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.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Year 3: Part 1: Post 8: Devotion

 Last week it warmed up for a few days and then rained--mist rose from the ground and drifted across campus as the snow melted. 12 inches of accumulated snow became four to six inches of slush--then a cold front blew in and refroze everything, so for a few days you could walk across the frozen surface and not make any prints at all, a novel, magical-feeling thing.

Last night it snowed again and it kept snowing for hours on end.

I had to water the plants in the Green Room that afternoon, and when I went in there I found Charlie and Greg sitting in front of the big windows, wrapped up in blankets and watching the snow. When I was done I asked if I could join them and they grunted at me. I took that as a yes and pulled up a chair. Within a few minutes Rick and Eddie had joined us. I don't think I've mentioned Eddie before--he's in my dorm and arrived last year. We get along, but I don't know him very well. There was getting to be a crowd of us, and I made up my mind to leave if anyone else arrived, but fortunately no one did. For a long time, none of us spoke. We just watched the snow coming down.

It was relatively warm outside, but windy, so the flakes were huge, pale grey and swirling against the paler grey of the sky and the dark, almost black green of the arbor vitae hedge at the end of the Mansion garden. Looking off to either side there was just the varied browns and the greys of winter trees and the snow and ice-covered fields receding off into the kind of moving fog formed by the falling snow.

"It's like water," I said, remembering how Charlie had once said he wished there were running water on campus so he could sit and watch it. He heard me and tilted his head curiously for a moment, but did not turn away from the window.

"If it did this every day, I'd watch it all day long," he said.

Rick and I looked at each other over and behind Charlie's blanket-covered head. The thing is, Charlie does watch the campus all day every day. He keeps his finger on the pulse of it somehow.

Greg spoke, also not looking away from the window, and as he spoke his cat poked his small black and white face out from among the blankets and looked at me a moment before settling into invisibility again.

"Abba Moses, an early Christian Desert Father said 'go sit in your cell, your cell will teach you everything," Greg said. "But I think there is much to learn from sitting outside your cell, too."

"To me," began Rick, "the main advantage of a monk's cell would be that no one else was in it. I can't think clearly around other people."

"And yet you came to sit here with us," pointed out Greg, with a smile.

"I can't help where you were sitting," Rick replied, looking a little embarrassed. "And I did ask your permission."

Greg had to acknowledge the point.

"I can't think straight when I'm alone," said Eddie. The others looked at him. "I'm serious! It's like my thoughts turn inward when I'm all by myself for too long. I have to talk to other people or I don't even know what I'm thinking."

"You know what that sounds like?" asked Rick, with a hint of a grin.

"Shut up, I am not," Eddie replied.

(I need to explain that: Eddie is transgendered, although you can't guess by looking at him. Rick was implying that, in needing to talk, Eddie was betraying residual female characteristics. Rick is not misogynist, but he usually avoids them and I don't think he knows any women well. He refers to stereotypes about women a lot)

"I'm the same way," I pointed out. "I like to talk out my ideas."

"Is that what Moses meant, though?" Greg asked. "Was the cell important only because of what wasn't in the room? Or could the room itself teach something?"

"That snow could teach something," Charlie said. "As could the sea, a place in the forest, any place. Go and sit in the forest. I don't know about a room." And after a pause he gathered his blanket around him and stood up to go.

"Hey, Charlie, we can all shut up, if you want, if we're bothering you," I said. He looked at me with a hint of a smile, appreciating but rejecting my offer.

"If I wanted you all to shut up, Daniel, I'd tell you to shut up," he explained. "I have to go take a leak."

"What he said, it's like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or The Outermost House," I said, when he had gone. There were books he had introduced me to. "Anchorites to a specific place."

"It's not just places," Greg said. "Did Charlie ever tell you about his dog?"

Rick and I shook our heads.

"Perhaps I shouldn't." Greg stroked his cat and smiled, while he debated with himself. "Well, it's not like it's actually private," he decided, finally. "When we first opened the campus, we had a problem with rats in the barns. So we decided to get a terrier. Eventually better food and seed storage and the presence of the the cats took care of the problem. That's why we don't have any terriers now. But that dog, he and Charlie just clicked."

"I've seen a picture of that dog! On Charlie's desk! A little grey dog, right?"

"Right. Milo. Sit in your room, sit by the ocean, love a dog, do something wholly and it will teach you everything."

"Is your cat like that?" I asked. He was still petting him inside the blanket.

"No," Greg said. "I have not given myself wholly to him. It is a great thing, to be devoted to an animal, and I have not managed it. But he is devoted to me. Perhaps I am the occasion of his spiritual practice?" And he smiled at the cat in his lap.

"Devotion," said Eddie. "That's it, that's the word. I sit by a human being the way a person might sit by the ocean or in a cell. I don't mean that we're together--she's with someone else, and anyway if we were together I don't think it would work. She couldn't be my...occasion of spiritual growth...if I were her partner, I don't think that would be fair. But she teaches me everything."

He spoke in a low voice, full of emotion. It was all news to me. And yet what he was saying seemed familiar, somehow.

"Who is it?" I asked. "Not Joy?" Joy is his primary master. But I knew the answer almost before I asked it.

"No, not Joy," he confirmed. "It's Kit." My stomach did something odd when he said it, as illogical as that is. "She doesn't know," he added.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Year 3: Part 1: Post 7: Tracking in Winter

It's good to be able to go tracking with Rick again. While I was off campus this winter I kept up my habit of going tracking every few days, just as I kept up my physical exercises and the mental and spiritual exercises Joy has me doing (that sounds lovely, doesn't it? I exercise for Joy!). It seems like a lot, but I didn't have anything else to do except my various practices and assignments. No classes, no job...I could nap whenever I wasn't doing assignments, if I wanted to, and sometimes I did.

But it's good to have someone else to track with again.

We don't always go together in the literal sense. Sometimes we go out at around the same time but to different places and then compare notes. Sometimes I take him to see tracks I'm confused about and sometimes I tag along and he shows me what he can see, which is still always more than what I see. I'm not actually sure whether Rick wants my company on these outings. I don't think he ever minds being alone, and yet he seems to like being my guide into the world of tracking.

That world is so much bigger than I thought it was when I first started.

Last year was mostly about identification--figuring out which species did what was easy the first time I went out, but it got harder later as snow conditions changed. I was learning to notice detail and I was mostly using that detail to identify who made the track and which gait they were using. I liked following the story of one particular animal as it moved across the landscape.

This year I guess I'm getting a wider, deeper view. I want to know when a certain track was laid down and why the animal was using the gait it was. In a field full of tracks, what order were they made? I'm getting very interested in snow conditions--how do snow conditions change the look of the track when it is first laid down, and how do changing conditions alter the track as it ages? I've started copying over Lilac's notes (she's a mastery candidate interested in weather) so I can see when it was last windy or above freezing, or anything else that can alter but not obscure the snow surface. That way I can tell when a track was laid down more precisely and I can see the story on the show laid out clearly in time as well as space.

I'm also getting more into using my other senses besides vision.

Basically, I've started sniffing everything. I learned last year that foxes and porcupines have distinctive scents to their urine. I've just now learned that so do deer. Or, at least some deer do--the scent is slightly pine-like (it's not unpleasant at all), so maybe only deer that eat pine needles pee piny urine.

I come back from these trips all excited. I run around telling everybody what I saw and where and how I saw it, so there are a few people getting interested and wanting to learn tracking, too. I tried suggesting that Charlie do a second tracking seminar (he already does one) but he actually told me I should teach it myself, that I probably know more about tracking, at this point, than he does--which was pretty incredible to hear and I'm not sure if I believe it. Interestingly, he didn't make my doing such a thing an assignment. He hasn't given me any new assignments, just keeps saying I should keep up the good work. He just said that if I think there should be another tracking mini-class, I should make it happen myself.

There's no rule about who in the community can teach these things. Novices don't usually teach, but there are exceptions, and Charlie has had me teach some things before. The only thing is that nobody is obligated to attend your class, if they don't think you're any good. So there's a bit of a threat to the ego involved with volunteering.

Still, I didn't have to think about it before too long before I decided I wanted to do it. Rick agreed to help me, and we both talked to Sharon about getting on the schedule. At her suggestion, we actually made it a workshop, four meetings. The first meeting will be scheduled next time tracking conditions are good and we'll go out and show people tracks. The next two meetings we'll do mostly indoors, with visual aids and models, and then the last one will be in good snow conditions again.

So, that is exciting.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Year 3: Part 1: Post 6: Talks and Seminars

We're running around going to events and talks and workshops now, of course. That's what we do in February, but I haven't mentioned it because I'm kind of used to the schedule, but of course you, the reader, can't see an ordinary day being ordinary unless I describe it for you.

I think I explained the basics before, but I'd better recap just in case.

Talks, seminars, and workshops are all mini-classes and they usually carry academic credit. A workshop meets four times (usually for about three hours each time) and carries one credit, a seminar meets twice and carries half a credit, and a talk meets just once and carries a quarter credit. The idea is if you go to a whole swarm of related mini-classes, that's as good as one big class.

During the school year they offer a couple of these mini classes a week, usually in the evenings or on Saturday. The masters teach some of them, I suppose for a change of pace, but mostly they're taught by allies or current students--the mastery candidates especially gain teaching experience that way.

But between Brigid and Ostara, there are no regular classes, just mini classes. Part of it is for the new students, since a lot of these talks and so forth are about how the school works or are designed specifically so the yearlings can get to know the masters a bit before choosing classes for the spring semester. And of course, part of the reason for doing it this way is to give the masters time to design course schedules and figure out how much advanced standing credit each new student has--we never know for sure who is going to enroll, so we can't sort all that out ahead of time as most schools do.

So, anyway, most of these things are really for the new students, which is why I skipped most of them last year, but there are some that are for senior students, or that I just didn't get to take before, and they look interesting. There's a lot of these things, usually at least three or four different things to choose from for every class block, so there's no way you could ever do them all.

And it's an opportunity to get to know some of the mastery candidates a bit better, since they're doing a lot of the teaching. I'm curious about them. For whatever reason, I want to hang out more with them than with the new yearlings.

For example, Egg. He's a mastery candidate who returned last year. He's a certified nurse, but he's studying to go deeper into the intangible aspects of healing, plus learning how to integrate self-care with his caring for others. Last year, when I got a bad cold and had to stay in bed for a day or two, he took care of me. He insisted I stay in bed, fixed my schedule so I could, fetched me herbal tea and extra blankets, and just kind of hung around and kept me company. Being sick is very boring, especially if you're too sick to read or even day-dream, as I was.

At one point he said something about how no one talks to candidates--they don't usually take classes with novices, and there's kind of a cultural divide that keeps them separate. And he said so nobody would talk to him now. I tried to tell him that I would, but I wasn't really coherent. And guess what? After I recovered I hardly talked to him.

So I'm making a point now of attending his talks and so forth. They're all on basic disease-prevention--one included an actual lesson on proper hand-washing technique--but he makes it interesting, and anyway it's obviously useful. And I figure attending is a friendly thing to do.

So, in honor of Egg, whom I should have talked to more last year, here are his top five Things To Do for good health. He keeps coming back to these in his talks, over and over.

1. The most important factor in your health is YOU. There's some genetics and some luck involved,
but it's YOUR body, so YOU have to take responsibility for taking care of it.
2. Preventative medicine is the best medicine.
3. Do NOT ignore symptoms. If something doesn't feel right, get it checked out now, before it gets worse and turns serious.
4. Give kids fresh, healthy food and plenty of time to play actively outside.
5. Number 4 goes for adults, too.

I'm now going to follow principle #5 and go play outside.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Year 3: Part 1: Post 5: Secular Saints

So, we've just had Lincoln's birthday and Washington's birthday is coming up. We've done nothing whatever to celebrate as a campus, although Greg, who is, remember, a history teacher, offered some related talks--I think there were two on Lincoln, one on his spirituality and the other on his racial attitudes, something like that, and there's one coming up on the mythologization of Washington. But mostly we're ignoring these "holidays." I don't think I even noticed them last year.

But it got me thinking--Valentine's Day is, of course, a real Catholic holiday, the Feast of St. Valentine (there are actually two Saints Valentine, I believe, who were martyred on the same day of different years), as is St. Patrick's Day, but that's not why most Americans celebrate them. We certainly don't celebrate the other Catholic saints. But then there are people like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington who get their own days.

Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Christopher do we decide who gets to be a secular saint? Why Abraham Lincoln and not Franklyn Delano Roosevelt? Why Dr. King and not Harvey Milk?

What, exactly, is a holiday, anyway?

I normally don't think about this sort of thing. I'm a pretty practical person, in some ways, and these questions don't really have definite answers, but being around here is making me more speculative and analytical.

As I've said before, everyone here asks questions and discusses ideas here all the time--almost literally. The community here is an almost uninterrupted conversation about everything in the world, this constant process of each of us questioning assumptions, exploring ideas, and sharing experiences.

I missed this when I was at home. I missed it before I got here. It's like...before I came here everything seemed shallow and pointless, not because my family is shallow--none of them are. But they don't talk about the depths much, so how was I to know what was going on? We'd talk about our days, watch TV together, catch a movie...and I can't do anything else when I'm with them. I don't know how, I'm not any good at talking, though I'm a decent listener. I go with the flow, I have a good time, I help out around the house and I feel like I'm suffocating. I come back to campus and I feel quite literally stirred.

I noticed last year that this is something we do on purpose as a community. We don't just happen to talk a lot about certain things, we actively teach new students how to interact this way. It's a culture, as in something we cultivate. We live here, I live here, and change. It's catching.

And now we have a whole new group of students to whom to transmit the bug.

Speaking of distinctively campus-ish activities, did I mention it's cold? The weather is about the same here as my parents' house, they don't live that far away, but they keep their house at 75 degrees and the Mansion here hasn't been more than about sixty degrees for months, except right near one of the stoves. At night the fires in the stoves die down to coals or sometimes go out entirely and the temperature in our rooms drops into the low forties.The condensation on the inside of the sliding glass balcony doors sometimes freezes overnight.

I got used to all of that before, and I'm getting used to it again. It was only the first week or so back that it really bothered me. Already it's starting to seem more reasonable to put on long-johns and a hat to go to bed. It's not really that cold--the Mansion is pretty well insulated and sealed. When it's forty degrees in my bedroom, that's sometimes fifty degrees warmer than the air is outside, just a few inches away.

And I'm not sure I'd trade it, even if I could do it without using too much firewood.

I mean, what I really like is getting into my bed at night. The sheets are pretty crappy, they're donated from a hospital or some other institution, and manage to be both stiff and threadbare at the same time (some people bring their own sheets instead), but then there is my patchwork quilt  and my two wool blankets, all of which are works of art as well as very warm--I don't own them, they belong to the school, they were made by an ally, a set for every room. It must have taken years. And I can snuggle down into my blankets surrounded by the cold and the dark and I can listen.

I can hear people going to and from the bathrooms at night, toilets flushing, floorboards creaking a little, around and above me. Most of us keep our bedroom doors open in the winter, for warmth, so I can hear if someone coughs or snores or stays up late talking. I don't mean there's a big, noisy racket, just the occasional soft sound. Very occasionally I can hear someone, somewhere, having sex, though fortunately I can never tell who it is. In the dark I can smell wet wool, oil soap, and a jumble of incense, mostly sage, pine, and nag champa--the sounds and scents of the Mansion in winter.

And I go to sleep warm enough.

[Next post: February 20th: Talks and Workshops]

Friday, February 13, 2015

Year 3: Part 1: Post 4: Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is tomorrow.

I did not care about this holiday one way or another last year, or the year before. This year is different, in part because I'm involved in preparations (and because there is someone I want to give a flower to).

We don't celebrate Valentine's Day the way we celebrate the sabbats--it isn't a major holiday on campus, it's easy to ignore, if you want to. But we do have a tradition of giving out flowers. You can sign up to give a flower a couple of days ahead. It costs a couple of dollars per flower, and you give the money to Kit and she writes down your name, the recipient's name, and the color of flower you want to give. The flowers are all roses, but very tiny ones, and they all show up, as if by magic, in a little vase outside your door on Valentine's Day.

The reason it seems done as if by magic is that nobody seems to know who is responsible. Of course Kit can't do all of it, but she never says who helps her. She has a great deal of fun being mysterious about it with those who ask,variously explaining that "I have my ways" or "It's not what you know it's who you know," (as if she has it done by spites of some kind). Sometimes she credits house-elves (a Harry Potter reference) and at least once she told somebody it's done by "magic puppies."

Actually, this year I did it, along with the other members of the groundskeeping crew. Remember that last year I was on the janitorial crew until March, so this is my first Valentine's Day as a groundskeeper. It's no project of Charlie's, but he lends us out to other masters on occasion--usually Sarah or Karen--so we can get more hours. Kit swore us to secrecy on the subject.

You know, I never thought to wonder how it is we get fresh roses in February? I guess I'm not completely used to the world of the school after all. In the outside world, of course, you can get anything at any time of year, though it might cost more and be of lower quality if it had to be shipped by airplane from South America or something. Here, we get things fresh when the land gives them to us and not otherwise. Fresh flowers in February is as bizarre as Christmas in July.

And yet Kit seems to like them. There are the jonquils and paper-whites she forced for Brigid this year, and there are the tiny roses for Valentine's Day. It turns out, the fact that they are tiny is one of the clues as to how she does it.

She grows miniature roses in pots. Basically, she tricks the plants into believing that winter is much shorter than it really is by bringing them inside and putting them under grow-lights. There isn't a lot of electricity on campus, but in the off-season, with some of our buildings shut down and a lot of people not even here, we use less than we generate and some of the extra goes in to growing flowers.

Caring for the flowers was one of the things I didn't do because I was at home in January, but today a group of us cut and trimmed the little flowers, three or four from each plant, put them in water, and labeled them with to/from cards. We did about two hundred flowers, in all different colors--you're only allowed to give one flower to each person, but you're allowed to give them to as many people as you want. Tomorrow morning, before dawn, we'll distribute them.

So, we were sitting around in the greenhouse with Kit, cutting flowers, when Diane asked Kit whether Valentine's Day is a pagan or a Christian holiday. Kit is Diane's Spirit Master, but she isn't studying Wicca or Hellenic Neopaganism, the two religions that Kit weaves together. She's studying "totemic animism," which is, more or less, Kit's version of what Charlie does. He is Diane's craft master and primary master, so why she doesn't just study spirit with him, too, I do not know. I haven't asked. It's possible she didn't realize Charlie was available, or maybe she just wasn't able to convince him to take her on as a student as I was. Anyway, so there are things she doesn't know about Kit's religious practice and she likes to ask questions. Like, is Valentine's Day a pagan or a Christian holiday.

"I'm celebrating it, aren't I?" said Kit, and we all laughed. Kit's eclectic, but the only thing she definitely isn't is Christian.

"Isn't Valentine's Day descended from the Lupercalia, though?" asked Lou, whose own religion is Zen Buddhism. Karen is his master in both spirit and art and she is teaching him Zen flower arrangement. He handled the roses with care and respect, and put his plant down in order to speak. He would not divide his attention.

"Yes," Kit told him. "We get our word February from the Lupercalia, too--from the februa, the whips."

"Huh?" said Dillon.

"The Lupercalia was one of the Roman festivals of purification leading up to their New Years, in the spring. Goats and dogs were sacrificed and men wearing dog-leather ran around whipping everyone they met with goatskin whips, in order to drive out negativity. There was also a match-making lottery, a bit like what we do for Beltane."

"That does not sound romantic," said Dillon, sourly.

"I heard they specifically whipped women, in order to make them fertile or something," said Raven G. "Which is seriously twisted. But the Romans were really, really patriarchal, right?" By 'patriarchal' she meant misogynistic. A lot of people around here use the word that way.

"Well, they were," said Kit, "though not as badly as the Greeks. But these things are usually more complicated than they look."

"What's complicated about don't hit women with whips?" asked Raven. I'd been wondering something similar.

"Well, unless you like that sort of thing," began Kit, with a suggestive smile that vanished when she saw Raven's reaction. "I didn't mean it that way," she amended. "I didn't mean true violence against women is legitimately kinky. But women would line up to be whipped on the Lupercalia. They sought it out, it was connected to fertility. I expect they wanted to purify themselves to prepare for childbearing. The thing is, you can't just say something like the Lupercalia was wrong without asking what the women themselves wanted. To deny women agency is itself patriarchist, far more than what you do or do not do with a goatskin whip."

"I'm still stuck on the goats," said Dillon. "And the dogs. With all due respect, Kit, why do you admire these cultures? They sacrificed dogs?"

"It's true, they did. And I wouldn't. Blood sacrifice isn't my thing, and I don't know any Neopagans that do it, except for some of the heathen traditions. But, if you think about it, our culture sacrifices far more dogs than the classical Greeks and Romans did."


"Yeah, sure. We sacrifice dogs to greed, waste, medicine, science...a huge number of beagles are bred for biomedical labs, for example. And how many puppy-mill dogs die in shelters because nobody wants them? Be careful who your gods are, Dillon, you might be worshiping more devoutly than you know, and not all gods are good."

Dillon blushed and looked away. I don't think Kit had meant to accuse him, specifically, but I'm sure he felt singled out.

"Haven't we gotten rather off the subject of love?" Donna asked, perhaps feeling a bit uncomfortable.

"No, I don't think so," replied Kit.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Year 3: Part 1: Post 3: New Lessons

So, as I said, something is bothering Rick. It's hard to describe how I knew this--I'd say he seems withdrawn, except that Rick is never exactly forthcoming anyway. Perhaps it's that his withdrawal has a different quality, recently.

This must be an interesting time for Rick. As I've said, he had to spend a year and a day living outdoors, eating only food he had procured himself, using only equipment that could be, in principle, derived from the land pretty directly--no Goretex or polypropylene, for example. He wanted to learn the skills necessary to live off the land, alone, so Charlie supervised him doing so. Now, he's back inside--his life is much safer, much more comfortable now. Sleeping outside in the rain and snow in only leather and wool is no joke.

But how is he with the transition? So, I decided to ask.

"I donno," he replied listlessly. We were sitting in the Great Hall, in front of the fire. Rick sprawled in an old, comfortable chair, staring at the flames, sullen and uncommunicative. And yet Rick has never minded me asking him questions. He seems to get something out of it.

"Well, are you going to keep sleeping outside?" I asked. He's allowed to do so, although Charlie's told him to mostly return to eating dining room food--we don't have enough land to support students hunting and gathering, except under special circumstances.

"I've done it a few times," he said, meaning he's slept outside since Brigid. "But it doesn't feel like there's any point."

"Isn't your enjoyment its own point?" I asked.

"Enjoyment doesn't enter into it," he told me, "when it's fourteen degrees. I enjoy being out there sometimes, but not others. It's hard to predict. I enjoy living out there, but part of that life is coping with things nobody would ever choose to do for fun. It's difficult and scary and dangerous. I don't have to stay outside then anymore. I can come in when the weather is bad. But when do I go out again? How do I decide? That's what I mean by there not being any point."

"So, what are you going to do now?" I asked.This is Rick's last year here, and he's already met most of his requirements to graduate, but he does have a few more classes. That's not what I meant.

"I don't know," he told me. "That's just it. I wanted to know how to go and live on my own. Outside. That was the whole point, the whole goal. I know how to do that now. I've done it. But what, do I go and be a hermit, now? What's the point? I mean, if I was a hermit, what would I do with my hermit-life? I never thought about this--once I was able to live this sort of life, what would I do with it?"

I thought about what he had told me, and I had nothing in particular to say. I mean, I know there are people who more or less organize their whole lives--there careers, everything--around being outside as much as possible. They never seem to get out as much as they want to, so they keep working at it, trying to earn more money and vacation time, or trying to get jobs that keep them outside, and so on. But Rick has what he was looking for. He could, if he doesn't mind trespassing somewhere (and he doesn't), just go live in the woods and stay there. What do you do when you get what you want?

"Why don't you talk to Charlie about it?" I suggested.

"Yeah, I need to talk to him anyway," Rick replied, in a tone that suggested he was putting it off.

As I had been putting it off. I had thought I was looking forward to seeing Charlie again. Certainly I like his company, and we had hardly spoken since Samhain. On the other hand, there is something slightly off-putting about him. That he might assign some new and insane project is, of course, part of it.That he seldom speaks in a merely casual way is also in there--it's hard to relax in his presence because everything he says is, or could be, important... I can't describe all of it.

But I did go see him the other day. I found him sitting in front of the fire, repairing a snow-shoe, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.

We greeted each other and he asked me a few questions about what I've been doing--whether I'm still tracking, and so forth. And then he just said "keep up the good work."

He gave me no new assignment at all.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Year 3: Part 1: Post 2: Students, New and Old

It's happened again.

How, in my year, there were a bizarre number of people named either Raven or Joe? This year, the incoming crop of new students includes no less than four people named some variation of Tom: Tom, Thom, Tommy, and Tommi, that last one being a woman. And there are two women named Patricia, though fortunately one goes by Patti and the other by Trish.

Eight of the new people are in my dorm. They are welcome. It's odd, though. Except for those eight, I find myself less interested in getting to know the new people. Last year I was all excited to meet the newbies, mostly because I wasn't new anymore myself and wanted to sort of glory in not being completely confused. I don't mean I wanted to lord it over them (not much, anyway), I mean I wanted to be useful, but for the most part they ended up not needing me. I ended up not getting to know a lot of them. This year I'm kind of expecting that. I know I won't have classes with most of them. I see them walk by in groups and just think "oh, new people."

I'm hoping that will change. I like getting to know people.

As I said, Arther is back. He and I were never close, but it's good to see him. Normally, graduates have to stay gone for at least three years before coming back and trying for their green ring, but Arther was given special dispensation because of his age.

He says it's because the masters don't want him to die of old age before he gets back (which is unlikely--he's seventy years old, and in good health, and that's not really that old anymore, except as compared to most college students). But I understand the real reason has more to do with his experience than with his health; the whole point of Absence is to keep the community from becoming too insular. People who wear the green ring are eligible to be hired as masters, and they don't want to risk the school being run by people who joined the community at 19 or 20 and just never left. That's not a problem for Arther.

But his age is very much on his mind.

I asked him what he plans to study this time--mastery candidates work with a single master around a single topic. Excellence in that one topic becomes a "way in" to a deeper kind of mastery, as far as I've been able to gather. So I asked Arther what his topic will be.

"Old age," he told me, without hesitation. "My wife's dead, my coven is broken up, I'm retired...I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. I've reinvented myself before, I could do it again, but do I really want to start over as if I were 24 again? Go looking for a job, a career, or a girlfriend? You don't know this yet, but life depends on context. And mine's shifted. I need to learn how to be an old man."

I must have seemed rather blank, because he reverted to teacher-mode.

"Life comes in stages, Daniel. Maiden, Mother, and Crone for women, Summer King and Winter King for men. I don't feel like an old guy. I look in the mirror and I think 'what the hell happened to you?' I feel like I'm forty--old enough to know better but young enough to pretend I don't, eh? But I don't look forty. I don't act forty. My body's in pretty good shape, but that's going to change. Pretending that's not going to alter my life is stupid. I've been a priest almost my whole adult life, but how do I be a priest who is old? Who is ill? How is that going to change what I have to offer? What does being a Winter King priest entail? So I'm here to learn."

Arther is positive and upbeat about the eventuality of his physical decline. Rick is the opposite. Everything is going obviously well for him, and yet he seems melancholy.

But with all this coming and going, new people and old feeling and thinking however they do, there is a new scent in the dorms--Kit's flowers, the ones she planted in pots the day Ebony and I saw  the snow falling. Each dorm has a pot of them, and they're blooming, little yellow flowers blooming in February.

They're pretty.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Year 3: Part 1: Post 1: Brigid

 I'm back.
 I'm back on campus, after a month at home. It was so strange to be away, out in the ordinary world that used to be my home and now feels both alien and familiar at once.

I spent the time living with my parents, of course, in my old bedroom from when I was a kid. I did my homework--mostly reading, though I had daily meditation and healing exercises from Joy and I had to stay in shape physically--saw some of my friends, and spent time with my family.

Out in the "real" world (a lot of us call it that, or simply "the world," as in "I was out in the world today," meaning off campus) people make certain assumptions and follow certain conventions that I'm not used to anymore. They even use language differently. There's a whole long list of words that are insults on the outside and neutral or complimentary on campus:


I haven't accidentally used any of these in the wrong context, but I've heard them used as insults (usually jokingly) over the past month from friends and family and it's jarring. I never know how, or even whether to respond. It takes me a couple of seconds each time to realize the words don't mean what I'm used to them meaning, a small example of the kind of culture shock I experience whenever I go back home.

(Lest you think we are overly polite, we have our own insults, too--"patriarchist pig" looms large, as do "Christian dupe" and "cowan," which means "non-pagan." I've heard both of the latter used by people who either did not think or did not care how either would make me, as a Christian, feel)

Even talking about school is difficult because there is so little overlap between our culture and the rest of the world. Yearlings, senior students, masters, staff-masters, candidates, novices, none of these have any direct equivalent outside. My family can't understand half the things I tell them about what I'm doing or why. In a way, I find it easier to talk to my friends who don't know about the school, who think I'm only going to a liberal-arts college. I tell them my homework isn't for a class but was suggested to me by my academic adviser, and they think they know what I'm talking about and we can go on to the next thing.

Allen says that after a while the school's secrets start keeping themselves.

But all this being said, this January I've also gotten used to being home again. I started to move back into that larger culture, so now everything on campus feels strange. I'm told that it will get easier to move back and forth over time, but it hasn't happened yet.

The ceremony itself was interesting and powerful as always. I'd forgotten that the Chapel has a distinct smell--cold air, wool, and honey, from the beeswax candles. Smelling that again brought it all back. I sat next to Ebony and described what everything looked like. Her hands were cold so I kept them warm in mine. Ebony being Ebony, she wanted to sit on the end of our row so she could light a candle. Greg, whose candle she lit, made it easier by subtly moving his candle towards hers so the two could connect.

"Is it wrong that I'm hoping the yearlings saw that and think my eyeballs work?" she whispered to me.
"No," I whispered back. "They'll be wrong about you in so many ways anyway, why shouldn't you get to pick some of the mistakes they make?"

She squeezed my hand.

Watching the graduating students come up--Ollie was one of them. That was hard. I hadn't expected it to be that way--I'm so going to miss him.

And there was a pleasant surprise as well. There are four new mastery candidates this year--and one of them is Arther.
The man standing at the desk is Arther, back on his first day