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.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Year 4: Seventh Interlude


I'm sitting here--in 2016--listening to Jimmy Buffet singing (on  recording, of course):

So this is Christmas
(war is over)
Another year older
A new one just begun.

War is not over, of course. Neither is climate change, or the vast specter of the threat loomed by Donald Trump. I have a hard time with Christmas sometimes--saying that Jesus is born and now everything will be great and it just isn't.

But Christmas is a good time to remind ourselves of these values and to recommit. As long as the line is not crossed into feel-good delusion, it is a positive thing.

And recommit we do. We, as a community, have made a decision to re-open the school as a school with its own campus. We don't know yet what that will look like, but it won't be the same as it was before--our original model was too vulnerable, as events showed us, so we'll have to embed the school inside some kind of larger project, to give it greater protective camouflage. It will probably take us some years to work out our plans and raise the necessary money, but we've set the process in motion--this year's returning of the light, if you will.

We've made this decision because, just as the outer world has grown to resemble our community more over the past few years, we now fear the two are getting less alike. Living out in the world as we do, it's going to get harder and harder to not be influenced by that shift--or to not be exhausted by the effort of constantly maintaining deliberate cultural dissonance. Re-creating our counter-cultural bubble gives us another option.

Not that we want to hide in the bubble. We did that before, and we've come to think that was a mistake, a shirking of responsibility. But we need a refuge, a place to recharge and to center, a place to radiate from...when you want to work (or play) outside in the winter, you need a warm refuge nearby, an assurance of safely. Otherwise, all your time and energy must be occupied with survival and you can't to the work or ply you came outside to do.

Anyway, at the moment we--June and Carly and I, and my brother and his family--are at my parents' house. Since June and I have switched our attention to Solstice, visiting our parents for the holiday has gotten simpler, since we don't have a family Christmas to compete for time and attention. If June had only been raised Jewish, holiday planning would be simpler yet (I mean because the grandparents would not be in competition over us for the same holiday). Except this year, of course, since Chanukah and Christmas coincide.

Thirteen years ago today, I was also at my parents' house. I got a ride from another student (I forget who) the day after Yule, and stayed at home for something like two or three weeks before returning to campus--we were supposed to spend most of January on campus because of vaguely described duties related to graduation.

I'm going to simply skip over those weeks in my narrative, then spend January in a series of posts that don't have much to do with the date. I explained a little about that already.

But for now, I wanted to talk a little about something Steve Bees told me when we met up again on campus after the holiday.

Steve could have gone home to Ohio for Christmas, but then he wouldn't have been able to spend much time with his girlfriend over her college break. So instead, he stayed on campus except for Christmas itself, when he went to Charlie's sister's house, with Charlie.

When he told me about going there for Thanksgiving, I didn't think to ask a lot of questions. This time, I asked whether Charlie was any different when he wasn't on campus--but I couldn't get Steve to understand what I meant. Eventually, I tried asking what the holiday was like and he told me the story and so I finally extracted the information I wanted.

Charlie and Steve arrived n hour or so before dinner on Christmas Eve and all his grand-nieces and -nephews reacted as though Santa Clause had just shown up. Charlie did bring presents, but they also wanted his company and competed for his attention. Throughout the evening the other adults (sister, Maria, her husband, brother, Mario, and various grown nieces and nephews) all treated Charlie as the guest of honor--and he responded. And he wasn't grumpy or growly at all. He was relaxed, good-natured, and slightly self-centered, accepting the attention as though it were his due and happily lecturing everybody on whatever topics came into his head. I remember his sister once told told me "he's always been the center of us," and from Steve's description, he still was.

In contrast, Charlie's brother, Mario, hardly spoke. He wasn't unfriendly, Steve said, just quiet. The only time he spoke that Steve could really think of was when Charlie and his sister were speaking Italian in order to not be understood by the kids and one of Maria's grown daughters said "that's not not going to work for much longer, Mom, the kids are learning Italian in school." Mario spoke up to say he didn't understand why the whole family stayed so fixated on Italian.

"They're American," he said. "Italian won't get you anywhere. Americans should learn Spanish or French. Or, these days, Farsi or something." Mario is the only one who retains an Italian accent and who remembers even a few words of their fathers' dialect. He doesn't speak Italian otherwise. Charlie and Maria are fluent in the Italian they learned in school, which was not the same dialect.

Charlie replied, in Spanish, something like "where can I go with my Spanish but not my Italian? There are Italians in Mexico and Spain, yes?"

(Steve told me the English translation he extracted from Maria later. I'm guessing it was something like donde puedo ir con mi Espanol pero no mi Italia? Hay Italianos in Mexico y Espania, si? But that's my high school Spanish guessing.)

Mario replied, in his high school Spanish, "Yes, but the Italians who emigrate to Mexico and Spain learn the language of their new country."

And one of the grand-nieces giggled, clearly understanding the somewhat playful exchange, and Charlie turned to his sister and said "sounds like St. Nickolas is going to have to use Latin," in Latin. "Or French," Maria said, in French.

"Actually, I understand some French," said the grand-niece, in Italian.

Steve was much impressed.

The whole family, including Charlie, went to Midnight Mass, and in the morning spent approximately 426 years opening gifts, given how many people were assembled there. Then, after brunch, the kids played with their new toys and Charlie and Mario played video games with each other--recapturing their boyhoods, except of course when they were boys, video games did not exist.

Then, who should show up mid-afternoon but Allen, Lo, and their kids. They stayed for dinner and actually stayed the night--the kids all merged together into one indivisible group of cousins (related and otherwise) and Allen joined the gaming brothers for a while.

Steve hadn't known that Allen and Charlie were friends. I had known, but I didn't know they spent Christmas dinner together. Steve said they were nearly inseparable the whole evening, except when Allen tried to involve himself in making dinner. After the meal, Charlie played his tin whistle for everyone.

So, was Charlie different when he wasn't thinking about being a teacher?

In some ways he obviously wasn't. In other ways...I have a hard time imagining him playing his whistle so openly on campus, nor does he normally go on about the things he knows without being asked. From Steve's description, he sounded more relaxed, less self-conscious, and more social than I'd ever seen him. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Year 4: Part 7: Post 8: Yule

Note; in 2003, when these events happened, the solstice was on the 22nd, which was also the fourth night of Hanukah. This year, the solstice will not occur until the 21st, but I'm posting this as though today were the solstice, because it's close enough. -D.

I'm getting tired of this bitter-sweet parade of "lasts," seriously. Last spring, last summer, last fall, last Yule on campus...I've gotten used to celebrating Yule. I like it. I like it a lot. How am I going to greet the holiday season without it, next year?

I suppose you could say the winter solstice is going to happen everywhere, and that's true (at least everywhere in the northern hemisphere--in the southern hemisphere the solstice in December is for summer), but it's the community that makes it meaningful to me--just as long as we have we, as Dr. Seuss says.

I'm at the Yule celebration now, in the Great Hall. The whole room is full of decorations and the scent of good food, and bits of wrapping paper and gift bags and people in their pajamas--we changed into our pajamas this morning at Joy's request after  lot of us got wet and cold during a snow-ball fight on the lawn in front of the Mansion. After that, we came down here and all ran around the room, finding our gift bags, each with a student's name on it, each filled with chocolates, candy, and fruit and little "stocking stuffer" toys, and then we had breakfast--pancakes, freshly made, and each round and golden as the sun. That was hours ago, and a lot of people have crashed out, gone to sleep on the couches and out-of-the-way corners of the floor. I might take a nap, too. Tight, after dinner, we'll clear all this away and have dancing, those of us who are up for it.

When and where else am I ever going to have an opportunity to act like this much of a kid again?

Earlier in the day, me, Steve Bees, Raven G., Joanna, and Eddie were all sort of huddled together, working our collective way through a bag of nuts. We had a variety of nut-crackers, but none of them were working very well, and nuts kept escaping, slipping out of the crackers and popping up into the air and rolling away. We'd have to chase after them, not always with much success.

"This is why chocolates are inherently better," asserted Eddie. "They're easier to eat."
"Chocolate has to be processed, too," I pointed out. "It's just that we don't have to process them."
"Exactly. The processing makes them better. That's why processed foods are called 'value-added products.'"
"But don't you think this, with the nuts, is more fun?" said Raven.
"I can think of more fun things to do with nuts," asserted Joanna.
"Well, there is peanut butter," suggested Steve Bees.
"I wasn't talking about food," clarified Joanna.
"Neither was I," Steve replied.
"Ew," said Raven, "Steve, I don't want to think about you and peanut butter."
"What?" he protested. "Anybody on campus can talk openly about their bodies and sexual practices, but when I make one little crack, I get 'ew'?"
"I don't want to think bout your crack, either," said Raven, and just then the English walnut she was trying to open squeezed right out of the nut-cracker, shot straight up into the air, and fell, knocking over her hot chocolate. We all scrambled to get the spill cleaned up before it could stain anything.
"You'll shoot your eye out," sing-songed Joanna.

Alien Steve, the new Nora, and Evie, who is one of this year's one-hit wonders, we clustered beside us, and they jumped up to help deal with the chocolate spill, too.

"Merry Yule," said Alien Steve to Steve Bees, as we sat down again. The two Steves shook hands. Apparently they hadn't yet gotten a chance to interact today.
"Merry Yule to you, too," added Steve Bees, addressing Nora. "Those were some pancakes."
"Thanks. I think using yogurt, instead of milk, made a big difference."
"Well, something did. Yogurt, huh? Could I have the recipe?"
"Sure. I think it's still pinned up in the kitchen."
"How are you liking Yule?" Steve asked."You and Evie." Both Nora and Evie are yearlings.
"It's not new for me," asserted Evie. "I've been Wiccan for years. I like how you do it here, though."
"I like it," said Nora. "I didn't expect to."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Well, frankly I thought it would distract from the birth of Jesus. A fake Christmas."
"Historically speaking, it's the other way around," asserted Eddie.
"Yes, I know. Everyone keeps telling me."

"I didn't know you were Christian," said Steve Bees.
"You never asked. But I'm not very Christian. I don't know. I shouldn't have worried about it. Maybe I'm just getting more sensitive because I feel like I'm the only Christian here."
"But you're not."
"I know."
"You know, sometimes Yule here feels more like Christmas to me than Christmas does?" said Steve. "It's like Christmas when I was a little kid."
"I feel the same way," I said.
"I don't," interjected Alien Steve, who is Jewish.
"Does this feel like Hanukah?" I asked.
"Of course. It is Hanukah. I don't know what you all mean about the feeling of this or that holiday. This is Hanukah, therefore, this is how Hanuka feels."
"How's your Hanuka going, then," asked Eddie.
"Oh, fine, fine.
"What you get?"

For answer, Alien Steve pulled something out of his gift bag and put it on his head, wearing an expression as though he really did not deserve such ridiculous indignity. It was a head-band with alien-type antennae on it. We all laughed.

"You totally had that coming, though," said Eddie.
"Did not. I take my identity very seriously. It's not a joke."
"It's because you take it so seriously that it is a joke," I told him.
"Your identity, my sexuality," commiserated the other Steve. "Nobody gives us any respect."
"I could make some comments," said the alien.
"But you won't, because I'm better at making comments than you are," warned Eddie. Alien Steve threw up one hand in a gesture of resignation.

Steve Bees and Raven made a run for more chocolate and brought back a handful of candy canes to share.

"Now, these are easy," said Eddie, sucking on the straight end of a candy cane, and we all giggled. He looked at his candy cane a moment with an odd expression. "Not everything I do or say is a sex joke, you know," he said.
"We know," said Raven. "If it were, we wouldn't be able to tease you."
"Just tease back," suggested Joanna.

"I've been wondering," said Steve Bees, "If Yule is like Christmas for children, what is Yule for grown-ups? Wicca isn't more childlike than Christianity, is it?"

"Maybe only children still notice the important part of the holiday," suggested Evie.
"Maybe the grown-up part is what you have to be a grown-up to notice?" suggested Eddie.

Last night, when we started our Yule party (and lit three Hanukah candles), it was raining, not hard, but it was a cold, spitting rain, and I worried we were going to have another wet walk up the mountain. By the time we all headed out, though, the rain was over and the sky clear and full of stars. The air had gotten very cold and I could feel the ground crunching under my feet, but in the moonless dark I thought I was feeling frozen grass, or maybe a little slush.

Then we got to the top of the mountain, all silent, and waited, shivering, for the dawn and the music of the hidden masters. And when the sun lifted clear of the horizon, it did so all golden and clear and glowing, shining out on a world covered in...snow!

Everything was white, all the ground, covered with about a half inch to an inch, all the shrubs and the twigs and branches of the trees and the windward side of all the tree trunks, all painted white with clinging snow and ice, the whole world golden and white spreading as far as we could see out over the hills and ridges to the horizon.

And that's when we came back down to campus and had the snowball fight.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Year 4: Part 7: Post 7: Telling Sharon

We decorated the Great Hall a few days ago, and we helped the Dining Hall staff do the Dining Hall last night. It’s not so much a change as an addition—we added evergreen garlands and candles and bowls of oranges and chocolates and of course the tree with its ivory ribbons and strings of red beads, the orange and gold-colored glass balls like magical fruit and the flock of blown-glass birds, all almost literally on top of the twined vines and dried flowers, the squashes and gourds and corn-stalks of Samhain.

And we did the Great Hall overnight in secret so that in the yearlings woke and found the place readied for Yule in secret, as if by elves.

I love that part.

I’ve also been making other preparations myself, and not just for the holidays.

Almost a week ago, now, Sharon handed me a letter addressed to me that had not come through the mail. She offered not a word of explanation, so I opened it quickly, in her presence, opening that if the contents made no sense she might possibly answer questions then.

It was from Rick,

Hey Daniel, how fast can you walk? I got a job for the summer with a logging company—it starts in June. If you still want to hike the Appalachian Trail with me, we’ll have to leave the week you graduate. If we go fast, we can make it. I talked to your parents and they can outfit you for Christmas/graduation presents. I gave them a list. I’ll take care of everything, I just need to know whether you’re interested. Tell Sharon.

“But he’s in Absence,” I protested.

“Yes, and I have the authority to make an exception—and I made one,” said Sharon, smiling. “The function of Absence is to keep people in the school from supporting or influencing those outside, not the other way around. And it’s certainly not intended to prevent you from making plans for when you graduate. You can tell Rick yes or no. No more.”

“Tell him yes,” I said, on impulse. But I have discovered that my impulses, at least certain kinds of impulses, are good.

I have spent the past week ordering books on the Appalachian Trail and on long-distance hiking and winter backpacking from the library. I’m still not entirely sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but it’s starting to look interesting.

But now I had a new problem, one I needed Charlie’s help to solve. Only Charlie had vanished again after we decorated for Yule. I knew he was still on campus because I found the occasional bare footprint in the snow (his ongoing joke that nobody except me seems to even notice), and anyway, where else would he be? This is his home and more than his home. He’d be here. But he was invisible. I thought about asking Greg to carry a message to him, since Greg still eats breakfast with us and still leads zazen for the yearlings every morning, but that seemed like cheating, somehow. If Charlie had gone invisible, then I had to earn my right to his help by seeing him.

And yesterday I finally did.

He was walking up the Great Hall stairs one evening, just as if that were an ordinary thing for him to do. No one else was in the Great Hall, and I hadn’t bothered to turn on any of the lights. I was sitting by the fire, just thinking about things, in its light alone, when I heard him on the stair.

“Charlie!” I said, quietly, but he turned. The light was on in the second-floor landing and his eyes must have been adjusted to it already, because when he looked towards me he obviously couldn’t find me. I waved. “Do you have a minute? I have cookies.”

He came over and settled on the couch next to me.

“Bribery is unnecessary,” he told me, taking a cookie, “but it does help. What do you need?”

“I’m doing the Appalachian Trail in February with Rick,” I told him. “Is it ok if I train—hike and camp—in the Conservatory woods?” Remember, much of the woods behind our campus is Conservatory land that we’re not allowed on except for educational purposes or to do work there.

“Yeah, of course. But you’re doing the whole Trail in February? You must be extremely fast.”
He was joking, of course.

“No, we’re starting in February.”
“Don’t get too cold. Anything else?”
“I’m not sure. Are you in a hurry?”

He shrugged.

“It’s pretty, here," he said. "You’ve got a good spot.”
“Sit and enjoy it for a bit. I won’t tell anyone.”
“You are someone, Daniel,” he told me. “You have already told yourself.”

I had mixed reaction to that. On the one hand, being reminded by Charlie that I am somebody felt good. On the other hand, he seemed to be implying that I count as one of the people he’ trying to avoid right now. Nevertheless, he sat there with me for a while.

“Rick has a summer job,” I said, after a while. “Do you think I can get one, too? I’ll be on the Trail during the hiring season.”
“Yeah, sure. Start looking now.”
“Any suggestions?”
“What do you want to do?”
“Pretty much anything, but I’d rather do something that kind of extends what I’ve been doing here somehow. I thought of trying to go work with Rick, in logging, but….”
“You like trees too much for that.”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“I wouldn’t think logging would be your thing. How about caretaking?”
“What, like looking after old people?”
“No, no…well, you can if you want to, but I mean looking after a campsite or something. In the backcountry, something you have to hike in to. You’re more than qualified.”
“Yeah? Who hires for that?”

And he named half a dozen different agencies and commented that he had once worked for the last one.

“As a caretaker?”
“No, trail crew. But it’s the same department. Caretakers do trailwork, too. I might know some of the people still there.”
“Yeah? Can you write me a reference?”
“Write yourself a reference. I’ll sign it. Give it to Sharon.”

And he got up and disappeared into the dark.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Year 4: Part 7: Post 6: Reflections after Thanksgiving

In my last post, I described a little of the conversation I had with Kit and Allen in the car on our way back to campus from Thanksgiving. But it's a 20 minute ride and our conversation continued.

Allen had all but admitted that he's being nice to my parents in order to smooth my way into coming back and becoming a master. I've heard similar things from most of them over the past few months--not just that they want me to earn my ring, but that they want me to stay involved long-term, maybe as an ally or a staff member or something. Come to think of it, Charlie's probably the only one who hasn't said something like that, but he has taught me how to lead all of his workshops. And I've noticed that Charlie doesn't say what he wants very often. He clearly had a curriculum developed for me even before I asked him to be my teacher, even though when I did ask, his first reaction was to say no.

Anyway, so I've been thinking about this, and so in the car, I asked Allen and Kit what being a master means. I can't remember if I'd asked them before, but they've both been known to answer the same question multiple ways, anyway. I wanted to know their answers at that moment, what exactly they were seeing for me, wanting from me.

Allen was driving. Kit sat in the front passenger seat, and she turned and answered first.

"Mastery means working as hard as you possibly can to learn one thing as well as you possibly can, so that the process of learning transforms you. Then you can transform everything else. Mastery as in teaching--learning the state of the art of some subject so you can transmit that to someone else--is important, too, but that's secondary. To master a subject, you need skill and ability, and the more natural talent you have, the easier mastery is. But to be a master, anyone can do that, and it's always hard."

She looked at me a moment in that deep, somewhat Yoda-ish way they all have, and then looked away from me a moment and giggled a little nervously. "I don't mean you aren't talented," she said,  little awkwardly.

I love how these people shift back and forth between really deep and entirely human. I assured her I took no offense.

Allen chuckled and turned on the windshield wiper. It was raining a little, and the droplets shone in the streetlight on the windshield for a moment, before they were wiped away.

"I wouldn't say that's wrong," he said, "but I don't think mastery is about excellence. I think it's about wholeness. You develop yourself as a whole human being, physically, emotionally, intellectually, all of it at once, fully and equally. Most people only build up those aspects of themselves that they like, or that they believe others will like, or that they believe they need to develop to meet whatever challenges they're dealing with. They abandon parts of themselves in the process. They're not whole human beings. It is my wholeness, as a man, that gives you permission to be whole when we interact."

"You realize you gave mutually exclusive answers, don't you?" I asked. Allen chuckled again. Kit said "so?"

"So, if you'll defining mastery differently, how does that work, when you're the mastery group?"

"Well," began Kit, "I think Allen is excellent."

"And I think Kit is whole," Allen replied. "In theory, I suppose, you could have members of the masters' group who did not believe each other were masters, but when you earn your ring, you need the votes of all of the Six, so if we have six different definitions of mastery, then you'll have to be a master six different ways."

"That sounds hard," I said.
Allen shrugged.
"It is," affirmed Kit, lightly.

"You know that I know that you two don't actually disagree on this, right?"
And once again, Allen chuckled.
"He's learning!" said Kit, of me.

"Do you enjoy it?" I asked. "Mastery?"

"Sometimes," said Allen.
"Sometimes," agreed Kit. "I wouldn't say it's fun, you don't do it for fun, but it's alive. It's meaningful. And sometimes that's fun."
"It's my life," said Allen. "I wouldn't miss it."

We had turned onto the rural road that goes by the school. There are no street lights there. Sometimes there are porch lights, but not at that time of night. It was past 11. We drove along in a restful dark. I could hear our wheels on the wet pavement, but it wasn't raining hard. The windshield wipers were still intermittent.

When they let me out behind the Mansion (yes, they were acting like they were going to drive elsewhere afterwards. I don't think either of them realizes I know about the secret door), Allen rolled down the window and spoke to me.

"You know there's no firm distinction between masters and non-masters, right?" he asked. "Before, you learn. After, you learn. It doesn't feel all that different. This" and he showed me his ring, "is arbitrary."

"Yes," I assured him. "But I still want one."

And I trotted up the steps and in through the Meditation Hall doors and up the darkened steps through the mostly sleeping Mansion to my room.

On my door, I found a note from Joanna, asking me to join her, even if I got in late. I did so, and found her in bed but not asleep yet, and glad to see me.

But even as I opened the door to her room, which smelled of sleep and line-dried clothes and women's shampoo, as well as of her own delicious body, something occurred to me. It's almost a cliche, but I really do feel more in possession of myself now, as though there were parts of my mind and body that did not feel wholly mine until she gave me permission to use them. And yet, there is something about our agreement to be no-strings-attached lovers that I do not feel quite satisfied by. Maybe it's that I have strings, and I want them to be attached somewhere. Whatever it is, there are parts of my wholeness that are not welcome in her room.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Year 4: Part 7: Post 5: Thanksgiving

Yes, the math doesn't quite work out for this post--more than a week went by between this post and last week's post.-D.

I went home for Thanksgiving again. I kind of wanted to take someone home with me, someone who didn't have a family to spend the holiday with, since that's something we do, but I didn't start asking around, making myself available early enough. Everyone who needed someplace to go already has some place. There are many magics around the school I still don't understand, and one is how to make myself available as a helper--people come tome when they want to talk, but not when they need help of any other kind, and so my generosity remains more of a theoretical thing. That bothers me.

I also wanted to make Thanksgiving...more religious. Like, maybe do a Thankyou Doll, since I've heard Charlie does one for Thanksgiving as well as for Mabon. Or do a gratitude service of some kind. Something more than just chatting over dinner about what each person is grateful for. What whatever could have been, I didn't get that organized, either, and the meal went along just about as it normally does.

The only odd thing is that my uncle, the one I had such a hard time with a few years ago, wasn't there. He travels a lot for work, and the plane he was going to take home on Wednesday night was cancelled due to some weather problem. He decided he didn't want to spend Thanksgiving morning on an airplane. I can't say I blame him, but I was surprised at how much I missed him, considering what a pain he can be.

I actually stretched my visit for over two weeks, by catching a ride home with one group of people and catching a ride back with another. I'm going to spend most of January on campus this year, since I've been told there are things I'll have to be there for as a graduating student, so I'm compensating, both financially and socially, with longer trips home over Thanksgiving and Christmas. My ride back, of course, was Allen and Kit, this time without kids or spouses. And this time they stayed for a while.

They've come in for drinks when they picked me up before, two years ago, but that was different. That was my parents self-consciously inviting in people they weren't sure they'd understand or like. But since then my brother and sister-in-law have spent Litha on a picnic blanket next to both Allen's family and Kit's. They've said hello when they bump into each other when my parents come to campus to visit for the day. They've bought and listened to a CD recorded by one of Keven's bands because Kit sings on a couple of the tracks. And so this time my parents invited my teachers in as friends, of a kind. Or at least prospective friends.

My mother had actually suggested, earlier in the day, that I call Allen and Kit and invite them to stay for coffee and dessert. They said yes.

Specifically Kit said "Oh, lovely!" and Allen said "Dessert. I'm in favor of dessert. Also coffee."

So, they came in. They both praised my mother's baking (there was a rather gooey single-layer chocolate cake, served with a choice of coffee-flavored or caramel-flavored ice cream, the pies from Thanksgiving having been eaten already, plus some left-over cookies, mostly oatmeal butterscotch or gingersnap) and politely answered my parent's questions, some of which were strange, and asked a couple of polite questions of their own--how were the grandchildren, how were Cecilly's college applications going, how was work, that sort of thing.

At one point, my Dad asked whether Allen and Kit were married. Evidently, he'd forgotten meeting Kit's husband two years ago. Mom hadn't forgotten, and she looked at Dad in surprise. Allen and Kit looked at each other, then turned to my Dad and, simultaneously, one said yes and the other said no.

"We are married, but not to each other," Allen clarified.

"We're not a couple," added Kit.

Dad laughed uncomfortably and apologized.

"Don't apologize," said Allen, "I'd be honored. Kit, here, is a catch. I simply caught a better one." He was teasing.

"Not as good as the one I caught," teased Kit right back.

"Hmmm, are you suggesting I try your husband?" Allen asked.

"If you can lure him away," said Kit. "I don't think you can."

Two years ago, my parents might have taken all that literally and terrified themselves with the thought that my professors were sex fiends. Actually, I don't know that it couldn't be literal--lots of people on campus are in open relationships, and I really don't know anything about how Kit and Allen arrange their sex lives. Nor do I care. But they didn't mean it to be taken literally, and my parents took it as a joke and busted up laughing.

Ice broken, my parents and my teachers started swapping stories of what Thanksgiving had been like when they were kids. My parents are older, but not that much older, and they had childhood experiences in common. Eventually, Allen talked some about his brother, who liked helping prepare the meal and had his responsibilities which he guarded jealously, and who was inexplicably frightened of the balloons on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The creation of both the cookies and the cranberry sauce had to be scheduled so that the brother could do them without having to be in the house while the parade was on. He couldn't even bear to hear the balloons described by the news anchors. He'd throw an anxiety-fueled fit.

"Why didn't you just not have the parade on?" my mother asked, sensibly.

"Because I'd throw a fit if we didn't," explained Allen. "We had opposite preoccupations. But really, I didn't know the parade bothered him. David was older than I was. I think I was very young, and not paying very much attention, when the tradition was established."

"Your mother must have had her hands full," my Dad said.

I remember, later, Kit in the living room with my mother, old records playing, teaching my mother to swing dance, while my Dad and Allen sat together at the dining room table sipping bourbon and watching the women through the doorway.

"Of course, you realize now I'll have to learn to dance," said my father.

"There are worse fates, said Allen.

I said very little the whole night.

At around ten o'clock, Kit suddenly realized the time and said "we need to stay or go now," and of course that song popped into our heads, and we all had to sing it and get goofy, but in the end we decided to go and I followed Kit and Allen out to the car. Allen had group therapy the next day, so he was staying on campus, but Kit would go home after dropping us off. It was her car. I have no idea where Keven was.

Once we were in the car and had been driving for a few minutes, I asked whether they really just liked my parents, or if they were trying to make friends with them on purpose in order to pull me further into the community. In other words, was what I had just seen socialization or magic?

"That depends," said Allen. "Is the magic working?"

Monday, November 21, 2016

Year 4: Part 7: Post 4: Problems

And, election-related interruptions over for the time being, our story continues….-D.

Last night, Steve Bees’ girlfiriend, Sarah, stayed over. She’ll stay over again tonight—she’s here to get more of a feel for the place, I suppose, plus, of course, they don’t get to spend a lot of time together. This morning she joined us for breakfast in the Great Hall, where we had oatmeal, fresh corn muffins, butter, cheese, and several different kinds of jam. There is no fresh milk and, today, no eggs. There are no large tables in the Great Hall, and only the one in the Bird Room, so we made a picnic of it around a small table by the door to the library and we ate looking out the window. There was snow last night, the first of the year, and it left a light dusting, white on the sere, winter pastures, that melted as we ate.

When I say “we,” I mean Steve and Sarah, Kayla and Nora--that is, the Nora who started when I did, not the yearling--Eddie, and me. There were a lot of other people eating breakfast in the Great Hall that morning, of course, but we couldn’t all eat together because what I said about the tables.

“So, what do you think?” asked Eddie of Sarah.
“I’ll take it!” she replied, referring to campus, to our community.
“Well, leave some for us!” Eddie said, laughing.
“Don’t worry, we’ll share,” said Sarah, looking at Steve as though she meant to divide the entire school equally between the two of them. She would not stop flirting with him for more than a few minutes at a time. He gazed back at her with a mix of awkwardness and pride. I think her presence made him feel vulnerable among us in a way he normally doesn’t.
“I’m glad you like it,” he said, smiling.
“You’re lucky,” interjected Kayla. “I’ve seen people whose partners didn’t like this place and that didn’t really work. Not long-term, I mean.”
“Kayla!” said Nora, as though Kayla had said something embarrassingly direct, the way children sometimes do. Nora has been going through a phase of treating Kayla like a kid sister lately.
“What?” protested the kid sister, “It’s not like we don’t all know they’re an item!”

“This corn bread is really good,” said Sarah, changing the subject. “If I were you, Steve, I wouldn’t ever leave this place. I wouldn’t graduate, the food’s too good.”
“Maybe I won’t,” he said, still smiling.
“No,” she said, her mouth still full of corn bread, “because I am not you, I’m me, and I will kick your ass if you don’t become the awesome lawyer we both know you were meant to be.”
“You see what I have to deal with?” exclaimed Steve, in mock exasperation.
“Nice problem to have,” I told him.
“I want that problem,” said Eddie.
“So, go out and get yourself a girlfriend,” said Sarah. “You’re a handsome guy.”
“He knows that already,” I said, in a stage whisper.
“Which girl, though?” said Eddie. “They’re all so wonderful, I want all of them. That is my problem, and that’s why I don’t have your problem.”
“That, too, is a nice problem to have,” I said.
“I know, it’s glorious,” sighed Eddie, licking fruit preserve off his fingers and looking over his plate for the next thing to eat. Rumor has it he has slept with at least a quarter of the female population of the school. None of them are complaining, it’s just that none of them want to share him with quite so many others long-term.

“You’re really going to do the lawyer thing?” I asked, of Steve.
“Sure. I actually got in.” He meant into one of the law schools he’d applied to.
“Really? Congratulations! I didn’t know that. I didn’t think anyone was taking applications for next fall, yet, though.”
“They’re not. This one starts in the spring. What are you doing?”
“I don’t know yet,” I told him. “I’m getting a masters’ degree in conservation biology and see where things go from there.”

“Is that a deer?” Sarah asked, looking out the window. We all looked, watching as the deer—there were actually three of them—walked up onto the Flat Field and then behind the yew hedge, headed for the Apple Orchard.

“The two smaller ones are her fawns from this past year,” I commented. “I see her a lot. She likes it here on the main part of campus, maybe because there’s no hunting.”

“It’s going to be so weird next year when you’re not here,” said Kayla, to me.
“Imagine how weird it will be for us?” I countered.

“Actually, I don’t think it will be weird at all,” said Steve.
“Yeah. Kayla’s used to you being here, so campus will seem weird without you, but we’re not used to seeing Kayla at grad school. We’re not used to grad school at all, so however it ends up being, that’s how it will be. It won’t seem weird at all.”
“That’s true,” I said, but I wasn’t really sure.
“Think about this,” he said, “when you first left home for college, who was that weirder for, you or your parents?”
“I don’t know. My parents, I guess. It didn’t seem weird to me at all. I never thought about that before.”
“I bet your parents did, though.”
“Steve, you continually open my eyes,” I told him, and meant it.
“And you mine,” he said, and clearly meant it.

“What are you all doing for Thanksgiving?” asked Nora. I already knew she was going home to celebrate with her mother, still an awkward thing for both of them.
“Going to my parents,” I said, shrugging a little. I always go home for Thanksgiving.
“I have a sister,” said Eddie. “She’s not a shit, like my parents are, so I’ll have dinner with her.”
Sarah’s eyebrows went up at that, but Eddie didn’t elaborate. The rest of us already knew why Eddie called his parents shits, and that they had called him worse, but we didn’t explain, either.

“Well, I’m going home, too,” said Sarah. “I’d rather stay here with this one, but I have obligations this year.” And she didn’t elaborate.

“I’m going with Charlie to his sister’s place,” said Steve, and I looked at him in surprise.
“How’d you get that invite?” I asked.
Steve shrugged.
“Last year I gave Charlie a ride there and back—Maria lives pretty close to Sarah—and this year when he asked if we could do that again, I told him Sarah would be out of town this year, he invited me to celebrate with him. Sarah—I mean, the farm manager, Sarah—and her family are going, too.”
“He’s never given me an invitation like that,” I said, and I’m afraid I sounded more jealous than I wanted to.
“Maybe you didn’t need it,” Steve told me. “And that is a nice problem to have.”

Monday, November 14, 2016

Year 4: Part 7: Post: 3: Interruption 3

This is the third of my series on our community's response to the recent election. Next week I expect to get back to my regular story.

On Saturday, I did not do anything overtly related to the school. Of course, to an extent I embody it, so it goes where I go, but really we are a community, and a community only exists in groups--wherever two or more gather, there am I, in a way. But the past week has provided much food for thought, and I was thinking.

I did a little bit of paid writing, played with my daughter while my wife went shopping and to the gym, and went for a walk. In the evening we made pizza and a late fall salad and listened to Prairie Home Companion, as we always do. Yes, we are NPR people. Are you surprised?

I was a major fan of Garrison Keillor--still am, of course, not like I get to listen to him much, anymore. There was something about his performance--at times he became something like a national, secular priest. He could call out the ordinary for its loveliness and ground the extraordinary in the every day. I remember one "News From Lake Wobegon" all about the annual town Christmas pageant and the story ended with the words "Go, be an angel." I was only a kid when I heard that, maybe as old as 15 (although remember, I was a young 15), and I don't remember the rest of that story, but somehow with those words he wasn't talking about a small-town Christmas pageant anymore, he was talking about humanity. He was talking about life. That was the moment I realized that words could do more than express my personal thoughts and earn me good grades in English class.

I don't know if Chris Thile, Keillor's successor, is going to evolve into that role. I don't know whether he's thinking consciously of trying. But this Saturday, he made a good stab at getting there.

The show broadcast from Philadelphia, for one thing, which I'm inclined to think wasn't a coincidence. The City of Brotherly Love, the cradle of American democracy, the location of the chair with the sun on it that is always either rising or sinking on our great experiment in liberty.

Then, he starts up with a song he wrote--I jotted down some of the lyrics--

I don't wanna fight fire with fire
and I don't wanna preach to the choir
So if you're doing your best to be kind
This land is as much yours as mine.
As God as my witness!
I made this for you.
I made this for you.

Really, you should listen to it--here's a link. 

Nowhere in that song, or anywhere else in the show, that I recall, did he say the word "election" or use the name of either candidate. He was absolutely non-partizan. And yet he spoke directly and to the point of most of the reasons why I believed one candidate should have won, why I'm sad that she didn't. His was no maudlin plea for unity (when a lot of people have more important things on their minds right now) but rather a real act of confirming the best of our country at a time when many of us are doubting.

At the end of an upbeat, encouraging, and mostly very funny show, he finished up with "This Land Is Your Land," by Woody Guthry, including one of the verses most people don't sing, don't even, I suspect, know.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In a year of discussion about walls to keep people out, that verse has special significance, but there are ways to be political without being partizan, and Chris Thile nailed it.

And I sat there listening and thinking, as I often do, about what makes someone a master, a magician, a priest/ess, how a radio personality can give a nation the thing that it needs--as can, at times, a preacher, a writer, a capitalist war profiteer (I'm thinking Oskar Schindler), a seemstress on a bus....All people who did exactly the right thing, not because they were stronger or better or more talented than most (though some were that, too) but because they found themselves in a position and at a moment when the skills and abilities they happened to have were perfectly suited to the challenge at hand.

And I thought about how helpless I feel right now, not just afraid that the planet is going to die, but that it will do so while I stand by and do nothing, not because I want to do nothing, but because I can't figure out anything productive to do.

And I thought about how my daughter drew a bird, trying to influence the election, how I, in this blog, sent out a plea that I called magic, hoping to do very much the same thing, and I know Kit and her coven engaged their skill to much the same effect. And none of that seemed to do any good and, in retrospect, all of it seems equally silly.

But I'm thinking that perhaps magic does work, it's just that we've been going about it wrong. The real magic, the great magic, lies not in avoiding or averting misfortune but in getting oneself into one of those key, unpredictable positions where it might be possible to do something about it.

In which case, So Mote It Be.

Year 4: Part 7: Post 3: Interruption 2

I'm doing a three-part post this week on our community's reaction to the recent  election, rather than an ordinary post. These events are important, and it seems important to say something about it using the forum I have. This is the second of the series.
On Friday, the Six got together, as we often do, to have dinner and to discuss community business. As usual, there were more than six of us, in part because some of our “allies” were in attendance. Now that we’re teaching classes again (mostly public workshops, we’re not officially a school these days), we have allies. David, Allen’s son, was there, for example, since he teaches some of the science workshops when he’s in town (I teach most of them). There were eleven of us at the meeting, in total.

We were at Allen and Lo's place, since we rotate meeting places, so of course Lo and Alexis joined us for the meal (Julie lives in another state and does not plan to visit until Thanksgiving), and we all had a good time, but they left us alone for our meeting.

We drew our chairs into a circle on Allen’s patio and almost immediately the conviviality of dinner bled away. It had been a few days since the election, and we can forget about it for minutes or hours at a time, but then the knowledge comes back. We grew glum and sat around, sighing in silence, not looking at each other.

“My heart hurts,” said Joy, finally. She really liked Hillary Clinton, felt an almost personal connection with her. There were grunts and twitches of agreement.

“My heart would be hurting anyway,” said Karen. “Not everyone here wanted Hillary to win.” She had written in Bernie Sanders.

“I know,” said Joy. “And I don’t understand it. You’re as much of a feminist as I am.”

“I didn’t want to be bullied by my gender into voting for the first female major-party candidate who comes along,” Karen explained. “She’s a political insider and a corporate war-monger. We can do better.” She was holding tightly to the seat of her chair, not looking at us. Karen is still painfully shy, even among friends, and she expected us to disagree with her. Kit fulfilled expectations.

“She’s a politician,” Kit announced. “They’re all like that. Anyone who hasn’t made compromises hasn’t been in government yet. They either learn to compromise or they fail to do the job. Who did you want for President, Lady Isis? The Goddess Athena?” Isis, in Egyptian myth, helps her brother/husband, Osiris create civilization. Athena, of course, is the Greek goddess of statecraft, as well as wisdom, war, and craft in general. In other words, literally divinely perfect stateswomen. Karen gripped her chair even harder, looked at Kit, and said nothing for a long moment.

"You didn't like her, either," she said, at last.

"Well, not at first," Kit acknowledged. "I picked her because she was the best candidate available. It just gets me that this country can't elect a woman yet. Like, oh my god, is a vagina so terrible that you have to elect Trump to avoid one? What kind of country elects a rapist, an extortionist, and a liar rather than a perfectly good female policy wonk? I just...this isn't how it was supposed to turn out. I thought we had this one. I thought it was going to happen."

"It sounds like you're upset that the future you imagined did not happen," observed Greg.

"But it's my job to make the future I imagine happen!" she protested, and I thought about my daughter, who drew a bird to help Hillary win and could not understand why that didn't work,

"You said that kind of magic doesn't always work," I said, and Kit smiled at me in an embarrassed, lopsided way. She remembered her comment, too.

"But I wanted it to work!" She admitted. "We deserved for this to work! The amount of suffering he is going to cause...." She choked on her words and Allen rubbed her back.

"I know," I told her. "I'm thinking about climate change. With Clinton, we had a chance. Now, I'm not sure that we do."

"With Jill Stein we would have had a chance," said Chuck, who is not Charlie. He was our chief of maintenance while I was a novice, but left while I was in Absence. Lately, he's been helping Sadie with the plumbing and electrical work for her restaurant. He doesn't think much about Clinton as an environmentalist, a topic he and I have argued about.

"That was never going to work," Rick said, dismissively. "Jill Stein was never going to get elected."

"She might have if everyone who said that voted," replied Chuck, somewhat accusatory. "Almost half of the eligible voters didn't vote."

"It's not like Jill Stein is Lady Isis, either," pointed out Kit, and we all started talking at once, arguing politics, and sounding very mundane about it, except for the occasional reference to Greek myth or to the ethics of attempting magic to influence a supposedly free and fair election.

“We never used to talk about any of this,” commented Greg, quietly, and we all stopped talking to listen to him. “When Reagan was re-elected…I don’t even know how any of the others voted. Campus was a refuge, a bubble, from the political.”

That was 1984, and while I understand the school did not get accredited until the following year, the campus already existed and the faculty and some students were living together on it.

"I remember we didn't talk about the election in 2000, either," I said. "I was in grad school when Bush was re-elected. We talked about it there...."

"But not here," acknowledged Greg. "Until you and David and Steve started pushing, silence on the subject was almost a point of pride for us." By 'Steve,' he meant Steve Bees. Greg seldom uses that nickname.

“We were just beginning to get closer to the real world,” said Allen, sadly, his head resting on his fist. “And now it seems like the real world has gotten further away.”
“The point is, why are we talking about this?” Greg asked. “Is this community business, or is this chit-chat?” His question wasn’t rhetorical. Greg has a habit of asking questions that open up new lines of thought.

We thought.

“Our is the world,” I said, finally, thinking about Cecilly and Joya, and also about climate change. "We can't draw a line around our little bubble and keep the world out, because where would we draw the line? Do we include sprouts? Do we include partners or parents? What about family of partners? Partners of sprouts? What if Joya can't become a citizen this year because she's not white? Is she outside our community or in? What about Julie? She isn't here, she doesn't involve herself with us, but she's one of us. What if--" I was thinking of her vulnerability as a young woman in an age when the President of the United States happily boasts about grabbing pussies. But I didn't say it. I looked at Allen and he looked back at me, his eyes wide with fear. "We can't keep the world out because it won't stay out," I finished. "Neither injustice nor climate change obeys property lines."

It was my turn to hold on to my chair and breathe hard for a bit. I hardly ever talk, and I think that was the longest, most impassioned speech I've made yet at any of our meetings. The others looked at me, shocked, I suppose.

"You're right," said Greg. "The United States attempted isolationism once. Our appeasement of Hitler, our silence, did not prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor." An attack he remembers hearing about the day it happened.

"Alright, so what do we do?" asked Kit. "If we Six serve our community, and our community is the world, how do we serve it now?"

But none of us had an answer. We were all silent, for a bit, looking at each other. And then Allen began to sing.

Hello Darkness, my old friend,
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
left its seeds while I was sleeping....

Allen has always loved to sing. That he is not very good at it has always encouraged, rather than irritated me--it is his implicit insistence that one need not be very good at things to enjoy doing them and to enjoy them publicly. He's not bad, his voice is quite pleasant, it just goes slightly off-key, now and then. And he has a very narrow range.

But usually when he sings, he either sings to himself or he performs small concerts, strumming his guitar and doing a couple of songs at parties and community events, singing for all the normal reasons that people sing. This was the first time I've ever heard him use song instead of speech, as if he lived in a musical play, or something, singing to say something he could not speak.

And indeed I had heard him say very little since he announced "It's over," acknowledging Trump's triumph three days earlier. He's not usually that quiet, but he had seemed preoccupied, disturbed. He'd said only that he had nothing helpful to say.

Now he sang on, through the whole song, as the darkness of night deepened and the temperature around us dropped, sang about a vision of isolation, of people "talking without speaking, hearing without listening," of hands rejected and calls to action left unheard, of loneliness and helplessness in the neon glare of a cold and rainy night. The nature of the problem that needs fixing, the location of the lock that now requires a key.

Allen is many things, but I've never thought of him as a visionary--and yet I believe he has had a vision, one that frightened him deeply but that he feels to be very important, but it was something he either could not say or did not believe he could say in a helpful way on his own.

And listening to him sing, then, it came to me that Allen is a deeply empathetic person, but he does not inspire empathy, not beyond the immediate circle of those who know and love him. That is why so many people think of him as purely intellectual, as distant, as odd and awkward, when he is, in fact, none of those things. As one musical string vibrates when another, laid near it, is struck, he resonates keenly for others but somehow the music inside him cannot reach anyone else, not even, usually, us, except in an intellectual way.

And so, having something  something well beyond the intellect to impart, he had decided to try something new--he borrowed someone else's music. Paul Simon's.

And when he was done, Allen would not look at us but looked down and to the right. Suddenly, he looked very small, barely visible in the faint yellow glow from the kitchen window. He sat curled over, rocking slightly, hugging himself against the chill of the evening. Even the crickets had fallen silent as the temperature fell.

Except Allen does not get cold.

This is how we communicate. We discuss, we explain, we argue, we vote, just like any other group of people, but when the big decisions need to be made, when the great thoughts need to be transmitted, we seldom use ordinary, prosaic words. Instead we evoke story, we evoke song, we locate ourselves in myth. We arrive together in a place where ordinary words do not take us.

And then we act from that joint place.