Beltane and Bread and Roses

“As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
–from James Oppenheim poem ‘Bread and Roses’

The two words ‘May Day’ evoke dual images – folks gleefully dancing around a maypole, and workers striking in the street. These are not dualities in the sense that they are opposites forever in conflict. These are simply the images of today – both downplayed in the U.S. where fertility holidays have been absorbed by the Easter rabbit, and the idea of agitating for workers rights are considered a relic of a bygone era. But these are both images, and sorts of celebrations I claim today. I herald the budding flowers and the protest sign. I welcome rainy spring days, and the leafleter. I want my bread, and my roses.

Growing up in a social justice Catholic family religion and community involvement was forever intertwined. Admittedly at the pulpit of our family church there wasn’t a lot of talk about workers rights, or equality. At home though, my Mom (a CCD teacher), my Grandmother (played organ on Sundays), and my uncle (a cantor and shop steward), Jesus’ good works and union organizing were invoked with the same sense of nuance, and reverence. Granted some of this was self-care, my union family members helped my family overall do better (aunts and uncles paid for clothes and food for me and siblings during the lean years) but it was seen as a way to collectively help a community of workers. Many protests I have attended have been joyful – with dance, and celebration, and at times a religious experience.

May Day/Beltane has never been a holiday I have sought out group ritual for. Perhaps the symbolism of the Maypole has just been too obvious for me, but my connection to this holiday’s reverence for fertility and sexuality has been a slow evolution. Honestly I need for it to be a bit more than heteronormative versions of fertility, and the occasional dick joke. I don’t want it to be somber, or without joy – but it needs to be immersive in a way that speaks to me. What then, is this holiday to me in the religious capacity?

During my run where rain still clung to the trees, and I could hear the gutters rushing with the overflow of last night’s flash flood I thought about the lush greenery around me – how the chirp of the bird and the slow sunrise are all too often squandered. As my calves ached and my feet pounded against the road I realized I had left my pedometer home and laughed at my internal complaint that I wouldn’t be ‘getting credit’ for all of these steps. I plodded on, and once home – sweaty and sore – I stretched then sat in meditation breathing in the further stillness I try to begin each day with.

Some work is joyous – and full of fertility in its own ways. The glory of a new seedling breaking soil, the beauty of art performed live, the taste of warm bread on your tongue. So much work goes into each of those moments, and not all of that work is treated equally. The field worker who is barely paid (and often stripped of rights), the artist who has to work 3 jobs just to afford the luxury to create, the baker who works at a non-union shop because all of the union grocery stores were pushed out of town.

What work, and who’s work do I choose to honor? What do I call work? While fighting for a more equitable society will I fall into the trap that work can only be valued if it is paid, or logged/recognized in some formal fashion? How can I hold both of these truths – people deserve a living wage for their work, and our work is not made valid by the dollars associated with it?

On my altar this evening I will have bread and roses- to honor the sustenance and beauty that should make up both of our lives. How will you honor these things today?

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