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.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Part 8: Post 6: January Observations

They’ve boarded up the broken windows until they can get them repaired and a couple of people have had to move rooms, but the rest of us are back to sleeping in our own beds and the masters have vanished back into their off-season privacy. The branches of the elm are already trimmed way back; I think Charlie or one of his students did it with a pole-saw a few days ago. The holidays are over and life is back to normal here.

Life is back to normal? Normal keeps changing. Without the Yule tree, without any decoration, actually, the Great Hall looks spare and quiet in a way it never did before. With no holiday to prepare for in the next few weeks, it really feels like there’s nothing particular to do. At the same time, the people who went away for the holidays are coming back, and even some of the people who left for the winter are back now. The schedule has firmed up again, no more informal zazen based on the honor system—we all have to walk around in the dark to start meditating at six AM again.

It’s not that I like getting up in the dark. It’s cold, really cold, since the wood stoves usually all but go out overnight and anyway, not a lot of heat gets through a closed bedroom door. Some people sleep with their doors open, but I don’t. So I wake up, and my first thought every morning is that I want to go back to sleep. But I can’t, so I get up and I throw my uniform on over my long underwear and I go down the stairs and out through the crystal night and in through the Meditation Hall door where I stamp the snow off my boots beside two dozen other yearlings, find my meditation cushion, and sit with my thoughts. With my boring, self-important thoughts that consist chiefly of wondering when zazen is going to be over. Just like I’ve done more days than not for nearly a year. But while I don’t like all of the details, I like the rhythm of life here, I like its familiarity.

It feels like I’m back in the world as it was last year, the school as I first knew it.

I don't come from that far away from here--this winter and last are basically exactly the same, weather-wise, as every other winter I've ever known. There's always snow and it's always cold and whatever the birds and beasts do here, they must be doing about the same back home. But I'm not sure I ever really noticed winter before. Except for playing in the snow, mostly when I was a little kid, winter was always just something to work around. It got in the way and you adapted to it so it didn't get in the way too much.

Here, we're really in winter. The food we eat is different, the pace of life is different, the Mansion once again smells like wet wool and snow...and the silence. In the evening, as the sunlight drains out of the sky, I can stand near the elm tree and look out over the valley to the distant hills and the silence is so deep you'd think you could stand there and let all the complications of life bleed out into the stillness...but then you get cold and your toes twinge a bit and you remember there's cocoa on the stove inside and you go in and there are people there who are glad to see you and someone says hey, there's stew for dinner, and good bread,you want some?

Speaking of going home, I spent this past weekend with my family, a sort of post-Christmas Christmas party. We exchanged gifts, ate another locally grown free-range turkey, and my mother maintained her annual fiction that all three of us are still children and believe in Santa Clause. We happily went along with her.

I have to say that this visit with my extended family went a lot better than my last one. There were no annoying questions from my uncle. Maybe my novelty has worn off. Maybe my brother and my sister-in-law just stole my thunder with their stories about their cruise. In any case, I’m happy to have my thunder stolen.

My sister has no sympathy for my busy college lifestyle, by the way. I’ve told her I have homework over my winter break, but she’s still in high school and has homework over the break, too—and a much shorter break, of course. She’s not very impressed of my tale of being forced by my teacher to spend all my time reading nature books and hiking and snow shoeing.

And really, I’m not complaining. I’m busy, in that I have a lot of things I have to do. I don’t have much time to just sit around doing whatever I like. But I’m having a lot of fun, I must admit.
I really thought I was doomed when I found out I had to do all this reading. And it isn’t easy—I’ve been able to keep my average up, so I’m on track to get all the books done on time, but only by keeping a book with me and reading through every spare moment. If I can’t sleep at night I get up and read for a while. And I don’t read anything that isn’t on my list. I don’t have time. But I’m doing it. And the books are fantastic. How could I not have read them before?

Aldo Leopold wrote "January observations can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate as to why."

Sounds about right to me.

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