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.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 5: Farewell

This post depicts events that began on the same day that the previous post ended, February 1st, 2004.--D.

After I spoke at the lectern, I crossed the stage and waited there with a large and growing crowd of my fellow graduates until all of us had revealed ourselves and spoken. While we waited, I looked out over the audience--a sea of dark and barely candle-lit people, people whom I knew and people whom I did not know. I thought about my first night here and how I couldn't imagine then being on the stage and now I was here, how I'd never had this view before and would never have precisely this view again. One can only graduate once.

Then, finally, Kit spoke some ritual words--I've heard that similar words are used at other schools, for they accomplish the legal magic of degree conferral. We were now college graduates, Bachelors of Arts. Then we filed down off the stage, once again in alphabetical order, and the mystery woman we'd seen in the wing before handed us our diplomas as we went by. We processed out of the Chapel and then none of us knew what to do from there. None of this had been rehearsed, we'd just seen what graduates did before--but where did they go after they left?

We milled around for a bit, until the mystery woman came out after us and shepherded us all into a nearby classroom. There she introduced herself as Anna, said she had graduated in 1998, and asked if we had any questions. We had lots of them.

How did the masters' arrange our "kidnapping" without letting any of the other students know? Where was our stuff from our dorm rooms?
Where were we going to sleep that night?
What would happen tomorrow?
When were we supposed to leave?
What had just happened to us?

She laughed and answered all our questions, except that last one, explaining that we were welcome to attend whatever parties we wanted that night, and could sleep wherever we wanted, but not to attend breakfast. We would have breakfast separately, at 7:30 the next morning, in the Chapel, after which our families would join us there for a kind of farewell celebration. Yes, our families had already been contacted. We would leave from there.

And that is what we did.

Incidentally, my graduating class did include a naked person. Almost every year I've been here, someone is naked under their cloak. I don't know why the tradition persists, we all know the naked person  has to stay that way for a while and ends up very cold, but it does persist. This year, the naked person was Joanna. It is a strange thing to consciously think "I'm looking at you naked for the last time." I imagine that most such last times, if you knew it was going to be the last time, you wouldn't get naked in the first place, but of course her nakedness had nothing to do with me anymore. She hardly spoke to me after the ceremony.

Having breakfast a half hour earlier than everyone else meant that when the new yearlings came out of meditation, we were already gone. In fact, I was gone long before that--I took a long walk before breakfast to say goodbye to campus. We were discouraged from saying too much to the students anyway--we were all supposed to just sort of vaguely vanish.

I don't know why vaguely vanishing is the thing. Perhaps the vagueness helps establish graduation as a thing people are used to not really knowing about, a thing they accept without asking questions--a lack of questions certainly makes it easier for them to spring the surprise of the ordeal on us. But whatever the reason, it actually makes our leaving abrupt, ragged. We don't really get to say goodbye, which is especially rough on those of us going into Absence. And we have to help support that vagueness by not saying goodbye, by intentionally misdirecting attention, the night of the parties, to the welcome of incoming yearlings, and away from what was happening to us. We had to establish ourselves as people the others just didn't ask about--that is something Anna made clear, that, having had our time as novices, we had to now support the novitiate experience of others.

We didn't really get to say goodbye to the masters, either, not one-on-one. As I realized that, I understood why Allen had made a point of speaking to me the other day, and I appreciated it. It bothers me that neither Kit nor Charlie did so, but I suppose they have their reasons. The masters have some activity Brigid Night that doesn't involve students, so they don't attend any of our parties, and they didn't attend breakfast with us. They did mingle briefly with us as they came in for the formal celebration, giving out hugs and congratulations and well-wishes, but that was brief. I think, at the time, we all thought we'd be able to talk to them afterwards.

I don't understand why leave-taking around here must be so abrupt.

In a way, we didn't even get to say goodbye to each other. Of course none of us wore uniforms to breakfast--none of us had uniforms anymore--and seeing everyone dressed in ordinary clothing, looking like the outsiders we all now were, somehow made us shy with each other and glum. It was as though we all belonged to each others' past already. We sat around together, awkwardly not knowing what to say.

The breakfast, incidentally, was entirely organized by Anna and several other former students. They were part of the secret of the ordeal--everything that needed doing in secret, behind the scenes, they had done. Former students such as Jeff and Arthur, who come to campus regularly, had even spread the rumors of the mysterious "something" we had to be on campus for. They were the elves making everything happen.

As we were helping to clean up after the meal, our families arrived, one or two or five people for each of us. I still don't know how a hundred-some extra people arrive on campus without the students ever noticing, but it happens, a giant magic trick, community-scale sleight-of-hand. While we were still milling around, introducing everybody and helping to re-arrange chairs, the masters arrived--just the Six, not any of the others--mingled briefly, and then retreated to the stage to begin what I can only describe as a roast. Of us, of course.

I had always wondered why it was that parents weren't invited to graduation--I mean, I knew several obvious explanations (Chapel Hall wouldn't fit everybody, the graduation ceremony is also an induction ceremony and therefore shouldn't include outsiders), but they only explained why graduation as we conducted it couldn't include families. I didn't know why graduation wasn't conducted differently so families could come.

It turns out that there is a second ceremony that families can come to, and that is the farewell roast. I guess it functions as a kind of hand-over, with the masters telling our families what we've been up to while in their care--with a great deal of teasing, of course.

There were thirty-seven of us, so of course they couldn't do each of us in turn. 37 separate roasts would have taken all day and all night. So instead, each of the six took a turn talking humorously about six or seven students. Most of us got roasted by that master who knew us best, but I noticed exceptions. For one thing, Zeb had worked most closely with Chuck, who isn't one of the Six and therefor wasn't there. For another, Charlie and Kit were both more popular in our year than any of the others, so some of their students got distributed to the others. Still, each of us got about two minutes to have our virtues and foibles extolled, to much hilarity.

Of course, Kit and Allen were the best at it--their speeches were the funniest, the most evocative, the most heart-warming. Both of them are professional performers. Karen was unquestionably the worst, as she remains painfully shy and actually had trouble projecting her voice loudly enough to be heard. Greg, too, had trouble. He is shy and, by temperament, quite serious. His "roast" of Steve Bees, for example, wasn't funny at all, though it was sweet, respectful, and true.

Joy's discussion of Eddie sticks in my mind, for some reason.

"I want to talk about Eddie," she began. "Eddie is a funny, kind, and compassionate man--and a huge flirt. Am I right, ladies? Is there any woman in the room who isn't married or a confirmed lesbian he hasn't come on to? Oh, there are? Well, give him time. Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression. Eddie is not a man without standards. Rather, he can see the best in everyone--which is why he wants to date all of us. I'm serious, now, it's a gift that he has--may we all become the goddesses Eddie thinks we are. But that's not what I came here to talk about. No, I want to talk about Eddie's other great passion; dogs."

From there she described his work with service dogs and therapy dogs and told a very funny story about a half-grown Newfoundland puppy who would not be tamed and ended up dragging poor Eddie halfway across a pasture.

My turn came near the end. I'd had no idea what Charlie was going to say about me, because he never teases me, though he has a sense of humor, and had already dropped some zingers on some of the other students by the time he got to me.

He started by telling a tail on himself, admitting (finally!) that some of the assignments he'd given me had been pretty strange--and that I'd tackled all of them without complaint and almost without question.

"It's a little awe-full," he said, "as in full of awe, to have that kind of loyalty, that kind of trust. I mean, what if I told him, I don't know, to go fetch a feather from the top of the Himalaya, would he do it? My God, what kind of monster could I become?" Somehow that became a laugh line, and I think Charlie meant for it to be, but I wonder how serious he really was. "But no, Daniel is a good man. He has good judgment. He wouldn't stand for that kind of garbage, I'm sure. In fact, I wasn't going to teach him, but he made himself enough of a pain-in-the-neck that I finally said yes. And I'm glad he did it. It's been a great ride and I expect it to continue in a couple of years."

That warmed my heart in a way I hadn't expected. After four years, it's good to know Charlie can still surprise me.

After they were done "roasting" us, all of them pulled back and left Allen in the center of the stage, perched on a chair with his guitar--and, as he so often has, he played James Taylor.

When you're down and troubled
And you need a helping hand

He played gently, he sang pleasantly, but a little off-key, and he sang through the whole song--making a promise.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running, oh yeah baby, to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall

It was a promise that I, facing Absence, really needed to hear. Before he was halfway through, the others joined in, stepping forward, closer to him, to sing to us.

All you've got to do is call
And I'll be there, ye, ye, ye
You've got a friend.

And it occurred to me, finally, that the song contained the central teaching, the central miracle of this place--"the magic of friendship" sounds incredibly hoaky and naive, but only because it is naive to believe it can be woven in a half an hour as demonstrated on some kids' television show. In fact, it's damn difficult for any community to really, truly treat each other with genuine care and consideration, and that is precisely what these people have done--it is possible. They're not any better at liking than the rest of us. They certainly don't all like each other, and they're not necessarily always likeable. I mean, at this distance, the things Charlie put me through these past couple of years seem like amusing foibles, but at the time I really wanted to smack him sometimes. But they do love well here. They work hard at it.

Allen began the song all over again and this time we all joined in, singing the promise back to him, without being asked or directed, all of us on our feet, our hearts full, eyes streaming, singing through to the end and then clapping, cheering, gratitude, though I don't think any of us could see the stage anymore through the sea of standing, cheering people in front of us--

Except the masters were no longer on the stage. Somebody must have had a clear view, somebody must have been in front, but nobody saw them go. We'd been singing to each other--the stage was simply empty and silent.

Had we imagined them?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 4: Graduation

This post depicts events that began right when the previous post ended, in the final week of January, 2004. -D.

I sat in the dark for a really long time.

At first, I expected the others to come get me any minute. I thought my time in the dark room must be some kind of test before something else, and I didn't see how any such test could last more than a few minutes. After all, they had me sitting in the dark, doing nothing.

After a while, I realized that my time in the dark wasn't going to be brief. Perhaps I was supposed to be meditating, or something. So, I meditated for a while. But with no way to time my meditation, I very quickly found myself plagued by thoughts of weather I meditated long enough yet, and after a while I gave that up.

Then I sat in the dark, being aware of the darkness and open to its reality, which I suppose would be Charlie's version of meditation, but I fell asleep.

When I woke up--and I have no idea how long I was asleep--it occurred to me that I was pretty silly for trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I had been told, specifically, to do whatever I liked, for one thing. For another thing, I was in the dark. No one could be watching me, and no one would ever have any idea what I did unless I told them. Why, at 23 years of age, was I still obsessed with what I was supposed to do, instead of what is right to do, or what is simply enjoyable? I'm not a kid anymore. I can make my own decisions.

For a moment I felt giddy with my awareness of my own freedom. I toyed with the idea of reveling in it, testing it, doing something that I could not do if anyone were watching. But making silly faces seemed pointless, getting naked seemed impractical (what if I got cold and then couldn't find my pants?), and the thing you're thinking of would require some clean-up I didn't want to have to deal with.

When you're alone in a small room in the dark, being free to do whatever you like doesn't give you a lot of options.

I got up, took off my hood, and explored the room with my feet and my hands.

The place was about the same size as my bedroom, maybe ten feet square. When I jumped, I could touch the ceiling, which had some weird stucco texture. The carpet felt lush and smelled quite clean. The walls were wood paneling, probably flimsy. It bothered me that I couldn't tell what color any of this was, and I thought of Ebony. There were no light switches, and if light fixtures existed in the room, they must be in the ceiling. The toilet was where Greg said it would be, and seemed to be some kind of collector for the composting system--there was no water in it and no flush mechanism. There was no sink, either, but the box with the toilet in it also contained toilet paper and a squirt bottle of rubbing alcohol. It bothered me not to have a sink, until I realized the masters were trying to minimize the number of things I could possibly trip over.

The provisions in the cabinet turned out to be a full water bottle, half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and an apple. Odd, we don't grow peanuts on campus, nor do we normally buy any. I guess they made an exception for the dark room because a PB and J sandwich can't spill or fall apart. I ate and drank and enjoyed my meal.

My eyes played tricks on me. I kept thinking I saw light or movement when there must have been done. My eyes would not accept having nothing whatever to do. I thought about Ebony some more. She must have been through this same experience. I imagined Allen popping a black-out bag over her head. It must have been he who did it, the one master whom she most trusted. He would know to use the bag on her, to treat her as sighted. I wondered what it must feel like, at that moment, to frighten a friend in that way, to be Allen--or to be Charlie.

 I got hungry again, and I found that, yes, the cabinet had been re-stocked with another apple and another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I thought that perhaps I should not eat, so as not to spoil my dinner, but then I wondered if I'd be kept in the room through dinner, or perhaps taken somewhere and kept up all night...I decided the smart thing to do was to eat and drink and sleep as needed, so that I'd be refreshed for whatever came next.

I was sure something would come next, and that I would not be in the dark room very much longer, since we all had to get in a turn before graduation. I didn't know how many rooms there might be, but I was pretty sure there was nowhere on campus that was big enough to hide thirty rooms I didn't know about.

And yet they kept not coming. The ordeal in the dark kept not being over. I'd wait in anticipation, then get distracted by day-dream, then come back to awareness again and realize where I was and why and I'd wait in anticipation because it couldn't be much longer....

Yes, it could be longer. Gradually, in fits and starts, I began to give up on time. I gave up on anticipation. I stopped thinking about the outside or the future--or the past, except as a day-dream. My periods of timeless drifting grew longer and my periods of impatient anticipation grew shorter and farther between and finally stopped altogether. I had no worries, no goals, no hopes, and no expectations. It was not pleasant. It wasn't unpleasant, either, for the most part.

I ate when I was hungry. I slept when I was tired. The room was warm enough, and the carpet deep enough, that I felt perfectly comfortable wrapped up in my cloak on the floor. I had no idea how much time was passing because I don't know for how long I slept. I lost track of how many times I slept. I'm not even sure how long I was awake for. Time might have dragged or crawled, I had no way of knowing.

When I was awake, I sometimes paced or exercised, or entertained myself by trying to guess where the nearest wall was. Sometimes I heard distant voices or people walking around. Sometimes the noises came from above me but never from below--but I had already guessed I was in a basement. It is very curious not having any idea where you are, especially when you know you must be somewhere within an otherwise intimately familiar place.

When I slept, I had anxious, disjointed dreams about trying not to talk, or forgetting and talking except discovering that I was mute, or confronting one horrible disaster after another and knowing I could not do anything about it because I was not allowed to speak.

I remember one such dream, I stood on one of the balconies on the Mansion and watched Charlie walk across the Flat Field--right towards a gaping, black hole in the earth, a pit fifty feet wide and miles deep that he did not see. I tried to scream, to warn him, but I could make no noise...I woke from that dream into a strange swirling blackness peopled with incomprehensible voices and I knew I had spoken after all and let everybody down, and I wept without sound, trying to make amends by my silence and knowing it wouldn't work, wouldn't be enough....And then I woke from that dream into darkness and silence, entirely unsure what reality was, whether I was awake or not.

Eventually I concluded I was really awake this time and that I had not spoken after all. I was gad.

I was lying down but not quite sleeping when I heard a knock on my door.

"Don't speak," Allen's voice reminded me. "We're coming in, in about a minute, if you want to make yourself decent."

I was already dressed, of course, but I sat up, and presently Allen came in, carrying a candle and several other objects. The yellow, flickering light hurt my eyes.

He set the candle and its holder down on the ground and set beside it a familiar-looking bag and an unfamiliar, large Tupperware-type container with an orange lid. He left the room a moment, and returned bearing a large, ceramic pitcher of water. He smiled at me.

"Your clothes," he said, indicating the bag, then took the lid off the Tupperware, revealing a bar of soap, a wash cloth, a small towel, and a shaving kit. "I'll go let you get dressed," he said. "If you want to wash up or shave, feel free."


I wear a beard, but it's a Van Dyke--that's the official term for a goatee-plus-mustache--and so I keep the thinner hair that grows on my cheeks and jaw shaved clean. I'd shaved that morning, or what I assumed to be that morning, so, why--

I put my hand to my cheek and found three days' worth of growth there. Three days.

I looked at Allen in shock and he grinned at me.

"I'll let you get dressed," he repeated, patting me on the shoulder.

I used the Tupperware as a wash-basin to give myself a kind of sponge-bath, shaved, dressed in my clothes from the bag, put my cloak on over top, and ran my hand through my hair. As I worked, I could hear voices, up and down the hall, not many voices, but the same ones saying the same things over and over, barely audible to me. When Allen came back, I was standing in the middle of the room, fully dressed, feeling dazed.

"Come on," he told me. When I looked uncertainly at my cast-off school uniform and the other things, he told me to leave them. "They're not yours anymore. Blow out the candle and bring that."

The hallway was lit dimly by candles held by some of the other masters. All Six had come to fetch us, and all of us, the whole graduating class, shuffled out into the hall or walked in around a corner from another hall. I'd been wrong--wherever we were was very large.

We shuffled along, not speaking, gently herded through a door and up a stairway, two flights of stairs. There was no exit between the flights, nor did the stair continue above the second flight. We could go so far, no more, no less. At the top, we went through another door, and came out--

In the right-hand wing off the stage in Chapel Hall.

Light streamed in through the windows, watery, winter light, but brighter than my eyes could stand at first. I wandered with my fellows, disoriented and half-blind, not knowing what to think or feel, in the entirely ordinary, even prosaic clutter of a disused storage area.

Kit got up on a box so we could see her over each other's heads.

"Ok, don't speak yet, just raise your hands," she said. "Does anybody not know what day it is?" No hands went up. "Ok, stay here, just wait for the ceremony. Someone will come get you." She got down off her box and she and the others left the room.

Before he left, Allen spoke up.

"Does anybody not know yet when you be allowed to speak?" His eyes twinkled mischief and then he was gone.

We stood or sat around. Some of us slept or exchanged back-rubs or paced. We all looked kind of shell-shocked. We could hear students setting up chairs and fussing with the wood stove and it struck me very strangely to think that all those times I had helped set up the Chapel for Brigid, there had been graduating students waiting silently in the wing. The light gradually leaked out of the sky and we were left in the dark again.

We were not left in the dark very long before someone I did not recognize, a woman wearing the uniform of a mastery candidate, arrived to organize us. The Chapel has electric lights, but she didn't turn any on. Instead, she carried a flashlight and a notebook.

"Don't talk," she began. "Brad? Brad, can you come up here, please?" And Brad, a man who started the same year as I did, though I've never talked about him, shuffled forward. "Ok, stand here, please. Dan?" She placed Dan right behind Brad. "Daniel?" Of course we were being put into alphabetical order.

When we all stood in a long, snaking row, all 37 of us, the mystery woman told us to remember our places, especially who stood right in front of us, and then she left us in the dark again. The Chapel filled with whispering, shuffling people who didn't know where we were.

About twenty minutes later, she was back, but didn't say anything to us. And then I heard the bells of the ceremony starting.

From the wings, we could see the masters sitting on the stage among their candles. We could hear the new yearlings being introduced and sorted, without knowing they were being sorted, into dorms. Briefly, the student body included both them and us.

Then, the mystery woman moved to the stage opening and beckoned Brad over. Kit stood at the lectern, and said the ritual words "Let all who seek recognition come out!" Brad stepped out. A few moments later, we heard his voice.

We graduated in alphabetical order--an unusual orderliness for this school, but they didn't call us out by name, and needed some way to put our diplomas in the same order as us.

I went third.

I walked out and Kit asked me to kneel. I knelt before her, reflecting on how on my first day, my first Brigid, it was her candle that I lit. I stood up on my own initiative, as per the ceremony, and Kit reached up to unfasten my cloak and lift it, and with it my novice-status from my shoulders. I stepped towards the lectern. I had been thinking about what I was going to say at that lectern, on and off, for four years, but I had never come to any definite conclusion. I had not, of course, known that they would be my first words about anything for three days.

Looking out over the audience, though, that sea of faces I knew and did not know, what I had to say suddenly became obvious.

"Thank you," I told them. "Coming here was a good idea."

Monday, January 9, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 3: The Ordeal

 This post depicts events that happened only one day after those in the previous post, in the final week of January, 2004.-D.

They told us, yesterday, to get our rooms packed up to move out, because there would be some sort of final retreat for graduates this week and we wouldn't have time. Our rooms, of course, have to be vacant--and freshly cleaned by the janitorial team--by the time the new students come in on Brigid. I remember this from years past, how the graduating students would pack up a few days early and then go somewhere. I've never been clear on whether they all went to the same somewhere, together, or if there were a series of different events that took them in smaller groups. I never saw them going, I only noticed that they were gone.

That request was the last familiar thing that happened this week.

I packed up my stuff last night, leaving my clothes and such accessible so I could live out of my bags for however long I have to before we go somewhere. This morning, I went for a long walk before breakfast in the snow (there's over eight inches on the ground now, so I got to practice with my snow shoes and my pack at last). There are a lot of people on campus again now. I still haven't seen any of the masters, except Greg and Sharon, and of course, Allen last night, and only Greg is eating with us, but well over half the student body is back, and the Great Hall is getting crowded at breakfast. This morning we had oatmeal and dried fruit and golden pineapple-weed jelly on little round biscuits and the whole room smelled of people and food and wet wool and snow.

At the end of the meal, Greg made an announcement, asking graduating students to please stay back. At last, I thought, it's starting, whatever it is.

We stayed in the Great Hall while the others all went on their way, and when they were gone, Greg spoke--but all he said was that today we would all have our final interviews, and to check the schedule in the kitchen--and to stay in and around the Mansion all day because the schedule might change, in which case someone would have to come find us.

The interviews, he said, were not quite a formality--we would have to defend our readiness to graduate before a committee--but no student had ever failed the interview, so we shouldn't worry about it. He also said to bring whatever we wanted to wear at graduation to the interview for approval and also for cleaning. As you may recall, graduating students appear at the ceremony wearing their cloaks, but the cloaks come off, and underneath is an outfit symbolizing the student's net phase of life. Although, since I've seen every kind of getup, including no clothing at all, I don't know why these outfits have to be approved. I can't imagine anything not being approved.

And that was all. Greg dismissed us.

I was confused. Supposedly, some sort of something was supposed to happen, that's what we've been hearing for weeks, and why we all had to be back on campus early, but we seemed to be running out of time for it to happen. Graduation is only three days away.

But I was also excited for graduation, and a little afraid, and I was really too preoccupied by the prospect of having to defend my readiness to graduate to think much about anything else. I think we all were feeling the same way. We didn't talk much to each other that morning.

I checked the schedule and saw my interview was at 10 AM in Chuck's office on the first floor of Chapel Hall. As you may remember, Chuck is our maintenance supervisor. I checked my watch--almost nine. I went up to my room to get my stuff together.

I'd put a lot of thought into what I was going to wear and what I was going to say at graduation, but I hadn't really finalized anything. I had thought, at first, of dressing like a hiker, because that's what I expected to be most immediately. But while I expect that hiking the Appalachian Trail might be transformative, I don't expect it to take very long. I don't expect "hiker" to be my new identity in any ongoing way. I had also thought about wearing the uniform of a mastery student, since I do intend to become one, but that is at least three years in the future and it seems presumptuous to wear it now. I briefly considered being naked, but that's not really my style and I do not like being cold.

I settled on dressing like a graduate student, but how do grad students dress? I guess, living in a school with a uniform has made me want to dress so as to fit in with my fellows.

Finally, I put on a set of long underwear (Chapel Hall is cold in February) and then a pair of cargo pants and a black turtle neck and a blue and green flannel. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw someone who wouldn't stand out much among the people I'd seen when I visited the campus of the grad school I want to attend. Living here for four years has sensitized me to the importance of props, symbolic "tools" one carries to enhance one's identity, the way a judge has a gavel and a doctor or nurse has a stethoscope. So, besides my clothing, I put on my deer knife and slipped my field notebook, a pencil, and my magnifying lens into a cargo pocket. Those are aspects of my identity here that I want to keep.

I changed back into my uniform, put my graduation outfit, including the props, into a paper bag, and realized it was time to head over.

The chapel of Chapel Hall is on the second floor. The first floor is all offices, a long hall with offices off to the sides, and the floor of that hall is all tile, with a mosaic of the solar system worked into it, all the planets and the sun in a line, bright, colored circles, set in white.

I turned off at Chuck's office, which I'd never been in before, except to clean when I was a janitor. Chuck was not there. Greg, Charlie, and Allen were. My committee. Greg sat behind the desk, Charlie and Allen in chairs on the side, to the right. There was an empty chair for me, in front of them all.

I sat down, rather nervously, and surrendered my bag of clothes.

"My knife is in there," I said.
"Good. I'll take care of it," said Charlie. He's never quite said so, but I've always gotten the impression that no one but me and my teacher should handle that knife, if possible. That's the rule for athames and for the swords whose use Karen teaches. I've noticed Charlie is also very choosy about who gets to touch his axe and his saw. It's a streak of mysticism he rarely talks about and I was glad that he volunteered to make sure nobody else had to touch my knife. It's proof we're still on the same wavelength. "Are you going to want your clothes pressed?" he asked.

"No, just washed and dried, thank you," I told him.

Greg took charge and asked me to explain, in detail, how I'd met each of the academic graduation requirements. Of course, they had my credit record before them, and I couldn't remember every single workshop I'd taken off the top of my head, but I think they were looking for me to demonstrate an understanding of how what I'd learned related to the requirements, proof that I was thinking about those requirements, being proactive about my educational career. I supplied such proof.

I also had to explain how I'd met each of the mastery areas, how the work I'd done with and for both Charlie and Joy contributed to this or that requirement. Again, I had to prove I had been thinking about my educational goals.

Then Greg asked how I knew that I'd met the requirements in each area.

"Because my masters said I did," I explained. "I have their votes."
"You do," confirmed Greg. "But how do you know they are qualified to vote for you?"

I felt real fear. I mean, if I can't even trust an institution to stand by its own faculty? It was like the bottom dropped out of something. But then I realized I was being asked not to trust institutions, or individual teachers, blindly, to not assume an authority figure was worth learning from just because he or she said so. I had to think for a moment. The whole thing was awkward, because Charlie was sitting right there and I had to question his competence in order to defend it.

"This community works," I began. "The people who live here are mostly happy and they support each other. They act on the values they espouse. That suggests that your leadership works, and part of your leadership is deciding who gets to be a master and who gets to teach what. And what Charlie and Joy do works. Joy is a veterinarian and the animals she takes care of live well. They are healthy until they die, and they die quickly and painlessly. I have experienced her Reiki and it seems to work--and I have seen it work on animals and young children, so it's not just a placebo effect. So the things I'm less sure about, magic and so on, probably work, too. And what Charlie does works, too, everything he takes care of, this he says is true actually is, so far as I can tell. It's consistent with my experience and with everything I've read, including books he didn't tell me to read. So I trust him. I trust his professional judgment, and Joy's, and yours."

There was a moment of silence.

"Remember all that, someday, when you start to doubt yourself," said Allen. "We believe in you and we are competent judges."

The three looked at each other, as though engaging in some silent consultation. I saw heads nod, slightly. Charlie got up and walked around behind me and rested his hands on my shoulders.

"There is one more requirement you have to meet," said Greg, somewhat ominously. His voice sounded formal, ritualized. Something was happening, but I was distracted by Charlie's hands on me--it was the first time he had ever touched me for any reason except to treat one of my injuries. It felt affectionate.

"Huh? What?" I asked.

"You have one more requirement to meet," repeated Greg, when he had my attention again. "And it is not an academic requirement. Strictly speaking, it is optional in that if you stop now, you will still receive your college degree. But you will not have completed our program, you will not be a full member of our community, and you will not be eligible to become a master."

"What is it?" I asked. "Obviously, I want to do it, I want to go on."

"If you do this thing," said Greg, "you will not be allowed to talk until we tell you that you can. Any vocal communication for any reason, short of true emergency, will disqualify you forever. If you understand and are ready to begin, so signify by nodding your head."

I was really nervous, now, but I nodded. And Charlie popped a blackout bag over my head.

Fear. Hurt. Confusion. Darkness. The fleeting thought that my uncle was right and this place was a weird cult that had shown its hurtful hand at last. I held tight to the seat of my chair, my whole body rigid, but I did not speak. I did not cry out.

"Trust me," Charlie said, whispering into my ear, so close that I could feel the heat of his breath through the fabric. "Nothing is about to happen to you that did not also happen to me. We are not going to hurt you."

"Trust us," said Greg, speaking formally. "Nothing is about to happen to you that was not done to all other graduates. Our objective is not to hurt, frighten, or humiliate you. If you ever feel endangered for any reason, you may speak, but not otherwise. If you have your flashlight on you, or any food, please surrender it."

I handed over my flashlight. I've carried it on my belt as a matter of course for four years, and so of course I knew how to take it off in the dark.

"Now, stand up and let yourself be guided."

I stood, and Charlie and Allen walked with me, one holding each of my arms, guiding me out of the office. They spun me around several times so that I did not know which direction we walked down the hallway--Chapel Hall has two main exits on opposite sides of the building--and we left the building and then walked around in the snow for a while. I could hear human voices in the distance, and, once, a bird. They turned me around several times again, following an irregular, random-seeming course through the snow. But we did walk straight for long enough that I thought we really must be going somewhere, as opposed to wandering in circles outside of Chapel Hall. For a while they actually carried me--Charlie must know how well I can navigate in the dark by now, that sightlessness alone would not sufficiently disorient me. I think there were times Greg must have held an umbrella over me, to prevent my figuring out which direction we walked or whether we were under trees or not.

Finally we came to a building (I could hear its looming shadow in the white noise of open space) and through a door. Almost immediately, we went down a flight of stairs. As far as I know, the Mansion is the only building that has a basement accessed from an exterior door, so I thought that's where we must be, but it didn't smell quite right for that--less musty, colder, and with a definite whiff of food. I didn't know where I was.

We walked down the steps, with Allen or Charlie telling me "step down...step down" with each stair step so I wouldn't trip or be startled, and then down along a long, carpeted hallway. The hallway felt close and insulated and it got warmer as we walked.

Finally we stopped and I heard a door open.

"Here is your room," explained Greg. "You still cannot talk. You will stay in this room, silently, until we come to get you. When we get you, you will still not be able to talk until we tell you you can. Once we close the door on you, you may take off your hood, but there will be no light. As you explore your room, you will find a cabinet-type door in the far wall. If you open it, you will find food and drink. If you put your plate and water bottle back in the cabinet, they will be re-filled, as many times and as often as you like--the cabinet has a second opening from the back, though the two doors cannot be open at the same time. You will also find a large box affixed to the wall and the floor in the rear corner. Open the lid and you will find a toilet and sanitary supplies. We will not lock the door, but you must stay in your room, unless you believe yourself to be in danger. You may do anything you like while you are here, including sleep, except talk. If you feel yourself to be in danger for any reason, do not hesitate to shout. Someone will hear you and help you and we will not penalize you for that. If you understand all this and agree, Daniel, so signify by nodding your head."

I think he was taking every opportunity to remind me not to talk so that I wouldn't speak from force of habit. I appreciated it, and nodded.

"See you in a bit, then," said Greg, and the three of them patted or squeezed my shoulders in a friendly way.

I heard the door close.

    Thursday, January 5, 2017

    Year 4: Part 8: Post 2: Mysterious Conversation

    I'm posting twice for at least some weeks in January. I am doing something unusual with timing this month; the events of each post may be much more or much less than a week apart. This post is set in the final week of January, 2004. -D.

    The masters are back on campus. I'm a little surprised; I thought they stayed gone a little longer. Perhaps they have in years past. But today, right after sunset, I bumped into Allen on my way across campus, heading back towards the Mansion from the woods. So, obviously he's back, and I think he's usually one of the later ones to return, because he and his family goes to the Florida Keys for the month of January, and I understand they like it down there.

    Anyway, he was bundled up in a snow suit so I almost didn't recognize him, but he recognized me and wanted to talk. We'd been going in opposite directions, so stopped and talked where we were, standing in the snow.

    He asked me how and what I was doing, and I told him about my January, how we've had a couple of parties and things for the graduating class recently, and there are rumors that we'll have another in the next day or so, but nobody seems to know anything. I asked him about his vacation, and he told me about snorkeling with his kids, birding with David by sea-kayak, and getting back to Key West a couple of times, a place he loves.

    "Wow, I think I'm jealous," I told him.
    "I think you'd miss the snow," he said, with a smile. "Listen, I'm glad I got hold of you. You know how hectic these last couple of days can be," he added, even though no, I didn't know. I've never found the last days of January to be hectic, nor have I ever noticed anyone else around here seeing stressed then. But I nodded, and he went on. "What are you doing after you graduate?"

    "I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail with Rick, then, hopefully I'll work the summer as a back-country caretaker somewhere, and then go to graduate school for conservation biology."
    "Sounds challenging. And fun."

    "Yes, well, I hope so."
    "It will be. Both. Listen, though, you're going to have problems."
    "Problems?" I asked.
    "Problems, nothing major, I don't think, but you wouldn't expect them, I don't think, so that's why I wanted to tell you."

    "You've never really lived on your own, have you?"
    "I've lived on my own for four and a half years," I objected.
    "No, you've lived away from your parents for four and a half years. Daniel, you are a man. It's not your fault you've been living like a boy, but you have been."

    "I've been...." I was confused, and a little angry.

    "Yes, you have. You have, all your life, and especially in the last four years, lived entirely within a world designed by people who love you, understand the circumstances of your life, and want the best for you. After next week, that will no longer be true. I don't mean that everyone will be cruel, or even necessarily indifferent, but you'll have to carry your support system with you. You won't be able to depend on it finding you. You will have to advocate for yourself proactively. It won't be bad, but it will be different, and if you didn't know about it, it could throw you. So I wanted to let you know."

    Ok, huh?

    Among other issues, the masters love me? Also, how am I supposed to respond to a friendly warning that my life is about to change...and the fact that Allen evidently thinks I can't figure that part out for myself (I mean, yes, I'm graduating. It'll be different. Obviously)....

    What do I say?

    "Hey, Andy, are you planning something?"
    "Me? Of course. I'm planning lots of things."
    But his eyes were twinkling,
    "No, I mean...never mind. I don't want to know."
    "Why not?" he asked.
    "Because you're planning a surprise and I don't want to ruin it for myself."
    "Daniel, you've got to have more faith in us than that."
    "If we don't want you to know something, don't you think we can keep it from you?"
    "I guess...."
    "Anyway, only by trying as hard as you can to understand the universe do you find out for sure that you can't completely understand it. The Mystery doesn't need you to protect it; the Mystery needs you to pursue it."
    "Allen, I have no idea what to say to that." And I didn't.
    "Take care of yourself, Daniel," he said, clapped me on the shoulder, and walked away.

    Why do I get the feeling he just said goodbye to me?

    Monday, January 2, 2017

    Year 4: Part 8: Post 1: Endings

    Usually these stories depict events that happened close to the same date that I post them and one week's story is set about a week after the previous one. This month I'm doing something different. Today's post is set in the second week of January. --D.

    I got back on campus about a week ago. It's good to be back, but I really don't know why I'm here.There was a meeting of the graduating class--most of us, anyway--yesterday, and we were supposed to be here for that, but I don't know why it wasn't scheduled later in the month. The masters aren't even back yet, except for Greg, who led the meeting, and it's really not his thing. At the meeting. he talked vaguely about events and responsibilities we need to be here for, but he wouldn't explain what they are, and at the moment there doesn't seem to be anything to do.

    Not that I'm not busy--I'm applying for caretaking jobs for the summer and working on my grad school application (both of which seem incredibly complicated after the elegant simplicity of how they do things here) and I'm training for the Appalachian Trail. I'm now hiking ten to fifteen miles a day, mostly in circles, in the woods behind the school, with a pack on my back. None of it is for school, but it is important, and I couldn't do it as well at my parents' house. And there are some of us doing school work, running around, dealing with last-minute paperwork problems, settling up fees and debts and resolving issues with lost records or misplaced credits...I never appreciated before that in January Sharon (and Malachi, who handles money) has her hands full with graduating students as well as the new prospective students, who are wandering around looking amazed and confused as per normal.

    But why am I here, why am I on campus? Why have they clearly arranged for us to be here, and then given us nothing particular to do?

    I know why I'm here--it's to do something I'm not supposed to know about. And I don't know about it. I don't know what it is or when it will happen, only that something is. I don't intend to try to find out, as I have no desire to ruin the surprise.

    In the meantime, the campus is covered with snow. It snowed, remember, back on Yule, only an inch or two. That melted the following day, but then late in the afternoon on Christmas it snowed again, a good eight inches, and while we've had some melting since, it's never all melted, and we've had several more snowfalls. At the moment, there are about six inches on the ground in most places, not counting the drifts, with a bit of a crust on top, so you can't make very good snowballs with it. When I hike my way through our hills, I break through the crust, crunch, crunch, crunch, as though I am exploring a magical world made of sugar, a sweet world of snow. I have not had to use snowshoes, yet, the snow has not been deep enough, but I hope that changes, soon. We're supposed to get more snow tonight, and I want to get some practice in.

    Since I've been back, I have not had any more "encounters" with Joanna. How does it sound to say it that way? Writing it, I seems euphemistic. Charlie would say not to hide from the world with euphemism. Kit would say not to treat sexuality as a thing that must be hidden. Not that I've actually spoken with either of them about my sex-life. But "had sex" sounds clinical, impersonal, and despite my initial worries on the subject, that's not how it ever felt with Joanna...and regardless of what you want to call it, we have not done it since before the holiday.

    I had wanted to. I hadn't expected it to be over, yet, but after I got back--she was back already, as she doesn't celebrate Christmas--I found myself avoiding her. And I think she was avoiding me. Finally, yesterday, circumstance brought us together unavoidably as we both found ourselves waiting in line for the toilet in the Great Hall after breakfast. The awkwardness of standing next to each other even for just a minute or two was impossible to ignore, so after we'd each used the facilities, we sat down at the polished table in the Bird Room to talk.

    "You don't want to spend time with me," she stated. It was not an accusation.
    "No," I told her with some reluctance. "But I don't know why not."

    She smiled at me, warmly and knowingly.

    "Try this," she suggested. "What happens, if we do get together?"
    "We have sex," I said, promptly. "It's kind of the thing we do."
    "So, do you want to?"
    "Yes," I told her, again without hesitation. "But, I don't know, I think I want more than that. I feel...I don't know. I don't know how to describe it."
    "You romantic," she told me, as though she were teasing me for something embarrassing. I happen to think being a romantic is a good thing. I frowned.

    "You haven't been trying to hang out with me, either," I retorted, trying to reclaim some of my dignity with her. But she just giggled, like I'd caught her at something. I've always found her impossible.

    Then she grew semi-serious again.

    "I think it's time," she said. "To get out or to get deeper in. This thing has run its course."
    "Get deeper in?" I asked.
    "That 'more' you wanted. Do you want that, a relationship, with me?"

    I said nothing. I couldn't understand why she was making it entirely about what I wanted, as though I were a therapy patient or something. I knew perfectly well she didn't want to be in a romantic relationship with me. There were so many things I wanted to say that none of them made it out of my mouth.

    "Then I think this thing has run its course," she repeated. She took my hand, for a moment. Her skin was cool and smooth. "This isn't a break-up," she told me. "That's the advantage of not going out, we don't have to break up."

    But it felt like a break-up to me.

    I wanted to say, what occurred to me to say, was "So we don't get to have sex anymore?" But Joanna would have laughed at me. I hate when she does that. And it would have sounded as though the sex were all I cared about, when it isn't, or shouldn't be, except that that's what all this was supposed to be about, wasn't it? Just sex, with no strings attached? I never wanted to date Joanna, I just got tongue-tied in her presence because she's goddam beautiful, and because she always invades me just slightly. She keeps me off balance, just slightly, all the time. Of course I wanted her, but only on the surface. I would have been crazy to want anything else. And it was on the surface that she offered herself, so I said yes...and somehow I ended up with all kinds of strings attached to a woman who obviously never liked me to begin with. Except sexually, she was never nice to me.

    But the sex...I hadn't expected that to end so abruptly, to go from having a lover to not having one in a conversation around a dining room table. But then, how else do such things ever end? And how that felt...I can't explain it, I can't name the feeling, the way Allen taught me to do, not precisely. The best I can do is say it's like being cut off, walled up, sealed in...I am suddenly alone in a way I wasn't before.

    I walk around campus, watching the janitorial and maintenance teams working to prepare for the influx of new students, watching the yearlings going to meditation, meeting in their therapy groups, finishing up their assignments from over the break, and watching the new, prospective students wandering around, confused and amazed. It all looks so normal, so reassuringly ordinary.

    The number of things that are simply over for me right now is heavy on my mind.

    Sunday, December 25, 2016

    Year 4: Seventh Interlude


    I'm sitting here--in 2016--listening to Jimmy Buffet singing (on  recording, of course):

    So this is Christmas
    (war is over)
    Another year older
    A new one just begun.

    War is not over, of course. Neither is climate change, or the vast specter of the threat loomed by Donald Trump. I have a hard time with Christmas sometimes--saying that Jesus is born and now everything will be great and it just isn't.

    But Christmas is a good time to remind ourselves of these values and to recommit. As long as the line is not crossed into feel-good delusion, it is a positive thing.

    And recommit we do. We, as a community, have made a decision to re-open the school as a school with its own campus. We don't know yet what that will look like, but it won't be the same as it was before--our original model was too vulnerable, as events showed us, so we'll have to embed the school inside some kind of larger project, to give it greater protective camouflage. It will probably take us some years to work out our plans and raise the necessary money, but we've set the process in motion--this year's returning of the light, if you will.

    We've made this decision because, just as the outer world has grown to resemble our community more over the past few years, we now fear the two are getting less alike. Living out in the world as we do, it's going to get harder and harder to not be influenced by that shift--or to not be exhausted by the effort of constantly maintaining deliberate cultural dissonance. Re-creating our counter-cultural bubble gives us another option.

    Not that we want to hide in the bubble. We did that before, and we've come to think that was a mistake, a shirking of responsibility. But we need a refuge, a place to recharge and to center, a place to radiate from...when you want to work (or play) outside in the winter, you need a warm refuge nearby, an assurance of safely. Otherwise, all your time and energy must be occupied with survival and you can't to the work or ply you came outside to do.

    Anyway, at the moment we--June and Carly and I, and my brother and his family--are at my parents' house. Since June and I have switched our attention to Solstice, visiting our parents for the holiday has gotten simpler, since we don't have a family Christmas to compete for time and attention. If June had only been raised Jewish, holiday planning would be simpler yet (I mean because the grandparents would not be in competition over us for the same holiday). Except this year, of course, since Chanukah and Christmas coincide.

    Thirteen years ago today, I was also at my parents' house. I got a ride from another student (I forget who) the day after Yule, and stayed at home for something like two or three weeks before returning to campus--we were supposed to spend most of January on campus because of vaguely described duties related to graduation.

    I'm going to simply skip over those weeks in my narrative, then spend January in a series of posts that don't have much to do with the date. I explained a little about that already.

    But for now, I wanted to talk a little about something Steve Bees told me when we met up again on campus after the holiday.

    Steve could have gone home to Ohio for Christmas, but then he wouldn't have been able to spend much time with his girlfriend over her college break. So instead, he stayed on campus except for Christmas itself, when he went to Charlie's sister's house, with Charlie.

    When he told me about going there for Thanksgiving, I didn't think to ask a lot of questions. This time, I asked whether Charlie was any different when he wasn't on campus--but I couldn't get Steve to understand what I meant. Eventually, I tried asking what the holiday was like and he told me the story and so I finally extracted the information I wanted.

    Charlie and Steve arrived n hour or so before dinner on Christmas Eve and all his grand-nieces and -nephews reacted as though Santa Clause had just shown up. Charlie did bring presents, but they also wanted his company and competed for his attention. Throughout the evening the other adults (sister, Maria, her husband, brother, Mario, and various grown nieces and nephews) all treated Charlie as the guest of honor--and he responded. And he wasn't grumpy or growly at all. He was relaxed, good-natured, and slightly self-centered, accepting the attention as though it were his due and happily lecturing everybody on whatever topics came into his head. I remember his sister once told told me "he's always been the center of us," and from Steve's description, he still was.

    In contrast, Charlie's brother, Mario, hardly spoke. He wasn't unfriendly, Steve said, just quiet. The only time he spoke that Steve could really think of was when Charlie and his sister were speaking Italian in order to not be understood by the kids and one of Maria's grown daughters said "that's not not going to work for much longer, Mom, the kids are learning Italian in school." Mario spoke up to say he didn't understand why the whole family stayed so fixated on Italian.

    "They're American," he said. "Italian won't get you anywhere. Americans should learn Spanish or French. Or, these days, Farsi or something." Mario is the only one who retains an Italian accent and who remembers even a few words of their fathers' dialect. He doesn't speak Italian otherwise. Charlie and Maria are fluent in the Italian they learned in school, which was not the same dialect.

    Charlie replied, in Spanish, something like "where can I go with my Spanish but not my Italian? There are Italians in Mexico and Spain, yes?"

    (Steve told me the English translation he extracted from Maria later. I'm guessing it was something like donde puedo ir con mi Espanol pero no mi Italia? Hay Italianos in Mexico y Espania, si? But that's my high school Spanish guessing.)

    Mario replied, in his high school Spanish, "Yes, but the Italians who emigrate to Mexico and Spain learn the language of their new country."

    And one of the grand-nieces giggled, clearly understanding the somewhat playful exchange, and Charlie turned to his sister and said "sounds like St. Nickolas is going to have to use Latin," in Latin. "Or French," Maria said, in French.

    "Actually, I understand some French," said the grand-niece, in Italian.

    Steve was much impressed.

    The whole family, including Charlie, went to Midnight Mass, and in the morning spent approximately 426 years opening gifts, given how many people were assembled there. Then, after brunch, the kids played with their new toys and Charlie and Mario played video games with each other--recapturing their boyhoods, except of course when they were boys, video games did not exist.

    Then, who should show up mid-afternoon but Allen, Lo, and their kids. They stayed for dinner and actually stayed the night--the kids all merged together into one indivisible group of cousins (related and otherwise) and Allen joined the gaming brothers for a while.

    Steve hadn't known that Allen and Charlie were friends. I had known, but I didn't know they spent Christmas dinner together. Steve said they were nearly inseparable the whole evening, except when Allen tried to involve himself in making dinner. After the meal, Charlie played his tin whistle for everyone.

    So, was Charlie different when he wasn't thinking about being a teacher?

    In some ways he obviously wasn't. In other ways...I have a hard time imagining him playing his whistle so openly on campus, nor does he normally go on about the things he knows without being asked. From Steve's description, he sounded more relaxed, less self-conscious, and more social than I'd ever seen him. 

    Monday, December 19, 2016

    Year 4: Part 7: Post 8: Yule

    Note; in 2003, when these events happened, the solstice was on the 22nd, which was also the fourth night of Hanukah. This year, the solstice will not occur until the 21st, but I'm posting this as though today were the solstice, because it's close enough. -D.

    I'm getting tired of this bitter-sweet parade of "lasts," seriously. Last spring, last summer, last fall, last Yule on campus...I've gotten used to celebrating Yule. I like it. I like it a lot. How am I going to greet the holiday season without it, next year?

    I suppose you could say the winter solstice is going to happen everywhere, and that's true (at least everywhere in the northern hemisphere--in the southern hemisphere the solstice in December is for summer), but it's the community that makes it meaningful to me--just as long as we have we, as Dr. Seuss says.

    I'm at the Yule celebration now, in the Great Hall. The whole room is full of decorations and the scent of good food, and bits of wrapping paper and gift bags and people in their pajamas--we changed into our pajamas this morning at Joy's request after  lot of us got wet and cold during a snow-ball fight on the lawn in front of the Mansion. After that, we came down here and all ran around the room, finding our gift bags, each with a student's name on it, each filled with chocolates, candy, and fruit and little "stocking stuffer" toys, and then we had breakfast--pancakes, freshly made, and each round and golden as the sun. That was hours ago, and a lot of people have crashed out, gone to sleep on the couches and out-of-the-way corners of the floor. I might take a nap, too. Tight, after dinner, we'll clear all this away and have dancing, those of us who are up for it.

    When and where else am I ever going to have an opportunity to act like this much of a kid again?

    Earlier in the day, me, Steve Bees, Raven G., Joanna, and Eddie were all sort of huddled together, working our collective way through a bag of nuts. We had a variety of nut-crackers, but none of them were working very well, and nuts kept escaping, slipping out of the crackers and popping up into the air and rolling away. We'd have to chase after them, not always with much success.

    "This is why chocolates are inherently better," asserted Eddie. "They're easier to eat."
    "Chocolate has to be processed, too," I pointed out. "It's just that we don't have to process them."
    "Exactly. The processing makes them better. That's why processed foods are called 'value-added products.'"
    "But don't you think this, with the nuts, is more fun?" said Raven.
    "I can think of more fun things to do with nuts," asserted Joanna.
    "Well, there is peanut butter," suggested Steve Bees.
    "I wasn't talking about food," clarified Joanna.
    "Neither was I," Steve replied.
    "Ew," said Raven, "Steve, I don't want to think about you and peanut butter."
    "What?" he protested. "Anybody on campus can talk openly about their bodies and sexual practices, but when I make one little crack, I get 'ew'?"
    "I don't want to think bout your crack, either," said Raven, and just then the English walnut she was trying to open squeezed right out of the nut-cracker, shot straight up into the air, and fell, knocking over her hot chocolate. We all scrambled to get the spill cleaned up before it could stain anything.
    "You'll shoot your eye out," sing-songed Joanna.

    Alien Steve, the new Nora, and Evie, who is one of this year's one-hit wonders, we clustered beside us, and they jumped up to help deal with the chocolate spill, too.

    "Merry Yule," said Alien Steve to Steve Bees, as we sat down again. The two Steves shook hands. Apparently they hadn't yet gotten a chance to interact today.
    "Merry Yule to you, too," added Steve Bees, addressing Nora. "Those were some pancakes."
    "Thanks. I think using yogurt, instead of milk, made a big difference."
    "Well, something did. Yogurt, huh? Could I have the recipe?"
    "Sure. I think it's still pinned up in the kitchen."
    "How are you liking Yule?" Steve asked."You and Evie." Both Nora and Evie are yearlings.
    "It's not new for me," asserted Evie. "I've been Wiccan for years. I like how you do it here, though."
    "I like it," said Nora. "I didn't expect to."
    "Why not?" I asked.
    "Well, frankly I thought it would distract from the birth of Jesus. A fake Christmas."
    "Historically speaking, it's the other way around," asserted Eddie.
    "Yes, I know. Everyone keeps telling me."

    "I didn't know you were Christian," said Steve Bees.
    "You never asked. But I'm not very Christian. I don't know. I shouldn't have worried about it. Maybe I'm just getting more sensitive because I feel like I'm the only Christian here."
    "But you're not."
    "I know."
    "You know, sometimes Yule here feels more like Christmas to me than Christmas does?" said Steve. "It's like Christmas when I was a little kid."
    "I feel the same way," I said.
    "I don't," interjected Alien Steve, who is Jewish.
    "Does this feel like Hanukah?" I asked.
    "Of course. It is Hanukah. I don't know what you all mean about the feeling of this or that holiday. This is Hanukah, therefore, this is how Hanuka feels."
    "How's your Hanuka going, then," asked Eddie.
    "Oh, fine, fine.
    "What you get?"

    For answer, Alien Steve pulled something out of his gift bag and put it on his head, wearing an expression as though he really did not deserve such ridiculous indignity. It was a head-band with alien-type antennae on it. We all laughed.

    "You totally had that coming, though," said Eddie.
    "Did not. I take my identity very seriously. It's not a joke."
    "It's because you take it so seriously that it is a joke," I told him.
    "Your identity, my sexuality," commiserated the other Steve. "Nobody gives us any respect."
    "I could make some comments," said the alien.
    "But you won't, because I'm better at making comments than you are," warned Eddie. Alien Steve threw up one hand in a gesture of resignation.

    Steve Bees and Raven made a run for more chocolate and brought back a handful of candy canes to share.

    "Now, these are easy," said Eddie, sucking on the straight end of a candy cane, and we all giggled. He looked at his candy cane a moment with an odd expression. "Not everything I do or say is a sex joke, you know," he said.
    "We know," said Raven. "If it were, we wouldn't be able to tease you."
    "Just tease back," suggested Joanna.

    "I've been wondering," said Steve Bees, "If Yule is like Christmas for children, what is Yule for grown-ups? Wicca isn't more childlike than Christianity, is it?"

    "Maybe only children still notice the important part of the holiday," suggested Evie.
    "Maybe the grown-up part is what you have to be a grown-up to notice?" suggested Eddie.

    Last night, when we started our Yule party (and lit three Hanukah candles), it was raining, not hard, but it was a cold, spitting rain, and I worried we were going to have another wet walk up the mountain. By the time we all headed out, though, the rain was over and the sky clear and full of stars. The air had gotten very cold and I could feel the ground crunching under my feet, but in the moonless dark I thought I was feeling frozen grass, or maybe a little slush.

    Then we got to the top of the mountain, all silent, and waited, shivering, for the dawn and the music of the hidden masters. And when the sun lifted clear of the horizon, it did so all golden and clear and glowing, shining out on a world covered in...snow!

    Everything was white, all the ground, covered with about a half inch to an inch, all the shrubs and the twigs and branches of the trees and the windward side of all the tree trunks, all painted white with clinging snow and ice, the whole world golden and white spreading as far as we could see out over the hills and ridges to the horizon.

    And that's when we came back down to campus and had the snowball fight.