Every autumn, Machete Bang Bang and I go on a road trip. We call it the “Fall Every Fall,” which doesn’t really make sense, except to us. This year, the plan was to attend RiSe, a whimsical gathering where participants release lanterns into the sky as a prayer for hope and healing. How could we have known how significant the geography of the event would be? RiSe is held just north of Las Vegas.
Since the shooting, my eyes have been glued to coverage, even though all I want is to look away. These sort of horrific tragedies do that to me. It’s like I can’t compute it actually happened until it’s been screamed at me from every news station.
I’ve also been spending a lot of time in my dad’s hospital room (he recently got a liver transplant) and he likes to keep the news on. We sit together for hours, watching the sadness on CNN, holding hands, his IV dripping, nurses shuffling by in their funny clogs. I’ve been crying a lot. For my friends who were at Route 91 Harvest Festival, all of whom are okay, thank god. For the fact that I was covering an outdoor concert in San Diego the same day, and it could’ve happened to us. For the senseless violence and feeling of helplessness. For the sensationalism of American media, how the headline Las Vegas Massacre!! is written in horror movie font. For the miracle of my dad’s new organ, and for the person who left this earth so he could stay.
Feeling the way I have, going to the desert to get good Instagrams with a paper lantern seemed trite, obnoxious and dumb.
I’ve never viewed Las Vegas as “Sin City,” a tourist destination where you can do things that stay undone. I grew up in Northern Nevada, so Vegas to me is the sports rival to the south, the destination for countless soccer and volleyball tournaments that doubled as family vacations. I have a lot of friends in Vegas. I love hiking there, I love the coffee shops and the thrift stores.
As Machete and I drove into town on Saturday, we tried to get a glimpse of the site of the shooting, then instantly felt weird about it. Machete asked if we should stop. We both wanted to, and didn’t want to. We discussed it. Why do we stare at car accidents? Visit concentration camps? Because it’s not real until we’ve seen it with our own eyes? What’s the line between paying your respects, and being a tragedy tourist? “Makes me think of the Dakota apartments in New York,” Machete said. “People know it as the place John Lennon was shot. But couldn’t it be known as the place John Lennon lived, the place where he created beautiful masterpieces?”
We didn’t stop. An hour and a half later we were on sacred land at the Moapa River Indian Reservation, watching our lantern sputter, burn a hole, and otherwise fail to lift majestically into the sky.
“Maybe we lit it wrong?”
“It’s burning, how can fire go ‘wrong’”?
“Let’s sit this one out.”
This turned out to be a good idea, because watching the event was as lovely as taking part. The festival had begun in the afternoon with musicians playing dreamy, ethereal music. But since there’s only so much dreamy, ethereal music one can stomach, we’d arrived just before the first lantern release at 8:15pm.
The crowd was mixed ages and races. A group of guys we met in line had flown in from around the country to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday, because RiSe was at the top of his bucket list. The excitement was palpable when the emcee said he was about to start the countdown. He acknowledged the shooting, and said “We’re stronger together. This is for all the people whose names are written on the lanterns, know that their lives mattered.”
5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Thousands of lanterns lifted into the sky alongside a fat harvest moon. It’s difficult to describe the feeling, but it was akin to watching the total eclipse in Oregon this summer. A collective of humans banded together in wonderment. Wholesome. Magical. Whoops from the crowd. More dreamy, ethereal music.
For the next hour, lanterns were released continuously. To be honest, a decent amount didn’t achieve takeoff. If I was a better writer, I’d figure out a clever euphemism here, something about how in life sometimes you float and sometimes you crash. And burn. Because a lot of them did. And though I worried intensely about how the heck they don’t set the sagebrush on fire, the RiSe website assures me in elegant font that all lanterns are biodegradable and 100% are collected from the ground after the event.
For the next collective release, we were ready. I wrote a brain dump about everything I’m noodling on in my life, and a dedication to my dad’s organ donor. A second lantern was dedicated to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting.
This time, we let enough hot air build in our lanterns to get good lift-off. I tried to really focus my thoughts on the victims and send healing (yes, I know how that sounds). Then they lit a bunch of fireworks, and played the song “Howling” by RY X. Do you know this song? Listen to it. Prepare for waterworks. Appropriately, the RiSe crowd started howling.
I thought of everyone wolf howling during the eclipse, and again during the temple burn at Burning Man — it seems to be the go-to sound humans make when we’re having an experience impossible to put into words. I thought of the explanation I finally received from a guy who’d ghosted me, that he hadn’t reached out because he’s a “lone wolf.” And I had replied with a howling wolf gif, because what else could I really say?
As these thoughts unspooled, I chastised myself for losing focus on the spiritual moment at hand. Then I realized this is indicative of the grieving process – we’re consumed by tragedy, we’re bonded by it, we demand some sort of change, then slowly, we get on with our lives. How can we really create change in the world? I thought I’d never recover from the anguish of Columbine, of 9/11. How can we learn from these tragedies, yet still allow ourselves to lead happy lives, when so many are left suffering?
And what about my dad’s nurse who watched the footage with us, who said she’d escaped from Bosnia after six years of war? Six years of shootings every day.
Machete points out the significance of the festival being on Native land just before Columbus Day, and the campaign to change the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. When I’d looked up the Moapa River Indian Reservation, I saw the Paiutes live here, and felt a connection because this tribe was present in my hometown, in addition to the Washoe tribe. I went to Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School, Paiute for “People of the Valley.” Am I “allowed” to feel this connection, even though I’m a white girl who paid $100 to got to the desert and release a lantern?
And what about lantern festivals being lifted from Chinese and Thai holidays? It that wrong?
Amid this internal debate, I realized Machete had been shouting at me, and I snapped out of my reverie just in time to see a flaming lantern headed straight for my head. I ducked, and the lantern whooshed by in a blaze of glory.
We cracked up, and I returned, as I always do, to the healing power of laughter. I thought of the liver transplant support group earlier in the summer, the room thick with emotion as one person after another recounted their stories. Some had been waiting on the list for years. Others had had their transplant and needed another one. We commiserated on the side-effects of liver failure, all of which I’d experienced with my dad – skin tears, bellies swollen with unfiltered fluid, ammonia build-up causing slurred speech and memory loss.
Several patients only spoke Spanish, so an interpreter was there translating to the rest of the group. As one man’s backstory was relayed, the translator said on his behalf “I used to be a drug addict.” His wife looked shocked, stopped her, and repeated what her husband had actually said. Embarrassed, the translator told the room “I’m sorry everyone, he said he used to be a truck driver, not a drug addict.”
And we all burst into laughter. At first it seemed inappropriate to do so, but then it consumed us, and all forty people from completely different backgrounds shifted from darkness into a moment of light. It felt like the first time most of us had laughed in a very long time.
As Machete and I drove out of Las Vegas, past the hotels darkened in honor of the victims, #VegasStrong on the marquees, I thought about what the shooting might do for gun control, or if investigators will find a reason why the shooter did what he did.
But mainly I thought about the victims and their families. I hoped releasing my lantern for them was some sort of relevant tribute, however tiny. In the face of something so massively incomprehensible, no action feels good enough. So we release lanterns. And we howl like wolves into the night.