Alright, let’s start by closing our eyes and taking a deep breath… Now hold it in… OK, and breathe out.
What’s the best part of a vacation? The anticipation beforehand, knowing that something new is coming your way soon (or rather, that you’re going its way)? The actual experience of it, being in a different and unfamiliar frame of reference, even if it’s just for a few days? Or is it the going back home, returning to find that the magazines you haven’t read yet are still on the table where you left them, and letting the little comforting things like that remind you why you live there?
The answer is that they’re all the best, because they’re all equally valuable factors: A thing’s antonym is as important as its meaning, because they define each other. “Everything is relative,” says the guy who watched a video about basic psychological principals once. After all, what would blue mean without the existence of red? How about Kanye West without modesty? Loud without silent? How can mirrors be real if our eyes aren’t real? These things are what they are as much as they are what they are not, like music snobs who define themselves by the songs they can’t stand as much as they do by the obscure bands they love that you’ve probably never heard of.
Music is a party, yes, but it’s also a quiet night in, and the folks at the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival understand that.
They put on an event filled with exciting moments in Okeechobee, Florida this first weekend of March: Arcade Fire, Bassnectar, Halsey, and Travis Scott headlined, and other highlights included a collaborative performance from The Roots, Snoop Dogg, Chaka Khan, and others, as well as Khalid, The Flaming Lips, Local Natives, and more. Tycho and Sylvan Esso’s sets were also among my personal favorites.
Okeechobee also places emphasis on the parts of music that are often left out of festivals, or at least not as recognized: The stillness, the introspection, the serenity. Depraved all-night raves can be fulfilling, but so is taking a break from getting to know somebody else’s sweaty, gyrating body and instead getting to know yourself. The Yogachobee stage offered sessions of acroyoga, laughter yoga, wake up yoga, and energy yoga flow. Other such meditative activities could be found throughout the festival grounds as well. The apex of these barefoot vibes over the weekend was when the main stage was devoted to The Big Quiet, “an immersive sound meditation experience” featuring members of Arcade Fire, Local Natives, and Sofi Tukker, leading a large group of festivalgoers sitting on the ground and finding inner balance for sixty minutes.
I see the value in yoga and meditation and that sort of inward-looking activity, but in that regard, I’m a handful of granola short of a sitting-with-my-legs-crossed parfait. Yoga, meditation, and the like aren’t my cup of organic sage-infused tea, but over the past few years, yoga-ish, meditative ideals have found their way into my life, and for that, I’m improving.
A couple years ago, I lived with roommates I didn’t know well and didn’t care to learn about at all. It was a random assignment deal. Being in the common area of our central Maine apartment gave me some level of anxiety, for reasons that weren’t clear to me then and still aren’t now. So, I stayed mostly in my room, leaving to get food or go on a drive when I didn’t hear them outside my closed door. That didn’t make anything better.
A local pizza place had a 2-for-1 deal on Mondays, so more weeks than I should have, I’d get two large chicken bacon ranch pizzas and subsist mostly on those for the week, not bothering to refrigerate the leftovers. I dropped from an already-lean 155 pounds down to 138, which yes, is too light for a 5’11” male. It was for me, anyway.
I had a couple friends, but I didn’t see them much. I preferred to spend most of my time alone. On Halloween weekend of 2015, for example, instead of putting on a banana costume or something equally goofy and dumb, going to a party, and meeting new people, I stayed in, sat at my desk, and made an experimental ambient music album based on jazz fusion samples (Listen to it if you’d like; I still think the last song is interesting). Interpersonal communication is hard, especially due to my stutter that was a debilitating challenge for a long time. It isn’t that outwardly noticeable these days, although I still contend with it on a regular basis internally, both psychologically and vocally. Solitude, and not trying, was comfortable.
These aren’t the worst problems anybody has ever faced, but they were my problems.
And breathe out. Now we’re going to hum, so on the count of three, I want you to make a deep hum, think about somebody important to you, and really feel the vibration of your voice and their love in your throat. One… two… three…
When my cousin was relocating to Portland, Maine for dental school in mid-2016, I decided a change of pace would be good for me, so I moved in with him and a mutual friend of ours. That’s the arrangement I’m in currently, and it’s great: I’m still not exactly the mayor of Portland, kissing babies and cutting ribbons with giant scissors to ceremoniously open new libraries, but I’ve met some new people, enjoyed a meaningful nine-month relationship with my now-ex-girlfriend, rekindled an old friendship or two, got interested in cooking and other hobbies, and made a conscious effort to better myself and to better understand myself.
A significant part of that came from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons In Personal Change by Stephen Covey, which I read (the first third or so of) about a year ago, maybe longer. The concept from the book that has most stuck with me is the relationship between one’s Circle Of Influence and their Circle Of Concern. Simply stated, the former includes the things you can control, and the latter includes the things you worry about. The more elements of your life in your Circle Of Concern that are also in your Circle Of Influence, the better you will be able to approach living in a productive and fulfilling way. Even more simply stated, don’t bother with what you have no power over, and everything will be cool.
My two circles aren’t perfectly aligned, but they’re getting closer. At Okeechobee, I found myself lingering in my tent some mornings to avoid exchanging pleasantries with the people camping near me. When other photographers were making small talk, chatting in groups while we waited in the photo pit for the performance to start, I stood away from them and picked out interesting faces in the crowd, admittedly also trying to appear cool to the people nearest the barricade; super lame. When people sidled up next to me right in my personal space, or made eye contact and smiled, I acted like I was looking at something in the distance and didn’t notice them, instead of giving a friendly, “Hey!”
These reactions came from a place of illogical anxiety (however minor it may be), but hey, I’m working on it. I’m not as unpleasant a guy as it may seem — I’d actually say I’m quite personable and maybe even endearing once I get going — but I’m not usually the one to instigate a conversation.
I also found myself talking with a young photographer seeking career advice, and while I’m a solid picture-taker at best whose status as a music writer affords me these opportunities from time to time, I sat and talked with the guy for 20 minutes. We spoke about forging your own career path and coming to terms with the fact that pay and opportunity in the freelance world aren’t always great, especially early on, but that’s a big part of the process to work through. A few years ago, I might have answered his first question or two succinctly, then made an excuse and moved on. Now, I was happy to chat and impart as much wisdom as a 26-year-old writer can. I’m becoming better.
I also built a rapport with Aldo, a photographer from Miami shooting Okeechobee, covering a festival for the first time. I was happy to spot him and his unceasing friendliness by the festival stages before and after a performance. Before him, there was the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Portland to Washington, DC, a mother originally from Atlanta but now a 20-year Maine transplant, whose son goes to the same college that I went to, whose daughter is a prosperous world-traveling businesswoman based in Boston, and whose husband owns multiple grocery stores. She was heading to Atlanta.
There was also Jae, a conversational festival runner who picked me up from the airport, and we talked about her friends’ rollercoaster relationships and the roles players of each position in the NBA play. She also found me hilarious, and telling me that I’m funny is the express route to my comedy-fueled heart, so she won me over quickly. Lastly, there was Arkansas, another festival runner who drove me to my flight out of Orlando. The guy, who is 47 years old if I’m remembering correctly, has had a colorful life, which has included everything from being happy and homeless in California, to starting his own music festival only to be betrayed by his business partner/stepbrother, to nearly marrying a girl who’s now in her mid-twenties before she met somebody else in England, to working festivals, living life mostly on the road, and harboring aspirations to write all these experiences down. I’d read that.
I should also add, if only to talk myself up a little, that for a lot of the weekend, I was texting and Snapchatting with a girl from Portland who, against all odds, agreed to go on a date, a date that would have happened this past weekend if not for my Floridian voyage. She seems uncommonly cool, so let’s hope that she is.
As much as or more than brilliant performances from Billie Eilish, Lil Dicky, Thievery Corporation, and others, I’ll remember these slivers of time and the people attached to them. They were the quiet to the loud of what was happening on the festival stages, and they were an integral part of the dynamic. The two-or-three-years-ago version of me would look at present-day me with a raised eyebrow as I say this, but most experiences are better when other people are around to live them with you; “Happiness only real when shared,” as Into The Wild protagonist Christopher McCandless famously wrote.
With its encouragement of reflection, peace-seeking, and community built on both high-quality music and sense of satisfied self, Okeechobee fosters this kind of environment, so it feels like (and I hope) my experience was mirrored by many other attendees who returned home on Monday with more than just a tan line from their festival bracelet, a ringing in their ears, and a killer hangover.
That said, Okeechobee was only one part of my weekend.
Now, let’s take one last big breath in…
When I got off the plane in Portland and walked through the small hallway leading to the terminals on Monday night, I was greeted by a small “Welcome Home” sign, flanked by a moose and a lobster illustration on either side. I smiled at how folksy and “Maine” it was. My friend was picking me up, and as I headed to the other end of the airport to meet him, I strolled past little more than a TV mounted on the wall playing some Disney Channel show starring a Logan Paul type, and a custodian weaving through benches on a zamboni-like, ride-on carpet cleaner. There’s nothing more charming than Maine’s stillness.
I walked outside into the brisk, still-barely-winter air and there was a 30-something guy, trying unsuccessfully to ward off a smile as he held a handmade sign that read “Dunn,” presumably greeting a special someone with a heartstring-tugging surprise after a long journey. Another man around his age walked out, saw the sign, and laughed. “You dick,” he exclaimed, still laughing as he patted his pal on the back, exchanged wide smiles with him, and loaded his bags into the waiting SUV.
It was cold, but I felt warm. It was familiar, but fresh. It was quiet, an idyllic complement to the dynamic loudness of Okeechobee.
And breathe out.