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, December 25, 2015

Year 3: Seventh Interlude

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2015 here--for the last time. Next time I write to you I'll be Daniel-of-2016. Still the same person, of course. I'm posting this today rather than Monday more or less because I feel like it. I was going to write this up early and just sit on it until Monday, but it's my Christmas post, so I might as well post it on Christmas.

Anyway, as some of you may have noticed, I'm changing things up a little. Rather than putting the interlude before the sabbat, I've put it after--and the following section, all my posts until just before Brigid, will be non-narrative, essentially an extended interlude, just like I did for January last year. I was not on campus for these weeks, and so rather than writing about what it was like to live with my parents, I'm going to write a series of posts about the school to fill in details you might have wondered about but didn't fit into any story so far.

This has become an odd time of year for my family. Religiously, we're pretty fluid these days, and usually no one really cares--the people we actually share our religious lives with are people we can sit down and have a real conversation with, so we don't really need a one-word definition of who we are and what we're about. But at Christmastime we both have relatives who assume we celebrate it...and we both kind of want to, but more and more, it's Yule that feels like a holiday to us and Christmas doesn't. So sorting through all of that--and figuring out how to explain it to Carly--is difficult.

Yule is easier, unambiguous. Part of it, I'm sure, is the school community. Yule is still ours. Our ceremony has changed with changing circumstance, but we still gather.

At the Yule party this year, which was a little before the solstice for various reasons, Kit asked me if I was ready. I think I must have given her a rather desperate look, because she laughed and said "welcome to Pagan Standard Time!" That's a common phrase--it means that pagans generally are late and disorganized a lot.

"I'm all ready," I explained, "if you count decorations that droop and look funny, presents wrapped in newspaper and addressed with a Sharpie, and a tree decorated by a two-year-old. And I think we're having Chinese take-out for Yule dinner. Oh, Kit, how did you do it at school? Everything always came off so perfectly!"

"No, it didn't. We had all these grandiose plans that never worked out."

"Oh? Like what?"

"We were supposed to have a dedicated ritual space for students--a temple--but we never did. We never could decide where to put it or what design to use. So that's why my covens always circled in the Martial Arts studio. I wanted to choreograph all these sacred dances--the others agreed, but I never got around to it. We always talked about serving Boar's Head for Yule dinner, but that hardly ever happened. I wanted a mummer's troop, but couldn't get anyone interested...."

"I don't think that's on the same level as gifts addressed with a Sharpie."

"We had those kinds of problems, too, in the beginning. The last few years we did pretty well--but even then we made mistakes."

Allen's smile faded for a moment. It was a mistake of his that triggered--not caused--the chain of events that forced the closing of the school. That didn't have anything to do with a holiday, though. I squeezed his shoulder and he smiled again.

"You have to remember," he added, "that we were at work. Making the holidays happen was part of our job, not something we had to take time out to do."

All the holiday stories I tell seem to involve these two, Kit and Allen. There is a reason for that. Charlie became my teacher, my Yoda, if you will (my Dumbledore?), but those two become my friends. In fact, that year, the year it is in my narrative, 2002, was the first time I shared part of a holiday with either of them off campus in a non-incidental way.

Or, a semi-non-incidental way. I planned to go home, but I couldn't get a ride and my parents couldn't come get me. I couldn't borrow a car because I'd be staying off campus for weeks.It was Christmas Eve, and I was getting desperate, when Allen stepped out of the office right in front of me and solved my problem. I hadn't even known he was still on campus. He said he'd heard about my problem, and that Lo and the kids were picking him up in a few hours and that if I cared to go with them to the midnight service, they could drop me off at home on the way back.

So, it's not like it was a purely social invitation, but it was helpful and kind, and they did include me in part of their family holiday.

We went to the same UU church that I went to the one time I stayed on campus for Christmas--where I bumped into Allen and his family, but back then he was friendly only in the way that teachers are when they see students in public--with a distance. This time, they were all really glad to have me with them and we laughed and joked and had a good time. After all, I'd camped with them that spring and was friends with David. Lo had largely adopted me.

I grew up Methodist and the UU service was always this interesting mix between the familiar and the different. One of the familiar elements was the scattering of Christmas carols throughout the service. One of them was Joy to the World. When the pastor announced that one, Alexis whispered "Jeremiah was a bull-frog," and giggled. She's still too young to whisper quietly, so we all heard her and laughed, even Lo, who gave her a disapproving glance first and shushed the rest of us.

Later, on our way out, Allen suddenly started singing that other "Joy to the World" in the middle of the parking lot--loudly and, as normal for him, slightly out of tune. Lo busted up laughing, obviously startled and delighted, and we all joined in, singing. And all the way to my parents' house we sang, first Three Dog Night, then other songs, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Run, Run Rudolph," and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

And we had a fantastic time.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Year 3: Yule

Happy Yule.

I just realized I've forgotten to tell you about the Yule tree. I've written about it in years past, but this year, no mention. It was already up when I and the other "elves" decorated the Great Hall that night, trimming the tree is an informal campus activity. None of the masters helped--it's our tree--though soon after we finished both Kit and Joy arrived from nowhere (none of us could tell whether they'd been on campus or just arrived) and sat together in a little love-seat, wrapped in the same blanket and drinking mugs of something, looking at the tree. At one point they both sang "Oh, Christmas Tree," except Kit sang it in German, to the obvious surprise of Joy. Also, Joy can't sing on key, something I hadn't known before. When they were done, they giggled like school-girls and spilled some of their chocolate on the blanket. I fetched them a dish-towel from the Great Hall Kitchen.

Anyway, the tree itself is artificial but scented with fir-oil so it smells right, and it looks realistic. It's quite tall, because the Great Hall has a high ceiling, maybe twelve feet. All the decorations are in the same color range, all on the same theme, and the lights are white--the whole thing looks very elegant. In the interior of the tree are balls of various sizes, yellow and orange and red, they look like fruit and catch and reflect the light. Then there are ivory-colored ribbons rimmed with gold, like vines hanging from the branches--this year we added a long string of bright red cranberries and another of popped corn. On the outermost branches clung blown-glass birds, each one detailed and lifelike and different from the others, and all of no species I've ever seen this side of a dream. On the very top of the tree is a pose-able doll clinging to the top leader like she's climbing it, a fairy dressed in a short Greek tunic with a bow and a quiver full of arrows slung over her shoulder.

The masters all clearly like the tree, because they take the time to come look at it, but it's not their tree. They have their own--I remember seeing it my first year when I was on the janitor team--it's a little live red cedar, which is really a species of juniper, in a big pot. It usually lives in their outdoor courtyard, but they bring it in for a few days around Yule and decorate it. As I remember, the decorations are a motley lot. I expect that each master (except maybe Greg?) brought in a few treasured family ornaments and added them.

This year, just like the last two, we had a party on Yule night and a lot of the people who had gone home came back to join us. Kit and Greg attended the party, but the others didn't. I assume they had their own party up on the fourth floor. They must have been up there and they could not have been sleeping, because we on the first floor were making too much noise, singing and dancing and goofing around. Hours went by.

And, the whole time the weather was awful--a cold, driving rain and wind, with the temperature gradually dropping through the night. The weather worried me because I knew we'd have to go out in it, but the yearlings didn't know and I didn't tell them. They danced on, unconcerned.

Long about dawn, Lou broke it to them--we were going out. It took some cajoling to get everyone to agree to it without knowing why, and frankly I wasn't sure there was much point, given that dawn would be just about invisible, but I put on a brave face and helped shepherd everyone out the door into the frigid, wet dark. Sometimes, you just have to act on faith.

As I said, the temperature had been dropping, and by that point the air hovered just around freezing. The wind had died back a bit, but the rain had turned to an intermittent spitting sleet. The ground was sloppy with an inch or so of slush and a and we splashed along, breaking a thin crust of ice with every step, our toes freezing already, and none of us allowed to talk as per the rules of the ritual.

We climbed the mountain and sat down to wait for the dawn. Before long, Charlie--invisible in the dark behind us--began to play "Here Comes the Sun" on his tin whistle, repeating the song over and over. The others joined him, but given the weather, their instruments were different. I heard no guitar, no violin. Instead I heard a harmonica (Kit can play any instrument she picks up), two kazoos, and a rattle. The song went over and over and over as the sky grew gradually lighter, and the rising sun was visible for just a moment before it lifted into the dense cloud. At that moment of sunshine we all began to sing here comes the sun! although the sun was gone again before the song was over--but before the song was over, I am not kidding, the sleet switched over into snow.

It was a thick, warm snow and it built up quickly on the wet but frigid ground and all along the winter trees and on our shoulders and hair and eyelashes. Song finished, we shrieked and laughed and threw slush-balls at each other in the first morning of winter (though Kit calls it mid-winter), the first morning of the returning sun.

The masters had not brought up drinks and candy this time. They played in the snow like the rest of us (Charlie thanked us for bringing the nicer weather up) for a few minutes but then Joy and Charlie insisted we all get back to the Mansion before we froze. And in fact we were all shivering pretty seriously by that point. As we got inside, Joy, who, remember, in our Healing Master, ordered us to all take warm showers and put on dry clothes before breakfast and presents. So we did, racing upstairs like a herd of obedient children.

By the time we got back it was well after nine in the morning and the view out through the windows was a white wonderland. The temperature was still dropping, because the flakes were smaller, swirling down out of a pale grey sky in the winter's first true, heavy snowstorm. Inside, the wood stove was going strong and everything was gloriously warm. The Great Hall smelled of hot stove and oatmeal and peppermint and chocolate and evergreens, and each of us had a bag of goodies and little toys to open (organized by a student committee--everybody but the yearlings had kicked in a few dollars. It's possible to be a kid and a grown-up at the same time). The Sprouts were there, along with their relevant adults, so many people that the party sprawled out into the Bird Room and the Rose Room and the Library, because we couldn't all fit in the Great Hall.

We played with our toys and ate cookies and candy until, one by one, we all more or less crashed.

The last thing I noticed before I fell asleep myself was that Greg had not gone upstairs to bed as he had in years past. Instead he had fallen asleep on the floor, stretched out behind one of the couches, apparently mid-way through breakfast. And Greg's Cat was drinking his coffee.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Year 3: Part 7: Post 7: Deck the Halls

Happy Hanukkah, readers. I thought about doing a Hanukkah post, even though I do not remember the holiday at all from 2002, but when I looked up the dates for that year I found out why--it coincided with Thanksgiving, so I was off campus. I expect I knew at the time that Hanukkah was occurring, but my experience of it would have been limited to occasional glimpses of animated Menorahs on television as various stations issued holiday greetings. So, no Hanukkah post this year. It was never a big deal on campus anyway. --D.

It's happened! Overnight, while everyone slept, elves magically decorated the Great Hall for Yule.

Of course, I was one of the elves, and the "magic" in this case was simply the wonder of surprise for the yearlings. It's a tradition, and I was one of the elves last year, too, but I don't think I wrote about it then. We did work at night, with a guard posted on the stairs--the guard's job was to swear approaching yearlings to secrecy, not to fight them off, since once you came out on the stairwell, the glow from the lights downstairs would have been obvious. But the chance of anyone coming out was very low; people usually don't leave their dorms in the middle of the night, especially not in winter, when the Mansion is cold.

We, the groundskeeping team, went to bed as normal, but we all got up again, in secret, just after midnight. In years past I understand they've had to be careful to exclude yearling members of the team, but we're all third-years, except for Lou, who's a fourth-year, so it wasn't an issue. We crept downstairs, one or two at a time, and found Karen waiting for us. Among other things, she's a trained florist. Silently, she motioned us to follow her outside. The night was calm, crisp, and very dark--the moon had already set and there was a slight, high haze dulling the stars. The air smelled of snow.

We followed Karen through the night to the Greenhouse, where Charlie met us with a pile of greenery and a plate of holiday cookies and a couple of thermoses of hot cocoa.

"Getting a head start on the cookies?" Karen teased him.
"Making sure the mice don't eat 'em," he replied, with a hint of his old growl.

Under Karen's direction, we assembled several long garlands of cut spruce, fir, and pine twigs, plus several more of English ivy. In each we added a spray of winterberry holly every fifteen to twenty inches. We also made wreaths of various sizes and little sprays of greenery to go at the bases of candles and the corners of the various trays of candies, cookies, and fruit. And we ate all the cookies and drank all the chocolate.

Charlie didn't work with us, although he did last year. Instead, he played holiday music on his tin whistle, stopping between songs to eat cookies and take swigs of chocolate. It was a rare thing, he usually doesn't play for an audience, but last year we said we wished we had music and I imagine he preferred the home-made kind to anything recorded.

He wasn't picky about the music--much of it was overtly Christian, some clearly pagan, plus two Hanukkah songs, the same ones I learned in school as a kid when the teachers were trying to be equitable. I've always wondered--are there more than just those two? Do Jewish people actually sing these songs, or are they simply the product of political correctness? In any case, there is nothing politically correct about Charlie, he just played whatever songs came into his head. We didn't talk much as we worked, except when we had to, though sometimes Lou sang along. Also, for a while Dillon kept farting, he could not seem to help himself, and that made us all laugh.

When Charlie laughed while playing, his tin whistle went "toot! toot! toot!" and that made us laugh harder.

Then we carried all our work back across campus, each garland being carried by several people, all stretched out like giant snakes so they wouldn't tangle, and decorated the room--we had written instructions on where everything should go, so we didn't have to make a lot of noise. We brought the plates of food and the candles and everything up from the basement where Karen had stashed them. The place looked good.

Then we all went to bed, but it was almost six AM by then, so I doubt any of us actually got any sleep. Dillon fell asleep over breakfast.

But the yearlings were all suitably impressed. I remember Steve Bees looking around and exclaiming "hey, Santa's been here!" and giggling. Ebony asked me to tell her what everything looked like, even though I'd told her last year and it didn't look any different. She could have explored most of the decorations by hand, and I can imagine the textures being interesting, but Ebony, of course, has little interest in texture. She wants the visual. And so I sat with her over breakfast, explaining everything and drinking large amounts of coffee. It was so nice and so, well, normal, to be with her like that that I almost wept, but I didn't.

That night, after sunset but before dinner, I found Charlie sitting by himself on the couch by the wood stove, reading. I was surprised to see him--he usually stays out of sight in the winter. But then, no one was around to see him but me. I asked if I could join him and he nodded, fractionally. I sat down and stretched my feet toward the warm stove.

"You hardly growl at me anymore," I remarked, after a while. He responded by literally growling, as in imitating a dog, and glanced at me over his book. I laughed.

"I 'growl' when I need to," he added. "With you, there's no longer a need."

"I'm glad to hear it. Is that why you're visible now?"

He looked around, as though just then noticing he was in a student-accessible part of campus. I have no idea why he was really looking around, though. He put his book down and looked at me.

"I wanted to enjoy the decorations. I'm not going to be visible very often this winter," he told me.
"I know. I won't seek you out."
He nodded, agreeing.
"But in the spring we'll hang out," he added.
"Yeah?" I said, probably sounding over-eager. He's largely ignored me for a year.
"Yeah," he confirmed. And then went back to reading his book. I got up and wandered away, leaving him to his solitude and his reading.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Year 3: Part 7: Post 6: Walking in the Snow

Last night it snowed.

It was the first snowfall of the year, as far as I know. There could have been a flurry or two at night while I was inside. An odd thing about this weekly camping thing is that I'm starting to think I'm missing things when I'm inside, the way I used to think I was missing things if I were away from the TV for a while.

But anyway, this morning when I went out for a walk at dawn there was snow on the ground, just an inch and a half and already a little crusty. A cold front had swept in on the heals of a warm snow, and dawn lit up a rapidly clearing sky. Campus was utterly silent, except for the occasional rustle of snow falling off pine or spruce trees or the distant sound of a truck out on the main road.

I walked around until I started to get cold and the sun was well up, then I headed back towards the Mansion for breakfast.

I walked up the roadway behind the building, the side where we park the veggie-diesel vans and cars, the side that faces the line of conifers and the Formal Garden and the Berry Orchard. And there in the parking lot I crossed a line of tracks. They were human footprints, bare feet. Charlie.

Charlie thinks it's funny to leave bare footprints in snow, just to mess with people. Unfortunately for him, hardly anyone ever notices the prints and even fewer people ever comment on them. Those of us likely to notice such things are, pretty much by definition, his students and we already know he would do something like that, so we're not puzzled. But he tries now and then anyway.

The footprints came off the back porch of the Meditation Room--he'd come out of the secret door the masters use, shoveled those steps clear to destroy his prints, and then come up on the porch and left his shoes and socks there--and then went out towards the Flat Field. They did not come back, so he must still be out there. Even Charlie wouldn't walk very far barefoot in the snow. So I followed.

There's a little spinney of shrubs there clustered around an old deciduous magnolia that predates the school. The tracks went around that, so I followed them. But Charlie wasn't on the other side of the spinney--the tracks curved around. So I followed, and pretty quickly completed the circle, passing the place where my tracks, and Charlie's, came in. I stopped a moment, listening; no noise, which meant he had stopped walking when I did. Footfalls in snow are muffled, but not soundless. I thought about calling out to him, but elected instead to follow around--after all, he was barefoot and I was not. He'd get cold first.

We went around and around three times and I never heard him or found any evidence of his presence besides the ever-increasing number of footprints. I might have been following a foot-printing ghost. Or, of course, a woozil. I started to wonder if I was going to hear Christopher Robin call out to be from up in a tree.

Finally I caught up to him--he waited for me on the far side of the spinney, looking out over the Flat Field and the Edge of the World and the Enchanted Forest, out over the road and out into the valley and beyond to the far hills. He was standing there for all the world like he'd been there the whole time (and wasn't barefoot). I hadn't seen him in weeks.

"Nice sunrise this morning," he commented, still looking out over the world. Although, of course, that direction faces south and southwest, not east.
"Yeah," I agreed. "I thought you might go inside while I was coming around."
He grunted, as though he would never do such a thing, never cheat on a game.
"Hey, Charlie, it's good to see you."
He grunted again, and this time there was a little bit of a growl in it--which he pretty much undid by flashing me a quick, fond smile, before reverting to his brooding observation of the snowscape. It was as though he was worried someone might see us and realize he's not as anti-social as he pretends to be.
I laughed a little.
"I've kinda missed you," I told him. There was no 'kinda' about it, of course, but I didn't want to sound too over-the-top. I didn't just mean since Samhain, we've hardly really spent time together this year. This morning felt like the first time we'd really connected in months.
He gave a kind of shrug, nodding his head to acknowledge the situation.
"I've been busy," he said.
"I know. Listen, are you doing to be involved with Yule decorations, or should we report to Karen?" I couldn't think of anything else to say that wasn't mushy.
"Report to Karen, and she will coordinate with me. I think she'll reach out to you later this week. I might be involved."
"Got it. Listen, I'm going in to breakfast now, so you can stop pretending your feet aren't freezing."
"Oh, thank God."

And so, laughing, we both went inside, me in through the Meditation Hall and he, after picking up his shoes and socks, in through the secret door, which he knows I know about.

I still haven't told anyone else.