The first of May always brings joy. Spring begins to really deliver and the earth is at her best. Even the word, May—may I?—is gracious. As if the year is asking if it may proceed, into June, and then into fruitful summer.
May 1st is Beltane, rooted in the early earth religions of the British Isles, Beltane celebrates the earth coming into her fullest power, fertility. It’s lusty, sexual—when human, animal and planetary potential come into conception. Bel was the word for good, and tane meant fire, so to wish someone a good Beltane is to say, ‘ave a good fire.’ Bonfires were lit to honor the sun and barely clothed people danced around them. Dancing around the maypole is descended from those pagan celebrations.
May 1st is also International Workers Day which many of us think of as a day celebrated in places like Cuba or Soviet Russia. But May 1st as a day to celebrate workers was born here in the US and dates back to the 1880s.
Workers were fighting to improve conditions in factories, mills and machine shops, where 16 hour days were not uncommon. The fight was for an 8 hour workday. At a labor convention, a proclamation was declared that, and I quote: “eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886. And, on that day in Chicago, Illinois, over 400,000 workers walked out and thus the 8 hour workday was born.
Many of us have been self-quarantined or sheltering in place. Quarantine, from the Italian, quaranta, meaning 40, because the first instance of quarantine lasted 40 days. We’ve just passed that milestone, what happens when quarantine goes past the 40 day mark?
It hasn’t been a quarantine for all of us. There’s a strike today, workers from Amazon, Target, Whole Foods, Instacart, Trader Joe’s—who’ve been asked to work through all of this--are walking off the job. I’m sure folks are happy to have a job but they’ve also been put in a really difficult position.
This morning on Twitter I saw a photo that was captioned, ‘here is a picture of America today.’ Taken from behind one of those platformed pedicure chairs, the picture captured the arm and hand of a woman sitting in the chair and the manicurist squatting before her, covered in plastic, with a shower cap, mask, goggles and plastic over her head. However, both of their hands were uncovered, and the manicurist had a small buffer she was using to work on the clients’ nails.
Our economy cries out to be restarted, we’re told we can’t afford to keep this shutdown going on for much longer—and yet, who will pay for reopening? Workers.
This week marked the point in all this that the other shoe dropped for me. I was talking to my mom who’s out in California. I’ve been ordering groceries for her from Instacart, which has been really helpful. She’s alone in a house she needs to sell, and she’s impatient to get it on the market, to downsize, which always makes me think someone is going to be shrunk.
“I really need to sell it,” she said, “but I guess I can’t do anything about that now,”
There was a pause, and the reality of her situation came into focus. I’m the person who was sort of driving this move, to get her out of her house.
“Mom, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get back there again.”
“Yes,” she said, “I was thinking that.”
Another pause, and then the reality of my situation came into focus. I’m not getting on a plane anytime soon. I’m not even getting on a bus to the city. I’m not going anywhere.
“Well, will you be coming out here to do Secret City?” she asked.
“I don’t know, mom.”
For 40 years, my life’s work has been to make live performance. But, who’s going to want to sit in a theater once we start venturing out of the house? What do you do when your work can’t be done? Create different work, I guess, if you’re able. Harder to be done for people who rely on factories, offices, companies they work for.
These daily shows aren’t so much escapes from the horrors of the daily news, as much as they are a place to step aside for a moment, see if we can find inspiration, meaning, even, in this crisis.
For those of us who are in quarantine, whatever that looks like for you and to whatever degree, I’d like to inspire you to not shop online today, to not order from Amazon, to not go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, to wait to make that instacart order. Whatever our work may be, let’s help other workers live better lives. Let’s all give them the gift of inspiration, to step aside for a moment, to feel a creative spark, to see their own lives and this situation from a different angle.
I hope you’ll join me in what I’m going to consider the making of a massive piece of celebratory theater. Collaborators in making a collective performance about May 1st, 2020, and workers, where we’re all playing our part.