Monday, November 23, 2009


This evening here in Chiang Mai a bunch of us sent light up into the dark. What am I saying? you ask. Well there's an amazing phenomenon here, a kind of cross between a balloon and a firecracker, that you can buy to celebrate an event or just for fun. It's made of paper, a large sack like a balloon nearly four feet in diameter, but with an opening below it. Underneath hangs a paraffin lamp. You light the lamp, holding the paper globe away from the flame and over it. The hot air from the flame fills the ballooning paper, inflates it, and then eventually lifts it into the air, where it floats upward.

Some days here there are a lot of these being launched, other days there's the occasional one or two drifting in the night sky.

Gary and Trish had bought the lantern, shaped like a monkey's face, to honour the baby daughter than Boom and Jayan had four months ago. We were all there, lighting the lantern or watching, The baby was happy and oblivious of the fuss. Once the paraffin was lit, we stood there holding the paper away from the flame and waiting for the hot air to inflate it. In that slightly anxioous moment the moneky's face seemed to leer at our hopefulness. (Of course there's the idea that if it inflates and floats well up into the sky, it's a harbinger of good luck; a failure to rise up is the reverse, so there is a little tension around these lightings.)

Finally we let the lantern go, and up it floated, brilliantly light against the dark sky, the growing crescent moon the only decor. It floated over toward the apartment building and seemed to hover, hesitantly. Argh! Would it get caught on a balcony? Surely not! Would it rise up over and beyond the building? Perhaps? And yet? Eventually, after some heart in mouth moments, it drifted up onto the rroof and then on up into the midnight blue sky from there.

So she's well launched, this lovely baby!

All this light and fire in the dark comes just three weeks after another time of light in the dark in Chiang Mai, this one Loy Kratong. Chiang Mai is a big place for Loy Kratong, a festival of lights at the full moon in November. A kratong is traditionally a small leaf raft with a candle on it. Now you can buy elaborate kratongs of course, but at its origin it's a simple candle on a leaf Each person launches a kratong, sets it floating down a stream or river. Bad deeds and bad luck float down the river on the little raft, freeing each of us. It's a lovely concept, and a relief too.

Now what are we going to do with this freedom?

Talking today with Tiger, a man in his eighties who settled here in Chiang Mai about twenty years ago, I was reminded of how differently each of us engage with the world and with the future. Tiger set off from the UK, after retiring in his fifties, to travel and engage with the world. He didn't have a plan. Eventually, a good ten years later, he settled here in Chiang Mai. But he started out with the confidence that he'd find his way, and also with the urge to be surprised, to not-know and to find out and trust to luck that what was coming next would be interesting.

Another approach at retirement or even any time in life, is to try to make sure, to tie things down and aim for certainty. I sort of understand that urge for security, the wish to have a sure outcome. But how uninteresting, too. If the future consists only of what I have planned for it, then it's llimited to what I can imagine, and that's so puny compared to all the possibilities the world has to offer (possibilties good and bad, yes, I agree, but wonderfully unknown and infinite).

So when we launch a little raft with a candle on it, or send a fire-powered paper lantern up into the dark sky, we're gambling and hoping, launching ourselves metaphorically into the future, eyes open, hope surging, fingers crossed, that the light will float on upward and that we will have good luck and find our way.

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