Chapter Eighteen

Once the excitement of the mystery about Kath's poems and disk had passed, life calmed down. Tam was taking a class and doing an independent study. Jami began working with Alyssa and Emiko to take photos of their dancing. Carys did some writing and a lot of thinking. The support group wasn't meeting during the summer; the only people around were the performance troupe members, who all saw one another regularly.

"Hey, Jami!" said Carys one Sunday afternoon. "One year ago today we moved into this apartment."

"So we did," said Jami. She looked at Carys from the window seat, where she was sitting next to Tam.

"Wow," said Carys, slowly shaking her head. "Never in a million years would I have imagined that all the things that have happened during the last year could have happened."

"Is this where I leave so you two can celebrate?" asked Tam, beginning to lean forward so she could stand up.

"You're not going nowhere!" said Carys.

"Please, you're part of what we have to celebrate," said Jami. "In fact, we should ask Sandi and Crystal, and Alyssa and Emiko to come over, too."

"The way you said that,... I guess Alyssa and Emiko are together a lot now. Are they becoming an item?"

"I think it's more that they're making their own little world to be silly and happy in."

"There's a difference?"

"So what do we do for excitement next year?" wondered Tam.

Carys looked at Tam and Jami. "More of the same, I suppose. Though what happens with performing depends in part on what Crystal and Sandy end up doing. It's the following year that worries me."

"I really don't have to go to graduate school immediately," said Tam.

"But you do want to go, so delaying is just that, delaying. If you decide to go someplace like Chicago or New York City, where there's a good photography school, Jami may want to do that and we'll follow you."

Now Tam did sit up, moving to the other side of the window seat, so they could all look at one another.

"What about you, Carys?" asked Jami. "What do you want to do?"

"I don't know." She looked down at the notebook in which she'd been writing. "I don't have a big vision like either of you do. I always seem to be crazy busy and have more projects in mind than I can possibly fit in, but I can't put a label on what I want to do."

"Since when has putting a label on things become a good idea?" asked Tam.

"Well, yeh, but Tam, you're a philosopher, and Jami, you're a photographer. I'm what?"

"You're an activist, a theater person, a writer and a thinker," said Jami.

"You are the wheel around which the lives and fortunes of many people revolve," intoned Tam. "I mean that seriously. You're a spark, a bright flash in the darkness. Where you are, things happen, people want to be involved, and the world changes. If it wasn't for people like you, we'd all be sitting on the ground somewhere eating berries and chipping stones."

"Oh, bullshit!"

"No, really. Tam's right," said Jami. "You are an amazing and exceptional person."

Carys scowled. "Then why don't I know what the fuck I'm doing and what I want to do?"

"Maybe what you want to do is what you're already doing?" said Tam. "Our culture is obsessed with being tested and certified. The idea that one has to go to school for twenty or more years to become a philosopher is absurd. What I need to do to be a philosopher is philosophy. Getting a Ph.D. is a requirement for landing a job in academia. The two are not necessarily connected." Tam waved a hand toward Jami. "In art it isn't quite so bad. Still, what makes a photographer is taking photos, not going to classes."

"Obviously," agreed Jami, who had been home-schooled all her life.

"Carys, you do know what you're doing and what you want to do," continued Tam. "It just doesn't fit in any of the usual boxes. Read the biographies of most of the people who have changed the world. They felt the same way. You're that kind of person."

"I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end," said Carys.

"What's that from?" asked Jami.

"Thomas Merton's Thoughts in Solitude. Father Dave has that passage on the wall of his office."

"Maybe you should talk with him again?"

"I suppose I should. I need to figure this out. We need to figure this out. I mean, if you are going to graduate school, Tam, don't you have to start applying like, a year in advance?"

"More or less, yes."

"Then I think that one of the things we need to do this summer is try to get some kind of handle on what we want our future to be."

* * *

"You might consider making a retreat."

"A retreat? Isn't that a religious thing?"

"Say, rather, a spiritual thing. By whatever name you want to use, Carys, you are seeking spiritual guidance. A retreat is a quiet time apart from the world in which one can think, and reflect. If you feel the need to talk with someone who has experience in helping people uncover the paths within their hearts, such help is available, also."

"You mean like at that place in DeWitt?"

"The Saint Francis Retreat Center? That's one possibility. There are no longer any Franciscans there, though I can remember when there were. It's run by the Diocese, now. I don't think you'd be comfortable there. I doubt they would be comfortable having you there.

"For you I think the Simplicity Center, near Lyons, might be a better fit."

"Simplicity? I think I've heard Crystal talk about that."

Father Dave nodded. "She's been there several times."

"But it's still religious? I'm not sure I trust anything religious."

"You do realize you're discussing this with an ordained priest? While sitting in his office, in a Catholic parish building?"

Carys blew out a breath. "I know, I know. It's a paradox."

Father Dave steepled his hands. "Someone, I think it was Bertrand Russell, a philosopher who also had no use for religion, said that when you think you have found a paradox, that's when things start getting interesting."

"I certainly can't complain that my life is uninteresting."

"You are not an island, Carys. Perhaps you don't fit into the traditional scheme of things, but you are very much connected to everyone and everything around you. Why not talk to Crystal about Simplicity? You're looking for something. You may not know where you'll find it until you find it."

Carys nodded. "I might as well. Thanks, Dave."

* * *

Carys had called Crystal and said she wanted to talk, just with her. Crystal said it'd be best to come to her house, because pretty much every time she walked out the door this summer she was with Sandy.

Carys took the bus out to Lake Lansing Road and walked from there, following Crystal's directions. When she found the house and rang the bell, Crystal opened the door.

"Don't worry about my parents," said Crystal. "They've decided that the less they know about what I do, the less they have to be upset about."

They went upstairs, to Crystal's bedroom.

"What did you want to talk with me about?" asked Crystal, as she closed the door. She put a CD in her stereo and sat on the floor. Carys sat beside her.

Carys explained some of what she was feeling, and the decisions she felt that she and Jami and Tam would have to make soon. "I went and talked with Father Dave, because I'd kind of gotten into the habit with the disk thing. He suggested I do some kind of retreat to get off by myself and think. He said that maybe the Simplicity Center might work for me. You know about that, don't you?"

"Sure do," said Crystal. She turned and rummaged on a shelf of her bookcase, pulling out a pamphlet, which she handed to Carys. "I've been there several times, because it's run by lesbians and I can just be myself. They do a lot of different kinds of workshops and training things, some of them youth oriented."

Carys read the mission statement and introduction. She saw phrases about racial, sexual and economic justice, feminism, and even something about respecting the right of individuals to name their own gender identity. "Wow. I take it this has nothing to do with the Catholic Church?"

Crystal laughed. "That's obvious, huh? No, the person who runs it is a United Church of Christ minister. Simplicity is very non-denominational and inclusive."

"But it's still about religion, right?"

"Not religion, but God, yes," said Crystal.

"I don't believe in God," said Carys.

"What do you believe in?" Crystal looked around the room, held up a hand and looked at it, took Carys's hand in hers. "What makes all this work? What makes right and wrong? Because I know you believe in right and wrong."

"I don't know. I think those are the questions I'm asking. I don't have the answers."

Crystal thought for a moment. "Do you doubt your own sense of right and wrong?"

"No. I make mistakes. Sometimes I don't know enough. I've acted out of anger, like with the stuff about Kathy and the disk and all that. But when I calm down and think it through, with enough information, I know what's right and what's wrong."

"Maybe you just need to trust yourself."

Carys pulled her hand away from Crystal's grasp and gnawed on a thumbnail. "Maybe that's it. Maybe I'm just scared to say the buck stops here. That I'm it. If I screw up, there's no one to blame but me." Carys looked at Crystal. "Why do you believe in God?"

"I don't know. I just do. I always have. It's a belief, not something I decided."

Carys flipped through the brochure. "Some of these workshops look interesting."

"There's one about combining art and activism, later this month. I'm thinking about going. Would you like to come with me? See what it's like? It's one weekend. We'd go on Friday evening and return on Sunday evening."

"Is Sandy going?"

Crystal shook her head. "No. I wouldn't be able to pay attention to anything if she was there." Crystal looked sad then. "Her parents are dragging her off to visit a couple of colleges that weekend. I don't know what we're going to do about that."

"Isn't it awfully late to be deciding on a college?"

"Yes. But Sandy doesn't want to go away from me, though I've said I'll find a way to follow her. She's scared of going off by herself, too. She's so timid and withdrawn around people she doesn't know.

"She's a genius! Literally. Four point grade average. She has a National Merit Scholarship. Schools are begging her to come!

"Her parents are pushing her to go to someplace 'good,' but she doesn't care. She wants to stay here and go to State. She doesn't want to live at home, though." Crystal shook her head. "I don't know what we're going to do."

Carys looked at the brochure again, reading the description of the workshop. She looked up at Crystal. "Okay. I'd like to go with you. Maybe I'll think more clearly away from Jami and Tam, too."

"Cool! Stay right here, let me run down and check with Mum." Crystal was up and out the door before Carys could say anything more. She pulled out her cell and called Jami.

"Hi, honey. I'm at Crystal's. Say, if I wanted to be away the last weekend of the month at a thing with her, would you and Tam be able to keep out of trouble? Just in Lyons. She'd drive, I'm sure. Okay, I just wanted to check. I'll tell you more when I get home. Love-ums to you both. Bye."

Crystal ran up the stairs and back into her room. "Okay," she said, slightly out of breath. "It's a go and my parents will pay for it, for both of us! Because I'm not doing it with Sandy and it has at least some air of respectability." She looked at Carys. "I forgot to mention that the friend who was going with me is the notorious genderqueer performance artist Carys Douglas."

Carys snorted.

"You are, you know. At least among the people I spend time with. Everyone I run into knows who you are."

* * *

On the one-hour drive to the Simplicity Center, Crystal and Carys talked and sang in the car. As they neared the Center, they turned off the highway and followed a dirt and gravel road to a parking lot in the woods.

"This is it," said Crystal.

They climbed out of the van and stretched their legs. The sun was slanting through the trees. Robins were hopping and running in the grass near the path looking for insects.

"Hip hop birds," said Crystal, pointing.

Carys started to snap her fingers, making up a song, while Crystal clapped the beat and swayed in time.

   Look at he hop,
   Look at she bop,
   There be a worm,
   Watch it go squirm,
   Take me that worm,
   Slurp it on down,
   Now worm go hop,
   And I she bop!
Carys stopped and Crystal laughed.

"I see we're not going to be short on improv this weekend," said a voice behind Carys. When she turned around, the woman continued. "I'm Amber, the facilitator for this weekend's workshop."

"Hi," said Crystal. "This is Carys Douglas. I'm Crystal Corey. I've been here before, but this is Carys's first time. I play guitar and stuff in her performance troupe."

"Hello, Carys, and welcome. I'm going to stay here and watch for our other participants. Since you know the way, Crystal, why don't you take Carys up to the lodge and get settled?"

The other participants and the facilitator together totaled nine women, all of whom were talented in some aspect of the performing arts. Their time was spent in reflection, group sessions exploring the connection between performance and activism, sharing food and taking time for fun.

"This isn't what I expected," said Carys to Crystal after lunch on Saturday. "No one's talking about religion or God."

"Yes they are," said Crystal. "Listen. It's just that no one is trying to force their beliefs on anyone else, and everyone is being very careful and respectful of different beliefs."

During an afternoon session, participants were invited to share with the group any problems they were having with art and activism. Carys decided to take the plunge and talk about herself. She briefly described most of the things she'd been involved in during the past year or so.

"I suppose you could say I have a calling. I often do things that scare me, or that I'm unsure about, because I feel it's what needs to be done. To use an old saying, if not me, then who will do it?

"But, and I don't mean to offend anyone, I am simply not religious. Maybe some of that is a reaction against what the Catholic Church has done to me and people like me, but I..." She hesitated. "I honestly don't see a place in the picture for God, or maybe I don't understand what people mean when they use that word.

"I'd love to honestly feel a calling to join some large organization of people who believe what I believe and with whom I could work to common ends. But I have agonized over this, and it just doesn't work for me."

There were nods of understanding around the circle. Amber said, "Carys, you say you do feel called to do what you do?"

She nodded. "I don't know how else to describe it. I don't do it for money or fame. It's dangerous to me and to the people I love. I do it because I believe it has to be done."

"Do you feel anything in common with the other people in this circle?"

"Of course! I've listened to the stories you all tell about what you're involved in, the anti-racist work, the economic justice work, all the different kinds of rights work. It's all so important! I wish I could be involved in every bit of it."

Amber nodded. "So, are you not in a sense called to belong to the large group of people who feel as you do and are working on many of the same things, for basically the same reasons?"

Carys looked around the circle, thinking.

"Don't get me wrong," Amber continued. "I'm not trying to change you or convert you. You say you don't believe God is in the picture. I think I understand what you mean. Yet you feel called to do things for no rational reason, simply because you believe it is right to do so?"

Carys nodded, seeing where this was going. "And I could call that listening to God if I wanted to?"

"Some people do."

Carys was silent.

"As I said, I'm not trying to talk you into doing that. I'm trying to point out how very much you have in common with everyone here, even if you don't use exactly the same words to describe what you are doing and what is important to you."

Carys spent the remainder of the afternoon sitting under a tree with her notebook, thinking much and writing little. Sunday morning she spent a couple of hours talking with Crystal. At their final group session on Sunday afternoon, Carys spoke again.

"I still feel lost, but I've resolved for now to trust my feelings, my beliefs, and not get so hung up on why I have those feelings. Wherever what I believe comes from, it's the doing that is important."

On the drive back home Carys and Crystal talked about the weekend.

"Do you think it helped, Carys?"

"Yes, I think it did. I feel more certain of myself now, of the worth of what I am doing and want to do. I also think I need to put some time into getting better connected with other people like me. This has started thoughts flowing in my brain, or whatever. I feel, I dunno, excited, I think."

"That's great!" said Crystal.

"So how about you? Did a weekend away from Sandy help your thinking?"

She nodded. "Yes, it did. Listening to you talk with the other creative people, I realized that I'm basically a follower. Like with music. I'm a good musician, but I'm a sideman, a technician. I'm not a composer or a writer. And I'm fine with that. I really get into learning a song and playing it well, doing my best to support the other people in the band, or whatever. I love being part your troupe! But I never would have thought it up or be able to create all the stuff you do. That's just not my thing, and that's okay.

"So what does this have to do with Sandy? Easy. Sandy is brilliant. She can go anywhere she wants, do anything she wants to do. But she's hang-dog miserable at the thought of being separated from me.

"I squeaked through high school with barely a 3.0, and that because I tried hard. I participated in a bunch of stuff and was popular in spite of being queer because I don't rub people the wrong way." She glanced quickly at Carys, smiling. "No offense. But that's me, I fit in. My parents have money. They'll send me pretty much anywhere I want to go to college, though they have their preferences.

"Where am I going with this? I'm going with Sandy. If my parents will pay to put me in college there, fine. If not, heck, I won't be the first musician to be a waitress, will I? But I'm going with Sandy, and I'm going to support her every way I can so she can do what she wants and needs to do. I will follow her."

* * *

Father Dave had asked Carys to drop by again some time after the retreat for another chat.

"I have a place in my heart for the traditions I was raised with," said Carys. "I know several wonderful people who are active Catholics. I understand the distinction between the people who are church and the institution that is Church with a capital 'C'. I respect the people who try to work for change within that framework. But I can't, I just can't.

"The Church, over and over and over again has repudiated my identity, my reality, my relationship, my view of the world. The past few popes have actively worked to make it impossible for the Church to compromise on this. I hope for the sake of its people that the Church will be able to change some day. But it's simply not my path. I guess I'm just not a joiner.

"I don't even fit into the gay movement, which still largely sees lesbians as female gay people, and hasn't figured out how to encompass bisexual and trans people. There is no room for genderqueer in a movement focused on assimilation into the straight lifestyle.

"My attraction to some parts of Catholicism is to the ideas and people who have them. People like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and many others, who lived what they believe, whether or not it agreed with the Church or the government."

She looked at the framed quote on the office wall, from Thomas Merton's Thoughts in Solitude, that began,

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

Carys shrugged. "I guess there really isn't much difference between him and me, is there?"

Father Dave smiled. "No, Carys, I don't think there is."

* * *

The weather was hot and clear on the first weekend in July. Carys, Jami and Tam were sitting in the center section of the apartment with two fans and a large pitcher of iced tea.

"I'm much more willing to go with the flow now than I was a month or so ago," said Carys.

"If it gets any hotter we're all going to go with the flow," said Tam, sucking on an ice cube.

"Too bad I can't find a rich patron and some big grants," said Carys. "Alas, the golden age is over, if ever there was one."

"I'm not so sure this isn't a golden age," said Jami.

"Yeh, right," sneered Carys.

"No, really. Look at the independent music published because it's easy to record and edit sound, then produce a CD, using a few hundred dollars worth of computer equipment.

"My digital cameras, printers and software cost about the same as film cameras and equipment, but cost much less to use. I can put an entire photo gallery up on the web for essentially no additional cost.

"We can self-publish just about anything for no up-front cost at any of several e-publishing sites. In real dollars a computer doesn't cost much more than a high quality typewriter once did. We spend less on a network connection and web site than writers once spent on paper and postage.

"Of course one has to know how to make all this work, which most people don't as yet. But I think you could safely say this is a golden age of creativity in which artists are freed from the control of patrons and corporations."

"Maybe," agreed Carys. "I don't think it's any easier to make a living as an artist, though, is it? The means of production may be more accessible, but the money is still concentrated at the top."

"Too true. That a writer can self-publish a book on the web rather than repeatedly mailing the manuscript to publishers holds no guarantee of a change in starving artist status. Talent and also luck are still of the utmost importance."

"There's a lot more stuff available today," added Tam, "but is it better stuff? Or is a larger percentage of it better? I don't think so. In fact, a look around the web is rather disgusting. There's an incredible amount of crap out there."

"Sturgeon's law," said Jami. "Ninety percent of everything is crap. At least."

"Yes, but the charge that popular culture is a vast wasteland is hardly new. The trick is to not get sucked into it, to tap into it only as needed."

"Yeh, yeh, yeh," said Carys. "You've convinced me that we have all kinds of wonderful tools at our fingertips. But how do we use them to, one, change the world and, two, pay our bills?"

* * *

On another hot summer day they were talking about finding a larger place to live.

"I have tons of ideas about using a house," said Tam. "I went through a phase, when I was about ten, of designing houses. I was really into drafting, the old-fashioned way, with a T-square and all that. It was my Dad's stuff."

"You've never said much about your Dad, Tam," said Carys.

Tam looked off into the distance, thinking. "I don't know much. He left. Walked out on us when I was eight. Once he knew about me being trans, he didn't want to have anything to do with me."

"That's too bad."

"Yeh, it is, because if he could have seen past the gender thing, I bet we had a lot in common. But maybe that's what scared him."

Carys nodded. "That could be. Gender is a fragile thing if one insists on making it binary."

"So what are your ideas about a house?" said Jami.

"We need a bedroom," said Tam.

"No shit, Sherlock!"

"No, I mean a bed room, literally. A room that has little more than a bed or beds in it. It's bad enough that a bedroom is a multipurpose room when only two people are using it. It'd be crazy with three or more."

"So the room with a bed is for sleeping, only?"

"Yes. That's where you go to sleep, and there's no other reason to go there. So when it's in use for sleeping, it doesn't prevent anyone else from doing something, and vice versa."

"Makes sense."

"And we each need a private creative space."

"I'm all for that!"

"And then the usual shared living spaces."

"Okay," said Jami. "So if we could find a house with, say a separate master bedroom, that'd be for sleeping, because it wouldn't be connected to anything else, except a hall and its own bathroom. Another bedroom could be our changing room, so to speak, moving those functions out of the sleeping room. If there was a third bedroom, it could be partitioned into private space, or a library, or something. And it'd be best if this all was upstairs, so it would totally be private space."

"Exactly!" agreed Tam.

"I get it," said Carys. "Then downstairs, in a big house, we'd have a dining room that could be used for dining, or meetings, or laying out projects, and a living room that could be kept mostly clear for a rehearsal space. This is an awesome way of thinking about space, Tam!"

"It's mostly from a book I read, A Pattern Language. It was something my father left behind. I still have it."

"But there's no point in thinking about looking for a house until we decide what's happening in our future, is there?" said Carys.

"Why not?" said Jami. "Why only think about the end-points, the goals? Isn't the in between, the process, just as important? Maybe I'm just talking through my hat as someone who was always home-schooled, but..."

"Maybe you're the philosopher, Jami," said Tam.

"Whatever," said Carys. "I'm okay with not knowing where I'm going, so long as I'm not going alone."

—End—