IDK

Every time I travel somewhere, two Yelp searches happen. The first is for donuts. The second is for used book stores.

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PC: Glen Noble

I have a pretty significant habit of collecting books on my shelves that go unread. For a while, I started feeling guilty about this habit. What a waste! Sometimes, ultimatums get thrown around. “No more buying until you finish this shelf.” That works approximately .2% of the time because lo and behold, another trip comes up, another bookstore appears only blocks from where I stay, and my suitcase fills up with volumes. Especially if the bookstores have a religion section. Or a cookbook section. Or memoir.

I read a delicious article the other day that demanded I stop feeling guilty about acquiring unread books (within limits). It suggested that seeing unread books on shelves makes us eager to keep learning each day, because we know that our knowledge is limited and we can keep expanding it. The unread books serve as a reminder that we don’t know everything.

As a PhD student, this attitude of “not knowing” often translates to poor work. It can be difficult to admit when we don’t know a particular fact, or an entire body of literature. There have been moments in class, in a workshop, even in a meeting when I feel silly asking a question that “I should know the answer to.” But not asking the question breeds further imposter syndrome, no matter how many Google searches one can do to alleviate the feeling of not belonging due to a lack of awareness.

It almost feels comical sometimes, the way we pivot conversations to disguise not knowing for what we do know. Think of the typical politician who somehow always gets their talking points in an interview, without being asked. One of my professors assured me that the longer I do this work, the more I will realize I actually don’t know.

Reframing my work brings some comfort to this awkward admission. Maybe my job isn’t “to know,” but actually to recognize what I don’t know, and to strategize ways to find out. Moreover, maybe it’s about the questions we ask. Why are we fascinated by people of the past? What do their lives mean for us? If I interview 50 chaplains about their work, will they give me similar answers?

Academia’s most exciting aspects rest in the unread section of the bookshelf. In fact, I believe life’s most virtuous moments appear in the form of the unread. Often, the stories we tell deal with surprise and an unexpected turn of events. How we react to our surprises dictates the kind of memory it is.

Perhaps the biggest question we will never know how to answer is what our purpose is, and I think it right that we never cease wondering. We can continue asking, and continue seeking, but in this case, not knowing is the one thing that connects us beyond our towns and counties and states. If only we could celebrate not knowing.

Aliveness

I, like almost everyone around me, am a mess.

I feel exhausted.

I feel exasperated.

I feel anxious. SO anxious.

Every morning, I wake up much before I hope to and feel awake. Not awake in a refreshed sense, but in a nervous, jittery, need to run off the energy awake. My stomach feels upset, my neck aches, even my breathing feels shallow. I end up reading or scrolling through Instagram in bed, which only entertains for so long. Sometimes after literal hours of tossing and turning, I get out of bed, rush through my morning ritual, and head to work on a crowded sweaty train.

I remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom: When you are in a rush, slow down. Seriously, we need to slow down.

In the past couple of weeks as this sleeplessness and anxiety has really started to affect me, I have noticed another feeling creeping up. It directly relates to anxiety: it’s called helplessness.

Helplessness, as if losing agency, power, the ability to control anything in a situation. That causes anxiety. I have been in several situations this year that felt completely out of my control. In these situations, I find myself wishing things, like, “I wish this person wasn’t here.” Or, “I wish I knew more than I do.” I find myself begging. Who, I’m not sure.

In my sleepless mornings I have sped through several books. My “to read” pile is diminishing. This past week I finished Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. The book offers 52 chapters of “lessons” for spiritual formation, to be divided up into each week of the year. As an instant gratificationist, of course I couldn’t save the lessons, I wanted them now. So I read the book in 2 days, and learned some fascinating perspectives on biblical narrative and how McLaren defines spirituality, calling it “the quest for aliveness.” I began to think about how I cultivate aliveness- running, writing, reading, and resisting. These activities bring me joy, challenge me, and allow me to see growth in myself. Aliveness. Perhaps the opposite of anxiety.

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PC: Jared Erondu

As I continued through the lessons, toward the end of the book I read this:

My anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about. My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others. My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly loved. (McLaren 143)

And suddenly it was clear: I have been my own worst enemy. I have been completely in my own head, and frightened myself to the point of insomnia. I have blamed others. I have felt miserable. I am miserable, and there is absolutely no reason for me to do nothing about this misery.

I am a mess. But I don’t need to sit in filth forever. In fact, I could do one thing today that would make me feel empowered. And celebrate that empowerment. I could be more congratulatory about finishing a run- not just feeling like I had to. I could write for the pure joy of writing, and not worry about it being terrible. And I could start thinking along the lines of what I can control, and focus on those things.

It sounds SO simple and easy, but it’s so easy to feel frozen in anxiety and misery. It’s hard to name for ourselves what we can’t control. I think aliveness is making peace with this, and learning to hold the things that give us our uniqueness. I’m done being a mess, at least, in my own head. It’s time to start assessing what needs to float there, and what can drift away.

 

Birthday

It’s thaaaaaat time of year, again. I definitely understand the shift from getting excited about one’s birthday to really dreading having to say you’re another year older. Anyway, change is inevitable, so here we are. I do feel like my birthday gift came a little early this year, that is on January 2nd, the Trojans battled until the end and came out on top. I hugged my dad so hard and then definitely shed some tears (mostly releasing the pent up stress I carried for 3.98 quarters of the same). After starting out 1-3, I’m so impressed with the coaching, the teamwork, and the unwillingness to give up. Even if it’s only football.


Before the game started, I met my friends Darlene (affectionately Darlo) and Veronica (affectionately Vero) and stayed with Darlo’s family for a while as we counted down until the gates opened to the Rose Bowl (our natural habitat). As my dad and I walked the almost three miles to find them, I noticed some Penn Staters tailgating with a Confederate flag on their pickup truck. Admittedly, my face scrunched up in disapproval before I fully registered what was before my eyes. And I started thinking about how strange and unique this humongous group of people was that came together, at least physically, to watch a sporting event.

My dad likes to be overly friendly to visiting fans. Having traveled to many games, we have witnessed our fair share of mean, rude, drunk and nasty people before and after games, win or lose. No one likes getting trash talked, at least, I certainly hate it. My dad and I walked most of the way from the train station to the stadium with a family from the Jersey Shore, decked out in their blue and white jerseys. After we parted ways eventually and passed that pickup truck, I thought about what the two schools represented in this space- their locations, their atmospheres, their populations. USC lies in the heart of a densely populated uber-metropolis. Penn State is more than an hour away from a midsize city. USC is a medium-sized private institution that brags about their international population, and Penn State is a massive public school, about 3/4 of the students are white. Both schools’ NCAA football programs are considered in the top 5 of all time, and for the most part, both schools respect each other as historic rivals. Statistics aside, frankly, as I looked around I noticed how ethnically diverse the USC fanbase seemed compared to Penn States’. This isn’t a judgement, simply an observation.

I spent my week off reading, because that’s how I veg. Since the election, I have committed to exploring genres and authors who have written notable works in the past few years on identity-based politics. It feels like a tiny step in the right direction when I feel “frozen” in terms of social action. Reading by no means represents direct action to dismantle or tear down, but my thought process was that by sharing my own mistakes and reading about those who share theirs, I could take some small steps to avoid committing microaggressions, or be more thoughtful in my language. On the plane to LA two days before Christmas, I finished Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, a sociologist’s reflections and learnings about spending time among working class whites in rural Louisiana. The book has been a conversation piece in my circles lately. I wanted to read it because Hochschild states that her mission with the study was simply to try and understand a group of people who live in a very different world from her, and subsequently, consider politics quite distinctly. I think that’s a solid mission- it echoes goals of some interfaith communities, not to change minds, but to educate and understand, to find some common ground.

Hochschild interjects a few times throughout the book that she vehemently disagrees with her newfound friends on many issues- taxes, welfare, and the “right to choose”, among others. I found myself wondering, “how could this person have spent five years with people whose views make her terribly uncomfortable?” And yet, I believe that’s exactly where I need to push myself. Perhaps it wasn’t appropriate then, and would have led to unnecessary trash talk- but what would it have looked like to start a conversation with the pickup truck driving, Confederate flag touting Nittany Lion?

I’m going to keep reading, but recognize that only through some difficult conversations will I actually begin to educate myself. I think my toolkit as an interfaith dialoguer and someone who strives to sustain a meditation practice is helpful, yet not something to hide behind. Another year older, and hopefully, just a little bit wiser. Fight On!

 

 

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.

Running in New York City

Ah, the fresh smell of filth only semi-recognizable. We arrived in NYC Saturday afternoon and hauled our luggage 6 blocks to the Pod Hotel. A pod hotel offers you a bed that fills the whole room with some storage underneath and a box bathroom. But you can’t complain about being right at 39th and Lexington, right?

We spent the weekend wandering around Art Museums and eating ramen and bao buns that one cannot find in Boston. Every day we walked over 30,000 steps. Our feet ached. We munched on sweets from Milk Bar and Levain Bakery until my throat scratched from sugar overload. I obnoxiously posted pictures of sunsets atop tall buildings on my Instagram. #NYCshortweekend.


On Sunday we hiked all the way from our hotel to the Guggenheim, a museum I had never visited before, and then through Central Park to the American Museum of Natural History. As we trudged through Central Park with dampened t-shirts (it was about 97 F without humidity), I watched the runners on the road as they headed south. Some of them had flashy neon shorts and tank tops, while others donned old grey shirts with track shorts and mid-calf white socks. I marveled at every single person brave enough to sweat it out in that heat.

I have been a runner for almost 14 years now. As a freshman in high school, I joined the cross country team because my dad said it would help me get in shape for basketball. Funnily enough, I ended up not even playing basketball my senior year. But I ran every year, and constantly felt inadequate. My body was larger than my teammates’ and it took more time for me to carry it, mile by mile. 3 miles always felt horrendously long. I remember secretly rejoicing when my IT band became inflamed and I had to take a month off running. Every summer I promised to train and be more prepared for the season, but my times never improved. Yet every year, I ran in my little red shorts and tank top and counted down the number of races left to complete.

The funny thing is, I’ve never stopped running, even though there are times I really hate it. Every few months since high school, my body would get a strange craving to stretch my legs and pound the pavement. I would always feel so sore after running when I hadn’t in so long. The next day, I’d hit my legs until the lactic acid started to move, and I’d be off. The music in my earbuds has ranged from Incubus to Turkish pop stars.

When my friend Taylor asked me (ok, challenged me) to run a half marathon almost a year ago, I scoffed. The longest I had ever ran without stopping was about seven miles, and that was torture. I figured I would start training, have a good few weeks, and then like many initially titillating hobbies, I would find something better to do like bake low-carb cheesecake. But November became December and then the New Year came, and I ran a mile longer every week. The last few weeks in February I ran 11 or 12 miles on Saturdays. I couldn’t believe it- the chubby last-to-finish high schooler was actually doing this! Just as the cherry blossoms bloomed, I finished the half marathon in Washington, D.C. with my friends Taylor, Areeba and Audrey. We ate a big, much deserved brunch after crossing the finish line.

When I see anyone running (on purpose), my respect for the person skyrockets. Perhaps it’s because I have learned how much practice running takes. “It’s just one foot in front of the other,” our coach at the treadmill studio shouts as we sprint for 30 seconds. Sometimes the simplest action takes the most practice. When we meditate, we simply sit on a cushion and stay still. The practice is letting ourselves stay purely in this moment. It can be easy to rush through life with distractions at every turn, but being alone with ourselves can feel excruciating.

Spending the weekend in New York was a blessing, a much-needed distraction from the ever-approaching school year mayhem. I felt a little sad on the bus back home because we our fun had ended so soon. I thought about the runners in the park. If we, runners, ran for the finish, we would quickly give up and find something more enjoyable to do like barre or hip hop yoga. We run because we enjoy the challenge, we thrive on finding presence in the pain. As Haruki Murakami wrote in his memoir about training for the New York City Marathon, “pain is inevitable…but suffering if optional.” Arriving back in our humble Boston studio, I collapsed on the bed and massaged my feet.

When Death Becomes Air, or Some Thoughts on Doctors and Dying

I am not a doctor by any means. A few weeks ago, my sister Mallory sent me a paper she had written about an interesting patient case and I spent more time trying to pronounce the diagnosis, symptoms, and medicines than actually editing. I do, however, run quite often and have developed a habit of listening to books on Audible while running. When you’re sick of listening to the same pump-up music for weeks on end, reading while running is a good alternative.

The last book I finished is the best-selling When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It’s a memoir of sorts about a budding brain surgeon who is diagnosed with lung cancer. The book begins with the diagnosis and how Kalanithi’s relationship with his wife is affected. Later in the book, he admits that having cancer may have saved his marriage. Kalanithi and his wife Lucy decide to have a child even though they know his time is limited. Kalanithi left the book incomplete- he began writing it the year he died, and as his wife notes in the epilogue, the book is a testament to the life he left incomplete.

Earlier this year I wrote a post after reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, a text that argues we, doctors and patients, do not prepare adequately for “the end.” Aging, Gawande says, is a somewhat new phenomenon, and one with which we in the United States and perhaps elsewhere have not learned to develop a relationship until it is too late. I remember while reading Being Mortal that there is a deep connection doctors and chaplains have, even though our day to day job descriptions look wildly different. We both are placed in charge of holding someone’s life in our hands. Overwhelmingly, it is not an individual’s life, but their family and friends, the people that mean something in their lives. We perform our work with a strong commitment to journeying with the patients and people we encounter when they trust us. The best of us worry about our patients and our care-seekers long after we’ve left work for the day.

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PC: Pablo Garcia Saldana

 

My sister Mallory is about to begin her fourth year in medical school. This weekend, she flew from Philadelphia to Los Angeles (home) and today will drive up to Fresno, California to begin yet another rotation. She has moved her living space at least three times in the past year and begun a new rotation in a new hospital every six weeks. When Kalanithi describes his medical student days- excruciatingly long hours, candy bars for lunch, dropping on the floor from exhaustion upon returning home after his wife had gone to sleep- I found myself nodding while jogging along the river. “Sounds like Mallory,” I thought to myself. I wondered how in the world medical students do it. But they do, and they transform lives every day.

Not every day, doctors are reminded that doctors also fall ill. My mom texted me on Friday. “That surgeon that Mallory really admires has 15 months.” “That surgeon” is a legend. My mom tasked me with “send her some words of I don’t know what.” I certainly didn’t know what. Chaplain rules: 1) don’t evade a painful subject. 2) Practice empathy 3) Ask what they need (and mean it!).

“Mom told me about the surgeon at Drexel. Sorry to hear about him, that’s awful. Do you need anything?” I sucked in a breath.

“No thanks, it’s definitely a bummer. All the residents are crying and my other attending is a mess. Just a reminder that we are all human and that life is short,” she sent back.

Such prophetic words from a medical student! I wiped away a few tears. She was right. As a chaplain and a sister, I wished my care in that moment could be more than a “you’re right” reply.

Doctors and especially brain surgeons often live under the stereotype that they are mathematical, cold, even unhuman. They see the body as a puzzle to put back together or a circuit with a loose wire. In hearing the stories from Mallory, sometimes this seems true. But also true is the care surgeons hold for their patients, the deep affect that success or failure has on them because the lives they hold in their hands matter. When doctors themselves fall ill, when they are diagnosed with terminal cancer, they too must make decisions with the people they love. I find solace in Mallory’s early recognition of this, mourning the deep sorrow she feels for her mentor’s life cut short. Inevitably, she will be reminded of this too often as a brain surgeon. But with hope, I know she will do her best to do what I strive as a chaplain: to hold her patients close to her heart and do her best to serve them.