To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 1: Post 5: Finding Love

Almost the first month down. The yearlings are getting the hang of the place now, June's starting to make friends with some of the other students, my two classes have each met at least once, now...and I still have no clear idea what I'm doing. I still spend my days mostly wandering around, hanging out, taking in a workshop or two, my most serious intellectual or spiritual challenge my efforts to get my fiance alone someplace private. And we still haven't managed that.

The others who started with me seem well on their way, now. Ollie, for example, who wants to deepen his practice as a Christian therapist and pastor, is now more or less Allen's full-time apprentice. Not that Allen is Christian (or a pastor, though he does have one of those mail-order ordinations, so he can perform weddings and so forth), but he is a phenomenal therapist. Besides his work here as a psychology professor and group therapist, he sees individual clients in his home office one or two days a week. There's always more people who want to see him than he can take on, so he recommended some of the others to Ollie, and now, as of last week, Ollie has something like ten clients--whom he sees at Allen's house. He's basically living there three days a week, now.

It sounds pretty intense, living with your teacher. I know that they talk about Ollie's cases and sometimes observe each other's work (with the client's permission, of course), though of course Ollie can't tell me any details. I wonder what that's like for Allen? He must suddenly have almost no time off.

Rick has just gotten his assignment, now, too, though, being from Charlie, it's not nearly so straight-forward. Or, rather, it is straight-forward, but Rick doesn't know how to get started. He talked to me about it this morning as we were getting ready to go out.

"I am supposed to care for a human being," he said, as though the duty sounded strange and onerous to him.
"Care for?" I asked. "Does he mean like babysitting or nursing care, or does he mean, basically, give a shit about somebody?"
"Give a shit," he confirmed. "I think it's a little more than that. I think I'm supposed to devote, you know, like Eddie does with Kit...or like Greg's Cat with Greg. Something transformative. But, basically, yeah, I've got to give a shit about somebody."
"And don't you?" I asked.

We were standing in the Green Room, putting on our layers of clothing, but I stopped and he stopped, too, and looked at me with an odd expression. I think he had just realized he might hurt my feelings if he wasn't careful. That sort of thing rarely occurs to him, though he never actually means to hurt anybody.

"I like you," he said, slowly. "I like some people. I enjoy you. I wish you well. If you needed something, I would give it. But I don't love you. I don't love anyone, I don't think. I never have." He seemed puzzled, puzzled by love.

"Do you love anything?" I asked. I'm not shocked, or even surprised, by Rick's distance. I know him, and that's just the way he is. I just thought I knew what Charlie was up to. Rick had asked for his help learning to work with humans better, without being so irritated by us. I remember that once, when I was out in public with Charlie on a field trip, some stranger's baby was crying loudly nearby, and someone said something about how annoying the sound was, asking Charlie, rhetorically, whether he was irritated. He rather famously can't stand loud, discordant noises. But he shook his head.

"No, I'm not irritated, I'm sad. That baby is a human being. He's having a bad day. Or a bad five minutes--long enough, when you're a baby."

Charlie sees children as people. He's sympathetic to them, so they don't bother him, the way they bother some. I think he wanted to teach Rick that humans are people, so that he would develop an equivalent patience. And he wanted to teach patience for all people by asking him to love one person. Only Rick doesn't know how. I thought that if he loves something, that might offer him a starting point. I was trying to help.

As we spoke, I faced the large picture windows. He faced me, and must have seen the coat rack over my shoulder, but over his I could see the snowy garden and the hedge and part of the sky. It was growing very grew out there.

"Do you love anything?"
"Sure," he told me, and held up the inside of his forearm for me to see--where he had a small smudge of a tattoo, just like mine.
"I thought I was the only one Charlie took through that ritual," I said, though I really had no reason to think so. He wouldn't mention the ritual to anyone. It's not the sort of thing one chats about. I had told Rick and I'd told June. No one else. For all I knew, Charlie took all his students through it. I know he gave some of the others deer knives--Rick has one, as does Raven G. And yet I thought no one else had tattoos. I hoped no one else did. I wanted to be the only one.
"You are," Rick, though I have no idea how he came by such authority. "You told me about it, so I performed the ritual myself, alone."
"Where?" I asked, meaning what place had he consecrated himself to. What place did he love?
"I won't tell you," he said. Of course, he wouldn't.
"How did you find it?"
"When Charlie told me to find a favorite place on the Island," I told him, "I looked all over, I explored lots of places, but none stood out to me as the best one. Until I just chose a place. I decided it was my favorite. And it was. I've been there since. It feels like mine. I care about it. It's my favorite. Maybe you can do that with a person?"
"You think loving a person works the same way as loving a place?"
"Love is love, isn't it?" I said. "Anyway, the process Charlie took me through to earn to love the land is the same thing I did learning to be in relationship with June."
"Yeah. I showed up regularly, I paid attention, I learned everything I could about what she needs and likes, I abandoned my own pre-conceived ideas and wishful thinking...I did that several times, I have to keep doing it...."
"And that worked?"
"I'm engaged, aren't I?"

"Crap." That was me, again. It had started snowing. Rick followed my gaze and turned and looked out the window. The flakes were coming down hard already. There would be no tracking for another couple of days.

"Well, that's that," said Rick, after a few seconds. "I have some reading to do." He nodded at me politely, and walked back inside. It was an abrupt end to an intense conversation, and I felt strange, emotionally hyped up with nowhere to go, psychologically. I decided to go for a walk in the snow.

I love walking in the snow. I like tracking, and you can't track in falling snow, but I like the snow more. I live the smell of it, the silence of it, the otherworldly sense of it, and yet somehow the falling, swirling flakes are calming. Even when I was living outside, first for Charlie's assignment, and then on the Trail, I could never mind the snow, though I could appreciate the inconvenience and the danger of it.

This day, the temperature wasn't even that low, maybe just below freezing. I walked around campus with my hood down, letting the flakes build up in my hair. They were just starting to melt and run down behind my ears--and I was just starting to get cold, when Allen crossed my path. He, too, had snow in his hair, even on his eyelashes. He kept blinking his eyes, because of the snow falling on his face, but I know he does not feel the cold.

"Oh, I'm glad I found you, Daniel," he said. "I wanted to tell you, when you're trying to solve a problem--any problem--sometimes there's no key, because there aren't any locks."


"The key to your problem is that there is no key because there are no locks. Think about it."

"Allen, why do you so often speak in riddles?"

"Because I like watching you solve them. And I know you're capable of it." And he clapped me on the shoulder and went on his way.

Aren't any locks, huh?

A few minutes later, I stood in front of the door to Chapel Hall. I tried the door. It opened. There was no lock. Come to think of it, I don't think there are any locks on any doors on campus--I've never noticed any, I've never had to use a key, I've never heard of anyone else having to use a key or find a key or get a key. No keys, no locks. The building is closed right now, and I'd just assumed that meant I couldn't go in it, but that's not the sort of thing we really have rules about around here. A closed building just means it's not heated or cleaned and nothing is scheduled there. No one has to go there, just like no one has to go in certain parts of the Mansion basement, or lots of other places around campus. That doesn't mean you can't. There are no locks.

How did Allen know I was looking for this sort of information? I certainly didn't tell him. June wouldn't have. Maybe it's just that Allen was once a mastery candidate with a fiance, too.

Anyway, I'm thinking of the storage place on the fourth floor, the one Charlie popped out of that one day to play a prank on Allen. It can't have much stuff in it, or he couldn't have moved around in there so easily. Yes, Chapel Hall is probably about twenty degrees right now, but I have a sleeping bag. So does June. And they zip together.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 1: Post 4: Frustrations

It’s been three weeks since June and I arrived, and frankly I’m getting tired of not being able to live with her. I understand—and agree with—the reasons, but that doesn’t mean I like the result. She likes it even less, and I have to make it stick for her sake as a student when she doesn’t understand the why of what we’re doing. I can’t explain what letting yourself really absorb this place does, or why that’s important. I could try, it’s not a secret, it’s just that she doesn’t understand.

It’s not that we don’t get any time together. I secretly avoid her when we don’t have plans to meet, I ration myself for her, which hurts more than I could have expected, but she’s doing this for me, so I must do it for her. But we have plans to meet often. Breakfast together twice a week, dinner once a week, and a sleepover once or twice a week (at her place, not mine, so I don’t become an excuse for her not to connect with her dorm). I mean, that’s a lot more time that Ollie and Willa are getting—she’s not living on campus, so they just spend weekends together occasionally. It’s not even the physical aspect of not getting any real privacy together. It’s feeling like I’m being treated like a child.

This woman is it for me, and to have that not recognized in my daily life, as though this were some stupid fling, some puppy-love that nobody else thinks is important…it’s an illusion, I know. The people here take this relationship very seriously. They are working hard to help us make this whole situation work for us because they agree with June; that I cannot wear the Green Ring and a wedding ring if those two commitments aren’t congruent somehow. June needs to be part of this community. 

The Six have…committed themselves to supporting my marriage. It’s like…remember the cup? When I first got here, one of the first things that happened after the Brigid ceremony was they gave me my own little tin cup. All the new students got one, so we could wear our cups on our belts or carry them in our book-bags and get drinks of water or whatever else whenever we liked. There are no water-fountains here, and of course no bottled water. But they gave us cups, each with our own name on it, on the bottom. I was really blown away by that—that strangers, who, two days earlier hadn’t known I exist, would give me something of my own like that. I suppose it was a little thing, and of course lots of places give away mugs for one reason or another, but I guess it just struck me as symbolic of something. And it was symbolic of this.

And I feel incredibly grateful for their support and consideration right up until the moment when I show up for breakfast in the morning and remember I’m not allowed to eat with my own fiancĂ©.
But it’s the physical aspect we actually complain about together. Maybe that part’s easier to talk about. Maybe it’s easier for June not to blame that part on me.

So what if people hear us,” I keep saying. “Nobody around here cares!”
“I care.”
“But nobody else does. People have sex here all the time!
“I know. I can hear them. And if I can hear them, they can hear me. Do you know how not sexy it is to be worrying about that?”
“Yes. You think I don’t notice when you’re not feeling sexy?”
“We should go outside or something. When the snow melts. Or bring your hammock!”
“Bad idea,” I told her. “The woods have eyes.”
“So? I don’t care if animals and trees see us having sex.”
“What about Charlie?”
“I don’t care if they watch him have sex, either.”
“But Charlie doesn’t”—and I stopped myself. Charlie’s celibacy was both hard to explain and irrelevant. “But Charlie is the eyes and ears of the forest. He watches people. From trees. That’s how he knows everything.”
“He—what is he, sick?”
“No, he’s a naturalist. Naturalists watch living things. He just doesn’t think students are different than any other wildlife. And I agree with him. It’s not like he wants to see anything private.”
“Then you’re sick, too,” she said, but she was joking this time. “Maybe we can….”

But no matter how many ideas we came up with, true privacy seems beyond us.

June has now gone through the testing and defense process that students who want advance standing can go through. I when I did it, back as a yearling, I got none at all. I got out of some of the mastery areas, but I remained a “full-course yearling” anyway, meaning someone expected to spend all four years here. June, in contrast, thinks she aced the process and will be a one-hit-wonder. Of course, I was a 19-year-old who’d just flunked out of my first semester of college, she’d a master’s-educated professional with a couple of years of experience.

On a similar note, today they held interviews for campus jobs, but June didn’t need to interview. She’s already arranged to run the summer camp. Usually it’s done by a couple of ally volunteers and by the masters working together, but that system is unwieldy and June is more qualified at this than any of them. I mean, her degree is in environmental education, and she’s spent the last few summers running environmental ed programs for summer camps. This time she’ll be responsible for the administrative stuff, too, which is new, but she can handle it. The volunteers will work with her for program continuity, but for the first time, the camp will have a single, full-time person in charge, not a part-time committee.

All in all, frustrations aside, I am really proud of her and I’m really proud to be with her. I still can’t really believe she’s picking me.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 1: Post 3: Introductions

So, I told Charlie that, of course, I was ready to work with him again. I was surprised he asked--I'd have thought that my presence here is proof enough of that, and I'd have thought that my prior history with him is enough to prove I can take whatever he can dish out. But he's always done this--occasionally double-checking to see if I'm still on board or something. It's like he's self-conscious or something. I wouldn't have pegged him for the nervous sort, but perhaps he's more human than he lets on.

Anyway, with my reassurance given, he gave me a new assignment. We're supposed to meet for an hour or two every week so I can teach him everything I learned in graduate school. I must have looked pretty dumb-founded.

"You've spent all this time and money learning all of this stuff and I don't want you to forget it," he explained. "Teaching is the best form of learning, so you can start by teaching me."

"Charlie, it took me two and a half years to learn all that stuff. At an hour or two per week, we'll be doing this forever."

He laughed.

"Daniel, it may once have been true that I taught you everything you knew--though I doubt it--but I certainly never taught you everything I knew. Anyway, you'll find I'm a quick study."

I believe I turned red. Anyway, my face grew hot and I turned away. Of course, Charlie completed all the coursework of a master's in ecology years ago, and he's obviously kept up with a lot of it, and he's brilliant. Most of this will be review for him. I am so dumb.

We've met once now, for two hours. Mostly, we just got organized. We'll take my courses one at a time, and he anticipates that each will take two or three meetings. I should prepare to summarize each major concept of each class and I should prepare to explain each in detail, because he's going to ask questions and I'm not going to know when he'll ask questions because some of the questions will be deliberate tests. I've kept all my course notes, homework assignments, hand-outs, and books, so I'll go home this week and pick those up so I can use them as study materials--when I told him that, Charlie asked me to give him all my old homework assignments. He says he's not going to do most of them, but he will do some of them, and he won't tell me which he'll do until we get there. In the meantime, he's borrowed my laptop. It has the statistical software I used in class, and Charlie says it's new to him ("When I was in school, computers ran on punch cards...") and he wants to play.

This is going to be one massive assignment.

Otherwise, I don't really know what I'm doing, yet. I see the value in Charlie's request, both as a way for me to strengthen my understanding and as a way for him to find out what I'm up to, but it doesn't really get me into new material, so far as I can see. I don't see what it has to do with my becoming a master. And I haven't been told to do anything else. There is no set curriculum, no required credits, for mastery candidates. I've been kind of wandering around.

I have been exploring campus and I've noticed a few changes (besides the departures and arrivals I talked about last week). Most obviously, campus has finally joined the digital age. When I came here before, there was no policy on personal electronics, other than the bland suggestion that new students not bring computers and such when they first arrive, but very few of us had computers or cell phones. Few of us even had email accounts. There were a few computers available for student use, but we seldom used them, not even for school work. Most of our homework assignments could be hand-written.

In my last year or two, that had started to change. More incoming students had email and cell phones and expected to use both regularly. There were ongoing discussions about when and where it was polite to use these things--many of us felt that cell phone conversations were intrusive, somehow, but we couldn't figure out how or why--and there was some concern that yearlings might not acculturate properly if too many of them spent too much time digitally conversing with outsiders in the beginning. At the same time, the idea of interfering with yearlings' connections to family and friends seemed sinister.

In any case, the question seems to have been resolved. Yearlings are not allowed to have their own electronics on campus until the beginning of the summer semester, but they are allowed to do whatever they want online on the campus machines (of which there are still only six) or by borrowing those of senior students. Otherwise, cell phone conversations may only be held inside a student's own room, except for emergencies, and WIFI only works well in the Office, the tiny computer lab, and the eastern half of the Great Hall. And it's not entirely reliable--I suspect by design.

So, there are still no rules limiting what you can do, only how you can do it and where you can do it. They're depending on inconvenience to keep people focused here, in the real world, but you can still keep in touch easily enough.

For me, the weirdest thing is seeing half a dozen people sitting with their laptops almost every time I go through the Great Hall. It does look wrong, somehow. I'm still not sure why. And sometimes I'm one of them. I'm on Facebook, these days.

We do have two classes, we being all the mastery candidates. We're allowed to take whatever else we want, but these two are required and we all take both of them every semester of our candidacy. The two classes meet on alternating weeks, so we've only had one of them yet--it's the orientation meeting they told us about.

The one we haven't had is called Chaplains' Seminar. Honestly, it sounds like the more interesting of the two. It's about being a priest/priestess and what that means, both in the abstract and for us individually. The other, the one we have had, is called Candidates' Seminar, and it seems to be mostly a group meeting where we can all check in and talk about how our studies are going. Curiously, I didn't know either existed when I was here before, though I don't think either is secret. I just wasn't paying much attention--and if I did hear someone talking about it, I probably ignored it. A "seminar," around here, is usually a mini-class with only two meetings. They come and they go. I don't know why the word is being used differently for these.

Usually, Allen will teach Candidates' Seminar, though they say that the others sometimes substitute. But this week, all Six of them showed up together, I guess because they all wanted to hear for themselves what we've been up to.

We went around, each of us introducing ourselves (that's tradition--I think we all knew each other as novices, but that's not always true, and anyway we hadn't all known each other well) and saying a few words about where we are in our process and, for us new arrivals, why we're here and what we've been up to:

Ollie went first, looking a little nervous and stiff.

"I'm Ollie, I'm--new--I guess. I'm working with Allen. While I was away, I was ordained as a Baptist preacher and I married Willa--some of you know her--and I received a master's degree and professional certification in Christian counseling. I've come back because I want to deepen my spiritual practice and because I want to learn to be a better counselor--I want to bring my whole self to my work, as Allen does."

Allen nodded in acknowledgement.

Rick, seated next to Ollie, went next.

"I'm Rick, also new. I've worked as a logger, completed the Appalachian Trail, and gotten a degree in forestry. I want to learn how to do some good in the world without letting you people bug me too badly. I'm working with Charlie."

Everyone laughed in response, but Rick didn't laugh. He wasn't joking.

"Jasimin, second-year mastery candidate, working with Karen. I'm looking at photography as a Zen art. Lately I'm been focusing--no pun intended--on visual observation, but we're talking about exploring a more journalistic approach. I don't expect to finish this year."

"Ebony, first-year mastery candidate, working with, well, I was working with Allen, but I think I want to work with Kit, too. I've gotten my teaching certification and I want to become a visual art teacher. I don't know how that works, yet."

There were appreciative nods all around. Ebony, remember, does not have working eyeballs, and it looked like some in the group hadn't known how visual she is anyway, how of course, she'd want to teach visual art.

"That's doable," commented, Kit, and Ebony smiled in her general direction. Her introduction was much smoother than Ollie's or Rick's--she was imitating Jasimin. I'm not sure why an experienced candidate didn't start the introductions. Maybe one would have, if Ollie hadn't jumped in.

"Eddie, first-year mastery candidate, working with Joy. I train and place therapy dogs. And I'm a pretty happy guy. I live a good life, now. But I want to integrate the two, so my work isn't just a job I like. And I want to get better at the placing part."

I had forgotten how little Eddie is. He fills a room with his personality, but he's not much bigger than Ebony or Jasimin. Sitting next to Oak, Eddie looked rather like a man who had been shrunk in the wash.

"Oak, second-year mastery candidate, working with Kit. I just wanna learn to be a better priest. I have no new news." He shrugged. "I don't think I'll finish this year."

"Veery, second-year, working with Allen. I've been a counselor for years. Allen got me into cognitive behavioral therapy, and we've been working on tying that into my spirituality as an animist. Now, I'm thinking I'd like to work in my singing, too. I'm nowhere near graduating."

Again, a friendly laugh. It's a little weird having her here--she's an ex-girlfriend of mine and I didn't know she'd come back. But I feel no special connection to her, now. She looks older than I remember. She's a lot older than me, something I never thought about before. No wonder she got frustrated with me, I must have seemed like a kid to her.

"Veronica, second-year candidate, working with Kit. I do botanical research, and I'm working on merging that with my pantheistic Christian spiritual practice. And I do expect to graduate this year."

"Sounds like you're like John Chapman," said Charlie, but I didn't understand his comment. Veronica did. She nodded.

"Andy, second-year mastery candidate, expecting to graduate this year. I'm working with Greg, mostly. I want my bicycle-repair business to be my Christian ministry. I don't mean, like, to convert people, necessarily. I mean to love people. With bicycles. I want to be a good person."

And then it was my turn.

"Daniel, first-year mastery student, working with Charlie, do you all know what you're doing? I don't. I just wanted to come back, so I did. I want to be a master, but I don't know what that means."

There was a titter of laughter, not unfriendly.

"None of us really know," said Greg. "That's what they call Beginner's Mind."


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 1: Post 2: Getting Started

Of course, my first morning back I woke early--we all did, in order to make noise and turn on lights and generally make sure the yearlings didn't sleep in and miss meditation. I used to just stay up and go for a walk, and I'd planned to do that again, but I couldn't get out of bed, not even to  go hassle yearlings. But I couldn't get out of bed. My room was cold, it was very dark out, and honestly, I hadn't slept well, so I was exhausted. I don't like sleeping without June anymore, and of course she was in her own dorm.

I think I fell asleep again before the yearlings had even left. When I woke again, the dorm was much warmer--close to 70 degrees, thanks to the wood stove--and my room was full of light. The indirect sunshine of morning leaked in through the my tapestry curtain and made the Green Man design glow and that old, familiar scent--wool and incense--greeted me. The dorm was completely silent and, for a moment, I was completely happy.

And then I realized that the reason the dorm was empty was that everyone else had left. I scrabbled for my watch and found that it was 7:45--fifteen minutes until breakfast!

I yelped, jumped out of bed, threw on my uniform over the long underwear I'd slept in, and ran out my room and all the way to the Dining Hall. I made it in time to find my seat before the moment of silence that begins the meal.

I was sitting with a group of yearlings, nobody I knew. I didn't know any of the senior students, either. As I ate, I looked around. I saw a few brown uniforms, a few familiar faces, but I couldn't get a real sense of who was really on campus with me. No one I knew came to seek me out, everyone seemed busy talking to somebody else. I wasn't eating with June--we've agreed to mostly avoid each other, at least for the first few weeks, so she can really find her own way here. We'll have breakfast a couple of times a week, have sleep-overs....I agree with the plan, and I helped plan it, but I felt lonely and disoriented.

After the meal, I went out for the walk I'd intended to take before it. I wandered around in the snow, noting shrubs that had grown, trees that had lost limbs...campus looked about the same as I'd left it. I thought at least the trees know me. I started to feel a little better. It was strange to think, as I walked around, that at that very moment, the masters were busy fare-welling the graduating students and none of the white-uniformed novices knew. They were all in a series of orientation meetings and meet-and-greets for the new yearlings, completely unaware that their attention was being misdirected so as to render an event invisible--but I, not being part of the intended audience for this particular trick, could see perfectly well that something was going on--there were extra vehicles parked around Chapel Hall, and a thin, white smoke issued from the chimneys there.

At last I grew cold, so I went inside and showered. By then, it was almost noon, so I wandered over to the Dining Hall for lunch. I found Greg there, loading up his plate. He greeted me casually, as though we'd seed each other last just days ago, and agreed to eat with me. We sat together at a table in the back corner of the room and talked while a sea of yearlings surged in as a group and ignored us.

"I noticed some people are missing," I told him. "Joe, Security Joe, Chuck, and Malachi?"
"Yes, I believe they've all left while you were away," he confirmed. "You don't get to return to the world exactly as you left it."
"I didn't expect it to, it's just...are they all ok?"

He looked at me as though he were preparing some clever and Zennish reply, but evidently he couldn't think of anything.

"They are all ok, so far as I know," he said simply. "Security Joe has retired. He is still living with his husband on campus--they were at breakfast this morning. The others truly have left, gone to take up more conventional employment."

"Wow, hadn't Malachi been here twenty years?"
"Nearly," he told me. "He had just turned 51. Middle age has a way of forcing you to think about what you're going to do with the rest of your life. Malachi decided he didn't want to spend it here."
"Wow," I said, again. It's not like I was close to any of these people, but it felt disorienting to think of someone who had been here for twenty years just up and leaving while I was gone. "At least some things haven't changed," I said. "You're still here."

"Actually, I'm not." And Greg took a sip of coffee and smiled. He seemed pleased to finally be able to say something odd.
"I've retired from teaching. I still lead Zazen and I am still the school's spirit master, but this year I will teach workshops and talks, not full classes."
"You're retired?"
"I am turning 80 in a few days, Daniel. I think I've earned it."
"Happy birthday."
"Thank you."
"Anything else I need to know about?"
"They'll be a meeting for mastery candidates next week, just as soon as we've gotten the new yearlings settled in."
"No, I mean...has anybody died?" I meant the question kind of facetiously, an exaggerated, playful way of defining the kind of changes I was concerned about. But Greg's face fell and I immediately regretted my joking.
"My cat," he said. "Greg's Cat has died. He was hit by a car a few months ago."
"I'm sorry," I told him, and meant it.
"Thank you. I have trained all my life to accept the fact of impermanence, but acceptance does not mean painlessness. I am not sure, honestly, that it should."

Over the past few days, I've caught up with my fellow candidates--Ollie, Rick, Ebony, and Eddie are all here with me, just returned, as I have. Which is pretty incredible. Most of my favorite people, and I have them back again. There are five others in the group--I think the only one I've really talked about much before is Andy. He got back last year and expects to receive his ring a year from now.

There is one other student here I know, and I shouldn't have been surprised to see her, but I was. Kayla, I mean. She looks like a grown-up now--no taller, but a little broader, more filled out, with stronger, more defined features. She's 20, and part of this coming year's graduating group. I doubt any of the yearlings will realize she's anything other than an ordinary college student, unless she tells them.

The meeting for candidates is tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it. We've all been wandering around with no clear idea of what to do. And I was wandering and wondering, rather than asking, because I understand that the masters are busy answering the questions of yearlings who, after all, have many more questions than we do.

But, yesterday at lunch, Charlie found me. I simply turned around, and there he was, making his traditional cheese sandwich. I could not tell whether he had sought me out or just happened to be there, but he spoke without hesitation, as though he had planned what do say.

"Have you forgiven me?" he asked.

His voice was rough and guarded and I could not tell whether he was serious or not. I assumed he meant forgiven him for helping to "kidnap" me for the graduation ordeal three years ago, but of course that was his job--the job I'd asked him to do. Or maybe he meant forgiven him for not saying a proper goodbye to me before I left. Which, yes, hurt my feelings a bit, but whatever. We never were chatty, and he has a lot of students. Or maybe he just meant for the entire experience of my novitiate, which he made as difficult--and as rewarding--as he could. But whether he honestly thought he needed my forgiveness or was just joking to break the ice, I could not tell. Before I could formulate a response, he spoke.

"Are you ready to do it again?"