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.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


I'll be away from the Internet on Monday, so I'll post next week's installment late next week.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 5: Post 2: Deep Dive

Allen organizes his day around swimming, as far as I can tell.

I don't know what he does when he's at home (I could ask Ollie, but haven't), but when he's least in the summer, his hair is often wet.

He comes in by bike on Tuesday morning. He doesn't have to attend breakfast on Tuesday, because the rule is you have to go to breakfast if you spent the night before, and in the winter he often comes in only at the end, just in time to hear announcements. If he's running late, he'll still be wearing his cycling clothes, carrying his helmet. But in the summer, if Ollie and I go for a run in the morning, we'll often see him coming in when we come back to the Mansion to shower before breakfast--that's around seven. I don't know if he's trying to beat the heat of the day, or if he just likes getting up before dawn, as he must do summer and winter, to maintain that schedule.

Usually, he'll have Alexis with him, if she's not in camp. A lot of the Sprouts spend most of the summer on campus, whether they're in camp or not (Charlie used to have a pile. This year he has only Julius, because Janus and James are still toddlers and the others aged out of Sproutdom). When I was a novice, Allen would come in with Julie and David behind him on their own bikes and Alexis in a carrier. Now Alexis has her own bike and follows her father alone. David is in college. Julie is working a summer job. The carrier isn't even on Allen's bike, anymore. Instead, he has pannier bags.

Anyway, at lunch, Allen disappears from campus again. I see him coming in to eat just before classes are due to start, his black hair wet, his shirt--always a professional-looking short-sleeved button-down, never a t-shirt--damp from being put on just after he got out of the lake. This year I've gone with him a few times. It's just a short bike-ride away. The cool water feels good. I splash around a bit, swim a few laps along the shore. Allen disappears. From the minute he steps in the lake, he spends as much time under water as he can, hyperventilating before he submerges so he can stay down even longer. He surfaces like a seal, to breathe, when he has to.

He stays the week on campus, but I still see him bike in before breakfast, because he goes for a swim first thing, while the air is still chilly. But he doesn't feel the cold.

Every day, it's his ritual. He even goes when it's raining. "Why wouldn't I swim when it's raining?" he asks. "I'm going to get wet, anyway." And he has a point.

I once asked him why he likes swimming so much.

"Why does anybody like anything?" he answered, and I waited for him to give me a real answer. We were eating lunch, just after he'd gotten back. He does look happier, more energized and more relaxed, after he has come from the water. "I feel calmer under there," he said. "I feel at home."

"Water is the emotional element," said Kit, who was eating with us. "You are a psychologist."

"I'm not sure I feel at home in emotions, though," he said. "That's why I'm a psychologist."

"Nobody is totally at home in water," she replied. "We can't breathe in it. To stay fully immersed, we have to bring some air down with us." Metaphysically, as you may know, water is associated with emotions, air with the intellect.

"Intellectually, I agree with you," said Allen. "I am a psychologist--I study emotions intellectually. I have snorkled and SCUBA-dived, and I like both. But what I like best is going down, just me, and exhaling to make myself less buoyant, and just exist down there, wholly of the water, not breathing. I like to get away from air, when I can."

Monday, August 7, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 5: Lammas

Happy (belated) Lammas. Or Lughnasadh. "Lammas" is short for loaf-mas, suggesting a Christian version of the holiday that I've never otherwise heard of, and "Lughnasadh" means "mourning for Lugh," Lugh being a Celtic deity associated with agriculture. There is a story in which he and another figure compete for the same woman, killing each other and then reviving in turn. The story is an allegory for the alternation of summer and winter, or something like that. I forget if I've ever explained that before.

It's curious that we have a holiday called "Mourning for Lugh," even though nobody on campus mentioned Lugh at any other time, except occasionally at storytelling events, and nobody mentions him much even on Lughnasadh. I mean, it's not like anybody on campus that I know of is actually a devotee of that particular god, so why do we have a holiday mourning him? And why don't we spend it in mourning?

There was one year when all the songs they played were about loss, and I've heard last year, when I wasn't here, also had loss as a major theme. I think loss gets into it both because we can start to see the end of summer approaching, which is kind of sad, especially if you really like summer, and out of the recognition that it's a harvest festival, and in order to harvest something, even a plant, you need to kill it (or, in some cases, wait for it to die). But it's not, overall, a day of mourning for us, no.

And this year the weather was horribly, almost frighteningly hot, and has been for a week, so nobody in their right mind would feel sad at all about the prospect of summer ending.

I have heard that one of Lugh's names is Lugh of the Skillful Hand, and that he won acceptance from the other gods and goddesses because while each of his skills was something one or another of the other deities could already do, he didn't offer anything wholly new, none of them could do everything that he could. So that may explain the theme for the day--people showing off what they do well.

The feast, of course, shows off Sarah's skill as a farmer and Sadie's skill as a chef and baker. That happens every year, and it's fantastic. Some years there are tasting contests for various fruits and vegetables, usually so we can have a voice in what will be planted next year. This year instead there was a tasting for varieties of honey, all bought from different regional farmers, plus honeys from our own hives gathered at different times of the year. Wholly impractical--we would stick with our honey even if some farmer in the next county had something we all liked better--but delicious. There were also tastings for different zucchini breast recipes and different kinds of jelly, and those will have an impact on what we get in the dining hall over the nest year.

And there were not one but two performances. The first, in the big tent on the Central Field as we ate, was a combination magic and juggling show. Ten different acts, mostly students, each had five or ten minutes to wow and entertain the crowd. One of the acts, a pair of talented yearlings, enlisted Greg, apparently as a volunteer, but he ended up quite clearly being involved in a planned slight-of-hand sequence that none of us had known he could do. That was awesome. June is a magic student as well, but she didn't perform. Ebony did. I had seen Ebony do magic before, of course, but this was the first time I saw her do a full performance. She had one of the longest acts, full of professional prattle and schtick, based largely on a series of "mistakes," by which she set up the audience (those few who didn't know any better) to feel bad for the poor little blind girl, before objects reappeared in improbable places, apparently out-of-control accidents resulted in the impossible occurring, and people who appeared eager to help her in a condescending way suddenly found trained ferrets or homing pigeons inside their clothing or under their hats.

"One of these days," I whispered to June, "she'll run out of people who underestimate her and she'll need a new shtick."

"What makes you think you're not still underestimating her?" June whispered back. And interesting comment, as I don't think they know each other well, but they do magic together in class, so I suppose knows Ebony has something else up her sleeve.

Anyway, the final magician on stage was Allen, blooming out of another act's magic to thunderous applause.

Specifically, six students had taken turns pulling progressively more improbable things out of a black top hat resting on a wooden stool in the middle of the stage. Then the seventh reached in and could not find anything. The group acted as though the magic hat were "broken," clustering around it and trying various things to "fix" it and eliciting weird noises, bad odors, or unpleasant objects (a realistic-looking plastic scorpion, an apparently literal hot potato) instead, until one of them pulled out what appeared to be a lit cherry bomb!

All of them ran around the stage with this thing for a few seconds, before they dropped it in the middle of the stage near the stool and cowered. The thing burst, producing a large billow of smoke instead of the dangerous explosion of a real cherry bomb, and when the smoke cleared, there was Allen, sitting on the stool and wearing the top-hat.

I've thought about how he could have done that--there was no tap door, no possibility of a wire to be lowered on, nothing nearby to hide behind...I think he simply walked on stage while we were all distracted by watching the cherry bomb. It's like the gorilla experiment, in which you don't even see someone in a gorilla suit because you're busy counting the number of times people throw a ball.

Anyway, the others left the stage to him, and he performed for about ten minutes and he was wonderful. Of course.

Then, because it was so hot, we all left the tent and had a water-gun fight until we were all soaked. Then we went back into the tent, where the buffet had been re-set with a feast of dessert, and for once, Charlie performed. He read a series of poems, mostly his and all excellent, before yielding the stage to a poetry slam, where several students performed spoken word pieces and we indicated by the loudness of our clapping which we thought best.

But by the time the slam was over, the masters were all gone, as were Chuck and Joe and Malachi, all of whom were visiting for the day. All vanished just like every year. As usual, nobody seemed to notice. The rest of us milled around and ate desert and chatted, and after a while a few people went to the Mansion and brought back their instruments and we danced until we drifted off to bed (the dining hall staff did put away the food, and the janitor team put away the tent and everything else the next day).

I almost asked one of the musicians if he'd seen the masters, but of course they would be upstairs on the fourth floor where we can't go, with their unannounced guests, doing whatever it is we can't know about.

I'm getting really tired of designed ignorance. I don't find it fun anymore.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Interlude 5

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2017 here.

Lammas (or Lughnasadh, same thing) has crept up on me! It's tomorrow! I probably should have done an interlude last week, so I could write about the holiday today. No matter. I'll have time for everything I want to say with the holiday post being next week, too.

It's not really that Lammas has surprised me, it's that for some reason I wasn't thinking of it in terms of writing. It's like my author's brain didn't know what the rest of me was doing until sometime late last week, when I'd already written last week's post.

But Lammas is important for those of us who wear the green ring--I won't tell you exactly how, because what exactly the masters did on August First was a mystery to me until I became one, but we're getting together tomorrow, like we always do. I don't simply mean the Six, nor do I mean to social group that has evolved around what remained after the school closed down, I mean all the masters--the people who wear the green ring--who can make it. It'll be fun to see everyone.

Have I ever been clear with you on how this works?

When you join as a student, you're a novice. You wear an all-white uniform with a black cloak, and you study to achieve competence in all six mastery areas and academic areas. Back when we were accredited, you earned a liberal arts degree. You pass through the Ordeal and graduate.

Once you've passed the Ordeal, you wear a brown uniform with a white belt and a brown cloak. Most people stop there. That's enough for them. About one in ten complete Absence and return as candidates. As candidates, you work towards mastery in a single areas. The mastery program has never been accredited, but about half of us earn some kind of advanced degree while in Absence. If your form of mastery is being a doctor, something like that, then you need the appropriate degree to demonstrate mastery.

When you finish the mastery program, there's a job interview--you get hired to the Six pending an opening. That is, most people who complete their candidacy never work for the school, it's not like they promise you a job, but you do have to demonstrate that you're eligible for such a job. Then there's an initiatory experience, though nothing like the Ordeal. You get the Green Ring, and you change your belt from white to brown.

As the timing of the Ordeal might suggest, the big jump for students is between the novitiate and candidacy, not between candidacy and mastery. If our community were a club, which it almost is, but not quite, membership would be conferred when you complete your novitiate. Novices are kind of like trial members. Earning the Green Ring confers new responsibilities and new access to information, but it's not as dramatic a step up.

Anyway, so the Six are charged with educating new and prospective members and serving as a kind of leadership committee for the community. The community also has a greater responsibility to the Six, because we give so much of our lives to the community. But real, the Six don't have a separate status. We all just wear the Green Ring. Everybody who has earned a Ring is a master.

If you've never been a novice, you can't become a master (unless you're Greg). You can join the community as an ally, but that's it.

There are around a hundred masters total, counting those who have passed on, but I expect only thirty or forty to convene tomorrow.

On another subject entirely, next time I write an interlude, the solar eclipse will have been and gone. A group of us are planning a trip to intercept the path of totality. Us being us, we're also arguing amicably about the magical significance of the event and whether one actually has to be able to see the eclipse to make magic with it. One camp says a thing is still true, even if you can't see it, so of course, yes. The other camp says it is the weird experience of seeing an eclipse that works the psychological change necessary for unusual magic. So of course, no.

Me, I don't have an opinion. I've never seen a total solar eclipse before. I've seen some partials, but that's much less dramatic. Most of the disc has to be covered, for there to be a noticeable dimming of daylight.

Maybe next time I write to you as Daniel-of-the-present, I'll have an opinion?

-best, D.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 4: Post 7: Appropriation

"Why don't you teach real yoga?" asked June of Kit at breakfast.

“Well, I don’t teach fake yoga,” Kit answered, somewhat amused.

“You teach stretches you adapted from yoga,” June clarified. “That’s not what real yoga is about. You’re missing the spiritual component.”

“Maybe you just haven’t learned the spiritual part of it yet?” Kit countered. 

June rolled her eyes.

“You know what I mean.”

“I might, but I’m not convinced you do.”

In case you’ve forgotten, Kit teaches something she calls “practical yoga” three mornings a week. It’s basically aimed at teaching correct posture and ergonomic movement habits. I took it for a few years as a novice, and sometimes I still go to remind myself to move properly. I noticed that as a result of the class, not only do I get injured less often, I’m also more attractive to women. June says I am “graceful.”

Anyway, June can’t normally go, because it conflicts with Zazen, which is required for yearlings, but she did the afternoon make-up session of Zazen a few times in order to check it out. Now she’s full of questions.

“You’re not doing traditional yoga,” she said, finally.

“I’m not a traditional yoga teacher,” Kit explained, stirring thin goatmilk yogurt into a bowl full of berries. Some people put fresh fruit on their cereal. Kit tends to put cereal on her fruit.

“Look, if you don’t want to tell me, that’s alright, but just say so. Spouting tautologies is not going to make me give up.

Kit laughed, and passed the pitcher of yogurt on to the next person.

“I mean I’m not Indian,” she said. “I’m not Hindi. I don’t want to be Hindi, and my students aren’t Hindi. I don’t have the cultural context in which traditional yoga makes sense, so it wouldn’t really be traditional yoga if I taught it. I teach something else.”

“Truth in advertising?” asked my wife.

“Sort of. And not taking what’s not mine. Not benefitting from the social cachet of traditional yoga when it’s not really mine.”

Bennie, this year’s other one-hit wonder, and a woman, despite the name, was sitting on June’s other side and spoke up.

“Kit, everything you believe comes from somewhere else. You’re a collage. If you mind borrowing other people’s ideas so much, why aren’t you Christian, like your ancestors?”

“Before my ancestors were Christians, they were pagans.”

“Two thousand years ago.”

“Ben, you’re Wiccan, too,” said June.

“Yes, but I don’t pretend my religion isn’t made up out of stuff I borrowed.”

June shot Bennie a look. The comment was not the sort of thing normally said to one’s professors. But Kit just smiled.

“I don’t, either,” she said. “But I do make sure the people I borrow from get a good deal.”

This kind of conversation is par for the course here, especially if you want to eat with yearlings. They ask a lot of challenging “why” questions. It’s familiar, almost reassuring. And yet, for lunch I could not stomach it, no pun intended. I jumped on my bike and went into town to buy myself a sandwich, a Twinkie, and a coke. I haven’t done that sort of thing in years, and I don’t know why I did it now.

Eating that junk felt delightfully transgressive.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 4: Post 6: Identification

Rather unexpectedly, I have a new teacher--June. I've been doing a lot of workshops and things with the novices, and now I've started doing programs for the campers, too. They do farm work in the morning and then, after lunch, can choose among a variety of activities, from archery and arts and crafts, to natural history and science activities, and even free, unsupervised play. The natural history and science part is me--or, partly me, anyway. Only, I've never had training in programming for children before. So June is training me.

The advantage to this is we get to spend more time together, but I admit it's pretty weird, changing roles like this.

I like how I get a new crop of kids every week. That means I can try the same workshops over and over again, analyzing my performance and fixing my perspective--with the help of June and Sharon. I'm teaching tracking, plant identification, map and compass, fire construction, and Leave No Trace. I also do programs where I dissect owl pellets, talk about bones and skeletal anatomy, and another talk about feathers. I'm thinking of doing Dissect a Groundhog, though that's going to have to be demonstration only, for safety reasons. And I'm not sure how I want to explain Charlie hunting groundhogs to these kids. About half my programs are my idea, but for the others I'm using outlines developed by other people in previous years. Most of these things are short, and each week I'm getting better and better at them.

Meanwhile, I continue teaching Charlie what I learned in grad school. We've finished my first year, now, and are on to my second. He still wants me to at least try to teach everything from grad school in my workshops, too, but of course a lot of it doesn't really work that well. I'm glad for the exercise it's educational, and there are surprises, but a lot of my rad school material just doesn't translate well. The students here aren't interested, and I get very low attendance. But a few people do show up, and they know why I'm doing this so they don't hold it against me. They give me very useful feedback, and then I use the dregs of those workshops to put together things that really do work for this audience. And my attendance for those is pretty good.

And every day I'm writing. Now I'm editing, too. And my poems are getting better. I mean, my poems are getting better through editing, which I hadn't thought was possible for poetry, but here I am, doing it. And I also mean that my first drafts are improving. My thoughts, I guess, are getting clearer and more focused, and I'm getting a better grasp of what I want to do when I sit down to wite. My soul is indeed clarifying, I guess.

So I'm doing well, everything is going along ok, I'm succeeding at everything I try, and I should be thrilled.

And yet I have this feeling. It's tight and hot and dark. It'd distracting, but it also keeps me focused. It's persistent. It's growing, I think. I remember what Allen taught me about naming my feelings based on my bodily sensations and spontaneous thoughts.

This feeling is called anger.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 4: Post 5: I Don't Understand It Myself

I've been so busy mostly talking about June and our wedding and everything related that I forgot to mention an important piece of news--remember Carrie? She was a candidate when I was a novice. We were friends, though never close, and I wrote about her once or twice. Anyway, she's back--in the master's group, now.

She's not one of the Six (they haven't changed), she's in the non-teaching staff, in charge of heavy maintenance and IT. The position did not exist when I was here before--there's been some rearranging. Chuck, the maintenance head has left, as has Joe, the head of the janitor team, and Security Joe is still here, but completely retired. I think I mentioned all that before. So, now they've folded cleaning in with light maintenance (meaning replacing light bulbs and so forth) and security, meaning that there's a team of people whose general responsibility is to look over campus regularly ad make sure nothing is wrong. That's now the responsibility of a woman named Waverlee. Heavy maintenance means anything you need to be a mechanic or a carpenter or a plumber to do, and that's Carrie's responsibility, as is anything to do with the computers, email system, website, etc.

When I was here before, IT just sort of seemed to get taken care of. It was one of the miracles of the place--I assume the work was being done by an ally, and that there wasn't enough of it to require the attention of anyone on campus very often. Now, as the campus belatedly joins the twenty-first century, there are more machines, and hence more going wrong with machines, and the topic has been elevated to part of an actual job.

Anyway, so Carrie is back. We haven't spoken to each other a lot, though she was at my wedding. She's the first person I knew as a student to come back and work as a master. It's kind of odd.

In the meantime, I've been writing a poem a day, as per Charlie's instruction, mostly about my spot in the woods, and always inspired by it. And he keeps marking them up with red pen. His red pen is not kind. Whole stanzas are crossed out. Marginal notes include things like "what does this even mean?" and "why are you calling this poetry?"

At first I thought these were just rhetorical devices for criticizing me, code for "this means nothing" and "this isn't poetry," but I should have known better. Charlie uses language as precisely as Allen, maybe more so, and if he wants to make a statement, he makes a statement. If he asks a question, he means he wants an answer. So, finally I started sending back answers, along with the new poetry. He sent back a note, "I was wondering when you'd start replying. I'm not talking to myself, you know."

And you know, the funny thing is that most of the time when he asks me to explain something, I realize I don't really understand myself?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 4: Post 4: For the Sake of a Good Time

I don't know why June still has classes this semester, given that she's now working full time as the director of a large summer camp. I've asked her, and she points out that she is in school, so taking classes is important, and I can see that, but still, it does look like a whole lot of work.

She's continuing her policy of taking all of Allen's classes. This summer, that means The Psychology of Magic and The Art of Listening and Love, the second of which was one of Greg's classes when I took it, but now that Greg's retired, he's given it to Allen. She's even taking Tricks of the Trade, Allen's technical course on stage magic, which means she now has access to his how and wherefore and has been sworn to secrecy. I can ask "what did you do in school today, dear?" and she can't tell me.

Meanwhile, campus has been taken over by children. I have not counted, but I think there are more of them than us--let's see, three age groupings, roughly twenty campers in each, so, no, probably not more, but there are a lot of them, and while we hardly ever speak with them, their presence changes how we live on a daily basis. They take up physical space, they take up auditory space (the shrieking!), and we can't wear our uniforms anymore, lest the oddness of our appearance trigger questions. Not that we really want to wear uniforms right now, because it's too hot.

Except, of course, when night comes and a few of us gather, cowls raised, to recite poetry in the grape arbor among those few children daring enough to sneak out and spend an evening with the Elven King.

I mean our Dead Poet's Society, of course. I've talked about it here before, though not in a while. It's pretty much like what you see in the movie. Charlie leads it. It's not against the rules, but it is secret unless you get invited. In the summer, we encourage the campers to sneak out and join us. It's not against the rules, but they don't know that.

June has not gotten an invitation--she's not friends with Charlie, and I didn't think it sounded like her kind of thing, anyway--but we let her in on the secret because she's the camp director. She had to know about the imaginary rule and why it's there. One kid already has gotten "caught," and was duly assigned to shadow Charlie for a day as "punishment" (it's no punishment at all, of course), so she had to figure out how to tell the kid's parents about the infraction without blowing the cover of the whole game or getting the kid in real trouble at home. I didn't envy her that task.

In fact, this coming Wednesday--the day when Dead Poet's Society meets--will be July 4th, so the campers will stay up late and walk down to the lake to watch fireworks, and none of them will be available to sneak out for poetry. I'll have to choose whether to watch the explosions myself, or attend to poetry. It's a decision that is no decision. Everyone who knows me knows what I will do.

Just as I know without asking that Charlie will not cancel poetry among vines and fireflies for the sake of mere colored gunpowder.