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, 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.