Jonathan Gold, iconic Los Angeles food writer, passed away on Saturday. Just as I heard the news, I was shoving a donut in my face and enjoying local art in pleasant summer evening air.
LA-inspired cupcakes: jamaica-lime, brown butter peach, michelada
I felt particularly sad about Gold dying. It’s not as if I knew him personally, or even saw him often on television. I did pour through his books and reviews of restaurants. When the food truck craze hit, I appreciated that Gold encouraged eaters to frequent the trucks started and owned by immigrants and children of immigrants. He challenged the whole notion of “exotic” food, suggesting instead that Los Angeles is home to traditions and cultures that often center around food. Instead of writing “critically,” Gold pointed us to the “unknown” eateries around the city that make me homesick when I’m away for too long.
As I have been researching and interviewing for the mobile exhibit project Golden State Sacred (you can follow @goldenstatesacred on Instagram, shameless plug), my goal remains the same even as the design of the exhibit shifts. Los Angeles is a global city of untold stories. My hope was to begin collecting these stories and stewarding them through the objects on display. So far, I have been so lucky to meet people gracious enough to share their stories with me, even beyond their faith. What is amazing to me is how everyone makes a way here, somehow.
We have much work to do. The cost of living in California is beyond atrocious. Despite what seems like a new luxury apartment building going up every day in the greater Los Angeles area, affordable housing is dire. As a surgical resident, my sister saw her fair share of addiction and substance abuse. While these should not be political bargaining chips and have been used as such in the past, we cannot deny that people suffer. We cannot deny that California is as much a police state as every other, and people of color experience racism and different kinds of violence every day. This state is soaked with the blood of California Indians who worked through forced labor to build the now prized missions. It is stained with the chain link fences that caged American citizens. It is responsible for the murder of unarmed black bodies and the exclusion of human beings based on alleged legal documentation.
The stories that I have collected- as Gold collected through food and dining- give me reason to confront the violence and erasure that religion has caused on this stolen land. Saturday was a day of mourning for the children who have been separated- it was, at the same time, a celebration of young people that organized and led the action in downtown Los Angeles. I hope to keep the stories alive because they deserve honor and remembrance in the years to come. Just as Gold left glamour and ritz to the other food critics, I want to make myself uncomfortable enough to keep learning every day.
Though I try to avoid using them in my writing, I love a good swear word. We could probably have an entire debate about which one works best in a particular situation. The crispness of two consonants hissing off the teeth feels so satisfying. Why are expletives so…off limits?
Expletives of course are words that make a statement- sometimes inappropriate (who decides that?) and often cut from public media because they are dirty, obscene, profanity, or cussing. Again- who dictates what language we should use in particular situations? Sometimes they are used to degrade and dehumanize, so I have to be upfront and say expletives are not always helpful, they can be harmful. But maybe the root of naughty words can help us frame the sh**storm that happened this week and what comes next.
I remember watching a proto-YouTube video once that detailed the history of the “F” word. I was around eleven. The video demonstrated that the F word is one of the most versatile in the English language- it can be a verb, a noun, a gerund, an adjective, and an exclamation, among others. I showed the video to my sister, nine at the time, who giggled as though she had secretly glimpsed a raunchy scene in an R-rated movie. My grandmother came over to see what we were fussing over, so we had no choice but to show her the video. She watched, expressionless. Finally, the video ended, and she looked distraught. “That word does NOT come from German, it comes from Latin!”
Taking a lesson from Grandma Mary, the root of “expletive” comes from the Latin explere, meaning “to fill.” An expletive is a word used to fill a sentence or verse without changing the actual meaning. Think poetry rules. Seemingly, an expletive is an excessive addition to someone’s thought- we don’t need it to understand their point. We do need it to follow the rules of language, maintaining the correct number of syllables and perhaps a stylistic upgrade. So, in a strange sense, expletives might seem like rule-breakers when used to profane or curse, but traditionally, they actually maintain the formula.
The importance of how we understand expletives is actually in how we think about rules in this moment. Last week I met with some religious life professionals for an inaugural training session and got a sense of how higher education professionals interact with chaplains and religious life on their campuses. The gathering was tense for a few reasons, not the least of which was the untouchable elephant in the room that involves human rights violations, religious intolerance, and dehumanization to the highest degree. The subject itself was an expletive. I wondered- what would it be like to break this rule that says we can’t talk about it, because feelings will be hurt?
The real takeaway for me, frankly, is that rules are oppressive when they allow a group of people in power to feel hurt when an oppressed group moves toward some kind of equity. Remember that quote “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression?” I’ve been thinking about that quote every day. I would add that when you’re accustomed to rules, challenging them feels like a violation- but in this moment, violations of what we think we need and know are the only thing that can bring forward the equality of the oppressed. So F*** the rules.
After an all-too-indulgent weekend, I climbed into a Lyft at San Jose Airport, headed back to my apartment in Palo Alto.
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.
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.
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.
You’re a professor, a teacher, an instructor, a TA…anyone with some power to craft a syllabus or introduce material you haven’t written for the purposes of learning. That’s a big net, but this is a big problem. Let’s say (like me) you’re developing a World Religions syllabus. You’re really into it- So many great readings! An interesting assignment! Field Trips! Guest speakers! Literally, you cannot wait to teach this class because you’ve curated the entire semester down to a note and the students will be AMAZED. Ok. Here’s the problem: you find out one of your most crucial readings, one written by a foremost scholar in the field, has been arrested for something icky. I’m not picking one thing because this isn’t just a “one instance” issue. I’m asking what we do. Because so far, everyone I have spoken with rightfully thinks long and hard before answering. No one has really offered an answer.
I do not have an answer either. My first reaction? Take it off the syllabus, take it off websites, get rid of it. Poof, gone. That’s an option. My friends and colleagues have responded with thoughtful questions to this idea:
-What if the reading really is that crucial? I ask- can we differentiate who influences our students based on the quality of their work, or more likely the level of their fame? And isn’t any press good press- won’t students go looking for this source when they learn the scandal?
-What if the crime really has nothing to do with the scholarship? Someone stealing cars could definitely still write an excellent history of Early Christians. I ask- does any part of our lives have no bearing whatsoever on our work? Can we really separate ourselves from our research?
-What if the person admitted the crime, served their time, and apologized? What if they really feel sorry? I ask- is it good to find redemption in people? Do we have to forgive if someone has been harmed? Does an apology change trauma that someone faces every day? (No. That’s a no.)
-We need to know the identity of this person. Maybe they aren’t guilty. If you start finding dirt on one person, how far will it go? No one is perfect. I ask- how should we view law and the justice system in this conversation? Can we trust that people who “do bad things” will get in trouble for it? (That’s also a big fat NO.)
I have been grappling with these questions in the midst of deep reflection on the #MeToo Movement. About a year and a half ago, I wrote my #MeToo story. To date, it is the most read story on this site. We cannot ever downplay the widespread violence on women that happens every single day because we live in a culture where rape is normative and sometimes even celebrated. This is where my initial reaction- tear it all down!- gets tricky.
I sit in the “remove” camp still. If anything, I believe my role is to be upfront with my students about why they will not read the best article on “X” subject. I think in order to stop violence against women and others, the change in resources should be as widespread as the culture that allows the President of the United States to laugh about sexual assault. In order to change normativity, that’s what it will take. In closing, I do think we need to consider that we humans, no matter how famous and learned and experienced we are, do our work from the wholeness of ourselves. Our research, our teaching, our careers are all influenced by who we are and who we have been. The question becomes- how do we let ourselves come in?
I am scribbling furiously in a cold conference room. Something about “we” and “endings” and “tribes” and “bunkers.” In front of me, two of my fellow Interfaith Youth Core alums on a panel share stories from the social action projects they built during the 2016 Germanacos Fellowship (a program for IFYC alums who envision and execute interfaith action projects). This year, I am humbled to call myself a Germanacos Fellow. I am also ecstatic, and terrified, and itching to launch my project: a pop-up traveling exhibit depicting California’s religious and interfaith history.
Folding a new page onto the top of my notebook, a vision flashes in my head. This past Thursday, I asked the students in my New Testament section to imagine what it would be like if religion scholars 1000 years from today tried to understand Harry Potter as a sacred text. How would they reconstruct our world, with very limited materials and a pretty substantial translation problem? What about “facts” and “reality?” I asked them to do this in order to understand our task as students of the New Testament. I ask this about my own faith tradition’s most central figure, Siddhartha Gautama. You might know him as “the Buddha,” the one who was awakened. The task of constructing other worlds means something when the process of asserting and legitimizing my own worldview is at stake.
Because I am not Christian, I experience tiny moments of enlightenment in my class when the students grapple with material that for many of them is actually quite familiar. When we began our course, the students wrote learning contracts explaining why they enrolled in the course and how they best learn. The majority of essays began “I grew up in a Christian household…” with some adjectives or qualifying statements added every so often. Quickly, I realized that in my role as a teacher and because of my own spiritual practice, every day I ask my students to endure some very difficult tasks. I wonder, what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview?
Back to scribbling. I’m thinking about a conversation my fellow “Fellows” and I just engaged in with the Director and Founder of an organization I have admired and supported for more than ten years now (and more frankly, has believed in me as an interfaith leader, graciously supporting projects and investing in my skillset). I listen intently. The theme of the conversation: strangers. Not just people we don’t know. These are the people we don’t see or hear or think about. People we don’t ever, even in our wildest dreams, imagine knowing. These strangers might look like me, but they don’t have a degree from a top 20 school in the world, a masters from a top 5, or are in process of a PhD at a top 3 (please don’t take this as a brag, rather, a statement of immense privilege that allows me to even huddle over this laptop as I write). There is a sense that these strangers, if given the opportunity, would switch places with me. There is an even heavier sense that these strangers put the current president in the White House because they saw him not as a stranger, but as a beacon. In my circles, the same man often bears titles like “white supremacist” and “racist” and “fascist,” and I agree with those statements. The question on the table sinks into the room as silence falls for a moment. Is this- this huddling, this turning inward, this tightening of our own “clan” if you will- is this the reality of bridge building in America right now? Of pluralism? Of interfaith work?
I get stuck. Who is “we?” At first glance it sounds like “liberals,” or “democrats,” or “the people of the interfaith movement.” That makes sense. “We” tend to be the elite, the educated, the folks with access. We get to dream and throw around the word passion and dispute each other’s Facebook ponderings. But, it’s complicated. My parents have this access- they have bachelors and masters degrees. They own their own businesses and a two-story home in a great school district. They choose freely to incur debt when purchasing land. My parents are just as “elite” as me, according to Capitalist America. But they didn’t vote like me.
I think about someone else I love. Someone I met an an elite university, in our Arabic class. Someone who speaks three languages fluently. But he is not “we.” He is not a documented citizen of this nation. He is the stranger, the alien, the criminal who deserves not a single, solitary physical atom on this land because no papers, no proof of humanity. Stay out of spaces that don’t belong to you. Don’t talk to me about stolen land.
From my perspective, my students are “we.” I don’t know their political leanings, where they find community on campus, or if they can afford a plane ticket home at Thanksgiving. I do know they have access to one of the world’s largest libraries and can spend their Friday nights pouring over real Medieval manuscripts (some do). I know that when they graduate, the name on their diploma will welcome them automatically to a class of careers and social circles that others will see as mythical. The lore starts even before graduation: you don’t know someone who got in to Stanford. You know someone who knows someone who knows someone. And yet, the reality is, not all of them are “we,” because they are still outsiders in an institution built specifically for upper-class white males. Access doesn’t always mean belonging.
Let me return to the New Testament for a moment. In all the gospels, more or less, Jesus intentionally curates his schedule to spend more time with “sinners” and “undesirables”- lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors- than with the Jeff Bezos’ of the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus suffers with the suffering, and then he tells people to do the same thing, to their fury. We know the ending to this story- Christ rises. Christ bestows the potential for liberation. But before this, Jesus loses. In any case, the outcome is printed neatly at the end, allowing us to work backwards from the ending to see that everything Jesus did led him to the cross. And yet, we know so little about this man’s world- we can’t dive into the archives of CNN to scour the 24-hour news cycle to understand what else is going on.
When I visit my childhood home, my mom and I walk four miles early in the morning. My mom waves to just about everyone we pass. She points out her favorite landmarks. The family that owns the pig. The house that grows giant pumpkins in the fall. The alley where she can almost always spot a deer looking for water. One morning about a month ago, she said something I didn’t expect. “We’ve got to do something about the guns. Really, we’ve got to.” This, coming from someone for whom pretty much any other issue would fall neatly into a “conservative” standpoint. But this is different- I, her daughter, teach on a college campus. Statistically speaking, if I stay long enough in my current position, it’s not highly likely I will encounter a school shooting. It’s certain. This complicates “we,” because strangers and kin are not just organized by red and blue. We don’t know the end of this story. Does it come down to a checkbox on a ballot? Or can we consider other affiliations that illuminate some Venn Diagrams?
Remember my dilemma with my students learning the central Christian text from a Buddhist? Here it is: what does it mean for me as a Buddhist to teach Christians their own book in a context that demands they question, make judgments, and ultimately consider ideas and statements that their communities might vehemently deny as being part of their worldview? I think “we,” the folks with access and voices in the interfaith movement, could all stand to demand of ourselves that we question the statements our “we” uphold AND deny- things like democracy as ultimately good, like what religious freedom really means, and who, frankly, can’t be part of our movement. Where are the lines now drawn? Do we have a duty to consider the plight of the stranger? Before I feel like I can do that genuinely, I want to put my energy into widening a circle of folks ready to ask with me. I want to look at the limited materials and construct a world that legitimizes and asserts our movement as one comfortable with not knowing the ending, but rather wants to initiate some beginnings.
I don’t know how this is possible but this quarter seems more overwhelming than the previous two. A very real possibility is that I’m tired and ready for summer. Last week, I went to bed before 11 almost every night, which is pretty rare. Finally, it occurred to me that my exhaustion was caused by teaching. I love teaching, and I feel terrified of teaching.
“Teaching” in my class consists of leading a thirty minute discussion twice a week, during the latter half of class. 19 students and I crowd around an amalgamation of tables. The space feels cramped. The students work very hard; they exude excellence. Given my background in dialogue facilitation, this should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong. First of all, there was no baking soda in the time of Jesus, so cake probably didn’t happen. Second, leading a discussion about a subject that is not my expertise feels wrong, in a way. Who am I to make judgments about whether someone makes a good point, or needs to be pushed further? Very gradually, I have relaxed into the role knowing I will never feel like an expert, and that saying “I don’t know” will be an essential phrase in the next two months. Maybe on the last day of class, I will feel like I got the hang of this discussion thing.
Just when things began to feel smooth, a handful of students turned in papers for me to grade. Grading is not something I have much experience doing, and so I feel even more overwhelmed by the activity. This week, three papers sit on my desk waiting for assessment. I’ve read each one twice already and tried to utilize a rubric, only to feel more confused. You see, I find it impossible to separate the writer from the writing. Even with the limited knowledge I have about my students, their contexts influence my perception of their writing.
One student, for example, diligently sent a rough draft two days before she turned in her paper. She explained that English is her third language, and she likes when readers can ask questions of her writing to improve it. Even from the draft, I see improvement in her writing. Do I ignore the few missing articles and some awkward tenses? Another student explained that he wanted to turn in the paper early because his team would be competing in national championships during the week. Without expressing too much enthusiasm, I felt so excited for him. Who gets to compete in national championships?
The framework of college chaplaincy never stopped influencing how I see the world, and especially how I see students. This means above all else, my commitment to students is to learn who they are. It’s not just skills or exciting news, I need to know how they learn, what makes them excited or upset or discouraged, and how to push them outside their comfort areas. The key warrant is that students don’t enter a classroom having left the rest of themselves outside the door. Though perhaps more exhausting, knowing my students actually makes me feel like I can grade their work. It’s not about excuses, it’s about particularity. Good thing, because reading 20 papers with the exact same thesis would be pretty darn boring.