The Fire Hydrants of Knoxville: Joy in a Time of Heartbreak

In late March I traveled down to Knoxville, TN, for the Big Ears Music Festival. It’s one of the world’s great music festivals — “wonderfully weird,” according to Spin Magazine — famed for celebrating a wildly diverse array of music. Seriously, you can see and hear anything there, and sometimes, euphorically, for the first time in your ever-music-loving life.

For me, it was a beautiful experience, an expression of something we’ve missed during the pandemic: a sense of belonging, of togetherness. Most of us have managed to stay connected with our family and close friends, the inner circle, but it’s been those expansive concentric rings that I’ve missed, the outer spheres of our diminished community. In Knoxville, I talked to a lot of strangers, good conversations with people from all over. Across four days, I didn’t see one openly drunk person, didn’t witness a single example of bad behavior. The attendees came with ears and hearts and minds wide open. We listened, hard; we participated, gratefully.

One crucial feature of the festival is that music is going on simultaneously at a variety of venues. A Scottish bar, a cozy theater, a church, a dingy club, on and on. Attendees wander the streets of downtown Knoxville, seeking out a percussive string quartet in a church, a hot jazz band in a club, an exploration of ambient drone somewhere else, or, hey, Patti Smith in the Tennessee Theater. It’s all there. From the familiar to the experimental.

While I wandered from venue to venue, I kept noticing the blue-and-yellow fire hydrants of Knoxville. They made me think of Ukraine, each one a metal flag bringing to mind the unforgivable slaughter. The brutality of Putin’s attack, the senseless cruelty and inhumanity and suffering of our world.

A disturbing dissonance droned through my skull, plucked at the strings of my heart. I was happy, thrilled with a feeling of joy and discovery and community, encountering good people and magnificent art at every turn. Yet those fire hydrants of Knoxville kept reminding me of dropped bombs, toppled buildings & innocent blood, our sad & broken world.

And I guess that’s the challenge we face. Finding the joy, the deep pleasures and satisfactions, the reasons why life is so worth living — and yet not forgetting the heartbreak, the devastation, the important & necessary work that still needs to be done.

Oh sweet ravaged world, we need to do so much better if we hope to live, together.

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