I was told, early on, that I would either love Pennsic or I’d hate it. Not true. I love this event – the biggest yearly festival put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism – to distraction, but I have a laundry list of things that trouble me, turn me off, or just plain tick me off. And yet…
They say that once you start going to this event, you’ll spend the rest of the year looking around (at camping equipment, pottery, projects, fabric) and thinking, “That would be great at Pennsic!” I find that it’s the other way around: Pennsic is an inspiration for the rest of the year.
My first Pennsic was my first time camping. I’d spent plenty of time outdoors, but never spent several days without being indoors. My little orange tent, the swaying trees, the walls of the pavilions, the sheetwalls, and the ubiquitous tapestries and draperies all made quite an impression. That fall, I hung my walls with scarves and other hangings, which, in my attic-level apartment, swayed from the angled walls and rippled in the breeze from an open window.
One day this year, a campmate walked into camp spinning on a drop spindle. It reminded me of contact juggling. I used to walk from class to class on my college campus doing simple contact juggling moves until they became second nature. Here was someone practicing a form of object manipulation that not only was mesmerizing, but made a practical and enjoyable product. She was kind enough to answer my somewhat manically excited questions and give me a demo, showing me how you could spin and ply yarn by hand, even without a spindle. Of course, I had known that people managed to spin and weave and sew before factories were around, and I’d done a bit of the latter two myself, but the moment when I saw her ply the yarn, the moment when it went from wool to yarn in my eyes, I admit was a realization. “Who needs the industrial revolution?” I asked. Granted, technology makes things easier, and makes greater production possible, but it’s powerful to realize that you can take fiber all the way from sheep to shirt, just as it’s powerful to realize that food grows on trees and medicine can be dug out of the earth.
I visited the vendor Minerva’s Spindle, and brought home a lovely, modestly priced spindle with a rectangular whorl, as well as a couple ounces each of several different fibers to experiment with. I’m a baby beginner, but I love practicing spinning, and find it as meditative as contact juggling. My big realization so far was to discover that I could really thin out the wool and, not only would the spun yarn not break, but my spindle actually hit its stride.
I was as grateful as ever for my time at Pennsic this year, but—since it fell on the heels of a death in the family and some other challenging news—I found that the things that trouble me about the event stood out in even greater relief: Pennsic, like Game of Thrones or World of Warcraft, can cross the line from good-natured recreation into consuming escapism. Pennsic seems to become more and more commercial, with more and more factory-made kitsch alongside the classic SCA handcrafters. It often suffers from the “Christmas must be perfect” syndrome, which happens when a holiday has been anticipated as being so wonderful that any disappointment feels mammoth. The event cultivates (melo)drama as scads of no-matter-how-awesome people get dehydrated and depleted in this indulgent, outdoor environment. With more and more smartphones in use, it’s is not the escape from glowing screens that it used to be.
At Pennsic, 10,000 people, mostly adults, gather to wear strange garb, practice skills that are regarded as having been made redundant, and spend most of their time talking face to face with each other. While crunchy bohos like myself are represented, this is not, predominantly, an “airy fairy” group. There are lots of attendees with military backgrounds, people who work at box stores, doctors and lawyers, desk jockeys, truck drivers, academics, restaurant owners, and more. And they all gather, once a year, to pretend the world is different than it is.
That fact is remarkable: Here, 10,000 people gather each year and pretend the world is different – and they succeed. They make that different world appear for two weeks. There is suspension of disbelief involved, but mostly the world is created by showing up, digging ditches, building walls and villas, crafting garb, and sharing meals. This strikes me as deeply hopeful. We all want the world to be better. As Yoko Ono said, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Pennsic is an example of just how concrete, how tangible, how real that dream can be, if we can only commit to actively pretend, actively imagine, build, and craft that dream into being. We don’t have to limit that to just two weeks a year. What shall we dream together?