WORDS: AMANDA MCHUGH
PHOTOS: SASHA CHAROENSUB 

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news lately, you would know that 2016 has been a shitty year. A mass shooting against our LGBTQ brothers and sisters at a nightclub, the tragedy in France on Bastille Day, murder by police officers who are still getting away with it, beheadings, sex trafficking, and genocide all over the world. This all bringing us to a state of revolt. Not to mention, the every day personal difficulties we all face combined with this bad news can make thinking positive a bit difficult. With all of this happening, “gratitude” seemed like a mountainous feat to accomplish.

Our world is in pain right now, and it would only seem natural that we would want to say fuck you to 2016 and let it all self-destruct. Or we could choose to power through and see and create beauty in this world. We could dare to give 2016 the middle finger by loving the world and the scary, unpredictable people in it. How do we do this? With safety in numbers and that pack mentality we aim to connect with one another, to “find our people.” To find these likeminded people, we have a few choices we could make, all of which involve getting out from under the covers and taking a risk on humans again.

I decided to make that choice and head to Gratitude Migration, a boutique festival created to be an oasis in New Jersey. At the festival, there were any number of experiences one could have, depending on what one was looking to get out of that weekend – which I learned would inevitably attract others – looking for the same thing.

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With the arts and music festival being six times bigger than last year, the possibilities were six times wider. From some solid beach time, to witnessing New York City’s top fire performances, to sound meditation at sunrise, to crafting and workshops, to dancing your face off at any of the six stages – depending on your intention you could set yourself up for any number of, not only exciting, but important experiences.

The first year, I went without having any expectations and was ready for a fun adventure. I rode up in the Quetzal Bus and camped with Brooklyn creative group, The JunXion. I was floored by Flambeaux Fire’s fire procession on the beach at dusk, I danced my ass off at Gratitude’s one stage, I freed my nipples for the first time (and LOVED it), and did yoga on the beach at midnight under the moon. For me, last year’s Gratitude was simple enough to share these same experiences with most of your friends.

This year, with attendance up to 3,000 and the activities list now into 56-page booklet, the options were endless! Had you set your intention to have any kind of experience you could have it. Had you not, you were still likely to have a beachy fun time regardless. With recent life events, (appendix bursting, lost of loved ones, and more) I personally decided this would be a weekend of deep, deep healing and in doing so, hopefully find what I was grateful for once again.

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I arrived to the beach festival in need of help to my campsite. Gene Harrison, of the incredible Magico Illumina LED-dome installation, came to the rescue. He got me to the Third Eye Village where The JunXion crew was to be found. I didn’t care that I was right next to the Meso Creso stage – who slept at night during these things anyway? After getting set up, I set out to my first workshop of the weekend: The Magic of Self-Love and Acceptance held by Gabriela Celeiro.

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The class incorporated play, crafting, connection and therapy, which for me is also a good summation of what my weekend turned out to be. We experienced heart-opening aromatherapy, partnered up with a stranger and gifted them valentines and stickers, and even got to make a clay heart mixed with glitter that we could take home with us. As the clay was still hardening I stopped a good dozen times on the way back to my tent to place the heart on my friends chests, so that I could carry their love wherever I went. (Adult crafts at its finest.)

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At dusk, it was easy to get drawn to the PEX Fire Stage Friday night, as Flambeaux Fire’s procession led right to it from the Gratitude Earth Stage. The PEX Fire Stage was truly a sight to see: five Incendia fire domes total encircling the stage lighting up real fire as in the center of the dance floor I watched in awe as my friends whipped fire around their bodies like masters. The Golden Pony and Everyday were the perfect musical accompaniments to the piro spectacle.

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Next stages on the night’s agenda were Ebb and Flow, Third Eye Village and the Mandala Biergarten. Third Eye Village had a more beat-driven funky drive, while the Ebb & Flow Stage was more melodic and dreamy. The Mandala Beirgarten featured live music including The Wonder Bars. I later found myself sitting at the Mandala Biergarten bar, delightedly sipping on a whiskey ginger, getting lost in a conversation about how we needed more live music at events like this. As it turns out I was talking to DJ HA of The Wonder Bars. Serendipitous moments like this just happened and if you stopped and took a look around you, you saw magic everywhere.

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I saw adult butterflies getting down, mermaids having a tea parties on a manmade island near shore, sound meditation happening at sunset and sunrise, fire spinning on the shoreline, and body painting and pasties – everywhere. I’m telling you, magic. That night ended in the morning, with David Hohme playing a sunrise set at the Gratitude Earth Stage.

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I woke up Saturday morning to venture to Center Camp Wind Temple where vendors were selling clothing, jewelry, art, coffee and juices nearby a pillow pile. I rested on one of the pillows as I rustled through the program. The list was overwhelming: Shamanic healing, dance meditation, Qigong, AcroYoga, dream catcher making, talks on quantum physics, on visualization, how to do the “impossible.” Impossible it was to do it all – but I accepted the challenge to see more.

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As I set out to explore, I took the time to appreciate the additional healing efforts of the festival – healing for the earth, if you will. The efforts of Gratitude in partnership with Ahimsa Warriors on the sustainability level were noticeable. There were “moop” (“matter out of place” aka trash) parades up and down the tent lined boulevard. There was an entire Eco Stage featuring talks on things such as permaculture, plant-based cooking and nutrition. For power, they used biodiesel-fueled generators and Pedal Power Human Generators donated by K-Tor for cell phone charging. For food and beverage, there were water faucets on-site for water bottle refills and all vendors used compostable supplies and stations for trash. It was a beautiful fact of the festival that led to the overall good vibes.

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Vibes high and feeling inspired by the flow arts at every corner of the festival, I decided I should take Frank Hatsis’ rope dart workshop. Two hours later and five new tricks learned, I also found I had a lot of aggression that the class was helping me to channel out. I saw this as a sign to head to the Water Temple Wellness Village for Barnaby Ruhe’s “Find Your Power Animal” workshop.

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About half an hour into the class, it started to downpour into a thunder and lightning storm. We all huddled together and the class continued. The rain seemed to enhance the experience, not put a “damper” on it. During the storm, I was in the class learning my “power animal” via Ruhe’s direction. For others, the rain meant heading back to the Quetzal bus for some music and good conversation. For others, the storm was a break for making love in a tent. And for the rest, the circumstance lead to a spontaneous drum circle/rain dance at Center Camp. As the drum circle reached its peak, the sun came out and the rain stopped. See? MAGIC.

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Being in Barnaby’s class didn’t just inspire me because of the lessons I learned from my power animal, but also because I found myself under these healing domes surrounded by others who were also looking for the same thing: healing. I realized that once I committed myself to following through on my intentions with action, I was putting out the “vibe” to attract the right “tribe.” As I continued in Barnaby’s second class, I learned something key to my weekend – I didn’t need to be healed to heal others. I didn’t need to be perfect, ever, and I didn’t need to be 100% to give love and help others and be grateful.

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After the class, I raced to change and get ready to check out my friends in Enchanted Troupe perform a dazzling fire show. One thing I’m glad didn’t change, is the impressive performances that Gratitude brought in. In addition to the fire performances by Enchanted Troupe, the festival played host to the Gratitude Glow Troupe, Circus Mafia, and Solstice Tribe performers, Electrocute, House of Yes, Modern Gypsies and more.

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At the Gratitude Earth Stage, which was built by local creatives Rhizome NYC, house music was given to the crowd by DJs Muffs + Mykola and Nickodemus. I lost myself in the beats as The Desert Hearts crew took over the PEX Fire Stage with Deep Jesus, Tara Brooks and Lee Reynolds. I b-lined for backstage and gave Lee a massive hug before we danced on stage as Tara played. Back on the dance floor, friends were dancing and encouraging one another with our funky grooves. “You live a charmed life,” someone in the crowd said to me, and I smiled coyly because well, it was true. Looking around, I saw how gorgeous everyone looked, doing whatever they wanted, supporting each other in those desires, and all contributing to this amazing festival. Whether it was teaching a class, performing, adding to the vibe, we were all there as delighted participants supporting our friends.

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The sunrise was just as beautiful as the morning before, though also a bit rough. Sometimes when the sun comes up we have to face certain realities of things we’re not always ready to face. Festivals like Gratitude can’t fix everything – but they can help you gain a wider perspective. I saw this again as a sign that I needed to get back to the healing dome area. As it turns out, it was only 9:30AM, on time for the Shamanic Breathwork class. The class was simple: just breathe in on a four count and let out an “ahhh” four count. Somewhere along the intense rock rhythm in the class’s playlist, something in me got really, really fed up with the pain I’ve going through. Inside me was going, “Fuck YOU heartbreak! Fuck YOU health issues! Fuck YOU pain!”

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My yogic “ahh’s” became yelling, which became screaming like I had lost complete control. It felt as though I was being exorcised, and as I was coming out of it, I wondered if I had disrupted the class. Embarrassed at how much I had let out and shaking as I regained my breath, we all got up for a group hug and I looked at everyone around me to see that they were shaking too. I was safe. I was not judged. I had disrupted nothing. A girl came up to me after and told me that my screams encouraged her to scream. I realized that sometimes all we need to do is heal ourselves, to inadvertently help others do the same.

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Life might not be perfect, not even at a festival – but the transformation I received that weekend is something I’ll always be grateful for.