Risk

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Photo by Anatoliy Gromov on Unsplash

I have officially touched down in Palo Alto. Let me brag for a second about how epic my summer was, thanks to my family, friends from all over the country, mentors, and teachers. By the numbers:

-19 states visited

-84 hours of yoga

-3 thrilling USC football games

-72, 000 words written

-11 Dodger games, including one day when it was 100 degrees on the ravine

-52 books read

-95 days of French study (Duolingo FTW)

-9 doctor/dentist visits (and my first cavity!)

-3 Incubus concerts (also a pretty sweet country show with two of my best friends)

-100 morning walks with my wonderful mom

-An absolutely amazing writing retreat with 23 goddesses

-1 epic road trip that taught me so much about my country and its people

-A productive and much needed meeting with 12 of the coolest college chaplains

I finished the Revolutionary Love fellowship as a writing fellow and started a new position as a researcher for the project. I traveled to New Mexico twice, each time falling deeper in love with the vivid desert colors and even surprise lightning storms. I hung out with former classmates and other IFYC alumni. I visited the Ice Cream Museum.

I also struggled quite a bit with my weight, an exercise obsession, and feeling like “enough.” I sent in several writing pitches and got well-worded rejections. I experienced loneliness and growth from it. I am shattered and grateful. So grateful.

And now the next part of my life begins. I took a risk moving to Stanford because frankly, I’ve always struggled to feel like part of the academic community. Am I smart enough, well read enough, capable of learning to be an “expert?”

My family and friends have been teasing me about becoming a tree (Stanford’s mascot- or is it the Cardinal? More on that…) because we bleed cardinal and gold as die-hard Trojan fans. I responded by promising to maintain my loyalty. It’s all in good fun, but as I considered moving and beginning my life here, I began to think about this risk and what “risk” means.

Place is important to me. I have been so lucky to travel around the world and the country, experiencing a plethora of ideas and beliefs that clash with my own. But home is home for me, and that will probably never change. Though I’m now closer to home than I have been in five years, braving snow and long plane flights with turbulence that makes my heart pound, this place is still not quite home. And that’s fine. Risk for me is believing I can make this new campus and city home, that I can find meaning and purpose by listening and finding ways to be helpful.

Home has changed since I’ve been away. My sister started her first job as a surgical resident. One of my best friends left a very well-paying job to get closer to her dream of working at USC. My colleagues got married, divorced, had kids. Two left this earth way too soon and I felt crushed that I never got to say a proper goodbye, or tell them how gorgeous of a human being they were. Home will continue to shift and move still, and I will return to see and feel shocked.

Taking this risk means trusting that change is not only inevitable but necessary. Trusting that new jobs and family members and even losing some will test me. I have to learn to trust myself, especially in failure.

My adventures will not soon be forgotten. One of the women in my small group on our writing retreat spoke about writing in a joyful time in her life. She said in some ways, writing about pain is easy. Recognizing when we are full and when our lives feel fruitful is difficult. Of course we experience cycles and every day gives us both. Our people lift us up and celebrate with us, and when we find these loving communities we are indeed home.

I cannot say I feel ready, but this risk feels like a good challenge for my mind and soul. Just like the lightning storm on a sweaty Phoenix evening that both terrified me and gave me a new sense of beauty, this new place scares me and tests my ability to find home.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Saying Thanks to My Parents

It’s been a jetset weekend. On Thursday, I flew to Philly to watch my sister graduate from Drexel School of Medicine (THAT WENT FAST). On Saturday My parents and I jetted all the way back to LA to attend the Honoree Mass at my elementary school, Mayfield Junior School in Pasadena. I was very humbled to receive an award along with two of my favorite teachers- both women that played a significant role in making me stop messing around, and start taking school seriously. Honestly, they don’t look a year older than I remember. 
The mass began at 4 pm on Sunday in the gymnasium- the same gym where we won the 7th grade basketball finals, played tag and graduated. What an experience coming back after 15 years. As the mass closed, the headmaster called me up and offered me a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I knew what I wanted to say. Below is a version of my very brief remarks, and is especially dedicated to my parents. They’ve been the real jet setters and deserve a vacation. 

A photo my science teacher handed me (of me)

Thank you, what an incredible honor to return to MJS after quite a while!. It seems like yesterday I was in Mrs. D’Argenio’s second grade class making my first communion, or Mrs. Hermanson’s fourth grade class building my California mission project. As an avid baker, I built Mission Santa Cruz out of sugar cubes, but didn’t have the foresight to not leave it outside overnight. The next morning, it was clear that raccoons had promptly feasted upon the structure. I remember finishing the eighth grade with Mrs Holtsneider, studying what has come to be the work I love and will devote my life to- bringing people of all and no faiths together to know each other, learn from one another, and most importantly, to find common values and ways to work together. 
I need to address my parents because Mayfield is a school rooted in faith and family as the foundation to education, and they have been my and my sister Mallory’s foundation from the very beginning. Mallory just graduated from medical school, so if anyone needs surgery, she starts her surgical residency at Huntington hospital in less than a month. My parents, Liz and Dennis, taught me two things in the last 29 years, one of which I believe created a monster. You see even when Mallory and I experienced failure or roadblocks which we all do, they wouldn’t stand for it- they never told us “you’re not smart enough, you’re tall enough, you’re not fast enough…you can’t do that.” They asked what we needed, and how they could help. From this, we learned that in our work we should always be asking what we can provide and how we can help. 
My parents believed education would better us and help us achieve our goals, but that if we didn’t acknowledge our deep privilege in receiving an education and attempt to give others the same opportunities, that life would not be full of meaning and thus not worth living. When Mallory wanted to be an actress, my mom drove her to auditions. When I wanted to be a professional basketball player, my dad came to every game with me- all five foot four of me- to watch me play. When we both wanted to live in our education, to attend boarding schools, they found a way. They have read admissions essays and scholarship applications and listened to practice interviews, and helped us pick what to wear- all because they believed in us even if we felt unsure. 
They chose Mayfield because as we know, education is perhaps the greatest gift and right we have as human beings, and they wanted it to intersect with the other values in our family. I’m so honored for this award, and it is dedicated both to the steadfast teachers here at mayfield and everywhere, and to my parents for saying yes to any sentence that began with, “what if I tried…”
Thank you mom and dad. I love you.

Graduations are the Worst

It’s that time of year again. Early May- when the rain is simply unbearable because it’s supposed to be April showers May FLOWERS, but it’s 55 degrees every day and the clouds just can’t seem to leave the party. It’s the time I should be starting my summer plan- to read 300 books, write 500 pages, workout every day (twice), hang out with friends, and “relax”, because somehow the ideal summer schedule includes eight extra hours in a day. And, in these weeks of caps and gowns, honor cords and club sashes, gifts and moving dates and yearbooks and parents, everything feels like chaos.

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PC: Faustin Tuyambaze

I’ve been through a few graduations. At the end of eighth grade, my class sat on bleachers in our school gym facing the audience in a commencement mass. We were instructed to keep our knees locked together, because the white nurse-like pinafores we wore would reveal much too much if our legs flared out. Every picture of that day portrays me in deep concentration- I had gotten my makeup done for the first time ever, and I’d be damned if I let my knees separate. In high school, my classmates were forced to travel to our own graduation, because a flood had forced the school to end the Spring Term three weeks early. We wore white rain boots with our dresses for fun. I remember spending the last night before graduation in my dorm room, which I hadn’t occupied for three weeks. That night, tradition dictated that the seniors participated in one final chapel service while the rest of the students waited for us outside to say goodbye. Students stay on the chapel lawn until well past midnight, usually. I admit- my instinct was to silently sneak through the crowd and back to my room, safe from the tears and awkward exchanges. College and graduate school certainly offered their own rights of passage- black gowns, caps that made me fuss with my hair endlessly. Everything must look perfect for the pictures!

After several rounds of this pomp and circumstance, I cannot help but admit that I simply hate graduations. The word “commencement” obviously brings up cliches of new beginnings and opportunity, but I experience these ceremonies as downright anxiety inducing. No one says what is actually true. “See you in a very, very long time…perhaps never!” After each grandiose ceremony, complete with advice and rituals, I feel as though a place I’ve inevitably worked to call home, to build relationships, to find my place within the place, is kicking me out without a second glance. “Welcome to the alumni network, you can donate here and here and here.”

This post probably sounds like a rant, because it’s masking how I really feel at graduation ceremonies, which is so incredibly proud of every single person who has achieved this magnificent goal and yet, so undeniably sad. Graduations mark a transformation of your place in the community- namely, that you’re moving on from it. Even after four of my own and several of friends and family, I will never get used to these ceremonies. They break my heart as much as they make it fly.

I do feel immensely proud of everyone graduating at this time. You deserve every bit of congratulations for working your behind off for one, two, four, six, or maybe thirteen years! I hope you throw your cap in the air with everyone. I hope you wave at your friends when you receive your diploma (even if it’s really a blank tube- you’ll get it in the mail six weeks later). I hope you cry a little- because this moment is bittersweet and you deserve the difficult goodbyes too. Congratulations, classes of 2017! All my love to you ❤

 

 

Full Circle

I don’t have to tell you that the world is funny, that life is not linear, that time is sometimes not a helpful tool for us- and sometimes it is.

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PC: Joey Kyber

Just last week I was writing a short story about stepping outside my comfort zone. I wanted to talk about joining the Interfaith Council at USC after meeting Varun, the Dean of Religious Life. The story of finding Varun is a silly one, it involves pulling a newspaper out of a trash and seeing his name in the headline. “What’s a Dean of Religious Life?” was the first question that popped in my head. The article in the Daily Trojan (our university’s daily paper) described the many experiences Varun lived that led him to this role. Living in Nepal as a Buddhist Monk, finishing both a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University and a law degree from UCLA, hosting a radio show, meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama, even being an avid sports fan- all of these influenced the person he is today. Reading about them, I thought, “I want to live like this person. I should probably meet him.”

Nine years (!) later, I’m sitting at my desk at Northeastern University in Boston, where I have served in a chaplain role for almost two years. First I see the text messages from my mom and dad: “Did you see the LA Times article about Varun? I think he mentioned you.” Friends are sharing on Facebook. Varun himself emails me a link to a stunning story about his trajectory at USC, as a non-ordained Hindu attorney. It sounds just like the article I read as a lost sophomore at USC, at a time when I knew I loved studying religion, but had no idea what to do about it. This was the article that pushed me to email him in that chilly office on the second floor of the business school, that for the first time showed me I could live a life full of passion like Varun, combining so many different interests. And it’s my last week here, which feels as though a circle has been completed.

I think it’s really important to experience nostalgia sometimes, as a reminder to feel gratitude for the people who have been a constant support in our lives. I was going to post a bunch of vignettes this morning from my time at Northeastern, because there are so many wonderful and hilarious moments from these two years. I only got to tell a handful at my lovely going away party. This morning I took a Lyft to work because I baked too many treats to take on the T, and as we inched along on the 93 toward Roxbury, I looked out at the Boston skyline centered on the Prudential Center, its windows shimmering in the sunlight, and realized today is my last Monday here. Only two years ago, my mom and I attempted to navigate this ridiculous freeway and street system to move me into my tiny apartment in the North End. I remember sending Varun a picture, knowing I had made him proud. The community here has made me proud, especially after so much hardship. On the wall behind me hangs three simple letters that welcomed me on my first day: J-E-M, my name. I’m taking them with me to hang in my new office (if I get an office).

Link to the story: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-usc-chaplain-20170403-story.html

Upaya in Elon, North Carolina


Even though it was 4 am, I felt joy seep through my veins as I quietly tiptoed out of my apartment. On Friday I hopped down to Elon, North Carolina to experience the 2nd Annual Ripple Interfaith Conference at Elon University. My friend Carrie graciously picked me up from the airport at 8 in the morning, coffee at the ready. That was the first of many acts of hospitality I received from everyone involved in the conference.

The theme of the Ripple Conference this year was “mindful plurality,” and I gladly accepted the invitation to share my thoughts on mindfulness, interfaith work, and Buddhism as an accessible set of values. Not because I am an expert (heh, NO) but because I have fallen in love with my faith in the past year and felt encouraged that mindfulness practices have entered the realm of activism and resistance. That’s what this blog is all about- practivism. How we sustain ourselves in the long, arduous haul against oppression, violence, bigotry.


On the opening plenary, five folks of different faiths shared what mindfulness means to them. We heard from a practitioner of Ignatian Spirituality, a Protestant with a regular mindfulness practice, a Tibetan Buddhist, A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Zen/Engaged Buddhist. I felt unworthy to speak after listening to such great wisdom. After we each shared, a member of the audience asked perhaps the most urgent question of the moment: “How do we remain mindful under threat, when I wear this (points to hijab), when people have strong negative assumptions about me just by looking at me? How can I simply work on my inner peace when others are dying without dignity every single day?” Long pause.

A version of this question has plagued me for quite a while- in fact, it has caused me nothing short of a faith crisis in the past year and a half. I do not wear hijab, and I pass easily as a “regular ole’ white woman.” So- isn’t it my job to get my behind out in the streets and be on the front lines? Yes. And how, then, do I work on my inner compassion?

As Zen Buddhism would have it, there are at least two relevant concepts to begin chipping away at this question. First, interconnectedness. We can’t hide from the world and luxuriously put our feet up in the enlightenment hot tub, for our world continues to suffer. We are still in the world. We are responsible for walking with those who suffer. The second concept is one that frankly, I hadn’t thought about in a while. Upaya: expedient means. What works for you in this present moment to walk toward enlightenment? Upaya is about our context: it puts the quest for ultimate truth aside so that we might take a step in the right direction without doing wrong. Simply put, it means we don’t need to feel frozen: try something and see if it works. More importantly, upaya recognizes that the presence of everyone around you at any given moment is necessary. All Bodhisattvas (Buddhas who opt to stay in this world to help the rest of us) offer us different skills and wisdoms- human beings do the same.


As I reconnected with this concept I realized that all of us in the room needed to struggle through this question together, in that moment and moving forward. I fell in love with each of the students and conference planners as I began to see their complex identities. Each moment I was gifted a story and inner desire over coffee, a joyful memory in the Truitt Center kitchen, even a moment of anxiety or uncertainty as is par for the course of any conference, the expedient means of each community member unfolded as the weekend pressed on. It felt so good to witness the success of this group of people, to be reminded of my time in Japan and the opportunity to travel, to talk honestly about how Buddhist communities must work for racial justice, and above all, to laugh uninhibited. Laughter surely is upaya at its best

I am grateful for this weekend as we continue to invest in interfaith leaders as the key to our future. As one of my students often tells me, “the people that needed to be in the room inevitably came to the room, and it was good.”

 

 

It’s a Marathon AND a Sprint

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PC: Jose Revuelta, Flea Market Comics. Check out more art here

I left work early on Wednesday, went home, and wept. I just bawled. It was all too much. And it was only Wednesday.

Our campus observed Holocaust Remembrance Week this past week. On Friday, we hosted a dialogue about the future of politics in the United States. I see the exhaustion. I see the fear. I see the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, and I admit: I feel it too.

Not for myself. One of the ickiest thoughts that has floated through my overcrowded brain this week was “if I did nothing, if I had no idea what was happening in our country…I would be blissfully ignorant. I could go about my daily tasks and probably notice nothing. And I heard phrases like, “It’ll be ok, he’s just crazy..” or “Stay strong!” UGH. I understand the desire to deescalate a situation for coping sake, but…I just can’t. This is horrible. So many people are really, really suffering. And as a Buddhist I know, that suffering begets suffering, and it affects us all.

Of course my students feel overwhelmed and in despair. There is no end in sight. It feels as though we are fighting not only an uphill battle, but one behind a giant steel wall! (sorry, that was just too real.) I try to tell myself to keep working, keep putting on a strong face for my students that I love, but on Wednesday I just couldn’t any longer. Recognizing when we need to take a moment to breathe is important, because the situation is both urgent and will be a long haul.

I ran 16 miles today, the most I have ever run. I felt great: there were thousands of people on the course today. Every few miles a group was giving away water and snacks. I ran the last half of the course with a new friend who teaches near my home in Boston. Not bad for a self-care Saturday.

When I got home, I looked at my training schedule. Almost half way through the 18 weeks before the big race day. Suddenly I felt anxious: The mileage only increases. I will need to carve out more time and need more strength to keep to my plan. I have to be efficient, make good food choices, and no matter what, not give up. There is no skipping a day, even in the rain, the snow, after eating too much cake.

Consider this time a marathon AND a sprint: the urgency is NOW, dammit. Shit already hit the fan and is now spreading around the room. I think my marathon training is symbolic of the work cut out for me and the people I look up to, leading the charge. We’ve got to contribute in every way possible and not skip a day. At the same time, we need to suck down that weird GU to stay fueled- take moments of rest to recharge. And there are others among us, at every step. Our paces may be different but we’re running toward the same place. I’m sustaining my energy off the communities I graciously get to find solace in, and take wisdom from. One foot in front of the other.

I don’t have any words of wisdom today, or even a “let’s be hopeful!” message, except that I know some pretty damn amazing people working their asses off and I’m lucky to call myself a fan/supporter/hopeful ally (NOT ally- working toward it). Revolutionary Love today, every day.

 

Jesus the Teacher

As traditions abound this time of year, my family hastily put up a tree, wrapped gifts, and cooked all kinds of complex dishes, culminating last night with Christmas Dinner. My dad and I always attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and this year was no different. I could see my breathe walking up the hill in Sierra Madre to St. Rita’s Parish, perhaps the greatest sign of winter that will come to Southern California. My dad and I found a seat in a pew almost in the very last row, off to the side. Normally, my dad sits front and center. As we sat down, he muttered something about the people who only come on Christmas and Easter. “But they’re here,” he corrected himself. “That’s good.”

Midnight Mass at St. Rita’s looks the same every year. I mean, exactly the same. The same carols welcome everyone to their seats. About 15 minutes late, we all stand as the procession of altar servers, deacon, and priest come down the center aisle to the altar, where they bow and take their places. The priest and deacon “visit” the nativity scene off to the left side, sprinkling the scene with incense. The first and second readings remain: Isiah (the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light) and the letter of Paul to Titus (the grace of God has appeared). The gospel rotates from Luke to Matthew to John each year. In elementary school I learned to remember: Luke= shepherds, Matthew= wise men, John= The Word. Everything else, down to the beginning of the priest’s homily, remains the same. Tradition, ritual. Sometimes, we find relief in the expected. Truthfully, I fought sleepiness the whole time.

There was one essential difference that woke me up. During the homily, the time when the one who says mass teaches the congregation about the readings and offers lessons, the priest acknowledged that our brothers and sisters of another faith were also celebrating: our Jewish neighbors were celebrating Chanukah, the festival of light and rededication. “We must pray for them, and for people of all faiths that they experience peace, enjoy relaxation, and welcome a new year just as we hope to,” he said. 1000 people heard that message, a message of interfaith cooperation in the form of prayer. The priest, our teacher, offered us an important lesson. I believe one of the most important teachers, Jesus, taught that lesson over and over.

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PC: Ben White

Yesterday among the cinnamon rolls and piles of gift wrap scattered around the family room, I reflected on the importance of teachers and the gift of learning. Teachers come in many forms: people, sacred texts, books, stories, experiences…anything can be a teacher if our persons are open to learning. One of the most powerful things about Jesus as I see is that his teachings transcended a particular time and place, and often related to the divine potential of each human being as a steward of resources. Many of the prophets and founders of great traditions of wisdom were also first and foremost teachers, and they were concerned with the flourishing of humanity. The Buddha traveled across Southeast Asia, teaching crowds of hundreds about suffering and liberation. I concluded that teaching is one of the highest forms serving human kind, especially because in teaching, we learn continuously.

Many of us will admit to spending too much money on something in particular: fancy food, clothes, alcohol, sporting events, you name it. I have much to work on in this regard. In particular, books are my downfall. The last time I walked in to a bookstore, there was a table with a “sale” sign, and I walked out with four new paperbacks. In this moment in time, memoirs and books dealing with race, gender, and religion are stacked in my “to read” pile. Besides my students who always prove to be my best teachers, books offer me a constant window into learning, the process that makes me feel most alive. Over my lifetime, the people who have most impacted me have been teachers: they have challenged me, believed in me, journeyed with me.

I closed my eyes with everyone else as we prayed for our neighbors celebrating Chanukah. I remembered something my friend Steven, an Orthodox Jew, taught me while we were on the Interfaith Council at USC: “When we light the Menorah, we take the first candle and light the others with it. Lighting one candle with another does not diminish the light in either.” Such is the case with great teachers, the more we learn from one another does not diminish the vast capacity we have to continue.

Is Gratitude a Privilege?

…the short answer to the above question is yes, insofar as it concerns me and the following response.

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PC: Ian Schneider

I have been feeling a need to express more gratitude lately. Perhaps this is natural, given the climate, or the weather, or just exhaustion beyond explanation. Endorphins? Maybe the fact that Thanksgiving is this week? I’m not sure, but at the same time have been feeling a sense of frozenness, an inability to make decisions or take action. For the longest time, it felt like my perfectionism was acting up and I kept telling myself I would finish certain tasks (including emailing important people back, ehem) once I had drafted a thorough, complete response read over several times. The problem is, what does complete look like? What happens when we are never “ready?”

I was thinking about this question particularly in regard to learning allyship. At my university, we’ve been talking about best practices and how we can support students who are threatened and afraid. Do we wear the safety pins? Do we make public statements? How do we show up for each other in meaningful ways? So many uncertainties and yet, there is no time to seek the answer before something needs to be done. The time is NOW. Attempting perfection inhibits change and has encumbered me from supporting those who need to be held the most. So, as a white woman, I’m going to throw perfection out the window and trying to learn as I go. Is this dangerous? Yes. My “learning opportunities” can certainly be harmful. The damage is real. Taking action can, however, take the pressure off those I’d like to support, because waiting for complete knowledge around the “how” means the oppressed are tasked with figuring it out, and I sit and wait. We, human beings, are not perfect. We are inchoate. We are unfinished. And yet, we love and are loved.

This rambling comes in thinking about gratitude, to return full circle. One of my students challenged me about a month ago to do something every night: name one thing I appreciate about someone who otherwise gives me trouble, and name three things I love about myself. Can you guess which one is harder? In reality, it depends on the day. Every night, she has consistently reminded me to report my 1 and 3 to her, and in turn I ask her back. At first this practice seemed impossible. “He just makes me SO mad!” I thought, “How can I appreciate anything?” Moreover, putting aside self-loathing sounds simple but, of course the loathing is complicated. Slowly but surely, we have made progress together. Sure, some days still seem untenable- you know the ones. This past Friday, this student was in my office and we had a lengthy conversation about gratitude and what it really means.

As I understand now, gratitude requires faith in the imperfect. It means feeling thankful despite the suffering present in the world, in my life. It also requires mindfulness: a sense of feeling genuine in the present. When I feel grateful, I am not taking a backseat and determining that everything “will work itself out.” I am acknowledging that there are in fact slivers of hope, pieces of love to hold as we march into the darkness. I am grateful for the challenges, even if on certain days, they feel insurmountable to address. Gratitude is a call to action, not complacency- this is the difference between ignoring privilege and acknowledging it.

 

Why Honesty is Risky, Sometimes

I started my Memoir Generator class. There are 12 of us aspiring memoirists. All women identified, all pretty quirky. I have decided after our first meeting we are all hiding something. That’s why we want to write. We are trying to figure out how to unhide. 

PC: Hauke Morgenthau

We read two memoirs before the class so we could tear them apart. I don’t mean in a bad way, like a really tough movie critic- I mean we dissected them, made lists of characters and objects and places, and honed in on the authors’ strategies for effective writing. The books we read were When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (which I wrote about a few months ago) and The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham. These memoirs are both about death- the first is about the author’s battle with cancer and his understanding, as a surgeon, of exactly what is happening inside him, and the second is about the author’s father committing suicide and her family’s quest to pick up the pieces for years. Literally, years- Wickersham worked on this book for 14 years. Kalanithi died about a year after he started writing the book. 
I felt so alive in our first class, even after a long day of work, even as the sun set and the bands of gold light turned pink and purple and then darkness flooded the window outside. I love learning, and what’s more, I loved being in a room with writers interested in understanding writing as a deep spiritual, artistic process. We agreed that writing a memoir takes time, reflection, and the final product will leave out quite a lot of what we write. “Don’t think every scene you write isn’t sacred,” our instructor told us. “But don’t think it’ll all be publishable either.” I admit, that statement scares me. But I’m still willing to try the process. I have stories and people and pain to unhide. 
In this first class, I learned something crucial about telling the truth amongst my new classmates. As we delved into the character list for Wickersham’s memoir, someone asked, “Why do you think she only mentions her sister once in the whole book? That seems strange to me. We don’t even know her name.”
It did seem strange- I suddenly wondered if the author was trying to tell us that her sister wasn’t very important to this whole experience, which I found unbelievable. My sister would be, if that ever happened in my family. Before that train of thought could spiral out of control, another student responded, “her sister probably asked not to be in the book. She probably wanted to be private.”
Oh. Yes, that makes sense. I realized in my quest to begin telling my own story how difficult telling the truth is, especially to the world who doesn’t know you and the people you love. Because “the” truth is actually your own truth. We have great power in our hands (literally) when we write down the stories we tell ourselves and share them. We are exposing brokenness and pain and memory that may be locked away for good reason. Someone in my class mused, “you’ll never please everyone when you tell the truth. The truth hurts. And usually we are writing because we are hurt, or we hurt others, and we write about the people who have caused us pain or for whom we have caused pain.”
I thought about my family and our collective secrets. What will happen if I write them down and share them? Even the stories we have exposed are told in a way that everyone feels they have agency. We’ve told these stories over and over, and drafted them in a way that confirms and contributes to the greater narrative of who we are. What if my writing challenges this narrative, shatters our story of “us”?
So I begin by asking “why.” Why do I feel such an ache to tell my story, even though I risk upsetting the people closest to me? For now, the answer is that sharing my story could also put forth the beginning of an honest conversation about our shared family pain that we’ve never addressed before. Telling the truth is risky- and maybe it’s a way for me to build stronger relationships with my family. I hope the memoir process helps me unhide from my own truth, and that I learn to listen for others’ struggles in sharing theirs.