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.