By Todd R. Nelson
Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is acome unto day,
And whither we are going we all will unite,
In the merry morning of May.
The old Padstow Carol augurs many things. A traditional May Day song from the English villages of yore, it invites us to gather together at a certain time of year to dance, sing and hope: that spring rains have worked their alchemy on the roots of winter, that crops will flourish, that our labors will produce bounty, that the village will thrive.
The English farmers who created the Morris dances and May pole traditions that are still followed in many communities lived according to a time and rhythm that was quite different from our own — but we are their heirs. You could feel it when our first- and second-graders did their Mummers play earlier this month.
Schools are some of the last places in contemporary society where the village rituals and agrarian calendar persist, at least as an echo of olden times. Whereas in ages past, our fellowship would focus on commerce and land stewardship, we now celebrate the life of learning and way marks of childhood. Quaint, charming, fitting and time-honored. So, here in the “merry morning of May” what have we planted? What will we reap? What time is it?
“Time is a dimension like any other,” writes Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker, “fixed and defined down to its tiniest increments: millennia to microseconds, eons to quartz oscillations. Yet the data rarely matches our reality.”
In other words, the experience of time is not a universally acknowledged constant, regardless of GMT, EST, atomic clocks, and digital devices. Not all cultures measure time with clocks! A superficial inquiry unearths a few things to consider. There is a geography of time, psychological time, biological time and event time. There is wait time and meeting time. Time to mind, and minds to time. Games are played in pastoral time (baseball, cricket, bowling, tennis) and regulation time (football, basketball, soccer). And there is Japanese time: “The Japanese are ‘connoisseurs’ of time,” says Pico Iyer. “They package time and turn the bumpy chaos of successive moments into an elegy as beautiful as art.’”
If you ask a preschooler for their definition of time, some amazing concepts flourish. It tends to be attached to doing something. Time isn’t an abstraction it’s an action. “It means it’s time to be finished with your picture,” a preschooler once told me. “When it’s time to leave.” Or, “Day time, meeting area time, snack time,” says another. In the larger culture, time tends to be a line. It unfurls as the crow flies, from A to B, young to old, season to season, hour to hour. But there are other ways of expressing it that might be worth considering: a spiral, a thought, an immersion, or the oscillation of a preschooler awaiting snack time.
At this time of year, with summertime just over the horizon, I recommend joining Huckleberry Finn on his raft. Every time I read the following paragraph, I slow down, breathe more deeply, and hear anew the sound of waves lapping the bow. Time — or its inversion — eddies around the words and sentences and background gurgles and textures.
“You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft…. Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid day-times; soon as night was most gone, we stopped navigating and tied up nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cotton-woods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound, anywheres — perfectly still — just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe.”
Frog-time, as a preschooler might think of it. Raft time. A child of yore would share Huck’s sentiments and appreciation of the textures of a float downstream on a raft. We have the anecdotal research to suggest that time spent foraging for the best berry patches, fishing spots, fairy gardens, and even hours spent plying the waters of local ponds, was a great predictor of creative, ingenious, fulfilled human beings passing formative years in play. In part, this is due to a different declination of time, and I propose a new name for it in the annals of cultural anthropology: mytho-time. These are the activities of minutes and hours not counted in minutes and hours, the passage of discoveries and accomplishments of the hand, heart and soul, not the external tick-tock that regiments so much of modern life. It’s the languorous turn of the page in a summer book, and the internal passage from questioning to synthesizing to knowing — and knowing that you know. It is painting at the easel-time, or woodworking time, or meandering in the woods time. It is immersion in thought and feeling and observing that is timeless time. This kind of time is of the essence of things.
These are the senses of time as celebrated in the Padstow Carol — a season of the heart, as well as planting; a feeling of unity and collectivity; a toe-tapping dance to a tempo that is felt in the sinews and pastoral lyric, not solely the metronome. What time is it? It’s the merry morning of May, where we unite with our deeper selves, and the possibilities of once and future childhoods. Could this be our time, “mighty free and easy and comfortable?” elastic and adaptive; pastoral, harvest, planting time! Elysian, not elegiac…unless in search for les temps perdu?
Todd R Nelson is principal of Brooksville Elementary School.