Must say how much I love this Smithsonian Magazine piece from Meghan Daum.
Daum, quite famously, was a New York City-bred writer kid who picked up in her late twenties and, out of nowhere, moved to Lincoln, Nebraska for a few years. Not exactly what you do, right? I mean, most of us, especially those of us with a hankering for a wee more cosmopolitan way of being, well, we flee to the coasts, not the other way around.
Daum ended up writing a novel based on her fish-out-of-water experience in Nebraska, and though she's moved West in the years since, her work (and her mindset) are both clearly still influenced by her time living just outside Lincoln.
Not gonna lie. Daum pretty much nails it:
You can’t live through a rural Nebraska winter without succumbing to at least a little of the “prairie madness” the early homesteaders battled when the wind blew mercilessly for weeks and months at a time.
Still, that landscape is the place my mind summons when I’m asked (usually in some yogic or meditative context, now that I live in Los Angeles) to close my eyes and “imagine a scene of total peace and serenity.” In those moments, I picture the Rothko-like blocks of earth and sky, the psychedelic sunsets, the sublime loneliness of a single cottonwood punctuating acres of flat prairie. I remember the sound of golf ball-size hail hitting the roof and denting the car. I remember sitting on the front porch and watching a lightning storm that was miles away but cracked the whole night open nonetheless. It was there, under that sky and at the mercy of all that weather, that I began to understand the concept of a wrathful God. In Nebraska, storms are a violence from which no amount of caution or privilege can protect you. Their warnings crawl across television screens in every season. They’ll blow you or freeze you or blind you into submission. They’ll force you into some kind of faith.
Those "Rothko-like blocks of earth and sky," yes! The "sublime loneliness of a single cottonwood punctuating acres of flat prairie," yes! And the fact that, "in Nebraska, storms are a violence from which no amount of caution or privilege can protect you," yes!
The girl gets it. For realz.
(Says one who knows.)
As some of you know, I'm preparing to head back to Nebraska myself for just a few days later this month, and it'll be my first return in some time. Okay, years. Most of y'all who know anything about me know that I'm a big-sky prairie kid myself, having spent the greater part of my childhood first in eastern South Dakota (shout-out to Brookings, baby!) and then finishing out my early teens and high school years in Lincoln, Nebraska. As much as I immediately fled for the East Coast at 18 and then (several years and a few oceans later) very deliberately traded it for the West Coast, which I've now proudly claimed as home for some eight-plus years, and even though I work hard these days to sheath my populist, corn-fed prairie roots in fingerless gloves and all-black duds and bleak Beat literature and lots of references to vodka, I can't deny the fact that those formative years on the prairie were responsible for so much of who I am — and many of the parts of that self that I am most unapologetically fond of, particularly the most yogic, theological, Buddhist, anti-consumerist, countercultural ones — today.
I've played with this idea a little here and there in the past. The geography of prana, baby. Big sky, you know. The whole thing kind of wants to be a book. And it will be, when I get more than ten minutes to sit at my computer and knock it out.
But, that in mind, this morning I sat down with a few of Alan Ginsberg's thoughts on Jack Kerouac's casual-yet-all-permeating Buddhist ethic, and found myself loving the ways in which Kerouac's somewhat inadvertent, layman's-style Buddhist spirit evolved via his travels and his relationships and his literary adventures. And I've been thinking for awhile now — glancing down at the scribbled, sun-faded list of year-old brainstorms on "the yoga of the prairie" sitting here on my desk, waiting to be transcribed into some brilliant best-selling work of non-fiction to be bought by that huge market of erudite readers who just love to dig into some rich writing on yoga and prairies (!!!) — how very much, in spite of generally living up to their reputation as predominantly white, Christian, conservative expanses, those big rectangular flyover states in the middle of the country were actually quite responsible for turning me into a left-leaning, Buddhism-studying, existentialist-literature-loving, yoga-practicing, culture-jamming, socialist-embracing, Zen-curious, counter-cultural Beatnik wannabe.
But, srsly. It's true.
1. LIFE IS SUFFERING
The prairie taught me about sorrow. It taught me about silence, about struggle, about the ways in which we have so very little control over the way the storms of our lives roll in and out and over and amongst us. The big unrelenting sky will teach you that, first thing. You watch the clouds roll in long before the storms ever hit, and you feel them stay awhile, and threaten your tiny human existence there on that vast expanse of land, and then equally, once you've finally grown brave enough to exhale, realizing you've got zero damn control over whether you're blown away or not, they pass right on by, and the sky clears, and the wind settles, and you're fine.
Most of the time.
Except for when that big black cloud carries with it a tornado and it happens to rip your roof off.
Then, you hunker down, you weep a few silent German Lutheran tears and shake your fists at the unfeeling sky, and then you pick yourself up again, and make do.
That's yoga, baby.
2. LEARNING TO STAY
The prairie taught me about patience. About learning to sit, and be still, and wait. About not having cable TV when the flimsy satellite gets blown off course by those screaming South Dakota prairie winds. About sucking it up and picking up a book and taking refuge in the resulting stillness. About letting go of the expectation that you've got any damn control over your life, because suddenly it's 4 a.m. and there's a howling prairie blizzard out the window, so you sure as hell better let go of those plans you'd made for the day and just sit down and watch the snow swirl outside and pray that you've got enough Cheez-its to get you through until the storm breaks.
Sounds like yoga to me.
3. FIERCE IMPERMANENCE
The prairie is wild, and fierce, and unapologetically transient. It's in a perpetual state of change: sometimes ferocious, sometimes terrifyingly unrelenting, and sometimes gentle, easy, soft, blooming into new seasons with fresh blossoms on the apricot trees when you least expect them to appear.
And then sometimes the frosts come in April long after those blossoms have appeared, and they freeze the flowers right off the trees, and you can say sayonara to any apricots this season, my friend, so I hope you weren't counting on jars of canned preserves to get you through the lean winter months.
That's the simultaneous grace and cutthroat cruelty of the prairie. The weather is at once a friend and a terrible, undermining enemy. So you learn to sit back and accept it for what it is and say: Ok. Such is life. Where do we go from here?
No bullshit. That's Buddhism, dude. That's acceptance. That's learning to sit with what is, and stop resisting it, and embrace it with the kind of reasonable clear-seeing that makes of it what one will.
[You can't let these teachings go. They seep into your bones. Ask mine. They'll tell you.]
4. SELFLESSNESS AND EGO
Suffering and selflessness. Oh, hell yeah, does the prairie teach you about suffering, and about anatta (soullessness). It teaches you about black ice and freak March blizzards and miserable steamy humid Augusts with the grotesque green-lit sky that hints only and ever of impending tornadoes. The weather extremes alone remind you of how small you are, of how little say you have over the stretch of things, of how little you have to do with the rhythm in which the much-greater universe unfolds.
East Coast kids, they've got shit at their fingertips. You can drive to another state in 10 minutes. You can visit DC or New York in a day. You can swing by the White House or a major league ballpark or the United Nations or the filming of a late-night comedy show in a heartbeat.
Prairie kids? Not so much. Some of them dream of seeing the ocean for years and never once do. Others wait, and wait, and finally have that glimpse of a sunset or a sunrise that doesn't stretch long over a grass-covered horizon, but instead ripples out over a vast expanse of water that echoes eerily of the way the winds blow the wildflowers across the prairie. Prairie kids learn to make do with feeling far away from the action. They know they'll never be the heartbeat of pop culture, they know they'll never find sitcoms that feature cool hip twentysomethings hanging out in a coffee shop in Des Moines or Cheyenne. They know they'll always be seen as secondary to the parts of the country that [arrogantly? yep, gonna say it] view themselves as the creative and cultural centers of the world.
(Yipes — and, with that, the age-old prairie kid resentment still comes out, even though I've spent the last 15 years living on one coast or the other).
Nope. Prairie kids don't amuse themselves with any idea that their lives are the center of the universe. They realize how far they are from the action, how their realities are viewed as marginal, peripheral, of flyover quality at best, how their worlds spin around things like DeSmet and Laura Ingalls Wilder's family home there (heaven to this little 7-year-old book nerd!!) and Arbor Lodge (yeah baby, Nebraska City, home of Arbor Day) and the Homestead Act of 1862 having taken place in their backyard (ahem, it's true; check your history books).
You've gotta claim something, you know. We didn't have anything as cool or as celebrated as the Liberty Bell or the Washington Monument.
The point of all that, though? Ego. Living on the prairie kicks the ass of your ego in ways that living on the coasts simply doesn't. Here in the major metropolitan centers of the country, we can pretend that we've got our fingers on the pulse, we know what's up, we're setting the cultural standard for everyone else, making Sazeracs hip before anyone else starts drinking them again, wearing rad vintage hats before other folks decide they're cool enough to pillage from thrift stores, and listening to the hot new indie bands live, in person, that kids on the prairie can only dream of seeing at the local music hall (or who just then resign themselves to driving 4 hours to Kansas City or 10 hours to Denver to catch them in person).
I could continue. The point is, ego. You learn quickly, growing up on the prairie, that baby: it's so not about you. And that's ok.
5. PRANA AND SUNYATA
Sky. Clear blue sky. We talk about clear blue sky as a metaphor for the sunyata mind, that clarity, that emptiness, that rich, compassionate, pregnant-with-possibility consciousness. And I can think of no other metaphor that's lodged itself more deeply in my own body or that gives me more mental or emotional relief than that vision of the clear blue perfectly rolling prairie sky of my childhood.
Urban coastal kids? Mountain kids? Maybe you kind of get it, from your flirtations with the undulating ocean expanse or the endless view from the top of Mt. Rainier. But there's nothing akin to the simultaneous rolling nothingness of the flatlands, the Great Plains, bleeding directly into the parallel nothingness of that unending prairie sky.
That's sunyata. That's nothingness. And therein does that concept of the void, of emptiness, of that vast desolate expansive wasteland, become so kind, so friendly, so very much like home.
And if that's not Buddhism, I dunno what is.
I could go on, and on.
Point of all this rambling is: damn.
The roots of yogic theory, the roots of Zen, the roots of an appreciation for all that is simple and clear and populist and no-bullshit and impermanent and expansive and wide in its emptiness?
Right there on the prairie. For which I will always give thanks.
For making desolation feel normal. For making space seem fundamental. For making stillness appear friendly. And for making the constantly churning, impermanent, suffering-laden reality of life seem, well, so very natural.
SO here's an ode to the under-appreciated land of my youth. Here's a shout-out to the Willa Cathers and the Laura Ingalls Wilders and the Harvey Dunns who taught me, growing up there, how rich, how rare, how rolling-around-in-art is this spare, bleak, empty, sunyata place. Here's to the scrappy pioneer spirit that infuses my own urban reality now: this understanding that only the sitting with what is difficult, and the staying with what is terrifying, and the breathing through what is grotesque and inhumane and so vastly impossibly huge that you're reminded again and again how very tiny you are, truly a flash on the landscape of being alive, well, it all matters. And it makes us who we are.
Even when we try to sheath that self in a cover of hard liquor and low-slung hats and fast-paced strides and bleak anonymity and beloved urbanity.
All that stuff? It teaches us yoga.
Because the prairie is, itself, so.
Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.