Sunday, September 11, 2011

After 9/11: First Night Akron 12/31/2001

The bubble machine on the stage spun out clouds of bubbles that descended gently on the crowd. And the bubbles were actually freezing in the breathless cold. They would break, and collapse, but spiral down, like deflated balloons of spun sugar, to be collected on the palm and shrivel and disappear at the touch of a warm breath. By now, the strollers were gone, but school-age children who were up too late were laughing and chasing after them, and twirling to make themselves dizzy, and feeling like they were getting away with something. We all, all were getting away with something on that night.
At New Year’s my Cleveland area family joined the First Night celebration in Akron, one of many held around the country. There was a question as to whether people would actually turn out to greet the new year, given the terrible events so fresh and present in our common mind. It was a time for people to hide in their houses, to stay close by the hearth and bar the door against the terror outside. Yet we went out among the hardy people who braved the cold darkness, and the late hour, and anthrax, and car bombs and the memory of September 11 to gather together to welcome in a new year.
There were venues all over downtown, with music, and dance, and drama, and storytelling, ice sculpture and juggling and magic. The four of us walked and rode busses, joined the crowds collecting on the corners and the bus stops. People were swathed in hoods and scarves and parkas and gloves, babies riding around in little bubbles, their strollers covered over with plastic to keep out the cold. Music and light spilled from doorways into the night. We saw a blues band, and an Irish folk band, and sandcastle builders, Fret Daddies with flying fingers and other builders of dreams.
Men walked around with crowns of balloons on their heads, and women with illuminated roses in their hands, and people of both sexes and all ages with necklaces and bracelets and wands of light, blowing horns and generally making noise.
Towards the end of the evening we arrived at E.J. Thomas Hall and climbed the long, winding staircases in time to hear the University of Akron steel drum band play Auld Lang Zyne, a world music commemoration of things passing away. And, finally, close to midnight, we walked down to Canal Park, where fireworks were to be launched. The time and the countdown were displayed one wall of the stadium. We looked up at the time and temperature sign on the Beacon Journal, and it was 12 degrees, and then 11, doing a frigid countdown of its own. Music blasted from the amplifiers, and I swayed to the music and sang old rock and roll songs and embarrassed my children, which is a parent’s privilege and only revenge.
There were politicians and speeches. Akron congratulated itself for buying fire trucks and ambulances for the New York City Fire Department. More money raised per capita than any other city, the speakers announced, and the crowd cheered.
It is easy to understand why the Druids built bonfires to their gods in the cold, dark midwinter, despairing that the sun has gone and will never come again. For I despair also, when the lighted space of days is measured in just a few hours, and the night is a long mystery. That is when the cold leaks into bones and souls and the demons crowd around, just outside the circle of firelight. The ground is brittle and breaking underfoot, frozen ash, and it is beyond imagination that life and hope could push through it once more. It is then that we need the Midwinter revels.
I am not a sucker for the forced and desperate merriment of New Year’s Eve, or forced and desperate patriotism, but I am easily seduced by magic, and it was a magical night.
And we counted down together, and the light show began, shimmering showers of silver and gold and red and green and blue, lop sided and symmetrical, whistling rockets and Roman candles, a meteor shower to end the year. We thrust our collective fists of light into the winter darkness. The light will come again. We are not afraid of the dark, we shouted. We are not afraid.

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