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.

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