Lightning Storm

Last night I watched a fantastic Incubus show right underneath a glorious and terrifying lightning storm. I drove 300 miles to Phoenix from San Diego yesterday morning, through the desert, along the steel wall that separates Baja California and Sonora from the United States. Border patrol stopped me, asked to search my trunk, and I said “no.” The agent listened. I went on my way unharmed.

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Photo by David Moum on Unsplash

2000 miles away, some of my greatest heroes stood arm in arm facing men with riot gear and automatic weapons. They weren’t police. These heroes are the clergy of our time. They’re pastors and preachers. Scholar activists. I admired a picture of them standing linked together, singing and praying while just feet from them violence erupted and a young woman lost her life as a terrorist plowed his car into the crowd. Their prayers and songs are heard. They were echoed this morning in churches around the country, and will be this week in many forms of sacred space.
I’ve found such hope in the writings and teachings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He was an activist, exiled from his home country and now helps people from all nations understand that Buddhist practice requires us to recognize we are all connected. Our suffering is bound up together, and thus we must show up and care for each other.
Sometimes it feels as though my faith has told me not to get attached to the fight for justice. At the root this teaching points to attachment as the core of suffering, and I believe this to be true. But turning off the thirst to learn and simply exist ignorant from the real suffering in my country at this moment does not lead any closer to Nirvana, it only lulls me into false notions of self-care as the only necessary form of practice. We come to the cushion to find awareness of ourselves, and this is called a “practice,” not “our life.”

Because the world is waiting for us when our sit is over. Sitting helps us to be mindful in the action, to remain unattached to outcomes but stand hopeful that love will prevail.
I’m proud of the religious and spiritual leaders for recognizing that they have voices. I was thinking today about the Civil Rights Movement and subsequently the internment of 120,000 Japanese immigrants and American born citizens, two moments that feel both far in time and close in context. We might read about the leaders who ushered change and progress in textbooks, or hang pictures in our offices years from now. But they show us a great example of remaining present in this moment, armed with the texts and words of timeless prophets and teachers, focused on saving lives today.
The lighting storm terrified me. It lit up the sky as if we sat trapped in an electric glass bubble, and the thunder boomed directly on top of us. I kept looking to my right to see if I could run for it. The band had left the stage, and I wanted to book it to my car. But I stayed in my seat, feeling safer among the crowd. The cheers and shouts around me reminded me I wasn’t alone, even if I was terrified. We are not alone in this fight, we have arms to link and songs to harmonize. I am grateful for every pulpit that spoke truth today, especially to call us in.

I am a Writer

A token from Jennifer Louden, our retreat leader

I am a writer, and I am writing.

I come from a strong line of female writers. My grandmother liked to write historical fiction and romance novels. My mom is writing a memoir about being the parent of a medical school student. We are writers, and we write.

I spent the last week on retreat in Taos, New Mexico with 22 brilliant women writers. Every day we listened and shared, wrote and read, moved and found stillness. Every day the rain came and brought with it the scent of fresh lavender and mountain air. As our time together went on, I heard an echo from several of the women at lunch, in our small groups, even after morning dance: You are brave. You are so brave.

Every time I heard this my gut reaction was to correct. “Oh no, I am not brave. I may hide it well but inside I am terrified, nervous, anxious, and completely unsure. My mother is brave- a cancer survivor. My grandmother was brave, she was a mother of six. But I am not like them.” In one of the afternoon sessions, our assignment was not only to name our inner critic but to personify them. These are the people or experiences we internalize that tell us we can’t write because we’re not creative, or edgy, or we might offend someone. What if they could help us, we mused.

My inner critic turned out to be an old man sitting at an antique wooden desk, looking sternly at me over his glasses. In his hand he holds a rejection letter. All it says is, “no.” The man couldn’t be expected to waste his time telling me why or what I might do better, he just laughs and shakes his head. “You really thought your story belongs in our prestigious publication? HA!” He shoos me out with a lazy wave. This critic comes from something I wrote about last week, which is an obsession with perfection and a deep hesitance to show anyone my work unless it’s absolutely stunning. I can write all day, never stopping for a minute to consider how scary it is, until it comes time to share. I can practically feel my face fall when the email comes in, something about dear writer, we regret…it’s hard to read past that part. Sometimes you don’t even get an email, just silence. Ghosting, as the dating world calls it.

I read a few books this week, really living in to the question “What do you want in this moment?” Reading is always one answer. In the book The Spirituality of Imperfection, the authors tell us that admitting our imperfection is quite a profound step as humans, but one that ultimately leads us to healing. In one chapter, they consider the woes of perfectionists by considering a particular point: “We may not be able to do anything completely perfectly. But what that means is that we cannot do anything entirely imperfectly. Consider a bad day: we wake up late, spill our coffee, give a terrible presentation at work. But we complete a few tasks and commiserate with our spouse in the evening, and not everything has gone wrong.”

I thought about all the writing I have ever read. What a spectrum from mind-blowing to absolutely horrifying. Yet, the mind-blowing could always be tweaked just a little more. The absolutely horrifying still has one tiny piece of merit. My work will never be perfect, and never completely useless. Bravery is knowing this and not letting it stop you.

I am a writer and I am writing. I come from a strong line of female writers- my grandmother, my mom, and now 22 new sisters. None of us perfect, all of us alive with stories. We are writers and we write. We are brave- fear exists within us, but we do not entertain the possibility that this fear would stop us from doing what we love and what is right. And what is right, is to write.

 

 

Perfect is poison

I have been striving for perfection and decided it needs to stop.

Aiming to do a good/great/really awesome job at something is not a bad thing to do, but there comes a point when one claps the dust off their hands, tilts their head to admire the arduous work just finished, and moves on. Perfectionism prevents this- we start to dwell and not live in the present. There’s that one little smudge that if corrected, will make us feel satisfied. But there is always another smudge. 
 I learned this week that perfectionism does something else dangerous too: it allows us in our own mind to separate ourselves from other beings and things in the world. I might say “At least I’ve done more x than so and so, or got a better grade than…” But at the core of my humanness, I am not better than anyone, anything. At the beginning of time, I was one with the exact only mass that existed and there was no such thing as difference.

Cavities are no fun, we can probably all agree to this statement. On Thursday morning, I went to get my first one drilled and filled. I am almost 30 years old. When my dentist called to tell me what needed to be done, I hung up the phone and cried. “You’ve ruined it,” I heard myself say. “Your teeth are no longer perfect.” To make matters worse, I started naming all the people I knew who had cavities so I wouldn’t feel alone. 

PC: Kazuend

Of course my teeth were never perfect. For the first time, I had actual decay bad enough that this tooth transformed into a rotting mass. Change is constant, especially in our bodies. I spent the rest of the day moping because the right side of my face felt numb and because I allowed the feelings of worthlessness and failure to permeate- I listened to them, instead of simply hearing them and letting them go. Then on Friday, Google posted something really cool on their front page.

I clicked the link and read about the NAACP Silent Parade on 5th Avenue 100 years ago to demand federal action over the killing of innocent black men. 100 years ago was 1917- the same year Congress signed the immigration bill that barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific region, and marked the beginning of the United States’ retreat into isolationism. Doesn’t this sound almost exactly like our country at this very moment? In 2017? Have all our efforts led us to the exact same place in time- one in which folx feel unheard, unseen and unloved? 

As I read about the 10,000 protestors who marched through the city, wearing uniform white, I found no reassurance or comfort in the fact that we are fighting the same fight with different props and technologies. This is why seeking separation is harmful. I once heard a friend who, when discussing the systems of oppression in our society, argued that “we MUST have made some progress. It’s 50 years later!” 

Seeking to separate myself, even in merit or achievement, upholds this false notion that progress must come with the passage of time. That is not a requirement. I think St necessary to lessen the separation I feel from the people around me, and even the people who marched 100 years ago because we cannot write off their experience as something else. I am not perfect, the smudge will remain. 

 

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.

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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!

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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.