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.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


I have described Yule on campus, and it is true that Yule, not Christmas, was the major winter holiday for the school as a whole. Many of us did celebrate Christmas, but most of us did so off campus with our families. Most of the people on campus over Christmas itself were there precisely because they did not celebrate the holiday. Yet, there were some exceptions, and that first year I was one of them. I celebrated Christmas at school.

I was curious, mostly, plus my brother, recently married, had decided to take his wife on a cruise, so it wasn't as though Christmas at home would be exactly as I remembered it, either. And I suppose that, at twenty, I was eager to prove I was really out on my own now. In later years I went home for the holiday, but at least I got my curiosity satisfied.

My parents had sent me a Christmas care package, though we planned to exchange gifts in person later. There were five or six of us who planned to celebrate together and they had care packages, too. Our plan was to have breakfast together and open our packages and exchange Christmas cards with each other. We'd also decided to give presents among ourselves, but limited to gifts that we'd made, already had, or that cost less than five dollars. We knew of nothing official scheduled, and I think we expected that by the end of the day we'd feel pretty lonely and sad. It didn't end up that way.

 On Christmas Eve I went to the midnight service in town. I was a little late--almost late for the service--because biking in the dark down the narrow road proved a little sketchy and I walked part of the way. I'd picked the UU church, and was not surprised to see Allen and his family there. He seemed a bit surprised to see me, but then I was not a regular attendee and I knew he was. He invited me to sit with them and was friendly with me, but it was the slightly distracted friendliness teachers often have when they see students out of context. I took my place on the pew next to Alexis, the littlest of Allen's kids. I don't know if she recognized me, but she obviously knew I was friends with her father and therefor an ok adult.

"I'm staying up till MIDNIGHT!" she told me, with no preamble.

"You're staying up later than that," her father corrected her, gently, "it's almost midnight now. The service goes until at least one. See my watch?" He was still explaining the mysteries of clock time when the service started. Over his bent head I made eye contact with Lo, Allen's wife, and she smiled her fondness of him.

The service was a bit different than the Methodist Christmas service I grew up with, but familiar enough, and the sermon was interesting. I forget now what it was about, but I remember that I thought about it for a few days. I felt a bit strange attending a ceremony in street clothes, like I should have been wearing my school uniform. And I felt a second strangeness after noticing the first. Increasingly I was feeling as though things on campus were normal and everything else was unreal. I glanced over at Allen; he wore a jacket and tie and seemed comfortable in them, but then he never looked right in school uniforms anyway. We were standing to sing while I thought these things and Alexis stood on the pew and sang along. She knew all the words, I noticed, except some words she clearly did not understand and mangled cutely. Oh, come all lee faithful, joyful and tri-umpant. Here father held her hand.

It must have been almost three in the morning before I got to bed, but I was up again at eight, ready to open presents...and to my surprise, there were some. I went down stares to the Great Hall and found that someone--I never found out who--had hung candy-canes and red and green Hershey's kisses on the tree; the kisses were speared through with loops of wire so they could hang. Someone had set out trays of doughnuts and bowls of oranges. The oranges were as rare a treat as the doughnuts, since usually all our fruit was local. There was coffee and hot cocoa waiting. And there were presents. Besides the ones we got for each other, I mean. Each of us who celebrated Christmas had a little bag with our name on it and inside was some small but perfect thing, all of them either inexpensive or probably used. I got a nice pair of binoculars. They were a little beat-up looking, but worked perfectly. Andy got a booklet on local scenic bicycling routes. Ollie got a deck of playing cards and an odd little set of magnetized marbles. And so on. It was more than just getting stuff; it was knowing that someone obviously really knew each of us, knew and cared, that warmed the heart. But who? None of us had done it, and a few of us got presents that were perfect in ways none of the other students could have known. Had Santa been here? Had one or another of the Masters--or, perhaps all of them--organized this? It is true that they often seemed to know more about us than we had ever told them.

Either way, it was fun--and accurate--to consider the presents the result of magic.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Happy Yule!

Yule is not the same as Christmas. Instead, it is a European pagan holiday on or around the winter solstice that merged with Christmas when Northern Europe was Christianized. Modern Wiccans and some others celebrate it on the winter solstice as a distinct holiday. It is basically all those parts of Christmas that don't really have anything to do with Jesus. I had known pagans celebrated Solstice before I got to the school, because I'd had some Wiccan friends in high school, but we never talked about religion much, and they always called it Solstice, at least when they talked with me. So I didn't know Yule meant something specific besides Christmas until I got to campus and I celebrated it for the first time. I've always celebrated it afterwards, and I still celebrate Christmas, too. With the baby coming, my wife and I are going to have to figure out how to have family traditions that make some kind of cohesive sense.

Anyway, there were only maybe twenty of us on campus the day before Yule, since a lot of the people who had stayed on campus after Samhain had gone home for the holidays. I was a little surprised, because we'd been encouraged to be there for Yule, but I was also kind of glad. We had a little Yule dinner around the beautiful old table in the Great Hall dining room and we all fit around it. Kit and Greg both joined us for dinner and helped cook, and they sat at the head and foot of the table like parents--which was strange, as I was not used to thinking of Kit in maternal terms and I had never really connected with Greg. But I liked it. Yule night, I should say, is the night before the sunrise of Yule, not the night after.

After dinner, more people started to arrive. Kit's husband came in, along with a lot of students and a couple graduates. I think we'd swelled to at least forty people before ten o'clock and a full party got going. There were trays of candies and cakes, a lot of alcohol, and dancing. Kit and her musician-friends formed a kind of band whose composition kept changing as one or more members got up to dance and someone else sat down. I was a bit surprised that none of the other Masters appeared, but this party seemed to be mostly a student-thing. It got pretty raucous and it just didn't stop. Around three in the morning I realized we were going to dance the sun up, but I turned out to be wrong.

By five I noticed that Kit was no longer part of the party. I didn't know when she had left. Things were starting to calm down, and I thought maybe she'd gone to bed. I was getting tired myself, and I had to remember that Kit was past forty. One of the older students called us all together and suggested we all climb the mountain to watch the sun come up. Greg would stay behind and watch over the oak logs and bayberry candles that still burned. The only thing was, we had to be utterly silent, not say anything until the sun actually came up. I knew a ritual activity when I heard one, I think we all did, so nearly all of us put on a couple of extra layers, pulled on our boots, grabbed foam pads to sit on, and walked out into the crusty, early-season snow.

We had flashlights, and it is hard to get lost in such a bit group, so hiking in the dark wasn't bad. It was strange not talking, though, moving with such a large crowd in the dark and hearing their breathing, their footfalls in the leaves and the snow, and nobody talking. We climbed to the top of the ridge behind the school to a lookout area where the trees had been cleared to give us a view almost straight down the valley to the east. By that time there was a definite glimmer of dawn; the eastern half of the sky was a luminous blue, with the ghosts of grey clouds just visible here and there. We all settled down to wait.

And heard music.

Someone, somewhere behind us, was playing "Here Comes the Sun" on a tin whistle.

Charlie! I looked around, but could not see him in the gloom under the trees. He finished the song and immediately began it again and this time, after the first few bars, was joined by a guitar. That had to be Allen. I hadn't seen him in weeks. I still couldn't see him, though the air was growing brighter all the time. The song cycled through, over and over, gaining instruments as it went: a violin, a tambourine, and a drum. The masters had all come. It was light enough now that I could probably have seen them if I'd looked, but the dawn was so close I was watching the horizon for the sun. One spot as growing brighter and brighter so that I kept thinking is that the sun? Is that it? Like when you're on an airplane taking off and you wonder if you've left the ground yet until suddenly it's obvious that you have. The sun came up and split the weird pale light of dawn and at that moment the song that had been repeating itself over and over again reached its beginning and it was obvious that we should all sing. Most of us knew the words--I did, I knew all of them.

Sun, sun sun, here it comes! we sang as the sun indeed came. I'd never paid any attention to sunrise before, but now it felt like a victory over darkness, like some sort of achievement. We did it! And when we were done singing we all jumped up and hooted and hollered and hugged like our team had won the Superbowl or something.

And we were completely freezing, having sat in the cold for the better part of an hour. Fortunately, the Masters had not just brought their instruments, they had also brought vast quantities of hot chocolate, cider, and coffee. Kit passed out ginger candies, golden as the sun, and caramels made with cayenne pepper. By the time we all got back down to the Great Hall, breakfast had appeared and so had dozens of other people, including the "sprouts," the children and nieces and nephews of the masters, all playing with new toys and eating cookies and candy. The almost monastic quiet of campus in winter was gone. I'd been up for over twenty-four hours at that point and was pretty fried, but I was also twenty, so I just kept going.  Not everyone did. Greg had gone to bed just after breakfast. I think the noise bothered him some, he wasn't a very outgoing person, and he was by no means young. Most of the masters fell asleep on the couches for at least a few minutes, and some took naps. Around noon, we found Kit curled up asleep under the Yule tree and her husband picked her up and carried her off to bed like a child. It was very sweet. I don't think she was exactly sober at that point, and she didn't wake up except to wrap her arms around her husband's neck, smiling. I wished I could have offered to help carry her, but of course I could not. It was years before I even admitted to her I'd seen her looking so cute and vulnerable. She would have been mortified.

Happy Yule, everyone.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Busiest Winter Vacation Ever

I have previously written of my winter on campus as a very low-key and relaxing thing, and I do remember it that way; when I remember winter at school, the first image that comes to mind is myself seated by the wood stove in the Great Hall reading a book. Or, sometimes I imagine walking in the woods with Rick and the smell of the snow. I remember it as a very relaxing thing. But at the time, I actually felt very busy...the difference, I suppose, is that in retrospect I know that I got all my work done on time, so the memory is missing the anxiety that I felt when I was actually reading all those books and taking those walks.

As I've said, Charlie spent most of the winter living on campus, but I hardly ever saw him. He was actively avoiding students, resting from a long season of being almost constantly available.  If I did spot him, he would usually just wave and walk on without speaking. Before disappearing, though, he gave me two assignments.

First, he gave me a list of books to read--twenty of them, I think. I had to write short reviews of all of them and an essay when I was done. The process was quite similar to some independent study structures I've heard of--I believe Goddard uses something similar--except with those structures the whole point is to allow the student to design his or her own syllabus, whereas Charlie simply assigned me books he thought I should read. It worked out to about one and a half books a week, but I am a fast reader and Charlie knew it. I had to be done before classes started in March. He did not just give me titles, though. He actually gave me the books out of his personal collection. I'd get five at a time from Sharon at the front desk and then return them to her when I was done. Within a day or two he would have dropped off the next batch for me. I went through everything from the Bhagevad Gita to Sand Country Almanac that winter, all the books that I had correctly guessed Charlie considered spiritual texts when I'd looked at his bookshelves so many months before.

But Charlie had not just read and reread those books; he had also written in them. He was one of those people who likes to talk back to books, writing responses to the author as though the author would be able to read and respond to them. I've never seen the point of such notations. My parents taught me never to write in or damage a book, and I've never gotten over that injunction. But I'm glad Charlie had the habit. He never mentioned his notations, but he did seem insistent that I read those copies specifically, so I'm sure he meant for me to see his writing. The thing is, Charlie was not giving me information so much as showing me how to think in a certain way. It's not that he wanted me to have the same thoughts as himself, but thinking is an action, and he was giving me his thoughts to copy so that I could learn how to use certain parts of my mind better. Kit gave her dance students exercises to work on for the same reason. Charlie never told me that's what he was doing, and at that point in my life I was still so passive that I don't think I really noticed how dictatorial he was really being until much later. But I did read his notations and his reactions to the books shaped my own. The notes were rarely complete messages, and they were not always legible. His handwriting was not bad, but he sometimes read outside on his balcony until his hands were numb and stiff from cold. Other times he had a lot to say and wrote very small, curving his lines this way and that to take advantage of any remaining space on the page. Sometimes a note would consist of only a word or two;
 "says YOU!"
"Oh, yeah? Well, what about Fouts?"
 Or sometimes just an exclamation point. Sometimes I could see evidence of evolving ideas, where some flippant rejection would be crossed out and replaced by "oh, of course. I see." And I'd spend the rest of the day trying to figure out what it was he'd seen.

The other assignment was to learn how to track. Rick taught me. Rick had learned some of his tracking skills from Charlie, but he'd also had other teachers and was a true master. Snow is not necessary for tracking, and I can now track well without it, but snow catches very clear sign and is a good way to start, so after every snow that winter, Rick took me out and worked with me. By the time Spring came, I could teach the basic tracking workshops myself--a good thing, too, as Charlie's annual spring cold kept him from doing it.

Looking back, I was so busy...but it was not the same kind of busy that threatens me now. Now, I've got five or six balls in the air at any time, and there is always more that I'd like to do than time in which to do things. I know people who have it worse. But no matter how much of my time way occupied those years at the school, there was never any question that it was possible for me to get everything done if I applied myself. And there was nothing at all that I had to do other than school work and doing my cleaning chores. My life had a unity to it that I miss and that I associate with youth. I think some part of that unity was what Charlie was after, though, he and the others who wear the Green Ring.

Just a month or so now to when I restart this blog at its new address.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


My last post was completely ridiculous. Obviously I was upset, and I wasn't prepared for it, so I gave vent to my upset in public. As a writer, such naked prose is embarrassing, but there is no reason for me to make an indiscretion worse by being equally confessional about my embarrassment. No, the reason I bring this up at all is that Charlie would not approve of my anger at cancer itself. He would ask what sets cancer apart from any other sometimes deadly illness. He would know that my anger is not so much with cancer but with death, and death, as he often said in one way or another, is necessary. If individuals did not die, the cycle of matter through ecosystems would stop. Life depends on the occasional ending of lives, and it was to life that Charlie always directed his loyalty--and mine. It is not that he did not grieve if he lost somebody--it was not that he did not want things for himself and his friends. It was that underneath that personal wanting was an awareness of something larger, and he did not confuse not getting what he wanted--however precious or valid the desire--with a violation of some law of the universe. Charlie would not be angry at cancer now. As his student--and, in a sense, his biographer--I am responsible for representing him accurately, and to you, who know nothing else of me, I represent him in my person. That's the job I signed up for. That's what I will continue to do.

I just realized this is the first major holiday where I cannot describe how we celebrated it at school. Thanksgiving, I mean. The reason is simple; we did not celebrate Thanksgiving on campus at all. We all went home, or, at least I always did, and I think everybody else did, too. Eventually I learned there was a tradition where if anybody didn't have a family to go to someone else would bring them home for the holiday. That first Thanksgiving I just went home to my parents for a few days. I'd been home a few times since starting home, but usually my big brother would be gone or something else would be going on. I think Thanksgiving was the first time since I'd moved out that we all spent several days together. It was nice.

But as was starting to happen more and more often, I felt slightly out of sync with the rest of my family. The reason, this time, was almost silly and certainly trivial; everyone else was excited about turkey, but I'd just had some a few weeks earlier before the end of the semester. We ate a lot of meat on campus towards the end of the year, just as we were largely vegetarian at the beginning of the year. In addition to the animals we raised ourselves, Charlie and some of his students hunted. I'm not sure how legal this was, since I don't recall any attention paid to hunting seasons or licenses--campus was always a world unto itself, and most people behaved as though it was outside of the jurisdiction of the mundane world outside. My first year or so, mostly the hunters were Rick and Charlie, and they brought in everything from woodchucks and squirrels to deer. Anything of any size they gave to the dining hall, but a single wild turkey was not a meal for everybody; campus usually needed three, for everyone to get some. So if Charlie killed just one turkey at a time, it was given instead to one of the dorms. You guessed a number between one and one hundred, and maybe got a turkey for Friday dorm dinner. My dorm had won right before Samhain. We roasted it and served it with roasted vegetables from the farm.

I suppose that turkey's flock-mates were angry about it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Off on a Tangent.

I was listening to "This American Life" today, and what I heard has been on my mind all day.

"This American Life," in case you are not aware of it, is a radio program on NPR. I've become a fan in recent years. They do long-form documentary-type stories, usually two to three in an hour. They vary from funny to heartbreaking to frankly disturbing, sometimes within the same story, but always with some central quality of which comedy and tragedy are simply alternate expressions...heart, I think I'd call it.

Anyway, this one episode today I'd classify as merely interesting except for the train of thought it triggered in me that has been with me, as I said, all day.

I was doing the dishes and not really listening when someone said something about being interested in "secret knowledge." My ears perked up and I turned off the water to listen, because secret knowledge is, in some sense, the heart of magic. We used to talk about this a lot at school, what magic is and why one thing is called magic and another isn't. I won't go into the details now, except to say that this is one of those questions that is productive, if you are interested in such things. I later went online to get the podcast so I could listen to the whole show from the beginning. Here is the link for the podcast, in case you want to listen to it yourself;

Here is the synopsis--spoiler alert, I'm going to have to give away the ending.

A professor of music read about a man who claimed to have cured cancer using some sort of device. The man had long ago been discredited as a quack, but the music professor thought the device might have actually worked, so he built one and found that it did kill certain kinds of cells. He teamed up with a friend of his, a cancer researcher, to test the device on cancer cells and captured impressive pictures and video of leukemia cells and pancreatic cancer cells dying--this was all in petri dishes or something, not in an actual patient. The machine plus chemotherapy drugs killed a lot more cancer than the drugs alone. But the results were not consistent and there were some problems about test design and eventually the two men argued and stopped working together.

The thing that struck me at first was the music professor saying he was attracted to "secret knowledge, things people don't know, or maybe people used to know and have forgotten." This attraction to what nobody else knows is the attraction of conspiracy theories, but it is also the attraction of the occult. Much of occult literature these days is actually mostly secrecy (or, rather, secrecy on display, as it is published) with very little secret inside it; the romance and glamor of magic is the hidden meaning, the secret  sigil, the arcane languages and powerful practices that only the initiates know. That is what attracted this music teacher to the work of a supposed quack, the thought that here was a special something that not everybody had access to--a powerful secret that could change the world. As some of you may know, cancer is very difficult to treat, and the two most powerful treatments for inoperable cancers, radiation and chemotherapy, both cause almost as much illness as the cancer does. In fact, both can cause cancer. The idea behind aggressive cancer treatment today is still mostly that you poison the patient and hope his cancer dies before the rest of him does. A machine that kills cancer cells--only cancer cells--would be a miracle. It would be magic.

But whether the anti-cancer machine really works or not, the secret language understandable only by initiates really does exist, and the music professor isn't an initiate of this secret society. It's called science. I am an initiate; I have a master's degree in conservation biology. So I heard this researcher on the radio explaining why he couldn't accept the anti-cancer machine as proven...and I heard him correctly, as he meant to be heard. Let me see if I can explain this briefly.

Strange things happen all the time, and they happen for all sorts of reasons. Cells are born, they change, and they die, and often no one knows why. There may be no reason. But we humans like reason and we see it even where it isn't there. Once, when I was nine years old a buddy of mine and I were riding our bikes past my house. I thought it was weird to be riding past my own house and not stop, though I'd done it hundreds of times before. But just as I thought that this orange cat ran out into the street in front of me and startled me. I fell right off my bike and hurt myself badly and it's completely illogical, but from that day to this I have avoided passing my own house without stopping if I possibly can. I'll go around the block, if I have to. On some level, I believe that passing my house caused the accident. And we're all like that. We see patterns that aren't there. What science is--science is a way of telling the difference between patterns that are there and patterns that are not there. It isn't enough to watch the cancer cells dying, just like it isn't enough that I felt myself fall off my bike. Both incontrovertibly happened. But so what? Stuff  happens. And without the scientific process, you can't tell the difference between stuff just happening and the evidence of a new and real pattern. You can't tell the difference between signal and noise.

And that's what the researcher meant; he was excited about the possibility of curing cancer, but to him, the videos of dying cancer weren't proof. Since the experiments had not been done properly, there was no way to know if he was looking at the equivalent of my nine-year-old's superstition, an emotionally powerful illusion, or the next big breakthrough. But the music professor, being an initiate of something else entirely, didn't hear it that way. To him, the effectiveness of the machine was the obvious thing, and his friend's insistence on more study was only a demand for more proof with which to convince the skeptical. He was discouraged by what felt like an unreasonable demand for more of what he already had. Science isn't secret in the sense that nobody is allowed to tell; scientists spend their whole lives trying to tell. But in becoming a scientist you gain the ability to see things a different way--and you often lose the ability to see things in the old way. Initiates of different societies, the two men failed to understand each other and they fought and their partnership died.

But I can see it both ways, because before I trained as a scientist I trained as a...shaman might be the best term. Charlie had no word for what he was, and he gave no word to me. And science was for me a part of that larger thing, that greater initiation offered to me by Kit, the music professor and miracle-maker;Allen, the psychologist and master of illusion; Joy, the healer, Greg, the Buddhist alchemist; Karen, who taught me that every time you fall down you learn more and get stronger...and Charlie. We didn't all agree or even necessarily all like each other, but that was precisely the point. And we made something together. They made something and gave it to the world. And these two guys, the ones on the radio show, didn't have that thing and so they fought and their partnership died.

And they never said on the radio show when these events happened. It might have been many years ago now. That means that, were it not for that argument, there might be a cure for pancreatic cancer today. I'm sorry, I don't usually use this language, but I'm in no mood today for perspective.

Fuck cancer.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


It's strange how November does not seem very different than October did. The trees are bare now, and both Sandy and the election are in the past rather than the future, but basically my life goes on as before. I work, I eat, I sleep, and I watch my wife gradually wax like the moon. At school there was such a dramatic difference, because classes were over for the year and so many people went away. And I remember, mostly, it being dark. It couldn't have been dark all the time, of course, but that's what I remember, especially from that first November on campus. Just playing chess, reading, or studying by the woodstove in the Great Hall while outside it was dark and cold enclosing night. I'd finished an academic year; in just over two months, I'd cease to be a yearling. I'd be able to quit zazen, if I wanted to. I'd probably have to quit group therapy, since the new students would have first dibs on the limited space. I'd probably be able to quit my job as a janitor and go work for Charlie--I forgot to say earlier, but one of the reasons I didn't apply to the groundskeeping team to begin with was that Charlie gave first consideration to second-years. In any case, there was this gap in the year, a time of quiet, a time to think about the future and the past. I didn't even have Charlie around telling me what to do. He was on campus, for he had no other home, but I hardly ever saw him. He spent most of his time in the woods, I think, resting from his year of being available to others. The Masters actually had a secret stairwell so they could come in and go up to their rooms without the students crossing paths with them. Despite having been a janitor, I didn't find out about that stairwell until later, though sometimes we heard one or another of them taking their secret way behind the walls. Most of us just assumed the Mansion was haunted, an added romance to the place.

Why do I persist in thinking my life should follow the same rhythms it did in the past? I don't wake up surprised to be married, surprised to be making a living, or surprised to be thirty-two years old. Why do I catch myself continually surprised that I am not on campus? Maybe it's just that I've been working on this blog that my mind goes wandering and gets lost in time.

I'm really looking forward to the next phase of this blog, when I start telling this story in the detail I should have used from the beginning. Of course, writing that will probably make me even more discombobulated, but I do not write this account just for me. It is a duty I owe. I remember, years ago--it wasn't my first year, I think I was actually getting ready to graduate, I complained to Charlie that I didn't think I had found myself yet. Charlie typically sought sarcasm at such moments.

"I didn't know you had lost yourself," he deadpanned. "You should try looking in the mirror."

I ignored him and explained that I'd always thought that going to college--especially attending a pagan seminary--I would "find myself," whatever that was supposed to mean. But however much I'd learned and changed over the years, one thing hadn't changed. I still felt unimportant to myself, insubstantial. I'd always felt that way. I'd always been more or less happy, more or less popular, more or less successful at everything I did--except regular college, which I failed, but of course that was different. Leaving that place didn't feel like a failure anymore, it felt like a brilliant and miraculous success. But I'd always felt like that guy no one could ever quite remember. What's-his-name. I'd thought that would change when I grew up. It hadn't. Charlie thought for a moment.

"Tell me, then, what have you found, if you have not found yourself?" he asked.

"Other people," I answered, without hesitation. "You, Rick, Ollie, Kit, Allen, my other friends...the land here. I'm not sure I ever loved anything before. But I love this place." He nodded.

"Yes, that was the idea. Daniel, did you know most spiritual practitioners actually spend years and years trying to lose themselves?" I shook my head. Of course I had heard about surrendering the ego, letting go of the little self in order to find the big Self, that sort of thing. But I'd never connected that to my persistent sense of having no clear idea what I wanted or what I was good for.  Charlie continued. "Spiritual enlightenment, for lack of a better term, is not about changing yourself. It's certainly not about becoming perfect. You're already perfect, because God made you. It's about lightening up on yourself, on who you are, and finding a way to be useful anyway."

"How do I be useful, then?" I asked. But Charlie said he didn't know. Only I could find my work. "But I feel," I protested, "like I'm just watching life go by. That's what I've always done." It was this secret despair, the same feeling that had brought me to the seminary years earlier. And from the bottom at that despair I hoped, and half expected, that Charlie could work some magic and fix me. But even wizards, even geniuses, are just men.

"You watch life go by and you write about it," Charlie corrected me.  "And maybe that's what you should do. Maybe think of becoming clear, like a crystal? Like a lens that focuses light, without imposing any blemish or distortion of its own."

"How?" I asked.

"Knock," Charlie answered. "Knock and keep knocking. This isn't something you do on your own. You get ready and you knock. Throw yourself at the door, and keep throwing. And if God sees fit to show up, God will answer you."

Charlie hardly ever mentioned God. Half the time, I thought he was an atheist. When he did mention God, it was always important, and something in his voice was nonnegotiable, unquestionable. And in the end, it was Charlie who gave me my charge, telling me that, should anything happen, I was free to write his story. He's not the only one who asked me to be Chronicler, but he was the first.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Twelve Years Ago

Huh. So Obama won, among many other items of current news. This blog is not political per se, so I don't want to get into my opinion of any of these races or ballot measures...I do have opinions. I vote, and I was modestly active this time around, contributing my money and my time to various causes, but that is not my point, here.

My point is that I'm remembering that twelve years ago, my first year at the school, was also an election year. And it's a very visceral memory, for some reason.

As I said, most of the campus closed down November 1st and a lot of the students and staff left campus for the break. I stayed on campus, because I didn't have anywhere else to go besides my parents' house, and I didn't feel like living with my parents for three months. They lived pretty close by, so I could do short visits whenever I wanted to. We cooked in the Great Hall kitchen, or in our dorms, did chores around campus, and read a lot. A few people did make-up work from courses they had failed earlier in the year.

And I had not paid a whole lot of attention to the election. I had just turned twenty, so I suppose I was not in the habit of electoral politics, and anyway campus was so much a separate world. We did not watch TV, and rarely listened to the radio or went online. It's not that we didn't have access to information, but we weren't constantly listening to the talking heads or watching campaign adds. All those things you think you absorb by osmosis--which movies are coming out, which brands are cool, which news stories are important--it turns out you don't get any of that if you don't watch TV. There is, instead, a great, restful, silence. And I wasn't used to reaching beyond that yet, either. I had just turned twenty. I was used to whatever I needed to deal with simply imposing itself on me, through teachers, parents, or the ever-present media. It takes time to adapt to change. So I'd registered and I'd voted, but I didn't have a huge investment in the results. I went to bed that night as normal, mildly surprised that there was no winner yet. The next morning I got up, meditated, brushed my teeth and so forth, and went down to the Great Hall and toasted a bagel on the woodstove. And I picked up the paper. And there was no president yet.

You remember what happened next, I'm sure; weeks of arguing and uncertainty over hanging and dimpled chads and finally the Supreme Court and President George W. Bush. For most of that time--that whole administration--I was aware of politics only intermittently, as though I had gone to another country. I was distracted by my school work, certainly. I have had to learn to be involved.

And I have learned. But to this day, when I think of election returns, I also think of the taste of bagels.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Happy Samhain, everyone!

Though I admit is is a bit creepy to be celebrating the Day of the Dead right after such a frighteningly dangerous hurricane. It makes honoring the dead seem very real. We are ok here, though there are some areas in our town that flooded...I don't want to say too much and give away clues as to where I am. For various reasons, I do not want the places I talk about to be easy to find. There are things I want to talk about today, to continue my narrative, but before I get into that let me just say that I hope all my readers are ok, and that those who are not ok (whether they read my blog or not!) are in my thoughts and prayers.

So, back to my story...or my continuing information-dump, as it has become. I've decided to continue as I have begun until late January or so, when my second attempt at this blog will begin as a true narrative, showing you, not telling you, what the school was like. But in the mean-time those of you who have been reading me get a sneak-peak, as it were, of this world I am trying to describe. And along the way you'll get tidbits that probably won't be in the next version, like the Moon Man post, or the fact that this year Samhain is poignant for me in a way that next year probably won't be. I'm not going to go into detail (it's private), but the second year after a do I put this? It's the beginning of it being normal that the person is gone. Samhain was always a big deal on campus, just as it is for Wiccans--one of the few holidays where campus as a whole agreed with its Wiccan plurality--and it is a big deal for us, yet. We got together last night, everyone who could make it, and went through the old ceremony complete with party. Kayla's boy and a couple of the other sprouts and their friends held me for ransom and were duly paid off with candy, and it made me feel a bit better.

Samhain (which is pronounced "Sah-when") was always a big deal on campus, as I said. It is the Day of the Dead, from Celtic tradition (the Mexican Day of the Dead is a mixture of Aztec and Celtic tradition via the Catholic Church), which sounds creepy, like zombies, or something, but is actually warm and kind of goofy in mood, at least it always was with us. It doesn't have a lot to do with Halloween anymore, except for sharing the date. But Samhain was also the end of our school year; we had a long winter break instead of a summer break, so that we could shut down most of the buildings in the coldest weather and not have to heat them. Samhain to Brigit, only the Mansion stayed open and those of us who stayed the winter cooked in our dorms or in the small kitchen off the Great Hall. Except for Brigit itself, the Chapel Building stayed closed until Ostara. Time to think and time to plan, and time for the Masters to go off and be ordinary people again, if they wanted to be, instead of witches and wizards.

Celtic sabbats, like Jewish holidays, start at sundown the previous day, or at least so said Kit. I haven't encountered anyone else who says it, but it makes sense given that a lot of our mainstream holidays have an "eve" to them. Any little kid knows Christmas starts on Christmas Eve, and Halloween itself is All Hallows Eve, the night leading into All Saints Day. So as the sun set on Halloween my first year on campus and I got ready to head to the Chapel, I looked out the window of my friend's dorm-room and saw the campus was becoming a sea of stars. The little lamps lining the streets and paths of campus might have been Jack-O-Lanterns, and at first I thought they were, but Sarah would not hold with growing food with the intention of wasting it, and Charlie would not hold with buying hundreds of pumpkins from off campus as mere decoration. So there were very few carved pumpkins around, and instead campus glowed with hundreds of tea-lights floating in wooden bowls borrowed from the Dining Hall. Sheafs of spent corn stalks graced every doorway, and tables of whole pumpkins, squashes, beats, apples, and dried seedheads of dozens of plants had replaced all the flower arrangements and window-boxes that had adorned campus all through the growing season. Walking over the the Chapel I passed dozens of people I knew, but I noticed they were all adults; I knew the sprouts and even some of their friends had come on campus earlier in the day, and I couldn't figure out where they had all gone. "Sprout," in case I haven't explained, is our term for a child associated with the school in some way, usually relatives of Masters.

The ceremony started the same way the one at Brigit did, except there was an extra row of seats in the audience. We sat in cold candlelight as the Masters filed in, chanting, holding their candles, which this time were already lit. They put their candles on the stage and then everyone except Greg and Allen left the stage and joined us in the audience. Greg held a candle, Allen did not. Greg had been the Head of the Master's Group for two years, and now it was Allen's turn, so after a short speech calling the ceremony to order, Greg handed the candle to Allen and formally transferred leadership status. We all clapped. That's all the hierarchy the Masters had, just the Head. They did most things by consensus.

The ceremony itself was kind of short. Allen acted as MC, introducing other people as they came up to do their part. Greg read aloud a list of people being memorialized, mostly friends and relatives of community members (anyone was allowed to add a name to the list in the days leading up to Samhain). I recognized a few names of cultural "ancestors," too, and later I learned to recognize more such names. Edward Abby, Jacques Cousteau, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, it was an eclectic list. Three names, I later learned, belonged to Masters who had died while working for the school. Two, a male couple who had helped found the Masters' Group, had died together in a car crash in the mid-eighties. The third man had been disabled by a stroke and lived on in semi-retirement on campus for several years before finally dying of pneumonia. I don't know how many people in the chapel that day had known those three when they were alive--some had, most had not--but the memorial ceremony insured they would not be forgotten. After the reading of the list, three people got up, one by one, to eulogize people who had died within the past year. And then things got a little silly.

Kit, who had the best voice on campus, lead us in a song. I'd never heard it before, but I've since learned it was adapted by a song written by a folk group called "Schooner Fare." The chorus of the original goes like this;

Hats off to old folks, wherever they may be,
cause they have the best hopes for you and for me.
I stand up for old folks, so you'll hear me say my
hat's off to old folks, and I hope I'll be one someday.

What Kit taught us switched the word "dead" for "old," and "I know" for "I hope."

My hat's off to dead folks and I know I'll be one some day.

One after another, half a dozen or so people stood up and sang a verse, each one celebrating the life of someone who had died. Then we'd sing the chorus and then there'd be another verse. I think us yearlings all felt a little uncomfortable with the song, at first, I mean hats off to dead folks? It's hardly reverential and it's certainly not euphemistic. But with each verse we loosened up a bit until by the end of it I, at least, meant every word. I stand up for dead folks. My hat's off to them. Seriously.

I'd only ever really lost one person at that point, my great aunt, who had died several years earlier. She was very old so it hadn't been a surprise, and I'd liked her, but I hadn't known her very well. She didn't live near us when I was growing up. But listening to that song got me thinking about who she was, what she'd wanted, and what she'd done. I made up my mind to ask my Mom about Aunt Ida next chance I got. We'd lost cats and dogs, too, when I was little, but I'd stopped counting those when Aunt Ida died, because it seemed childish to think of those as losses, too. But I remember I'd cried when my little black and white kitten died, when I was seven. Charlie, I knew, kept a photograph of a dog, framed in silver, on his desk in his room. He obviously did not have a dog now. If Charlie could count a dog as important enough for a framed photograph when, so far as I knew, he kept no images of humans, maybe I should start remembering my kitten again. Some of the people around me in the audience were crying openly while others were laughing, and a lot of people were doing both at once. Finally, the ceremony ended; all the candles (except for the ones on the walls) were snuffed out but one, the one Allen had, and he solemnly returned it to somewhere in the next room. The others stayed with us. All around the walls of the Chapel room were posters celebrating the lives of the people the community was memorializing, and some of us spent some time looking at them before heading out to the fire pit. Allen had told us there would be food there. That there would also be a bonfire and songs and stories and merriment went without saying. The posters would be up for the following day, until we closed the building. On my way out I heard something that sounded like a struggle of some sort, but everyone around me ignored it, so I did, too.

When we collected at the fire pit there was indeed plenty of food set out on tables, plus hot chocolate and cider, both hard and sweet, and a couple of people already had out their guitars and drums. And then someone said that Allen was missing.

And he was. It was odd, because everyone else was there, even Greg, who rarely went to parties, and Sarah, who was usually uncomfortable with things pagan, though she liked parties in a general way. Everyone was there, but Allen was conspicuously missing.

A small figure, either a woman or a boy, it was hard to tell which, strode suddenly into the clearing. It wore a homemade costume, vaguely pirate-ish, and carried a plastic sword and a very real lit torch. In the torchlight I could see it had a black patch over one eye and a bandana tied around the head, covering the lower half of the face. I did not know what was going on, but the older students and the faculty acted as though the figure were armed and dangerous. When it spoke, the voice was high and strange, deliberately disguised.

"We have stolen Allen! We have him! He is our prisoner, and you will never see him again if you do not do what we say! We are in charge, now!"

The figure was a child, and in a moment I had figured out who he must be; it was Allen's own son, one of the missing sprouts. Of course it was a prank of some kind, but the use of Allen's first name struck me as more of a violation of the ordinary than the charade of threat. Of course, Allen's kids called him Dad or Daddy, but all the other sprouts always called him Dr. Allen. The school community was not quite egalitarian, and while none of us called the Masters "professor," or anything like that, the children were not allowed to be so assertive. All adults were Ms. Mr. or Dr. to them. Except on Samhain.

The masters and some of the students begged and pleaded. They melodramatically groveled, but they could not make the boy relent. The ransom would have to be paid, and it must be paid in candy. The begging and the pleading was an act, and the child knew it, but the bargaining was obviously very real and in the end the sprouts got far more than I had expected them to get; nearly five pounds of candy each ("only the good kinds!"), plus a couple of glow-in-the-dark toy swords, three jars of jam, and a promise that this year they would all be allowed to have sleepovers on school nights, as long as the guest went to the same school and everyone stayed caught up on homework. Then they returned Allen, bringing him into the circle flanked by costumed guards of ridiculously small size but fearsome mien. He'd been treated fairly roughly, it seemed, bound and gagged and face-painted like a clown. The booty was exchanged for the prisoner and the miscreants cheered and ran, taking their treasure with them. Allen could not untie himself, so we helped him, but predictably as soon as his gag was off he started laughing.

"You taught them to tie knots this year, didn't you?" he accused Charlie, "I really couldn't get out." Charlie protested his innocence, but he had in fact taught a knot-tying course at the summer camp.

"At least they've learned to paint faces properly," Charlie pointed out. "Last year they used my sister's make-up."

"What is going on?" I asked the student standing next to me.

"Trick or treat," he explained. "They do this every year, kidnap one of the Masters, or sometimes a senior student. Last year it was Charlie. Twenty years ago it was the Masters' own idea. The Six set the rules, said how far they could go, instigated the whole thing. Since then it's been passed from kid to kid and none of them know the game was invented by grown-ups anymore. They bring their friends. When you see them again, remember to pretend you don't know who did it."

"Do they know we can recognize them?" I asked.

"The older ones do--it's sort of like Santa Claus, I guess. But them being in charge for one night isn't a charade--you saw Allen, he really couldn't get loose on his own. And twenty kids against one man, he probably couldn't have resisted capture without seriously hurting them. He really was at their mercy."

Trick or treat!

Thursday, October 25, 2012


So, what seems to be evolving is that while I make plans for the second iteration of this story, this first one is sort of sputtering. Again it has been a month between posts. I can tell you that the next version will almost certainly be hosted by Wordpress, will update twice a week, and will include pictures. I have no photographs of my time at the school, and though I could probably find some photos, I'd rather illustrate with my own drawings and paintings. I did several watercolors at the time, and I can do other illustrations from memory. A picture is worth a thousand words, as anyone who has ever tried to describe a picture knows.

Anyway, in the meantime, I will tell you a little more of the school and try to post more often. I'll also be busy preparing for next year, since with the baby coming I might really appreciate having some of the work done ahead. I've got my fingers crossed for a baby who likes the sound of typing, though. I'll get so much done, up typing with a crying baby at three AM.

I think I've told you that Charlie was a landscaper--he had a landscaping company before he started working for the school, and he was also the head groundskeeper on campus. When I think of the word "landscaping" I normally think of a sort of ornamental horticulture; shrub boarders along foundations, flower beds, that sort of thing. And of course, Charlie did that and he taught me to do it. I work summers with a landscaper now, to supplement my writing and teaching income, and we do foundation shrubs and flower beds. But Charlie as a landscaper also had an opportunity that people working on small suburban lots really don't have; campus was about two hundred acres, including the farm fields and the woodlot, and on those acres Charlie could quite literally create a landscape. I have not described campus much, and that suddenly seems like a serious oversight, given that land's relationship to my teacher and, by extension, to me.

He did not start from nothing, of course; a landscape existed before he got there. It was, as I understand it, the overgrown remnants of a well-manicured boy's boarding school, St. Something Or Other. The campus had been abandoned five or ten years, and part of what Charlie did was simply selective acceptance of overgrowth. The lawns mostly became miniature grasslands, maintained by the grazing of sheep and goats, but the young seeding maples that had begun invading the edges he protected, doubling the width of the stately sugar maple line that marched its way along the main entrance road. In some cases he deliberately planted, like the dogwoods he added down by the pond. In some cases he cut and in some cases he cut, added, and allowed, all at once.

Lines of trees must have been a big thing for whoever landscaped St. Something Or Other. There were the sugar maple lines flanking the main entrance, white oaks flanking the secondary entrance, red maples in a line near the dining hall, and Norway spruces forming a kind of three sided box maybe three hundred feet on a side, between the Mansion and the second entrance way on the far side. The fourth wall of that box was formed by a smaller, narrow box, the formal gardens, a rectangle defined by venerable arbor vitae. Charlie kept the formal gardens, gradually trading out the grass for mosses and the exotics for natives, except for one Chinese dogwood that Charlie had planted himself, in honor of his mother when she died. He got rid of the Norway spruce lines.

Norway spruces are strange and graceful trees. You've probably seen them, dark green spires with rows of thin twigs hanging straight down from the swooping branches like dark green dredlocks. That first winter I saw the remaining Norway spruces lifting in the dark, snowy wind, a lonely, wolfish sight, and I bet those lines must have been something when they were intact. But Charlie did not like exotics, nor did he like lines. As he put it, a single line of trees does not do much except get in the way. So he felled a third of the spruces, blowing out irregular holes in the line, and then planted a second line, this time of white pine, behind the surviving spruces. He used live Christmas trees, eight or ten years old, and filled in around them with eastern hemlock, both black and yellow birch, and more arbor vitae. The pines had a head start and the ones near the gaps grew fast. By the time I came to campus, the lines were gone; in their place were irregular wooded strips, maybe thirty to fifty feet wide, the dark conifer greens lit up by the yellow of the birches in the fall. The pines had grown old enough so they looked like trees to my eyes, ten inches in diameter, some of them.

That first summer I was there, Charlie and a few of his buddies took down half of the remaining spruces, the latest iteration of a plan begun twenty years before. The man sculpted in trees and thought in decades.

I remember that was the first year I took Charlie's chainsaw safety course. He taught it on campus with a buddy of his from the Forest Service, and a lot of senior students interested in forestry or trail maintenance took the course for certification. I'd learned to use a chainsaw from my Dad, but I had a hunch I'd learned it wrong and I wanted to learn it right. Anyway, Charlie was teaching it, and since I never knew when he was going to say something remarkable, I tried to take as many of his workshops and classes as I could. Part of the practice work we did in that class was to cut up the spruce branches for fire wood for the outdoor fire pit, so that class and those spruces are united in my mind. The trunk sections Charlie sold to a buddy of his who makes custom furniture.

I remember the class mostly consisted of watching videos, some required by the Forest Service, others that Charlie simply liked. One was a kind of good logger/bad logger comparison featuring one guy who did everything right and another who did everything wrong, and ends up felling a tree on himself. The bad logger was called Charlie, so the last words of the video were "remember, don't be a Charlie." The coincidence of the name struck us all as funny, especially since Charlie, our Charlie, was so unimpeacheably competent at so much. If he ever made mistakes he did it in private, and he did not encourage questioning of his skill. So we had a lot of laughs, not quite at his expense, over that video and its unbelievably incompetent antihero.

When the video was done, Charlie walked to the front of the room to eject the tape. He was dressed kind of oddly. There were outsiders in the class as well, so we weren't wearing school uniforms, and Charlie always did look strange dressed in normal clothing. But we'd all dressed like sawyers in long sleeves and work pants, on his insistence, whereas he was wearing loose shorts and a tank top. He took out the tape and did a strange thing. Turning to us, he pulled up one of the legs of his shorts as high as he could and there, on his thigh up near his groin, on skin so pale I doubt it had sunlight in decades, was a series of long, ropey scars. The muscle on either side of the scars puckered oddly in a way I have since seen only on some war veterans. It means the muscle had once been severed. I'd already taken the wilderness first aid course that summer, and I knew where the femoral artery passes and how quickly life can flow out of that artery when it is cut. Charlie had, some time in his past, almost cut his own leg off. He'd come within an inch or so of dying. He offered no explanation. With Charlie, you could expect a clear and thorough explanation of anything in the world except Charlie and we had learned not to ask.

"You're never too smart to be dumb," he told us. "Don't be a Charlie."

Friday, September 28, 2012


Has it really been nearly a month since I posted? While anyone who read the last post will understand why I’ve been distracted this time, this project deserves better. There are other things about this blog I am not happy with, and so I have come to a decision; I am going to start over this winter. I am going to write this the way I intended to originally, as though it were happening to me now. That way you will find out about the school as I did, a little at a time, through people and events and doings. I will probably use a different website for the new version of the project—I will let you know when I get the details sorted out. In the meantime, I will keep you posted.

The fall equinox has just passed. The associated holiday is called Mabon, and I still celebrate it, as I celebrate all of these holidays, in my own way. “In my own way,” this year turned out to be a party. I don’t live very far from the old campus, and there’s a bunch of us in the area who get together every so often. This weekend, we had a party, two dozen or so former students and staff. We all brought food, plus there was a good bit of alcohol, and someone brought a guitar. We sang and danced for a while, and then most of us ended up outside around a fire, wrapped up in blankets and telling stories about the past. I’m not sure what, other than the weather and the hard cider, really counted as seasonal or holiday-related, but we’re all used to doing something special on the equinox. I’m not sure how to explain it. Holidays and other cultural traditions seem arbitrary from the outside, and so they are, but they don’t feel arbitrary from the inside. They feel like a fact of nature, a kind of emotional gravity well. Imagine moving to a new country where they don’t celebrate Christmas. Even if you are not Christian, even if you don’t celebrate the holiday yourself, it might seem kind of odd to treat December 25th like just another ordinary day. For me, the world outside of campus has become a new country.  I was born here, in the ordinary world, but I feel like an immigrant in my own land. I’ve either gained a home or lost one, I can’t tell which. I party on certain days because I do not want old habits to die. Not yet.

On campus we celebrated the Equinox in a variety of ways; it wasn’t a major campus holiday (it did not mark a semester break), and there were a couple of events but not everyone participated in them.  One thing pretty much all of us did was what we called a “thank you gathering.” We made a big circle—close to seventy people—and took turns handing each other a ball of yarn and thanking each other.  You unrolled the yarn as you went, so once you had thanked someone—and you could thank them for anything, large or small—you remained linked by a length of yarn. Then the person who got thanked had the yarn and could use it to thank someone else. Eventually there was a web of yarn tangling everybody together. A kid (it was Allen’s son) was in charge of adding new balls of yarn as the old one ran out and he also ferried the ball of yarn from one person to another so we didn’t get tangled in the web. He could run around under the yarn, if we lifted up the web for him. It sounds hokey, but it ended up being really fun. We used a lot of yarn, but I found out later it was from the weaver who made most of our clothing and all of our wool blankets and rugs. It was the yarn that had come out wrong, spun all lumpy and irregular, mostly by trainees, over the course of a year.

It sounds a bit hokey, but actually it was a lot of fun. We were outside, and the weather was gorgeous, crisp and blue, with the trees just beginning to turn but most of them still green, and people goofing around with the yarn or dancing a bit to no music anyone else could hear, or laughing at the stories being told about why this or that person was grateful to someone else…sometimes someone told a serious story, or handed the yarn over with only a hug, too moved for words, and we all grew still.
Something about making a point of expressing gratitude makes a person think op more things to be grateful for. I’d never noticed, particularly, how much I appreciated what the people of campus, masters and students, did.  It was like the feelings moved along inside me when I wasn’t noticing, but for once I noticed them, really noticed all these awesome people I’d landed among. I’d also never known how much other people appreciated me. I don’t think much about myself—you notice I’ve been writing this for months now and you hardly know anything about me—and I sometimes forget that of course other people do think about me, for better or worse. It’s not that I thought people didn’t like me, but I was really touched to find out I actually mattered to some people. It was a warm, fuzzy feeling we wove, along with the yarn that day.

Afterwards, we did not untangle the yarn but we wrapped up the web into a big ball. I asked what it would be used for—I’d noticed that hardly anything on campus was ever just thrown out—and one of the senior students told me it would be used to kindle the fire on Brigid. I remembered the candle light on Brigid, and the ceremony of the candles, when I lit Kit’s candle from my own back when I didn’t know her at all, and it struck me that the light we gave the faculty members so they could light the room for us was actually this gratitude of the community, shining. And it struck me, too, that the candlelight of Brigid was only eight months in the past. I’d only been eight months at the school. It felt like I’d been there forever.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Moon Man

Neil Armstrong died this past week, and now there is a full moon. I keep thinking about it. The moon is a big deal for a lot of people I met through school--it's a big deal to me, though I find it easier to talk about what it means to other people, people who are more overtly religious than I am. When you don't have a religion to talk about, all you have is spirituality, the deeply personal, the hard to explain.

I'm going to be thirty-one years old this coming month. I obviously don't remember a moon without Neil Armstrong's footprint on it. Not that I can see the print, but I know about it. I've always known about it. My first memory of the moon, in fact, is of my Dad telling me about how astronauts had walked on it. I had a picture book all about it. I wonder what it was like to look up and see a moon that nobody had ever walked on, and then see that change.

I know people who wish it had never happened. For them, the moon is the Goddess, period, and the thought of the moon also being a planetary body of rock and dust seems disturbing. Even Kit, who does not object to the moon landing, tends to ignore it. She looks up and sees the Lady. She does not see men's footprints there.

I know other people who wish humans would go back to the moon, who see our failure to go back as a failure of human spirit. I don't know what to think.

Tonight, I went out to my garden, our garden, at the house my wife and I rent. We're allowed to do all our own landscaping, and we've done a little backyard habitat, like Charlie taught me. But we also have a moon garden. It's mostly natives, but it's all pale plants and white flowers, or flowers that open at night, for moths. There's a bird-bath in the middle, and I go out there sometimes, to think. I take out my athame, the one Kit gave me, and I look at the moon reflected in the water, and I pray. Or I get as close as I get to prayer, anyway. Tonight I prayed for Neil Armstrong.

And I prayed for my wife and our baby, the one she thinks we're going to have. We don't know for sure yet. We weren't planning for this, we weren't trying, but we weren't trying not to, either. Imagine; our own little astronaut, swimming weightless in my wife's sea.

We're all exploring a new world, every day.

The moon was significant for Charlie, too, though he never explained what he saw when he looked at it. He never explained much about himself, and I never asked. There's a lot about his story I never knew, and probably never will, now. But he did sometimes tell me snippets, little hints, about who he was, and he once told me about his first AA meeting, and how he got sober. He never told me about his drinking, and he told me very little about his sobriety, but he told me how one became the other.

It was back when the Master's Group was still just six friends,three of whom owned a house together, and the students, or those people who eventually evolved into students, would crash out in the basement, studying, doing yoga or sometimes drugs, wondering what, exactly, enlightenment was. There were six then as there are six now, but nobody from back then is left. I've only ever met one of them. Charlie was friends with them, and worked as a landscaper and arborist.

I don't know how or why, but Charlie got in trouble. He lost his apartment--that's how he said it, "lost," like he misplaced it somehow. He asked his friends if he could stay with them for a while, and they said yes--if he went to one AA meeting first. I'll try to put the story in Charlie's own words.

"If they'd said I had to get sober I would have ignored them. I'd have slept on a park bench. I didn't need their sanctimonious shit, telling me what to do...not when they had half a dozen kids getting stoned every night in their basement. But they just said I had to go to one meeting. Just one meeting. I figured, what the hell, I've done worse things for rent. I slept through half the meeting, but when it was over, I got up, walked outside to where all the reformed drunks were standing around, smoking and gabbing...and as I came out from under the eves of the building, the light of the fill moon fell on my face. And I knew I'd never drink again. I asked Jim--he took me to the meeting--to help me get into rehab. He did. And I went."

I asked Charlie then why he went to rehab, why he bothered attending AA meetings at all, if he knew from that moment that he'd never drink again. And he looked at me the way you'd look at some little kid who had just said something irrelevant.

"Daniel," he said to me, "when God speaks, you don't ask those kinds of questions."

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Philosopher's Stone Soup

So, I said I'd tell you about Philosopher's Stone Soup. It went pretty much all year round, except for the winter break, but I only got my act in gear to join it over the summer, so my first and lasting impression of it was of summertime, when we cooked and ate outside, our talk punctuated by the tickle of grass and the long summer shadows, our food seasoned with the scent of citronella candles and environmentally-friendly bug spray.

Philosopher's Stone Soup was a weekly potluck run by Allen and Kit, or, at least Kit was usually there. I'm not sure she was doing much running (she had her own extra-curricular activity, a free-form jam session for the school's many musicians). Except, for most potlucks you're supposed to bring prepared dishes, but for Stone Soup you had to bring ingredients. You could bring anything you wanted, as long as you could get it edible within twenty minutes (no whole frozen turkeys, for example). People would bring flour, zucchini, blueberries, lillies (they're edible), cookies, squirrel meat, and pretty much anything else you could think of.We'd figure out some way to make a single meal out of it. Usually the idea was Allen's; he was a phenomenal cook. Then we'd make the meal, and then over dinner Allen would ask what we wanted to talk about.

It was always a trick question, because whatever subject we brought up he would pick it apart. He was the philosopher of Philosopher's Stone Soup. He'd start out asking clarifying questions and gently pointing out inconsistencies and logical errors, and he'd keep right on going until he had thoroughly demonstrated than we did not know what we were talking about. We put up with this for two reasons. First, we knew what he was doing. You hear about the Socratic Method as though the point of all the questions is to finally arrive at some kind of knowledge, but that isn't what Socrates did, and that isn't what Allen did. Instead, you ended up at the very limits of knowledge. Allen used his sharp mind first to cut through all our assumptions and mental sloppinesses, and then he kept on cutting, kept on pressing us, chasing us out along the edges of what we knew and were sure of, until....

I've read that there was once a culture where they would hold contests on how to define God. First one team would offer a definition, then the other team would offer a better definition, and they would keep going until eventually one of the teams wouldn't be able to respond, wouldn't be able to define God any better. And in that silence of not knowing was God.

Not that we didn't get frustrated with Allen sometimes, but it was impossible to be angry with him, because he was such a cut-up. And that was the other reason we kept coming back. Once, I did get at least half angry and actually called him an eel. I would never, never in a million years, have called one of my teachers names at any other school, but then this school wasn't like any other. Allen just laughed. I think he actually laughed so hard he sprayed out a mouthful of wine, but I might be making that part up. It's hard to remember. But he did laugh.

"One of Socrates' friends said something similar," he said when he could speak. "Called him a torpedo-fish, which is the same thing as an electric eel. Really, I'm honored." He snorted again with laughter. We were all laughing, too. It was infectious, his laugh.

"What did Socrates do, when his friend called him a torpedo-fish?" I asked, trying to get a hold of myself.

"Told him to stop flirting with him," Allen replied.

"I'm not flir--" I burst out, indignant, and everybody erupted in laughter again. Except that Allen fixed me with his incisive gaze and, very calmly, asked me how I knew I was not flirting with him. Then he busted up laughing again. Allen is the only man I have ever known who could do a dead-on perfect imitation of himself.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I could have titled this post "Lammas," the name refers to the same holiday, and it is easier to pronounce and to spell, but we almost always used Lughnasadh on campus. It's August 1st.

Lughnasadh was not a big deal for most of us, although we did have that day off from classes--the summer semester ended the day before, and there was a break of a few days before the fall semester began. There was also a big lunch that Sarah used to more or less show off the farm. I can't remember if I've said so before or not, but we ate very well on campus. We ate strangely, because there were almost no foods that weren't local (coffee and chocolate were both exceptions), and either in season or dried or canned. We had no refrigeration on campus, either, and some things, like eggs and milk, were rationed. That all doesn't sound very good, it sounds like deprivation, but we actually always got enough--there just was no room to waste. And everything we did eat tasted fantastic, and a lot of that was Sarah's doing. Every vegetable of hers I ate was always the best one of that kind of vegetable I'd ever had. On that first Lughnasadh, I remember I was eating stuffed squash, and I don't even usually like squash. There was a big party tent set up outside, in case of rain, I suppose, because we ate out on the meadow near the Dinning Hall, just eating and talking. It went on for hours. Some people brought guitars or juggled, or just sat around and read. One girl, Amanda, took a nap under a table.

The masters left the party early, and they did not all leave at the same time. The only reason I noticed was that I watch people (I’m a writer), and I happened to be watching Greg when he left. I’d been watching him much of the afternoon, because I was surprised he was there; Greg did not usually attend community events if he didn’t have to, though today he seemed to be in an unusually good mood, joking and laughing with some of his friends. Then he left. I was watching the door to the tent, thinking, when Alan left. Odd. Were they going somewhere together? I knew they got along, but Greg seemed so separate from the others, it seemed strange to think of him making plans with somebody. I decided to look around and see who else had left, and I noticed Joy was gone, as were both Joes and Chuck, the maintenance man. Obviously the masters were going to do something as a group that we students weren’t supposed to know about. I debated asking one of them directly—a direct question usually got an answer, and the masters sometimes did things mysteriously in order to provoke students into asking. But they also sometimes acted mysteriously for the pleasure of being mysterious, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spoil their fun—or mine.

But I got distracted from any snooping or questioning I might have done that day, because Kit and Sarah started singing. They weren't performing. Maybe they were practicing. They were sitting off by end of the big tent where we'd had our holiday lunch. Sarah was sitting on a tall stool, Kit was standing. She wore, I remember, not the school uniform, but a green dress with mirrors flecks sewn in that set off her hair, just so. Sarah wore a simple, grey skirt she had sewn herself, and she had her hair done up in a yellow bandana. And they sang "I Come to the Garden Alone," Sarah in a sweet soprano, Kit weaving her earthy alto in and among Sarah's tune.

I went over to listen to them--Kit looked at me briefly, nervously, but otherwise they both ignored me, which was fine with me. I would not have thought they were friends, except for those occasional duets. They were both so zealously committed to religions that each excluded the other, not that it had to be that way--Sarah was not the only Christian on campus--but that was how they had both made it. And yet they sang duets. I'd heard they were once close, as students.

Finally, they stopped, embraced, and Kit began to gather her things to leave. Sarah sat down next to me, but she was looking off behind me, watching something. I turned, and saw she was watching Charlie. Here eyes followed him as he gathered his things, spoke briefly to a few people, and left the tent.

"You were his student, weren't you?" I asked. This was common knowledge, but I was being conversational. Also I was being nosy. I wanted to know about the strange, almost but not quite neutral expression on her face as she watched him. She blushed, slightly, but whether it was because she'd been rude enough to completely ignore me (Sarah was usually very conscientious and polite), or because I'd clearly noticed her watching Charlie, I couldn't tell.

"I still am," she told me, quietly.

"Did he always make it so hard to be his student?" He had just made me re-label several dozen trees again, so I was a bit irritated, but Sarah clearly thought I meant his resistance to taking on students to begin with, which was legendary.

"Oh, no. He used to be pretty outgoing, to a fault, if anything. He seemed to think he was God's gift to students. He couldn't wait to teach us."

"Really?" I'd never heard of this. "What happened?"

"If he has not told you, I will not."

"Well, what else was he like? What was he like when you were a candidate?"

"He knew everything, same as he does now," Sarah smiled nostalgically as she spoke. "You know how your parents seem to know everything when you're small? He really did. He made the world seem bigger."

"I guess you're like Alan, then, stuck between him and Kit?" I shouldn't have asked about this, and Sarah shot me a look, but I thought it was common knowledge that Kit and Charlie were more or less allergic to each other. To my surprise, Sarah shook her head.

"It wasn't like that. We were his students together. I found my way to Jesus through him, and she found her Goddess. She admired him as much as I did,"

"What happened?"

"We both grew up, I think," she answered. I must have asked too many questions, though, because Sarah nodded to me in farewell, and abruptly got up and left. It was a self-protective gesture so like Charlie that if I didn't know better I could have sworn she was his daughter.

Monday, July 30, 2012


I twisted my ankle yesterday morning, so I'm laid-up today. I can barely walk. If I don't feel better by tomorrow, I'll head to the doctor. In the meantime, I can't do any of my chores or errands (darn!). I'm pretty much forced to sit here with my feet up and write this thing. As you can see, it's been a while since I wrote--life got in the way again--so it's probably a good thing thing to be forced to get back to it.

Thinking about being forced to do things, I'm reminded of what Charlie said about everybody needing a boogyman. I almost said "what Charlie always said," when in fact he only said it once in my hearing, but the principle was so much a part of our work together. He "made" me work so hard, harder than I would have ever worked on my own initiative--and of course, I could have quit any time I liked. That he made me do things was a fiction the two of us maintained, and a useful one. It's weird, I'd always thought that once I grew up and didn't have to listen to my parents anymore, I'd be free to do whatever I wanted, but somehow I needed Charlie to tell me to do things I wanted to do, or else I couldn't have done them. It's still like that; I write paid articles because my editor makes me, or because my wife needs me to make my share of the rent. Then I quit writing at the end of the day because my wife makes me socialize. Now you, my readers, are making me write this, or the others who wear the green ring are making me do this, maybe even Charlie is making me write this. I sound like such a total wimp.

And yet, if no one cared what I oak tree grows tall because of the shade and constraint of surrounding trees. Its stature is a reaction to gravity and to its hunger for the sun. The tree's strength is in reaction to the challenge of wind, and its biochemical personality is a fight against caterpillars and galls. Things take on shape and identity because context pushes them to do it, a pushing that is at once constraining and receiving. I never thought about this when I was a novice, as we called the undergraduates (the few graduate students were "candidates"). I was nineteen, and as much as I thought of myself as an independent adult, I was still used to obeying teachers and parents. There is a lot I didn't think to question that I need to think about now.

Speaking of being made to do things, I think it was around this time of year that I finally got all the trees on campus labeled. I went to tell Charlie, but he complained that about thirty trees were not labeled. I could have sworn I'd done them, but I went ahead and did them again. Then another group of trees turned up unlabeled. The third time it happened, I grew suspicious, and accused Charlie of removing the labels. I expected him  to either get offended by the accusation or laugh at me for catching him, but instead he treated me like a schoolboy making excuses.

"I don't care why the trees got unlabeled," he growled, "you've got to get them labeled and keep them that way! When I inspect them in the evening, I want to see every tree labeled!" I was about to object that I couldn't possibly make sure they were all labeled if he was unlabeling them during the inspection, when I remembered that Charlie usually looked over the campus in the early morning. That he'd said he'd inspect in the evening was odd. Charlie rarely talked, and when he did talk he was usually very deliberate about what he said. I realized that he was unlabeling the trees in the morning and inspecting in the evening, meaning that I now had to check every tree on campus for its label every day. I would be done when and if Charlie decided to stop unlabeling more trees than I could label in one day. Before walking away, Charlie told me that when I relabeled a tree, I should not just replace the label but go over in my mind the identifying features of the tree. He suggested I greet each tree by name.

Yes, I was angry with him. I think I complained loudly behind his back. I never complained to Charlie; he was doing what I'd asked him to do. By the time he let me finally stop in mid-September, I knew every single tree on campus individually. There were hundreds of them. I knew them better than I knew my fellow students.