Posts by Heather Ezell
I sometimes wonder if I’m the right student to have blogging as the student curator. The term has connotations. Connotations that I’m actively involved with campus life, that I’m someone always around, a student other students know. Connotations that there isn’t an event I’m not aware of, and that I’m relentlessly enthusiastic and never shy away.
Or maybe those are just the connotations “student curator” has for me.
Because, truly, while I am a Colorado College student, while I’m passionate and involved as much as my rather-exhausted body allows, the truth is, I rather read in bed or scribble in a notebook on a Friday night than venture over to Wahsatch or Weber.
On the Facebook CC Confessions page, a term has recently been coined: The Phantom 500, referring to the introverts on campus, the students that the others–the presumably normal students–never see because phantoms don’t go to events or parties or eat in Rastall. We are ghosts, floating the quads, randomly appearing in classes, or in the line at the Preserve, a mirage of students who exist somehow unseen and unacknowledged.
What a silly term, right? Talk about connotations of insignificance.
But again, maybe I’m jaded, as, despite my impacted schedule, all the incredible people I adore between Cache La Poudre and Uintah, and my seemingly endless campus wide obligations, I’m rather certain I’m one of the Phantom 500. And, you know, I wouldn’t change a thing. I may not be the most well known, most involved student on campus, but I feel nonetheless connected. Infinitely blessed. Still a member of this bizarree, fabulous community–even if I don’t have over a thousand friends on Facebook or go to the loudest house parties on the weekend. CC is still absolutely woven into who I am today.
I went to the senior dance theses performances last week. In the dark of the theatre, I was able to smile with hot wet eyes without explanation. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t stop grinning. And then I went to the advanced fiction reading three nights back, where I had to veil my face with my hair as I cried off and on, unable stop the warm sparks flicking down my spine. (Though, for the record, I’m an easy crier.) I don’t know why I so often feel the way I do, why I feel so much light on my skin when walking across Armstrong Quad, why I want to embrace CC students I don’t even know… but maybe it’s because we’re all threaded, we’re all connected, even us phantoms, we’re intricately a family in the most beautiful, absurd kind of way.
Does that make sense? Surely I’m not alone with these emotions. Maybe I’m just dramatic. You can call me dramatic. I promise I won’t be hurt. These feelings are just too intense, too real, not to share.
Before I was officially a CC student, back when I just a high school drop out taking summer courses as a “visiting student” in Summer 2011, I felt what I felt now as I walked home from a friend’s house on Wahsatch (a friend who graduated that same year). I felt the warmth, the spark, this insistent feeling I needed to come to CC, that I was meant to be here. And so, I wrote that night, wrote of my walk home and the overload of emotions.
My feelings then are still relevant today. If not more relevant, even as one of the Phantom 500, if such a group truly exists. Fair warning, in the summer of 2011–as I always have been and always will be–I was often incredibly cheesy.
A man sticks his head out of his van and says, “You doing okay?”
He passes me on Cache La Poudre and makes a U-Turn on Cascade due to my meandering walk being too slow, too content with the midnight mosquito parade, too at peace to be bothered to pick up the speed for safety’s sake. He passes me a third time, but now only observes. Simply lets his headlights flash on the green of my pants. Simply lets me continue on my wine heavy way.
Am I doing okay? Am I doing okay, Mr. CC Security Guard Who Hopes That I Will Be Accepted As a Full Time Student in January Because This Place Is Lovely Despite the Roaming City Kooks And I Am So Obviously Happy Here At CC?
“This is my home,” I will tell him later. “My home.”
Dear Andy, can’t you see? Can’t you see the gleam? Am I not floating down this entirely vacant street totally at ease? For the last six years I’ve tumbled from place to place in pursuit of an answer for what I should do, where I should be. Berkeley, Aix, Granada, Colorado Springs, Chipita Park, Umbria, Kinsale, Arcata, Orange County again and again and again, only to return to the most obvious yet seemingly unattainable place, Colorado College in Colorado Springs—this small intoxicating college where I once finally slept during 2010’s humid summer afternoons when insomnia made the nights resemble something numb and cruel, but here at CC, last year, 2010, dizzy on the grass of Armstrong Quad wishing that the quad was my place to be, a place to call mine, to call home, I finally found sleep.
And now, eleven months later, in a sense my wish has come true, as CC is finally my place to legitimately be. I can finally sleep on the quad legally with a student (visitor status aside) Gold Card and Student ID.
For the last six years, since bowing farewell to high school, I’ve stretched and yanked and screamed in pursuit of direction. Where? Where? Where? Nowhere fit. Contentment was a fantasy. Nothing beyond my word dribbles and Pikes Peak offered stability. No where stuck my swollen pieces together with the necessary bundle of mountains and academia and writing and companions and so I searched and searched and searched. But now I am finally here. Now it appears that I have found my glue.
I cross through Armstrong’s parking lot and walk across the quad. Mr. Security Guard now watches from his car on Cascade. I’m smiling, grateful for his protection, but also grateful that he hasn’t abducted me into his safe proximity, even as I cross the street and skip right in front of him, for the night is kind to me—the sagging shadowed cottonwoods, the warm muddy grass, Shove Chapel watching my back, and the row of orbs leading up to Cutler Hall. I question bowing down to Cutler’s front doors. Let me in, I’d whisper while kissing its stairs, let me in. I restrain myself, as I worry that my kneeling would alarm the still-watching CC Security Guard. And to be pulled away from the summer sky’s shine would be a tragedy.
The stars are what keep me aligned, watching me, giving me light to see campus, giving me words to think so I can express my gratitude, the words like drops of candle wax that slowly fill my ear reminding me to listen, always to listen, listen to what is unable to necessarily be heard, listen to the tsunami spinning within.
My mantra: I am here. I am here. I am here.
I approach Antero and Mr. CC Security Guard pulls up beside me in the roundabout.
“You doing okay, dear?”
“This is my home,” I say. “I am here.”
Obviously, lack of whispers aside, the powers that be accepted me as a CC transfer student the following December, despite my nineteen-year-old dramatic tendencies. And nearly two years later, I feel the same. Nearly two years later, I wouldn’t take back a day. Even the days that follow a mere 30 minutes of sleep. Even the days when I want to curl up on my hardwood floor and cry for a minute or three. Even on the hardest of days, I am blessed to be here. I only have a year and a month left at CC before I graduate, and success and opportunities and friendships aside, I will be most grateful for the blessing of always having the freedom to call Colorado College a home, a home that gave me the means to change my life.
So if you believe in the Phantom 500, know that some of us ghosts are no less entranced, no less woven into this tapestry of fabulous chaos that is life at Colorado College.
And speaking of summer… Summer on campus is an INCREDIBLE and MAGICAL thing. Take summer courses. Just do it. They are small and intimate and often outside and something like half cost and just simply wonderful. I for one will be here for all three blocks.
- Cuddle with your dog. Wonder how you’ll ever leave your dog again.
- Be shocked by the humidity and warmth of your homeland. 85 degrees? Ocean breeze? Miss your dry, cold bipolar Colorado but secretly also twirl as moisture returns to your parched winter skin.
- See old friends. Hug old friends. Get sushi with old friends. Say goodbye again to old friends.
- Spend time with your family. Go in the hot tub with your family. Make dinner for your family. Try not to be irritated with your family. Relax, you’re with your family.
- Suddenly realize it’s March of your junior year. Freak out. Waste hours researching graduate programs (for the 55th time) and make lists and attempt to study for the GRE but ultimately end up on the living room floor staring at your dog because it’s spring break and the semester has been a tad intense and you just need to chill out for a few minutes.
- Take aforementioned dog on as many hikes as possible. Remember the sunscreen. Run. Feel like a warrior with your new super strength lung capacity. Bless the Colorado mountains for the gym-free training.
- Try to sleep in. Your body needs it. Fail at sleeping in. The one time you do sleep in feel guilt for wasting precious hours. Drink as much coffee as you do at school.
- Obnoxiously check your CC banner twelve times a day to see if your Block 6 grade has been posted. It hasn’t, and you know it won’t be until Block 7 is deep. Still, you’ll check every day. That’s OK. You’re only human.
- Attempt to get serious work done on your Writing Center tutor training research paper. Succeed in this attempt but still feel as if the revision will never, ever end. Read another book on the joys of teaching writing. Make more notes. Keep digging.
- Help your mom in the garden. It’s 75 degrees in California. It’s 19 degrees and snowing in Colorado. Enjoy the warmth. Enjoy your childhood home.
- Wake up at 5:30 to drive to Hollywood for a very silly movie/book signing event that you’re too ashamed to mention online by name.
- Download Tinder. Laugh. Laugh some more.
- Bake cookies and brownies and bread.
- Start missing Colorado. Start missing campus, the sprint of the CC life, and eagerly wait for reality to resume its exhaustive tendencies.
- Hug your dog some more.
- Adore every day and night.
The temperature hovers just over 7 degrees. They’re in short sleeves, single-layered tees, soccer jerseys, no scarves or beanies. I’m wearing two layers of tights beneath my jeans, a thermal, mittens, and a ski coat. Though I’ve only been outside for some 15 minutes, my thighs already burn from the freeze. They’ve been shooting since 8 and it’s nearing 11 on this blistering bright Sunday morning in January—this group of enthusiastic students, staff, faculty, and alumni working on Cutler Quad to make a video that emulates CC’s spirit.
Chill clouds puff from chapped lips, and I wonder if the day’s frost will be captured on screen. The camera chases, again and again. Set. Take nine. Rolling. Speed. And action. Jake Sullivan ‘15, the man of the hour, talks while he walks backwards, beaming into the camera that follows on its dolly. A soccer ball darts in the air past his head, he dodges, then smirks and keeps going. Prowler Tiger crawls across the icy stone ground. The extras howl and dance and jump behind until all stand in front of Cutler Hall. They cheer and scream out quirky CC highlights. Cut. The camera quits rolling and the actors huddle into coats and sweat pants. The crew looks over the film, then nod, laugh, comment, and call for another take. Jackets and hats are pulled off and the actors resume their starting place.
It’s January 13th and the Welcome to the Block Plan Admissions Spice video is being filmed. Did I mention it’s 7 degrees?
The camera races. Last week’s remaining snow sparks beneath the sharp sun. And then it snows and then it’s sunny and then it snows and then it’s sunny. Take twelve. At the end of each go, the actors sing out a new chant. We knit things for trees! We crotchet tree huggies! Costume adjustments are made—only black and gold (and denim jeans) for Jake, no purple allowed. Heat pockets are rubbed. The positioning of the reflective bounce disc is altered. They’re all smiling and muttering, mostly smiling, all working together to create something epic, something worthy to represent CC. It doesn’t matter that it’s a Sunday morning of half-block, still technically winter break. It doesn’t matter that limbs are numb and the wind is relentless. Okay, maybe it matters a bit, but everyone involved is nonetheless pumped, happy to help, to participate and make something fabulous together.
This is CC.
I’ve only been observing for a single hour of one day. These same actors and crew members spent yesterday morning—an even more frozen Saturday—shooting at Garden of the Gods. There was salsa dancing and rappelling into a make shift classroom in front of the stellar red rocks and glazed-white Pikes Peak. I imagine the scene will look as if it’s filmed before a backdrop—Colorado Springs is often too extraordinary for reality. And then there’s today, so cold, such a vibrant blue, that particular delicate winter light. Winter Starts arrived yesterday and, as the morning progresses, more students pass by, intrigued by the cameras, by the insane group working, playing, in the cold.
The crew huddles around the camera after each shoot. They review and revise. New ideas form every time—such relentless enthusiasm and persistence for the ideal, it’s a joy to witness even with my numb toes. “Really, probably, this is maybe the last one,” Arielle Mari’12, the always-smiling director, says more than twice. No one complains. They jump to their place, clapping, laughing. The in-progress video is the first taste many prospective students will have of CC, and it’s also the first time a search video—which is made every other year—is filmed in-house by campus blood.
When the final take is shot and the moment is wrapped, I photograph the crew in front of Cutler. My hands shake from the cold. Obviously I’m more of a pansy than these dedicated folk—they’ve been outside for hours longer than me, wearing far less, and each is giddy. Freeze high maybe? They huddle together, grinning, cheeks red. Their long, cold weekend working together to express the ride of Colorado College through film is compete, but I don’t believe they smile because the job is done. Rather, perhaps they smile out of pride, friendship, passion. This is CC. Enjoy the ride.
[UPDATED 3/27/13] It has been brought to my attention that, contrary to popular assumption, this shoot was not the first time CC students and faculty have made a video to represent the College. Ten years ago, under the guidance of the then-director of the Film Studies program, Tom Sanny, was doing this very thing–working with “CC blood” to create an admissions search video. Today, it is the Film Studies program that makes it possible for videos to be filmed in-house by those who know CC best.
I know I’m really sick when I can’t fathom the idea of consuming coffee.
I became really sick last Monday. Last Monday of the block. 4th Week Monday. Monday of doom. The Monday of all Mondays in which one would most desperately turn to coffee, in which being sick is a devastation of great proportions.
And I was sick, sick, sick. Though I initially didn’t feel sick. Just dizzy. Just repulsed by coffee when I so desperately wanted coffee. Just horrendously achy and spin-y. But I still went to class. I still scrambled around campus. I still studied. I still somehow went to ballet. (Do I remember Monday’s ballet class? No. Did I go? Yes.) I still sprinted, because it was 4th Week and one doesn’t stop for anything during 4th Week. And come 4th Week Tuesday, when I was dizzier and achier but yet somehow still unaware of what was happening internally, I still participated in my last class of the block. Still recited “Neither Out Far, Nor in Deep” by Robert Frost (though the recitation happened from my seat with my eyes partially closed as by Tuesday morning my dizziness was severe enough for me to suspect passing out a threat). Still studied and studied and studied (coffee free!) for my final exam and even took an hour break for fresh air and drove through the snow-studded Garden of the Gods then came home and studied some more and packed for Block Break and went to bed, all the while dizzy, all the while refusing to admit that my guzzling Emergen-C by the hour was my bowing down to my impending doom.
It didn’t matter whether or not I acknowledged my body’s revolt. It was too late. The illness had already sunk in deep. And when I woke Wednesday–Wednesday of 4th Week, Wednesday morning of my final exam, last day of Block 5, that So Very Very VERY important Wednesday–it was difficult to even lift my head from my pillow, let alone pull myself out of bed and take a five hour poetry exam. Have you ever had a sinus surgery? I’ve had five in my twenty-one years of life. And Wednesday morning I woke feeling as I do after the anesthesia wears off and I blink to a bright white room and some tower of a man looming over me, booming into my tender ears, “The procedure was a success, Miss Ezell, how do you feel? Do you feel great? You did great! How do you feel?”
How do I feel? How do I feel? How do I feel? I feel like you should give me some more of that magical sleep medicine so I can dream off this excruciating pain drilling through my face, that’s how I feel, Mr. All in White Medical Dude.
And it was Wednesday that I last felt this way (so, no, FYI, sinus surgeries don’t seem to do much good long term wise), and I had a class to finish and an evening plane from Denver to Salt Lake City to catch. So, I flopped out of bed and, little by little, did what I needed to do. Did my best and forgot the rest (my father is a fan of P90X and likes to drill that little mantra into my head during borderline panic attacks). I gave that exam everything I had, zipped up my bag, and–sorry fellow passengers of Flight 0282–trekked onto that airplane equipped with tissues and numbing ear drops.
So, Block 5 is behind me, completed with a somewhat painful limp of a bang. And now, for the first time since last Sunday, I’m drinking a mug of coffee. Enjoying my coffee in Park City with my family. I slept and soaked in baths and was a frightful mess the last few days, but slowly I’m regaining strength. And isn’t that the point of Block Breaks? Have a blast, relax, catch up, and prepare for the next race? Hinduism begins Monday, and though I’m still admittedly weak and shaky, it’d be a lie to say I’m not pumped. It’s like a whole new way of life awaits. And, honestly, though the First Day of the Block Feeling spins in eight times a year (or twelve, if you’re like me and take advantage of Summer Session and Half Block), such glee never gets old.
- Make tea. Drink tea. Drink too much tea with too much honey so you get too hyper happy too quickly and crash from the sugar high at six in the evening.
- Hike through Palmer Park on an absurdly warm January morning.
- Think about studying. Study. Think about studying some more. Study. Think. Study. Drink more tea. Make that a coffee.
- Go to CC’s Winter Ball at the Antler Hotel. Dance. See nearly every face from campus you know (but not really). Shun the crowded bus for a chilly ten minute walk home. Smile as the CC buses pass you, one by one, beacons in the brisk night.
- Spend an embarrassing amount of time searching online for a mattress you won’t need until May.
- Consume lethal amounts of chocolate courtesy of the Preserve.
- Attempt to master scansion. Don’t cry when you have yet to master scansion and third week is mere hours away. Scansion. Scansion. Scansion. You’ll get it eventually. Hopefully sometime this week. SCANSION.
- When it snows for the first time in what feels like all winter, walk around campus at twilight and slip and slide and spin in the dimming light. Lose feeling in your thighs and toes and go home.
- Go to ballet and attempt to not fall on your face.
- Don’t sleep. You don’t have time for sleep. That’s a lie. You totally need to sleep. So try to sleep, but don’t be surprised when you wake up from dreams of poetry. Perfectly normal. You should be used to this: your block never fails to enter your subconscious. Embrace it. Dreaming in poetry is fun. Usually. Except when it’s T.S. Eliot theme. Those can get weird.
- Smile at the faces you know as well your own yet have never actually met before.
- Take a CC bus to Red Rocks to see Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Make it a self-date and weave your way to the front of the ropes and dance surrounded with strangers. Meet a boy from DU who gives you a mean gesture. Hug him. Attempt to make peace. Eventually make him smile, then run because the show begins. He’ll yell something profane as you depart. That’s OK. CC is better anyway. Dance so hard that you take off your coat and feel warm, alive, in a sleeveless dress in the 20 degree Colorado chill. Feel warm, safe, content on the bus ride home, back to campus, home, you are home already though, even the CC bus feels like home.
- Role on a tennis ball on your bedroom floor. Cheapest greatest massage ever. You’re welcome.
- Try not to have a panic attack about all the words you need to write and read and analyze and reread and understand in the next week.
- Find prospective CC students online via Tumblr and Facebook. Convince them CC is magical–it is–convince them it’s worth the risk.
- Call your mom and try not to cry because you’re so overwhelmed and so stressed and so happy and so exhausted at the same time.
- Write a blog in bullet points instead of working on an anxiety-producing paper that you feel should be a cakewalk but is totally not feeling like a cakewalk.
- Wonder what a “cakewalk” is exactly and where the term came from. Make note to Google it.
- Roam campus. Feel blessed. You are.
Here I am again. Typing to a blank screen for CC. I have to admit, blogging on this platform is weird. It was weird when I was in London during those sticky summer weeks. It was weird when I sat in this same campus bedroom, at my desk facing west, trying to make sense of that amazing course that took me to South Dakota and brought me back altered in an intricate, unable-to-define sort of way. And it’s weird now, sitting on my too high of a bed, Monday morning of 2nd week of 5th block inching closer with every letter I hit.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday night. I never know what to think of Sunday nights.
I’m used to writing for myself, scribbling in secret pages, in password-protected documents, or on anonymous blogs. I’m used to writing for my mother or my father on holidays, or for professors, with the knowledge that only their eyes will scan the page. Or in creative workshops–where it’s grilled into our little minds that the circle is a safe space. My older sister got married in June. At the reception, I read a poem of a toast that I’d scrawled the night before and I nearly collapsed as I spit my words into the microphone. Blogging with my full name on a public space is like the moment your plane hits the runway. Breath held. Feet firm on the sticky carpet. Wait, wait, wait. Heave a sign when no unanticipated impact is made.
Point I’m trying to make, I’m not used to exposure–the vulnerability of thrusting my words onto a public space. I’m unsure if I’ll ever find blogging (especially on my college’s website) normal, and yet–yet–I find this space–this dashboard, this little not-so-hidden-but-somehow-feels-hidden-section of the website–soothing. As made evident from my past posts, despite my intentions (or, perhaps more accurately, my hesitations), I always manage to compose freely here–always punch my keys far more times than anticipated.
If you’re wondering why I’m here again (you’re probably not)–why I’m blogging once more despite the fact that I’m not in a Featured Course, that I’ve already been a Blogger twice before–I’m now the Spring 2013 Student Curator. What does that mean? I’m still grasping the idea of it myself. By definition of the term curator, I suppose it means oversee Colorado College student life (haha–me?–really?). Realistically, my position involves aiding in the construction and management of the blocky Featured Courses and giving little blurbs in regards to events and people that strike my interest and I think will strike the greater community’s as well.
Here though, on this blog, maybe–just maybe–I can give even deeper insight into the CC mind.
That sounds odd. I take that back (kinda). I don’t mean the CC mind. No. I mean, a CC mind. A glimpse into the non-academic (though surely my courses will leak in from time to time–I’m currently in Introduction to Poetry, FYI) side of a CC life. Fair warning: this is a rather introverted, too busy for her own good, often-hibernating fool of a CC mind. But I think that’s okay. I personally adore my day-to-day race, and if I can offer another view of CC, another opinion, another chunk of absurd writing to read, then I’m your girl (until my boss tells me otherwise).
A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of speaking on the student panel at the Winter Start Orientation. The night fell on my one year anniversary of becoming an official CC student (transfer winter starts unite!) and, gosh, was it dizzying to sit up there–Bemis hall rocking below, a sea of tables with parents and new peers and professors roaring in the thrill. My throat spiked and my eyes burned, and man, I’m so often cliche (get used to it), but I almost cried. I wanted to hug every Winter Start. Every student. Every professor and parent and person associated with this absurdly invigorating place. Life here is not always easy–CC is rarely easy–but every week, day, hour is so worth it–every block a step on this absurdly exhilarating path to wherever it is we are all going.
Anyway. I have many things to write about (that’s an exaggeration). A certain wintery ball that occurred last weekend. A hike I dominated. A secret oh-so-fabulous CC commercial that was filmed in single digit temperatures. But for the sake of brevity (or for the sake of eventually finding some sleep and passing that gnarly scansion quiz tomorrow), I’m treating this as an introduction to my next phase as a CC blogger. The possibilities of what I’ll share here are seemingly limitless (not really), but–really–I just hope to do that: share. Share one’s student rambles of the college so many of us (rightfully) claim as home.
Block 3 is spiraling to an end. It’s Week 4, and rather than being consumed by a rush of anxiety, I’m oddly calm. Week 4 and calm? What? A lot happened in this block–a lot of reading, a lot of talking, a lot of ceremonies, a lot of thinking, a lot of bizarre inexplainable emotional twisting–and I feel content, flushed with fresh understanding and friendship. While a great deal still has yet to surface–moments and concepts I’m not sure I’ll ever fully grasp but perhaps will after more time has passed–such passion and patience and intention from my classmates and Bruce went into the course, and, in result, it was so absurdly filled.
For my final project, I joined a fabulous group in recreating a sweat lodge to represent how the Lakota religious traditions are woven into the everyday, woven into a web of life. We demonstrated how unity and connectedness–Mitakuye Oyasin–is a crucial part of Lakota culture. To emphasis the point (and because we were a large number of minds splintering off in various directions), the group separated into specialities, threads: structure, tapestry, prayer bundles, words, and photos.
I was most drawn to words and how our class’s use of them on the course blog demonstrates the connections developed through ceremonies and our time at Pine Ridge. Out of curiosity I ran a word cloud application through the blog and pulled out our most frequently used words. While some words were expected (Pine, Ridge, ceremony, sweats), others were more striking (time, silence, living, unity, branches). While I hadn’t planned on really doing anything with the word cloud, I was inspired by the nature of the words—and by the idea that we as a community had all brought them forth together, used them, gave them strength—and struck by how, in a sense, these words connected us a class and to our moments with the Lakota at Pine Ridge. So, following the design of prayer bundles, I wrote out the larger clouds words onto paper scraps and wove them together on hemp, creating a vital thread of our web, as the words represent our unification as a class and with the Lakota. While we all had extremely unique and personal experiences in ceremony, we nonetheless intertwined, sharing words and thoughts and emotions. We gave the words their strength.
In addition to making the word thread, I also reread through the blog’s entries, ignoring titles and author names and treating it as a single entry. I pulled out the quotes that clicked with the class’s unified voice and eventually made a quote thread. This task took me longer than I anticipated, for as a community we developed a far deeper singular voice than I’d anticipated. In our writings, the class shared a beautiful a tremendous amount of hope and insight, a great sense of openness, of feeling a loss of words and sense of awe, and a respect for the Lakota way of life. Each sentence could be connected. As I worked on the threads, a warm calm built. It was a beautiful experience–rereading the class blogs–the entries wove together and became one. Though we all came from different places and are on entirely different paths and were participating in ceremonies with (and of) a culture absolutely abstract from our own, we brought our different aspects of life to the experience, came together, shared many words, and created a strong web. Like the idea of Mitakuye Oyasin, all my relations, the word and quote threads demonstrated how unity and connectedness play such a strong role in Lakota ceremony and culture.
We constructed the sweat lodge model on Loomis quad, Pike’s Peak studding the blue west. And though the various threads were built separately through out the weekend, this morning we, quite literally, wove it together and then presented our web of life–our sweat lodge–to the rest of the class.
The November morning was bright as the class circled around the lodge. A slight breeze rippled at the word and prayer flags, blew through the tapestry. As each of us group members explained our personal aspects of the project–the threads we wove into the web–the words that have distantly echoed all block swung clear. Though we all come from our own pasts, all are own our own roads, connection and unity still persists. Trevor Hall sings, So many rivers, but they all reach the sea, and just as the Lakota exemplified unity and openness to us–outsiders–as the course ends, and we drift away from the material, the Littleboy family, and our experiences, I propose that it’s key we remain connected to our unity–our unity with each other, with the course, with the Lakota, with Pine Ridge, with ourselves–and preserve the threads that wove through us the past three weeks.
As my classmate and new friend Jackie wrote: “…An adventure has a tangible ending, whereas a journey does not have a clear ending.” When I consider our course in such a way, it’s clear that the past block has been both an adventure (as CC proudly and accurately claims every block to be) and a journey. While, following a Woplia pipe ceremony and feast, the adventure concludes tomorrow, I feel the journey will continue. And it is this feeling, that feeds my present contentment.
Indigenous Religious Traditions is my second religion course. The first was World Religions, a survey course at my hometown’s community college with over fifty students and professor who was not a fan of discussion. The class consisted of static once-a-week three-hour lectures with an occasional video to save the professor’s aged voice. There were no written assignments, projects, or inquiry into the students’ experiences or opinions. We were graded primarily on the multiple choice quizzes given at the end of every class.
Needless to say, Indigenous Religious Traditions has been an incredibly different experience.
Not only ripe with discussion, Indigenous Religious Traditions has been flooded with participational observation and (for some of us at least) a heavy dose of personal spiritual experience. Not only did we meet and observe the very people whose traditions we were studying (the Lakota), we experienced their traditions. We smoked sacred pipe in a circle, we blessed buffalo and prayed for the land, we trekked Bear Butte and stood where many have gone for their vision quests, we erected a tipi, we sat and sang and swayed in a sweat lodge, and we huddled into Mike Littleboy Jr.’s basement for a spark-filled Yuwipi. The course far surpassed the average read and discuss deal–for a week we were given the opportunity to experience our studies through the Lakotas’ feet.
But such a learning method seems to open itself up to controversy.
A friend and I went out for a dinner a few days after I returned to campus last weekend. She asked me about the field trip to Pine Ridge. I attempted to explain. I was only a few sentences in when she rolled her eyes. So typical of CC, she said, an entire course devoted to trying to be a Native American.
On some level, such a reaction is expected, for out of context it may seem that the course is a group of college kids “trying to be” a different culture, to adopt their rituals, to feed a romanticized ideal. Such an assumption though can’t be further from the truth. No one enrolled to “become” anything. I won’t speak for all twenty-six students, but I put my points on the course because of a genuine interest and concern: a longing to understand indigenous culture and their traditions, as well as see how such communities are existing the too-often discriminatory modern world. I recognized how heavily romanticized Native American culture is and how I had general assumptions based on being a 90s child in the bubble of Orange County and I wanted to smash such ideals. It should be clarified that there was never a point in the last three weeks of this course where I felt a culture, religion, or tradition being forced onto me, or where I felt that any student was trying to “be” a Native American. So, I’ll restate what I said to my friend again here, in case there’s any existing confusion: We were not trying to adopt the Lakota ways, we were (and are) trying to understand.
As Bruce so eloquently wrote in the syllabus:
“Studying indigenous cultures runs the dual risks of romanticism as one idealizes the value of native traditions and fatalism as one despairs over the overwhelming social stresses on indigenous communities. Genuine understanding avoids these dangers by situating learning in the concrete experience of real people living in actual communities and avoids the temptation of reducing living, breathing and complex human beings to abstract intellectual ideas or academic theoretical constructs.
In addition to the concerns of culture stealing, in a course as reliant on personal experience as this, there is also the risk of becoming too individually impacted/invested and thus crossing a line where one becomes too close to the experiences to adequately analyze ritual through an academic understanding. After a week at Pine Rige–a week of participating in ceremonies that did impact me and were perhaps a integral step of personal growth–I recognize the painfully tricky balance. Always an innately spiritual person, I participated in ceremonies open in heart and mind, but also consciously aware of my outsider status and my purpose for being there: to learn and understand. And yes, while I experienced several massively “spiritual events” last week, they were my own personal moments reliant on the history I subconsciously brought to Pine Ridge and not due to an attempt of conversion to the Lakota tradition–while they do offer great perspective that has fed my understanding of ritual, I don’t consider them truly a part of my academic studying. While the Lakota rituals played a key role in surfacing the feelings of spirituality, because I am who I am and came from where I did, because I was the “outsider” I was, I participated the rituals in my OWN way. It’d be impossible to do anything otherwise–impossible for anyone in the course to fully participate in a Lakota ceremony as a Lakota does.
And finally, to touch on the second part of the issue of personal experience in an academic context, would I have the understanding and respect for the Lakota culture and its traditions I now do had I not traveled with my course to the reservation? Could I have gained what I did from the mere contents of a page? Would I have ANY degree of comprehension of the Lakota ceremonies had I not participated in them myself? I kinda hit on this in my post last week, when I wrote about how you have to see and feel to understand the beauty of Pine Ridge. Likewise, this course has been a testament to the strength of personal experience paired with academic analysis in religious studies. While there is always a risk of becoming too close to your experience, if one can practice the proper distance, I believe the wisdom we gained from our first-hand experiences at Pine Ridge is far superior than the surface knowledge would have attained if we’d only read texts. After this block, I believe neither a purely academic approach nor a full reliance on personal experience can suffice alone to truly understand a religion: arguably a true academic powerhouse comes from interweaving the two. Contrasted against the text-reliant nature of my World Religions course, where the semester ended with a sense of only having dipped in my toes, in Indigenous Religious Traditions the readings fed the experiences and the experiences fed the readings. The block will end not only with a sense of expanded knowledge, but a stream of Lakota wisdom and respect.
And thus ends my version of a rant.
I had every intention to write frequently at Pine Ridge, and, in some regards, totally followed through. I wrote in a manic sort of way during the night’s shadowed hours while others slept. Scribbling in my notebook with a book light clipped into my hair, I was desperate to put my sea of emotions and experiences onto a page: feeding the necessity to not only concrete the forming memories into words, but also simultaneously allowing myself to let go of my thoughts rather than cling to every word of my days.
So, yes, I wrote.
But I didn’t blog. I considered it a few times. In the mornings when I woke early, with time to spare before the troops climbed into the vans to shuttle to the buffalo pasture, or up north through Rapid City to the sacred vision quest site of Bear Butte–where we climbed and climbed and climbed and, for me, the land spun at the top, I was so dizzy and I cried, my fatigued body swelled with more emotion than I ever thought capable of containing and I weeped as we formed a circle and cleansed ourselves with sage and the singing began. Or I considered blogging before we headed over to Mike Littleboy Senior’s land, where the tipi was erected and we wandered the Sundance fields and eventually entered the nightly sweat. Those moments when I sat on the splintering wooden bench outside the motel, before all that, the South Dakota morning sun stark, blasting over the pale plains, I could have easily pulled out my laptop and connected to the dinosaur wifi then. I’m obsessive with obligations. I’ve run several blogs, worked for “professional” circles, and I so easily become neurotic about my schedule–getting it all done on the days I deemed appropriate at the start. But I didn’t blog this last week. I remained devoted to my pencil and notebook, my privacy. And I now recognize this was vital: alowing myself the space to truly contemplate what I was witnessing, feeling–what my entire class was experiencing, learning–keeping my sacred moments my own, protecting what I saw and felt and heard.
On Tuesday I sent my mom a photo of the site where we blessed the buffalo through a pipe ceremony. I’d be enraptured by the reverent expansive land–those rolling fields, the high sun baked grasses shuffling in the biting wind, the bare trees black against the blue November sky. I thought the photo was nice. I thought she’d surely agree of the land’s sweetness.
But my mom texted back: looks pretty desolate.
Perhaps her comment was more of an observation of my poor photography rather than southern South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Reservation itself, but it stayed with me as the days flushed forward nonetheless. Can one actually comprehend a place’s beauty–its sacredness–without experiencing it firsthand? Can a photo or a blog even scratch the surface of what actually exists? I personally think it’s quite clear: no. In Pine Ridge’s situation, there is a spirit in the land embedded by the Lakota people, their love and understanding, their openness and care, their history. Mike Littleboy Junior spoke something of this last night before our final sweat and the Yuwipi Ceremony. I sat on the other side of the fire, my head ducked against the spitting ash, too cold and drained to move to a less obtrusive spot, so most of what he said was lost. But I do recall mention of the Lakota land, its physical barren state, and the spirit it holds regardless: its ability to heal, how we were all led there to learn, for our reasons, our own healing, how even if it may not be rich and intensely fertile, the land is nonetheless woven with spirit and life.
I wouldn’t be the first to state the line that there is obviously more to see than what meets the eyes. You have to feel it too. You have to listen.
Perhaps what I’m trying to get at is my recognition of the need for personal retreat (writing). Not only for the obvious reasons of processing and all the usual yadayada journaling claims, but because, on some level, I must keep my experiences sacred, for only I can actually thread my past words into the authentic emotion of what was felt, and only those who have met the gracious Little Boy family can understand their wisdom and sincerity, and only those who’ve gone through the ceremonies can grasp the mysterious intensity, and only those who have walked the Lakota land can truly comprehend its beauty.
I’ve been back on campus for over six hours now, back in my bedroom at my desk facing Pike’s Peak, trying to make sense of the already dimming memories of the week. Something shifted, and so now, and tomorrow, and next week, as the space between the then and the now widens, I can only try to understand what it is that shifted and its connection to the traditions of the Lakota people and their ceremonies. And as I work through that fun personal gunk and the academic analysis to come, maybe I will accept the inferiority of my ability to portray the land’s soul through images and words. Maybe I will let go and simply do my best to share.
So I’ll try that now: it was a beautiful week and I’m filled with gratitude.
There are some experiences words cannot adequately capture.
As a creative writing major, avid journaler, book addict, and general word-devotee, I write the following with great lament: words too often fail me.
Take this afternoon for instance. Under the guidance of Lakota Mother Celinda Kaelin, our class observed and participated in our first Pipe Ceremony in Shove’s nook. Gathered within the stone walls–our bare feet on the cool floor, sage smoke cleansing the circle, listening to the wrenching yet inspiring story of Celinda’s journey to the Red Road–there was so much to take in, so much to feel, how can one ever begin to explain? Time’s passing was only evident by the movement of rosy setting sunlight on the chapel floor and, later, by the numbness of my feet and legs as they fell asleep.
We shared our truths. We listened. We acknowledged. We completed the ceremony, sweet smoke swirling–purifying, healing? And then we hugged. Hands grasped in thanks, we each had the opportunity to embrace one another individually in gratitude and, for me at least, a degree of love. And there is so much I’m feeling, so much I’m thinking, I wish I had the gift to properly share–to give justice to what I observed through the construction of simple language. So overwhelmed by the experience, by its complexity, I’m at a loss for words.
But such loss is not new to me. This past summer in London, overwhelmed by the seemingly endless incredible sights and pulsing urban culture, I expressed a similar frustration:
“In a city, in London, the brain clicks clicks clicks, twitching like a manic to get every new sight in the head. Imprinted. You don’t want to lose it. Those sights, those words—the gaze is as precious as a mother’s hand. You long to stick every face onto the walls of your head so that you never forget. This is not Colorado Springs. That is not Pikes Peak. This is London and the Eye and Big Ben and a fresh new corner to take in with every bend.
But I’m only human. Yesterday is hours away and I’ve let too many images and words slip from my brain. Those words. I need my words. If I could find the words to create the scene I’d be able to recreate the memory—this is true, right?”
I feel silly quoting myself–not to mention quoting a blog not even five months old–but the connection is worth making, as I now so desperately long to cling to every emotion and thought, ever sight witnessed, I experienced in today’s ceremony. Sitting in our cleansed circle, the unity and compassion I felt for my new classmates–my new friends–was so strong, so absurd, it felt as though the smoke was a thread weaving us together, bounding us as family in an indescribable, near incomprehensible way. And I have so many words, so many details I want to save–treasure–for another day, memories I would loathe to see fade, and yet, I’m not sure if words–language–in this situation can paint the day in the color and detail it deserves.
I think the complexity of what I’m feeling is evident in the nature of my rocky, rambling sentences. Apologies if my thought stream is difficult to follow. I suppose, we can make sense of this together.
Religion (or whatever label you choose for it) is tricky. Personal. Complex. Often controversial. To add to such difficulty, I’m in a 100-level course focusing on a group of indigenous people whose beliefs I can’t even begin to claim to understand, while attempting to balance the role of academic observation with my own personal experiences. It should go without saying that is a rather difficult topic to be musing about on my college’s very public website. So let me preface my “conclusion” with the insentience that I’m not claiming any right or wrong or whatever way. I’m purely sharing my experience and thoughts as an active observer of the indigenous ritual.
So again, as I wrote in Tuesday’s entry, I don’t know the hows or the whys, don’t understand the full nature of the Lakota Pipe Ceremony, but I do know that there was great spirit, great love, and great community in that room today. I’m confident that I was not the only one of the group who felt great warmth and connection as we broke the circle with our hugs: that a number of us felt an overwhelming sense of calm and trust. I guess I don’t need expressive words right now, for maybe the details aren’t essential, for what I gained from today is actually rather simple.
I believe spirituality (another tricky word) can be manifested in an innumerable amount ways, but perhaps what matters most (especially in the context of an academic course) is that I listen and devote myself into the role of an active observer. We all have our own beliefs, our own religions and rituals, but nonetheless, there is still so much that can be gained, so much that can be learned, if we (ie. my class and myself) open ourselves and allow our hearts to experience the stories of other traditions. And so, as I journey north with Bruce and the rest of the group to Pine Ridge and participate in even deeper ceremonies and rituals of the Lakota people, I hope to continue my intention of listening: being aware not only of what I’m feeling (for I have no doubts my heavy emotions will only progress), but also of what I’m witnessing and how it connects with the overwhelming picture of religious studies, how it tells the story of the Lakota.
And hey, what do you know. I found some words to explain my day. Somehow I always do.