This time, I invited my sister, Cecilee, to Litha on campus.
Actually, I invited the rest of my family, too, but my sister's the only one who came. I'm kind of glad, because it meant I could still hang out with other people's families, too. If my parents and brother had been here, too, I would have been entirely occupied playing host.
As I explained last year, the summer solstice (Litha) here is a giant all-day picnic where everybody's families and a lot of graduates come to visit (yes visitors have to pay for food, but it's only $10 for basically two meals). There's a big wicker figure, the Man, out on one of the lawns and we stuff notes into it with wishes and hopes and prayers written on them. At sunset, we light the Man on fire and he takes our wishes and messages with him to the other side.
It's a symbolic sacrificial ritual, obviously, but I think the Man is also supposed to symbolize the sun, something like that.
While the Man burns, and afterwards, there's music and dancing all night long. Literally. At least a few people dance the sun up. There's no classes the next day or anything; the summer semester doesn't start until Monday, so we basically get a four-day weekend this year*.
I had a hard time explaining all of this to Cecilee--the Man and the dancing and everything, the symbolism and all of it. Mostly because I don't clearly understand it myself, because nobody explains things like that around here. Nobody except Kit, I mean. She likes explaining symbols and usually does so readily, and our picnic blanket was right next to hers, so, I asked her. But instead of explaining it she just asked my sister if she was having a good time. "Oh, yes," was the answer.
"Then that's what it means," Kit replied. Then she went back to feeding her husband little shreds of roasted pork.
We were sharing our picnic blanket with Sadie, Kayla, and Aidan, plus Nora and her mother and Andy. Andy doesn't have a family, so Sadie adopted him for the day. My sister and Nora's mother were both still having a hard time understanding what we do here at school--we seem to puzzle them--and I was doing a poor job of explaining, so Nora took over. Kayla tried to help, too, but she's lived here all her life so she doesn't have a very good basis of comparison. My sister also seemed really curious about Aidan. She's the same age as Nora, and doesn't know any other teen mothers, so I suppose Kayla seems exotic to her. After we were finished eating, Kayla, Nora, and my sister all wandered off together and disappeared into the crowd.
I saw them a few times after that--they seemed to have formed a group with Mary, the oldest of Charlie's grand-nieces. Sometimes David seemed to be tagging along with him, but most of the time he was with the younger kids. I guess this is how sprouts grow up--they kind of separate themselves and start hanging out with older teens.
It's not just the older sprouts who are moving on. I remember that last year the littler ones, the toddlers and Aidan, who was a baby, mostly stayed around their parents. Allen carried Alexis around pretty much all day, grinning this besotted pride. It was really sweet.
Now, all of them are running around and playing in their own little group, which is a little strange, because they're only a year older. I mean, last year Julius, one of Charlie's grand-nephews, was four, and he stuck with his mother, June. Now, he's five, and old enough to run around freely. But Alexis and Billie (one of Sarah's kids) are four now, and they're running around with Julius. So is Aidan, who's only 18 months old.
It's perfectly safe; they're all surrounded by adults, and somebody keeps an eye on them.
I didn't mind Cecilee running off, partly because I really do want to get to know the school a bit better and making friends here will help with that. But also, it meant I could go hang out with other people's families some, people I hardly ever get to see. Like Charlie's sister, Maria. I remember her from last year, and I really like her a lot. She's just this wonderfully mantronly person. This year she hugged me, which was wonderful.
This year I also managed to ask her how is it that two kids in the same family have virtually the same name--the other brother is Mario. I knew Maria's name is really Mary (she's trying to return to her Italian heritage), but still.
Turns out, Mario and Mary are both middle names. Maria's first name is Theresa, though she says she was always called Mary as a kid. Mario's first name is Anthony, and he went by Tony growing up. He switched to his middle name when he joined the army, though Maria doesn't know why.
Anyway, so I had a great time at the picnic, but, once again, I wasn't there when they lit the Man. I was up in a tree, watching the sunset. I think I'm going to make that a tradition of mine. Charlie wasn't in the same tree, the way he was last year (unintentional--I nearly fell out of the tree when he spoke to me). He was in the next tree over. I spotted him and waved and he waved back, but then we both went back to watching the sunset.
The sky turned tangerine in places and shadow stretched over the campus and moved up the tree towards me and past me. I felt the temperature drop as the sunlight drained away into the sky. Below, on the lawn, they lit the Man and fire bloomed up, orange. Music started up, but it sounded very far away.
When I finally climbed down, it was completely dark, no moonlight. To my surprise, Charlie had waited for me. I suppose he wanted to make sure I made it safely down--last year I needed his coaching to climb in the dark, after all.
"Are you going to the dance?" He asked me, conversationally.
"I suppose so," I told him. "Are you?" I think he shook his head. "I get the feeling I'm supposed to go," I explained. And there are things like that here--not exactly required, but if you don't go you miss something important.
"Sometimes doing what you're not supposed to do is important," he told me. "The first night I ever stayed out in the woods--I was a city boy from Boston, but I went to Boy Scout camp. One year, a buddy of mine and I sneaked out, spent all night in the woods, running around. At dawn I saw mist coming off the pond. I saw a great blue heron, first one I ever saw, down by the boat ramp. Thing was as tall as I was."
I tried to imagine Charlie as a city kid and failed. But I could imagine him as a child, seeing that heron for the first time. When he spoke again, his voice sounded almost impish.
"Come on. I won't tell the teachers if you won't."
And so I skipped out on the dance entirely and Charlie taught me how to follow trails in the woods in the dark, with no flashlight, feeling where the trail was by touch through my feet, navigating by memory and the touch of a hand on landmark trees at trail crossings and the shape of the occasional glimpse of sky. We didn't talk much, except when he stopped to explain something, but it wasn't like hanging out with my teacher. It was more like being eight and playing hooky from something. I have no idea why Charlie invited me to go with him--why he didn't just go by himself, or why he didn't choose a different companion. It's possible I just happened to be there at the right time. Barred owls hooted in the distance and frogs sang and, weirdly, the occasional few notes of music floated up from campus on a puff of wind.
We went uphill, mostly, since Charlie pointed out that would make it easier to get back if we did get lost. Dawn found us on the top of the ridge above campus, deep into the land conservancy property where we aren't supposed to go, looking out over the valley, the campus, the lake, and beyond that all the way to the next ridgeline over, all in shadow, though we could see the sun through the trees over another curve of the ridge. The birds sang around us and I heard every one of them. Charlie didn't ask me to prove it, but I could have. It's weird to think--this is the high point of the year--literally, considering I was thinking this on the top of a mountain--and that means it goes down from here. It gets darker. The Man burns brightly, because he is going away.
Then I followed Charlie back to campus, and he turned into a teacher again, closed in on himself somehow. But I don't think he told anyone what we had done. He didn't tell the teachers. And I certainly didn't tell.
[Next Post: Monday, June 30th: Carrie]
*The summer solstice was on a Thursday in 2001