To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Part 4: Post 1: Litha

So, Kit is married. I don't know why this should bother me. Yes I do. It's just silly; it's not like I stood a chance with her, anyway.

Children Play Around The Man
 The reason I found out that she's married is that we've just been celebrating the summer solstice, which they call Litha, here, and pretty much everybody's friends and family came on campus to celebrate with us, like a big reunion, and one of the people who came on campus was Kit's husband. I guess that's where she goes when she isn't on campus. He seems like a good guy, actually. He'd have a problem, if he wasn't.

The summer solstice is a big deal here. I don't think it is for a lot of Wiccans, but then, the school as a whole doesn't belong to any particular religion. Part of what makes it such a big deal here is that we're encouraged to invite our families to attend. A lot of graduates come visit, too. There must have been five or six hundred people on campus. I know we didn't feed them from the farm; for one thing, where did the whole, roasted pig come from? There wasn't a pig living on campus. I think the visitors had to chip in some money for buying food from area farms. I'm pretty sure everything was local, because there was no sweet corn. I've never been to a summer outdoor party before where there was no sweet corn, and but there's no local sweet corn yet.
The reason I don't know exactly what guests did, whether they paid or not, is that I didn't have any guests. I didn't realize this holiday would be such a big deal, so I didn't think to invite them. A lot of the yearlings are in the same situation. We'll know better, next year. But for me, for this year, it's just as well, actually,because not having my own family here means I'm free to meet other people's families.

Besides meeting Kit's husband, I played Frisbee with Ollie's family, and sat and ate with Joanna and one of the women named Raven, and their families. Besides the roast pork there were grilled vegetables, greens, vegetarian chili, mountains of strawberries, and what I guess is the last of the season’s rhubarb. It was quite a spread. The strange thing about the meal was hearing Raven's family address her as Sara--I'd guessed that Raven wasn't her real name, but it's still strange to hear her called something else. I imagine her family feels the same about us calling her Raven. 

There were some surprises. I'd known Allen was married, since I've seen him and his wife at the UU church in town. She's called Lo, which is short for Lois, and she's a psychologist, like him. But I'd assumed that either they did not have children or Allen didn’t involve himself much with them. How could he, when he spends most of his time on campus? Well, the magician found a way, because his family obviously adores him. He has three children, a boy and a girl both maybe ten or eleven years old, and this little angel-headed three year old named Alexis. And Alexis was, like, stuck to him. He carried her around campus all day with this look of total besotted pride on his face, it was just really sweet to see.

And Joe and Joe have a grown son a bit older than I am. I'm not naive enough, or enough of a prick, to think two men can't raise a kid together,but the issue is Rob looks like both of them. Except that Rob is tall, like Cuppa Joe, not halfway between them in height. Not that I care, and not that it's any of my business, but I kept trying to figure out how the tree of them could possibly all be related. Eventually I found out that Security Joe used to be biologically female--which kind of makes sense, because he really is such a little guy, but I really hadn't guessed. It's just not something I'm used to thinking about at all. I wanted to ask Rob what it was like to have a parent switch genders, but I didn't quite have the gumption, so I settled for asking what he called his parents--I've always wondered about this, I mean, if you've got two dads and you called "hey, Dad," do they both turn around?

"Dad and Pop," Rob told me. "Of course, Pop only came out when they moved here after he retired from the police force, so in public I said 'Mom,' but around the house he's been Pop since I was seven."

"You had a house?" This was another surprise. I guess I'd assumed the Joes had always lived on campus.

"Yeah. They sold the house to me when they moved here."

Later, I asked Cuppa Joe about this house. The idea of having a normal life in a real house and giving it up for a single, eight-by-eight room just floored me--especially for Cuppa Joe, who doesn't work here or anything like that. He's a grocery manager at a supermarket in town. This isn't his world, except for his connection to Security Joe.

“There isn’t a lot I wouldn’t give up to live in a community that recognizes I’m still married” he explained, quietly. Wow, I am such a self-involved...kid. I just hadn't thought about any of this at all.

Charlie has no children of his own, but he has a brother, a sister, various in-laws and a whole flock of nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews, all of whom came up to visit. The brother is taller and thinner than Charlie is, maybe 75 years old. He speaks with a touch of an Italian accent, which is kind of startling. Mary, the sister, has the same Boston accent Charlie does. Mary is awesome. She's short and kind of rounded, like Charlie is, but with this huge frazzle of hair like grey yarn and this incredible, boundless, matronly energy. She's like the ideal grandmother; we only spoke for a few minutes, but I like her a lot. It's just strange to think of her as anyone’s little sister. And Charlie's brother is old. You know, like his hair is all white and he walks stiffly, bent forward a little, like old men do. Like, I know Charlie is older than me, older than my parents, but on some level I keep forgetting. He's just Charlie, ageless. And here are his siblings, and they're old.

Charlie's whole family is organized around him. It's subtle, but after I'd watched them for a while it was obvious. Like, have you ever seen the movie, Rocket Gibraltar? He's like the grandfather there, the patriarch, the reason everybody comes together--and yet he has no children. He's not even the oldest sibling. I asked Mary about this, and she sighed.

“He’s always been the center of us,” she said. ”I used to resent it, but what can you do? When I was little, it was because he’s so smart—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. Then for a long time he got the attention because we were all scared to death he was going to...die, one way or another." She looked at me sharply for a moment, as though searching for some sign that I either knew or did not know about his alcoholism. I gave no such sign, I just returned her look, and she continued. "He was…sick for a long time. Now, I guess we’re all just used to focusing on him—and he’s got the best place for the kids to come together and play. He’ll get all of them except June's littlest for the next two weeks at least.”

It's not just Charlie’s family who drops their kids off for the summer, evidently; all the kids at the feast seemed to know each other already, and they ran about in groups in some world of their own. I get so used to thinking of the school community the way I see it--current students and staff members. I tend to forget that there's a lot of former students who also hold this place special, but of course I know intellectually that the graduates belong here. But that there are kids who belong here, that this community is multi-generational, just didn't occur to me at all. But as the long afternoon picnic wound on, I saw that the adults didn't really care which kid belonged to which parent. Anybody with a green ring would comfort, help, or holler at whichever kid needed it at the time. They're not just a school, they're a family, a single, big family.

The whole day was one, huge picnic. We all just wandered around and ate and talked or played Frisbee. In the evening there was a Burning Man ceremony out on the lawn in the middle of campus, where the grass tends to get trampled anyway; the Man was this big figure, maybe fifteen feet tall, made of vines and reeds and brush all tied together, and we stuffed it with wishes and hopes and prayers written on little pieces of paper. The idea is that when the Man burns, he takes all the wishes and prayers with him to the spirit world. And through the night we held the Long Dance.

Strictly speaking, the Long Dance is a fictional invention of Ursula K. LeGuine’s, but I guess a lot of people here are fans of her novels, and so we made it real. The basic idea is to keep a dance going from sundown to dawn. Not everybody has to dance, and you can start and stop whenever you like, but somebody was always dancing throughout that short night. Somebody was always playing music, band after band, sometimes more than one at a time in different parts of campus, or there were drum circles,or people chanting. I think I've mentioned that Kit is a music teacher? Her own instrument is the cello, but she's one of those people who can learn a new instrument in about fifteen minutes, so there are a lot of people on campus who play all sorts of instruments. After the Man burnt down they kept the bonfire going and danced around it, while at the edge of the fire circle, just outside of the dancing, fireflies rose out of the long grass of the school’s pastures like shards of summer sunlight.

But I wasn't part of the crowd that lit the Man at sundown.
I was with everyone else on the lawn most of the afternoon, but as the sun started to go down I found myself watching the golden sunlight slowly retreat up the spires of the spruces and pines. There goes the longest day of the year! I thought. And then suddenly, I had to go chase the light, I couldn’t let it go without a fight. I ran off to the biggest tree on campus, an old white pine, and I scrambled up. White pines are easy to climb, if they’ve got branches near the ground, which this one does. The branches come out in regular whirls so it’s almost like climbing a ladder. Within a minute or so I was back in the sunlight maybe forty feet above the ground, and I stopped to breathe a bit. The branch I was sitting on swayed, and I looked up to see if the tree was moving in the wind. I didn’t want to get blown out, if wind was going to come up.

“You’ve got excellent instincts,” said a voice behind me, “but your situational awareness blows chunks.”

“Jesus Christ!” I shrieked, almost falling out of the tree, and Charlie laughed. He was squatting behind me, barefoot, like a monkey. He swung himself up, branch by branch, and I followed him up higher into the tree until the branches became so short they left us exposed to the warm, evening breeze and the thinning main trunk began to sway under our weight. We could see all of campus spreading out and away, even the garden on the top of the roof of the Mansion.

“We can see everything from up here!” I cried.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Charlie offered. “This is half the reason I know so much of what goes on. You people don’t look up.”
“Wow, I’m glad I don’t have a girlfriend on campus.”
“So am I,” Charlie agreed. “Some things, a man shouldn’t see.”

We watched the sunset from that tree, as the sky went all orange and purple with weird shadows cast upwards from one layer of shifting cloud to the next, and I was trying to figure out how to paint something like that when I noticed Charlie’s breathing had gone funny. There wasn’t a lot of room up there, so we were almost touching, and he was a bit congested so I could hear his breath. It had been even and slow--he had climbed tens of feet in a few seconds without apparent effort--but suddenly his breathing became irregular. I looked up at him, concerned, but he didn’t appear to notice me. He was staring out towards the sun as it dipped down beyond the far range of hills, and he was moving his lips. I realized he was singing; he just didn’t want me to be able to hear him doing it.

I've heard Charlie play his whistle in the evening several times now, though I don't think he knows I know it's him. My awareness isn’t that bad. I know he serenades the sunset, one way or another, just like he gets up early in the morning to greet the dawn. I pretended not to notice his singing, but then when he stopped I, quietly but audibly, began.

When the sun in the morning peaks over the hill
And kisses the roses on my window sill,

Charlie stared at me in shock, but I ignored him and kept singing. He joined in on the second verse.

When it’s late in the evening, and I climb the hill
And survey all my kingdom while everything’s still
Only me and the sky and an old whippoorwill
Singing songs in the twilight on Mockingbird Hill.

“Where did you learn that song?” he asked me, when we were done. I don't think most people my age know it.
“My Dad taught me,” I told him. He chuckled.
“I’ve taught my nephews,” he told me. I expected, almost hoped, some new revelation would follow, as Charlie seemed more relaxed and unguarded than I’d ever seen him before, but he remained silent. Below us, the wicker and brush Man caught flame and the first of the bands started up, but it sounded very far away. Together, my teacher and I watched the color gradually drain from the sky leaving  glimpses of clear, midnight blue behind grey, ghostly clouds. The stars began coming out, but mostly they were covered by cloud.

Finally, I realized my foot had fallen asleep—and that I could hardly see my feet, let alone anything beneath them. I was standing on thin branches ninety feet above the ground in the dark.

“Uh, Charlie?” I asked, “will you tell me another secret?”
“Probably, yes,” he answered.
“How do we get down?”

[Next Post: Friday, June 21: The Elven King]

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