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, 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.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Year 4: Part 4: Post 3: Science!

The 4th fell on a Friday in 2003. This is written as though today were the following Monday.-D.

Happy 4th of July.

As has become usual, I all but ignored the holiday and made no attempt to go see fireworks. Greg didn't even do his traditional talk--he put it off until Saturday--because Friday evening is reserved for the dorm dinners. Any day you can eat in your dorm, there's food provided, but Friday is the day actually set aside for us to connect as a group over a meal. We took our food out to the Edge of the World and had a picnic. Afterward, we played Ha-Ha, which consists of lying down in a row, with each person's head resting on the next person's belly, and the first person says "Ha!" then the next person says "Ha! Ha!" and so on, until sooner or later someone cracks up, and then you all laugh. And your head goes up and down with the laughter of whoever's tummy you're lying on.

It was nice.

But I've realized I've gotten almost half-way through the summer semester without describing any of my classes. I have three, not counting Reiki and manifestation, two with Greg and one with Charlie.

The class with Charlie is Science Literature. When I first saw the name, I thought it would be like Literature of the Land, which I took with Charlie last year, or like Earth Science Literacy, which was a required class my first year. It's neither, and the course description made clear it would be neither, but somehow I was still surprised by how much itself the class is.

Charlie had it start with a short skit, acted out by students borrowed from another class.

One student stood in the middle, wearing a lamp-shade on her head. Two other students had a conversation about the Lamp-shade Woman, speculating about what she was and how she worked, asking questions of her, and trying things out. Eventually they worked out that 1) she was an Oracle, 2) that she would provide an oracular reading to anyone who gave her $53,000, and 3) that she was usually wrong.

Then, another person walked up, asked about the lamp-shade, and was told by those in the know that the woman was an Oracle, but not to bother consulting her.

"How dare you dictate what I believe in!" the newcomer exclaimed. "I will resist your tyranny and seek the truth however I see fit!" and he left, arm-in-arm with the Oracle.

"Dude, we were just trying to save you $53,000," one of the others said.

The whole point of the class is to teach us how to read and use the scientific literature so as to avoid acting like the newcomer who went off with Lamp-shade Woman. Charlie says that science is a conversation in which people share and discuss what they know about how the world works. He says that whether we're interested in science as such or not, we need to know what science is and what it does and how to take advantage of it, so we don't mistake intellectual laziness for an openness to truth.

"There is nothing iconoclastic or or occult about not bothering to get up off your bum and find out what other people know."

So, we're reading and summarizing and discussing scientific papers from a variety of disciplines, and each of us has to do a literature review on a chosen subject by the end of the semester--except, instead of actually writing out a formal review, like we'd do if we were scientists in training, we're just supposed to write a summary of our findings and then write out the story of how we found our findings, and share that story with our classmates.

We're doing some writing, too--Charlie gives us descriptions of experiments and data and we have to write it up--but that's just so we can really get a feel for how this type of writing works. He isn't having us do experiments.

"Do, or do not do," he says. "I won't have you pretend to do science."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Year 4: Part 4: Post 2: Magic

The heat is on. Weather, I mean. This is full-on, undoubtedly by anyone’s definition, summer. At night, there are fireflies. In the daytime, we hear cicadas. We shut the Mansion up tight against the heat before we leave to go about our day. By mid-day, the Great Hall is dark and cool and almost deserted.

Almost. Sometimes, when I pass through, I find someone else sitting quietly there in the gloom and sometimes I stop and talk to that person—it’s often Allen. I like having these little, apparently accidental meetings with him.

Today, I saw him sitting there on one of the couches, which had been turned around so it faced outward, away from the fireplace. I almost didn’t see him. Allen can make himself curiously invisible—he’s not literally invisible, but he’s hard to see. Your eyes slide off of him. But today, when my eyes passed over, something tickled my brain and I looked back. He smiled and de-cloaked—I mean, he suddenly became much clearer and more obvious. He was sitting there, petting Greg’s Cat, who got up and ran away the instant Allen became plainly visible.

“How do you do that?” I asked. He laughed.

“How do you see me?” he asked, by way of reply. “You’re getting quite magical yourself.” He patted the space beside him on the couch and I sat next to him. “I’m glad you see me.”

I wasn’t sure whether he meant that he’s glad to be known by me, to whatever extent I actually know him, or that he was glad I’d noticed him that particular moment, like he was glad for the chance to talk with me. Either way, I felt quite touched.

We didn’t actually talk for a bit, though. The room was so dark and quiet and still.

“Can I ask you a question?” I said, finally.

Allen laughed again, a minimal laugh, something between a grunt and a snort, a single huff of laughter. I wish I had more words for the sounds people make when they are pleased or amused.  I glanced over and he raised one eyebrow at me—I’d left myself open to a smart-ass remark so obvious that he wasn’t even bothering to say it. I chuckled and shook my head.

“That thing Ebony does to see that you don’t know about,” I began, meaning her use of cannabis, which Allen certainly does know about. There’s no internal rule of our community against drug use, provided nothing illegal comes on campus, but the masters don’t want to appear to condone it, and there’s a strict rule against using mind-altering substances as part of one’s studies. You can’t use hallucinogens to see spirits, for example. Ebony doesn’t use cannabis to see spirits, but she does use it to see and Allen helped her learn to understand vision. “Why did you make an exception?”

“Why do you think?” Allen almost always answers questions with more questions. “I’m not quizzing you, I really want to know what you think.”

He may be my friend, but his status as one of my teachers is ever-present. He weights different parts of the conversation with his experience and authority very deliberately.

“I think you like her,” I hazarded, “and that you knew she wasn’t going to do any of the stupid things that made us have to have the rule to begin with.”

“Right on both counts, but those aren’t the reasons. I’ll give you a hint; what kind of stupidity do you think required the rule?”

“People using spirituality and magic as an excuse to party and be irresponsible? And I imagine you didn’t want to enable addiction.”

“Half right. Another hint; why do you think people try to use drugs for spirit and magic? Aside from excuses to party, I mean.”

“I don’t know. Maybe for seeing spirits? But that only works for hallucinogens. I don’t know, Allen. Will you tell me?”

“Alright. A lot of people look for spiritual experiences, by which they mean feeling or thinking differently from what they normally do--and drugs will give you that. So will sex, extreme exercise, fasting, whatever. But how you feel is irrelevant. Your experiences, all by themselves, are irrelevant. You blow your mind, then come back to Earth and live exactly as you did before. There's no magic in that. The magic is the process by which you engage with experience, how you actually accomplish change. Drugs are a tool--but they're a very distracting tool, and I doubt if anyone can really use them well without guidance from a teacher, and we have no such teachers here. Except Ebony actually uses a drug to give her an experience that I can teach her how to use. I made an exception for her because she made an exception of me. She is exceptional."

"She is." I could think of no other response, but his explanation was interesting.

"Ok, my turn," announced Allen. I turned to him, expectant. "How's the search for magic going?"

I looked at him, a moment, confused. I didn't think he was asking about my studies with Joy. He waited. Finally, giving me a hint, produced his wand, waved it, and pointed--and when I say "produced," I mean it appeared apparently out of nowhere.

"Harry Potter!" I exclaimed. He nodded.

When I first got here, I'd just read some of the Harry Potter books and they formed my image of what magic, and a magical community looked like. When I talked with Allen a few weeks in about magic and he asked me why I'd come to the school, I'd confessed to him that I wanted to live inside a Harry Potter story. I didn't mean literally, I just meant there was some indescribable quality to those stories that I wanted. He didn't laugh at me. He understood. And, all these years later, he'd remembered.

I thought for a minute.

"I've got it," I told him, quietly. "I mean, I'm doing ok with manifestation with Joy--I think she's going to give me her signature in that area soon, but that's not it. That's interesting, I suppose, but it's not wonder. But when I'm outside and I see could be a little bug, or a bird, or a deer, or a new doesn't happen all the time, but might as well be a unicorn--or a hippogriff, or whatever. Something mythological.And, at the same time, it's so real. More real than anything normally is."

Allen nodded.

"Unicorns were real," he commented*. "They were a species of large, extinct rhinoceros. Magic isn't just real--the real is magic. That's why I'm a rationalist magician."

"The real is magical. Yeah. That's like something Charlie would say. It's like...realler than real, like the world suddenly opens itself up to me and I can see what's actually there, not just any plant or bug or squirrel, but that particular plant or bug or squirrel just...opens itself to me. It's intimate."

I was starting to babble, to repeat myself, and still I felt as though I hadn't quite explained it. And yet Allen nodded.

"That's why you can see me when I'm invisible," he said. 

*That Siberian unicorns shared their habitat with humans is a recent discovery, and hadn't yet happened when Allen and I had this conversation in 2003, but Siberian unicorns themselves were discovered in the 1800s.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Year 4: Part 4: Post 1: Litha

Happy Litha!

This year the holiday went much as it did the last few years—we had a large gathering of the extended community, had a big feast involving mountains of strawberries, the last of the rhubarb, and two roasted pigs (and much else—I do not mean that the menu consisted of fruit and pork alone) and all sat in a giant picnic out on the Central Field to eat and talk and play for hours. The weather was clear and lovely, though a bit cool for June. I don’t mind.

My brother and his family visited again, although my sister wasn’t here this year. My nephew is now the official youngest sprout, toddling around with the others. It’s kind of neat to know that a relative of mine is part of the school community in that way—my own place here feels more solid now, somehow.

Steve Bees had a guest too, I noticed. His girlfriend. I guess they’re getting pretty serious now, since he’s introducing her to the school, letting her in, as it were. Except he didn’t introduce her to me, so I didn’t get to talk to her. I don’t take that personally—there were a lot of people on campus to talk to.

At the end of the day, just before sunset, I climbed the big pine tree I’ve climbed every year except last. I guess it’s becoming part of my personal tradition, to get up in the air that way, to take maximum advantage of the long, fading day. The sunset was gorgeous, and I watched from up there as the crowds started to disperse, a lot of the extra people going home—though most of the sprouts stayed, I saw them in the night, running around and waving sparklers. I watched the lighting bugs come out, the first real big display of the year. And I watched them light The Man, the Burning Man built of phragmites stalks and grape vines and whatever other vegetable sculpting material Charlie wanted sent off to the nether world by fire this month. He is always both practical and spiritual, always.

And I thought about how this is my last year up in this tree, as a novice, watching all this. I plan to come back as a candidate, but you never know. You never know how plans will turn out.