To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Mastery Year 2: Part 3: Post 3: Growing a Heart

I asked Rick how he's coming along with loving and he shrugged.

As you may remember, Rick's primary assignment as a mastery candidate is to learn to love one person--Charlie, specifically. The issue is that he doesn't really like humans, so working with us, as he must to make any sort of difference in the world, is both unpleasant and difficult for him. So the thinking is that if he learns to really care about one of us, he might be more patient with the rest of us. Charlie volunteered himself because obviously he knows about the assignment and won't be confused or offended by Rick acting weird around him as he figures out this love thing.

Anyway, so I asked Rick how it's going and he shrugged.

"I'm treating him well," he said. "Everything I do, I think will this help Charlie? What will Charlie think? I get up in the morning and I plan my day around the man. I guess I'm used to it, now. But I'm not sure it's love."

"How does it feel?" I asked I know Charlie generally defines love as an action, not a feeling, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around that one.

Rick gave me an odd smile, an I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-you-can-do-better smile, just for a moment.

"I don't mind acting this way, believe it or not," he admitted. "If anybody deserves to be the center of anyone's day, that man does. But I don't know what else I'm supposed to do."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, can I graduate yet? And if not, when can I? What am I supposed to do? It's not like I'm likely to wake up one morning feeling all oogly. This is me, this is what I am, I don't get the warm fuzzies."

"You're growing a heart," I said.

"What, now?"

So I told him about the growing ears exercise Charlie had me go through as a novice, making me count the number of bird species I could hear at any given moment, over and over, essentially constantly, until he judged that my ears had become sensitized to bird song.

"I think he'll tell you when you're done," I added. "Or, maybe he'll test you somehow." I'd already told Rick how Charlie tested my love for the land by pretending there was a logging operation planned.

"Test me? What's he going to do, threaten to jump off a bridge to see if I mind?"

"Don't say that so loud," I said. "He might hear you and think it's a good idea." 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Mastery Year 2: Part 3: Post 2: No Sure Thing

The warm, almost summery weather of the beginning of May has dissipated, and while we haven't reverted to snow, the days have been gray, cool, and rainy more often than not. A cold, thick fog descends and the ridgeline above campus is hidden by low-hanging fog. Crows call to each other in weather like this, two, three, or four caws in succession, and then the same number repeated by another crow. They never do it in any other weather. I don't know why.

I've been having a hard time convincing Steve Bees to study with me. He doesn't see the point in it. Right now, he sees that the problem is his wife's illness, period, and unless a solution applies directly to that problem, he isn't into it. I can understand why. Her situation must seem like such an all-consuming emergency that dealing with anything else feels like a waste of time. And yet, there is nothing that Steve can really do for Sarah, right now, because she's in the hospital and he isn't. He's already doing everything he can do, and in the meantime other problems continue to exist, including the one he came back here to solve--his inability to manage his justified anger over injustice and the waste of energy and the problems in his marriage that anger caused.

And he's not leaving. He could mope around somewhere else, if he wanted to mope. He could even teach a couple of college courses elsewhere, if he wanted to do that. But he's here. It's like he wants to do or learn or be something more, and he wants us to push him to do it.

So, I'm pushing.

I'm not exactly teaching him the same things Charlie taught me. I've decided not to push him into plant ID so much. Frankly, I don't think he needs to become an expert on natural history, he's already an expert on other things. I'm not sure what he does need, but I have a feeling that in my impulse to get him to listen to and sniff the snow the other week I was on to something. In some way, for some reason, he should spend more time outside and observing.

So, that's what we've been doing.

I have him counting bird voices, since it's spring, except I don't really have the clout to threaten him into compliance the way Charlie did me. For one thing, Steve didn't ask to be my student, so I can't play the demanding Yoda-like figure with him. So we're making a game of it. I quiz him every time I see him outdoors, and sometimes I tell him he's right and sometimes I don't. As I've learned, even ornithologists don't hear every single bird, and the point is to get him to keep trying, to notice more, not to accurately assess his performance for its own sake. We've also worked with visual recognition. I've had him sorting grass stems, feathers, seeds, twigs, photographs of insects....not trying to identify them, just trying to notice the differences among them.

But mostly we just sit outside or walk around for a half hour or an hour every day, and I ask him questions to get him to notice things. If we spot an animal, we watch it doing its thing for as long as it will let us. I want to get him into tracking, but I haven't decided yet whether to introduce it to him now, or wait until next year's snow.

I don't know if I'm doing this right. I don't know what he needs from me, or if he needs anything, or if I can give him what he needs.

I asked Charlie, the other day, how he knew how to put together a plan for me. He grinned at me an instant, and I grinned back, but I don't know what that grin meant. Then his expression changed and he looked away.

"If you're looking for a guarantee, there isn't one," he said, almost growling.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Mastery Year 2: Part 3: Beltane

Note: I'm doubling up this week so I can post about Beltane on Beltane, and so that I don't fall behind.-D.

Happy Beltane, our day of music, love, and the Maypole. Except this year, for the first time, I didn't get to do the Maypole Dance. I had to content myself with helping to make music, which, by the way, I don't really know how to do. I banged away on a skin drum, despite having no sense of rhythm, and at least nobody made fun of me for it.

I'd intended to dance, and I'd been looking forward to it, but there just weren't enough ribbons. Participants each hold a ribbon and everyone weaves the ribbons around the pole as they dance. And there are more students than ribbons. The yearlings get first dibs on the ribbons, and after that it's first come, first served, and I came too late to be served a ribbon at all. I suppose I've had my share, and more than my share, to have danced for so many years running, and that it is someone else's turn, now, but I was still disappointed.

The day was warm and breezy, though clouds mostly obscured the sun until late in the day. A little over a week ago, it was snowing, but today felt legitimately like the first day of some species of summer. Most of the leaves, while not quite full-size, are large enough that the forests are turning green, and the puddles that formed and then subsided in the weekend's rain left a greenish coating of pollen in the low spots of the driveways of campus.

The trees are having a merry May Day, anyway.

Each Beltane is a little different, I find. It's the most variable, the least traditional, of our holidays here. Some years there are two, or even three dances, so different groups of people can get involved. Some years there are concerts or mystery plays. This year, we had only the one dance, though the masters seemed to have partnered up for the day, so I assume they had their own Maypole Dance in private, earlier--as you may recall, the dance is always used to randomly assign partners for the chores to get ready for the feast. The sprouts did not dance at all, but they were present and they were involved. They had, of all things, a mini-science fair, a series of displays they made themselves on the reproduction of various farm animals. Like last year, the music, aside from the Dance itself, took the form of a children's concert. Sarah is still in her ascendancy.

But some things are always the same. There is always the blessing of the animals (by a Catholic priest), and there is always the feast at the end of the day, held out of doors as the sun sets and the night deepens, capped by the various partners all taking a moment to publicly appreciate each other, and then couples dancing afterwards.

I'd really been looking forward to the appreciation thing. You have to figure out something good to say about your partner, even though you might hardly know them at all. Or, if you do know the well, you have to say the kind things you were thinking, but maybe were too shy to say. Since I'm often too shy, I appreciate being pushed a bit. But since I hadn't danced, I had no partner for the day, so I had no place in the appreciation ritual.

I felt ready to pop with all the things I suddenly wasn't being forced to say.

"You can say nice things about people anyway," said June, while we were dancing. I hadn't said anything to her about it, she just knew.

"No, I can't," I said. "I'd look silly."

"You look silly anyway."

"That's true."

"You can say nice things to me," she prompted.

"Always and forever," I said.


Monday, April 30, 2018

Mastery Year 2: Interlude 2

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2018, here,

Gosh, that was awful, the early days of Sarah's diagnosis. We all thought both that she had to be cured, must be cured (or proven not really sick in the first place) and that she would be. A kind of hopeless hopefulness. In time we discovered neither was true.

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but it's worth saying that there's a tendency to believe that life is the plans that we make, the hopes and ideals and expectations, and that illness and accident and all of that is the interruption, stuff you deal with so you can get back to living your life. Except the interruptions never stop, and there are no interruptions, because it's all life.

That was the central lesson I was supposed to be teaching Steve, I think, but I was slow to understand it myself.

Much of the politics of the past year and a half have seemed like an interruption, an aberration I can't quite believe in, now that the first shock is over. We're ok, as long as "we" is defined narrowly. I suppose "we" are always ok, until suddenly we aren't, and the important thing is how narrowly "we" must be defined to remain ok. Greg often reminds us of this, as does Steve.

And so, we continue to act, deliberately, if we have to, as though this unbelievable turn of the nation's fortunes is real, and worth doing something about. We do this by acting on our convictions, making a safe and sacred space, and sharing it. We have a small community again, about thirty students total who have passed the entrance exam, plus about sixty or seventy more who are frequent attendees of our various public workshops and events.

We are interrupting the interruption.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Mastert Year 2: Part 2: Post 6: Onion Snow

Yesterday, it snowed, of all things.

It's not very cold. The air was never below freezing at ground level. The big, fat flakes melted on contact, and there were times when they fell more quickly than snow can, the day edging over into sleet. I don't think any of the growing plants were damaged. And yet it was all quite pretty.

I had a Dar Williams song about a blizzard in April stuck in my head all day, and while it had nothing to do with anything, except a tenuous connection to our weather (which wasn't anywhere close to being a blizzard), I can't now remember the day without thinking of that song, which rather intrusively formed my sound-track.

June and I slept late, it being Sunday, and then after she got up to go to do some work (she's begun preparing for the summer camp), I lazed about in bed reading for a while. When I finally dressed and came downstairs, the Mansion seemed all but empty, a surprise, because there's usually not all that much to do on a Sunday around here. Maybe they were all out playing in the snow?

No, not all. Steve bees was sitting in the Bird Room by the window, giving his baby a bottle. In that darkly Victorian room, against the bright spring snow, they looked like a male Madonna and Child.

"Too bad you don't have actual milk," I commented, approaching them. That kind of comment doesn't sound weird here. Men don't mind being compared to women in this place.

"Oh, but I do," said Steve. "Sarah pumps and freezes."

As he spoke, Sean finished his meal. Steve put the bottle down and then lifted the baby to his shoulder to help him burp. Baby burps often have a liquid component, and Steve had a dish towel over his shoulder, just in case. The amount of laundry associated with such tiny people is amazing. Burp accomplished, Sean drifted off to sleep and Steve laid the boy on a towel on a nearby chair. A few minutes went by.

I became aware that he was fussing with the baby and associated equipment in order to avoid talking to me.

"Well?" I said.

"Well," he answered.

"Look, you don't need to talk to me," I said, and, oddly, those words seemed to be the ones that freed him to talk.

"It's Sarah," he said, still reluctant. "She's...in the hospital." He paused, and I was about to asked what she was in the hospital for, when he clarified. "It's a mental hospital."

"Why?" She'd never seemed crazy to me.

"She's been diagnosed with schizophrenia."

"What? Wait, just diagnosed with, or does she actually have schizophrenia?"

"Who the hell knows," said Steve, shouting at a whisper so as to avoid waking the baby. "There's no consensus on what schizophrenia even is. Who gets diagnosed is a judgment call."

"What does Allen say?" I was imagining an injustice thwarted by the wisdom of alternative mental healthcare. Surely Allen would say everything was alright and he'd fix it somehow.

"Allen says exactly what I just told you, about diagnosis, but he also says she's really sick. He's the one who said she needed to go in."

"What's going to happen?" I asked. "What's her prognosis?"

"Damned if I know. Her doctors say schizophrenia is incurable and she'll need to be on drugs the rest of her life. She might never work again. Allen says none of that is true, but he doesn't have any specific advice and I don't know what to think."

I didn't know what to say.

"Why didn't you want to tell me?" I asked, after a while.

"It's not personal," he said "I don't like telling anybody. Every time I talk about it, it seems more real."

"Do you want me to tell everybody?" I asked. "On campus, I mean. So they don't have to ask you?"

He considered for a moment. While he was considering, the baby either pooped or farted, because the room filled with stink. We both ignored it.

"Do it when I'm not here," he said at last.

And the baby woke and started to cry. Steve set about changing Sean's diaper. The disruption of being unclothed and wiped down made Sean cry louder. After he was all cleaned-up and comfortably swaddled (young babies like being wrapped tightly), he calmed down and fell asleep again. A silence settled. Once again, Steve was avoiding talking to me. The Dar Williams song about the blizzard repeated itself in my mind.

"There's not anything that studying natural history with me can do about any of this, is there?" I ventured.

Steve shook his head.

"There's not anything that not studying it can do, either, is there?" I ventured further.

Steve looked up into the middle distance. This was a new one on him, clearly.

"Come with me," I said.

He settled Sean in his sling and pulled on an extra shirt over himself and his baby, and we both got our cloaks from the hanger on our way out. We walked around in silence together for a while and the snow, falling heavily just then, settled on our hair and shoulders and turned us white.

"I've heard that the last snow of the year is called the onion snow," I said. "Because it smells like onions. I don't know. What do you think? Does the snow smell like onions to you?"

And, as intended, Steve stopped mulling things over and directed his attention to something other than the inside of his own head. He sniffed the air.

"I don't smell onions," he said. "It just smells like snow."

"How exactly does snow smell?"

And he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, concentrating on his senses, and he began to weep.

I didn't try to comfort him. I figured, Steve has reason to weep, and should be allowed to do it. I also figured maybe tears were what happened whenever he relaxed enough to not resist them. So we just stood there for a while, breathing, inhaling scent, while Steve cried quietly in the falling snow.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Mastery Year 2: Part 2: Post 5: Delays

So, I've felt really conflicted about Steve. Remember, I'm supposed to be teaching him to connect with the out-of-doors, but he's not talking to me, so how can I? Something is bothering him. He's spending a lot of time off-campus, he's per-occupied, and he's barely talking to me socially, let alone making himself available to me as a student.

The reason I feel conflicted is that I don't know whether I'm supposed to reach out to him or not. I don't know if I'm supposed to insist--I'll feel remiss if I don't, since it's kind of my assignment, but at the time time, I've never been the sort of person to force others to talk to me. Maybe that's one reason people do talk to me?

I talked to some of the masters about it, but they gave me conflicting or even cryptic answers.

Charlie shrugged and said "you can't make someone learn from you, Daniel."

Allen said "what if having people who will insist is one of the advantages of being here? In most places, no one will ask if you're ok unless you're bothering someone."

Greg said "why would you feel remiss? That's the interesting part, for me."

Joy said "use your intuition. You'll know what to say and when."

And Kit, whom I spoke to last, said "I've had this idea for a divination methodology. Flip coins of several denominations, heads are yes, tails are no. Then imagine each of the presidents on the coins and why he'd say yes or no. You don't need to do what they say, but their comments would be food for thought, yes?

Well.

It's springtime, which means it's a time of transition. Kit always says this. So does Charlie. It's one of the few places where they agree. Whenever anyone complains that spring keeps coming and going, they say, each in their own way, that coming and going is spring. When warm weather is here unambiguously, that is summer. I kept this very carefully in mind late last week when we had three days of all-but-literally freezing rain. It is spring, it is spring, it is spring.

Today has been more obviously springlike, warm and sunny and perfumed by flowers. Some of the shrubs are starting to leaf out, but hardly any of the trees have broken bud, yet, except for the flowers of the maples. The forests still look largely winterlike. But I think that is about to change. Next week, or perhaps the week after, the leaf-out will begin, and once it does, it will go fast. I will wish it could slow down so I could watch it properly. So far, it has mostly seemed slow. Every year this happens--spring seems to take forever and then as soon as it springs, I forget, and I think of it as a more or less brief season, until the next year, when I am reminded that it isn't.

And Steve is missing all this. He's not paying attention. That I'm sure of.

In other new, I had lunch with Eddie the other day. As you might remember, part of his assignment is to find a dog he considers impossible to train and then train it as a therapy animal anyway. His assignment, too, seems hung up. He seemed pretty droopy about it.

"Are you still hung up with wanting to train all of the trainable ones?" I asked. He had told me about that earlier this spring, how he sees all of these great dogs in shelters and rescue places, some of whom he doubts anybody else could train, but the very fact that he knows he can bring out these dogs' potential means that he can't make the attempt right now. It sounds very hard.

But

"No, that's not it," Eddie told me. "In fact, there's this dog...."

"That's great," I told him. "So what's the problem?"

"Well," he said, "I really like this dog. And I don't want to think that I can't help him."

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mastery Year 2: Part 2: Post 4: Returning

Steve is back. Sort of. And he has Sean. But Sarah isn't here, and he won't say where she is. He won't say much of anything, which is why I said he's only sort of here. He's barely talking to any of us--though he seems to be spending a lot of time with Greg and Allen, so maybe he's talking to them.

I might wonder why he's back, except that he has classes to teach. Spring classes started up after Ostar, and Steve now has two out of the four that Greg used to teach every spring. Last year, three different allies took Greg's classes, and reportedly were somewhat uninspired, but Steve actually cares about and has expertise in his two--American History of Religion and American History of Dissent. A single ally is teaching the other two. In the almost two weeks Steve was out, Greg subbed for him. I can't help feeling sad that they're not really Greg's classes anymore, like the newer students are missing out, and I suppose they are, but he has earned his retirement. And Steve is, reportedly, very good. Another example of impermanence, I suppose.

But between teaching, caring for the baby--Steve often does both at once, delivering lectures while carrying his sleeping child strapped to his chest--and continuing to work part-time with his law firm, I don't think he's doing anything in the way of learning to deal with the anger that sent him back here. And if I'm supposed to act as his master, I suppose I'm supposed to do something about it, intervene, somehow, or at least make sure he knows what he's doing. But I don't know what to do or say....

I'll have to talk to Charlie about it.

In the meantime, I'm still teaching workshops, although attendance has dropped way down, since regular classes have started up, and I subbed for Charlie when he had his spring cold--that was planned, so I'd been kind of shadowing him, learning to teach those classes, so I'd be ready to step into them. I'm still doing that, in case he gets sick again. There's really not much he does that I can't do, now, other than, of course, being Charlie.

That's the thing about the masters--they teach classes and lead activities and make this college run, but really their primary jobs are simply to be themselves. I keep reminding myself that no matter how much Charlie trains me, he can't teach me how to be Charlie. I've got to be Daniel. And there is a version of me that is a master--and it is that version of mine I have to find. Except I really don't know what that might look like. I've obviously never seen it.

Spring continues, despite the dusting of snow we got yesterday morning. Among the trees the signs are still subtle--the red maples are flowering, but that's about it--and the native grasses are still brown as ever. Much of the greenery is exotic and is therefor off-campus. But Sarah Grimm's team is plowing the fields, the frogs and toads are breeding with gusto, the birds are arguing musically in the trees, and some of the spring wildflowers are up.

It's hard not to feel the warmth as some kind of victory.