"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.