I had the privilege years ago of helping support a friend undergoing her vision quest, led by an Ojibway elder. At the start of the quest, which would include four days of fasting, my friend was presented with two bowls: One contained blueberries and one a piece of charcoal from the campfire. This was her opportunity to make a final choice: the comforts of home (symbolized by the berries) or the isolation of the quest. When she chose the charcoal, an elder smudged her face with it.
“If you run into her,” the elder instructed us, “the charcoal on her face means she is invisible to you. You act like she isn’t there.” She would be in our presence in the woods and beaches around the camp, we would sing to her each night while she sat hidden in her tent, but she wasn’t with us.
Even in European-American culture we do sometimes ask each other not to see us. I remember Miss Manners once counseling a reader that there are limited exceptions to the otherwise rigid etiquette mandate to greet your neighbors when you see them. Miss Manners’ example was this: When we are walking to the end of our driveway in our pajamas to get the newspaper, we are invisible. No one need — or even should — acknowledge our presence or our deshabille.
I was thinking about this yesterday when Tina and I went into the woods to write. We spent the weekend on another writing “retreat,” but this time, instead of running away to Canada, we were still in town. Friday evening we wrote at a picnic table in a city park, with fighting squirrels and some creeper guy on a bicycle for company. We spent Saturday, with the exception of a short trip to the farmers market (for blueberries, coincidentally), writing at our house. Sunday we went to church, to our habitual brunch with friends, and then into the woods.
We did a pretty good job of hiding in plain sight all weekend, but the world did interfere. Friends invited us out on Friday night (we declined). We had to ignore several phone calls on Saturday and there was the negotiation of whether to go to brunch after church or get directly into writing (brunch won; even writers have to eat). I was asked in the middle of the day on Sunday, as a spokesperson for the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, to write a statement of solidarity in response to the horrific mass shooting at the Sikh Temple. I got updated on the situation, wrote the press release, and then went to work on my manuscript, a couple hours later than planned.
Tina and I have written out a detailed calendar of little retreats between now and January. Occasionally, we plan to go out of town. But most times we’ll be here, with charcoal on our faces.