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, 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 something...it could be a little bug, or a bird, or a deer, or a new plant...it doesn't happen all the time, but sometimes...it 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.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Note

Hello,

My post this week may be a few days late, as I don't know if I'll be able to get online tomorrow. Don't worry, we're just planning to go hiking.

-D.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Year 4: Interlude 4

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2016 here,

So, the election is ramping up in the here-and-now. We on campus seldom paid attention to politics, although most of us voted. We discussed the issues with each other over breakfast and we looked up information online and read the newspapers--the Front Office had subscriptions to several local and regional papers--but we didn't watch TV and seldom listened to the radio, so we weren't exposed to campaign adds or the constant psychological pressure of the talking heads repeating every detail of the race.

There were two elections that I remember, during my novitiate, the Presidential election of 2000 and the mid-term election of 2002. There may also have been local elections, but if there were I did not vote in them. The mid-terms were almost as un-dramatic. What I remember of 2000 was not the race or the election but the bizarre morning after the election when we showed up at breakfast, expecting to find out who'd won--even having to wait that long was bizarre--and learned nobody had. We all talked about politics then, for weeks, but once the matter was settled we soon went back to our own business.

When I say "we all," I mean everybody who was on campus at the time. The school year had ended by then, and a lot of people had left. Those were breakfasts we ate in the Great Hall.

Should we have been so isolated? It was nice, in some ways, not to have to worry about the sometimes nasty and contentious would of electoral politics, to act as though the only thing that mattered was the caring community life of the school. Then, too, I think our general feeling was that politics is a private matter that the masters didn't want to influence and we didn't want to argue about. I don't know how most of my fellow students voted, and I knew none of the masters' politics.

Now, I know more, having spoken to many of them on the subject since. Because the thing is, the larger world does matter, and it always did matter. And whatever differences we might have argued about were real, whether we knew about them and acknowledged them or not.

In retrospect, it's really bizarre that we treated politics as more private than religion or sex, that we didn't trust ourselves to deal with the interpersonal issues that political discussion could have caused, that we did not treat the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the democratic process as a worthwhile part of our learning and study.

Why?

We have changed as a community. We are discussing politics now. And we are arguing and we are dealing with it. I think we are a better community for it, but sometimes I miss that feeling of living in a safe little bubble where nothing mattered to us but us.

There are a few aspects of recent posts I could discuss, but I think I'll let them wait until later.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Year 4: Part 3: Post 8: The Difference It Makes

"I have to get arrested," announced Steve Bees at breakfast.

"Rob a bank, that's fairly reliable," suggested Charlie, between bites of scrambled egg. "Don't tell them I sent you."

Steve shook his head, as if shaking away an irritation. He'd been speaking to Greg. Greg smiled at Charlie, briefly. Charlie didn't see him.

"Have you done anything illegal?" asked Greg, with the same kind of dry humor Charlie had used.

Steve tried very hard to not look irritated. Neither master was taking him seriously, which is what they tend to do if they think we're being overly serious or self-important. Steve clung to his composure and persevered.

"No, I have never done anything illegal, that's why I have to get arrested."

"That's not usually how it works," said Greg.

Steve held even more tightly to his composure.

"If you laugh, they might cut you some slack," I suggested.

"Oh, don't you start," he said, but then he did laugh and took a bite of toast. Then he tried explaining himself again, more fully.

"All my life, I've kept myself safe. I've been a good boy, and I've stayed out of trouble. For me to make the kind of difference I want to make--that's going to end. The people I admire--they make enemies, they break unjust laws...and, honestly, I'm afraid. Everything I want for myself, could be jeopardized. So I think I have to get arrested, just to prove to myself that I can. Find a direct-action campaign and join it. What do you think, Greg? Is this a big mistake?"

"I don't know that it's a mistake," said Greg, slowly, "as long as you don't implicate the school, and we can teach you how to be careful there. But civil disobedience is a means to an end. You may be putting the cart before the horse."

Before Steve could reply, Joanna jumped in. She was sitting next to me, eating miso soup.

No, he's not. It's like sex," she announced.

"Well, I hope so!" said Steve, taken aback and laughing.

"No, I mean, it's like having sex for the first time," she clarified. "I mean, if you're gonna have sex, you want it to be for love, for pleasure, for magic, whatever it is. Something big. But the first time is going to be pretty awful, because you're nervous and it's awkward. So there's something to be said for just doing it, getting the first time over with. Save the mind-blowing experience for later."

"Well, I wouldn't know," admitted Greg, who is widely rumored to be a life-long celibate, "but the metaphor sounds reasonable. If you want to engineer a learning experience, just make sure whatever cause you pick is also worth it. Because even your first time can have consequences." He said this with a straight face, in his dry, somewhat prim voice, and the rest of us all smirked and snorted with laughter to hear Greg talking about sex. He normally doesn't. Then he smiled--he was in on the joke.

"So, Steve," said Joanna, "do you have a specific protest in mind? Where are you going to go to lose your political virginity?"

"A gentleman never tells," he replied, with a grin. But then he took his food and moved to another table. Greg followed him a moment later, to continue their conversation away from Joanna's teasing, I suppose. They probably had some important things to discuss relative to Steve's plans to become a criminal. The rest of us scooted over, evening out the gap the two of them left at the table.

"The first time isn't always awful," Joanna said to me, quietly. "Not if you really like the person you're with."

I have no idea why she said that to me. I could think of no response.

We all ate quietly for a bit, but then we started to focus our attention on other conversations. I saw it happen--my ear tuned in to a conversation behind me and at the same time I saw Charlie's attention caught--his eyes focused and he moved his head a little, like a cat when it sees something interesting across the yard. Joanna must have seen his eyes, too, because she turned in her chair to see what he was looking at. She turned back pretty quickly so she wouldn't be caught staring, but I could tell she was still listening.

Usually, we don't pay attention to conversations at other tables, but this one was kind of half-and-half. Dave, a yearling who works in the Dining Hall, had paused in his work to ask Joy and Kit about magic. The two women were sitting directly behind me and Dave had squatted down between the tables so that he didn't tower over them. They had turned in their seats to talk to him, and if I'd turned my seat I would have been right in the middle of the conversation.

Dave apparently was having trouble with using prayer as a magical technique.

"How do I know if anyone is listening?" he asked.

"Try talking," advised Kit. "And if what you say is interesting enough, someone will turn up to listen to you."

"Someone?" queried Dave. "Who? Who or what will listen to me? Does that matter?"

"It matters," said Joy. "To work with an archetype you need a personal relationship with it. And there are ways to choose an archetype that is suited for your particular temperament and magical goals. But which archetype you choose, what your relationship with it is, even what, exactly, an archetype is, whether it's a thought-form or an independent entity, it's really not my place to tell you. That's stuff's personal. It's really all up to you."

"If someone wanted to talk to me," interrupted Charlie, "and believed that whether I actually exist is entirely up to them, that would not work."

Joy laughed at that. Kit frowned.



Monday, May 30, 2016

Year 4: Part 3: Post 7: Memorial

Reminder to readers: this narrative is set 13 years ago, so at the time of this post, the invasion of Iraq had just been prematurely declared successful and the war in Afghanistan was causing a slow but steady trickle of coalition causalities. -D.

Memorial Day is one of those occasions when we don't get time off from classes and we don't have a campus-wide celebration, but Greg does a talk on history and we are all strongly encouraged to attend. This year, though something was different--this year, the US is quite clearly at war.

It's curious how, today, we are both more connected to the outside world than normal and more out-of-step from it. On the one hand, we're talking quite deliberately about current events--politics, news, what's going on in the Middle East and why. There are days when it feels like we're living in a bubble, some idealized Avalon, a world all our own. Today is not one of those days. On the other hand, in the larger world, today is the cultural first day of summer--and we already had that, back on Beltane.

My Dad always has a big outdoor party on or near Memorial Day. As I've said, he's a serious grill-freak, and while he never actually puts his grill away for the season--he's cooked Easter Dinner on it, some years--in the summer he likes to have these parties, with big mountains of meat and even vegetables, for our friends and neighbors. Memorial Day is the first one.

My Mom enjoys the parties, but she disapproves of the way such things take over Memorial Day, distracting from the real reason for the holiday. She disapproves of the commercialization of Christmas and President's Day and all the rest of it, for the same reason. But I've told her that I don't think Memorial Day is really a case of commercialization. I think America is trying to celebrate Beltane, the beginning of summer, and just doesn't have a better day for it. And summer is worth celebrating. She likes that idea and says it may be true.

Anyway, Greg gave his talk this year in the Chapel after dinner--usually he does it outside on the central field, but today it was raining, a light, gentle mist that wouldn't let up.

He told us about the history of the day, like he always does, how it began as a day to decorate the graves of the Civil War dead, and talked some about the different ways people have conceptualized the dead of wars over the years--as heroes and as victims--and about the importance of seeing them as individuals.

"Each is an individual, personal death, and each was an individual life, with his or her own reasons for going to war, embedded in and reflecting the various cultural and historical threads of the time, he said."

All that is about what he's done in previous years. This year he said more. He talked about an individual dead soldier, Lori Piestewa, whose death was made public last month. She was the first American woman to die in combat in Iraq and the first Hopi woman to die in combat abroad. She interested Greg for several reasons, he said--he death was high-profile enough that a fair amount of information about her is available, obviously important if you want to do a talk on something, though Greg isn't sure how much of the information is true.

Second, she was Native American, allowing Greg to talk about the long and complicated history of Native Americans in the US military, a story with some interesting parallels to the history of Japanese-Americans in the US military, a subject obviously close to Greg's heart.

Third, Piestewa was Hopi, and as such largely pacifist, as Greg is. He said he had not been able to find out how she reconciled pacifism with going to war, but he speculated about some possibilities, including the fact that joining the military is often the only option for young people from poor families who want to get ahead. And poverty and race are strongly linked in America.

"Ostensibly," he finished, "the invasion of Iraq has succeeded, the war is complete. And yet fighting continues and there is no sign of the weapons of mass destruction we supposedly went in there to find. The war in Afghanistan continues. In the two wars combined, over 260 American soldiers have died so far--a small number, overall, but there will be more. How many Iraqis? How many Afghanis? We don't know. They won't tell us. Maybe if we pay more attention to these things there will be fewer wars."

And he sat down. Steve Bees stood up.

Paying attention has been a major part of Steve's education, so far. Steve, as I've said, asked Greg to help him build a better awareness of social justice issues, especially the real challenges and concerns of poor people and people of color. He's trying to break through the obliviousness that he says comes with growing up as a white, cis-gendered, straight male. Greg is Buddhist, and as such is very concerned with both awareness and compassion. Apparently that translates into making Steve learn a fantastic amount of historical and anthropological detail--when the Invasion of Iraq began a few months ago, Greg set Steve to learning the geography and history of Iraq as well as studying who joins the US military and why. As Greg says, perhaps if we pay more attention, there will be fewer wars.

Anyway, Steve is also Kit's student. He's been taking voice lessons from Kit and has made a lot of progress over the past year. And so, after Greg was done speaking, Steve sang. He sang a single Don McLean song, a Capella.

And the rain fell like pearls on the leaves of the flowers
Leaving brown, muddy clay where the earth had been dry.
And deep in the trench he waited for hours,
As he held to his rifle and prayed not to die.


The song went on for several verses, simple, vivid, without much overt editorial comment and with very little melody, almost musical talking, rising and rising in intensity and then falling again to the simple, stark last line: he's gone.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Year 4: Part 3: Post 6: Coming Home

Crystal got back to campus today. She's more or less bed-ridden, and limps around on crutches when she does move, but she decided she'd rather convalesce here than at her mother's house. Karen got back at the same time; Crystal's mother dropped both of them off.

I've been back on campus for a week, of course. And of course I'm startled by how much further advanced spring is here than up on the Island. Startled but not surprised, because this happens every year. What does surprise me is how much I missed my spot in the woods.

I mean the one where I spend a night or two a week as per Charlie's assignment.

I've really gotten to know the place. I can identify all the woody plants growing there (except two shrubs that aren't in any of my books but I've given them names anyway) and almost everything that's flowered so far, including all the grasses. I know most of the insects, at least to the point that I can say whether I've seen it before, and I know the sounds and I know the smells. I know what birds are nesting there this week and where the nests are. I know how the weather feels.

The thing is, having been gone for almost two weeks, I've missed things. And it really bothers me to have missed them. I'm interested in this place. I want to know the news.

I like knowing one place this well.

I forgot to explain what happened with looking for my favorite place on the island. After David "abandoned" me to go exploring with his sister, I ended up looking for my favorite place in company with Alexis, who is seven. Of course, hiking around with a seven-year-old was different. She's strong and a willing hiker, but I can't just go hiking all over without thinking about her limitations. I can't just spend all day without botanizing or tracking without thinking about whether she would get bored. I had to figure out how to explain things so they would make sense to her. I'm not saying I had a bad time. Alexis is a great kid. But it was different, different than I expected. And that's probably a good thing.

I covered almost every trail on the Island in those two weeks, with either David or Alexis or, the first few days, Charlie, and most of the coastline, and I never found one spot that stood out as my favorite.

Towards the end of the week I was sitting on a big slab of bedrock on a mountain with Alexis, looking out through a huge bank of wet fog, and she asked me if I'd found my spot yet. I said no. And she said well, why not this spot?

"What, just pick this one?"
"Yeah. I mean, I'm friends with half the girls in my class, right? But they're not any better than the people in any other class. I just know them better, so we can be friends. So get to know this place better. Make it your special place."

I looked at her and wondered if it could be that simple. It didn't really matter at that point, because it was either pick a spot or tell Charlie I'd failed to complete the assignment. So I picked it.

And it worked, emotionally. I'm thinking of that spot now, too--and it bothers me that I don't know when I'm going back there. It's my favorite spot on the islands.

Does that mean that's all there is? Could I just pick any place, any person, and make it my home, my family? Could I have picked any school?

No, I could not have. Some places are special.