Ten Percent on a Good Day

[Two weeks after moving to the Farm, I received a green wristband signifying my place at the bottom of the Zendik pyramid; I got bopped from above a week later.]

Though Sundays weren’t sabbaths at the Farm, they did start off more slowly than other days. The goat milkers trudged up the hill an hour later, the cooks served brunch instead of breakfast, the bunks in the barn loft stayed full of slumbering bundles an hour longer. On this particular Sunday, in mid-November, the Farm groaned into motion even more slowly than usual. I used the temporal windfall to lie in my bunk and write in my journal, then wander down to the Farmhouse to snag a few of the wild persimmons about to drop in lush vermilion goo-splats onto the driveway. I savored the unaccustomed hours to myself, even as I wondered at the preternatural quite. Was I the only one on the Farm not groggy with a hangover?

The night before – Saturday night – we’d celebrated completion of the Addition (into which the Family and Family Apprentices had recently moved) with an alcohol party. Forbidden as a casual indulgence, alcohol was officially reserved for Farm-wide celebrations. (Unofficially, some Zendiks with the privilege of access to privacy secreted stashes of booze in their studios – but I wouldn’t find that out for another few years.) At this, my first Zendik party, the ration had been two shots of hard liquor each – but apparently other Zendiks more senior, wily, or alcoholic than I had managed to procure more than their share. I neither questioned the allotted amount nor needed more to get drunk (even before moving to the Farm I’d indulged so rarely, and in such extreme moderation, that it didn’t take much). After downing my double shot of tequila, I charged down to the Farmhouse to dance with intoxicated abandon to the metal music thrashing through the cleared-out, strobe-lit office space. I can dance, I thought. I can be part of your revolution.

When I was done dancing I drifted into the kitchen, where I bantered and argued with my fellow Zendik Apprentices and a few visitors till after midnight. With no purple, gray, blue, pink, or even brown wristbands around, and the tequila warming me towards the new guys, I let my guard down, asserting and contradicting as freely as I might have over dinner with my mother and sisters. Once the kitchen had emptied, I even went so far as to scribble a few thoughts on the dry-erase board – blank for the moment – on which the head cook would post the day’s menu, and the day’s Wulf quotation, come morning. I was unaware that when feeling unfettered at Zendik it was best to leave no trace.

Early Sunday afternoon, on a trench-digging crew that had taken hours to creak into action, I laughed along as others recounted the highlights of the party – how Rebel and Loki had pulled a dead-drunk Rocky out of a culvert and hauled him back to the barn, how Riven had thrust her hip through a window in the Farmhouse while dancing – even as I silently congratulated myself for having held my liquor well enough to spare myself the chagrin of waking up and wondering, What have I done? I noted with pride that the pile of dirt alongside my stretch of trench was growing faster than the pile by Rebel’s. I bet he’s totally hungover, I thought. I feel fine.

Then Zylem walked up to the crew, a frown tugging at his eyebrows. A Family member who’d been at the Farm, barring a couple absences, for the past twenty years, Zylem shared billing with Arol as co-editor of the Zendik magazine. He’d written the diatribe against “The Big Lie” that had caught my attention on the Zendik web site before I’d arrived. Though he was not the Farm’s alpha male – though he lacked the ruthlessness, capacity for violence, and blood connection to Arol’s family that qualified another, younger man for that role – the forward thrust of his quarterback’s chest, the hints of gray in his scraggly ponytail, his penchant for advising newer Zendiks, his decades of Zendik history, gave him a penumbra of patriarchal authority.

I didn’t watch much TV as a kid, since we had no set at home. Nonetheless, my fantasy father was Mike Brady, of the ’70s sit-com The Brady Bunch: firm but compassionate, graying but handsome, ever ready to sun each of his six children with gentle reproof, wise counsel, protective affection. I wished, when I transgressed, to be disciplined with such warmth and justice. The rare occurrence of Mike-Brady types in nature didn’t dissuade me from holding an armchair open in my inner living room, in case one turned up, seeking a perch.

Zylem nodded to the other trench-diggers – and walked right up to me. “Helen, can I talk to you for a minute?” He motioned for me to follow him away from the crew, out of their earshot. His purpose was serious, I knew, from the stiff set of his shoulders, the grim clamp of his lips. My own chest tensed with the leaden anticipation that sets in when you know a blast is coming but still hope to calm it to a sputter, given the chance to explain, shift blame, show either that there is no trouble after all, or that you are not the cause.

“This is about what you wrote on the dry-erase board last night,” he said, as I followed him towards the burn pile.

The dry-erase board. Yes, I’d written something. What had I written? Something about feeling, for the first time, one hundred percent conscious. What was wrong with that? How was that transgressive? Of course I understood – even if I hadn’t written – that any leaps in consciousness I might have made would not have been possible without Zendik.

“No one’s one hundred percent conscious,” said Zylem, stopping and turning to face me a few steps uphill from the scorched circle where construction debris turned to smoke and ash. “Not even Wulf when he died. Certainly not you – you just got here. You’re maybe ten percent on a good day.”

I nodded, recasting the previous night’s effusion as hubris. A lump formed in my throat, tears started at the corners of my eyes. Against my will – as if a timer set by someone else had just ticked down to zero – my face crumpled like a building undergoing controlled demolition. It was the same crumpling I’d felt in fourth grade, when I’d fruitlessly contested a rare imperfect grade on a math test, then broken into great hiccuping sobs, only to be chided by Mrs. Grace Daly, in front of the whole class, for not knowing how to lose with grace. She was right: My brittle perfectionism left me vulnerable to even the slightest shock. Also, she had the power to cut me off before I felt fully heard; my body’s response was to rage with tears, to force a hearing for what I felt, once the path of reason through speech had been blocked.

Zylem continued, “Arol said don’t write on the board anymore, unless it’s a Wulf quote.”

So this admonition – this “input,” in Zendik lingo – had come all the way from the top. Learning this both heightened my shame and inspired a perverse burst of pride, at having earned Arol’s attention. In my interpretation, she’d made the effort to correct me, by proxy, because my development, like that of the rose bushes she so meticulously pruned, mattered to her. What escaped me was the inevitability of screwing up, in a situation where the definition of offense was always shifting. What also escaped me – as it does most subjects of psychological research – was an accurate understanding of what was being tested. On the one hand, I’d failed to intuit that effusing on the dry-erase board would affront Arol; on the other hand, in submitting to Zylem’s chiding, I was proving myself capable of accepting censure more severe than Cayta’s demands that I wash more often and figure out why (in her estimation) I hated men. I was honing my ability to confuse cruelty with love. I was letting Zylem fill in further details of the distorted self-portrait I would come to accept as photographic in its accuracy.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

One thought on “Ten Percent on a Good Day

  1. So I laughed so hard reading this. I trust you’d appreciate that though.

    It’s such great writing and having been in that world really captures it. And loved the honesty about how you felt at the time being chastised. How ridiculous! (Not you, *it*) I’m so happy to find your blog!


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