I rush Amber to Beltane at the Center for Symbolic Studies in New Paltz. I've attended in the past but, given my rededication to finding my community for my own mental balance, it feels imbued with increased importance. Let me be in the presence of believers, even as I find satisfaction in doubt. Let me comfort in those for whom the gods are more than metaphors for psychology.
When we arrive to the site and ask for directions to the free parking, the man fielding my inquiry knows the name of the location, but not how one would get there. "My radio isn't working," he says, almost shuddering from nervousness.
We meander through his rough direction ("I think it might be over there?" followed by generalized motioning), but end up back at the site within twenty minutes, my anxiety building. My community is just over a hill and I am being kept from it by mutual ineptitude.
The confused man has wandered off, perhaps seeking a functional radio. Other volunteers wave us along until we are just before the entrance. I can nearly smell the patchouli and cinders. A blonde girl with a painted face tells me that she isn't sure the free shuttle is running anymore, meaning we would have to pay for parking. She calls over the radio to the shuttle driver, who doesn't reply for eight minutes of her alternating between a pained smile and ignoring our existence as she accepts hundreds of dollars to let people through. Finally, the driver croaks he will come. I am certain he was sleeping.
Frustrated by this wasted time, I ask her to give precise directions to the lot with the shuttle. We follow these for half an hour down a narrow, twisting dead end dirt road, but do not find the parking lot. On a lark, I pull the wrong way into a dilapidated school where three cars are parked. At the end of the lot is the shuttle with a groggy old man at the wheel.
We've wasted over an hour of trying to find this lot a few miles away and I no longer have any taste for the festival.
As we pull back onto a main road, going toward New Paltz for dinner, I explain, "I wanted to find my community and maybe I have. Maybe my community is volunteer hippies who are apathetic to anyone who doesn't want to fork over thirty dollars to see a fire."
"That is not your community..." Amber assures me. "Wait, thirty dollars?"
"Fifteen each to attend, fifteen for on-site parking."
Amber declares that this festival will never be worth that, no matter what meaning I attach to it.
I cannot let this annoyance mark me. I have learned recently how the brains of cab drivers show visible increases in the portions focused on spatial relations. The practice of our daily lives physically changes who we are. If I let anxiety and fear control today, they subtly change who I am tomorrow, accumulating in my brain until I lose who I wish to be. I can strengthen connections for compassion and connection. I won't be a victim of my chemicals and circumstance.
Perhaps going to New Paltz is the lesson itself. This town was once my escape, back when Dan Kessler was a part of my life and every Tuesday night had the potential of adventure. It is the same town, but it is no longer mine, as it was not mine when I was a student here.
When I ought to have sought novelty, New Paltz represented clinging and safety. I stayed close to home, went to SUNY New Paltz, because I was hung up on my ex and didn't have it in me to leave my family, the strongest community I had known to date. I can't imagine where I would be now had I the courage to look outside the Hudson Valley for a new beginning, but it is not productive to speculate long.
I take Amber to Bacchus because it is Pagan in title and she deserves rich food after listening to my irritation for the last hour and a half. Alone on Bacchus's upper floor, I text Holly to let her know that we won't be joining her at Beltane. She says she didn't make it either and is still in New Paltz. In moments, she agrees to meet us.
We don't see Holly often enough because of her art and work. She admits that she doesn't have much motivation to seek entertainment outside her house, but seems to genuinely miss us. I have a tendency to accumulate passionate hermits. They, more than Pagans scratching their palms for mandatory donations, may be my people.
After we eat, Amber and Holly follow me through the streets of New Paltz, though I have no clear direction, wandering through a few open shops.
I stop by a bookstore where I gave a reading years ago. When I spoke there, they had three copies of We Shadows on their shelves. A year later, I signed these three remaining copies in hopes they would move. When I visit now, there are two. Maybe one was stolen or misplaced.
I drop my card by a table at a street fair, where I see someone selling books. I am prickly around other writers from my insecurity and entitlement, but I should make these connections. The man behind the table is clearly not interested in my handshake, but he calls me back to speak with the actual author, who turns out to be a man I spoke to years ago at a local library when only his sister and him Showed up. He has self-published his novel, made an album of songs based on it. I appreciate his freedom, though it is not my journey.
We find our way to the Cafeteria, New Paltz's less commercial coffeehouse, so the night doesn't have to end yet, tonight featuring poets from the school of minority frustration. We all focus elsewhere, Amber to her middle grade novel, Holly and I to our devices, enjoying being in one another's presence without the need to amuse one another. The poets spit out each word as though they hate them, as though they know no other way to write and read, college girls bemoaning all the bad sex they have had. I wonder to what heights their poetry could have reached if only they had been treated with more softness in their adolescence. In lieu of a poem, one reads an email thread with campus administration, who offended the student by affirming free speech over the student's desire for socially just censorship of an on-campus speaker.
I cannot imagine expressing so much anger in my art. I can be sobbing, licking my wounds, but I cannot use "fuck" as a mallet for my emotions. I doubt poets have ever been my community except in an incidental way. The poetry that I love is to be unpacked and analyzed over the course of days, in bedrooms and living rooms rather than classrooms.
It is only near the end that the hostess for the evening reiterates that these performances were sponsored by Take Back the Night, thus the dire tenor when it came to anything stinking of heterosexual sex. But what is their vehemence but the language of their community? In college, socially active, one cannot speak in subtlety, so it is rude to blame them for Maya Angelou cadence from pale, suburban lips when it is how they call to one another. It is how they hear one another and know they have found confederates in a confusing world.
Would that it were always so easy.
Soon in Xenology: Art.