I spot him from the stage as I’m preparing for soundcheck, as he moves purposefully through the crowd of bearded and tie-dye-clad hiking enthusiasts gathered here for the Trail Days Festival. He stands out, wearing a U.S. Army WWII-era dress uniform, with his black hair parted on one side. His appearance isn’t happenstance; his khaki trousers match his Eisenhower jacket, and there’s a wartime unit patch sewn on one shoulder. Occasionally he smiles, and in one hand he holds what appears to be a leather-bound Bible. He could almost be a character from a period drama, or a wartime newsreel. I wonder briefly if I’m seeing a ghost, even though I’m not inclined to believe in such things.
I wonder who he is. A WWII re-enactor? Some sort of missionary, hoping his anachronistic dress might draw you into a conversation where he can introduce to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? A few people greet him, suggesting he’s not a stranger. Maybe he’s one of those beloved local oddballs that often grace the streets of small towns in American pop culture, from The Andy Griffith Show to Northern Exposure. He sits at a table, opens his book and begins reading.
My attention shifts and by the time I look again in his direction, he’s gone. My thoughts turn inward as the band warms up. For the last several weeks I’ve felt a strange sense of disconnection in my life. It’s not depression, which I’m quite familiar with, but something different. This is my first time at this festival, and normally in these situations I’d either be incredibly self-conscious or excited at a new experience. Today, though, I feel nothing, as if I’m not really there, and even playing music on stage – something that’s been at the center of my life since I was teen – doesn’t really register, feels almost forced somehow, a role where I struggle to remember the lines. Unlike the the man in the uniform, it’s as if I’ve stepped into a movie, a simulacrum of reality, and not out of one. Maybe I’m a ghost myself.
I’ve read that in post-Reign of Terror Paris, young people would tie red threads around their necks in mockery of the wounds of the guillotine, as a way of processing the trauma of the revolution. The last year, with its pandemic, social unrest and attempted insurrection have affected many of us in ways that we can’t even begin to understand. What mattered before may not mean what it used to. Like a character in the garb of another century, events have wrenched me out of my time and left me disoriented.
I’ve just gone through four years of life under a would-be autocrat, a year of a deadly pandemic, and the whole apocalyptic s**tstorm culminating in a deadly insurrection by white nationalists. It probably shouldn’t be surprising that I’m ambivalent about playing music again or doing other things that I once loved, or simultaneously indifferent to and anxious about the future. Most of us are ruminating on the deeper meanings of our lives, questions once ignored but that were laid bare by the experience of what we’ve been through and our confrontations with both our conscience and our mortality. I have a feeling that a lot of once-important things are going to feel trivial for a long time to come.