A Perhaps Not Short Reflection on the Biduum Coloratanum

Sunshine Mountain Lodge is on a slop in the mountains, amid the tree covered Rockies northwest of Denver, Colorado not far off from Boulder. The air is dry, and here and there where you can get to the road or to the top of the hill overlooking the cabins the sky, the trees on the mountain side and their orange red rocks are picturesque as far as you can see. And even up on that mountain, the cell-phone signal only just works and the rural internet does just what it needs to do if you have a problem, but you won’t be tempted to steam a movie after your first attempt. In other words, it was a good environment to spend two days and change living the vita Latina, seeing sodales old and new after years of pandemic event paucity, and getting away from the vicissitudes of everyday life.

On Friday afternoon you start with warm greetings, and warm coffee as you park just off the road, pass through a small door on the side of the main cabin, then the kitchen and take a seat in a cozy lounge area decorated with all things alces, the American moose, and all things carrot. I’m a city boy, so I don’t really understand the carrot-love but who doesn’t love a good moose, I guess? Friends old and new stream in. Name tags are donned. I write: “Meletus vocor” Others give names in English, Latin, Greek. A kind staff member gives you the 5 minute tour of the main building, then guides you up the hill (huffing and puffing a little, if like me, you hadn’t been over 5000 feet in awhile and spend too much time in front of screens instead of out getting the blood pumping…) to one of a half dozen cabin where everyone will be staying until Sunday morning when real life resumes.

Returning to the main building, that main room where everyone is gathered and which will serve as the aula scholastica and refectorium, eventually a quorum of participants is reached and amidst the sounds of dinner’s preparation. There’s dinner. There’s the explanation of what to do in case of an emergency. Official introductions. The usual conference stuff. Hard to even remember what order it all happens in.

But, at some point, there is a congressus omnium and sitting in folding chairs we all watch as, rod in hand, the leader of the proceedings (a well dressed man who can neither stand nor sit still, performing or not) grabs (is handed?) a rod and we swear, iure iurando not to speak English until after breakfast and a final congressus omnium on Sunday morning. The Dux dramatically collapses to the ground, his arcane powers spent to cast the spell over us. And I don’t hear a word of English again until 10 AM Sunday. All part of the show. The first time I saw something similar was when Anula nostra, Nancy Llewellyn, looking for a priestess than a sorcerer did something akin to the crashing of a rod to the ground but with a rubber chicken some forgotten number of years ago. Have I joined a cult? No—I can leave at anytime. But why would I want to? This is just all part of the entertainment, and even if it is weird it is the best kind of weird. It is LATIN weird.

The spell having been case (carmine cantato?) I grab a table with some old and new friends, students of mine and strangers, but now sodales all and lead a game of basing around the coffee cups and pop cans (do you call it Soda out in Colorado?) and the other instrumenta from dinner lying around and get good at using some simple imperatives, a dative or genitive case or two. But for me, and hopefully the others, it helps take the edge off the transition of not knowing where to start talking in Latin. Other people have similar things going on, conversations, games, drink more coffee. Louder things. Quieter things.

The aula scholastica/refectorium gets too loud for our tastes so we go outside, the stars now in view and see what we can see among the clouds. Words like labentia signa and constellationes and astra are heard. Eventually, people get tired. I go to bed at what is, for me, a morning person, quite late.

Saturday is when the real “program” happens. My group, the letiferi (all our group names come from readings in the program. I repeat, no, we’re not murderers!) are in the kitchen one-by-one at 7:30 to help our coquus prepare breakfast. I help make 30 people’s worth of scrambled eggs. I chat with an old friend, and my partner, as we each do our assigned tasks. Instructions are given, received, and understood in Latin. Oatmeal, Eggs, Coffee, Tea, Pie, Raspberries, Toast and all the other bits of breakfast arrive. And on time! It feels a bit like Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s when I was young, only, I haven’t heard about Cleveland Baseball at all, and these people from all across the country have many more interesting things to talk about than whatever it was we used to gab on about as kids. Lunch, Dinner, and Breakfast the next day are all prepped in the same way for the duration of the program but I’ve had my turn first so I don’t worry about it.

But throughout the day Saturday there are three congressus omnium, two to help prepare us to read, a third to play with the Latin we read and have learned. There is at least as much personality and flair in the staff, the just right mix of levity and seriousness, as in the casting of the spell each time. I try to remember what these were like the first time I did one of these all those years ago but pandemic brain gets in the way of remembering anything like a clear image. But I do remember this feeling: I am entertained, things are joyous, and even those of us who are nervous about ourselves, about are Latin, like I definitely was back then can catch moments of just being in the moment. No confusion today, but I see it on the faces of some of the other participants but somebody always helps, and everyone can participate, with more or less Latin. I certainly never felt that supported at an academic conference. These are the right people for this kind of thing.

Martha Marchina on Vesuvius, and Alcuinus on the rivalry between Winter and Spring are the readings. It is so good, so fresh to read something completely new! I love Caesar as much as the next guy but…well, actually, I don’t, but then I never had such a vivid image in my mind when hearing about the Helvetii as a grad student as I do here, 5 people in a cabin talking, in Latin (in Latin!) about the fusion of classical poetry and Judeo-Christian ideaology, at sight. The leader of our reading group really knows his stuff. My sodales have thoughts about the text I never would have.

When I think about the first time I did something like this, years ago, and the best I could do was ask for clarity about this that or the other to this extemporaneous conversation, I know that the stress of those first steps into speaking Latin, lead by a similar but not identical caste of characters was worth it. And now, they’ve got it down to a science. The next generation of Latinists who do this are going to be so much better than we are. But we’re lucky too. For them, I sincerely hope, these kinds of things will just be normal. How else would you do it? But we’re (I hope!) in that magical place of transition and I think we can, well I certainly at any rate, appreciate what I was missing before doing this kind of stuff.

But I take a nap during one of our periods for otium because, well, we can’t all be mountaineers and travel and immersion takes a lot out of you. I remember needing to take an entire afternoon off, at one of these, once. Some people take longer breaks than me this time around but its no big deal. Maybe I keep coming back to it because I’m neurotic, but when I went to academic stuff I always felt ashamed when I couldn’t keep up. Here, everyone is just “Take that break” and “Drink that coffee” and “We care more about you and your experience, then literally anything else.” If I need help, I’ll get it. And I’ll give it too. “Quomodo dicitur hoc?” (How do you say this?) becomes a favorite question. It is good to give back.

After dinner (spent talking about Greek poets with new friends and eating some amazing Indian food) there’s Latin choral singing, wine, and desert. Ice cream feels so good on the dry throat after talking all day. I’ve been drinking water like a fish in the Mariana trench. Some of us teach others the rules of the ecclesiastical accent on the fly so they can participate better in singing some of the songs, and in a private little game some of us play: practice the other accent after 8 o’clock. Some find our new accents revolting. I find my new accent revolting. It isn’t the accent per se, just…Eugenius, Brocius, the other participants who do it so naturally, and uh, we only do it after 8 o’clock. But it is fun, and it is good practice, and maybe someday I’ll be able to dance back and forth between voces without even a text in front of me like some of my own mentors and sodales.

For those not totally zonked, there’s a camp fire, stories, s’mores, and all. A woman called Regina (what was she called in English? I don’t remember. Even with the name-tag, this happens to me quite a lot. Thank goodness there will be a time to re-learn English names tomorrow morning…) tells the best campfire scary story. Silly stories are told too. My partner and I peel off by midnight though and it is only the die-hard night-owls who are left to deal with fire safety.

Sunday morning, after too little sleep, I drink coffee and talk to Dionysius and Edita at first light (prima luce!), and eventually others. Sunday mornings at these are always some of the best times. It is quiet. Those of us, like myself, less inclined to crowds, can talk without the overwhelming ruckus. I sit with some staff and old friends and breakfast. I start to realize that 5 hours of sleep was perhaps a little to much seizing of the day. MORE COFFEE and ONE BREAKFAST later, the final congressus omnium breaks the spell and we get back to English. There are sessions about classroom pedagogy, reading materials, the pedagogy of the Biduum itself, and self-study and improvement. I’m delighted to talk with others in the self-study sessions and see how many of us aren’t teachers now. Diversity as sign of a healthy and growing community.

The valiant staff helps people arrange rides to the airport in Denver. Those of us with the strength and the time help clean up and leave the lodge in better condition than we found it. Hugs, and handshakes. The coffee isn’t enough, and between micro-sleeps I babble in Latin and English with those coming and going. The Biduum ends, we go to lunch with some old friends. We all just wish it was at least a day longer.

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