lenten journal: why are we here?


We decided to walk to breakfast this morning instead of eating at the hotel. When we walked outside and it was raining lightly, we were undaunted. The place we were going was about a mile and a half down MLK Blvd. in a direction we had not gone before, so we got to see some new parts of Savannah, some of which were those that are not benefitting from the city’s prosperity.

The place where we had hoped to go wasn’t opening for breakfast today, but we did make arrangements to go there for dinner tomorrow. I’ll save my review until then. Our next destination was supposed to be Forsyth Park for the Greening of the Fountain, so we meandered in that direction and found Blue Door Coffee and Waffles, which was a quirky little gem of a coffee shop in a changing neighborhood.

The little building had two or three rooms with random tables and chairs. The walls in the room where we sat were covered with Arnold Schwarzenegger memorabilia. Other spaces had Star Wars stuff, and the bathroom was covered with Marvel comics. The breakfast sandwiches were made with mini waffles. The woman who served us moved from the country outside of Athens, Georgia. She had found a home working there.

We ate and then continued down Bull Street until it ran into the park and then we walked yet another tree-lined sidewalk until we got to the fountain. I did not know, until we got here, that Savannah had such an Irish connection. Nine of the original settlers of the city were Irish, and soon after the founding, a ship of Irish indentured servants bound for New England wrecked near Savannah and James Oglethorpe, who imagined a city that welcomed everyone, took them in. They were still indentured servants, but they got to stay. That was 1734.

When Irish immigration began to explode, in part because of the Potato Famine, Savannah remained a welcoming port when cities like Boston and New York were doing all they could to keep the Irish from getting in. The immigrants were crucial in building the infrastructure of the growing city.

With St. Patrick’s Day just a week away, we have noticed increasing bits of green everywhere. We will be back in Connecticut when the parade happens, but today we went to watch them “green the fountain.”

The festivities were to start at noon; we got there about 11:30, and the rain arrived soon after. As we watched people gather, I felt like they could be put in three general categories: those who made the event happen (men in green suits or kilts, lots of hats, Catholic school kids, a bagpipe player), those who knew about the event and came on purpose (both locals and visitors), and those who stumbled into it while walking through the park.

One of the last group was walking with a friend and was quite disoriented as she took in the crowd. She turned to the people sitting on the bench near me and said, “Why are we here?”

I thought it was a great question.

As those of us who were spectators waited, we watched three or four city workers carry small (green) pitchers of dye to the properly dressed folks on the other side of the fountain. Then, as the rain fell in earnest, many of them moved inside the fence that surrounds the fountain and the emcee began to speak. Though the sound system wasn’t adequate, you could glean by the posture of the people who could hear him that they said a prayer and the Pledge, and then some other stuff. One by one, with casual ceremony, they began to pour the dye from their pitchers into the water and we could see it begin to spread unit it finally got pulled into by the pump and the whole fountain sprayed green.

We cheered as though that was why we were there, and it struck me that, Irish or not, we gravitate to things that enhance our connectedness. As I sat down to write, I searched for the word “gather” on this blog to make sure I wasn’t reusing a title and found this post from last December about the Tree Lighting in Guilford. I wrote, “I walked home in wonder that we, as humans, are built to need each other, to think up reasons to be together.”

I mean, someone said they were going to throw green dye in the fountain and hundreds of people showed up–in the rain! As I read about the history of the event, which goes back to the 1980s, I learned of Fred Elmgren, who has participated in it since the beginning.

“I was there for the beginning, but I didn’t know it,” he said. “The origination of it was hooligans, dying the fountains, or people with good intention, maybe not even just hooligans dying the fountains and making it cool for St. Patrick’s Day. All of a sudden the realization, this stuff could ruin our fountain pumps. They knew they couldn’t stop it so they started dyeing it themselves.”

One of the things I loved about the event was the passer-by who asked, “Why are we here?” didn’t leave. She and her friend found their place in the crowd and stayed until green sprayed from the fountain, as did the old men in green coats with fancy sashes whose blood is probably as green as the dyed water, and me, who loved looking around at another gathering of people who can take something silly or accidental and turn it into a ritual of belonging.

The best definition of ritual I know is that it is meaningful repetition. What I saw today is that the meaning doesn’t have to be the same for everyone for it to remind us we are together. It just takes someone–like Fred Elmgren–to say, “This is going to happen anyway, so why don’t we mean it?” Who knows where it goes from there. As he said, he was there in the beginning and didn’t realize it. Forty years later, there we were standing in the rain, cheering for green dye because this is why we’re here.


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