Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Longing for the Tribe

Photo from the Website of Red Pepper Spectacle Arts
For twenty-three years, no matter the weather, a proudly and joyfully rough-edged parade has snaked through Kensington Market in downtown Toronto on the night of the Winter Solstice.  Giant ravens  glide along the street. Iroquois shadow puppets tell the story of a miraculous birth. A contingent of Italian kitchen witches shrieks renditions of "Return to Sorrento" and "That's Amore." One year, a contingent in raccoon suits frolicked on the roof of a parking garage overturning garbage cans. 

Such apparently chaotic magic takes planning: it doesn't happen on its own. For the last ten years,  Red Pepper Spectacle Arts, a not-for-profit, artist-run collective has coordinated the parade our of their storefront community studio in the heart of the Market: http://www.redpepperspectaclearts.org/.  The Festival has always thrived on a model of leadership that blurs the line between spectators and participants. Handmade lanterns, many created in the open workshop Red Pepper hosts the week before the parade, float above the random crowd as we fall in behind the firebreathers, the stilt-walkers, the ten-foot street puppets, the drummers.

The Kensington Market Festival of Lights embodies much of what's most precious about this extraordinary city that mothers us all. There's room in the parade for every cultural tradition people choose to bring to it--and room for the ongoing creation of the new, shared tradition of the parade itself. Some of us bring Christmas, some of us bring Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Diwali, or Yule.

I invest this parade, every year I go--and I've gone every year since I discovered it by accident in 1997--with my longing for a community created from the roots up by those who come together out of richly diverse experience, all the while affirming the distinct identities they bring as a gift to enrich the possibilities available to us all. And I'm intensely aware that such community can't be forced, can't be manufactured as a product, but instead has to be nurtured as a living thing: a seed planted in the cold furrow of a winter's night, lovingly tended in the light and warmth of the unconquered and reborn sun.

From year to year you can see subtle shifts in the demographic. There are always parents with small kids, hoisted on shoulders around the final fire circle for a better look at the burning of the Old Year. There's a growing contingent of beautiful, energetic twenty-somethings with piercings cooler than any body fashion statement I'll ever make. The last few festivals have seen a strong and foregrounded First Nations presence.  Always on the lookout for clusters of gay men in the crowd, this year I was happy to be part of such a clan myself, at least momentarily, a gaggle of nine or ten of us. The paper lanterns we'd decorated together a couple of weeks  ago helped us keep track of each other as we flowed with the larger crowd down the narrow streets of the Market and  into the park where we finally torched the Old Year.

I long to be part of a tribe with such men, however intermittently. I long for this to be the first of many years in which we come together as part of this fiercely uncommercialized, rough-hewn celebration of holy darkness and holy light. But such an aspiration calls for a light and flexible grasp, for hope rather than determination. Thinking back on the wonder of Solstice just a few days ago, the shifting constellation of our lanterns floating down the street seems like a parable for what 's required in holding to such an intention:  a few of us out ahead, a few scattered to one side, a few behind: all of us aware of the others, sometimes allowing for distance, sometimes slowing down to regroup or hastening to catch up.

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