Jenny and I went to a lantern festival on Sunday night, and it was both out-of-this-world beautiful and exactly like real life.
When we arrived and picked up our lanterns, we received: 1) a paper lantern neatly folded in a plastic bag, 2) a marker for inscribing a message, 3) a tiny book of matches, 4) a lighter, and 5) minimal instructions. I thought someone on stage might walk us through the process, but instead a singer did covers (really well!) until the sun went down. When it was finally dark enough to light the lanterns, a naive announcer asked, “How about one more song?!” Some kind people in the crowd offered halfhearted claps but the general rumble was “NO!”
And then, it was time to light the lanterns.
And then, I realized I’ve never used a lighter before.
And then, the couple behind us got engaged.
No joke. I looked behind me and a guy had written WILL YOU MARRY ME? in giant gray letters on his lantern. He popped open a ring box and a tiny LED light illuminated a diamond ring. Barely five minutes prior I had said, “I wonder how many people will get engaged tonight?” So I guess the answer is at least two.
Right after we congratulated the happy couple and helped them take a few pictures, the countdown to release the lanterns started. We hadn’t even lit ours yet. I tried, unsuccessfully, to confidently work a standard lighter. But then all of a sudden, the sky was filled with thousands of floating lights. It was literally breathtaking, by far one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced.
And in the midst of overwhelming beauty in the sky, frantic activity bustled on the ground. People taking pictures. People taking videos. People taking selfies. People asking questions about how to light the lantern, when to let it go, how to let it go. People letting go way too soon and nearly lighting their festival neighbors on fire with a lantern that wasn’t inflated enough to make it over peoples heads yet. There was actually a good bit of screaming, both of the excited-cheerleader variety and the terrified-mom variety, including several rounds of, “WATCH YOUR HEAD!”
In retrospect, it’s a little bit of a wonder that 10,000 humans in charge of open flames did not burn the whole place down in the process.
I was mostly preoccupied with the lights in the sky while my lantern inflated. It was such a peaceful moment, and I felt so calm and grateful, and then Jenny alerted me that my lantern was on fire. I probably should have let go at that point but after seeing so many half-inflated lanterns nearly set people ablaze, I decided to hang onto it for another minute to make sure it was fully inflated. When I finally let go, it shot into the sky like a baby rocket, charred and smoking, the ramshackle, red-headed stepchild of the lantern family.
Just as quickly as it started, it was over.
Mild speed-walking ensued in an effort to get back to cars and avoid getting stuck in an hour-long line of traffic. The lights in the sky grew smaller and smaller, the magic of the moment following suit. Then we needed to find a gas station. Then Rafa Nadal played in the championship match of the US Open on an iPhone screen. Then there was conversation about the next day’s schedule, a working Monday. Life picked up right where it left off.
I thought about the festival as we drove home, and initially it seemed like the life lesson was something like, “Pay attention to the beauty, not the chaos.” It seemed solid enough at the time, and very Pinterest-y.
Maybe that approach works for some people. But I don’t think that’s how life works for me. I don’t think I can focus on the good and drown out the distracting, because real life is both. It’s beauty and chaos, smashed together in a way that can’t be easily picked apart, like multiple colors of play-doh in a toddler’s overzealous hands.
It’s tempting to think that we could have had a better lantern experience: more beauty, less chaos.
But that’s not how it actually happened. That’s not how anything actually happens. Real life is built for resilience and humor. It’s not built for preferred results. It can’t be compartmentalized; it can’t be categorized. And I only set myself up for failure every time I expect a single outcome—good or bad, tiring or energizing, funny or annoying.
And that feels like a relief, honestly. Because without the unrealistic pressure of a single outcome, there’s so much more room for the joy of whatever happens: the golden glow and the smokey char, the squeals of delight and the screams to duck.
The moment from Tangled that inspired the lantern trip.