Build While Burning

I’ve been missing something.

The students have had enough. They’re marching. They’re Tweeting. They’re on MSNBC. It took students fearing for their own lives to tear apart myths about freedom, protection, and rights to own weapons.

The students aren’t just tearing down, though. They’re building a movement. This is not something I have thought about enough in the thick of feeling angry and bitter and sometimes, really frozen. The conversations in articles and news reports and even face to face has focused so much on what is wrong and what needs to end, alternative processes and even visions feel overwhelming and inaccessible. Dismantling is necessary, but so is constructing. At least starting the process of creating something different in order to believe it can be done.

Building a movement is messy. People disagree and we learn every single day what needs to change. In December, I received a small grant to build a traveling museum exhibit that narrates stories of interfaith relationships and religious diversity in California. Building this exhibit is the biggest and yet perhaps the most important thing I have ever done. With my curating power, I have to choose objects that get to speak. I have to dictate what these objects should make us consider in learning about traditions or communities we may never have seen or heard. I feel so anxious that I will fail to balance or tell truth or even be blunt about oppression and violence through this history that had inevitably occured, and continues today. And yet, something calls me to keep working instead of giving up because I feel reverence to these stories.

I’m back at the National Association of College and University Chaplains conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C. this year. We came together to think about “voices on the margin” and our practices in caring for students who live on the margins for many reasons. We are wondering how sometimes we exist on the margins, and how we fail to welcome others when we have the power to change. I feel a different sense this year. Last year, 45 had been in office for less than a month. I sensed despair and anxiety. This year, despair is no excuse to hide. Our undocumented students are sitting in congress people’s offices demanding a Clean Dream Act. No one in the administration can support them the way chaplains can and should, if we keep building spaces for the mess.

I read something in a class a few weeks ago that put my real passion in perspective. Care is the common perogative of both chaplains and curators. Care for stories, care for identities, care for the complexity and messiness that is learning to be in the world, and how we see it as other might see it. This is the reason I continue to build, despite not recognizing that creation needs to be my theme this year. We don’t need to wait until the entire city burns to the ground before laying the foundations for new community resources.

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IDK

Every time I travel somewhere, two Yelp searches happen. The first is for donuts. The second is for used book stores.

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PC: Glen Noble

I have a pretty significant habit of collecting books on my shelves that go unread. For a while, I started feeling guilty about this habit. What a waste! Sometimes, ultimatums get thrown around. “No more buying until you finish this shelf.” That works approximately .2% of the time because lo and behold, another trip comes up, another bookstore appears only blocks from where I stay, and my suitcase fills up with volumes. Especially if the bookstores have a religion section. Or a cookbook section. Or memoir.

I read a delicious article the other day that demanded I stop feeling guilty about acquiring unread books (within limits). It suggested that seeing unread books on shelves makes us eager to keep learning each day, because we know that our knowledge is limited and we can keep expanding it. The unread books serve as a reminder that we don’t know everything.

As a PhD student, this attitude of “not knowing” often translates to poor work. It can be difficult to admit when we don’t know a particular fact, or an entire body of literature. There have been moments in class, in a workshop, even in a meeting when I feel silly asking a question that “I should know the answer to.” But not asking the question breeds further imposter syndrome, no matter how many Google searches one can do to alleviate the feeling of not belonging due to a lack of awareness.

It almost feels comical sometimes, the way we pivot conversations to disguise not knowing for what we do know. Think of the typical politician who somehow always gets their talking points in an interview, without being asked. One of my professors assured me that the longer I do this work, the more I will realize I actually don’t know.

Reframing my work brings some comfort to this awkward admission. Maybe my job isn’t “to know,” but actually to recognize what I don’t know, and to strategize ways to find out. Moreover, maybe it’s about the questions we ask. Why are we fascinated by people of the past? What do their lives mean for us? If I interview 50 chaplains about their work, will they give me similar answers?

Academia’s most exciting aspects rest in the unread section of the bookshelf. In fact, I believe life’s most virtuous moments appear in the form of the unread. Often, the stories we tell deal with surprise and an unexpected turn of events. How we react to our surprises dictates the kind of memory it is.

Perhaps the biggest question we will never know how to answer is what our purpose is, and I think it right that we never cease wondering. We can continue asking, and continue seeking, but in this case, not knowing is the one thing that connects us beyond our towns and counties and states. If only we could celebrate not knowing.

Strangers

February traditionally feels like a frustrating month (maybe it’s just me). We made it through the depths of January, and the daylight extends just a little more every day. We aren’t quite there. Now in my own academic storm, I remember my students feeling particularly exhausted this month. The quarter takes a serious turn toward “the second half” and finals week actually comes into view. Not to mention how many blizzards we all trudged through only to have a big event cancelled.

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Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

Congress frustrates me. The patriarchy REALLY frustrates me. For the past week or so my frustration has actually turned to anger. I admit- I feel pissed off. At least, I did. Last night I was talking to a friend who sent me a story about a mom who broke down at an airport because her toddler was literally being a terrible two. She couldn’t pick him up, couldn’t get him to sit down, couldn’t do anything so her exhausted, over-worked and underappreciated self just plopped down. And cried.

You might imagine this story could take several turns. As my mom likes to say, “someone is always filming! You can’t do anything wrong anymore!” I imagined people making fun of this woman on social media. Maybe even with a nickname. There would be video. But that’s not what happened, at least in this story.

In this story, strange women saw what was happening and got to work. They didn’t hesitate or ask questions. You can read the details here. The important part is, they showed up. My friend who sent me this story said, “I hope I would be like those women” (she is). Imagine, strangers at your aide.

This quarter I am CDAing (kind of a fancy word for TAing, with a few caveats) a course on empathy and medicine. Five pre-med students come to class with fascinating and often heartbreaking stories and questions about empathy. Many relate to their field. I am no stranger to the comparisons between medicine and care. With a sister completing her first year of surgical residency, I could point to many examples. What we find in the class is how difficult empathy is to define. It’s different than sympathy, or compassion, or care. This week we even read a book against the concept of empathy. The most meaningful literature for me was the biblical story of the Good Samaritan because it calls out “religious” people for failing to use empathy as a source for action. Is religion supposed to teach empathy?

I think what really lifts me in this story of strange women is the unspoken shared experience. They know motherhood. I imagine it’s beautiful, but also exhausting and sometimes downright horrible. Especially at an airport, where you wait to be smashed into a metal box. One of my questions about empathy is whether our own suffering makes us more or less likely to alleviate someone else’s from the same source (in this case, the toddler is the source). The answer is most certainly it depends, but when joy can come from suffering, I believe perhaps we seek to help others find it. This week I’m working to let go of my anger so I can seek joy with others, maybe even strangers.

 

 

 

Represent: A Listicle.

Another week of reading and writing and pretending I know what I’m talking about! The third week of the quarter floats away into the distance, drawing the looming final papers, conference presentations, book reviews, grant proposals and other exciting checklist items menacingly closer. At least the sun stays out longer.

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

As a first year PhD student, one of my constant learning goals is how to design strong syllabi for courses I would like to teach one day (could be next quarter, could be next year, could be in thirty years). I enjoy pouring over potential books and articles. The experience throttles me back to my favorite classes at USC. It’s easy enough to google syllabi for similar courses, but in order to really hone a spectacular combination of readings, assignments, and learning outcomes, I have to pay attention to detail. Campus cultures are very different. Students learn in different ways. Heck, the quarter system creates a storm of issues- you only get ten weeks, minus intro week one and wrap-up week ten. What if a holiday falls on class day? All questions to consider. In this recent quest, one question yanks at me with every reading I assign. Representation.

By representation, I mean who gets to speak via the texts listed under each weekly heading. As the curator, I hold a substantial amount of power in my pen (ok, keyboard) to introduce students to material that will assist them in discussion, dialogue, even debate. Of course, not every source makes it to the homework section (that’s an understatement. Ask my older colleagues about paring, paring more, paring even more). Our vast knowledge proves too much for a semester-long course. It should. We work for years to make it that way. But with power comes responsibility and for me that responsibility is to represent identities that often don’t have a voice. I’ll use gender here, because inserting more texts written, edited, and translated by non-males has been my focus this week. Recognizing that every discipline splits into sub-disciplines and subsequent areas of focus, some folx might have more difficulties than others. I’m not a listicle writer (though I love a good one that features gifs of sassy animals), but I think this merits some bullet points for suggestions that have helped me. And while I focus on syllabi design because of my profession, I think this question expands to many different fields. Who is in the room, at the table, has the mic? Who makes those decisions?

So. How do we think about better representation on our syllabi?

 

Do a LITTLE research. Think Creatively about Where You Find Your Sources.

Ahem, pardon my sarcasm. Of course we do research. But are we keeping a critical eye out for authors and speakers who may have been passed over because they aren’t white men? Someone once trashed a book I chose for a week on Muslim experiences in the United States because it was a memoir, ie, not academic. The thing is, academic books about “the” Muslim experience tend to be written by non-Muslims. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is a difference in someone’s own story- we get vulnerability and the chance to make connections with someone who might be different from us. Pro-tip: working at a university is great because we have colleagues who may study very different subjects but these subjects intersect at points. I remember reading a theological text in my Arabic class during my master’s program, for example. If you can’t think of any sources written by women, pop over to a colleague’s office and ask for suggestions. Ask for a translation. Ask them to lunch. Hey, lunch date!

Change Unit Weekly Topics or Themes to Make Sources Relevant.

But the quarter is only ten weeks! We have to get through units 1, 2, and 3 and that’s pushing it in ten weeks! Putting in a source written by a woman throws a wrench in my WHOLE jam here! Ok, I hear you- learning goals and outcomes are important. We usually write them for administrators because students don’t read them (why should they? They’re usually bland!). Maybe you can’t change these outcomes/goals. You can change the topic of Week 5 instead (NOT to “women/females/anyone not male in ___ subject. See point below.) and make it work with the source. Use a source that reveals a kind of methodology in the field. I might have trouble finding a source about a religious community that doesn’t allow women (or maybe we just don’t know) in a specific place and time period. Think classical Taoist texts, for example. I have this other text that dates later, but comes from the same general area and falls under the general theme of the course. Instead of “Classical Taoism” Week, I get rid of the word classical and say “early.” Or I find a secondary source that talks about the Daode Jing as a potentially feminist text. I have the students debate whether this makes sense after they read some sections.

Don’t Pigeonhole Gender to One Day/Week/Topic.

Please don’t do this. I can just see the sense of accomplishment. Alright, I found not one but TWO sources written by women about women in ____ field. I organized a WHOLE class period to discuss it. I even invited a women SPEAKER to come talk about women! I’m amazing. Ok, you know what this feels like? It feels like pity. It feels like when you leave the food waste out for the raccoons (no offense raccoons. Y’all are cute.). It feels like the only time women get to be represented is when we are talking specifically about gender and that in any other theme, women just aren’t allowed or important. Representation matters on every.single.level. I’m not saying all the sources need to be written by women. I’m saying think about who speaks through the sources every single week. Looking further than the usual suspects means I get to have more innovative discussions with my students. I might even learn something new. Learning? That’s not…that’s literally my job. Yay.

If You Really Can’t Find Any Authors, at Least Look for Texts Written about Non-Males. 

I’ve looked EVERYWHERE, taken my colleagues to lunch, poured over other syllabi, picked through the archives. There just aren’t any women who have written about _____. Unfortunately, given the history of oppression and gatekeeping for non-male scholars, writers, thinkers-anyone with a voice, really-sometimes the sources don’t exist. It’s not acceptable to just revert back to the all-male cast. Are there any texts written about women? And they don’t have to be about a superhero. I fell into the trap earlier of getting frustrated because I couldn’t find a “strong” female character in a set of texts. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any. That means my students should learn to engage with how writers depicted women and not just label them “sexist” without further examination of context. Let’s be honest (as honest as we can, given the limited material we have) about experiences that run the spectrum of heroic to traumatic to “mundane.” The point is my students learn to ask questions, not assert unfair judgments about cultures they do not know.

Thanks for your consideration. Now go out to lunch so you can grade those midterms.

Wrath

This weekend marked one year. Women swarmed the streets again. We aren’t finished here.

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Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash

This year felt slightly different, in my book. The marches focused on increasing voter turnout and encouraging potential candidates to run for political office. Toxic feminism still reared its ugly head, excluding trans women and centering whiteness, in some instances. But some organizers intentionally welcomed non-cis marchers and centered stories from women of color. We can recognize good practices and confront where xenophobia still dictate who holds the microphone.

The county still feels more divided than ever. The government shut down illustrates how impossible and frankly, how oppressive “compromise” is. The people continue to organize. The artists keep creating. The musicians imagine lyrics. The scholars continue to interrogate, analyze and hopefully disseminate their findings in a way that reaches beyond the academy. We need work in all disciplines.

Today I found myself at an interfaith panel put on by the Islamic Networks Group, an organization whose main purpose is to educate the American public about Islam. The panel featured five women who shared some beautiful stories about women leaders of their faith traditions.They also acknowledged how scriptures and practices have held women back. In some instances, religious communities perpetrated violence or legitimized oppression. I appreciated the critical yet appreciative flavor to the conversation. It’s a flavor I’ve been trying to apply to my research.

One of the panelists was a bada** Buddhist feminist who reminded me that we must be endlessly compassionate while taking the firmest stand against bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. She told a story about losing it when one of her students wouldn’t read her work any longer because his friend convinced him that it wasn’t worthy. Or when she wasn’t allowed in the “monks only” lecture because of her gender. I fell in love with her honesty. In my practice, I often feel guilty about allowing anger or frustration to permeate my body and thoughts. But she is absolutely right- we can and should practice compassion by speaking up when possible (and safe- it is NOT the obligation of marginalized people to educate others about their oppression).

This past week I felt frustrated by a few incidents that demonstrated a clear prioritization of maleness where I study. It made me exhausted. Thankfully, I had a willing sounding board after a long week, and decided to inflict some wrathful compassion and speak up for myself. I don’t always feel safe doing this, but I’m willing to push my limits because I also live with several privileged identities.

Sitting in a room full of women who understand faith as complicated and helpful reminded me how sacred these spaces are. The first ever ordained woman Conservative rabbi extolled us to take this sacred with us, even in a world that feels unwelcoming. I held her words as I reflected on the weekend while driving home, at the same time comparing the ideas of Revolutionary Love to wrathful compassion. At the core of both is radical joy, the pursuit of happiness despite a plethora of suffering.

 

Dangerous Interfaith

The beginning of the quarter means meeting new people- classmates, students, and professors. We know the drill- introduce ourselves and tell the class what we do. My classmates give such eloquent introductions. They have their elevator pitches polished. I usually say, “I do interfaith studies.” Frankly, it doesn’t sound lyrical or complicated. Often puzzled looks lead to questions. “What do you mean by interfaith?”

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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Right now I mean interfaith community building is nothing short of radical. Revolutionary. Extraordinary and necessary and dangerous. Creating relationships with people who disagree with our fundamental values sounds difficult and painful. It is, and it can be. But this mixing of unlikely subjects is disruptive. It calls the system and those in power to answer. You see, we have been socialized to stick to “our own kind.” This keeps those in power powerful, and those not in power disjointed. Of course, interfaith community building requires intentional time and real work for authenticity. Putting several “different” people in a room together is not community building.

Today we remembered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights leader. Except when Dr. King died, he wasn’t a celebrated figure at all. Many literally hated him. The government feared him. Dr. King was a troublemaker of the worst kind. He didn’t demand violence as the way to create change. He used sacred words. He used community. He used prayer. He exegeted and sermonized.

One of the reasons Dr. King earned his menacing reputation was the people with whom he spent his time. Non-Christians, protesters, ex-convicts, journalists. People that the system would gladly have oppose each other, compete with each other, hate each other. Working across these lines caused the real disruption.

This is what I mean by “interfaith.” It’s not warm and fuzzy, not a conversation about our favorite foods or holidays (though awareness is important and helpful for base building). Community building is about shifting our needs from the center of ourselves to the center of the circle. In interfaith work, this means inconveniencing ourselves to get others at the table because representation matters. Community building also demands that we speak our truths and acknowledge when we have harmed. It should be celebratory too- when something joyful happens, we can feel ownership over that joy. This is horrifying to a system that keeps power by managing groups separately. King spoke of a Beloved Community that invoked theological underpinnings. Interfaith communities hold not one sacred claim, but many.

I read several articles about the birth of empathy today. The authors scattered words like compassion, benevolence and pity throughout the text to help us readers understand what sympathy is. The concept of empathy hasn’t existed for very long, but it makes a powerful claim- one that when we take the time to embody someone else’s suffering-to physically and mentally comprehend- it is as if the suffering is our own. I believe empathy evokes a kind of spiritual practice that puts ourselves into the world without apology and fully vulnerable.

Interfaith community building doesn’t require empathy necessarily. We can create strong relationships without fully embodying another’s experience, and often we should refrain from assuming we could ever understand the oppression of another. Empathy does help us disrupt, though. It blurs the lines of responsibility and leadership. At a table full of conflicting convictions, empathy says “you are welcome because you are.”

30

Yep, 1-8-18 was yesterday. Which is exactly 30 years from 1-8-88 (my birthday). I am now 30.

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Photo by Johannes Wredenmark on Unsplash

My mom suggested I start telling people that I’m 30 about six months ago.”It’ll help you avoid the shock,” she encouraged. She did the same this year…I’ll refrain from revealing her age, though I definitely believe she looks and acts much younger.

I felt sad for a while. My twenties saw tons of changes and growth. And mistakes. At first I feared that turning thirty meant giving up certain arbitrary habits and practices. Admittedly, some things are more difficult. A hangover, I imagine, is much less pleasant than at 21. Perhaps.

As you might know from previous writing, I struggled with my weight this year. After running the Boston Marathon, it felt like my body clung to the extra pounds that it needed to run 26.2 miles. I experienced shame and frustration and in the darkest moments, exasperation and used foods I know are bad for me as an excuse. “It doesn’t matter,” I thought. I’d rather enjoy this than deprive myself for nothing.

I’m on day 10 of the Whole 30 program, a 30-day lifestyle change that focuses on eating only whole foods and thinking differently about dessert as reward, or weight loss as the true goal for achieving health (for example. There’s plenty of useful pillars and ideas of the program). I decided to spend the first month of 2018 saying yes to what I know is nourishing, instead of feeling left out of what I can’t eat or do (like eat cake on my birthday). It sounds really corny, but this mentality brought me some joy as I said goodbye forever to my 20s. There are so many things I CAN do as a 30-year-old. For example:

-I can rock pink pants as well/better than when I was 18. Style never dies.

-I can sing in the shower as loud as I want.

-I can start reflecting on my twenties and realize how far I’ve come.

Thankfully, I don’t feel constrained to a timeline. Five of my friends got engaged in the month of December. More and more of my friends are having children. Some of them have started and built companies. Some have finished graduate school. Some are sitting in uncertainty and that’s totally fine. I’ve been there. I am there! I’m not in a hurry. As hard as it is, comparison only serves to discourage us.

You know what has been a real blessing over the past decade? The amount of fine people I’ve met in a myriad of ways. I was reminded of that yesterday when people actually called (yes- CALLED) and texted and messaged to say they were thinking of me.

I’m still totally confused about my life and what I want to do when I grow up. My life has some surface level certainty for the moment (I know where and when my classes are and what work I need to do each night) but the realization that there is no age in which we “know” life’s structure and methods is liberating. Perhaps I can stop searching. For now, I’ll enjoy some of the delicious fried plantains Jose made yesterday, because I CAN eat them (and now they’re all gone. Yum).