I have been to state fairs and street fairs, county fairs and school fairs, but none of my previous experiences prepared me for the three-day bash billed as the Oregon Country Fair. My expectations of mingling with prize pigs and heifers nurtured by loving 4-H clubbers couldn’t have been further off the mark. Although I should have gotten the message when we passed a road sign some seven or eight miles from the fair grounds that challenged “Dare to Be Bare at the Fair,” I didn’t grasp the literal significance of it until I finally got there.
For the past forty years, the psychedelic summers of the sixties have been resurrected at this annual festival held just outside of Eugene, Oregon. Enter the gates of the 280-acre site and you are magically transported back in time to the intersection of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock. Attendees are encouraged to leave their conventional selves in the parking lot and become principal players in live performance theater. Populated by clowns and jesters, fairies and dragons, the fair is a ticket to a magic carpet ride, propelled by unbridled love and artistic expression, into a world of innocence and freedom that, in this paranoid age of counterterrorism, most of us presume is lost.
I’d like to say that from the moment I ventured into the milling crowds ambling up and down the booth-lined byways, I became a child again, gawking, grinning, and waving at nearly everyone I passed. But that’s not what happened. My entry was neither smooth nor graceful. Shakespeare surely had me in mind when he spoke of the poor player fretting his moment before the footlights. For the first half hour I was so focused on finding the prime entertainment area to meet up with friends and family as planned that I managed to avoid seeing anything or anyone along the way. I was so bent on reaching my destination that all the potential magic of the journey was dismissed as an inconvenience.
It took longer than I like to admit to give myself permission to join the revelry. Encouraged by countless wishes to “Have a good fair,” I gradually loosened my grip on the cultural identity I unwittingly use to navigate the seemingly serious world of writing and speaking. The process was considerably quickened by a young lady, covered more in brightly colored paint than in fabric, who wanted to know why I looked so serious. In a flash the battle was over and I succumbed. My purposeful stride melted, and I gave up the notion of being anywhere other than where I happened to be at the time.
Once I allowed myself to become a flower child again, the rest of my time at the fair was filled with enchanting moments of interacting with the other participants freely expressing their lighter part of being. We routinely exchanged high fives, knowing smiles, and warm, lingering hugs. I had broken through, and I now relished my role in the performance, saddened that the day would end all too soon.
What ever happened to the free love movement of the late twentieth century? Many hold that our one-time innocence and exuberance for life have been cauterized by searing waves of patriotic paranoia and the judgmental righteousness of our Brave New World. Spontaneous expressions of personal freedom are looked upon with suspicion and are added to growing electronic dossiers maintained by a subset of one of the alphabet soup agencies that governments spawn to tighten their grip on power. The erosion of our personal liberties over the past few decades has been so slow and steady, so cleverly veiled by measured reason and rhetoric, that I had failed to appreciate how completely I had already fallen into lockstep with the official party line. I had thought of myself as a free thinker and a child of the universe. The instant I entered the gates of the Oregon Country Fair, I discovered how badly I had been deceiving myself.
It’s heartening to discover that the fire blazing in our collective hearts during those days of endless summer when girls wore flowers in their hair and we would rather make love than war, has not been completely extinguished. It has been quietly tended and stoked by those who still remember so that it can be rekindled once each year as a precious reminder of what exquisite beings we once dared to be.
The fair, of course, is a metaphor for our lives. From a cosmic perspective, our existence on this planet is one grand performance theater, and we are free to play any part we choose in our own drama. Looking back, I can recount the times when I held center stage with abandon, ad-libbing memorable lines, and enthralling my public with my carefree presence. I can see many more instances when I cowered in the wings, fearing the moment I would be cast before the lights, my ineptitude displayed for all to see.
The culprit is, was, and always will be judgment. We are torpedoed by our self-image – or lack of it. Believing that we need the constant approval of others to know our own worth, we adorn ourselves with logos and lifestyles that speak on our behalf. I can only wonder how completely my day at the fair will change my life, and whether I will dare to bare the real me to myself – much less to the world. Whatever I eventually choose, I can no longer pretend not to know.
Jean-Claude Gerard Koven is a writer and speaker based in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. He was a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and is the author of Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense, recipient of both the Allbooks Reviews Editor’s Choice Award and the USABookNews.com Award for the Best Metaphysical Book of the Year.
©2004 – 2021. Jean-Claude Gerard Koven / All Rights Reserved.