posted by stephanie @ 9:43am one September, 2006
I celebrated my birthday yesterday. In my all of fifty-four years I never shake a feeling for summer in which my own birthday still signals a mystery chasing after the last light retreating into the carpe diem of summer’s fleeting shadow. My birthday, on the last day of August, gives rise to the image of something aetiological in the soul of the season in my reason and ways. That something, though I never really understood it during my youth, involves a retreat into matter and immanence, a darkening of light and a nocturnal setting.
As a school-aged tot during the 1950’s and as a member of a larger than average tribe of siblings (there were fifteen of us), my birthday served to emphasize a line of demarcation between play and learning. It marked an official end in summer. There always seemed something often disenchanting and distasteful about that in the mouths of my school-aged sibling chums. Thank heavens for the sweetness of birthday cake and ice cream to counter their dour claims. Even knowing three days later and suddenly into September would also move the landscape of my life into a new school year in which there was no escape, my birthday marked a moment in which a grand hurrah in nature and culture touched fingertip before real life. My birthday always seemed to me to be the monumental moment commemorating a turn through a remarkable and pourous bounty.
This morning the New York Times seems reminiscent of this theme. In the article from the Arts section, Last Call For Summer: Three Days Before Real Life Returns I am reminded that at this time of year “the back to work”, “back to school” mentality sets in. Everything summer closes for the season and the pace picks up. Here in Arizona school has already begun. No sooner started, it will break “for that one last hurrah.” The “hurrah” lasts three days. We call it a three day weekend or Labor Day.
The Labor Day of Culture marks a mythical labor day. This one belongs to summer herself. She is the mystery, at least, the astounding one. In ancient Greece the festival of summer was called Thesmophoria. In essence this festival is an autumn-sowing festival. It celebrates the fruits of labors and the enrichment and renewal of the humus or soil in which the new seeds of the next spring are sown. It celebrates through harvests of which there are three. The first happens early in summer when the long leaves of the corn and squash are still green. This is the fruit and vegetable season of our summer gardens and companion fruit trees. The second happens in late summer when the grains corn, wheat, barley, alfalfa, and rye are harvested. The final harvest is the nut harvest in November. We don’t think of this anymore, not since 1882. That is because we are not an agrarian based culture anymore.
Both labors, however, are about celebrating how we provide and are provided nourishment, the sacrifices we make, the kinds of losses we endure now to make it better for our families when times get tougher and yes, even death enters the picture as part of the content of our celebration of summer. Perhaps, especially death.
The Thesmophoria had as its offerings a fresh flesh. Women would create a cereal paste in the shape of a pig and carry this down into the earth in offering to the spirits of life and death. The women were the carriers of the thesmoi. The image is one of offering life back to itself; the grain-paste in the shape of the flesh of the fecund animal imitates the living matter of life, living psyche as immanence in matter. They would bring this into the chasm or megara along with seeds and fir-cones and actual pieces of pig flesh. Pig flesh signifies the prolific and fast-growing aspect of the fecund nature in all psyche as in all nature. They would bring something out, too. Something rotten.
Because this something operates in a ritualized sphere, this rotting nature is somehow holy or sanctified or maybe the best word is “sacred.” And, this is the mystery, in part. Even something in decay is venerable and honorable and reminds the dignity and fruitfulness of life even in the presence of its putrefactions and though its day is done.
What this celebration bespeaks is the reappearance and the remembrance of the absence of light. More than anything else, humus, the black earth, reminds us both of the tangible and visible body as well as the negative capability of nothingness where even light does not penetrate. Somehow this image complex takes hold and celebrates a mystery. The mystery is consciousness. That is what is being celebrated over and over. And, that is what I am celebrating today with you. My birthday was yesterday. Happy Birthday to you!