I spent the past summer in Providence. College had been over for two weeks when I moved into my apartment; midterms and papers seemed a distant memory. I settled into the slow pace of research like one falls asleep in a deep armchair: gradually and comfortably. My room had a box fan, the living room an XBox, and the fridge a tub of brownie ice-cream. Life, in short, was complete.
But contentment seldom lasts; it is far too restless.
One evening, on returning from my lab, I decided to watch a movie. While waiting for the DVD drive to wake up, out of habit, I navigated to the Brown Daily Herald website. There were no new articles, and I clicked around listlessly. Somehow I ended up on an editorial – “Spend a Summer in Providence”.
The editors recalled their time in Providence fondly. They talked about visiting small coastal towns, marching in parades, attending local concerts, and going on impromptu hikes; I – so deeply ensconced in the living room couch – had been doing none of these activities. And while I am wary of comparisons and the fake glimmer we see surrounding the lives of others, I know a better story when I hear one.
So, still sitting in the dark – the glow of the laptop screen bathing my face – I wrote a summer bucket list: taking all the ideas from the editorial and adding a few of my own. After I had finished typing, I was still restless. I decided to take some small action from the list: a token of appeasment for my untrusting self. I was halfway through the list when I saw it: “ Volunteer at Waterfire”. The words conjured an image: sitting in a boat in the middle of the night, with the river whispering, logs of wood in my hand, weaving through the lit braziers, feeding them, watching the sparks scatter – miniature fireworks, only for me. I signed up through the online WaterFire volunteer form: ticking the box that said “Boat Crew” and carefully avoiding the box labelled “Wood Chopping Session”.
I then sat back to watch the movie, and quickly forgot all about the list.
A couple of weeks later, as I was sitting down to a dinner of takeout noodles, I got an email. It was from the WaterFire Volunteer Team. Remembering, I pushed away the paper-box of Shanghai’s Spicy Lo Mein Shrimp and began to read. They were happy to have me on board. (So far so good.) Volunteers were to wear all-black (I grimaced; this meant my formal leather shoes, and they pinched my toes cruelly). Volunteers also absolved WaterFire of any guilt, or legal proceedings, if we met our demise whilst helping. I hesitated, but seeing that WaterFire takes place on a river with thousands watching I concluded the chance of drowning or shipwreck was remote. The email concluded by informing me that I would be working on “Starry, Starry Night”.
On Saturday, as the sun was setting, I walked down College Hill to the river. Reaching the WaterFire booth I met a motley crew of volunteers in black, waiting for their team leaders. I sat on a bench by the river and watched a family of ducks swim by. A few minutes later the team captains began to arrive. Once they had all come, we were shepherded to the right group. My captain was tall and spectacled, with greying hair. He introduced himself as Mr. Jones* and said his wife would be joining us soon. The other volunteer in my group – Jane* was a voluble middle-aged woman and she was smiling brightly at everyone around.
Once Ms. Jones had joined us we set off, carrying a pack of bottled water each. We crossed the bridge and walked along the river. The path was already becoming crowded and we arranged ourselves in a single file.
“ Well here we are,” Mr. Jones said, stopping next to two booths with a blue canopy.
It was then I realized that “Starry, Starry Night” was not a boat.
“ So does everyone know what Starry, Starry Night is?” Kate*, a core volunteer already at the booth, asked.
I shook my head.
“ Well it’s like this public art installation. We assemble these stars,” Kate pointed to a paper star lying on the table, ” And then we hang them up in the park. People can wish on a star and have it hung up for them if they make a donation to WaterFire.”
I nodded but my thoughts were elsewhere. I had ventured forth for a free boat ride and had become a menial cog in an art installation; there had to be a jester somewhere up there, among the stars. Of course in Providence there is always a healthy danger of ending up in someone else’s art piece – I remember going to dinner at a RISD friend’s house and being surprised when a camera and umbrella flash kit were produced, and numerous unflattering photos of people mid-bite were taken; turns out the ceramic plates we were eating off were a final project. I have always been wary of dinner invitations since.
Breaking off my reverie, I turned my attention to Kate who was demonstrating how to assemble a star. It seemed straightforward enough: prise open the joint edges, stuff in the LED lights (the stars glowed blue in the dark), tighten the cord to pull the star together.
“ Everyone ready to start putting together their own stars?” Kate asked.
I joined in the general nodding.
20 minutes later I had failed to put together even one star.
“ We need to go a bit faster,” Mr. Jones said, addressing the whole group and trying very hard not to look at me.
Jane, who had a real knack for star manufacturing, took pity on me.
“ You are doing it all wrong,” she whispered, “ Here let me show you.”
She quickly collapsed and re-assembled the star.
“ You need to put the lights in first, then everything becomes much easier.”
I followed her sage advice, and it did become much easier. Soon I was producing stars as fast as the rest of the group.
“ Remember to turn on the lights before them putting in,” Mr. Jones said making another group announcement.
I looked at the dozen stars I had spread out on my table. None of them were luminescent.
Cursing, I began to open the stars and turn on the lights. In the background Kate spoke into her walkie-talkie in a hushed voice, “ I really really need more hands here.”
The next half an hour was spent making more and more stars, and arranging them along the walk (we could only put up a star once someone wrote a wish on them and made a donation). An extra volunteer dropped by to help with the assembly. We made our quota, just about.
The night grew dark. The braziers were lit to loud applause. People started walking by the booth. Our first wishers came along: a husband and wife they were commemorating their anniversary.
They wrote their wish on a white ribbon which I then attached to the star with a safety pin. It was too dark read the entire wish but I could make out the words “hope” and “love”.
“ Where would you like to put this star?” I asked them.
“ Well let’s look around,” the husband replied, his words jumbled because of the large cigar he was smoking.
We walked around the park: I, leading, with the star in one hand and the stick in another, they, trailing, holding hands.
“ Right here,” said the wife, pointing at a spot between trees.
“ All right,” I said with something approaching enthusiasm for the first time. Hanging stars involved great manual dexterity and a mechanical turn of mind, and I had both.
Each star had a hook to hang it. Since the wires were high up, volunteers had been given a long wooden stick – as tall as three men, or two NBA players – with a hook and flashlight at the end. To hoist the star you had to engage the hook on the stick with the hook on the star then raise the stick as high as you could, higher than the wire. You then had to let the hook of the star rest over the wire, while simultaneously disentangling the hook of the stick.
It was as tricky as it sounds.
After 5 minutes of an embarrassing struggle I managed to restore the star to the heavens.
“ And I am now going to kiss her,” the husband said, removing his cigar and suiting his words with action. I remember wondering at the strong tobacco infusion that must have taken place.
As the night progressed I lit candle lanterns, hung more stars, and guided people towards the portable toilets (the confusion was extreme when I mistakenly offered this last category candle lanterns instead of directions). People made dedications and wishes, wrote down remembrances and hopes.
As the clock struck eleven the crowd began to dwindle and I took a break (pleading hurting feet). Clad in black, I faded into the night. Couples and families walked by looking at the stars, pointing out theirs. Children ran to the volunteers if their candle flame died out, and the volunteers rushed around with lighters. Seeing the deep blue light of the paper stars, the flickering yellow candles on the ground, the roaring untamed flames on the river, the hundreds of people smiling and laughing, hugging and kissing, I realized then that both the moment and place was a hopeful one. More hopeful than most.
So sitting in the park that night, unseen, I too made a wish.
And maybe it will come true.