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, February 27, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 8: Psychozoa

So, I asked Kit about lunar celebrations and whether I should talk to Charlie about it. I suppose I should have asked Charlie directly, but Kit is better at discussing ideas and she's easier to talk to. Charlie is my teacher, but Kit and I are kind of friends.

Or, more particularly, I am Charlie's friend, I'm just not sure if he's mine. He's kind of intimidating.

Anyway, so I asked Kit about celebrating the full moon and so forth, and she told me there were plenty of books in the library on the subject and that I could go to more of her ritual design workshops if I wanted to.

"But that's not really what you're asking, is it?"

"No, I guess not."


"Well, I know how to look into being Wiccan, but...Charlie's my spirit master and I don't know if Wicca would...match." Kit opened her mouth as though she were about to say something but quite deliberately refrained. I kept going. "Anyway, I'm Christian, or, at least I'm supposed to be. And I'm pretty sure that doesn't match." I think I blushed a bit. As far as know, the two main things Kit doesn't like in the world are Charlie and Christianity. I was thinking I was stupid to ask her about anything related, but I really wanted to know what she had to say.

"Well, why do you want to honor the moon to begin with?" she asked me. If she wanted to talk me out of my loyalty to either my teacher or my Savior she didn't let it show. That was good of her.

"Because it's there?" I shrugged. "Because everybody else is doing it? I don't know, it just feels right." I hoped I didn't sound flippant. She smiled at me, reassuringly.

"Rituals provide form, structure." she explained. "You don't actually need them, they're just helpful. Now, because they're not necessary, there's no actual way to do them wrong. Once you learn the basic vocabulary of ritual design you can use it to put together whatever ritual you find works for you. If it doesn't work for you, you can try something else."

"But...can I just mix anything together? I worry that it won't match. But I don't even know what I mean by that." I've learned that I have good instincts, that I usually notice  things that are true, but I don't notice what I notice, if that makes sense.

"Well, it's true some of your other teachers might object. Christian priests and ministers don't hold with any mixing, unless it's on their terms for their ends. And Charlie...doesn't always like other people's ideas, either."

I frowned. I don't think she's right about Christians, not about all Christians, anyway. Charlie's entitled to not like every idea that comes his way. That wasn't what I wanted to know, anyway.

"Ok, can I mix everything together? Never mind who might be upset by it." Kit smiled at me a bit when I said it.

"Strictly speaking, no, you can't. You can't mix ideas freely, but you can have any group of ideas in your head that you want to."


"You know what a meme is?" she asked me.

"Yeah. It's a unit of culture. Like a gene for ideas."*

"Exactly. But genes don't function in a vacuum. Not even organisms function wholly by themselves. Organisms belong to ecosystems and function together right?"

"Right. Yes."

"Well, memes are the same. A cultural system, a system of ideas--a psychosystem, if you will--has its own wholeness, it's own integrity. Each meme, each idea, has a role in that larger system. You know what happens if you take an organism out of its ecosystem, if you isolate it or if you extirpate it?"

Extirpate means to eliminate locally, to make locally extinct. It's always strange to hear Kit talk about ecology, because she normally doesn't, but of course she knows all this stuff.

"Yeah," I told her. "The organism could die, or its species could become invasive, or without it there could be a...trophic cascade." A trophic cascade is where one species goes extinct so the species that are dependent on it go extinct, and then the species dependent on's a domino effect or a ripple effect. I'd just been reading about them. The idea is if you change one thing, changes spread through the ecosystem and you can't always tell what's going to end up being effected.

"Exactly," Kit said. "Ideas work the same way. A given symbol--a fairy, a dragon, a value system, the practice of using tobacco, or caffeine, or wine in ritual--taken out of context, it loses meaning. Put in a different context, it takes on a different meaning and you can't predict what that meaning will be. It might be wholly different."

"But different people can share ideas?"

"Oh, yes. There's a cross-fertilization process that happens. There are syncretic religions, idea migrations, and you can always maintain multiple psychosystems in your head at the same time--they don't occupy any literal space, you know, so they aren't mutually exclusive. But ecosystems blend and meet, too...the only thing you have to be careful of is deliberate blending. If you set out to deliberately incorporate ideas from a lot of different religions, you run the risk of badly misunderstanding the ideas you're trying to learn. The concept of psychosystem is a good way to guard yourself against thinking you know more about an idea than you really do."

"Ok, so what does that mean for me? What do I do?"

"If you think something doesn't match maybe it doesn't. You can still work in multiple psychosystems, you know."

"What if he doesn't tell me what his psychostystem is?"

"But he already did tell you. Otherwise, how would you have known that mine is different?"


* These days, most people use "meme" to mean those images that get passed around on Facebook. This conversation pre-dated that usage. Personally, I think the older meaning was more useful.

[Next Post: Monday, March 3rd: In the Woods with Rick.]

Monday, February 24, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 7: Homework and Moonbeams

I'm tired of writing about being sick. So I'm not going to do it today. Except to say that it's really not like an epidemic erupted here on campus or anything. It's just a bug going around, the same thing happened last year--except last year I didn't get sick.

Anyway, I've been expecting Charlie to pull me aside an issue one of his edicts--and I'd be stuck doing some crazy thing, like counting every blade of grass on campus twice or learning to identify birds by their disembodied feathers...but he hasn't said anything. It's kind of creepy.

So, I said something.

"So, what should I do?" I asked bluntly, when I found him in his place by the stove in the Great Hall. I wonder if he gets cold or something? Anyway, of course he responded with mild sarcasm.

"Anything you like."

"No, I mean, what do you want me to do next? What's the next lesson?" He didn't respond initially. "Jeeze, Charlie, you're making me nervous."

"You want another lesson?"

"Of course!"

"Good." He paused again. But I'm glad to hear he thinks it's a good thing I'm still in it. I suppose he didn't want to just keep telling me what to do for years and years. He wanted me to make sure I'm still into doing this. "Technically,"he began, "you're still working on the last lesson. You have your reading and your tracking, yes? And you'll be doing trailwork this spring and summer. I think I told you that already?"


"Good. I want you to win the egg hunt this year."

"Excuse me?"

"You remember the egg hunt?"

"Of course!" He means the search for real eggs and nests at Ostara, the spring equinox.

"Well, I want you to win it this year."

"But...I'm your student. Everybody knows that. Don't you think people will think...." I stopped. It occurred to me, kind of belatedly, what I was implying about Charlie's reputation, but it was too late. Why can't I think before I talk?

"Then you'll just have to so well that no one will question my integrity. Won't you?"

"Ah, yes, I guess so."

"Good." He started to return to his reading and then spoke again, just as I turned away. "I'm going to send out spies again, you know."

"For birdsong? Growing ears?" I asked. Last year he had me listening to birds and if I couldn't say how many species I had heard within five minutes I'd have to get up at dawn the next day to practice listening better.


And that was that.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have someone else as primary teacher. Mostly I wonder that when Charlie's just given me some insane project to do (how am I supposed to win the contest when I still know nothing about birds?). But sometimes I wonder also when I see other students on their assignments.

On full moon nights, Kit's students all go somewhere and have some kind of ritual together. The rest of us aren't invited. It's a teaching coven, and she has all sorts of rules for who can join it, when. They meet on new moons, too, but less predictably, I think.

I don't know exactly what they do on the esbats. "Esbat" is a lunar celebration, just as a "sabbat" is a solar celebration, like Brigid or Ostara. I do have some idea of what they do, because a few times Kit has staged demonstration ceremonies, and she's recommended a few books, which I've read.

It's not exactly that I want to be part of Kit's teaching coven--if I did then I could probably go about joining. It's just that I'm aware that these people are learning something I am not learning, because I'm busy doing something else. It's a trade-off that happens. I've been thinking about this, some, how, to become one thing, you have to give up all the other things you could have become instead, at least for a while. But that beats becoming nothing at all, I suppose.

It's not just the teaching coven people, that do something for the moon, though. There are solitaries who do something for the moon, there are other religious groups, I think Joy and some of her students do something....I could do something, too. Maybe I'll talk with Charlie about it.

We don't do anything for the esbats as a campus, the way we have campus sabbats, but we don't quite ignore them, either. I remember, last year, the professors would assign less homework over the esbats, since they knew a lot of people would be busy. We don't schedule parties or other events on those evenings, since a lot of people won't come. They make pumpkin or zucchini bread for a kind of reception at the end of each ritual--they call it communion, though I don't think it has much to do with Communion in a Christian sense. Anyway, there are usually left-overs, so the next day there's a plate of bread and a jar of honey on a table in the Great Hall. It's not the same recipe they use for the Dining Hall bread, so it's kind of festive.

So, the thing is, even though I don't celebrate the esbats, it's gotten to the point where I keep track of the lunar phase the same way I used to keep track of the days of the week. I mean, I still do keep track of the days of the week...but it's strange to think I used to let whole months go by without thinking of the moon at all, unless I happened to see it.

[Next Post: Friday, February 28th: Moon Again

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 6: What I Do in the Mornings

I'm almost over my cold. The fever stopped that next day and my head cleared and now I just cough a lot and drink lots of tea. And I sleep a lot.

Other than sleeping a lot and not going tracking (the cold air hurts to breathe) my schedule is about back to normal. I can read and go to workshops and so forth. But I've been sleeping through the early morning classes, the ones I can take now instead of zazen, and that makes me feel like a lump.

If I weren't sick, I would go to Kit's yoga class some days and Karen's exercise class other days. I've attended both a few times (before I got this stupid cold), so I know what they're like.

Kit's is my favorite, for obvious reasons, plus it's a really interesting, different take on yoga.

It's not like I really know much about yoga generally, of course--I've tried it a few times, though I never really got into it, and I've heard about it, of course. And the impression I've gotten is its sort of a spiritually applicable exercise program. Like, you do these stretches and somehow they not only make you flexible, they also manipulate your "energy" in some beneficial way. I'm sure there's a lot more to it that I don't understand.

Anyway, in Kit's version, you don't just imitate your instructor in bending your body here and there. It's a real class, as in the objective is to learn how to do something so you can do it yourself, later.
Getting into "The Dancer"
She's very precise--you have to get each body part into exactly the right position and hold it for exactly the right about of time and you have to breathe a certain way.

She'll spend a whole class period on how to rotate one's thigh properly for one pose, for example. Or, she'll tell us to do Sun Salutations or the Six Movements of the Spine or whatever else without her leading us, to see how many of us remember what to do.

And then, a lot of what we practice either isn't actually yoga or its been seriously re-purposed. We practice good posture (sitting, standing, and walking). We practice ergonomically correct lifting and turning. She says we should never sit up in bed straight from lying on our backs. Instead, we should always roll to our sides and then push ourselves up without our arms (does this mean that doing sit-ups is bad?).

I guess this is why a lot of Kit's students have good posture?

As far as I can tell, good posture, body awareness, and good body mechanics are most of the point of Kit's yoga class. I know she has had more traditional yoga training, but I don't know what she thinks of that training. She has said that if you don't believe in rising kundalini,or whatever it is real yogis and yoginis believe, then it doesn't make sense to practice yoga as if you did, because what's the point? That reminds me about what Greg said about reasons to sit zazen. I don't know if that means that she thinks yoga only works spiritually if you believe it does, or if she just thinks it's dishonest to try to do something if you don't believe it works.

And then there's Karen's class.

Karen's class is not all that different from her introductory martial arts class that I took last summer--except it's not a class, it actually is a guided exercise session. There's a five-minute warm-up, then stretching, then twenty minutes of cardio, then we work on core strength and on strength and flexibility in our wrists and ankles, and feet. Then,we stretch again. It's intense, and it runs an hour and a half long, so there's hardly time to shower before breakfast, but it's awesome.

Like her class last summer (I think she actually offers it every semester) Karen isn't focusing on
Downward Facing Dog
martial arts in any obvious way, but aside from general fitness being important for martial arts, all the movements relate to techniques she teaches in later classes. So I've been told, anyway. Like the wrist stretches are actually gentler versions of the wrist locks advanced students learn to do on other people. Some of the other stretches are actually sequences of blocking techniques. Even I can tell that a lot of the cardio workout is a series of punches and kicks. She's trying to establish muscle-memory, so all these movements will seem natural later on.

Except, I'm not that interested in learning martial arts. I'm taking the morning thing, not so I can learn martial arts, but because I like being fit and it's too cold and icy to go running a lot of days and because Charlie suggested it last year. He hasn't said anything about it since, but I haven't forgotten.

But, as I said, I can't do any of that right now. I'm glad I can breathe without coughing just sitting here writing. I'm getting so sick of this stupid cold....

I'm not the only one who has it, of course. I'd say almost half the campus is either getting over the cold or coming down with it. Not everybody's gotten as sick as I did, though two people are worse. That's one of the few ways this place is like a normal college, I guess--once a couple of people on campus get sick, everybody else gets infected, too.

What isn't normal is that there still isn't any Advil on campus. It's all herbs and sleep and drinking enough fluids and Reiki. And there's a couple of people who say they've decided not to get sick anymore and so they walk around asking the rest of us when we plan to stop being sick also.

And guess what? Those people aren't sick.

Of course, some people wouldn't get sick anyway. And the reality is that no matter what we did--herbs, Advil, Reiki, or nothing at all--we'd probably all get better in about a week, because we've got a cold and colds last a week. But what if someone on campus were really sick? Would they still not use real medicine?

I asked Allen at Philosopher's Stone Soup the other day. He was sick, too, so neither of us were allowed to help cook and he was uncharacteristically quiet, playing Solitaire rather than goofing off. I half expected him to ask me questions instead of answering mine, but he didn't.

"We're not--collectively--against modern medicine," he said, shuffling his cards, and something about how he said it suggested that some people here are against it, and that he is not one of them. "We do what works, or what seems to work. Or what we hope will work....When Tom was sick he had pneumonia a couple of times there, near the end. We got all kinds of doctors and medicines for him."

"Tom?" The name was familiar.

"The original Craft Master. He had a stroke right around the time I started working here. He died five years later." He was still shuffling his cards. There was something strange about the cards. I kept seeing red kings go by way too often. Allen didn't seem distant or unfriendly so much as he seemed drawn into himself. I think he was just getting sick that day and maybe couldn't focus the way he normally did. I thought maybe he should go to bed and stay there for a while.

But then a few other people, hearing us talk, came over to join the discussion and Allen seemed to pull himself together and began leading the discussion as he always used to--what counts as "real medicine" and how and why and everything else. I imagine it took a lot more effort for him than normal, but he didn't let it show. Except for coughing a few times into a carefully folded handkerchief, it didn't seem like he was sick at all.

If he felt even half as bad as I did at the same stage in the cold, leading that discussion counts as a pretty impressive magic trick.

[Next Post: Monday, February 24: Moon Observance]

Monday, February 17, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 5: Ham and Egg

Too Cold
I'm sick. It's the first time since I've been here that I've had a real cold, the kind where you have to stay in bed. I'm still in bed, and I think I'm running a fever, so I'm not entirely sure this entry is going to make sense, but I'll give it a shot.

I couldn't even go to breakfast this morning, because when I stood up I felt so strange and dizzy like I was going to spill. I don't mean puke, that's fine, at least, I mean it's like my whole head has been replaced by a sloshy fishbowl. Egg volunteered to stay with me. I tried to argue with him about it. I told him he had to go to breakfast, that breakfast is mandatory, and that I don't need his help. Egg said breakfast is not mandatory if you have some good reason not to go, and since I was talking about my head spilling I probably wasn't competent to decide if I needed help.

I had to concede his point.

I should probably explain that Egg is one of the new students, but that he's a mastery candidate so
Fishbowl Head
he's been here before. No, I don't think Egg is his real name. I think it's something unfortunate, like Egbert. He's in Turtle Dorm, but he has a brother, called Ham, in another dorm--Elk, I think? I should ask.

Yes, I've asked, it's Elk.

They're twins, but not identical. Ham is a lot taller, and seems older. I mean, like, actually older, not the fifteen minutes or whatever that he really is. Apparently, when they were little, Ham had red hair and Egg was blond. They both have brown hair, now, more or less. But when they were little, lying in their crib, the two little heads next to each other reminded their parents of ham and eggs. And their real named are Hamish and Egbert, or something like that, so they really needed nick-names.

The funny thing about being sick here is that nobody has anything normal, like Advil or Vicks Vapo Rub. When Ham got back from breakfast he offered to bike into town to get me some, but I said not to. We just had an ice storm and the roads are terrible. I didn't want to eat the food Ham brought, but they talked me into it--miso soup with lots of ginger and garlic in it. Apparently, that's good for me. I also let them talk me into drinking herbal teas they made from the stuff in the herbarium. They made two teas--elacampane and licorice root, which really seemed to make my chest and throat feel better, and, later, basil and black pepper, which was supposed to bring my fever down, but I can't tell if it did or not. The fever comes and goes, anyway.

"I can't sleep," I told Egg.

"You don't have to," he told me.

"But I'm not awake, either."

"Want some Reiki?" he asked.


And he put out his hand and touched my head and I went away for a while.

"There's a silver lining to this," I said, sometime later. I was lying on my bed in just my boxers. I'd kicked off the covers, but I couldn't remember when I'd done that.


"This is the first time I've ever felt warm in the Mansion in winter." We both laughed. Laughing made my head hurt and I had to cough again, but I didn't want to stop.
Too Hot

"What's it like, being a mastery candidate?" I asked a while later.

"I don't know. I haven't been one long enough. It's good to be back, though."

"Anyone left who you remember?"

"Not in this dorm. A couple of people from Hawk and Snake. And Rove, in Elk, says he remembers me, but I don't remember him."


"Yeah, he returned to be a candidate my last year. But..."

"He was a candidate, so you hardly talked to him."

"Yeah. I guess no one will talk to me, now?"

I made some kind of noise. I've always thought the candidates keep to themselves, and that if they talked to us, we'd talk to them. But my head hurt, and I couldn't figure out how to explain it.

"What did you study when you were here?" I asked.

"Bedside manner. Joy's pre-med course, you know?"

I knew. It's not really a pre-med course officially, especially since Joy is a vet, but she teaches self-care and a lot of intangible skills, like bedside manner, to students who want to become healing professionals later.

"So, you're a doctor now?"

"No, nurse. I haven't been away long enough to finish med school. I wanted to be a doctor, but then I didn't want to be away long enough. And nurses really help people. That's all I wanted to be able to do as a doctor, and I can do it equally well as a nurse."

"I'm cold and my head hurts, Nurse."

"Want your blankets back?"

"Huh? Yeah, please."

"Here. Maybe willow bark would help your head? I think we have some. I've never used it, though."

"Willow bark? That's like, plant aspirin, right?"

"Not quite. Willow bark is salicylic acid. Aspirin is acetylsalicylic  acid. It's a derivative. I'll talk to Ham about it. He's an herbalist, you know."

I made a noise. When I woke again my head still hurt and it was snowing. Egg wasn't there, but I suppose he's somewhere in the dorm. I've tried reading, some, but I still can't concentrate. So I'm writing this and watching the snow fall outside, grey and silent. Sometimes I can hear wind. The snowflakes are falling, slanting through the air left to right, and I'm trying to see how far away through the air I can spot them. It's very pretty.

My Room

[Next post, February 21: What I do in the Mornings, Now]

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 4: Working Cats and Working Students

One of the cats has to retire. We found out this morning, during breakfast announcements.

I forget if I've mentioned it before, but the campus has a group of working cats we keep to control rodents in the barns, basements, and greenhouses. Mostly they're kept inside, so they don't hunt birds, although the do get out sometimes--the black and white cat who comes into the Mansion to hang out with Greg is one of them.

They're not just ordinary barn cats. We get most of them from area shelters. Usually they're cats who would otherwise be killed for whatever reason, but who have a record of hunting. They get their shots, they get spayed or neutered, then they come here. I think there are six, now, but I've heard they've varied from three to ten, over the years. Most of them are mean or skittish--that's why they were given up. A lot of them will scratch you if you get close. The black and white one is the friendliest, but he hardly ever lets anyone but Greg touch him. Some of them are old, ill, or--as close to ugly as cats come, anyway. Sarah's people move them around to different buildings as needed. Sometimes, as I said, they get out.

They're only fed once a day, and not much. They're supposed to hunt. But Joy gives them each a medical exam every week, including a weigh-in. If a cat can't or won't hunt or needs more care than we can give it here, they adopt it out. And that's what's happened to this cat. Apparently, he has diabetes. He's a grey tabby, at least ten years old, and he's not violent, though he doesn't like to be touched and he's afraid of children. His name is Sam and he needs regular, carefully prepared meals, but not insulin injections. Not yet. We're supposed to see if any of our friends and family can take him.

Anyone want a grey tabby cat?

Anyway, the campus job fair was a few days ago. It kind of snuck up on me. I mean, last year I
remember it seemed like I'd been here for a while and started to settle in before they hired for campus jobs, and now Brigid just happened and here we are again.

But I looked it up in my journal--it's actually a few days later this year. Time flies, I suppose.

Anyway, as intended, I am now officially a member of Charlie's landscaping team.

There are six of us. I don't know most of the others well, and most of them, like me, are new on the crew. Two of the people from last year graduated, and one, Will, didn't re-apply because he has an outside job as a landscaper lined up and doesn't think he'll have the time to work on-campus, too. There were only five on last year's team, so that leaves Lou as the only veteran. He's in Turtle Dorm, like me, so I know him fairly well, though we've never really hung out.

Lou is something like team captain. We'll be working mostly under his direction, not Charlie's, though Charlie says he'll do training sessions for us once or twice a week once the weather warms up. And he'll inspect our work.

Now, of course, there isn't much to do. Lou has us cleaning and sharpening tools (though most of
them are already done, since Rick and I did it last fall) and cleaning and organizing the sheds and greenhouses. But we'll be done all that in a day or so. Charlie is going to start some plants in the greenhouse, and we'll help keep an eye on them, but that doesn't take six people. Apparently we won't have much work at all until the weather starts warming up, but then we'll make up the difference by working seven days a week, most weeks. At least I'll get to be outside, which was the whole point of signing up.

Bizarrely, I feel kind of sad not to be on the cleaning crew anymore. I was on it for a year, and it kind of got to be a habit. I don't know. Most of the cleaning crew didn't change--Zarah, one of the new students, took my place, but everything else stayed the same. Nickie, Jahred, Ollie, Grant, and Larame are all going on without me, and it sounds stupid, because it's only cleaning, but I'm just a little bit sad or something.

Though, I suppose this was the first Thanksgiving that I've ever done the holiday dishes for my Mom without even being asked. I guess being on the cleaning crew changed me, somehow.

[Next Post: February 17th: Ham and Eggs]

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 3: Discussion Topics

Rick was ok. He spent the night in a sort of snow cave he made by packing snow over a frame made of fallen branches. He says he wasn't even that cold.

I actually forgot to worry about him, so I must have known he'd be ok. I was walking through the Great Hall that morning on the way back from yoga when Rick walked in. I suppose he wanted to change his clothes before breakfast or something. Charlie was sitting on the couch, reading his book, in exactly the same place he'd been the previous afternoon, as though he'd never left.

"I told you you'd be fine," he said, without looking up from his book. Rick looked at him for a moment in dazed confusion and went upstairs. As soon as he was gone Charlie dropped his book and his pose and grinned at me. He had to share his joke with someone, I guess.

The new students have been here a week and they're starting to learn their way around, but they are still so obviously outsiders.I remember that when I was new the school seemed so strange at first and then gradually became less so as I got used to it. I knew that I'd changed. I hadn't thought about how it felt for the senior students to have this influx of people who don't really belong yet. It's disconcerting.

I'm helping them become insiders. I talked to Ollie about it, and I talked with Allen, and I'm starting to learn the trick of talking to these people so that they get a sense of a new way to think without feeling like they're being told what to do or how to think and feel. I know that sounds sinister, like brain-washing, but it really isn't.

It's not like we're making everyone think alike. We don't think alike. The masters don't think all alike. Allen says that part of the reason we have new students, and the reason why mastery candidates have to spend time away from the school, is so that we don't end up all thinking alike. We need new material. And yet part of the point is the opportunity to occupy a different culture than what exists in the outside world. That's kind of what I meant when I decided I wanted to belong inside those Harry Potter robes.

Obviously, anyone who enrolls in any school voluntarily does so in order to change. You want to change into a more educated person, a more professional person, a more grown-up person, whatever. I guess the only thing that's different here is how much energy goes in to shaping what goes on outside of class. It goes back to something I noticed a year ago--a lot of places are very proud of being environmentally sensitive, culturally sensitive, supportive, whatever, but then when they're not paying attention to themselves they kind of revert. Like at my old school, the one I went to for one semester? There was a big sign on the wall in the student center that said Reduce Reuse Recycle! but they sold water in flimsy four ounce plastic bottles. So how serious could they have been about the reduce and reuse part? I guess, in most places, what happens outside of classes and special initiatives and so forth just happens. Here, we make it happen.

There's no sharp line between classes and life here. There's no sharp line between staff and students.
Rick on the Stairs
There are workshops and even classes taught by candidates and I've seen masters show up as participants at workshops and things. And of course, all of them, except Greg, are alumns of this place. And we do a lot of things staff would do at another school--we clean and cook and farm and so forth. I guess we kind of teach, too. We all make this place.

I'd forgotten how many ideas come up in these conversations. Some of the new students are absolutely brilliant, they know all this stuff. Zarah is this raven-haired mystic witch who could probably teach Kit a thing or two. I bet she'll be a one-hit wonder (a student who graduates in only one year, like Arthur was). Easy is a licensed therapist and a professional singer. Vic is a college dropout who spent a couple of years living in the woods in the Pacific Northwest and seems to know everything about the outdoors there.

This morning Vickie, who knows everything about healthy eating and organic food, asked me why I eat meat.

"Because it's here and I like it," I told her, which is true.

"Don't you think about the animals?" she asked. I started to say yes, I do, which is also true, when Vic interrupted.

"Oh, come off it," he said "You don't really expect us to to put up with that kind of lecture at breakfast, do you?"

Vickie blinked at him. I think she felt hurt.

"Why not a lecture at breakfast?" I asked. "We're paying to be at school during breakfast, aren't we?"

"Yes,  but I didn't pay for that lecture!"

"How do you know? I don't remember getting a complete syllabus when I signed up. Did you?" I took a bite of my sausage as I spoke. Both of them looked at me in confusion. They couldn't tell what side I was on.

"Why don't you ask the animal if it's ok to eat it, instead of arguing?" suggested Zarah. She had not taken sausage, though she did have eggs.

"How?" I asked her.

"You really want to know?"


"Ok, I can teach you. Maybe as soon as I get settled in here a little more?"

"That would be great."

"I don't believe that any animal would be ok with being eaten," complained Vickie. "No offense, but how can you tell it's not just your stomach talking, when you get permission?" I thought that was a very good question.

"I am," I told her.

"Are what?"

"An animal who is ok with being eaten."

"I bet Vickie is, too," put in Vic, chuckling. She slapped him, a backhand across his shoulder, not hard, but not exactly friendly, either. He rubbed his shoulder and frowned. I laughed.

"You had that coming," I told him. He apologized. "No, but seriously, I wouldn't mind some other animal using my body after I'm done with it." I was thinking of my promise, the words Charlie had taught me to say; give me of your flesh and leather and bone, and I will give you mine when I am a deer. But I wasn't going to tell them that. There are things, I had learned, that you don't talk about. "Though, it's true I don't want to be done with my body for a good long while, yet."

"Well, there you go," said Vickie. I glanced at Ollie, passing the conversational baton off to him.

"Have you ever wondered how many animals are hit and killed by vegetable delivery trucks?" he asked.

We weren't trying to talk Vickie into eating meat, though most of the people who started when I did and were vegetarians aren't now. Most of us who started out eating meat eat a lot less of it. When I'm off-campus, I don't eat meat at all now, if I don't know where it came from. We were just trying to get her to think about it.

The masters are busy giving talks and seminars and workshops to introduce themselves to the new students. At least, that's part of the reason--you can get tastes of working with everybody, without having to commit to taking whole classes with them. You can also get tastes of subjects you aren't really going to take classes in. Like today, I went to a talk Kit gave on movement, on using dance and music for expression or something like that. I don't know if she gave the same talk last year. If she did, then I didn't go.

Kit has a degree in dance movement therapy, and I don't really know what that means. I'm not interested enough to take a class in it, but given a chance to spend the afternoon with Kit, I'll take it.

She didn't do much talking, actually. She just jumped right in. She'd assembled a kind of orchestra entirely of percussion instruments--drums of various sizes, a xylophone, a washboard, tambourines--and just launched right in to a concert. They did "Riannon," and they were fantastic.

I know that song mostly from hearing it on the radio. It always sounded like light pop to me and I never paid much attention to it,* but Kit's performance was fantastic--the music had this throbbing, infectious quality and the lyrics were wild and mystical.

After they'd gone through the song once the band began again, and Kit formed us into a circle. We took turns in the center of the circle, dancing, as the band went through the music over and over. Sometimes Kit commented or encouraged, but mostly we just danced and she held the space for us. It was a lot like the exercises we did on the Island last year. I suppose the yearlings will do it again on the Island this year. I was a lot more comfortable this time and we had a lot of fun.

Talks are usually an hour and a half long, but I don't think this one lasted that long. After most of us had gotten a chance in the circle and people seemed to be flagging a bit Kit ended it. Most of the group dispersed, but I had nowhere else I was supposed to be so I hung around. One of the Ravens said she had fixings for milkshakes in the fridge and did we want any. Kit said sure. In a few minutes, a group of us were sitting by the woodstove drinking maple snow milkshakes through reusable straws.

"The sap isn't running yet, is it?" I asked. Raven shook her head. She works in the Dining Hall.

"No. This is from the last of last year's syrup."

"It's very good," commented Kit. "You made this with snow, not ice cream, right? And sheep's milk?"

"Yes. The new syrup will be coming in soon, though, I think."

"Yes, it will," Kit confirmed. "We've blessed the trees already."

"Blessed the trees?" I asked. "Who is 'we'?"I could imagine Charlie having something to do with it. Anyway, those trees are my friends.

"The Master's Group. The Six, mostly." She must have seen something on my face because her expression softened. "You're not exactly barred from participating, but we do it at a time when students are otherwise occupied. You'll get there."

I poked at my milkshake with my straw.

Joanna spoke up, changing the topic.

"That dance-thing," she began. "It reminded me of 'Going to Kentucky.' You know, how everyone got their own turn in the middle to dance?"

Kit nodded.

"Huh?" I said.

"You don't know 'Going to Kentucky'?" Joanna asked me. "Kit, let's show him!"

"Sure thing," agreed Kit, putting down her milkshake.

"Going to Kentucky" turned out to be a musical dancing game. We formed a circle, with one person in the middle who danced as everyone else sang.

We're going to Kentucky, 
We're going to the fair
To see the senorita 
With flowers in her hair.
Oh, shake it, baby, shake it
Shake it if you can
Shake it like a milkshake
And drink it if you can.
Oh, rumba to the bottom
Rumba to the top
Then turn around and turn around 
Until you make it Stop! 

On the word "stop" the dancer stopped turning and pointed to someone in the circle, who then becomes the next person in the center of the circle. We played a couple of rounds and had a lot of fun, laughing at each other and goofing around.

"Wow," said Easy, when we returned to our milkshakes, "Kit, you are like one half camp counselor and one part Stevie Nicks."

"Yup," Kit agreed. "Although I do have other parts," and she sucked up the last of her milkshake.

"Are you a Welsh witch?" asked Zarah.

"No, Greek, mostly," Kit answered. I must have looked confused.

"Stevie Nicks' record label is Welsh Witch Records," Joanna explained, taking pity on me.

"Is Nicks a witch?" I asked.

"She says she isn't," Kit replied. "And if she's in the broom closet she might as well stay there, if that's what she needs to do."

"Broom closet?" asked Easy.

"What witches hide in when they're pretending not to be witches," I explained, happy to know something.

"People do that? Still?" asked Easy.

"Sure do," said Kit. "Never 'out' a witch without her permission. It's not always safe." Kit uses the word "witch" to refer to both men and women, but she also says "she" when she isn't sure, the same way a lot of people say "he."

"If everyone were out, it would be safer for everyone to be out," said Zarah.

"That might be true," Kit said, "but remember, everyone was out, once upon a time. That didn't stop the cowen folk from coming after us."

"Cowen?" asked Easy.

"Non-witches," I explained, though I'm not actually sure that the implied distinction ever actually existed.

"But," protested Joanna, and another conversation was off and running, another debate, in along series of endless discussions in a magical little community ringed round with snow.

[Next Post: Friday, February 14th: Working Cats]

* Note: When I was twenty, I had never actually seen a video of Fleetwood Mac performing. I have since, and was very impressed. I would not call them "light pop" now. Kit's performance that night was actually very close to the original in style, though the instrumentation was very different and Kit's vocal register is a bit lower.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 2: Every Class Is a Test, Every Test is a Class

You know, I'd forgotten how good Sadie's cooking is.

Today with lunch, for example, there were these little dumpling-things filled with peach preserves and warm honey drizzled on top. They're just amazing. I'd remembered eating a lot of root-vegetables and jams in the winter, but I'd forgotten that in the winter they use a lot more wheat flour. We don't grow wheat on campus, so we don't eat a lot of it in the summer and fall--we have squash bread and potato rolls and so on. But I guess in the winter they start running out of vegetables to feed us, so we get these amazing crusty sourdough loaves and all these pastries and cakes full of jam and dried fruit.

And while I'm just knocked-over-amazed by the food, the new students are complaining about it. They're feeling restricted, I suppose, because they can't get bananas and Rice Crispies whenever they want.

It's funny, at breakfast I watch the older students gently interrupting the complaining, asking the new people where they're from and why they're here, and drawing them out into these long, marvelous conversations about everything in the world. I remember those conversations. I just never realized that it was being done intentionally, how much the senior students did to induct us into what amounts to a new culture. And now the senior student is me, so I guess I'd better learn how to do it.

In case you've forgotten,"senior student" doesn't necessarily mean someone in their last year, about to graduate. It just means anyone who's been here longer than a year.

To graduates are all gone. I didn't quite see them go, though we had a fantastic going-away party. The day after Brigid I just noticed a lot of unfamiliar cars on campus, and then they were all gone.

For me, life has gone back to what passes for normal this winter: reading and tracking. The new students are all busy with their introductory events, their workshops and talks and so forth, and none of that applies to me, so I have nothing specific to do. I don't even have to go to zazen. I thought about going voluntarily, and maybe I will, but Greg said not to go just out of some vague sense that we're supposed to, and I think that's what I'd be doing. So I slept in for two days and now I've decided to alternate between Kit's yoga class and Karen's fitness class. That's more or less what Charlie told me to do anyway.

Speaking of Charlie, we haven't really talked yet. That makes it sound like we used to have these in-depth conversations, these real talks and I'm not sure we've ever really done that, but I mean we haven't talked about what I'm supposed to do next. I have seen him. He joins me on the couch in the Great Hall when I'm reading and he silently picks up his own book. Today it was Sand Country Almanac.

The book surprised me, because he's obviously read it before--I read his copy.

"Your review of it inspired me," he said, by way of explanation, his glasses sitting at the end of his nose. He had a pencil in his hand, ready to make another layer of comments.

It was snowing outside, hard, a perfect afternoon to sit around reading by the fire. Sometimes I could hear the wind whistle around the Mansion, Or I could hear the people in the Office or the Library talking quietly, but mostly everything was silent.

About three, Rick walked up to us. I think he was about to ask Charlie a question, but he didn't get that far.

"Oh, hi, Rick," Charlie said casually, hardly looking up from his book. "Tonight's a shelter night for you."

Rick blanched. I knew enough about what he's doing to recognize the phrase; it means that tonight Rick is not allowed to use a tent or any of his established shelters for sleeping but must build a new one from scratch, using only the materials he finds and his knife and whatever else he has in his pockets. It's as though he were stranded out there unexpectedly and has to just cope. There's a certain number of days he has to do it over this next year, but he'll never know when. Charlie said he'd just spring it on him. And today he did.

"It's a major winter storm out there!" Rick protested. "And it'll start getting dark in an hour."

"Then you'd better hurry," said Charlie, calmly, not looking up from his book.

"Charlie, this is...some test," said Rick, no longer arguing. Charlie looked up at him and spoke seriously.

"Well, then, you'd better pass it, hadn't you?" he told him, and looked at him until Rick turned and walked away. I saw him put on a second cloak and his oilcloth rain cloak and his boots and then I watched through the window as Rick walked away into the snow.

"Charlie, he could freeze to death out there," I said.

"He'll be fine."

"But what if he isn't?"

"Then he'll be not-fine. Daniel, I wouldn't send him out there if I didn't think he could handle it, but
his project is not without some risk."

"If he does die," I said, slowly, "his parents will sue this place." Charlie put down his book and shook his head.

"There are no records of this aspect of Rick's studies. The others have plausible deniability. If we get sued, it'll be on my head alone. I'd rather risk my job than deny Rick a good education. He asked to learn what it is to live 'on the land,' like some paleolithic person. This is what that means. Risk. Anyway," and his manner lightened a bit,"I don't think I'll lose my job. I do help run this place."

And he grunted in mild amusement and went back to reading.

I had a hard time picturing Charlie losing his job. I didn't think it would happen, either, but the phrase "plausible deniability" suggested Charlie had, indeed, been thinking about the possibility when he had planned Rick's course of study. Possibly, he had discussed it with the other masters. I tried to imagine what he would do if he lived and worked somewhere else and I couldn't. This school is so thoroughly his habitat.

I was really surprised to hear someone talking seriously and calmly about the possibility of getting sued, of losing, in his case, nearly everything of value to him, for a student. And then I was surprised that I was worrying about Charlie's career and not Rick's life. Shouldn't that be the more important thing?

I'm not really worried about about Rick, of course. It took me a few minutes to realize that, but it's true. I don't really doubt that he'll be at breakfast tomorrow, cold and uncomfortable at worst. He'll be fine. But I'm used to that being the priority--organizations paying more attention to worrying about getting sued then to whether they might actually hurt people. I never realized before how messed up that is.

I'd say escaping that crappiness is worth going without bananas and Rice Crispies for a while.

[Next Post: Monday, February 10th: Surprising Parts]

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 1: Brigit

Yesterday was the first major event at the school that I have now seen twice. My first year and a day here is over. It’s a grand, strange feeling.

The first part of the day was bizarrely prosaic. I helped clean the Chapel and set up chairs—they’re all aluminum folding chairs, I’d forgotten that—and candle-holders and what-not. It was very cold work—the building hasn’t been heated all winter, and the Chapel is huge so it’s almost impossible to heat. All the warmth goes twenty feel up to the ceiling and stays there. When we first went in there, the air inside the building was actually colder than the air outside the building. I guess it had settled on the average temperature for the month or something, but whatever the mechanism it was well below freezing. We got a fire going in the stove at the back and kept having to stop what we were doing to feed more and more logs in. It didn’t make much difference.

I went back to my dorm for a shower and a nap. It was just about dark by the time I got up.

By the time I got back to the Chapel it looked like most people were already there, but I could see a few empty seats in the candlelit gloom. I found one at the end of a row next to Kayla and Aidan. Almost as soon as I’d sat down, Kayla made one of those noises, like she’d just remembered something, and asked to trade seats with me.

“I want to be able to get out easily if Aidan gets cranky,” she explained.

“Why didn’t you give him to somebody else?” I asked.

“Because everybody is here,” she explained. “Anyway, it’s his birthday. I wouldn’t want him be without me on his birthday.”

“His birthday?” I explained. “You mean--?”

“Yes, a year ago today.”

“Wow. Happy labor day!” She giggled. “What was it like, labor? Was it really hard?”

“It wasn’t bad, from what I’ve heard. My mother was in labor for three days with me. Aidan came out after only a few hours. He was really little—premature, you know? But it was hard enough. I didn’t even know I was pregnant.”

“I know. I heard.”

“I thought I was dying. That’s why I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t think it would do any good. I thought I was dying. I didn’t want to ruin everyone’s Brigid.” I couldn’t think what to say. I looked at my hands and fidgeted, I just…I could kill the man who did that to her, I really could. When Kayla spoke again it was in a much lighter tone of voice. “But then I got my beautiful boy.”

“Happy birthday, Aidan,” I said, and the boy smiled.

“Bi,” he said, “Bi!”

“That’s right! Brigid!” Kayla told him. “He’s been saying that for two days. We just figured out what it means this afternoon.”

Nora and a woman I didn’t know sat down behind us. The woman squeaked or something when she sat down and half got up again.

“Fold the end of your cloak double and sit on it,” Nora told her. “And pull your hood up.”

“Is it always so cold?” The woman asked. “It’s freezing in here.”

“No,” I corrected her, turning around. “It has to be over forty degrees. I’m pretty impressed, actually.”

“Are you serious?” she said, with flat dread in her voice. Kayla and Nora busted up laughing.

“Oh, Daniel,” said Nora, still giggling. “When you were new, you were freezing, too.”


Have I really changed so much? Of course, the room was freezing, in all but the literal sense. I was pretty comfortable, but I was wearing three layers. The room was dark, though glowing with candle-light. And the woman (she seemed about my age. Nora introduced her to me as Rachel) had no idea what was going on.

From that moment on, I saw the whole evening with a kind of double vision. In one view, I saw everything as familiar, welcome, home. I was getting exited to get back into the swing of things. But in the other view, everything was exotic, confusing, deliciously new. I think I was grinning, because my cheeks cramps up and I had to rub them.

The bell began ringing, and the masters processed in. A year ago, I didn’t know any of their names. I’m not even sure I realized they were faculty and staff. I’ve seen all of them, at one time or another, over the break, but I hadn’t seen them like that—all in uniform, carrying their unlit candles in procession. Allen led them in, just as he’d led them out on Samhain. Kayla lit Karen’s candle. Rachel, the new woman, lit Kit’s. Bearing the light that we gave them, the masters took the stage and lit it up for us.

After introductory remarks and the intentional confusion of introductions, the graduating students came out. Did I describe that last time? Each one came out from the wings, knelt at Allen’s command, stood up on their own initiative, and took off their cloak, before receiving a diploma and going to the lectern to speak. Last year they were all strangers. Now, some of them are friends. Arthur came out first. What goes under the cloak is supposed to symbolize what the person intends to do next, their next chapter, but Arthur was wearing a school uniform, the brown uniform of a mastery candidate. When he got to the lectern he just said “wow,” in an overwhelmed way, and shook his head, before he could really speak.

“You do things right,” he said, impressed, his voice too quiet for anyone much behind me to hear. Then, he raised both arms and shouted “I love you all! Blessed Be!”

Graduate after graduate passed by, getting their diplomas, wearing different things underneath…no one was naked this year, but there was everything else. The room gradually got warmer, from the candles. Three masters’ candidates received their rings, one from Karen, two from Kit. Somewhere, someone was sorting out which new student would go in which dorm. They didn’t know it, but they belonged to us now. The masters processed away again, leaving their light on stage. A new year had begun.

That night, our beginning-of-the-year-party became a birthday party for Aidan. He had chocolate cake for the first time and loved it.

[Next Post: Friday, February 7th: Every class is a test]