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.