Local patriotism, ecstatic joy

We spent Independence Day weekend, as we do every year, at a three-day festival in celebration of the Eno River. The festival has been held every year since 1980 to raise money to protect this river, which runs through the city of Durham and was once threatened by damming and pollution but is now bordered by parkland and conserved land for its entire length. There are four stages of music, and people selling crafts, and food, the elements of any summer festival. But it’s more than that, far more, if you pay attention and look at it in the right light: it’s about redefining patriotism.

It is, for one thing, about a river. There are herpetologists and park rangers who will explain to you how various wildlife fit into the ecosystem of the river, and stories of the history of the people who lived along it. But the river is no abstraction; it runs through the festival grounds, and the bluegrass or the gospel or the Celtic acoustic punk, as it might be, wafts down to the water where people have taken refuge from the blistering heat, wading and poking under rocks for crayfish. You are not meant merely to go near the river and listen to speeches about it and “appreciate” it; you are meant to go in the river, to let it wash the dust from your feet, to hear the shouts of children splashing, to participate and take joy in it.

It’s the participation that separates this Independence Day from the celebrations of my youth, and from the celebrations my friends in other places describe. This is not a festival at which you are meant merely to watch — fireworks, a band concert, a parade. You can sit and listen to people play music, yes, but other people will teach you three chords on the ukelele or sell you a wooden flute or an ocarina hand-molded from clay in the shape of a chickadee, on which you will noodle the rest of the afternoon; and if you do find a shady place to sit down by a stage, your kid will likely grab one of a pile of hula hoops and find a way to dance while keeping it swirling on her hips. There are baskets of sidewalk chalk and piles of giant blocks for building castles, hints everywhere that you are not merely a passive donor getting some entertainment in exchange for your money but part of the life of the river, whether or not you choose to acknowledge it.

The heart of the festival, as I think of it, and the hardest part to describe, is the parade on the afternoon of the Fourth. It is not like the traditional Independence Day parades of fire trucks and brass bands and baton twirlers and children lining the streets waving flags on sticks. It is not sponsored by a town or a civic organization. It is instead encouraged by the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, which creates stories and performances from wild and majestic combinations of giant puppets, masks, dance, drama, and music. On the Fourth they bring a U-Haul full of puppets from previous years’ performances and spread them out along a path for people — anyone — to borrow, carry, wear as drummers playing Afro/Brazilian/Cuban rhythms lead them around the festival grounds in a makeshift groove.

(That’s me on the far right. In case you wondered what I look like.)

Children carry cardboard animals on sticks. My daughter and her friends wove a Chinese-style dragon through the throng. Uncle Sam leads the way with a high-stepping, hip-thrusting dance of ecstatic superiority. And at the route’s end, before a great stage in a meadow, the parade joins an African-American dance and drum ensemble for a serious, joyous, chaotic get-down in which anyone, everyone, is invited and perhaps expected to participate. Some find themselves dragged in against what they thought were their wills; some look on nervously as their children leap to less inhibited role models and boogie wildly.

This is a hell of a lot of fun, but don’t think for a moment this isn’t serious. It isn’t solemn, but it’s serious stuff, dancing in a giant papier-mâché mask with goat’s horns. You’re top-heavy, for one thing, and you have to be extremely careful, or else considerably more graceful than I, or you risk falling over or beaning somebody with your horns. A giant papier-mâché mask is also apt to become, in the blue-sky sun of early July, a one-man sweat lodge. By the time it was over I was having visions.

Then the music stops, and the elder of the ensemble becomes the elder of us all, reminds us of our debt to those who have gone before us, asks for peace, and pronounces that we live in “the most awesome country in the universe” — which we all shout back enthusiastically, young and old, liberal and conservative, hippie and veteran, all for a few minutes united.

Is it patriotic? Damn straight it’s patriotic. It may not look like what patriotism is supposed to look like, but Independence Day is a celebration of chutzpah and freedom and victory, not a solemn appreciation of sacrifice (that’s Memorial Day) or a militaristic threat to the rest of the world (which is every other day, lately). Independence Day is a celebration and a party and an opportunity and attempt to be united, at least in spirit and if only for a day. It’s about life, liberty, and pursuing some ever-loving happiness.

Independence Day is, or ought to be, about joy — and that’s what this parade brings that the traditional small-town parades don’t, let alone fireworks on the National Mall. You don’t watch joy; you do joy. You get up and dance. It even says so in the Bible. When David kills Goliath the women turn out to greet the returning heroes with singing and dancing; later David, in his own joy, dances half-dressed before the Lord; in Psalm 30, the poet sings that God turned his mourning to dancing. And you don’t dance alone, either; you dance before your community, with your community, and you emphasize your joy by anointing your face with oil. Don’t believe the grouchy scholar-preachers who tell you the “oil of joy” (Psalm 45) is the Holy Spirit. The ancient Hebrews didn’t do Holy Spirit; they danced. My college choral director, trying to enliven our rehearsals of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, pointed out to us that when you anoint your face with oil, the glistening in the sun or firelight accentuates your every expression and announces your joy to the world. And so it does. If we love our country so much, shouldn’t it bring us joy? and shouldn’t we announce it to the world? If you love your country, get up and dance!

And then go jump in the river, because it’s freakin’ hot out here.

What is patriotism, anyway? I love my country, but that’s an abstraction. How can I “love America” when the United States of America is three hundred million people and half a continent? By paying taxes? saluting the flag? sticking a yellow ribbon on my bumper? yelling at the TV news? I don’t see any love there. I can’t love my country except by loving a particular piece of it, a piece I can touch and see and come to know intimately. And that is the patriotism I think this parade, and this festival, call us to: to love a river and its basin and its natural community and to try to make something of a community out of the people who live there, and through that place love America, and the world. This is the piece we have chosen. And if half an hour of wild joy make us more content and at one with that choice, so be it.

Or, you know, we could just be having a good time and freaking out the comfortable suburbanites. All that Christian-pantheist/cultural studies horseshit is what I thought about a day later, running alone along the bank of the river in the late afternoon light, listening to the rhythm of my footsteps and the splashing of the turtles diving off their logs at my approach. It’s not what you think about in the moment, and it’s lost on anybody seeing this crazy, wonderful mess for the first time. Such as, for example, the Central American exchange students who passed through, gawking and giggly, while we were choosing puppets. As I was trying on the mask a girl asked to take my picture, then handed her camera to a friend and threw an arm around me for a second snapshot to prove, I guess, that she really saw this stuff. She thanked me in heavily accented English, and I wondered how she would describe it to her friends back home. This, apparently, is how Americans celebrate their nation’s independence, by dressing up in papier-mâché masks and carrying giant puppets and dancing. For a few minutes, for one photograph, this was America. Love it or leave it, y’all.

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