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.

 

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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).

2018

I’m going to start with failure.

At the Museum of Ice Cream

It’s so important to recognize and even cherish failure when it brings change. Admittedly, that is much easier said than done for me. I loathe admitting failure because of shame. But, sometimes looking at failure can put success in better perspective.

I wasn’t direct with people who upset me or made me feel excluded, even though I believe their intentions were not to make me feel this way. Much more importantly, I failed to call out racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of oppression that I witnessed.

I got rejected from two writing fellowships and received quite a few rejections for writing pieces that I submitted. Every single one felt like a punch in the face. Honestly, every single one made me want to throw my computer, quit this blog, and decide I’m simply not a writer and this pain could be avoided and forgotten.

I gained 15 pounds. This isn’t the failure, however- the failure was my ability to accept my body as it is and instead of focusing on health and wellness, I spent more than a night sobbing about my pants feeling too tight, my face looking more round, or my hips being too wide. I let myself feel unloved and not enough because of my body. At certain points it was excruciating and all I could do for comfort was bake or develop a guilt-ridden relationship with exercise.

I spent way too much money.

I wasn’t supportive when I needed to be, especially in a year that saw DACA ended and rights to healthcare and identity compromised.

I learned that my academic writing is…rusty, to say the least. I didn’t utilize all the office hours or meetings that I could have to improve my projects because honestly, I felt intimidated and overwhelmed.

That’s only a sampling. The good news is, after some of these failure I felt an urge to write “but” or “nevertheless…I persisted.”

I told someone directly that their actions harmed me by assuming ownership of my body and personal space. My heart pounded through the entire conversation. Afterward, I felt a mixture of guilt and pride. Currently, I feel much more pride for working on standing up for myself. In the same light, I learned who my friends are and how important it is for love to include both encouragement and honesty about times you screw up.

I actually did publish a few pieces online. I left my comfort zone and wrote fiction, which is still a work in progress but allowed me to see how creative (and downright weird) my mind can be. I got two academic papers accepted to conferences. My best accomplishment: I wrote a blog every single week, which means The Practivist has lived on through a year and a half.

Though my body looks and feels different, I asked it to do pretty strenuous things. I ran a half-marathon and a fill marathon, training in sometimes frigid temperatures. I met some amazing women at a writing retreat in New Mexico who helped me shape a new perspective about body and enough ness. At the same retreat, I called myself a writer and basked in the glory of an all-women space.

I left a job that I loved, saying goodbye much too hastily to students that taught me and inspired me. My chaplain colleagues held me through a time of incredible pain, and celebrated with me as I made an important transition.

My partner and I drove across the country and faced realities about our country that were difficult to accept, including a downright terrifying moment involving the police. When we settled back in Los Angeles, we spent the summer enjoying our city together. I watched him gently yet firmly climb out of mourning into thriving in his art, work, and teaching. While we know grief lasts a very long time, joy has found him again.

Recently, I got word that my application for a fellowship grant was accepted for a dream project. While I know this project would move forward even without the grant, I found myself crying at the kitchen table after I hung up the phone without full understanding of the origin of these tears. As I type this, I realize they represented success. Not just because someone else believed in me, but because I believed in a vision enough to make myself vulnerable for it.

No resolutions this year, except the Revolution. Happy 2018.

Disobedient

We’re four days away y’all. 2017 is toast and the gyms will be packed, resolution boards populated, and whatever other changes we wish to instill in our lifestyles will roll out. I can believe.

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Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash

I’m planning on starting a Whole 30 on January 1st because I’d really like to give myself the gift of health. And I figure eating Whole 30 when I actually turn 30 sounds like a good idea. But something else has been gnawing at me and I don’t exactly know how to explain it, except that my New Year’s Resolution is to disrupt and shake stuff up. I have a few examples.

Here is a simple one. For Christmas Eve dinner, my mom and I cooked all day before we piled into the kitchen. On the menu: my famous lasagne, Southwestern cornbread, creamed spinach, and a chopped salad. My grandpa commented on the “eclectic” mix of foods- meaning, they don’t really go together.

I’m committed to challenging “what doesn’t go together” this year. It’s time to rethink norms and values and why we do things a certain way. Once I got over buying “men’s” clothing, a whole new set of possibilities opened up. Sure, there’s something to be said for practicing and honing skills, for certain traditions to be upheld. But honestly, I think nothing should come without criticism.

I think about challenging the field of academia and how we write and research. That seems very daunting, but if I look back at my work so far, I’ve already committed myself to this path of innovation and improvisation. I’m studying a field that is building itself at this moment. The builders are young people who see real potential for disrupting, especially when the process of tearing things apart births new ways of building foundations.

I remember feeling most inspired at the Women’s March by the artists and creators because it seemed like they would be the ones to lead us into uncharted territory. So far I believe this to be true. To say this year has been trying is an understatement, especially for non-white, non-male, non-cis, non-straight, non-wealthy, non-citizen, non-able-bodied folx. There’s a radicalism in the air that might lead to some “wtf” ideas, but seriously- it might be what saves us.

Disobedience is coming. Religious leaders are ready to march, to sit-in, to block, to chant, to pray and sing and center, and to undefine what it means to do things the way they should be done. I’m going to try that in my own life. Creation can only come out of questioning our methods and even our beliefs. Let’s tear it all down, swirl it around, and put something new together.

Forgetting to Remember

76 years and two days ago*, Japanese fighter planes bombed Pearl Harbor on the Island of Oahu. Just two days ago I went about a normal graduate student day, writing fiercely about saints and early Christian monastics and interfaith dialogue using storytelling as a model for transformation. I took breaks and went on Facebook. On the right side of the news feed, the subjects trending included the college football playoff, more heartbreaking news about assaults on young women (this time in academia, very close to home), the terrifying fires in my city of birth, and something about bitcoin.

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Photo by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

I don’t remember seeing anything at length about what happened 76 years ago. 76 isn’t a particularly meaningful anniversary- we tend to recognize milestones in fives and tens and fifties. The next day, more news appeared about Baker Mayfield as the Heisman trophy favorite despite his controversial behavior on and off the field. I went to my last day of classes for the quarter with a small feeling of triumph- I made it! Only five papers and an oral presentation to go. I looked forward to baking as motivation to get my writing done. After my last class I sat and chatted with some religious studies undergraduates and laughed about the sassy monks we read about this week. I went to my professor’s office hours and discussed my thesis for the paper. In passing, he used the phrase “I forgot to remember” to describe the woes of historians’ work. I kept repeating the phrase in my mind over and over.

What we forget is much more than what we remember, due to limitations of human memory. What we forget to remember is due to something else- pain, trauma, events we don’t want to relive. A recent article detailed why victims of sexual assault often describe the assault inaccurately- trauma often forces them to push the events out of their minds simply to go on living. They subconsciously forget to remember- though there is no such thing as erasing.

A couple years ago I was watching Archer with my divinity school classmates. The crude yet intelligent humor appealed to us amidst the brutal winter night. Archer, the brash but charming hero, finds himself in a situation involving a Japanese gang. Archer’s mother saves the day- she prevents the gang from wreaking havoc and at the end shouts, “that’s for Pearl Harbor!” The line is meant to be funny because as we say, it’s not “too soon.” Time passes and heals. Except that last part isn’t really true. Pain passes down through generations. We forget to remember atrocities because history is often about what we’ve forgotten. What about the two atomic bombs that killed over 300,000 people instantly and left years of radiation illness lingering for generations to suffer? It can be hard to connect with places and times far away, but progress is a dangerous assumption. We can’t forget to remember those before us suffered as many suffer today, from oppression and supremacy. Time can heal, but healing isn’t forgetting.

 

 

*Note: this post has been published retroactively

Myth

As the quarter closes this week, the writing process continues at full speed, with half-finished thoughts and some consolation. There is never enough time, but perfectionism impedes creativity and progress. I’m realizing that my three classes all revolve around narrative this quarter, so making sense of how stories dictate values is on my mind.

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Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

One of the projects I am working to finish is an essay about myth and interfaith dialogue. In my circles, I don’t need to stress the importance of dialogue (preaching to the choir) but I do think it’s important to complicate what actually happens when people are vulnerable and share how their own experiences lead them to convictions. More wisdom is better than less, but what if that wisdom promotes conflicting values? This seems a necessary question as not a day goes by without someone noting “how divided our country is.” We are living by irreconcilable myths, and we cannot deny that a selection of these myths intentionally ignores or legitimizes pain and dehumanization.

Northrop Frye, a literary critic, and Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago, both deal with myth in their work. Both stress myth as narratives that deal with human crises, especially finitude. Comparing myth across cultures and traditions is dangerous if we are not careful to acknowledge context and particularity. What I find compelling about myth, especially as a process for dialogue, is how we pull meaning from stories that have no historical or logical basis. I think our ability to do this speaks to creative expression as one of the highest forms of spirituality. I also think this process of meaning making is the closest we can get to a universal human experience, which is living with inevitable change. We are constantly attempting to make sense of “why things happen.”

This quarter has been tough, not just because of the rigor and caliber of work required, but because moving to a new place heightens the knowledge that meaning is obscured. I always enjoy learning through a variety of channels- reading interesting texts, lively discussions, and especially making connections to my own work in the field of interfaith studies. But as a person who enjoys nerding out about baseball statistics and marveling at bright, obnoxious fashion trends as much as writing papers and discussing medieval saints’ lives, finding wholeness has been a real challenge. I think the process of living by a new story takes time and struggle before the narrative truly emerges. Communities are struggling to incorporate old stories into new problems. When the stories generate no meaning, it’s time to start telling new ones.

One thing all the stories have taught me this quarter is that crisis never leaves the human experience. It’s false to believe we will ever live without the apprehension of some kind of challenge, and there is plenty of wisdom from various times and places to aid us in remaining present and to let go of attachment to a particular outcome. Still, there is something comforting in the fact that a benchmark of the human experience is grappling with narrative and meaning-making. I think this is important to remember, especially when we need to reflect on how we participate in narratives that cause harm.