September 25, 2007

Pain In The Ass

My restful class took on a painful new color this week. Last week I missed the first of our actual riding lessons. I didn’t worry. I even managed to crib a ride from some folks from the Morgan Horse Association who were gathering at the same state park as our family reunion over the weekend. We started our lunge line work, my partner, Joey, on the ground and me riding skinny old Valor (a lazy, but good creature, scrawny but still strong). Walking was no trouble. Standing in the saddle while walking felt easy and natural. Then we clucked to our horses to trot.

“Monica! No posting!”

What?!?!? I’ve been practicing my riding all summer, and bending the ears of anyone who will listen with how I am learning to post (lifting out of the saddle every other step to the rhythm of the horse) and canter. What am I supposed to do if not post?

Apparently, in western riding the goal is to never let your ass leave the saddle. Posting is only for English style riding. Okay…so how do you keep your ass in the saddle? Pelvis rolled back, flex in your hips and ankles, and push down with your heels. Not so easy as it sounds. I just couldn’t do it and as a result got the hell slammed out of me. I’m sure Valor wasn’t having any fun either.

I couldn’t get my left heel down. It just didn’t feel like it was supporting any weight at all, though I could feel it on my right side. The jarring motion created pain in my ribcage and made it very hard to breathe. “Sit back, heels down. Sit back, heels down,” became my mantra. Despite that, when it was obvious I wasn’t doing so well, our instructor had Jamie, the TA, work with me for not only my allotted half of the two hour period, but the second half (when I was supposed to be on the ground and my partner on the horse) as well.

Finally towards the end of those two hours, Jamie would call out “There! You’re getting it.” I’ll admit I was improving, but “getting it” I was not. If this was “it” why did I still hurt so much? Why would anyone in their right mind NOT post? Jamie told me I should be using my calves and feel the burn and strain in them. No matter how I flexed my left ankle and pushed my heel down, I didn’t feel anything in that leg. Today my hips, back, shoulders, and the outside of my right calf are sore, but only just a little. I don’t feel like I was using my legs at all.

It would be easy to blame it on five years of fencing, where my right leg was my lead leg, my power, supporting almost all my weight, and my left was just for balance and impulsion. Maybe that has something to do with it, but I don’t think that is the whole story. I understand what I’m supposed to do. I just can’t seem to DO it. When I tried to relax my torso enough so I could breath, calling on my calm abiding, I would relax everything and my foot would come right out of the stirrup.

Valor is lazy, and he doesn’t like being swatted with the rope. He would lope, prance, and hope a little. “Way not to panic,” Jamie told me when he tried to take off once. Panic never even entered my mind. I felt unbalanced quite a lot (especially since we aren’t allowed to use our hands either) but I never actually thought I would fall off and I was never afraid. Just frustrated to the point of tears. But I would suck it up and breath and then cluck at the horse to go again.

I’m still looking forward to class tomorrow and trying not to grit my teeth at the same time.

September 24, 2007

Letting Go of Shambhala

Written September 20, 2007, while at SMC:

Familiar – that was how it felt to board the train at the sanitary little train station in downtown Lincoln. The sun painted the flatlands of eastern Colorado gold, until the gleaming towers of Denver appeared in the distance. I had come for a class trip, but without my class. I had the opportunity to ride in the University van with the others, but chose to pay the extra to travel alone. I needed to close the loop, fulfill the cycle, catharsis.

I wandered downtown Denver that day as I waited for my classmates to arrive. In the Denver Art Museum, I found an installation with several cards. I chose “happy.” On the back was the quote “I wasn’t born here on the High Plains. I’m here because, even as a child, I knew I had to come home.” – rancher Gaydell Collier, 1997. I kept that one. I wasn’t born in the foothills of the Rockies, I wasn’t born a Dharma brat, but I did come home.

We’ve been here for a day. It feels more like home than eastern Nebraska ever has. Yet…

I cannot continue planning my life around the next trip to Shambhala. I love it here. I feel home here. I can acknowledge that, know that, revel in the glory of it, but I need not lament. I need not lament its loss when I am elsewhere. If nirvana is now, that now includes the here. Nirvana is here. Wherever here is – Lincoln, Omaha, Denver, Fort Collins, Shambhala Mountain Center, Chicago, or places I’ve never been. Nirvana is there, too.

In a few short handfuls of hours we’ll be gone from here, headed east again. My class will drop me off in the small town of Kimball, Nebraska, where my father is coming to take me north to a family reunion at Fort Robinson in the northern Nebraska panhandle. It is the Sand Hills.

The Sand Hills are the one other place where I have felt the resonance of home. The small town of Valentine where my father grew up and I was shipped off to spend weeks with my grandparents during the summers is much as I remember it from those days. In the rolling dunes by Merritt Reservoir, I would walk over the low hills until the highway, the trees, the cabins, the lake all disappeared. I could believe a person lost in those hills could die of thirst, never knowing a lake lay a hundred feet beyond the next rise. The thought never frightened me. Someday I would like to bring Shambhala there, found a true Windhorse Center.

In the meantime, those dreams give way to now. A now I am seeing a bit more clearly. Seeing love which is really attachment, joy which turns to loss, reverence which is idealizing, and regret which could be turned to excitement.

I can go home and know Shambhala will be here when I return. I can go home without needing to know when I will return. Because I have come full circle and I’m none the worse for wear. I can choose to go through the pain of loss every time I leave, or the joy of simply knowing I can return.

I can go home knowing, letting go is not loosing.

September 09, 2007

Lonley in Nirvana

As the sun set yesterday, I paced back and forth in the small confines of my apartment. I cleaned a little, trailed the shoestring for my cat, looked at the Netflix envelope unopened on my desk, and finally flopped down onto my bed and stared at the ceiling fan whirling overhead until my eyes hurt. An uncomfortable malaise gripped me. I was antsy, skittish, annoyed, and bored. I realized then, I had gone an entire day without speaking to anyone.

Oh, I said hello to the clerk at the grocery store, nodded to a few passersby on the street, and sent a couple of emails in the morning, but I hadn’t had any significant interaction with anyone for the entire day. And what of the entire prior week? The week I had spent running hither and yon like my cat with that shoestring?

I spoke to my professors and classmates, discussing architectural theory, projects, and homework. I spoke to the ladies in the Art Department office as I came in to fetch the gallery key. I spoke to the librarians about working a few hours in the architecture library, and to a very funny postman who helped me fill out the paperwork for my passport.

I don’t know how it is in other places, but here in Nebraska “How are you?” is the common greeting. The requisite response is “Fine, yourself?” This exchange could take all of two seconds as you pass someone on the street or in the hall. It is really no more than an exchange of hello’s. I have been asked that several times in the past week. I don’t think it was ever intended as an honest question. I was never compelled to provide an honest answer. If I had been, I probably would have replied differently.

As I lay fully clothed in my bed last night and watched the ceiling fan spin, I had to admit to myself: I’m lonely. What’s worse, spending Saturday night in bed alone, or going out alone? Yet, what’s so bad about either? Nothing really. I now lean in to this feeling, as I’ve been taught to do. How does it feel? Where? What is the texture, taste, sound of this thing? What constitutes this tightness in my gut? When I have the sense of it, when I feel I have leaned in enough, I start to think again.

Is this just a reaction to leaving Shambhala and returning home? No, I don’t think so. I remember this feeling. It has been growing for over a year now. This is how I felt last winter. Being in Shambhala only put it on hold for a while. This is the feeling of a twenty-seven year old woman who’s never had a significant long-term relationship in her life.

That’s not something easy to admit, or pleasant to dwell on. It’s not territory I usually let my mind wander in to. I was always resolved not to let the search for a partner, for marriage and children, define my life. I was never one of those girls who bounced straight from one boyfriend to another. I always sort of looked down on those girls. And so long as I was still a girl myself, that way okay. I haven’t thought of myself as a girl for several years now.

I still hold the same feelings, the same convictions. I have a hard time picturing myself married. I doubt I will ever feel the urge to have children of my own. I am still unconvinced of the so called “power” or romantic love. But I am not looking for any of that.

I want closeness, intimacy, support, and yes, love. I don’t want someone who will build me up, put me on a pedestal, or look at me through rose colored glasses. I want someone who will know me, truly know me. I’ve wanted that for a long time.

But then I would tell myself to stop whining about it. Stop feeling sorry for myself. And what would I do with a man, if I had one? Probably drive him crazy with my own damned need for independence, control, and space. Resent him for the demands he might place on me, for any ideas he might have about “needing” me, for cramping my style. Or would I?

Things changed this summer. A friend helped me realize how hard I can be on myself sometimes, how I cover it up with a blasé attitude, a shrug, and a smile. I tell myself I’m being compassionate by not inflicting my negative emotions on others. I remind myself “nirvana is now,” and go about my day telling myself that if I can just believe enough, pretend enough, eventually it will become natural. Someday, I might actually start to see it. In the meantime…

I also learned this summer that I might not mind those so called “demands.” I’m not a girl anymore. I might just have finally grown out of that tom-boyish streak of stubbornness, that “I’m not going to do it because someone else wants me to.” Regardless of what I wanted, of course.

It’s so ridiculous. Sometimes I want to laugh. This college campus is filled with couples and they make it look so effortless, although I’m sure it’s not. If “Coupling 101” were a class, I think I’d have better luck passing graduate level astrophysics. *sigh*

For the first time, I’m looking myself square in the face.

PS – I was tempted to end with “And Damn! I’m hot!” but I’ve begun to discover what I hide behind flippancy, even from myself.

September 07, 2007

Service Learning

This is the paper I will be presenting at the Fall Central Conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. I get to go to Canada!

Wish me luck!

September 06, 2007

My Mala

On Tuesday, I walked the winding mile through downtown to my studio in Old City Hall. I passed a priest outside the state capitol. I was thinking of my mala, which I have worn every day for over a year now. The easiest way to explain them to non-Buddhists is to call them "prayer beads." I don't pray. I don't count mantras or prostrations or anything for which the mala is classically used. I simply wear it to remind myself of the Dharma, a reminder to be mindfull. And, yes, it is a badge, an advertisement of my practice. If other Buddhists, few and far between here, should pass me by, I would like to know. It has never happened. The only people who have asked me about it are those I know well who want to know "Why do you where that same necklace every day?"

The priest I passed had his head bowed over a book, which looked suspiciously like the Bible, though I could not read the spine. He did not look at me, nor any other person he passed. I suspect had Jesus Christ himself with all twelve apostles walked by, the man would not have noticed. And if all the buddhas and bodhisattvas and tathagathas suddenly opened the clouds and peered down at me, would I? I was so wrapped up in thinking about my mala and its message of mindfulness, it took the unlikely sight of a preist similarly lost in thought to bring me to. The irony does not escape me.

I doubt I shall see him again. The second week of class is almost past. I have my bicycle back and shall no longer be walking to school. The surreal feeling has snuck up on me now and then, showing me the manufactured quality of this life, but not so strongly as it often does. Sometimes I feel like an alien in a new land, or a dream I should remember, like a past life. Oh, I'm making too much of it, surely. It is just a small voice whispering in the back of my head as I dash from class to class.

I will say, I am in much better shape since my summer adventure. I flew by two other cyclists on 14th Street today, something I rarely do, and hit all the lights just right between K and Q, no easy feat. I was hardly winded after, but I'm still tired and sore. I think I shall be in even better shape by the end of the semester. My arms ache from grooming my horse yesterday in equitation class. Who knew horses hooves were that heavy? They gave me Red, a tall thoughtful creature. It took me two tries to throw the saddle onto his back, and much longer to hold his hooves up for cleaning. Then eighty-two steps up and down to my studio several times a day, attending classes in the building of a thousand stairs (Arch Hall), and the many trips up and down to take out the recycling from Richards Hall every Friday, all more than enough to give me legs like tree trunks.

Then I'm late, after having run this errand or that in between, and I take the steps two at a time until I really can't breath, but keep going anyway. Then it strikes me, that feeling of being on the other side of a television screen watching the show that is my life. I think I have lousy writers, sometimes.

I can't seem to cook enough. I can never pack enough food for all day on Tuesday and Thursday, my long days, and end up buying something in between. I can never decide where I'm going. Do I need to stop at studio this morning? Or can I go straight to class? Wait! Studio isn't in Arch Hall this year, turn around. What did I forget when I left the house this morning? I have a thousand errands to run and little time to squeeze them in, which leaves me standing on the street turning this way and that like an idiot, indecisive. Of one thing I'm too sure. I've had too long to think about this design project, all summer, and when asked "why don't you try this?" I think I already have the perfect answer. I'm too married to my own ideas and that is going to make studio hard this year. I haven't sat since I returned. I think I should. I think I am going to need to.

I think I am going to need to remember the lesson of my mala more than ever.