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.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Part 3: Post 9: Physical Education

I can’t remember if I mentioned this, but Charlie more or less decided he wants to be my athletics master, too. Technically I don’t need one, because I ran in high school and they said that fulfills my athletics requirement here, too, but apparently I’ve got one anyway. I’m not sure yet if Charlie thinks the other masters are wrong, and I really should do further athletic training here, or if he’s just decided that something physical is a necessary part of the spiritual training we’re doing, and I might as well get credit for moving around as long as I’m doing it anyway? I have to admit, I’m starting to get a little irritated with being told what to do all the time. I’ve heard some of the other masters offer their students more of a choice, or at least they provide something like a syllabus so you know what the process is before you get into it, but Charlie won’t do either. I asked him why, once, and he said “because God has to be a surprise.”
More recently, I got mad and asked him again why he wouldn’t tell me his plans. “What makes you think I’ve got any plans?” he growled back at me.
I could hit him.
No, I couldn’t.
Anyway, he decided that my area of athletics is going to be hiking trail maintenance. There’s a network of trails up through the woodlot behind the main part of campus, and then through the wildlife preserve behind that. The preserve is not really open to the public, so the trails are only used  
by researchers and by people from the school, but Charlie manages all of it. He says he will teach me how next year, and in the meantime I am to get back in shape and also to learn to move properly so I don’t hurt myself. Kit teaches series of workshops entitled “Practical Yoga,” about ergonomically correct motion and body awareness, and I’m probably going to take it a few times, though honestly I’m pretty aware of my body around Kit already. I’ve also, on Charlie’s recommendation, signed up for Karen’s “Personal Safety and Fitness” class.
It’s her introductory martial arts class, though she doesn’t teach much in it that seems like martial arts.
“You can take a martial arts class and learn kicks and punches and blocks,” she said, “and you can feel pretty good about yourself for being safe from bad guys out on the street. Except you won’t be. A couple of blocks and kicks won’t keep you safe in all possible circumstances. They’ll give you slightly better odds, if you can remember to use your techniques when you’re scared, which not everyone can, but a black belt doesn’t make you invincible, and a colored belt certainly doesn’t. What will keep you safe…er is situational awareness, so you can hopefully stay out of trouble to begin with, and physical fitness, so you don’t die of heart disease when you’re thirty-five. So that’s what we’ll work on here.”

I think if you take this class over a few times she lets you go on to other classes where she does teach fighting skills, and even here a lot of the exercises she’s teaching involve the same kind of movements the advanced students use for fighting. Like, there’s a pair of wrist stretches we do during warm-up that are gentler versions of nasty little joint locks. But I’m not really here for fighting skills anyway. I’m not much of a fighter, and I’m a big enough guy that people don’t usually bother me if I don’t bother them first.
Getting Better Balance
 But I like this class. She has us make a circle and bow to each other at the beginning and end of class, because we are all both students and teachers. She says that we learn whenever we push ourselves past the edge of our abilities, so whenever someone falls over during balance exercises she says “congratulations! You just got better balance!”

She plants things for us to notice, to improve our situational awareness. Our first day she tacked a sign to the wall that said “if you ask Karen, in secret, for a cookie, she will give you one.” Except I didn’t notice the sign so I didn’t get a cookie. Someone else told me about it. This week she provided a cooler full of snowballs and arranged for one of the outside students (there are students from outside the school here) to pelt us with them without warning, in the middle of class. Snowballs—and it’s almost June! It was awesome.
It’s a real class. She expects us to do our exercises for homework, and except for the warm-up she spends class time teaching us new movements or reviewing and correcting what we’re doing. We don’t use belts to signal rank (Karen says to approach everything with a beginner’s mind) and we don’t wear uniforms—not even school uniforms. She has us work in ordinary clothes because she wants us to be ready to defend ourselves in ordinary clothes.
I’m not sure what all this has to do with either spiritual development or hiking trail maintenance, but I’m using muscles I didn’t even know I had, and that has to be a good thing, right?

[Next Post: Monday, June 3rd: Philosopher's Stone Soup]

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Part 3: Post 8: Einstein and Earth

A new semester begins, with new classes.

I'm taking "Einstein and Atom," "Personal Safety and Fitness," "Earth Science Literacy," and "Introduction to Anthropology."  The fitness class is the only one that isn't required, but Charlie talked me into taking it. "Einstein and Atom" is another introductory physics class--the one last semester focused on everyday phenomena, while this one focuses on quantum mechanics and bending space and so forth. "Earth Science Literacy" is basically a geology class, and "Into to Anthropology" sounds pretty self-explanatory,  except that Kit is the professor, and that should be interesting.

So far, the physics class is the only one I've actually attended, and it's interesting. It's taught by the same ally who taught physics last semester. He pointed out that a lot of occult writers use some of the ideas of quantum mechanics to justify their writings on magic, but they usually misunderstand quantum mechanics in order to do it.

"If you want to use science to make magic, shouldn't you understand the science?" he said.

 As I said, that's the only class I've had so far,but I've been reading through my geology books, and I think I'm really going to like that class. It's part of the academic area called "Earth Science and Quantitative Literacy" that seems a bit of a mash-up, and I think there's a reason for it. From what I've heard, originally the academic areas they covered here were anthropology, ecology, history, physics, psychology, and geology. The logic, I suppose, was that you can't have Earth-centered spirituality without studying the earth. But as global warming has become more of an issue they've started adding in a climatology component, and so now it's a bit mixed. But this first class is still basically geology.

I've read about some of this stuff before--I knew that the Earth has a crust and a mantle and a core, and that the continents move--but I've never actually taken a class in it before. One thing I've been really struck by, reading the textbook, is how connected geology is to other disciplines. For example, the idea of evolution is based in geology; a basic tenant of geology is that the deeper a rock is, the older it is (with some exceptions, such as volcanic intrusions). And the older you get in the rock
layers, the stranger the fossils get. If fossils are the remains of life-forms, and the basic tenants of geology are correct, then over time life has gradually become more modern until arriving at the present. I personally don't care much whether other people believe in evolution or not, but it's interesting to think that if someone really wanted to refute evolution, they'd have to refute geology. And I've never heard of anyone thinking to do that.

Speaking of changes, it's Summer here, now. I thought celebrating the beginning of summer at Beltane was a bit strange, but then we went away to the Island and when we came back the season had changed. It's summer now. The trees are all leafed out, most days are pretty hot...we have new clothes and a new way of using the Mansion. We already had both winter-weight and summer-weight uniforms, but now we've gotten summer uniforms, too. They're optional, just in case the weather gets really hot, and they're a bit strange--the new uniform tops are sleeveless knee-length tunics. We're allowed to wear them over uniform pants or alone; if worn with shorts, the tunic has to cover the shorts. On women, they look like dresses. On men, they also look like dresses. I haven't decided whether I'm going to wear mine or not. I suppose it depends on how hot it gets. For so long, everything around here was organized around staying warm, but now everything is about staying cool. There's no air conditioning, of course, and very few electric fans, so when it gets hotter we're going to have to open the windows at night and keep them closed, with the curtains drawn, during the day, to conserve the coolness.

The only thing that hasn't really changed with the season is the dining hall. I guess it'll be another month or so until we start getting any kind of harvest, except from the greenhouses.  I'm getting kind of tired of salads.

[Next Post: Friday, May 31st: Physical Education ]

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Part 3, Post 7: The Dance

I’ve been talking about what the Masters did on the Island, but really that’s only part of the story, and perhaps it is the lesser part. The bigger deal, maybe, is that this is the first time all us yearlings (except two) have been together without, well, supervision by senior students and faculty. Yes, one or another master has taken charge of us during the day, but, except for the overnight on the stone beach, they leave us alone at night. A few times one or another has stayed with us for a few hours around the fire at night, but without telling us what to do--it's not like we're doing anything illicit or even all that exciting with our freedom, but it's just sort of new to have to figure things out by ourselves. Like who is going to do dishes, or what we're going to have for dinner,or what to do when we run out of some foodstuff. It's like being left home alone by one's parents for the first time--and honestly, that's probably why I find it so striking.I mean, I haven't really been on my own yet all that much. I'm sure it's not as big a deal to say, Arthur. 
But even Arthur noticed the change.
“I guess they trust us now. We’re converted,” he said. And I guess that's the issue, really. I mean, if we'd all gone off together somewhere when we'd first come to the school, we would just have been a random group of people camping together. Now, I guess we're part of the school, and the school is part of us, so even without senior students or masters with us, we're having a distinctly school-ish experience by simply being together. Maybe that's part of the reason they take us out here; it's an opportunity for us to get to know ourselves as a group of group of students. That it provides an excuse for the faculty to more or less go on vacation is probably another part of it, I'd guess.
And it's true that we're kind of different. I mean, we've spent the last couple of months, most of us, taking the same classes and reading the same books, more or less, and having wacked-out conversations with the same mind-blowingly strange and awesome people, so I think we take some things for granted now that other people don't. And I think we talk about different kinds of things--different from what my friends at home and I used to talk about, anyway.
For example: Bigfoot.
Now, I've talked to people who have claimed to have had paranormal experiences before, so the fact that Arthur turned out to have a Bigfoot story is not itself all that strange. But any normal group of people sitting around a fire would have followed up that story by telling their own stories and trying to top each other, right? And that's not what we did.
Arthur was holding court by the fire, as usual. I think he likes being the oldest and maybe wisest of us. He's already done a lot of the things we came to school in order to learn to do--he actually is a Wiccan priest already, and I think he likes impressing us. So he told this story. He didn't actually see the creature--the night, he said, was utterly dark--but he heard something, and it was neither human nor any animal he'd ever heard, or heard of. It screamed, twice, and he could hear it walking through the underbrush, clump, clump clump. It was big, and, from the sound he described, bipedal. A second person heard the sound, too, but in the morning they could find no tracks, no physical sign of anything having been there. Later he learned that area (in Pennsylvania, I think? Maybe Maryland? I was too wrapped up in the story to take notes) is a major center of Bigfoot sightings, but he had not known that at the time. And it was years and years ago, before he got into the occult at all.
He told the story well, with spine-chilling pauses and sound effects, and I would have thought he'd made it all up except that for one moment, just a moment, he looked subtly but genuinely afraid. Sixty year old men trying to impress college students do not pretend to be afraid.
"But how could that happen?" one of the women named Raven said afterwards. "There is no Bigfoot, right?"

"You don't know that," countered one of the other women named Raven (there were seven women named Raven on our trip, none of them have nicknames to keep them separate, and yes, it's confusing).

"But scientists have looked, right?" This was the first Raven. Arthur confirmed that scientists have looked, and that while no definitive proof of Bigfoot presence has been found, a few of the sightings and footprints have not been otherwise explained. And there are fossils of an extinct ape of the right size, so the thing at least used to exist.

"But you can't just close your mind to these possibilities," insisted the second Raven, "There's all sorts of things out there that science can't explain."

"But how do you hide a seven foot tall ape?" asked Don. That shut us all up for a moment.

"What if they're space aliens?" I offered. "They're not hiding, they're just not always here?"

"I don't know if I want to go there," demurred Don.

"Why not? That would explain scientists not being able to find them. It's the simplest available solution."

"But it doesn't explain how the aliens got here." This was Don again. "Speed of light--there's nowhere other intelligent life could be where they could have picked up our radio signals and had time to come find us yet."

"Maybe they didn't come here to find us?" I interjected, but everybody ignored me.

"I still don't think we should close our minds to these things," Raven reiterated. "I mean, there might be faster-than-light travel. There might be all sorts of things in the woods we don't know about yet."

"No, see, then science wouldn't work," the other Raven put in. "Science is based on the assumption that the universe behaves consistently, right? You do an experiment over here, and that tells you about what's happening in all comparable circumstances anywhere. You can't just hide a breeding population of seven foot tall apes in the middle of the United States and not be able to find any proof that they exist."

"You're being way too linear," accused Arthur, affably. "I've seen things science can't explain. What about magic? What about faeries? Science can't explain them, but they certainly exist."

"Maybe they don't" said one Raven.

"Maybe science can explain them, but it just hasn't yet," said the other Raven at exactly the same time. The both laughed.

"The thing is," continued the more science-minded of the two Ravens, "if science doesn't work,then how come we can use scientific knowledge to invent weather reports and modern medicine and digital watches and so on?"

"Wait, digital watches? Did you seriously just say 'digital watches'?" Don interjected, but everyone ignored him.

"Or maybe," began yet a third Raven, "Science does work, but it's incomplete. I mean, it's just a paradigm, right? Somebody decided that the universe behaves consistently. And it worked for us for a while, but maybe there's a better model? But if we're going to let go of that paradigm, the question is what are we going to replace it with?"

"Marshmallow?" offered Arthur.

That was a few days ago now. The trip is over, and we're starting to get ready for our summer classes. But I keep thinking about it, about the island, the mountains, the lichens, the fog...I keep thinking I hear the crash of the waves at night, the way I sometimes could in the campground on the Island. And, of course, I'm thinking about Kit.

Kit, in a way,had the first word on the Island, talking with us about goals and expectations and leading us in asking permission to go up into the thin places. In a similar way, she managed to have the last word, too.

In the morning of our last full day she took us to the campground's amphitheater, where nobody comes at this time of year, and had us go through a series of expressive movement exercises. Like, we'd take turns dancing in a happy way or in a sad way, or making up movements that expressed ourselves or each other. It was a lot of fun--as long as someone else was doing the dancing. I'm not normally shy, exactly, and I am athletic, but I do not think I'm graceful. I'm tall and gawky and I feel like I'm all elbows and ears and Adam's apple. Part of liking to watch other people is that I do not like other people watching me. So when she finally asked us to take turns dancing our experiences on the Island over the week, I stood there silently begging her not to call on me. And of course, she did. They always do, when you hope they won't.

"I...can't." I stammered.

"Why do you say that?" asked Kit, gently, with real curiosity.

"I'm--shy." I don't normally think of myself as shy, but it was the only word that fit. Allen would be proud of me; I'm getting better at naming my feelings."

"Can you dance your shyness?" Kit suggested. I considered. I really did not want to be the weanie who doesn't rise to a challenge, even if the challenge seems kind of strange or small. And so, by way of answering, I tried to dance.

I don't mean 'dance' like to any particular rhythm or anything like that. This was more like a modern dance thing of interpretive movement. That's part of what Kit does--pays attention to the language of movement. She's a dance/movement therapist, by training.

So I crouched down in a protective ball, shielding myself from others' gaze with my hands. I tried peeking, to see what people thought of me, but that was horrible. So I stopped peeking and closed my eyes. But of course, there is something slightly ridiculous about such a self-protective posture; it's not exactly inconspicuous. So I started to exaggerate it further, scuttling around like some scared bug, really hamming it up. Once it was obvious I was trying to be funny, I guess, the others started to laugh, some. That was alright. I'm ok with being laughed at, when I'm trying to be funny. Eventually, being a clown got to be more important than dancing my shyness, and my movements got bigger, more exaggerated, more expressive. I kept my eyes closed, but I started waving my arms and making strange faces, head-banging and pumping my hips. I wasn't blind to what I was doing; I was dancing my way out of my shyness. Finally, a little out of breath, I came to stillness and opened my eyes. Everybody clapped. I didn't die.

After lunch, we went back to the beach of stones, and Kit assembled a sort of band where everyone was banging on rocks with sticks or banging rocks together, or singing nonsense syllables, or dancing. She built up this complex rhythm, layer on layer, half impromptu and half directed, and there was no way I was going to dance or sing, my morning breakthrough notwithstanding. And I have all the rhythm of a slug, so I wasn't going to drum. Kit assembled everyone else, all facing the sea,and then she looked at me. I looked back.

"Just open your mouth and see what comes out," she suggested. "Face the sea, breathe deep, and...?"

She stepped away from me and I let myself forget about her and all the people behind me. I opened my mouth and said--

"Once there was a man who had no music, and he lived by the sea and the sea had no music, though the sea was in the music and the sea was music, and the sea was in him. But the music was hidden in the deep rollers and in the light on the sea and in the man's heart, and there was no way to bring it out. And so the man dived into the sea, and so began his journey."

And I told this story. I have no idea where it came from, it just spun out of my mouth as I opened it, as I kept opening it, this half-poem, mythic thing, and behind me the drummers and the singers adapted themselves to my cadence. They slowed down in the slow parts and sped up during the exciting bits, and when I said that the man reached the edge of the sea where the horizon meets the sky and, he found the Dawn and asked her about the music, and the Dawn helped him climb into the clouds so he could ask the sky, and he asked the sky where the music was and the sky said BOOM! everyone behind me startled and laughed and broke the rhythm for a moment, but then they recovered and they boomed with me, BOOM BOOM BOOM. It was seriously like I was the front-man for a rock band. And the music burst forth like rain showers, all kinds of music, all kinds of rhythms, and the man found his way back to his homeland and he brought the music with him,the music the was the sea and the sky and his heart and had been there all along. But now it could come out, and it has been out ever since, and that is why Dawn comes first to this Island, it's to listen to the music, and this is why there is so much fog, it's because the Sky comes here to check up on things, and this is why more kinds of plants grow here than pretty much anywhere else nearby, it's because every note is a live thing, and every rhythm is an ecosystem, and they all came here first, because of the man who wanted music.


[Next Post: Monday, May 27th: Einstein and Earth]

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Part 3: Post 6: Play a Song for Me

 Yesterday morning, Allen just turned up in a t-shirt and a pair of blue swim trunks and asked if we all knew how to swim. We had spent three days being marched up and down half the mountains of the island, then we’d spent another day with Joy studying psychic animal communication (I can’t say whether I imagined my “communication” experiences or not, but they were interesting), and now, here was Allen in swim trunks. This is the man who usually wears a tie if he isn’t in uniform, or at least a collared shirt.

In any case, yes, we could all swim, so we followed him down the road to a little beach made entirely of small, round cobbles at the back of a cove defined by two arms of steep, dark stone. A freshwater stream flowed into the beach and disappeared into the rocks. Here and there I could look down between the cobbles and see the water still flowing. Yesterday was the warmest day we’ve had yet and the stones felt hot on my hands. Black spiders, big and flat as twisted-up bobby-pins skittered out of the way among the stones as I looked. Allen didn’t leave us a lot of time to explore, though, but stripped to the waist and led us out along the rock arm, barefoot, above the cold water.

“Dive shallow,” he told us, “there are rocks maybe six feet down,” and he leaped. There was no way to get into the water without leaping; the short drop looked too slippery and sleep to edge down slowly, so I leaped too, right after him, and the water was horribly, almost frightening cold. The kind of cold where you suddenly can’t think, you’re just pure awareness, an instant, unwelcome meditation. You can only scream or laugh in water that cold, and so I laughed. Allen surfaced next to me, whooping and grinning. His black hair clung to his scalp and made the thin patch on top show up clear and pink. He was wearing a pair of green swim goggles. When had he put them on? People were leaping into the water all around us, whooping or shrieking in turn.

“That’s some therapy right there,” Allen told me, treading water merrily.

"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 Allen became a boy again. He stayed in the water longer than any of us, his black and pink head surfacing and diving again and again like a seal. When he finally came out, his lips were blue and his hands and pockets were full of shells and pretty rocks. He spoke to none of us but sat on a foam pad sorting out his treasures into piles by size and color, and I could see in him the small boy he must have been: intelligent, solitary, and lonely without knowing it. When he was done sorting, he picked up all his stones and sea-shells and threw them all back in the water again, one by one. As for me I watched people. That’s what I did when I was little, and that’s what I do now.

Where did the foam pad come from? Allen brought it. He had one for everyone, because the cobbles of the beach were really too large to sit on comfortably. He had this big, old-fashioned trunk and he pulled the most extraordinary collection of things out of it. The foam pads, for starters, but then there was a small grill, a large aluminum pot, a bag of charcoal, a dozen live lobsters, bags of mussels, various fruits and vegetables for grilling, jugs of water, bottles of hard cider and local beer, wooden plates, a small tarp, two Tiki torches, sleeping bags 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 ground, but the ground was made of pebbles, so it must have taken forever to dig. The Tiki torches alone were longer than the part of the trunk we could see was, and looked rather comical coming out. So we had a feast, and while we feasted, Allen entertained us.

Now, obviously the masters are all masters at something, otherwise they wouldn't be here, but we hardly ever get to see them go all-out. They’re usually focused on whatever it is we’re learning. So I’d seen Allen do slight-of-hand tricks before, he does them almost constantly, to illustrate a point, crack a joke, or even just for the sake of surprise, but until yesterday I'd never seen him do a whole show.

He was fantastic.

He had changed into his performance clothes, a tuxedo with a top hat, though nobody knows how or where he 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 laugh so hard we about puked. Nothing he did seemed that complicated, though I can’t figure out how he did any of it, 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—I guess he’s not quite a master juggler, because it seemed to require more of his attention than the magic had. Then he traded the knives for what looked like Ping Pong balls, until he tossed them, one by one, way high in the air, and one by one each one hatched out into tiny yellow helicopters and flew away.

He stopped for a while to eat and drink with us, and then helped us clean up. We found all the wind-up helicopters and returned them to him. The tide was coming in again, having pulled out way far down the beach, exposing progressively larger stones that I guess are too heavy for the water to move up as far. When it was out, I could see the rocks Allen had warned us about lying exposed except for their piles of limp seaweed; all the little treasures he had so carefully dived for had come from the intertidal zone and he had returned them there. I would have searched the sea weeds and crevices for my own collection, but it seemed like a violation, somehow, to admit that all that diving had been unnecessary.

We played some more, and Allen made soup from the salty lobster broth, the leftovers from lunch, and various kinds of sea weed he’d pulled off the rocks. He is a phenomenal cook. Then someone talked him into performing again. As it got dark, he snapped his fingers and pointed at the torches, which both lit themselves. He pulled marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers, even skewers, out of his hat and passed them around; the grill was still going, cooling down, but perfect for s’mores. The stars were clear above us and we could see the lights of boats out near the horizon. Someone pointed out that camping isn't allowed on the beach, but Allen grinned, his face looking weird in the torchlight, and he told us we didn't have to worry about getting caught when camping with a magician.

After the last applause had faded, Allen pulled a guitar out of his magic trunk and asked if anyone knew how to play. Of course we guessed that he could and persuaded him to give us a song, though I suppose he must have been exhausted. It turns out that playing a guitar might be the one thing Allen is not particularly good at doing. It’s good to know he’s human, and both his playing and his voice are more than serviceable for sitting around a campfire. He spent a few minutes struggling to get the guitar back into tune, and then chose a song so ridiculously perfect he might have written it for the occasion, except, of course, that the Grateful Dead had already written it years ago (and, as far as I know, Allen is not much of a writer).

Well, the first days are the hardest days
Don’t you worry anymore,
Cause when life looks like Easy Street
There is danger at your door.
Think this through with me.
Let me know your mind.
All, all I want to know
Is are you kind?
I mean, what else is a therapist going to sing? But after that he surrendered the guitar to J.B. and one of the several women named Raven, both of whom can actually play well. I got another bowl of soup and found Allen, still wearing his top-hat and looking incongruous and happy, squatting on a large rock and drinking a beer.
“Why did you decide to do this?” I asked him, not complaining, of course, just curious. “The others all taught us something on their days with us.” I could kick myself sometimes, for the stuff that comes out of my mouth. Allen just gave me a rather amused look and waited. “I mean,” I amended, “why did you did you decide to teach us this? Why spend all day playing?”
“Because I thought you needed it,” he told me.
A few minutes later, Arthur went back to the campground, announcing that he was “too old to pretend sleeping on rocks is comfortable.” Andy followed him, saying he’d lost his "taste for sleeping just wherever,” but I think most of us stayed, sitting or lying in our sleeping bags, singing and telling stories and gradually getting drunk. I didn’t think the stones were uncomfortable at all. They are round, after all, not sharp.
I remember noticing that the tide was back out again. I remember noticing that Allen had the guitar again, and once again I thought the song he had chosen was perfect. But it was very long, verse after verse, and however much I might have been willing in that moment to follow him anywhere, in the jingle-jangle morning or otherwise, I was sleepy, and my conscious memory ends abruptly in the middle of the song.
I fell asleep last night with the scent of the sea, the sound of the waves rolling the cobbles as the tide moved away, and the voice of my teacher, singing.

[Next post: Friday, May 24: The Dance]

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Part 3: Post 5: The Explorers

The camp is forested and dark, but maybe five minutes’ walk away you come out of the woods onto sudden sea cliffs. The drop isn’t sheer; you can get down to the water, and there is a kind of natural patio at the base where tide pool-pocked slabs and ridges of orange, seaweed-encrusted rock march out a few yards to wherever the tide happens to be at the moment. But it’s pretty dramatic, and you can sit up there and watch the sea tear itself into white spray, and just beyond that birds bob in the waves as if the rocks were nothing. Beyond that, there is just the sea.

Zazen above the sea, which is where we’ve done it the past few mornings, is both more and less fantastic than you’d expect. For one thing, Zen meditation isn’t particularly enjoyable even at the best of times. It’s boring. You just sit there. It does give me a kind of quiet space to get my head on straight in the morning, and I think I’ve got a little more perspective on things than I used to, but it’s not particularly blissful, and doing it in a fantastic place doesn’t change that fact. But sitting above the sea does make the daydreams I keep wandering off into more interesting, and there are moments when the crashing sea seems to fill me entirely, so there is no Daniel anymore, only the churn of blue. 

And then I’m either wishing meditation were over so I could daydream like normal, or I am actually daydreaming. I’ve talked with Greg about it, and he says this is why it’s called mediation practice.

But Greg isn’t here so Karen led us, ringing the bell to stop and start the session. Afterwards, on our first morning here, she gathered us together for what Greg calls a Dharma talk. Basically, it’s a short lecture or discussion on Buddhist practice. She asked us about what it was like to meditate on the sea cliffs. Some of us said it was great, very profound, or whatever, while others said they had a hard time concentrating, because of the sea. I said nothing. Karen smiled. She’s a little woman, about Kit’s size, with short, dark hair and perfect posture. She’s kind of serious, but she has a nice smile. She’s pretty young-looking, maybe thirty, thirty-five, but she has as much presence as Greg does. She told us that Zen isn’t about feeling a certain way; it’s not necessarily supposed to feel quiet, or grand, or spiritual, or even boring. It’s about being with whatever is happening in the moment, and however that happens to feel. Some moments have oceans in them, others do not, and of course we feel and think differently depending on where we are and what we are doing.

“But either way,” Karen said, “these moments are our lives, so we may as well pay attention to them.”

Every day since then, we have met Karen on the cliffs at six regardless of weather, and then returned to camp where the instructor of the day comes to fetch us. Mostly it’s been Charlie, so far, although Kit did have breakfast with us that first day and then took charge of us for an hour or so.

She was dressed exactly the same as she had been the previous day, but she didn’t look ordinary anymore. Her hair, frizzy with the ever-present damp, stood out from her head like a red halo and her eyes and smile sparkled like the wet leaves behind her lit by the early morning sun. Her bearing had changed, I guess. She didn’t look like a pretty girl on spring break; she looked like she normally does, like a beautiful witch. She sat at our picnic table with us and asked us what we thought the week on the island would be like, what we wanted it to be like, if we had any plans. We told her, expecting this to be some kind of goal-setting session, but that’s not what she did.  

“Plans are good,” she said, approvingly. “It’s good to have an idea of what you’re doing and what you intend to do. Not that the things we plan on ever actually turn out as we expect—tell the Goddess your plans if you want Her to have a good laugh, as they say.  But plans do provide important context for the decisions we have to make along the way.”

“What about goals? Hopes? Should we let those go, too?” asked Joanna, nervously. Kit smiled at her, fondly.

“Did I say anything about letting these things go? I am very fond of my Goddess, so I always give Her lots of plans to laugh about. And as for goals and hopes, do not let go of those. We need a star to sail by.”

Then she led us through a guided imagery exercise where we introduced ourselves to the island and asked permission to climb its mountains. Kit says that mountains, particularly those that extend above tree line, are “thin” places, as are caves, wells, and most bodies of water, and that humans approach such places as guests, or not at all.

“What happens if you go up without asking?” I asked. “I mean, lots of people go up there, and I don’t think they ask permission.”

“They bounce off the mountain, like a skipping stone. They’re like rain that falls too hard and bounces off the ground. Their bodies are here, but their minds are not. To soak in, like the fog, you have to be gentle. You have to ask.”

After Kit left, Charlie arrived, walking into camp barefoot but carrying his sandals in one hand and a backpack in the other. He spoke no metaphysics, and said nothing at all until we finished doing dishes and got all the food back in the trailer. He just sat at the table and waited. Eventually, we all sort of drifted towards him. When we were listening, he finally spoke. He spoke like a science teacher.
Charlie said he was going to spend the next three days introducing us to the island through three themes or lenses, presented cumulatively, so that the first day focuses on the first theme, the second day focuses on the first and the second themes, and so on. The three lenses are: the sea and sea water; exposure and topography; and fire and humans. Then he gave a short lecture on the first theme, which he had divided into three distinct ideas;

1.       An island derives its identity from the degree to which it is isolated

2.       The sea and the land are distinct because they are different, not because they are separate--they influence each other

3.       The sea can and does create the character of this landscape through weather, particularly fog.

His lecture was very simple, very basic, almost kids’ stuff, not that I remember learning it when I was a kid, but I’m sure I could have, easily. But then he took us out to actually explore the island, illustrating and expanding his three ideas using the examples at hand, adding layer upon layer until even I couldn’t keep up, and I’ve always gotten good grades in science. But no matter how far he took us, intellectually, there were always those three basic ideas to fall back on. Everything related back to them, so none of us ever got wholly lost. 

In the morning, he took us to tide pools and showed us sea slugs and anemones and how each pool was its own island in reverse, subject to its own rules of isolation and relative instability, at least until the tide came in. He showed us the gradient between high and low tide, where each animal and plant moved as high up as it could into the face of sun and air to escape less tolerant predators and competitors below. The entire seashore is striped, black, white, green, brown, red, and brown again, as each organism finds its way threading between its own private Scylla  and Charybdis.

“It’s not about finding conditions that are ideal,” Charlie commented. “It’s about finding conditions that don’t kill you, or kill you slower than they kill everything else.”

“That sounds depressing,” said Don.

“Why?” Charlie challenged him. “Look at this!” a sweep of his arm took in the rocks and the sea and the gulls and the dark bank of spruces and pines. “Whatever grandeur we have here on Earth is entirely the result of organisms doing what they can with what they have. Growing and growing without any constraint is cancer, not life. Limitations shape us. Happiness is an inside job.”

After a late lunch, Charlie had us break up into two groups to go hiking. He said that his group would be the faster one, maybe to try to get more people to choose to go with the other man who turned up to lead the other group (I assume he is a former student of Charlie’s), but I chose Charlie’s group anyway.

And it was fast. It’s not so much that Charlie walks all that quickly; it’s that he doesn’t seem to get tired. I think he could walk at exactly the same pace, uphill and down, all day. He’d stop to explain something (and probably to let everyone else catch up), and half of us would be winded, but Charlie did not seem to have even broken a sweat. 

That first hike was not all that long, and focused on pointing out trees and lichens that would be smaller, or not there at all were it not from the fog from the sea. Apparently, there is a mismatch between the soil type that the bedrock generates and the actual forest composition of the island, because the fog carries nutrients, like nitrogen and calcium, as well as being a source of water. I wish I knew enough about this sort of thing to spot the anomalies myself; it must be something to come here as an established naturalist and be surprised by the plants and their combinations. I am interested, though, and some of these plants are familiar from my work in landscaping. There’s a lot of arbor vitae, for example.

The next day Charlie showed up wearing shoes, not sandals, and I knew we were in trouble. He and his assistant led us, in two separate groups, up and down mountains for something like ten miles in a giant loop. The day after that they used one of the vans to stage another hike almost as long (one group took the van to a trailhead and hiked back to camp while the other group hiked toward the van) and over almost as many mountains. And still Charlie did not seem tired.

On the third day, when we broke for lunch, I joined Charlie on a chunk of bare granite on a mountain top that had a beautiful view of a fog bank. The sarcasm is intended, but Charlie was looking out into it like it was a beautiful view. I suppose for him it probably was.



“How do you hike so fast? You’re like three times my age.”

“More than that; you’re not twenty yet.”

“Whatever. You hike like a young man. How?”

“I do not hike like a young man,” Charlie corrected me, almost defensively. “If I were a young man, I wouldn’t hike so well. You waste your energy and you walk badly. If you didn’t have a lot of bruit force at your disposal, you wouldn’t do as well as you do.”

It was my turn to say “hmmm.” I’d never thought about walking as something I could learn to do better. But that hadn’t really been the question I meant to ask when I joined him on his rock.



“Kit had us ask permission to be here. She said mountains are ‘thin,’ like they’re not really human places. And you’ve spoken of us as visitors here. But you said yourself there have been humans on this island for ten thousand years. Doesn’t that make it a human place? Isn’t everywhere a human place now? And aren’t all places thin?”

And Charlie looked at me in surprise—not surprised by what I’d said, because I think he’s thought about the same things himself many times. He was just surprised I’d said it.

“That,” he told me, with evident appreciation, “is a very good question.”

[Next Post: Monday, May 20th: Play a Song for Me]