Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Lupus Chili-fest

An old store is given new life by an assembly of people. The menu over the counter calls back to a time when you could buy a bag of chips for 40 cents, and a soda for 55. A 1950s gas pump stands in a corner, white Christmas lights run across the ceiling, and an opening near a wood burning stove serves as the stage. People file in and find their seats in rows of chairs while an old hippie explains how everyone has love. It made sense. We loved every second of it.

The room seemed to glow, not so much from those Christmas lights, but from the energy radiating from the bards at the front of the room, and the people joining them in song, bluegrass stories of days gone bye, knew every word. I observed the scene from my vantage point somewhere behind the stage and I could imagine it not being much different than the way people have communed for thousands of years. Outside the night air carried a September chill, but inside people warmed themselves in the ancient art of song.

The group gladly referred to themselves as "old hippies", and seeing their assembly I held them in awe. Many of them shared a bond created during a tumultuous time of questioning, now simply referred to as “the 60s”. But they did not seem stuck in the 60s. They seemed very much aware of current circumstances. They spoke with one another about fellow friends. They live in the same world as everyone else, with aging, and disease, but they approached it with a rational pragmatism, buoyed by a love for music, and poetry, and history and ideals. This was a world I was unaccustomed to yet they were all were friendly and welcoming.

“What do you think of the chili?” they asked. "Did you get enough?"

Chili was the food that brought them all together, once a year, into the small town of Lupus, Missouri, on the banks of the river of the same name. Drive west from Columbia and you would be hard pressed to find it. The town is probably more accessible by canoe, which is how many of the musicians arrived. And the numbers slowly swelled. So many of them were so obviously talented--one was a poetry professor, one was an author--that they also shared, in concerts inside or behind the General Store, what they had learned over the years. And people keep coming back every year to listen, and it is not hard to see why.

Someone opened a book by Herman Hesse and read a poem, or was it a holy Psalm? Who could tell or what was the difference? It was about transcendence and change and growing older and phasing into new things. Its timeless message resonated with every person in the room and when the words were concluded everyone applauded their amens. They were, after all, like everyone else: moving through life. But they employed the timeless use of friendship, and writing, and music to help them on their way.

The experience was very humbling to me. There are so many facets to life; no one can experience them all. And had I never traveled to Lupus that one September day I would have missed something. But now it stands as a reminder of how things should be. We all have this cross to bare: life. It is both something feared and embraced all at the same time. But with simple tools, like we have done since time ageless, we come alive. We were an assembly transforming a room into a hearth of burning coals, stoked with Gnostic fervor. And I would like to think that such communion will continue to transform our own society one person at a time, turning us all into a living stones.

The event touched on things universal, and even though these sages age, they live in the vein of eternity, doing what humans have always done. One would lead in song, and then another with poem, but all were, for a time, a type of high priest, and the connection between us all was undeniable. For a short time no one was an individual. Technology is said have made the world smaller, but I feel positively alienated compared to this experience with people I'd never met before. To me the most telling event was what didn't happen. No one’s cell phone rudely interrupted the celebration, and it allowed me to appreciate this one all the more.

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