To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Year 2: Part 6: Post 1: Mabon

Last week, of course, was Mabon, the Fall equinox. Or, maybe Mabon is simply on the equinox. I still haven't sorted out whether the quarter-days are the astronomic events, or simply on them. Like, is "Mabon" a synonym for "Fall equinox?" I don't know.

Anyway, so as I said last year, it's a holiday but not a semester break. The fall semester goes until Samhain. Unlike the other Sabbats, though, there isn't just one thing going on on campus. Instead, there's a couple of different activities, some of them overlapping with each other, so you can choose which ones you want to do.

There are fall-related crafts (mostly for sprouts and their friends) like making leaf rubbings, there's bobbing for apples and a tour of the cider press (also mostly for sprouts), a lunch-time version of the Paleolithic Dinner, and a storytelling gathering. Charlie leads a plant walk for anyone who's interested, all about how different plants (and any animals they encounter) are preparing for winter. Greg and Karen lead a Buddhist ceremony--something to do with honoring the dead--for anyone interested. There's a charity collection for food--that started a couple of weeks ago, so Karen and Joy's students from off-campus could drop off canned goods and so forth, but on Mabon we counted it all up and put the boxes in the Office for the next person who drives into town to take. There's the gratitude circle I attended last year. And there's the Thank You Doll.

The Thank You Doll is built at the same time as the Gratitude Circle, so you can't do both. Last year I did the Circle, this year I did the Doll Build.

Sarah runs it, which kind of surprised me, as it's rather pagan, but I suppose she was pagan once, and she does work here. Charlie attends, which is why he wasn't at the Gratitude Circle last year. I don't think it has anything to do with his avoiding Kit. She avoids him, and makes a lot of little needling comments about him (mostly when he isn't around) but he mostly just ignores her. I think don't think Charlie would let anybody keep him from doing what he wants to do.

The way the Thank You Doll works is that Sarah and one of her students carry in a big box full of farm products that last a while--potatoes, winter squash, apples, dried flower stalks and grass stems, dried chilli peppers--and a sort of wooden stretcher or litter. Then we built this figure or doll out of the vegetables, using little wooden slivers to stick the pieces together.

There weren't very many of us--Sarah and her family, plus Charlie, Sadie, Kayla, Aidan, Nora, Rick and I, and a couple of other students--so we all got to work on the Doll. We ended up making a sort-of snowman shape with three round squashes. It had two long skinny squashes for legs, fallen oak twigs for arms, chillies for facial features (we stuck them on with wooden slivers), and foxtails for hair.

Then we carried the Doll on the stretcher-thing to the middle of the farm, put it down, and "woke up the Doll." We did this by jumping up and down and shouting "wake up! It's Mabon! Wake up!" It was very silly. Apparently, the youngest person present is always in charge of checking to see if the Doll is awake. This year, of course, that was Aidan. He bent down and listened carefully for a long time. Finally, Kayla asked "Aidan, can you hear the Doll say it's awake?" He nodded, and then said yes.

What is that like for a small child, being asked to hear a doll made of vegetables speak? I asked if the Doll literally speaks, but the others didn't know. None of them had ever been the youngest in the group.

"The children always say they can hear it," said Sadie.

Afterwards, we took the Doll on a tour of the farm and showed it all the places where its bodyparts had come from. Then we had a late Paleolithic lunch and everybody gave part of their meal to the Doll. After the meal, we put the Doll (and its food and drink) on display in the Great Hall. I saw the Doll last year, but didn't know what it was and didn't ask. The place is all decorated for Fall now, so I just thought the Doll was part of the decoration.

A few days later, we got together to bury it in the center of the farm. Sarah says parts of the Doll often sprout in the spring and they are always allowed to grow.

Nobody explained what all of this is about, where the ritual came from, or why Sarah, of all people, is in charge of it. But that's kind of normal around here. A lot of things have no explanation, they just feel right. I suppose getting a sense of "right" is part of the lesson around here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Year 2: Fifth Interlude


Daniel-of-2014 here. Happy Mabon.

Writing about the 9/11 attacks in recent weeks has been harrowing. Not that I personally suffered very much—I lost no one I knew—but it was still a difficult time to revisit. I’ve actually just been to New York City, and with the attacks so much on my mind, the visit felt surreal. I kept thinking of Joe, since he volunteered that week, and how the city must have looked and felt to him. On the way out of town to visit friends, I looked out the window and saw One World Trade. There was something dreamlike about the sight.

I was in The City for the climate march on Sunday. 

I think a lot of people from the school were there, although I didn’t bump into anyone I knew except for my own group. It was a big march.

My wife and daughter and I drove down with Allen, Lo, and Alexis, and Kit and her husband. We actually parked in Long Island and took the train in. We met David, Kayla, and Aidan at Port Authority. They’d taken a bus.

It might seem strange to read about these people now, since you’re used to them as they were thirteen years ago, when Aidan was a toddler and Alexis was four. Alexis is seventeen, now, and a senior in high school. Her hair is dark, like Allen’s, and she’s on the short side, like he is, but she looks more like Lo in the face. A couple of years ago, she got a pair of ferrets and she takes them pretty much everywhere with her. She has a soft-sided carrier for them, but they spent most of the march sleeping inside her shirt.  David is twenty-five and in graduate school for ecology. He’s the one who told us about the march, a month or so ago. Kayla is twenty-six, and dancing professionally. She’s one of those women who looks like a teenager forever. In another year or so, when Aidan hits puberty, they’ll look like twins.

The march was big enough that there were multiple staging areas, each with its own theme. We chose the one for religious groups and spent most of the day tagging along with a group of pagans. They waved banners and drummed and burned incense as they walked. Sometimes we dropped behind and found ourselves in among either of two groups of Buddhists, all ringing bells and wearing robes. Occasionally, we ran into one or another of a group of Franciscans, also in robes.

“Makes me wish we’d worn our uniforms,” Kit said, sadly.

“If we’d identified as a religious group,” Allen replied, “who would we identify ourselves as?” He has a point, since the school is still secret.

“Uniforms!” exclaimed Kayla, who had only half been listening, “I still have mine!”

“As do I,” I told her.

“You have to,” she replied. “You’re a master.” Which I am.

“I don’t have to do anything,” I told her, “except put the welfare of the school community and the rest of the Six first, to maintain my integrity and excellence, and to offer my expertise to interested students.”

“Neither bound nor free,” Kit commented, smiling at my quoting of the vow. That phrase, neither bound nor free, is from one version of a Wiccan initiation rite. It means your actions are constrained by your word, not by anyone else’s power over you.

“Obedience to the unenforceable, as Charlie would say,” put in Allen. That’s from 12 step culture, and it means something similar.

“I never got to wear the uniform in the first place,” said Aidan, sounding resentful.

“Would you have?” asked David, sounding surprised. Like most former Sprouts, he thinks of the school as the place where he comes from, not where he is going.

“Yeah. Of course.”

“You still can,” said Kit. “The school exists as long as we keep that vow.”

“I think you just passed the entrance exam,” I said. “That makes you our first third-generation student.” Sadie, Kayla’s mom, is, of course, a graduate.

My daughter, riding on my back in a carrier, wiggled and bounced.

“Watcha doing, sweetie?” I asked. She didn’t answer.

“She’s mugging for cameras,” my wife said. I really wish people would ask before they took pictures of my daughter, but we had dressed her up to attract attention. She was carrying a blue and green pinwheel and wearing an oversized t-shirt that read “It’s my planet, too!” Her sun-hat was covered with political buttons. 

Some people carried signs in the march, I carried my baby.

Seriously, there are times I can’t even bear to think about climate change because of her. She won’t get to grow up in the same world I did. What kind of world she does get to live in depends on the outcome of this march, whether 310,000 people gathered together is enough to convince the powers that be to sign an emissions-reduction treaty with teeth in it next year.

We never used to pay much attention to politics, when I was at school. I suppose we considered it too worldly, or something. When I was a novice, we never paid much attention to climate change, either. Of course, the school itself was carbon-neutral and had been for five or ten years, but except for one or two required classes, we never talked about it. It was one more thing that belonged to the outside world. By the time I became a candidate, that standard had changed, we’d started talking about climate issues in philosophical and moral terms, but we still didn’t talk about politics. Not climate politics, nor the political implications of any of the other issues we learned about and discussed.

Now, I think the standard has changed again. Some of us are starting to talk as a group about how to engage with the world, how to do what Kit calls “the Great Magic.” Greg calls it “civic alchemy” or “applied mysticism.” We’re talking about how to use what we know and what we have to change the world. I think that if the school still existed as a school, we might begin to teach activism. 

Or, maybe we had to lose the campus in order to learn how, as a community, to reach beyond it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 7: Aftermath

Note: as a reminder, this is one of a series of posts set in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11th, 2001.

This week has been so strange.

None of us here on campus was close to anyone who died in the attacks, but some knew people slightly--two who died in the towers and one who was injured in the Pentagon (but is still alive). A lot of people know people in New York and DC, and Allen has a dear friend who apparently had planned on being in the World Trade Center that morning but had changed his plans at the last moment. When the masters told us the news last week, Allen didn't know if his friend was alive. We didn't find out until yesterday who had survived and who hadn't.

Security Joe has gone to New York as a volunteer. A lot of the personnel from Port Authority have died and they need police. The more senior students and the masters are talking about other volunteers, former students, mostly. They're worried. Apparently, for the first few days nobody thought to issue respirators to the people working at the World Trade Center site, and there is some thought now that could have been a serious mistake. Joy knows some of the dog handlers doing search and rescue and what she hears from them is wearing on her. She's worried about the dogs, and proud of them.

It's interesting hearing all of these connections. We seem so separate here, so set apart, and yet when something like this happens, our community is in the middle of it, just like everybody else. It makes me wonder how many people I saw before I came here might have been wearing a green ring.

Classes were cancelled that Tuesday and Wednesday, but since then we've had a normal schedule. The main difference, other than how bizarre everything feels, is that all the talks and events we have in the evenings and on Saturday have been pre-empted by an ongoing workshop on Islamic and Arab history. We're all strongly encouraged to attend.

The day of the attacks, Greg said "Now we're at war--with somebody." He meant, I think, that America would respond by attacking, whether or not it turned out there is a rational target. When we found out that this was an attack by an Islamist terrorist organization, he got worried. I'm sure the situation reminded him of Pearl Harbor.

"Are you worried about discrimination?" I asked him.

"No, I'm worried about the failure to discriminate," he told me. "I am worried about the failure to discriminate between the people who actually killed Americans and anyone, American or otherwise, who happens to wear a turban." This workshop is his doing, and he teaches most of it, though he's brought in a few former students and other allies who are Muslim, as guest speakers. He has public talks lined up at all the libraries within driving distance. I didn't even know he could drive....He's bound and determined not to let history repeat itself.

"Our culture has a history of responding to fear by exacerbating the perceived difference between self and Other," he said, at the first class meeting of the workshop. "Which is curious, because of course they are never so different from us as they seem, and are usually busy othering us for exactly the same reason. Compassion and empathy are lost. As an historian, as a Buddhist, and as a man who has been othered, I do not want to see this country become bereft of compassion again."

I am not aware of anyone else--anyone outside the school--responding to the crisis by holding an Islamic studies class. But then, I'm not aware of anyone outside the school who has even begun to return to ordinary daily life, as we have. The only thing out there that has gone back to normal yet is that planes are flying again.

During the three days that they were not, the sky was clear--the same extraordinary blue that it was on Tuesday. I remember seeing Kit, on her way into lunch on Wednesday or Thursday, look up, fling out her arms, and twirl around, smiling. When she was done twirling, there I was. Our eyes met.

"It's so beautiful," she said. "It's too bad it takes something like this for us to get our sky back."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 6: September 11

Note: this story is set thirteen years ago, so this week covers September 11, 2001 and its events. I decided to cover the 11th before the anniversary, rather than after it. –D.

Today. Oh, today. 

You already know what happened, because, for once, the big news happened not on campus but off of it. For maybe the first time since I’ve been here, we on campus are sharing an experience with the rest of the country, maybe the rest of the world.

This morning I had my horticulture shift, like normal, so I was going around beetling—this means grabbing any Japanese beetles you can find on plants and dropping them into a coffee can of soapy water. The soap isn’t toxic, but the beetles can’t get out of it and so they drown. Charlie doesn’t do anything about native pests (he refers to caterpillars as bird food and treats them as a kind of crop), but Japanese beetles, as the name implies, are exotic. So we go after them.

I was just finishing up the front gardens by the Mansion—this was maybe 9:30 or so--when I heard a noise and looked up in time to see all these people run out the front door, like maybe five or six people all at once. It looked like every student who was on duty at the time in the Front Office and the Library. I put down my can of beetles and went to the Office. Sharon was at her desk, resting her head in her hands. She looked upset.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Can I help?”

“Get Charlie,” she said, looking up at me. She’d been crying. “Get Sarah. Tell them to come here as soon as they can. Tell everyone—everyone on the landscaping team—we’re having an emergency all-school meeting in the Dining Hall at 12:30.”

I didn’t stop to try to get her to explain. I ran out of the Office, too.

I found Charlie and some of the others replanting the frog pond and I gave them my message. Charlie did not overtly react, which is what he does when something bothers him. It’s like his face freezes. He thanked me, asked the others if they could manage without him, and reminded me to finish beetling once I’d found the others and Sarah.

“When in doubt, do your work, always,” he said, and hustled off to the office.

Later, heading in to the Dining Hall, I found myself next to Rick.

“You notice something odd?” he asked me, looking distracted. Now, obviously, a lot of things were odd, but I doubted any of them were the one Rick meant.

“No, what?”

“Look up,” he said. “No airplanes.”

And he was right. The entire sky was clear, this fabulous, cloudless blue, and there were no jet trails in it. Rick was tracking the sky, and, like Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark in the night, he’d noticed the oddness in what was missing.

We went inside and sat down. Lunch was set out, but nobody served themselves. I got in there around 12:15. People were still coming in. I noticed none of the masters were there. I guessed they were having a meeting of their own, and indeed they all filed in together just before 12:30, all fourteen of them, and stood or sat together at one end of the room. I hadn’t seen them all together like that since Brigit.

Allen is head of the Masters’ Group this year, so he spoke first. He was still dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, his clothes and hair damp with sweat from cycling.

“There’s no easy way to say this,” he said, “so I’m just going to begin. The United States is apparently under attack.” We all made various noises of shock and surprise and he held up his hands for silence.

“I saw it on the news this morning,” put in Aaron, the librarian. “I told Sharon.”

Allen looked at him and frowned slightly. Then he opened his mouth and closed it again, shaking his head. He looked at Greg, who stood up and continued the explanation.

“This morning,” he began, “persons unknown, for reasons unknown, hijacked four large passenger airplanes. Two of the planes were flown into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City. A third flew into the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Apparently its passengers prevented it from reaching its intended target, which was probably also in Washington, DC. Both of the World Trade towers have now collapsed. It seems as though this attack is over and there are no more hijacked planes in the sky, but thousands of people have died.”

He let that sink in. Nobody said anything. Aaron stood up.

“I expect phone lines, email, everything, is pretty tied up right now. Unless you have friends or family who could have been in the attacks, I really suggest you not try to contact anybody today. The news services have all gone to live coverage, but they really don’t know what’s going on yet. I really recommend you not try to watch the news. There’s no reason to burn those images into your retinas. You can’t help anybody by doing that. I’ll watch for you, and I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

He sat back down again. Allen stood back up.

“We’ve cancelled classes today,” he explained. “I doubt any of you could pay attention to them, and we certainly can’t. Tomorrow we’ll stagger the therapy groups throughout the day so I can attend all of them—I’ll get a schedule posted by breakfast tomorrow. If any senior students want to convene a group and have a session with me, let me know.”

“I think it’s safe to say we’re at war,” said Greg, darkly. “With somebody. Anybody.”

The meeting ended, and we all had lunch together. Even Rick ate with us, though of course he ate his own, wild food. When I went up to get my food from the buffet bar, I found Charlie, of course, making himself a cheese sandwich. I don’t think he ever has anything else for lunch. Some things, at least, are reliable.

“And today was such a beautiful day,” I said with some regret—and no small resentment. There was a part of me that was angry with the hijackers for interrupting my day, like having to be upset was so inconvenient or something. I don’t think that’s what I was supposed to be feeling, but I was feeling it. And I was angry with myself for feeling that way, for being selfish. I wasn’t angry with the hijackers for killing people, not yet. That part hadn’t sunk in. How do you wrap your mind around thousands of people dying at once? I was just mad they’d interrupted my blue sky.

“It still is a beautiful day,” Charlie said to me, sharply, while spooning mustard onto his bread. “Lives end every day. Those beetles, for instance. The world doesn’t cease to be beautiful  simply because this time it’s someone you happen to identify with.”

Monday, September 1, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 5: Food.

I think late summer--Kit would say it's early fall--is the best time to eat here on campus.

Of course, the food here is pretty much always good, so I have a sneaking suspicion that I'd say the same at any other time of year. But now is now, and so I am saying that now is the best time to eat.

The farm is in full production, so everything is fresh. Of course, everything has to be fresh, since they're saving the preserved foods for the winter. It's true there are some foods we don't get anymore because their season is past--strawberries and rhubarb and fiddleheads are all gone--and it's also true that some crops aren't in yet. There are no Brussels sprouts, no cabbage. But we do have fruit, we do have hearty vegetables, and we have plenty of dairy and eggs.

We have no meat. Campus is completely vegetarian at the moment, except at Paleolithic Dinner, where we often have woodchucks, and Philosopher's Stone Soup, where Rick usually brings squirrel, rabbit, or fish. But even if I didn't go to those events, I don't think I'd miss meat much. I tend not to miss the foods of different seasons--not until the end of a season, when I'm ready for a change.

But anyway, everything is startlingly good. Last night for dinner there was steamed rainbow chard, pan-fried green beans with onions, and zucchini bread drizzled with honey from our own bees. There was butter, too, but honestly I didn't use any. I didn't need any. I'm not kidding, it needed nothing. A week ago there was sweet corn for dinner (plus a green salad with sliced cherry tomatoes and goat cheese). We don't get sweet corn very often--there isn't a lot of it planted--so that was a treat, but there were some leftovers anyway. The following day, at lunch, that leftover corn turned up in a wild mushroom chowder. I mean both the mushrooms and the chowder as a whole were wild.

The apples are coming in now. The raspberries are done, but we still have a few of the blueberry bushes producing and the blackberries are going strong. The pears are ripening, too. We don't have as many of them as apples, only two rows in the orchard, two varieties. Pears are ripe so briefly that there is a special rule about them; if you want them you have to take them from the fruit bowl before they're ripe and let them ripen in your room. When they find ripe pears in the bowl the kitchen staff calls out "ripe pears!" and if no one claims them they eat the pears themselves, cook with them, or preserve them. The general attitude around here is that to let a pear go bad is the equivalent of a venial sin. I can't say I disagree.

I go home, sometimes, and my mother offers to feed me exotic, unseasonal food--bananas, lemonade with real lemons (as opposed to sumac berries or wood sorrel leaves), fresh strawberries, lamb (lamb is unseasonal because the spring lambs aren't at slaughter weight yet) and so on. She thinks I'm being deprived on campus and must want a break. My mother is a good cook and I enjoy the food, but the ingredients she has to work with are not so fresh and a lot of it was never very good to start with. Most of what you find in the store is from varieties--of both plants and animals--bred for durability and rapid growth, not flavor. I eat politely, enjoy it about as much as I ever did, which is to say a lot, and I look forward to getting back where I enjoy food more than I ever thought I could.