Space

About a year ago, Jose and I packed a burly Chevy Tahoe full of our stuff and set out for home. We took about two and a half weeks to finally arrive in Los Angeles after touring the northern United States. In the weeks that followed, I wrote almost 50,000 words describing our trip- who we met, what we ate, what scared us, what we learned about people who do not live where we do. With two weeks left in the Spring Quarter and what yet again seems like a million assignments to complete, I feel as though that trip happened years ago. Of course so much has changed.

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash

One thing I have learned constantly for a little over a year now is what it feels like to experience both intense depression and despair and genuine joy. I am back in New Mexico this weekend to meet with the chaplains and think toward the future about our field. The upcoming conference and our work feel promising. I find myself immersed in my work at Stanford feeling a real sense of purpose- even enduring the struggle in a way that feels good. My colleagues around the table have expressed that sometimes, the work doesn’t feel meaningful. And sometimes, amidst distractions like email and reports and meetings, the work still makes sense. But the reality is, sometimes what is meaningful changes, and sometimes what is meaningful is not worth the headache. Context matters as much as action.

I realize, as I return to our roadtrip last year, that sometimes we need to let go of meaning in order to free ourselves of grief. As we drove across the country, I was searching for some kind of closure to our time in Boston- this was “a new beginning.” But it wasn’t actually the beginning, or an end, it was a process of losing and making space to actually begin. One chaplain suggested we must “lean into a struggle when we don’t necessarily know what that means.” When we can’t name what we want, how do we know what to change?

As we navigate the joint conference between the two chaplain organizations, we must lean into the struggle to define our joint meaning. I realized today that this poses issue in “trivial” things- like where people pay to register, or what the schedule of conference sessions should be. All of this plays into a larger question about what makes this experience meaningful enough for people to come- the small struggles illuminate larger convictions about why we work through them.

A year ago, I felt so empty of meaning. The job I loved for many reasons also caused me deep strife, and I had failed to find a genuine sense of community outside of work. I didn’t know what I wanted, exactly- but I knew I needed the emptiness for a while. The long drives gave me more than enough time to reflect, but the discomfort in visiting places that I did not know opened a space to think about crafting a new purpose.

 

 

Reflecting on Better Together Day

As we celebrated Better Together Day yesterday, I felt exhilarated by the photos and social media posts from around the country. Folks in their stylish shirts attending gatherings, sharing what they appreciate about different sources of wisdom, and especially getting outside (weather permitting!) to cultivate a presence on college campuses across the country appeared throughout the day. I even took a selfie with my shirt because I wanted to feel included in the celebrating 🙂

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Happy Better Together Day!

This past week has been full of interfaith happenings on Stanford’s campus. On Monday night, I watched a Buddhist leader speak about mindfulness meditation to a crowd of almost 1000 people in Memorial Church, the heart of the Main Quad. The Office of Religious Life prepared an Open House to celebrate the CIRCLE (the Center for Inter-religious Community, Learning and Experiences) 10th Anniversary. We also worked to finalize readers for an interfaith service that will take place this Sunday as part of University Public Worship. Last night, I got to moderate a fantastic panel of four professors in the Religious Studies Department speaking about “faith and feminism,” which took place at Stanford’s Hillel House. Over 50 students showed up on a Tuesday evening to learn about women in Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. What I loved so much about the panel was the panelists’ commitment to complicating the history of women in these traditions- they reflected on the term feminism within different contexts and why the word doesn’t necessarily help us understand women’s roles or agency- we must consider a variety of experiences. The students asked really difficult questions, especially related to oppression and equality.

What really moved me, beyond the wisdom I took from the panel, was representation. The crowd held many religious and non-religious identities, some of which caused me to reflect on difference as the basis of contention. Some of the questions roused deep emotion because they stemmed from a fundamental disagreement on what a sacred text tells us, or how women should function in a particular community. That contention helps us to be honest about difference. Further, it opens an opportunity for hearing. In that room, we heard each other, even if we didn’t agree.

For me, Better Together Day is about hearing and seeing each other. It sounds simple, but in a world where intolerance quickly leads to ostracizing and violence, seeing and hearing matter deeply in creating communities that can center learning as a way to build relationships. Though we may not remember the content of events and activities on the particular day, we do remember who is present and thus know that we have possibility for community. I will remember not only the panelists from last night, but the audience as well- how we showed up to a space together, listened, and acknowledged that we each carry questions important enough to ask out loud. Better Together Day reminds me that community can be built on difference, because a shared commitment creates the starting point for a contentious but deeply meaningful space. And of course, we all looked pretty great in our blue shirts.

 

 

Build While Burning

I’ve been missing something.

The students have had enough. They’re marching. They’re Tweeting. They’re on MSNBC. It took students fearing for their own lives to tear apart myths about freedom, protection, and rights to own weapons.

The students aren’t just tearing down, though. They’re building a movement. This is not something I have thought about enough in the thick of feeling angry and bitter and sometimes, really frozen. The conversations in articles and news reports and even face to face has focused so much on what is wrong and what needs to end, alternative processes and even visions feel overwhelming and inaccessible. Dismantling is necessary, but so is constructing. At least starting the process of creating something different in order to believe it can be done.

Building a movement is messy. People disagree and we learn every single day what needs to change. In December, I received a small grant to build a traveling museum exhibit that narrates stories of interfaith relationships and religious diversity in California. Building this exhibit is the biggest and yet perhaps the most important thing I have ever done. With my curating power, I have to choose objects that get to speak. I have to dictate what these objects should make us consider in learning about traditions or communities we may never have seen or heard. I feel so anxious that I will fail to balance or tell truth or even be blunt about oppression and violence through this history that had inevitably occured, and continues today. And yet, something calls me to keep working instead of giving up because I feel reverence to these stories.

I’m back at the National Association of College and University Chaplains conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C. this year. We came together to think about “voices on the margin” and our practices in caring for students who live on the margins for many reasons. We are wondering how sometimes we exist on the margins, and how we fail to welcome others when we have the power to change. I feel a different sense this year. Last year, 45 had been in office for less than a month. I sensed despair and anxiety. This year, despair is no excuse to hide. Our undocumented students are sitting in congress people’s offices demanding a Clean Dream Act. No one in the administration can support them the way chaplains can and should, if we keep building spaces for the mess.

I read something in a class a few weeks ago that put my real passion in perspective. Care is the common perogative of both chaplains and curators. Care for stories, care for identities, care for the complexity and messiness that is learning to be in the world, and how we see it as other might see it. This is the reason I continue to build, despite not recognizing that creation needs to be my theme this year. We don’t need to wait until the entire city burns to the ground before laying the foundations for new community resources.

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.