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Sep 07, 2017

Gratitude Migration Returns

By Nicholas Deckmejian

Photo by Ross Figlerski Photography

On July 14, the Gratitude Migration: Summer Dream festival returned to transform Keansburg’s hELLO Beach into a playground for the wildly expressive. For the third year in a row, thousands of strangers from places near and far took their pilgrimage to the sands of Keansburg to pitch a tent for a weekend and escape their nine-to-five lives, entering a habitat that promotes radical self-expression and an appreciation for art, music, spirituality, mindfulness, and the beautiful weirdness of others. The three-day festival is made up of multiple campsites that feature different music stages, immersive art installations, enlightening speakers, workshops for the body and spirit, and an overarching atmosphere of eccentric jubilance.

One of the major themes of Gratitude Migration is, believe it or not, gratitude. The organizers and attendees expend an abundance of gratitude for each other and the creativity of the art around them; however, there is also a significant amount of gratitude dedicated to Mother Nature. And it’s a good thing Mother Nature is so appreciated, since she decided to unleash torrential downpours of rain on the opening day of the event. Heavy rain and strong gusts of wind created quite the environment to set up campsites, yet the weather did give enough pause to allow for the opening ceremonies to take place on Friday evening, which involved a parade of vibrant costumed dancers forming a marching rainbow that culminated into a dance party at the main stage, featuring dazzling pyrotechnics shooting bursts of flames into the sky.

The elements battled all throughout the first evening, but eventually fire and water settled their differences and made way for a beautiful day to rise the next morning. Everyone felt the warmth of the sun on their skin as they explored the campgrounds. The beach was saturated with expressions of creativity and provided an eye-opening experience through many immersive art installations. Live painting took place throughout the day, there was a house of mirrors that reflected the true image of one’s self, and magnificent structures made of wood, glass, or light; even the stages themselves were so artfully designed that they, too, were gazed upon like masterpieces. Like many other festivals, Gratitude Migration had multiple stages in different sections, each with their own style of music, design, and mood, with various DJs and musicians playing to crowds who danced from sunrise to sunset to sunrise again. After dancing, people cooled off in the water, which was filled with all sorts of adorable floaties, or relaxed in the shade and enlightened their minds at the School of Dreams tent that featured special guest speakers. After feeding the mind with insightful thoughts, one could wander a few tents over and connect deeper with the body through guided meditation, group yoga, and acroyoga sessions, which involves balancing bodies on top of one another in fluid series of gracefully contorted movements.

Then there was the main event: the burning ceremony. Drawing inspiration from the famed Burning Man festival, many of these similar festivals, referred to as “burns,” replicate the ceremony of igniting an effigy and having it become a point of singularity for everyone to focus their energy together in harmony. At this year’s event, the entire camp gathered around and watched as professionals twirled swords and staffs covered in fire, putting on an impressive display of dexterity and concentration. Following the fire dancers, the fierce ladies from the Setu Tribe performed their primal, yet beautiful, routine with the beating of drums in the background, raising everyone’s spirits in anticipation for the main event. Soon, the giant wooden structure of a dragon was ignited, and everyone’s focus locked onto the flaming effigy as fire engulfed it, suddenly evolving from a quietly burning bonfire to a frenzy of fireworks, firing rocket after rocket above the crowd and blasting the night sky with spectacular colors.

With explosive bonfires, hundreds of tents, and thousands of festival goers living on the beach for three days straight, one might think that Gratitude Migration barges into Keansburg and leaves a trail of destruction and debris behind – yet, that couldn’t be further from the truth. One of the main pillars of Gratitude Migration is its feverish commitment to the principle of “Leave No Trace” or, in other words, leave the environment the same way you found it by minimizing waste and being hypervigilant in not only collecting and disposing trash, but also separating waste in a mindful manner. Last year, organizers of the festival upgraded their commitment by adopting the new phrase “Leave a Positive Trace,” meaning that they hope to not just clean up the mess made, but also take the initiative to help make positive changes to Keansburg itself by going into town and collaborating with local community leaders.

But whether it is the effort in cleaning up debris after the event, building up structures before the event, or keeping up the positive energy during the event, none of it would be possible without the help of the organizers and volunteers. From building lifeguard stands and coordinating transportation of attendees to cleaning up trash or just being present to be a helpful hand, volunteers are the life force that makes the festival as successful as it is. Positive and helpful volunteers set the tone for the event, which enables the festival goers to share this communal and benevolent attitude as they take part in this three-day adventure.  Ultimately, it is the collective nature of those within the pop-up wonderland that makes Gratitude Migration special. Not to belittle the role of the awe-inspiring art and performances, but none of it would be as magical and glorious if it didn’t exist within an atmosphere of mutual kindness that is established by the organizers and host town of Keansburg and trickles down into the attitudes of every attendee. At the risk of sounding overly banal, this event truly is a migration of gratitude: a migration of strangers taking the form of mermaids, angels, butterflies, and everything in between, all carrying their own gratitude for being fortunate to participate in such a whimsical world, where they can revel in the overflowing communal pool of gratitude that forms at hELLO Beach.