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, January 30, 2014

Eighth Interlude

Well, it’s been a year now, since the restart of this blog. Strange to think, isn’t it?  Usually, a year doesn’t seem so long to me anymore, but this year it seems like a lifetime—Carly’s lifetime, thus far, to be exact. She’s not a year old yet, but we think she’s starting to talk. Her noises don’t sound much like words, yet, but they’re starting to have meaning.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll include a father’s glossary:

Ca = someone has pulled in the driveway

Ma = her mother

Muh = milk, breastfeeding

Moh = more of anything

Na! = No, not

Noh = snow

She has no word at all for me, yet. My wife is definitely the favorite parent, though I spend more time with her. I try not to take this personally.

She does like the snow. I think she likes trying to walk in it, because when she falls down it cushions her. She likes to let snowflakes fall on her face, also, and she goes to the door at night and reaches toward the switch for the outside light. She likes to see the flakes falling in the porch-light at night. 

I wonder, sometimes, what she knows of the year. Does she remember it not being winter? Does she think Planet Earth is just cold and snowy and white all the time, or does she know something about spring?

I’d better stop, or this entry will be all about Carly.

Going back to my narrative, I’m not entirely sure I got the timeline right for January. I remember that students came back on campus gradually, that the Dining Hall staff got back earlier than most because they had to clean and stock the kitchen, and that we, the cleaning staff, did a lot of early “spring cleaning.” But I don’t remember exactly when everything happened or in what order. The Great Hall kitchen and dining room got really crowded there at the end, when almost everyone was back but the Dining Hall was still closed, but I don’t remember how long that lasted. It could have been two days; it could have been two weeks. Either way, it was too long, though I was glad to see a lot of people again.

I remember feeling a bit sad that my quiet winter idyll, all my reading and tracking on an empty campus, was ending. I shouldn't have worried, since, no longer being a yearling, I had a lot of free time that spring and I went right on reading and tracking, for the most part. Usually, the campus kept right on being quiet for me, because most of the other students were elsewhere in large groups attending workshops of various kinds. I went to some workshops, too, of course.

But what was over was my first year on campus. I didn't appreciate that at the time, because there was so much that first year that I simply took for granted. Our lives were so directed--that sounds sinister, but it wasn't, that's not what I mean. I don't mean mind-control or force. I mean that no matter what I was doing, at any time during the day or night, there was someone willing to tell me what to do if I didn't want to figure it out for myself.

I could choose to eat lunch off campus, prepare something on my own in my dorm, or even skip lunch all together, but if I didn't want to think about it, there was lunch in the Dining Hall, all ready for me. Squash bread and beans, onions, and kale, usually, or home-made potato rolls and soup. See? Thirteen years later I can still remember the lunch menu. Everything was like that. I could choose to do my own thing, but if I didn't want to there was a default choice all laid out for me.

Of course, lunch wasn't just for yearlings, but because as yearlings we had more required classes and other activities the gaps of unstructured time that we did have were very short and usually filled with homework. If we did have some free time, there was always a workshop, a talk, a party, or a deep philosophical discussion to jump into.

After that first year, there wasn't more free time, but more of my obligations were the result of my own choices. More of my classes were electives, and less of my time was occupied in classes and more working independently for Charlie and, later, for Joy. I had to start figuring out what to do with myself.

In retrospect, that first year was cozy in a way life has never been again, although there were certain parallels in my first year in grad school, when the default option was always homework, or when Carly was first born and we had to spend all our time playing catch-up to the needs of an infant.

The reason I didn't appreciate that coziness at the time was that my whole life had been cozy in much the same way. Growing up, I was not overtly controlled by my parents--I never rebelled because I never felt any need to--but they took care of all major decisions for me, and my teachers took care of most of my minor ones. I was a good boy, and I did everything I was supposed to do and I did it well. It never occurred to me to do anything else.

I was nineteen when I came to that school, the one that has no name in this narrative, and I was a young nineteen. I would have sworn up and down that I was a man, if you'd asked me, but I don't think, now, that I was. I didn't realize how pleasantly childlike my first year and the school was because I didn't realize what adulthood was. I didn't realize what was coming.

And then it came, gradually, so gradually that I didn't realize it was happening at first, not until I could look back and see how different it had once been. And adulthood is still coming. When I finished grad school, when I got married, when I won my green ring, when I had a child, each time it was like an unsuspected layer of adulthood opened up around me. And still I feel like a little kid half the time. I don't play with my G.I. Joes anymore, but sometimes, when I'm bored, I imagine that my writing desk is a chaotic battlefield crossed and recrossed by little men covering each other from behind the shelter of cups full of spare pens. I'm thirty-three years old.

I remember our last zazen meeting that year, thirteen years ago, before Brigit. It didn't have to be the last time we went to zazen, of course, it was only the last time we had to, but it was still kind of an ending. After Brigit, Greg’s dharma talks would be more or less repeats of the introductory material we’d heard last year.

We didn’t do anything dramatic—there was no crying, and hardly any mention of the meeting being unusual. Greg did do a short dharma talk at the end on the subject of self-discipline, presumably because it’s up to us now if we want to continue meditating, and then he told a short story. I don’t know where he got the story—I doubt he made it up, and it didn’t sound particularly Buddhist.

Once, there were three monks who met together for a spiritual retreat. As they knelt together in meditation and prayer, the first monk felt a deep sense of peace, the second became filled with compassion, and the third was thinking about eating a hamburger. Hours went by, and the first monk gained brilliant insights as to the functioning of his own mind, the second monk developed unheard-of psychic powers, and the third continued thinking about a hamburger. Days went by, for it was a long retreat, and the first monk suddenly understood how to bring his marvelous insights to hurt and confused people the world over. The second monk was visited by beautiful angels who took his soul to visit the foot of the throne of God. And the third monk was still thinking of a hamburger.

Later, the Devil called one of his minions to him and asked for a report. The minion in question had been to a spiritual retreat and was delighted to report that he had completely lead most of the monks astray. He had convinced one monk that he had all these great insights to share with the whole world, and he’d convinced another that angels had taken his soul to the throne of God.

Greg paused in his story for a moment and took off his glasses. He polished them with a corner of his uniform for a moment, while he finished the story.

“But,” said the servant of the devil, sadly, “there was one monk I couldn’t do anything with. He was just thinking about a hamburger, and nothing I could do could distract him the whole time.”

Greg finished wiping his glasses, put them back on, and rang his bell to end the session. And that was that.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Part 8: Post 12: Call My Name

Today has been an odd mix of coming and going. Almost everyone is back on campus now, and people were busy unpacking all day. But people were busy packing, too. Forty-two people are graduating in less than a week, and most of them have started packing up their things. I hadn't thought about it before, but even though they're obviously staying until Brigid, their stuff has to be moved out by the time the new students come in because we have very few empty rooms.

Where do they go? Where do they spend their last night or two on campus? I'm not actually sure. Why are they packing up now? Some of them are just trying to get it out of the way, I'm sure, but they're rumored to be going away on some kind of final trip together, and I'm sure that has something to do with it.

It's strange to think of these people being gone. Arther, Joe, Trish, and Otter are friends of mine, and I'll miss their company, but it's not like they're dying, so it's not really a big deal. But some of these people, even some people from my own dorm, I barely know them. Song, Wren, Arion...who are these people? I've never really found out. I'm having the most irrational urge to hurry up and become close friends with them right away before they leave...that's obviously not happening, though.

I've been talking to a lot of the graduating students, though, asking them questions, and two things jump out at me. First, listening to some of them talk about how long they've been here and what they've do I put this? It's like aging trees. You can go around measuring trees and estimating their ages, and discover, for example, that the sugar maples along the main drive and the white oaks along the back drive are all about the same age--about a hundred years. That means they all started growing at the same time, and I can think about what that time must have been like. In the same way, I keep hearing people say, over and over, that they've been here three years. That means they were all yearlings together. I never thought of it this way before--that all these people have known each other the whole time.

The other thing is that hardly any of these people are planning to come back and do the mastery program. Arther is, but I think maybe only five or six other people are.That sounds about right, given that there are only ten mastery candidates on campus right now, compared to nearly a hundred novices, but still, I can't really imagine anyone just being satisfied with the undergraduate degree here. That's weird--I hadn't really noticed, but I guess sometime over the past year I decided to stay here as long as I can and go as far with it as I can.

I want to be a master.

Anyway, Nora is back on campus now for the year. She's managed to convince her mother to let her stay through the weekend most weeks. I asked her how she did it, expecting to hear something about how responsible she is now, and how she's nearly 18, both of which are true.

"I threatened to get back together with my old boyfriend," she told me, blithely.


"Well, I mean, she never used to like my friends. She thought they would get me into trouble. I don't know, maybe she's right, but they were my friends. And she especially hated my boyfriends. They were all too old and too...well, sexy, I guess, for her. I'm still friends with a lot of those people, but I hardly see them anymore...I just asked her, who does she want me hanging out with on the weekends? Those people or you guys? And she likes you guys."

I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Kayla and Aidan are back, too. Aidan is getting big. He's walking everywhere, and according to Kayla he can talk now, or at least say a few words, but he wouldn't say any of them around me. I'm not sure he remembers who I am. He does seem to like me, whoever he thinks I am, though. The whole time Kayla and I were talking last night he kept picking up various nick-knacks from around the Great Hall and bringing them to me. I was supposed to name them for him, apparently, but he wouldn't say the names after me. He only grunted in acknowledgement.

Candlestick, pomander, worry doll family, amethyst, piece of pop corn, clump of cat hair, a lemon, dried poppy pod, rabbit's foot, owl feather, wet sock....

"Oh, no, honey, that's not yours, go put that back. Put back the sock!" Kayla insisted, and Aidan looked at her uncertainly for a moment. Then he put the sock back in the boot where he had found it. I have no idea whose sock that was. Aidan might not be that great at talking, but he clearly understands what Kayla says to him.

"You really listen to your mommy, don't you?" I told him when he returned. At the word "mommy" he seemed surprised and looked around the room. Kayla picked him up.

"No, she's not here. She's upstairs, remember? But you do listen to Mommy when she tells you things, don't you? You are very attentive."

I must have looked confused because Kayla smiled at me.

"I'm not 'Mommy,'" she explained. "I'm Aunt Kayla, though he's starting to call me Anka and I think we're going to go with that. Mommy is 'Mommy.'" And she blushed for a moment. "I mean, Mom is 'Mommy.' Anyway, it's not a secret that he's my son, but Allen told me I really need to think about who I disclose to--because of my age? And what it means about my history? He says it's a privacy thing for me. And I can't be choosy about who I disclose to if Aidan's calling me 'Mommy.' When he get's old enough to know the difference he'll just be calling his mother 'Anka.'"

I guess that makes sense, but I have mixed feelings about it, too.

Today, just after lunch, my therapy group met for the last time. We're all meeting either today or tomorrow, so Allen can meet with us. We haven't seen him since Yule, he's been in Florida or something, and he has the tan to prove it. He didn't talk about his vacation, and we didn't ask, but he seems relaxed, energized, happy. I'm not surprised, if he swam every day. I remember how long he spent in the water on the island.

We talked about the year, what our goals had been, how we had changed, how we had seen each other change, whether any of our goals had changed along the way. And we kind of said goodbye to each other.

Of course, most of us can keep spending as much time together as we want, if we want. Therapy group is over--or, it is more most of us, because the groups have only a limited number of spaces and new students get first priority--but we're all still going to be here. For Arther, it's different. He isn't.

He's in my therapy group, and not only is his time here ending, but he can't come back and visit right away because he wants to go on to the mastery program, so he has to be out of contact for a year. Allen had him speak last, and I think that was a good idea because something about his talking was qualitatively different from what everybody else said.

"I wish I had more time," he said, finally.

At the end of the meeting, Allen lead us through one more group bonding exercise. He had us stand in a circle and link hands. He joined the circle, but the dropped the hand of Joe, the person next to him so we made a line, him on one end, Joe on the other. Joe is graduating, too, but he's been here two years and I think it's easier for him to go. But maybe still not easy. We made a curved line, Allen on one end and Joe on the other, and Allen had us wrap around Joel the way you might wrap yarn around itself to make a ball. Soon we were all wrapped into a giant spiral hug with Joe at the center.

"When you feel your neighbor squeeze your hand, squeeze the hand of your other neighbor," Allen directed. "Joe, let us know when you get it."

I think we all felt very warm and fuzzy at that point. I felt the squeeze after a few seconds--Allen must have started it--and passed it on. I was on the outside loop, so it felt more like I was hugging that getting hugged. I'm not a particularly huggy person, but I liked that one. I could smell the wool of the other people's uniforms so close to me, and their bodies felt warm and I waited for Joe to say he'd finally gotten the squeeze.

He never said that he did. Eventually, we figured out that the message and gotten lost somewhere along the line, so we let go and had a chuckle about it and went in with our day, but that's not what I remember. What I remember is standing in that spiral hug, not talking, for what seemed like hours but must really have been two or three minutes, just standing there, listening to the gentle sound of an old man crying.

[Next Post: Friday, January 31st: Eighth Interlude]

Friday, January 24, 2014

Part 8: Post 11: What's Eating Rick

The babies, as rick called them, were good. The only thing I didn't like about the meal was how crowded it was--there are a lot of people back on campus now, and the Great Hall is really too small to work as a dining space for all of us now. Some of the dorms have gone back to eating separately, and breakfast, when we all have to eat together, is chaotic. I'm kind of missing the peace and quiet. Sometimes I want all these people to go away again, even though they are my friends.

Speaking of friends, Rick has gone right on with his bad mood. It's not like he's being an ass in any obvious way, but there's an edge to him that makes ordinary statements sound combative. He doesn't smile as much as he should.

"So, do you want to tell me about what's wrong?" I asked him, as we were getting dressed to go out tracking.

"Who said anything is wrong?" he asked me, frowning.

"I did. You're being a bit of an ass lately."


"So? Why?"

"Why?" he reiterated, caustically. He had turned away from me and was examining the leave of a potted avocado. "Do you think I'll feel better if I just share my troubles?"

Rick is one of those people who really prefers to think things through on his own. So am I, usually, but we both know people who aren't, and I bet I'm not the first person to press him to talk.

"No," I told him, bluntly. "I expect I'll feel better if you tell me why you've been an ass. Anyway, I might be able to help, depending on what the problem is." I sat down in one of the wicker chairs in the Green Room and took off one of my layers of uniform shirts to wait.

"It's kind of stupid," he warned me, still

"Well, I can't help with that, you'll need to go to one of the masters or something."

That made Rick laugh, finally, and he took off his outer layer and sat down in the other chair.

"Well, in less than two weeks I'm going to start living outside. You know that, right?"

"I know," I reminded him. He laughed again. Of course I know, I've been talking with him about it for months.
Sleeping Outdoors

"Well, I'm nervous."

"Is that all?"

"All?" he looked at me, "I'm going to have to sleep outside on more nights than not, in this kind of clothing, no synthetic anything, and eat only the food I've gathered and stored myself. If mice get into my cache in the basement or I can't shoot enough squirrels I'll either starve or I fail Charlie. I should think that's enough!"

"Yeah, ok," I conceded, "I guess that's enough."

"And the worst part," he continued, quietly, "is that I don't know for sure I can do it. I don't mean morally, I know I've got the will to, I mean practically. What if it gets colder than I expected? What if I'm not prepared? If I can't keep myself warm enough? I know I'll be uncomfortable sometimes, I'm ok with that, but I don't know the difference between uncomfortable and in danger. What does it feel like when you start to freeze to death?"

He met my eyes for a moment and he really did look frightened. I thought for a moment.

"Why don't you ask?" I suggested.


"Ask what the early stages of hypothermia feel like. Ask Sharon for the number of the ally who teaches the Wilderness First Responder classes and ask. And Andy had chronic hypothermia last year. You can ask him what that felt like."

"Whoa," said Rick, surprised, I suppose, that he hadn't thought of it himself.

"You could also," I began, "start sleeping outside early. I mean, if you go sleep outside now, you can come in if you get really cold. Charlie won't mind. I'm not even sure he's on campus right now. So you won't have to worry about it. And if you stay out and you're fine, then you'll know that on nights like that when you feel like that you'll be fine."

"Sounds sound."

"I mean, the whole point is you want to know what it's like to be in the paleolithic, right? But paleolithic people would have known what kind of night they could get through. They wouldn't do this for the first time as adults."

"You're right."

I nodded a little. I was trying not to get all high and mighty, since I was really surprised that I'd been able to talk him down and it was giving me a bit of an ego boost. The thing about real paleolithic people, though, he's been talking a lot about that over the last few months. That's one of the standards Charlie uses. Rick doesn't have to make all his own tools and equipment and he doesn't have to limit himself to materials available here, on campus because, as Charlie says, paleolithic peoples traded for goods from other regions and they had some division of labor within their societies so not everyone had to do everything. So he'd had to learn how to make clothing from animal hides, but mostly he can wear his wool school uniform. He has to know how to make his tools, but mostly he'll use his steel-bladed deer knife and shoot steel-pointed hunting arrows. He has to learn how to make an animal-proof food cache, but most of his food is in the Dining Hall basement next to ours. I was just applying the same logic.

"And I really thought you couldn't do anything about it," he said, wonderingly. I said nothing. "So, are you ready to go tracking?" he asked, then, in a very different voice.

"Sure, gimme a minute." And I finished lacing my boots, put my sweater back on, then my second uniform shirt, my cowl on over that (have you ever worn a cowl? It's a hood that covers your neck and shoulders and keeps snow from falling down your neck. They're incredibly practical) and then my cloak on over that, then my gloves and mittens.

I own a snow suit. It's blue and synthetic and waterproof, and its warmer and lighter than all my wool and wool-linen blend layers. But, anymore, it feels funny, and of course this way I don't need to change my clothes for dinner. It's only moments like this, when I kind of notice what I'm doing, that I remember I've been living for nearly a year in a truly strange place and living in a way that would shock my other friends and family as extreme or even deprived.

The rest of the time my life just seems normal.

[Next Post: Monday, January 27th: Calling Your Name]

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Part 8: Post 10: Having Kids for Dinner

"We're eating babies for dinner," commented Rick, as he moved his black bishop.

"Excuse me?" I asked. Ollie looked up from his book in at least mild surprise.

"Lambs and kids," Rick explained. "A group of them were born a few weeks ago? Three lambs and two kids didn't make it."

"Oh, that's sad," said Ollie, mildly. "The same thing happened last year."

"So now we're eating them?" I asked. I moved my own bishop, and suddenly realized I was going to lose the game. I didn't know how, yet, but I just had that feeling.

"Waste not, want not," said Rick, shrugging, taking my bishop.

"Wait, I thought they gave birth in April? They did last year, right? Dern it, that was my bishop!"

"It sure wasn't mine," Rick told me, smiling.

"'Dern it'? You said 'dern it'?" Ollie asked me, smiling. "You're getting to sound like me."

"Not cursing is contagious. Anyway, what about April?"

"You drank milk last February, didn't you? Where did you think it came from?" Rick said.

"From goats and sheep? What, I don't know these things work."

Rick laughed at me, a sort of a grunt of a laugh. He was in a bad mood, for whatever reason, and I didn't appreciate his jeering. Or his winning the game. I moved a pawn. He took it. Of course, I knew we hadn't had any fresh milk for over three months, I just hadn't stopped to think about the logistics of dairy production. I felt like an idiot. I still didn't understand about April, though. Ollie took pity on me and explained.

"Goats can wean at eight weeks, sheep in five, so they breed some of the ewes and does in August so they'll give birth at the beginning of January so we can start getting milk when the new students get here. But the mortality rate is always high, and anyway, after a few months production drops off a lot. So they have a second kidding and lambing in April to freshen more milkers and produce most of our slaughter animals for the fall."

"You know what I don't understand?" said Rick, while I tried a daring raid on his king with my castle. "Why don't they just routinely slaughter the January lambs and kids in January? Then we wouldn't have to heat the barns, we wouldn't need as much hay, and we'd get more milk for ourselves?" He looked back over the board for a moment and took my castle with his bishop. He didn't say so, but he'd put me in check. I looked at the board for a while and then resigned.

"You don't think the lambs and kids should have some time to live?" asked Ollie. He'd put his book down and was looking at the board. He'd asked to play the winner. He is a lot better at chess than I am.

"Why?" Rick replied, a bit exasperated. "Plenty of newborn animals die. If they were wild, a coyote might take them, or a bobcat. Or me, if I were hungry enough. What's the difference? The farmers thin out newborn plants, no problem."

"I forgot," said Ollie, starting to catch Rick's bad mood, "Charlie teaches you to be natural and heartless, doesn't he?" Rick and I locked eyes with each other a moment. We didn't have to say anything. We both wear the deer knife, after all. He opened his mouth to reply, and I cut him off before he could say something he might regret later.

"Well, what is the difference, Ollie?" I asked. "Why is human predation different than animal predation? Why is culling a newborn animal different than thinning out a newly sprouted plant?"

Ollie sat back in his chair, the intellectual problem calming him and engaging his attention.

"I don't know," he began. "I suppose the plant/animal thing is pure bias on our part." He was quiet for a few minutes. "Unless it has something to do with the organism's own survival strategy? Plants have more offspring than animals do, so maybe the individual plant offspring are less important?" He frowned. "But applying human values to animals and plants is screwy. I'm not sure there's any way to do it that makes sense. I suppose, we have to look at as--maybe that's at least why human predation is different? Either way a lamb dies, but when a human does it the act comes under the jurisdiction of our morality?"

I thought I knew what he meant, and I thought maybe it was a good answer, but I don't think Rick did.

"But you're forgetting that half the babies die anyway," he said.

"But we don't kill them," replied Ollie.

"Yes, we do!" insisted Rick. "We kill them when we decide to make them be born in January!"

"No, we don't. We put them at risk, but we try to save them."

"But it isn't a surprise that we eat babies, is it? If the farm were a separate business, the loss of the January lambs and kids would be built into the business plan. We're culpable."

"Excuse me?" I interjected, "but, why are you two arguing about this? Do either of you actually disagree with the way we manage the farm animals?"

They both blinked.

"No, I don't disagree," said Rick. "I just think it would be simpler if we slaughtered them ourselves."

"That's true, that is where you started," said Ollie. "So why were you arguing that it's a bad thing now?"

"I'm not arguing that it's bad. I'm culpable for everything I do. I just want to acknowledge it."

"Well, I acknowledge that, to the extent that I'm involved in the decision at all, I am culpable for the deaths of these animals, but I do not think that putting an animal at risk of dying is the same thing, morally, as killing it." Ollie may have been offering an olive branch. Or, he might not. Arguing isn't hostility for him, it's a way to connect, a way to have a true meeting of the minds.

Ordinarily, I agree with him. Ordinarily, Rick agrees with him. Rational argument isn't the same thing as fighting. I've learned that here. But however rational Rick was being, he was also in a foul mood. And, however rational his words, I kind of thought the combative subtext needed to take a break. But--how to say so?

The others were heading into the Bird Room for dinner, a buffet tonight. I could indeed smell meat cooking, an unusual thing here, even in winter.

"Well, shall, we eat, gentlemen?" I supplied

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Part 8: Post 9: A Winter's Conversation

“Well, it’s National White People Think About Race Day,” said Jahred, cynically. He is white, by the way.

“What?” I asked, startled. A group of us were sitting around the Great Hall. It was snowing outside, hard but very pretty, and I had been reading while the others played cards or talked. Joanna was telling one of the Ravens about her tarot deck while Willa looked on. This was just the other day.

“It’s Martin Luther King Day,” explained Jahred.

“Is it?” asked Ollie. “It’s what comes of not watching TV, I suppose. Not knowing.”

“And not being in high school,” I added. “No day off, and no thematically related lessons.”

“Exactly,” said Jahred, leaning forward, engaged. “No teachers to tell you to think about race, this day, as if they really thought it was important. But they don’t talk about it the rest of the year.”

“Martin Luther King Jr. has always been a relatively safe black man,” commented Greg, dryly. “Since he died.”

“Like Jesus,” said Andy.

“Huh?” said I. “Jesus wasn’t black, was he?”

“You’re talking like a pagan now!” crowed Joanna. “You said ‘was,’ not ‘is’!” I ignored her. The others ignored me. Ollie put down his cards.

“You’re right,” he told Andy. “Jesus was a radical, as was Martin Luther King, His follower. Neither of them were easy to deal with or "safe" politically. They weren’t domesticated. We forget that about them. I didn’t know you thought about that sort of thing.”

“I didn’t used to,” Andy replied.

"Tarot of the Cat People" Card
“Not thinking about race is a privilege of white people,” put in Greg, maybe steering the conversation back, trying to deny us that privilege. Or maybe he was just saying whatever came into his head. He didn’t look like he was in teaching mode. He looked casual, almost sleepy, with his feet curled up into his robes, his head leaning against his pale brown fist. I could see the falling snow reflected in his glasses when I looked at him.

“We are all white here,” said Jim, looking around. “Why?”

“Hey!” objected Oak, who looks, maybe, Indian. I mean, from India. I’ve never asked, though.

“You don’t count. You’re adopted,” Jim declared. Oak looked dumbfounded. “I mean, why don’t non-white people come here? As students, I mean.” He nodded at Greg, who never was a student, acknowledging him. “What about this place doesn’t attract people of color?”

“We do, in fact, have some black students,” pointed out Ollie. “Not many, but there aren’t very many black people in college, right? Maybe we just aren’t any different, in that respect, than any other school?”

Jim shook his head.

“Nationally, almost 12 percent of college students are black. Our student body is 102 people, and we have four black students. That’s low. Plus Hispanics, Asians...I haven't counted it all up.”

“Well, most of us are Wiccan,” volunteered Raven. “Are there any black Wiccans?”

“Of course there are black Wiccans!” declared Willa. “Two of them go here!

“I didn’t mean are there any, I meant there aren’t very many. Aren’t most black pagans into Vodou  or Santeria?”

“I thought Santeria was a form of Christianity? They worship the saints.” Joanna frowned a little as she said it.

“What is Santeria?” asked Andy.

“It is not Christianity,” asserted Ollie. “Even the Catholics don’t worship saints. They venerate them.”

“’Venerate’ from ‘Venus,’ same as ‘venereal,’” giggled Willa. “The original sacredness!”

“Whatever you say,” said Ollie. Will stopped giggling and frowned.

“In any case,” added Willa, “no, not all black pagans are in the African diaspora religions. Religion isn’t about skin color. You can be in whatever religion you want to be, however the gods call you.”

“You can’t always tell, anyway,” said Oak. “I’m mostly Pakistani, but my great-grandfather was British, or maybe Scottish. I’ve always thought that’s why Celtic Wicca appealed to me.” Raven was nodding.

“You can’t tell,” she affirmed. “And anyway, the color you are now might not be the color you were in a past life. I’m mostly Scandinavian, but I have strong past-life memories of being Greek. Even when I was being raised Christian, I was always fascinated by the Greek gods and goddesses. And, you know, there are people here who feel Celtic, or who feel Native American, no matter what their color. It’s probably all past-life stuff.”

“Does that even make sense?” questioned Ollie. “You’re supposing that race is directly linked to religious affiliation, and if it doesn’t seem to be, you must have a distant ancestor or a past life!”

“That isn’t what I meant!”

“Why can’t we all just focus on finding the truth,” asked Andy. “The truth is color-blind.” But everyone ignored him.

“Do you think religious affiliation should be color-blind?” Greg asked. “Should everyone be able to adopt Native American traditions, for example?”

“Why not?” said Raven. “You teach Buddhism to people whose ancestry isn’t Japanese.”

“Buddhism wanders. The Japanese do not own it. Anyway, I don’t think Japan has anything to worry about from imperialism.” Greg smiled a little as he said it. That smile the only time I've ever seen him express any hint of pride in Japan as a world power. It seemed odd, coming from him.

“I think it’s ok for a white person to become a…"Joanna paused for a moment, thinking, "--whatever you call someone with Native American beliefs, or a Vodouisant, or whatever else, but you’ve got to really do it. Join the tribe, or whatever else, whatever that tradition demands that you do. Hanging a dream catcher on your rear-view mirror isn’t a religion.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” said Ollie. “I wouldn’t like it if someone were running around saying
Rose Hips in Snow
they were Christian and they’d never been baptized.”

“Or didn’t really believe,” added Andy. “Except that’s all you have to do, is believe. Christianity isn’t for saints. Not particularly.”

“You know whose birthday is on the same day as King’s?” asked Jim. “Dian Fossey. Now there is another subsequently domesticated martyr.”

I looked out the window. The snow was piling up on the porch railing, covering the rose bushes, making them soft, white humps. I was drinking white cedar tea. It smelled good.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Part 8: Post 8: Considering Buddhism

We're only a few weeks away from Brigit, now--in a little over two weeks, I'll have been here a year!

Preparations are afoot. Some of them I expected. For example, a lot of prospective students are coming in now, sometimes two or three a day. They just happen to come in, just as Sharon said. It's one of the weird, and weirdly useful, coincidences of this place that they do it so often right before the new school year starts. I always know what they're doing here--they have a certain kind of immediately recognizable confusion. I really wish I could talk to them, because I remember what it's like to be new, but for the same reason I mostly ignore them, just like all the strange people in the Harry Potter robes ignored me when I first got here.

We're cleaning and repairing things, too, getting the Mansion and the Dining Hall ready for new people. We're even dusting light bulbs and so forth. And gradually more and more people are coming back. 

But there are other things I hadn't thought about. Like whether we're going to keep going to zazen. It's required for yearlings, optional for everybody else. I knew that. I figured I'd just complete my year and then decide what I wanted to do. I figured it would feel strange to have the option, but I'd get over the strangeness. But it turns out, there's more to the decision than that.

Greg talked to us about it this morning. I forget if I've said so, but we don't just sit zazen during morning meditation. On Fridays we have shortened zazen sessions and Greg does short lectures, called dharma talks. In the beginning, he mostly talked about the history and basic tenets of Buddhism, but he's also talked about different types of Buddhism, details of Zen teaching, and a little about his own experience. Today he talked about why we meditate, and why we might or might not want to keep doing it. He said he wants us to have a few weeks to make our decision, though as far as I know we don't have to finalize our decisions by Brigid anyway. I remember senior students have come and gone all year long. It's not all or nothing thing.


"Why do you meditate?" He asked.

"To clarify our minds."

"To achieve enlightenment."

"To reduce suffering."

"Because you tell us to." That was me, my answer. Everyone looked at me. "What? I'm not saying there aren't good reasons to tell us...." Greg smiled.

"I wasn't looking for a specific right answer," Greg commented, "but I suspect Daniel answered a different question than the rest of you. Daniel said why he meditates, but you others said why one meditates, right?" Nobody said anything, and Greg continued. "But that is a point I wanted to get to--what question you're trying to answer. For example, Andy, what would you say is the answer? I mean, outside of the context of this room and what we do here, fill in the blank; 'blank' is the answer."

"Jesus," he answered, promptly.

"And Joanna, what do you think of his answer?"

"Honestly?" Joanna looked nervous.

"Of course," said Greg.

"I think it's wrong. That's not the answer. Not for me, anyway. I don't believe in Heaven or Hell or Jesus, or any of that. But if being Christian makes Andy happy, then maybe it's right for him."

"I'm guessing that sounds strange to you, Andy?" Greg asked.

"Me? I'm not in any position to judge."

Greg rolled his eyes.

"Yes, I'm sure we're all very non-judgmental here" he said. "We've established that. Now, can we please start talking about the judgments we actually do make? No one is going to die of it, I promise."

There was a little titter of laughter. Andy smiled nervously and tried again.

"Well, according to the Bible, Jesus said 'nobody gets to the Father except through Me.'  So that means you can't get to Heaven without believing in Jesus. You go to Hell instead. I don't want anyone to go to Hell." He paused for a minute and then turned to Joanna. "So Jesus is the answer. Whether you believe in him yet or not. I'm sorry, Joanna, I know that's not what you want to hear, but it is the truth."

"But I don't believe in any of that!" she reiterated.

"I didn't believe in homelessness," Any said, "but I went there anyway."

"So Jesus is the answer. What is the question?" asked Greg.

"How to get to Heaven," Andy answered promptly. "And how to avoid Hell."

"Joanna, what is your question?"

"How to be happy," Joanna told Greg. "How to treat other people well."

"You see what different worlds we live in?" Greg commented, "or, seem to live in, anyway. Without the delusion of the conditioned mind, perhaps we could all experience the real world together? But of course, that is my Zen Buddhist conditioning talking." He almost chuckled a little, a kind of bubbly smile. "And of course, the first Buddhists were not particularly Zen about it. Buddhism arose in a cultural context where people not only believed in heavens and hells and eternity, they believed that throughout eternity souls could cycle through the various heavens and hells and Earths in the middle. There were things they thought they could do to assure themselves of being reborn into a better life, even a heaven, when they died, but they also believed that assignment would be no more permanent than this one. No matter how delicious the heaven you went to, eventually you'd die again and fall back down into one of the hells. There was no escape but to escape. That is what Lord Buddha offered them--the chance, not to be reborn into heaven, but to avoid being reborn at all."

He let that sink in a bit. He'd said as much before, but this time it seemed starker, more alien somehow.

"Now, is there anyone in this room who is honestly concerned about escaping the endless cycle of samsara?"

No one raised their hands.

"Well, then, Buddhism isn't your answer, because Buddhism isn't your question. And there is nothing I can do to make it your question, even if I were inclined to try. The answer only becomes the answer when it has the question for context."

"Like 42," said one of the Ravens.


"Why did you tell us to meditate, though?" I asked.

"Because meditation does other things,"he told us. "This form of meditation is good for improving your powers of concentration and focus, your ability to make decisions and stay with them, and your awareness of your own mental states. Sitting like this reduces stress and improves posture. Doing something in the morning for spiritual reasons is a good habit to establish, whatever practices you choose to adopt later, for whatever reasons. There are other ways to do all of these things, but we do this thing here, because I am available and a different teacher is not. All communities use the resources they have."

He let that sink in a moment, and then spoke again.

"So if you wish to continue using zazen for its subsidiary benefits, by all means, do so, either here with me or on your own. You may actually want to practice meditating on your own, as you will not always have me to hold space for you. Likewise, if you wish to explore Buddhism as such, you may do so with me. You may also come to me if you wish my help in exploring other, non-Buddhist paths. Some of you are doing so already. After February 1st, you may come and go from this room as you like, and I will not question you, unless you wish to be questioned. However, I ask you not to continue with Zen Buddhist meditation simply out of a belief that it is what you are supposed to do,or based on the unexamined assumption that all spiritual practices are functionally the same. That is not what Buddhism is for. I do not want to help you waste your time, nor do I need your help in wasting mine."

And then we were quiet and he rang the bell to resume meditation.

When it was time to leave and get ready for breakfast I stayed behind.

"Greg," I began, "you didn't raise your hand."

"When did you expect me to?"

"When you asked who was concerned about the Wheel of Samsara."

"I am not concerned about it. I do not try to escape the present moment."


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Part 8: Post 7: Wild Books

I've just finished Sand Country Almanac, and now I'm beginning The Practice of the Wild today. I've found the secret of getting through my book list in a reasonable time frame is to read every minute I'm not doing something else. If I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep right away I take my blanket and I go out to my dorm's sitting-room and I read for a while by the stove. This morning I woke up there when Joanna nearly tripped over me on her way to zazen. I guess I fell asleep over my book.

The language of these books is incredible. In one way or another...reading them I can almost feel how good they are in my mouth, as though they were literally delicious, as though I were reading them aloud and the rhythm and balance of the words tasted good rolling off my tongue.

Why, in high school, did they make us bother with Shakespear and Too Late the Phalarope? Why didn't they have us read this?

Ok, I exaggerate a little--I really liked Too Late the Phalarope, and some of Shakespear's stuff, too, really, though honestly I think it makes more sense to see plays on a stage. We read Julius Caesar to each other in English class and none of us could read aloud very well, we were all sputtering and stammering and laughing over the weird language ("He is ta'en! He is ta'en" laments Cassius of Brutus on the battlefield. Ta'en? Really? We all cracked up and it kind of killed the mood). Anyway, my point is that these books I'm reading now are also good and deserve to count as classics, too.

I can see Charlie in all of them, and not just because he writes in his books. More importantly, maybe, I can see things that I see in Charlie in these books as well.

If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down. And if the secret heart stays hidden and our work is made no easier, I for one will keep working for wildness day by day.

So says Gary Snyder.

These books comment on each other, support each other. Reading those lines, I think back to The Farthest Shore, which I read months ago, now. There are a few lines in it I wrote down, because they struck me as interesting or because Charlie had underlined them and I didn't know why. One line--he had written "global warming?" next to it for no apparent reason, jumped out at my memory this morning when I was reading Gary Snyder right before breakfast. Snyder asked "where is the secret heart of the Growth-Monster?" and Ursula K. LeGuin answers,

In our minds, lad, In our minds. The traitor, the self;the self that cries I was to live;let the world burn so long as I can live!

And further down on the same page, Gary Snyder replies,

I hope to investigate the meaning of "wild" and how it connects with the meaning of "free" and what one would do with these meanings. To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are--painful, impermanent, open, imperfect--and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us.

The conversation is happening only in my mind; I don't think either author was thinking of the other when they wrote. But in my mind is growing this whole, this constellation of ideas, that exists where the ideas from all these various books I'm reading intersect. I think I have been assigned not so much twenty individual books but a whole set, that it is the wholeness of the collection, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, that I'm meant to absorb.

I'm not the only one here to read these books, though I don't think this exact book list has been given to anyone else--Charlie had to take a few days after assigning me the project before he could get the list together--but others have read books assigned by their masters and the assignments must overlap. How much, I wonder? I haven't been talking about my reading with anyone, but maybe I should? Then there will be intersections among the intersections.

This morning, I was lying on the couch by the stove in the Great Hall and Greg walked by me on the way to breakfast, carrying his mug of black coffee. He's the only one of the masters who eats breakfast with us these days, as I think I mentioned. He must have seen my book, because he startled me by speaking to me.

"The Practice of the Wild? I assign that book to my students." He had half a fond smile on his face and he walked on, into the Bird Room, for oatmeal or whatever else. His students? He didn't mean zazen, because he never assigned us any books. It's not history class. He must be talking about students he takes on as master, though what he teaches them is as much a mystery to me as Charlie is to everybody else.

Anyway, it's not just the books overlapping with each other--they're overlapping with my life. Last week I read Sand Country Almanac and Aldo Leopold starts out talking about a January thaw. And last week we had a January thaw. The temperature went up above thirty-five degrees three or four days in a row and on Wednesday in rained, sending up mist from the melting snow. That night the rain turned to ice and when we got up in the morning the snow cover was down to only an inch or two of solid white ice with a dull sheen to it like a sheet of spiderweb. You could walk on it, even jump on it, and not make a dent. The sun was shining and the rime-ice on all the trees and the telephone lines along the streets sparkled like diamond. A cold front was coming through and the ice creaked and shattered in the wind.

Now, the cold is back--colder, I think, than it ever got last year. We load wood into the stove at night and we load wood and we load wood and it hardly gets any warmer. The cold outside is just sucking the warmth out through the walls. Perfect weather for sitting and reading.

But I don't just read. It snowed again last night so we're going out tracking tomorrow. I'm getting better. I can see  the tracks now, it's the wildest thing. You wouldn't think that's the problem, but it really is. Snow is uneven, after the first few hours. Clumps of snow fall from the trees, branches and shrubs on the ground shield the ground and interrupt the surface of snow cover, and of course everything is white. You look over the ground, and one white on white irregularity looks like another. Only now, anymore, I look and the patterns of the tracks jump out of me. One minute I don't see anything and then all of a sudden there are the tracks of two foxes crossed by signs of a hopping squirrel.

And I'm asking the right questions, wondering whether the two foxes walked side by side or one after the other (or, was it the same fox twice?) whether the squirrel came before or after the foxes and whether either reacted to the scent of the other. What gait was the animal using? Why? Each question leads me to read more in the tracks and ask more questions and seek more answers. It's incredible, being able to see the actions and interactions of all these creatures I hardly ever see. But they are aware of each other and aware of us. If they weren't aware of us they wouldn't avoid us and I'd see them more often. These are thinking, feeling beings out there we share our land with.

I'm learning to ask the right questions because Rick keeps asking me the questions. We go tracking together, and when we find something and he asks me how many toes, how many pads, how many inches is the print, the stride, the straddle, what gait was the animal using, and so on. Now, when I see a track myself, I'm in the habit and I wonder the same things. And I mean, I really wonder. I'm curious. I'm used to asking, and because of Rick I'm used to finding out. So now, when I see the tracks, I want to find out.

I think, in the same way, I'm going through the motions of thinking new thoughts by reading Charlie's marginal notes. I read the notes as I'm reading the books and so I think pieces of his thoughts when reading--I mean that I read his thoughts and, in reading, my mind goes through the motions of thinking the same thing, the way my hands copied his motions when he taught me to prune and plant and hand-pick pest insects last spring. I look up from my books and I look out on the world and I can feel his habits of thought in my mind for a moment.

And so, by day and night, indoors and out, I track my teacher and the movements of the living land that he loves.

[Next Post: Monday, January 13: Considering Buddhism]