The Dream We Dream Together: Bringing Pennsic Home

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.

IMG_1153My 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.

IMG_1695I 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.

S5003367And yet…

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?

Dear Cooper’s: What the Frack?

Dear Cooper’s Lake Campground,

I thought we really had something.  When I first met you, you were healthy and full of life.  I loved contemplating the lake and sitting under the shade of your tall trees.  Walking from Merchant’s to Camp, I’d end up out of breath and then collapse into my tent, and sleep like I never sleep away from you.  Even the noise from the road took on the quality of waves, or breath.

We celebrated Pennsic together.  You introduced me to a lot of your friends, who have become dear friends of mine.  I met Logan at the intersection of Free Will and Good Intentions.  I have a lot to thank you for, Cooper’s, and not just for two weeks a year.

I thought it would last forever.

But Cooper’s, now I hear you’ve been thinking about fracking around on me.  You’ve even signed some sort of agreement to frack on your grounds, under the trees where the woods battles used to be held.  When I heard, I was livid.  You say you’ll use protection.  You say you’ll get tested.  But don’t you know you’re endangering your own health as well as mine?

Here in Vermont, they’ve banned fracking.  Say what you like about our relationships with trees, but we’re not prudes.  It’s even legal to walk around naked in public!  Just so long as you’re not being lewd or lascivious – or fracking.

I’ve loved you for ten years now, Cooper’s.  I’m not going to break up with you via blog.  I’ll come back just once, to say goodbye.  But once you and your new buddies have fracked, it’s over.


PS:  I hope we can find a new home for Pennsic.  You say you don’t understand why you should give up custody, but I think Pennsic deserves to be somewhere healthy, with fresh air and water.  Your fracking is a bad influence. Pennsic XXXVIII

Acts of Beauty, and Some Late-Night Giggling

Windelbahn. Turf Labyrinth Prussia. For a Pelicaning. Pic tak... on TwitpicYou remember how I resolved not to feel sorry for myself about not making it to Pennsic this year?  I’m doing a good job.  After a month of traveling, it’s great to be back home.  Still, I have whiled away a few minutes here and there looking for news of Pennsic.  This evening, I was surprised to come across a Twitter account by the guy I knew only as that-guy-who-draws-chalk-labyrinths-at-pennsic.

Labyrinth,PennsicPavement is ugly.  There isn’t a ton of it at Pennsic, but there’s enough that I welcome seeing it transformed from plain old blacktop into a labyrinth (or, sometimes, a sundial).  One Pennsic evening last year, I was tired and hungry, so we went to that-place-that-serves-hotdogs-really-late.  What should be in front of it but a giant labyrinth!  (Pictured here.)  Logan and I walked all the way to the center together, and then I ran all the way out.  It was fun and silly and grounding and a bit strange – to be dressed in garb, running through a labyrinth, late at night, in front of a hot dog stand.  Absolutely made the evening.  Many thanks, Labyrinth Guy!

There and Back Again (or, Ireland is More Considerate than Pennsic)

Help!  The Vikings are coming!

I’m back!  I can’t cover the month I just spent in Ireland in one post, so I’ll offer you bits and pieces over the next several blog posts.  For the time being, I’ll say that I had brilliant conversations with people from all over the world, tons of tea, gorgeous walks through breathtaking land (sprinkled with historic and prehistoric sites, not to mention an astounding variety of wildflowers – many medicinal), and a generally rockin’ time.

I’ve become spoiled:  I seem to have these sorts of experiences every time I go to Ireland.  When I’m not there, I enjoy knowing that Ireland is going about its business – experiencing challenges for sure, but going on being an extraordinary place year in and year out.

I’m going to miss Pennsic* this year, but (since I just spent a month traveling) I’m determined not to feel sorry for myself.  I still can’t help but watch the calendar to see when Pennsic starts, and I’m debating whether I could get away with wearing some garb each day in solidarity.  (No debate, really.  Vermont’s a safe haven for hippie skirts and peasant shirts.)  Because Pennsic, unlike Ireland, only exists in the real world for two weeks every year.  Something I’m finding bleeding inconsiderate this summer.

When you’re there, though, that’s part of Pennsic’s charm.  Come July 30th, my consolation will be knowing that Pennsic is going about its business, and that the combined imaginations of all the people there are making it an extraordinary, if ephemeral, place.

*a.k.a. the strange festival where I met my boyfriend.

Pennsic Postmortem

Packing away Pennsic garb and supplies is something like packing away Christmas decorations: There’s a bit of nostalgia in seeing them go, but they wouldn’t be so special if you kept them out all year.  (Of course, with some creative mixing and matching, I find it’s pretty easy to wear garb in everyday life.  Especially when you live in Vermont.   So not everything gets packed away.)

Pennsic often has some of that that Christmas-must-be-perfect vibe – you know, that strained sort of “we must have fun!  WHY aren’t we HAVING FUN!” feeling.  But this was a particularly low key year and I found that vibe was completely missing – and good riddance to it!  Holidays are much more festive when they’re allowed to come as they are.

I think any feeling of “This holiday must be perfect eeeEEEE!” is a sign that there are not enough holidays going around.  So, among my many other projects, I’m starting a calendar of sundry and diverse holidays.  Then I will see how many I can manage to celebrate.  Keep an eye out for the calendar.  Probably sometime after Christmas, because lord knows I’ll have tons to do if everything’s going to be just exactly right for our Yuletide Season!

(Just kidding about that last bit.  In my family we spend all of Christmas in our PJs and only change out of them to go for a crisp-winter-air, kicking-through-the-snowdrifts sort of walk.)

Many thanks to everyone who helped make my week and a half at Pennsic a relaxing, colorful, generally rockin’ holiday.  May you have many such occasions throughout the year!

Puck, Pennsic, and the Man of la Mancha (A Frivolous, Festive Friday)

This cartoon, from xkcd, always cracks me up.  For being both green-related and creative, it’s earned it’s place this Frivolous Friday.  Here’s to the Man of la Mancha: I will always get teary watching that film, no matter how much of a sap it makes me.

It is, perhaps, not a non sequitur to segue from Don Quixote into announcing that I’m now 99% sure I’m going to visit Pennsic this year.  (What’s Pennsic?  This is Pennsic.)  That’s right, I will be reporting from on the ground at Cooper’s Lake, though with a several-day delay because, my friends, I am leaving my Glowing Rectangle safe at home.  This is some festive news, which makes this a Festive Friday, too.

A (somewhat belated) Happy Midsummer to all.  Here, we celebrated a laid-back St. John’s Eve with a fire in the firepit and fresh strawberries with cocoa scones.  Now, goodnight and a puckish weekend to you.

How I Wrote a Book, By Popular Request

Megan asked:

Did you say you wrote a book? I’d like to hear more about that. I’m very interested in writers and how they do it.

 Hmm…I did write a novel.  It was an on-again-off-again affair for a few years, until I decided I was going to go bonkers if I didn’t finish it.  So rather than going to Pennsic last August, I took advantage of the apartment being empty and set myself up with a DIY writer’s retreat.  I cooked up pots of food and oodles of scones beforehand, and stowed them in the freezer.  I canceled pretty much all of my commitments, and I became an urban hermit for about a week and a half.  Having given up a couple of weeks of sylvan festivities was somewhat depressing…but made it all the more important to Finish the Freakin’ Book.  And I did.

So far as ‘writers and how they do it,’ it seems that there are countless methods writers use, often contradictory.  I-can’t-remember-which-writer takes hours to write each sentence, but then that sentence is perfect and never needs revision.  I write first drafts by hand, always, so I know no one else will ever (be able to) read that piece of paper.  Then I revise again and again, depending on the work.  I’ve also found that techniques from other disciplines (e.g. theatre) are a whole lot of help in writing.  But instead of waxing poetic for far longer than the average internet-attention-span is likely to last, I will plug my other blog, Storytraining: Techniques, news, and inspirations for all disciplines of storytellers…  Granted, I haven’t posted there since I moved in November, but never fear, it will soon be resurrected.  Really :)

A Pennsic Retrospective, part 3: The Power of Suggestion

“You know, in my line of work you get a feel for these things, and I can tell you two are a great couple. How long have you been together – two, three years?” asked the inebriated judge.

Now, for those of you who haven’t been, Pennsic is a wonderful place to pick up chicks (and guys). But I had decided before arriving that I was not looking to get picked up. I didn’t want Logan to get stuck with the one girl at the party who wasn’t looking for action, so I opened my mouth to explain that we’d just met.

“What’s it been, snookums, three years?” Logan asked.

“Almost four,” I returned.

By the end of the evening, we’d supposedly been married for five years (putting me in my teens on the ‘big day’), and the judge was far enough into his cup to buy it.

By the end of the weekend, we were crazy enough to believe that – who knows? – we might make a great couple. And the rest, you might say, is thanks to the power of suggestion.

Thanks, Judge!

A Pennsic Retrospective, part 2: In Which a Punch-Drunk Judge Points our Heroine in the Right Direction

I was home – but almost no one else was. Of the three folks left, two were too buzzed to remember me even if we had known each other. Logan was partaking but coherent; I’d never met him before, but he was kind enough to help me unpack, and even volunteered to sleep elsewhere that night, lending me his bed so I could wait to set my tent up during daylight hours…

But beds were the last thing on my mind; this was to be a short trip to Pennsic to catch up with old friends and no more. I changed into what I had that could pass for garb. I’d packed quickly, not bothering to dig out my more authentic stuff, and the peasant shirts I’d brought included a subtly tie-dyed number that I hope wasn’t too noticeable in the dark. Soon I was sitting round the campfire, re-making the acquaintance of the folks who had been so gracious to me three years prior.

After some time Logan invited me to go party-roaming, along with a couple of girls and a judge who had been brought in to remarry a couple who camped nearby. Sober as a judge the judge was not. This judiciary gentleman developed a habit of leaning in to whisper incoherent nothings in my ear. At some point, he must have given up on his own designs, as he declared:
“You know, in my line of work you get a feel for these things, and I can tell you two are a great couple. How long have you been together – two, three years?”

A Pennsic Retrospective, part 1: How I Met my Mr. Right while Dressed in Funny Garb, on a Campground, at Night

Logan and I met through mutual friends.

I hadn’t been to Pennsic* for years and didn’t plan on staying for long: I only had a few days that I could squeeze out of my schedule. But summer after summer I’d failed to revisit the folks who had so beautifully welcomed me at my first Pennsic, and with a bohemian’s penchant for traveling, I wasn’t sure when I’d spend another August in the States.

My campmates knew I was coming, but not when to expect me. After a nine-hour drive, I arrived at Cooper’s Lake Campground at dusk, checked in, and received my medallion. Back in the car, I spread out my map and tried to divine my way to the high meadows from those squiggly lines. I remembered the street names on my way: The Great Eastern Highway, Good Intentions, and Free Will. But the campsite looked so foreign from behind the wheel of a car. I had to ask directions two or three times. Everyone was in garb, and readying to party. Never have I felt so garish wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

It was full dark by the time I came to the hellishly steep hill named Abandon Hope, and crawled up it. Sure now that I was in the right neighborhood, I parked the car and wandered past the red-and-black sheetwall that I thought was the right place. I peeked in the gate, and was greeted by a dry erase board that had been propped on an easel. The board featured the household symbol – and some phrases I’ll omit for the sake of innocent eyes.

I was home.

*The largest yearly event of the medieval recreation organization the Society for Creative Anachronism. Upwards of 10,000 people camping, crafting, shopping and partying with a medieval flavor.