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‘Fire and Ice’: Community warmth and coldness in a COVID crowd

| Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Makayla Hernandez I The Observer
IMAGE SOURCES: York Durham Headwaters

Whether February is a month that loves or hates us has yet to be decided. The calendar page might coo in warm pinks and pass around Valentine’s hearts, but the front door promises freezing fingers, slippery footing and wind-burned cheeks. 

Dramatizing the clashing characterizations of February as romantic haven and icy tundra, South Bend dubs February the month of “Fire and Ice.” The seventh annual Fire and Ice festival kicked off on Friday, Feb. 4, with live ice carvings, fire dancing, a s’mores station and fireworks. 

The heart of the celebration beat in Studebaker Plaza, an area which first celebrated the power of fire back in 1852, when Henry and Clem Studebaker opened a blacksmith shop there. Now a small patio downtown, the Plaza was made more intimate by the snow piles fencing residents into huddles, close enough to laugh at strangers’ jokes and fawn over their babies. 

While there is nothing more glorious than the triumphant toasting of a golden-brown marshmallow, held up like a battle flag at the end of a stick, the real joy of the Fire and Ice festival was in seeing a 6-year-old roast 10 marshmallows in a gooey row, or a 3-year-old, arm supported by her mom, burn two and wave them around like torches. The best part of the “fire dancing,” which featured a hula hoop with six blazing fireballs dangerously circling a dancer’s waist, was seeing a toddler and her dad try to mimic the moves (sans fire, sans hoop, plus ice). 

Events like this — for which invitation is extended by location to city residents and physical presence is therefore essential — may seem old fashioned now that even public talks and performances are available in “dual-mode” streaming and that “digital presence,” once an oxymoron, has become a ubiquitous mode of experience. The notion of community proposed by the digital age, experienced passively and alone, through a Facebook scroll of people, was sanctified by mandatory COVID-19 social distancing. The isolation that once might have been criticized as antisocial became praised as safe, and rightly so. 

However, the implications of this newly enshrined way of connecting with people — by observation instead of interaction — may be less than praiseworthy. This new social norm was readily visible in the way that residents attending the Fire and Ice festival interacted with one another. Despite standing close together around a fire pit or next to each other in front of the ice-carved Olympic torch, they only interacted with the groups with which they’d arrived. Social distance, no longer physical, has become emotional.

If, even in a community-building event, it is a social faux pas to talk to new people, then we risk locking ourselves into networks of those we already know, with no room to diversify, especially in age range. The primary demographic in attendance at the Fire and Ice festival was composed of families with young children. When we cannot speak to our neighbors, people connected to us on the basis of physical proximity, because physical proximity has been so associated with disease, we risk the breakdown of traditional notions of community as place-based.

As groups of people stood in a circle taking turns photographing themselves in front of the ice carvings spouting live fire, they “oohed,” and they “aww’ed” at families posing in photographed hugs. If we could extend the reach of COVID social etiquette beyond passive reactions, we might be able to answer the question of whether fire or ice will prevail this February and those to come.

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