And All My Own

In the hills in northern _______ there is a village. Above the village is a mountain. On the slopes of the mountain is a house.

The village is eight hundred people. The bus comes twice a week and stays an hour. It is four miles to the nearest village, twenty to a city, and thirty to the sea.

To drive to the city and back takes a day. It’s faster to bicycle. A woman in the village keeps horses. In bad weather it’s better to ride.

The house is on the far side of the mountain. It’s a low house in a clearing of pine-trees with a barn and a porch and a little garden. It’s at the end of a dirt road which runs around the mountain. In good weather a car can make it. In bad weather, it’s best to stay at home.

There is a well with sweet water. There are solar panels laid out on the roof. The root cellar stays cool and dry even in summer. In the morning the rabbits moving in the garden make the plants seem submerged in a rough white sea.

There is a stream at the edge of the clearing. If you follow it up the mountain a hundred yards there is a cold pool as wide as a parking-spot. If you stand in it the water comes to your chest and rushes past you like a liquid wind.

The house was built before the Risorgimento. It was rented one summer by a young American lost in a listless Depression. Twenty years later and he was a baron of industry, living in a downtown brownstone and dreaming of his summer in lonely paradise. Twenty years after that and he was a white-haired Grand Man with his portrait above his staircase and a charity in his name. Through the charity he bought the house. He died before he could see it again.

His will granted the house, along with a not-inconsequential portion of his fortune, to a university near his estate. The latter was bequeathed without restriction, the former with the stipulation that it be used to provide for students an opportunity for “peaceful solitude as study.” In a pique of grammatical certitude the university suggested a change to “solitude /and/ study.” The request was heatedly denied. The old man, his death-bed beckoning, wanted the house to offer to young people just what he had taken from it. He wished it to be a resource for those who, requiring little, desiring know-not-what, could for the only time in their lives undertake a hermitage – thus to appreciate it for the rest of their days.

The university decided to acquiesce to this eccentric bequest, if only to demonstrate their respectful adherence to the whims of their donors – large bills, please. They created a system whereby students who so desire could apply for the privilege of taking a summer to make that house a home, a hermitage, a heaven if they wished and willed and worked to make it so. In all practicum they could remain in the house for up to a year, as it would otherwise stand idle until the next student arrived.

The university considered a number of ways by which the honored hermit might be selected from the student body. In the end it decided to err on the side of washing its hands. An hour-long informational session was given, during which a professor who had never been alone for more than an afternoon spoke of the great difficulties of extensions of solitude. Many studets left the room realizing that a summer Removed was less a holiday than a hell. Those who remained, for whatever their reasons, and to whatever end they would use the opportunity, placed their names into a hat. The drawing done, the chosen student would then have a few months to set their affairs in order, and off they would go.

The cost of the program was considerably less than the interest generated by the bequest. Revenue-neutral, requiring no measurement of its success or other such cumbersome reportage, the university was content to let the old man’s dream come true with a minimum of fuss and fanfare. All that was requested of the honored student was that they leave the house no worse than they found it. There beyond, their time – for perhaps the first and last time in their lives – would be their own.

One professor at the university, a young lecturer on old divines, took it upon himself to meet with each student at the conclusion of their recusio. By the time he was prepared to don the emeritus he had seen scores of students off to that high house in the hills. He published a short volume, somewhere between study and sermon and song, describing the many ways that these young had made use of the opportunity to be themselves, by and for and of.

-Sara brought with her a bundle of poetry books tied with twine. She found by the second week that she could not much appreciate them, not when there was such poetry in the world about her. She spent her time doing nothing but hiking in the forests and listening to the rush of water in the brook. After months of this, she found she was able to find the poetry in poems. More, perhaps, than she had before – and certainly different – and always thereafter in moderation.

-Tim came by way of Amsterdam with four ounces of marijuana and a handful of seeds. He planted them in the shade of tall pines and watered them from the mountain stream. Before the first frost he harvested more than a kilogram. That kept him all winter. Then he went home.

-Lily bought a car which she arranged to keep in the village. She used it to range all over the country, and well into its neighbors, taking trips of days and weeks. She saw beautiful things, experienced cultures beyond number, and spent hardly any time in the house.

-Mary Anne wrote a series of fantasy novels based on the time she had spent at college. They sold well enough for her to buy a small house in her home town, which she decided wasn’t quite as pretty as it had seemed in the pictures on the realtor’s web site.

-Stefan looked forward to the solitude so he could practice his cello. He played for eight hours a day, happy. Then ten hours a day, less happy. Then twelve hours a day and rather desperate. After five months he had a breakdown. His parents picked him up and took him home. It took him weeks before he could pick up a bow.

-Alex spent eleven months playing WoW on a satellite connection.

-Courtney moved into the house in early summer. Her girlfriend followed before the fall. Every two weeks they walked into town for groceries and their mail. The latter usually dwarfed the former, as they were both passionate about their knitting and went through several sheep worth of yarn per day. They made dinner, they made love, and they made afghans of great complexity. They made it outside from time to time. Then they made their way home.

-Joshua was a welder. He flew in his rig and arranged weekly pickups of gas and steel from an auto shop in the next village. He used his year as a year of free room and board and worked on his projects with abandon. He left behind a metal sculpture in the yard outside, which owing to steel’s sad habit of rusting was taken down the following year.

-Ramon found his hermitage very lonely. He spent a great deal of time in the village, sitting in a cafe, making a glass of wine last, listening to the language around him. He began spending time with a local girl named Sofia. After his year they moved to America, and never went back.

-Sam was overjoyed to win an offer from the house. She spent the summer there, studying for her MCATs. She went home, aced them, and between her scores and her boasting of the honor of being chosen for the house she was admitted to a prestigious school of dentistry.

-Bey got so many of the village girls into bed that he got quite a bad reputation among the townsfolk. He ended up coming home before his summer was up – covered in bruises.

-Victoria really liked the village. It was low-stress and beautiful and really relaxing. After her year she took an apartment in the village and got a job at a restaurant. Vittoria lived there the rest of her life. She enjoyed seeing which new residents of the house discovered her origins. Few did.

-John bicycled home in a rainstorm and ran off the road. He dragged himself to the village with a broken leg, spent three weeks in a hospital and then transferred colleges.

-Jaakov came to the house a writer. He began fantasizing about doing something to leave his mark on the house. He decided to build a treehouse. He bought supplies in the city, boards and nails and hammers and saws, and made a boxy structure some ten feet off the ground with two open windows and a ladder stair. He went home and tried again in a place where boards were cheaper and empty trees more plentiful. He managed to make a fairly good living in the States as a professional treehouse designer. His first attempt lasted three years, rotted out and was torn down.

-Samuel arrived with a burgeoning drug habit. He exhausted his supply, then managed to keep from going into town in desperate search of his desire. He kicked the habit cold turkey, there in that little room. Then he spent three months sitting in the trees, feeling feeling return. And he left.

-Frances wrote a novel. She spent more and more time getting feedback on it from people on the internet. This degenerated into her spending all her time on message-boards and in chat-rooms, until she felt she had to go somewhere else to get away from it. She spent the remainder of her year taking service vacations, and writing query letters.

-Ken committed suicide six days after moving into the house. His body was discovered six weeks later. His death was reported an accident and the college kept the matter quiet.

-K designed several new fonts, none of which earned her the regard she felt she deserved.

-Marc was an architect. He spent several weeks clearing his head of all the influences that had lay upon him. He then designed, without reference to any extant structures, a number of buildings of various sorts and purposes. Some of his ideas proved innovative enough to land him a position with a large architecture firm, to which he went before his year was up.

-Kelli flew home once a month to visit her parents and her little brother. Otherwise she sketched in colored pencil and painted with oil sticks, and played flash games, and read trashy books, and cooked sometimes and sometimes made canned soup with bread. When she returned she gave a show of the work she’d done. She sold several pieces, only half of which were purchased by her father.

-Malmo couldn’t think of what to do with herself. Within a month she had sunk into depression and did not much leave her bed. She came out of it in late fall, as if a summer flower blooming, and began to read voraciously of local history. She reutrned home to pursue her PhD in the Arts and Culture of the region.

-Joseph wrote several papers on deconstruction which were published in international journals. And he went home.

-Sonja’s inventive video blogging earned her tens of thousands of regular followers. After seven months she rented a new house in a distant solitude and continued her diary-making – though it was little changed.

-Melia set up a glass-blower’s forge and practiced her craft from sundown to sunup, thousands of hours. She later said it was the best apprenticeship she ever had.

-Juan volunteered at the school in the village, teaching English to children. Soon he was teaching English to adults. Soon he learned to hate it, and went home.

-Abdul-Aziz bought some paints and spent six months painting the view from his bedroom window. He then went back to school, and never painted again.

-Mai used simple hand-tools to build a bridge across the mountain stream. Made of stone and lumber, it quickly took on the lustre of a structure which has been there for centuries. It remains there to this day.
…and there were dozens more, some old, some new, and each of them both entire.

The volume ended with a brief notation only that the author was glad to know the grand experiment was still continuing – and could and should, there, beyond, so long as there were places in the world where a person might go to be alone.

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~ by davekov on 23 March 2012.

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