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, October 31, 2013

Part 7: Post 1: Samhain

Candle in bowl
Celtic sabbats, like Jewish holidays, start at sundown the previous day, or at least so says Kit. That's why, even though Samhain is certainly a big enough holiday for us to have the day off, our last day of class was actually the 31st, even though that's also when our big ceremony was. Samhain started the evening of the 31st, and then Samhain Day was the next day, the 1st.

My last class was Lies, Statistics, and Illusions. Of course, for all of us who were in it that was the last class, it was in the afternoon. When it was over, so was the school year. I'm sure Allen, as a therapist, was aware it was kind of a big deal for us, the end of our whole first year of classes. As a showman, I suspect he liked having final billing. He raised his arms in the gesture performers use to raise applause and told us to give ourselves a hand.

Class ended at five and the sun was already starting to set as I walked back to the Mansion. The ceremony was scheduled for seven, but we were supposed to arrive at the chapel around six-thirty. I called my parents and took a shower. I didn't eat--we'd been asked to hold off on dinner until after the ceremony, so I read a book for a while to avoid being hungry, then a group of us gathered together to talk for a while. Someone opened a bottle of wine but I decided not to have any. I imagined all the children, hundreds of children in the towns and hills around us putting on their costumes and heading out to get candy. That made me think--I knew the Sprouts had come on campus earlier today, I'd seen a lot of them at lunch, along with a few friends of theirs.They must have had a half day at school, except I'd never heard of schools taking a half day on Halloween, so the Sprouts and their friends must have gotten their parents' permission to skip class. That must be nice. My watch beeped. It was time to go to Chapel Hall. Night had fallen completely and when I looked out the window of my friend's dorm-room, I saw that the campus had become a sea of stars.

Walking over, I found the little lights lining the roads and pathways and doorways were little candles, hundreds of tea-lights floating in wooden bowls borrowed from the Dining Hall. I'd expected jack-o-lanterns but I didn't see any. Food rationing again, I imagine. Anyway, the affect was beautiful. Campus was full of people, everybody walking over to Chapel Hall at once, plus dozens of people, graduates, I suppose, in for a visit. Oddly, I didn't see any children. I would have thought they'd all gone home so they could go trick-or-treating, but I wasn't sure when they'd left. Allen had biked in with his kids but he couldn't have biked back with them because he got out of class so close to dark. They, at least, must still be on campus, but where? Were they upstairs sitting out the festivities in Allen's little apartment? But why would they do that? I couldn't figure it out. The night was clear and cool and dry and very dark, other than the little candles. That's one of the things I really love about campus--there are no porchlights, so when it's dark it's dark. It's relaxing. Samhain night there was no visible moon.

The ceremony started the same way the one at Brigit did, with the masters filing in to the sound of their small bell, except this time the candles they held were already lit. They climbed onto the stage, which was empty except for the tall candle-holders, deposited their candles, and then all of them except Greg and Allen left the stage and joined us in the audience. Greg held a lit candle, Allen held an unlit one. They faced each other silently for a moment, the tall, thin, older man and the shorter, younger one, and then Greg lit Allen's candle and left the stage. Greg was the Head of the Master's Group for the past two years. Now it's Allen's turn. I'm not entirely sure what the Head does, but I know the position rotates every two years among the Six (not among the non-teaching staff members) and that it's the only position of greater authority they have. There are no administrators, no principles, directors, chairs, or presidents, just the Six and their Head. After they transferred the candle flame we all clapped. Allen gave a short speech calling the ceremony to order, so to speak, and thereafter acted like a kind of MC.

First, Greg read aloud a list of names. I remember there was a sign up sheet in the Dining Hall all the previous week where you could write down the names of people you wanted memorialized. I didn't put any names down, though I'm starting to think I should have. I had a great aunt who died a few years ago. I didn't put her name down because we weren't close--I didn't live near her when I was little and I hardly knew her, but maybe I should have put her name down. Maybe I should call up my Mom and ask her to tell me about Aunt Ida. Maybe I should know. Most of the names were unfamiliar to me, though other people in the audience would sigh when certain names rang out, clap a little, or say "ho," which I've heard is what they say in sweat lodges when someone says something you agree with.  Three of them--their first names were Jim, Shrimp, and Tom--made Greg pause slightly before he read them, as though reading them gave him pain. The response from the audience all came from the front of the room, where the masters sat. These were people they knew.

I know those names; they have trees named after them. I didn't have to label the trees because they were too small, but they were big enough I had to go over and measure them to be sure. Tom's tree is a white oak and Shrimp and Jim have hemlocks growing right next to each other. I asked Charlie about them once, why the Shrimp Tree and the Jim Tree were so close. He said it was because they lived together and died together--in a car crash ten years ago. I didn't ask about Tom, but obviously that tree was a memorial, too. I've seen memorial trees before, wondered about them...and I don't think too many people pay any attention to them. At least this way, they don't just have the trees to remember them. Their names are said at least once every year.

Some of the names Greg read belonged to famous people: Edward Abby, Jacques Cousteau, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, it was an eclectic list. I guess they count as cultural ancestors? And then there was a long list of plant and animal names--the names of recently extinct species, I suppose. After the reading of the list, three people got up, one by one, to eulogize people who had died within the past year.

And then things got a little silly

Kit lead us in a song, but is seemed like most people knew it already and I quickly learned the refrain. A person would stand up, sing a verse, and then we'd all sing the refrain. Then someone else would sing a verse, on and on for maybe five or six verses. The verses were small eulogies, I guess they change every year as they honor different people. The thing is, though, they were kind of light-hearted eulogies, and the refrain--I think it was a rewritten version of some other song. It went like this:

Hats off to dead folks, wherever they may be,
'cause they had the best hopes for you and for me.
I stand up for dead folks, so you'll hear me say my
hat's off to dead folks, and I know I'll be one someday.

I mean, really? Everyone around me was treating it like this rousing sing-along and I shifted around uncomfortably in my chair. Hats off to dead folks? I liked the sentiment, but it was just so irreverent. And weird. Like, aren't memorials supposed to be sad? Not goofy? I don't mean I had any intellectually well-thought-out objections, I mean I just felt weird about it. But after a few verses I kind of got into it and started laughing along with everybody else. Some of those verses made the people they were about sound really cool, like I wanted to know more. And, I mean, if I were dead I think I'd kind of want people laughing and having a good time in my honor.

It made me think, too of Aunt Ida, wishing again I knew enough about her to write a verse for her. My Mom knows all about her--they were kind of close--and I don't know anything. I should really find out, so one more generation will remember her. And I should learn more about my grandparents, while they're still here. sounds stupid, but I was thinking about my kitten. I had this kitten when I was little and it died and I was completely heart-broken, but then I got older and I thought it seemed stupid to be carrying around this grief for an animal I only had for a couple of weeks. And then when Aunt Ida died and my mother was so upset I didn't want to put that kitten on the same level as my mother's aunt...I stopped thinking of that kitten as a loss. That's why, in the talks I've been to in the past couple of weeks, when they asked if I'd ever lost anybody I said only my Aunt Ida, and we weren't close. But I'm thinking...Charlie has a framed photograph of a dog on his desk. He doesn't know I know that, I don't think, and he never talks about having a dog, but he doesn't have any pictures of humans framed like that. The dog's picture is framed in silver. And so I think that if Charlie can remember a dog like that, I can start remembering my kitten again. RIP Sanchez.

So after the song was over, we all stood up (for dead folks) and cheered and then we milled around for a while, all of us, like we were at some kind of reception, like the ceremony was over, even though it felt unfinished to me. I went and found people who had sung eulogy verses and asked them about the people they sang about and I asked some of the masters about Jim, Shrimp, and Tom. I found out that they had been among the Six at one point, were, in fact, three of the six founding members of the master's group--Jim was the healing master, Shrimp was an artist, and Tom was a craftsman. Shrimp and Jim were a male couple whose families refused to bury them together. A portion of their mingled ashes were scattered on campus instead, in secret.

I was talking with Allen about them, and I think everyone around me was sharing stories about this dead person or that dead person,when a bell rang, the high, silver-sounding bell that the masters processed in to. And Allen stopped mid-sentence. He stopped seeing me, it seemed like, and stepped away from me, moving deliberately like he was in a procession. All the masters had suddenly moved into ritual mode. They extinguished all the candles on stage but one, and then they processed out, Allen carrying that one lit candle out of the room to the ding! ding! ding! of the bell. The ceremony was over. The year was over. We left the chapel. There was going to be food and drink and a fire at the fire pit near the greenhouse, we knew.

On my way out I heard something that sounded like a struggle of some sort, but everyone around me ignored it, so I did, too.

When we collected at the fire pit there was indeed plenty of food set out on tables, plus hot chocolate and cider, both hard and sweet, and a couple of people already had out their guitars and drums. I noticed both Allen's wife and Kit's husband were there, plus Joy's grown daughter, Serenity. Of course, Coffee Joe was there, and his and Security Joe's son. It wasn't anywhere near as many people as had shown up at Litha--Charlie's siblings weren't there, for example, and none of the students had family visiting, but there were a lot of people. And then someone said that Allen was missing.

And he was. It was odd, because everyone else was there, even Greg, who rarely went to parties, and Sarah, who was usually uncomfortable with things pagan, though she liked parties in a general way. Everyone was there, but Allen was conspicuously missing.

Just then, a small figure, either a woman or a boy, it was hard to tell which, strode suddenly into the clearing. It wore a homemade costume, vaguely pirate-ish, and carried a plastic sword and a very real lit torch. In the torchlight I could see it had a black patch over one eye and a bandana tied around the head, covering the lower half of the face. I didn't know what was going on. The older students and the faculty pretended like the figure were armed and dangerous. When it spoke, the voice was high and strange, deliberately disguised.

"We have stolen Allen! We have him! He is our prisoner, and you will never see him again if you do not do what we say! We are in charge, now!"

The figure was a child, and in a moment I had figured out who he must be; it was Allen's own son, David. The sprouts were playing a prank--except that he'd called Allen Allen. Of course, normally Allen's kids called him Dad or Daddy, but all the other sprouts always called him Dr. Allen. The sprouts always call the adults on campus Ms., Mr., or Dr. Somebody. I'd never thought about it much, but hearing one of them not do it sounded really weird. It seemed like more of a violation of things that the charade of threat.

Obviously, everybody except the yearlings were in on it somehow--it must be another tradition.The masters and some of the students begged and pleaded. They melodramatically groveled, but they could not make the boy relent. The ransom would have to be paid, and it must be paid in candy. The begging and the pleading was an act, and the child obviously knew it, though he played along, too. But the bargaining was quite real. The kid haggled fiercely with the adults, who clearly didn't want to give him as much candy or as many new privileges as he was demanding. He called several of the others by their first names, rather pointedly, but no one ever acknowledged knowing who he was. In the end, David won his fellow sprouts far more than I had expected them to get: nearly five pounds of candy each ("only the good kinds!"); plus a couple of glow-in-the-dark toy swords; three jars of jam, to share among all of them; and a promise that this year they would all be allowed to have sleepovers on school nights, as long as the guest went to the same school and everyone stayed caught up on homework. Then they returned Allen, bringing him into the circle flanked by costumed guards of ridiculously small size but fearsome mien. He'd been treated fairly roughly, it seemed, bound and gagged and face-painted like a clown. The booty was exchanged for the prisoner, with a few more first-name addresses just because they could, and the miscreants cheered and ran, taking their treasure with them and leaving Allen standing there, still tied up. He could barely walk, since his legs were tied together above the knees. At least the gag turned out to be fake, just a bandana tied across his mouth, but he refused to speak until it was untied.

 Allen could not untie himself, so we helped him, but, predictably, as soon as his gag was off he started laughing.

"You taught them to tie knots this year, didn't you?" he accused Charlie, "I really couldn't get out." Charlie protested his innocence, but he had in fact taught a knot-tying course at the summer camp.

"At least they've learned to paint faces properly," Charlie pointed out. "Last year they used my sister's make-up."

David in his Samhain costume
"What is going on?" I asked Rick, who happened to be standing next to me.

"Trick or treat," he explained. "They do this every year, kidnap one of the Masters, or sometimes a senior student. Last year it was Charlie. Twenty years ago it was the Masters' own idea. The Six set the rules, said how far the kids could go, instigated the whole thing. Since then it's been passed from kid to kid and none of them know the game was invented by grown-ups anymore. They bring their friends. When you see them again, remember to pretend you don't know who did it."

"Do they know we can recognize them?" I asked.

"The older ones do--it's sort of like Santa Claus, I guess. The line between pretending and believing is a little thin. But them being in charge for one night isn't a charade--you saw Allen, he really couldn't get loose on his own. And twenty kids against one man, he probably couldn't have resisted capture without seriously hurting them. He really was at their mercy."

Trick or treat!

[The song, "Hats off to Dead Folks," is a rewritten version of "Hats off to Old Folks," by Steve Romanoff. It was first recorded by Schooner Fare on their "The First Ten Years" album, in 1986)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sixth Interlude

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2013 here.

It's sort of odd to be writing as though I were two different ages, two different people, almost. It's like my younger self is becoming an alter-ego of mine, as though we both exist in parallel, not in sequence. Of course, as I've said, this account I've been writing is not exactly what my younger self would have written at the time. Some aspects of his perspective I've forgotten, while others I've had to alter. I wasn't a very good chronicler when I was twenty.

One difference I am aware of also, and that I'm thinking of particularly as Samhain approaches, is that when I was twenty I was more or less entirely isolated, psychologically, in the present. I don't mean I had some zenlike awareness of each individual moment--in fact, I daydreamed much more than I do now, and I saw the world through a much thicker lens of personal bias and opinion. I mean that I was isolated from any sense of history or continuity. I was intellectually aware of the passage of time, of course, but emotionally I had no basic sense that the world could be fundamentally different than I saw it, that my ancestors had once been young men and women involved in their lives or that I was going to be somebody else's ancestor. I wouldn't have said so at the time, but I was basically a kid, a boy, with a boy's view of the world as static and basically organized around his own desires. I was never selfish in a malicious sense, but I was more self-centered than anyone who knew me, quiet, self-effacing, good-boy me, would have guessed. Except, of course, the masters, who saw through me and everybody else and managed to like us, most of us, anyway.

What changed? I had a child and I lost a friend. I don't think of the Veil as personally impermeable anymore.

So, for my traditional group of corrections--

I'm going to talk about what campus was like after Samhain after I talk about Samhain. That makes sense, of course, but in doing so I may give the impression that much of it was a surprise. It wasn't. I knew that the Dining Hall was going to shut down, that the therapy schedule was going to change, all of that. I was also much better prepared for Samhain itself than my story might indicate because in the weeks leading up to the holiday there had been a series of workshops on genealogy, finding family history, the creation of ancestor altars, the various versions of ancestor-veneration in different cultures, and so forth.  A group of people made posters honoring various people who had passed on, and though I chose not to make one, I did help get some of them ready to hang. So I was in the mood, I guess.

I should also resolve a small inconsistency. I've mentioned that Sarah was harvesting huge numbers of small pumpkins, but as I'll explain, there were few jack-o-lanterns on campus. Those pumpkins actually went into our feast on Samhain Day, which is the 1st. We had our main ceremony on Samhain Eve, which is on 31st, the day before. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to talk about that feast specifically or not. I want to keep the focus on the ceremony.

Finally, what Kit said a few posts ago, about witches using broom-handles to apply flying ointment--I don't know if that's actually true. I know she actually said it, and I've encountered references to flying ointments in other writings, but I have not investigated the historical veracity of those sources, nor do I know whether Kit read about that use for broom sticks somewhere or simply decided that idea made sense. I suppose I could ask her, but the truth of the matter is I don't really care. I have other things I'd much rather talk about when we get together, and as you could imagine we don't get together nearly as often as both of us would like. But I do want to be clear about which things I say are reliable and which are not--that was one of the aspects of Charlie's teaching that really stuck and was, of course, only reinforced in graduate school.

So, we're going to get together for Samhain this week, all of us from school who are still in the area, plus a number of people who moved away and are coming back to visit. We've moved Carly's crib into our room to make a guest bedroom, and everyone, it seems like, is going to have someone on their couch or in their spare bedroom. We've adapted the old ceremony, and then we're going to have a big party the next day. It's funny, Carly is almost the same age now that Aiden was in the story. Of course, he's twelve, now, almost not a sprout anymore, but it's so easy to remember him as that baby boy dancing in his baby way at that pre-Samhain party. Carly is not as interested in walking as he was, but she can crawl already and is constantly getting into things. She's not as outgoing as Aiden was as a baby, but she likes to watch people.

It's very strange to see my own dominant characteristic suddenly appearing so blatantly in someone else.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Part 6: Post 11: Transitions

English Ivy
We have a lot of traditions here that nobody ever talks about. I've noticed this before--like how we do certain things for each of the holidays but no one ever says why. Or how no one ever said we have to turn lights out and eat local and all those other things, we just do it. Anyway, I've found another such hidden tradition; the end-of-year party.

Nobody really said anything about it. Nobody said it was a tradition or a big deal or a ceremony. Just the other day Arther said there were a couple of people getting together in the Great Hall after dinner and I should go, too, and it turned out that all the people who are graduating, all the masters, and most of the yearlings were there. Everyone else was mysteriously doing something else.

It was a big party. There are about thirty people graduating this year, which seems like a really small graduating class to me, but with maybe fifteen yearlings and all fourteen masters, plus Aiden and a couple of earlier graduates from off-campus it still added up to a lot of people gathered together in one room. There was no particular ceremony, just a fire in the fire place, lots of food and drink, and some great music.The music, of course, was home-made--Kit and some of the others brought instruments and played and sang, not like a band providing entertainment, more like a campfire, with a couple of people singing or playing on and off as the mood struck them. Mostly they played familiar stuff, Simon and Garfunkel, Kenny Loggins, James Taylor, Grateful Dead, but also some traditional Celtic stuff, some--I think they're Greek folk dances, Kit admires Greek culture, as I think I've mentioned--and some contra dance tunes. Mostly we talked over the music, if we weren't dancing or singing along, which I mostly wasn't. But I did stop and just listen--I think all of us did--for a few songs. One stuck in my head because I almost recognized the tune but couldn't quite place it. I have a good memory for lyrics, but instrumentals are harder, and it was this beautiful duet Kit did on her cello with one of her students, a violinist named Sinclara who's graduating in February after three years. No singing, just the cello and violin soaring around each other, beautiful and kind of sad. I asked about it later--it was "Empty Chairs," by Don McLean. I know that song, but somehow I'd always thought the title was "Never Thought You'd Leave," after a line in the refrain.
Asian Bittersweet

At one point Kit and some of the others played a waltz and a few people started dancing, which looked really cool, with the black or brown cloaks swirling around as the dancers swayed and spun against the backdrop of the honey-colored wood and the arrangements of corn stalks and dried flowers and seedheads, pumpkins and gourds, all occupying corners and tables and vases all around the room and the garlands and wreaths of grapevine, bittersweet, and ivy twined seasonally up light fixtures and corners and partway across some of the wooden beams along the ceiling. The bittersweet and ivy is exotic and will be burned when we're done with it, but it gives a wonderful fairy-tale look to the room.

Aiden spent most of the party wandering around, dancing, and looking up at the adults and squealing with laughter. I don't mean wandering around on his own. He's nine months old now--"he's been out as long as he was in!" as Kayla says--and can't walk on his own yet, but he can stand if he holds on to something, and with someone to hold his hands he can sort of walk and he gets a tremendous kick out of it. He dances by bouncing up and down a bit, especially when the music gets faster. He doesn't like all music equally--he actually frowned at some songs he didn't like, and he seems to have his favorites. He was wearing a little brown onesie handmade to look a little like a master's uniform and people kept calling him "the baby master" or "Buddha baby." He didn't get the joke, I'm sure, but I think he could tell we were talking about him and that we were joking, so he would look up at us and grin and giggle. His hair is dark and long enough to get in his face a bit and his eyes are this brilliant blue.

Mostly we milled around and talked to each other, all of us who could talk, and Aiden, who can't talk, milled around and giggled.

The community here subdivides in a couple of different ways, I've noticed. I'm a yearling, for example. I belong with the yearlings. I'm also a member of the Turtle Dorm, Therapy Group 1, the Janitorial Team...I'm one of Charlie's students, I'm one of the younger students, I'm male, I'm straight, I'm Christian, etc. But no matter how many different ways the community divides up, I've never really noticed the "Class of 2001" as a distinct thing. We don't have classes in that sense here, because we each move through the program at different rates. You don't necessarily finish with the people you start with. I didn't even know who-all was planning to graduate, though I knew a few of them. And now here they all were--I could see who they were, because they were the ones at the party who weren't yearlings and weren't masters or alums (or a baby). I could go up to the ones I didn't know well, even, and ask them questions about what they had studied and what they planned to do next. I could look at them as a group, and they could look at each other. I wonder if that's why we had the party?

I don't think I was the only one wondering that.

After a while, people began to leave, off to do homework, or sleep, or whatever else. I didn't feel like going to sleep, and I'd finished my homework already, so I wandered over to the couches by the fire and sat down. Charlie was there, drinking something from a mug and staring into the fire. I couldn't tell if he was cold or not, because while he'd wrapped himself up in his cloak like a big, brown cat, I could still see one of his feet poking out and, quite typically, it was bare. I wrapped myself up in my cloak, too, finding it quite cozy, and belatedly realized I'd mimicked him. We didn't speak. Greg came to sit by the fire as well, straight-backed and stern and looking preoccupied. Wren and Tenny, two women I didn't know well, came to sit together on the couch, giggling like teenagers. They're both planning to graduate this February, after four years. One by one, everyone either left or accreted to the group on the couches by the fire. Kit asked us if we wanted any hot chocolate. She had a pot of it, a cast-iron cauldron on a swinging cast-iron hook, heating over the fire. The hot mug felt good on my hands, though I hadn't thought I was cold. I took a sip and tasted...well, chocolate, obviously, but something else, too. Some kind of spice?

"What'd you put in this, coffee?" asked Allen, of his chocolate. Kit paused for a moment to think.

"Yeah, some. Do you like it?" she asked.

"Yeah, it's good," he said appreciatively. Kit went back to ladling. I didn't think my chocolate tasted like coffee, though.

"Charlie, you want some?" she asked him, cordially. Charlie slowly came back from wherever it is he goes and shook his head.

"I'll stick with the cider," he explained. "It's the only time of year I get to drink any." Of course, the rest of the year the only cider on campus is hard, and he wouldn't buy it from the store. Kit shrugged, ladled out a last cup and handed it to Wren, and took her own up back to her seat. We all settled in by the fire, nine of us, counting Arther, Joanna, and one of the Ravens.

"Hey, my chocolate's hot!" exclaimed Wren, startled.

"Well, yeah," said Tenny.

"No, I mean spicy. Like cayenne or chilli. I like it...but I don't taste coffee."

"I don't taste chillis or coffee," I admitted. "I taste...something else." Wren and I traded cups and she told me I had cardamom in my chocolate, among other things. Hers was good, but tasted nothing like mine, other than the cocoa base. We all exchanged sips and discovered that everybody had a different flavor, although all the chocolate had come from the same pot.

"Nice trick," commented Allen, casually. Charlie sipped his mulled cider in thoughtful silence

 "I wish I had a spoon," Arther muttered to himself and then said, more loudly and to everyone else, "it's strange, I'm a yearling and I'm graduating. It's like I'm at this party twice."

"We're in a similar boat," Charlie told him, with an uncharacteristic openness. "We're all staff, but we're all graduates, too. Except for Greg."

"You were never a student here, Greg?" Joanna asked. She hadn't heard any of his story, I guess.

"I'm always a student here," Greg corrected her. "I just was never a novice or a candidate."

"He's always been the meditation teacher. The early masters found him and drafted him from some local meditation center," Charlie explained. "Closest thing to a monk they could find, I suppose."

"But you weren't a monk?" Raven asked. "Not formally, I mean?"

"I never took vows as a Buddhist monk, no," Greg clarified. Then, anticipating another question, he added "perhaps if I were Japanese, and living in Japan, I would have. But we have no tradition of monks as part of society here. I didn't want to shut myself up in a counter-cultural enclave. Of course, that's just what I've gone and done, anyway." He sipped his chocolate thoughtfully, peacefully. We were all quiet again for a bit.

"What's it like to be a graduate of this place?" asked Arther.

"Depends who you are," said Charlie, "And where you go. I like being of this place. But then, I came back. I like it here." I tried to imagine Charlie being anywhere else and couldn't. I tried to imagine this place without him in it and couldn't.

"It's not that bad," asserted Allen, "to leave here and be out in the world, as one of us. You'll have a different perspective on things, but of course as a Wiccan priest you're used to that already."

"I feel normal in this place," Arther admitted. "It's the first place I ever have." Quite an admission for a mildly bombastic sixty-eight-year-old. Or, maybe he's sixty-nine now. I'm not sure.

"That's true for a lot of us," said Charlie. I looked at him in surprise and he ignored me.

"But we're all different from each other and from everybody else," put in Allen, "though there are differences of different degrees and kinds. And at the same same time, we are all normal inside ourselves, though not everyone believes it. You learn to carry your personal normality with you. And when you can leave, then you can come back."

I never thought of it that way before. They always say that graduates have to leave, before beginning their candidacy, in order to prevent the community from becoming too insular, but Allen's comment suggests there could be something else, too.

"Kit, could I have some chocolate after all?" Charlie asked, holding out his, now empty, mug. Kit brightened in a way I'd never thought of her as dark, and ladled him out some chocolate with a sudden, subtle, girlish pride.

"It's good," he pronounced.
Gaultheria Procumbens (redberry wintergreen)

"What flavor is it?" Raven asked.

"Fennel and--maybe wintergreen?" He did not offer anyone a taste and nobody asked. "Gaultheria or Betula?"

"Betula," Kit replied. "It's bigger." Charlie nodded his approval. Gaultheria I have not heard of, but Betula is a birch tree, and both yellow birch and black birch smell like wintergreen if you scratch the twig bark with your thumbnail. Hence birch beer, I'm sure. I keep forgetting that Kit knows that sort of thing, but of course she keeps the herbarium stocked. And of course, she was once his student.

I looked around the room and tried to imagine not seeing this place anymore for a while. Of course, I'm moving in the other direction--farther in instead of farther out. Pretty soon, in just a few months now, new yearlings will be coming in and I'll be the one of the senior students and supposedly know what I'm doing. I'm transitioning, too. But what would it be like to leave and know that the place
Whale and Mariner
might change irrevocably while you were gone, and to know that way might lead on to way, as in the poem, and not bring you back? I looked around at the vines curling along the ceiling, the guttered, but currently unlit candles everywhere, the big brass vase of dried flowers and seedheads spreading themselves like a vegetable peacock at the back of the room...I could hear the fire crackle and I could hear, farther away, the tinkle of the fountain in the Green Room where certain fish spend the winter. So many weird but utterly familiar things--the rocking llama, its polished driftwood mouth curled into a sneer, the andirons with suns and dragons on them, the old milk carton of books currently filled with titles on sex magic and which nobody gave a second thought to at all...And, I just noticed it, above the fireplace on the mantle, are little sculptures made of what look like small sticks glued or
Camel and Hump
tied together, some with painted paper mache skins. There is a whale eating a man on a raft, a camel with a crooked hump that looks like it's meant to come off, a wrinkled-looking rhinoceros, a leopard only half-spotted with a man kneeling beside it, and an elephant with a crocodile pulling its trunk. And there were more, thirteen in all. I counted them.

The whale made me think of Jonah, of course, but I couldn't make sense of the others. But I kept looking at them, as the others talked, until suddenly the light-bulb turned on in my head.

"Oh!" I said, then I think I blushed because everyone was looking at me all of a sudden.

"Just so," agreed Kit, who had been watching me.

[Next Post:Monday, October 28th: Interlude]

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Part 6: Post 10: Cold Nights

We finally had our first hard frost last night. We'd been expecting it, we've had a few light frosts already--last week they got us all out of bed at eleven to harvest tomatoes before they could freeze and we had green tomato casserole for lunch the next day. I think Sarah was surprised by the frost because we're mid-slope--the ground falls away toward the road and keeps on going down to the lake almost half a mile away. Cold air drains downwards, so I guess we're warmer than some of the other places in the area and the frost warnings the weather predictions put out usually don't apply to us.

Anyway, last night it finally got cold enough to do more than freeze the tomatoes. We're now in winter-mode as far as the farm goes, which means we're also in winter-mode as far as the dining room goes. Pretty much everything not either in a greenhouse or under hoop covers has either died or been harvested already, so we won't have fresh greens again until the winter crops start coming in in a couple of weeks--and I understand the winter plantings are smaller than the summer plantings, because there is less available space. Milk production is basically over for the year, so we have no fresh milk, only a little cheese and yogurt. Egg production has dropped way off, though it hasn't stopped entirely. We're getting a lot of root vegetables, turnips, beets, potatoes, and so on, done all sorts of ways--soups, roasted, boiled with butter, and so on--plus a lot of apples and some pears. And as I mentioned, there is meat at most meals, for those who want it--which is pretty much everybody. A lot of the yearlings were vegetarian or vegan when we arrived, with almost no localvores, but now that's switched.

We haven't started eating the jams and jellies yet, though. That comes later in the year, so I suppose we're not entirely winterized in that respect.

When I got here the mild rationing and the whole idea that you couldn't get foods out of place or out of season (unless you went off campus) just seemed strange to me. It doesn't now. It seems strange now that I haven't always eaten like this. I look forward to each season's, I wonder what they're going to feed us next. It's exciting.

And it's stabilizing. I eat where I live, and I wouldn't eat out of place or out of season, if I could help it, any more than I would eat cereal for lunch or sandwiches for breakfast or wear my pajamas to walk around town in public. When I have to eat off campus, and eat food raised by strangers on some landscape where I don't know the trees it's...I don't like it. I look forward to coming back home. I mean here, the campus, is home.

I can't decide if I like this gradual sense of severance from the ordinary, main-stream world, or whether this change frightens me. I can see why Charlie wears his uniform almost all the time and why he's all but forgotten how to drive. He reads the newspapers, but he doesn't watch TV, or even movies, and I don't think he listens to much recorded music. Maybe he doesn't listen to any recorded music at all. He didn't know who Christina Aguilera was. When someone mentioned her at Paleolithic Dinner the other night, he said "who?" Am I going to end up like that?

Of course, if it means I've got something in my life more important than knowing who Christina Aguilera is, or whoever else, then yes, I guess I do want that. I am going to have such a strange life, it looks like. I think of that, sometimes, when I can't get to sleep, how my life is zooming off away from anything I ever expected. The realness of it, the realness of my actual life, scares me a little.

And, by the way, the night-time when I can't sleep is cold. We still haven't lit the stoves, though sometimes someone will lay a fire in one of the fireplaces downstairs, for the look of it. It doesn't do much to heat the place, of course. Apparently they have a tradition of not lighting the stoves until Samhain, unless the weather is seriously unseasonably freezing, which it has not been this year.

The Mansion is pretty well insulated, so after a warm day when we've had the windows open it takes a long time for the building to cool down again, so those nights are not at all bad. Some nights it's warm enough to sleep out on the balconies, where you can see the moon and stars on clear nights and hear owls calling to each other in the woods.They don't go "who-who," for the most part, or even "who-cooks-for-you," or any other mnemonic, anymore. I guess that was for earlier in the year? I used to hear them.... Instead they let out these long, quavering wails, musical and strange. The crickets stop calling right after sunset, though. Even warm nights are too cold for them, now.

But other nights, especially when it's clear and dry out and the day was cool, I wake up about three in the morning, shivering, even underneath my handmade wool blankets and flannel sheets. I get up and pull on my long-johns and put on my hat. Three AM is a bad time to wake up, if you have to wake up for real at five-thirty to get ready for zazen at six. I don't always get back to sleep. It's still dark at six, now, so either way it feels like I'm getting up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I just get up and stay up. I go out on my balcony and curl up in my uniform cloak and watch the stars move slowly across the sky. I watch time passing.

I bet if I had a girlfriend I wouldn't get so cold at night. Or two girlfriends, to make a sandwich of me in my little bed. Mmmm. Yes, please.

[Next Post: Friday, October 25: Transitions]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Part 6: Post 9: Getting Ready for Samhain

It’s just under two weeks till Halloween, now. A lot of the places out along the main road have ghosts and lights and whatever else in their trees and the stores in town are selling costumes, candies, pumpkin-shaped desserts, etc. We don’t have any of that. You’d think we’d be really into Halloween here, given how into Halloween imagery a lot of Wiccans are, but as far as I can tell, nobody here is going to actually celebrate Halloween at all. 

Instead, we’re getting ready for Samhain, which is on the same day…I’ve heard of Samhain before—it’s pronounced “Sah-wain,” I don’t know why—but I’d always thought it was basically the pagan version of Halloween. I mean, that’s more or less what my high school friends said—that Halloween is the Christianized version of the ancient pagan holiday of Samhain. But now, seeing Samhain actually gearing up on campus, I don’t see much connection between it and Halloween at all.

There are no artificial spider-webs and no plastic bats. There are no fake tombstones and no ghosts made out of sheets. There’s no creepy horror-movie stuff at all. There are pumpkins and squashes and dried corn stalks arranged decoratively on the porch in front of the office and in a lot of the other entranceways. The tables in the Dining Hall have centerpieces made of apples and small decorative gourds. Sarah and her people are harvesting huge numbers of small pumpkins and Nora is making huge numbers of small candles, though nobody has said anything about actual jack-o-lanterns. You could argue, I suppose, that decorative style does not a holiday make, but in this case I’d say there’s some qualitative difference. I couldn’t figure out what it was on my own, though, so I went looking for Kit. I couldn’t find her for a couple of days, but then she turned up today while I was looking for Charlie.

I’d finished my cleaning for the morning a little late, so instead of trying to find Charlie in the
gardens as I normally do I went right to the Dining Hall. He wasn’t there, so I got my food and left, hoping to bump into him so we could have lunch together. It turned out he was supervising some work on the front of the Mansion—they’re taking the window boxes down from the balconies today, since the beans are all done, and instead of carrying the boxes of dirt in through our bedrooms and out through the Mansion (as a janitor I’m REALLY glad they didn’t do that), they were lowering them down from the balconies on ropes. Obviously, Charlie wasn’t going to be able to have lunch with me, but Kit was sitting on the porch in the sunshine and since I wanted to talk with her anyway, I sat down next to her.

She was making, of all things, a broom. A besom, she’d call it—a witch’s ritual broom made of sticks. She had already tied the sticks onto the handle, and she was busy tying the sticks into smaller bundles so that the broom would be flat rather than round. She had a plastic five gallon bucket of water with her and she was keeping the sticks wet, so they’d be pliable, I suppose. So she was pulling and yanking on the bark twine to keep it tight, making little grunting noises with her effort, and she’d spilled water all down her uniform front. She didn’t look especially glamorous, she just looked practical, competent, and unselfconsciously girlish. When I sat down near her she made an inquisitive, friendly sound, like a cat does, and I smiled, to her and about her, and I ate my beans and kale quietly while she worked.

When Kit finished she looked at her work appreciatively and asked if I’d had any of the raisin squash bread.

“No, I didn’t see it.”

“Maybe it was all gone by the time you got there. Too bad, it was really good. Maybe they’ll have it again tomorrow.” She was still looking at her broom.

“I hope so,” I told her. “Nice besom.”

“Thank you.”

“Kit, why do witches use brooms? You don’t really ride on them and fly?” I was pretty sure she didn’t, but you never know.

“People used to,” she said, lightly. “Accused witches in the Middle Ages spoke, under torture, of certain ‘flying ointments.’ The recipe included belladonna, which is a very dangerous hallucinogen, dangerous as in it will kill you if you use it ever so slightly wrong. Now, assuming that only a real witch would know something like that about so dangerous a plant—an assumption that is questionable but not completely out of bounds—it seems plausible such flying ointments were actually in use.  They would have had to be applied to sensitive areas where chemicals could be easily absorbed. And how do you think the Medieval witches applied the ointment?” 

She looked at me then, for the first time, holding her broom up near the top of the handle in such a way that her meaning was more or less obvious. I think I turned beet red.

“Oh don’t worry,” Kit said, laughing a little, “there are all sorts of reasons why I wouldn’t discuss such a practice with you if I actually followed it! As with so much else, the modern besom seems to be a back-formation, a new thing based on inaccurate assumptions about the past--people know witches are supposed to use them for something. It doesn’t matter. A besom works as a meditative focus, however it was once used, since it unites the male and female—it has a phallic symbol on one end and a yonic symbol on the other—see?” She flipped the broom brush-side up so it looked a bit like a woman’s pubic delta and the line between her standing legs. I nodded, to show I understood. “And it also works as a
ritual tool for sweeping out negativity. And you can jump over it, to get married. I believe it’s an African-American tradition, maybe from the days of slavery, but certain European-American Wiccans have adopted it. I made this one for a wedding—a handfasting? I’m officiating one right after Samhain.”

“Isn’t that a creepy time to get married?”

“I don’t think so—it’s pagan New Year, you know. Anyway, it’s something to do with taxes, they have to get married in November. But none of this is why you came to talk to me.”



“Why aren’t there fake gravestones and corpses and stuff on campus now? It’s supposed to be the Day of the Dead coming up, isn’t it? I don’t know, it seems important, but I can’t figure it out.” Kit put her broom down and looked at me intently.

“What-all is missing, in your opinion? List it.”

I closed my eyes to consider her question, letting my mind walk around inside my memory of the Halloween supply stores I’d been in. My sister works at one this year. I’ve visited her there a few times.

“Severed feet, made of rubber. Heads, made of rubber, with loose eyeballs and bloody necks. Plastic sickles and scythes. Plastic machetes with red paint on the edges. Rubber rats. Giant rubber flies and spiders. Fake tombstones. Fake spider webs. Costumes….”

“What kind of costumes? Could I dress up as anything I wanted?”

“No,” I blushed again. “All the costumes for women are prostitute costumes. Any fantasy you want—as long as it’s sex. Lots of cleavage, everything super-short…”

“What do all these things have in common?”

“Bodies,” I said, without thinking, and opened my eyes. “It’s all bodies. Blood and decay and sex and…alcohol. Lots of alcohol for adults, sugar for children. It’s all bodies, all appetites.”

“And why is that scary?”

Again, I answered without thinking, or maybe the thought came as soon as I spoke, prompted by my speaking, one of the two.

“Because we’re mortal,” I answered, with sudden clarity. Kit smiled at me, brilliantly.

“And why do we celebrate Samhain here? Why do the Christians celebrate All Souls’?” she prompted.

“Because some part of us isn’t. Isn’t mortal,” I answered, wonderingly. Kit grinned at me again, nodded decisively to herself, and started to clean up her mess from making the broom.

“You’d better get to class,” she told me. “You were almost late last week.” I have no idea why she remembered that, though I can imagine how she found out—Nora is her student, and talks.

“Hey, Kit?”


“Uh, wow.”

“You’re welcome,” she told me, giggling a little.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Part 6: Post 8: Nora

So I was thinking about Arthur the other week, obviously, since I wrote about him, and I was thinking how I haven’t really gotten to know him, and now he’s about to leave, and what a waste that is. I remember him from the first day I was here, sitting in the Office reading my pamphlet, as other prospective students came in. I don’t really remember who else I saw that day, though I imagine I know them all now…I just wasn’t paying attention, mostly, and they were all strangers and didn’t stick in my mind, except for Arthur, partly because he’s so much older.

The other person I remember from that day is Nora. We do get along, though we're not in the same dorm and we haven't had very many classes together. Maybe it's that she likes to talk and I like to listen. It's not that she talks a lot, though she's not exactly quiet, it's really that she gets a kick out of it. She gets a kick out of sharing her ideas with people, thinking aloud. And she can talk about the most extraordinary things, feminist theory, the anatomy of bees, whatever it is. She's somehow sucked up an extraordinary amount of information over the past few months, and it's like when she talks I can see her moving the ideas around in her mind, figuring out how things fit together. I like watching that.

"Real beekeepers don't use bee-suits," she announced to me the other day. We were sitting outside on the steps to Chapel Hall, before I had to go in for my afternoon class. It was sunny but cold and we were both wrapped up in our uniform cloaks, but she didn't have her hood up and the light shone on her spiky black hair. It was partly purple when she got here, but there's no purple in it now. When did that happen? You'd think you'd notice these things.

"You use a bee-suit," I pointed out.

"I'm not a real beekeeper, though," she replied. "I'm just an apprentice. I'm learning what to do now. I'll learn how to do it later, when I really know how to act around them."

"How do real beekeepers avoid getting stung, then?" I asked, partly because I knew she wanted me to. I'm not sure there aren't plenty of real beekeepers who would disagree with her terminology, but I let that one slide.

"See, you have to get into a flow with the bees," she explained. "It's like a 'Zen' thing, you know? If you approach the bees with fear or anger in your heart, they'll know and they'll attack. They know humans normally kill bees. But if you approach them peacefully, lovingly, they'll know that, too. They won't be afraid and they won't hurt you. Bees don't want to sting--the workers die if they sting. So they'll only attack if they think something worth dying for is at stake."

"I don't know," I told her. "I've never attacked a bee hive or anything else worth a bee dying for, and I've been stung a few times."

"You've got to think of it from the perspective of a bee," she pointed out. "They might think you were threatening something they think is worth dying for. Anyway, can you tell the difference between a bee and a yellow jacket?"
Honey Bee

"No, I suppose not."

"That's it, then. Yellow jackets are wasps, and they can sting multiple times. They don't have as much to loose."


"Ahhhhh!" she mimicked me, and giggled. I laughed.

"It's cold," I said, finally. "What do bees do in the winter?"
Yellow Jacket

"Sit in their hives and eat honey to stay warm. A nice life, don't you think? Bee keepers have to leave them enough honey to get through the winter with, or we have to give them sugar water if they run out. Sugar water isn't as good for them."

"How do you remember all this stuff?" I asked. She shrugged.

"It just sticks in my head. Honey on the brain, I suppose. Makes my brain sticky, so I have a good memory and I'm sweet. How do you know all the trees on campus?"

"Because Charlie wouldn't let me get away with anything else. You are sweet, but you weren't when you got here. You were so angry. What changed?" I'd been wondering this for a while. She shrugged again.

"I've always been sweet. People just don't piss me off as much here."

"Because people treat you like an adult?" I guessed. I've seen Nora's mother--she's a good woman, suppose, and she certainly wants the best for Nora, but she does not seem to have gotten the memo that her daughter isn't three anymore.

"Because they treat me like a person," Nora corrected me. "I don't think age has anything to do with it."

"Don't you? You don't think there's any difference between you and Kayla? Or between you and...Meg?" I was going to say 'you and me,' since I think about that sometimes--I guess I didn't realize how much I'd really changed in the last three years until I made friends with Nora and remembered being sixteen and seventeen again. It's different. But just then I didn't want to remind her of that. I didn't want her to get uncomfortable with me and stop talking. But I think she figured it out because she smiled at me funny, for just a second. Then she shook her head.

"I know there's a difference between me-at-thirteen and me-at-seventeen. And I expect I'll be different again when I'm twenty. But I think I'm more like me at any age than I am like you or Kayla at any age. People are all individuals."

"You don't think there's anything wrong with...Kayla being a mother at this age?" I don't often bring that up, but I was feeling protective of Kayla, and thinking maybe Nora was missing something important somehow. The corners of her mouth tightened and turned down.

"How Kayla got pregnant was fucked up," she acknowledged, "but it would have been equally fucked up if she was thirty-five. But her age? I don't know, they used to marry people off that young--you know how old Juliet was in Romeo and Juliet? She was thirteen! And her mother was twenty-six!"

"Maybe that was 'fucked up.'"

"What was fucked up was that Juliet's father tried to marry her off to a man she didn't even like without even asking her. They do that shit now, in other parts of the world, did you know that? Nobody should have to have a sexual experience, or a baby, they don't want, I don't care how old they are!"

There was still something I didn't think she was getting, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I agreed with everything Nora said. I opened my mouth and closed it again. She looked away from me and hugged her cloak around herself. Her anger was back.

"It's gorgeous here," I said finally. Nora tensed further, but then I saw her relax. All the tension drained from her face and shoulders.

"It is," she agreed.

"What are you doing this winter, after Samhain?" I asked. "Are you staying on campus?" Yearlings are supposed to, but I know she has a number of special deals. She goes home on weekends, for example, even though that means missing Saturday morning meditation. I think she goes twice on Fridays instead, or something.

"No, my mother wants me home. I'd rather stay here." She frowned and her body shifted, amoeba-like, under her cloak, I guess she was scratching an itch or something. "I'll meditate at home and come into campus on Wednesdays, for group therapy."

"Will you stay the night?" 

"I hope so. I imagine. I'll come to breakfast on Thursdays that way--it'll be nice to see people again."

"You won't see everybody. A lot of people are leaving."

"I know."

I was thinking about the time, as in whether I should go into class, but I didn't want to get up and leave, even though I was cold and the edge of the concrete step was digging into my butt. The sun was pleasant and I liked the conversation and I didn't want to leave. But then Nora said "hey, don't you have class?" at the same time as my watch beeped. She laughed and I went inside. I left Nora sitting there on the steps, alone, her face set, hard, and serious.

I think all the people who describe teenagers as 'carefree' don't know any teenagers.

[Next Post: Friday, October 18th: Getting Ready for Samhain]