As we shuffled through a field, arms full and starting to ache a bit, I had to chuckle. Clearly we have not gone to enough outdoor events as a family! I watched more seasoned event-goers stroll by with coolers on wheels and lightweight wagons pulling more than our arms could handle, and I grimaced as I saw a family ahead of us pass around a bottle of bug spray — one more necessity we’d left at home. We finally settled into our old, faded camp chairs, dropped a full-to-bursting lunch cooler on the ground, and looked around.
I didn’t bring books or electronics for my kids to pass the time between parking and launching our paper lanterns. Though my husband packed the sandwich fixings, chips, and cookies I’d bought for our picnic dinner, he didn’t think to bring paper plates. Or napkins. Or a knife for the full jar of mayo he fit into that cooler. I meant to change clothes into something cuter and cooler, but in the chaos of getting out the door, I climbed in the car wearing sweatpants and a stretched out t-shirt instead that I may have worn to bed the night before.
We were a mess (thankfully not a hot mess, as the weather had blessedly and unexpectedly cooled down that day), a bunch of festival-going rookies. And yet we managed to have a fantastic afternoon and evening.
My girls — who have spent much of the last six months bickering and competing with and antagonizing one another — kept themselves mostly content playing with a small, plastic lizard named Lizzie. For nearly four hours — FOUR HOURS! — they played together and danced a bit to the mediocre live music and generally chilled out. I still can’t get over it. Who were these children, and how long can I keep them?!
My husband — who works nights and sleeps days and is usually too tired for real conversation when we finally see each other’s faces on the weekends — sat next to me for those hours. And we talked and he didn’t roll his eyes when I made him pose for family selfies and I didn’t get too irritated about the missing paper plates, and we laughed together more than we had in weeks.
Sitting in that field for hours, we literally watched the time pass as we kept an eye on the sun (since the lantern launch couldn’t occur until sunset), but I also spent plenty of time people watching.
Families and friends and couples walked and sat around us, all of us in our own worlds but making up a kaleidoscope of colors and clothes and smells and smiles. People ate picnic dinners like us (some looking much more thoughtful and creative than ours), while others carried steaming baskets of food truck snacks. Some were singing [loudly!] along with the musicians on stage sent to distract us from the sun that hadn’t set, while others were engaged in card games, reading magazines (magazines! cards! why didn’t I think of these things?! #rookie), or taking selfies. I smiled as I watched couples on a date (one even came with a super fancy picnic basket), old friends catching up, and kids practicing cartwheels and showing off face paint, and I admired more than one flowy skirt or dress on women who remembered to change their clothes before heading to the festival.
Obviously, it wasn’t all flowers and unicorns. The girls got antsy more than once, and don’t even get me started on taking a four-year-old to the portable toilets. We may have regretted our budget-friendly sandwiches as we caught wafts of barbecue once or twice, and we probably shouldn’t talk about anything that happened — or was said — coming into or leaving the parking lot.
But for more than a few moments on that Saturday, life was good. And when we got to the main event of releasing paper lanterns into the sky, it got even better.
Every adult who purchased a ticket to the lights festival received a paper lantern. When the sun began to set, the event organizers took the stage to give us instructions. Suddenly I noticed hordes of volunteers lighting the torches that were stationed every four to six feet throughout the crowd, and I heard the announcer say we needed to wait, again, because the fire department hadn’t given us the go-ahead.
In an attempt to fill the time, the announcer said we were going to have a dance contest and invited all the kids to go up front to compete. Before they could even ask, I gave my kids a short and emphatic, “No way.” I felt frantic enough, keeping them from touching the fire-breathing torches surrounding us; I wasn’t about to let them walk out of my sight for a dance party. Sure enough, my mom instincts were confirmed when the announcer stopped the impromptu contest to say, “We have a missing girl!”
My heart lurched (but don’t think for a second that I didn’t turn to my kids and say, “SEE?!”), but within a minute I heard murmurs then shouts behind us.“We found her!” “Here she is!” “She’s coming!”
Like the wave in a baseball stadium, the message rippled through the crowd, row by row, until the parents were notified and the family was reunited. Just like that, problem solved by some real-life crowd-sourcing.
What seemed like an eternity later (but was only a few minutes, I’m sure), the wind died down and the fire department gave us the okay to launch our lanterns. After a quick reiteration of the the instructions (light your lantern’s wick on a torch, then hold it close to the ground until the lantern fills and you feel a slight tug, and finally, lift it to the sky and let it go), the announcer shouted a countdown:
Across the dark field, people lined up at lanterns. Lighting the wick was a little tricky, and knowing how long to wait before releasing the lantern was even trickier. So in the dim light and slight confusion as people left their seats for the nearest torch, the crowd mixed and milled around. Tall people helped shorter ones find the right wick-lighting position over the torches, and, all of us new to lantern-launching if not to festival-going, we looked at each other with raised eyebrows and shrugging shoulders as we tried to figure out the exact timing of this thing.
As Mark and I let our lantern float upward, I looked at the sky — and immediately felt the tears start. It was incredible. The inky sky was filled with glowing bags of paper, something that doesn’t necessarily sound lovely enough to bring a person to tears — but it did. It was. It was BREATHTAKING.
We waited our turn to light our second lantern, and I watched my girls’ faces, lifted to the sky in awe and delight. “Mommy, look!” they both cried, wanting to make sure I didn’t miss the very thing I’d signed us up for, the thing I’d tried to describe to them, the thing they didn’t imagine could possibly be real.
Then I noticed that I wasn’t the only one stunned. The crowd, which in so many other situations would have been full of jostling and yelling and pointed elbows and stomped-on toes, was subdued. Sure, the occasional, “Hey, watch out!” broke the hush — but only in kindness, to warn someone of a rogue, low-flying lantern. Strangers became neighbors as we helped one another, and I couldn’t decide which was more amazing, the sky or the crowd.
That field was covered with torches and people, grass and food, lanterns and litter — but as far as I could tell, nothing caught on fire that wasn’t supposed to. After being nudged in the head by a second bag of flames, I looked around. Surely people’s hair was catching on fire? Or the grass? Something?
Nope. Nothing caught on fire. The missing girl was found quickly. The lanterns lit up the sky and landed in the nearby pond. The people smiled and helped one another. As I said to Mark the next day, the whole thing truly renewed a bit of my faith in humanity. Not completely, no. The world is still heavy and hard, dangerous and maddening. But for those moments in that field, smiling at strangers and gazing at a glowing night sky?
I felt more peace and more hope than I have in a long time.
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