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 she 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 her. "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."
"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 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 how Absence works, 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.
"The entrance exam. I'll start when you go back. They think I'll be a one-hit wonder, actually."
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.