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, August 31, 2015

Year 3: Part 5: Post 5: Difficult Teachers

"So, which master are you working with?" Steve-with-the-bees asked Andy at breakfast.

"I'm not working with just one," replied Andy over his eggs. "I'm not a candidate, I'm a novice, like you."

But Steve knew that. He's been here almost seven months, he knows what a candidate is and who is one and who isn't--we wear different uniforms, for one thing. And he's right, most of us novices do focus our studies around just one master, even though we're not required to do it like candidates are. I think he's trying to work out the details of how he can really use this program, now that one of Greg's talks has lit a fire under him. He's not mopey anymore this week, he's motivated.

"But Dan and Rick work with Charlie, Eddie has Kit..." Steve started to explain.

"I'm not Dan, I'm Daniel," I said, maybe a bit irritated. Dan is somebody else. Steve apologized.

"I wish I had Kit," put in Eddie, grinning. He has a huge and long-standing crush on her. "I work with Joy."

"Whatever," said Steve. "No offense. My point is that lots of novices work with one particular master."

"If I have a singular teacher," said Andy, "it's my disease, my addiction. It shows me the way to God. If I don't follow, I'll use again."

"You make it sound as though drug addiction were a good thing," said Steve, sounding confused.

"It's not that simple," Andy replied. "But my addiction is my teacher and I am a grateful, recovering drug addict."

"Maybe it's like when Jesus said the man had gone blind so that he might be restored to sight?" That was Steve's guess. He is Christian, too, and he and Andy often have long conversations about religion. Ebony, who was sitting at our table, too, made a derisive noise. We all looked at her.

"I don't care what you say," she explained, "my blindness is not a gift from God." Ebony is pagan and calls herself a "Jewitch." She has little patience for either Christian-style piety or anything that smacks of romanticizing disability. From where I sat I could see that she'd left her cane, which is hot pink, rather than all white, leaning up against the hot bar. She'd probably forgotten it there when Eddie offered to walk her to the table--she does that a lot, her own quiet rebellion against reality, her ongoing spell to magick the world into matching her internal conviction of sight.

"Do you think I like being an addict?" Andy asked her with sudden fierceness. "Do you think I asked for this? I wasted half my life, I ruined my health, I alienated my parents, I saw my brother die. None of us ask for this. None of us feel gratitude for it naturally. Jesus said 'let this cup pass from me' because he was about to be tortured to death."

Ebony seemed to withdraw into herself. Her face seldom bothers with obvious expressions unless she shapes it deliberately, but I saw it darken somehow, the way the lake surface darkens before a storm.

"I don't identify as blind," she said, tightly. I watched as Steve took in this startling new concept and Eddie, protective, watched him to see how he took it. Andy, of course, already knew. It's one reason he consistently speaks of Ebony's blindness as a health problem, not as an identity.

"And I don't want to think of myself as an addict," he said, still fierce. "I hate being limited, I hate being sick. But if I don't live life on life's terms I will use again and that's why my addiction is my teacher. It gives me the willingness to get out of myself and do God's work. And your blindness gives you the willingness to learn how to work miracles."

And it's true. Ebony is determined to see--by mysticism, by magic, by medicine, she tracks every option down. She always says when she transitions to sightedness, not if. It is her entire focus as a scholar and a witch, to solve the puzzle of her own existence.

And yet I'm sure she hated to hear Andy's words. I'd never seen him be so confrontational before, it isn't like him, but this is his last year here and I think he's experimenting with the ways he can be a teacher himself--and this experiment took real bravery on his part, to say things that might cause another student not to like him anymore. At the same time, I don't think he did it well--because while what he said was true, it wasn't the entire truth, and the part he left out is the part Ebony still needs to hear.

She said nothing and the surface of her face showed nothing. I wanted very much to put my arms around her, but of course I did not.

"I don't understand," said Steve into the silence. "A disease is an enemy. I can see it being a learning experience, but how can it be a teacher?"

"Any reality that cannot be ignored is a teacher. To accept reality is the only lesson," said Andy, and I remembered that one of the masters he works with is Greg.

"A disease is a difficulty," said Eddie, "and difficulty is the teacher. The primary responsibility of a human teacher is to make your life difficult gently, so you don't give up."

"But Charlie hasn't made my life difficult," I protested, and Ebony rolled her eyes. Actually, I don't know why I said that. I mean, I spent half of last year complaining about all the crazy things Charlie was making me do. Maybe it's just been too long since he's given me an assignment and I'm starting to forget what it's really like. I guess I miss him, which is odd, as I see him all the time.

"He hasn't made your life difficult yet," amended Eddie, his eyes glittering.

After breakfast, Rick and I left the Dining Hall together, heading for the Mansion so we could change our clothes and go out tracking. As we came around the corner of the building, though, there was Charlie, sitting in a wicker chair, sharpening and oiling a pair of trimming shears.

Rick saw him and immediately walked over and presented himself in the oddly formal way both of us tend to use with Charlie. The man paused in his sharpening and looked up at Rick, expectantly.

"I am the Lorax," Rick declaimed, "I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues."

Charlie nodded at him and said something I couldn't hear. Rick nodded back and murmured something and left. Charlie nodded a greeting to me and returned to his work. A dismissal. I hurried to catch up to Rick.

"What was that about?" I asked.

"His vote," Rick explained. "He wouldn't give me his vote to graduate until I could tell him how I could use my studies here to interact with human beings."

I grunted or something, a noise like "huh," or "hmmm." I could see how such a requirement could be an issue, given that most of Rick's 'studies' here involved learning how to go off by himself into the woods and interact with nobody at all.

"So you have Charlie's vote to graduate now?"


And Rick told me about how he's decided to go to graduate school for forestry so that he can get involved in forest management and conservation. We changed our clothes, reconvened, and went back out. When we passed Charlie again, he called out to me. I stood before him.

"How are you with being alone?" he asked.

"Fine, I guess."

"You guess, or you know?"

"I guess. I mean, I'm not afraid to be alone."

"Daniel, I want you to spend two weeks by yourself in the woods, starting on the first. I'll supply you, this isn't about survival skills. I don't want you hunting. I'll designate an area for you to stay in. Afterwards, I want you to spend at least one night a week, on average, in that area, for a year. Ok?"


"This isn't about enduring loneliness. If being alone for an extended period bothers you, I'll arrange for you to have some company."

"I don't kn--does that mean I can't just have visitors whenever?"

"Correct. You're supposed to connect with the land, not have a party on top of it."


"You still have access to the gear you borrowed for the Island trip, right?"


"Good. That should be all you'll need. We'll discus details over the next few days."


"Ok? You don't have to do this."

"If I want to learn what you're trying to teach me, I do." That made him laugh.

"Daniel, you have grown eyes and you have grown ears. It is time for you to use them." He nodded another dismissal and returned to sharpening his shears. Somewhat numbly, I followed Rick into the woods to go tracking, as we had planned.

The long drought of assignments from Charlie has ended. He has decided to start making my life difficult again.

That was a few days ago. What occurs to me most obviously is that this is the thing he's been preparing me to do, that all the other assignments were a training, of sorts, for this. But what is this assignment for? I'm not going to ask--around here, a lot of lessons are the sort that contains some necessary element of surprise or discovery, and if you know how they're supposed to work they don't.

And this is why he asked me not to take any classes this semester--to leave my schedule free for two weeks. I've already called my boss at the landscaping company, and he knows Charlie so it was easy to get the time off, but two weeks of classes would have been difficult or impossible to make up.

And finally--it's silly, and I'm pretty sure Charlie has no idea he's set it up this way, but my birthday is next week. I'm going to be in the woods, by myself, on my birthday.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Year 3: Part 5: Post 4: Communion

Note; Nagasaki Day was actually on the 9th, so this post is rather displaced in time.

“You like talking to people, don’t you?” asked Raven G. “You might want to talk to Steve—he’s gone all starry-eyed.”

People say things like that to me, now—they know I’m interested in plants and bugs, so they show those to me, and in the same way they suggest people I should talk to. As if my interest in people were the same as my interest in bugs. Which it kind of is, honestly, but I can’t really explain how, so I don’t try. I don’t mention it. It’s not what it sounds like, like I’m sitting around, objectively analyzing everybody, and if that’s the way people think of me it’s a wonder anybody talks to me at all.

Unless something about the way I look at plants and bugs is how people actually want to be seen?

“Isn’t he always starry-eyed?” I asked, about Steve. I assumed she meant the man who thinks he’s actually a space-alien, but she shook her head.

“No, not him, I mean the yearling,” she explained. “You know, the one with the bees?”

“Oh, yeah, of course. He’s in my dorm.” This Steve does not so much have bees as he has an unfortunate story involving bees—he stepped on a ground-nest several months ago and got mobbed and so the two Steves are, behind their respective backs, Space-Alien Steve and The-Steve-with-the –Bees. I’ve hardly spoken to the latter since I led the hikes on the Island. I feel bad about that. I’ve been ignoring the yearlings. I haven't meant to, but I've done it anyway.

Raven continued.

“Well, he and I attended Greg’s Nagasaki Day talk and I think he had his mind blown or something. When I left he was still sitting in his chair, just staring off into space. That was a few days ago, obviously, but I keep forgetting to tell you. Anyway, I thought you might be interested.”

Nagasaki Day is, of course, the anniversary of the US dropping a nuclear weapon on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Greg often gives talks on historically significant days. The entire school was encouraged to attend his Hiroshima Day talk a few days earlier, but the two are usually somewhat redundant so the second talk was poorly attended. I didn’t go, but I’ve heard that he ended up getting into it with a student who attempted to defend the internment program and the whole thing became a long, detailed group discussion of the Japanese-American experience—which, not incidentally, is Greg’s experience. His mother, though not his father, was born in Japan, as I’ve mentioned before.

In any case, I had no idea why any of the above would have set Steve off. I caught up with him the next day at lunch. Eddie and I had agreed to eat together and when we saw Steve sitting at a table by himself we joined him. He greeted us morosely and then went back to playing with his napkin.

“You don’t look like you have starlight in your eyes,” I told him. He looked up at me and made a confused, surprised noise, so I explained.

“Oh, I saw the light, I just didn’t like what it showed me,” he said. “Listening to Greg the other day, at the talk? It just got me thinking.”

“I heard it got pretty intense,” I said. “Was any of that information new to you?”

“No, not really. But it was the way he said it. And who he is, like he’s seen all this himself, or knows people who have. It’s his life. It just really became obvious to me that the world looks different ways to different people. I mean, I try to be a good person, but there’s things I can’t see because I’ve been trained not to see them. I mean, I’m an upper-middle-class, straight, cisgendered white guy. And that’s where I see the world from. I’ve always assumed the world I saw was just…the world. But now this—it’s making me recast all these little things I’ve heard, you know? Things you’ve said, Eddie. Things my women friends say they worry about. And…I don’t even have any black friends. Why is that? I dunno. I’m just…thinking.”

Raven was right, this was interesting, but I wasn’t thinking about that just then. I was trying to think up something helpful to say to this guy I barely know and I wasn’t coming up with anything. He seemed to be in so much pain.

Just then, Greg entered the dining room, served himself a bowl of soup and a couple of cookies, and started looking for a table.

“Hey, Greg!” Eddie yelled across the room, “come ‘ere! Ya done broke Steve!”

Steve rolled his eyes. Greg turned towards us with interest.

“Oh, good!” he exclaimed mildly, as he approached. “Such interesting things come out of the cracks, when humans break.”  He sat down with us.

Steve explained his difficulty all over again and Greg nodded.

“Students’ reactions to that kind of material is often very telling. I teach a class in the spring, American Minority Perspectives? You might like it. Some majority-identified students become defensive, others react purely intellectually. Others allow the material to touch and change them.” When Greg said that I think I blushed or something. My face got hot. I guess I’m the intellectual-only type. I’ve never left one of Greg’s talks seriously bothered.

“Yeah,” put in Eddie, “mostly it inspires us white guys to try to earn a cookie for good behavior.”

Steve looked at Eddie like he’d been slapped, but Eddie was looking at Greg and didn’t see. Greg smiled, tersely.

“No, some really allow the material to touch them,” he said. “Some really get it.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Steve, cynically. “And what do they get?”

And Greg handed him a cookie. 

Under the circumstances, I think that cookie was a silly but very real expression of genuine approval, the kind of approval that only those who aren’t seeking approval can get. I don’t know if Eddie had meant to accuse Steve of being facile—it seems unlike him, for one. Perhaps he only fell into the clumsiness that happens when a person tries to say one thing by actually saying another.

Eddie, remember, is transgender, and he’s openly critical of well-meaning liberals who are more focused on feeling like good people than in actually engaging with LGBT issues. What Eddie is not open about, however, is that fact that he’s transgendered. Steve and I know, because we’re all in the same dorm and we’ve showered with him. He looks a little different than we do. But he doesn’t want to tell the rest of campus or the faculty. In front of Greg, Eddie couched his comment in racial terms so he could avoid saying anything personal about himself. Instead, he’d said something personal about Steve.

Steve looked at his cookie and smiled or grimaced and then looked up at Eddie.

This doesn’t matter,” he said, speaking quietly but with great intensity. “Approval doesn’t matter, recognition doesn’t matter, I don’t matter. What matters is that people stop killing each other over stupidity, hate, and fear. When that happens, we can all have a cookie.” His eyes flashed in anger and then he deflated a little and added, in a softer voice, “but damned if I know what I can do about it.”

He sat and contemplated his hands for a while, morosely. Then, thoughtlessly, he began eating the cookie. When he realized what he was doing, he laughed, a short, harsh laugh at himself. But then we all laughed at him and he broke up the cookie and shared it with us. And he laughed with us, and that time the laughter was for real.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Year 3: Part 5: Post 3: Visit

Olli came to visit campus today. It's only the second time he's come. I was glad to see him.
I didn't know he was coming, though he had emailed me a few days earlier and said he had some vacation time to use and might visit soon. I'd just gotten back from my off-campus job when I came in the dining Hall and spotted him across the room, eating with Willa. I rushed over and sat down and we had a mini-reunion.

"Too bad we can't go for a run," I said, as they finished and picked up their trays--running was the traditional thing we used to do together, but the weather was hot today and running in the afternoon would have been dangerous.

"Let's go for a walk, then?" he suggested. I agreed at once, and we left the Dining Hall together. Willa had to go to class and didn’t go with us.

As we ambled over to one of the trailheads that lead into the woods behind campus he told me what he’s been up to in more detail (mostly working as an assistant manager in a coffee shop while applying to grad schools) and asked me a few questions about what’s happened on campus since he’s been gone.

“It’s strange,” he said, “it feels like I’ve just been gone temporarily, like I really still belong here. But the reality is the student body is going on without me. The yearlings don’t know who I am. Next year, half the novices won’t.” A novice, remember, is what we call undergrad students.

“It is temporary,” I told him. “You’ll do your Absence, come back and be a candidate.”

“Ah, but how many candidates do you know who are really part of undergraduate life?”

“None of them.”

“I’m still a part of the larger school community, but I’m not a novice anymore.”

His saying that made me sad, so I said nothing. We were just getting in under the trees then, so, maybe to change the subject he asked me about trail work, what’s going on in the woods and how I’m doing with the project. I told him, but I’m not sure how interested he really was in what I’ve been pruning and which drainage structures I’ve cleaned out lately. That’s the problem with someone who’s as polite as Ollie--you can’t tell when they’re just being polite. They act interested in everything.

So I started telling him instead about the thing with all these women thinking I look good all of a sudden. It made him smirk—he’s still uncomfortable talking about anything sex-related. I said I thought it had to do with the “practical yoga” classes, how I’ve gotten better at moving. Ollie told me that my studies were bearing fruit, that I’m changing.

“How did you change while you were here?” I asked.

“You can’t tell?”

“I saw you almost every day for two years, it was too gradual, I can’t tell!”

“No, sorry, of course you can’t, I was just joking. I couldn’t tell, either, but then I went home and everything was different, except of course, really I was the one who was different, and that’s how I found out.”

“So, what did you find out?”

“I’m more solid, less reactionary. I worry less about what other people think of me, whether I follow the rules or not. I’m more compassionate, too, I think. I help other people because I want to, not because Jesus wants me to—although I still believe that He does. And I know you still think I’m a stick-in-the-mud, but I’m more playful than I used to be.”

Who says stick-in-the-mud? Anyway, yeah, he kind of is one, but I’m a dweeb, so that’s probably why we get along.

“You’re a good friend,” I told him.

“Exactly,” he answered. “And the point is I wasn’t always.”

“Ollie, I don’t know what I’m doing or why I’m here,” I confessed. “I mean, I know I’m changing, but I don’t know what I’m changing into or where I want to end up. I don’t know what is happening to me.”

“Welcome to the human race—the same is true of everybody, everywhere. Do you like what you are so far?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Do you like the masters? And the other graduates of this place whom you know?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Then don’t worry about it. Trust the process. Anyway, you can never really know what the results of a process will be, all you can go on is whether you like the process you are currently engaged in. If, moment by moment, you engage in processes that claim your whole heart, than you will probably turn out alright.”

I was impressed—what he said made a lightbulb go on in my head or something. I think I forgot to say so, though.

“Wow, you’re right, you wouldn’t have talked like that a couple of years ago, about things claiming your heart.

“I’ve learned to trust my heart more than I used to.”

So, we wandered all through the woods for hours, talking of this and that. I’d planned on attending a talk Ham was leading on Bach flower remedies, but of course that’s optional, so I really had no place else I had to be. I was surprised that Ollie spent the whole afternoon with just me, when he has other friends on campus to see and not a lot of time in which to see them, but of course almost everybody else must have been in classes or doing campus jobs or something like that. I think I’m the only one just not taking classes this semester.

Finally we turned back—it was almost dinner time and he wanted to go find some people and make dinner plans. So we parted company and I wandered off to see if there was anything to do in the greenhouse for Charlie.

Which is when I realized—I’d completely forgotten to eat lunch.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Year 3: Part 5: Post 2: Looking at Changes

Well, for the first time a semester has started and I have no classes at all, as per Charlie’s suggestion.

I plan on taking a number of talks and workshops and things, so I can get some credit this semester, but I think he made the suggestion because he’s going to make me very busy later in the semester and wants me to have time to get ahead on my work hours. So I’ve been working a lot, both on campus and off.

It’s funny, Charlie said he wanted trail work to be the thing I did to meet my athletics requirement (even though technically I don’t have an athletics requirement as I got it waived since I’m already a runner), so I’ve been doing trail work, but I’ve only just now started to realize what he meant. I mean, obviously hiking trail maintenance is physically demanding—it’s exercise, especially when I have to hike out to distant worksites and back in time to meet my various other commitments. But there’s something else, too.

The thing is, I was home visiting my parents this past weekend and my brother and sister-in-law came over with the baby—and my sister-in-law said something like “Wow, Daniel, have you always been that graceful? Why are you single?”

Yeah, that’s what I thought, too—huh?

First, I didn’t know women liked graceful guys. It’s not really a word I associate with masculinity. Second, I’ve always been kind of tall and awkward. Grace isn’t something I’ve ever associated with me.  But a lot of people have been saying things like that to me lately. Mostly women, which I’m not exactly complaining about. Someone at work asked me if I’m a dancer. Someone else told me I have excellent posture. A woman actually whistled at me on the street a week ago—which I kind of liked, although I don’t think I’m supposed to. Women don’t like being cat-called, I know.

I think I must actually have better posture than I used to. I move better. That’s what they’re noticing.
I was thinking about this, and it’s really been a long time since I’ve gotten injured, like tweaked a muscle or something, at work. And while I’m really not all that strong—I mean, I do alright, but it’s not like I’m built or anything—I’m better at moving heavy objects than most of the other guys at my landscaping job. I can move around balled and burlapped saplings, cases of equipment, that sort of thing, that it normally takes two or three guys my size to move. I wasn’t always like that. 

Something’s changed.

I’m pretty sure that what’s changed is the way I move, the way I handle my body. Again on Charlie’s advice, I’ve been attending Karen and Kit’s morning exercise classes for close to a year and a half now, as a way to support the physical part of my trail-work. Karen’s class is general fitness, flexibility, and body awareness, while Kit’s is what she called practical yoga—instead of the traditional asanas with their poetic names, she has us doing movements and poses that are useful for daily life. I think it’s mostly the same poses, but re-named and adapted a little. So it’s a body mechanics class, plus medication and breathing exercises. And when I work in the woods, I use the poses and movements from the classes whenever I can apply them, so that I won’t get injured when I’m alone out there. And I guess it’s spread to the rest of my life, too.

And I think this was what Charlie meant. The thing is, trail work isn’t like running or aerobics, which you can basically do wherever you go—it’s more like competitive football or something. To get a chance to play, you need to be good enough and lucky enough to get yourself on a team, and there isn’t necessarily going to be an opening in your area. So it’s not like trail work is necessarily something I’ll be able to take with me when I graduate.

But I will be able to take proper body mechanics with me. It’s like how Charlie used listening to birdsong to get me to become more aware of sound, he’s used trail work to get me more aware of my body, myself as a physical object.

And apparently, it’s made other people more aware of my body, too. Which, as I said, I’m not complaining about.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Year 3: Part 5: Lammas

Happy Lammas, slightly belatedly!

Again, we celebrated by having an outdoor feast and something like a talent show. Again, the festivities were inside one of those large event tents, though this time it did rain (quite hard, in fact), so the tent made more sense. Kit did not sing at all this time, though a few students did--most of the performance was given over to juggling, however. Allen performed, though he went neither first nor last--he is very good, but he does not consider himself a master juggler and so I suppose he did not want to steal the show from the others.

A new addition among the buffet tables was a taste-test for various herbs--seven different kinds of basil, three different kinds of thyme, four kinds of mint, that sort of thing. Each species competed only with itself, so you didn't have to choose between basil and mint, only among the different basils, for example. Each kind was represented by a fresh sprig in water, by one bowl each of goat cheese and walnut oil, each well-herbed. There was sumac tea as a cleanse  between tastes, and I think they'll grow the winners next year.

My first year here I noticed that at Lammas all the masters left the celebration early, around the same time, without saying where they were going. Last year they did it again, and I also noticed that several graduates came on to campus, but went to the Mansion without entering our tent or speaking to any of us. Presumably, they did something with the faculty. This year, I deliberately pokes my head out when I saw the faculty start to vanish, and again I noticed strangers walking towards the Mansion. Why? What do they do?

I couldn't probably find out. I could ask, and they might answer. I could snoop around and learn more than I know now, anyway. I could, for example, have follows some of the departing masters to see whether they really were going back to the Mansion, and if they stayed there or left campus together. But I'm not sure I want to know, if they do not want to tell us.

So much of the mystery of this place depends upon mysteries--strange things not fully explained, or not fully explained until the proper time. It's like a giant magic trick--it probably IS a giant magic trick. And it wouldn't work if premature snooping ruined the surprise.

I don't really want to become some passive person who simply accepts the unexplained without question--that seems politically stupid, for one, and anyway not very magical. At the same time, I don't want to ruin the fun. I suppose it depends on learning which type of mystery is which.

Speaking of mystery, Charlie told me not to sign up for any fall classes this year, though he did not tell me why. I followed his suggestion, of course--I don't need many more credits, and there are plenty of short events, workshops and talks and so forth, I can take instead. Most carry credits. He also implied I should get as many hours in at both the landscaping company and my on-campus job as possible, so maybe he's planning something time-consuming for later and wants me to spend the time now working, to get ahead?

Whatever it is, I'm excited about it.