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 2, 2013

Part 3: Post I: Beltane

A Simplified Maypole
 Beltane, the holiday we had this week, is supposedly the beginning of Summer. It's certainly the beginning of the Summer term, which runs all the way until the beginning of August. After the break, we'll have new classes. But I'm not sure it counts as summer.  I mean, it's getting a lot greener, but I'd call that the beginning of spring. A few weeks ago there were still patches of snow in the woods, and piles of it in long, gravel-filled lines beside the roads off campus where they plow. The pond only lost the last of its ice last week. I'm starting to wonder if perhaps some of the weird tension I've noticed between Kit and Charlie has something to do with the fact that Kit was organizing a celebration of the beginning of summer at the same time that Charlie and Sarah, the farm manager, were struggling with late frosts on the plants?

I didn't ask, but I did ask Charlie how Beltane could be the beginning of Summer.

"It's Wiccan," he explained, with a distracted, dismissive wave of his hand. "Wicca is Western European. It's warmer there."

"I'd heard that," I told him, "But we're not in Europe. Why don't we adjust things? Or celebrate North American pagan holidays? Like Native American holidays, or something?"

"The last thing modern Native Americans need is white people like you and I taking something else from them without permission. Anyway, it's not just holidays and so forth we brought over; most of our culture is European, and half our plants. The exotic grasses all think it's Summer. You noticed?"

I had not noticed that I noticed, but it took me only a moment to realize what he meant.

"The grass on the roadside--it's all green! Some of it's flowering. And the grass on campus isn't planted it, didn't you? It's native!" That won me an approving nod. "Funny how much difference the Gulf Steam makes," I added.

"The what?" Charlie looked up at me in some surprise.

"The Gulf Stream! Warm water flowing northwest--that's why Western Europe is warm, isn't it?" I'd always heard this, except suddenly I wasn't sure. See, this is the only thing I still don't like about Charlie. It seems he's always ready to pounce on you if you're wrong.

"Well, what the hell is going on with Seattle, then? No Gulf Stream there," he growled. And he's right. Seattle is warmer than the equivalent latitude in the East. Of course he's right. Charlie is always right. That's why I put up with his growling smart-assedness.

Anyway, the Beltane celebration was run by Sarah and Kit, working together. They make an odd team. Kit is so assertively Wiccan, and Sarah is...not. She's a practicing Catholic. She's also a graduate of the school, I think everyone who works here is, and she wears the green ring, so she can't always have been this way, but she actually discourages her kids from getting to know students. She thinks we're a bad influence, I guess. I don't see how they can work together when both of them are so passionate about the ideological gulf between them, and indeed I might have thought they didn't work together, because Sarah had full charge of the morning and Kit had full charge of the afternoon.

Except that in between, during the picnic feast we had at lunchtime, they sang a song together, a song about Summer, in Middle English, I think. I'm not sure how to spell the words;

Soomer ist a-coomin in, loodly sing cuckoo
bloweth sed and bloweth med
and springth the wood anew
sing, cuckoo!

And they were fantastic. Sarah's voice was this sweet, powerful soprano of a needle embroidering the rich, contralto linen of Kit. I'd known they were musical; I'd heard each of them singing to herself occasionally, and I know Kit teaches music and plays the cello, and Sarah's husband makes musical instruments. But I'd never heard either of them perform, much less heard them perform together. They sang the song twice, once in what I guess is its original language and once in translation to modern English, and I wished they would have kept on singing forever. And after singing, they held hands a moment, and bowed. I've heard they were classmates once.

In the morning, Sarah brought in a priest-friend of hers to bless the fields and the orchards and the animals. The blessing of animals was a bit chaotic, since they all had to be brought to one central area, including the cats, who of course are difficult to herd. Most of the cats were brought over in carrier boxes, though Greg carried one cat in his arms. It was the black and white male I'd seen on the bed the day I cleaned the faculty rooms. He wore a harness, but rested easily in Greg's embrace, looking around at the other animals and people with mild, cattish curiosity. After he'd been blessed, Greg unhooked the collar and let the cat go and the animal leaped from him like water.

In the afternoon, we danced the Maypole. I've never danced around a maypole before, so I don't know how typical Kit's version of the ritual was, but I'm guessing she made a few innovations.

The pole itself was some thirty feet tall, like a wooden flagpole. The faculty carried it in from somewhere near the Mansion (I'm guessing it's stored in the basement there) and set it in a deep hole in the field in the center of campus. I'd never noticed the hole before; it's lined with stainless steel, and must be capped with something when not in use. Erecting the pole was a bit difficult; a few of us had to pull on the ribbons attached to the top to get it to stand upright and to keep it straight while Greg and Joy tamped soil down into the hole so the pole wouldn't wobble too badly. This part didn't feel much like a ritual, but most of us were there because we'd had lunch in the same field. By the time Kit was ready to explain what we would be doing, pretty much everyone was assembled.

Here is the way it worked.

The cloth ribbons tied to the top of the pole were of two colors, red and green, and maybe half an inch wide. There weren't enough for everybody, but yearlings got first dibs on dancing, if we wanted it, and everyone else helped make music. Kit handed out drums and tambourines and bells to everyone who didn't have their own instruments, but a lot of people around here play something. The red ribbons were for women, the green for men. Each dancer took a ribbon, the women facing one way, the men the other, so all the dancers stood in a circle facing each other in boy/girl pairs. Then we all stepped around our partners to the left, so that each woman drew her ribbon under a man's ribbon and everyone was facing a new partner, whom we passed on the right. This time, each man's ribbon went under a woman's. And then repeat, women going around and around the circle one way and men the other, weaving our ribbons together around the pole. I know it doesn't sound like much of a dance, but with the music going, and trying to keep the ribbon straight so it wouldn't tangle without running into anybody or tripping it had a fun zaniness to it. The first song was actually "Celebration,"by Kool and the Gang, which was a lot more pop-culturish and prosaic than I'd expected, and we all shouted "woo-hoo!" and the right parts and laughed a lot. Then the music morphed into an instrumental sort of Celtic thing with a lot of drums and the drums, and the repetitive steps, got me into a kind of weird head-space, half trance, so when we finally wrapped up the pole completely with ribbon and stood facing each other in about as small a circle as could be, I wasn't really thinking of anything, but I felt good, warm, sweaty, and limber, like I'd just run a long race. My mind felt clean.

But in giving us a dance where men and women moved differently, Kit had not defined "man" and "woman" biologically. Anyone could dance either part, simply by grabbing a red or a green ribbon. So at the end of the dance, I found myself facing a dude. It was J.C., a yearling from the Elk dorm, and as far as I know he's not gay or ambiguously gendered. I suppose he just wanted to know what it felt like to act like a woman for the afternoon. I won't lie, I felt kind of awkward about it, because of what came next, but I adapted.

It wasn't anything overtly sexual--there was no orgy, nothing like that--but the metaphor was quite clear. The person we ended up partnered with at the end of the dance was our partner for the rest of the night, to sit with at the feast and to work with; as pairs, we drew chores by lot. J.C. and I ended up setting the tables. At the feast we had to toast each other, tell everyone at our table exactly how awesome our partner was, in detail. J.C. and I had never talked before, so this was difficult, but we took it seriously and came up with something. I kept my eye out all evening for the best of him, so I'd have something to say, and I saw that he is detail oriented, funny, in a goofy and self-deprecating way, and of course there's his willingness to play with his own identity in a way not many men are brave enough, or light-hearted enough to do. I said as much when I toasted him. And he said some very nice things about me, all true, and I was touched and humbled that he'd noticed and cared enough to remember. It was a nice, warm feeling, about a man I hadn't ever thought or felt much about before. Literal love making, I suppose.

But before that, when we stood in the circle with the ribbons, there was the "five-fold kiss." It's a ritual blessing, it has nothing to do with actual kissing, but it was the awkward part. Again, I think Kit put her own innovation on something someone else originally created. To give the "kiss," you bless different parts of the other person's body with ritual phrases. You start with bending down to touch their feet, saying "blessed be thy feet, that walk upon the Earth."

At the knees; "blessed be thy knees, that hold you proud and strong,"

At the hips; "blessed be thy phallus, that dances to Her rhythm,"

At the chest; "blessed be thy heart, that dances to your own,"

And at the face; "blessed be thy voice, which thou mayst raise to justice."

Kit said that to bless a woman the third and fourth blessings are "blessed be thy yoni, the drum that beats Her rhythm," and "blessed be thy heart, the drum that beats your own." The word "yoni" is from Sanscrit, I think, and it means either vulva or vagina or both, I'm not sure. Since J.C. doesn't have one, I decided to use the male version of the blessing, his red ribbon notwithstanding. So, like I said, awkward. But not bad.

I did notice Kit didn't dance with us, or even help make music. None of the masters did, though they were all present, except Sarah. I asked Kit about this later, after we'd set the table and before the food came out. I asked her a lot of questions about the dance, and she answered most of them. I think she's the only one of the masters, except maybe Joy, who seems to have no interest in the sort of smart-ass obfuscation that the others like. I suppose there must be a reason for their reticence--I don't suppose you could still call them "mysteries" if everyone talked about everything all the time--but I really like that I can ask Kit questions and get clear answers. I don't feel stupid when I talk with her. About her non-participation, she said that, even symbolically, we shouldn't risk students and faculty becoming partners.

Kit wasn't the only person I had questions for, though. I like to understand what makes people tick, and I've noticed that if I ask questions, people usually answer them. Maybe I'm being nosy, but I've also noticed that some people seem to like being better understood. Some people tell me things without my even asking. I don't tell anybody else what they tell me.

So I wanted to talk to the priest. He'd stayed to watch the Maypole Dance, even though Sarah hadn't. What did he think of all of this? Was he comfortable with us here? If so, why, when Sarah wasn't?

"Sarah is still young in her faith," he suggested. "She wasn't raised in the Church, you know. I think maybe that makes her more strident. Of course, there are worse vices to have, in my opinion!"

"But you don't mind all this?" I asked.

"Mind? It's not my place to mind. Judgment is the Lord's, you know. Anyway, if I minded this, I'd have to mind half the congregation of any church! At least you all are trying to know God. You make certain mistakes, obviously, but we all make mistakes. I pray and trust the Lord God will forgive us and bring all honest seekers to the right path, in the end."

I could imagine Kit feeling very put out by what could be read as an arrogant condescension, but it was a good deal more charitable than anything I expect she'd say about him and his kind. She's angry, and while I think I know what she's angry about, I'm not sure I know why. Not all Wiccans are like that. In any case, at least he's reaching out a little. That's a lot less boring than any likely alternative.

"So, if Sarah is so...up-tight...why does she stay?" I asked. "Why doesn't she take her kids and go out somewhere where more people agree with her?"

The priest raised his eyebrows.

"I'm not sure there is such a place. Even the most decidedly Catholic neighborhoods have their share of people who are...not trying. This is not a particularly supportive time, for the religious. Anyway, she is entirely sincere about loving this land. And there is Charlie."


"The groundskeeper? He teaches ecology, too, I think. You know him?"

"Know him? He's my teacher!"

"Ah," the priest said, as though I had explained much to him. "He is hers, too."

[Next Post: Friday, May 6th: Healing]

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