Monday, February 2, 2009

Happy Groundhog Day!

Let me say it again: Happy Groundhog Day!

I can't remember which came first, my love of Groundhog Day or the movie. Groundhog Day is one of my personal holidays. I liked it because it involved an animal and being outside and considering the weather. I liked it because it came after the official holidays, namely the behemoths known as Christmas and New Year's. Those holidays for me have traditionally involved a storm of unhappiness. Finally it was over! In the wave of relief, I'd feel a tiny urge to celebrate....

I woke up this morning to the radio telling me that the groundhogs had delivered their reports. Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow and says there will be six more weeks of winter. Staten Island Chuck did not see his shadow, so apparently the metropolitan area can look forward to a rapid spring.

Like everything else, Groundhog Day has been complicated for me over the years! Do I hope for a shadow or not? Is winter really so bad? Don't we want things to function on some old natural schedule? I fear the crazy days of global warming, when the thermometer might rise to 90 degrees in March, and then there may be a frost, and all the premature flowers will droop, and the insects will be out of sync...And spring itself: the sooner it starts, the sooner it will have passed. I love spring, the changing light, the rising noise of the birds, the green shoots. In the last years of her life, my mother used to remark: "Ah, Spring. It never disappoints...."

When I was a kid, holidays seemed something fixed and permanent. There seemed no way to escape Christmas, even if we didn't believe in it. Groundhog Day offered the whiff of another possibility! You could create your own festivity--even if you sometimes felt lonely and out of step, even if defying the established routines was what it was all about. Over time, I've come to realize that all holidays are created ones. I like equinoxes because they have some actually link to a natural phenomenon. I kind of like the Super Bowl because we've all just kind of taken to it, adopted it as a time to come together as friends and family, even if we hate football, even if we have come to loathe most of what it stands for.

Almost any time that people show any spontaneous interest in something, there is a giant commerce machine that steps in to urge them on. We're probably all missing the commerce machine about now, but really, was Halloween always like that? Phil--or generations of creatures labeled Phil--keeps Punxatawney on the map. If not for Chuck, how often would you think of the Staten Island Zoo? But on the whole, and for the moment, the marketing potential of this wonderful, rodent-centered occasion remains untapped.

Years ago, when I went to witness groundhog festivities at a zoo, I was shocked to realize--even though I should have known better--that the groundhog came out in a cage and was released for a photo op. He looked confused; I don't think he saw much besides cameras. It seemed quite clear to me that the matter of whether he saw his shadow or not had been determined in advance. I felt sad. This didn't seem like nature at all. What had I been thinking, that we'd all stand around on some grassy knoll and simply hope that the groundhog came out?

Later, I got talking to one of the keepers. If I remember correctly, and maybe I don't, he said that sometimes he took it home and it padded around and slept on the couch. That wasn't anything you were supposed to be doing with animals in a zoo. But at least he loved the groundhog, and that made me feel better.

There are some things in life that come again and again, and the joy lies in that. If I remember Groundhog Day the movie correctly, Bill Murray does the same over and over until he gets it right. Life repeats until he just surrenders to it, something like that. If you Google "Groundhog Day movie Buddhism," you get something like 61,000 hits. So if I say Happy Groundhog Day, you know there's a very good chance I'll say it again.

Happy Groundhog Day!

Groundhogs (with Meryl Streep!)

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