My daughter is the star of her first music festival: she is nine months old, pink cheeked and fat. We’ve dressed her in a cotton tank-top, a screenprint of a kitten wearing a flower crown. It’s almost too cute, but this is a strategy: I’m hoping that if she’s fussy, festival-goers will find the baby or the kitten so cute that they won’t mind. Baby animals evolved to have those huge eyes so we’d be tricked into caring for them, my friend reminded me recently. My daughter’s face is 90 percent eyes. I’m counting on evolution to do the heavy lifting if her screaming disrupts one of the sets.
The evolutionary charm offensive is unnecessary: she is quiet and pleasant all day. We sit her in the grass in front of our chairs, and she is wholly entertained by incidentals: the lawn, the empty water bottles, the grins from adults sitting nearby. “She’s so well behaved!” one exclaims, as if we bear any responsibility for our infant’s fickle moods. Thank you, I say. We are at her utter mercy, I want to say.
She likes the music, but more than that, it’s the the applause at the end of every song that she loves: the beat of silence erased by a thunder-chorus of hand claps. She startles every time, but the surprise quickly transforms into glee and she looks around, smiling, believing we’re clapping for her. Of course, she has done nothing to merit the applause—on the contrary, she is sitting in a full diaper with grass in her nose—but she accepts it anyway, as if this were the most logical thing to do. I envy her this, her capability to accept love she has not earned, and in accepting it, making it hers.
For the rest of the day, I cannot stop thinking about what it must be like, to be surprised by applause and to assume it is meant for you. How would it change the way we weave in and out of the world if we assumed that its best qualities—its wildflowers and wide-eyed baby animals and watercolor sunsets—were God’s applause, a grateful deity responding to our existence? I spent two summers working at a camp in the woods of Wisconsin, and there, in a humid prison of tall trees and red dirt, I was certain of God’s presence and it bowed me to the earth, drew thank you thank you thank you from my lips. It has been a long time since I have felt sure of God’s existence; even longer that I’ve felt certain that he loved me, but in those wooded summers, my gratitude and my belief were symbiotic.
This is what I believe now: the natural world is a horror and a miracle, and I find it either the best argument for the existence of God, or proof positive of his absence.
Preachers told me that the earth was given to us as a gift. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin. Yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Look at the world around you, he implores us, and consider. Consider the red harvest moon hung heavy and low; the ocean throbbing onto the briney sand; the way that spring grips and twists the paper trunks of trees until they puff into bloom — all this impossible beauty, the applause of God, for our pleasure. All we need to do with this gift is to accept. Consider.
Except: consider the mosquito, the hurricane, the mother devouring her cubs. Consider the tsunami, the stacks of limbs, the vultures snapping into rot. Consider the matted feathers, the bloody nest, the motionless runt whose eyes weren’t wide enough.
The festival lasts through the evening. We sit under a white tent, the canvas fabric like a moth, bright, fluttering. Song after song, applause rings out. Thank you, each musician smiles, giving a small bow or gesturing towards the bandmates behind him. You’re welcome, my daughter smiles, looking around at her rapturous audience and soaking in her praise.
The air is cooling as the final act of the night climbs up on the stage. Just outside the tent, a red-bellied woodpecker rests on a tree branch, its silhouette inked on a salmon sky. My daughter points in excitement. Yes, I whisper. Birdy. Under the tent, a saxophone player straps his brassy instrument on, lightly running his fingers over the keys. Is it a rule, my husband jokes, that all saxophone players have to wear blazers? I smile and start to respond, but the music is starting up again, guitars thrumming and the bass pounding pillowy and deep. The sax player licks his lips and takes a breath. The red-bellied woodpecker opens its mouth. A praise chorus tumbles out into the warm dark night.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Riane Konc
Riane Konc is a humor writer and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Electric Literature, and others. Visit her website at www.rianekonc.com and follow her on Twitter @theillustrious.