I've always loved music and festival culture. I took a break when there were humans growing inside of me, but once through with diapers and baby food, I returned to loving them ten times more. I've taken my kids to Burning Man and Lightning in a Bottle twice, although I do also keep a few babysitters well employed while balancing a full life of work, parenting, and the awesome power of the wub.
Some would balk at the idea of young children being around all the loud music, drugs, and rambunctious energy of festival culture, but Lightning in a Bottle, last weekend in Bradley, California, is where my kids learned about the power of stones and crystals, where they were introduced to the deep power of music and community, and where their wide-eyed curiosity and lack of cynicism is rewarded by adults with beliefs more fantastic than even their own.
My 6-year-old now presses a bluish obelisk to her forehead, closes her eyes, and breathes in deeply for good energy. My 8-year-old was handed a piece of sharp obsidian from a stranger who told him it would ward off negative energy (along with a warning not to slice open his hand).
Such is the thrill of taking your family out of its padded existence, to a place where neo-hippies run free and the scene is out of a psilocybin dream. It was our second time at this family-friendly(ish) festival that gives a taste of Burning Man, without so much of the hardship of playa life. For music-loving parents like us, it's become a kind of Club Med in that there are fun activities for everyone in the family. Poi classes and eco-shirt bags for the kids! All-night dancing for mom or dad! ("Or" because someone has to stay back at "family camp," a pleasant, if disorganized patchwork of tents, vehicles, and kids playing in dirt).
For a helicopter mom like me, bringing your family to a festival is also an exercise in letting go, in trusting that the magic of that obsidian will outweigh its sharp dangers. Less cosmically, we've been made to address something as simple as talking to strangers. As a native New Yorker, I had never warmed to this idea, but with a decade-plus of California in my soul, LiB is the perfect place to dig out some good ol' fashioned social skills in front of my kids. Everyone here is so damn friendly. Everyone! In a place like this, kids are magnets for positive vibes. People don't expect to see them, so when they do they're prone to gush about the child's aura or give them a hi-five.
Actually, make that a lo-five—a key move for LiB shorties. Last year's festival layout, hot temperatures and scant shade turned any excursion out of family camp into a treacherous slog up and down ravines. This year, festival organizers really seemed to listen to that feedback and try to make it better. The Do LaB erected bridges to span the ravines such that every journey across was a reason to rejoice by hi-fiving those walking in the opposite direction. The kids loved this, and I only thought about hand sanitizer once. Or twice. Family camp was also much closer to the action—which was great for tired little legs, but also meant that earplugs were as essential as toothbrushes at bedtime. The music was so loud and so deep, you could feel it in the ground and it would shake their little bodies.
While the music was a big part of what drew us to Lightning in a Bottle, I can't say it held the same power over the kids––although Thomas Jack on the Woogie stage got both generations dancing, and the massive Earth Harp was too cool to inspire any whining. The in-the-air antics of Dream World Cirque also got a mini thumbs up, and Panda Bear made a great weirdo soundtrack for hooping and other assorted blinky swinging. No, the kids were much more interested in what was happening outside the perimeter of the festival, down in the dried-up lakebed.
In another moment of parenting freedom (folly?), we let our kids roam in a small pack on the dry lakebed floor. "It's a fish graveyard! And there are still lots of fish alive!!!" my daughter declared giddily upon returning. It didn't seem possible. The kids promised each other to meet again at 7am the next day to go back and this time, I had to come—a consolation prize since I was on babysitting duty the night before and was still licking my wounds over missing Flume.
Sure enough, fish carcasses scattered the ground and in a very small patch of dirty water, dozens of big catfish-looking creatures flailed and clamored for their lives, getting stuck in dried-up tributaries. The kids would "save" them by redirecting them with sticks, but it was hopeless. The occasional waft of bad smell in family camp suddenly made sense.
Then we heard voices and two dudes, one clutching a beer bottle and the other in his furry moon boots, were suddenly right there with us, their hopes for a serene walk dashed by the natter of children in this grim scene with its in-your-face reminder of the California drought. "Wow," they kept saying, slowly shaking their heads. "This is not what we were expecting."
I still think about the fish and the juxtaposition of it all, their effect on the little kids and the big kids, the miraculous circumstances that created the crystals and rocks that somehow made their ways into my kids' hands. It's very special to be able to enjoy the unbelievable alchemy that happens when sound and light and people coalesce into a perfect moment and then, on top of that, having the things you love most in this life dancing or sleeping nearby.
When I asked my kids what they liked about Lighting in a Bottle, one said the circus and the other said the fish...and seeing Tycho's soundcheck. I'll take that glimmer of musical appreciation as another sign that despite the tribulations, it's well worth it.
Mia Quagliarello's mantra is "Work Kids Rave Repeat."