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.

Dining Alone

I’m in New Mexico (!) which is probably my favorite place besides LA and Tucson. The National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC) Board meets once a year to plan for the upcoming school term, and this year we chose Albuquerque. I was elated. The desert is definitely my home spiritually. I took advantage of my downtime and drove in a day early to stay overnight in Santa Fe. The city is small but full of absolutely stunning colors and art everywhere you turn. In my experience, people quickly warm to you, offer hospitality and just generally want to know your story. I’ve been meeting folks from Texas, Arizona, and even Ohio.

As a foodie, of course I did my research. Santa Fe boasts some of the best chefs in the world who specialize in Southwestern fare, which involves lots of corn and spices. My favorite dish is called Chile Rellenos, which is stuffed poblano peppers and fried in an egg batter. In New Mexico, it’s essential that you choose a side on the sauce front: red or green? Of course, if you really can’t decided, you can order “Christmas”, which means half of each. I certainly love both, but tend toward team green. I had been waiting for years to try a restaurant called Sazon, a romantic Mexican cafe with several moles. And since I came by myself, I made a reservation for one- just me.

To be truthful, I googled what dining alone is like. As an introvert, being by myself is energizing. However, the self-consciousness surfaced when I considered bringing a book or just my phone. In airports it seems quite normative to eat by yourself, but this restaurant is a popular date night spot. Several bloggers offered great advice- most importantly, do it! Don’t worry about what other people think. I worked up my courage and arrived right on time.

Despite the slight awkwardness of people watching while they gabbed with their dinner dates, dining alone was a learning experience and surprisingly, a communal one. Both servers and diners were more willing to talk to me. The couple to my left had come from North East Texas to take a short vacation after their daughter graduated from college. This was their first time at Sazon. The couple to my right, two women, wanted drinks stat. They drove in from Arizona for a bachelorette party. The server, Miguel, came from Mexico City to work at Sazon because of the chef’s renown. He demanded I try the special dessert, because it was that good.

Of course, without distraction from a dining partner, I noticed more around me. Servers watched their tables like hawks so they could whisk dishes on and off the table to quickly move courses. The diners at the tables next to me talked to me at length- though on both sides, they began the conversation with “I’m sorry, this is so rude but…what did you order?” What surprised me the most was the silence at most tables for long lengths of time. A relaxed silence, the kind you know isn’t stemming from not having anything to say. It comes from feeling so comfortable with someone you don’t need to speak for hours at a time.

I’m grateful for the experience. Spending time alone in a public place made me aware of an important contrast we often don’t consider, the loneliness some feel even in large groups. Yet there is an importance to experiencing things without anyone else because we receive no influence to judge except our own thoughts. And for the record: that dessert was more than worth it. You’d never guess the ingredients.

Corpse Cactus

After running the Boston Marathon, I decided to give my body a break from running and try yoga. I’ve never been able to develop a sustained practice- yoga always seemed boring compared to dancing or even barre. But a few of my friends swear by it, and so I thought to reclaim some balance and flexibility after they went out the window from running so much, I tried a free week at Core Power. The heat combined with the challenge of rapid movement and strength conditioning found me wanting to come back each morning.

In class, time seems to pass quickly, we rarely spend more than a few breaths in one pose. Some classes are more challenging than others- I even felt sore from a few (those lunges and squats!). Of course there are people who have practiced for years and can stand on their head, or balance their body on their arms, or do a full split and sit on the floor, all poses to aspire toward. Even trying them in modification causes my heart to race. After going to class almost every day for a few weeks now, I realized that no matter how difficult these arm balances and flexibility challenges are, there is one pose that will always challenge me no matter how strong I get, and that is Savasana, or “corpse pose.”

Sometimes we start in corpse pose, just to bring our attention to our breath. At the end of every class, we end in this pose to seal in our practice. Many of my classmates joke that this is their favorite pose- you literally lie on the floor, taking up space, palms facing upward, everything relaxed. Not so challenging, right? Except that finding stillness after your body has just experienced intense movement is entirely difficult. While many struggle not to fall asleep, I struggle to stay still, feeling my heart still thumping. An object in motion stays in motion until something messes with it, if I recall from middle school science.

I’ve been keeping a small cactus plant outside in the backyard, one of the few physical remnants of life in Boston. Right now, the bulb is no larger than my thumb, and that progress has taken several months. Cacti are the ultimate savasana practitioners- they grow at a painstakingly slow pace, outlasting generations of human life as they slowly, slowly develop their spikes and fruit over time. They use very limited resources, just a touch of water every few weeks keeps them happy. I love cacti- they represent the desert, resilience, the ability to live even in desolation. To me, they also represent stillness.

PC: Larm Rmah

My family jokes that we have no ability to relax. Even when I read for long periods of time, my legs shift to different positions and my hands take turns holding the book. Stillness can be terrifying- when we face it, we are forced to be completely in the present without distraction of movement or change. But stillness is important, because as the cactus shows us, it helps us build resilience. The ability to pause, especially after the world moves rapidly and we throttle through it, is a practice in building strength of mind.


Visiting Scranton 

I am finally back in Los Angeles after the most epic road trip ever. Twelve days, seventeen states, and almost 4000 miles of skyscrapers and prairie dog towns, one lane highways and campgrounds. I feel as though the miles gave me hours to be alone with my thoughts- which can be an opportunity, and terrifying. 

I remember a sense of finality as we crossed the border into Connecticut from Massachusetts. My time in Boston was over. It’s a strange act to say goodbye to a place, especially with mixed emotions sunk deep into the foundation of your life there. The rain drops pelted the windshield all the way into New York and then on to Pennsylvania, where we would make our first stop.

Jose and I have been fans of the show The Office for a long time. As long as the seasons are on Netflix, we return to it as one of the few sitcoms we both enjoy. So when we knew we would pass through Scranton, PA, the setting of the show, we planned our drive through the electric city. We spent the first few hours of our drive exchanging our favorite lines, most of which were uttered by the geeky, overbearing beet farmer character named Dwight. Anticipation built in my mind as I imagined the Steamtown Mall and what treasures it would hold. 

We exited the freeway onto a long raised road that eventually led to a narrow intersection. On the opposite corner, a rundown pizza parlor advertised $.99 slices. We turned left and drove down the road behind an empty trolley. Dirt caked every street sign, each of which looked bent and antique. When we arrived at the mall, the parking ticket booth had been abandoned, so we found the biggest parking space possible for the giant Tahoe, our road trip vehicle. 

This was my first clue that Scranton was different than in the show. That could have been obvious, but I needed to see it to believe it. More than half the stores in the mall were vacant. After we found the one relic that acknowledged the show, a replica of the “Welcome to Scranton” sign that appears in the opening montage, we drove to a Walgreens on the other side of the city to replenish our water. More desertion- it wasn’t that Scranton was full of desolate people, it was that the city itself was desolate, deserted. The few folks we saw walking around moved slowly, as if meaning was absent from all of life there. I have been in big cities all my life and I’ve seen small towns- but this seemed something different. At least small towns seemed to have a life pulse through them, a central meeting point, or a gas station. I wondered if this desolation had anything to do with the intense divide in our country right now, the one that has widened an abyss of misunderstanding on all sides. 

This was the first wake up call of our journey. I was mentally preparing myself for the guns- I knew the states that we could expect to find them. But the abandonement of a place made me consider how particularly I have lived my life thus far. Perhaps it is not the guns I find most terrifying, but the vacancy of opportunity lost. As we drove away, back onto the luxurious freeway that would take us to Cleveland, I wondered if we would see this despair again. 

In My Grandmother’s Footsteps

The first road trip I ever took was not by car, but by train. My mom, grandma Mary, and cousin Meghan flew all the way to New Hampshire to help me pack my room after my freshman year at St. Paul’s, and we began our journey. We stopped in Philadelphia, Chicago, Santa Fe, and finally arrived back in Los Angeles, weary but fulfilled. Grandma Mary and I both agreed that Santa Fe was our favorite. Not only was the food unbelievable, but the colors everywhere astounded us. Every building, facade, and even road seemed like a “pow!” to the eyes. We loved the smells and the art and the fantastic desert all around us. To this day, Santa Fe and Tucson are two places I feel completely at home. The last time I was in Tucson, I wrote a letter to my grandma every night, even though she has been gone for a few years now. I told her about the cacti and the dry heat, and the house that we stayed in. The owner described it as “living on the edge of things.”

Teddy Roosevelt National Park

I’ve been on the road for a week now, and every day has felt stunningly long. From Boston to Cleveland to Chicago to Minneapolis, the terrain has changed from city night lights to plains and now forest over the last three days in North Dakota and Wyoming. In Medora, North Dakota, I hiked the vast trails across Teddy Roosevelt National Forest and spent the night in an old west town complete with a saloon. In the evening, the air grew cooler and even fresher. Today I passed through South Dakota and almost immediately ascended a mountain at the Wyoming border, which would eventually lead to the Devil’s Tower National Monument. Devil’s Tower is the first ever national monument, and an extremely sacred place to several American Indian tribes. I watched the sun set over the gigantic volcano remnant as crickets chirped and I read about maps.

Devil’s Tower

Since arriving at the National Forest, I have been feeling a subtle longing for the house in which my grandma Mary lived in Lake Isabella, California. We called it “the lake,” and a few times a year, my family and my mom’s brothers would fill the house for a week or so. The lake house was “on the edge of things.” Everyone ended up sharing beds and only two bathrooms, and during the day we would hike out to the lake and set up chairs, coolers, and life vests. We liked to float in them after we felt too tired from jumping off rocks or swinging from trees into the water. Several moments over the course of the last few days have given me pause, like the taste of the air after a quick and intense rain shower or the sound of running shoes crunching on gravel on a dirt path. “Just like the lake,” I repeat.

If this road trip has taught me anything so far, it is that I find sacred in physical place and space. My senses bring back memories of grandma Mary and I speak to her. “You’d love this view,” I whisper. “This night sky reminds me of you and when we used to sit under it roasting marshmallows.” It’s amazing how much our senses remember and how connected they are to our emotions. I’m glad my grandmother is still with me, even if only in my footsteps.

Saying Thanks to My Parents

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

A photo my science teacher handed me (of me)

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

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.

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.