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, August 22, 2016

Year 4: Part 5: Post 4: Living on Earth

I've never talked about Dan much, except to insist that he isn't me. We have the same first name, where the same age, and we've both been here three years and counting. But there, I like to insist, the resemblance ends, because he's always putting his foot in his mouth.

Except, I suppose, so am I.

Anyway, over the past several years he's matured into a talented musician. A group of us went to the Great Hall the other night to watch him play. It wasn't an official Event, but it didn't need to be. He just checked to see that nothing else was scheduled and put the word out that he planned to play. Maybe fifty of us showed up, which is enough to make a pretty good crowd in that room, which isn't all that large as performance venues go.

He played the cello and he did it wonderfully, with skill and passion and his longish, black hair flopping all over the place, his face starting to shine with sweat from concentration and effort. I did not recognize most of the songs, and many of them were classical pieces, which I don't normally listen to, but he was really good and it was fun just watching someone I know be talented.

He played for about an hour, and afterwards most of the crowd meandered away, draining slowly out of the room with much chatter and congratulations of Dan, off to do homework or something. A couple of us stayed behind to chat while Dan drank a bottle of water and kind of recovered.

By chance, all of us were part of this year's graduating group. Me and Dan, of course, plus Joanna and Raven G. from our group of yearlings, and Space Alien Steve and Eddie, who are in their third year, and Steve Bees in his second. Plus Jutta, who is a yearling and a one-hit-wonder, as we say.

Her name is pronounced "Yoo ta." It's German. She isn't, except by descent.

Anyway, we all sort of collected on the couches. Jutta was asking Steve why people call him Space Alien, which we used to do behind his back, but then we found out that he knew and didn't mind, so we dropped the pretense.

"Because I used to think I was a space alien," he explained.

"Used to?" I asked. He shrugged.

"Mostly used to," he amended. We all laughed, because of the way he said it.

"What changed?" I asked. This was big news. I mean, I haven't hung out with Alien Steve much since my second winter here, but his alien status was so much a part of him. We used to have these long conversations about it, late into the night, about identity and possibility and the definition of truth. And now he was saying "never mind?"

"Well, I still think I could be one," he said,"and I still feel like an alien, but...I guess I'm not sure the answer's so simple anymore."

"Ok, but I'm still a dude, ok?" put in Eddie, and we all laughed again. Eddie's masculinity was another part of those conversations.

"I don't get what's so simple about space aliens, though," said Raven, and held out her hand for the water bottle so she could have a sip. "You know, I wish we had the stove on so we could make chocolate or tea."

"With wintergreen!" said Eddie, because that's what we drank that winter, wintergreen and chocolate.

"You could start the stove, if you want," said Dan.

"No, she can't," said Joanna. It was almost eighty degrees inside. The day had been hot, and while the evening was cooling outdoors, the Great Hall hadn't caught up yet--not with fifty people and their body heat in it until recently.

"I don't get the part about space aliens at all, honestly," said the other Steve, Steve Bees, who wasn't there for those conversations.

"I've always felt like an alien," explained Alien Steve, "so I just assumed that I was one."

"Literally?" asked Jutta.

"Yes, literally."

"But that's impossible."

"No, it isn't."

"Yes, it is."

"How do you know?"

There followed a long and involved discussion about speed-of-light travel and resource limitations and whether science could legitimately say anything was impossible, anyway. Much shouting and giggling occurred.

"Forget chocolate," said Raven, "you guys need some pot."

"Except evidently we don't," Joanna told her.

"Anyway. Aliens and simplicity," said Raven.

"I feel like an alien so I thought I was one. That's simple."

"Overcoming the speed of light barrier, etc., etc., isn't."

"Yes, it is," Steve told her. "It's not unreasonable to suppose that a discovery we haven't made yet makes interstellar travel feasible. I have no idea if such a discovery is out there to be made, but I can't prove it isn't, and lots of things that used to seem impossible are possible now. Expanding possibilities are an established feature of our reality. But to feel alien and not really be? What does it mean if I can't tell if I'm human or not? Do I belong and not know it? How is that possible? Or am I alien in some other way, and if so, what way? What does it mean to be human? All of that. That's complicated."

"Ok, said Raven."Except I still wish I could get you high."

"I'm going to miss all you people," said the other Steve, Steve Bees. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Year 4: Part 5: Post 3: You Talking to Me?

So I've been reading about animal behavior. And I've been watching animals. And I've been listening to them. And I've been thinking about atypical things.

As you may recall, Charlie called my attention to the atypical some weeks ago, asking me why things out-of-the-ordinary happen. He was asking, of course, so that I would ask, so that I would notice the unusual and wonder about it and look for an answer. I'm pretty sure that's what he was doing, anyway, because that's what's happened as a result of his question, and he's usually pretty good at that sort of thing.

In a way, the question reminds me of something they told us in First Responder class (which is like First Aid, but expanded)--to pay attention to the normal, to be familiar with our own bodies. One of our instructors told the story of a colleague who had been very surprised to find a bump on a patient's ankle, having never noticed before that everybody with ankles has ankle bumps. The same instructor reminded us to ask "is that normal for you?" because what's odd for us might be normal for a patient, and if it's normal, it probably isn't a medical emergency.

The corollary of all of that is that the abnormal should trigger questions.

I told Charlie that atypical things happen because other atypical things happen. I meant that as a general principle, that when something unusual happens, it should be taken as a sign of some prior, but equally unusual cause. Like, a whole bunch of birds mobbing a tree when they usually don't means that something unusual is in the tree, like an owl. I don't think the principle always holds, though. My sense of the usual might be faulty, for example, as was that of the man who did know about ankle bumps. But the unusual is still a good sign that something is happening I don't know about and maybe should.

I'm being really vague, I know. I do have some examples.

The birds mobbing an owl was an example. That was on campus, in one of the elm trees at the corner of the Mansion. Usually it's a cat they're mobbing, but that time it was a barred owl.

A hummingbird I'd seen in the bird-food garden every twenty minutes one rainy Sunday stopped coming just before dinner. It was nowhere near dusk--that was back in June. Later I found her, dead, in the pool of the little waterfall-fountain there. I showed the body to Joy, who said the thought the bird had been stung by a wasp hiding from the rain among the flowers.

I was out in my spot one evening, listening to the crickets from my hammock, and all of a sudden they all stop. Fifteen seconds later, they start again. I never did find out why.

What I've been wondering lately is whether I, myself, am an atypical occurrence. When I'm at my spot in the woods, am I seeing that place as it really normally is, or only as I have made it by arriving? When I hear a squirrel chatter aggressively, as they sometimes do, is the squirrel talking to--or about--me, or is it chattering about some new thing, person or animal or event, that is about to arrive?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Year 4: Part 5: Post 2: Fall Semester

The fall semester’s classes have begun. Or, I supposed I should say “fall quarter,” as there are four of them, or even “quintal,” as there are five parts to the academic year, counting the spring before classes start, but we usually say semester.

Anyway, I have two classes, Healer’s Health, and Geology and History. The former is one of Allen’s. It’s about all the things that often go wrong with the mental health of people in the “helping professions,” like burn-out and codependency, and how to avoid them, recognize them, and do something about them. I never really thought of myself as headed for a “helping profession,” but I needed the credit, and, as Allen has explained, my ability to listen to people is very much something that other people could come to rely on. In one way or another, we’re all becoming priests or priestesses, and we all have to confront and prepare for the vulnerability that involves.

The other class actually focuses less on history the way we normally talk about it (though supposedly they’ll be some of that, too) and more on geology as a kind of history. It’s mostly a close look on the geologic history of our immediate area, how our mountains and valleys and soils and everything were formed. I won’t get into the details of what we’re learning as it would give away where we are. It’s taught by an ally.

Each class has met once so far. The rest of the week I’m either working off campus or I’m working for Charlie’s horticultural team.

The thing is, these are my last two classes as an undergrad—maybe my last two classes here, depending on if and when I return as a candidate. And I have to say they’re anticlimactic, especially the one about geology. I mean, geology is interesting and everything, but it’s not like I’m spending my last semester here hunting horcruxes like Harry Potter.

My first semester here was definitely organized as an introduction. I think all of my classes, at least most of them, actually had “Intro” in their titles. Everybody in those classes was new, and everything was calculated to draw us in, to welcome and induct us, into the school. Now? These just happen to be the classes I’m taking this semester. Most of my classmates aren’t graduating with me. There’s no conclusion.

We do have the Graduating Novice Meetings every month. At the beginning of the year they said they’d give us information this way, but they really haven’t told us much. Instead, they usually ask if anybody has any questions or concerns, we talk about whatever comes up for a few minutes, and then we just all chat for the rest of the time. But it’s been interesting to meet as a group every month, all 34 of us, to really get a sense that we’re all in this together, almost like a team. And it’s an acknowledgement. It’s like, yeah, this year is different for us and, yeah, we are different than the other students and, yes, it’s really happening—we’re going to leave this place soon.

That acknowledgment helps it seem a lot less weird.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Year 4: Part 5: Lammas

Happy Lughnasadh!

I was just re-reading some of my earlier posts and I noticed I called it Lammas my first year, "because it's easier to spell," which makes no sense because clearly I did know how to spell it, because I wrote the longer name, too. So why did I do that? Did I just feel weird about Celtic names and their oddly silent consonants? (The holiday's name is pronounced "Loonasuh," more or less). Whatever it was, I'm apparently over it.

Spices and sprinkles from other languages are common here, technical words from magic, religion, meditation, philosophy, or myth in Irish, Scottish, German, Norwegian, Latin, Welsh, Japanese, and Greek, each introduced by one student or another and flowing together in a weird and highly educated slang.

Anyway, as usual, our Lughnasadh festival was a big feast showcasing everything the farm here can do, plus a kind of low-key open mike. And, as usual, there were a few updates and twists.

This year there was a massive tomato tasting. I don't mean the tomatoes were massive (though some were), I mean that the variety was extraordinary. Five different cherry tomatoes. Four different plum tomatoes. Eight of the big ones that are great for sandwiches. Each variety was available four different ways--fresh and plain, as basic marinara sauce, and as both red and green chutneys. All with saltine crackers so you could dip in and get a bite and sumac tea as a palate cleanser between tastes. We were supposed to taste all them and choose a favorite in each size category for each of the four preparation types--nine favorites in total.

It's hard to keep track of nine different competition standards, so I kept having to taste and re-taste and then taste some more, just to be sure I hadn't confused the flavors and textures in my mind. It was glorious.

They'll grow the winning varieties next year.

The other update was that the open mike turned into a talent show for the masters. It wasn't just them, students performed, too, but every second or third performer was a master, they kept coming up, one after the other. And where last year our teachers seemed careful to avoid steeling our thunder, this year they seemed to be drawing attention to themselves, showing off. I suppose they might as well--if we don't know how good they are, how can we trust them to teach us? And there are still yearlings who haven't chosen all of their masters yet.

Kit, of course, went first. She's the one who most likes showing off for us anyway. I don't think it's vanity or egoism on her part, rather, I think she sees her performance as a gift to us. I hope she never stops thinking that. But usually she sings, and this time she did not. Instead, she danced. I'd never seen her really dance before--outside of class and beyond swaying to music, I mean. She had a student band for accompaniment and she was amazing--graceful and sexy, powerful and controlled, with that snap to her movements that the great dancers have, every limb, every finger in its place, moment by moment.

Joy sang. She couldn't well demonstrate her skill as a vet or as a horse trainer, the stage wasn't big enough, so she had to do something else, and so she sang. I don't remember what songs she chose, none of them struck me as especially important at the time, only that there were three of them and that her voice was low and rich, like Kit's, but without quite as much range. And she was beautiful at it.

Karen did a series of martial arts "forms." A form is a routine, an organized sequence of a given subset of moves of one or another of the arts. Done well, these are as precise as a dance and Karen did them well. When she moved she was a blur of motion, when she paused in her movement the entire world became still and silent.

Greg did, of all things, a comedy routine. I hadn't known he could, and he was very funny.

Allen performed his magic, only the second time that I have seen him do a full show, complete with comic banter and an impeccable black suit and top hat, and a juggling interlude where the number and type of objects he was juggling changed as we watched and nobody could quite figure out how.

Even some of the non-teaching masters performed, though not all of them did. Aaron and his parrot, Ahab, did a wonderful routine in which Ahab said things he shouldn't, stole props, and generally caused havoc, while Aaron played the straight man. Security Joe sang in his oddly feminine-sounding voice (the pitch is masculine, a rich tenor, but the timbre and cadence are feminine and in complete contrast to how Joe speaks). And Malachi brought on one of those rolling blackboards and described some kind of complex mathematical something or other, which he made both lucid (don't ask me to remember it, though) and funny, and if that isn't an impressive mastery, I don't know what is.

I kept expecting Charlie to come on stage and do something--play his tin whistle? Use his chainsaw to sculpt some amazingly lifelike animal? There are so many possibilities, so many things he can do.

But he did nothing. He never took the stage.

Afterwards, after the performances were over but while the feasting itself was in full swing, I watched all the masters leave the party, one by one. This, too, I remember from the past three years. Graduates come on campus and the masters leave the party early and, presumably, they all go do something together. I don't know what they do. I have made no attempt to find out. If and when I win my own green ring, I'll find out then.

In the meantime, I haven't told anyone I know as much as I have. As far as I can tell, I'm the only student who has even noticed as much as I have.

But this time I couldn't help it. Allen happened to be one of the last masters to leave and I happened to be nearby when he fetched his suit jacket and hat and some of his props from a chair.

"Have fun vanishing," I told him in a low voice, and smiled.

He seemed startled at first, then recovered himself and grinned.

"I always do," he told me.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Year 4: Interlude 4

Hi, Daniel 2016 here.

I want to correct a potential misapprehension. When I talk about spending time at my spot in the woods—yes, there were mosquitos. Yes, sometimes it was so hot that I couldn’t stand to be inside my bag, but there were too many mosquitos to be outside my bag. Once I tried to solve the problem by lying on the cool ground with my bag over me, but then I was crawled upon by ants and by slugs. 

After that, when I couldn’t sleep I’d get up and go on long, sometimes moonlit hikes, walking fast so that the mosquitoes couldn’t keep up with me. That was lovely, but the next day I’d be dead tired. Sometimes I heard large animals moving nearby and while they were probably deer, sometimes I’d think they were coyotes or bears and I’d get nervous. Sometimes there were electrical storms and I’d get rather more than nervous. I could have gone inside if I needed to, and sometimes I considered it, but the storms usually blew through quickly enough that by the time I got back to the Mansion the storm would have been over already. My point is that despite my rather idyllic description of the experience in the main text, camping as I did that summer was often uncomfortable and sometimes terrifying.

But I remember it as idyllic. Only when I make an effort, when I focus, do the mosquitoes and everything else come back to me. Otherwise what sticks in my head is the beauty, the interest, the…how do I explain this? There was a sort of a psychological comfort to so wholly and completely doing something I so wholly wanted to do.

Now, what I’ve been wondering as I write these posts—if you’d asked me thirteen years ago how I was liking the assignment, would I have talked about beauty and rightness and psychological comfort, or would I have told you about the mosquitoes? Are my memory and nostalgia playing tricks on me?

As I’ve said, I don’t rely on memory alone to write this blog. I also consult the journal I kept, rather intermittently, in those years, letters I wrote that my friends and family have kept and lent back to me, and the recollections of people I knew back then with whom I have stayed in touch. With these resources I reconstruct an experience whose reality is lost to the past, so you can get a clearer, more colorful feeling for the place than you could if I confined myself only to verifiable facts.

This is fiction more true than reality.

And as far as I can figure out based on all those sources, yes, thirteen years ago I pretty much ignored the mosquitoes.

I was obsessed with all the “good” parts of my experience at my spot in the woods and the unpleasant parts almost immediately came to seem funny or adventurous. A storm would come up in the middle of the night and I’d spend twenty minutes huddled in “lighting position” (a way of curling up that’s supposed to minimize injury in case of a nearby strike) while promising Jesus over and over that if a tree did not blow over on my head that I’d go back to church regularly again, honest. Then the storm would clear out and I’d remember that the whole point of being Christian is that Earthly life isn’t safe so you have to look beyond it, and then by morning I’d feel rather heroic for having bravely survived yet another storm. And anyway, the cool, wet dawn after a big storm always looked so lovely.

The one major thing, the change to my perspective, that advancing time has given me is the awareness that my spot in the woods really felt like mine—and no other place in the world did. I didn’t think of it back then. The feeling was there, but as with much of the rest of my interior life I didn’t pay much attention to it and it didn’t occur to me that there was anything odd or notable about how I felt. 

I never felt like my parents’ house belonged to me. Maybe it’s because we moved there right before I started high school, but in my mind it’s always been my parents’ house—it didn’t belong to me, although I belonged to it, to some extent, and still do. Of course, I didn’t have time to set down emotional roots at my first college, and the school I’ve been writing about has always felt like home, but it’s our home, not mine. Not even my room has really felt like mine because things I might have done if I owned the place—like painting the walls or installing some extra shelves—were against the rules. And I knew living there was temporary. I don’t mean that I felt lonely or emotionally homeless. I didn’t. Nothing was wrong. It just felt like the part of my life where I’d have my own place hadn’t arrived yet.

But nobody else had ever had my little campsite, and probably no one would again. I knew Charlie seldom did exactly the same thing twice—each of his students got our own version of his ideas. Nobody came to my site without my permission, and nobody altered it or did anything to it. And nobody knew as much about it as I did, nor, as far as I know, had anyone ever gotten to know it as thoroughly.

It was mine.

Usually I use these little notes as an opportunity to talk about my life as it is now, or maybe about what’s going on with the community that used to be the school and is becoming it again. But for now, I’ll just leave this note as it is.

Best, D.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Year 4: Part 4: Post 5: Atypical Things

Charlie continues to give me impossible assignments. And I continue to complete them. Virtually all of my assignments, now and over the past several months, relate to my ongoing assignment to spend a night or two outside in the woods every week. I keep a journal, as I’ve said, and I turn it in to Charlie every week. He sends it back with notes and comments (“nice” or “More world, less Daniel,” or, conversely, “where are you in all of this?”). And sometimes, maybe every few weeks, is a new assignment.

Earlier this month, the assignment, written in blue pen at the bottom of my last written-on page, was a simple question: “what is normal”?

I guessed, based on context, that he was asking about typical conditions in the woods at my site. I could answer the question promptly, and wrote up a long journal entry describing the typical sights, sounds, even smells of my place in the woods. I described the bird and insect sounds I’m used to, even though I do not know the names of the sound-makers, the weather, and the way all of it interacts with my feelings and thoughts—like, how it feels first thing in the morning to wake up here.

Charlie taught me to “grow” eyes and ears, to notice things and notice that I am noticing them, and that ability has borne fruit. If you ask me what a normal day in July is like here, I can tell you.

But then, when I turned in my answer, he asked another question; “why does abnormal happen?”
And that stumped me.

I am pretty sure I know what he meant—if the birdsong stops, why did it stop? If a new insect gets going, why didn’t I hear it before? If I wake up and find an unfamiliar footprint in my camp, what caused an unfamiliar being to come through here?

What makes me think this is what Charlie meant is that he can answer these types of questions. I remember, early in my knowing him, when he looked up from our gardening, appeared to listen intently for a few seconds, and then said “there’s a barred owl in the Formal Garden, if you want to go take a look.” And there was. He knew, not because he’d heard the owl, but because he’d heard the other birds mobbing it. And he knew, by knowing which animals could upset those birds in that way, and which of those were likely to be in the Formal Garden at that time of day and year, that a barred owl must be at the center of the mobbing.

At that point in my development, I hadn’t even heard the mobbing until he drew my attention to it
For most people, “a little bird told me” is just a turn of phrase, but for Charlie it is often a literal fact. Chew marks, insect damage, a scent on the breeze—each thing tells him not only the “obvious,” the identity of the thing that left the sign, but also the entire context of its leaving. It’s a little like what you’d see in a Sherlock Holmes story, except this is real, not fiction, and crime doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s just a kind of rootedness he has in the world—because he not only notices the unusual, asks what causes it, and figures it out.

And now he wants me to be able to do it, too.

I thought about it for a week. Then I thought about it for another week. I kept hoping I’d come up with something, some brilliant and impressive feat of intuition, the activation of some knowledge I hadn’t known I had (sometimes I actually can answer questions like that) so I could impress him, but of course nothing materialized.

This morning I gave up. I sent him a note in my book:
“I don’t know what causes an atypical thing to happen, except that it must be another atypical thing. How do I find out?”

I have just received his response:
“Notice atypical things and ask the question.”

He wants me to keep a running log of these questions and any answers I’m able to track down.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Year 4: Part 4: Post 4: World History

Last week I realized I hadn’t talked about my classes this semester at all—so, I talked about one. But I’m taking three. The other two are World History: Asia and World History: India, both with Greg. And, honestly, I wish I wasn’t taking both at once.

When I was a kid, and then in high school, history was mostly presented as a single, long story. The story began in Sumeria or Egypt with the beginning of civilization, moved to Greece, from there to Rome, and from there to northern and Western Europe, and finally to North America. I’m serious, I took several World History classes, starting in elementary school (that was just called History Class, but we did a World History unit), and every single one of them began the story in what is now Iraq. 

Did any of them address anything that happened in Iraq over the more recent 2500 years? Of course not. Sumeria invented cuneiform writing and agriculture and then went on hiatus until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the early 1990’s.

That’s not how Greg tells the story.

When Greg teaches history, the locus of the story doesn’t move. Instead, each area has its own story, from which civilizations come and go, and which is the center of the world from its own, valid perspective.

So, Indian history is all about India, from the earliest records of the Indus Valley civilization down to the present day. Asian history is mostly China and Mongolia, two great cultures twining around each other, the one predominately agricultural and settled, the other predominately pastoral and nomadic.  I mean, that's what the class covers. Asia is a big continent and obviously there are more than two countries in it.

Of course, neither class can do more than touch on the stories and cultures of either place, but it’s more than most of us knew about these places before. And Greg’s primary mission, I think, is to show us what the world looks like with a different center. I mean, all my life “Mongolia” has been a synonym for “strange and far away,” but there are millions of people for whom it is simply “here.”

But I’m taking these two classes at once, so on any given day I have to think, where is the center of the world today? Am I thinking about India, or am I thinking about Asia?

Especially in my first year, but often since then, I’ve found my classes reinforcing each other, commenting on each other, even when the masters in question seldom communicated, as with Charlie and Kit. This is the first time the opposite has happened, where two classes have conflicted. And they are both taught be the same man!

I was thinking about this—what’s it like for Greg? I mean, he’s teaching the two classes, does he ever get confused? Especially since he’s also still teaching all these workshops on Islamic history, and last week there was his talk on the American Revolution and next month there’ll be Hiroshima Day and Nagasaki Day. How does he maintain his focus on so many different centers?

When I first got here, there was a lot of talk about ways in. Athletics could be a way in, art could be a way in, spellwork could be a way in….Well, maybe history can be a way in. And maybe the gap that you actually go through to get in lies between Asia and India.