Thursday, June 18, 2015
Year 3: Litha
Note: I’m posting this a little before the actual solstice. Also, yes, the reason I was self-conscious about not having a partner was that I was still bummed about my break-up with Ebony. I had not talked about the break-up much beyond mentioning it to a few friends, like Rick and Andy, just as I had never talked much about the relationship itself--we never hid it, but it was private, and still, in a way, tentative. I certainly never told Allen about the break-up, but I am certain he knew. For one thing, he and Ebony were fairly close by that point, and she probably told him.
With the summer solstice, the rest of the country recognizes that summer officially begins, except "everyone knows" the season really began at Memorial Day. The more I think about it, the more Kit’s idea of seasons starting on the cross-quarters makes more sense.
So, it’s Midsummer, as in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. A group of us went to see a production of it recently, a kind of unofficial field trip organized by Kit. It was outdoors, with actors running in and out of an oak forest surrounding a low, open stage as twilight came on. It was fantastic. Kit is friends with the choreographer who did the several dance sequences in this version of the show, and I think she had something to do with the live background music based on Greek folk songs. She kept whispering interesting facts to us about the cast and crew and the symbolism embedded in the stage settings.
But that was a few days ago. Today we were on campus, celebrating the holiday with the traditional feast and long list of visitors. My brother, sister-in-law, and nephew all came, their first visit to campus. Cecily came, too, and talked incessantly about her new boyfriend, whom none of us like. He wasn’t invited, since he doesn’t yet know about the school and probably won’t. Yet, through her babbling, he was a constant presence anyway.
Ollie visited as well. Seeing him was great, though he and Willa were more or less stuck to each other the whole time, for obvious reasons. They joined my family and me to eat and we shared a picnic blanket with Allen, Lo, Julie, and Alexis. Allen, as you may recall, was Ollie's primary teacher and they wanted to catch up, too.
David hadn’t come—he’s apparently off being a teenager. Julie and Alexis, of course, ran off to be with the other Sprouts as soon as they were done eating. Julie and Sequoia (one of Charlie’s grand-nieces) are probably in their last years as Sprouts now and Aidan is still the youngest. The number of Sprouts is shrinking. But my sister-in-law seems fascinated by the idea of them and she asked Allen questions about how her children (plural—she’s pregnant again) could get to be Sprouts, too. So I could have relatives running around on campus, myself, in a few years. I like that.
I didn’t like listing to Cecily’s going on and on about her boyfriend. My brother, John, and his wife kept fussing over my nephew and generally being parental, and Allen and Lo—I guess they’re getting more comfortable with me as a friend, not just as a student, because they were being frankly flirtatious, Lo feeding Allen bits of fruit and both of them laughing. Willa is always flirtatious and Ollie was, as always, a little uncomfortable with that--it's nice to see that some things don't change, but there I was, in the middle, with no partner at all.
When the baby started crying, Lo scooted over to help figure out why, and I said something to Allen. I didn’t mean to complain, but of course he noticed I was feeling pretty bad.
“You’re not the only only one,” he told me, quietly. No, that’s not a typo, it’s what he said. I looked at him and he smiled a little at me. The others didn’t seem to be paying any attention to us.
“I’m the only one of us here without a living sibling.”
I looked at him, curiously.
“My brother died when I was seventeen,” he explained. “He was killed in a car accident, riding with friends.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, rather embarrassed—as though my problems were anything compared to losing a brother. But Allen showed me an expression I can’t quite explain, somehow reassuringly dismissive. I remember back when I was in group therapy whenever anyone would try to say their problems weren’t as bad as anyone else’s, he’d say that comparing difficulty or pain is unhelpful. In talking about his brother he only meant I had not been the only one thinking about what the others around me had that I didn’t. He squeezed my shoulder in a friendly way and I felt better.
“What was your brother like?” I asked.
“Like me, but more so,” he said, with an odd, quick smile, and left it at that. When John and my sister-in-law and Willa got up to get more food, he explained further. Ollie, I guess, had heard it before. He just listened. “We had a lot in common. We both liked to swim. We both hated the flash on cameras, all that sudden light, right in your eyes. We both liked to collect and organize things.”
“The seashells!” I exclaimed, remembering the Island, and Allen diving for seashells and pretty stones and then arranging them all on his beach towel.
“Yes,” he acknowledged, “exactly. My brother’s thing was toy cars. He had hundreds of them by the time he died, all laid out in a particular order on a table in his room. I used to sneak in and re-arrange two of them, only two, to see if he would notice. He always did” He smiled in fond nostalgia for a moment. “My brother, David, was diagnosed as autistic. He had several of the disabilities associated with autism—he could speak, and take care of himself in a basic way, but he wasn’t learning to drive and our parents weren’t sure he’d ever have a job or live on his own. Of course, there were other things he did very well, though nothing phenomenal. He was not a savant. I was supposed to be the normal one, the healthy brother. Funny how family roles get handed around? I always did well in school. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I could get along well with others, if I had to. Our parents expected a lot of me, and they expected nothing of him. But I always knew. I was never diagnosed, but I always knew that whatever my brother was, I was too.”
I looked at him, but couldn’t figure out what to say. He returned my gaze, something I knew from class that autistic people don’t usually like to do. “This is not to share lightly, by the way,” he added. “And not with yearlings.”
Yes, of course, I’d noticed back when we covered neurodivergence in class that some of the autistic characteristics sounded a lot like Allen—but others did not sound at all like him. And he had not said he thought he had autism or Asperger’s syndrome*, nor had he even said his brother did, only that his brother had been diagnosed that way.
I know his use of language is very deliberate. If Allen says or does not say something, it is intentional. I know he is critical of psychological and neurological diagnosis, regarding it as, at best, simplistic. I can imagine that he does not want his name associated with the word “autism” among people who don’t already know him well—he doesn’t want people making assumptions about him based on a word that might not even fit him.
So why did he tell me? I don’t know, but maybe it’s what he said about being the same thing as his brother, a truth that his parents, and most of his profession, deny. Maybe he just wants to be known.
While I was sitting there, trying to absorb the shock of Allen’s evident trust, Allen himself suddenly had to absorb the shock of a rapidly moving six-year-old. Alexis had returned, running, and launched herself into his lap with such force that they both fell over backwards.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” she crowed, as he managed to sit up, “look what I have!”
“A dandelion,” he acknowledged, sitting up again. “That’s very pretty. There aren’t a lot left, this time of year.”
“Make it disappear!” she commanded.
“Well, ok, give it to me,” he said, and then, holding it by the stem in his right hand, he passed his left hand over it and the flower vanished. I was impressed. I never know how he does what he does, but illusion at such close range—Alexis was just inches from the flower—can’t be easy. She giggled. My nephew, sitting in Lo’s arms, stared at the place where the flower had been in shock. Lo laughed.
“You’re right,” she told the baby. “That is surprising. Flowers don’t normally disappear like that, do they?”
“Aa-a,” said the baby. “Err.” And then he shrieked.
John and his wife came back, bearing laden plates of food.
“What’choo talking about, kid?” asked John. He sat down and took his son on his knee.
“My Daddy’s doing magic,” Alexis explained. “Ok, make it appear again!”
“Like this?” But Allen made a puffball appear instead.
“No, that’s the wrong one,” Alexis complained, laughing.
“It is? Ok, well, you take this one—you know how to make it disappear, right?” She did—she blew on it and the seeds all floated away. “And we’ll try again.”
But the next flower that appeared was also a puffball. Allen tried over and over, each time getting it “wrong” by producing puffballs, and making Alexis laugh. The extraordinary thing was that there were no puffballs on the field we sat on, as it had been cropped close by the sheep and horses just that week—and this far into June, there are very few dandelion puffballs left anywhere, just cats’ paws and sow-thistles. Where was he getting them? It’s not like you can hide a puffball up a sleeve or something, they’d get all messed up. He produced six, one after the other, until Alexis finally ordered him to produce the “right” one and the original dandelion returned.
“Now, go put it in water so it doesn’t close up and wilt,” he told her.
“Charlie says I can eat it.”
“Charlie is right. But if you want to eat it, you’d better go rinse it off first, in case a horse peed on it or something.”
“Ew. Ok.” And off she ran.
Both last year and the year before I left the picnic before sunset and climbed a tree—and ended up spending much of the night hanging out with Charlie. This time I wanted to stick around and actually watch the Man go up and join in the dancing. That’s what we do on the solstice—we have an all-day picnic and then hold a Burning Man ceremony and the Long Dance, where people dance and play music from sundown to sunup.
The Man is made mostly of bundled Phragmites stalks and whatever invasive vines Charlie happens to be battling at the time. This year it looked to be mostly purple loosestrife, and the Man, all fifteen feet of him, were abloom in purple.
He stood around, being purple, on a well-watered section of grass on the edge of the central field encircled by the Mansion, the Dining Hall, the main greenhouse, and Chapel Hall—and the Martin House, of course. All during the day people, including my family, kept going up to the Man and sticking little notes in among the wicker. As I explained to my family, we light the Man to send him off to the spirit world, so he can take whatever messages we want to send with him.
So, this year for the first time, I was close by when the Man went up. The flames seemed slow and silent at first, crawling yellowly up one of his legs, but then they gained momentum and leaped up the structure, crackling and whooshing as they went. And then the band started up, one of several that would play in shifts, in different parts of campus, indoors and out, all night long.
I’m not one for dancing, I always feel self-conscious, but everyone else was dancing, too, so I figured no one else would notice, so I joined in. I only intended to dance for a few minutes, but one thing lead to another, one song to another, and before long I heard the birds of the dawn chorus begin.
I wondered where Charlie was, whether he was in the woods somewhere alone or had another apprentice to introduce to the magic of running around a forest at night, playing hooky from human society until breakfast-time.
*In 2002, when this scene happened, “Asperger’s syndrome” was one of several separate diagnosis considered to lie on the autism spectrum. It was usually defined as a “milder form” of autism, in that many “Aspies” can pass as merely eccentric. More recently, all the different forms of autism have been combined into a single diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder,” or ASD. Aspies can no longer avoid confronting social stigma by distancing themselves from “real” autistics. It remains to be seen if the borderline acceptance that Aspies won will translate into greater acceptance and respect for all autistics. Allen has still never been diagnosed and he does not know whether he might be considered autistic, neurotypical, or something else. He does not intend to find out.