Item: What have I been doing at ARC? I’ve been becoming a human. I always used to think I was one already, but it turns out every time in my past when it was time to do human things, I was elsewhere.
Take, just for example, the summers I lived in Minneapolis. Around the beginning of June I would notice that Feral Futures and Crowduck were coming up, and I would start waiting for the day to leave for them. Just have to slog through the next couple weeks, and then it’s time to go.
Late in the month Misty, Willow, and I would finally get in the car, and I’d spend the ride lightly appreciating grain silos in Nebraska while waiting to be at Feral. Once we got to Feral, I’d spend the first days being mildly happy and making predictable conversation with the first comers, while waiting for the full crowd to arrive. Then when they got there I’d sit in circles and listen to people teach, and I’d learn, but with a sizable part of me always waiting for lunch, which I would eat while waiting for the next activity, and another part waiting for Crowduck. After a week Feral would end, I’d get to Crowduck somehow or other, and each day I’d get up and fish a bit while waiting for poker to begin, and when that started part of me would be waiting for tomorrow’s breakfast. And finally I’d leave Crowduck and come back to Minneapolis, never actually having felt like I’d arrived anywhere.
And all that time I was distracted by waiting, I was paying just enough attention to my surroundings to negotiate conversations in a socially acceptable way. I was on autopilot. I didn’t make decisions if I could avoid it. (I always thought I was just congenitally indecisive.) I didn’t give anyone my undivided attention because I needed most of it for planning what I was going to do after our conversation. Living in this way can make one appear quite convincingly similar to a human. I believed the illusion myself for a long time. But I’d been starting to understand that I couldn’t feel the world. I didn’t quite know what it was to “feel” the world, but from how people described it, I wasn’t doing it. Most of what I felt, I can see from here, was impatience, spiced with a little frustration. When was all this present going to get out of the way and let me enjoy my future?
I arrived at ARC fresh off a troubling family Christmas and a New Year’s week spent very aware that I was in fact homeless. On New Year’s Eve night, Erica at Sprout House put together a ceremony in which five of us sat around a candle and reflected on the year leaving and the one coming. I told the group that I could see 2018 was the time for me to become an “emotional leader”. The words came unbidden and didn’t really explain themselves, but I let them out despite not knowing how on Earth I was supposed to become what I said I’d become. I’d begun to understand feeling, just enough to realize that it felt important to say it even though it scared me.
On my first morning at ARC I experienced the group’s daily ritual of checking in. At Sprout House we’d checked in during our fortnightly house meetings, but I always got away with saying I was fine. (After a while, a few housemates who were rarely fine had clearly gotten sick of it but mostly didn’t say anything.) And I believed I was. But when I came to ARC I saw people really check in.1 Each person seemed to have at least five minutes’ worth of emotions that would tumble out end-over-end. I tried to do it too. I couldn’t reach far enough in. I still had trouble believing one person could contain that many emotions, except that I’d seen it happen. But I knew I had to look.
After a week, I could say something a little deeper than “I’m fine”. After two, I had a conversation with the director, Nathaniel, and his intense gaze, that made me realize I had no idea what I wanted to achieve by being on Earth, or why I woke up each morning other than force of habit. After three weeks I found my pain. I didn’t believe I had any. I believed other people, ones with depression and neuroses and mental breakdowns, had pain, but I’d never been abused or seen anyone die or anything like that, and that was why I was so balanced. Come to find out I appeared balanced because I dealt with life by carefully imitating a human while otherwise checking out of life completely, and I’d been doing it so long I didn’t know I was doing it.
I’m a month in now and I feel like I’ve woken up from a coma. I feel like I’ve finally learned how to form memories—of what it was like to be somewhere, not what I did and who was there and what date it was. Do you know, I don’t remember a lot of my childhood. I just wasn’t paying attention to it. I was checked out. Waiting. I didn’t stop as an adult, I just developed my journal as a coping mechanism that helps me remember facts and figures. Last weekend I noticed someone, a weekend volunteer named Bill, smiling a pure smile of love for the work he’d helped with, and it was like the first time I’d seen a smile. A few days before that I was outside between the garage and the house after feeding the detached woodstove, and I heard the wind blow negative ten degrees of chill through the treetops, and I suddenly saw the whole world.
I’ve struggled with a feeling for years that there’s a sort of blurry black frame around my vision—I can’t actually see it, but I feel like I’m looking at the world through a camera viewfinder, like I’m a degree removed, always an outsider. That’s still the way I feel sometimes because it takes time to unravel habits, but now I know how to turn it off and step into the scene.
It was a devastating shock, the night I looked back and saw how much of my life I’ve phoned in. I had to weep into my pillow. No wonder I always avoided noticing it before. It was as if I’d discovered that, like the people who have their epilepsy cured by severing right and left brain, but then find that sometimes one of their hands unbuttons their shirt unasked while the other one is buttoning it, I had been unknowingly slipping crushed sedatives into every cup of water I’ve ever drunk. I could have been awake all these years if I’d noticed, and now it’s too late to get that time back.
The funny thing is, I knew all this already. I loved John Lennon’s quote, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” And the anonymous “I do not intend to tiptoe through life only to arrive safely at death.” But I thought I’d absorbed the lessons already. After all, here I am hitching and trainhopping North America—who’s tiptoeing? It wasn’t until I came to ARC that it occurred to me to actually check and see if I was living accordingly. And then I found my particular form of absence: waiting. You don’t know yours until you look for it. Until then you’ll assume you’re not guilty and all those other people are the ones leading “lives of quiet desperation”. I did. But I think practically everyone does it. Including, I’m sure, myself still, in ways I haven’t seen yet—though, perhaps naively, I now believe I’ve noticed the worst of it. I’ll find whatever others there are as I go down this path. At least now I know I’m moving.
I wonder how many different ways there are that we excuse ourselves from actually living. Now that I’ve seen mine I can see a few others’. I’ve spent life waiting; someone else spends it dreaming of the past; someone else spends it blaming other people for all the ways it’s not right; someone else spends it running away from themself. None of them are probably prepared to acknowledge it, even if I told them.
I’m not enlightened. I’m not a Buddha, or even a wise man. But now at least I know how to be alive. Those things will come if they need to.
Item: ARC calls itself, among other things, “where healers come to be healed.” Misty is a healer, and is long overdue for some deep, real healing—wounds they’ve been bandaiding for decades now. This was the right place for both of us to start speaking to our wounds. For Misty it seems to be especially right. While I think it’d be good for me to stay one more month, after that there are places calling to me, and I feel good about going to learn what they want to teach me, and I think that’ll help me keep on becoming a human. Misty, on the other hand, feels that ARC is exactly where they need to be to heal, and that the healing will take at least a year.
So our current plan is that they’ll stay and I’ll keep moving—though I’ll circle back through fairly often. We both feel good about this plan, though neither of us particularly looks forward to the lonely times. I fully expect we’ll be together again full-time whenever it’s right for Misty to move on from ARC. And we’ll both be more whole as people. Already I feel fuller of love when I bring my newly located whole self to Misty and they let theirs out in return. Our love has always been true, but sometimes we’ve had trouble getting it from one of us to the other in ways that feel more meaningful than a nice hug or sharing a couch. We’re learning to get all the way to each other.
Item: Learning Anishinaabemowin while a modern vagabond is tough. There are no fluent speakers nearby who I can hang around with, and I don’t even have the regularity of schedule to commit to being a phone call pal with another learner regularly. But for the time being in this second month at ARC, I can learn what there is to learn from books.
I’ve looked at a lot of books that teach Anishinaabemowin. And there are some good ones—but almost all of them end about where a first semester would, leaving me asking, “But what about… what about transitive-animate verb conjugation, even in the independent, much less the conjunct? When do I learn how to use relative roots properly?”
A few weeks ago I finally decided it was time to quit messing around and buy a copy of the granddaddy of all explanations of the language, Rand Valentine’s Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar. At eleven hundred pages, it has time to answer all my questions (or almost). And I feel satisfied at last.
It’s written in the sort of carefully dehydrated prose much loved of academics, betraying almost no trace of Mr Valentine himself, who you’d never guess was the smiley sort of frazzlehair you see at right. But once in a blue moon he has his moments:
Preverbs seem to be readily formed from roots by the addition of /-i/ or /-ii/, and there is no logical limit to the number of preverbs that may occur in a word. For example, there are six in the tongue twister Gga-gchi-niisaakye-zaagji-ziinkiigmaane-bskiigdigwe-bmiboojgesahin, ‘I’ll throw you down the hill so hard the snot will come out of your nose and your knees will buckle.’ Some of these preverbs are themselves complex elements with meanings such as ‘be flowing with snot,’ and ‘have buckled knees.’
It’s worth pointing out that the dialect he wrote about is from farther east, where speakers have started shortening Anishinaabemowin’s feature-length words a little by the simple expedient of skipping about a third of the vowels (compare “Anishinaabemowin” with “Nishnaabemwin”), which makes the language at once even trickier to understand, to correctly compose (because you have to figure out which vowels to skip, and they keep changing), and to pronounce. In the airier pronunciations of Minnesota Ojibwe, that word would come out to something like Giga-gichi-niisaakiye-zaagiji-ziinikiigomaane-biskiigidigwe-bimiboojigesa’in . Which weighs in at 70 letters, far more than the famous “longest word in Ojibwe”, the one for blueberry pie, miini-baashkiminasigani-biitoosijigani-bakwezhigan (46)—which for some reason gets more attention than apple pie, mishiimini-baashkiminasigani-biitoosijigani-bakwezhigan (51). Like Valentine says, they can go on forever if you make them. Though usually the English translation would get correspondingly longer. These pies are actually a bit inflated, translating literally to “blueberry (or apple) layered-thing bread”, whereas I believe most people not out to impress anyone would just call them miini- or mishiimini-biitoosijigan, “blueberry/apple layered-thing”.
Not to demean Sprout House’s current check-ins. I haven’t been to one, but the people of the house since Misty and I left have embraced the fact that most of them are dealing with mental illness, so they may have gotten more earnest about talking about it. ↩