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, May 22, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 3: Post 4: Loving

The yearlings and the masters are back from the Island.

It's curious, I can actually see the difference the trip has made for the yearlings in the way they move, the way they interact with each other. It took me a while to figure out what I was seeing. Part of it is a new confidence in some of them, but it's more than that. Finally, I realized that before, most of them seemed subtly oriented towards senior students and faculty. If I approached a group of yearlings, most of them would turn towards me slightly, as if they all assumed I might tell them something they needed to know. I saw them do it with all of the more experienced community members. Now, they don't do that anymore. They pay more attention to each other. It's as though before they were guests in our home, and now we're renters in theirs.

I never noticed such a transition before, though I remember that when I was a yearling, the trip gave us a greater sense of being a cohesive group, of having a "we" that we shared. Maybe I didn't see the transition from the outside before because I'd been on the trip and, to some degree, watched it happen gradually.

It seems like a lot to happen in just two weeks, but it felt a lot longer than that for me, too. I really missed June--we hadn't gone that long without seeing her in, well, I think maybe ever. Not since that day we played with the lights in grad school.

I met the vans when they returned and we made something of a scene. Bennie, this year's other one-hit-wonder, said "Hey, June, before you get a room, help us unpack." But basically I think they all think we're a cute couple--not that I need anyone else's approval, but it's nice to be accepted, to be found heart-warming and amusing.

While June unpacked, I noticed something odd. It's hard to recognize people in street clothes if you normally see them in uniform, are not where you'd expect them to be, and are mixed in with a crowd of similarly dressed people, but one of the people unpacking personal gear looked a lot older than everybody else....

"Greg! I didn't know you went on the trip!" I said.

He turned, saw me, and stepped out of the crowd to talk to me.

"I missed you, too," he said, rather sarcastically. I think I blushed. You'd think I'd notice that someone I know was just not there for two weeks, but evidently not.

"Sorry," I muttered. "Why did you go? I thought staying behind was your vacation?"

"I took my vacation," he explained. "Karen had charge of Zazen for the week, just like normal. Charlie convinced me to travel this year, before I get too old to enjoy it. We spent most of our time hiking together. The man is a goat--he's not that much younger than I am, but I do believe he had to slow down for me. I'm glad he did so. I'd never been to the Island before, and what he told me about it was very interesting."

A stab of jealousy. Greg had taken my place. But of course I hadn't really spent the trip hiking with Charlie since the year he trained me. It's not really my place.

I hid my reaction, but I think Greg saw. Saw it and accepted it and ignored it, except for a very slight, fond, amused twinkle. There is very little about humanity that surprises Greg or makes him uncomfortable.

Since then, the summer semester has begun. June has new classes, I have new iterations of the same classes I had before, and Rick and I had lunch with Charlie the other day.

The weather was nice, with the new spring green continuing to darken towards summer, so we took our food out to a little gazebo near the Dining Hall and had a kind of picnic there. It was not exactly a social gathering. Very little that either Rick or I do is ever purely social, and nothing that the three of us do together is. It's not that we don't enjoy each others' company, it's that I never forget that Charlie is my teacher, the way I sometimes forget with Allen or Kit. Rick and I both sit up a little straighter when we are with him, at attention.

We chatted about this, that, and the other for a bit, mostly about the progress of the perennial beds around the gazebo, and then Charlie looked at Rick expectantly.

"I haven't made any useful progress," Rick admitted.

"Why not?" Charlie asked.

"I just don't know how to love, I guess," said Rick. Remember that Rick has been assigned to love a human being, a thing he finds difficult. "I thought that maybe I can pick somebody I at least like and 'fake it till I make it,' but I can't imagine doing do without the other person noticing. And if I do not tell them what I'm doing and why, they'll be confused, and if I fail, they'll be hurt. And if I do tell them what I'm doing...I can't imagine anyone taking kindly to being the subject of a homework assignment in love. I have thought all this over carefully, and I remain stuck."

"To work until you are stuck is progress," asserted Charlie. "To be sure you are stuck, to have exhausted all the options that you are aware of, as opposed to simply giving up, is very impressive."

"Falling gives you better balance?" suggested Rick, quoting one of Karen's sayings. It means that you learn when you push yourself through the point of failure.

"In part, yes," Charlie acknowledged. "Your point of being stuck, the problem you are having, is compassionate...."

"It's practical," said Rick, correcting him. "I don't like having people upset with me. It's inconvenient. I know what upsets people. I may be heartless, but I'm not brainless."

"I'm not so sure you are heartless. You do love."

"Yes, just not humans."

Charlie gave him a quick flash of a smile, then lapsed into thought.

"What would you do if I were hurt or threatened in some way?"

"You?" Rick asked. "I'd try to help. But...."

"Do you care about my welfare and happiness?"

"Not inordinately, but yes. But...."

"Do you enjoy my company? Think I'm worthwhile?"

"Yes, but...."

"Then love me."

"You?"

"Yes, me. I already know what you're doing, so it won't be awkward. If you succeed, I won't be surprised. I will forgive you if you don't."

"Forgiven or not, I don't want you to be hurt."

Charlie looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

"Well, yes, that is the problem to committing to love anyone. I will trust you."

Rick sat there, slightly open-mouthed, for a few seconds, looking like Charlie had just asked him to pilot the Space Shuttle, or something.

"Thank you," Rick said, at last. "What do I do? How do I start?"

Charlie nodded, as he does when someone asks a good question.

"Consider my welfare and my happiness in everything you do. You do not have to please me--loving actions may sometimes displease me--but consider me. And take that class, The Art of Listening and Love. I don't think it's met for the first time, yet."

"Alright."

The Art of Listening and Love was one of Greg's classes, when I took it, in my third year as a novice, but Greg is retired, so I don't know who is teaching it now. I should ask. June is taking it now, too.

Charlie had finished his cheese sandwich. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief (he never uses disposable napkins), and stood up.

"Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me." He never takes a very long lunch break, and that afternoon I understand he had annuals to plant.

"Charlie," I said, "what about me?"

He looked at me and considered for a few seconds.

"Wait," he said. "Next week, I think."

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 3: Post 3: Mother's Day

June is still not back from the Island. I wonder what she's doing? How she is? Is she cold?

I'm wondering especially if she's cold because it just snowed. Here, I mean. I don't know what the weather is like where she is. The thing is, it hasn't been that cold this week--lately it's actually been unseasonably hot--but we had one chilly day, and while it was nowhere near freezing at ground level, it did snow for about five minutes. It was bizarre.

I can't help wondering if the same freakish chill wind was blowing, but harder, where June is. After all, the Island is a few hundred miles north of here. I wish she were safe and warm with me.

Ok, I admit, June can take care of herself. She is safe. I just wish she were here with me.

Anyway.

My workshops are doing well. At least three people have attended each of them, and I've gotten a lot of really useful feedback, not all of it critical...I don't mean that I'm bad at teaching, I'm really not, but Charlie threw me a curveball by demanding that I design workshops to teach material that most of the students here really have no interest in. I suppose it might be possible to make it engaging anyway, but that would take a great teacher and that I am not.

Anyway, Charlie, I'm sure, didn't mean for me to do this so well that everybody loved what I'm doing. He meant for me to learn. He meant for me to try teaching the grad school material, so that I retain it better, and to expand my range as an educator. I suppose I'll be able to take what I've learned from this exercise and use it to create workshops and talks that do appeal more to the students here.

I do wish I had more free time this week, because campus is gorgeous. It's almost empty of people, kind of like winter--the Dining Hall is even shut down, which I hadn't known happens, we've just been getting our meals from the kitchen and eating in our dorms. The place has a restful, introspective feel. But everything's green. Green and red and white and yellow with flowers, and some of the farm fields are sprouting up in rows of lettuce and radishes and peas and whatever else, and there are singing birds all over the place...and this time I know what a lot of them are. I learned my birds in grad school, remember, and I remember most of them. I do what Charlie taught me with plants, greeting each one, in my head, by name, when I encounter it.

I can sit in the middle of their Central Field, or in the Front Garden, or the Formal Garden, or my spot in the forest, and listen in on birds arguing with each other. I know where the nests are, where the property lines are between territories...not exactly of course, and not completely, that would be a full-time job, but I know there's usually a mockingbird singing on the top of that tree, and when he's not there I notice and I wonder what he's doing.

I went home briefly, this weekend, for Mother's Day--another advantage of not going to the Island, I didn't get to visit Mom for Mother's Day once when I was a novice. We had a good time. But today I noticed a pine seedling, the tips of its first whorl of needles still stuck in its seed, just sprouting up along the path in the Formal Garden. It can't stay there, sooner or later it will get stepped on and crushed, and of course if all pine seedlings that sprout grew up, we'd be jam-packed with pines. But something about this one appealed to me, not that it seemed different in any way, just in its particularity, and I thought about how any tree, anywhere, no matter how large or how old it is, was once a seedling. And I thought--this baby, too, has a mother.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 3: Post 2: Workshops



You know, in all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never actually been on campus the second week of May before. 

As you might recall, almost all of May is a gap between the spring and summer semesters, during which time there are a series of workshops and, for the yearlings and faculty, the trip to the Island. I’ve never been clear on whether the gap exists to create space for the Island trip, or if the trip is simply a way of putting to use a gap that has some other purpose. In any case, the trip leaves a few days after Beltane and returns 14 days later, after which there are the workshops, including some required for yearlings. While the masters and the yearlings are away, senior students are allowed to leave campus, or they can take any of a number of other workshops. Since the masters aren’t here, these are taught by mastery candidates.

I never had a chance to go to any of those candidates’ workshops, because first I was a yearling, and then I was assisting Charlie on the Island. This year, I can’t go to the Island, because June is going, and a big part of the trip is an opportunity for the yearlings to bond as a group. June can’t do that if she is distracted from the group by my presence. At least, that is the theory—neither of us are convinced it’s true, but the masters haven’t given us a choice; she has to go to the Island, and I am barred.

So, here I am.

May isn’t the only time candidates can teach, of course. Some teach often. But the middle of May is the only time that we’re not in competition for student attention with masters. It’s also the first chance new candidates, like me, usually have to get on the schedule. In fact, we all more or less have to teach something.

Eddie, of course, is teaching three back-to-back workshops on dog training. If you take all three, it adds up to a full three-credit course. And the public is allowed in. Curiously, participants are not allowed to bring their dogs, except to the first session. After that, Eddie supplies dogs to work with. As he says, “I’m not training your dogs, you have to train your own dogs. I’m training you.

Ebony is teaching one workshop in creativity—it’s mostly discussion—and a second one on ceramics.

Rick is teaching tree identification and advanced tracking. That’s two workshops, I mean, not one on both topics.

Ollie is teaching just one, on Christian therapy. It is, predictably, poorly attended, as most people around here believe Christians should be in therapy, not offering it. It’s probably very good, though. He’s spending the rest of the gap off campus with Willa.

I can’t attend any of those workshops, though, because I’m teaching, get this, six of them. It was probably a bad idea, and I think I was allowed to do it largely so I would know not to try anything this insane again, but I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity—because most of my topics are predictably unpopular, too, and if I had competition from the masters I’m not sure I could get enough attendees to test my material.

I’m doing things like statistical literacy and scientific reasoning. Five out of my six (the sixth being introductory tracking) are drawn directly from my first two semesters at grad school, and I’m focusing on the drier, more technical things I learned there on purpose—because Charlie said I have to teach all of it, or at least try to, and this is the only way I can think to do these topics. The fun things I can do any time.

It’s not that these topics are inherently boring. I wasn’t bored when I learned them. But as Charlie has said, retention depends on context. As a grad student, I had reasons to learn things like ecological research design. And I had an already-established interest in natural science. A lot of the people here have neither. So, it’s on me to figure out ways to explain why anyone should bother with my classes.

Wish me luck.

It looks like summer, here. Everything is green and lush. We’ve even had a few warm days, though no hot ones. But, unlike summer, there are no mosquitoes yet, and even few flies. When I’m not busily rushing around getting my workshops started, I can take naps out on the central field in the sunshine. It’s glorious.

I just wish June were here. How do people cope who must spend months or years away from their sweethearts? It’s been less than a week since I’ve seen mine and already I’m going crazy.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 3: Post 1: Beltane

Last week should have been an interlude post, but I lost track of the time. Beltane snuck up on me. I guess it sort of was anyway, given that I was talking about events now...in any case, it's time to begin a new "part," with Beltane, which is actually today. Happy Beltane.

Why do I keep getting paired with dudes for Beltane? It's not that I mind, it's just bizarre.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

As you might recall, in our version of the Maypole, the dancer you end up facing when the music stops is your partner for the day. Kit thinks that the dance might once have been used to choose sexual partners for a fertility celebration, but for us the partners just work as a team to help put on the holiday feast. Then, at the end of the feast, we stand up and publicly praise each other. Because there's a good chance you'll end up partnered with someone you don't know or don't like, it's an exercise in love--seeing someone as lovable, not because they please you or help you in any way, but just because you've decided to see them that way. Making love where there wasn't any before.

In theory, you're supposed to end up facing someone who identifies as a different gender than yours--they're supposed to be heterosexual pairings. In practice, you can end up paired with anybody, because all you have to do to be a woman for the day is grab a red ribbon for the dance. All you have to do to be a guy is grab a green one. So some people try out a different gender than the normal one.

Anyway, I keep ending up with guys. The first time I danced the Maypole, I found myself facing a guy who was dancing as a woman. Ditto the third time (I did end up with a woman at my second dance--Veery. Oh, how I wished for an old-fashioned fertility rite that year. Dumb-ass that I was, I never even suggested that we try, although I knew other couples from the dance did just that. Veery and I dated for a couple of weeks afterwards, and I never did ask her, and the whole thing was very awkward). The fourth time I danced as a woman and partnered with Steve Bees. This year, I reverted to my own sex, and found myself facing Rick. Four out of five dances! All guys!

It's less weird than it seems, I suppose. Not everybody dances the Maypole, there aren't enough ribbons, and as Rick pointed out, more men dance than women, and some of those women dance as men. So, a large portion of people dancing as women have to be men, that's just how the math works. A lot of guys end up with guys, that way. And it makes me uncomfortable. I don't want it to make me uncomfortable, but it does. It's something I have to get over. I mean, am I afraid someone will think I'm a woman, that someone will think I'm gay? What's wrong with being female or being gay? I don't want to be that guy. I really don't.

At the feast, I asked Rick why he'd chosen to dance as a woman--it seemed an uncharacteristically playful thing for him to do. He and I were sitting together with June and Andy, who partners for the day.

"I didn't dance as a woman," Rick said.

"What, did you grab the wrong ribbon?" I was kidding him. He smiled briefly, marginally.

"I didn't dance as a woman," he repeated, "I danced as a gay man."

"I'm not sure that's an option," I said.

"Of course it's an option! Gay people exist. I exist."

"I know you exist," I said, blushing horribly, "I meant an option in the dance."

"A red ribbon signifies those who partner with men. It's about sex, not identity."

He had a point. I thought of how many different things get conflated by the simple structure of men and women partnering for a dance about sex, and how many possible ways that conflation might be unpacked.

"It's a fertility rite, though," put in June. "Procreative sex. They have to be fertile couples."

"My couplings could be very fertile," said Rick, looking at me oddly. I wondered for the first time if he found me attractive, if he actually wished I were gay. I found the idea momentarily quite flattering, then felt sorry for him because I'm not gay and wishing won't make me so, then I dismissed the whole line of thought because of course I have no idea what Rick thinks of me and my body, and it's pretty egotistical of me to make assumptions.

"Does it matter?" asked Andy. "It's not like we're actually going to have sex."

"Speak for yourself," said Rick, then glanced over at me to see if I'd blushed again. I had.

"Aw, honey, say it ain't so," said June, putting her arm around Andy, who looked very flustered. He's not much fun to tease because he gets uncomfortable so easily. But June smiled and rubbed his back in a comforting, completely platonic way, and he smiled back at her. She's so gentle with him, I found myself wishing, for a moment, that they could be a couple, before I remembered that I'd really rather not share.

After the feast was over, when it was getting dark and the only light under the event tent out on the lawn where we ate came from the season's first citronella candles, we went down the long lines of tables, each of us saying something good about our partners. It took a long time--thirty of us had danced, after all, plus ten from the masters' group. When it down to us, Rick and I looked at each other, not sure who should speak first.  We've been friends for almost seven years now, but we've never really spoken affectionately with each other. It's just not what we do. I stood and spoke before he could.

"Rick is my partner tonight," I explained. "And he is my friend, and the smartest, most observant man I know--that I've ever known, I think. It's easy to be friends when you fit in, when you have a lot in common. It's easy to be friends when you have no choice because you crave company, and most of us do, but Rick doesn't fit in and he doesn't crave company. He'd rather be left alone. When I first met him, he wanted nothing more than to learn how to go live in the woods, alone. And he did it. But when he graduated and he actually could go to the woods, he asked me to go with him. We hiked the Appalachian Trail together. He has been my friend this whole time, not because it's easy for him, and not because he feels like he has to, but because he wants to. I don't mean...I don't know how to say this. I don't want it to sound all abject, like thank you for picking me, or whatever, I mean that not everyone can truly be a friend, freely. Rick can. I think that speaks well of him. And, you know I don't like guys, but if I did, I could do worse than Rick."

That triggered a bit of a laugh. Rick stood up.

"You know I don't like human beings," he began, "but if I did..." and got a big laugh. He smiled a little in the candlelight, his face looking taut and alien. "Seriously, though, Kretzman, did you hear yourself? Everything you said about me, it's not a reason to like a guy. I mean, so Rick doesn't like people, doesn't think he needs people, but he deigns to be friendly with one dude. Well, jack off, jack-ass, right?" More laughter. "Except it's all true. But this guy, he likes it. He likes me. Go figure. Kretzman can see the best, see the worthwhileness, in anybody. Even me. Kretzman, I've never said this to anybody, but I...I think I can stand you."

Big round of laughter, and he sat down. I shoved him, and he shoved me, the way you do, and it was time for the next couple to speak. But I felt very glad to have ended up with Rick at the Maypole dance this year.

Every year, Beltane here changes a little. I think it's the most variable of our holidays. The others mostly stick to tradition, but this one evolves.

This year, Sarah seemed to be in charge. Usually, she and Kit share the holiday, but I really didn't see Kit involved that much. The morning was mostly for kids--there are only eight sprouts now, counting my brother's three kids (they were in attendance, though my brother wasn't. He just dropped them off with me) but several of them brought friends, so there were maybe twelve or thirteen kids. They had their own Maypole dance, and there was a kind of kid-friendly festival, with face-painting and silly relay-races with farm-made candy for prizes, and a kind of petting zoo consisting mostly of sheep and this season's half-grown chicks. Joy took kids around on "pony rides" with the horses, and Allen did magic. Then there was a picnic lunch with lots of kid-friendly foods, and a short concert by Carrie who, I forgot to mention, is our new head of heavy maintenance. She sang kids' song for about forty minutes. Of course, most of the people present were not kids, but we all had a good time anyway, either vicariously or simply by being kids for the morning. I let June talk me into getting my face painted, though the painter complained that it's harder to paint a face with a beard on it. I ended up with a small, orange butterfly high on each cheek.

In the afternoon, we did more adult things--nothing sexual, except the Maypole dances themselves, just things kids might find boring. Most of them ran off and entertained themselves away from adult eyes. We danced the Maypole, the masters' dance first and then the students', then we had the blessing of the animals, including, and this was a new detail, a separate blessing of the bee hives, followed by a tasting party with the last of last year's mead and hard cider. While the priest was blessing the vertebrates (cats and dogs, chickens, horses, and sheep), I looked over at Greg for some reason, and was surprised to see that he was crying. He wasn't making a big deal of it--he wasn't sobbing, and he wasn't hiding his feelings in a way that might draw attention. His face was simply wet.

Last year, of course, Greg's Cat was still alive. Greg always held the little animal, who did not belong to Greg, and who had no name besides his love for this man, during the blessing every year. I suppose, this year, Greg's arms felt very empty.

After the tasting--and of course some people did rather more than taste--we started getting ready for the dinner feast. Rick and I helped put up the event tent. Then, after the feast, there was dancing, another new development.

Most of the May Day couples, I noticed, broke up after the meals, reverting to whatever arrangements they normally had, but I treated Rick as my date for the evening. We danced together, including a couple of slow dances.

I don't know if Rick is attracted to me. Even if he is, I wouldn't have danced with him as a concession to his desire. There would be something condescending it that, I would think. He knows I'm straight and, moreover, committed monogamously to someone other than him. I would not have pretended otherwise to a man, any more that I would have pretended with a woman. No, I danced with him as I might have slow-danced with a female friend, a platonic but quite real date, because I wanted to--I was enjoying his company and, quite surprisingly, the man can dance--and because I wanted to prove to him I'm not afraid of him.

After the dance, while others were cleaning up from the festivities, I said goodnight to Rick and rejoined my actual mate (she had danced with Andy, who did not know how to dance and with whom she was touchingly patient) and we walked back to the Mansion together. We did, in fact, have a sleep-over planned.

"Care for some fertility magic?" she asked, playfully, as we rounded the corner of the Mansion, heading towards the entrance through the Green Room.
"Yes, and no," I answered.
"Huh?"
"The people enacting the Great Rite tonight, you know what they're doing, right?"
"Having sex?" she hazarded.
"Having sex as the Goddess and the God," I clarified. "He becomes the God to her and she becomes the Goddess to him, and together they enact the lovemaking of the gods. It's a pretty powerful thing, I suppose. Making love to God. I don't know if I could do it."
"Why not?" she asked.
"I don't know if I believe in it," I told her. "I shouldn't play at the sacred rites of somebody else's religion. Anyway, I don't want to be the God to you. I want to be Daniel. And I want you to be June."

She started to reply, to say something romantic and sweet, I'm sure, but then, I'm not kidding, the words "oh, god!" shrieked themselves out into the night through some open window above us, and we both cracked up.

"Oh, Daniel," she said. "You're such a trip. You and this whole weird, crazy school of yours."
"Do you like it? Are you glad you've come?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "I am."
"Then, will you marry me?"
"Yes. I said yes already."
"No," I clarified, "Not will you marry me someday, at some vague point in the future. Will you marry me soon. This summer. Say, June, June. Let's set a date."
"Ok, I'll get out my calendar."

And as soon as she said it, this weird mix of elation and fear flowed through me. I don't know how to explain it, just, all of a sudden, it got real. We're getting married!


"Not right now, though," I said.
"No, not right now," she agreed.

Her calendar was up in her room, in the Mansion, and there was somewhere besides the Mansion we wanted to go, first.