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, March 27, 2012

Settling in

I was going to jump into my story here, writing as if I were posting about events happening now, but I've decided I need one more post to get everybody up to speed. After all, by the middle of March I'd had a month and a half to get used to the place and learn my way around. You've only had three blog posts!

So, to set the scene a little more, the school was, indeed, a non-denominational Earth-centered seminary. The seminary part came in with the basic assumption that we were being prepared to be of service, though exactly what form that service would take was up to us. Technically, it was a liberal arts degree, though the degree requirements didn't look much like any other school I've ever head of. You had to achieve at least a basic familiarity with a half dozen or so subjects, ranging from physics to history, and you had to achieve at least basic competence in some form of each of six "areas of mastery;" healing, spiritual development, magic, art, athletics, and practical craft. For example, healing could be anything from certification as a paramedic to the first Reiki initiation.

Yes, the school treated magic as real. No, I never saw anyone tap a wand and make something levitate, a la Harry Potter. The whole time I was there, I never once saw something happen that would be generally considered impossible or scientifically unexplainable. I often saw things happen that was easy to think they might be magical, in the way most people think of the term. For example, people at the school were often bizarrely lucky. More often then not, the school would need money or expertise for something, and the very thing or person needed would turn up by coincidence a short time later. Some faculty and students believed in more classically "impossible" magics, like telepathy, or even weather magic, and I know what they did sometimes seemed to work--like it would rain when a weather-witch said it would. But there is much that can be done with coincidence and wishful thinking. I can say that nobody on campus was a charlatan; if somebody's magic didn't really work, that somebody was as fooled as everyone else.

On the other hand, there was Alan, the stage magician who, with his graduating student, performed that trick with the ring my first night on campus. He was the only one of the six teaching faculty hired specifically to teach magic, and what he taught was stage magic, tricks. I know that generally practitioners of "real" magic(or "magick") are at pains to differentiate themselves sharply from illusionists, while illusionists in turn are often among the most cynical people with respect to anything possibly supernatural. Alan never claimed to be doing anything other than performing tricks, but he also saw no reason why tricks could not be magical.

Everyone on campus believed in something called magic, but not everyone used the word in the same way. Some, like my own teacher, Charlie, rarely used the word at all.

All of this, together with the basic rhythm of days and weeks on campus (which I'll tell you about later), and the names and responsibilities of the faculty and staff, I learned during the weeks from Brigid's Day to Ostara, the spring equinox, when classes started. The whole school year was inverted; the campus was a working farm, staffed mostly by students, so there was every reason not to take a long summer break. Instead, there was a winter break, to save heating costs. Although the dining hall opened up on Brigid's Day, and the Mansion (where the office and all the dorms were) stayed open all year, except for Brigit's Day itself, Chapel Hall (where the assembly was and where the classes were) stayed closed until the middle of March. We used that first month and a half to get oriented, to get hired and trained on our various campus jobs (in place of tuition, as you may recall), and to sort out which classes we would need to take. That last was not simple, for reasons I'll explain later. We also attended a lot of talks and workshops--they were for credit, but the idea was also to get to know the faculty better. The talks and so fourth were held in the Mansion until Chapel Hall reopened.

Sorry for the information-dump. I suppose I'm not a good enough magician yet to do without it, and this will be the last such dump for a long while. I'll finish up for the week by giving you this one vignette, a scene I remember from those early weeks--memory is funny, and a lot has skipped my mind, or been subsumed by a general mush of remembering how things typically worked at school, but without day-to-day detail. A lot that I'm going to tell you I've had to reconstruct from my journals, the letters I wrote to my parents and close friends (we weren't asked to keep secrets from our friends and family, provided they could keep the secret too, in order to protect the admissions process), and even the memories of other former students and staff. But this scene is one of the ones that stands out bright in my mind, like no time has passed, even though it's been over ten years. I don't know why.

I was walking back from somewhere in the late afternoon, around sunset, and I came around the edge of the mansion to its south-west side, heading towards the entrance to the student dorms. The faculty and staff had dorms in the same building, though not all of them lived on campus, but they had a different entrance. We rarely ran into them, unless one of them wanted to be run into. Anyway, as I came around the building I walked right into the end of the sunset, all orange and purple blazing away and getting ready to drain out of the sky, so I stopped, right there, to watch it.

The weather was very cold--there was snow on the ground, and my toes were cold and my knees were cold, and the scent of frost and snow burnt my nose the same way the glory of the sky did, and I didn't really mind, because it was beautiful outside, and because I knew it was warm inside, and I knew there would be hot chocolate and a shower waiting for me when I wanted it. So I stood there, watching the sky, until all the orange was gone, and most of the purple, and the stars began to come out, behind the shreds of cloud. The area was very rural, so the stars were always bright when the night was clear.

And just then, I heard a whistle. It sounded almost like a bird, at first, though it was hardly the season for birdsong, but very quickly the sound made itself into the notes of "Amazing Grace," played on a tin whistle--somewhere. I looked around and couldn't see anyone playing. The sound seemed to come from above and behind me--one of the dorm rooms, perhaps--but I didn't know anyone who had a tin whistle, and who would be crazy enough to open a balcony door to play on a night like this?

The melody repeated itself three times--there are at least six verses to the song--before breaking off near the beginning of the fourth verse. There was a pause, and then--it took me a moment to place the new tune.

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me;
starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee.
The sound was crisp and clear and sweet and flawless, lingering over the swelling notes, like....

I ran off to get my hot cocoa, moved and embarrassed in a way I could not name.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Beginnings 3

I'm giving you some background information in quick little bursts here, to set the stage for my story. Once I get you kind of caught up, I'll slow down and start telling you the tale almost as though I were blogging about what's going on now, in little weekly updates. Like "The News From Lake Wobegon," except we had no lake, and I doubt I'll be as funny as Garrison Keilor.

I'm going to spare you most of the detail I learned in those first few days--it will come out later as we move along--but I want to tell you about the assembly. It will give you a taste of what the school was about, how we did things.

As you may have guessed, the assembly did not fall on Brigid's Day by accident. Much of the school year was organized around the eight Sabbats familiar to Wiccan readers, though our observances were not necessarily Wiccan (individual students and staff did as they liked, of course). The assembly both began and ended the school year, and served as both a welcome and a graduation ceremony, the day of a year and a day.

What I remember first was that the room of the ceremony--a high-ceilinged chapel or auditorium--was quite cold. The big room with big windows was very hard to heat. The energy budget of the school was always, by design, very low, so in February they only used enough heat to take the chill off. I don't think it was above fifty degrees when we first filed in--I could see my breath in the candle-light--but in my wool cape and winter-weight clothes I was comfortable enough, and it got warmer from body heat and candle light as the evening progressed.

The candles--the whole room was lit only by candles, large tapers set in holders on the walls, torch style, every few feet, plus a taper set in a four-foot tall holder at the end of each of the eight rows of chairs, and more on the stage, where there were two rows of folding chairs and a lectern. There was enough light for us to see each other and to move around, but the ceiling of the room was entirely lost in the gloom; it could have been a million miles up. Once we were seated, someone struck a bell, once, and a line of people processed in, cloaked in brown, and carrying unlit candles.

The bell struck evenly, over and over, and they walked in, until I began to feel slightly odd, between the dim light and the repeating bell, like my mind was stretching somehow. The procession divided into two groups of eight each, and moved up on either side of the audience until person stood at the ends of each of the eight rows of seats. The bell silenced, abruptly. I had an end seat, and I looked up to see a woman, her face neutral and shadowed weirdly, but pretty enough. She was a small woman, with fine bones, maybe forty years old. She wore a green ring on the ring finger of her right hand. I copied the students on the ends of the other rows and used the taper beside me to light her candle. She nodded to me, gravely, and she and the others processed up to the stage and took their seats; ten in the back row, six in front--three seats remained empty. They lowered their hoods, but in the candlelight I could barely see their faces.

The ceremony that followed introduced us to the school and graduated first some fifteen people from the undergraduate program I'd just joined, then three Master's level students. The bachelors emerged one by one from the wings of the stage, knelt before the tall man who seemed to be acting as officiant. Then each stood and the man removed the student's black cape--there were some words repeated, a kind of small rite, and the graduate said something to us, like thanks, or I love you all, or some small speech. What was under the black cloak varied--a white suit, an academic robe, a work uniform of some kind, doctor's scrubs. My favorite was the naked guy--he got a laugh, but nobody seemed to mind. After degree conferral, they all processed down the center aisle and out the door. I tried to picture myself crossing the stage, but I could only imagine it in the third person. I couldn't imagine being the person on the stage.

The ritual for the Masters was different. They wore brown, like the faculty, and they did not receive diplomas. Instead, each received a ring from one of the faculty--his or her adviser, I assumed, both rightly and wrongly. The school's Master's program didn't correspond to the graduate programs at other schools--it didn't result in a degree, for example, and until I stopped comparing it in my mind to ordinary graduate programs I didn't really understand it. The first of the three pairs of teacher and students clearly followed a set script in the giving of the ring, but the other two improvised. What all three had in common was that the student asked for the ring, and the Master held it out on his or her palm for the student to take, rather than putting it on the student's finger. The graduate put the ring on his own finger.

The third pair was interesting. The Master in question was a slight, mostly bald man with an intense but not unpleasant manner. He spoke first.

"How do you come?" he asked.

"With empty hands," replied his student, showing us his hands. They were empty, and ringless.

"What do you come for?" asked the Master.

"I come for my Mastery," was the reply.

"Which hand holds your Mastery?" asked the teacher, holding up his hands. The ring glinted in the candle light.

"This hand holds my Mastery," was the answer, as the younger man held up his hands again, the ring glinting now in his hand. The old Master's hands were empty. We laughed, astounded, though the trick would have looked more dramatic in better light. Slight-of-hand, ofourse. Both men were stage magicians, I later learned. Teacher and pupil, they grinned over their trick and embraced.

The three graduates went to sit on the stage in the empty chairs, mingled into the Master's Group just as we newbies had been mingled in among the students. There was a final song, a bell, and the ceremony was over. We all just got up, there was no reverse procession.

We all went to the back of the room, where tables were set up with food, which I desperately needed. I hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was after eight o'clock in the evening. The graduates ate with us and mingled, though I noticed none were naked. I guess the nudist had gotten cold. We were all a little chilly by that time, but there was hot chocolate, hot mulled cider (hard, not sweet), and herbal tea to drink, and that helped. There were no disposable cups, though. Instead, everyone unclipped tin cups from their belts and drank from those. I didn't know what I was supposed to drink from until someone showed me the box of cups and helped me find the one with my name on it. What a prosaic, but genuine welcome, to make sure each of us had our own cup--I was really touched. The food was unusual--bowls of nuts and raisins, sliced raw root vegetables and home-made corn tortilla chips for dipping in salsa or sour cream, dried apples, dilly beans...nothing that couldn't be made locally in New England in the winter. There were no disposable plates, either. People ate from the serving bowls or from handkerchiefs. They gave me my own handkerchief, too.

Eventually we went to our dorms--the first time I'd been to mine, actually--and there was more food, and quite a lot of hard cider, and by the time I finally fell into my new bed it was past one in the morning and I had twenty-five new friends. I couldn't remember any of their names, but I had a good feeling that maybe this whole strange thing was going to work.

Beginnings 2

So, Sharon--that was the name of the receptionist--told me I'd been accepted to the school, this "pagan seminary" less than ten minutes after I'd walked into her office and asked about the place. The only entrance requirement was that you had to ask for admission, no easy thing since the school was a secret. I'd asked to enroll on a whim, expecting there would be some long, drawn out process during which time I could find out what I'd gotten into and whether I really wanted to be in it. But, within ten minutes Sharon was handing me an information packet like it was the most normal thing in the world, and telling me to show up for enrollment and orientation tomorrow. The school year--not just the semester--began on February 1st. I started to sputter.

"Tomorrow? I can't enroll tomorrow, I have things to do!"

Sharon asked me what things, and I couldn't think of anything. My whole life was already organized around starting school in early February, this would just be a different school and a few days earlier. I ceded that point, but explained that I really needed to know more before committing--like how much tuition was and so forth. Sharon smiled and told me to sit on the couch over there and read the handouts and if I had any questions to ask her. I did, and we talked, off and on, for a few hours. A few other people came and went, mostly people wearing black or brown robes, but a few were evidently outsiders like me. Three of us were sitting on the couch reading handouts before the end of the day.

I won't bore you by repeating all the things I learned of the school that day--most of it you'll pick up with the story before too long. The material covered housing (strictly on campus for the first year), curriculum, educational philosophy, and financial structure, as well as the school history and maps of the campus as a whole and each of the buildings. I was interested to learn that most labor on campus was done by students in place of tuition, and that the campus was also a working farm. I found out enough that day that my enrollment a day later counts as definitely odd and precipitous, but not actually insane. You're probably wondering how I could afford to enroll in a new school without asking my parents. No, I wasn't rich, though I had some money saved up. In brief, the school accepted no outside financial aid or loans, and instead allowed some students to pay the bulk of their tuition in labor. I paid the remaining fees in cash from my savings for several weeks, and then, once I really trusted the school, I donated my car, which they sold for me. It was a second-hand car in excellent condition, and they got an excellent price for it. That car covered the fees I could not work off until I graduated, and when I wanted to go somewhere I would borrow a bicycle or one of the campus cars.

So I went back to my friend's place that night--I'd been staying with a friend over break to make it easier to avoid telling my parents I was going to flunk--and I called my folks and made arrangements. The following day, February 1st, I returned to campus with my bags packed. There were maybe fifteen of us in the incoming class (I never counted). Sharon told us to stash our bags in a side office, since we hadn't been assigned dorms yet, and gave us our uniforms. When I say "uniform," don't picture blue blazers or plaid skirts. They looked more like martial arts uniforms than anything else. There were white, drawstring trousers and white pullover tunics with ties to tighten at the neck opening and a white cloth belt around the waist. Men and women dressed alike, except that our tunics were cut straight from the shoulder, being rectangular in outline, while the women's tunics flared slightly to the waist. We each got two winter-weight outfits, and two summer-weight, plus two floor-length hooded black wool capes. One to wear, one to wash. We were to wear uniforms to all scheduled school events unless we were told otherwise. Faculty and staff, except for Sharon, wore the same outfits except in brown. Then each of us was sent off with a "buddy" to tour the campus and get ready for the school assembly, when we would officially be enrolled.

I think I was walking around in a daze. I don't remember much that I saw or learned that day--I had to re-learn everything later--but I had a good time hanging out with my buddy, and I ended up at the assembly on time.

The clothes might sound kind of hokey, and there was certainly as aspect of the uniforms that was pure camp. The school was not strictly Neopagan ("Earth-centered" might be a better term for it than pagan, for there were community members who were areligious, Buddhist, or even Christian or Jewish), but like much that is Neopagan, there was always an element of play within the genuine rigor. It was as though in addition to really being a seminary for magic, the school was also pretending to be a seminary for magic, simply for the fun of it. The uniforms were the necessary costumes for the game. But when I put on my uniform for the first time (over long johns, given the weather) I felt different. I felt exotic, set-apart, new. I felt like I'd come home.

Friday, March 16, 2012


The school had no name because no one who wasn't already familiar with it ever needed to refer to it, and those of us already aware of the school always just called it "the school." It was accredited--or, at least the undergraduate program was--and it did have a name for legal purposes. My degree says something at the top, where names usually go. But to be honest, the top of my degree was the first, and the last, place I ever saw that name. How did I not ever ask for a name of my school? Well, when you become a student of the school, you get very good at asking the important questions, and that wasn't one of them.

The school is gone now, I'll spare you that suspense. Knowing it no longer exists will help explain how I can share certain confidences with you now. Why it is important that I do so, and why it is me doing the writing, I will leave till later. I will call myself Daniel. I have changed some details, as you would probably have guessed anyway, but all the important things I am about to tell you are true.

So, enough with this quasi-mystic shit, shall we?

I joined the school in February of 2000, the New Year and the shame of having flunked out of my freshman year of college both still fresh in my mind. I never thought I would fail college; I'd always been bright, gotten good grades, but somehow when I got to college I couldn't apply myself. It didn't feel like what I was supposed to be doing, which in retrospect sounds bravely intuitive, but at the time it felt like my life was being hijacked by...I couldn't explain it. I hadn't explained it, not to my parents, anyway, and so I was driving around in the mountains one day at the end of January pretending to get ready for the next semester, with no idea whatever of what I was going to do.

I passed a long driveway with a small, blue sign I did not have time to read, and curiosity tugged me. I passed a second driveway and sign, evidently a second entrance to whatever it was, muttered "screw it," and turned my car around and drove up the drive. I didn't read the sign. I found out later the signs belonged to a defunct boarding school and had never been changed.

The campus I drove on to had several buildings of various styles, but one had a grander entrance, so I went there, guessing it was the office. The grounds looked very vaguely collegiate, and I saw several groups of people walking through the snow. Mostly, they looked to be about my age, some older, both men and women. Oddly, many of them wore hooded, black capes. The Harry Potter books were just coming out then, and I'd read a few, and these people looked to me very much like I'd imagined Hogwarts students to look in their robes, except that everybody seemed to be an adult. I don't remember trying to explain any of this to myself as I drove, I only noted it and felt curiosity about it, but Harry Potter was vaguely on my mind as I pulled up under the car port and hurried up the winter-sandy slate steps through the front door.

Inside, I found a normal-looking, if possibly slightly frumpy, office or reception room. A large desk faced the door, and a woman, clearly a receptionist, sat behind the desk, looking at me. She was slim and kind of ageless-looking, like you'd want to call her ma'am, like you'd tend not to introduce her as "this girl I know," but pretty, definitely. Her hair was dark, long, and curly, and for some reason I remember that the top she was wearing that day was electric blue. When she asked can I help you? I simply opened my mouth and said the first thing that came to my head;

"What is this place? Some kind of pagan seminary?" I'm not usually that abrupt with strangers, but her eyes twinkled and she smiled at me.

"That's exactly what it is," she told me. I was stunned. What did "pagan seminary" even mean? I was loosely familiar with the Neopagan movement at the time, as I'd had some Wiccan friends in high school. But mostly my experience with magic was through fantasy books. At the time, I knew the name of Ursula K. LeGuin, but not Dion Fortune. But I'd said this thing and I didn't know why, and somehow I was right.

"A college?" I asked. She confirmed that. An accredited undergraduate program in liberal arts that was also a...pagan seminary. I was intrigued.

"How do I apply?" I asked, on a whim. Instead of answering me directly, the woman in blue aske if I wanted to attend the school. I said I did, which was quite suddenly true, although if I'd had more time to think about what I was saying, I would have asked for more information first. I generally do things on a whim, but I generally research what my whims want pretty well before giving them the green light. But I did want to go. I wanted to not have to tell my parents that I'd failed and didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be able to give them a plan B. And I wanted to belong to this strange place where people wore Harry Potter robes to class. I felt the whim.

The woman smiled, and said I'd just been accepted.

It turned out that the single entrance requirement was that prospective students find the school. No one who was a part of the school would ever tell anyone else anything about it except in answer to a direct question. There was no advertizing budget; there was a secrecy campaign. Only students with enough magical skill to find the school and decide to go there despite the secrecy could be accepted for enrollment. In its thirty-plus years of existence, I suspect that thousands of people moved through the school community, in one capacity or another. All of them kept, and continue to keep, that vow of conditional silence; answer only direct questions, tell only what the other on some level already knows. They kept the secret to protect the application process, and for the simple, campy thrill of having a secret. They keep the secret still as one might bank a bed of coals against a winter's chill.

Only I have been asked to tell.