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 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]

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