Home and Home

After an all-too-indulgent weekend, I climbed into a Lyft at San Jose Airport, headed back to my apartment in Palo Alto.

“Headed home?”

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Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

I stumbled a little. “I’m…both going home and coming from home,” I finally mustered. That morning, my mom raced to Burbank airport in rush hour traffic. I boarded exactly twelve minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off. As we drifted up and over the San Gabriel mountains and up the coast, the landscape reminded me: this is home.

This past week I finished my first year of graduate school. Admittedly, it was more emotional than I imagined it would be. I didn’t turn in the last paper feeling like the stress was barely beginning because the grade is what matters. Letting go felt like permission to celebrate an accomplishment- staying in the room when things got rough. After I turned in the paper, I turned on the Dodger game, threw some clothes in a suitcase, and started a memoir I’ve been hoping to read all year. I kept telling myself it was ok to enjoy a few hours of no commitment.

What does “home” have to do with the PhD program? I could be studying anywhere, but I’m back in California like I hoped. That same night I finished, a student who will start the program in the fall sent me a message. “You finished! What is your biggest piece of advice to a first year?”

Part of me wanted to say, “You have no idea what you’re getting in to. Even if you have a Master’s Degree, you have no idea what kind of caliber work is expected. And how many hours a day you’ll spend reading, or preparing, or formulating a single sentence.” But I didn’t say that, because what use would that have been to me nine months ago? I probably would have cried a little and moved on without any real wisdom. So instead, I said what I truly wished someone had told me before I started, which is how lonely this work can be. This might sound obvious- you read and write all day? Of course these activities are done solo. But the detachment from a community can deeply affect even the quality of our work.

It was really the writing class in the winter quarter this year that helped me expand my purview of “home.” As the weeks went by and we joked about how #transformed our writing would be by the end of the class, I started feeling like maybe this was something I could do. Maybe I could even be good at it. That feeling came from the work of building community based on appreciative critique (though some days, critiques escalated to strong words) and well, internet memes. The point is, I began to see how crucial it is to involve others in every step of my thinking.

I remember the day I walked into our writing professor’s office. “This isn’t the paper I want to write,” I confessed. “I really want to write about how patriarchal and white interfaith dialogue spaces are, and how I think we can do better.” She jumped from her chair and handed me three books. “It’s like you’re talking to three different fields,” she said. “This could be helpful to so many people.” At the end of the day, I’m carrying on in the long nights of reading and early writing sessions because I do want my work to be helpful. Feeling at home means I talk to the people for whom it will be useful and finding my voice in the meantime.

Ceasing to Know

This past week we lost two prominent scholars. We lost two vastly intelligent, innovative, field-changing teachers, mentors and researchers. And most importantly, we lost two among many, many more great people who also died this week. I’m talking about Saba Mahmood and Stephen Hawking.

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Photo by _ HealthyMond on Unsplash

I remember reading The Politics of Piety, Dr. Mahmood’s first book, in college and finding it really difficult to understand. It was my own immaturity that caused this. When I read the book again as a graduate student, I began to realize how groundbreaking it was to study Muslim women in a way that didn’t pity them or espouse suspicion. Unfortunately, that was not the norm. Dr. Mahmood cast Muslim women with agency and showed us why we should pay attention.

Dr. Hawking’s research eludes me, but as a brilliant scientist who also worked the majority of his life with a rare disease that affected his physical being in the world, I have always admired his passion too. He talked about change as inevitable and necessary for us to use our intelligence. That speaks so well to a choice we have every day, to see the world as hopeless or to recognize injustice, but act as if we can change it.

What happens when a legacy of knowledge ceases? This happens every day, perhaps every minute- by living just a moment in the world, some kind of experience shapes a person, and yet every person ends. Even when people leave communities or change roles, a chain of knowing falls away.
These two experts spent their lives both accessing and creating knowledge. Their jobs required certain tasks: writing, experimenting, researching, communicating that research. But the internalization of ideas and beliefs, even when explained through in writing or other forms of communicating, vanished when they died. This isn’t just true for academics. My question is really about how we keep the chain linked, even if the wire is cut.
In the academy, I am learning that scholarship is a way to alleviate anxiety around finitude. Don’t we all worry, in some way, that the hardest part about our non-existence is the non-existence piece? Not just physically, but in terms of memory, legacy, influence. We write to communicate beyond bounds of time. Sometimes this makes us hesitant to challenge memory- what someone put into the world should remain until it no longer serves us. But memory isn’t lost when we no longer invoke someone’s work directly- the endless chain of ideas and evolution means existence is still possible.
Part of this question lessens my own tension around producing work that will cease to serve purpose. Perhaps it is helpful to replace “cease” with “assist,” so voices of influence change. As the poet Gary Snyder says, “Our job is to move the world one millionth of an inch.” In the scheme of things, that sounds like a pretty good accomplishment.

Disobedient

We’re four days away y’all. 2017 is toast and the gyms will be packed, resolution boards populated, and whatever other changes we wish to instill in our lifestyles will roll out. I can believe.

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Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash

I’m planning on starting a Whole 30 on January 1st because I’d really like to give myself the gift of health. And I figure eating Whole 30 when I actually turn 30 sounds like a good idea. But something else has been gnawing at me and I don’t exactly know how to explain it, except that my New Year’s Resolution is to disrupt and shake stuff up. I have a few examples.

Here is a simple one. For Christmas Eve dinner, my mom and I cooked all day before we piled into the kitchen. On the menu: my famous lasagne, Southwestern cornbread, creamed spinach, and a chopped salad. My grandpa commented on the “eclectic” mix of foods- meaning, they don’t really go together.

I’m committed to challenging “what doesn’t go together” this year. It’s time to rethink norms and values and why we do things a certain way. Once I got over buying “men’s” clothing, a whole new set of possibilities opened up. Sure, there’s something to be said for practicing and honing skills, for certain traditions to be upheld. But honestly, I think nothing should come without criticism.

I think about challenging the field of academia and how we write and research. That seems very daunting, but if I look back at my work so far, I’ve already committed myself to this path of innovation and improvisation. I’m studying a field that is building itself at this moment. The builders are young people who see real potential for disrupting, especially when the process of tearing things apart births new ways of building foundations.

I remember feeling most inspired at the Women’s March by the artists and creators because it seemed like they would be the ones to lead us into uncharted territory. So far I believe this to be true. To say this year has been trying is an understatement, especially for non-white, non-male, non-cis, non-straight, non-wealthy, non-citizen, non-able-bodied folx. There’s a radicalism in the air that might lead to some “wtf” ideas, but seriously- it might be what saves us.

Disobedience is coming. Religious leaders are ready to march, to sit-in, to block, to chant, to pray and sing and center, and to undefine what it means to do things the way they should be done. I’m going to try that in my own life. Creation can only come out of questioning our methods and even our beliefs. Let’s tear it all down, swirl it around, and put something new together.

Forgetting to Remember

76 years and two days ago*, Japanese fighter planes bombed Pearl Harbor on the Island of Oahu. Just two days ago I went about a normal graduate student day, writing fiercely about saints and early Christian monastics and interfaith dialogue using storytelling as a model for transformation. I took breaks and went on Facebook. On the right side of the news feed, the subjects trending included the college football playoff, more heartbreaking news about assaults on young women (this time in academia, very close to home), the terrifying fires in my city of birth, and something about bitcoin.

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Photo by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

I don’t remember seeing anything at length about what happened 76 years ago. 76 isn’t a particularly meaningful anniversary- we tend to recognize milestones in fives and tens and fifties. The next day, more news appeared about Baker Mayfield as the Heisman trophy favorite despite his controversial behavior on and off the field. I went to my last day of classes for the quarter with a small feeling of triumph- I made it! Only five papers and an oral presentation to go. I looked forward to baking as motivation to get my writing done. After my last class I sat and chatted with some religious studies undergraduates and laughed about the sassy monks we read about this week. I went to my professor’s office hours and discussed my thesis for the paper. In passing, he used the phrase “I forgot to remember” to describe the woes of historians’ work. I kept repeating the phrase in my mind over and over.

What we forget is much more than what we remember, due to limitations of human memory. What we forget to remember is due to something else- pain, trauma, events we don’t want to relive. A recent article detailed why victims of sexual assault often describe the assault inaccurately- trauma often forces them to push the events out of their minds simply to go on living. They subconsciously forget to remember- though there is no such thing as erasing.

A couple years ago I was watching Archer with my divinity school classmates. The crude yet intelligent humor appealed to us amidst the brutal winter night. Archer, the brash but charming hero, finds himself in a situation involving a Japanese gang. Archer’s mother saves the day- she prevents the gang from wreaking havoc and at the end shouts, “that’s for Pearl Harbor!” The line is meant to be funny because as we say, it’s not “too soon.” Time passes and heals. Except that last part isn’t really true. Pain passes down through generations. We forget to remember atrocities because history is often about what we’ve forgotten. What about the two atomic bombs that killed over 300,000 people instantly and left years of radiation illness lingering for generations to suffer? It can be hard to connect with places and times far away, but progress is a dangerous assumption. We can’t forget to remember those before us suffered as many suffer today, from oppression and supremacy. Time can heal, but healing isn’t forgetting.

 

 

*Note: this post has been published retroactively

Cake, Honesty, and The Best

How do you live your best life?

This question. It’s been plaguing me for months! I’ve written a fair amount about joy as an act of resistance lately, because my hope is to sustain myself (and y’all, dear readers) for the long road ahead. There’s a great Buzzfeed listicle that instructs “go the F*** to bed,” which I will never oppose. It’s not easy to find joy in trying times, and further, it’s easy to feel guilty about experiencing happy emotions when so many suffer.

I’ve been causing myself an inordinate amount of suffering in the way that I see my body and what I put in it and ask it to do, desperately striving to maintain control over food and exercise. My excuse has been, “I have so many clothes. I want to fit in to them.” One of the times in my life I felt I was living best was during my senior year of college. I had joined a gym downtown primarily because they offered quick 15-minute workouts, and what college student doesn’t want to save time? After a few months of working out there 4-5 times a week, they hired me to train other members. I loved the attitude of Educogym, the “forget everything you know about dieting and eat FAT for breakfast” message. This isn’t a commercial, though I definitely wrote several glowing reviews online. The truth is, I was living my best then because I was living in the present glory of gratitude for who I was, what my body gave me, and the image I held of myself as a person in the world. It has not always been the case that I have been so gentle and accepting.

Acceptance proves difficult when you tell yourself “you’ve done it before, why can’t you do it now?” For the past few months and even years, I have experienced a yo-yo sensation between “eating clean” and “omg cake, pinterest, ALL THE BAKES!” The experience meets with emotions of longing, on the one hand, and then guilt on the other. How do we have our cake, eat it, and feel good about it?

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Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

This piece isn’t mean to police any kind of diet, lifestyle, calorie count, or exercise regimen at all, in fact I want to return to the question of living our best lives by tweaking the prompt. How do we live our most honest lives? It moved me that perhaps this yo-yo effect is leading me to think about a deeper need, one of balancing health and a pursuit of freedom. I needed to be honest with myself about my own limitations and abilities to enjoy the present for where I am. So I baked a giant brownie torte, picked five dresses that cut off circulation in my arms, and folded them neatly to donate.

It’s important to live our most honest lives because we face our deepest convictions. Performative actions, to impress, to prove, to hide, harm everyone involved. We have our cake, eat it, and embrace it when there is harmony in value and action.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday!

The Practivist is two this week, so I had grand plans to make a cake to celebrate. I also got donuts and baked cookies, because go big or go home. Well, this is how the cake turned out:

S’mores cake with graham cracker and chocolate cake layers, fudge sauce, marshmallow icing and graham cracker crumble

My mom saw it first. I got a text saying “emergency” while reading in my room, and rushed downstairs to find her laughing. “What!” I looked at her expecting something terrible, but she pointed to the cake. The marshmallow frosting was too slippery. “Geez, you scared me!” We both laughed very hard. That’s exactly what this blog is about, I realized. Finding joy in the imperfect, the disastrous. The cake tasted great, by the way. Appearances aren’t everything.

A year ago, I attended the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing retreat in Gambier, Ohio. 100 religious leaders (of sorts) stayed in the Kenyon College dorms and wrote op-eds, essays, religious commentaries, and stories. It was at that retreat that I committed to posting a blog every week, and I’m happy to share that I made it! 52 posts later, my writing feels more natural. Every week offered an opportunity to reflect on this idea of staying grounded in the daily struggle, whether it was personal or worldly (often both). Since last July, I joined a memoir writing group, started working for an amazing project (the Revolutionary Love Project, founded by Sikh-American activist and filmmaker Valarie Kaur- also a personal hero), and ran a marathon. I quit my job. I got accepted to my dream PhD program in religious studies at Stanford and moved back to California. I finished cataloguing my blessed collection of books, many of which came from my grandmother’s house when she passed away. My sister graduated from medical school and started her residency at home. For the first time in over six years, my family is all in one place.

Though my writing has certainly rambled down different paths, I believe this blog remains true to my original idea of exploring how we, as human beings, demand resilience in ourselves. Suffering grounds me in my religious beliefs because all humans experience it. Yet, we are capable of countering it, and even ending it in certain circumstances. This year I often found that joy presented itself in a form of self-allowance. When we realize we are deserving of the life we are given, the gifts of said life present themselves. I’ll never forget when Valarie spoke to our group of fellows on the phone after the election and she told us we deserved joy especially in a time such as this. “We will never let them take it away,” she said.

My students often gifted me opportunities to learn, which I loved and cherished. I had no idea that my job involved so much learning, often in times I was supposed to be the teacher or coach. I feel much better about admitting my mistakes, even when they have caused someone I love to hurt. Guilt still plagues me, but I am able to name it and even let it go more easily sometimes.

Not every blog post was easy to write, and definitely not all of them turned out the way I envisioned. Some of them make me cringe reading them back, but I’ve decided to leave them as they are to trace the journey and accept the imperfection of where I was when I completed them. Authors speak often about the trajectory of their work and how much their earlier writing influences their current projects because the necessity of reflection and knowing oneself through process makes us better writers.

It’s difficult to imagine a year from now because as life has taught me, plans often meander or even take a sharp turn away from an original intention. That’s why this blog has been so important to me, because the friends and others who have read even one posting and commented or messaged me saying, “I identity with this” have made it worth it to stay up late or carve out time (when I really didn’t have it) to keep going. I plan to keep writing and learning and making mistakes. Here’s to another year and maybe even another cake that resembles the leaning tower of frosting.

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.

A Fractured Vision

Taking a 6 am bus is pretty committed. Or silly. I’m not totally sure which. Anyway, at 6 am our bus left Boston for NYC, so I could make it in time for the Revolutionary Love Conference at Middle Collegiate Church. I was looking forward to this gathering for several reasons, including getting to meet the Revolutionary Love Fellows for the first time in person, hearing from many of my activist and organizer heroes, and finally getting the chance to visit Middle Church. The conference focused on racial justice and specifically, how we might make love a public ethic in a time of great division.


As more speakers took the stage- Valarie Kaur, Van Jones, Brian Maclaren, Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, Dr. Traci West- the crowd filling the sanctuary listened and learned, cheered and encouraged. I felt myself experiencing a sense of joy and belonging that I haven’t for a long time. This is not to say that the content of every speaker’s message was uplifting- in fact, they shared some downright despairing stories and facts. The urgency to do this work together- the work of intersectional racial justice- is not at all overhyped. Yet the authenticity of each person on the stage inspired me to believe I can do the work without knowing all the answers. Perhaps without knowing any answers at all.


During one of the first panels, Anurag Gupta challenged us to imagine a world without racial bias. Gupta is the CEO of Be More America, an organization that trains leaders to examine and let go of unconscious bias.

“Close your eyes,” he asked us. “Imagine what this world would look like.”

I have to admit something- this was an extremely difficult exercise for me. I imagined the big loud streets right outside the church I sat in, in the middle of New York City. If you’ve ever walked down 2nd Avenue on the Lower East Side, you know the cliches are true. There aren’t many places you can smoke hookah at bar owned by an Egyptian man that sits next to world-famous Japanese restaurant on one side and a Halal Indian market on the other. You can meet one million kinds of people in New York City- and yet, this romantic picture does not do justice to the injustice. It would be so easy to sing the praises of diversity without recognizing the bias, the racism, the bigotry. I couldn’t fully imagine a world without the bias, which both scared me and then, empowered me.

One thing I know for sure is that eliminating bias cannot eliminate our differences, any single one. The danger of creating a more similar society is far worse than one in which people must grapple with particularities. As the conference carried on, I realized each person’s vision for fighting racism and bias is not the same- in fact, some of the ideas shared vehemently disagreed with others spoken.

So perhaps the question “what does the world without bias look like” is better asked, “what does A world without bias look like,” recognizing that even the vision must fracture. As Becky Bond and Zack Exley write in Rules for Revolutionaries, “the revolution isn’t handed to us on a silver platter.” We are inventing the mechanism as we build it. The important thing is not to agree completely, but to utilize the variety of gifts we hold to work toward the vision. We learn along the way.

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.