A single paper lantern is lovely with light reflected on water in the dark. But lovely turns to magic when there are hundreds of lanterns floating together on open water. It is what I hoped for when I bought two tickets to a local water lantern festival and I was not disappointed. This particular magic requires community. It requires an organizing force of people to say “come here at this time on this day, buy a ticket, we’ll supply the lanterns.” Then people have to flow into that framework willing to bring their hearts and write on their lanterns. At launch time hundreds set their small lights afloat and the water doubles the light, reflecting twice as much back to all of us on shore.
The scene is even more beautiful when you glimpse some of the lanterns. Each was specifically prepared by someone who hopes, or someone who grieves, or someone ready to let go. It is not just lights on the water, but expressions, thoughts, words, pictures, a part of the person who set it afloat. All completely unique, but glowing in common.
I spoke to no one while at the festival other than my companion that I brought with me. The organizers did try to get everyone to connect with each other. They built a framework of group activities, a “meet people” scavenger hunt, and packs of conversation cards. But I was content with my thoughts and my one person. It was a well run event, and I say that with life experience in running large events. They had clear instructions that meant nothing ever felt chaotic, not even at launch time when everyone went down to the water and people had to maneuver their way to launch around others who were busy taking their photos for social media. I too took photos, storing up the experience in pixels of light that will glow at me from screens and remind me of my experience.
The crowd was noisy and inconvenient. There was no solitude to be had. Part of me would have liked solitude. I would have liked to sit with the floating hopes and dreams without all the inconvenient humanity that set them on the water. But I can’t have one without the other. I can’t have hundreds of lanterns carrying wishes and fears unless I also have the people to launch them. People are messy, noisy, and often annoying, but there is beauty that simply can’t exist without them. Without us. Because those messy inconvenient people includes us. We create problems for others as much as they do to us. We can choose to move through the world graciously rather than demandingly, but we still get in each other’s way. There is beauty in that too.
I love that a core human impulse is to organize ourselves, to draw hundreds of people together into one spot where we can spend time drawing on paper and floating lights on water simply because it makes us happy to do so. It made me happy to be there.