The Ninth Gift
Hanging on the wall of my living room is a painting by my great teacher Mary Holmes. It depicts a boy standing upon a ring of fire on water. From his raised right hand springs fire, from his lowered left hand water—the two traditional images by which the Holy Spirit has been indicated in Western art—and he is looking up toward light from the heavens. Mary had intended the painting to be the ninth in her series of the Nine Gifts of the Spirit—eros, agape, temperance, faith, hope, discipline, holy poverty, gentleness, and joy. Each of these gifts, she would say, is interdependent on all the others, and the paintings, hanging in the chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit that she had built to house them, are placed to indicate as much, each speaking to every other, whether next to it, opposite it, or diagonally across from it in the space. At some point Mary changed her mind about the last painting and put as the ninth gift a painting of the Virgin and Child. Eventually, to my joy, she gave the other painting to me.
Some days ago the ever-possible reality that Mary’s art strove to make visible in that painting became real to me in the presence of a different nine.
The scene was the dining tent at the camp in the San Bernardino Mountains where I was chaperoning the outdoor education retreat for our high school’s new freshman class. At one meal the camp counselors were on break and the faculty advisors were sitting, one per table, awaiting the arrival of the students, who for once could sit wherever they wanted rather than by cabin or advisory group.
Unlike all but two other colleagues, I sat alone at a table for twelve, remembering with amusement the feeling of having often been in my own youth the last picked for a team. At one point two girls sat down at my table, but when they saw their friends elsewhere, they excused themselves and left. Contemplating a lonely old age, I had just finished eating when a group of boys asked if they could play cards at my nearly empty table. I invited them to sit, and they began a card game. Thus unobtrusively began a peak experience of my life.
Nine boys were gathered at the table to play what they called “Egyptian War.” They asked whether I wanted to join them, and I declined, but as they played, I watched, asked a few questions, and soon learned the rules: It was a two-deck game of which the object was to win all the cards by taking tricks based on a) having the high card or b) being the first to “slap in” upon the appearance of a pair, or a pair separated by one card. The number of cards contributed to the trick depended on the face cards played—a jack (the most coveted card) was followed by one additional card put in by the next player, a queen by two cards, a king by three, an ace by four, each new face card, if any, trumping the previous and moving the play to the next player in clockwise succession. Any player could slap in on a pair to win the trick, but if he too enthusiastically slapped in when there was no pair in fact, he had to sacrifice a card to the trick. A cardless observer too who wanted to play could join by slapping in on a pair, but for him the punishment for a false slap-in was to lay his hand flat on the table and to take, unresisting, a smack on the back of his hand from every other player.
After a few minutes, having shown that I understood the game, I was invited to play the role of referee. It was no doubt invented ad hoc in response to the presence of an observing elder, but the boys offered the invitation with no distinction implied between generously finding something for me to do and self-servingly avoiding potentially disruptive conflicts. As ref I was charged with deciding whose hand had slapped in first. That meant distinguishing the worthy fingers from those slipped surreptitiously or violently under others previously landed, and my final word in any doubtful case was willingly accepted.
The game was fast, intense, and wild, and the boys were quick and sharp at it, witty and hilarious in repartee, and gleefully intense. As they played, I became aware that I was experiencing a kind of miracle. Winning and losing, every boy was filled with affection for every other, with delight in the vagaries of the game, with a seemingly boundless capacity for energetic joking, with total concentration, with sublime vitality. It was an incarnation of innocent adolescent boyhood in friendship and play.
M.L. became known for winning jacks, S.K. for being the quickest to slap in, L.R. for comically offering to fan the heated T.R. with the substantial stack of cards he had won and for trumping A.deB. ten times in a row. There was intense competition, much shouting, and much laughter. Those who know freshman boys will appreciate my wonder that there was also no hint of hurt feelings nor any profane word, sexual innuendo, or shred of nastiness, though neither was there anything nerdy about this wholesomeness: When it came to the punishment for an outsider’s false slap-in, six of the eight punishers made it their business to smash the guilty hand as hard as they could, exhibiting both justice under the rules and the competition in physical force that, along with courage and prowess, is essential to all true boys’ games however harmless. It was required that the referee also participate in the punishment, but considering my age and position, I chose to follow the example of the two who mercifully settled for a merely symbolic tap. The victims took their punishment with either calm reserve or “I-hardly-even-felt-that” braggadocio. There was no recrimination.
When we had to break it up, called to our next activity, I came away overwhelmed with delight. Unselfconsciously, and without benefit of electronic devices (addiction to which is the greatest obstacle in the teacher’s efforts to foster deep reading and thought in the present generation), these nine boys—with no vehicle but the cards and one another—had swept us all into an exaltation known, after youth, only in rare moments of life.
I have not ceased to ponder this descent of the muse, this brief span of unadulterated happiness. So moved was I by the experience, and by the boys’ unselfconscious welcoming of a graybeard to participate in it, that I promised myself to record it—only to preserve the occasion in memory, for to capture its essence would be beyond my art.
So this snapshot is dedicated in gratitude to the invisible muse of the game, and to A.B., A. deB., A.M., L.R., M.L., R.P., S.K., T.R., and T.S. May they know many moments like these before the weight of the world comes to rest on their shoulders, and may they bear their share of that weight in the knowledge that however heavily it must sit, hidden within their capacity for friendship and play lies the perennial possibility of receiving again the ninth gift of the spirit—the gift of joy.