May 11, 2010

Without the Net

“Do people from the middle of the country just pick up and move to the coasts? I mean, do people from Nebraska do that?” Grandma asked.

She can't fathom why in a few months I’ll probably be moving to Los Angeles. Truth is, I’ve been a coward. I know she won’t understand and she certainly won’t approve (but that was a battle lost long ago), if I tell her I’m going to be a Buddhist chaplain. So, I take the easy way out, sidestep her questions and try to make it about work. The economy is bad. My industry is very bad. Los Angeles is bigger. There are more jobs.

“Well, you might just have to find whatever you can here,” she states with a kind of baffled certainty, as if that should be the end of the matter.

My mother and I have already whacked this bush to death. Even if I found the perfect job here, I wouldn’t stay. They don’t understand that. They value stability. It’s a good thing, stability. I’ve tried to point out that remaining in one area, never living anywhere else, is not good for my long term career trajectory (assuming I have one). I’m not how sure how much that is true, especially if I'm not longer as set on being a licenced architect as I once was. But new architects do seem to move around a lot their first decade or so out of school. Dad backs me up. He’s been reading.

He’s great, my dad. I think he’s never been really sure what it is architects or planners do. I mean, abstractly, everyone knows architects design buildings and planners design cities, but that’s like saying magicians do tricks. So he buys books and reads about architects and artists and listens to the weekly radio program on KFAB about new development going on in Omaha. He saves newspaper clippings for me from the Omaha World Herald and when there are things going on, like building openings or new loft tours downtown, sometimes we go. It’s fun.

“Yeah, I was reading in that book about Julius Shulman [a famous architecture photographer] about all these architects he’s worked with and it seems they were always moving around every couple of years, from this firm to that firm. At least until they started their own practice,” he chimes in. Or more like, rumbles in, given his size and voice.

It’s a big world with lots of cities with lots of buildings and a person can only learn so much from books. It’s not enough to be educated. One also has to be worldly.

It’s true, but it’s also a smoke screen. Because when it comes to my maternal Grandma Delmira I just don’t want to deal. We speak two different languages, she and I. Once, I got a great coffee table book on sale and I was showing it off, so enthralled by photographs of the galaxy. “Why does that matter?” she asked in a clear tone meaning it didn’t. I may not be a little kid anymore, but if I had been you might have thought someone had just thrown my most recent proud crayon drawing in the garbage. So I avoid the conversations with Grandma I’m more than willing to have with anyone else in the world.

My aunt and uncle came down for my little graduation party. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I made them sit outside in the cold the entire time. But it was supposed to be a picnic darn it, and I’d been cooped up inside all week, and I felt good to be outside. It’s May. They aren’t supposed to be predicting snow this week. But anyway, I sat and gave my Aunt Donalee the entire scoop, although she knew most of it already, with my Uncle Dave sitting silent beside her. Beyond him, I’m sure Grandma Delmira was listening for all she was worth, but she didn’t say anything. I know they don’t understand it and they probably don’t agree or approve either. They’re good Christians, so it kind of comes with the territory. But Donalee likes to know what’s going on and she’s never judgmental or disagreeable about whatever it is I’m planning now.

I love my family, and I’ve always had them at my back. Oh, I’ve lived in Colorado for a couple of summers, and I’ve travelled the most out of any of us, usually by myself, but if I need to move a couch or I get a flat tire, they’re never more than an hour away. Mom brought over frozen casseroles to bake for the picnic, because I’d been sick all week and still didn’t feel like cooking. She took care of the fruit and veggies and cups and plates and forks. She even brought me a little bouquet of roses. She paid for it all and never asked me to pay her back, even though I fully intend to when I see her next. Who’s going to do that when I move to California?

I’ll be flying without a safety net, basically for the first time in my life. My folks asked what I wanted for my birthday and I just said I hoped they’d help me move to Los Angeles. That’s enough of a burden on them. But once I’m settled and they’ve headed home, what then?

I supposed if it comes to that, I’ll have a sangha. I’ll have been admitted to the chaplaincy program and there will be other students, classmates, teachers, coworkers, friends. But I’m still just a Nebraska girl and in Nebraska the first resource is family. Sure neighbors help neighbors, especially out in the rural parts of the state where lots of my family is from, but family is first.

I’ve heard when monks and nuns take their vows, they renounce their family, not in a harsh way, but just as a way of giving up ties to the world, attachments that keep up bound up in samsara, the cycle of suffering. Maybe this is one of the reasons monasticism would have such a hard time catching on here in the West. Maybe it’s also because we’d don’t have families as large as we used to, so cutting ties with one child can drastically reduce the size of a family with only two or three.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s what I’m trying to do, in a small way. Let go of attachments – to my family, to Nebraska, to all the habitual patterns I’ve built up in my life (like cowardly avoidance of directly answering my grandmother’s awkward questions). I hope I’m not deluding myself into thinking that I’ll be able to turn over a new leaf the minute I land on the west coast, that I’ll somehow become that person I’ve always wanted to be – diligent, perceptive, compassionate. (Especially the diligent bit.)

But when I do have these kinds of difficulties communicating with people close to me, be they my grandma or professors or just acquaintances, it makes me think the chaplaincy program is exactly where I need to be. I have so much to learn. I don’t know exactly what my future holds. I still hope to go back for a PhD at some point, still hope to find a place in academia, still intend to teach, still want to write, but I’m not entirely sure how these paths will blend together. I’ve never been accused of lacking ambition at least (and that’s a whole ‘nother ball of worry).

So I hugged my grandma and told her I loved her and tried to shrug off the awkward way some of her comments that day made me feel. And I was grateful for my family, especially my parents and brother and sister-in-law and my aunt and uncle who drove all the way down from Custer County just to sit outside in the cold and eat store-bought casserole. I know, if it really hits the fan, they’ll be there for me, no matter where in the world I happen to be at the time.

As for moving couches, well I hear beer and pizza make great bribes.


Teacher Jim said...

[big smile]

I think you'll do okay....

matthew said...

I've just run across your blog recently (thank Tricycle). As a native of the Land of Flat Water, and now a west coast resident who works in the A/E/C industry and has had a long interest in Buddhism, your blog is interesting reading. (And fuel for nostalgia, I'll admit...) Thank you.

As for your journey, I'm betting you will do fine. You'll be amazed by how many people you will meet from Nebraska. Or Iowa. Or Kansas.

For whatever reason, those of us who grow up on the plains... when we seek, we tend to seek in a westerly direction.