before his death, Mike had been working on an essay. She looked at the file on his computer, which was called “Continuum”. When she read bits of the essay, she couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but if he was working on the continuum, it was probably important, she said. Well, I have a theory, because I had a file on my computer named “Continuum”, too. I could be wrong of course—Mike was and I am a falibilist. But I think Mike was working on his contribution to a collection of essays that was slated for Continuum Publishing. In such arbitrary coincidences great cultural misunderstandings are sometimes born.
So let’s just settle back here and think of May Day as a time for beginning. Since it’s cold outside in Michigan, let’s lift a cup of cheer and look back on auld lang syne. Let’s cook some black-eyed-peas and put on our Janus face as we think about the veggies that will be rolling in from Thornapple CSA before we can say ‘Jack Robinson.” Instead of quoting Robert Burns, let’s look to the Steve Miller Band (or maybe it’s Ben Sidran): Tomorrow’s come a long, long way to help you. Yes. It’s your saving grace.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University