To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Boogeyman Cometh

So, as I think I mentioned to you, we had our classes, but we also had to work with masters of our choice in six competency areas; athletics, art, craft, magic, spiritual growth, and healing. Sometimes that meant they tutored us, sometimes they just told us which classes to take. Even though each of them had a particular teaching area, they also took students in several other areas, and some people worked with the same person for all six areas.

Charlie was officially the craft teacher; he taught both ecological horticulture and chainsaw operation and maintenance as crafts. I knew a few students who had talked him into teaching horticulture as an art instead, that sort of thing, and there were also rumors that he taught spiritual development—but whenever anyone asked about his spiritual practice he growled and nobody could get a word out of him about it.  But I’d noticed that persistence went a long way with Charlie. And we got along. And I’d seen his library.

So, one day I just asked him if he would teach me. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about and tried to walk away, but I followed him, so he told me he didn’t know anything I couldn’t learn on my own and to stop bothering him. Then he walked away faster.  But I’d deliberately asked him when no one else was around, which freed me to make the next argument in my case.

“I want what you have, and I’m willing to go to any lengths to get it,” I said to his receding back. It’s a slight paraphrase from the AA Big Book, and it stopped him, but he didn’t turn around. “Hey Lao Tsu,” I added, “what, are you trying to make me ask you three times?” I’d heard somewhere that Lao Tsu wrote the Tao Te Ching only after someone had asked him for his wisdom three times. I don’t know if it’s true, but I added a third request of my own, just in case. “I dare you to teach a young numbskull like me!” And Charlie turned around and came back to me.

“Alright,” he growled, “but let’s get this thing clear. I’m not your buddy, and I’m not your cheerleader. I’m the bastard that’s gonna make you do the things you don’t have the balls to make yourself do. I’ll meet you tomorrow at the Martin House twenty minutes before dawn.” And he spun on his heel and walked away. I let him go. For a man who ostensibly hadn’t wanted to teach me to begin with, it took him a surprisingly few number of seconds to come up with a lesson plan.

It took me a few hours to find out exactly when dawn would be for our area, and to find out what the Martin House was and where it was. It turned out to be a bird house; a martin is a kind of bird. But that night I set my alarm, and there I was the next morning, twenty minutes before dawn.
Charlie was nowhere in evidence. I sighed, repressed the urge to smile, and looked deliberately up at the Martin House until I felt him put his hand on my shoulder. I knew what he was doing, but I still startled a bit, which must have pleased him. He was dressed for the dawn chill and carried two squares of black foam for us to sit on. I asked him what we were going to be doing, and he told me were going to listen to birds.

“But I don’t know anything about birds!” I protested. "I'm not a birder!" He gave me the look such an inane comment deserved (I mean really, complaining to the teacher that you don’t already know the material?) before explaining.

“Neither am I. We’re going to listen to birds to see if we can’t grow you some ears.”

“Wait,” I told him, “yesterday you said I don’t have balls, now apparently I don’t have ears? Any other parts of my anatomy you care to deny?” Charlie just laughed.

“Don’t take it so hard,” he said. “Everybody needs a boogeyman.” He wasn't growling, though. There still wasn't enough light for me to see his face clearly, and if Charlie carried a flashlight it was still in his pocket, but he seemed looser, more relaxed than I'd ever seen him. He seemed happy.

What Charlie meant by growing me some ears was teaching me to differentiate bird sounds—not to identify them, just to know that this sound is different from that sound. It’s a lot harder than you’d think. He set me to counting species by sound in five minute intervals, and he wouldn’t let me leave until I could match his count for three consecutive blocks of time. We went through the same process every morning for a few weeks, and then again a few times after the spies he sent out caught me not paying attention to the sounds I heard. I bet normal professors don't send out spies. By mid summer, listening carefully was an established habit, and the whole auditory world came alive for me. 

But he was right; I wouldn't have done it without him to blame for my early mornings. And who was his boogeyman? I suppose I must have been. After all, I "made" him teach me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Personal Things

I keep referring to Charlie as my teacher, but I haven’t told you how he got that way yet or what he taught me. Before I get to that, though, I should tell you a little bit about being a janitor. I’m serious; hopefully why this is relevant will be clear later.

As I mentioned, my job on campus was on the cleaning crew. The dorms and classrooms were cleaned by the people who used them, and the Dining Hall was cleaned by its own staff, so we just cleaned common areas, plus the areas where the staff and faculty lived. That last was a tremendous opportunity for the curious, since students were not otherwise allowed on the master’s floor, even by invitation. They made themselves so available to us most of the time that they needed some place of their own to hide. The school being what it was, where and how they lived was a secret. Only the cleaning crew knew.

The masters lived on the fourth floor of the Mansion. They didn’t all live there—some had houses in town, and Sara and her family usually stayed in the loft in the barn—but each of them had a room to go to, plus a couple of common rooms. There wasn’t much space, considering that fourteen people had less than four thousand square feet among them, but what they had was uncommonly nice. All the furniture was hand-made, the floors were some kind of honey-colored wood and mostly covered with hand-woven rush mats or rugs, and they had a library of the most fantastic books. Their dining room faced the dawning sun with floor to ceiling windows, and they could clear away the tables and use the space for yoga or dance whenever they wanted to. Every room had a balcony, and since the fourth floor was smaller than the third, they could step out of a door to a kind of rooftop garden. In the summers they grew tomatoes and basil out there, among other delights.

Mostly, we only cleaned their common rooms and the bathrooms and swept the hallway. We’d do whatever dishes they left for us, and if a light was out or a faucet dripped we’d pass the word on to maintenance. The private rooms were kept closed. But I remember, one time in late April they asked for a spring cleaning and left their rooms open. I got assigned the job, so there I was, wandering around the masters’ rooms by myself.

None of them were labeled—there were no name-plates. I knew the faculty had the rooms along the south wall, while the staff had the rooms on the east, but otherwise it was a guessing game. Some used their rooms simply as offices, while others looked lived in. Some were obviously normally a mess, given the haphazard way things had been shoved into boxes and under blankets, while others were clearly always neat as a pin. Some rooms were obvious; Sadie, the head cook, lived with her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayla, so the room with child’s things in it was obviously theirs. Joe, an intense but little man who headed the security group, lived with his husband, who was also named Joe, so again the room obviously shared by two men was theirs. The second Joe had nothing else to do with the school, though he came to breakfast sometimes, plus some of the community events. We called him Cuppa Joe, to distinguish him from Security Joe. Then there was my boss, the head janitor, who was just Joe. Two students were also named Joe, plus one named Josephine, and another named Joanne. I have no idea why the school attracted so many people named Joe or Jo. There were two Charlies, too, though the other one usually went by Chuck, and almost half the women of my year called themselves Raven. You can’t make this stuff up.


Finally I found myself in a well-kept room with a futon folded into a couch, a desk with clean spots in the dust where personal items had been removed prior to my arrival, a few shelves and trunks of clothes and papers, and yet another bookcase. I looked over the books. One shelf was entirely dedicated to some serious scientific books, mostly on ecology, but there were two very serious-looking botany texts, another on mushrooms, and another on beetles. Another shelf was dedicated to field guides—trees, shrubs, birds, scat, bird’s nests, tracks, wild flowers, and so on. Then there was a shelf half full of books on writing, with the rest of the space taken up by horticulture and popular-market books on wildlife-friendly landscaping. By his books, I recognized Charlie.

Obviously, he had organized his books by topic, but the top two shelves seemed to be rather mixed. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek sat next to Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Two translations of the Bible kept company with Sand Country Almanac, Desert Solitaire, and Honey From Stone. Two books by Rainer Maria Rilke stood next to The Bhaghevad Gita and the Tao Te Ching.  I saw books by Gary Snyder, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Tom Robbins rubbed shoulders with Tom Wessels, whose book was the only one of the lot not smudged, cracked, and dog-eared. Evidently, the book was new. I thought at first that these shelves were for books that didn’t belong on the other shelves, a kind of catch-all, but something about the collection kept tugging at me. “It dawned on me” is a cliché, but try to imagine you’ve never heard it before. Try to remember the dawn, how slowly the light and color come up so you can never quite be sure when night ends and the day begins until suddenly you see the sun and the day is clearly here. That’s how I realized that these two shelves were dedicated to Charlie’s understanding of Spirit.

I looked slowly about the room I was supposed to be dusting. I saw birds’ nests and pine cones, dried flowers and smooth stones. I saw a photograph, framed in silver, of a small dog, but no human images. I saw rugs, knick-knacks, a walking stick, items made and given by a lifetime of students. I saw both pairs of Charlie’s shoes, the work boots and the sandals, meaning that wherever he was at the moment, he was barefoot. I saw the hammock swung on the balcony where Charlie slept when the weather cooperated.

And on the desk, I saw a tin whistle.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Creative Disturbances

I wanted to tell you more about the physical campus, and I should have done it before this. I know people who would excuse this with reference to “pagan standard time,” but I have never claimed to be pagan. I’ve also never claimed to really have my act together.

Briefly, then, the main part of campus was a large rectangle looped with several gravel roads and dominated by three main buildings—the Mansion, where we all lived, the Dining Hall, and Chapel Hall, where the auditorium was. Plus there were the barns, various sheds, the cider house, several mobile green houses that could be pulled from one bed to another on tracks, and various gardens and spinnies of trees and pushes. There was no lawnmower on campus; the grass was cut by the sheep, goats, and horses, an arrangement that cut down on the amount of hay we had to buy, and anyway, Charlie hated lawns. He would insist he was allergic, then wait a beat for someone to say, incredulous, you’re allergic to grass? Here? Half the campus was grass!

“No,” he would grumble, delighted to be set up but never showing it, “I’m allergic to bullshit.”

The other half of the campus, the other long rectangle, was the farm that fed us and that Sara managed, with help from various students.

I could describe the Mansion and the Dining Hall, but I think you can probably imagine them fairly well from the names alone. The former was all rough blond stone and porches below, with rebuilt third and fourth floors ringed with balconies and huge, double-paned windows above. The latter was low and broad with a huge basement for storing the produce of the farm in cans and jars, barrels and sacks. But Chapel Hall was like nothing I’d seen before, and nothing I’ve seen since. The ground floor was just offices with a large, open hallway from the door on one side of the building to the door on the other. The floor in between sported a large solar seal and dust floated in sunbeams and the smell of old books. The second floor contained a few classrooms and bathrooms, but was dominated by the auditorium. The auditorium was two and a half stories tall, so the third floor of the building was interrupted; there were classrooms on either side, but to get from one side to the other you had to either go back downstairs and walk through the auditorium or go upstairs to the fourth floor. The fourth floor had a hump in it, where you went up three steps, over twenty feet, and down three steps again, to accommodate the great curved ceiling of the auditorium below.

The basic architecture of the building required a certain mystery; it usually took yearlings a week or two to work out how to navigate the thing. But apparently certain of the faculty liked to exacerbate its confusing charm, because the fourth floor was divided up into a warren of interconnected rooms that had no numbers, only names. And the names would change every year. But no one ever admitted that the names were changing; when someone told a story about something from a previous year, he or she would always use the previous year’s name for the room, as though the actual rooms would change out from year to year. And I suppose that by some reckoning, they did.

The fourth floor had a sloping ceiling, except at its very center, and where the ceiling sloped down on either side to about five feet there were side walls with attic space behind in the eves. They used the eves for storage, but since they opened by cabinet-style doors on each room, and since the eves had no internal divisions, the faculty would sometimes use the eves to play pranks on each other. The first time I saw this, I was in a workshop being team-taught by Kit and Alan when Charlie leaped out of the cabinet.

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” he shouted, school robes swirling. He was teaching a class in the neighboring room, and had crept soundlessly through the eve space. Kit startled beautifully with a shriek that made Charlie’s students in the other room laugh. But Kit was incidental to the joke; she and Charlie rarely interacted unless Alan was present, since he was friends with both of them. Alan had jumped, though he didn’t shriek, and then he busted up laughing. He had this awesome, boyish laugh. There were multiple students who would go really far out of their way to get Alan to laugh.

Kit didn’t laugh. Instead, she glared at Charlie.

“Oh, please. They would have burnt you, too,” she said, dismissively. Charlie raised his chin a fraction and his eyes flashed. Then he half-grinned.

“Fire?” he said, nonchalantly, “I’m not afraid of a little disturbance.” And he left the way he had come, closing the cabinet door behind him. At the time I thought he was simply giving Kit a hard time for being scared, though Kit wasn’t scared, only startled. I don’t think Kit was ever scared of anything. But I found out later that fire is what ecologists call a disturbance, and that unlike the rest of us, who tend to think of the world as groups of objects, ecologists think of the world as patterns and patterns of patterns. To use, a forest is an object and a fire is the end. To Charlie and to people like him, fire is only another part of the pattern. Trust my teacher to embed his jokes several layers deep in a field most of the rest of us didn’t study.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Merry May Day

Sorry it's been a while since I've posted--some things in the here-and-now have come up and demanded my attention. I wanted to tell you all about Beltane, and here it is, already two weeks past. Well, here goes; better late than never.

Beltane, as you might know, is the first of May, and celebrates the beginning of the pagan summer. Of course, that's European-derived paganism, where they have warm winters. I used to think that it was the Gulf Stream that kept western Europe so warm for its latitude, but Charlie just growled "well, what the hell is going on with Seattle, then? No Gulf Stream there." And he's right. Of course he's right. Charlie was always right. Fact of the matter is, it's the prevailing wind direction in the temperate zone that does it, flowing west to east, so that places to the east of an ocean get a moderate, maritime-influenced climate and places to the west of an ocean get a harsher, continental-influenced climate. The bottom line is that while Kit was making plans to celebrate the beginning of Summer, Charlie and Sara (the school's farm manager) were struggling with late frosts on their plants. Five years earlier, they said, they'd seen snow on Mother's Day, and they didn't expect full leaf-out for another few weeks at least.

But for us on campus, Beltane did mark the beginning of academic summer. I'd finished my first semester, and required courses in ecology, psychology,  history, and anthropology were behind me. I'd chosen a Master to work with in three out of the six required areas (I'll tell you about that shortly), and I felt pretty much at home at my new school. We didn't have summers off (we had off from November through the beginning of February, remember), but there was a three-week break before the short summer semester started, and Beltane was the axis on which the campus turned from one season to the next. Just as Charlie had been more or less in charge of Ostara, Kit--and to a lesser extent, Sara--were in charge at Beltane.

Kit and Sara made an odd team, for Kit was (and remains) vehemently pagan, while Sara is a practicing Catholic who quietly disapproves of pretty much anything else. She lived with her husband and three children on campus, mostly in a loft in the barn, while she ran the farm that fed us and he built custom violins and other instruments. She had once been a student, and she wore the green ring. By the time I arrived, she had actually taken to keeping her kids away from the students, especially those she didn't know well, but she loved the land and would not leave it, and she was quietly devoted to Charlie.

So on Beltane morning our animals and fields and orchards were blessed by a Catholic priest at Sara’s request, and in the afternoon we danced the maypole and had a feast.And between the two, Kit and Sara sang a duet, unaccompanied, about summer.  I found out later they had once been yearlings together.

It was the first time I’d seen Kit dressed in her own ritual costume, not her brown school uniform. She wore a white cotton dress of a vaguely Greek style, belted with a green braided cord, with a black hooded cape with red lining over top. She looked good, this tiny flame of a woman with a beautiful, commanding voice. It was also the first time I danced the maypole, so I don't know how traditional Kit's version was. The ribbons were all either red or green, and she had people dancing as women take one color, and people dancing as men take the other--that meant that you could choose which sex you wanted to dance as. At the end, we were supposed to end up facing someone of the opposite sex, and then the two of you would be partners for the night--not sexually, though that was the implied symbolism, but for some task like setting the tables for the feast. I ended up facing a dude, which was awkward, I won't lie, but I adapted.

"What if we're neither male nor female--or both?" someone had asked, though I don't think anyone on campus at the time really was in that situation. Kit didn'y miss a beat, she just tossed a tambourine to the questioner, saying "If you dance to the beat of a drum we don't have, then clearly you must help us make the music."

I noticed that none of the faculty or staff danced with us, nor did any of them even make music for us--the whole thing was students. I asked Kit about it later--unlike Charlie, who rarely explained why he did anything, Kit loved to explain at least a layer or two of the symbolism she employed. I later came to appreciate Charlie's ability to just let symbolism be symbolic--you'll notice I don't explain a lot myself--but at the time I really appreciated Kit's willingness to talk. I didn't feel quite so stupid around her. She said that students and masters should not risk becoming partners--and she said it with a flirtatious little smile. I think everyone on campus who liked women liked Kit. And she was ok with that. And the same time, it clearly wasn't going to go anywhere. You could have a crush the size of Kansas, and as long as you weren't rude or anything, you didn't have to worry.

It was nice.