Last year, I was invited to join some friends on a road trip to the RiSE Festival—kind of a Western take on the traditional Chinese lantern festival—but I just couldn't make the investment in the trip. Over the years, I've missed out on a lot of opportunities because of lack of money.
But this year was another story, and this year they were going back and invited me once again to join them. And this time I could accept.
I'd seen the photos and videos from last year, but I still didn't really know what to expect. Everyone there seemed to have come just to get their photo taken with the sign.
Sitting in the middle of the Mojave Desert—or was it the Moapa Valley?—I watched the red and purple sky as the sun set. I was trying to absorb everything that was happening around me, yet, at the same time, drown it all out.
I didn't want to hear music, or see camera flashes, or feel the food in my stomach or the rocks on the ground I was sitting on. I didn't know really what brought me to the RISE Festival, where people send their hopes and dreams out into the Universe, stowed away on a paper lantern that flies way. After all, I'd give up hope a long time ago.
I wasn't going to wish for money or success or fame or even romance, because I don't think I really want any of it. I'm never happy when I get what I supposedly want. The Universe never gets it quite right—or I'm always wishing for the wrong things.
So as I lit my own lantern to launch out into the dark sky, I was hoping for nothing—literally, for no things. All I wanted was peace—and satisfaction, if I could ever get it.
After all, I feel most peaceful when I'm not trying to do anything or trying to go anywhere—those rare times when I can just be. And since that only seems to be able to happen in the desert, I hoped for nothing more than I already had in that moment, there, in that desert.
The first launch was difficult, because I had some sense that we were supposed to raise the lanterns up high and kind of push them into the wind—but actually, the opposite turned out to be true. If you held them too high, and you tried to release them before they were ready, they would just sail straight ahead, right into the back of someone standing in front of you.
The trick is actually to get the fuel cell lit, and then hold the lantern down low—just pinching the corners of the paper shade with two fingers at waist height. When there's enough hot air inside of it from the flame, the lantern will start to tug, like a fish on a line. It tells you when it's ready. And all you can do is wait.
So once I got the hang of it—realizing all I had to do was less and not more, and just stop trying so hard—I was able to really release those lanterns, and let them fly away on their own. And when they finally did, I couldn't stop saying, "Look at them go!"
I kept wondering where they'd end up. I guess I felt guilty and selfish for littering this vast open space for something that seemed so superficially spiritual—as beautiful and moving as it was, and as choked up as I became.
Instead of trying to get something, I tried to give something.
I wrote on both lanterns, knowing—and hoping—that someone out there might scoop up its charred remains and take more than a cursory glance at what was on it, noting that it wasn't all hearts and stars and dollar signs.
I've risen above a lot in my life. And maybe my experience will help someone else do the same thing.
Open Letter to the Universe
Photo Essay: The Decorations, Wishes, and Faces of Chinese New Year