May is the month of beginnings, and beauty, and beatitude. It has always been this way. The obvious reason unfolds outside the window: fresh leaves, plum blossoms, grass stretching toward the sun. May’s attributes are too long to list – the lilac, with its heady fragrance; bobbing red tulips; rhododendrons and apple blossoms and flowering pear, on and on, but May rests in the simple and subtle as well. The unfolding of a petal; the maple leaf that, unfurled, hangs low in its newness, as though weighted down by dew.
I remember discovering Emerson and Whitman in May, their birth months, but maybe I am exaggerating. I read them in June and July and August too, but nothing quite compared to lying on the grass with Leaves of Grass in my lap, or leafing through Emerson’s essays under a canopy of new leaves.
I have been considering my life as a sort of natural history. To that end I recently combed through my journals and transcribed all the natural description, hoping to find some magical moment when the atmospheric became symbolic, when I saw the world as metaphor, as Thoreau did in Walden. And I found some Mays that were dark and rainy, and some even stormy; but mostly May overpowered me with her perfume, her explosions of color, her possibility.
Dusky sky is heavy with overpowering scents of apple blossoms, lilacs, forsythias, I wrote one year, noting the soft, syrupy air, a few days later finding springtime lushness, fragile, delicate flowers, the cherry, dogwood and elm. Finally, I decided, Moderation is heady enough.
May has many meanings. It is a word of permission. Yes, you may walk out into the world now, feel grass on your bare feet, follow the bees’ buzz. My old Webster’s describes the verb as “liberty; opportunity; permission; possibility.” May is a door ajar, a reopened ice-cream stand, a forest path.
In its most archaic meaning, May was a substitute for maiden. It is a woman’s name, and I gave it to the grandmother in my first novel, Roberta’s Woods: May, so like Mary, my real grandmother’s name, and a tribute to her.
The name derives from the Roman goddess Maia, who fathered a son by Zeus. One of the seven sisters (the Pleiades that appear in May’s night sky), she is Arcadian, a mountain nymph, which is why May seems like a sylvan month, of forest glades and dirt paths and greening meadows; not a month of the sea, it is more green than blue, more earth than water.
June was cluttered with holidays, bookended by my sister Andi’s birthday on the fifth and my grandmother’s on the 30th, with Father’s Day in between. June was graduations and end-of-year picnics and trips to the beach. Summer already seemed too short, demanding lists and plans to capture it all.
But May had only Memorial Day. I would accompany my grandmother to the cemetery, bringing our potted plants of geranium and pansy and petunia. Along the grassy lanes, she would stop at my sister Mary Jane’s grave, weeping for the granddaughter gone too soon, and that of her own daughter Sylvia, the baby who never grew up. I would feel tugged between the pull of Mays past and the lush explosion of the present, with its intoxicating lilacs and fresh-cut grass, my attention divided between my grandmother’s gentle sniffling and the shirtless boy pushing a lawn mower.
Let April be cruel, with Eliot’s evocative rains, and October stun us with fruitful Keatsian displays, but May in her quiet way always gets to me. May is the anticipation of summer, rather than its sandy, gritty, sun-blistering reality. May is the reality of spring, which never disappoints, even under cloud. May is the romantic poets of England – Wordsworth’s “splendor in the grass” – and their transgressive American counterparts – Whitman’s “spear of summer grass,” what the child demanded to be defined, what the poet could only guess at.
Like moderation, each May is heady enough, more than enough, for one soul to experience in a lifetime.