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.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 6: Post 4: Leaves and Leaving

I went for a walk with Kayla the other day. I hadn’t spent much time with her in a while, and we hadn’t really talked about her studies, her career through the school, in years. 

“You’re graduating this year,” I said, after a bit.


“Is it weird? I mean, you’ve been here forever.”

“Not forever,” she corrected me. “Just my whole life. And yes, it’s weird.”

“I’d be scared, if I were you,” I said. She laughed.

“Is that your big-brotherly advice? To be scared?”

“No, it’s just what I would do. I’m not saying it’s a good idea.”

“I’m not scared. Maybe I should be? I’m going to miss all of you, though.”

She has this deal, to make sure she goes out and experiences the “real world,” where she’ll be barred from campus for a year, not even allowed to call. If she wants to come back for her ring, she’ll have to be Absent, or at least living and working elsewhere, for ten years, not the normal three.

“We can visit you, though,” I pointed out.

“Only one at a time,” she reminded me. “And honestly, you won’t. Not very often. You’ll get all wrapped up in your lives here, and you’ll forget to visit.” I started to protest, but she overrode me. “No, it’s ok, I think that’s part of the point. If they thought you’d all come by my apartment every other minute, they’d probably put tighter restrictions on me.”

“They’re tough.”

“They are.”

“What about Aidan?” He's an exception to the one-at-a-time rule, I knew that.

“He has to come visit me. Every day and twice on Sundays. I told Mom I’ll reveal the location of her secret chocolate stash if she doesn’t take him.”

“Ooo! So, what’s your plan? When you leave?”

“Did I tell you I joined Joe’s company?” Impressive news, though apparently a non-sequitur. Joe, my former boss on the janitor’s team, you may remember, has a dance company off-campus. Hardly any students ever dance with him, though, because he does not teach beginners. You have to audition. She had passed.

“That’s great! So?”

“Well, he does pay his dancers. Not much, but with that on my resume, and the dance classes I’ve been teaching at the summer camp, I should be able to get a job as a dance instructor, somewhere.”

“Kayla, I’ve never asked you—what do you study here?”  Her first few years, of course, she was just taking the occasional course and mostly being a kid. She only really got serious about earning her degree while I was away in by own Absence.

“When I was little,” she said, “and I’d ask my Mom how she knew something, she’d always say ‘it’s something I learned in Mom School.’ Well, I guess I’ve been going to Mom School.”


“Yeah. I mean, I met my healing requirement by learning how to take care of a small child, everything from baby CPR to how to splint a fracture, to reading all this child-development stuff. Magic is stage magic so I can entertain my kid and make things he shouldn’t have in the first place disappear. My spiritual studies revolve around what it means to be a mother and how to integrate my experience of…having Aidan, you know? My Craft is cooking, but I’m going to try to argue it’s building a human being… Mom School.”

“But your Mom is mostly raising Aidan.” As soon as I said it, I knew I should not have, but she appeared not to take offense.

“Let’s just say that if Aidan comes into fatherhood early, I’ll know how to help him.”

While we’d been talking, we’d come down among the sugar maples on the side of the road. Most of the leaves are still up, and some of them are even still green, but a lot have fallen already. I’d been using my foot to idly push leaves into a small pile, as if I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. Now, I knelt to tie my shoe.

“I know one thing you’re not prepared for though,” I said, while still kneeling.


“A Sneak Leaf Attack!” I shouted, and tossed the pile at her. We were both wet and tired and covered with bits of vegetation when we made it back for Friday Dorm Dinner.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 6: Post 3: Andy's Ministry

It’s curious, of the whole candidates’ group, all of us returned either this year or last year. There are no third-year candidates. Of course, a lot of people do finish their candidacies in only a year or two, but three and four-year candidacies aren’t uncommon. I could end up having one—I already know that I’m not earning my green ring this year, and I wouldn’t want to. And the two who earned their rings this past Brigid, Yves and Wren, were both third-years. 

But the Brigid before that, no one came back to start a candidacy. And Yves and Wren were the only two who came back before then. So, no third or fourth years, now.

All this must seem pretty dry and random. Like, who cares, right? And it’s almost that. I mean, I was just thinking about things the other day and it popped into my head—huh, no third-years. But we’re a very small group, we candidates, and small groups are prone to weird fluctuations according to chance. That’s one of the things I learned in grad school. The laws of probability, the type of reasoning that flows from them, it’s a way of thinking as unusual, as magical, as any kind of mysticism. Maybe more so, because the magic, for all its power, hides in plain sight.

Half the magic and mysticism here is, in fact, scientific reason. Charlie has scientific training, as do both Allen and Joy, in slightly different ways. Logic, quite specifically, was the teaching my friend, Jim received here, and reason was a big part of Ollie’s training as a novice. And of course, Charlie sent me off to grad school and a degree in environmental science quite deliberately.

And then there is Andy.

Andy, the one-time bicycle thief, the recovering heroin addict, the born-again devotee of Jesus Christ. He’s not so entertaining as he was when he first arrived here, blithering with chronic hypothermia and religious fire, but he remains the real deal, dedicated to tripartite monotheism in a proudly polytheistic enclave, and happily oblivious to any kind of thought that moves in a straight line.

I dropped in at his bicycle shop the other day. He doesn’t own it yet—his credit is not yet repaired to the point where he can get the loans a business owner is likely to need—but the owner has essentially retired. In most ways that matter, it is Andy’s shop. And you can tell.

When you come in, there is the normal bike shop smell of rubber and grease, but also something else—the scent of coffee and, sometimes, baked goods. Andy’s set up a sort of bar where people can come in and sit and chat and drink coffee as long as they like, while he works and chats back, or rings up customers. The coffee’s free, though there’s a donation jar marked COFFEE FUND on the counter. Sometimes there’s fruit, or chocolate, or doughnuts, or baked goods on the counter, also free.
The rack of cycling magazines doubles as a library—you can read as long as you like, without buying, and stuck in among the cycling mags are copies of National Geographic, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Watchtower. There’s always a couple of people hanging out, and Andy asks them for a hand, or delivers random lessons in bicycle maintenance, when he gets the urge.

There are bulletin boards all along the back wall, some for community notices, some for cycling-specific messages, some for photographs of customers having adventures on their bicycles. The boards are all framed by rows of Christian bumper-stickers, and Christian rock often spouts from an old boom-box in a corner. He’s still only here part-time, since he’s mostly on campus. Two shop assistants make up the difference. But the place comes alive when he enters it.

This shop is Andy’s ministry, as he puts it. He’s set up a place for people to chat for the express purpose of getting to know his customers and providing a space for them to reveal any problems they might have, which he then solves, if he can. He teaches courses in bicycle repair, often to various underprivileged groups and sometimes for free. He rents out the warehouse space to AA and NA meetings. He organizes races, small concerts, and guess-the-number-of-jelly beans raffles to raise money for various, mostly local causes. There is a second donation jar labeled “Buy a Kid a Bike,” and he periodically uses its contents to give free bikes to people in need—often children, but sometimes adults. He never draws attention to the program, though, and never identifies the recipients of the bikes.

All of the service he offers is practical. Despite the literature and the bumper stickers and the music, he never talks about Jesus with his “parishioners,” unless they bring Him up. Even then, his religious talk is minimal. He offers a friendly ear, information, money, and free bicycles to anyone who needs it.

“No preaching?” I asked, teasing him a little.

“Did Jesus preach to the lepers,” he responded, “or did He heal them?”

Monday, October 2, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 6: Mind in Poetry, Poetry in Mind

Well, here we are. It's October, the air is crisp and cold, the trees are well on their way to peak foliage, and it's only a month before the end of the academic year. I always find this time a little surreal, thinking about how the year is about to be over, and how far we've come since Brigid--and how far I've come since that first Brigid--and which ones of my friends are about to graduate, even though the actual end of the year, actual graduation, isn't until February. It's this sudden, weird rush of perspective.

Of course, the person who's graduation is most on my mind is June, and she's not going anywhere.

The Mansion is decorated for Fall, now--that started some weeks before Mabon, of course, and will continue into Samhain, with items being gradually added and occasionally subtracted. Dried seedheads in attractive arrangements are slowly proliferating as the world outside makes them available, for example. But at the moment the Hall looks really good, filled, this year, with pots of red and yellow chrysanthemums, and the Thankyou Doll sitting in state in a kind of altar on the mantle piece, and the weather outside still warm enough for all the windows to be open during the day.

Charlie and the landscaping crew are busy putting the campus "to bed" for the year, and it's weird not to be working with them. Sometimes I really miss being on the crew--I can help out when I have time, of course, but they don't really need an extra person, and I rarely have time anyway. I get my hands in the dirt at my off-campus job and when I do trail work up in the woods. It's other students' turn to be on the campus crew, now.

What I have been doing is teaching my workshops and seminars and going over my grad school notes with Charlie. Both are almost done, since Charlie and I are just going over the last of my grad school classes and my thesis now. It's strange to think that this last--the thesis process--is something Charlie never completed. Academically speaking, I now outrank my teacher. I wonder if that ever makes him wistful? Not finishing? Of course, he doesn't need a master's degree because he is a master six ways from Thursday, but he wouldn't be the first person to be irrationally regretful.

And I continue to write a poem every day from my special spot in the woods, and to edit my poems with Charlie. I've given up on the idea that it's impossible to edit poetry, just as I've given up on the idea that one can't write poetry on command, that one has to wait for the muse to descend. I write when it's time to write and I edit and I improve.

And yet I've noticed that the thing Charlie suggested as an alternative to editing--he said that if poetry can't be edited because it expresses the writer's soul then we'd have to improve my writing by improving my soul--seems to be happening also. I don't mean that I'm getting enlightened, or anything like that, I mean that I'm starting to be able to see the problems that Charlie flags. The way I read my own poetry is changing. And I've noticed that when I arrive at my "spot," I automatically slip in to my "writing mood." I'm more observant, and I'm observing my observations, rather than daydreaming or worrying about things. It's as though my mind is in a poem even before there is a poem in my mind.

Just the other day, he suggested that I start writing poems in and about other places, too.

"Why?" I asked. "Wouldn't poems about other places ruin the thematic unity of the eventual book?"

Notice I didn't say aren't I supposed to be writing about my spot, or some other appeal to rules and authority. I said "thematic unity," something I never used to even notice, let alone care about. Anyway, he flashed me a smile, a brief indication of approval.

"Good question," he said. "I do want you to continue to write about your spot. Unless you'd rather do something else, all the poems you publish in the book will be about that spot. But you can write about other things, and you should, and when you do, I hope you'll share them with me."

So, that's what I'm doing.

Perhaps the objective is to have my mind in a poem all the time?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 6: Post 1: Mabon

Happy belated Mabon.

It’s curious, we call our autumnal equinox party “Mabon,” but we never talk about who or what a mabon is. Where does the name come from? Why do we use it? Kit told a story once about a quest to find a man named Mabon, who was the only person able to kill a magical boar who needed to be killed as part of a long, multi-stage process without which one of King Arthur’s knights would have been unable to wed the woman he loved. But what that Mabon has to do with Fall, I do not know.

In any case, happy Autumn. The leaves have definitely begun to turn here, although we are still at least a week or two away from peak color, and the goldenrods and asters are in full flower in the fields—everything still has the look of fullness, of growth, although the insect song has changed radically—the cicadas are done for the year, as are some others I can’t name, all we have left in the thin, pulsing music of the crickets. They’ll go until frost.

I enjoyed the celebration. I always do. This year was a little different because for once I didn’t have to choose between the Gratitude Circle and the Thankyou Doll build, which normally happen at the same time, but this year Allen had to move the Circle up two hours because of an appointment he had with a therapy client that could not be scheduled at any other time. That put it opposite Greg’s Higan observance, which was unfortunate, because Karen normally attends the Circle and of course she helps with the Higan service. But the good news is that people who always attend the Thankyou Doll build—Charlie, Sarah, and most of the sprouts—were free to attend the Circle. Of course, Charlie didn’t come. I’d hoped he would, but Kit attends the Circle and they are still allergic to each other.

Anyway, the Gratitude Circle meets in the grassy area behind Chapel Hall, near the outdoor grill where we have Philosopher’s Stone Soup. It’s almost enclosed by the Hall on one side, the Main Greenhouse on another, and by a partial and broken ring of tall hickory trees. They’re only beginning to turn, and the place still looked very green and lush, with plenty of room in the middle for fifty or sixty people to stand in a ring, me and June included.

The way it works is that there is a big basket of balls of yarn, rejects from student spinners, and someone takes a ball, gives it to someone else, thanks them for something, and keeps the end of the yarn so that a strand of yarn connects thanker and thankee. The next person gives it to someone else, and on and on, until everyone is connected by a visible web of gratitude and yarn. Once the web starts filling in, it becomes impossible to cross the circle to give the ball of yarn away, so a child ferries it around, tying on new balls of yarn when the old ones finish. For three years Alexis had that honor, but I’ve heard that two years ago she gave it to Aidan, since she was getting too big to run under the yarn. Aidan is still little, but this year he decided he didn’t want to attend the Circle, so he passed it on to my nephew, Paul.

I’m proud to see a family member of mine getting involved in that way.

Allen always starts the Circle, since it’s his show, and he always thanks a member of his family first, in this case, Alexis, whom he adores. She handed it back to him, to thank him for getting the pet ferrets (whom she adores and actually had with her inside her shirt), so he had to find someone else to thank. To my surprise, he picked me.

“Thank you for becoming my friend,” he said. “And for coming back. We need you.”

“It’s good to be back,” I said. I could have thanked him in return, but there was someone else I had to hand the yarn to, first. That early in the proceedings, I didn’t have to use Paul as a go-between (and Allen hadn’t). I strode across the circle to my wife.

I handed her the yarn, and I kissed her. And I mean I really kissed her. Everyone else hooted and hollered, which of course was part of the point, and when I let her come up for air she said “woa!” and everybody laughed and hooted again.

So, who did June give her yarn to? She gave it to me, of course, and kissed me. And I mean she really kissed me. Grabbed my ears for leverage and everything (scratched one of them too, by accident, but I ignored that). More hooting and hollering. So, when she let me come up for air, I gave the yarn back to her and kissed her again.

“I could get used to this!” I said, to make everybody laugh.

“Get a room!” someone shouted. More laughter.

“We can’t until February, she’s a novice!” I shouted back.

“Screw February,” June said, with feeling, “I’m getting you alone tonight!” She spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear her, and triggered more laughter.

She made as if she were going to give me the yarn again, just for effect, then pushed me away, gently, and said “tonight.” That was for laughter, too of course, but it wasn’t only for laughter—she kept her promise.

I returned to my place in the ring, carefully trailing all three strands of yarn between us, and she gave the yarn to Kit and thanked her “for introducing me to the other kind of magic.” June is learning stage magic from Allen, but recently she’s started studying Wicca with Kit.

“What, no kiss?” asked Kit, and everyone laughed, and June kissed her on the cheek. “Oo, I can see why he likes you!” she said, afterwards, as though that chaste peck had been something else, and the laughter kept going, while June giggled, embarrassed, into the back of her wrist. From then on, though, Paul had to take up his duty as Yarn Ferry (Yarn Fairy?) and kissing did not become a theme of the whole Circle.

Anywhere else but here, on campus, such kissing and joking would have been out of place, especially with children present, but there is a kind of innocence to sex here. It’s an innocence very carefully maintained; Kit would never have joked about kissing me, for example, because it would not have been a joke to me, and she knows it, and her respect for that boundary is absolute.

A year ago, I don’t think June would have joked that way, not with me in public, and certainly not with a woman. She has learned that innocence. She has become of this place.

After the Gratitude Circle, we went right over to the Thankyou Doll Build, which June found utterly charming. This year, the Doll was made mostly of parsnips, with stalks of Setaria grass as hair and a couple of bright orange, pre-maturely fallen sugar maple leaves as a skirt. Two blue potatoes served as breasts, very long green beans for arms, and the thin tip of a parsnip made for a very long nose.

“Those potatoes aren’t the same size,” remarked a young yearling named Brad, as though the disparity were a comical design flaw. And indeed, we had tried to find a matching pair and done the best with what we had.

“Someone hasn’t seen enough women,” muttered Charlie, busily affixing a pair of tiny, round chilies to the face with broken toothpicks. They would be eyes. He wasn’t joking.  Charlie is celibate, but he’s not sexless, and he has no patience for straight men who maintain unrealistic ideas about women’s bodies. Nobody laughed. Brad blushed.

Later, after we had woken the Thankyou Doll (Joyce Anne did the honors, being a few months younger than my other nephew, Chris. The twins, Janus and James were both there, so technically James was the youngest one present, but the twins are late talkers), and given it the traditional tour, we sat down to the Paleolithic Feast.

Charlie sat down next to me. 

“I heard you had quite the Gratitude Circle today,” he said.

I blushed.

“I’m not criticizing,” he added, responding to my blush.

I relaxed a little.

“I heard you talked to Allen.”

He meant, I think, the conversation I had with Allen a week or so ago about my status as a student.

“Welcome back,” he said.