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, April 30, 2015

Year 3: Part 3: Post 1: Beltane

Happy Beltane again!

I never paid any attention to May Day before I came here, though of course I’d heard of it. Now, I look forward to the holiday. It’s like I’ve gotten a whole new set of holidays that are really starting to feel like mine. I'm not sure whether I think of it as religious, per se, although I'm learning that the distinction between religion and life is subtle to non-existent here--an event can be just plain fun and yet have deep, though unspoken, spiritual significance.

What is the significance of Beltane? I could tell you what the Wiccans say about it (or, at least, what some Wiccans say about it, it's not like they're organized), and I can tell you about the history of the holiday in Europe--it's not like I've been fating around in class the last couple of years. But what Beltane means to me? I don't know. It's fun. The weather is beautiful now, all green, with white and yellow and red flowers, and the birds are singing but the mosquitoes aren't out yet. And I like the dancing and feasting in this weather.

Just like the past two years, we made a day of it, blessing the farm animals, dancing the Maypole, a mini-concert, and holding a couple of outdoor feasts. The big difference this year was we did the Maypole first, before lunch, then blessed the animals and fields, then had dinner, and then the concert last. I think they change it a little every year, but some things are always the same.

Like Sarah brings in her Catholic priest friend to do the blessing.

It’s always strange to see the priest come in. I don’t think of this as a Christian place and I know some of that impression is by design. A lot of the people here are willing to accept inspiration from any spiritual tradition except Christianity. They seem this place almost as a refuge away of Christian dominance. And, of course, I know there are Christians in the outside world who think of Church as a refuge from paganism. It’s as if the two define themselves in contradiction to each other. And yet, once a year, here is this priest.

He doesn’t seem hostile to the rest of us—he seems to regard paganism as an innocent mistake by people who mean well. Kit says his attitude is patronizing, but I think that within his frame of reference he is very accepting—more so than she is.

As you may remember, the Maypole is symbolically sexual. Not only is the pole a phallic symbol (and the ribbons wrapped around it become a yonic symbol), but Kit thinks that at one time the dance was a way to randomly choose sexual partners for a fertility rite--they had to e random because it wasn't about personal desire, it was about honoring the Goddess in every woman and the God in every man. The way we do it, we're not expected to have sex with our dance partners (though I think some do), but instead we work together for the day, to help make the feast happen and so forth, and at dinner we publicly thank and appreciate each other.

Last year I ended up matched with Veery, who is gorgeous, and I had a good time daydreaming about fertility rights. But of course, there is no rule that says you have to be a woman to dance as one--we're actually encouraged to take either role in the dance. So, this year, just like my first year, I ended up partnered with a dude.

The funny thing was that the dude in question was Eddie, who has gone really far out of his way to dance through his life as a man. So why was he dancing as a woman for the day? I asked him. He said it was to keep people guessing.

I guess he figures he doesn't have anything to prove anymore. Maybe I think I do have something to prove, because just like before I felt really awkward being symbolically partnered with a guy. I had no problem at all hanging out with him for the day and then praising him publicly, though--I really like Eddie. I think he's a great guy. And I said so.

Eddie ended up with a role in the concert--planned, of course, it's just that I didn't know the plan. The concert has expanded each year I've been here. My first year, Kit and Sarah aung a single duet. Last year, they each sang several songs and then Kit and her husband sang a duet. This year, there was a full band and four separate acts--none of them very long, but still, it's getting pretty elaborate.

And Eddie was the opening act.

He sings really well and has great stage presence. He can't play an instrument, but he had the band to back him up, and even had two back-up singers. He started with "Good Lovin'," by The Rascals, then did "Joy to the World," by Three Dog Night, and finally "My Girl," by The Temptations. And he was really good--joyful, playful, and sexy. I have to admit, if I liked guys, I could imagine liking a guy like that. Anyway, I was psyched for my friend and kinda proud that he was my partner for the day.

"My Girl" was, of course, a not-so-veiled reference to Kit. His hopeless crush on her is even more serious than mine and he introduced her with a courtly bow just as he finished the song. She grinned her acknowledgement of him and then launched into "Why Do Fools Fall in Love,"  by Frankie Lyman and The Teenagers (yes, I've looked these songs up--I don't have these attributions memorized!) and then three more songs about love and sex. She rocked, of course. She always does.

Then Sarah did two songs--"The Surry with the Fringe on Top," from Oklahoma, and "Mother Earth and Father Time," from Charlotte's Web. That second one--look at the lyrics:

"How very special are we
For just a moment to be
Part of life's eternal rhyme?
How very special are we
To have on our family tree
Mother Earth and Father Time?
He turns the seasons around
And so she changes her gown
But they always look in their prime.
They go on dancing their dance
Of ever-lasting romance
Mother Earth and Father Time."

How is it that Sarah chose a song that was more clearly seasonal--and more directly pagan--than anything Eddie or Kit sang?

Finally, Allen, alone with his guitar, did "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" by Carol King. I've heard him sing that song before and he doesn't just sound like a man singing a song about a woman's point of view--a girl worried she's going to get dumped after putting out, worried that she's being used. He sings it as a man--a man with the same worries. He brings out the universality of the song.

I wondered if Allen's song was meant to address the shadow side of Kit and Eddie's light-hearted lustfulness? I think all of us need more, and can be hurt more deeply, than we might think on a sunny spring day.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Year 3: Second Interlude

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2015 here.

I have a couple of loose ends to clean up and explain.

First, yes, Charlie did spend much of my third year more or less ignoring me. He wasn't socially snubbing me, but the vast majority of our interaction had always been academic, and when he decided not to give me any new assignments (I was still working on older assignments, like trail work), there wasn't very much left. I didn't understand what had changed--he said "keep up the good work," but at the time I thought that was some kind of throw-away line, polite code for "stop bothering me."

Of course, when Charlie wanted someone to stop bothering him, he seldom resorted to code.

What I didn't realize was that I was in fact doing good and important work. That spring and summer I spent what little free time I had looking up plants in my guidebooks, drawing detailed pictures of the flowers whose identities I could not find, and sitting staring into the grass for minutes at a time to find out what exactly an ant or a spider was up to. In short, I was doing exactly the sorts of things Charlie would have told me to do, so I didn't need Charlie to tell me to do it, if that makes sense.

I wasn't doing any of it diligently or well, which was part of why I assumed it couldn't be important. I wasn't trying to make it important. What I didn't realize at the time is that any reasonably motivated person can be diligent on any given subject, but farting around for no clear reason in that subject is only ever an act of love. The important work I was doing that spring and summer was to prove, without at all meaning to do it, that some of what Charlie had been trying to teach me had stuck.

Second,  I want to talk about how and why Ebony and I broke up. Or, rather, I don't want to talk about it, but I'm going to do it anyway because she asked me to.She says there are too many stories about blind people being noble and inspiring and it is de-humanizing--because humans are not always noble or inspiring. I don't normally tell stories that show my friends--or anyone else--in a negative light, but Ebony is my friend (again), so I am honoring her request.

It happened a few weeks after Beltane, right after I'd returned from the Island. It was the first really warm evening of the year, and we were walking around campus after dinner, just talking. The sun went down as we walked and night fell and we just kept walking around and around the loop of road in the middle of campus. We'd just passed the Mansion again when she announced she could feel a cold sore coming on--apparently they itch, and if you put on medicated ointment right when the itch starts you can prevent the eruption. Anyway, she stopped walking and asked me to get her makeup kit, where she keeps the ointment, out of her handbag.

Ebony had gotten into the habit of asking me to do things for her that she could have done for herself, if she thought I could do it easier. It was part of what she meant by being a "bad blind person," that she wasn't constantly trying to prove she could do anything a sighted person could. Why should she? She thought of herself as sighted--and still does, of course. The funny thing was she didn't realize eyes aren't that much help for searching a handbag, especially not outdoors at night. I didn't say anything, though. I didn't want to make her even more self-conscious than she normally was.

So I reached into her bag and almost immediately my fingers found the smooth vinyl of her makeup kit, but also something hard and cold and narrow--a metal bracelet. Rather then letting both objects go and having to re-locate the kit, I pulled both out of her bag, gave her the kit, and I was about to put the bracelet back when I noticed it was bumpy--the thing had Braille on it.

And something about that just seemed wrong to me. I had a bad feeling. I could read a little Braille by that point, but only visually--I don't have the tactile acuity to read it by touch. So I used the flashlight I kept on my belt to have a look.And  I could recognize enough of the letters to figure out what it said:

"blind pride"


"Which do you think is more transgressive," Ebony asked me, "for a blind woman to put on makeup well, or for her to put it on badly?"

"Why do you have another woman's bracelet in your bag?" I asked. And I swear I am not the suspicious type, but the way my question shocked her gave me my answer.

"Oh!" she said, in a tone of voice as if she'd been caught at something, "I didn't think that was still in there!"

I should explain that I already knew she was bisexual, and that she had spent a couple of nights off campus recently. A lot of people on campus were openly bi, and nobody cared, but spending a night elsewhere was unusual and people talked.

"Why?" I asked her, and she didn't answer. "Is it because I won't put out?"

The phrase sounded alien and stilted as I said it--it was nothing anyone at school would have said. Sex within the school culture simply wasn't like that, except that occasionally it probably was. I meant the phrase as a dig.

And indeed I had not "put out." She had not asked directly and we had not discussed the matter, but whenever things seemed to be heading in that direction I'd always found an excuse to distance myself. I was afraid, not of sex itself exactly, but I'd never done it before and I was afraid I'd be really bad at it. Ebony was a lot older than me, obviously experienced, and I didn't want to disappoint her. Anyway. I knew she was starting to notice my reluctance and that it was starting to cause tension between us.

"No, that's not it," she stammered. "It's that...I mean....oh, Daniel, you're just too careful about everything. You're too nice."

What was I supposed to do with that? Some of my friends, mostly from off campus, when I told them they seemed to think the worst thing was that she'd cheated on me with a woman. I wasn't surprised by their reaction, I might have thought the same at one time, but I honestly couldn't see the logic behind it. Was the idea that if my girlfriend liked girls that I must somehow be a girl also? And that would be an insult why? No, what bothered me was that she said I was too nice. I mean, was I supposed to be mean? How can a good thing about me be the thing that gets me betrayed?

I had to get out of there, so I gave her back her bag and made sure she hadn't gotten disoriented in our walking around.

"You're too damn nice!" she half yelled at me and I fled.

In retrospect, I think our relationship was doomed to be short-term, but at the time I didn't know that. I was thinking of her in fairly serious terms--we had talked about spending the spring holiday together--it would have been Passover at her mother's house, or Easter with my parents. The logistics didn't work out, but we were about to introduce each other to our parents.

We were that close to becoming a serious couple.

I stopped talking to her for some months. I was humiliated and angry and I had no idea how to deal with either feeling. I'm not good at being angry with people I care about, especially not women. I'm too afraid of hurting them. She continued her relationship with the woman but I don't think the two ever became close except in a physical sense and it ended badly some months later. That is a story I know but will not tell. It is not mine. Eventually, we rebuilt our friendship--we were talking again before she graduated that year.

I don't talk about my love-life in the regular narrative, so what you're going to see is that sometime in May, Ebony will largely disappear from the story. She will reappear in the Fall.

Now you know why.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Year 3: Part 2: Post 11: Dreams

"Do you dream you can see?" I asked Ebony at breakfast. "I mean, literally, dream in pictures?"

"Sort of," she said. "I dream in things that are like pictures. But I don't know how a lot of things really look, so I'm not sure."

"You're learning to see, though. Does that help?"

"Somewhat. I can dream of colors now--I don't know what most of the colors are called, but I can see them in my mind."

"So, when you learn a little more, you'll be able to dream visually more accurately." I mean that as encouragement.

"Yes..." she seemed unsure. "But I don't know that my visual dreams aren't accurate now. I think about that a lot. Like, maybe I can actually see when I dream? Maybe I'm really seeing something?"

"What could you be seeing, though?" I asked. "You can't really be seeing if there's nothing real to see."

"Dreams aren't real?" asked Kit, who was sitting across the table from us.

"They're real dreams," I said, though I was a bit nervous about it. I don't usually challenge other people's logic, but I could imagine Ollie saying these things and he's not here anymore. "I mean that dreams don't involve sensory perception. They're creations of the mind, not perceptions. So you can't see or not see them."

"Are they? Not perceptions?" Kit challenged me. "There are dreams that seem to communicate something. Do you think that is an illusion?"

"You mean, like prophetic dreams? I don't know. But wouldn't that just be another version of creating dream imagery based on your own thoughts and feelings? I mean, like, if you're psychic, maybe you dream about the things you've perceived psychically? How could dreams be perceptions when they happen entirely inside your head?"

"I thought the same thing, once," Kit said. "What you're saying makes sense. Except that I've had dreams of being different kinds of animal, like birds, or foxes. These are very physical dreams--like I had the experience of having a long, bushy tail and mobile ears. How on Earth could my brain generate those experiences from entirely inside itself?"

"You're probably remembering a past-life experience," suggested Joy, who was also at the table. I still find it startling when she says things like that. She takes ideas like reincarnation for granted in a way none of the others do--it's not just that she believes in it, it's that she acts like everybody else does, too.

"Maybe," acknowledged Kit. "It doesn't feel like a memory, though. It feels like a doing."

"But how can you know if the feeling in the dream was what it's actually like to have a tail? Or mobile ears?" I asked.

"I don't."

"It's like I don't know about seeing," said Ebony. "Except you can't find out. I'm hoping I can. What do you mean by a doing?"

"I mean it doesn't feel like a memory or a symbol or anything made up. It feels like I'm actually doing something that is real on some level. Like I interact with beings that really exist, I didn't make them up, and I go to places that really exist. At least they really exist on some plain."

"If my dreams are doings, too," asked Ebony, "and I really can see in them, then what am I seeing? Where am I?"

"I don't know."

Joy suggested it may be an OBE, meaning an out of body experience. She said a lot of people have them without realizing it as they are falling asleep.

"Would that mean I was looking at something out in the physical world?" asked Ebony. "It's not like I ever remember getting up out of bed or something."

"I don't think it's that simple," said Kit. "I think there is a reality inside the dreams, a place people go when they sleep. But I don't know what that place is."

Joy was about to respond, when J.C., the Dining Hall Head of the day, called for quiet. Breakfast was over.

"Are there any announcements?" J.C. asked.

Various people raised their hands and he called on them:

"I'm driving to the city today. If anybody wants to ride in with me, see me after."

"The meeting in the Rose Room at 11 has been moved to 11:30."

"Quill's birthday is a week from tomorrow. If you want to help plan his surprise party, get with me after." Quill has been off campus for a few days and wasn't at breakfast.

"I can't find my watch. I think it slipped off somewhere in Central Field, so can everyone please keep a lookout for me?"

"Any more?" asked J.C. There were none. "Alright. A moment of silence please?.........Blessed Be."

And another day at school started.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Year 3: Part 2: Post 10: Frustrations

As a follow-up from my last entry--

I should clarify that Ebony does have a treatment of sorts for her eye problem--as I've described before, part of her problem is that she cannot control her eye movements and cannabis helps with that--she can see a little bit when she's stoned. But for all the obvious reasons, she can't use that treatment all the time and she can't use it on campus. She does use it in order to learn to see--the more experience she gets with being able to see, the more her brain can make sense of the light she gets and the better she can understand descriptions of what things look like.

She doesn't do these practice sessions alone. She goes out to lunch with Allen every week or so, and sometimes she comes back raving about her discovery of the color blue ("there's LOTS of them!"), or some other new fact about vision ("eyes follow moving objects automatically! It's like being grabbed by the eyeballs!"). Of course, Allen officially doesn't know that she uses an illegal substance, and the rest of us officially don't know that he does know (does that make sense?) and speculation is rife on campus as to whether or not he partakes of the substance as well--he doesn't need to, obviously, but we wonder anyway.

We also don't know where she gets her medicine or where she stores it, since she respects the rule about not bringing illegal substances on campus.

But all of this is not a cure for blindness. The drug effects fade and she can't see. It's weird, you look around, in the media and so forth, and you see two overriding messages about blindness--one is that blind people are to be pitied (and admired for just being able to get out of bed in the morning), and the other is that blindness doesn't matter at all, that it's just a sort of alternative lifestyle. The second of those actually has blind proponents, but Ebony isn't one of them, and both those narratives make her twitch. I never really thought about any of this before. I was kind of in a bubble about a lot of things. But anyway, actually knowing this woman, pity is not really what comes to mind--it's more like frustration.

It's frustrating as hell I can't show her things.

Anyway, while Ebony is spending lots of time with her teacher, I'm hardly talking to mine. I see Charlie in class, of course, and at Paleolithic Dinner and sometimes on the groundskeeping team (on a day-to-day basis the team is lead by a student--Lou, who has been on the crew longer than any of the rest of us), but I hardly ever see him one-on-one anymore. He seems to be busy with other students. I've asked him several times if he has any new assignments for me, but he just tells me to "keep up the good work."

It's not like I don't have anything else to do, but I kind of miss him.

He did ask me, a while back, if I'm available to be his assistant on the Island again this year, and of course I am.

"But I'm not invited to camp with you this year, am I?" I asked.

"No, you're not," he replied, with a touch of sadness, but of course there are other things he needs to do and solitude he needs to seek.

"Where am I going to stay, though?" I asked. "I can't camp with the yearlings, I can't camp with the masters, and I don't have the money to arrange my own site. And I don't have a car."

"You don't need a car. I suggest you talk to Allen. His family usually comes up during the school trip and you may be able to ride and then camp with them. Otherwise, talk to Sharon. You'll be working for the school for the week, so we'll cover your expenses."


So I'm doing my jobs, on campus and off, doing my school work, and starting to prepare for the Island trip. And I'm working with Joy on Reiki and on magic. Life goes on.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Year 3: Part 2: Post 9: Visions

Eddie and Ebony have just discovered each other.

Both of them are interested in identity issues and both of them identify as trans-something—Eddie  is transgendered and Ebony, as I’ve explained, is transabled, meaning that she thinks of herself as sighted even though her eyes don’t really work. I knew they had those things in common, but they did not know about each other. Eddie is very private about his status, so I couldn’t share it with Ebony, and it didn’t occur to me that Eddie didn’t know about her.

Now they’ve discovered each other and I found them having lunch together today, talking excitedly. I joined them and, a moment later, so did Kit.

When I sat down, Eddie was busy explaining why he chose his name—he wasn’t named that by his parents, of course, since they thought he was a girl at the time. It turns out that “Eddie” isn’t short for Edward or Edmund or anything like that. His first name actually is just “Ed.” He explained that it’s a prefix that means “happy,” Edward means happy protector, for example, and he’s happy now, so that’s what he named himself.

I hadn’t known any of that, so I was glad to hear it, but if Eddie said what his name used to be it was before I sat down—and apparently, when it comes to trans people, you don’t ask. I’m honestly not sure why not, since there are a lot of people on campus who seemed to have named themselves (all the Ravens, Egg, Leaf…) and it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them about it. But I’m not trans, so I suppose there are things I don’t really get.

“I can’t picture you unhappy,” Kit told him, fondly. “You’re always smiling.” And he beamed at her.

“I hope I find some way to transition,” Ebony said. “My whole life feels like a sweater that doesn’t fit.” She meant that she wants a cure for her eyes. I took her hand and she jumped a little. I don’t think she realized I was going to do that.

“Why don’t you talk to Joy?” Eddie suggested. “She might be able to get you in a medical trial or something.” Joy is a vet, but she has friends and former students in human medicine and knows who to talk to about medical things.

“I’m already on a waiting list for three of them,” Ebony explained. And of course, a person who has a medical condition always knows more about it than a well-meaning non-expert who doesn’t, but it’s almost impossible not to try to figure it out anyway. I made the same mistake in the beginning. Ebony has heard the same three suggestions (talk to Joy, try some Reiki, use this special magical technique—people here may be unusual by worldly standards, but once you get to know us we’re kind of predictable) over and over and of course she has tried all of it, including the magic. And none of it has worked. Yet.

Kit began to sing.

There is a castle on a cloud
I like to go there in my sleep
Aren't any floors for me to sweep,
Not in my castle on a cloud.

There is a lady all in white,
Holds me and sings a lullaby,
She's nice to see and she's soft to touch,
She says, "Cosette, I love you very much."

(She sang the whole song, I'm just not quoting all of it)
Eddie and I both listened happily, because that's what we do whenever Kit sings. We're kind of comrades-in-love or something. The advantage of having a completely hopeless crush is there's no competitiveness to it at all. Anyway, we swooned but Ebony got angry.

"This isn't some fantasy for us," she said.

"I didn't say it was," Kit replied. "'There is a place where no one's lost.' If you think that song is only about some daydream, tell that to Cosette. For a little girl to create an astral space where someone loves her is no light thing. There are people who find themselves...with no place in the world to receive them. I am one such, you know. This isn't a very welcoming society for a witch. I spent years pretending to live in a real pagan community."

"That's not it, though," Ebony protested.

"You do live in a real pagan community," said Eddie.

"That's the most important magic we can make," Kit told him, "to make the vital fantasy become real."

I still held Ebony's hand.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Year 3: Part 2: Post 8: Food for Thought

The weather’s been lovely lately, warm rains every few days and clear, cool, sunny periods in between.  The grass on the side of the main road has greened up and some of the trees are starting to break bud, though the grass on campus is still brown—it’s mostly native warm-season grasses and they take longer to get going. 

It’s strange, with this warm weather and everything starting to green up, to go into the Dining Hall and find that we’re still eating from the greenhouses and from what we stored last year. Those and the mushrooms—they grow mushrooms in jars and boxes in the Dining Hall basement, maybe four or five different kinds. The mushrooms go year round, of course.

And the thing is, we’re running out of certain foods. I don’t mean we’re in any danger of starving, there’s enough food, and even if there weren’t, there’s room in the budget to buy more if we had to. But the food is starting to get a little boring. 

For example, we had a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables stored in the Dining Hall basement, mostly apples, squash, onions, things that keep. But we must have eaten  almost all of it already, because the only thing in that category I’ve seen in a few weeks is potatoes. The dried fruit is all gone because Sadie found worms of some kind in the last of it last week (grain moth larvae? Maggots?) and made dog food out of it. Yes, the school has three dogs for guarding and herding the sheep and chickens, I forget if I’ve mentioned that.

And, speaking of dogs, two strays from somewhere killed almost half our chickens back in January while the guard dogs all in with the sheep, so eggs are even more tightly rationed now than normal. That will persist until the replacement hens get old enough to lay. 

(In case you’re curious, we’re not raising replacement birds because of the dog attack. Every year, Sarah and her team raise three batches of chicks. When these reach adulthood, they keep however many hens they need to replace those who have died or stopped laying. Sometimes they keep a rooster, since each of the two flocks needs one. We eat the extra, along with any older birds Sarah has culled from the flock for whatever reason. So this spring we might not get to eat any chicken because, thanks to the dogs, there probably won’t be any extra. We don’t know where the dogs came from—Rick tracked them out to the main road and lost the trail on the blacktop).

So, we’re eating a lot of beans and greenhouse kale these days, and a lot of breads made from the flour bought from off campus. It all tastes good, but, like I said, it’s getting boring. And, like I said, it’s strange to be eating from dwindling stores when everything outside is warm and turning green.
I don’t remember noticing this sort of thing my first year, although it may well have been worse, since 1999 was a drought year and I understand we had some crop failure. Then again, maybe the food in spring was better, because I’ve heard we had to buy a lot of off campus food). Either way, I didn’t notice because I was too preoccupied by the strangeness of a local/seasonal diet to really think about the details. Last spring I was preoccupied by getting ready to go to the Island and by a few other things, so if I noticed we were running out of some things I didn’t bother to remember it.

I might not have noticed this year, except I was talking to one of the Ravens about how strange it was to keep eating like it’s winter after things have warmed up and she explained it. She works in the Dining Hall. The issue, of course, is that it takes time for the new season’s food to actually grow. In a few weeks I guess we’ll have asparagus and rhubarb and lettuce.

Meanwhile, classes continue. 

As I’d said before, I’m only taking two classes this semester, Literature of the Land, with Charlie, and Intro to Wiccan Ritual and Myth, with Kit. I’d been a little worried that having those two and only those two as my teachers this semester would be awkward, because they are allergic to each other, but it hasn’t been an issue. Actually, the two classes work together in a really interesting way.

Literature of the Land is a somewhat more organized version of the reading list I took on for Charlie my first full winter—some of the books are even the same, which shouldn’t be a surprise. The main difference is getting to talk about the readings with a group. That, and Charlie directs the discussions more. There are clearly particular points he wants to get across, particular ideas he wants us to have—which some of us seem to find confusing or intimidating, but since I’m entirely used to being confused by Charlie, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t worry about getting it wrong.

The underlying theme, in contrast to some of his other classes, is not so much what the land is (ecology and its various permutations) as how we humans react to it. Of course, part of the class is simply exploring language, which Charlie loves with a passion, but it’s also an inherently self-reflective subject, which at first seemed odd, because Charlie doesn’t exactly encourage self-anything, under most circumstances. I asked him about this one day after class and he said “how do you know you’re not getting in your own way if you don’t know where you are? Scientists begin by recording their methods. The really good ones keep track of their biases as well. We exist, we’re part of the system, our minds are part of the system, therefore, our minds are legitimate objects of study.” 

And, curiously, Kit’s class has the same underlying theme.

I’d kind of thought that her class would be something like a Wiccan equivalent of Sunday school, only without the assumption that all of us should share the same religion. I mean, Kit knows that we’re not all Wiccan, but she is, so I expected to hear about her beliefs. I haven’t. Not exactly.

I should explain that Kit uses the word “myth” a little differently than most people in the outside world do—and of course, most people on campus use the word the way she does, so this isn’t a definition she had to provide in class. But a “myth” is not a misconception. It’s not simply a metaphor, either. 

A myth is a metaphor for something that cannot be accurately and fully expressed in a literal way.
I’m starting to realize that one of the reasons why people around here seldom provide a single, definitive explanation for things is that most of what we’re supposed to be learning cannot be reduced to the literal very well. When I first got here, I appreciated Kit’s willingness to explain the symbolism of various school events and the objects around campus. Joy would explain sometimes, too, though her explanations were usually somewhat different, which I found confusing. The others often would not explain at all—Charlie would growl or change the subject, Greg and Allen would answer questions by asking more questions, and Karen would make short statements that seemed very deep but become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully.

Except occasionally I’d wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly realize how one of Karen’s enigmas made perfect sense after all.

They all still do that, of course, only now I’m starting to get that they’re not just being mysterious for the fun of it but to avoid letting us think we understood issues that we really hadn’t yet. They were leaving room for the mythic. Even Kit’s answers, as clear and detailed as they are, really only provide hints as to the sort of things a symbol might mean. 

So it didn’t confuse any of us that she used the word “myth” to refer to her own class. What did confuse me was how anthropological her approach is to her own religion.

She’s actually explained this point over and over, but I’m only just beginning to get it—the ultimate truth, in her view, is not what might at first seem to be the beliefs of Wicca—the Goddess and the God, the Guardians of the Quarters, the Rule of Three and the Rede (those are basic moral guidelines of Wicca) and so forth. According to Kit, all of those are just working metaphors for something deeper that cannot actually be described directly. They are the set of metaphors she uses, but she insists that any other set could be just as good, provided it works to help a person live well.

Anyway, so she’s using this class to explore Wiccan myth and ritual, what it consists of and how it works. And what it’s more is ultimately to make sense of, and to interconnect, an underlying reality of human psychology, ecology, and an ineffable spiritual dimension Kit ultimately cannot define—all of which are true in a way that transcends religion, the kind of reality that you can trip over if you don’t realize it is there. So, again, how humans relate to the land, as both mediated by and explored through the stories we tell—just like in Charlie’s class.

Kit has a line that she says whenever anyone asks about her beliefs or Wiccan beliefs. She says “belief is unimportant. We know or we do not know—and if we don’t know we can find out.”

And Charlie says exactly the same thing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Year 3: Part 2: Post 7: Life Preservers

“What is the point of sending us to all these meetings?” asked Lila at breakfast this morning. 

She meant 12-step meetings. She is a yearling, and yearlings have to go to a certain number of those meetings. The masters don’t explain why when they issue the request each year. If you ask, they will answer, as with virtually everything else around here, but you’ll probably get a different answer for each person you ask.

I don’t know Lila well. She isn’t in my dorm, so I haven’t had occasion to get to know her yet, and I’d sat next to her only by random chance.  I’d wanted to eat with Andy because I hadn’t talked with him in a while, and he was sitting next to Lila and a few other yearlings. She was mostly talking to the other students—Allen was sitting at the same table and he smiled a little when she didn’t address her question to him. I’m not sure she actually realized he was there. People don’t, always.

When she mentioned the meetings, Andy gave me a look. As you might remember, he’s a recovering drug addict and is in Narcotics Anonymous.

“What’s the point of these meetings? Do they think we need to go for us? Is it strictly educational, what?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Yes, what?” she asked. She seemed startled, not combative. She hadn’t expected me to butt in to the conversation.

“Yes, some of us need it, others just need to know about it.”

“Which are you?”

“The latter, so far. I could end up needing one, one of these days.” Which was true—I’d been thinking about how I actually qualify for membership in both Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, since they are for friends and family of alcoholics and drug addicts respectively. I’m thinking of Charlie and Andy here. I’ve never noticed any need for such a program, but I’m sure a lot of people who do have such a need start out thinking the same way.

“What, you’re going to start drinking or something?” she asked me. “I’m sure you’d know better, by now.”

“Knowing better doesn’t always help,” said Andy, quietly. I don’t think Lila knows his history, but something about his tone made her back down a little. She picked a little at her eggs.

“Do twelve step programs really work?” She asked.

“It works if you work it,” said Andy. That’s one of the phrases. A big part of 12-step culture, I’ve noticed, is repeating certain phrases over and over. I’m not sure why.

“That’s what they say,” she acknowledged, “but really? Alcoholics Anonymous is seventy years old. Is it really the best way anymore?” 

“Some things that work well are two thousand years old,” said Andy. He’s Christian. Lila isn’t, as far as I know, and she gave him a look.

“That’s another thing,” she said. “It’s so Judeo-Christian.”

Andy had no answer to that. I happen to know there are 12-step members who aren’t Jewish or Christian—Charlie springs to mind—but Andy never does well with hostility. Allen spoke up.

“It is true that there are other ways to treat addition,” he said, “and it’s true there is no way to truly test the effectiveness of AA and the other, related programs. As you said, it only works if you are willing to work it, and there is no way to objectively assess willingness, therefore no way to test how many of the truly willing actually see results. There are also philosophical problems with the disease model of addiction and, in my opinion, probably clinical problems as well. But I’m not sure 12-step is properly comparable to clinical treatments for clinically defined disorders. It’s a spiritual movement that happens to revolve around addition recovery.”

And he took a bite of eggs on toast. And he did not answer Lila’s question.

Later, as we were walking out of the Dining Hall, I told Andy that I couldn’t tell whether Allen really thinks much of 12-step or not. He had seemed about to take the whole cultural edifice apart, and I wondered how much of it had to do with his friendship with Charlie—and how much to his contrary nature, since he must have felt drawn to contradict Lila somehow.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Andy.


“It doesn’t matter whether he thinks much of it or not. Not to me. I seized NA ‘like the drowning seize life-preservers,’” that’s another 12-step phrase, “do you think I’m going to let go of it and hope I find something better?"