Saturday, June 4, 2011

Heaven on Earth

Poster by Marcus Thomas
Speaking loosely, my version of “heaven on earth” is listening to my favorite musicians as I sit on a blanket on the lawn of a beautiful park on a balmy evening. A dear companion would complete my joy. A bottle of wine is nice, too. For many of the last twenty years I’ve enjoyed this musical heaven in September at the Connecticut Folk Festival, under the stars in New Haven’s Edgerton Park.

Because I loved those annual concerts in the park, when the Folk Festival founders asked me to join the Board of Directors, I stepped right up. I treasured the Festival and didn’t want to see it fade away. So for the last five years or so, my Festival experience has not been one blissful night of listening to music but instead a year-long cycle of making it happen: helping with grant writing, marketing, publicity, all the hard slog of selling an idea.

With eleven months of work invested in the Festival, you would think that the day of the concert would be the high point of the year for me. Actually, once I was officially on the Board, Festival day made me feel like a very high fiddle string being stretched to the breaking point.

The worst version of myself

From morning to midnight at the park, I would be in constant motion over several acres as people asked me to solve problems big and small and peppered me with questions because “Anne would know that.”
I would spend the day of the Festival completely caught up in doing what needed to be done, like a jungle explorer hacking through vines with a machete.

I didn’t bear a great deal of responsibility for the success of the Festival. Many of my colleagues worked longer and harder than I did, and tackled far more stressful jobs, all year long (you know who you are). Still, under the weight of what responsibility did rest on me, I would change into the worst version of myself. I’d morph from capable to bossy, from efficient to peremptory.

Each year as we wrapped up around midnight, I’d think back to how I had given orders to volunteers and never asked them how they were. How I had abruptly fired questions at the vendors and security staff without any friendly chit-chat. How I had marched on stage to make unscheduled announcements, startling the official emcees. A whole year had gone into planning this event and now I was going to Get Things Done.

Yes, things got done, but--who could be surprised -- I didn’t feel good about it afterwards. I was left with an empty feeling of “Is that all there is?” The rented folding chairs would be back on the truck, the recyclables would be properly separated, so why didn’t I feel exhilarated?

Last summer, as the day of the concert drew near, I finally opened myself up to the question of whether I could do differently. Could I get things done in a way that acknowledged that indeed, some things are more important than just getting things done?

It helped that I had decided in August to resign from the board after the concert in September; somehow it’s easier to make a change if you think it’s your last chance. I was reminded of the old saw, “What would you do differently if you knew today were your last day on earth?”

That exact train of thought didn’t seem to lead to a solution, though. If I knew that my last day on earth happened to be the day of the concert, I wouldn’t spend my time laying down caution tape on the grass to mark off the blanket and the lawn chair areas for the audience. I think I’d do something more personal that day.

Working at the Festival as a visitor from Heaven

I found myself wondering instead, Okay, it’s probably not going to be my last day on earth…and yet… what if I acted as though my life on earth were already over, and I was working at the Festival as a visitor from Heaven? What if all my Anne-ocentric struggles and desires were finished? What if all of my wishes for things to be different were gone, because I came from a place of peace and pure awareness?

In this thought experiment, the middle-aged, near-sighted, North American woman named Anne would be gone, but I would take over her body to do her work on earth for a single day. “Anne” wouldn’t have a strong agenda anymore, because she had already finished her time on earth. I would imagine I was visiting from Heaven in the guise of “Anne” to help one particular group of people have a good day in the park.

Sunblock and seeing things differently

Festival day came, and I was up way too early as usual at the park. But things did go differently, and not just because for once I remembered to wear sunblock. Here are some thoughts that I did not have that day, as I pictured myself as a visitor from Heaven:
  • The plan I designed is falling apart because people didn’t follow my instructions. The signs I asked for in the kids’ workshop tent didn’t get done, so no-one is showing up for the activities I scheduled.
  • Why won’t this volunteer just do what I asked him to do?
  • Why is this person complaining to me about something that is obviously out of our control?  
  • Crap. Did someone take my water bottle, again?

Here are some thoughts I did have, and expressed with an ease that surprised me: 
  • We can change the original plan. Let’s move the kids’ workshop tent closer to the toy vendor and the face painter so families can see the cool activities we’ve got for them.
  • Hello, Volunteer. Thank you so much for giving us your time. How did you hear about the Festival? What do you like to do?
  • You seem really frustrated. Can we find a way to solve that problem? Is there something you’d like me to do?
  • Do you need some water? I have a spare bottle.

Giving it all away, getting it all back

All through that day, my last Festival, I experienced total abundance: an abundance of eager volunteers, an abundance of happy music fans, an abundance of laughs and an abundance of appreciation. I gave away water and I got water back. I gave my attention generously and I got everyone’s attention in return. I gave my whole heart to the Festival and yet nothing about me was diminished in any way.

I had planned to pretend that I was a visitor from Heaven to get through that day without feeling empty at the end. But really, it was like I had brought Heaven down to the Festival. As if the kingdom of Heaven were there with me, within all of us, that beautiful day in the park.

Although I'm no longer on the Board, I did volunteer to coordinate the kids' activities at the Festival and Green Expo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. The CT Folk Festival and Green Expo hasn't announced their official line-up yet for the big concert but I hear the headliner on is Leo Kottke. In New Haven's heavenly Edgerton Park, where else?


  1. Oh Annie Anne! Maybe I'll get there this year!

  2. Oh Anne,

    I so enjoyed this post. It made me smile,it resonated and also made me cringe because I can indentify with so so much of what you say!

    I am thinking, as the festival approaches this year, I will strive to adopt your thought process and work on ebb/low and connections to and at the event.As the event has become a bit more automatic, there have been bits of time to actually enjoy.

    If it wasn't for this festival I never would have met many of the people who work so hard to make it happen. That commraderie is what brings me back, despite all of the drawbacks which you so keenly expressed in this post. That and maybe being just a wee bit crazy.....