Another three years of school. At least. Even as the thought crossed my mind, I wondered if I were crazy. Now I know I am, but crazy in a good way.
Los Angeles was greener than I feared it would be and that lifted my spirit immeasurably. The surrounding mountains give the San Gabrielle Valley a definitive sense of place, despite its homogeneous suburban nature. And it is, just suburb after suburb, as I saw thanks to my ride on the wrong bus-of-a-thousand-stops. The difference between here and there is that most of the businesses have signs in languages other than English.
I walked past a brand new Wal-Mart and an enormous and empty office building on my way to the steep drive that leads into University of the West’s hill campus. The buildings are from the sixties, two-story beige blocks with inoperable but generous windows and flat, overhanging roofs held up by square columns. They are set in a landscape of parking lots, steep roads, green slopes, and lush planters full of carefully sculpted trees and blooming flowers.
Although reassuring, more important by far than the setting were the people. Danny Fischer, head of the chaplaincy program, has good handshake and a quick smile under horn-rimmed glasses. He gave generously of his time, making sure I met the other chaplaincy students and sat in on several classes. We talked about many topics, beyond just the mechanics of the program.
The first night I attended a class from the Religious Studies department head, Dr. Locke, that had me sitting forward in my desk. (Or maybe it was because the tiny desks must have been bought at the Guantanamo moving sale.) The hermeneutics of texts sounds amazing dry, but it was actually rather fascinating. Dr. Locke lectures with a great deal of energy for someone who looks like he just walked out of the Andes three weeks after the plane went down. He characterizes himself as a “self-hating professor” who plays the game of academia without buying into it. “My goal for this class is to make a Buddhist cry,” he declared with an evil grin as he passed out the week’s reading assignment. I could get to like this man very much.
I attended two other classes, both of which were on interesting topics and well taught. In one, I was mesmerized by the nun sitting beside me rapidly typing notes on her flashy laptop in what I believe was Chinese. About half of the students in those classes were monks and nuns, or “Venerable” as they are addressed.
On Wednesday, the other chaplaincy students took time out of their day to have breakfast with me. Three of the five are in the Army, and the one lady who was out sick (feel better!) is Navy bound. The final student, Mike, is interested in health care chaplaincy. They assured me I could find somewhere to live nearby for much less than I had feared. That night, Samya, one of the soon to be Army chaplains, Mike, and Venerable Hyun Gok (sp?), took me out to an authentic Thai restaurant and a little sight-seeing in Hollywood. John Wayne has surprising small feet.
As Samya’s car inched through rush hour traffic, Venerable Hyun Gok reached across the seat and gently took my hand. With a feather light touch, she traced my nails and turned my hand over and over, then took the other. She looked up at me, her small face a series of smiling circles. “You’re very independent,” she stated.
“So my mother tells me,” I agreed.
The next day I set sail back to Nebraska. It was a bumpy ride, especially coming through the thunderstorms into Omaha. The young man in the seat next to me tried to carry on a coherent conversation, but architecture styles and construction equipment sales and alma maters don’t seem to be very relevant when your stomach just tried to dislocate your heart and you’re gripping the armrest fit to break the bones of your hand, though I appreciated the effort. The cabin broke out in cheers and applause when we felt the landing gear make definite contact with the tarmac.
My decision is made. This summer I will need to interview with the admission committee. Should their decision be favorable, come August, I’ll be California bound. Yup, me, Monica, the stubborn tom-boy who hated school and fell asleep in church every Sunday until I refused to go when I was fifteen, pursuing her fourth college degree in religion of all things. And more than that, feeling utterly secure making such a choice.
It’s a very strange world, indeed.