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.