Competitors in the blueberry pie eating contest at the 2009 Machias Wild Blueberry Festival get cheered on by the crowd in this 2009 file photo. Credit: Kate Collins / BDN

It is beginning to feel as though we’ve begun to turn the corner on this pandemic. Restrictions are slowly being lifted as vaccinations roll out across Maine. Little by little the days are getting longer, the sun is warming the water, the boats, our children’s faces and our determination. With that warmth comes a hopeful return of Down East festivals and the feeling that we are truly home.

My wife and I raised our family in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, where we lived for close to 30 years. During that time there were many standout moments. One of them was the community festival held on the weekend after Labor Day. The bones of this celebration would fill the park in the center of town with a bounty of goodness. The community would gather, eat good food, listen to music and shirk off its cares. Kids were back in school, too. We felt like a community because we gathered and celebrated as one.

Growing up, I remember the Great Allentown Fair. The week-long event would always arrive just before the start of school, and I, along with friends, would always plan one full day to go. But as I grew older and the city grew bigger, that personal pull to go to the fair lessened. I sense that the fair became too big for me, its luster diminishing over time. I think that “sense” of something becoming too big occurs a lot these days, especially as we age.

Reflexively, I believe we tend to look back on our life more as we get older in an attempt to remember as many of those now cherished days from when we were young. It is a conundrum — when we are young we live so very fast, but when we are older a continual desire to slow things down is persistent.

Here, too, we celebrate and remember life by slowing things down, both for ourselves and as a community. This perpetual Down East sense of community is strong and its history runs deep, which could be why we have festivals and why the celebrations are as varied as the people who call this place home.

The excitement I once had when I was younger bloomed again not long after having arrived Down East. I believe it’s because of the intimacy this place provides. This is a big place spread out over miles and miles, yet, its sparse numbers and varied nature of people choosing to live here drives a cohesive blend of contagious community spirit. Smiles are plenty, nods and waves bountiful and laughter is endless when at any of these events.

Last year all of that stopped. It was as if a large tarp was pulled over everything, blocking out the sunlight, covering eyes and ears, muffling our smiles and laughter. We all went away individually and as a community, hibernating from the cold and shadows of a pandemic for a full year. For a community that really likes to hug when in proximity of a neighbor, friend or family member, that loss of contact dampened the very spirit that makes this community tick.

Now that cover is slowly being pulled back, letting the light in safely. Even though we are tentative, it will be so nice to step outside from where we’ve been — to see and hear again — to re-engage while safely finding each other again and celebrate like a community should.

As the sunlight peeks above the horizon of this place we call home, a patchwork of celebration begins to stir, awaits our complete return and will once again light the sky with laughter and song. The days of salmon feasts, pirate invasions and blueberry celebrations in August will come back. Both sea and land battles will be remembered once again and parades on the Fourth of July will march by us once more. Sea and sky will meet along the Bold Coast with kites high in the sky and Easter eggs hidden in summer grass. Fog and music will again hold hands lighting the air in a haze of neighborly affection. Harvest fairs will greet the autumn change with a parade of 4H greats, seagull calls, pumpkin throws and, of course, hand-made goodness sprinkled over everything from town to town. It all again will be a gauntlet of community expression, pride and camaraderie, which gives this entire place an essence unmatched anywhere.

Celebrations live when people live. Like us, they, too, have been practicing safe and social distancing. Because of who we are as a community these festivals and celebratory gatherings have not abandoned us, nor have they been forgotten. So, we will tread water for just a little longer, and when it’s time, all of these bright and festive occasions will return. And when they do, so, too, will we return as a community — along with our smiles and all of those glorious hugs.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.