Happy Valentine’s Weekend, I guess. I bought a bunch of chocolate and plan to scarf it while knee-deep in conferencing and writing and flying. Maybe not while I’m speaking in public. That would be rude.
First, I’ve taken more time in between blogs for the past few months because I need to lend myself some grace. Coursework is real and trying to do my work in a professional, thoughtful way often demands all of my attention and energy, and then I’m exhausted and have a hard time writing. That’s ok- I’m not giving up, just adjusting for what I need.
Ok, reflection time. I’ve noticed something. This is a me thing, and maybe a you thing too and we can connect on it. I noticed that there are very few people who can actually tell me what to do without protest. Y’all know who you are. The rest of you- let me say something cheesier than a box of chocolates tied up with red ribbon- it’s not you, it’s me.
I value advice and mentorship to a great extent. In every context of my life- work, school, working out, building a business- I have turned to mentors who have forever changed me. And I notice that when (well-meaning) friends and colleagues give me innocuous advice, my instinct is to resist! Why! That frustrates me, that feeling of not wanting to listen. I did some reflecting, and I came to the conclusion that trust is the root of this feeling. As in, I lack it. And not trust for my friends, but trust in myself.
Have you ever had one of those conversations where someone is complaining, and you make suggestions, and every response is “well, that won’t work because…” I’m sorry if that’s been me. Two distinctions, because this could easily be a validation of mansplaining and THIS IS NOT THAT. Eff mansplaining. UGH. Further, it’s totally ok for folks (women, in particular) to need a processing/venting partner with no expectation of advice or problem solving. Stop. Listen. Just. Listen. Please. I want to talk about times I’m getting feedback on a paper, for example, and my inner voice starts saying “no, no, no,” and panic ensues. The truth is, the feedback is great, and while it’s always hard to be vulnerable, there’s something else at hand here. It’s trust. Trusting myself to go on, to believe I can make something good better.
I’m not even going to try and trust myself “better” at this point- honestly, I think that will demand s long process. I decided the best thing I can do is try to quiet the voice that says “no,” and instead listen to my body. Intention matters- my body always tells me when I actually should or shouldn’t heed a warning. Right now, my body thinks chocolate is a great idea. So I’m going to listen to that loud and clear.
Many folx cite “asking for help” as one of the hardest things to do, regardless of the circumstances. I hate asking for help. But it’s not because I feel proud or courageous. In fact, asking for help scares me.
Something happened to my back yesterday- have you ever felt so much pain you can’t stand up straight, it takes you over five minutes just to will yourself to sit because your muscles are DEFINITELY tearing, you know they are, the agony is so real and you just want to sit in the car for goodness sake. The person screaming yesterday was me. My entire upper back felt like braided string cheese smushed so tightly in the plastic packaging. I could barely walk, let alone carry a grocery bag. In a perfect world, I would have teleported home so as not to disturb anyone’s fun. But I was out with some friends, wandering the aisles in a Korean grocery store in San Jose, and I had to ask for help.
First, I needed help carrying a bottle of vodka. Don’t judge. It was on sale and finals week is coming up. I couldn’t carry it through the store, so I asked one of the friends with me to hang on until checkout. Next, everyone patiently waited by the car as I crawled, muttering to myself, “a few more steps. That’s it. Just a few more. One foot, the other.” As I mentioned, getting in to the car (and the front seat, which I tried to demand I didn’t need) had me wondering if I could walk home because the pain upon bending my legs made me nauseous. Our classmate in the driver’s seat insisted that I couldn’t simply go home. So, the four of us embarked on an adventure.
I felt vulnerable and guilty. Here were three graduate students accompanying me for my own damn problem, something that didn’t affect them save hearing my groaning. I refused everything they suggested at each different point, only to succumb to their insistence. And I started wondering why I couldn’t just let these three wonderful people take care of me.
Many of the students in the sections I teach utilize me as a teaching assistant very well. They send outlines, rough drafts, even crap I don’t know how to label, and I respond within twenty four hours as a personal rule. I hate sending my work in progress to others. I hate it because it scares me to show people my process and thus, my imperfections. While I don’t call myself a “perfectionist,” I realized that this fear of showing the work behind the product comes from not wanting to admit a period of uncertainty. Yesterday, I couldn’t stand the fact that these helpful, kind and caring people could actually express their care for me because it meant showing my pain before I can show off how well I heal.
When I worked as a chaplain, my colleagues and I often talked about modeling good human behavior. What we meant was allowing our students to see that we do make mistakes, muddle through problems we don’t understand, and we work to improve. I will always hate asking for help because I will always fight the negative voice in my head calling me a fraud. Maybe that voice isn’t always a bad thing- it’s the worst of any criticism. Maybe it’s ok to sit in the front seat once in a while.
I was stuck in bed for at least three weeks. It was awful- no school (which for me was terrible), no sports (even worse), no birthday parties, play dates, or batting practice. I’m not sure what kind of illness plagued me, but I do remember making everyone in my house miserable. And my mom felt bad, so she did something that might be frowned upon.
A week before I got sick, our local grocery store hosted a coloring contest. To enter, you had to take a booklet of coloring and activities home, complete all of it, and bring it back to the store. I remember a little box covered in yellow paper with a slot that perfectly fit the booklets. I spent so much time finishing that booklet, coloring in the lines, making sure all the puzzles were done correctly. When it was finished, my mom took it to the store and turned it in without much thought. I have never been the artist in the family. Then I got sick.
My mom decided I would feel better if I thought that I had won the contest. The theme was a 90s television show called “Lamb Chops Play-Along” that featured four sock puppets- a lamb, Lamb Chops, and his other animal friends. Remember that song, “This is the song that never ends…” I learned that on “Lamb Chops.” My mom bought four puppets just like the characters on the show, a new coloring book, a poster, and card that she signed with the main characters’ signatures. She told me I won the contest. I did feel better, excited about the recognition.
The next day, the store called to tell me that I had won the contest. They wanted me to meet the manager in her office so she could take a picture and give me my prizes. My mom had to make something up- “you won the grand prize!” Of course, I was ecstatic that there was another level of winning. That meant my work had been selected from a big pool, and then from another more elite pool of entries. And the prize was even better- more puppets, two posters, autographs from the cast, and even a gift certificate to the store. I did feel better, my mom’s plan had worked.
Years later, my mom told me what really happened. “I did it to myself,” she laughed. “You can’t lie to your kids.”
The reason I’m remembering this story at this time is because of the Golden State Sacred project. The mobile exhibit that depicts California’s religious and interreligious history. The exhibit depicts some communities that have been mostly unrecognized in California. It also tells histories that are uncomfortable. We have a hard time grappling with violence, oppression, internment, and surveillance. Dehumanization. But we have to face the histories that make us uncomfortable. The question is- what is “lying to our kids” in his scenario? Is there an appropriate age to talk about genocide? Rape? Considering a group of people sub-human because of their skin color or religion?
I don’t know how not to lie, because it seems as though sugarcoating these histories is worse than not sharing at all. Maybe the best goal is to simply spark questions and modes of thinking that encourage multiple narratives in one story.
The title of this post comes from a conversation I was having with a friend about taking care of infants. Y’all who know, know what we were talking about and I’m just going to leave it at that. So this past weekend and mainly this morning, I had an experience to which many of us can relate. I don’t want to use specific words for it because there is no one title for it, so I’ll call it “coming up.” Stuff came up for me. Like, a bunch of stuff.
The first thing that happened was a real impulse to cry. I fed that impulse. Mascara was everywhere, and then makeup, and then other stuff. You know that phrase “ugly cry?” Imagine the ugliest. Then my body started to hurt, like after a really tough workout. My neck and shoulder muscles especially just ached. It was as if they were holding in all these unexamined emotions right there, right in the fibers. The knots began to stiffen, and then suddenly release. An outpouring. I curled into bed, clutching a pillow and waiting. While I waited to calm down, I tried to observe the thoughts that scrolled through, the visions that caused these feelings- feelings of worthlessness, being small, being unlovable and irrelevant and a failure, feelings of living in a body that holds guilt and shame inside of it- flashed over and over. It was a blowup. Except instead of a diaper to clean up, it was the thoughts. Slowly and carefully, I imagined a mop gently wiping the inside of my forehead. It felt soothing.
What is this blowup thing, and where did it come from? Different folx have different answers. Sometimes it’s a place. A smell, a noise. Sometimes a person. Sometimes a memory that appears out of nowhere. Sometimes there is no explanation. If I try to pin down the origin of this time, I’d say it has something to do with returning to writing my own story. Sometimes knowing is helpful, and other times I think it’s really about processing. Because I am writing, I wanted to lean into what was happening. I drew a thought bubble chart that helped me parse some of what’s happening. Stress about the exhibit opening. Fear of failure. Rage about injustice. Trauma in my body. I circled body because I continue to struggle with the healing process. And I started writing, and crying, and listening to the first sermon ever preached at the Women’s Mosque of America in my home city. Edina Lekovic, the Director of Policy and Programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, gave a call to action. “We must build upon this beautiful truth,” she said. “The truth that we now have a Women’s Mosque, and our daughters will say ‘of course we do’ when they grow up. We are inclusive, not exclusive. We are open, not closed***.”
I want to help build these beautiful truths for which women continue to lay the foundation. I am glad everything “came up,” because like a foundation the pain sits and stirs once in a while. Upon this foundation, we can build not walls but windows into beauty, and greatness, and love.
You can check out this amazing sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4g26wK-VYV0
Though I try to avoid using them in my writing, I love a good swear word. We could probably have an entire debate about which one works best in a particular situation. The crispness of two consonants hissing off the teeth feels so satisfying. Why are expletives so…off limits?
Expletives of course are words that make a statement- sometimes inappropriate (who decides that?) and often cut from public media because they are dirty, obscene, profanity, or cussing. Again- who dictates what language we should use in particular situations? Sometimes they are used to degrade and dehumanize, so I have to be upfront and say expletives are not always helpful, they can be harmful. But maybe the root of naughty words can help us frame the sh**storm that happened this week and what comes next.
I remember watching a proto-YouTube video once that detailed the history of the “F” word. I was around eleven. The video demonstrated that the F word is one of the most versatile in the English language- it can be a verb, a noun, a gerund, an adjective, and an exclamation, among others. I showed the video to my sister, nine at the time, who giggled as though she had secretly glimpsed a raunchy scene in an R-rated movie. My grandmother came over to see what we were fussing over, so we had no choice but to show her the video. She watched, expressionless. Finally, the video ended, and she looked distraught. “That word does NOT come from German, it comes from Latin!”
Taking a lesson from Grandma Mary, the root of “expletive” comes from the Latin explere, meaning “to fill.” An expletive is a word used to fill a sentence or verse without changing the actual meaning. Think poetry rules. Seemingly, an expletive is an excessive addition to someone’s thought- we don’t need it to understand their point. We do need it to follow the rules of language, maintaining the correct number of syllables and perhaps a stylistic upgrade. So, in a strange sense, expletives might seem like rule-breakers when used to profane or curse, but traditionally, they actually maintain the formula.
The importance of how we understand expletives is actually in how we think about rules in this moment. Last week I met with some religious life professionals for an inaugural training session and got a sense of how higher education professionals interact with chaplains and religious life on their campuses. The gathering was tense for a few reasons, not the least of which was the untouchable elephant in the room that involves human rights violations, religious intolerance, and dehumanization to the highest degree. The subject itself was an expletive. I wondered- what would it be like to break this rule that says we can’t talk about it, because feelings will be hurt?
The real takeaway for me, frankly, is that rules are oppressive when they allow a group of people in power to feel hurt when an oppressed group moves toward some kind of equity. Remember that quote “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression?” I’ve been thinking about that quote every day. I would add that when you’re accustomed to rules, challenging them feels like a violation- but in this moment, violations of what we think we need and know are the only thing that can bring forward the equality of the oppressed. So F*** the rules.
About a year ago, Jose and I packed a burly Chevy Tahoe full of our stuff and set out for home. We took about two and a half weeks to finally arrive in Los Angeles after touring the northern United States. In the weeks that followed, I wrote almost 50,000 words describing our trip- who we met, what we ate, what scared us, what we learned about people who do not live where we do. With two weeks left in the Spring Quarter and what yet again seems like a million assignments to complete, I feel as though that trip happened years ago. Of course so much has changed.
One thing I have learned constantly for a little over a year now is what it feels like to experience both intense depression and despair and genuine joy. I am back in New Mexico this weekend to meet with the chaplains and think toward the future about our field. The upcoming conference and our work feel promising. I find myself immersed in my work at Stanford feeling a real sense of purpose- even enduring the struggle in a way that feels good. My colleagues around the table have expressed that sometimes, the work doesn’t feel meaningful. And sometimes, amidst distractions like email and reports and meetings, the work still makes sense. But the reality is, sometimes what is meaningful changes, and sometimes what is meaningful is not worth the headache. Context matters as much as action.
I realize, as I return to our roadtrip last year, that sometimes we need to let go of meaning in order to free ourselves of grief. As we drove across the country, I was searching for some kind of closure to our time in Boston- this was “a new beginning.” But it wasn’t actually the beginning, or an end, it was a process of losing and making space to actually begin. One chaplain suggested we must “lean into a struggle when we don’t necessarily know what that means.” When we can’t name what we want, how do we know what to change?
As we navigate the joint conference between the two chaplain organizations, we must lean into the struggle to define our joint meaning. I realized today that this poses issue in “trivial” things- like where people pay to register, or what the schedule of conference sessions should be. All of this plays into a larger question about what makes this experience meaningful enough for people to come- the small struggles illuminate larger convictions about why we work through them.
A year ago, I felt so empty of meaning. The job I loved for many reasons also caused me deep strife, and I had failed to find a genuine sense of community outside of work. I didn’t know what I wanted, exactly- but I knew I needed the emptiness for a while. The long drives gave me more than enough time to reflect, but the discomfort in visiting places that I did not know opened a space to think about crafting a new purpose.
I am scribbling furiously in a cold conference room. Something about “we” and “endings” and “tribes” and “bunkers.” In front of me, two of my fellow Interfaith Youth Core alums on a panel share stories from the social action projects they built during the 2016 Germanacos Fellowship (a program for IFYC alums who envision and execute interfaith action projects). This year, I am humbled to call myself a Germanacos Fellow. I am also ecstatic, and terrified, and itching to launch my project: a pop-up traveling exhibit depicting California’s religious and interfaith history.
Folding a new page onto the top of my notebook, a vision flashes in my head. This past Thursday, I asked the students in my New Testament section to imagine what it would be like if religion scholars 1000 years from today tried to understand Harry Potter as a sacred text. How would they reconstruct our world, with very limited materials and a pretty substantial translation problem? What about “facts” and “reality?” I asked them to do this in order to understand our task as students of the New Testament. I ask this about my own faith tradition’s most central figure, Siddhartha Gautama. You might know him as “the Buddha,” the one who was awakened. The task of constructing other worlds means something when the process of asserting and legitimizing my own worldview is at stake.
Because I am not Christian, I experience tiny moments of enlightenment in my class when the students grapple with material that for many of them is actually quite familiar. When we began our course, the students wrote learning contracts explaining why they enrolled in the course and how they best learn. The majority of essays began “I grew up in a Christian household…” with some adjectives or qualifying statements added every so often. Quickly, I realized that in my role as a teacher and because of my own spiritual practice, every day I ask my students to endure some very difficult tasks. I wonder, what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview?
Back to scribbling. I’m thinking about a conversation my fellow “Fellows” and I just engaged in with the Director and Founder of an organization I have admired and supported for more than ten years now (and more frankly, has believed in me as an interfaith leader, graciously supporting projects and investing in my skillset). I listen intently. The theme of the conversation: strangers. Not just people we don’t know. These are the people we don’t see or hear or think about. People we don’t ever, even in our wildest dreams, imagine knowing. These strangers might look like me, but they don’t have a degree from a top 20 school in the world, a masters from a top 5, or are in process of a PhD at a top 3 (please don’t take this as a brag, rather, a statement of immense privilege that allows me to even huddle over this laptop as I write). There is a sense that these strangers, if given the opportunity, would switch places with me. There is an even heavier sense that these strangers put the current president in the White House because they saw him not as a stranger, but as a beacon. In my circles, the same man often bears titles like “white supremacist” and “racist” and “fascist,” and I agree with those statements. The question on the table sinks into the room as silence falls for a moment. Is this- this huddling, this turning inward, this tightening of our own “clan” if you will- is this the reality of bridge building in America right now? Of pluralism? Of interfaith work?
I get stuck. Who is “we?” At first glance it sounds like “liberals,” or “democrats,” or “the people of the interfaith movement.” That makes sense. “We” tend to be the elite, the educated, the folks with access. We get to dream and throw around the word passion and dispute each other’s Facebook ponderings. But, it’s complicated. My parents have this access- they have bachelors and masters degrees. They own their own businesses and a two-story home in a great school district. They choose freely to incur debt when purchasing land. My parents are just as “elite” as me, according to Capitalist America. But they didn’t vote like me.
I think about someone else I love. Someone I met an an elite university, in our Arabic class. Someone who speaks three languages fluently. But he is not “we.” He is not a documented citizen of this nation. He is the stranger, the alien, the criminal who deserves not a single, solitary physical atom on this land because no papers, no proof of humanity. Stay out of spaces that don’t belong to you. Don’t talk to me about stolen land.
From my perspective, my students are “we.” I don’t know their political leanings, where they find community on campus, or if they can afford a plane ticket home at Thanksgiving. I do know they have access to one of the world’s largest libraries and can spend their Friday nights pouring over real Medieval manuscripts (some do). I know that when they graduate, the name on their diploma will welcome them automatically to a class of careers and social circles that others will see as mythical. The lore starts even before graduation: you don’t know someone who got in to Stanford. You know someone who knows someone who knows someone. And yet, the reality is, not all of them are “we,” because they are still outsiders in an institution built specifically for upper-class white males. Access doesn’t always mean belonging.
Let me return to the New Testament for a moment. In all the gospels, more or less, Jesus intentionally curates his schedule to spend more time with “sinners” and “undesirables”- lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors- than with the Jeff Bezos’ of the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus suffers with the suffering, and then he tells people to do the same thing, to their fury. We know the ending to this story- Christ rises. Christ bestows the potential for liberation. But before this, Jesus loses. In any case, the outcome is printed neatly at the end, allowing us to work backwards from the ending to see that everything Jesus did led him to the cross. And yet, we know so little about this man’s world- we can’t dive into the archives of CNN to scour the 24-hour news cycle to understand what else is going on.
When I visit my childhood home, my mom and I walk four miles early in the morning. My mom waves to just about everyone we pass. She points out her favorite landmarks. The family that owns the pig. The house that grows giant pumpkins in the fall. The alley where she can almost always spot a deer looking for water. One morning about a month ago, she said something I didn’t expect. “We’ve got to do something about the guns. Really, we’ve got to.” This, coming from someone for whom pretty much any other issue would fall neatly into a “conservative” standpoint. But this is different- I, her daughter, teach on a college campus. Statistically speaking, if I stay long enough in my current position, it’s not highly likely I will encounter a school shooting. It’s certain. This complicates “we,” because strangers and kin are not just organized by red and blue. We don’t know the end of this story. Does it come down to a checkbox on a ballot? Or can we consider other affiliations that illuminate some Venn Diagrams?
Remember my dilemma with my students learning the central Christian text from a Buddhist? Here it is: what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview? I think “we,” the folks with access and voices in the interfaith movement, could all stand to demand of ourselves that we question the statements our “we” uphold AND deny- things like democracy as ultimately good, like what religious freedom really means, and who, frankly, can’t be part of our movement. Where are the lines now drawn? Do we have a duty to consider the plight of the stranger? Before I feel like I can do that genuinely, I want to put my energy into widening a circle of folks ready to ask with me. I want to look at the limited materials and construct a world that legitimizes and asserts our movement as one comfortable with not knowing the ending, but rather wants to initiate some beginnings.