My wife once described the azalea as a homely plant that gets real dolled up for prom night. For most of the year, it is an unassuming and at times ghastly bush. At the crack of Spring, it bursts and blossoms into a fantastically beautiful bouquet, then like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, returns to its former ignoble origin. Each year in early Spring my city of Wilmington, NC celebrates this floral firework display with, well, fireworks. The North Carolina Azalea Festival took place over this past weekend and, as it does, swallowed downtown in blossoms, bands, balloons, and brokers of cheap yet expensive goods.
The festival involves all the standard fare (you could say it’s really your standard fair) from floats to vendors to big acts. Many downtown residents understandably purport again and again that they hate the festival and its relentless shut-down of the streets in front of their homes and shops. Regardless, the festival draws in a decent crowd from both nearby and remote areas for the attractions.
Along with several auxiliary events like the Stop the Violence rally, Alt-Zalea and others, there are also big names that come in to perform, this year including Hank Williams Jr. and Ice Cube. These may escape the eye of the more casual passer-by, however, as you navigate the maze of tents, bleachers, and road barricades. The more common elements of the festival still serve well for interesting or insightful experiences.
The Parade Will Go On Without You
My family and I went to enjoy the parade early Saturday morning and it went exactly as you might expect. Backed up lines of costumes, cars, and brass instruments awaiting their cue to march for the crowd. Now I missed about half of this parade, actually, simply trying to corral my family. We arrived early (since there’s no other way to find parking or places to stand) which meant about 30 minutes waiting for the parade to start. Over this time span, children 10 and under get antsy. My toddler wanted to return to where we parked and took her mother and myself with her. My other two daughters stayed with their grandmother. After some back and forth we eventually coaxed the child back to the rest of the family sans meltdown.
The parade already started. Beauties and belles, arrayed in dresses that would make a Disney princess insecure, led the event. Their vestments a vestige of a romanticized American South and a heritage I don’t share and that honestly wouldn’t have me. Commentary aside, behind them a train of high school bands, color guards, veterans, Shriners, and floats appeared one-by-one entertaining at each stop with rehearsed performances. It was a pretty interesting display of music, dance, driving tricks, and oversized balloon monsters. For all that I saw I also missed the Chinese dragon dancers, several belles, and a few bands. My wife was disappointed. I was more intrigued.
Life Marches On
No one really needs another metaphor for life, but parades make a good one. Or perhaps it makes a better metaphor for experiences in life. Parades are an interesting type of celebration. They are fantastically passive. Floats and pageant queens drift by like colorful clouds while onlookers clap and snap photos. A progressive sequence of equally candid and curated moments, bundled up with heritage and history. Like clouds, like life, it starts and goes on without you. You can get so tied up in the struggles of the day that you miss it, even when it’s right next to you. But when you catch yourself, you find out there’s nothing to do but enjoy it or march along with it for a while yourself.
Diversion Can Be Medicine
After the Azalea Festival parade, we went to see the vendors. I was honestly surprised how the line of merchant tents actually seemed endless. Local businesses had tables near their physical shops, vendors from different towns showed up, shops that generally work out of their homes had booths. Everyone had brought some money so it was open season on any small things anyone wanted to pick up. This meant a good time for everyone to browse, enjoy, and feel satisfied with a fun spur-of-the-moment purchase.
Festival booths are also a great way to study the psychology of each member of your family. Every neurosis can be observed, it seems, by watching a person making a buying decision they don’t have to. There were many opportunities as every several feet there was another stop to step into a tent and ask about merchandise. There is also something therapeutic about simply gawking at something novel, interesting, or pretty. At least for me, I feel more creative walking around dealers and artisans, watching what they crafted by hand. To see how many of them took what were once little ideas and packaged them in compelling and ornate ways into a charming craft.
Deep Fried Paradise
Because we took the initiative to carry a package of nutritious Oreo cookies with us, we had snacks all while shopping. This meant things went very sanely when we arrived at the food vendor end of the tents. We already knew what we wanted, so we wrapped that adventure up with the purchase of a couple of obligatory funnel cakes.
Fair food is a unique paradox. It barely qualifies as food and it’s never priced fairly. Despite this, it has an important place as I consider it the only true American food. Everything else is imported and immigrant born as far as I’m concerned. After all of the decades I’ve lived on this planet, I still marvel at the fact that you can deep fry and serve butter or Coca-Cola. I’m also amazed by the fact that I can eat a single onion, prepared and served in such a way to meet my calorie requirements for a day, and my fat and carbohydrate recommendations for a week.
With the exception of some plants that my wife and mother took home with them from the festival merchants, in the end, every purchase although small was more than we needed or wanted. The bubble gun was out of bubbles and batteries by mid-afternoon, the stuffed toy is already neglected in the pile of other stuffed toys, and the funnel cakes were even too much to finish. It wasn’t the merchandise or their practicality that made them valuable, though. It was the moment of diversion they brought. Unlike distraction, which takes away energy and attention, diversion can actually add to experiences and help recharge some of the power cells we use to experience things in full presence. As far as participating in the Azalea Festival, a half-eaten Pollock pancake helps complete the show.
The Azalea Festival was honestly an extremely fun time. I didn’t have a chance to participate in all of the activities and events as I wanted, but that’s not the direction I should turn my head. There is a lot going on each year, and I was also invited to speak at a couple of auxiliary events and walk with a non-profit I volunteer for in the parade. It wouldn’t have been feasible to participate there and to also learn life lessons with my family. Much like making a purchase decision at a fair vendor, I’m satisfied with my choice despite all the others not taken. Okay, I’m lying. I wish I made the Ice Cube concert, too, but those are the breaks. I truly enjoyed my time anyway.
Whether it’s a fragrant flower, proud parade, a maze of merchants, or an Oreo (deep fried or otherwise) there’s an art to being content. The North Carolina Azalea Festival spends a lot of effort and attention on simply appreciating simple things. This isn’t the first post I’ve written about a family outing where I learned appreciation, and hopefully, it won’t be my last. Learning that life experience is a parade you get to participate in or miss is a lesson I hope I’ll hold on to for a long time. And remembering to embrace a diversion, especially where it enriches an experience, could well become a fountain of youth for me. Let the small things go a long way whenever you get the opportunity. There is a lot of value hiding in each moment.