Staying in the Room

This blog is non-fiction, in as much as we can argue that real life is not fiction but “true.” I prefer to write non-fiction. I prefer to read it too.

Sometimes it’s good for us to step out of our comfort zones (it’s usually always good and often necessary to learn and grow) so in preparation for the writing retreat I will attend next week in Taos, New Mexico, I read a book about writing fiction and decided to try it. The book gave me just enough food for thought mixed with inclinations to panic and run that I decided to give it a try. It seems a little meta to be writing about writing about something that didn’t actually happen.

don-ross-iii-195085.jpg
Photo by Don Ross III on Unsplash

First, I sat down and reflected about a recent experience I had with selling a textbook on Amazon and the post office. Let’s just say my seller account is now suspended even though I sent the book on time. I followed the process laid out in the book and heeded the most important advice: stay in the room. It was helpful to read that because admittedly, when I try to write and don’t know what to say next, the coffee maker calls to me. Then the vacuum. Then that new book on my reading list. Then my bed…a little nap…I tell myself it will come later, and close my laptop. Sometimes this does feel necessary, especially writing pieces or passages that involve shame, guilt, or something humiliating. Yet I wondered what it might be like to stay in the room when emotion gets the best of me. In some Buddhist practices, we do this through meditation. Sitting alone with yourself brings terror to the mind if it is full of anxious thoughts, but we remain in stillness even with tears rolling down our cheeks. There is no common outcome for this practice, but by facing the pain we take a step toward allowing ourselves to heal.

I felt embarrassed and angry about this Amazon situation. I sent the book on time, why should I be blamed that it never arrived? And then I lost money! My frustration caused wild thoughts to coarse through me. The person probably did receive the book and was now sitting on her couch counting my money like Scrooge. Or, took friends out to lunch as they all laughed at the scam successfully executed.  Worse, now it looked like I had tried to cheat someone, and it felt like I should go sit in the corner, facing the wall, and endure my timeout. I knew this was the situation I had to write in my story.

My character left the post office feeling just as I did- angry and embarrassed. The post office couldn’t find any record of the package. As I wrote, taking inventory of the scene around my character, her quirks and spontaneous inclinations, the characters she meets along the way, I realized this exercise is nothing more than active listening. I stayed in the room, listened to my character, and reflected her feelings back through the next actions. I finished the story after a few hours. There were definitely moments when the coffee pot called out, or it took everything not to check a Facebook notification. In the end, I’m glad I attempted fiction, because it helped me realize what’s true for me in this moment.

Happy Birthday!

The Practivist is two this week, so I had grand plans to make a cake to celebrate. I also got donuts and baked cookies, because go big or go home. Well, this is how the cake turned out:

S’mores cake with graham cracker and chocolate cake layers, fudge sauce, marshmallow icing and graham cracker crumble

My mom saw it first. I got a text saying “emergency” while reading in my room, and rushed downstairs to find her laughing. “What!” I looked at her expecting something terrible, but she pointed to the cake. The marshmallow frosting was too slippery. “Geez, you scared me!” We both laughed very hard. That’s exactly what this blog is about, I realized. Finding joy in the imperfect, the disastrous. The cake tasted great, by the way. Appearances aren’t everything.

A year ago, I attended the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing retreat in Gambier, Ohio. 100 religious leaders (of sorts) stayed in the Kenyon College dorms and wrote op-eds, essays, religious commentaries, and stories. It was at that retreat that I committed to posting a blog every week, and I’m happy to share that I made it! 52 posts later, my writing feels more natural. Every week offered an opportunity to reflect on this idea of staying grounded in the daily struggle, whether it was personal or worldly (often both). Since last July, I joined a memoir writing group, started working for an amazing project (the Revolutionary Love Project, founded by Sikh-American activist and filmmaker Valarie Kaur- also a personal hero), and ran a marathon. I quit my job. I got accepted to my dream PhD program in religious studies at Stanford and moved back to California. I finished cataloguing my blessed collection of books, many of which came from my grandmother’s house when she passed away. My sister graduated from medical school and started her residency at home. For the first time in over six years, my family is all in one place.

Though my writing has certainly rambled down different paths, I believe this blog remains true to my original idea of exploring how we, as human beings, demand resilience in ourselves. Suffering grounds me in my religious beliefs because all humans experience it. Yet, we are capable of countering it, and even ending it in certain circumstances. This year I often found that joy presented itself in a form of self-allowance. When we realize we are deserving of the life we are given, the gifts of said life present themselves. I’ll never forget when Valarie spoke to our group of fellows on the phone after the election and she told us we deserved joy especially in a time such as this. “We will never let them take it away,” she said.

My students often gifted me opportunities to learn, which I loved and cherished. I had no idea that my job involved so much learning, often in times I was supposed to be the teacher or coach. I feel much better about admitting my mistakes, even when they have caused someone I love to hurt. Guilt still plagues me, but I am able to name it and even let it go more easily sometimes.

Not every blog post was easy to write, and definitely not all of them turned out the way I envisioned. Some of them make me cringe reading them back, but I’ve decided to leave them as they are to trace the journey and accept the imperfection of where I was when I completed them. Authors speak often about the trajectory of their work and how much their earlier writing influences their current projects because the necessity of reflection and knowing oneself through process makes us better writers.

It’s difficult to imagine a year from now because as life has taught me, plans often meander or even take a sharp turn away from an original intention. That’s why this blog has been so important to me, because the friends and others who have read even one posting and commented or messaged me saying, “I identity with this” have made it worth it to stay up late or carve out time (when I really didn’t have it) to keep going. I plan to keep writing and learning and making mistakes. Here’s to another year and maybe even another cake that resembles the leaning tower of frosting.

Do You Believe in Magic?

You’re a wizard Harry!

tim-trad-248650.jpg
Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

One of my friends asked me this question a few days ago. Like the academics we are, I needed to clarify. What kind of magic are we talking about? The kind at Hogwarts? The kind we channel through elements and spells and crystals? In a very general sense? After some back and forth, we decided the kind of magic about which we were inquiring had to do with possibility and perhaps even the belief in something impossible. I’ve always felt like life itself, the concept of humans breathing and interacting for even a moment is kind of magic, if you think about the endless complexities of the body and the Earth. Isn’t it a miracle that we keep existing?

My sister started her surgical residency at Huntington Memorial Hospital two weeks ago. She started on the night shift, meaning she goes to work at 7 pm and comes home at 7 am, simply exhausted from a night of traumas and consults. I can’t say I envy her, but we are in awe of her perseverance and courage. Every morning, my family listens to the cases she handled the night before. Several of the nights involved patients dying. The stories are certainly heartbreaking, and with the utmost respect and reverence for the deceased, I find it unbelievable how a person makes a particular decision that leads to the very instant in which their life ends. The 31-year old man who jumped into a shallow pool head first, broke his spine in two places, and was deemed “incompatible with life.” The woman who began walking down the street in the middle of the night and received a gunshot wound to the upper abdomen- the bullet ricocheted off her back and came back through the same vein in another spot. The motorcyclist who tried to pass between two cars going 90 miles an hour on the freeway, only to make contact with a driver side mirror, fly off the bike, and shatter each spine bone, neck and skull. Let me be clear- I refuse to judge any of these decisions as better or worse than the thousands we all make every day. Blame and judgement prohibits further reflection on the topic and impedes our human connection to compassion.

Death does not feel magical to me, it feels scary, uncertain, and deeply sad. If there is a place where magic exists, I have to imagine it is in the moments in which we make a decision and escape non-existence for one more day. For one more moment, even. I remember a time when an outdoor art fair caught my attention from across the street, and not letting go of the distraction, I took two steps into the crosswalk without waiting for the light. I heard a screech and un-instinctively stepped back just as a massive Ford Explorer blew by, just barely missing my body. This was one of those “if I hadn’t taken that teeny step back, my life would have ended” moments. Of course I feel deep gratitude that my life has continued. Magic is the explanation for the “teeny step”, for all the teeny steps we are given each day. I guess I do believe in magic.

Freedom

Today is a day to celebrate.

…But what are we celebrating? I’ve been thinking about that question all week as the flags have come out, the barbecue grill tops scraped off, red white and blue cupcakes to car decals .

My not so famous (yet) cauliflower “potato” salad

This past May I got a unique opportunity to drive across the country on the way home from Boston to LA. As you can imagine, I saw plenty of landscapes and moreover, significantly distinct ways of life from farms to fabulous mansions across the street from national art museums. The trip felt like a giant learning expedition, helping me understand just slightly better what “divided” means in our country. Maybe the one thing each place had in common was that it rained. And fast food. I cannot soften how apparent it is that we are not a unified nation, because that would gloss over so many struggles and injustices I saw right outside the car door window.

Today is a day to celebrate, not despite these struggles, but because of them. Sojourner Truth, a suffragette and influential fighter for women’s rights during and after slavery, once said: “I will not allow the light of my life to be determined by the darkness around me.” Joy is an act of resistance. We all agree on this as we fight for justice, a path often surrounded by strife and mourning and wondering when, how, what.

I was in Las Vegas this past weekend with one of my best friends from USC and her sister. We sat around a shisha pipe (my request) as I fired off life questions. “What is your greatest fear? What are you most proud of? Who is someone you let go of too soon? What is one thing you want to see for yourself in five years?” I don’t remember exactly which question we began discussing, but our parents came up as a subject of both respect and recognition of imperfection. We all confessed that one thing our parents have given us is a safety net: an ability to take risks and even make pretty terrible mistakes without letting us fall completely to our demise. Maybe it’s money, maybe a place to stay, maybe simply a listening ear, but we could not downplay the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents who worked and still work to give us what this country is supposed to provide for everyone: freedom.

Freedom is a big word, and as someone who practices Buddhism most humbly and often in a state of questioning, I think about freedom from suffering as a goal for which to strive. Help to free others from suffering,  free my own mind of craving and desire that causes suffering. Today I firmly believe we are celebrating the people who have risked their own suffering to free others from it. Immigrants who settled here 50 years ago or yesterday to transform their rootedness into the branches for their children and grandchildren. Women who persist, nevertheless. Queer folx who selflessly write and speak and talk to the people around them and the world to educate us, even though that is exhausting and by no means a requirement of them or their bodies. People of color who tear down “normal” behavior, speech, culture, bound up in whiteness. Dreamers, teachers, the friends who gently push us to think about how our words and actions affect everyone around us, sometimes in causing pain. These are the people who take on greater binds of suffering every day, under the star-spangled banner,  believing we can be better.

These are the people who fight to bring joy, making the fight worth it. Today as I am blessed to have dinner with my family around a nourishing meal, I am grateful for the unheard and unseen who work tirelessly without an ounce of recognition except the unflagging hope for all of us.

Ramadan Sunset

This post appears on the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ blog in the series “Interfaith Ramadan.”

 

I’m watching the sunset over Teddy Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota and thinking about my Grandmother on this first night of Ramadan. She passed away a few years ago, but growing up, my family would visit her in Lake Isabella just above Bakersfield in Central California. This view before me, a vast scatter of pink, purple, blue, red and yellow, also reminds me of the many evenings I spent as an archaeologist in Antalya, Turkey overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, watching the sun kiss the warm salty water before it disappeared behind a nearby mountain range. I remember these nights during Ramadan, in July or August, when we would fast for more than 16 hours and eat our iftar meal, the time to break fast, outside overlooking the coast.

As far as I know, there is no mosque here in Medora, North Dakota, population 132. Minneapolis, the city I drove from this morning, is about 550 miles away, but feels so much further. Compared to Boston and Chicago, my two previous home cities, Minneapolis is a small city, but boasts everything a metropolis would- art museums, fancy coffee shops, skyscrapers, and of course religious diversity. I’ve been on the road now for almost a week across the Northern United States, westbound eventually for Los Angeles, and have used the long drives to reflect on leaving Boston, a place I celebrated Ramadan with a sizeable number of my students and colleagues who were Muslim, and others who have grown to cherish this time and tradition, just as I have. As the landscape has subtly shifted every day on the road- from forest to plains to badlands- I can’t help but think about Ramadan as a time to notice subtle threads of particularities- the things that make us all different- meeting in the middle, finding a common center, flourishing in the most sacred part of the year.

Our world right now feels pretty scattered, just like this sunset in front of me. Driving this road has also exposed me to ways of living I have never encountered, growing up in one of the most physically vast cities in the world, Los Angeles. And yet, if I step back for a moment, while the colors in the sky remain distinct, they each meet and blend slightly. All over the world, Muslims practice in distinct ways during Ramadan- from eating particular foods at Iftar to feeling anxiety about celebrating publicly in places where Muslims are marginalized and under threat. From breaking fast under big city lights to listening for the call to prayer in small villages, Ramadan differs greatly from place to place, people to people. Nonetheless, the common knot in the center is stronger than the particular strands of thread. Ramadan always reminds me that no matter how divided and far we feel from those with whom we disagree or those whom we do not understand, there is something that binds us together- to recognize this is sacred. For me tonight, this connection is with the spirit of my grandmother who would be admiring the same sunset 1700 miles away if she were still with us. The valley seems to carry on endlessly in front of me, and at the furthest point where the sky meets the land, I wonder if there is a family breaking fast at this moment.

Dining Alone

I’m in New Mexico (!) which is probably my favorite place besides LA and Tucson. The National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC) Board meets once a year to plan for the upcoming school term, and this year we chose Albuquerque. I was elated. The desert is definitely my home spiritually. I took advantage of my downtime and drove in a day early to stay overnight in Santa Fe. The city is small but full of absolutely stunning colors and art everywhere you turn. In my experience, people quickly warm to you, offer hospitality and just generally want to know your story. I’ve been meeting folks from Texas, Arizona, and even Ohio.


As a foodie, of course I did my research. Santa Fe boasts some of the best chefs in the world who specialize in Southwestern fare, which involves lots of corn and spices. My favorite dish is called Chile Rellenos, which is stuffed poblano peppers and fried in an egg batter. In New Mexico, it’s essential that you choose a side on the sauce front: red or green? Of course, if you really can’t decided, you can order “Christmas”, which means half of each. I certainly love both, but tend toward team green. I had been waiting for years to try a restaurant called Sazon, a romantic Mexican cafe with several moles. And since I came by myself, I made a reservation for one- just me.


To be truthful, I googled what dining alone is like. As an introvert, being by myself is energizing. However, the self-consciousness surfaced when I considered bringing a book or just my phone. In airports it seems quite normative to eat by yourself, but this restaurant is a popular date night spot. Several bloggers offered great advice- most importantly, do it! Don’t worry about what other people think. I worked up my courage and arrived right on time.


Despite the slight awkwardness of people watching while they gabbed with their dinner dates, dining alone was a learning experience and surprisingly, a communal one. Both servers and diners were more willing to talk to me. The couple to my left had come from North East Texas to take a short vacation after their daughter graduated from college. This was their first time at Sazon. The couple to my right, two women, wanted drinks stat. They drove in from Arizona for a bachelorette party. The server, Miguel, came from Mexico City to work at Sazon because of the chef’s renown. He demanded I try the special dessert, because it was that good.


Of course, without distraction from a dining partner, I noticed more around me. Servers watched their tables like hawks so they could whisk dishes on and off the table to quickly move courses. The diners at the tables next to me talked to me at length- though on both sides, they began the conversation with “I’m sorry, this is so rude but…what did you order?” What surprised me the most was the silence at most tables for long lengths of time. A relaxed silence, the kind you know isn’t stemming from not having anything to say. It comes from feeling so comfortable with someone you don’t need to speak for hours at a time.

I’m grateful for the experience. Spending time alone in a public place made me aware of an important contrast we often don’t consider, the loneliness some feel even in large groups. Yet there is an importance to experiencing things without anyone else because we receive no influence to judge except our own thoughts. And for the record: that dessert was more than worth it. You’d never guess the ingredients.

Corpse Cactus

After running the Boston Marathon, I decided to give my body a break from running and try yoga. I’ve never been able to develop a sustained practice- yoga always seemed boring compared to dancing or even barre. But a few of my friends swear by it, and so I thought to reclaim some balance and flexibility after they went out the window from running so much, I tried a free week at Core Power. The heat combined with the challenge of rapid movement and strength conditioning found me wanting to come back each morning.

In class, time seems to pass quickly, we rarely spend more than a few breaths in one pose. Some classes are more challenging than others- I even felt sore from a few (those lunges and squats!). Of course there are people who have practiced for years and can stand on their head, or balance their body on their arms, or do a full split and sit on the floor, all poses to aspire toward. Even trying them in modification causes my heart to race. After going to class almost every day for a few weeks now, I realized that no matter how difficult these arm balances and flexibility challenges are, there is one pose that will always challenge me no matter how strong I get, and that is Savasana, or “corpse pose.”

Sometimes we start in corpse pose, just to bring our attention to our breath. At the end of every class, we end in this pose to seal in our practice. Many of my classmates joke that this is their favorite pose- you literally lie on the floor, taking up space, palms facing upward, everything relaxed. Not so challenging, right? Except that finding stillness after your body has just experienced intense movement is entirely difficult. While many struggle not to fall asleep, I struggle to stay still, feeling my heart still thumping. An object in motion stays in motion until something messes with it, if I recall from middle school science.

I’ve been keeping a small cactus plant outside in the backyard, one of the few physical remnants of life in Boston. Right now, the bulb is no larger than my thumb, and that progress has taken several months. Cacti are the ultimate savasana practitioners- they grow at a painstakingly slow pace, outlasting generations of human life as they slowly, slowly develop their spikes and fruit over time. They use very limited resources, just a touch of water every few weeks keeps them happy. I love cacti- they represent the desert, resilience, the ability to live even in desolation. To me, they also represent stillness.

larm-rmah-248970
PC: Larm Rmah

My family jokes that we have no ability to relax. Even when I read for long periods of time, my legs shift to different positions and my hands take turns holding the book. Stillness can be terrifying- when we face it, we are forced to be completely in the present without distraction of movement or change. But stillness is important, because as the cactus shows us, it helps us build resilience. The ability to pause, especially after the world moves rapidly and we throttle through it, is a practice in building strength of mind.