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.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Joy

It occurs to me I've been remiss. I told you about Charlie and Alan and Kit and Greg, but then I got distracted by topics other than introductions, and lately I've been avoiding talking about Joy and Karen because you don't know who you are...and of course your won't, if I don't tell you about them.

Joy was primarily our Healing master, just as Kit had Art, Charlie had Craft, and so on. Officially Joy's healing modality was (and is) veterinary medicine, though she does not teach anyone how to be a vet. Instead, she would help people already trained as vets work with their patients and cope psychologically with dealing with the sick. She did the same for people trained in other forms of medicine, or even psychology. She helped people who had learned medicine become healers. She was also the campus vet--remember, we had chickens and sheep and cats and dogs and horses and sometimes other species....

Unofficially, Joy's healing ability went much farther. She was (and is) a real, honest-to-goodness horse whisperer. She helped deal with behavioral problems for private clients, and even worked with neglected or abused animals for rescue organizations. Her own horses were rescues, whom she has trained to pull farm equipment. She has also trained them as therapy animals, and has a whole practice giving riding lessons to disabled, traumatized, or autistic children and adults. She does not bill herself as a therapist, only as a riding teacher--she gets referrals from therapists and physical therapists. But I've seen some of these people, spoken with some of them...new paraplegics who think their lives are basically over, children who don't think they can do anything right, she takes these people and gently gives them meaning in the shape of a horse. Not always, but often, their lives turn around.

I was never one of Joy's students, nor have I ever really been her friend. I don't think I'll get around to telling very many stories about her--I don't know very many. I used to see her riding around campus, usually bareback. I found one of the cats once, obviously sick, curled up at the back of an equipment shed. I went to get Joy, and her face as she handled the cat was gentle, dispassionate, and utterly focused. The cat let her handle it, though it had hissed at me. I saw her help Sara kill a batch of chickens once, and her face looked the same--gentile, dispassionate. She called her horses wounded healers, and said trauma can be a great gift, because it means you can be a healer for others. I asked her once why anybody gets injured, if the reason we get injured is so we can heal others? It seemed circular.

"Go talk to Alan if you want logic," she told me. "But when I see a nineteen year old boy with a crushed spine who never did anything wrong, I don't look for the universe to have reason. I look for it to have meaning."

I'll tell you about Karen later.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Litha


Well, happy Litha! The summer solstice—there were some things I wanted to touch on first, but, as usual, life has gotten in the way of my plans. I’ll get to the other things later; I want to talk about the solstice on the right day.

I know people who consider the summer solstice to be a relatively minor pagan holiday, but as I’ve said, the school as a whole didn’t belong to any particular religion. For us, Litha was a really big deal, not least because friends and family were invited to the feast—I think most of the food came from off-campus. There was no way we could feed everybody from our campus farm, and I believe guests were supposed to pitch in some money. June is too early in our area for sweet corn, but there was a pig roast, grilled vegetables, greens, vegetarian chili, mountains of strawberries, and what proved to be the last of the season’s rhubarb. In the evening there was a Burning Man ceremony, in which a wicker and brush figure was sent off to the spirit world stuffed with wishes and prayers written on little pieces of paper. And that night we held the Long Dance. 

Strictly speaking, the Long Dance is a fictional invention of Ursula K. LeGuine’s, but a lot of people at the school were fans of her novels, and we made it real. The basic idea was to keep a dance going from sundown to dawn. You didn’t have to dance the whole time, or even at all, but somebody was always dancing throughout that short night. I forget if I’ve mentioned that Kit is a musician? That’s actually the core of her job, even though a lot of people go to her for magic or spiritual development. She’s the primary art teacher, and her art is music and dance. Her primary instrument is the cello, but she’s one of those people who can figure out how to play pretty much anything in about fifteen minutes, and as a result there are a lot of musicians on campus. There were more than enough bands and drum circles and whatever else to keep the music going all night, mostly around the bonfire that was left after the Man burnt down. And at the edge of the fire circle, just outside of the dancing, fireflies rose out of the long grass of the school’s pastures like shards of summer sunlight.

My family didn’t come that first year, so I was free to spend the day meeting other people’s families. Since I haven’t told you about any of my fellow students, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to tell you about their families, but a lot of the Masters’ families were there, too. That was interesting; the faculty and staff kept so much to themselves except when they were working, that the newer students knew virtually nothing about them except what they taught and how they taught it. I had not known, for example, that Kit was married, but here was a tall, bearded man she introduced as her husband. Apparently, he lived in town and she joined him on weekends.

There were other surprises. Joe and Joe had a grown son who clearly looked like both of them. Security Joe turned out to be a female to male transsexual who had transitioned some years after his son was born. I wasn’t really surprised by this—not that there was anything feminine about Joe, but he really was such a little guy, physically. His hands, in particular, were tiny, like a child’s or a woman’s. No, the surprise was that the Joes had evidently had this whole life as a family outside of the school, something I’d never thought about before. It turned out they’d once owned a house where they’d raised their son. Why give up a house and a life in the real world to squeeze together into a single eight by eight room? 

“There isn’t a lot I wouldn’t give up to live in a community that recognizes I’m still married” explained Coffee Joe when I asked him. I hadn’t thought about that, either. Remember, this was 2000, and unless you were personally involved in the issue, gay marriage wasn’t even on the radar yet. I was such a na├»ve, self-involved kid.

I had known Alan was married, since I’d bumped into the couple once at a UU church in town. I knew he biked home on Friday, and that his wife was also a psychologist, but I had assumed that either he did not have children or didn’t involve himself much with them. How could he? Well, the magician found a way. It turned out he had three children, a boy and a girl on either side of 11, and an angel-headed little three year old named Alexis whom he now carried about campus with such a look of besotted pride on his face I wished I could have been her, just for a few minutes. Not like my Dad isn’t proud of me, you understand. 

Charlie had no children of his own, but he had a brother, a sister, and a whole flock of nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. The sister was a somewhat rounded matron of boundless energy and a frazzle of hair like grey yarn. I liked her immediately, though I had a hard time thinking of this wonderful grandmother as anyone’s little sister. I still kind of thought of my parents’ generation as “the grown-ups,” and I knew Charlie was a grown-up, but he was also beginning to be kind of a friend, and it startled me to be reminded how close my friend was to being old.
It startled me, too, to see how the family organized itself around him. If you’ve ever seen Rocket Gibraltar, he was like the grandfather there, the occasion for a whole tribe of young cousins to converge, even though he wasn’t the oldest of his siblings, and he had no children. I asked his sister about this, and she sighed.

“He’s always been the center of us,” she said. ”I used to resent it, but what can you do? When I was little, it was because he’s so smart—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. Then for a long time he got the attention because we were all scared to death he was going to kill himself, one way or another. He was…sick for a long time. Now, I guess we’re all just used to focusing on him—and he’s got the best place for the kids to come together and play. He’ll get all of them except Tessa’s baby for the next two weeks.”

It wasn’t just Charlie’s family who dropped their kids off, evidently; all the kids at the feast seemed to know each other already, and they ran about in groups in some world of their own. That the school community was a lot bigger than just us current students, and that it was multigenerational had not occurred to me, either, but as the long afternoon wound on, I saw that the adults gradually stopped caring which kid belonged to which parent. Anybody with a green ring would comfort, help, or holler at whichever kid needed it at the time. They were a single, big family.

As the sun started to go down I found myself watching the golden sunlight slowly retreat up the spires of the spruces and pines. There goes the longest day of the year! I thought. And then suddenly, I had to go chase the light, I couldn’t let it go without a fight. I ran off to the biggest tree on campus, an old white pine and scrambled up. White pines are easy to climb, if they’ve got branches near the ground, which this one did. The branches come out in regular whirls so it’s almost like climbing a ladder. Within a minute or so I was back in the sunlight maybe forty feet above the ground, and I stopped to breathe a bit. The branch I was sitting on swayed, and I looked up to see if the tree was moving in the wind. I didn’t want to get blown out.

“You’ve got excellent instincts,” said a voice in my ear, “but your situational awareness blows chunks.”

“Jesus Christ!” I shrieked, and Charlie laughed. He was squatting behind me, barefoot, like a monkey.  I followed him up higher into the tree until the shrinking branches left us exposed to the warm, evening breeze, the main trunk began to sway under our weight, and we could see out over the roof of even the Mansion.

“We can see everything from up here!” I cried.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Charlie offered. “This is half the reason I know so much of what goes on. You people don’t look up.”
“Wow, I’m glad I don’t have a girlfriend on campus.”
“So am I,” Charlie agreed. “Some things, a man shouldn’t see.”

We watched the sunset up there over the valley, all orange and purple with weird shadows cast upwards from one layer of shifting cloud to the next, and I was trying to figure out how to paint something like that when I noticed Charlie’s breathing had gone funny. There wasn’t a lot of room up there, so we were almost touching, and he had a bit of a cold. Suddenly, his breathing went irregular, so I looked at him, concerned. He didn’t appear to notice me. He was staring out at the sun, just dipping down beyond the far range of hills, and moving his lips. He was singing, he just didn’t want me to be able to hear him doing it.

But I’d heard his whistling several times, and I already knew the Charlie always serenaded the close of day in one way or another, though I didn’t think he knew I knew. My awareness isn’t that bad. I pretended I hadn’t noticed him singing, but then when he stopped I, quietly but audibly, began my own.

When the sun in the morning peaks over the hill
And kisses the roses on my window sill,

Charlie stared at me in shock, but I ignored him and kept singing. He joined in on the second verse.

When it’s late in the evening, and I climb the hill
And survey all my kingdom while everything’s still
Only me and the sky and an old whippoorwill
Singing songs in the twilight on Mockingbird Hill.

“Where did you learn that song?” he asked me, when we were done.
“My Dad taught me,” I told him. He chuckled.
“I’ve taught my nephews,” he told me. I expected, almost hoped, some new revelation would follow, as Charlie seemed more relaxed and unguarded than I’d ever seen him before, but he remained silent. Below us, the wicker and brush Man caught flame and the first of the bands started up, but it sounded very far away. Together, my teacher and I watched the color gradually drain from the sky leaving  glimpses of clear, midnight blue behind grey, ghostly clouds. The stars began coming out, but mostly they were covered by cloud.

Finally, I realized my foot had fallen asleep—and that I could hardly see my feet, let alone anything beneath them.
“Uh, Charlie?” I asked, “will you tell me another secret?”
“Probably, yes,” he answered.
“How do we climb down in the dark?”

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Island

Twelve years ago today, I think I was doing the same thing I'm doing now; siting in my room, listening to it rain, and writing. Then, of course, I was in my room on campus, ten feet square, just a futon, a desk, a wardrobe, and some storage chests. You don't need much when you wear a uniform most of the time. I kind of miss the monkishness of it, though my wife would object if I tried to live that way now. But I don't remember anything particular happening in those weeks around the beginning of June. I'm even guessing about the rain, though it must have done that sometimes; we had decent crops that year, I do remember that. School had fallen into a rhythm, and I really don't remember a lot of details. I'll tell you more about the rhythms of the summer semester later, but I figure I should tell you about the May Trip first. That, I do remember well.

The May Trip was one of the few things yearlings could do that were optional--though I can't think why anyone would not want to go. I won't tell you where we went, except that it was an island with mountains. The trip was ten days long, plus travel days, so each of the faculty (except Greg, who didn't go) would take us for two days. The other eight days I suppose they were off on vacation--they didn't camp with us. I don't know where they stayed.

I could tell you what all we did that week--I took pretty detailed notes, and everybody but Charlie can fill in any details I might have forgotten, but I don't think I've got the space. So I'm just going to tell you about two of those days. I pick the days when Alan had us, because they were probably the most fun. The others taught us things, led workshops as they might have done on campus, except adapted to the island in some way. Alan just turned up one morning in swim trunks and asked if we all knew how to swim.

Alan in swim trunks was a bit odd, by the way--not that he looked funny or anything like that, he was in pretty good shape for a guy in his forties. It's just that I'm not sure I'd ever seen him wearing anything but a school uniform or a shirt and tie. There was always something formal, or even slightly awkward about him.

Anyway, he took us down to a little beach in an out-of-the-way cove, lead us out along the rocks along the edge of the cove, and into the water. We had to jump, because of the way the rocks dropped straight down--it wasn't a big jump, but there was no way to let yourself into the water gradually. Alan jumped first, then bobbed up to the surface, whooping because of the cold. The cold had me worried--the day wasn't exactly hot--but I jumped in next. You can only do two things in water that cold, complain or laugh, and I chose the latter.

"That's some therapy right there," Alan told me, treading water merrily almost beside me.

"Oh?" I think my teeth were chattering already "what does cold water cure?"

"Grumps, moods, blues, and sticks-up-the-ass," he replied. Once everyone was in the water, he told us to play as long as we liked without getting too cold, and that there were towels on the beach.

And that was it. There was no formal teaching, just play. For the next four or five hours we  all simply reverted to childhood. Women in their thirties pretended to be mermaids and dolphins, men raced each other down the beach with towels tied, cape-style--around their necks, and one man painted his face with mud and declaimed heroic poetry to nobody in particular from the top of a small, round rock. Even Alan became a boy again. He wore swim goggles and dove for shells and pretty rocks until his lips were blue. Then he sat happily by himself for an hour sorting his treasures into piles on his beach towel. When he was done he threw them all back into the sea, one by one. For myself, when I was done swimming, I went and sat by myself and watched everybody. That's what I did when I was little, and I suppose that's why I'm a writer now.

And then Alan grew up again and called us all together. He had a big, old-fashioned trunk, and out of it he pulled the most extraordinary collection of things. There was a small grill, a large aluminum pot, a bag of charcoal, a dozen live lobsters, bags of clams and oysters, various fruits and vegetables for grilling, jugs of water, bottles of hard cider and local beer, two Tiki torches, sleeping bags and pads for all of us, a small card table...I think he did it by using an abnormally large trunk and hiding it partway in a hole in the sand. So we had a feast, and while we feasted, Alan entertained us.

Now, obviously the masters were all masters at something, and usually more than one thing, otherwise they wouldn't have been teaching at the school--they wouldn't have worn the green ring. We knew that, but we hardly ever got to actually see them really at their best, because the focus was always on what the students could do, or needed help with. I'd known Alan was a magician the whole time I'd known him, and I knew he constantly used slight-of-hand or other small illusions to make his points, or even just to joke around. But I'd never seen him do a whole show before.

He was fantastic.

He had changed into his performance clothes, a tuxedo with a top hat, though nobody knew how or where he had changed. He did card tricks, made handkerchiefs change color, and then disappear, made small objects levitate, juggled objects whose number and type varied as we watched although none of us could catch him dropping anything or picking anything up, and the whole time kept up this marvelous chatter that made us about puke from laughing so hard. Nothing he did seemed that complicated, though I couldn't figure out how he did any of it (he still won't explain the levitating pennies), but it was the chatter, the schtick, the showmanship, that made it amazing. The only time he actually stopped talking was a brief period during which he was juggling knives--Alan was and is a master magician, but he was not quite a master juggler, and it required all of his attention. Eventually he switched out the knives for what looked like Ping Pong balls, until the balls hatched as he tossed them, one by one, high in the air, became tiny yellow helicopters, and flew away.

He stopped for a while to eat and drink with us, and then help clean up. We played some more, and then someone talked Alan into performing again. As it got dark, he snapped his fingers and pointed at the torches and both lit themselves. He pulled marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers, even skewers, out of his hat and passed them around (the grill was still going). Out of the trunk came a guitar, an instrument Alan played but badly, and was glad to turn over to the musicians of the group. Most of us gradually got drunk. Someone pointed out that camping wasn't allowed on the beach, but Alan grinned, his face looking weird in the light from the torches, and told us we didn't have to worry about getting caught when camping with a magician.

In the morning, after zazen (yes, we still had to sit), the magical trunk turned out to have all the fixings for an extraordinary breakfast--omelets, oatmeal, coffee, sweet rolls, fresh doughnuts...there was even a copy of the New York Times dated from that morning. How had it gotten there? After breakfast and cleanup, Alan gave us the rest of the day off and promptly vanished. I expect he spent the rest of the day sleeping--the whole adventure must have taken an extraordinary amount of planning.

I asked him later why, when all the others used their time to do something obviously academic, did he decide to lead us in play?

"Because I thought you needed it," was his only reply.