Friday, June 22, 2018

A Respite

If you've been reading here this week, you'll know that I've been reacting to the horrible news of the day. (Please click here, here, here, and here in case you don't know what I'm talking about). I've been so absorbed that I forget to recognize the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, which happened yesterday here in Seattle at 3:07 a.m.

"Solstice" is Latin for "the sun stands still," which is derived from the fact that the sun appears to rise and set in the same place twice a year. Whereas the Winter Solstice tends to be a time of hunkering down and taking stock, this one tends to be about celebration. Our school is in a neighborhood called Fremont, an inner-city neighborhood known as "The Center of the Universe." We are a place of trolls living under the bridge, communist-era Vladimir Lenin statues, and the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade, a 30-year-old annual community art parade that has evolved to be lead off by some 3000 naked cyclists, followed by a slew of floats and ensembles created by folks from the neighborhood. When you look at the top of this blog and see me in a cape: that's me in the parade, something I've participated in for the past 15 years.

This year, I was out of town, in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand specifically, where I experienced the coming of the longest night of the year before winging my way back home to enjoy the longest day of the year. This seems auspicious somehow.

Today, as a kind of respite, I'm going to re-post one of the very first posts I ever wrote, one that still speaks for me today:

"Participating in the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade has become an annual tradition for my family.

Our school being located, as it is, in the heart of Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, many of our Woodland Park families are regular attendees, if not fellow participants, in this one-of-a-kind, homemade procession of music, dancing, oddities, titillation, and unbridled joy. It’s a pure artistic expression by a community, which is what appeals to us most. There are no commercial sponsorships (although local businesses chip in to help with the $30,000 cost of producing the parade), the floats must be human powered, and the audience is encouraged to leap out into the street to participate in the festivities.

For those who’ve never experienced this quintessential Seattle event, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. The parade is kicked off by a sea of naked cyclists – over 500 this year -- their bodies transformed into beautifully painted canvases. This year featured a larger than life puppet of Pope Clementine VII and a macabre band of undertakers, a 25-foot beach ball that was rolled over audience members who lay down in the street, a cadre of “Ice Queens” wearing 10-foot wide regal courtesan dresses, a life-sized elephant puppet, stilt-walking crows, “sustainable” bull fighters, hundreds of musicians and dancers, and countless other strange and beautiful things.

I was one of about 60 Superhuggers. Clad in tights and capes, our mission is to simply hug as many people as we can. I’d say I got in a good 200 hugs throughout the parade, so if everyone else did the same, that’s a good 12,000 hugs. Not a bad day’s work.

My favorite hugs, of course, came from the dozens of current and former students who lined the route. What fun it was to hear the cry of, “Teacher Tom! Teacher Tom!” There were 50,000+ people out there yesterday, so I know I missed some of my friends and I’m sorry about that.

And while I love finding friends in the crowd, it was the strangers – who for a brief moment ceased being strangers – that are ultimately the most meaningful. Hugging that many strangers is an act of subversion, I think, one that pushes through our tendency to erect barriers between ourselves and those terrifying, unknown “others”. When I talk to people about Superhugging, they warn me that I’ll catch cold, contract lice, get punched out, or worse. This is our third parade hugging those thousands of strangers and none of those things have ever happened. Sure there were a handful of rejections, but each time I waded into the crowd it was into a flurry open arms. I hugged men, women and children. I was part of large and small group hugs. I saw strangers in the crowd hugging one another.

I tried to make eye contact with each person I hugged, saying things like, “I’m so happy you’re here!” “Happy solstice!” and “I love you!” And every word I spoke in those intimate moments in the middle of a parade was echoed back to me, “I’m happy you’re here, too!” “Happy solstice to you, too!” and “I love you, too!” Amazing.

I’ll never forget the developmentally disabled girl who struggled to get her arms around me as I knelt in front of her wheelchair. When she finally succeeded in getting her hands on my shoulders, the crowd around us roared. Or the little boy who remembered me from a prior parade, “Last year you hugged my dad!” That I’d made a memory for a stranger that had lasted that long touches me to the core.

After last year’s parade there was a photo in the Seattle Times of a man, his hands thrown up over his head as he was surrounded by red-caped huggers. In his open mouth you could see the gaps from missing teeth. He had the look of someone who has had a hard time of things. The paper quoted him as saying, “This is the greatest day of my life!” Holy cow! And sure enough, there he was again along the parade route this year, reveling in hugs once more.

Today, some of my fellow huggers have shared their experiences with our group via our email list. They speak of feeling exhausted, yet “full” and “exhilarated”.

One of them wrote: “I’ve been teary all day. I have many snapshots in my mind of people who “lit up” when asked if they wanted a hug, especially the people who looked so closed.”

What I’ve learned from being a Superhugger is that we’re not as afraid of each other as the news of the world sometimes leads us to believe. We are born to love. We are all in this together.

Here are some photos of the Woodland Park community in the parade."

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