COPY MACHINE, typewriters and all, our office moves to the festival site on the Washington Monument grounds in anticipation of Saturday's orientation for local participants and volunteers.
When I leave for home at 9:45, people are still on the phone, surrounded by the government forms which multiply with every change we must make. Saturday night will be a different story, with the annual pre-festival staff part preempting all other activities. My folklife colleagues have a long-standing reputation for playing as hard as they work. Saturday
Amid the chaos of last-minute preparations, one already well tanned member of the grounds crew straightens up for a tent stake and surveys the scene with a big grin: "It's showtime!" He should know. Dedicated bearers of the Woodstock flame, many of the grounds crew and sound technicians take time off from whatever else they do in various parts of the world to come work on this festival.
Every year, an overabundance of unanticipated crisis leaves them swearing they'll never do it again. But back they come.
This summer, they've really done themselves proud. The site's a collage of striped tents and performance areas, and begs to be filled with people. Over in the north corner, thousands of adobe bricks and cedar logs await the hands of the 17 Southwestern craftspeople who fly in Sunday to demonstrate the lovely and energy-efficient achievements of their architectural tradition. In just two weeks the house and the hornos (pueblo baking ovens) will be complete.
Arranging the housing for the participants has been a complicated affair, and my assistants and I end the day by driving to the hotel in Arlington where we set up headquarters in the staff room. I run through the rooming list to be sure that a diabetic participant will have easy access to a refrigerator for his insulin. Another can't walk well and needs to be next to the elevator. Sunday
At 6:15, the cats follow me into my room. A student of Zen Buddhis, I practice various methods of concentration, of simply "paying attention" to whatever I am doing at any given moment. Sitting quietly for a period of time each day is the traditional backbone of this practice.
The first minute or so is clear sailing. Then it starts up: Does the van need gas? Did I pack the extra name tags? Abandoning my assigned method, I resort to counting my breaths. One. (Where did I put the meal tickets?) Two. (Does the Northwest flight come into Dulles or National?) Three. The cats stretch and settle in. For them, just being comes so naturally. This morning I can't get past four.
An hour later, I bid my sleeping spouse farewell and share a taxi with Leslie to the hotel. Our official day begins at 9:10 with the arrival of a Delta flight from Boston. I'm dying to come face to face with the people on the far end of all the letters and phone calls, and can't stop beaming as I say hello to a New England fiddler and his guitar-picking son.
Later on I'm back at National again to welcome a traditional basket weaver from the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. The world she comes from must differ enormously from my only recollections of that area -- an elegant and socially insulated resort hotel seen from an 8-year-old's point of view. I am so excited to meet this woman that I miss her at the gate, and she ends up waiting for me in the baggage area, surrounded by the tools of her craft.
More participants are due in this evening, but at midafternoon I discover I actually have some free time on my hands. The hotel swimming pool is too inviting to pass up. After a few laps, I lie in the sun and listen to one of our tent show participants recall his years on the sideshow circuit with the embalmed corpse of John Wilkes Booth. A good traveling companion, he assures me -- didn't eat much, didn't need a lot of sleep, never got into trouble with the women. Monday
For a few moments I confuse telephone with alarm clock, but the message from the front desk eventually sinks in. "A gentleman in the lobby would like his meal ticket for breakfast." It is not yet 7, and I was up half the night trying to trace an Ojibwa elder who failed to make his connecting flight in Chicago. A participant in previous years, Bill is by now a festival institution. As willful as he is entertaining and wise, he is the subject of innumerable tall but all-too-true tales in the archieve of festival lore.
Throwing on some clothes, I go downstairs to see who it is that has the nerve to be so hungry so early. A screenwriter couldn't have done a better job. Bill isn't saying when he got here or how. He just wants his breakfast.
I leave early for the airport to have some time to myself before the first of this morning's arrivals. As I head into the ladies' room to wash the sleep out of my eyes, I remember that yesterday was Father's Day. I call mine collect, with apologies.
Back at the hotel, Debbie worries about the apparent disappearance of three Indian women who arrived late last night. Because she knows it's their first time away from home, that one of them has yet to retrieve her missing luggage, and that under the circumstances they might be holing up in their room to recover, she takes it upon herself to try to coax them out. Trouble is, they're answering neither phone nor knocks. We are considering our next move when they stroll into the lobby with tales of their morning on the Metro and the Mall.
Tonight some festival staffers want to crash in our room after wee-hour partying. Miraculously, all three of us have reached the point of needing a good night's rest on the same night, and so are unanimous in our reluctance to oblige. Too little sleep and too much junk food on the run have brought my spirits and stamina to a low ebb by the end of the day. Tuesday
There is ebb, and there is flow. Taken together, you've got flow in the larger sense. Debbie went to sleep last night with a copy of the Tao Te Ching next to her pillow. The book I finally stuffed into my bag for festival reading is the autobiography of a Trappist monk in New Guinea. Taking time to get past the first paragraph seems to present the biggest challenge.
After lunch, about 40 participants and I head off for a complimentary tourmobile trip around time.
Dinner conversation gives me a feel for how the rooming situation is working out. With the exception of an older couple whose need for rest must compete with a blues harmonica player on one side and Ojibwa drumming on the other, everyone seems fairly content. Happily, we find we can move the couple to a quieter wing. Wednesday
The first day of the festival takes us into a new sphere of activity as our base of operations shifts from the hotel to the site. Leslie and Debbie and Tony, our volunteer, spend all mourning setting up the participant hospitality tent. I troubleshoot.
An old fiddler, due on stage in 20 minutes, is feeling weak and clearly needs to eat something first, but has left his teeth back in the hotel room. Someone comes up with orange juice. It helps. A run back to Arlington for a pair of drumsticks one of the Ojibwa has left behind means that I miss out on the rag rug I wanted to buy from the sales tent.
I have been forewarned that there is an unbelievable amount of paperwork involved in getting paychecks out to all the participants before they go back home. This involves collecting receipts, airline tickets and signatures from everybody within a four- or five-day period. We end up doing most of this work after dinner at the hotel, and it is as time consuming and complicated as threatened.
Around 9:45, my husband and old friend from South America sweep into the fray and cart me back home for a "visit." I reenter our apartment in some confusion -- unable to relate to "normal life" after such total absorption in the festival.
It would be nice to spend a few hours relaxing and remembering the life in Bolivia we shared with our friend, but I find that yet another frame of reference is one frame too many, and I retreat to my residual paperwork till past 1. Thursday
Up at 7:30 to take a participant to the site to oversee repair of the tent show organ. Then I'm on the phone negotiating additional space for a White House tour on Saturday. By mid-morning, everything's humming. A blacksmith from sugar Valley, Ga., surprises me with his first festival-forged horseshoe, and I hang it from my belt and feel very lucky indeed.
It is a near-perfect day. Not that I do anything different, really, but it does seem that whatever I do I'm doing differently. I sense the same inclination in others: Staff and participants alike have relaxed a lot, are more in tune with themselves, each other and the festival itself as the living and breathing organizanism it has finally become.
Under their red and white canopy, the deaf participants offer instruction and trade tales in sign language, while a blind gospel singer from Roanoke, Va., stops folks in their tracks with his falsetto and the level of passion and conviction his music conveys.
Around 5:30, I drive a young wood carver back to the hotel. Usually Donny is partyprone, and I am curious as to why he isn't sticking around for the evening concert. "Got to do some carving tonight," he tells me. Today's crowds have denied him the fundamental payoff of his craft -- that state of mind creative people achieve through total involvement in their work. The endless round of questions from those who watch Donny carve throws him off balance, and he needs an evening to himself to get back in focus.
Later on, I talk about this with a friend, and she remarks that what the festival really celebrates is all those different things people do to help themselves feel centered, at home in the world -- from dancing to quilting to weaving baskets from black ash.
She's right. And I can't think of a better cause for celebration.