Even in the smoke-filled open air of a 60%+ vaccinated community, I’m glad I have my mask with me.

I can tell that, as enthusiastic as the community is for fireworks, there’s a tinge of caution. All the sitting arrangements have about six feet between each group. The folks walking around are walking in subtle groupings to avoid extra mingling. Few people have brought a mask as I did, but some have.

A group of people sitting at a street corner, on the curb, and in chairs.

But these signs are the exceptions to the otherwise enthusiastic air. The lampposts go dark at 9:15 pm and there's a collective gasp of anticipation. The cars seem to speed up in their rush to park and find good spots. I could hear more people asking when exactly the fireworks would start.

A smug part of me would have dismissed this excitement as empty and pointless around a few years ago. Watching explosions in the sky is nothing but a silly distraction for the masses. But that was before we got hit with over a year of sheltering in place. That night, I was seeing the less-than-obvious, but important, role of these fireworks.

People walking around tennis courts and a parking lot looking for a place to sit.

The started to realize this when I also started noticing all the little things that much more. I got more joy from the smoky campfire scent that filled the air for blocks. The flashing lights of toys swung around by kids on the grass jumped at me. The firefly hovering next to me, giving cautious glows of its tail, kept me and the people nearby watching it. I was bobbing my head to pop music I never enjoyed before, but I now did with the whole crowd. I was savoring the feel of the stream of strangers walking past me. I know nothing about them other than they’re in the same community as me. I also didn't need to know anything else about them at that moment.

I was savoring all these little social details more than I ever did before. They were pulling me up from the last week's funk more than I expected. More than any essential things I'd done, like good food and exercise, had been before.

Several people sitting on a parking lot curb, looking at the sky over East Rock Park.

People were walking closer as the area filled up. There was an announcement to get everyone’s attention before it started. They got everyone counting backward from ten and staring at the sky over East Rock Park. Most of the phones get put back into pockets. Most of them.

The countdown ends. People are yelling, and then turn quiet and mesmerized (except for the kids). The silence could be due to the explosions ringing in the air. Or the fact that it's been two years instead of one since many people were at an event like this.

For me, I realized it was the second one. I missed the feeling of being a part of a large group admiring something together. It's a feeling that helps pull us together a little more, in a way we don’t know but feel on some small level.

About twenty minutes in, the fireworks were getting bigger. They timed them well to keep people's attention before they lost it. I stopped wondering if the large lights in the sky make fireflies insecure and went back to staring in awe. More people are whistling and hollering in excitement.

In a way, that smug part of me from before is still right. Nothing about this night is "needed" to our lives. It does nothing to feed us, pay our bills, or keep us housed. But these are all direct, obvious needs. In an indirect way, fireworks remind folks like me of the beauty that keeps us going through life. I realized the anticipation for these fireworks, and the memory of them after, helped me get through many tough feelings I'd been dealing with. So didn't that mean these fireworks were filling a different kind of need for me?

There was a pause after about 25 minutes. Someone yelled “is that it?” Then we saw lots of rockets getting fired in rapid succession. We knew what was coming. The finale hit the sky. Dozens of fireworks went off over and over, sparing us no seconds between them to recover.

I tried to stay in the moment as much as possible. It felt almost mesmerizing with all the lights. The booms got so loud I could feel my clothing vibrate. It was like an earthquake so strong it didn't need to be in the earth itself. Instead, it was a storm strong enough, it didn't need to move the ground to shake the senses of everyone below it. Plus, it was still making me grateful for the feel of the solid, stable ground beneath my feet afterward.

Then it ended, and there was some applause before the mass exodus of people began. Some had already left to beat this rush. I opted to stand aside and wait for most of the crowd to pass by.

I felt I had plenty of time. Despite the noises and the shaking, I felt more at ease than I had in days. Plus a renewed sense of vigor and energy.

Joys like fireworks aren’t needed to be alive, but they are needed to live. And if we’re not going to live, what’s the point of being alive?

With that pandemic holiday lesson, it's safe to say I had a good Fourth of July. I hope you all did as well!