i left at 5:30pm to meet eliza at forest hills in jamaica plain for the lantern festival at the forest hills cemetery. forest hills is the last stop on the orange line traveling south, and i almost fell asleep on the train waiting for the ride to be over. i called eliza as soon as i got there, worried that my cell phone battery would die out before i completed the call. we actually called each other at about the exact same time, as i heard the familiar call waiting beep just while i was leaving a voice mail message. we did eventually manage to connect, and i waited for eliza as she walked her bike. neither of us knew where the cemetery was so we had to ask an MBTA employee, who pointed us in the right way. "do you wash your bike every season?" i asked eliza. "no, should i? are you saying my bike is dirty?" she questioned. "no no," i stammered. after a bit of a walk, we found our destination.
at first we didn't see anybody and was starting to get worried about whether or not we had the right place and the right time. as we got closer, we saw more cars, and when actually went inside the cemetery, there were parking attendants directly traffic as the place was crowded with people. a lot of them were family groups, and they seemed to know what they were doing, bringing picnic items including lawn chairs and food. neither eliza nor i had brought any of those accoutrements. we made it to hibiscus lake, where all along the grassy edge people were camped out, listening to the live music and martial arts performances, eating dinner, keeping an eye on their kids, enjoying the good weather. eliza locked her bike to a sign post using an elaborate lock-chain mechanism, and we walked around investigating the action.
i'd heard about this lantern festival before (now in it's 4th year), and last year paula and jonathan were in attendance and raved about how beautiful it was, so i was determined to go this year and see for myself. i didn't know what day it was, and only found out through my friend alex in japan, who still subscribes to a boston japanese newsletter.
after seeing all this, we decided to split the cost of a lantern. after paying for our sheet of transparent paper, we went to one of the calligraphers. not wanting to be like everyone else and pick from a set list of words, i asked the woman if she could do a special character. "for you, i'll do it," she said. "we'd like the character for 'hot'," i told her, thinking about the weather, but also the fact that we wanted our lantern to be hot. the woman thought for a moment, then scribbled something on a piece of tissue, "like that?" she asked. i recognized the character and said yes. there was enough space for a second character, so we went with "love," one of the presets, but figured "hot love" would be risque enough that adult chinese character readers will appreciate our sense of humor. seeing eliza taking photos, the woman asked if we could send her a copy and gave us her e-mail address. next we went to the design station, where i drew magenta hearts all over the paper. eliza, not one to be outdone, drew even bigger hearts, and added the names of her deceased pets. i shamelessly wrote my URL on it as well, and the both of us signed it. finally, we picked up a wooden base and assembled our lantern.
despite all that work, we still weren't satisfied with our lantern. the problem was it was too much like everyone else's, plain, boxy. i don't want little 5 year kids to have better looking lanterns than us! because we're older (30 years older to be exact), our lantern should be 6x as better! i know the lantern festival isn't about competition (it's about inviting ancestors to come visit, at least in asia), and nobody wins any prizes, but just to have the admiration of others would be pretty good. eliza had brought some red construction paper (she thought maybe we had to make our own lanterns instead of buying from a pre-made kit), and we used that to decorate our lantern. since our kanji word was "hot love," we figured it'd be nice to have simulated flames shooting out from the top. while i painstakingly tore a long strip of red paper into flames, eliza was busy fashioning paper flowers made from red construction paper, neon yellow post-it notes, and some white paper ripped from our program guide. passerbys watching us work were pointing and commenting. one of the volunteers asked if we needed to use her scotch tape. with some extra red flame left, eliza even fashioned herself a bracelet to match our unique lantern. carrying it around, we drew the attention of everyone in the crowd, as whispers either complimented our work or perhaps recoiled in its gaudiness. as proud as i was of our handiwork, i was also a little bit embarassed because it was getting so much notice. down by the lake's edge, i never wished for night fall to come as i did tonight. i was antsy to let our lantern set sail onto the water, for the world to see!
as dusk approached, people started moving towards the lake. because i brought a lighter (this wasn't my first lantern festival, you know!), i was the center of attention as i lit as many tea candles as i could. when it finally came time for us to light ours, the flame quickly went out. busted candle! people were already setting their lanterns into the water, and we could already see them floating in the lake, and here we where, with what we personally believe is the best lantern of the show, and our candle won't light! so instead of risking sending out a lantern with a weak flame, we went back to the area where we assembled our lantern, hoping to get a replacement candle. eliza came up with the brilliant idea of each of us asking for one, so we can get 2 candles instead of one. when we got there, there was a large box of candles, so we just took what needed, which resulted in 4 candles. we wanted ours to really shine! we put the candles into the lantern and lit them one by one. just as soon as we did that, they all went out again! eliza said something about maybe some higher being was punishing us for making our lantern so ostentatious. one of the volunteers with a barbecue lighter saw our trouble and came by. eliza and i hid all but one of the candles. he lit the candle with his fancy lighter, melting the wax a bit to feed the flame, and after we thanked him and he left, the candle went out again! the problem was our paper was sitting too high, which allowed air to be sucked in through the sides, extinguishing the flame. so we tore the corners of the paper and pulled everything down a bit. after that, the candles remained lit, all 4 of them. we went to the water's edge and casted our lantern away so it could join the others already floating in the lake.
as soon as our lantern hit the water, there were people clamoring for photos, and i'm pretty sure it's to take snapshots of our beautiful lantern. instead of floating out to the middle of the lake though, our lantern started to come back in and seemed to be getting caught in some overhanging branches. fortunately there were some kids wading waist deep in the lake, splashing around, helping the lanterns move out to deeper waters. we crouched by the shoreline, taking photos (eliza at one point ran out of memory, i let her borrow one of mine), then walked around the lake as the sky got darker. it's a pretty breathtaking sight to see all the lanterns out there floating on the surface of the water. there were silhouettes of people just sitting there, watching all the glowing rectangular boxes, mesmerised by what they were seeing. eliza remarked that if you look at them a certain way, they seemed to be floating in space. a few of the lanterns did get blown out by the wind, and there was even one that caught on fire (not ours, even though it was a total fire hazard with 4 candles; "awesome!" i said when i saw the fire, while everyone else gasped with horror). we passed people in the dark, walking around the edge of the lake as well. a woman carrying a box was giving out free books, advance reading copies of a novel about a man who transforms himself into a ram (it's a love story), eliza and i both got a copy. we came across a large beech tree and eliza was already climbing up like a female tarzan before i knew what was happening. while she wasn't looking, i slipped my book into her bag so i wouldn't have to carry it. dusk means mosquitoes, and i figured with all the people around, i wouldn't be singled out by those bloodsuckers. that was true at first, but as the crowd started to thin out, both eliza and i got bit (though nowhere as bad as my forest walks, and the mosquitoes seemed to like eliza more than me).
our walk eventually led us to the side of the lake where all the lanterns were converging, carried by the gentle breeze. from this vantage point we had a perfect view of the lanterns, the words people had written, the pictures they drew, and occasionally a taped photo. some had put some baby's breath in one of the lanterns, and somebody else had attached a lei. but did any of them have simulated flames shooting from the top? i rest my case. it was also easily to see all the mosquitoes that were there, because they'd be attracted to the white walls of the lanterns. we were next to this couple and a kid, and they kept us amused for several minutes with their sitcom like antics. the was trying to push out the lanterns, but they kept on coming back. the daddy (eliza thought maybe it was a the mother's boyfriend) was knee deep in the water, and the woman was telling him all the things that could be hiding in the lake, like turtles or eels ("leeches," i added). they were a funny trio, i wish i could've taped their conversation, it was almost too entertaining to leave.
eventually we made it all the way around, eliza unlocking her bike. we decided to walk around a little bit more until we saw our lantern, and after a few minutes, we were able to pick it out, easily visible amidst a group of other less showy lanterns without the simulated flames. the evening was darker than ever, but there were lit paths to follow to exit the cemetery. nevertheless, we still had to use a flashlight (which i brought along), if not to shine a light on our path, then at least to make ourselves visible to oncoming cars. we kept on walking, and saw a blair witchy display of circles formed with twigs (it's probably an art installation) that we didn't remember seeing before. eventually we made it out though.
with eliza as a guide, we walked down to centre street to find some food. it was close to 10pm when we got there, and went to the james' gate restaurant & pub. at that time of the night all they were serving was bar food, which was good enough for us. first we had icy glasses of coke to quench our thirst (eliza, not using a coke drinker, had an explained desire for said carbonated beverage), then eliza ordered for us at the bar, i had the buffalo chicken strips, eliza went with a burger. sitting back at our seat and looking around, eliza seemed disappointed with the less than hip thursday night crowd, remarking how the place used to be much cooler. eliza, looking in her bag, returned my copy of our free novel. we ate, we talked. at one point, perhaps lost in the moment, i tried to figure out eliza's weight. "110," i said, pointing to her. "huh?" she replied. turns out she's 135 lbs, which would've been my first guess, but when it comes to guessing woman's weight, the formula is to subtract 20-30 lbs from whatever you think she should weigh. "i'm almost 5'10" you know," she said. later, outside, she asked if i was going to write about this. "why, you don't want me to?" i said. "no, i want you to," eliza told me, her reason being to let other women know that they should have a healthier outlook about their weight.
eliza escorted me back to the green street t stop (i wouldn't have known where to go otherwise), pedalling slowly on her bike. outside the train station, a young man with a clipboard approached us. apparently 11pm at night is when nader supporters are out trying to get signatures for a petition to get their candidate on the ballot in november. he asked me first, but i wouldn't sign, told him i was a registered democrat. eliza was much more receptive, and surprised me when she said she actually voted for nader back in 2000. "a vote for kerry is a wasted vote," the young man told us. eliza, a sucker for catchy slogans apparently, decided to sign. with that business out of the way, eliza and i exchanged good byes and i caught the train back to cambridge.