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.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Part 8: Post 4: Birthdays

Andy's been trying to figure out whether to use his present, the booklet on scenic bicycle rides, now or wait till spring. It's been snowing every few days for awhile now, and although they get the roads clear pretty quickly, the shoulders are all clogged up and icy. We can bike, obviously, but it isn't very much fun or very safe. But Andy doesn't want to wait. We were talking about it this morning. He's the proverbial kid at Christmas. He's like a kid all the time--he just gets so excited about things.

"Andy, how old are you?" I asked.

"Thirty-six. Why?" I was surprised--he doesn't look thirty-six. His hair is greying and thinning and he has bad, weathered-looking skin. But I didn't say that.

"You don't act thirty-six," I said instead.

"Oh, how do I act?"

I think I turned red. How was I going to avoid insulting him? I shouldn't have brought it up.

"I don't know, younger."

"About twelve right?" Andy supplied, grinning.

"Yeah, about twelve." I'm glad he grinned.

"Yeah, I'm basically a big kid. They say you stop growing up when you start using. I started smoking and drinking when I was twelve." He wasn't grinning anymore, but he didn't seem angry I'd brought it up. He seemed like he wanted to talk, so I let him.

"So young?" I asked. I think I was still playing with GI Joes when I was twelve.

"Yeah. I had a brother who used, and he shared with me. Pot, at first, and we got into our parents' liquor cabinet a few times, you know, watering down what was left so they wouldn't notice how much was missing? He wouldn't give me any hard stuff till I got older."

"I didn't know you had a brother."

"I don't, now. He died."

"I'm sorry."

"So am I."

We were quiet for a bit. I looked out the window for a bit and fiddled with my binoculars.

"So do you start growing up again when you get clean? So you're, what, almost thirteen now?" Andy smiled a bit ruefully and looked away. We were quiet for a while again, until his enthusiastic grin broke out again, like a sunrise.

"No, I'm almost one. I was saved last year, end of February, beginning of March, I don't remember the date. Since then, everything's new, everything that came before is gone. I guess it's no wonder I act young? Everything's new. There's so much I never knew before, never experienced. Sobriety is the most amazing high ever!"

He'd gone from sad and gloomy to completely elated in less than a minute. Little Aidan does that, too. It's like neither man nor baby has any emotional momentum. They feel what they feel right now, and what they felt last minute is irrelevant. I'm not entirely sure Andy is sane, actually, but he is a good man, and at least he's coherent. When he first arrived he wasn't quite.

"You came here in March," I told him, thinking about how he was when he arrived. "When did you steal the bicycle?" Instantly, his rueful smile was back.

"You remember."


"I think that was--mid-February, thereabouts. I was trying so hard to get back on my feet, but I couldn't. I was cold all the time and I was still using. Everything was happening so fast. It's like, you're supposed to be up here" he held his hand up about shoulder height, "living a normal life, you know? And you fall down a bit, you make mistakes, and you try to climb back up again. But gravity is against you, and you keep falling. You make enough mistakes, you fall far enough, and you can pedal and pedal and pedal and still you'll never make it. Or, it's like being in debt, trying to pay it off, and you never do, so you have to borrow more just to survive and your debt gets bigger...but now my debt is paid in full by Jesus Christ. I don't have to feel guilty all the time anymore. I can live my life and try to be the best man I can be, today."

"Well, you've certainly worked hard at that this past year. I think you are a very good man."

"No, no, no. I haven't worked," Andy protested. "My best me into stealing bicycles. God worked. God worked on me. I couldn't have done it. I'm a miracle. It's like they call it a self-help program, but it isn't. I can't help myself, I tried, I failed. It's a God-help program."

I assume he was talking about NA. I know he goes--he's not exactly anonymous about it. And I had thought he was more or less quoting things he's heard in meetings. I remember there was a lot of that when I used to go to open AA and Al-Anon meetings, all these phrases that everyone keeps repeating to each other,like a new habit. But that one about the God-help program sounded different, both unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. I must have frowned or something, because Andy looked at me sharply.

"You know who told me that," he said. It wasn't a question.

"Yes," I told him, finally.

[Next Post: Friday, January 3rd: New Years]

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Part 8: Post 3: Christmas

 I keep thinking of that part in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the part that begins "it came without ribbons! It came without tags!" Even though, in our case it would be more like it came without Christmas specials and holiday shopping. We did have some ribbons and tags, but we didn't have all the holiday hoopla that normally happens. Christmas came anyway. I'm completely delighted.

As I've mentioned, there were only five of us on campus planning to celebrate Christmas. We planned to have breakfast together and open our care packages from our families together. Andy doesn't have a family, so we pitched in and made a care package for him.We also agreed to exchange presents among ourselves, but only gifts that we'd made, already had, or that cost less than five dollars. Some of the other planned to join us for a semi-fancy dinner, but I didn't think there was anything official planned for Christmas at all, and we all pretty much expected that by the end of the day we'd feel pretty lonely and sad. It didn't end up that way.

On Christmas Eve I went to the midnight service in town. I was a little late--almost late for the service--because biking in the dark down the narrow road proved a little sketchy and I walked part of the way. I'd picked the UU church, so I wasn't surprised to see Allen and his family there. He seemed a bit surprised to see me, but then I'm not a regular attendee and it was a cold night for biking. He seemed a bit distant, the way teachers often do when they see students out of context, but he was friendly and invited me to sit with his family. I ended up sitting next to Alexis, the littlest, I guess she's four now.

"I'm staying up till MIDNIGHT!" she told me, with no preamble. I don't know if she recognized me, but obviously I know her Dad, so I must be ok.

"You're staying up later than that," Allen corrected her, gently, "it's almost midnight now. The service goes until at least one. See my watch?" He was still explaining the mysteries of clock time when the service started. Over his bent head I made eye contact with Lo, Allen's wife, and she smiled her fondness of him.

The service was a bit different than the Methodist Christmas service I grew up with, but familiar enough, and the sermon was interesting. I felt a bit strange attending a ceremony in street clothes, like I should have been wearing my school uniform. And then I felt strange for feeling that way. I looked over at Allen, but of course he seemed perfectly comfortable in his jacket and tie. He never looks quite right in the school uniform, anyway. When we all stood up to sing, Alexis stood on the pew and Allen grinned at her and held her hand, this sweet, unselfconscious grin. Alexis either didn't notice or maybe she doesn't realize she's loved--the same way fish don't notice they're wet. Anyway, she stayed standing on the pew, nobody corrected her, and she sang all the words, except that some words she clearly did not understand and mangled cutely. Oh, come all lee faithful, joyful and tri-umpant.

The bike ride back was beautiful, dark and frigid under the clear, crystalline stars. I was afraid of black ice and drunk drivers, and whenever I saw headlights on the trees in front of me I hopped off by bike and scooted off into the ditch at the car passed. My ride home took a long time that way and I got really, really cold, but I really didn't mind. Santa and his sleigh would only have gotten in the way of my silent,magical night.

It must have been almost three in the morning before I got to bed, but I was up again at eight, ready to open presents, like a little kid. I met the others on the landing--apparently we all had the same idea. We went down stairs to the Great Hall...and found it completely transformed.

Someone had hung the tree with candy-canes and red and green Hershey's kisses; the kisses were speared through with loops of wire so they could hang. Someone had set out trays of doughnuts and bowls of oranges. The oranges--they're as big a deal as the doughnuts, it's been months since I had any, though we did get a crate of clementines on Yule. There was coffee and hot cocoa waiting--who got all this ready? And each of us had a bag with our name on it under the tree.

Andy knelt to pick up his bag, one of those bright things that works as reusable wrapping paper. I think there were tears in his eyes.

"I didn't think anybody cared!" he half-whispered.

"About you?" I asked him, feeling quite touched, though he knew we'd gotten him something and I didn't think he should act so surprised anymore that we like him. But he shook his head. "No," he explained, "about the baby, Jesus." He reached into his bag, pulled out a large, red cloth napkin (clearly put in there in place of tissue paper, since it's a school napkin), reached in again and pulled out a booklet on local scenic bicycling routes. I don't know whether the person who got him that present cares about Jesus, but someone clearly cares about Andy and wants him to have a good Christmas. I'm not sure there's much of a difference, anyway. Jesus is supposed to have said something like "if you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me." And I figure, a year ago Andy was pretty much among the least--a homeless recovering drug addict with no friends and no family. Or was he even recovering yet at that point?

I got a nice pair of binoculars, apparently used--the casings are a little beat-up looking, but I can look through the window and spot robins roosting in the honey locusts down by the road. My own binoculars! Ollie got a deck of playing cards and an odd little set of magnetized marbles. And so on.

"Who did this--Ollie, did you do it?" The rest of us are yearlings, but I thought Ollie might have had a better idea of what was going on. And it would be like him. But he shook his head.

"I wouldn't have gotten myself a gift!" And he's right. He wouldn't have. And then Sally held up her gift, a tiny black china cat with a halo like a wedding ring supported by the tips of its ears.

"I didn't tell anyone about my cat. Maybe I told Joy, months ago," she whispered, "but no one else here. I had a cat, a little black cat, who was hit by a car when I was a little kid. And right after she died I just...started knowing things. That's when I became psychic, because of my cat."

We all looked at each other. Had Santa been here? Had one or another of the Masters--or, perhaps all of them together--organized this? It is true that they often seemed to know more about us than we had ever told them. It's more than just getting stuff; it's knowing that someone really knows each of us, knows us well enough to give each of us something perfect. Someone knows and cares. I don't think I want to know who it was. It would spoil the magic.

Later, after we'd opened our other things and had breakfast, I went outside in my pajamas to play with my binoculars. And there, crossing the snowy front garden, were footprints. They were the fresh footprints of deer.

[Next Post: Monday, December 30th: Birthdays]

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Part 8: Post 2: Sheep

Almost everybody has left campus now, gone home for the holiday. There's no formal breakfast this week, and no zazen, though yearlings are still responsible for meditating every day but Saturday. Everything's really quiet. No chores, no campus bustle, no holiday madness, no Christmas specials (no TV)...I sing Christmas carols to myself, sometimes.

Most of the people who are left don't celebrate Christmas, so I guess this week is going to be pretty lonely and sad. I'm kind of glad I stayed, though, because Andy had to stay--he has no family to go to. I think Ollie stayed so that Andy wouldn't be alone, though he didn't say so. I would have, too, if I'd thought about it, but I didn't. There are a few others who stayed, too, for one reason or another. I think we're going to have dinner together, or something, and we've gotten small gifts for each other. I got a care package from my parents in the mail today that has some wrapped presents in it, which is embarrassing, since they said we'll exchange gifts at a party after New Years, too. Some of the others got packages, too. We've put our things under the tree to wait for Christmas morning.

I got bored reading today, so I went for a walk and I ended up down by the barns. Joy was down there, looking at the sheep milling around in their pen in the snow. Most of them are pregnant and starting to get round under their wool. We haven't had milk in a while, and I was standing there, thinking about having milk again after the lambs are born, when Joy spoke to me. We'd nodded hello to each other,but I didn't expect her to want to talk, since she and the other masters have gone back into hiding after Yule.

"Funny how there is no singular for 'sheep,'" she began, leaning on the fence rail.

"I though 'sheep' was the singular for sheep?" I asked.

"Maybe. I suppose. One sheep, two sheep...except there really isn't such a thing as just one sheep. If you have just one sheep, all by itself, you don't really have any sheep at all. Sheepness is plural. We're the same way. You can't have just one of us. Maybe that's why humans and sheep get along?"

"I've been alone lots of times," I protested, "and I've been human the whole time."

"Have you really been alone, though?" she asked. "With no idea of yourself as a being who is loved by others? We take our flocks with us, in our hearts." There was a pause. "Comparing people to sheep is hardly considered complimentary, though."

"Well, there's the Christian tradition of a shepherd and his flock..." I'd been thinking about this for a while--I went to church last week and heard a sermon on the concept of Christ as shepherd.

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," recited Joy, and she continued on, reciting the entire psalm. I joined her partway through. "It's Jewish, too. It's in the old testament. The Hebrew people were pastoralists."

"Maybe they knew something about sheep we don't? So it wasn't an insult? To be compared to sheep, I mean?"

"Or they knew something about shepherds."

"Like what? What's special about shepherds?" I asked.

"They know more than sheep do."



"What are you doing for Christmas? Anything? Do you celebrate Christmas?"

"I do. My daughter, Serenity, has a new beau. They're quite serious, and he invited her to spend Christmas with him. She and I live together, just the two of us, so she asked if I could come, too."

"Hanging out with your daughter and her boyfriend? Isn't that going to be awkward?"

"Just as long as I don't have to cook!"

"Joy, are you Christian?" I hadn't been able to figure this one out. I knew the others, more or less. Kit's Wiccan, Greg and Karen are Buddhist, and Allen and Charlie are...whatever it is they are, but I know them well enough to have an idea of what that means. Joy is rumored to be "New Age," and I used to think I knew what that was, but now I'm not so sure.

"I wouldn't put a label on it like that," began Joy. "I'm not exclusively Christian. But I believe in Jesus, and I honor His birth."

"I think Kit thinks that story is sexist," I confided. This has been bothering me, that Kit clearly doesn't like the religion I was raised in.

"Only if the storyteller is sexist."

"How do you tell it?"

"That Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of Mother-Father God, just like the rest of us, except more fully realized. He incarnated in order to show the rest of us the way. He did what we can do, what we should trust ourselves enough to do. You're Protestant, right?"

"Methodist. More or less."

"Martin Luther is supposed to have said that baptism is like snow on shit--it doesn't really change
anything. I'm inclined to think sin is more like shit on snow." There was a sheep, right in front of us, providing an example of this substance as she spoke. "The snow may get dirty for a while,but its essential nature is not changed. In time, it melts and then evaporates and returns to the sky, pure. The snow always falls white again, no matter how much it has been through."

The sheep bleated to each other, their breath curling up in billows towards the grey sky.

[Next Post: Friday, December 27th: Christmas]

Friday, December 20, 2013

Part 8: Post 1: Yule

Note; Yule is actually tomorrow. I've just decided I'd rather post about the holiday early than late. Yule was on a Thursday that year. By the way, some readers have been asking me if this blog is about to stop. I have no plans for it to stop. -- D.K.

They didn't tell us what the Yule celebration was going to be about until it was actually here, which I suppose is typical. According to the senior students we shouldn't miss it and we should take a nap ahead of time, but that's all they would say. And of course, it turned to be fantastic.

There were only maybe twenty of us on campus on Wednesday--despite the advice of the senior student a lot of people had gone home for Christmas already--which was kind of a bummer, but at least it made dinner feel kind of cozy and family-like. We had a little Yule dinner around the beautiful old table in the Great Hall dining room and we all fit around it. Kit and Greg both joined us for dinner and helped cook, and they sat at the head and foot of the table like parents--which was strange, as I'm not used to thinking of either of them in parental terms. But I liked it. Yule night, I should say, is the night before the sunrise of Yule, not the night after.

It also happened to be the first night of Chanukah. A few students here are Jewish, and more are pagans from a Jewish background--some of them call themselves "Jewitches." So usually the campus as a whole doesn't celebrate the Jewish holidays, but there are often small private services or dinners here, just like there are for Christian holidays. But today, the two combined. Before dinner, they lit the first candle of the Menora, with sung prayers in Hebrew. And apparently some of what we had for dinner was traditional for Chanukah.

After dinner, while I was helping to clean up, Kit and some of her students left--I think they went to the martial arts studio down the hall for a Wiccan ritual. When they came back an hour later, smelling of sage smoke and looking like starlight, they brought a lit candle and a lot more people. Kit's husband had joined her and some of the senior students were back, plus Nora and Kayla and Aidan, and a group of graduates. I guess most of them had joined Kit for the ritual, and the others just showed up at the same time.The candle was the long, pale gray taper that's been on the mantel-piece this past week, and Kit carefully returned it there.

"The Yule candle," she explained, looking pleased with herself. "It will burn all night, to hold the place of the sun."

"Not a Yule log?" I asked.

"I expect we've got one burning already," commented Arthur, pointing at the wood stove.

"Yup! We're burning oak tonight," confirmed Kit. The newcomers brought cakes and candies and a lot of alcohol. Apparently, we were going to have a party. 

I was busy catching up with Kayla when Nora pulled at my sleeve and quietly pointed to Arther. He was sitting by himself, looking at the Yule candle, with an odd, sad expression on his face. Even as we watched he sighed, sighed again, and then he sort of crumpled in on himself, weeping.

"I don't know whether to give him space or comfort him?" Nora said. Kayla bit her lip and frowned.

"When we first got here," I began, "I saw him come in. He told Sharon he wanted to be here because his wife had just died and he didn't want to be alone. I bet she was still alive at Yule last year. Let's go make sure he isn't alone." And so the three of us brought him a fresh handkerchief and a plate of cookies and he told us all about his wife and their life together.

"It's a good thing this is the darkest day of the year," he said, finally, "It's about the worst I've felt all year. You never expect some things to just...end." I've never seen Arthur to break down like that. He's always so in charge of himself and everything else.

But while we were talking to him some of the others had collected their instruments and a sort of band had started up. All this light-heartedness was happening around us. More people had come in, so there were maybe fifty or sixty people in the room. There was a bit of a commotion, Kit was trying to refuse to do something and others were insisting. Finally she gave in and stood up and sang an a Capella version of Twelve Days of Christmas but with hand gestures--the sort of thing children learn to do for school Christmas shows. Each day had its own motion, vaguely related to the lyrics, and the whole thing was entirely goofy. Even Arthur was laughing, his tears not dry yet.

From there, the music just didn't stop. The band kept changing as one or more members got up to dance and someone else sat down. Except for that first song, Kit wasn't really a center of attention, which was kind of strange, and, besides Greg, none of the other masters showed up. I guess the party was mostly a student-thing. Hours went by. Gradually people started leaving, including Kit, but the band showed no sign of stopping. Around three in the morning I realized we were going to dance the sun up, but I turned out to be wrong.

By five things were starting to calm down and I was getting tired myself. There were maybe thirty of us left. One of the senior students called us all together and suggested we all climb the mountain to watch the sun come up. Greg would stay behind and watch over the oak logs and bayberry candle that still burned. The only thing was, we had to be utterly silent, not say anything until the sun actually came up. I knew a ritual activity when I heard one, I think we all did, so nearly all of us put on a couple of extra layers, pulled on our boots, grabbed foam pads to sit on, and walked out into the crusty, early-season snow.

We had flashlights, and it is hard to get lost in such a bit group, so hiking in the dark wasn't bad. It was strange not talking, though, moving with such a large crowd in the dark and hearing their breathing, their footfalls in the leaves and the snow, and nobody talking. We climbed to the top of the ridge behind the school to a lookout area where the trees had been cleared to give us a view almost straight down the valley to the east. By that time there was a definite glimmer of dawn; the eastern half of the sky was a luminous blue, with the ghosts of grey clouds just visible here and there. We all settled down to wait.

And heard music.

Someone, somewhere behind us, was playing "Here Comes the Sun" on a tin whistle.

Charlie! I looked around, but could not see him in the gloom under the trees. He finished the song and immediately began it again and this time, after the first few bars, was joined by a guitar. That had to be Allen. I hadn't seen him in weeks. I still couldn't see him, though the air was growing brighter all the time. The song cycled through, over and over, gaining instruments as it went: a violin, a tambourine, and a drum. The masters had all come. It was light enough now that I could probably have seen them if I'd looked, but the dawn was so close I was watching the horizon for the sun. One spot was growing brighter and brighter so that I kept thinking is that the sun? Is that it? Like when you're on an airplane taking off and you wonder if you've left the ground yet until suddenly it's obvious that you have. The sun came up and split the weird pale light of dawn and at that moment the song that had been repeating itself over and over again reached its beginning and it was obvious that we should all sing. Most of us knew the words--I did, I knew all of them.

Sun, sun sun, here it comes! we sang as the sun indeed came. I'd never paid any attention to sunrise before, but now it felt like a victory over darkness, like some sort of achievement. We did it! And when we were done singing we all jumped up and hooted and hollered and hugged like our team had won the Superbowl or something.

And we were completely freezing, having sat in the cold for the better part of an hour. Fortunately, the Masters had not just brought their instruments; they had also brought vast quantities of hot chocolate, cider, and coffee. Kit passed out ginger candies, golden as the sun, and caramels made with cayenne pepper. By the time we all got back down to the Great Hall, breakfast had appeared and so had dozens of other people, including the "sprouts," the children and nieces and nephews of the masters, all playing with new toys and eating cookies and candy. The almost monastic quiet of campus in winter was gone. I'd been up for over twenty-four hours at that point and was pretty fried, but the walk in the cold woke me up and I just kept going.  Not everyone did. Greg had gone to bed just after breakfast. I think the noise bothered him some, he isn't a very outgoing person, and he's not exactly young. Most of the masters fell asleep on the couches for at least a few minutes, and some took naps. Around noon, we found Kit curled up asleep under the Yule tree. Her husband picked her up and carried her off to bed like a child. It was very sweet. I don't think she was exactly sober at that point, and she didn't wake up except to wrap her arms around her husband's neck, smiling.

Happy Yule, everyone.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Seventh Interlude

Well, happy holidays. It is the 2013 version of me again…shortly to become the 2014 version. It’s strange, how time passes, especially after a loss. 2011 was one of those years where when its happening you can’t quite believe that your present consists of this, and then, afterwards, you can’t quite believe that it’s over, that time is passing again. I’ve been focused, for the purpose of this project, on what happened thirteen years ago, and that is the recollection process I’ve been sharing here. But inside myself…when I started this project, the first time I tried this blog, in 2012, it had been a year, less, since we lost the school. We were doing everything without it for the first time. Now, it’s been two years and soon it will be three. Simple arithmetic, counting, but I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

But I really mean “happy holidays.” I’m not being sarcastic, I really want you to have happy holidays, and I really anticipate having happy holidays myself. We’re going up to my in-laws’ for Christmas, then to my parents’ place a few days later—we have to give both sets of grandparents equal access to the baby—and then a big New Years’ Eve party with friends. But the advantage of having pagan tendencies is you get an extra holiday, and a group of us from school are getting together for Yule to watch the sun come up, like we used to.  And I guess it is planning for that that has me feeling mopey and sad.

And, of course, it is a season for sadness. I don’t particularly get depressed in the winter—I don’t really get depressed at all, but of course I’m aware that people do. And you get older, you get far enough into adulthood, and there’s a certain poignancy that happens, the weight of all the things that don’t quite work out--even in the midst of a fantastically blessed life such as mine has been—and sometimes it just gets to a person. I miss being that little boy for whom chocolate and some new matchbox cars were miracle enough.

Kit says that because it’s a season for sadness, that we should get together and celebrate, have holidays, now.

For once I have no corrections to make to my narrative—none I haven’t made before, I mean. Of course, a lot more happened then I can write about, as ever, but those days in early winter really not a lot was happening. I was busy, but I was busy doing quiet things. I interacted with my fellow students a little more than it might seem from reading my story, but mostly I kept to myself, except to go tracking or hiking with Rick every two or three days. The following year I was much more involved in making the holidays happen, and the same with the year after that…in fact, I’ve been pretty busy making the holidays happen every single year since, but as a kid and even as a teenager I never did anything to get ready other than help clean up the house, decorate the tree, and buy a few presents. And I never thought about it. The holidays were when you had time off to play… I never thought about it at the time, because I’d never known anything different, and it didn’t occur to me to wonder when things would change. I didn’t know it, but that Christmas season when I was twenty, thirteen years ago, was the very last holiday I got to spend doing nothing.

Now, I’m writing this on my wife’s laptop (mine is in the shop—a problem with the charging port, I think) surrounded by pre-holiday detritus and pieces of Christmas tree and boxes of ornaments and baby toys. We’re listing to James Taylor and Carly is dancing, bending her knees and bobbing up and down to the music the way she does. She can stand unassisted now, but she still needs to crawl to get any place.

James Taylor reminds me of Allen, oddly enough. They don’t look much alike--Allen is stockier, with more hair--and Allen isn’t a great musician, as I’ve mentioned. And yet something about their stage presence is similar, a certain delightedness in what they do. And I’ve heard Allen play James Taylor songs often enough, so there’s that too. James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead, the basic American songbook material…Charlie always preferred early Jimmy Buffet, plus random songs from a dozen different genres and nothing less than twenty years old. 

I’m getting tired. I’m rambling. Good night.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Part 7: Post 13: It's on It's Way

Ok, Now campus is decorated for Yule.

Aside from the snow (last week's snow melted, but it's been replaced with two inches of pretty, wet, white stuff), the Mansion's greenery has been updated. The old dead vines in the Great Hall, left over from Samhain, have been replaced by new ivy and also garlands and wreaths made from evergreen sprigs interspersed with red winterberry holly berries. The garlands cross the ceiling, arch over the windows, and snake up the banister up all four flights of stairs. Bowls of nuts and dried fruit and candy, mostly dark chocolate, sit on tables and we are not supposed to eat any of it. I keep looking at the stuff like I used to look at my Christmas presents, waiting. Mistletoe hangs at the archway between the Meditation Hall and the Great Hall. I keep hoping someone will surprise me there, but so far no one has.

And it's not just the greenery. The whole place is covered with a galaxy of tiny white candles in little holders, plus ornamental candles of various shapes, sizes, and colors. I can't wait to see them lit. On the mantelpiece in the Meditation Hall is a Menorah--I guess Chanukah falls around the solstice this year, and there are people on campus who celebrate it. There's also a very long, tall, pale green candle by itself on the mantel in the Great Hall, in obvious pride of place.

And there is a tree. Surprisingly, it is artificial, but it looks good, all decorated with antique-looking ornaments in gold and silver, red and white. And somebody has scented the place with pine oil, so it smells right. The rest of the greenery is quite real.

Where did it all come from? And who did it? All of this sprang up overnight yesterday. I've asked, and it seems that groundskeepers and janitors who aren't yearlings do all the work in secret. It will be my turn next year, I suppose. Charlie found the evergreen clippings, he has a deal with some of the Christmas tree places in the area (the man has a talent for finding useful friends, though I can't imagine him cultivating a friendship in order to use it. I think, rather, that despite his grumbling and growling he has a lot of friends, and they are all useful to each other). He did not, however, make the garlands. I'd assumed he did, because things that grow are so much his specialty, but no, he didn't. He didn't do the Samhain decorations, either, except for, again, sourcing material.

Turns out, arranging flowers and greens and vines is Karen's job. I'd known she taught Zen flower arrangement, but apparently she does Western-style arrangement, too. I still don't know her very well, because, except in class, she's very shy--it's strange to think of her directing all of this, organizing a dozen or so people in secret and teaching them to make all this beauty silently, while we slept.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Part 7:Post 12: Signs of the Season

The snow hasn't melted away yet, though it's only about four inches thick now and its gone all crusty and crunchy. You couldn't make a snowball out of it anymore, not one you'd want to throw at your friends, anyway. I didn't think we could track with it looking like this, but of course  that's exactly why Rick wanted to go out and go tracking, to show me how tracks change as they melt, and how they look different in different snow conditions. Again, I'm startled by what he can see and I can't--I can remember that dust inside a track means the track is old, but that doesn't mean I can see the dust.

Christmas is approaching, and Yule, of course. I've got to go holiday shopping--but which holiday? I mean, I'll get my parents Christmas presents, obviously (especially after what happened at Thanksgiving with my Uncle), but does one go holiday shopping for Yule? I know Yule and Christmas are closely related, but as usual I'm unclear on how they really differ and what Yule is really about, other than a paradoxical Christmas without Jesus. They're decorated for Christmas in town, now, obviously, but campus still looks much like it did for Samhain. I don't know what we're doing for Yule. I have asked, but I've gotten only vague references to a holiday dinner in answer. I suppose that means whatever we're really doing is a surprise.

I don't know if we'll be doing anything for Christmas on campus at all. Most of the Christians are going home, if they're not off campus already, so I'm guessing we won't. I expect I'll go to church on my own. I could, of course, go home, but I don't really want to. As I said before, I'm curious, and my brother won't be there anyway, and now I don't really want to deal with my extended family again for a while, either. I hardly have any money, so shopping should be a bit easier this year....

I hardly have any money. I'm starting to get seriously worried about this. I've had no real income for almost a year, but I've hardly used any money, either, so my savings have lasted, but they're about gone now. I'll have to either ask my parents for more money or get an off-campus job/. Of the two, I'd much prefer the latter, but I'm not sure how easy it will be to get a job within biking distance that will accommodate my schedule here--and of course I'll have to keep a job on campus as well.

I forget if I've mentioned it, but Charlie said I can join the landscaping team next year.

Speaking of jobs...I've hardly written about my janitor-crew boss, Joe, at all.The truth is I hardly know him. I've hardly seen him. He trained us last year, and he spot-checks our work every day, but mostly I only hear from him through notes--notes assigning our jobs for the day that he used to leave in his office on the first floor of Chapel Hall. Now that Chapel Hall is closed, he leaves the notes in the Front Office instead. We send notes back, filing maintenance requests and orders for more cleaning supplies. I hadn't seen him for months when I sent him a note saying I wanted to do something else next year. He responded to my note and we had lunch together a few weeks ago. He said I'd done well, and that I can use him as a reference--not that I'll need it for Charlie, I don't think, but I might for getting a job off campus. I'll stay on the janitor crew until they hire new people in the spring.

Meanwhile, I'm reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,and loving it. I'm not really sure what half of it means yet, but I really like the idea of being an anchorite to a creek, as she says she was. And I love the descriptions, and how she takes everything she sees so seriously, like what happens to insects and amoebas and whatever else actually means something about life as a whole--and I suppose it must. And the writing is really beautiful. I suppose Charlie respects the writing, too, because his notes in the margins have hardly any words, as though he were leaving room for the author's words to do their thing, without competition. But he did mark up the book, with underlines and check marks and circles ("with circles and arrows and a paragraph of the back of each one," as the line from Alice's Restaurant says--I've had that song stuck in the back of my head, off and on, since Thanksgiving). But of course I have no idea what any of these things mean. Why did he underline or circle this or that? And why does he want me to know that he did? In a note I found today, he'd underlined a passage in light black pen, written a question mark next to it in a darker black pen, crossed out the question mark and written and exclamation point in pencil, and then, in green crayon, of all things, was a smudge that might have read "exactly," or might possibly have said something else. Obviously, four different readings, and four different, and somewhat conflicting, understandings of the text. But what was the understanding? What was the point of all these marks? I suppose I could ask him, send him a note with my little book report, but the man is on vacation. I don't want to disturb him.

By day I track animals in the snow and by night I track the cryptic perspectives of my teacher in these marks and marginalia.

[next post: Friday, December 13th: Cold]

Friday, December 6, 2013

Part 7: Post 11: Tracks

Note: Nelson Mandela died last night. I think it's reasonable to consider his life an example of the magic I've been talking about, off and on, through these posts. -- D.K.

It snowed last night. I mean, it really snowed. There's six inches on the ground out there! It's strange, how familiar this is. The soft, full silence as we shuffle around to the Meditation Hall in the morning, the smell of snow and wet wool everywhere, the necessity of kicking the snow off boots or taking them off whenever we go inside, the way campus looks so clean and white and simple and's like, since I came here in the snow, the snowy campus seems more real, more like itself, then the green campus of the summer. I expect it will melt again in a few days. It's too early for the all-winter blanket to form up yet, if it ever does form. Sometimes there are mid-winter thaws...I'm not from that far away from here, after all. I'm used to this weather. But while it's here, it's so pretty.

And I don't have to drive anywhere. None of us do. We have everything we need on campus already, and everyone we need to see is already here. It could snow nine feet, and we'd still be free to think it's pretty. It used to bug me so much when grown-ups complained about the snow, but I was starting to understand it. I was starting to complain about it, too. Here, everyone likes it, this first real snow, anyway. It's like we're all kids. I think this is how winter is supposed to be.

Most people were excited about going sledding--the path into the forest is wide and has a long slope, plus there's the short slope at the Edge of the World--but I wanted to go tracking with Rick. I know it's better to wait two or three days after a good snow to go tracking, but I didn't want to wait, and anyway, we can go again in a day or two, if we want.

He's had me reading tracking books for a while now--so I have the reading list from Charlie and the reading list from Rick--so I knew some things, more than I expected to know, actually. Whenever we found tracks or other sign--and we didn't find a lot, since it had only been a few hours since the snow--I'd look at it first, and tell Rick what I could figure out. Then he'd ask me questions--how many toes the print had, how big was it, what gait it was using--and then finally he'd tell me what he'd seen and I hadn't.

What struck me was that while he still does know more than I do, the difference isn't as dramatic as I thought it was. I could identify the species that made most of the tracks (today the only ones I didn't get belonged to birds), and I could usually identify the gait, direction of travel, and so on. I could even tell the difference between branches clipped by deer, rabbits, and Charlie's groundskeepers (deer don't have upper teeth, so branches they bite have ragged ends).

What I could not do, most of the time, was see, I mean notice, to begin with. I spotted the tracks in open areas, of course, they were obvious in snow, but under trees I kept either thinking that holes in the snow were tracks when they were actually places where chunks of snow had fallen from the branches, or I missed tracks thinking they were only the sign of falling snow. And I didn't spot the chewed branches at all.

I said something about it to Rick, afterwards, when we were sitting in the Great Hall drinking chocolate. Like Charlie, he doesn't talk very much. He doesn't chat idly. He answers questions carefully, with a minimum of words.

"The reason we're doing this is so that you can learn to see," he told me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Part 7: Post 10: Paying Attention

I'm glad to be back on campus. I miss my family, but I suppose I'd be living away from them at this point now, no matter what I was doing, and I'm glad to be here at school. For one thing, meditation is easier. When I was away for the holiday, I had to find time to do zazen once a day on my own. It was good to be able to walk into the Meditation Hall Saturday morning and sit with other people again.

But as good as it is to have organized meditation periods and scheduled meals with other people, I kind of like not having those things, too. Sunday is still a free day, except I sometimes still have cleaning chores to do. So, yesterday, with nothing particular to do and no particular time to do it, I slept late and wandered downstairs for pumpkin bread muffins around ten o'clock.

And I bumped into a stranger.

She was coming out of the Bird Room (where the muffins were) as I was going in, an older woman, mostly Asian-looking, with black hair shot with silver. She smiled when she saw me, this really amazing, welcoming smile. She was wearing a bathrobe over flannel pajamas. I'd never seen her before in my life.

"Uh, can I help you?" I asked, stammering a bit. See, the things is, strangers don't usually come to campus. Prospective students come to the Office, but not any farther than that, and if somebody has a visitor coming they usually say something about it ahead of time. Strangers don't just go wandering around unannounced. And nobody comes to the Great Hall in pajamas--it's community space. Of course, by "may I help you" I meant some version of "who are you and what are you doing here?" though I kept my voice friendly, and of course I'd help her if she needed it. But she ignored any such subtext.

"Oh, I'm fine, thank you. Are you a student here?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied, guardedly.

"Oh, good. It's a wonderful place. I don't come here as often as I'd like." There was no help for it. I was going to have to just ask.

"I'm sorry, but--who are you?"

"Of course! I'm Susan Monroe," she held out her hand to shake. "Greg's sister."

"Oh! Hi! I didn't know Greg had a sister."

"Of course he has a sister! Me! He just doesn't like to talk about himself, and I suppose family counts as part of himself."

"I didn't think Greg liked to talk about much of anything," I told her. I liked her a lot better now that I wasn't worrying about how she got in my house. She laughed.

"That's just to make him seem smarter. You know, everybody says something wise now and then, but we all talk so much it's camouflaged. Greg only talks when he has something wise to say, so everybody thinks he's enlightened."

"Isn't he though?"

"Enlightened? Oh, I don't know, maybe. Don't you think everyone might be enlightened already, it's just that some of us don't know it?"

I couldn't help smiling back. I still hadn't gotten my muffin, though. I was just awkwardly standing there, letting this woman commandeer my day.

"Listen, I was just going outside. Why don't you come out with me and tell me all about the school? I'm sure you have a unique perspective on it. Everybody does. Isn't that fascinating?"

"Can I go get my muffin first?" I asked her. She laughed again.

"Sweetie, you can do anything you like."

So I got my muffin and some coffee and we went and sat outside on the porch together. The day was cold and bright and lovely, and I told her all about how that view had looked in summer, how the animals had moved across the fields grazing inside their portable electric fences, how birds sometimes came to bathe in the fountain, how Charlie and his team had spent days and days and weeks weeding and trimming and digging in order to make the gardens look like nobody took care of them at all. After about an hour, I heard the door open again and turned. It was Greg.

"Are you holding students hostage again?" he asked his sister. "Daniel, you do know you can leave if you want to?"

"Oh, of course he knows it!" Susan replied. "We're just having a chat, aren't we?" Although, truth to tell, Greg was right. I'd been having a good time, but I felt glad to be freed of Susan's friendly little spell. I smiled at him, nervously. "I believe you have some reading to do? Susan will be here until mid-day tomorrow, if you want to catch up with her again." I accepted the dismissal and hurried off to get my book. Before I left, I looked back at them, brother and sister, now sitting on the white wicker couch together. They did look a lot alike. Greg looks more Anglo than Susan does, and of course he's taller,but they have the same lean, spare grace and pleasant, oval features.

Greg was right. I had to get back to my reading. I'm a bit behind, from the holiday. I'm working on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek now, and really getting a kick out of it. I think I'm going to ask for my own copy, so I can read it again later. I'm liking this project, liking all these books I'm reading. The one thing I didn't understand was why I'm supposed to write about these books. I mean, here I am writing these summaries like Charlie asks, and I don't even know if he reads them. I don't hear from him. So, the other week I asked--I wrote a note on the bottom of my summary, just asking if he reads these things. When I picked up Pilgrim I got an answer, tucked into the book like a book mark.


Yes, I do read these. I enjoy reading them. But you're not writing them for me,
you're writing them for you. You'll be more aware of your thinking and your learning
if you write about it. You may also find it useful to have a written record of your
responses to each of these books so you can consult your record later. I will
return your reviews to you at the beginning of classes, or you may wish to make your 
own copies as you go. Happy Thanksgiving.

-best, Ch.

Well, alright then.