In the end I did go down to the river last night, along with a cast of thousands. Tonight is the big night, the actual full moon night that is Loy Kratong, but everyone likes to stretch the fun quotient so the festival in Chiang Mai always starts way ahead with early fireworks and partying. Lots of streets were closed and filled with people, mostly young people, eating, and walking, and buying fireworks...
I was headed to the Brasserie to hear Tuk and other musicians (and they were stunningly wonderful, but that's another story). But first I had to get there, a easy ten minute walk normally (the Brasserie is on the other bank of the river across from Wararot Market), but an elaborate and slow dance in the crush of people.
On the footbridge over the river, packed with people standing and watching and with others, like me, trying to thread their way through the crowd to cross to the other side, in both directions, the view was wonderful. The other bridges are outlined in lights that reflected beautifully in the river's smooth water. Occasionally a small long-tailed boat would come through, rippling the pattern with its wake for a moment. In the sky was an endless moving and shifting set of new constellations, warm dots of light in the darkness. Yes there was a full moon, but its light seemd cold and remote compared to the warm glow of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of fire-heated paper lanterns that drifted up and up high into the sky and sideways in air currents and eddies, making ever-shifting patterns.
On the ground by the river and on balconies and streetside were small groups of people busy unfolding and lighting yet more lanterns. They are four to six feet tall, paper cylinders held open at the bottom by a metal frame that supports a container of some kind of gas. You light it, hold the cylinder on the ground as the hot air from the flame gradually inflates it, and eventually starts to lift it. (And if you are like most of the young people I saw, you pause and pose holding the lit lantern, the flame burning bright in the paper(!!), while you each snap photos of the scene.) A further refinement, really fabulous when it works, is that just before you let it go, you hook a streamer of extra fireworks on the frame, then touch the end to the fire. As the lantern lifts and sways its way up into the sky, the firework sputters colourful sparks and then about a minute later, higher in the sky, erupts to leave a shining trail of glitter. Fabulous!
All that light and energy directed upward felt so optimistic, a moment to forget anxieties or tomorrow's cares.
And below, the traditional Loy Kratong was also happening, fire and light and hope the main ingredients there too, but in the form of lit incense sticks and small candles set into flower-decorated leaf rafts that each of us set afloat on the river. That stream of little flickering lights, carrying away our cares and expressing our hopes for tomorrow was a lovely sight, less glamorous perhaps than the lanterns, but touching... Eventually the candles flicker out or get dowsed with water somewhere on their way down the river. But the moment that you set your kratong afloat is pure hope and feeling, untarnished by thoughts of later flickering or decay.
And so once again a ritual festival embodies the arc of life and gives us a chance to think about how we are living it. This year as I watched the kratongs flicker and bob in a delicate fragile stream down the river, I thought a lot about my friend Wendy who died very recently of a swift and unrelenting cancer. Her weakened voice on the telephone ten days ago, just before I left, told me it was our last conversation. I had to strain to hear her, but her thinking was clear and sharp, and her humour too, despite her failing body, a flickering light buffeted by forces that were soon going to extinguish her. But until that moment, she was alight, alive, aware.
So that's the challenge: to keep our awareness bright, our energies focussed, our appreciativeness full and engaged, as long as there's light and life in us.