30

Yep, 1-8-18 was yesterday. Which is exactly 30 years from 1-8-88 (my birthday). I am now 30.

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Photo by Johannes Wredenmark on Unsplash

My mom suggested I start telling people that I’m 30 about six months ago.”It’ll help you avoid the shock,” she encouraged. She did the same this year…I’ll refrain from revealing her age, though I definitely believe she looks and acts much younger.

I felt sad for a while. My twenties saw tons of changes and growth. And mistakes. At first I feared that turning thirty meant giving up certain arbitrary habits and practices. Admittedly, some things are more difficult. A hangover, I imagine, is much less pleasant than at 21. Perhaps.

As you might know from previous writing, I struggled with my weight this year. After running the Boston Marathon, it felt like my body clung to the extra pounds that it needed to run 26.2 miles. I experienced shame and frustration and in the darkest moments, exasperation and used foods I know are bad for me as an excuse. “It doesn’t matter,” I thought. I’d rather enjoy this than deprive myself for nothing.

I’m on day 10 of the Whole 30 program, a 30-day lifestyle change that focuses on eating only whole foods and thinking differently about dessert as reward, or weight loss as the true goal for achieving health (for example. There’s plenty of useful pillars and ideas of the program). I decided to spend the first month of 2018 saying yes to what I know is nourishing, instead of feeling left out of what I can’t eat or do (like eat cake on my birthday). It sounds really corny, but this mentality brought me some joy as I said goodbye forever to my 20s. There are so many things I CAN do as a 30-year-old. For example:

-I can rock pink pants as well/better than when I was 18. Style never dies.

-I can sing in the shower as loud as I want.

-I can start reflecting on my twenties and realize how far I’ve come.

Thankfully, I don’t feel constrained to a timeline. Five of my friends got engaged in the month of December. More and more of my friends are having children. Some of them have started and built companies. Some have finished graduate school. Some are sitting in uncertainty and that’s totally fine. I’ve been there. I am there! I’m not in a hurry. As hard as it is, comparison only serves to discourage us.

You know what has been a real blessing over the past decade? The amount of fine people I’ve met in a myriad of ways. I was reminded of that yesterday when people actually called (yes- CALLED) and texted and messaged to say they were thinking of me.

I’m still totally confused about my life and what I want to do when I grow up. My life has some surface level certainty for the moment (I know where and when my classes are and what work I need to do each night) but the realization that there is no age in which we “know” life’s structure and methods is liberating. Perhaps I can stop searching. For now, I’ll enjoy some of the delicious fried plantains Jose made yesterday, because I CAN eat them (and now they’re all gone. Yum).

Myth

As the quarter closes this week, the writing process continues at full speed, with half-finished thoughts and some consolation. There is never enough time, but perfectionism impedes creativity and progress. I’m realizing that my three classes all revolve around narrative this quarter, so making sense of how stories dictate values is on my mind.

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Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

One of the projects I am working to finish is an essay about myth and interfaith dialogue. In my circles, I don’t need to stress the importance of dialogue (preaching to the choir) but I do think it’s important to complicate what actually happens when people are vulnerable and share how their own experiences lead them to convictions. More wisdom is better than less, but what if that wisdom promotes conflicting values? This seems a necessary question as not a day goes by without someone noting “how divided our country is.” We are living by irreconcilable myths, and we cannot deny that a selection of these myths intentionally ignores or legitimizes pain and dehumanization.

Northrop Frye, a literary critic, and Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago, both deal with myth in their work. Both stress myth as narratives that deal with human crises, especially finitude. Comparing myth across cultures and traditions is dangerous if we are not careful to acknowledge context and particularity. What I find compelling about myth, especially as a process for dialogue, is how we pull meaning from stories that have no historical or logical basis. I think our ability to do this speaks to creative expression as one of the highest forms of spirituality. I also think this process of meaning making is the closest we can get to a universal human experience, which is living with inevitable change. We are constantly attempting to make sense of “why things happen.”

This quarter has been tough, not just because of the rigor and caliber of work required, but because moving to a new place heightens the knowledge that meaning is obscured. I always enjoy learning through a variety of channels- reading interesting texts, lively discussions, and especially making connections to my own work in the field of interfaith studies. But as a person who enjoys nerding out about baseball statistics and marveling at bright, obnoxious fashion trends as much as writing papers and discussing medieval saints’ lives, finding wholeness has been a real challenge. I think the process of living by a new story takes time and struggle before the narrative truly emerges. Communities are struggling to incorporate old stories into new problems. When the stories generate no meaning, it’s time to start telling new ones.

One thing all the stories have taught me this quarter is that crisis never leaves the human experience. It’s false to believe we will ever live without the apprehension of some kind of challenge, and there is plenty of wisdom from various times and places to aid us in remaining present and to let go of attachment to a particular outcome. Still, there is something comforting in the fact that a benchmark of the human experience is grappling with narrative and meaning-making. I think this is important to remember, especially when we need to reflect on how we participate in narratives that cause harm.

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.

Ramadan Sunset

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

 

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

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

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

An Almost Accident

My mom picked me up for the millionth time at LAX a few months ago. It was dusk, and I lugged over-sized bag and greasy hair into the car amidst honking and traffic jams. We know this route well- darting around buses to get on the 105, carpool lane to 110, Pasadena Freeway to Orange Grove, and finally on to the 210. Home.

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My mom (Liz) and friend Liz’s mom (Louise)
The Pasadena Freeway is the oldest in California. Three lanes wide, it winds around Highland Park and South Pasadena until it ends right on Arroyo Boulevard. What was once an easy Sunday drive in the 1940s is now a treacherous road. It’s hard to see around the twists, and because the lanes are so narrow, easy to hit the center divider or another vehicle. When accidents happen, often they cause domino crashes because of the visibility issue. In addition to all of this, in order to get on the freeway, cars must wait at stop signs to merge into the furthest lane while vehicles fly by at 65+ MPH (the speed limit is 55, but who are we kidding, Angelinos).

Each member of my family boasts their own strategy for driving this freeway to avoid an accident. My mom says to drive in the middle lane, so as to have options if you need to swerve quickly. My sister, on the other hand, likes the lane closest to the center divider because people can only drift into one side of that lane, unlike the center. My dad likes the outside lane. I’m not sure why, but perhaps neither is he. I avoid the freeway altogether- for me, it’s all about the 5 to the 134.

On this particular evening, Dodger fans caused twice the congestion at the start of the Pasadena Freeway. We inched forward and stopped every five seconds. Finally after forty minutes, we started to move. Because of the traffic my mom had managed to move into the right lane, she kept a watchful eye on the right side as cars pulled to stop signs, waiting to merge. As we rounded a curve, a mini van pulled right in front of us- we were less than a second from rear ending it that would surely have ended in totaled cars and perhaps fatal injury.

My mom did something miraculous. Just before she rear-ended the minivan, she swerved left, avoiding the van just enough to sneak by without collision. She didn’t have time to check on her side to see if another car was in the middle lane- but her instinct told her to save me before herself. Thankfully, there was enough space for her to avoid accident entirely. “What the FUCK was that guy doing!?” she exclaimed. I took a few breaths. A vision of the car accident I experienced came right at me, causing my forehead to sweat instantly. My mom didn’t mention the incident for the rest of the car ride, as if it happened to her every day. I know it doesn’t.

For the next few days I wondered if my instinct would have caused me to swerve left. Would I have saved myself, or my passenger? Perhaps I would have frozen like the last time, and totaled my car. I’m not a mother, but in that moment I knew my mom had made a commitment to sacrifice for us even in the most rapid moments.

I was remembering one of my teachers in elementary school the other day because she, also a mother, did something remarkable for our family. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and chose to remove her breast because she wanted no uncertainty that she would live (“she had a family to take care of”), this teacher would take my sister and me to breakfast at IHOP before school. It was a great day when we got to go to IHOP. Only in the past few years have I realized how much more this woman has been to me than a teacher.

Happy Mother’s Day to all those who sacrifice their time and comfort for others. Motherhood may be beautiful, but it is just as much no-frills, unsung work that keeps us all alive.

 

Starting Fresh

When I was 14, I moved across the country to go to boarding school. There were a few reasons for this, none of which involved discipline (what many assumed). Attending this school was a huge privilege for me, it meant studying with classmates who also wanted to immerse themselves in learning, meeting friends from around the world, and most especially spending a big chunk of my junior year studying on exchange in Japan. I even got to study two languages all four years.

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PC: Margot Pandone

There was another reason I was excited about going to school 3000 miles away. Since kindergarten, I had attended the same small Catholic school. That’s 9 years with the same 45 people. I wasn’t popular or cool in my class, I often felt invisible. This was mostly my own fault- I spent most of my time pursuing interests that my classmates didn’t find interesting. Like learning Japanese, or reading about religion. Middle school is hard, period. I don’t know anyone that didn’t have a hard time. For me, boarding school not only meant opportunity for rich study, it meant leaving my life behind. It meant a fresh start.

Moving at 14 was hard. I actually almost didn’t make it. I called my mom every hour the first week at school, most of the time choking through tears, “I don’t think I can do this, I want to come home.” My mom listened with endless patience. “What’s next on your schedule?” she would ask, and I would tell her the next class, or sports, or dinner. “Try that, and see how you feel after.” After a while, it became, try it for a day. Try it for a week. Look- you’ve almost made it half way through the semester. And suddenly, it was time for finals, and I was flying home for winter break.

I believe a large reason why those first few months- the first year, really- were so difficult was because I had a false perception about what this experience would be like. I could be anyone I wanted, I thought. In some ways, I had no idea what to expect. But I was so sure-and wrong- about one thing: starting fresh. Starting fresh is a farce. Sure, this experience was new and unique, and I certainly changed and grew at this school. But starting fresh in place and people doesn’t mean starting fresh by forgetting who I was proved impossible. I carried with me the same pain, fear, curiosity, and love to this new place. I still carry it today.

Instead of forgetting the unpleasantness, I have learned that new experiences- entering a new community, starting a new school, a new job, leaving a life behind- actually teaches me more about who I am at the core. Interestingly, one of my most firm convictions comes from the Buddhist tenet that change is constant and inevitable. Nothing is permanent. Yet, just because change occurs does not mean we let go of the impressions made upon us. Outwardly, we can withhold anything we want and no one may have any idea what we’ve been through. The most permanence in the world is our internal truth.

A student very dear to me gave me a book, called The Shack (it’s now a movie). I don’t normally choose novels, but this one intrigued me because it’s a story of struggles with pain and faith and the image of the divine. The beginning of each chapter is marked with a quote or two. The second chapter starts with one by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician who is well known for pastoral counseling. “Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” I paused after reading that. Of course, we feel most alone when our inward truth feels dissonance with our outward environment. This is why starting fresh only really teaches us what we are already carrying.

My first year at boarding school I tried hard to re-imagine who I was by convincing others that jem was not Mary Ellen. I don’t believe I lied explicitly- but I hid the pain of being away from my family and the struggle to do well enough and be enough for this highly talented and hardworking community. I felt so lonely, even when I was surrounded by classmates who perhaps were feeling exactly the same as I was. As I slowly started to realize that my inner truths were not only accepted but embraced, my presence at this school began to feel legitimate. To be sure, I always struggled with questions of self-worth and being enough, but I found people who could walk with me. To this day I can call my best friend that I met in our freshman dorm and talk to her as if we’ve lived next door our entire lives.

As I transition to a new experience (more on that later), I’m bringing some baggage that’s tough to carry. I’m also bringing a ton of love and memories of joy. The freshness of this beginning isn’t about erasing what I’ve been through, but opening to the possibility of learning more about who I am.

 

Nightmare

I woke up screaming at 2 am after experiencing a nightmare.

This certainly was not the first time I’ve had bad dreams- often when I am stressed or anxious about a meeting, a test, even the amount of work ahead of me, my sleep has been fitful or disturbed. My dreams include strange and weird images. But this was different. This was terrifying darkness and powerlessness. This was screaming in sleep and out loud. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this dream means.

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PC: James Stamler

I’m in a dark room, laying on a bed. Someone outside the room is keeping guard. I’m shouting to let me out- please! But the person doesn’t respond. I realize I’m dreaming within a dream, and try to wake up. I’m paralyzed, just lying on this bed. Wake up, wake up! Until finally, someone shoves me and I am, in fact, awake.

I have never been so happy to see my room in Boston, dimly lit from the moon peeping in through the curtains, my stuffed animals strewn about the sheets. After a few deep breaths, I felt a little calmer, but disoriented still. I clutched my penguin Plush and tried to fall back asleep.

This weekend I revised about 25 pages of my memoir. Revision may indeed be harder than writing in the first place. After receiving feedback from my classmates, I was forced to grapple with the questions they posed to make my narrative clearer.

“Why did the narrator (me) say she didn’t believe in God when this is a memoir about faith?”

“What made the narrator hide the fact that she was traveling by herself?”

“Why does the narrator feel so guilty about almost everything?”

I kept writing and deleting, writing and deleting. I found myself scratching my head.

I don’t know why.

Just as nightmares illuminate possible emotions we are hiding deep within, perhaps these questions led to a stir where there has long been no movement. The only way for me to understand this terrible, terrible dream is to wonder what came up as I faced these questions, trying to honestly tell the story of my life and my journey. Darkness. Paralysis. As if stirring kicks up dust we are forced to inhale, sneeze, and clear away.

Preflection.

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PC: Niels Weiss

HAPPY 2017!!!

Another day turns into another year. Here we are! Today I checked my social media channels frequently to see what friends and family were feeling as the new year approached. I’m so proud of y’all! You achieved an incredible amount this year, despite some serious tragedies amidst every day strife and violence. If we are honest, changing the last two numbers of the date today to 17 don’t wipe any of this away, and surely, as we have already seen in Istanbul, tragedy looms over and over.

I really loved my friend/co-worker/colleague/tea buddy Kaitlin Ho’s reflection questions that she posted a few days ago. They certainly helped me put my own experience in context and focus on the present time. Though so much could be written for my responses to each question, here are my reflections and preflections as we begin a new year:

Where did I see glimmers of hope/light?

My students and co-workers. This past semester was exhausting for everyone, I have never seen so many young people physically show signs of fatigue and anxiety. Yet- the people around me, students and co-workers alike, delved deep and found unrelenting compassion for each other. The day after the election, 45 of our university’s community members gathered to dialogue and share, and I witnessed active listening, people making space for each other, and even strangers hugging. A week after that, a group of students attended a workshop I facilitated for the Global Citizenship Project around storytelling for social change- republicans, democrats, and international students included. Though I felt nervous, the students made themselves vulnerable to each other and shared some heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories about living with depression, experiencing their parents’ divorce, and other touching experiences. For a moment it felt like we had created community across an unbridgeable divide.

Where did I experience darkness?

I witnessed the ugliness of bureaucracy and large corporate institutions. I felt dehumanized and witnessed through my own lens of privilege how deep-seeded oppression is around me.

What did I see in my character that I’m proud of/want to see more of?

I ran 3 half marathons and started training for my first full marathon this past year. I’m gearing up for Boston in April. What I’ve learned in my running journey so far is that health cannot be achieved through only physical well-being, it’s so much more about the mind. I found that attempting to be gentle but encouraging of my body and mental state got me so much farther than beating up myself up for missing a day, or running too slow, or not stretching enough. I felt more motivated to take care of myself when I was merciful. As I start the serious training, I want to see more appreciation of the immense task it is to live, love and breathe on this earth day in and day out- appreciation of my own body, and of others’.

What do I want to change?

I want to engage in more honest, uncomfortable conversations that will continue to educate me in the fight for equity. I learned this year that I can’t expect people to call me out unless I create that norm and culture, demonstrating that holding each other accountable is an act of revolutionary love. I don’t want to feel frozen in my humble social justice work, and staying in motion means finding opportunities to educate myself at every turn.

Who are people I’m grateful for?

I literally start to cry when I think about how many people rooted for me this year, and how I could never repay the kindness and generosity they have shown. People I love donated to the charity I will run for in the Boston Marathon, listened to me complain and express frustration and still stuck by me, read my blog and other writings, gave me meaningful projects to work on, and met with me to give advice or just be in good company. I’m grateful for the interfaith movement, for the Revolutionary Love Fellows, for my students, for my new writing partners, for my family, for my partner, and for the people who were not afraid to ask for favors.

Who are friends with whom I need to reconcile?

I struggled with forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation this year. It took almost all year for me to realize that forgiveness and mercy are truly divine, but cannot be hurried. Rather than thinking about specific individuals, I’m going to continue challenging myself to hash out these concepts as they relate to healing and how I can be a better friend and family member to others.

What are my greatest desires and needs in my relationships, my faith, my work, my health?

This is such a good and difficult question. I like being needed and feeling important, but I think what I actually need is the opposite- a chance to be in communities where I don’t play a leadership role and simply exist among others. I need to continue struggling in my faith and what I believe about ambition and justice. I need to keep writing, focusing on meaningful writing rather than quantity. I need to be my own best advocate for my health and in doing so, learn to be a fierce advocate for others.

And finally…here’s to reading 100 books this year 😀 mostly for pleasure.

New Year’s Resolution

Wow, there are 19 days left in December. 19 days left in 2016. The “Me in 2016” memes have been keeping me going- though truthfully, the passage of 2016 to 2017 is merely night into day, a rotation of the earth, nothing more. Hope is important, and so is integrity. Lots of work and struggle ahead.

Have you started thinking about your New Year’s Resolution? I’ve thumbed through the usual: drink more water, go to the gym more, lose weight, eat more vegetables. All good ideas and things to work on, speaking for myself. I see a pattern in the popular resolutions: they all identify a deficit. They all require discipline and motivation. Time and again, I have made resolutions like this, and I can’t remember a year in which I successfully went more than a month in keeping the habit. Something is missing in our resolutions, and that is mercy.

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PC: Jay Ruzesky

The reason I’ve been thinking about mercy is because I hoard books and two of the books on my nightstand have the word “mercy” in the title. Traveling Mercies, by Ann Lamott, and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. I actually had to look up the definition of mercy, and according to google, means something between forgiveness and compassion. When we practice mercy, we actively harness our power to condone those who have harmed, rather than punish them. Action, power. Mercy requires agency, it’s a choice. The way I see it, forgiveness is self-practice primarily. I can forgive someone without their knowledge. I let go of anger and resentment not for the purpose of forgetting, but for the purpose of freeing myself from the suffering. Mercy changes the plan- it’s active compassion in the face of pain. Teasing out these differences, I remember something my writing professor said to us the first day of class: “To be a successful memoir, the narrator (you) must be compassionate toward the younger self.” I thought to myself, “Uh, why? I was the worst back then. I deserved to be thrown in jail and rot.”

And there it was, my New Year’s Resolution: Be Merciful. First and foremost to MYSELF! How can one understand the freedom from resentment, anger, disappointment, failure and actively change behavior toward it when we are not merciful toward our own selves? Pfffft. That’s a rhetorical question, but an important one nonetheless. Maybe mercy is about mindfulness. Everything is about mindfulness. But let me explain.

Thinking back on my 2016, it was a hard year. That’s an understatement: it was an excruciating year for me and so many of my friends, my students, and my colleagues. Some days getting to work on public transportation felt like the final battle in Lord of the Rings. But if I’m really honest with myself and what I accomplished, it was not nothing. I ran two half marathons and made a decision to run a full one. I wrote over 70,000 words for a memoir in progress- it’s no where near done, but I’m not giving up on it. Beginning in June I published an average of a blog post a week on this site and some others. I started therapy, took charge of my health, and spoke up about being a white woman. None of these processes has been perfect- there were days I didn’t run because I wanted to sit on the couch and eat pizza instead. There were days I didn’t write because my mind was uninspired. I gained some weight, skipped some therapy sessions, and missed a SHIT ton of opportunities to speak up about oppression. What does it all mean?

One of my students highly suggested (borderline demanded) that I try Forrest Yoga recently. Truth time: yoga freaks me out. It’s boring and slow and I have to sit with myself and my terrible flexibility for far too long. But I did it, and as our instructor repeated several times, I noticed where the struggle was. My mind really wanted to yell at my stiff body for using a block in pigeon pose. Mercy itself is the block- it’s an act of mindfulness as the world hurls crap at you over and over. it’s acknowledging that imperfection is better than not doing something at all- the end justifies the means. No, wait- the means get messed up sometimes, but you can still get to the end. That’s mercy: finding compassion and changing course. It’s acting on love that has been buried but not extinguished.

I don’t mean to pat myself on the back. That action is extremely dangerous- congratulating ourselves too often lulls us into complacency. The reason I started this blog was to think about how we sustain ourselves as activists when justice fatigue is real. Though I don’t practice in the Pure Land tradition, the Boddhisatva Kannon has always inspired me. She’s known as the Goddess of Mercy, the one who listens when we cry out in suffering. As a Boddhisatva she has embodied the ultimate mercy by forgoing her ultimate attainment to help us out. In the journey rife with suffering mercy is about taking our power we could use to get even with others or ourselves who have caused harm, and instead applying it to change course, focusing on the goal and being mindful that we can still find a way to get there.