"Summer Solstice Celebration"a 1981 painting by Michael Gonzales

For many Santa Barbarians, Summer Solstice is the sum of its parade – bright colors, bare bellies, and a 100,000 or so of our closest “friends” in some variation of, “Yes, I play the djembe.” For whatever ways Solstice has morphed over the years, there remains the feeling of possibility; of knowing that, if only for a day, perceived limitations can melt away.

For others, Solstice is also the sum of four decades of collaboration – a deep dive into our human relationship to music, the soul of art, and what it means to be part of a community. My first Solstice memory was as a toddler at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens, where my father – and about a 100,000 of his closest friends – created an epic performance that, the previous year, had been translated from English into Spanish, ASL, and Nahuatl. Boundaries were faint. Spirits were high. And as a child who went on to perform on that same stage the following year – and in every parade for the next 20 – I simply believed that this was normal. All of life, like the art I had witnessed, was meant to be like this. Inclusive. Mysterious. Integrated. And most of all, fun.

My dad shamelessly enabled this for most of my life, and Solstice became our common ground. There were long hours. There were many sequins. I dreamed of collaborating on the Friday night kickoff event, which he conceived in response to the Courthouse years; the city, he maintained, craved more than the parade. We needed to come together as a community, build excitement for Saturday, and deliver the kind of performance that keeps us vibrant. Last year would have been our first crack at this, but then my dad got sick – really sick. The kind of sick where you don’t know if someone is going to make it to Solstice, let alone be there to run sound cues. So when he blessedly recovered, returning to an even higher level of inspiration, I sent him a text message: “Wanna collaborate on Solstice 2017 and bring a bunch of people together and make it the coolest thing ever?”

To which he said simply, “Totally.”

And here we are. Over the past several months, I’ve watched in awe as artists have crawled from the woodwork, including an all-star band, our recent poet laureate, and renowned director Jenny Sullivan, one of the original members of Mime Caravan. You know, the group that created this celebration in the first place. We have all come together over the theme of “Celebrating Unity,” powerful in its own right, but even more so during a year where divisiveness seems to take the daily headline. Even more so when you consider the number of multi-generational Solstice teams (I’ve counted four) who have found mutual inspiration in Friday’s event – special for any town, but especially one where a windowless room can rent for $900.

Perhaps most radical is the fact that Friday remains more performance piece than party, an important distinction, considering how many locals express that Solstice has transformed into another “Fiesta” of drunken tourists, lack of parking, and opportunities to be photographed while looking cool. And to be clear: I’m one of those people who gets photographed, and it’s a blast. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that each time, a little part of my Solstice heart breaks – not for the fact that things change, as they always do, but for the fact that this nameless feeling of connectedness gets reduced to a chance to feel cool. But is a feeling enough to build the parade? How do you break that into a budget? The executive team behind Solstice do a bang-up job of handling the festival’s logistics, and I tip my hat to them. The feeling remains. And from it, I retain the right to cater my particular offering to the kids who might feel, as I did, that there is some higher reason to do this, beyond popularity, or the desire to make money. They are the ones who will carry the soul of Solstice forward on the film of their fairy wings, demanding that accessibility, not aesthetic, must reign.

This year, I have chosen flash mob dance – the ultimate “what the fk?!” – as my avenue to do this, contrasting the wave of highly choreographed dance that has recently seeped into the parade. Which, of course, is lovely. But is it what we need to feel unified? Like all are welcome? And if the answer is no, what do we need, and how to we get it? For Friday’s team, the answer is simple: connection. Between people; across lines of race, class, gender, and wardrobe. Between feet and earth. Between sound and ears. Between hearts and souls. If you join us, I believe that you will feel it in every beat of the carefully chosen set list, and in each moment of divine mess – as in flash mob, as in life, as in every moment of our human desire to connect the dots of our common experience, and in doing so, heal.

Friday’s performance isn’t about the response it will get. It’s not about the administration, or even the festival itself. This is by the community, for the community. Like that last store on State Street selling dream catchers; which you don’t ever shop in, yet mourn the loss of because it represents a part of your home – like childhood itself – that might be fading. Don’t let Summer Solstice be that. There’s an opportunity to show up and to say with conviction that this is something that we all need: connection. Which truly is the opposite of apathy. Unity, not uniformity. Looking back, not turning around… one foot at a time. From Cota to Micheltorena, and straight on ‘til morning. Forward.

Join us for the Summer Solstice kickoff event on Friday, 6/23 at Alameda Park. Happy Hour honoring local nonprofits is from 4-5 p.m., followed by music and live performance art from 5-9 p.m. It’s all free.


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