by Tara Sharma, AP'18

Lately the self-governance room has felt like a pool of mannerisms. Each of us brings twenty-ish years of learned inflections and gestures.

Sometimes, you will not realize a habit until someone or something points it out to you. Looking up when you are thinking, or resting a finger or two on your lips in the moments before you are about to speak. Seven and a half weeks in, some words and phrases have moved easily through most of us: ‘generative’, ‘messy,’ ‘this isn’t a fully formed thought, but…’

The space between the words habit and instinct is filled with many other words: pattern, practice, routine. This in-between space begins in the world and extends to the body. Occasionally, I find myself jokingly referencing my ‘real life,’ a space that encircles this one but ideally lives outside of it for the timespan of this summer. But here I am steeping in other people’s mannerisms. I wonder which of them live in me and with me.

The mold has been growing on everything since the very first day. There were some items that, upon arriving, I quickly realized I would not need: a wool hat, a cloth bag, a few unfinished books I brought with the naïve expectation of free time. In the beginning I tried folding the things up and securing them deep inside of a backpack, hoping that the interior space would keep them dry. But the mold reaches the insides, too. Here I have found myself reaching, again and again, for the spaces that seem like they are most deeply inside, only to see those insular spaces collapsing.

Week by week, these evasive interior spaces have looked different. The three-sided shelters we sleep in at night make up another kind of in-between space, not fully inside and not fully out. At night, when the darkness mimics a wall, it’s almost as though the space is sealed—but when we wake in half-dream state to a thunderstorm pressed against the tin roof, it’s not a choice to keep out the deafening white noise.

Many of us have wondered what this summer would feel like if we shared bedrooms with roommates, rather than open-faced shelters that sleep five or six. If we could go inside between moments of being outside–if we had time both onstage and off—what versions of ourselves would we be able to bring to class, labor, self-governance? In recent weeks in class, we have struggled to name the question that is at the core of the academic pillar and our educations more broadly. Within each question is another; we have spent two months watching them fold in on themselves. We have searched and searched for the singular thread of thought that stitches this cohort together, that holds us in space, only to find that the strings easily unravel when pulled.

The value of an isolation policy grows hazy when it becomes apparent that each point of insularity only opens up more open space. The outside is always permeating the insides; critical reflection pokes holes in the moments I have here of feeling fully immersed in this landscape and this group of people. At a group check-in halfway through the summer, one cohort member commented on the ways in which being an individual in a group setting can feel like an act of regression—a bouncing back, briefly, to an old self you thought you left behind in some other space. She commented on the way you can look unfamiliar to yourself when surrounded by a group of new people, when you realize the people who know well are somewhere outside of this place. Sometimes, especially during self-governance, it feels as though we are playing caricatures of ourselves.

During the first week of self-governance, our conversations about our ideals for the summer alluded to a deep value of ‘intentionality’ as a guiding force for the decisions we make here. Halfway through the summer, I found myself coming up against all that ‘intentionality’ might exclude, and the illusion that decisions here are made with an acute self-awareness and deliberateness. During one meeting that fourth week, we played with the possibility that Arete might be built on more than three pillars—that what exists as central to Nunnian education might fail to acknowledge unformed thought, unplanned moments, a vague, collective ‘vulnerability’ that we often lose the words to neatly articulate but find ourselves desiring nonetheless. What might it mean for a possible fourth pillar to account for un-intentionality, for indecisiveness and ambivalence? Would, then, this fourth pillar act as the connective tissue between the other three, a bringing to light that which has been obscured and perhaps devalued?

And if this fourth pillar pulls tight the space between the other three, then might it reveal the messiness that is inherent in our self-governance? Even the possibility that the messiness of ‘self’ in self-governance is central to this project? In the self-governance room, we sit in a circle. During week six, we met nine times in seven days. Sometimes we are compelled to pull the couches closer, to make the circle just a bit smaller. Once or twice, we’ve sat on the floor, our knees inches apart. Maybe part of what it means to have the an isolation policy that collapses in on itself, to have no distinction between shared and personal space, exterior and interior world, is to imagine a perception of the ‘self’ that can be both rooted in the body and in community, and everything in between.

In class, we find the insides and outsides colliding head-on, usually blending. We stumble through texts that grapple with power and identity and wonder about the distinction between personal and intellectual registers of reading. We continually return to the question of when it is even possible to separate the personal from the theoretical: what systems of power in the world ‘outside’ of this space inevitably bleed in and replicate themselves within the cohort, who is able to keep the ‘outside’ truly outside, and for whom the blending of the text and lived experience is not an option.

Recently, I brought the hat and the books and the cloth bag into the sun and saw that they were speckled green. I saw a slow spotting where my backpack’s underside rested upon the shelter’s dark wooden floor. I thought these spots couldn’t be reached, but the rain seems to find homes in the center of everything: the potholes in the road, the humid mornings, the mountains, the perpetually damp clothing on the line. After especially long self-governance meetings, I want more than anything to see something real and whole outside of ourselves: to have internal work externally manifest, to be able to look back on the summer, once we leave this place, and see a scaffold of a ‘project’ we’ve been attempting to build. I want to trust in the quiet that is webbing us when we’re at a loss of words, to find in it something whole, not just gaps. Something must be growing between the days, maybe even emerging from them. The possibility is both hopeful and hard to trust.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been struck by the disorienting and slightly comforting feeling that this place is my entire world. The feeling usually just lasts for a few hours before I am reminded again that I am living in a space that is nested within many others: first a cohort, then Arthur Morgan School, then Celo, then the Southern Appalachian Forest. Beyond that, our homes, our schools, the people and places we are responsible for. All of it is sinking inwards, reaching us here: sixteen students sitting in a circle, pooling in the center the questions that have moved through us—and that we have brought with us, consciously or not.

Tara Sharma is a member of the 2018 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She studies Ecopoetics at Brown University.