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Today I rode my bike to church on campus for a special multifaith celebration. During the service, 24 students were officially commissioned as Fellows for Religious Encounter. This year, they will meet every Wednesday over dinner for dialogue and to hear from engaging speakers. They will visit sacred sites and experience rituals and practices they may have never seen before. As they recited the commissioning prayer before the congregation this morning, I couldn’t help noticing two things: time FLIES, and how necessary this kind of intentional learning is as religion either brings us wisdom to seek justice or violent division.

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Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

I remember stumbling upon a Buddhist Temple in my neighborhood when I was little. It was a temple dedicated to Kwan Yin, a beloved bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition known for her mercy and compassion for human beings. Inside the temple, there was a wood floor with black square cushions lined along the edges of the walls, and at the end of the long hall there was a statue of Kwan Yin sitting on a lotus flower. My entire understanding of God and faith shattered as I scoured the public library, trying to find books about this way of life called Buddhism. My grandmother told me whatever she knew, and encouraged me to keep looking. I didn’t know any Buddhists, though, so all I could do was take my reading at face value.

Seeing these bright young faces this morning made me want so many things for the fellows. I hope they don’t shy away from noting disagreement, especially when it is harmful. I hope they are forced to wrestle with a misconception dispelled in conversation. I hope they feel a range of emotions: anger, confusion, sadness, and joy when wonder strikes. I hope they listen and learn, and talk openly and teach. I hope they are confronted with not just questions about religion and privilege, but constantly engage in self-reflection.I hope they enjoy each other’s company. Of course if all these wishes are fulfilled, these students will inevitably be transformed.

Meeting someone who practiced Buddhism proved quite different than reading about the life of the Buddha and the Four Noble Truths. My teammate’s grandmother didn’t talk about her beliefs in an organized, bullet-point style lecture (she didn’t draw me a chart), she told me about her father and his father going to temple on New Year’s Day, and contacting monks for funeral services, and living life with compassion at the forefront of her mind. Every Sunday I sat in church and learned about the life of another man who preached compassion, who died so that we could go to heaven. I was confused and upset, scared to talk to my parents about these discoveries but excited about my findings, and bouncing from deep discomfort to honest wonder.

I think about walking in to that temple more and more these days. It seems like if everyone could walk into an unfamiliar place, ask some open questions, and struggle through some necessary discomfort to learn an alternative worldview, we could feel this wonder more often. Of course this is not so simple, but interfaith work is not simple at all. Feeling vulnerable to both share one’s own beliefs and subsequently hear views that thwart them takes courage and patience, and not the least of all trust. It is a worthy exercise for anyone to be faced with doubt. Often, confronting this leads us to an even wiser truth that we don’t take for granted.

I hope they learn. I hope they laugh. !

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Helping

It was difficult to read a text from my mom this morning frantically asking if my friends were safe, and not have an immediate answer. It was hard to look at pictures of festival attendees clutching the ground, even as people worked hard as ever to help each other climb fences and hide behind cars and barriers. It has been so excruciating to read the accounts, especially from a family member, who returned safely home today. Trauma will be lasting and deeply impacting of life hereafter.

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

I will never know the pain of presence, of witnessing the bloodshed, and certainly the absolute horror that is losing a family member whose life was stolen mercilessly while participating in community and enjoying art. I don’t have answers, though I know complacency and “thoughts and prayers” completely fail time and again to prevent toxic masculinity from exploding and reaping toxicity on people who are loved, who love.

As a former full-time college chaplain, I remember trying to hold a container for students when a terrible event, whether nationally recognized or personally felt (or both) fell upon them, unexpected and unwarranted. It is by the far the most challenging piece of this vocation, yet the most important. This is a daily occurrence, not once in a while. Even though the vigils and times of remembrance seem reserved for the “big” tragedies, feeling unsafe is a reality for so many students. Events like this reinforce the false notion that safe spaces exist. So as chaplains, or therapists, or listeners who are in a “helping profession,” what are we to do? We must do, not just think and pray.

For starters, we can be frank that this “problem” is multifaceted and definitely a dire product of racism, white supremacy, masculinity. I cannot advise anyone to “keep living” or “enjoy life” despite the fear, even though many students recognize that doing just that is a form of resistance. Of course, how to live one’s best life can only be defined by the individual. Being honest, uncomfortable and vulnerable, especially in how we uphold a culture of violence, allows students to witness this behavior and model it. Frankly, I often found myself following their lead as some of the most effective leaders and activists not only on campus, but in the country. An excruciating tragedy requires no legitimizing, but demands authentic admission of shortcomings and failure.

One such amazing student leader recently published an honest, raw and informative blog on the Interfaith Youth Core’s writing platform Inter and I firmly believe it deserves a good slow read from those of us “helpers,” whatever our particular title. She names the work young leaders of faith continue to do often without recognition. Martha writes,

Faced with another national tragedy, with more than 50 people dead and 500 people injured, millennials of faith are showing up for values-based policies and standing firm for the truth that we can have movements that don’t discriminate. We can use our solidarity to overcome division and heal after trauma. We can keep our communities safe without the use of fear and bigotry. And we will do so, together.

Read Martha’s blog here. She writes from experience and a deep passion for interfaith activism and movements. Healing, like living, is another act of much needed resistance and examination.

 

 

 

First Day

The first day of a doctoral program feels just like the first day of third grade. It’s been three years since I had a first day of school, so I felt particularly nervous. Starting a new routine is always both stressful and empowering. This morning I woke up before dawn and went to yoga, except it wasn’t already intense Vinyasa, it was this workout that I can’t even begin to explain. I don’t think I stood on both feet for more than 5 minutes. After surviving that, I came home and indulged in delicious pumpkin pie flavored coffee and a gluten free bagel that Jose made, smothered in onion and chive cream cheese. Finally, I rode my bike without harming anyone to the main quad on campus, found my classroom with minimal issue, and made it through Arabic. After lunch and more coffee, my Theories and Methods in Religious Studies class met for less than two hours, in which we discussed antics of philosophers and psychologists. I came home and made some delicious enchiladas and read for tomorrow’s class.

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Photo by Bryce Evans on Unsplash

The thing about first days, besides being exhausting, is that heighten my awareness of what changes are to come. Have you ever looked back on a semester, or even a year, and realized how much transformation has taken place? You have several new relationships- classmates, teachers, teammates, fellow organization members. As each day brings the familiar back, we grow more and more complacent, forgetting that first day and all it’s intricacies. Now that I know where my classes are, I won’t experience the few moments of tense searching for the right building, realizing there was a much closer place to park my bike, or that forgetting cough drops was a giant mistake. This isn’t a negative, it means we can begin to thrive in our environment because the “housekeeping” is finished.

First days have never been a good experience for me. Overwhelmed and without a confident routine, my first days have consisted of spilled coffee mugs in a new backpack, waiting way too long in line at the bookstore only to realize I am one notebook shy, or missing a key line on the syllabus and thus already slacking on the homework. I once sat through an entire Advanced Mandarin class on a first day because I was too embarrassed to leave. Not to mention, I feel lost without solidifying the communities that are some of the most important to me- the classrooms. Part of the reason I love living in an academic environment so much is the ability it gives me to meet fellow linguists and theologians and historians and ethicists. First days remind us to trust the process that these dynamic communities will build themselves as we learn together.

Today was the best first day I remember. Perhaps that it because I have missed this environment so much. After three years, the search for the classrooms, finding a parking space, even learning I bought the wrong book didn’t overwhelm me as much as it made me feel joy at the notion that this will be my routine for a long time. Many days from today, I may look back and feel silly about this, but for now, I’ll enjoy the unknown.

 

Risk

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Photo by Anatoliy Gromov on Unsplash

I have officially touched down in Palo Alto. Let me brag for a second about how epic my summer was, thanks to my family, friends from all over the country, mentors, and teachers. By the numbers:

-19 states visited

-84 hours of yoga

-3 thrilling USC football games

-72, 000 words written

-11 Dodger games, including one day when it was 100 degrees on the ravine

-52 books read

-95 days of French study (Duolingo FTW)

-9 doctor/dentist visits (and my first cavity!)

-3 Incubus concerts (also a pretty sweet country show with two of my best friends)

-100 morning walks with my wonderful mom

-An absolutely amazing writing retreat with 23 goddesses

-1 epic road trip that taught me so much about my country and its people

-A productive and much needed meeting with 12 of the coolest college chaplains

I finished the Revolutionary Love fellowship as a writing fellow and started a new position as a researcher for the project. I traveled to New Mexico twice, each time falling deeper in love with the vivid desert colors and even surprise lightning storms. I hung out with former classmates and other IFYC alumni. I visited the Ice Cream Museum.

I also struggled quite a bit with my weight, an exercise obsession, and feeling like “enough.” I sent in several writing pitches and got well-worded rejections. I experienced loneliness and growth from it. I am shattered and grateful. So grateful.

And now the next part of my life begins. I took a risk moving to Stanford because frankly, I’ve always struggled to feel like part of the academic community. Am I smart enough, well read enough, capable of learning to be an “expert?”

My family and friends have been teasing me about becoming a tree (Stanford’s mascot- or is it the Cardinal? More on that…) because we bleed cardinal and gold as die-hard Trojan fans. I responded by promising to maintain my loyalty. It’s all in good fun, but as I considered moving and beginning my life here, I began to think about this risk and what “risk” means.

Place is important to me. I have been so lucky to travel around the world and the country, experiencing a plethora of ideas and beliefs that clash with my own. But home is home for me, and that will probably never change. Though I’m now closer to home than I have been in five years, braving snow and long plane flights with turbulence that makes my heart pound, this place is still not quite home. And that’s fine. Risk for me is believing I can make this new campus and city home, that I can find meaning and purpose by listening and finding ways to be helpful.

Home has changed since I’ve been away. My sister started her first job as a surgical resident. One of my best friends left a very well-paying job to get closer to her dream of working at USC. My colleagues got married, divorced, had kids. Two left this earth way too soon and I felt crushed that I never got to say a proper goodbye, or tell them how gorgeous of a human being they were. Home will continue to shift and move still, and I will return to see and feel shocked.

Taking this risk means trusting that change is not only inevitable but necessary. Trusting that new jobs and family members and even losing some will test me. I have to learn to trust myself, especially in failure.

My adventures will not soon be forgotten. One of the women in my small group on our writing retreat spoke about writing in a joyful time in her life. She said in some ways, writing about pain is easy. Recognizing when we are full and when our lives feel fruitful is difficult. Of course we experience cycles and every day gives us both. Our people lift us up and celebrate with us, and when we find these loving communities we are indeed home.

I cannot say I feel ready, but this risk feels like a good challenge for my mind and soul. Just like the lightning storm on a sweaty Phoenix evening that both terrified me and gave me a new sense of beauty, this new place scares me and tests my ability to find home.

 

 

 

 

 

Numb

First. I had surgery today. There is a cyst that’s been bothering me on my lip for the past three months and after several trips to dentists and dermatologists, I decided it was time to see an oral surgeon. The waiting room reminded me of a 1970’s office with blue plastic furniture and yellowed blinds. I sat with my hands folded in the patient chair while the surgeon explained the procedure and the risks (discomfort was the biggest… so you can tell this was a mild surgery). Then I prepared myself for the novocaine, the only part that really terrifies me about medical procedures. The feeling that comes with the initial shot is a loss of feeling, to eliminate the potential pain we might experience. This sensation is called “numb.”

PC: Jon Tyson
Today of course is the 16th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Last year on this day, I was frantically sharing the media pieces that the Revolutionary Love team had put together in honor of the 15 year mark. 15 felt like a big milestone, perhaps because 5-year increments do, perhaps because the impending election trumpeted hateful rhetoric reminiscent of the days and months and years after the attacks. But this year as I sat dreading the needle that would make my whole face feel nothing, I wondered if we as a nation have shifted to a kind of numbness after this pivotal moment in history. 

“No,” I quickly decided. There may be fewer media pieces and ceremonies, but the calls to action for help in hurricane relief and fighting white supremacy are not so different than calls to affirm our Muslim neighbors and to practice compassion. Further and perhaps more importantly, as impactful as a single moment can be, sixteen years later we should not ignore the effects this days has had on every day following. Not to mention the deep-seeded racism and xenophobia the attacks helped to expose to those oblivious. 

This evening I met the new Revolutionary Love Project team and I feel like I did last year on our first team call. Recognizing that we have our work cut out, I feel grateful that we may be angry and scared, but we still believe in our message. That is not “numbness.” That is genuine, blessed feeling. 

Labor

It’s the end of Labor Day Weekend, traditionally a transitional weekend. Even though the temperature this past week in Los Angeles has climbed over 100 every day, I admit that pumpkins and apples have been appearing in my feeds and emails. Fall is near. Many of us live according to an academic calendar, which means we have just started a new school year (if you’re on the quarter system, we’ve got a few more weeks!). Excitement and anxiety and anticipation abound, and Tuesday morning traffic has returned to ever freeway in southern California in full force.

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Photo by Mariano Rossi on Unsplash

I just finished reading Diane Guerrero’s In the Country We Love yesterday. In case her name isn’t immediately familiar, Guerrero plays Maritza in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and Lina on Jane the Virgin. She also happens to be a best-selling memoirist. Her book details the story of growing up in Boston in a family of Colombian immigrants, she the only US-born member. Since everyone should read this book I won’t give everything away, but the crux of the story is the scene in which Guerrero returns home from school at age 14 and finds her parents have been taken by ICE. Within weeks, they are both deported back to Columbia, and Guerrero is left totally alone as a new high school freshman.

With the decision to end DACA confirmed this week, Guerrero’s book feels more than relevant, it should be a textbook read for all of us. As many of us enjoyed a day free from labor yesterday, at least in a formal sense, I thought about Guerrero’s daily struggle with a different, invisible kind of labor- emotional labor. Her situation forces her to grow up years beyond emotionally in a matter of days. The emotional struggle translates to many physical issues, and an especially chilling scene shook me to my core. The thing about her story is that 800,000 DACA-mented folx and other undocumented people in the United States struggle through a similar narrative every day.

This emotional labor often takes a much larger toll than many realize. For a few years I have sought out and listened to stories of immigrants in the United States, their statuses mixed. It seemed like the best way to engage. This will never make me understand the struggle, mind you. The stories I heard made me consider mindless choices I make every single day, like booking a flight and putting my address, applying for a part-time job, or even walking in public places. The emotional labor of these decisions for undocumented folx hangs in the air every day, until their meaning is internalized. Unknown. Unrecognized. Unwanted. The labor it takes to live a full life despite these internalized attitudes is one that does not allow a day off.

As the season of new school years pushes off the dock, I think my emotional labor should involve more listening and awareness around the internalized attitudes that create roadblocks. My roadblock this week comes from deep-seeded anger. It’s an anger that can only prove productive if it drives me to keep working.

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.