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, April 28, 2013

Second Interlude

Hi, it's me, Daniel-of-2013 again. And I have news. Not long ago, my wife and I welcomed our daughter to the world. I am, of course, protecting her privacy by not talking about her in any detail here, though as you can imagine I've been running around telling everybody I know personally all about her.

Maybe my slowness at getting pictures posted makes sense now? The fact of the matter is that I wrote up most of these posts ahead of time so I could keep up with my posting schedule through our baby's first few weeks by just editing a little, but I did not do any of the pictures ahead of time. I didn't think of it. So now I can't keep up. Painting takes time and a clean space to work, and these days I usually have neither. I'll get caught up later and post the pictures retroactively. That is my intention, anyway.

A few housekeeping notes.

First, for any readers who actually are birders, yes, Charlie's "listening to birds" exercise was both harder and easier than I thought it was at the time. There was a little more going on than I knew about. I won't elaborate now, since the details would probably bore anyone not perfectly capable of guessing on their own. Second, the extended workshop I referred to in my last post, the one that consisted of a trip to an island left just a few days after Beltane, but I'm going to present my posts about the trip slightly out of order. The reason is that I'm going to the same island this year, to see friends and to paint, and I want to post some of these paintings. I will therefore post about the island when I return, and while I'm gone I'll schedule several posts about events that actually happened after the trip. I don't think this anachronism will make much difference to the reader, but in the interests of accuracy I wanted to let you know. Third, I am not going to specify which island it is, other than to say it is publicly accessible and quite real. I may change a few minor details to discourage anyone guessing, since its location would be a clue as to the location of the school. And that I have agreed not to divulge.

It's interesting, looking over what I wrote so far, to see that my first dozen or so entries, those in "Part 1," are disproportionately about either Allen or Kit, while "Part 2" has been almost entirely about Charlie. In part, this is an artifact of space limitations. I was living the school every day all day, of course, and in writing this I have to reduce all of that experience to just a couple inches of text twice a week. I have had to include some events, in order to explain the setting and advance the plot, and that has left little room for other things that were equally important to me at the time. I did not stop looking up to Kit and Allen when I started looking up to Charlie. Furthermore, I actually spent only a minority of my time and energy thinking about and interacting with any faculty at all. If you had asked me then how I spent my time, I would have told you all about what I was doing with my friends--friends who were peers, I mean. But you can probably imagine my friendships with rough accuracy, as I don't think they were much different than the experience of any other young man--except that some of them were quite a bit older than I, because the age range of students was a lot greater than at most colleges. But the faculty, what they taught, and what they were like to work with, was unique, so far as I know. You couldn't imagine that, if I didn't tell you.

But it is true that I initially connected most with Kit and Allen out of all the staff. Before classes started in March, I rarely had any reason to spend a lot of time with any of the faculty, but Allen was an exception because he lead group therapy. And anyway, I spent a lot of time with Ollie and Ollie admired Allen and talked about him a lot. And of course, there was my crush on Kit. Then,over a number of weeks, I gradually grew curious about Charlie. I couldn't have said why, and I still can't explain why the curiosity started; he was a remarkable man, but I don't think I had any way of knowing that at the beginning.

Charlie liked to say that there are many possible ways to section reality to make a story. He meant "section" as in "conic section." If you take a solid cone, maybe made out of clay or ice cream or something solid but soft, and you slice through it, the sliced open face shows a two-dimensional shape. If you cut straight across horizontally, you get a circle. If you cut at an angle, you get an egg-shape. And so on. All these shapes you can get by cutting a cone are called conic sections, a fact that is utterly insignificant to most people, though I get a kick out of the idea. Anyway, Charlie meant that reality is to a story what that cone is to a two-dimensional slice. And in writing this story, I am constantly aware that I am sectioning reality, and that there are many other possible sections, other stories, that would be equally true.

Just like last time I broke in to comment like this, I'm concerned that this section I have chosen to slice may be presenting one of my professors inaccurately. I worry that I may have made Charlie come off as pretty humorless. Actually, he was a very funny, very playful man, it's just that he didn't joke around much with people he didn't know well, and thirteen years ago that included me. The other problem is that back then I didn't know enough about his world to get a lot of his jokes. I'd seen him joke or play pranks a few times that spring, but it was only later, sometimes years later, that I really understood everything that he'd said, that I really got the whole joke. So I haven't included any of those anecdotes because there is no way I can describe them fully from the perspective I had back then.

I left the roof off in this drawing because I never got a good look at it.
 I'll tell one now, in order to correct the record, but to do that I have to describe Chapel Hall a bit, first. I didn't do that earlier when I was describing the rest of campus, because I was writing about a time before classes started when I hadn't actually been in Chapel Hall very much.

From the outside, Chapel Hall looked, as I said, very collegiate, meaning that it was built of red brick with white trim and looked formal and decorative at once. It was an essentially cubic building, with four cupolas mostly used by ravens. Inside it was deliberately confusing.

The whole building was almost perfectly bilaterally symmetrical, so that there were two main doors and two sets of stairways, one of either side of the building, east-west. Most of the building was also symmetrical north-south, so that it was easy to get disoriented once you were inside. The ground floor had an almost open floor plan. The offices for some of the staff members were there, but there were a lot of internal windows so that sunlight could reach in and you could walk from one external door to the other, though not in a straight line. On the floor in the middle of that hallway was a large solar seal. Dust floated in stray sunbeams and the smell of old books.

But the other three floors were all dominated by the auditorium, the original chapel itself. It started on the second floor, but its ceiling was two and a half stories high. So if you were on the second floor, there would be the auditorium and also several classrooms and some restrooms off to either side. But if you went up to the third floor, the classrooms on the west side were completely cut off from those on the east side by the upper part of the chapel. We all spent our first week or so of classes constantly running up and down stairs because we had classes on the third floor and kept forgetting which side, east or west, we had to go to. And once up the wrong stairway, there was no way to get to the other side of the building without going either up or down.

The fourth floor was equally screwy, but in a very different way. You could get through, by walking over the top of the chapel, except the chapel had a curved ceiling so the fourth floor had a hump in it. The humped area was always referred to as the fourth-and-a-half floor. To cross from one side of the building to the other up there, you went up a couple of steps, over maybe twenty feet, and down a couple more steps.

Wait--how did all the rooms have windows? They did!
 But all this was not enough confusion for our school, so the fourth (and fourth-and-a-half) floor was divided into a warren of small, interconnecting classrooms, without a central hallway. To get to your class, you had to thread the maze. And the rooms up there had names, not numbers, and the names changed every year. When someone told a story from the previous year that had happened in one of those rooms, he or she always used the old name, as though the rooms, and not just the names, were changing.

The fourth floor was up near the roof of the building; when it rained hard in the summer you could hear the drops hit, very loud, on the roof. And some of the ceilings sloped, because the roof sloped. Where the slope dropped the ceiling down to five feet, there were dividing walls, but on the other side of those walls were eve spaces used for storage that could be accessed through cabinet doors cut into the wall. And there were no internal dividers in the eves, so once you got in there you could creep, unseen, from one class room to another.

So, once I was in class--I forget whether it was Psychology class and Kit was there as a guest speaker, or if it was a workshop Kit and Allen were team-teaching, but either way they were both there and we were in one of those rooms next to the eves. And suddenly Charlie leaped out of one of the cabinet doors.

“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; I'm not even sure Charlie had known she would be there. She and Charlie rarely interacted unless Allen was present, since he was friends with both of them. Allen 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 Allen 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. 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 in both space and time. To most of us, a forest is an object and so a fire is the end of that object. To Charlie and to people like him, fire is only another iteration of the pattern. Seen this way, Charlie's comment is not just a pun at Kit's expense, but has all these other meanings. I'm pretty sure that Kit and Allen both understood what he meant. They were his colleagues, and Kit had once been his student.But none of the rest of us got it. We'd heard Charlie talk about disturbance histories in class, and some of us had heard the phrase in high school, but we had so much else to think about and learn that studying ecology hadn't yet influenced our habits of thought. I didn't learn how to think like an ecologist until several years later, and I think some of the others never did. For them, science was the arcane, the real occult, hidden in plain sight by misunderstanding and lack of interest.

Trust my teacher to embed his jokes several layers deep in a field most of the rest of us didn’t study.

[Next Post: Friday, May 3rd: Beltane] 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Part 2: Post: 12: The Names of Things

The trees are leafing out now. The whole campus is turning green. I know I've been saying that intermittently for months, but it's been happening for months, and every successive change seems both dramatic and sudden, not like something gradual at all. The snow melted, the shrubs and wildflowers greened up, and now the trees are leafing out and more and more plants in the ornamental gardens are in flower. The sumac is past already, but the spice bush is in bloom. It's just a different campus. I keep coming back to this. Am I going to be surprised by green every single day until Autumn?

Some of the things I described earlier are no longer true. The bird feeders in the garden you can see from the Bird Room have all been taken in, I guess so that bears won't get to them. My parents have their hummingbird feeders up and are awaiting their first visitors, but there are none here. Instead, a lot of the plants growing now will attract birds and butterflies when they bloom. All the balconies have window boxes now. In a few weeks, after we're sure the last frost has past, we'll all get scarlet runner beans to plant so in the summer we'll having living sun-shades and hummingbirds right outside our bedrooms. On warm days the chickens come out of their winter coops and hunt for bugs and whatever plants they like in the still mostly brown grass. I can hear the roosters crowing from class (an additional bird sound to keep track of, as I'm still being trailed by Charlie's spies).

And our food is starting to change. I hadn't thought about how seasonal what we were eating was until it started to change. Hardly anything is even planted in the outdoor beds, of course, since we still get frost every week or so, but the greenhouses have plenty of light. They aren't heated, so we can't get tomatoes all year or anything like that, but we've got cold-season greens and lots of sprouts. And we've got dandelion greens picked out of the fields and pastures. I knew dandelion greens were edible, but I never thought I'd actually eat any, and now it turns out I like them. I guess I was getting tired of root vegetables and soups and everything dried or canned. We still have a lot of that, but there's less of it, and hardly any meat anymore. We're starting to eat a lot of salad. Do you know, I don't think the kitchen has a refrigerator? We hardly ever eat anything that needs it.

And we continue to change. Kayla's son, Aidan, is getting rounder and more alert. I'd heard this before, about newborns, without really understanding it, but he really didn't look like a baby when I first saw him. He looked like a fetus, I guess, all thin and wrinkled and solemn. He's starting to look more like a baby now. And Kayla's doing well. I haven't spoken to her in a while, for whatever reason, but she looks like she's happy, and I've heard she's passing her class, which is pretty incredible in my opinion. Nora has officially asked Kit to teach her Wicca, though I don't know if anyone has told Nora's mother yet. I've hardly talked to Ollie in the past few weeks, we don't have any classes together, but we keep saying we're going to start running together in the mornings. Maybe we will. Andy has made himself officially in charge of bicycle maintenance and repair, which he is learning as he goes, largely from Chuck, the maintenance man. He seems happy. He has almost three months clean now.

And all of us,the full-course yearlings, anyway, are starting to --it's like our classes have invaded our speech.We all have the same classes, but some of us don't have a lot else in common. So obviously we talk about school to help each other with homework, but also because, I guess, it's what we think about. We even joke about physics, ecology, etc., because those are the in-jokes we can all get. Our spring classes are over now, though. They were just two credits each, and now that they're done it feels like they were both very short and very long. It's been pretty intense.

We have a few weeks off before summer classes start, but I don't think anyone's going home. There are a couple of extended workshops between now and then a lot of us want to take. There's a trip to an island I particularly want to go on, right after Beltane.

The other two workshops are Wilderness First Aid, and Chainsaw Operation and Maintenance. Both include certification. I'm taking both of them,the first because I want to, and the second because Charlie suggested it.

He asked me the other day if I had any thoughts about which craft I'm going to take. I hadn't, though as he'd the craft teacher I expected him to suggest I get on the horticulture team next year. Instead he suggested I get into chainsaw work, maybe axe, and trail maintenance. Apparently there are a lot of trails back in the woods behind campus, and he has a hunch.

"You can change your mind later and do something else, if you want, but as long as you don't have plans you might as well take the chainsaw class this summer," he said. Of course, he and a buddy of his are teaching it.

Speaking of working with Charlie, I'm hearing birds everywhere, now. I still don't know their names, or maybe their songs are their names, but I'm hearing them. It's like all of a sudden the woods and fields seem crowded, even when I'm the only human around. There are all these conversations happening around me and I don't understand any of them. I'd like to learn. And I'm starting to notice plants more, too. Wild ones, I mean. Even grasses. Did you know there's more than one kind of grass? Lawn grass, I mean. There's four or five kinds starting to flower out along the main road. Charlie didn't say I have to learn the plants in my squares, only look them up and write down which ones are sprouting and blooming and so on, but of course I'm starting to learn them, anyway. It's fun.

But I honestly wasn't sure why I was doing it. I hadn't even asked Charlie to teach me anything specific, just to teach me. So when Charlie and I talked about which craft I was going to take, I asked him.

"Hey, Charlie, you're my spirit master, right?"

"Yes, among other things." He was sharpening a utility knife as we sat together and he didn't look up at me.

"So, why am I learning all this? To listen to birds, to identify flowers?"

Now he did look up at me.

"Not what you expected, is it?"

"Oh, no, that's not it. I didn't really expect anything, I mean, I didn't know..." I sputtered a bit. I didn't want him to think I didn't still want to learn. "No, I'm not complaining, I just don't know how all this fits together." He kept sharpening his knife for maybe half a minute more, tested the blade by shaving a couple of hairs off his sinewy arm, and slid it into a deerskin sheath on his belt. Then he looked at me.

"Daniel," he said, "you're trying to make friends with God, right? That's one of the names for what you're doing?"

"I suppose so, yes. Yes."

"And you and I are friends, right?" News to me, but I certainly wasn't going to object. "So what's my name?"

I told him his name, first and last, including his middle initial, which I don't think he knew I knew. It's R, and I don't know what it stands for. He chuckled.

"Good. How do I make my living?"

"You're a college professor, groundskeeper, and writer."

"And I work part time with a landscaper in town. Buddy of mine. What do I eat?"

"Cheese sandwiches on homemade bread with honey and mustard." I'd never actually seen him eat anything else for lunch, and I never saw him at any other meal. He chuckled again.

"You're thorough. Who do I hang out with?"

"Me, some of your other students...Allen. I don't know who your friends are when you're not working."

"Who do I not hang out with?" This question there was a trace of something sly in his voice, as though he wasn't sure I'd be able to answer, but I did, without hesitation.

"Kit." My answer made him chuckle.

"Is it that obvious? I'd better do something about that. Now, if you hadn't noticed these things about me, would we really be friends?"

I'm not sure we are friends, though I'd be his friend, happily, but I've studied ecology long enough to catch the metaphor.

"You want me to learn all that about the birds and the grass and the flowers and the, the bugs and whatever else, everything that's here, don't you? But that will take years!"

"You've got four of them, and you seem reasonably intelligent," he said with a shrug. "You're a quick study." The compliment distracted me for a moment. I'm not sure he's given me one before, and all our classes are pass/fail, so I haven't been getting any grades. But--

"But the birds and the grass and the bugs are not God," I protested. Allen would have asked how I knew they aren't, but Charlie just held up his index finger.

"Alright," he said, "what's the name of my finger?"

[Next Post:April 29th: Second Interlude]

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Part 2: Post 11: Easter

[Note; remember that Easter in 2000 was much later in the year than it was in 2013)

I never would have thought I could have forgotten about Easter. I mean, I was raised Christian. I've always known when Easter was. It's like I could smell it,or look out the window and see it.

Of course, you can't actually smell Easter, it's just that usually there's an Easter break, and all the store fill up with baskets of green plastic grass and pastel candy, and public TV schedules a couple of documentaries about Jesus and the Holy Land. Here, I don't watch TV, and we don't have an Easter break. Hardly anyone pays attention to Easter here, it seems; Christianity is very much the minority religion, not disrespected so much as mostly ignored. We don't have classes on Easter, but we don't have classes on Sunday anyway. I was vaguely aware that it was coming up, and I'd planned to go home for it, but then someone mentioned it was tomorrow and I had no time to make arrangements. And anyway, I didn't honestly feel like going anywhere. I'd just gone home the other week, and it felt really weird, though of course I was glad to see everybody. And it isn't like none of us had ever been away from home over Easter before.

So when Ariel asked me if I was coming to the non-denominational Easter service he was co-leading, I told him yes, I was. I was curious, and I didn't want to have to tell my parents I'd ignored Easter altogether.

The service was in the chapel in Chapel Hall, not surprisingly. It wasn't very long or complex, being designed to be as inclusive as possible. There were only maybe fifteen of us there, plus Ariel and another student who is, like him, a preacher. Ollie attended, of course, plus some of the other senior students, but from my year besides me there was only Andy, looking fit and serene. The big surprise was that several faculty were there, since they tend to hide when they aren't working. Sarah was not there--I assume that she and her family went to a Catholic Mass, but Charlie, Allen, Kit, and Joy were all there. Kit is very proudly not Christian, and even seems mildly hostile to Christianity sometimes, so I didn't know why she was there, but there she was, the sunlight from the big chapel windows setting her red hair aglow.

Maybe it was the lovely light, or the once-familiar familiar Scriptural passages and hymns that moved me--I haven't been to church regularly in a few years, my recent experiments with local churches notwithstanding, so the old words reminded me pleasantly of childhood. At the same time, because I haven't heard a lot of these things in a while, I was very aware of hearing them as an adult, differently than I'd ever heard them before. Either way, I was incredibly moved. What struck me finally was not the Easter story itself, which somehow failed to touch me at all, but something else, something I hadn't really noticed before. I couldn't put my finger on it, it was like a light, brighter and clearer than sunlight, pierced everything. I'm not sure I can explain it, now.

After the service was over, I just sat there thinking for a while as the others got up and left. When I finally got up, I found that Kit had waited for me at the door of the auditorium.

"Penny for your thoughts?" she asked, leaning on the doorway.

"I dunno," I told her. "I just don't get the big deal anymore about the tomb being empty. Is that weird?"

"Not to me," she answered, "though I'm probably the wrong person to ask, if you're Christian. I guess your perspective on rebirth depends on your perspective on death. What do you think about death?"

I haven't talked to Kit anywhere near as much as I'd like, and I've never really spoken with her in any depth. I've taken some talks and workshops with her, but we don't know each other well. But something about her, she's just pleasant to be around. That she is beautiful certainly helps. I think I could talk with her about anything. Even when she asked what I thought of death, it didn't sound morbid or frightening, just another part of a lovely spring day.

"I don't know," I told her. "I don't think about it much. doesn't scare me. I think maybe something would be missing if it didn't exist."

"Birth, for one. Movement, time," she suggested, nodding in agreement with me. When we came out of the building and found Charlie, Alan, and a student named Sue, I tried not to be sorry that my private conversation with Kit was over. The day was warm and and cloudy but still bright, though it had rained a little while we were inside and everything was drippy.

"The thing I miss about smoking," Charlie was saying, "is it gave everyone a reason to stand around outside together. You remember that, Allen? I wish all my favorite vices weren't so bad for me."

"I remember when you smoked," Allen said. "I never did. Hi, Kit, Daniel. Do you go by Dan or Daniel?"

"Daniel, mostly," I replied. "If a vice weren't bad for you, would it be a vice?"

"Vice, from Latin, vitium," Allen answered, "means fault or blemish. So, no, technically, I guess a vice does not have to be bad for you, merely an example of you being imperfect, or bad?"

"But we're not speaking Latin!" objected Charlie.

"Then do we have no vices on Easter?" Kit asked, merrily, ignoring him. "Jesus took them away! I imagine him walking off with all of humanity's dents and dings...though what does a dent look like without a thing to dent?"

"You're confusing levels," Charlie told her. "When the esoteric is treated as worldly, both are distorted."

"But I like the world!"Kit replied, hotly, her teasing, almost flirtatious banter suddenly acquiring an edge. "Look at you, sounding like a Christian!"

"I will not tell God where he isn't!" Charlie replied, with a similar edge. Something was happening.

"Touchy, touchy," Allen admonished, smiling but looking a little nervous and glancing at me and Sue. Kit and Charlie both smiled and the tension eased for a moment. Both glanced at us, too, as though remembering we were there.

"It's not that I'm against Jesus," Kit told me, with some slight self-consciousness. "He was a very wise man, and I wish more people really followed his ideas. But I have a problem with the concept of sins being paid for by his sacrifice. Forgiveness inherently includes judgment; you can't tell someone their sins are forgiven without telling them they're a sinner, right? You have to first buy into the guilt and shame trip--unless the sinner is a rich white man. Then the rest of us are supposed to just be meek and wait to inherit the Earth, because Jesus already paid for that guy's sins. It's just too convenient. I mean, what kind of god sends rain to the just and unjust alike?"

"The kind of god that actually sends the rain," Charlie answered.

[Next Post: April 25: The name of the land]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Part 2: Post 10: Wildflowers

Things are finally sprouting here. For the past few weeks I've noticed a kind of swelling on some of the tree-buds. Some of them have grown what looks, at a distance, like red fuzz. It's kind of pretty. Some of the shrubs have been flowering, too. But today I noticed that some of the trees and most of the shrubs have put out little sprouts of green leaves. Little flowers are up in the grass, and the grass by the side of the road is getting green and tall. Most of the grass on campus is still brown, though. Odd.

And I've got another assignment from Charlie. It's to go along with the growing ears thing, which I think it winding down, now. He's given me three different squares on campus, each about three feet on a side, marked with stakes, and I'm supposed to check each of them once a week and write down all of the plants that are flowering or fruiting when I visit. I don't think I'm supposed to do anything with this information; I'm not even sure I have to turn my list in. Maybe this time I'm growing eyes. Of course, I don't know most of the plants, and I certainly don't know their scientific names, but there are guide books I can borrow from the herbarium.

Have I mentioned the herbarium yet? It's an awesome place. It's in the Mansion, on the other side of the martial arts/yoga studio, and it's kind of an extension of the library. If we need to borrow anything, or need help finding something, we're supposed to come get the librarian. There are guide books and reference books for just about everything that lives and a few things that don't--insects and minerals and such, not just herbs. There are pressed samples of just about every plant that grows in the region. There are binoculars and magnifying lenses, microscopes and telescopes, flagging tape and very long tape measures. All sorts of good, sciency supplies. You'd think that all of this was here for Charlie's more sciency students, right? Wrong.

I mean, it is for us, but it's not just for us. There are also a lot of people studying the magical properties of plants and psychic communication with trees and so forth,and they need to know their plants,too. The place doubles as a supply room, with  big jars of leaves and roots and powders variously labeled for use in medicine, magic, and even cooking. You can come in here and get stuff for tea, if you want to, though not everything in the jars is edible. There is no presumption here that science should be devoid of spirit or magic, nor does anyone here seem to think that spirit or magic without science would be very smart.

So, an update "growing ears" with Charlie.

We got up every day for something like a week to listen to birds before he finally decided I'd gotten good enough that we didn't have to do it anymore. Not that I could always match his count, usually I couldn't, but I'd get it right once or twice in a row pretty often, and I'd get three times in a row sometime before breakfast. So he let me go. Great!

For three whole days, I could get up and go to zazen like a normal person, but today I blew it. I was sitting outside after lunch, enjoying the day, when one one of the senior students from another dorm, someone I don't know very well, looked up from her book and said, casually, "hey, that one's really pretty-sounding. Has it been singing the whole time?"

I looked up, kind of startled, and said "What? Huh? Oh, I don't know." And she looked at me like I was a total doofus.

"I'll go tell Charlie," she said, and got up.

Damn it, now I've got to grow ears again tomorrow before dawn. I bet normal college students don't have to deal with their professors sending spies.

Speaking of which, did I really just write "get up and go to zazen like a normal person"? Since when has this crazy life I lead been normal? I went home for this past weekend, the first time I've been home since I've been here, and my Dad said I've changed.

"Changed how?" I asked him.

"I don't know. I can't tell yet," he said.

"Ok, good or bad?"

"I don't know--but since this is you, let's call it good."

As far as I can tell, it's everything else has changed. Everyone here is so wasteful. My parents recycle, but I don't see why they buy so many cans and bottles to begin with. It's like they don't notice they're buying the cans and bottles and packages, only the soda and water and food inside. They drive to places they could easily bike to, and they do have bikes. My Mom drove five miles to the gym the other day, where she probably rode the Exercycle. They leave lights on. Intellectually, of course, I know they haven't changed; I have. And I haven't said anything yet. I don't want to come off like a jerk.

And it's not just that. My old friends are obsessed with stupid things and bored by what I find exciting. I'm used to talking about books and ideas and so on, and they aren't. Look, I don't want to give the wrong impression; my parents are not bad people, and my friends aren't stupid. My parents do recycle and have as long as I can remember, and they buy organic most of the time. And if my old friends like insipid and oafish things sometimes, well, so do I. But it's a question of emphasis, and mine's changed more than I'd realized. I even feel weird not wearing my uniform for so many hours on end. I guess I don't belong on the outside anymore....

I mentioned this in group therapy the other day, because it's kind of bothering me, and Allen said that yes, we do change here, and yes, some of the change is permanent, but feeling like we don't belong on the outside is temporary.

"You won't be again what you were before," he said, in his mild way, "But at your age after four years you wouldn't be the same, anyway. The outside is a big place, and you will find your place in it again, maybe even before you leave here."


Anyway, I'm glad I waited to go home until after I'd had several weeks of classes. I guess my parents had been worried that I'd end up mostly learning spells and fluff, but I showed them my course syllabi and my books and my notes and they're impressed. As my Mom said, she didn't take ecology and physics as a freshman. My Dad says he doesn't know how what I'm learning from Charlie relates to spiritual development (I think he'd rather I just go to church more often), but that I'm building a foundation I could build a living on in any of several different ways. I think he sees graduate school in my future. My Mom said money isn't everything, and not to worry how everything might relate to a career, just so long as I'm growing as a person.

I think I pretty much lucked out, as far as my parents go.

[Next Post; April 22: Easter]

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Part 2: Post 9: Growing Ears

So, Charlie told me to meet him at the Martin House twenty minutes before dawn. So, what is the Martin House? And when exactly is dawn? I mean, I know roughly when dawn is, because I'm in zazen when it happens, but obviously I'd need something more precise.

I went to the library, first, but Aaron wasn't there. They said he'd be back in a bit, so I went to the front office and asked Sharon where the Martin House is. She simply pointed out the window. I looked, but did not see a house. Sharon knows everything that happens around here, but getting her to share information is a trial. You have to ask the right question.

"Ok," I asked, "so what is the Martin House?"

"A house for martins." Not a house for Martin? Now we're getting somewhere.

"What is a martin? In this context?" She grinned at me briefly as though I'd caught her at something.

"A small bird."

"So I'm looking for a bird house?"

"Yes. So, Charlie agreed to teach you?"

"How did you know that?" I had just spoken to him about  it fifteen minutes earlier, and he was still outside. Sharon shrugged.

"Who else would tell you to find the Martin House? Somebody must have, or you wouldn't be asking directions to something you've walked past every day without noticing for two months." Like I said, Sharon knows everything.

And twenty minutes before dawn equals right before Zezen, so I hoped Charlie wasn't going to keep me very long. I was also pretty sure that hope was in vain, so I dressed warmly. Good thing I did.

When I got to the Martin House, Charlie was nowhere in evidence. It was light enough that I would have seen him if he was waiting for me in the open like a normal person, but there were vague shadows everywhere. I didn't have time to stand around waiting, so I just stared up at the Martin House until I heard him clear his throat behind me. 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, to keep us off the cold ground.

"I'm about to be late for zazen," I reminded him, since apparently he did intend for us to sit somewhere for a while.

"There's another session over lunch. You can go to that one," he told me. "If Greg objects, send him to me." He handed me one of the foam squares and set off towards a group of big pine trees near the woods behind where I think the gym used to be. I stared after him for a moment, then hurried to catch up and asked him what we were going to be doing. 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 on his belt, 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. We sat under one of the trees and 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 three consecutive times.

I had been vaguely aware that birds were singing, but I hadn't been paying attention. The first time I tried counting, all I heard was a wall of sound. It was pretty sound, but undifferentiatable, just this swell of musical chatter. At the end of five minutes, I had no idea. It could have been one species singing; it could have been a hundred.

"I don't know, a hundred," I told Charlie.

"There aren't a hundred species of birds here," he told me, with what sounded like a smile. "Try again. This time, try to find one song, and notice every time you hear it, and every time you hear something that is not it."

So I tried again. At first I could hear no distinctions at all, and the sound was completely continuous. Then I heard a single, harsher note that was different, a different voice. Then I heard it again.  Twice more I heard it before the five minutes were up.

"Two," I told Charlie, meaning the harsh note and the wall of sound. He chuckled.

"Nope, five. Try again."

I listened again for the harsh note, but did not hear it. This time the wall divided itself into two dialects: chirpy sounds and warbly sounds. And a crow cawed in the distance.


"Nope, five."

The next time I simply guessed five, and Charlie, angry, asked if I wanted to go to breakfast or not.

"What happens if we miss breakfast?" I asked. It was now almost broad daylight, and I wasn't sure I had made any progress at all. Would he really keep me past breakfast?

"We go hungry," he told me. I caught the "we," in his answer and buckled down. Another five minutes passed.


"Are you guessing?"

"No: seven."

"Wrong: six. You can be wrong, Daniel, but do not be unsure of yourself."

We went on like this for nearly three hours. At one point I got frustrated and tried to solve the puzzle by brute mental force, trying to hear and focus on every single sound I heard, but as soon as I found a new song in the auditory mess, the previous one vanished from my brain like a dream.


"'Arg' is not a number, Daniel."

Finally I started getting it right, though never twice in a row. The day had warmed enough that Charlie had stripped off his shoes and socks. His feet looked big and broad and calloused, but still very white after the long winter. When Charlie called "time" again, I had no idea.

"What, were you thinking about my feet the whole time?"

"Yes. Charlie, I'm sorry, I'm getting so tired...."

"Good. That's usually when the miracle happens."

And indeed it did. I was too exhausted, mentally, to think of anything but bird song. I couldn't even really think. The sound just swelled and undulated around me. I closed my eyes and began almost conducting the chorus in my head, pointing, in my imagination, at each singing bird I heard, locating it in mental space, and when a new bird sang I located it in a different place with a different shape of sound. I was watching sound. And I started getting it right more often.

Finally, after two consecutive right answers, Charlie said I was one over--I'd said nine, he said eight. Wrong again. I slumped.

"But one of those birds made two different noises. Good job. We're done for the day."

I didn't react for a moment. I was just too dazed.

"Daniel? You got the number of bird species right. You're done." I got up and stretched, all stiff and cold. Charlie got up, too. He had to get to class.

"I'm sorry I kept you from breakfast," I told him.

"You didn't keep me, I kept me. I didn't expect you to get it quickly. You're rewriting your brain, Daniel, growing new neurological connections. It's not just knowledge that birders have, it is a learned capacity to notice. You're growing that. It's hard work. Now go to work or to class or to wherever it is you go. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Twenty minutes before dawn?"


And we've done that every day since this week. He's told me he expects me to be listening to bird song all the time, whenever I'm outside to hear it, anyway, and I'm trying. I still can't remember these songs from one minute to the next--I asked one of the students, who is a birder, to name some of the songs for me and he did and all the names could have been snow in June for the way they totally failed to stick around, but I'm starting to hear a little better. I haven't missed breakfast again. And if I've complained, Charlie hasn't heard me do it, nor will he. I know what he means by "boogeyman." He means someone to blame for getting up too early and missing breakfast and most of lunch, so I can say "he made me do it," instead of the truth, which is that I want to learn to hear, I want it desperately. But not so desperately as to sit around for three hours and miss breakfast on my own initiative. I have to admit that.

Does everybody need a boogeyman? I don't know. Charlie thinks everyone does, anyway, which raises a question; who is Charlie's boogeyman? I suppose I am. After all, I made him teach me.

[Next Post: April 19th: Wildflowers]

Friday, April 12, 2013

Part 2: Post 8: Finding Dumbledore

So a group of us got talking the other day at breakfast, arguing about which of the masters is Dumbledore. Of course, none of them really make a good parallel, but that's a really boring way to answer the question, so we kept arguing about it. Each of the masters had somebody arguing for them. I think it comes down to definitions, I mean, nobody looks like Dumbledore, or even acts much like him, but Dumbledore is the most central, most Hogwartzy of the professors in Rowling's' books. So the analogy we were all groping for is who is the most central of our teachers; who best epitomizes our school?
And everybody has their own answer because the school is different for each of us. For Andy, this school is about becoming a true Christian, while for Nora I think it's about becoming Wiccan--about finding something spiritually significant in being female, anyway. It's like each person sees this place through a different filter, and that filter structures what they learn here. It's like there are actually many different schools here, each with its own central figure or figures, depending on your perspective.

I think this is a way to think about something I've noticed, that even though us novices usually work with several masters, most of the senior students also seem to have a master who is particularly theirs. I guess that is their Dumbledore, the central figure of the school as each person sees it. Maybe this is why I've been thinking so much about what masters I'm going to work with, even though I don't actually need to start deciding for months. I guess I'm trying to figure out what sort of school this will be for me.

I'm not alone, either. Of course, some people have to choose now; Arther is only going to be here a year, so he had to pick a master almost immediately. He's working on nature writing with Charlie. But a lot of other people, like me, are simply thinking about it early. Nora doesn't have to pick at all for a few years, because she's on a six year plan, but she's already gravitating to Kit. So I guess trying to find a teacher is just in the air.

 Meanwhile, I'm continuing to help Charlie, when I can get the time and when I can find him before lunch. He seems to like my company, or at least he doesn't totally dislike it, and I like working in the gardens with him. It reminds me of helping my Dad in the yard when I was little. I don't mean Charlie reminds me of my Dad, particularly, or that he's getting to be a father figure for me. It's just that helping out in a garden feels right. And Charlie seems to actually know everything, the way you think your parents know everything when you're little. He might find some little chewed place on a leaf and he can tell what chewed it and when and why, and what other animals might chew the chewer. And he gets such a kick out of it. The other day, he accidentally dug up an ant nest and he called me over so he could show me the little white eggs and pupae the ants were carrying around. And his face just shone, no griping or growling anywhere, just Then he left the nest alone for a while to give the ants time to finish moving. He speaks kindly to spiders. He treats plants with respect. And yet, according to reliable rumor, he keeps the woodchucks out of the farm fields with a bow and arrow. The deer skins in his bedroom, I'm sure, came from animals he killed himself.

Officially, he's the craft master; besides his academic classes, he mostly teaches the craft of ecologically responsible landscaping. He also teaches chainsaw operation and maintenance, as a craft. Like the others he can teach other mastery areas, too, like writing as an art, and I've heard of a few students who had talked him into teaching horticulture as an art, too, instead of as a craft. But there are also rumors that he can teach spiritual development—and nobody seems to know who has studied that with him, or what exactly they learned. Whenever anyone asks about his spiritual practice he growls or refuses to respond at all. But I’ve noticed that persistence goes a long way with Charlie. And I’ve seen his library.

So, today 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. 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, because I had a plan to say something I didn't want just anybody to hear.

“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, one of the phrases I've heard them say ritualistically at the meetings I've been to. I knew he'd recognize it, and as soon as I said it he stopped where he was, 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.

[Next post;April 15th; bird song]

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Part 2: Post 7: Personal Things

  I think I've mentioned that the Masters live on the fourth floor of the Mansion, though I'm not sure even everyone here knows that. Certainly none of us ever sees them coming in or out, and none of us are allowed up there, even by invitation, except to clean. No one has said so, but I get the feeling I'm not supposed to talk with other students about what I see up there.

Not that anything I see up there is all that different from what the rest of us see everywhere else. They have a dorm very much like ours, and like us what they have is minimal, but carefully and expertly made. They do take it a step further than we do; if they have luxury, it lies in the details of their space. The floors are some kind of honey-colored wood and mostly covered with hand-woven rush mats or wool rugs. The furniture seems to be all custom-made, by hand. It feels good to be up there.

They have two hallways that form a kind of backwards L shape, with private rooms along one side of each hallway, storage rooms and such on the other, and larger, common rooms at the corners. The common room on the west corner is a kind of library/sitting room, filled with the most wonderful rare books and these awesome couches that look like they were framed with polished driftwood and upholstered with abstract needlepointed panels. There are deep, comfy chairs near sunny windows and bean-bag chairs hidden in nooks behind bookshelves. There's a globe like the one I had when I was little, only, unlike mine, the tape that shows the equator has not fallen off. There's a woodstove, like ours, with a kettle on it for tea any time you want. I think they must spend a lot of time here; I can imagine parties, the masters drinking and talking beside the fire when none of us are around to bother them, like the dinners my parents had that went on and on, hours after we had gone to bed. Sometimes there's a tea cup or an empty wine glass left sitting somewhere, or a book I need to put back on its shelf. I've found popcorn on the floor, just a little, like somebody spilled a bowl full and didn't quite pick up all the pieces.

At the southern corner, the elbow of the L, is a space that I guess must be a dining room. There are pantry shelves and cupboards and a sink. Sometimes I've found tables set up, but usually they're folded away and there's this big expanse of open floor. Nobody wears shoes inside without a very good reason, because shoes track in dirt, and sometimes when I'm alone up there cleaning I skate across that smooth wood floor in my socks. The big windows face south and east, looking through the sill bare branches of the elm to the forests and out over the valley and the lake to the distant hills and I imagine Kit doing her yoga here, on the mornings she doesn't teach, sun salutations before the rising sun. But of course I don't really know.

The northern corner has a small gym, a weight-room. We don't have one, though there are free weights in the martial arts studio downstairs. They also have a kind of outdoor courtyard or patio, in the angle of the L, because their floor is smaller than ours. Does that make sense? I mean not all of the fourth floor is enclosed by walls and a roof, there's an open space. Part of their courtyard is a skylight for the stairwell below, so they can't walk on that, but the rest of it is a kind of garden, with raised beds in boxes and chairs set here and there. In the summer it must be a lovely spot. I don't know what they grow in the boxes, but whatever it is must be fresh.
They mostly clean up after themselves. There are some dishes to do, sometimes, and the aforementioned popcorn, but mostly we just have to sweep and dust. If a light bulb burnt out we'd change it, but they never do; they're all long-lasting fluorescent things.

But we never clean the rooms where the masters actually have their private space. Never...until today. I guess they're having some kind of event and they want everything extra clean, so two of us went to clean the apartments while three more did everything else. Those two were me and Ollie.

"Don't feel bad about snooping," Ollie told me, grinning. "As long as you don't open any drawers or anything like that. They invited us in here, so they will have moved everything they don't want us to see. If you want to poke into every room, go ahead. Then we'll start cleaning at either end and meet in the middle."

So, I looked in all the rooms. Not that I learned anything, in most cases. The rooms aren't labeled, and aside from something obvious, like the baby's things in Sadie's rooms, I couldn't guess who lived where.

It turns out what I thought were rooms are actually apartments; each is sixteen feet square, and is divided into three rooms: a small living room and two tiny bedrooms. There are ten apartments, five along each leg of the L, and each is apparently designed for two people, though some are obviously unoccupied. The first room I went in I just stood there, slack-jawed, very moved by the thought that these people, most of who could have taught at any school they wanted to, have to private space of their own except a single bedroom smaller than some college professor's offices.

Of course, they don't all live there; some of the rooms are made up like offices, though all have beds, I guess in case their occupants want to stay over. Others look entirely lived in. I started at the gym end and went poking into rooms, poking into rooms, on down the hall. Most are painted plain white, but some have color. 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. I kept trying to guess who belonged to which room. There was one with a small shrine in the corner, with a little Buddha, and incense holder, and a spray of tiny flowers. Could that be Greg's room? Except I thought there was something vaguely feminine in the air, pheromones, maybe. So who else is Buddhist? Karen, maybe, the martial arts teacher? I hardly know her. In one room the living room is painted a kind of orangy-red, and contained, of all things, a TV. I hadn't seen a T.V. the whole time I've been here. That's strange--I haven't watched T.V. in over two months and I haven't thought about it until I saw this one. A T.V just wouldn't fit here, but here one is. I tried turning it on; no signal. I guess it's just for movies. But a TV? That room has a plastic popcorn maker, too, the kind that uses hot air. So somebody sits on this couch and watches movies and eats popcorn. How wonderfully, incongruously, mundane. Who does that? Two people, evidently, as both bedrooms are occupied. Kit might be one of them, as one of the bedrooms is full of Wiccan symbols and books, but then Wiccan symbols are a lot like New Age symbols, so it could be Joy, or one of the others whose religious affiliations I don't know. I can't tell who the room-mate might be--a guy, I think, but that's all I can figure out. He's hidden anything obviously personal.

The last apartment in the row is totally unoccupied, but in the next to the last the living room is painted blue. It's peaceful and space, no couch, just some equipment and bookshelves. For whatever reason, I went into the farther room first and met, of all things, a cat. A handsome black and white fellow, sitting on the bed, he looked at me and meowed in that way cats have, like they're asking "what are you doing here?" Then he got up and ran out the door and I followed him out into the hall where I met Ollie.

"I thought we can't have pets in the Mansion?" I asked him. "The masters have a cat?"

"Yeah, I don't think he's official. He's one of the barn cats, but he keeps coming in here. I think they gave up and let him stay. He likes that room especially."

I went back to my snooping, going this time to the one room I hadn't seen yet. It it also painted light blue. The floor is covered in deer skins, not just rugs or mats like most of the others, and it has a curious mix of clutter and order to it, as though everything has a place, even the apparently random natural items and knick-knacks, though darned if I know what the organizing principle is. The bed is very narrow, like a hospital bed, with a sheepskin on top over the red and blue wool blanket. The desk had clean spots in the dust, I guess where personal items had been removed and hidden before I came to clean. There are shelves and trunks and yet another bookcase.
I looked over the books. The two bottom shelves are entirely dedicated to serious scientific books, mostly on ecology, but there were two very heavy-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 full of books on writing, dictionaries, thesauri, guides on style and punctuation, collections of essays, and so forth, and another shelf taken up by horticulture and popular-market books on wildlife-friendly landscaping.

Charlie. By his books, I recognized him.
Obviously, he had organized his books by topic, but the top two shelves seemed to be rather mixed, comprising several topics, or maybe none. At first I thought they were catch-all shelves for whatever he happened to be reading at the moment, but Charlie is pretty short and even I had to reach to get to the top shelf. Anyway, I've seen him sitting on the porch happily reading a field guide cover to cover like a novel, so his catchall would be much more mixed than even these top two shelves are. So these books are in a pattern--but what's the pattern?

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 translations of The Bhaghevad Gita and the Tao Te Ching.  I saw books by Gary Snyder, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Henry David Thoreau  sat next to Jack London. Tom Robbins rubbed shoulders with Tom Wessels, the only one I'd never heard of, and whose book was the only one of the lot not smudged and cracked. Evidently, that book is new. What's the pattern?

"Suddenly it dawned on me" is a cliche, but that's exactly what happened. The way light and color come up so slowly and gradually that 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 are 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 blankets, 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 and lined with a sleeping bag, where Charlie sleeps when the weather cooperates.
And on the desk, I saw a tin whistle 

[Next Post:April 12: The Boogeyman Cometh]

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Part 2: Post 6: A Surprising Meeting

Yes, this blue square has writing in it; the words "Alcoholics anonymous." It's the cover of the AA "Big Book," which is, in fact, blue on blue, probably for the privacy of readers. The real cover is almost as hard to read as my version.
The AA "Big Book," and yes, it really is printed blue on blue.
 I can't remember if I've mentioned it, but yearlings are supposed to attend a certain number of 12-step meetings--AA, or related groups. We can choose any group we like, but there is one caveat. Evidently, 12-step groups come in two flavors: there are groups for addicts, like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous; and there are groups for friends and families of addicts, like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and...O-Anon? I'm not sure what that one's called, actually. Anyway, we've got to go to at least five meetings of each flavor. We don't have to tell anyone we've done it, we're on our honor.

I think the reason is two-fold. First, I imagine that most people who have problems with addiction don't want to admit it, even to themselves, so maybe if we already know something about these meetings it will be easier for us to get help if we end up needing it. I've heard addiction is a very common mental health problem, so chances are some of us will need treatment for it eventually. Second, I'm under the impression that a lot of what they talk about in those meetings can be applied to other situations, so maybe they're hoping we learn something. Some of the groups have open meetings, meaning you don't have to think you have the problem in order to attend. We're supposed to go to all five meetings for each program within a two-month span, if possible.

Not to drag things out any further--I've just been to my first AA meeting. It was....interesting.

I'd intended to get as many of the meetings out of the way as possible before classes started up, but I didn't get my act together. At first most of the meetings I found out about turned out to be a good distance away, farther than I wanted to bike. There are also meetings of various 12-step groups on campus, but they're all closed to curious outsiders, I guess to protect people's privacy. If the point is to be anonymous when you go, that wouldn't really work if all your classmates have homework assignments to go also!

Finally, I found an open AA meeting at a church in town, borrowed a bike, and went--and Charlie was there, looking odd dressed in street clothes. He nodded to me, once, and then ignored me. At first I thought--and this is completely illogical--that he was there to check up on me somehow, but then I realized he's a member. He's a recovering alcoholic. I'm not sure how to feel or think about that--I've heard of alcoholism, and I know people who drink more than they should, but I didn't know I actually knew any alcoholics. And I don't know what I was supposed to do about seeing him in a meeting--I mean, what the correct etiquette is. I figured I should probably let him be anonymous, so far as possible, so I ignored him back.

The meeting itself was interesting, and a little surprising. I don't know what I'd expected--I've seen TV shows and movies with scenes set in AA meetings, so I knew about the ritualized introductions (Hi, I'm So-and So, and I am an alcoholic), and not to tell anybody who I'd seen there. But I guess I didn't expect everyone to look so normal. I expected a lot of shame and grief, and maybe they have that on some other night, but this time mostly people were cracking jokes or talking about God and laughing a lot either way. A couple of things stuck in my head. One was how ritualized everything was, though nothing felt rigid or stilted. Sometimes everyone would actually speak in unison, apparently following some traditional format everyone (except me) had memorized. Another thing was how scared a lot of the members seemed of drinking again--but they didn't really seem scared of anything else. One man was sitting there talking about how he might end up homeless again, but he had a big, relaxed smile on his face. He kept laughing about his situation.

Bits of phrases stuck in my head, too: "you're only as sick as your secrets," or "no matter how far down the scale you have gone, you will understand how your experience can be of service to others." Or something like that. I'm probably remembering the quote wrong. But it made me wonder how far down the "scale" these smiling people had gone--how far had Charlie gone. Has he been a street drunk? Has he done something really awful? And is it really true that the worst of a person can somehow be of service to others? If so, I don't see what I can give, because I've never been anything worse than bored.

They talked a lot about service--about wanting to take a drink and instead helping somebody else--service in order to stay sober. That was something I didn't expect, either. I thought people went to AA meetings to talk, like to get something off their chests, to feel better. Like some of our group therapy sessions, maybe. But instead they seem to talk so that other people can learn something. Talking is service--or listening is service. I'm not really clear on it.

Anyway, the meeting was only about an hour long. We closed with the Lord's Prayer, and everyone milled around for a while afterwards, finishing their coffee.

I stood around watching. I'm not normally shy, but I felt very out of place and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. Charlie came up to me, and I half expected him to give me some word of approval or encouragement. The other half of my expectation was that he'd growl at me, but he did neither. All he said was "I'm telling my story at the speaker's meeting on Thursday at the Episcopal church, if you want to satisfy your curiosity, but don't satisfy anyone else's." And he turned to go.

How could he think he had to tell me not to gossip about him? At first I was really mad about that, mad and hurt. But then something in me softened somehow, and I followed him and caught his arm.

"Do you actually want me to go to that meeting?" I asked him.

"You can go to any meeting you like," he replied, but I persisted.

"No, I asked you a direct question. That's the rule, isn't it? You can be as evasive as you like, but if I ask you the right question, you've got to answer me." He could have told me he wasn't at work and so didn't have to do anything, but to my surprise, he sighed, and for the first time I saw him completely drop his mask.

"Daniel," he told me, "if you're an alcoholic, or if you think you might be, I'll tell you anything if it will help save your life--or mine. I have no secrets in these rooms. But otherwise--no, I don't want you to know." I let go of his arm and he turned and left.

[Note; yes, Charlie actually told me to write about this, years afterward. And no, I never went to the speaker's meeting. And while Charlie eventually told me parts of his story, I never once asked him about it. There is a lot about him that I still don't know.] 

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