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, January 30, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 1: Post 1: Brigid

With this post, I am returning to weekly (not twice-weekly) posting, and to the perspective of myself in the past--except I am now writing as though it were 2007. As this post begins, it is February, and I am 26 years old. I have a newly-minted master's degree in conservation biology, and I am engaged to be married. I have returned to the school whose name I never give for my green ring. -D.

I can hardly believe I am back here. I can hardly believe I was ever away. There is something more real about this campus and these people than any other place I have ever known. For the three years I've been gone, it has always been before my eyes, somehow, as if everything else were a veil of illusion or a dream. Now the dream has been stripped away and I am here again.

June and I came on campus together mid-day on February first, ready to enroll, me as a candidate for mastery, she as a new student. I still can't quite believe that part, either--that she's enrolling in college all over again for my sake. It's no great sacrifice on her part--I agree she'll probably be a one-hit wonder, she already plans to pay her tuition and fees by donating her car and by working, as I did, and it will be good for her career and for her as a person. Coming to this school was unquestionably one of the two best decisions I've ever made. But she can't know all of that, yet. She can't know how this place will transform her until it actually starts to happen. She's here for me, and the enormity of that trust and commitment...it's just a much bigger thing than I really know how to deal with.

The best decision I ever made was that night, back at grad school, when I turned around coming out of that building and found June there.

Absence does not apply to communications with Sharon in her official capacity. I had told her that I was coming back and I had arranged the details of what passes for application and acceptance here with her back in November, just as soon as I got my degree. In other words, I knew, more or less, what I was doing this time.

June and I drove up, parked the car behind the Mansion with the others, grabbed our bags, walked into the office through the front door, and June rather dramatically handed over the keys to the car. She was donating it, committing herself to she knew not what, and doing it without reservation. We signed some papers, and I handed over a very large check from my parents--the balance of my college fund. It should cover whatever fees might apply to me that I can't work off while I'm here.

"Welcome,"Sharon said, smiling her old inscrutable smile. She hadn't changed at all.

"Are uniforms still in the side office?" I asked.

"Yup. June, you can stash your stuff in there, too, for now. Daniel, you have your old room."

"I can't room with Daniel?" June asked.

"You can do whatever you like," said Sharon, still smiling, "but you won't get everything you can out of this place if you insulate yourself from newness."

"I've heard of you," June said.

"I'd be surprised if you hadn't," Sharon replied.

We went and selected our uniforms, June's in white, with a black cloak, me all in brown, except for the white cloth belt. We changed up in my room (nobody said I can't have visitors!). It felt good to be dressed properly again, though odd to look down and see myself in brown, almost like a master.

We had arrived about two hours later than we'd wanted to (we ran into traffic on the way, plus we'd gotten a late start), and by the time we came downstairs again, dusk had fallen. We went outside to walk around a bit. I know it's been warm here lately, and the snow has gone patchy and kind of lumpy and vague-looking, but it's cold now. The air smelled cold and froze my nostrils a bit, as air in February should. I bet the snow has a crust on top, though I haven't tried walking on it, yet. The patches, I noticed, too, were quite thick. I've been far enough away of late that I don't know what the weather's been like, here, and I spent some time puzzling over how the snow could be of such uneven depth--wind, perhaps?

I could see other people moving to and fro in the dim distance, and there had been a steady trickle of new students coming into the Office while we were there, but I did not see anyone else I knew until we almost literally bumped into Allen and Kit in the snowy dimness. Oddly, they were in almost exactly the same place where I'd bumped into Allen the last time I really spoke to him, a few days before my graduation. But he'd been in a snow suit then, and they both wore uniforms now, layered with two cloaks against the weather.

Both of them hugged me warmly, one after the other, then greeted June, whom they remembered from her visit last year. We all chatted briefly, and they teased me by congratulating June on landing such a fine catch--they knew I'd blush and fidget and I did. The last time I had seen them, they had literally vanished in front of my eyes, like fog evaporating, like a spell breaking. That was three years ago, in another world, another life. And here they were, chatting with my fiancee in a friendly, prosaic way, like ordinary people, on an ordinary day. I wanted to pinch myself, pinch them, to make sure they were real.

Kit caught me staring and smiled. I think I blushed again, embarrassed. Allen noticed our exchange,  looked at me searchingly for a moment, and grinned.

"You'd started to think you'd imagined us, didn't you?" he said.
"Welcome back to Avalon," Kit told me.

June and I made our way to the Chapel, and found our seats. It was very strange to sit there in that familiar scene and not know anyone, and strange, too, to think of how much I know about this place that June doesn't. Part of that is by design, for I am in on some of the secrets that will be used to direct her education. I knew, for example, the mechanism by which dorms are assigned and that, for the first time that I knew of, the mechanism had been altered to ensure she would not be in my dorm. Part of my job would be to keep her from "clinging to the familiar," as Sharon put it, and yet to keep her from seeing the mechanism until it had had a chance to work.

A bell struck, high and clear, and struck again and again, dulling reason and brightening the mind. The room was cold and dim and honey-colored in the candle light and smelled of wool and snow and floor soap and beeswax, the sights and scents and sounds of tradition. I turned in my chair to see the masters processing in, fourteen hooded figures in brown, each bearing a single, unlit candle. I picked them out by shape and height; the tall, thin one was Greg, the slightly less tall one must be Joy--or maybe Sarah. Kit and Karen are indistinguishable from a distance, in poor light with their hoods up. Charlie, short and square, is unmistakable, and I was glad to spot him. I'd developed a strange paranoia that he had died while I was away. And some figures were indeed missing--where was Joe, my former boss on the janitorial team? Where was Chuck, the maintenance head? Could I just not make them out, or were they gone?

When they took their seats on stage, surrounded by candles, I saw that, yes, Joe and Chuck were not there. Neither was Malachi or Security Joe. And the non-teaching group had shrunk by two--fourteen masters processed in, but two of them peeled off and took their places by the side of the stage, ready to hand out diplomas. Only two new people, a man and a woman, sat with the non-teaching masters. I didn't recognize either of them.

Things change, of course.

Joy served as master of ceremonies and so she must be head of the masters' group now. The new yearlings, including June, introduced themselves and, without knowing it, sorted themselves into dorms. Then we, the new mastery students, stood up to introduce ourselves. We were scattered throughout the audience, and I hadn't seen any of the others before we sat down. I had known that Ollie and Rick were planning to return this year, but I didn't know for sure, and there were a lot of other people eligible to return whom I hadn't spoken to recently.

When we stood up, I saw Ebony standing a row or two over from me. I wanted to wave, but of course I didn't. When I said my name in introduction, I saw her startle, and tilt her head, as though to hear me better. I grinned.

When I sat back down, June asked me who I had seen.

"My ex-girlfriend," I told her. There was no time for further explanation, though. The ceremony was continuing.

The graduating novices filed across the stage speaking, as I knew but June did not, for the first time in three days. I recognized a few of them, but just barely. The new masters, two of them, received their rings and took their seats with the others. The ceremony concluded, and the masters recessed to the ringing of a small, hypnotic bell.

We adjourned to the first of the various receptions and parties of the night--the one at the back of the Chapel, where we milled around and chatted and ate dilly beans and dried fruit and the new yearlings each received their own cup.

"This place is weird," June said, holding her new cup in her hands as though she didn't know what it was for.
"Yeah, well, so are you," I told her, which isn't true. Or isn't especially true, anyway. I said it to lighten the mood because I was so afraid she wouldn't like the place that made me. But she didn't contradict me.
"Now I understand why we get along," she said, instead.







Thursday, January 26, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 8: June in February

In my last post I talked about being in graduate school and realizing that Allen had a point--I had utterly forgotten to take care of myself as a whole person just as soon as I was really on my own. I had that thought after I'd been there a few months, but I didn't really do anything about it. I couldn't figure out what to do. I was very busy with school work, and it seemed I hardly had time for anything else. I'd "wake up" every few weeks or months and sort of notice myself, and then I'd be driven again by deadlines and daydreams and my leaps at occasional opportunities to socialize....

And yet, on the whole, I enjoyed grad school. I liked the intellectual challenge of it. I liked how it was transforming me. And, while most of my friendships there were superficial and transient, I got along well with everyone. I usually do. Somehow, many of the people I fell in with were writers, as well as being educators or scientists, or whatever. I had never thought of myself as a writer, but I've written poetry privately, just for myself, since I was a kid, and I always enjoyed and did well at writing assignments in school. Listening to my friends talk about their work, I started to wonder if maybe writing could be a thing for me. Through some of my friends, I got a short-term job co-editing a single issue of a literary journal--I don't really know how that happened, I don't think I was the most qualified person available, but it did happen and I blossomed or something in that job. I mean, I really got into it. In my second year, I also got some work tutoring other students in the school's writing center. Learn by teaching, I suppose.

I was able to finish all my research for my thesis in my first summer (I'm not going to talk about my research topic--first, it's irrelevant to this blog, and second, my thesis is a public document and could conceivably be found and traced back to me, and that would be bad for the secrecy I'm trying to maintain, which is not for myself alone), so that left my second summer (after I had finished all my coursework) for writing and editing. I officially got my masters' degree in November of 2006.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I said most of my friendships from grad school were superficial and transient. One of them was not. It began one night early in my first spring semester I'd stayed on campus late so I could use some specialized software on one of the computer labs--which I was not supposed to do, the campus had closed hours earlier, but several of us had discovered that if we locked ourselves into either the computer lab or the herbarium (which also had a computer and was a quiet place to do homework), the maintenance staff would not bother to check if the rooms were empty.

Anyway, when I finished up, I noticed that half the lights in the building were still on--I don't just mean the hallway lights--a maintenance man was still there, cleaning--I mean classrooms. Drove me nuts. I'd always go around and shut them off when I found them like that.

So, I went around. But that night, as I went around, I started to get the feeling I was turning out the same lights twice. A little longer, and I was sure of it. Someone was turning the lights back on again. The maintenance guy wouldn't bother, and all the faculty had long since gone home, so it must have been a student who'd been working in the herbarium.

The way the building there is structured, the hallways on the second floor make a loop--the library is only a single story, but it has an extremely high ceiling with a skylight, and the hallways on the second floor wrap around the open space like a kind of courtyard. You can look look through from the windows of a classroom on one side to the windows of the classroom of the other. Eventually I got smart and started going around that loop, looking through the windows to the classrooms on the other side--and indeed, I saw the lights going back on again, but I never saw the person doing the switching. Whoever it was was hiding from me.

So I switched directions, hoping to catch the miscreant, but my opponent was to clever for me and switched directions, too. Pretty soon we were chaining each other through the building, turning lights off and on again, having a great time, until a voice shouted  YOU KIDS CUT THAT OUT!!!

The maintenance guy on that night was the mean one, not that he'd ever do anything to us, but he seemed to dislike grad students the same way some adults dislike kids. I quit playing and ran, making my escape through a side door that I knew would lock behind me--but someone else came out, too, almost on my heals. It was a woman. She was breathing hard and still trying not to laugh, her eyes shining.

"You!" I said.
"You!" she echoed, and then she did laugh and so did I. I knew her face, she was an environmental education student a year ahead of me, but of course we had no classes together. I'm not sure we'd ever spoken before. When we'd finished laughing and going on about our recent exploits, I asked her name.

"June," she told me.
"Juneberry," I said, almost reflexively. "Amelanchier." That's the genus that contains Juneberries. She laughed again.
"At your sarvis," she told me. Sarvis is one of the other names for Juneberries, along with service, serviceberry, and shadblow. I'd never met a woman who got one of my plant-geek jokes before--let alone one who could joke back in the same vein (but, really, funnier). I stared at her for a few seconds and giggled at me, her cheeks still pink from running around the building with me.
"There has got to be someplace still open where we can get a drink," I said.

But we never found any place to get a drink. We never tried. Instead we walked the town's bike paths for hours, dodging patches of black, breathing out clouds of frozen fog that caught the light of the occasional street-light, talking about everything in the world under the crystalline stars. The temperature had to have been close to zero--one of the coldest nights of the year, but we did not care.

When we finally separated so each of us could walk home and go to bed, it must have been around four in the morning. I went home, crawled in bed, and spent several hours shivering there, recovering from a mild case of hypothermia, but inside I felt as warm as I ever had.

We found a reason to get together once or twice a week after that, at first by happy accident, later on purpose. By spring break, we belatedly admitted we were "a thing." That summer, I moved all my stuff into her place, though we were careful to say we weren't really moving in together--I planned to spend the summer at a paid internship elsewhere, gathering data, and since I only had a ten-month lease anyway, stashing my stuff at her place meant I didn't have to pay rent while I was out of town.

That fall, I crashed at her place for a while, ostensibly until I could find somewhere with decent rent, until we realized we were being silly.

That winter, just over a year after we met, we were walking towards campus to print some things out, when we stopped on a bridge overlooking a creek. We both liked to stare down in to the water, and usually took a few moments whenever we came that way--alone or with each other.

"Do you suppose that's why they call them silver maples?" she asked, after a bit. Maples and elms arched over the creek and everything was white, white snow on the ground and in the trees, everything except the water at the middle of the stream, still unfrozen, fast-flowing, almost black in comparison, and breathing out great billows of fog into the frigid air. The fog caught and crystallized in the branches of the overhanging trees, hence my girl-friend's question.

"I don't know," I told he. "We could ask."

We were silent again for a bit. Everything was, except the cars on the road behind us, which we ignored.

"June," I began. "I have a confession to make."
"I thought you're Methodist?" she joked.
"No, I'm serious, I have to tell you this."

She stiffened.

"What?"
"It's nothing bad," I hurried to explain. "It's not even anything I did. I'm keeping a secret for some friends. But if I'm going to spend my life with, you, I don't want us to have those kinds of secrets from each other."
"'Spend your life with,' Daniel?" She asked. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

I apologized.

I did not get down on one knee. I didn't have a ring to give her. I had honestly thought she knew how I felt, and I didn't feel the need of a big production. I just turned to her, there on the bridge, and asked.

"June, will you marry me?"

He smile told me everything I needed to know, but her actual words were "that depends on the secret."

"The college program I attended was a non-denominational pagan seminary. We keep its true nature secret from outsiders because the entrance exam is you have to be intuitive enough to find the place. If you turn up, tell them you know it's a pagan seminary, or a magic school, or something, and that you want to enroll, they'll say yes."

"Non-denominational pagan seminary?" she echoed. "That's different. So, you're like a priest? And not Methodist?"

"I never said I'm only Methodist. I don't really put a label on myself. My parents raised me Methodist, is all. Yeah, I guess I'm a priest. I have the training to be a priest, anyway."

"What does that even mean?"

So, I told her. It took a long time. We got very cold walking around again (with a brief break to print out our stuff). And when I was done, she asked if she could think about it for a while. I had never thought anyone would have to think about a marriage proposal to me--I never thought anyone would really want to marry me, but I'd thought that if they did, they'd know right away. But I admitted it was a lot to take in. I could see her wondering if she'd stumbled into a cult.

I suggested that she contact the school and talk to them herself. I explained about how she couldn't carry any messages from me or two me, about Absence, and I gave her the number. She had already graduated by that time and was working an extremely part-time job, so she took a few days and actually visited campus. I suggested she try to talk to Lo, since she'd married into the community, too. She and Allen actually met in grad school, while he was in Absence.

I waited breathlessly until she got back.

"Well?" I said, when she returned. I was jumping out of my skin.
"I passed," she told me, casually, getting her stuff out of her car.
"Passed what?"
"The entrance exam. I'll start when you go back. They think I'll be a one-hit wonder, actually."
"What?" 

She stood and faced me, shoulders square.  

"I passed the entrance exam. I know it's a magic school, and I want to enroll, and I said so. I figure, from the way you talk, marrying you means marrying this school, so I'd better get to know it. That's a yes, by the way."

I don't think I had ever been as happy, until that moment. And I'm a pretty happy guy.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 7: School Days

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2017, again.

In my last post I forgot to say that I actually finalized the application process for both my summer job and my grad school while hiking the Appalachian Trail. I interviewed for both by cell phone from the tops of mountains that got decent reception. I think, in both cases, that my unusual circumstances helped win my case.

My summer job was as a back-country caretaker, meaning I lived at and was responsible for a hike-in-only campsite and a section of trail nearby. I did basic trail and site maintenance and Leave No Trace education--I had no enforcement authority, I just had to somehow explain to people why doing the right thing is a good idea. I had a radio to call for law enforcement if I needed it, but I never did.

It was remarkable how much of the caretaker training was review for me--Charlie had basically covered it. I'd even already read many of their recommended books. I don't mean that I didn't learn anything--I did--but that I kind of started out with a step up. I could pay a lot more attention to the parts of the training that I didn't know.

What I learned...I'd already become a naturalist and a student of place. I'd already become an educator, of sorts, since I'd been leading various workshops at school. What was different was that, as a caretaker, I was responsible for a place. I was its guardian. And I was the one deciding what kind of education different people needed, what kind of teacher they needed me to be. Sometimes I gave formal natural history talks. Sometimes I sprinkled information into my conversation so subtly that the other person didn't know I was trying to influence their behavior at all. And everything in between.

I spent a lot of time learning about the area and simply being there. I could sit quietly enough that I frequently saw animals, even at very close range, before they saw me. Often, human hikers didn't notice me at all, unless I wanted to. Once, I "decloaked" quite suddenly in order to tell a group of young boys not to damage a group of mushrooms they'd been poking at and I accidentally frightened them. I saw myself then, reflected in their eyes, as some kind of gnome or forest-sprite, a crazy and half-mythical man of the woods, and I thought of Charlie.

In August, as planned, I left my tent site in the mountains and started grad school--and ran straight into serious culture shock.

It wasn't so much that grad school was all that different, culturally, than what I had been in before. I mean, most of the students and, I think, all of the faculty were American, as am I, so it's not like there was this huge gap. Living at a strange little pagan seminary for four years couldn't completely change my background. It didn't make me become someone from another planet.

No, the jarring thing wasn't the culture, it was the expectations of the culture. It was as though I were approaching grad school from the opposite direction as everybody else.

As Charlie had suspected, the graduate program I chose prided itself on its environmentalist values, its progressive/liberal politics, and its dedication to community, but it wasn't as dedicated to any of that as the school I'd come from--or the employer I'd just left. At the same time, it probably was "greener" and more progressive than most of the other places the faculty and my fellow students could have been. So while everybody around me was either celebrating or joking about what a leftist, artsy, granola-greenie place they'd landed, I noticed the lights left on in empty rooms, the vehicles used for no clear reason, the profit motive lurking behind certain decisions made by the Administration. It was like getting directions to a place from someone heading South, except you're heading North, and neither of you knows it.

I don't mean to suggest any kind of pervasive, organized hypocrisy. Most of what I noticed was probably the result of simple institutional compartmentalization. There were faculty members who could explain in brilliant detail exactly why disposable plastic water bottles are bad, but those weren't the people deciding what to sell in the campus book store--which did sell bottled water. The other problems was that the school wasn't residential. We only spent a few hours a day together, and only, really, for a few months. Mine was a two-and-a-half-year program, but much of that time was occupied by off-campus internships and research trips. Even had the school leadership been interested in actively shaping a campus culture, there would have been small opportunity. And so each of us simply retained whatever interest in whatever values we'd started out with, and a thin, temporary, but on the whole caring, community grew out of our brief and hurried interactions.

And, on the whole, I liked it, once the disorientation of the first few months wore off.

I did well in my classes, of course, but for the first time in my life I did not shine among my fellow students. As far as I can tell, I was about in the middle of my class, academically, or sometimes somewhat below it. For one thing--honestly, I'm really smart. I know that. But in grad school, all of a sudden, all the other students were really smart, too. So the classes were designed to challenge people at least as smart as I am. I'd never had to work to pass classes before, but, all of a sudden, I did.

Then, I had never before taken a science class designed for budding scientists. Even Charlie had always proceeded from the assumption, probably accurate, that most of his students needed to be cajoled into taking any interest in scientific process at all. And I'd never before used a computer for anything other than typing up papers and playing video games (and, in the last few months, email)--while I was living in Brigadoon, the Internet revolution had happened, the virtual world moving from a curiosity reserved for geeks to the place where virtually all scholarship and professional communication occurred. I had to catch up, and quickly.

I was ahead in some classes. I was surprised to learn I was a better naturalist than almost all my fellow first-year students. Even most of the plant-geeks didn't know as much about plant identification as I did, and I was shocked to learn that even the professors assumed that you can't track animals except in snow. Many of the data collection techniques we were taught I already knew from Charlie's Messing Around Outdoors classes. What I didn't know, and needed to learn, was what to do with the data once you get them ("data" is plural, another new discovery!), and why you want to collect those data to begin with. I'd never before learned how to ask a question answerable by science, how to organize the rigorous search for knowledge.

I also didn't know bird identification. Charlie has only passing interest in it, but the student body included several enthusiastic birders and so I bowed to peer pressure and signed up for ornithology.

I thought of my friends back at school often. I thought of Allen midway through my first spring semester when I stepped out of the school building after studying late, looked up, and realized I hadn't thought to look at the stars in months. I hadn't spoken to anyone, other than my immediate family, about anything other than homework in about as long. I could not remember the last time anyone had hugged me, or the last time I'd sat doing nothing in the woods. I felt as though I'd been asleep, or worse than asleep, and was awake, just for a moment, before I slipped under again. I saw no way not to. I had homework to complete, responsibilities to meet. I had no time....

And I thought of Allen then without clearly understanding why. I had to wake up for several such moments over the course of almost a year, before I realized that Allen had in fact predicted my situation. I'd been working hard to do everything asked of me, and to do it well, just as I'd always done, except in the past, the people telling me what to do had all made a point of telling me to attend to my spiritual life, stay involved in my athletics, call my friends, and so on. Now, the only demands being made on me were academic. At the very first opportunity to take responsibility for keeping my own life full and vibrant, I'd become a lonely couch-potato with tunnel vision.

And yet, the longer I was in grad school, the more I noticed that the depth, the mystery, the magic I'd known was here, too. I just had to pay more attention.

Some of the school's traditions--even those I understood to be typical of academia in general--looked an awful lot like the ritual structures I'd learned from Kit and Joy. Some of the phrases some of the professors used reminded me an awful lot of the bits of mysticism and alchemy I'd learned. Some of the places we visited on field trips were obviously sacred sites and the professors clearly knew it--though they never said so.

Speaking in a mundane way, I'd say that some of the other people at grad school, including some of the faculty, may have had spiritual interests that they considered unprofessional to mention but which leaked out sometimes. But I doubt that's all of it. I thought about how, back at the school whose name I do not provide, Kit and all of the others would be so obviously mysterious. It was like the entire school was a giant neon sign blazing MAGICAL SECRETS HERE! TRY TO FIGURE IT OUT! But at grad school, there was no sign. That didn't mean there were no secrets.

In fact, I gradually realized that whatever interest in the occult individual professors may have had (and I never was able to confirm that hunch), I had entered another initiatory process. Learning to think like a scientist is every bit as much a transformation as learning to think like a priest or priestess is. The only difference is that the secrets of the craft are not hidden--

--Which makes them harder to find. For example, words like "theory" and "experiment," mean very different things to the general public and to the scientist, but because everyone thinks they are the same words, nobody realizes that scientists are, in fact, saying radically different things than everybody else--things you have to transform your mind in order to think. But nobody ever tells you that the transformation is about to take place, nor even that it is a possibility.

Kit and Charlie and Allen and the others put magic in a big pile, more or less directly in the way of everybody else, and kept making you trip over it until you finally realized it was there and started asking the right questions. In the larger world, I discovered, the magic still exists, and many people know about it, but if you don't notice it's there you can just walk on by it and nobody says anything.

Every minute is another entrance test.




Thursday, January 19, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 6: A Long Walk



Hi, all, Daniel-of-2017 here.

I will not attempt to describe my Absence in as-it-is-happening style blog posts. For one thing, that would take three years. But I am taking a couple of posts to summarize.

As I said in my previous post, the masters vanished, quite literally, from what had seemed the middle of a farewell celebration. They never re-appeared. Instead, we all left. We had to. It had been made clear to us, and to our parents, that for the time being, we were no longer welcome on campus. Some of our group would likely come back to visit and volunteer within a few weeks. Others, like me, intended to go into Absence. Either way, we had to pull a disappearing act ourselves.

I felt dazed, overwhelmed, but I got in my parents’ car and we went home.

I didn’t stay there long. By prior arrangement, Rick was waiting for me at the house. As expected, I had received all the gear I would need for my through-hike as gifts for either Christmas or graduation. Rick had made all the other arrangements himself and had bankrolled the whole thing (though I agreed to pay him back a large part of my share and my parents had made up the difference by arranging steep discounts on supplies through some business connections of theirs. We had a big sort-of “welcome home” dinner, I went to bed, and then well before dawn the next morning I woke, climbed in the car, and my mother drove Rick and me south, into the net phase of our lines.

On February 4th, Rick and I started our thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Whenever I admit that I am a thru-hiker (meaning someone who has completed the entire Trail in one hiking season), I always get the same questions—and they are the wrong questions.

Yes, we got cold.
Yes, we got wet.
Yes, we got tired.

A moment’s thought should answer all these questions, which is why they are frustrating to try to answer. Better questions, questions that really get at how we hiked and what hiking was like might be how did we cope with the snow and the cold? How much of each day did we spend hiking? Did we get off the Trail often to rest or party? Did either of us ever doubt we’d finish? Did we make friends with other people on the Trail? Did we get along with each other?

We hiked in snow shoes for the first month or so, and until the snow melted free we usually camped in shelters—these are three-sided shedlike things every few miles along the Trail. We both knew how to camp in the snow, obviously, but it’s just easier not to. Most days we’d spend about ten hours hiking, including short breaks to eat and so forth, but sometimes we went longer—we did 14 hours at least once, but probably should not have. In the first week or so, we had a couple of very short days because we were still figuring out how to do things and it sometimes took us a long time to break camp. Days when we went into town were short, too.

The short days were the problem. It was almost March before we entered Virginia, a pace far too slow to finish the Trail before we had to leave for our summer jobs. After some rather panicked mathematics, we realized that our short days were sinking us, pulling down our average. Thereafter, we were diligent about keeping our short days as long as possible, and our average came up considerably. That we were past the snow and north of the highest mountains helped, too, because we could lighten our packs by mailing home our winter gear.  By the end of March, we’d passed the halfway point, in Pennsylvania.

People sometimes ask me if that pace was too fast for us to really enjoy the Trail—as though the scenery were passing us by in a literal blur. But we very much enjoyed it—and we were only walking at about two and a half miles an hour. But do that for ten hours, and you go 25 miles. Do that every day for forty days, and you’ll do a thousand. It’s not going fast that does it, it’s the not stopping part.
We never got off the Trail to rest or to party—we had miles to cover, for one thing. For another, most of the places where we might have stopped, hostels and so on, were still closed for the winter until almost the end of our trip. And there wasn’t anyone to party with. Because we started so early, we virtually had the Trail to ourselves. We didn’t make any friends. The traveling camaraderie of hikers you sometimes hear about wasn’t our experience. We didn’t even have trail names, because there was no one around to use them.

I don’t know if Rick ever doubted he’d finish—I never did. We both sometimes doubted that I’d finish, though, for the simple reason that my summer job started a week and a half earlier. Neither of us ever thought we might quit (when you’ve spent three days in the dark trying not to talk, even in your sleep, you know how to not quit), and we tried not to dwell on the possibility of being injured.
I did not fear quitting (or bears or muggers). I did sometimes fear the cold or, later in our trip, lighting. We had several bad lightning storms in May, often when we were high on some mountain and very vulnerable. I remember frantically praying, promising Jesus that if he got me out of this storm unscathed, I’d start going to church regularly again. Then the storm would pass and I’d realize I’d been silly—not silly to pray, but silly to bargain for safety, especially not with Jesus. There are deities who promise personal safety and worldly success to their followers, but Jesus isn’t one of them. I’ve been to church regularly enough to know that.

I never spoke of my religious speculations with Rick. We seldom spoke at all, except for practical matters. I sometimes pointed out things of interest to him, things I’d noticed but thought he might not have, but he never did so with me. We got along in that we never seriously argued, but I often thought what he liked best about me was that I allowed him to ignore me.

Once, I remember asking him why he’d asked me along. We were lying in our sleeping bags in a shelter in Pennsylvania on a ridgeline overlooking a wide valley. It was night, and we could see the distant lights of buildings and streets, like stars through the bare winter branches of trees. I didn’t mean any complaint—I knew Rick would not have gone so very far out of his way to make sure I could join him if he did not value my company, but I honestly could not tell why. So I asked.

“I needed to hike with somebody,” he said. “Solo hikes are more dangerous, especially when there’s no one else on the Trail, and you bug me less than most people. You’re helpful for talking to other people when I don’t want to.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Take me or leave me, Kretzman. I like your company most of the time, though. Does that help?”

“I don’t hang out with you too be liked,” I told him, which is largely true, but that’s not why I said it. “What’s your plan, though?” I added. “I can’t imagine you settling down with anyone, or anything like that.”

“Oh, I might, if I found the right guy,” he said, his voice swimming out of the dark and the early spring cold silence. “But I admit I don’t see anyone thinking I’m Mr. Right. I know how I am. It’s alright; I like my company, even if other people don’t.”

His words made me sad for him, but I could not tell if he was sad, if the prospect of being alone his whole life bothered him. But it’s not the sort of thing he’d want me to ask, so instead I asked the other question that was bouncing around in my brain.

“The right ‘guy’?”
“Yes, the right guy,” he said, as though it should have been self-evident. “What, didn’t you know I’m gay?”

“No, how would I? You never said. Anyway, why would I care? I’m not going to ask you out.”

“You could do worse, Kretzman.”

“I could. I like a lover who likes me, though.”

“You slept with Joanna,” he pointed out. “She doesn’t like you.”

“She’s so good in bed, though,” I said, and regretted it.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Wow, you think you know a person.”

“Nobody knows me,” said Rick.

But he was a good man to hike with and, overall, an excellent companion, provided I did not expect an emotional response I knew he could not give. In the middle of May we completed our hike, climbing Mt. Katahdin together just days before I had to report to my job. I didn’t have much time for self-reflection. I was aware only that I was glad to have finished, proud to have finished on time (most thru-hikers take four to six months. We’d set out to do it in only three and a half and succeeded), and sad that the hike was over. I have since reflected plenty.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail did not change my life—sometimes it does for people, but for me it was an interlude, a halfway point between two very different ways of life. Overall, I enjoyed it, but I have not felt tempted to do it again. I did come away from the experience with the definite sense that I could adapt myself, that there are many different ways my life can look, and that I can choose or make a different way if I want to. I also know now that I can walk anywhere, provided it is not covered with water and provided there is enough to eat and drink along the way. I have it in my power to get up and walk to New York, or Alaska, or Tierra Del Fuego, if I want to.

I’ve never been tempted to walk to New York, or Alaska, or Tierra Del Fuego, but I can.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 5: Farewell

This post depicts events that began on the same day that the previous post ended, February 1st, 2004.--D.

After I spoke at the lectern, I crossed the stage and waited there with a large and growing crowd of my fellow graduates until all of us had revealed ourselves and spoken. While we waited, I looked out over the audience--a sea of dark and barely candle-lit people, people whom I knew and people whom I did not know. I thought about my first night here and how I couldn't imagine then being on the stage and now I was here, how I'd never had this view before and would never have precisely this view again. One can only graduate once.

Then, finally, Kit spoke some ritual words--I've heard that similar words are used at other schools, for they accomplish the legal magic of degree conferral. We were now college graduates, Bachelors of Arts. Then we filed down off the stage, once again in alphabetical order, and the mystery woman we'd seen in the wing before handed us our diplomas as we went by. We processed out of the Chapel and then none of us knew what to do from there. None of this had been rehearsed, we'd just seen what graduates did before--but where did they go after they left?


We milled around for a bit, until the mystery woman came out after us and shepherded us all into a nearby classroom. There she introduced herself as Anna, said she had graduated in 1998, and asked if we had any questions. We had lots of them.

How did the masters' arrange our "kidnapping" without letting any of the other students know? Where was our stuff from our dorm rooms?
Where were we going to sleep that night?
What would happen tomorrow?
When were we supposed to leave?
What had just happened to us?

She laughed and answered all our questions, except that last one, explaining that we were welcome to attend whatever parties we wanted that night, and could sleep wherever we wanted, but not to attend breakfast. We would have breakfast separately, at 7:30 the next morning, in the Chapel, after which our families would join us there for a kind of farewell celebration. Yes, our families had already been contacted. We would leave from there.

And that is what we did.

Incidentally, my graduating class did include a naked person. Almost every year I've been here, someone is naked under their cloak. I don't know why the tradition persists, we all know the naked person  has to stay that way for a while and ends up very cold, but it does persist. This year, the naked person was Joanna. It is a strange thing to consciously think "I'm looking at you naked for the last time." I imagine that most such last times, if you knew it was going to be the last time, you wouldn't get naked in the first place, but of course her nakedness had nothing to do with me anymore. She hardly spoke to me after the ceremony.

Having breakfast a half hour earlier than everyone else meant that when the new yearlings came out of meditation, we were already gone. In fact, I was gone long before that--I took a long walk before breakfast to say goodbye to campus. We were discouraged from saying too much to the students anyway--we were all supposed to just sort of vaguely vanish.

I don't know why vaguely vanishing is the thing. Perhaps the vagueness helps establish graduation as a thing people are used to not really knowing about, a thing they accept without asking questions--a lack of questions certainly makes it easier for them to spring the surprise of the ordeal on us. But whatever the reason, it actually makes our leaving abrupt, ragged. We don't really get to say goodbye, which is especially rough on those of us going into Absence. And we have to help support that vagueness by not saying goodbye, by intentionally misdirecting attention, the night of the parties, to the welcome of incoming yearlings, and away from what was happening to us. We had to establish ourselves as people the others just didn't ask about--that is something Anna made clear, that, having had our time as novices, we had to now support the novitiate experience of others.

We didn't really get to say goodbye to the masters, either, not one-on-one. As I realized that, I understood why Allen had made a point of speaking to me the other day, and I appreciated it. It bothers me that neither Kit nor Charlie did so, but I suppose they have their reasons. The masters have some activity Brigid Night that doesn't involve students, so they don't attend any of our parties, and they didn't attend breakfast with us. They did mingle briefly with us as they came in for the formal celebration, giving out hugs and congratulations and well-wishes, but that was brief. I think, at the time, we all thought we'd be able to talk to them afterwards.

I don't understand why leave-taking around here must be so abrupt.

In a way, we didn't even get to say goodbye to each other. Of course none of us wore uniforms to breakfast--none of us had uniforms anymore--and seeing everyone dressed in ordinary clothing, looking like the outsiders we all now were, somehow made us shy with each other and glum. It was as though we all belonged to each others' past already. We sat around together, awkwardly not knowing what to say.

The breakfast, incidentally, was entirely organized by Anna and several other former students. They were part of the secret of the ordeal--everything that needed doing in secret, behind the scenes, they had done. Former students such as Jeff and Arthur, who come to campus regularly, had even spread the rumors of the mysterious "something" we had to be on campus for. They were the elves making everything happen.

As we were helping to clean up after the meal, our families arrived, one or two or five people for each of us. I still don't know how a hundred-some extra people arrive on campus without the students ever noticing, but it happens, a giant magic trick, community-scale sleight-of-hand. While we were still milling around, introducing everybody and helping to re-arrange chairs, the masters arrived--just the Six, not any of the others--mingled briefly, and then retreated to the stage to begin what I can only describe as a roast. Of us, of course.

I had always wondered why it was that parents weren't invited to graduation--I mean, I knew several obvious explanations (Chapel Hall wouldn't fit everybody, the graduation ceremony is also an induction ceremony and therefore shouldn't include outsiders), but they only explained why graduation as we conducted it couldn't include families. I didn't know why graduation wasn't conducted differently so families could come.

It turns out that there is a second ceremony that families can come to, and that is the farewell roast. I guess it functions as a kind of hand-over, with the masters telling our families what we've been up to while in their care--with a great deal of teasing, of course.

There were thirty-seven of us, so of course they couldn't do each of us in turn. 37 separate roasts would have taken all day and all night. So instead, each of the six took a turn talking humorously about six or seven students. Most of us got roasted by that master who knew us best, but I noticed exceptions. For one thing, Zeb had worked most closely with Chuck, who isn't one of the Six and therefor wasn't there. For another, Charlie and Kit were both more popular in our year than any of the others, so some of their students got distributed to the others. Still, each of us got about two minutes to have our virtues and foibles extolled, to much hilarity.

Of course, Kit and Allen were the best at it--their speeches were the funniest, the most evocative, the most heart-warming. Both of them are professional performers. Karen was unquestionably the worst, as she remains painfully shy and actually had trouble projecting her voice loudly enough to be heard. Greg, too, had trouble. He is shy and, by temperament, quite serious. His "roast" of Steve Bees, for example, wasn't funny at all, though it was sweet, respectful, and true.

Joy's discussion of Eddie sticks in my mind, for some reason.

"I want to talk about Eddie," she began. "Eddie is a funny, kind, and compassionate man--and a huge flirt. Am I right, ladies? Is there any woman in the room who isn't married or a confirmed lesbian he hasn't come on to? Oh, there are? Well, give him time. Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression. Eddie is not a man without standards. Rather, he can see the best in everyone--which is why he wants to date all of us. I'm serious, now, it's a gift that he has--may we all become the goddesses Eddie thinks we are. But that's not what I came here to talk about. No, I want to talk about Eddie's other great passion; dogs."

From there she described his work with service dogs and therapy dogs and told a very funny story about a half-grown Newfoundland puppy who would not be tamed and ended up dragging poor Eddie halfway across a pasture.

My turn came near the end. I'd had no idea what Charlie was going to say about me, because he never teases me, though he has a sense of humor, and had already dropped some zingers on some of the other students by the time he got to me.

He started by telling a tail on himself, admitting (finally!) that some of the assignments he'd given me had been pretty strange--and that I'd tackled all of them without complaint and almost without question.

"It's a little awe-full," he said, "as in full of awe, to have that kind of loyalty, that kind of trust. I mean, what if I told him, I don't know, to go fetch a feather from the top of the Himalaya, would he do it? My God, what kind of monster could I become?" Somehow that became a laugh line, and I think Charlie meant for it to be, but I wonder how serious he really was. "But no, Daniel is a good man. He has good judgment. He wouldn't stand for that kind of garbage, I'm sure. In fact, I wasn't going to teach him, but he made himself enough of a pain-in-the-neck that I finally said yes. And I'm glad he did it. It's been a great ride and I expect it to continue in a couple of years."

That warmed my heart in a way I hadn't expected. After four years, it's good to know Charlie can still surprise me.

After they were done "roasting" us, all of them pulled back and left Allen in the center of the stage, perched on a chair with his guitar--and, as he so often has, he played James Taylor.

When you're down and troubled
And you need a helping hand


He played gently, he sang pleasantly, but a little off-key, and he sang through the whole song--making a promise.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running, oh yeah baby, to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall


It was a promise that I, facing Absence, really needed to hear. Before he was halfway through, the others joined in, stepping forward, closer to him, to sing to us.

All you've got to do is call
And I'll be there, ye, ye, ye
You've got a friend.


And it occurred to me, finally, that the song contained the central teaching, the central miracle of this place--"the magic of friendship" sounds incredibly hoaky and naive, but only because it is naive to believe it can be woven in a half an hour as demonstrated on some kids' television show. In fact, it's damn difficult for any community to really, truly treat each other with genuine care and consideration, and that is precisely what these people have done--it is possible. They're not any better at liking than the rest of us. They certainly don't all like each other, and they're not necessarily always likeable. I mean, at this distance, the things Charlie put me through these past couple of years seem like amusing foibles, but at the time I really wanted to smack him sometimes. But they do love well here. They work hard at it.

Allen began the song all over again and this time we all joined in, singing the promise back to him, without being asked or directed, all of us on our feet, our hearts full, eyes streaming, singing through to the end and then clapping, cheering, gratitude, though I don't think any of us could see the stage anymore through the sea of standing, cheering people in front of us--

Except the masters were no longer on the stage. Somebody must have had a clear view, somebody must have been in front, but nobody saw them go. We'd been singing to each other--the stage was simply empty and silent.

Had we imagined them?




Thursday, January 12, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 4: Graduation

This post depicts events that began right when the previous post ended, in the final week of January, 2004. -D.

I sat in the dark for a really long time.

At first, I expected the others to come get me any minute. I thought my time in the dark room must be some kind of test before something else, and I didn't see how any such test could last more than a few minutes. After all, they had me sitting in the dark, doing nothing.

After a while, I realized that my time in the dark wasn't going to be brief. Perhaps I was supposed to be meditating, or something. So, I meditated for a while. But with no way to time my meditation, I very quickly found myself plagued by thoughts of weather I meditated long enough yet, and after a while I gave that up.

Then I sat in the dark, being aware of the darkness and open to its reality, which I suppose would be Charlie's version of meditation, but I fell asleep.

When I woke up--and I have no idea how long I was asleep--it occurred to me that I was pretty silly for trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I had been told, specifically, to do whatever I liked, for one thing. For another thing, I was in the dark. No one could be watching me, and no one would ever have any idea what I did unless I told them. Why, at 23 years of age, was I still obsessed with what I was supposed to do, instead of what is right to do, or what is simply enjoyable? I'm not a kid anymore. I can make my own decisions.

For a moment I felt giddy with my awareness of my own freedom. I toyed with the idea of reveling in it, testing it, doing something that I could not do if anyone were watching. But making silly faces seemed pointless, getting naked seemed impractical (what if I got cold and then couldn't find my pants?), and the thing you're thinking of would require some clean-up I didn't want to have to deal with.

When you're alone in a small room in the dark, being free to do whatever you like doesn't give you a lot of options.

I got up, took off my hood, and explored the room with my feet and my hands.

The place was about the same size as my bedroom, maybe ten feet square. When I jumped, I could touch the ceiling, which had some weird stucco texture. The carpet felt lush and smelled quite clean. The walls were wood paneling, probably flimsy. It bothered me that I couldn't tell what color any of this was, and I thought of Ebony. There were no light switches, and if light fixtures existed in the room, they must be in the ceiling. The toilet was where Greg said it would be, and seemed to be some kind of collector for the composting system--there was no water in it and no flush mechanism. There was no sink, either, but the box with the toilet in it also contained toilet paper and a squirt bottle of rubbing alcohol. It bothered me not to have a sink, until I realized the masters were trying to minimize the number of things I could possibly trip over.

The provisions in the cabinet turned out to be a full water bottle, half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and an apple. Odd, we don't grow peanuts on campus, nor do we normally buy any. I guess they made an exception for the dark room because a PB and J sandwich can't spill or fall apart. I ate and drank and enjoyed my meal.

My eyes played tricks on me. I kept thinking I saw light or movement when there must have been done. My eyes would not accept having nothing whatever to do. I thought about Ebony some more. She must have been through this same experience. I imagined Allen popping a black-out bag over her head. It must have been he who did it, the one master whom she most trusted. He would know to use the bag on her, to treat her as sighted. I wondered what it must feel like, at that moment, to frighten a friend in that way, to be Allen--or to be Charlie.

 I got hungry again, and I found that, yes, the cabinet had been re-stocked with another apple and another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I thought that perhaps I should not eat, so as not to spoil my dinner, but then I wondered if I'd be kept in the room through dinner, or perhaps taken somewhere and kept up all night...I decided the smart thing to do was to eat and drink and sleep as needed, so that I'd be refreshed for whatever came next.

I was sure something would come next, and that I would not be in the dark room very much longer, since we all had to get in a turn before graduation. I didn't know how many rooms there might be, but I was pretty sure there was nowhere on campus that was big enough to hide thirty rooms I didn't know about.

And yet they kept not coming. The ordeal in the dark kept not being over. I'd wait in anticipation, then get distracted by day-dream, then come back to awareness again and realize where I was and why and I'd wait in anticipation because it couldn't be much longer....

Yes, it could be longer. Gradually, in fits and starts, I began to give up on time. I gave up on anticipation. I stopped thinking about the outside or the future--or the past, except as a day-dream. My periods of timeless drifting grew longer and my periods of impatient anticipation grew shorter and farther between and finally stopped altogether. I had no worries, no goals, no hopes, and no expectations. It was not pleasant. It wasn't unpleasant, either, for the most part.

I ate when I was hungry. I slept when I was tired. The room was warm enough, and the carpet deep enough, that I felt perfectly comfortable wrapped up in my cloak on the floor. I had no idea how much time was passing because I don't know for how long I slept. I lost track of how many times I slept. I'm not even sure how long I was awake for. Time might have dragged or crawled, I had no way of knowing.

When I was awake, I sometimes paced or exercised, or entertained myself by trying to guess where the nearest wall was. Sometimes I heard distant voices or people walking around. Sometimes the noises came from above me but never from below--but I had already guessed I was in a basement. It is very curious not having any idea where you are, especially when you know you must be somewhere within an otherwise intimately familiar place.

When I slept, I had anxious, disjointed dreams about trying not to talk, or forgetting and talking except discovering that I was mute, or confronting one horrible disaster after another and knowing I could not do anything about it because I was not allowed to speak.

I remember one such dream, I stood on one of the balconies on the Mansion and watched Charlie walk across the Flat Field--right towards a gaping, black hole in the earth, a pit fifty feet wide and miles deep that he did not see. I tried to scream, to warn him, but I could make no noise...I woke from that dream into a strange swirling blackness peopled with incomprehensible voices and I knew I had spoken after all and let everybody down, and I wept without sound, trying to make amends by my silence and knowing it wouldn't work, wouldn't be enough....And then I woke from that dream into darkness and silence, entirely unsure what reality was, whether I was awake or not.

Eventually I concluded I was really awake this time and that I had not spoken after all. I was gad.

I was lying down but not quite sleeping when I heard a knock on my door.

"Don't speak," Allen's voice reminded me. "We're coming in, in about a minute, if you want to make yourself decent."

I was already dressed, of course, but I sat up, and presently Allen came in, carrying a candle and several other objects. The yellow, flickering light hurt my eyes.

He set the candle and its holder down on the ground and set beside it a familiar-looking bag and an unfamiliar, large Tupperware-type container with an orange lid. He left the room a moment, and returned bearing a large, ceramic pitcher of water. He smiled at me.

"Your clothes," he said, indicating the bag, then took the lid off the Tupperware, revealing a bar of soap, a wash cloth, a small towel, and a shaving kit. "I'll go let you get dressed," he said. "If you want to wash up or shave, feel free."

Shave?

I wear a beard, but it's a Van Dyke--that's the official term for a goatee-plus-mustache--and so I keep the thinner hair that grows on my cheeks and jaw shaved clean. I'd shaved that morning, or what I assumed to be that morning, so, why--

I put my hand to my cheek and found three days' worth of growth there. Three days.

I looked at Allen in shock and he grinned at me.

"I'll let you get dressed," he repeated, patting me on the shoulder.

I used the Tupperware as a wash-basin to give myself a kind of sponge-bath, shaved, dressed in my clothes from the bag, put my cloak on over top, and ran my hand through my hair. As I worked, I could hear voices, up and down the hall, not many voices, but the same ones saying the same things over and over, barely audible to me. When Allen came back, I was standing in the middle of the room, fully dressed, feeling dazed.

"Come on," he told me. When I looked uncertainly at my cast-off school uniform and the other things, he told me to leave them. "They're not yours anymore. Blow out the candle and bring that."

The hallway was lit dimly by candles held by some of the other masters. All Six had come to fetch us, and all of us, the whole graduating class, shuffled out into the hall or walked in around a corner from another hall. I'd been wrong--wherever we were was very large.

We shuffled along, not speaking, gently herded through a door and up a stairway, two flights of stairs. There was no exit between the flights, nor did the stair continue above the second flight. We could go so far, no more, no less. At the top, we went through another door, and came out--

In the right-hand wing off the stage in Chapel Hall.

Light streamed in through the windows, watery, winter light, but brighter than my eyes could stand at first. I wandered with my fellows, disoriented and half-blind, not knowing what to think or feel, in the entirely ordinary, even prosaic clutter of a disused storage area.

Kit got up on a box so we could see her over each other's heads.

"Ok, don't speak yet, just raise your hands," she said. "Does anybody not know what day it is?" No hands went up. "Ok, stay here, just wait for the ceremony. Someone will come get you." She got down off her box and she and the others left the room.

Before he left, Allen spoke up.

"Does anybody not know yet when you be allowed to speak?" His eyes twinkled mischief and then he was gone.

We stood or sat around. Some of us slept or exchanged back-rubs or paced. We all looked kind of shell-shocked. We could hear students setting up chairs and fussing with the wood stove and it struck me very strangely to think that all those times I had helped set up the Chapel for Brigid, there had been graduating students waiting silently in the wing. The light gradually leaked out of the sky and we were left in the dark again.

We were not left in the dark very long before someone I did not recognize, a woman wearing the uniform of a mastery candidate, arrived to organize us. The Chapel has electric lights, but she didn't turn any on. Instead, she carried a flashlight and a notebook.

"Don't talk," she began. "Brad? Brad, can you come up here, please?" And Brad, a man who started the same year as I did, though I've never talked about him, shuffled forward. "Ok, stand here, please. Dan?" She placed Dan right behind Brad. "Daniel?" Of course we were being put into alphabetical order.

When we all stood in a long, snaking row, all 37 of us, the mystery woman told us to remember our places, especially who stood right in front of us, and then she left us in the dark again. The Chapel filled with whispering, shuffling people who didn't know where we were.

About twenty minutes later, she was back, but didn't say anything to us. And then I heard the bells of the ceremony starting.

From the wings, we could see the masters sitting on the stage among their candles. We could hear the new yearlings being introduced and sorted, without knowing they were being sorted, into dorms. Briefly, the student body included both them and us.

Then, the mystery woman moved to the stage opening and beckoned Brad over. Kit stood at the lectern, and said the ritual words "Let all who seek recognition come out!" Brad stepped out. A few moments later, we heard his voice.

We graduated in alphabetical order--an unusual orderliness for this school, but they didn't call us out by name, and needed some way to put our diplomas in the same order as us.

I went third.

I walked out and Kit asked me to kneel. I knelt before her, reflecting on how on my first day, my first Brigid, it was her candle that I lit. I stood up on my own initiative, as per the ceremony, and Kit reached up to unfasten my cloak and lift it, and with it my novice-status from my shoulders. I stepped towards the lectern. I had been thinking about what I was going to say at that lectern, on and off, for four years, but I had never come to any definite conclusion. I had not, of course, known that they would be my first words about anything for three days.

Looking out over the audience, though, that sea of faces I knew and did not know, what I had to say suddenly became obvious.

"Thank you," I told them. "Coming here was a good idea."