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, October 30, 2016

Year 4: Part 7: Post 1: Samhain

Happy Samhain.

The school year, my last one here, ended with something of a whimper (and a bang, non-academically speaking). My two classes simply ended with no particular ceremony or special observance, and I was done. Of course, they weren't final classes for most of the other students--they were only mine by chance. We finish our time here all in different places and in all different ways.

Finding out that I've been a straight A student has had an odd effect on my perspective on my academics. We're encouraged, here, to think about our classes only in terms of how well we mastered the material, how well we met our learning goals--there's no objective, impersonal standard to compare ourselves to, except success or failure, and no way to compare ourselves to each other. I'd almost gotten used to thinking that way, almost let go of being a high-achieving student. I mean, that was always part of my self-concept, as a kid and a teenager, I got good grades. And I'd just started to let go of that.

And now it's back.

I look around at my fellow students and wonder how many of them got A's? Do any of them know that I did? Is there any socially acceptable way to tell them? I always got good grades, but never this good. 4.0, a perfect score on everything. Surely that has to mean something important.

It means I'll have a somewhat easier time getting into grad school, and I might be able to get some scholarship money. Nothing more. To get bragging rights, you have to be among other people who are likewise bragging.

In any case, Samhain Eve this year was cold and clear and perfect. We gathered, as we do, in the Chapel and we eulogized the Beloved Dead and sang Hats Off to Dead Folks by the warm, flickering glow of beeswax candles, and it was lovely. Perfect. Normal. This is normal for me now. This is home.

During the mingling period, after the masters had come down off the stage, but before they left, Charlie came up to me, apparently eager to tell me something before he went into eclipse for the year--there's no rule against their talking to us outside of the school year, and of course there's the reception afterwards by the fire, which they share with us, but Charlie tends to like to seclude himself pretty deeply and I imagine he didn't want a To-Do item looming over him.

"Daniel," he told me, "you don't have to worry about sex. She doesn't demand monogamy."

It took me a couple of seconds to figure out what he was talking about--he didn't mean Joanna, he meant the land, the physical campus which he had described as his wife and lover.

"You can follow a path like mine, without being physically celibate as I have been."

"Thanks for telling me," I began, but at that moment the bell rang and Charlie went blank, stopped seeing me, and walked away. They all do that, at that moment, even if they're in the middle of a sentence.

I honestly hadn't stopped to think about that--it hadn't occurred to me that loving the land, as Charlie had taught me to do, might preclude my loving a woman. But then, I didn't take the possibility of being married to the land literally. I probably didn't take it as seriously as he did, either. I wanted to talk to Charlie about that, to ask if that was a problem, if I needed to go deeper. I also wanted to ask why he had thought to issue me that particular reassurance now of all times. How much did he know and how did he know it?

We all streamed out of Chapel Hall, towards the fire circle. I fell to the back of the group, distracted by my thoughts. I made myself vulnerable.

A jolt, and I fell and my fall was oddly cushioned. I settled on the ground gently, like a leaf. Tiny bodies swarmed over mine, immobilizing me by sheer weight, and a small hand pressed itself over my mouth.

"Don't fight, Mr. Daniel! You'll hurt the Littles!"

It was Gage Grimm's voice, Sarah's son and the current oldest of the Sprouts, a boy I did not know well. His voice penetrated my reflexive panic. I realized what had happened and, obedient, I stopped struggling and lay still.

As far as I can reconstruct it, two of them had pushed my legs forward, out from under me, while two more grabbed handfulls of my uniform at my hips and sides and yanked me backwards. The four oldest, all nearly adult size, caught me using the zipper lock arm arrangement they learn for elevated trust falls at summer camp. The whole thing was incredibly well coordinated, and while it was happening I was mostly disoriented and confused.

"You don't need to call him 'Mr.,' he's just a student," said one of the Ackerman-Ben twins, great-nieces of Charlie's. They're not identical, but I can't tell their voices apart, and everyone was wearing masks. It was very dark. And then it was very bright.

"Don't shine the flashlight in his face!" said an older girl, Mary Grimm, I think. The brightness went away, but any night vision I'd had was gone.

"He's almost not a student, though," interjected Billie Grimm.

 "We don't need to call any of them 'Mr.' or anything tonight," Mary Grimm continued. "It's Samhain."

"Yeah, but I don't want him to be scared," said Gage. "Or angry."

"I like him," said a small voice. Alexis! Allen's daughter. I like her, too, but didn't know whether I should speak. There was still a hand over my mouth, though it felt light and somewhat distracted now. "Mr., um, I mean, Daniel, don't be scared, we practiced all of this. A lot!"

"He knows that!" said Mary. "They're in on it, too, you know. This is all just pretend."

"Get the rope around his feet," said Gage. "Here, hand me that gag. Don't talk with this gag on, ok, Daniel?"

I nodded my assent, and a bandanna was tied loosely across my mouth. It wasn't a gag at all, of course. But the rope around my feet and legs was quite real, and the older children checked the knots to make sure they were secure. Next, they tied my hands together, then sat me up so they could wrap another rope around and around my chest, pinning my arms in front of me. Then another bandanna went across my eyes. Gage had me roll this way and that, so they could get something like a cargo net, or maybe a hammock, under me. I didn't understand that part, at first. I thought they would tie it around me, like a cocoon, but they didn't. They proceeded to do something to my hair and my shirt collar and my ropes, something that sometimes pricked, sometimes tickled, and sometimes felt quite pleasant, like a massage. They took off my shoes and socks and placed them in a pile on my belly.

Gage ran off to negotiate the ransom for me. I lay quietly and thought about life while the children speculated about what kind of loot their performance would earn. The loot would be mostly candy, of course. For the Sprouts, Trick-or-Treat leans heavily towards Trick-and-Treat.

Finally they picked me up by the cargo net (that's what it was for! Of course, the way they'd tied me I could not walk), all of them working together, and carried me over to the fire. There they received the first payment of their candy, cheered, and ran away, leaving me lying there like a caterpillar.

I was quickly unwrapped by friendly adults, who explained that I'd had chicken feathers stuck in my hair, my shirt, and my bindings. I'd looked ridiculous, as intended. My health was ascertained and someone put a mug of mulled cider in my hand. I found my bearings again, gradually.

The party continued, evolving into a ghost-story-telling circle. Charlie told two, marvelously spooky tales, of course, and, to my surprise, Joy told one that was genuinely frightening. I'd never thought of her as into that sort of thing. All the other stories were told my students, one after the other, late into the night.

While all that storytelling occurred, I could have found Charlie and asked my questions. But I didn't. There is a way in which Charlie is scarier than any ghost story, and I was in no mood to challenge him. I sought out Allen instead.


"Hmm?" He turned his head slightly towards me, but kept looking at the fire, kind of mesmerized.

"I have a question."

"Glad to hear it."

"Do about us?"

He looked at me and the corners of his mouth twitched up in a bit of a smile.

"Define 'you' and 'talk about' and 'us,'" he said, and then looked back at the fire.

I took a deep breath.

"Do you, the masters, share information among yourselves about the private lives of us, students."

A quick chuckle, like he'd been caught, and a quick, sideways grin.

"Congratulations, Daniel," he said, almost smirking.

I snorted and turned away. I'm sure I was blushing furiously.

"We're human," he hastened to explain. Then: "How many of your friends did you tell that I'm bisexual?"

"Three," I admitted, embarrassed. He had me. He totally had me.

What I'd actually told them was that I thought he might be, based on something ambiguous Allen had said about his past. I didn't much care, one way or the other, there are a lot of "out" gay and bi people on campus and it isn't a big deal, but Allen's slipperiness inspires speculation. If he is bi, I doubt he's closeted, it's just private information that doesn't come up much, and he's being mysterious about it with me in order to yank my chain. Notice that his wording, "how many did you tell that I'm bisexual," doesn't actually clarify the matter. I could have told them wrong.

Anyway, I'd always gossiped about teachers, ever since I was little. Everyone I knew did. I never stopped to think about how they might feel about it. I'd never really stopped to think that "teachers" are human. And this was Allen, my friend.  I was both embarrassed and ashamed and I could not look at him.

"I'm sorry," I told him, and meant it.

"Thank you," he said, and clearly meant it. "But we know you do it, that's why we don't let you see anything we really don't want you to talk about."

"So, why do you talk about us," I asked. "I'd seem too professional to gossip."

"We're human, like I said...but we don't gossip. We exchange information. On Fridays, at our dinner meetings, we talk about what we know of all of you."

"Why? It's not any of your business."

"Sometimes it is. Knowing more about you helps us with our teaching--Charlie's reassurance to you tonight, for example. And it keeps us from gossiping. You know how information gets distorted as it's passed along? This way, we each get our information directly, and we can see it for what it's worth. We can question and challenge our sources."

"Huh." I felt kind of mollified, but not completely.

"So, how did you know about, about me and Joanna?"

"That I can't tell you. I need to protect my professional secrets, you know?"



"One of the Sprouts said I'm almost not a student. Did he just mean because I'm getting ready to graduate, or...a couple of you have said things like that, over the past few months. As though you expect me to...join you. Do you know something about that I don't?"

I could hear Allen's smile in his voice, this time. When he turned to face me his face lay in shadow, but his voice was clear.

"No, Daniel. We don't know anything. I'm a magician, not a prognosticator. I have every confidence you can earn your green ring if you want to, but I don't know if you'll want to, and I don't know what openings may come up or whether you'll be available when they do." Remember, earning master status mean's you're eligible to get a job with the school, but it's no guarantee you'll be hired.

"We don't know whether you'll join us," he said. "We talk like that because we're hoping you do."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Year 4: Interlude 6

Hello, Daniel-of-2016 here,

I'm posting on Friday this week, even though I usually don't, because Samhain is coming up fast and I wanted to get this interlude in.

About last Monday's post, it's odd how difficult that was to write. Not that I'm embarrassed about having been a 23-year-old virgin anymore, I just find I don't really like writing about my own sex life, even in the merely R-rated way I did so. I'm not one to kiss and tell.

But the story had to be told. Not that it matters much when I had sex and when I didn't, but the particular way that my first time happened may be unique to the school. It says something about our community.

You have to remember the impact of fiction and fantasy on our community. A lot of us had ideas about how a pagan community should work, what it would be like to live in a world free from Christian "oppression" (yes, such oppression certainly happens, but in most cases I've come to believe that narrative is an oversimplification), and those ideas were fed largely by fiction. I'm thinking of the writings of Jean M. Aule, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jeanne Kalogridis, and others, alongside J.K. Rowling and Ursula K. LeGuin, whom I've already mentioned. And in the more feminist of those books, sexual attitudes are very different than the ones we're used to hear in 21st century America.

These books are full of ritualistic, and somewhat impersonal sex. The characters often go to bed with each other, not because they love or desire each other personally, or even to scratch the proverbial itch, but to honor the Goddess, mark seasonal changes or rites of passage, or to make magic.

For Joanna to offer to...un-virginize me as a friendly favor seemed a lot more reasonable and normal to us then than it does to either of us now--we, and more especially she--saw it in the context of those books, as a form of sexual initiation free from judgment, body shame, or social control. Me, I didn't know what to think. As usual, I wasn't being very self-analytical.

I don't regret it, precisely, and I have to say the operation was a success. My paralyzing shyness on the subject vanished. But I'm no longer sure it was the best possible thing to do--or that Joanna was really sincere in her desire to serve merely as my initiator, no strings attached. Had we not belonged to such a community, we might well have slept together anyway, but justified it to ourselves with different narratives.

That's the thing about belonging to a counterculture; you become more aware of your interior programming and of the fundamentally arbitrary nature of most of the things we tell ourselves.

I'm going to tell the rest of the story of me and Joanna in the upcoming posts, but I'm going to include a good deal more self-analysis than I actually engaged in then. I'd been at school for years, by that point, and I'd learned how to notice and name my own feelings, even to consider them important, occasionally, but I didn't process through my feelings quickly--I still don't. I remember at the time feeling gratitude, eagerness, and a vague discomfort all rolled together, but I didn't even start learning to articulate any of it to myself for years afterwards. Since inarticulate jumbles of feelings are hard to write about (and probably boring to read) I'm going to give the me of the past more understanding and self-awareness than he really had.

I should also point out that I've quoted myself as being wrong at least twice.

First, I thought that 23 was freakishly old not to have had sex yet and, further, that the people around me would care. I actually don't know how many 23-year-old virgins there are or what the actual chances of running into one are, but I've gathered it's a lot less unheard of than I thought and, in fact, most of the people I met after I graduated couldn't have cared less either way.

Second, the whole concept of "virgin" is problematic. You can watch YouTube videos on this, actually. The heart of the matter is male sexual possessiveness and some highly questionable gynecology mythologizing female sexual purity in a way that makes even less sense transposed to men. Yes, there are first times, but the reality is that sex isn't just one thing. There are sex acts I have heard of but have not tried and probably won't because they don't appeal to me. There are sex acts that I had in fact done several times even when I was obsessively worrying about being a virgin. At what point a person starts feeling experienced in bed is pretty arbitrary.

But I didn't realize any of that back then.

On a completely different note, here is some quick "housekeeping" for the blog. Usually, I begin each "part" with a sabbat, but I'm going to put Yule in as the final post of Part 7, instead of making it the first of Part 8. That way, the seventh Interlude will be around Christmas and the first post of Part 8 will be around New Years. I will not, however, put the narrative on hiatus for January as I have in recent years. Instead--and this is going to be kind of odd, so bear with me--I'm going to cover Brigid twice.

The thing is, I graduated at Brigid, 2004. From then on, for three years, I was in Absence, meaning I literally had no contact with the school at all. So, there is no point in covering those years in this blog, whose purpose is to describe the school. So, I'm going to speed through those years with just two or three posts, and then start up again in 2007, when I started my candidacy for mastery--and of course, I started on Brigid.

So, while I haven't worked out the details yet, I'm going to cover Brigid of 2004 in mid-January sometime, then do an extended interlude of two or three posts to explain a couple of important things that happened while I was away, and then Part 1 for next year begins with Brigid 2007 in early February. Does that make sense?

In the meantime, I have to say, we're all very worried about the election right now. I don't usually discuss politics on this blog, and I'm not going to discuss it now, but certain things go beyond politics. We, in our little community, don't have any particular agreement as to whom we are supporting--we certainly haven't endorsed a candidate as a group--but we all agree on whom we are not supporting. If you don't know who I mean, you haven't been paying attention.

Most of what we as a community care about--the environment (especially climate change), the rights of women and LGBT people, racial and economic justice, and participatory democracy itself--are all on the line this year. There is no one who really stands to win on this one, although some could lose more or more quickly, and yet his supporters seem to view him as some kind of savior. I could go on, but I don't really want to overstep my bounds. Political writing is not my strong suit, and I don't want to do it wrong.

But please vote. Make sure your neighbors vote. If I can work a magic this year, let it be this; victory for the candidate amendable to reason.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Year 4: Part 6: Post 6: Connecting

I can't believe I'm about to write this, but at the same time, there's no good reason not to tell the story. I'm a grown-up, and it's time I start acting like it and not hiding the parts of myself I'm embarrassed about.

Re-reading that--it's not that I've just now become a man, or something. I didn't mean that, and that's not the way it works.

So, to cut to the chase...I was a virgin. Until a few days ago.

It was Joanna. I never would have expected that. For the longest time, I didn't think she liked me, nor would I have said I liked her. She teased me too much, especially in the beginning, and not all her jibes were friendly. I think maybe I put up with that for too long and for the wrong reasons.

But the last couple of months, we've been talking more, and I mean really talking. And there's always been something like a bond between us. I'm not sure how to explain it, but even when we weren't getting along well, we always came back to each other. We'd always start talking again.

Anyway, so last week, we were walking along through the field under the Edge of the world, talking about the future, what we each plan to do after we graduate. I told her that I was going to grad school, that I'd started the application process for the place Charlie suggested--I don't mean I've sent in the application, I won't do that until after I've graduated here, but I've contacted the school and asked how the process works, what I need to do and when, and I've scheduled a campus visit for November, after our classes are over. While I suppose there's no guarantee I'll get in, I have a good feeling about this. I think this is really going to happen.

They don't give us grades here, but if you need grades to apply to grad school with, they'll give them to you retroactively, based on your evaluations. I actually made that request over a month ago, so, with the exception of my grades for my current classes, I now have the results--and I'm a straight A student. So, between one thing and another, I'm pretty confident about things academically.


Joanna asked me if I were nervous. I told her I was.

"I mean, I've been living here for four years. What if I can't make it on the outside?"

"We've all been living here for years," she told me. "I doubt the graduates would keep supporting the place if too many of them got out and couldn't make it." She had a point. The graduates don't provide a lot of money, but they do provide some, and many do volunteer work here. I've learned that if something happens, it's the alums who come together and keep the place going.

"It's not just that," I said. "I suppose I'll do alright academically, and that I'll get a job and everything. I'm not stupid or anything. But...I don't know how to talk to women."

"You're talking to me."

"No, I mean flirting and so on. Being seductive. I don't know how to do any of that."

"I think Ebony would disagree with that."

"Ebony was a friend. Still is."

"So? Date friends." She made it sound so easy.

"But you all know's different."

"This is about sex, isn't it?" Joanna has known for a few months about my inexperience. Most of my friends here have known for longer, it's just that I didn't want to admit it publicly, by writing about it.

"I'm 23," I reminded her. "And I'm a virgin. I can't imagine anyone  else out there is. So, how do I talk about that? How does that conversation work? Who's going to want to be with a guy who doesn't know what he's doing? I'm going to be a virgin forever."

For once, Joanna wasn't laughing at me. She tends not to, when it's really important. She just smiles a little.

"So, let me get this straight. You can't imagine asking a woman for sex because you're inexperienced, and you can't get experienced because you can't imagine asking?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

"You know it's not that difficult, right? You don't strike me as the one-night-stand type, so you're not going to be asking anybody you don't know. It's just a conversation. It's not a magic spell where you have to get the intonation just right."

"Wingardium leviosa," I said, that being the spell they use in Harry Potter to make things rise. Joanna cracked up. Yes, I meant it that way. "I suppose so," I added, more seriously, but I still felt pretty glum. The thing is, I couldn't have that conversation with Ebony, and she and I were pretty close. We talked about everything else. So, I was pretty sure it wasn't as simple as Joanna made it sound.

"Hey, um," she began, "do you want to just take care of this? Have your first time so you don't have to worry about it?"

I turned and looked at her, searching her face.

"You mean, with you?"

"Yeah, if you want to."

I honestly hadn't ever thought of that possibility. Joanna and I weren't a couple, or even a potential couple. We just weren't. But I'd always found her incredibly beautiful. Almost as soon as I considered the possibility, my body responded. I think she could tell from my expression because she grinned, flattered, but I didn't say yes right away. I used to think that for real, red-blooded men, sex was the most important thing--given a willing partner, of course you'd go for it. I spent a long time, a couple of years, pretending to be that guy, hence my secrecy. I felt like such a loser. But that's not the way it works.

"What you're talking about sounds kind of clinical," I told her.

"It's only clinical if we do it wrong," she said. "I'm not talking about some kind of virginectomy. I like you, I think you like me, we can do this, and if we like it we can keep doing it. Maybe we'll, I don't know, fall madly in love and live happily ever after. Maybe we'll get up out of bed, say, well, that was fun, and go our separate ways. Or something in the middle. I don't know. I'm open to whatever possibility."

"Then so am I," I said.


It seemed sort of silly to go on treating each other platonically  with that decided. If we were lovers now, I thought we ought to act like it.

I touched her face, cupping her cheek with my hand, like they do in the movies, and stepped in close to kiss her. It's not like I'd never kissed anyone before, but I felt really awkward about it because Joanna and I still weren't a couple. We weren't kissing because we wanted to, exactly, we were kissing because we'd decided to, it was an artificial encounter and called for an artificially romantic gesture. And yet I felt about as wholly turned on in that moment as I ever have.

With my fingertips, I stroked gently along her neck, her collarbone, her throat, as we kissed. I remembered Ebony had liked just that sort of light touch, at least in some of her moods, and Joanna must have as well because she grabbed my uniform in feral handfuls and pulled me against her, hip to hip. If she hadn't known how aroused I was before, she knew it now.

But then I remembered Charlie's habit of spying on campus from above.

"We shouldn't do this here," I said. "Trees have eyes."

She giggled.

"You would say that." She doesn't know about Charlie's spying and somehow I didn't want to tell her. It would have felt like violating something, between him and I, to reveal anything I've learned by so carefully getting to know him.

"How do you think the masters know everything?" I said, instead, because we've all noticed that they know more about us than we have ever intentionally told them. Joanna laughed again and stepped away from me.

"Where do you want to go and when do you want to go there?" she asked.

The logistics turned out to be a little complicated. There's no real privacy on campus, and very little genuinely free time. We know that the dorm rooms have no sound insulation whatever because we've all gotten used to overhearing each other. Sex, like snoring, is simply one of those sounds you hear at night. And I didn't want anyone to overhear me. I harbored a fond hope that I could make her scream in pleasure. I worried that I might make her laugh.

We solved that problem. We had the talk about preferred forms of birth control and disease prevention and what we'd expect each other to do if either failed. We kissed some more. And I am not going to tell you any more about any of that.

But yes, we did it, and we enjoyed it. And I rather hope we can do it again.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Year 4: Part 6: Post 5: Connections

In theory, Charlie and I now no longer need to talk about my schooling, meaning that when we hang out, it's purely social. But of course when we actually got together for lunch today, we talked about school.

We took our food and walked out to the field below the Edge of the World, and on the way he asked me what I plan to do after I graduate.

"Grad school," I told him. "I want to extend my skill as a naturalist. Ecology, botany, something like that. I haven't decided yet. I don't even know what kind of job I want to aim for when I get done."

"You don't need to worry about that, now."

"I don't?"

"No, because what you do now doesn't have anything to do with what kind of job you get."

"It doesn't? Don't I need to know what kind of education the job I want requires?"

"No, you don't. First, it's the opposite of that joke. Mostly, you can get there from here. Get to anywhere from here, no matter where 'here' is. There are exceptions, but there's usually a way. Second, you don't know what's going to happen between now and then. You pick a goal, you decide halfway through you don't like it, something blows up, something else you'd rather do comes up.... Do what you want to do now, out of the options you have. Tomorrow, make the next decision. You'll have a good chance of being happy and useful that way."

"Ok," I told him, "well, I want study ecology."

"Good. You need a hard-science background. You've gotten into too much woo-woo stuff around here*. Fly the nest."

"I thought ecology wasn't a hard science?"

"You go study it, and tell me how hard it is! I mean rigorous, scholarly. Hard, soft, inexact...giant professional-level pissing contest."

"You in a bad mood?"

"Not today. Any day I wake up is a good one."

"Do you have any suggestions?" I asked. "About what school to apply to, I mean."

He spoke the name of a school immediately, then turned and looked at me. We weren't far from where we'd had the ritual, of which there was now no visible sign. The day was clear and gorgeous and cool, the sky blue, the trees rapidly changing color, living flames of red and yellow bursting out in the forest around us. He explained that the school he'd mentioned had a good conservation biology program and was rumored to be fairly progressive, with a small student body and a liberal and rather artsy campus culture. It sounded as close as possible to the school I already belonged to.

"I thought you wanted me to fly the nest?" I asked.

"I said fly the nest, not migrate to a different biome."

We sat down and ate together without speaking for a while.

"Charlie, how do I apply for the masters' program here? I'd like to become a master." He chuckled and I looked over at him. "What?" I asked. "Did I just pass the entrance exam, or something?"

He laughed again.

"Just about," he told me. "The process is that when you want to come back, just call Sharon and ask. She will say yes if you have completed your absence and have the sponsorship of someone willing to serve as your primary master."

"Do I have such a person, Charlie?"

"Oh, be direct!"

"Will you be my master then, too?"

"Yes, of course."

"Out of curiosity...if I decided to work with someone else instead, could I do that? Or am I committed."

"You can switch masters. You on;y need someone to vouch for you that you can be a candidate. You pass your entrance exam with me by letting me get to know you. I vouch for you. You want to work with someone else, that's your business."

"You know I really was just curious, right?"

"Please, my ego is not that fragile, Daniel."

"I was just making sure."

He grunted. We were quiet again, for a while. Late-season crickets sang around us. A crow cawed in the distance.



"I was just thinking, in some ways I don't know anything about you."

"What ways?"

"I mean, the sort, for example, I know when Joy or Karen have a boyfriend. People see things and students talk, you know? But I don't know that kind of thing about you. I've never heard of you having a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend."

Charlie grunted again, a little "huh" of laughter, and took a bite of his sandwich.

"When I used to date," he said, "I dated women."

But that wasn't what I was really asking. I mean, first, I don't really care. Second, I was pretty sure Charlie was straight. I just added that about boyfriends so that, on the off-chance I was wrong about his orientation, he couldn't skewer me for making an assumption. I was just kind of surprised to think about how well I knew Charlie on one level, without knowing the things about him that knowing a person usually told me. We were quiet again for a few minutes. He started in on the second half of his sandwich. I finished my second apple.

"You know, it was a girlfriend of mine that brought me here," he said, after a bit.


"She was friends with the early master's group and introduced me. She fancied herself a shaman or something because she did a lot of esoteric drugs. You know the type? Or maybe you don't. Anyway, when I lost my place, I went to them for help. The master's group took me in. I was in rough shape."

"Your place?"

"My apartment. I lost my apartment."

"What happened to her? That woman, your girlfriend?"

"We drifted apart. We never formally broke up, I just stopped making much of an effort to see her, after I got sober. I heard through the grape-vine she was dating someone else. I didn't mind." He shrugged. "I really haven't dated anyone since," he added, as though he had just now realized it. As though dating had just skipped his mind for twenty years.

"Do you think you'll date again," I asked. "Do you think you'll ever marry?" I felt weird talking to Charlie about any of this. I wasn't used to him opening up to me about his biography.

"I am married," he said.

"You are?" Although even as I said it, I realized what he meant, what he was about to say.

"To the land, here. I am married to the land."

"Huh." I could think of no other response. I remembered his tin-whistled love songs he plays to the evening, what I heard in that first secret serenade I accidentally heard years ago, and I thought about that. "What's it like?" I asked, after a while.

"What do you mean, what is it like?" His voice had gone sharp.

"I don't know, what's it like?" I reiterated. "I don't know, how do people usually talk about their relationships? ...'So, you getting any?'"

Charlie had just taken a big bite of his sandwich and he choked with surprised laughter. It look him a few minutes of coughing and sputtering to get hold of himself. I don't normally talk that way with him. Or, really, with anyone. It's not really how we talk, here. In control of himself again, Charlie looked at me for a while, chewing his sandwich, an odd, thoughtful expression on his face. Finally, he spoke.

"Fuck yeah I am," he said quietly, with emotion. Then, half shouting, "look at this!" And he suddenly flung his arms wide, indicating the whole world of blue and green and leafy fire with his gesture. The cheese flew out of the remnants of his sandwich and he he fell or rocked backwards in the grass, lying, limbs out-stretched on the ground, beaming a sudden, suddenly admitted to joy.

I copied him and flung myself out on the grass. Above me the blue sky stretched slightly wispy with faint cloud, my visual field framed by towering grass stem and, on one side, a fringe of tree foliage. I opened my senses, quite deliberately, and heard the crickets sing louder, heard roosters crowing in the distance, a truck going by on the main road, then a car, and, a few minutes later, another. There were few other sounds. The scent of the grass and the nearby leaves filled my nostrils. More faintly, I could smell a hint of animal dung and, perhaps, wood smoke. We haven't lit our wood stoves yet, but one of our neighbors apparently had. I could feel grass blades and the movement of ants, tiny field spiders, little gnats, all tickling me, just slightly.

I wouldn't have called it sexual (though, really, what do I know?), but it was lovely and it was sensual, this great and participatory beauty. I lay there or a while, thinking about my various bodily relationships with the land and how we shaped each other, communicated with each other...I could not see myself ever equating any of it with sex, but given everything else I'd learned over my four years of study, I could see how Charlie might.

Suddenly, horribly, I realized that when I sat up, whatever I said would leave me open for some kind of teasing or awkwardness. How do you talk to your teacher after he says I experience this as erotic and you copy him?

Steeling myself, I sat up and looked around.

Charlie was gone.

*Reading this line, I'm not sure it makes sense to readers, but it is roughly what Charlie said. He was a man of few words when he spoke (although he was a prolific writer), and he was referring to ideas he knew I already knew about. So, here is a translation, of sorts. The "hard sciences" are those, like physics, that can make precise, accurate predictions. NASA can spend millions of dollars building and launching a spacecraft to go study Jupiter because physicists can predict exactly where Jupiter will be when the space craft gets there. You just can't do that with a bird. The life sciences and social sciences focus mostly on what are called "complex systems," which, by their nature, can't be precisely predicted no matter how rigorous you are--and yet there is always the implication that "soft sciences" are inexact because they are less rigorous, less sciency. Biologists and ecologists have made attempts to develop more mathematical and predictive approaches, in part to make their fields seem more like physics. Charlie says they have physics envy and are compensating for something.

If all this sounds vaguely sexual, there's probably a reason. While scientists don't have a very virile reputation among the general public, among themselves they are heroes and rock stars. The sciences are a world dominated by driven, ambitious men, just like business or professional sports, so you get all the permutations of male pride embedded in the culture. Charlie, who was always very aware of language, was always of the opinion that "hard," as in science, should be read as "manly," and that "soft" means, literally, "limp-dicked." As though the life sciences and so forth are fields for wimps or for women.

That is why Charlie referred to the whole distinction between hard and soft science, dismissively, as a "pissing contest."

When he told me I need a hard science background, he didn't mean hard as in difficult, he meant hard as in rigorous and "sciency," the opposite of  mentally lazy "woo-woo." But he rejected the traditional division of fields into hard and soft and particularly rejected the idea that "hard" necessarily means "predictive." He sometimes asserted that "ecology is not rocket-science; ecology is much more difficult." Ecology is harder.

When Charlie entered a pissing contest, he entered to win. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Year 4: Part 6: Post 4: Fire and Ashes

So,  I finished my report on threats to my spot in the woods and what I can to to counter those threats. Identifying threats was relatively easy--climate change, acid rain, various invasive species and pathogens, the possibility that the land really could change ownership and be damaged, and on and on.

Coming up with a list of what I can do about it was much harder. The first time I tried, I came up with a bunch of solutions, like a cap-and-trade policy for climate change, turned in my report to Charlie, and he sent it back almost immediately covered in red pen scrawls.


Of course, I'd come up with ideas best enacted by an amorphous "someone." Charlie suggested I start each solution with "I, Daniel Kretzman, will...."

So that took a while to figure out.

But eventually I got my report finished and Charlie took me through the only actual ritual he's ever had for me. I mean, I know he sings or whistles to campus every evening, and that's kind of a ritual, and I know he prays before the full moon, and probably at other times, and when I asked he told me what prayers he uses. I know he has little ceremonial bows or phrases that he uses at certain times and I have adopted some of them. When I've needed to say a few words he has sometimes provided them. But he's never before taken me through a ceremony I did not explicitly ask for.

When he gave me my bone-handled knife after we killed that deer, he simply said "here," and handed it to me.

He didn't explain what the ritual was for, nor did he tell me what we were going to do. He just looked at me, a day or so after I'd given him my report, looked at me very carefully, and said "It's time." I must have looked rather frightened and confused, because he laughed and said "Don't worry, it won't hurt, much," and asked if I had the afternoon free. I did.

He asked me to gather wood--at least a couple of twigs, preferably dry--from every species of woody plant on campus and to meet him by the sugar maple trees near the main entrance. We often end up there when we meet for lunch, because it's a pretty spot, with a good view of much of campus, but it's out of the way. Nobody's likely t bother you, or even necessarily notice you there. There's no reason for anybody to be on that end of campus, most of the time.

Gathering the wood took me over an hour, though of course I knew exactly where all the plants I needed to find were. I know all the trees and have for years, and by now I know the shrubs and vines pretty well, too. But it's a big campus and it takes a while to walk all over it.

By the time I got back, Charlie had set up a kind of portable fire pit made of an upside down trash can lid filled with sand. He also had a couple of dry oak branches about as thick as his wrist, to keep the fire going long enough to make sure all the twigs I brought, even the green ones, burned.

So, we build a fire and watched it and fed it. It didn't seem right to talk, so we mostly didn't. The fire wasn't very large, and couldn't have taken very long to burn down, but it felt like a very long time.

When all the wood I'd gathered was ash and the flames leaped only on the remnants of the wood Charlie had brought, he spoke, very seriously.

"If you do this, you'll never be able to leave. Not psychologically."

I thought for a moment about what Allen had said, about how you have to be able to leave if you're going to come back, but decided that the two statements belong to different systems of paradox and don't necessarily intersect.

"I'm not going to be able to leave, anyway," I told him, and he nodded, as though that were the right response.

Then he directed me to heat the blade of my knife in the fire and then let it cool, without wiping the soot off. The soot, as I already knew, would be sterile. And he showed me how to make a cut in my arm where it wouldn't do any actual damage, a shallow cut, leaving a thin flap of skin. And how to use my knife to scoop up a little of the warm, mixed ash and inset it there under that flap, under the skin. It's a primitive tattoo, a little gray blob-shape, that I'll have for the rest of my life. Hardly anyone will ever notice it, and no one will know what it means, but I will.

Charlie helped me bandage the new tattoo with a very modern-looking gauze pad and medical tape, though he used lavender oil, rather than antibiotic cream, on the gauze, and told me not to wash the area until it healed, and to let him know if I saw any signs of infection. There was nothing to be said about the ritual. Saying anything would have cheapened it.

So, I stood there rubbing my bandaged arm a bit (yes, it hurt).

"So, are we done?" I asked. "I mean, are we finished...overall?" As usual, I wasn't making a whole lot of sense. I can write, but that doesn't mean the words always come out right when I speak. I meant that, since my entire relationship with Charlie had been based on his being my master, and that process seemed to be complete--it felt complete--were we done with each other. I didn't want to speak that possibility out loud, but I really didn't know and I had to find out. That reluctance to say what I was talking about accounts for my garbled words. But Charlie understood.

"Why would you think I'd want that?" he said, and smiled.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Year 4: Part 6: Post 3: Standing Out.

Please note that in 2003, Rosh Hashanah occurred about a week earlier, relative to the standard calendar, which is why the holiday is referred to here as having just happened.

I just realized that I really didn’t know what Alien Steve has been studying. We spoke often in my second winter here, but not that much since then. And even when we did talk a lot, we were mostly discussing identity, belonging, and what it was like for him to be an alien, not mundane matters like school. So, today I asked him.

“I’m an alchemist,” he told me, as if I should have known. I should say that ‘alchemist,’ as we use the term here, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with turning lead into gold. Instead, it’s about transforming the self so as to effect practical change in the world. Something like that.
“But you’re not working with Greg, are you?” Greg, as you may recall, is the alchemist on staff.
“No,” he told me. “I mean, I’ve talked with him. He’s helped me, some. But I’m working with Joy on magic and spirituality. They’re the only two areas I need.”
“But I didn’t think Joy was an alchemist.”
“She’s not, not especially, anyway. But there are alchemical dimensions to her magical practice.”
“Why alchemy?”
“Why not? What else is an alien going to do?”
“Ok, what does that mean?” I was confused.
“I’m different,” he told me, grinning a little. “Different people are disruptive by definition. Think about a dance, like a group dance, like square dancing? If there’s somebody in the dance, just one person, who is doing something different than anybody else, then the entire pattern changes. Do you see?”
“I suppose so.” I was imagining, not a dance, but a traffic pattern—somebody drives the wrong way and everyone swerves around and crashes.

“So, the question is, how do I insert myself in a system to effect the change I want?”
“How do you?”
“Be very careful about what I compromise about and what I don’t.”
“Consider; Frederick Douglas became free, without compromise, before he even ran away from slavery. And he helped free all the slaves. Mahatma Gandhi also made himself free, without compromise, and helped free India. If you don’t move, everyone else has to.”
“I bet you don’t include Jesus on your list,” I teased him. Jesus was the first person I thought of adding to the list, but Alien Steve is slightly hostile to Christianity.”
“I’m not sure he existed.”
Steve is pagan, but with the subject up in my mind I remembered that he’s specifically Jewish pagan.
“Hey, you just had a holiday, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Rosh Hashanah. No really my thing, religiously speaking,” he told me. “I did go home to my parents’ for a big dinner.”
“Are they ok with your being pagan?”
“They don’t care. They’re both atheists.”

“Huh,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else. Then—“hey, there are a lot of Jewish people here, aren’t there?” There aren’t a lot who identify as Jewish now, though Steve does, are nine or ten students, plus Aaron, who were raised Jewish and sometimes show up at campus Seders and such. That’s about ten percent of the student body, which is much higher than the national average. “Is that odd? I thought most neopagans used to be Christian.”
“No, it’s the other way around. Most of Christianity used to be pagan. The rest was Jewish.”
“I knew that part. I mean now. Individuals. The holidays are so similar, it just seems weird to me, Jewish pagans.”
“It shouldn’t. European magic has deep ties to European Jewry.”
“Yeah. Remember Nicholas Flamel?”
“Was he real? And Jewish?” Nicholas Flamel, you may recall, was one of the couple who created the Sorcerer’s Stone in the Harry Potter book.
“Real, yes, Jewish, no. He was something like a clerk, but he endowed a couple of churches and hospitals and things. How did he do that, if he didn’t have some unusual way of making gold? He claimed to have created the philosopher’s stone. But when he was first figuring out alchemy, the first thing he did was to go to Spain to look for a Jewish scholar who could teach him the Qabalah. The first thing that occurred to him.”
“I mean, if you think about it, we, too, are different and so change the world.”