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.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Year 3: Seventh Interlude

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2015 here--for the last time. Next time I write to you I'll be Daniel-of-2016. Still the same person, of course. I'm posting this today rather than Monday more or less because I feel like it. I was going to write this up early and just sit on it until Monday, but it's my Christmas post, so I might as well post it on Christmas.

Anyway, as some of you may have noticed, I'm changing things up a little. Rather than putting the interlude before the sabbat, I've put it after--and the following section, all my posts until just before Brigid, will be non-narrative, essentially an extended interlude, just like I did for January last year. I was not on campus for these weeks, and so rather than writing about what it was like to live with my parents, I'm going to write a series of posts about the school to fill in details you might have wondered about but didn't fit into any story so far.

This has become an odd time of year for my family. Religiously, we're pretty fluid these days, and usually no one really cares--the people we actually share our religious lives with are people we can sit down and have a real conversation with, so we don't really need a one-word definition of who we are and what we're about. But at Christmastime we both have relatives who assume we celebrate it...and we both kind of want to, but more and more, it's Yule that feels like a holiday to us and Christmas doesn't. So sorting through all of that--and figuring out how to explain it to Carly--is difficult.

Yule is easier, unambiguous. Part of it, I'm sure, is the school community. Yule is still ours. Our ceremony has changed with changing circumstance, but we still gather.

At the Yule party this year, which was a little before the solstice for various reasons, Kit asked me if I was ready. I think I must have given her a rather desperate look, because she laughed and said "welcome to Pagan Standard Time!" That's a common phrase--it means that pagans generally are late and disorganized a lot.

"I'm all ready," I explained, "if you count decorations that droop and look funny, presents wrapped in newspaper and addressed with a Sharpie, and a tree decorated by a two-year-old. And I think we're having Chinese take-out for Yule dinner. Oh, Kit, how did you do it at school? Everything always came off so perfectly!"

"No, it didn't. We had all these grandiose plans that never worked out."

"Oh? Like what?"

"We were supposed to have a dedicated ritual space for students--a temple--but we never did. We never could decide where to put it or what design to use. So that's why my covens always circled in the Martial Arts studio. I wanted to choreograph all these sacred dances--the others agreed, but I never got around to it. We always talked about serving Boar's Head for Yule dinner, but that hardly ever happened. I wanted a mummer's troop, but couldn't get anyone interested...."

"I don't think that's on the same level as gifts addressed with a Sharpie."

"We had those kinds of problems, too, in the beginning. The last few years we did pretty well--but even then we made mistakes."

Allen's smile faded for a moment. It was a mistake of his that triggered--not caused--the chain of events that forced the closing of the school. That didn't have anything to do with a holiday, though. I squeezed his shoulder and he smiled again.

"You have to remember," he added, "that we were at work. Making the holidays happen was part of our job, not something we had to take time out to do."

All the holiday stories I tell seem to involve these two, Kit and Allen. There is a reason for that. Charlie became my teacher, my Yoda, if you will (my Dumbledore?), but those two become my friends. In fact, that year, the year it is in my narrative, 2002, was the first time I shared part of a holiday with either of them off campus in a non-incidental way.

Or, a semi-non-incidental way. I planned to go home, but I couldn't get a ride and my parents couldn't come get me. I couldn't borrow a car because I'd be staying off campus for weeks.It was Christmas Eve, and I was getting desperate, when Allen stepped out of the office right in front of me and solved my problem. I hadn't even known he was still on campus. He said he'd heard about my problem, and that Lo and the kids were picking him up in a few hours and that if I cared to go with them to the midnight service, they could drop me off at home on the way back.

So, it's not like it was a purely social invitation, but it was helpful and kind, and they did include me in part of their family holiday.

We went to the same UU church that I went to the one time I stayed on campus for Christmas--where I bumped into Allen and his family, but back then he was friendly only in the way that teachers are when they see students in public--with a distance. This time, they were all really glad to have me with them and we laughed and joked and had a good time. After all, I'd camped with them that spring and was friends with David. Lo had largely adopted me.

I grew up Methodist and the UU service was always this interesting mix between the familiar and the different. One of the familiar elements was the scattering of Christmas carols throughout the service. One of them was Joy to the World. When the pastor announced that one, Alexis whispered "Jeremiah was a bull-frog," and giggled. She's still too young to whisper quietly, so we all heard her and laughed, even Lo, who gave her a disapproving glance first and shushed the rest of us.

Later, on our way out, Allen suddenly started singing that other "Joy to the World" in the middle of the parking lot--loudly and, as normal for him, slightly out of tune. Lo busted up laughing, obviously startled and delighted, and we all joined in, singing. And all the way to my parents' house we sang, first Three Dog Night, then other songs, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Run, Run Rudolph," and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

And we had a fantastic time.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Year 3: Yule

Happy Yule.

I just realized I've forgotten to tell you about the Yule tree. I've written about it in years past, but this year, no mention. It was already up when I and the other "elves" decorated the Great Hall that night, trimming the tree is an informal campus activity. None of the masters helped--it's our tree--though soon after we finished both Kit and Joy arrived from nowhere (none of us could tell whether they'd been on campus or just arrived) and sat together in a little love-seat, wrapped in the same blanket and drinking mugs of something, looking at the tree. At one point they both sang "Oh, Christmas Tree," except Kit sang it in German, to the obvious surprise of Joy. Also, Joy can't sing on key, something I hadn't known before. When they were done, they giggled like school-girls and spilled some of their chocolate on the blanket. I fetched them a dish-towel from the Great Hall Kitchen.

Anyway, the tree itself is artificial but scented with fir-oil so it smells right, and it looks realistic. It's quite tall, because the Great Hall has a high ceiling, maybe twelve feet. All the decorations are in the same color range, all on the same theme, and the lights are white--the whole thing looks very elegant. In the interior of the tree are balls of various sizes, yellow and orange and red, they look like fruit and catch and reflect the light. Then there are ivory-colored ribbons rimmed with gold, like vines hanging from the branches--this year we added a long string of bright red cranberries and another of popped corn. On the outermost branches clung blown-glass birds, each one detailed and lifelike and different from the others, and all of no species I've ever seen this side of a dream. On the very top of the tree is a pose-able doll clinging to the top leader like she's climbing it, a fairy dressed in a short Greek tunic with a bow and a quiver full of arrows slung over her shoulder.

The masters all clearly like the tree, because they take the time to come look at it, but it's not their tree. They have their own--I remember seeing it my first year when I was on the janitor team--it's a little live red cedar, which is really a species of juniper, in a big pot. It usually lives in their outdoor courtyard, but they bring it in for a few days around Yule and decorate it. As I remember, the decorations are a motley lot. I expect that each master (except maybe Greg?) brought in a few treasured family ornaments and added them.

This year, just like the last two, we had a party on Yule night and a lot of the people who had gone home came back to join us. Kit and Greg attended the party, but the others didn't. I assume they had their own party up on the fourth floor. They must have been up there and they could not have been sleeping, because we on the first floor were making too much noise, singing and dancing and goofing around. Hours went by.

And, the whole time the weather was awful--a cold, driving rain and wind, with the temperature gradually dropping through the night. The weather worried me because I knew we'd have to go out in it, but the yearlings didn't know and I didn't tell them. They danced on, unconcerned.

Long about dawn, Lou broke it to them--we were going out. It took some cajoling to get everyone to agree to it without knowing why, and frankly I wasn't sure there was much point, given that dawn would be just about invisible, but I put on a brave face and helped shepherd everyone out the door into the frigid, wet dark. Sometimes, you just have to act on faith.

As I said, the temperature had been dropping, and by that point the air hovered just around freezing. The wind had died back a bit, but the rain had turned to an intermittent spitting sleet. The ground was sloppy with an inch or so of slush and a and we splashed along, breaking a thin crust of ice with every step, our toes freezing already, and none of us allowed to talk as per the rules of the ritual.

We climbed the mountain and sat down to wait for the dawn. Before long, Charlie--invisible in the dark behind us--began to play "Here Comes the Sun" on his tin whistle, repeating the song over and over. The others joined him, but given the weather, their instruments were different. I heard no guitar, no violin. Instead I heard a harmonica (Kit can play any instrument she picks up), two kazoos, and a rattle. The song went over and over and over as the sky grew gradually lighter, and the rising sun was visible for just a moment before it lifted into the dense cloud. At that moment of sunshine we all began to sing here comes the sun! although the sun was gone again before the song was over--but before the song was over, I am not kidding, the sleet switched over into snow.

It was a thick, warm snow and it built up quickly on the wet but frigid ground and all along the winter trees and on our shoulders and hair and eyelashes. Song finished, we shrieked and laughed and threw slush-balls at each other in the first morning of winter (though Kit calls it mid-winter), the first morning of the returning sun.

The masters had not brought up drinks and candy this time. They played in the snow like the rest of us (Charlie thanked us for bringing the nicer weather up) for a few minutes but then Joy and Charlie insisted we all get back to the Mansion before we froze. And in fact we were all shivering pretty seriously by that point. As we got inside, Joy, who, remember, in our Healing Master, ordered us to all take warm showers and put on dry clothes before breakfast and presents. So we did, racing upstairs like a herd of obedient children.

By the time we got back it was well after nine in the morning and the view out through the windows was a white wonderland. The temperature was still dropping, because the flakes were smaller, swirling down out of a pale grey sky in the winter's first true, heavy snowstorm. Inside, the wood stove was going strong and everything was gloriously warm. The Great Hall smelled of hot stove and oatmeal and peppermint and chocolate and evergreens, and each of us had a bag of goodies and little toys to open (organized by a student committee--everybody but the yearlings had kicked in a few dollars. It's possible to be a kid and a grown-up at the same time). The Sprouts were there, along with their relevant adults, so many people that the party sprawled out into the Bird Room and the Rose Room and the Library, because we couldn't all fit in the Great Hall.

We played with our toys and ate cookies and candy until, one by one, we all more or less crashed.

The last thing I noticed before I fell asleep myself was that Greg had not gone upstairs to bed as he had in years past. Instead he had fallen asleep on the floor, stretched out behind one of the couches, apparently mid-way through breakfast. And Greg's Cat was drinking his coffee.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Year 3: Part 7: Post 7: Deck the Halls

Happy Hanukkah, readers. I thought about doing a Hanukkah post, even though I do not remember the holiday at all from 2002, but when I looked up the dates for that year I found out why--it coincided with Thanksgiving, so I was off campus. I expect I knew at the time that Hanukkah was occurring, but my experience of it would have been limited to occasional glimpses of animated Menorahs on television as various stations issued holiday greetings. So, no Hanukkah post this year. It was never a big deal on campus anyway. --D.

It's happened! Overnight, while everyone slept, elves magically decorated the Great Hall for Yule.

Of course, I was one of the elves, and the "magic" in this case was simply the wonder of surprise for the yearlings. It's a tradition, and I was one of the elves last year, too, but I don't think I wrote about it then. We did work at night, with a guard posted on the stairs--the guard's job was to swear approaching yearlings to secrecy, not to fight them off, since once you came out on the stairwell, the glow from the lights downstairs would have been obvious. But the chance of anyone coming out was very low; people usually don't leave their dorms in the middle of the night, especially not in winter, when the Mansion is cold.

We, the groundskeeping team, went to bed as normal, but we all got up again, in secret, just after midnight. In years past I understand they've had to be careful to exclude yearling members of the team, but we're all third-years, except for Lou, who's a fourth-year, so it wasn't an issue. We crept downstairs, one or two at a time, and found Karen waiting for us. Among other things, she's a trained florist. Silently, she motioned us to follow her outside. The night was calm, crisp, and very dark--the moon had already set and there was a slight, high haze dulling the stars. The air smelled of snow.

We followed Karen through the night to the Greenhouse, where Charlie met us with a pile of greenery and a plate of holiday cookies and a couple of thermoses of hot cocoa.

"Getting a head start on the cookies?" Karen teased him.
"Making sure the mice don't eat 'em," he replied, with a hint of his old growl.

Under Karen's direction, we assembled several long garlands of cut spruce, fir, and pine twigs, plus several more of English ivy. In each we added a spray of winterberry holly every fifteen to twenty inches. We also made wreaths of various sizes and little sprays of greenery to go at the bases of candles and the corners of the various trays of candies, cookies, and fruit. And we ate all the cookies and drank all the chocolate.

Charlie didn't work with us, although he did last year. Instead, he played holiday music on his tin whistle, stopping between songs to eat cookies and take swigs of chocolate. It was a rare thing, he usually doesn't play for an audience, but last year we said we wished we had music and I imagine he preferred the home-made kind to anything recorded.

He wasn't picky about the music--much of it was overtly Christian, some clearly pagan, plus two Hanukkah songs, the same ones I learned in school as a kid when the teachers were trying to be equitable. I've always wondered--are there more than just those two? Do Jewish people actually sing these songs, or are they simply the product of political correctness? In any case, there is nothing politically correct about Charlie, he just played whatever songs came into his head. We didn't talk much as we worked, except when we had to, though sometimes Lou sang along. Also, for a while Dillon kept farting, he could not seem to help himself, and that made us all laugh.

When Charlie laughed while playing, his tin whistle went "toot! toot! toot!" and that made us laugh harder.

Then we carried all our work back across campus, each garland being carried by several people, all stretched out like giant snakes so they wouldn't tangle, and decorated the room--we had written instructions on where everything should go, so we didn't have to make a lot of noise. We brought the plates of food and the candles and everything up from the basement where Karen had stashed them. The place looked good.

Then we all went to bed, but it was almost six AM by then, so I doubt any of us actually got any sleep. Dillon fell asleep over breakfast.

But the yearlings were all suitably impressed. I remember Steve Bees looking around and exclaiming "hey, Santa's been here!" and giggling. Ebony asked me to tell her what everything looked like, even though I'd told her last year and it didn't look any different. She could have explored most of the decorations by hand, and I can imagine the textures being interesting, but Ebony, of course, has little interest in texture. She wants the visual. And so I sat with her over breakfast, explaining everything and drinking large amounts of coffee. It was so nice and so, well, normal, to be with her like that that I almost wept, but I didn't.

That night, after sunset but before dinner, I found Charlie sitting by himself on the couch by the wood stove, reading. I was surprised to see him--he usually stays out of sight in the winter. But then, no one was around to see him but me. I asked if I could join him and he nodded, fractionally. I sat down and stretched my feet toward the warm stove.

"You hardly growl at me anymore," I remarked, after a while. He responded by literally growling, as in imitating a dog, and glanced at me over his book. I laughed.

"I 'growl' when I need to," he added. "With you, there's no longer a need."

"I'm glad to hear it. Is that why you're visible now?"

He looked around, as though just then noticing he was in a student-accessible part of campus. I have no idea why he was really looking around, though. He put his book down and looked at me.

"I wanted to enjoy the decorations. I'm not going to be visible very often this winter," he told me.
"I know. I won't seek you out."
He nodded, agreeing.
"But in the spring we'll hang out," he added.
"Yeah?" I said, probably sounding over-eager. He's largely ignored me for a year.
"Yeah," he confirmed. And then went back to reading his book. I got up and wandered away, leaving him to his solitude and his reading.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Year 3: Part 7: Post 6: Walking in the Snow

Last night it snowed.

It was the first snowfall of the year, as far as I know. There could have been a flurry or two at night while I was inside. An odd thing about this weekly camping thing is that I'm starting to think I'm missing things when I'm inside, the way I used to think I was missing things if I were away from the TV for a while.

But anyway, this morning when I went out for a walk at dawn there was snow on the ground, just an inch and a half and already a little crusty. A cold front had swept in on the heals of a warm snow, and dawn lit up a rapidly clearing sky. Campus was utterly silent, except for the occasional rustle of snow falling off pine or spruce trees or the distant sound of a truck out on the main road.

I walked around until I started to get cold and the sun was well up, then I headed back towards the Mansion for breakfast.

I walked up the roadway behind the building, the side where we park the veggie-diesel vans and cars, the side that faces the line of conifers and the Formal Garden and the Berry Orchard. And there in the parking lot I crossed a line of tracks. They were human footprints, bare feet. Charlie.

Charlie thinks it's funny to leave bare footprints in snow, just to mess with people. Unfortunately for him, hardly anyone ever notices the prints and even fewer people ever comment on them. Those of us likely to notice such things are, pretty much by definition, his students and we already know he would do something like that, so we're not puzzled. But he tries now and then anyway.

The footprints came off the back porch of the Meditation Room--he'd come out of the secret door the masters use, shoveled those steps clear to destroy his prints, and then come up on the porch and left his shoes and socks there--and then went out towards the Flat Field. They did not come back, so he must still be out there. Even Charlie wouldn't walk very far barefoot in the snow. So I followed.

There's a little spinney of shrubs there clustered around an old deciduous magnolia that predates the school. The tracks went around that, so I followed them. But Charlie wasn't on the other side of the spinney--the tracks curved around. So I followed, and pretty quickly completed the circle, passing the place where my tracks, and Charlie's, came in. I stopped a moment, listening; no noise, which meant he had stopped walking when I did. Footfalls in snow are muffled, but not soundless. I thought about calling out to him, but elected instead to follow around--after all, he was barefoot and I was not. He'd get cold first.

We went around and around three times and I never heard him or found any evidence of his presence besides the ever-increasing number of footprints. I might have been following a foot-printing ghost. Or, of course, a woozil. I started to wonder if I was going to hear Christopher Robin call out to be from up in a tree.

Finally I caught up to him--he waited for me on the far side of the spinney, looking out over the Flat Field and the Edge of the World and the Enchanted Forest, out over the road and out into the valley and beyond to the far hills. He was standing there for all the world like he'd been there the whole time (and wasn't barefoot). I hadn't seen him in weeks.

"Nice sunrise this morning," he commented, still looking out over the world. Although, of course, that direction faces south and southwest, not east.
"Yeah," I agreed. "I thought you might go inside while I was coming around."
He grunted, as though he would never do such a thing, never cheat on a game.
"Hey, Charlie, it's good to see you."
He grunted again, and this time there was a little bit of a growl in it--which he pretty much undid by flashing me a quick, fond smile, before reverting to his brooding observation of the snowscape. It was as though he was worried someone might see us and realize he's not as anti-social as he pretends to be.
I laughed a little.
"I've kinda missed you," I told him. There was no 'kinda' about it, of course, but I didn't want to sound too over-the-top. I didn't just mean since Samhain, we've hardly really spent time together this year. This morning felt like the first time we'd really connected in months.
He gave a kind of shrug, nodding his head to acknowledge the situation.
"I've been busy," he said.
"I know. Listen, are you doing to be involved with Yule decorations, or should we report to Karen?" I couldn't think of anything else to say that wasn't mushy.
"Report to Karen, and she will coordinate with me. I think she'll reach out to you later this week. I might be involved."
"Got it. Listen, I'm going in to breakfast now, so you can stop pretending your feet aren't freezing."
"Oh, thank God."

And so, laughing, we both went inside, me in through the Meditation Hall and he, after picking up his shoes and socks, in through the secret door, which he knows I know about.

I still haven't told anyone else.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Year 3: Part 7: Post 5: Pretty

It’s been wet and rainy and cold since Thanksgiving. It hasn’t dropped much below freezing, but it’s never been that far above it, either. It’s been warm and cozy inside the Mansion—they’ve started the woodstoves, in the mornings to get the chill off—but that doesn’t do me a lot of good because I’ve been living outside.

I don’t have to do this. I only have to average one night out per week, and I’m actually a little ahead, so I can afford to stay in when the weather is nasty. Rick convinced me that I shouldn’t.
First of all, winter weather is coming, and if I can’t deal with the cold and the wet then I’m going to have a hard time keeping my average up over the next three months. Second, I’m planning on spending four weeks, starting with Christmas, at home. Because I have to do at least one night out per month, that means I’ll have to be outside that last week in January no matter what, and so again I have to prepare myself to deal with bad weather. Third, and most important, Charlie clearly wants me to get to know my spot in the woods in all its moods and seasons, to get the feeling, if not the actual fact, of living out there full time. Those moods and seasons include cold and drippy.

And so, for the past few days I’ve spent every night out in my spot, huddled under my tarp in my hammock. There’s nothing to do, and nothing I can do. I can’t go out and explore the woods because I can’t risk getting wet in this weather—water conducts heat very quickly, and I know that hypothermia can creep up on a person very quickly. And anyway my field guides would melt in the rain. And I can’t lie in my hammock and read because I’m not allowed. So I’m mostly just watching things drip and thinking.

For example, what on Earth did people do on rainy days back when shelters were small and books didn’t exist yet?

I imagine them spending the time in some kind of mystical meditative state, becoming enlightened through contemplating the wet and the cold and the fog. Although I’m probably over-glamorizing it, falling into some sort of noble savage fantasy Charlie would not approve of. More realistically, I suppose most people have always lived with other people, so that when the weather was too bad to go outside they probably huddled by the fire and drank told stories and jokes, and had sex—and here I am all by myself.

I do notice some things. Like the drippy air smells different at different temperatures. Like crows caw single or in series of two, three, or four, but never more than four caws in a row. Sometimes I spot animals before they spot me and when they do notice me they are as funny as humans their surprise. 

I go inside once a day. In the mornings, I go back to campus for breakfast. I see my friends, find out what’s going on at school, use the toilet, and warm up if I need to. Then I fill up my water bottles and my food bag and I go back out. I plan to keep this up for another couple of days and then move back indoors for the rest of the week. I have books I want to read, people to talk to, and depending on the weather I may have some work at my off-campus landscaping job or on the groundskeeping team. Then, over the weekend I’ll do another night or two outside.

Am I learning anything in all of this? Anything important, I mean? I’m honestly not sure, yet. I trust Charlie, and I trust the process I seem to be engaged in—I remember all the other things I’ve done, the other assignments that just seemed crazy at first and then ended up changing me. I’m not the same person I was three years ago, and I’m not the person I would have become if I hadn’t come here. For one thing, I don’t think I would have enjoyed doing something like this before. I might have done it anyway, gone camping for several days in the rain, because I liked camping and sometimes when you go camping it rains. But I would have complained about it. And I would have stuck it out mostly because I didn’t want to be a quitter.

But you know? This grey, drippy forest is actually kind of pretty.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Year 3: Part 7: Post 4: Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving. 

I went home to my family, of course—I’m actually still there, at my parents’ house. I’ll head back to campus on Sunday, not that I have to get back by any particular deadline, but that’s when my ride is traveling. For the past several years I’ve gotten rides to and from my celebrations with Kit and Allen and their families. I always assumed they were going to a Thanksgiving celebration of their own, but I never knew for sure. I had not asked, and they had not volunteered. 

As I think I mentioned, in our school community, information flows oddly. It’s one of those things where I would have taken the normal way of doing things for granted, and even when I did encounter an alternative at school, it took me a while to figure out what the difference was. The difference is that in the outer world, people share personal details out of habit, or to be friendly, or simply because they want to share with someone and don’t much care whom. Here, the masters, and even some of the more senior students, do not share personal details—or any other kind of information—casually, but only with a reason or in response to a question. It’s not an absolute rule, more like a tendency or a habit, but it lends the most mundane occasions an aura of mystery, almost as though each of us are ourselves a school with our own entrance exam.

Mundane like what Allen and Kit and their families do for Thanksgiving. This year I finally asked.

Turns out, they go to Allen’s parents’, who live in the same small city as mine. He did not grow up here, but the family moved shortly after his brother died--which is part of how he eventually got to be friends with a member of the early masters’ group and find out about the school. Kit and her husband go too because Kit has no other living immediate family and Kevin’s family live on the other side of the country. They’ve been doing it for years. Simple and undramatic, and yet how personal are those little details? Especially if you already know these people and so can put it all in context?

I was thinking about that before dinner on Thursday—my sister-in-law and I were talking about school. As I’ve said, she knows about it now and has decided she wants her children to be Sprouts. She was asking, and I was telling her, about holiday practices and what people do on Thanksgiving. Of course, I’ve never been on campus for the holiday so I don’t really know, but I understand that most people who don’t have family to go to for whatever reason go home with someone else, like how Kit and her husband go with Allen’s family and Andy  goes home with Sadie, Kayla, and Aidan. She liked the idea of people taking care of each other. She is extremely pregnant now and kept having to get up and go deal with my nephew, who is up and running around now and starting to talk. I mean, he’s been saying a few words for months, now, but he’s starting to really use his words to communicate.

Dinner itself—they asked me to say grace. There were no intrusive questions about my studies this time, no inaccurate assumptions I didn’t know how to cope with, just my uncle said that since I am learning to be some kind of priest I should say grace.

I know how to say a Protestant Christian grace, obviously, but I’m not in training to be a Protestant minister. For a minute I don’t know how to do what my uncle asked, since we don’t say grace at school, and it’s not like my studies actually include any form of leading others in prayer. But I thought—what would Charlie do? What would Charlie’s grace be?

“Listen,” I told them. “Listen, but don’t listen to me. Grace is not one man or one woman talking about God or to God, grace is when God speaks and we notice. Take a moment to listen to God speaking through this meal.”

I timed the silence for one whole minute, then said Amen. And we all ate. But we ate more quietly than normal, for a while.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Guest Post 1: Miriam's Words

Hi, all. I', going to do my regular post for the week on Friday, so I can talk about Thanksgiving. In the meantime, here is a guest post--its protagonist is also its author (she decided third-person works better stylistically). "Angela" is a pseudonym, but I'll use it for her hereafter. She is--and this is incredibly good news for all sorts of reasons--a reader who identified with Ebony's descriptions of transability and got in touch with us recently.--D.

Angela took the wrong bus to Amherst. She realized this after the fact, when she texted John, Dr. Da Silva’s son. She was new to her iPhone, and the text-to-speech software had mangled the information on her electronic ticket, plus her excitement had made her a little flighty, a little reckless, even though she had spent last night digging her toes into the carpet, as her yoga teacher had taught her.

“I thought you were supposed to get in at two,” John wrote. She hadn’t even gotten there yet, and she was already inconveniencing everyone.

But when they met at the bus stop, he was perfectly good-natured and didn’t seem at all bothered by her mistake. Neither did his sister, Miriam, whom they picked up on the way to Dr. Da Silva’s house. The siblings instantly began to bicker--about the messiness of John’s car, about his obsession with electronic cigarettes--and she found herself a little surprised that they were so unguarded around her.

“I’m nervous about the experiments,” she confided.

“Don’t be,” John said. “My mom is really cool. You’ll like her. Plus, I can hold you entirely responsible for getting her to chill out about weed. She used to be pretty hard-core about it.”

They chatted about this and that. Miriam was a lawyer, and her voice reminded Angela of a certain public radio reporter’s. It was a voice that asked pointed questions, that encouraged the speaker not to shy from complexity. They discovered that they both had been addicted to Serial though they agreed it was a little bit of a let-down.

Angela could tell immediately, even with no visual cues, that Dr. Da Silva’s house was beautiful, that it in fact shared some unnamable characteristic with her mother’s. Later, her supposition would be proven correct; she’d pad across the hardwood floors in stocking feet, and run her fingers across granite surfaces.

“You must be hungry,” Dr. Da Silva said. She served lentils and quinoa and spiced chicken.  They ate in what must be the living room; Angela was seated in a chair that reclined so steeply that the balancing act required to spare her lap and the carpet took almost all her concentration.

They got down to business after the lunch dishes were washed. Angela was only in Amherst for a day and a half and already time seemed to be getting away from her. Of course, Dr. Da Silva wanted to begin with the dermo-optical perception (DOP) experiment. The idea of perceiving contrasting colors by touch was what had piqued the researcher's interest in the first place. She had only agreed to observe how marijuana affected Angela’s vision because Angela herself had insisted on it.

John and Miriam stayed to help with the experiments, and Angela tried not to think that was odd. They showed her the apparatus that Dr. Da Silva and her colleague, Dr. Meadows, had devised. It consisted of a box to completely cover her eyes, as well as slits for her hands. Even before she’d finished examining the thing, she knew that the experiments would be a failure. When her DOP was consistent at all, which it rarely if ever was (she’d told Dr. Da Silva this many times), her success depended on her ability to explore the image freely.

It soon became apparent that the bulkiness of the apparatus was just one of many problems. The images they gave her smudged easily, and she began to recognize each of the cards, not by the roughness or smoothness of the colors, but by the shapes of the smudges. The more she rubbed her fingers up and down the pages, the smudgier they became. After many of her answers, Dr. Da Silva conferred with her children in Spanish, and Angela knew that these whispered conversations meant that she was doing poorly. She was back in ninth grade, hastily scrawling answers on the French quiz she hadn’t studied for.

“It’s not a test,” Dr. Da Silva told her.

“I know,” she said. “I’m trying my best. I think I’m experiencing cognitive collapse.” She had learned about cognitive collapse in educational neuroscience last semester, and playing Hermione Granger with Dr. Da Silva made her feel less like a research subject, even though that’s exactly what she was.

They abandoned the apparatus. They tried just about everything else to entice her DOP: glossier paper; regular printer paper; black and white images; simple images and more complicated images; smaller sheets of paper and bigger ones. Still, Angela performed at or below chance. Dr. Da Silva didn’t say it, but it was obvious that she was disappointed. Neuroplasticity was a hot topic, and Angela’s DOP, if substantiated by experimental data, would be an intriguing and novel example of how the brain of a blind person could rewire itself.

Angela tried not to feel badly. She had told Dr. Da Silva many times that her DOP fled like a spooked deer whenever she felt like she was being tested. She’d even said that it was possible that her supposed abilities had more to do with the happenstance of the texture of ink and paper than any sort of neural rewiring. It was not her fault that Dr. Da Silva hadn’t listened. 

At six o’clock, Dr. Da Silva conferred with her husband and children, again in Spanish, and they ordered dinner from a nearby Chinese restaurant. After that was taken care of, Angela asked Dr. Da Silva if she could eat the pot brownie, which would give her access to some vision, and Dr. Da Silva agreed. “I guess it’s your turn to do experiments now,” she said with grudging amusement. These would not be publishable experiments, Dr. Da Silva had told her. It was unethical and illegal for her to ask Angela to ingest marijuana, but it was possible for her to observe her on an informal basis after she had voluntarily consumed it.

It took about an hour for the brownie to kick in. By that time, the food had arrived, and she was once again seated in the recliner. The first thing she noticed was a flurry of rapid motion, the source of which she could not determine.

“It’s over there,” she said, gesticulating madly.

“It must be the television,” Dr. Da Silva’s husband hypothesized.  Those were the first words he had said in reference to her all day.

Gradually, the room began to take shape around her. She couldn’t recognize any objects or pieces of furniture—not yet, anyway—but there were lines and edges and rectangles, as if someone had taken the walls and floors and couch and table and flattened them. The air took on an elastic quality, as it always did, and it tugged on her eyes and face and hands so that they could explore the drawing of the room that was beginning to emerge. Angela tried to keep most of these revelations to herself—everyone was still eating, after all—but whenever the Da Silvas tried to engage her in conversation, she’d break off in mid-sentence, startled by the flicker of the television screen, or the sudden movement of a hand, or, at times, nothing they could identify at all.

They finished eating, and John got up to take Angela’s plate. “OH!” he said, evidently surprised by something. She asked what had happened.

“You made eye contact with me,” he said. “It’s totally fine; I just wasn’t expecting it.”

Angela smiled to herself. Last night, she had tested out the batch of pot brownies with her friend Ellie, just to make sure they would work, and Ellie had been equally surprised. “I’m not used to being so up close and personal with your eyeballs,” she had said.

Angela was becoming overwhelmed by all the visual stimuli. Her whole body was spinning with it. There was pressure on her face and chest, and her heart was starting to race. This was the price she paid for forbidden knowledge, forbidden sight. She managed to ground herself enough to catch a glimpse of something shiny, and the shininess triggered a vivid recollection of something smooth on her fingernails, and she knew that the smoothness was nail polish. Logic told her that the shiny sensation, and thus the nail polish, must belong to someone else, and because she could hear Dr. Da Silva’s voice close by, she came to the obvious conclusion. And it turned out she was right; Dr. Da Silva was wearing nail polish, and the fact that she was right—and about something so detailed to boot—brought her closer to the reality of the power thrumming inside and outside of her, and that power scared her.

She recognized the scissors on the table, as plainly as if she’d reached out and touched them. Then she saw a big soft thing that Dr. Da Silva told her was a tissue. Dr. Da Silva said that maybe Angela had mentioned the scissors because she knew that they were on the table from earlier, when Miriam had been cutting paper for the DOP experiments. Angela did not know how to explain that normally, her mind didn’t work like that; when she was sober, if she wasn’t touching an object it had no physicality and would never hijack her attention like the scissors had done.

Angela was keen to show Dr. Da Silva what happened when she looked at colored strobe lights, which was how she had discovered that marijuana improved her vision. But her growing euphoria was starting to get in the way. “Yellow lemons!” she exclaimed, apropos of nothing. Miriam hadn’t even started shining the light yet, but the marijuana had flipped a switch, as it always did, and Angela was now able to imagine, not just yellow, but any image she could dream of.

She could tell the moment Dr. Da Silva turned on the strobe light. The colors reached for her; each brushed her cheek with a distinctive weight. But her hungry brain had another agenda. It latched onto the edge of the phone, the back of Dr. Da Silva’s hand, and it wouldn’t let go. “This is a hand,” Angela told herself. The knowledge felt so primal, so beyond language, that it was shocking, and she had to close her eyes for a second to stanch the flow. But as soon as she opened them again, the thoughts surged toward her once more; “This is a phone, and this is an edge, and this is what people mean by tracking objects, and now I understand how hypnosis works; it’s like the phone is pulling on my eyes, and I can’t look away.”

Back in the Da Silvas’ living room, she was vaguely aware that Miriam was asking her what color the light was.

“Like an apple,” Angela answered, “Or like a tricycle. Wait, it’s changed. Now it’s like milk.” This part of her brain didn’t seem to have access to color names, only a string of associations.

Dr. Da Silva must have leaned toward her then, because she was distracted away from the strobe light, and she was aware of her eyes like fingers tracing something rough, like a peach that was just beginning to shrivel.

“It’s your face!” she said. “See, I wasn’t lying to you. I really can see!”

“Yes,” Dr. Da Silva said. “I don’t know exactly what’s happening, but the signals to your retinas do seem to be boosted somehow.” Dr. Da Silva’s voice was scratchy, and Angela realized that it was almost midnight, that she had been keeping Dr. Da Silva and Miriam up with her antics. In hushed conversations that didn’t involve her, they worked out the sleeping arrangements. Angela would sleep in Miriam’s room.

“It’s cold in there though,” Miriam said.

Dr. Da Silva started gathering things, presumably the scraps from the failed DOP experiment. “I’ll bring her the electric blanket. And I’m sleeping late tomorrow. My foot is killing me.”

Angela could have kicked herself. Dr. Da Silva had broken her ankle a few weeks ago, and Angela had been oblivious. That was the deceptive thing about her new sight; when she could see, she felt more present, more connected to the solidity of the world than she ever did with only four senses. But maybe it was a selfish, deceptive sort of presence.

The room was freezing, even with the electric blanket; this was yet another similarity to her mother’s house. For two hours, Angela lay in bed, shivering and nauseated. The brownies often upset her stomach. At first, there was the usual euphoria; she had seen and seen and seen, and there were witnesses. She wasn’t crazy. She wasn’t making things up. It had been six years since she had discovered that marijuana could help her see, but that discovery had torn a hole in logic, and the doubt that came rushing in was as big and powerful as the discovery itself. “Never again,” Angela promised. “Never again will I torture myself like this. I can finally let the doubt go.”

In the morning, the euphoria was gone, and she felt drained and sheepish. She tried to find her way to the shower on her own, but Dr. Da Silva’s husband saw her and got his wife out of bed, even though Angela insisted she didn’t need help and that he should let Dr. Da Silva sleep. She managed to leave her clean underwear outside the bathroom door, and Dr. Da Silva had to hand it to her, while she stood wrapped in a towel, her hair dripping onto the tile.

They all had breakfast at IHOP. It was March 14th, the day Angela’s father had died twelve years before. When she was little, they’d always go to IHOP on Sundays, though they called it the Pancake House. Angela shared all these details with Miriam, and even let a little sadness creep into her voice. She rarely let herself become intimate with her grief. Miriam responded sympathetically, asking the appropriate questions and making the appropriate reassuring noises, and Angela had to remind herself that she had known the woman for two days, that they probably would never see each other again, and it had been unwise and perhaps a little desperate to reveal so much so quickly.

On the long bus ride back to Boston, Angela tried to mold the story of the trip into a success. She could finally cross “showing a researcher what happens when I see after I eat a pot brownie” off her bucket list; it had occupied the top position for years. “Your retinal signals have definitely been amplified,” Dr. Da Silva had reiterated that morning, but her pronouncement kept shifting and melting and reforming itself, like a clock does in a dream when you try to check the time.

At breakfast, she had asked Miriam what she had thought of last night.

“It was hard to tie what you were saying to people and objects in the room,” she had said. “For me, last night was less about what you could see and more about the movie that was going on in your brain. You didn’t say anything that definitively demonstrated that you were seeing. It was a cool movie, but we outsiders only got tiny glimpses of it.”

She was met with the same hollowness she’d experienced when she’d finished Serial. She’d gotten what she’d come for--the stamp of approval and legitimacy from a neuroscientist, someone who understood how cannabinoids and retinas and optic nerves worked. Months later, her friend Jess would tell her the story of a woman who loved hiking so much that she gave up everything: her husband, her children, her comfortable suburban existence. For this woman, the aliveness she felt when she hiked trumped everything, even loneliness. Angela never felt more alive than when she was seeing, but she could not become that woman.

What good was a movie if only one person could see it? Miriam was a lawyer, not a neuroscientist, but it was Miriam’s words, not her mother’s, that Angela would remember.