A Firework World

Well-behaved children of the 1980s were a rarity on television but maybe not in life, but few understand this moderated, charming behavior was the result of carefully structured bribery. It’s not that the well-behaved didn’t have the same impulses to turn the chaos faucet on full blast, it’s that we stored it, carefully, walnuts in a squirrel’s cheeks, for a special occasion. Such was the Fourth of July.

As a kid, I would scrounge quarters that had fallen out of my father’s pockets into the deep caverns of the hideous horsehair couch, I would roll pennies, I would demand obscure chores in exchange for cash from my parents. I organized the ancient encyclopedias a lot, sure that was a high-dollar task. All because it was June, and around the town, questionable plywood stands had gone up, and to me, their shelves were full of gunpowder and wonder. Phantom. Red Devil. Freedom. Black Cat. The names as evocative as spells. Jade Flowers. Purple Rain. Moondance. Has any perfume been named better, or smelled more like wildness?

I wasn’t a child who wanted my chaos spread across the year, I wanted a concentrated occasion to blow up the sky.

The world has fallen out of love with fireworks as I’ve grown up. They’re banned across most of California, citing wildfires and wild animals and anxious, smoke-filled lungs. The reasons are quite reasonable. As an adult, I can’t debate them. We are surrounded by a firework world; where the environment is ready to burst into flame or collapse under our feet without warning. It’s tempting to try and block chaos on every front, to find order in any. We’re not so much holding our finger in the dam as using our bodies to shore up each individual stone during a flood. The fireworks, at least, would list their effects: crackle, strobe, green and purple bursts. Whereas we of the earth have no idea what to expect next, and the list seems to read plague, human rights erosion, drought, god help us, who knows.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I was shocked to learn that fireworks are not a holiday, they are an entire season. Snugged right up against our wildfire falls, the nights from June to September are an endless popcorn machine of bottle rockets. You would think an adult grown from a firework-obsessed child would enjoy this; the truth is, I hate it more every year. I don’t engage in the pleading Tweets that accompany this smoky season, people begging others to consider panicked pets, terrified veterans, and their own sanity. All of these pleas are completely reasonable. But my private despair seems to key into my feelings about so much of the world right now: when the sky is full of fireworks every night, they are no different than sirens. Backgrounded. Ever present. Their meaning shrunk to nothing. How can a firework be special in a sky that’s never dark? How can people waste a magic so rare?

Every day these last two weeks, the news got worse. On the 23rd, the Supreme Court decided, apropos of really nothing, that Americans have a fundamental right to carry a handgun in public. On the 24th, they decided Americans didn’t have a fundamental right to healthcare if they had a uterus (no word whether they do if they keep a gun there.) To add a slap in the face, they headed into the holiday weekend by drastically weakening the EPAs mandate, in a ruling that, incredibly, even some pollution-heavy industries decried. Who could stay focused in a week like this? If you talk about guns, you’re ignoring abortion. If you talk about air pollution, you’re ignoring guns. Everyone is going out of their way to ignore Covid, even as more people have it than ever, and a hot new pandemic seems to be on the rise. A thousand fireworks are going off in the sky every night, far from signifying freedom — they’re a bit more like the rockets’ red glare, incoming into our yards. We’re being driven mad by the continued explosions, as badly as any dachshund spooked by a firecracker, and most of us are too big to fit under the bed. And we in California know what follows firework season: literal fire. It doesn’t suggest we’re heading in a more serene direction.

We grew up on the stories of kids who burned their eyes out or their hands off with sparklers. Their hair caught on fire and they’d had to go to school bald in September. It was always someone two blocks away, or maybe in Iowa, but it definitely happened, our parents warned us sternly, as they continued to hand us sparklers. Danger is unavoidable and so it comes with dire warnings, and sometimes it can be worth the risk. Each summer as a teenager I’d be in love with someone else, and I’d write their name with my sparkler, every letter fading before the next began. For a brief moment, I set the world on fire for them. It felt sacred and spiritual and important, and some of them later kissed me, so who can say it wasn’t effective?

We’re not a country that appreciates the rarity of beautiful things. If it is pleasurable, we must sell it out of box stores, we must buy it at Costco, so we never risk running out of it. If you could light a sparkler today, why not light one every day, and if someone tells you you can’t, aren’t they encroaching on your joy and your freedom? And isn’t anyone who encroaches on a thing you have, whether you want it or not, an enemy? We hold the short term joy of access above the long-term loss of meaning, our hording driven equally by insecurity and selfishness.

It’s easy to see it in Republicans, of course. They want to win, so they don’t care what they win, or who loses or how badly. If an alligator slid out of the sewers and promised to Make America Great Again, they’d add fangs to their red hats and throw raw chicken on a red carpet. They are delighted by wins of things they don’t actually want; polls tell us they actually want fewer guns and more background checks and safe access to abortions. But they’re winning so who cares if they don’t want a sparkler today, as long as they’re depriving you of one tomorrow? Who cares if you want peace and quiet tonight if they want to light off twelve Piccolo Petes in a row?

It’s harder to look for these impulses in ourselves, and it’s not without reasons. When the risks seem worth it, we ignore good sense and safety and light the world on fire a little ourselves. How can we not? It’s the Fourth of July every day now, and the world seems completely unstable. Our futures, if not mortgaged to debt, are blanks in the face of climate change. I can’t be the only one who stands in a hot shower wondering just how long I’m going to continue to have this privilege. We don’t know if our kids will grow up safely, or, when it’s our time to die, if it will be in a bed surrounded by loved ones or in a ditch during the Monkeypox Wars. Is it any wonder we grab at whatever joy we can hold onto? We don’t know if there will be more tomorrow. Maybe people light fireworks on June 24th because they’re assholes. Maybe it’s because they don’t know if there will be ever be a Fourth of July. Maybe it’s because the noise and crackle of the growing chaos is so overwhelming, deciding which end of the sparkler to grab feels like our only way of managing the danger.

How to find beauty in the cacophony of chaos is something artists have sought for centuries. We paint pictures of battlefields; we write dimestore novels about dystopic governments. It’s now safety that’s the rare thing, perhaps the thing I’d save up my quarters for if I was a kid today. Civilization has always been the fight for order in chaos, and it now seems as fragile as a fuse. We can ban fireworks, but we can’t ban all that is bad, and we can’t win a fight on a hundred fronts at once. All we can do is try to see each other through the sparks, to write each other’s names in the night. And hope we give each other the strength to act together.

At Analy High School in Sebastopol, there’s a wide football field, thick green with un-mowed grass. On the Fourth of July, it fills like a brimming stream with families, neighbors, strangers, people from all over the county. There are card games and picnics and toddlers who wiggle in little dances to bad local bands. One year in my early twenties, someone on every third blanket was reading the Harry Potter book that had come out days before. The whole field cheers when the sun sinks below the horizon. They cheer again when the first golden rocket paints a trail up into the sky. Almost no one is afraid, when we can sit on a field together, when we can watch the fireworks on the day they’re supposed to happen, and probably no one’s hair will catch on fire. The rarity, the tradition, makes it feel safer. We don’t need to grab at the silver starbursts overhead, we don’t need to rush the sun down. We have fought the chaos before; we have come out of it better. If chaos is our history, so is the management of it; humans once turned fire from a terror into flowers in the sky. Here we are on the field of the firework world, together for a little while, somewhere in the middle of a pattern, of a thing that happened last year and will again next year, free of where we live today, on the terrifying edge of discovering what will explode tomorrow.

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Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

Writer, director, and pie-baker.