The Newburyport Lantern Festival, sponsored by Greater Newburyport Ovarian Cancer Awareness, will take place at Bartlet Mall on Sunday, Aug. 31, from 6 to 8 p.m. Inspired by Asian tradition, families and friends will be remembered and wishes made for the future as lanterns are dedicated and then lit and floated on the pond at dusk. I will be participating as a volunteer calligrapher for my second year.
Life and death have always been intertwining themes in our life in Newburyport. My mother died unexpectedly of a heart attack the night we made an offer on our house 30 years ago. Our first child was born here five months later. My father spent the last two years of his life, enjoying his grandchildren but missing his native New Jersey, in a condo on Warren Street. Last year I dedicated a lantern to both my parents, as I will again this year.
When I reflected on last year’s Lantern Festival, I thought about the two parts of my participation — as a daughter and as an artist. I was deeply touched by the visual beauty of the lanterns as they were released onto the water and the deep love that could be felt in the air.
I also found myself thinking about the experience of writing on the lanterns. Since I began my life in the arts as a calligrapher struggling to make my letters look like the models, I have often thought about perfection and its place in my work.
There are several definitions of the word “perfect” and most are limiting: conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type; excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement; entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings; accurate, exact, or correct in every detail.
I’ve come to see this kind of perfection as a glass castle glimmering in the distance. When I come closer, I see that the walls are shiny and sheer and there are no windows or doors. There is no way in. I have been working to let go of this definition and embrace another: exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose.
After my evening at Bartlet Mall, I knew unequivocally which definition I needed to make mine. I sat at a long table with the other calligraphers with my brush pen, a pad and marker for writing down names and messages, and a flashlight. As I pulled each lantern from its package, I never knew what I would find. The translucent paper was sometimes smooth like a flat plate and sometimes rippling like the surface of the pond on a windy day. Needless to say, it was easier to write on some than on others.
As the lantern’s owner stood expectantly and often hesitantly (“I’ve never done this before” was a frequent comment) in front of me, I quickly realized that whether an “a” or a “g” was perfectly formed was of no consequence. The critical eye that guides me to improve my work and is most welcome in the studio did not have a place here. My only role was to be the medium, the one who relayed the message. I tried my best to write each word with care and grace, but I knew that, no matter what, they all would be perfect.
For Harley the kitty, for Grandpa, Great Nana, Gamps, for Memere, Auntie Dotti, for Wayne and Warren and Lloyd and Merry and Lilly. Yvette I love you. Peter holding you in the light. Sail on Caroline and Dot. To my Dad, I miss you a lot.