Finding My Own Festivity

There is no need for air conditioning at night lately. If I leave just a half-opened window in the bedroom, I find myself pulling the comforter snuggly around my chin sometime near 3 am. In the mornings, the chilly air propels me toward the closet for a sweater as I set the kettle on the stovetop for my ritual cup of tea. As I sip the steaming liquid, the aromatic vapor wafting pleasantly around the tip of my nose, I can hear the bleating, rather obnoxious squawks of Canadian geese passing overhead as they progress to their winter habitats. The humid, stifling heat of summer is giving way to drier, crisper air. I can feel the change on the breeze that rustles the leaves, which are showing just the faintest hints of brown shrivel at their edges, a flash of orange here or there, and a rare, prematurely stark branch. I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of chrysanthemums at the garden center next to the library. Autumn is coming.

Do you know what Autumn means in Vanillaville, East Midwest, USA? It means that festival season is upon us. A few weeks ago, there was the Celtic Festival, followed by the Jazz Festival and the Sweet Corn Festival. Then, the area hosted Bacon Fest and Germanfest. The agenda for next weekend includes the Music and Arts Festival, Lebanese Festival, and AleFest. The weekend after Labor Day will see the Popcorn Festival and the Greek Festival come to town. Other events on the horizon include the Apple Festival, because it really wouldn’t be fall without one, but also the Renaissance Festival, Oktoberfest, Buttercream Festival, Cyclops Fest, Pork Festival, Mum Festival, Pretzel Festival, and Sauerkraut Festival (I kid you not)… among many others.

Is it a cultural thing, or an eating disorder specific thing? Because I just don’t get it. Growing up in New England, we didn’t even have counties, let alone county fairs. The only benefit to knowing what county I lived in was being able to pick my geographic location out of a weather alert map at the bottom of the TV screen during an emergency warning broadcast. There certainly weren’t multiple festivals happening every weekend.

For the first several years that I lived in Vanillaville, I thought that there was something really wrong with me. Clearly, festivals were fun. It seemed obvious and implicit in the word itself. \‘fes-tə-vəl\ (noun): “a time of celebration…” “gaiety, conviviality.” Origin: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin festivus festive.1 During my first August in Vanillaville, as my eating disorder was just emerging, I ventured to the Germanfest with a friend. It was a nifty experience for about forty-five minutes. There was live music, and women dressed in dirndls sold homemade tchotchkes while beer flowed liberally beneath a giant, white tent. We ate overcooked schnitzel and spätzle, or rather he ate while I anxiously nibbled and berated myself for overindulging until my heart was beating faster than the wings of a hummingbird and I was near-tears with the deluge of panicked thoughts I managed to stir up in myself at the certainty that I was assuredly going to become fat from this single chicken patty. We perused the rows of ceramic steins and the tables laid out with keychains and license plate holders emblazoned with the German flag, and when we were bored we drove home. That was it? I thought. Maybe we simply didn’t catch it at the right time. Perhaps we missed the best of the activity. So, a couple of years later, when some friends of mine wanted to scope out the Sauerkraut Festival, I decided to tag along. The novelty of a celebration dedicated to sauerkraut that made the thirty minute drive out into the rural area surrounding the “city” seem worth the investment of time and gas money. If nothing else, I would be able to spend an afternoon in the company of my friends. By that point in my life’s history, my eating disorder was significant enough that I was socially isolating out of fear and anxiety surrounding food and the consumption of it, so a chance to be in the company of peers was both terrifying but also longed for desperately. However, it would not be incorrect to surmise that I wasn’t planning on eating anything at this carnival of kraut.

Unfortunately, it rained on the afternoon in question. We piled into Brad and Jenny’s fuel efficient, charcoal gray Camry and made our way past corn fields and cow pastures until we arrived in the tiny downtown that was transformed for the weekend with banners, streamers, yellow police tape and orange cones, folding tables, tarps, and tents. It was looking inhospitable and sad, splashed with mud, as bedraggled volunteers manned booths under a damp sky. A steady drizzle began just as we departed the car. We circled the tract around all of the tables, past the crafters and the cooks. Once Brad, Jenny, and our friend Monica were satisfied that they picked out the best-looking brats of all the possible options, they shelled out a few dollars, and we huddled under the eve of the only permanently standing building nearby while they scarfed down sausages, pretzel rolls, and Cokes. With their appetites mollified, and my curiosity quelled, we picked our way past puddles back to the Camry and began the trek home.

Last autumn, I gave the festival circuit one last chance at redemption. On a stunningly beautiful, warm, blue-sky Sunday afternoon, I journeyed over winding roads to the much-acclaimed Apple Festival, held in the historic area of a nearby town that is also home to the state’s oldest hotel, as well as a real, working coal-powered locomotive. This is going to be fun! I told myself. The weather was perfect, I was gaining insight into my eating disorder, and apples were a relatively safe food for me. I ate one every day. When I arrived, the place was flooded with cars and people. Clearly, it was a popular event. Two of the downtown streets were blocked to traffic, with booths set up along both sides. I merged with the flow of bodies spilling into the festival area with eager excitement and anticipation. Gradually, I picked my way from one temporary stall to another. Knitted scarves, homemade soaps, beaded jewelry… more homemade soaps, etched wood signs… more homemade soaps… more knitted scarves… apple tarts, apple fritters, apple crisp, apple pie, caramel apples, chocolate-dipped apples, candied apples, local honey, fried dough, more caramel apples, more fried dough… my interest began to wane, my feet began to ache. All around me, people were devouring baked potatoes loaded with bacon, sour cream, and cheese, nachos, turkey legs, and sugared apple concoctions of all varieties. Under the hot sun, sweat beaded on my forehead, and as I slid into disappointment and depression, my anxiety began its quick crescendo. I didn’t yet possess the skills to help me diffuse the situation. Distress tolerance was a term that was not in my lexicon.

Admittedly, my exposure to festivals is limited. I went to the Renaissance Festival one year, and when I was living in DC, I attended the Montgomery County Fair. They all seem to follow a basic recipe, however. As I wrote when I began, maybe it’s my eating disorder or maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up going to festivals with my family and friends, or maybe it’s a combination of both… but I it doesn’t matter all that much. They are fun for some people, but they just aren’t for me, and I’m finally comfortable saying, “There’s nothing wrong with me because I don’t find festivals entertaining! Just because I think they are uninteresting doesn’t make me a boring, antisocial, cranky person! I find my fun in other ways!” It’s exciting to finally feel comfortable and confident enough with myself that I’m not trying to become someone I’m not, and I can work on becoming the person I am! This weekend, while people were flocking to AleFest (I’m sure it was a blast for those who love ale and fests), I drove to the Big City, about an hour away.  Some friends and I bought tickets for a historic walking tour of one of the old neighborhoods and then sat down to dinner at a cute, Belgian café. That might sound boring to some, but it was thrilling for me! Step by step, bit by bit, I’m learning who I am, and trying to love her…

“All is Safely Gathered In,” © Jonathan Billinger, Oct 2009, CC-BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.
  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary © 2015.
  2. Featured image credit:  “The Autumn Leaves,” © Darwin Bell, Nov 2006, CC-SA-BY 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.
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