Asking

Many folx cite “asking for help” as one of the hardest things to do, regardless of the circumstances. I hate asking for help. But it’s not because I feel proud or courageous. In fact, asking for help scares me.

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Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Something happened to my back yesterday- have you ever felt so much pain you can’t stand up straight, it takes you over five minutes just to will yourself to sit because your muscles are DEFINITELY tearing, you know they are, the agony is so real and you just want to sit in the car for goodness sake. The person screaming yesterday was me. My entire upper back felt like braided string cheese smushed so tightly in the plastic packaging. I could barely walk, let alone carry a grocery bag. In a perfect world, I would have teleported home so as not to disturb anyone’s fun. But I was out with some friends, wandering the aisles in a Korean grocery store in San Jose, and I had to ask for help.

First, I needed help carrying a bottle of vodka. Don’t judge. It was on sale and finals week is coming up. I couldn’t carry it through the store, so I asked one of the friends with me to hang on until checkout. Next, everyone patiently waited by the car as I crawled, muttering to myself, “a few more steps. That’s it. Just a few more. One foot, the other.” As I mentioned, getting in to the car (and the front seat, which I tried to demand I didn’t need) had me wondering if I could walk home because the pain upon bending my legs made me nauseous. Our classmate in the driver’s seat insisted that I couldn’t simply go home. So, the four of us embarked on an adventure.

I felt vulnerable and guilty. Here were three graduate students accompanying me for my own damn problem, something that didn’t affect them save hearing my groaning. I refused everything they suggested at each different point, only to succumb to their insistence. And I started wondering why I couldn’t just let these three wonderful people take care of me.

Many of the students in the sections I teach utilize me as a teaching assistant very well. They send outlines, rough drafts, even crap I don’t know how to label, and I respond within twenty four hours as a personal rule. I hate sending my work in progress to others. I hate it because it scares me to show people my process and thus, my imperfections. While I don’t call myself a “perfectionist,” I realized that this fear of showing the work behind the product comes from not wanting to admit a period of uncertainty. Yesterday, I couldn’t stand the fact that these helpful, kind and caring people could actually express their care for me because it meant showing my pain before I can show off how well I heal.

When I worked as a chaplain, my colleagues and I often talked about modeling good human behavior. What we meant was allowing our students to see that we do make mistakes, muddle through problems we don’t understand, and we work to improve. I will always hate asking for help because I will always fight the negative voice in my head calling me a fraud. Maybe that voice isn’t always a bad thing- it’s the worst of any criticism. Maybe it’s ok to sit in the front seat once in a while.

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Space

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

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

 

 

Abundance 

Every time I hang out with a group of college chaplains, I seem to be on a beach and stuffing my face. Not to mention enjoying the company of my favorite people on earth. For the past three days, the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA) chaplains met at Chapman University for their annual conference. We spent one day on Chapman’s campus and one literally overlooking the white sand stretches of Laguna Beach. This was my first time at the ACURA gathering; though I had been to three previous National Association for College and University Chaplains (NACUC) gatherings (the other college chaplain association) and have experienced the same mixture of joy, understanding, and community at each one. College chaplains are people who think deeply about everything they do, and believe strongly in working together in any way possible. 
I’ve been indulging greatly the past few weeks. USC football games, Dodger Stadium visits, cooking with organic butter, enjoying all of the pumpkin and apple delicacies (yep, I’m all in on the stereotype). Even my mind has been offered abundance: on Stanford’s campus it seems like every day there is an enriching talk or workshop that gets me excited and makes me want to buy 50 more books on Medieval Buddhist Feminism or Jovinian’s ridiculous claim in the early church that everyone should be treated equal. I watched Clayton Kershaw throw a masterpiece game last night only 50 feet from home plate at Dodger Stadium in game one of the World fricking Series. There is so much and there are so many for whom to feel grateful, and I do. 


Sitting with the marvelous Rev. Jim Burklo while the sun set behind Chapman’s impeccably manicured athletic field, he asked me a difficult question. “Where are you in your faith journey?” Even though that question never has a real answer for me, I usually say “I’m thinking about this or that.” But lately I’ve been struggling with losing faith in lots of things. Will women ever feel safe walking alone? Will the victims of hurricanes and fires ever feel truly “relieved?” Is the academy really just a bunch of people arguing for the sake of arguing? 
In my courses I’ve been reading about asceticism among the early Christians. Talk about a contested topic! The desert fathers and mothers I once admired from an interfaith appreciative perspective are now poking holes in my worldview. They lived in the exact opposite way I have been living these past few weeks. Or did they also live abundantly, in their own way?
It seems simple, but the Buddha’s assertion that the “middle path” as the true way to enlightenment has always spoken to me. Moderation. We talk about that all the time these days- eat one cookie, not five. Buy one shirt, not one in every color. Know your limits. We fulfill our desire but don’t deprive ourselves. Could this balance be more difficult than absolute abstinence? 
I flew first class once as a lucky upgrade (I don’t think that happens anymore… maybe?) and after getting those full six inches added to my chair and eating an actual meal, not peanuts, in my seat, it was hard to fly the next time. Actually it was awful. Admittedly, I even thought about upgrading at my own expense. Had I not experienced it, I would probably experience mild envy but forget it every time I snuggled in to my economy seat. 
When we taste abundance, we seek to keep it. But if we strive so hard to live constantly in abundance, eventually it becomes the norm. And then we are seeking again. Moderation is not so much a practice in limitation as it is in recognizing when we are not limited. It sounds like gratitude, in a way. The presence of abundance is recognized and enjoyed. 

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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. !

Full Circle

I don’t have to tell you that the world is funny, that life is not linear, that time is sometimes not a helpful tool for us- and sometimes it is.

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PC: Joey Kyber

Just last week I was writing a short story about stepping outside my comfort zone. I wanted to talk about joining the Interfaith Council at USC after meeting Varun, the Dean of Religious Life. The story of finding Varun is a silly one, it involves pulling a newspaper out of a trash and seeing his name in the headline. “What’s a Dean of Religious Life?” was the first question that popped in my head. The article in the Daily Trojan (our university’s daily paper) described the many experiences Varun lived that led him to this role. Living in Nepal as a Buddhist Monk, finishing both a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University and a law degree from UCLA, hosting a radio show, meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama, even being an avid sports fan- all of these influenced the person he is today. Reading about them, I thought, “I want to live like this person. I should probably meet him.”

Nine years (!) later, I’m sitting at my desk at Northeastern University in Boston, where I have served in a chaplain role for almost two years. First I see the text messages from my mom and dad: “Did you see the LA Times article about Varun? I think he mentioned you.” Friends are sharing on Facebook. Varun himself emails me a link to a stunning story about his trajectory at USC, as a non-ordained Hindu attorney. It sounds just like the article I read as a lost sophomore at USC, at a time when I knew I loved studying religion, but had no idea what to do about it. This was the article that pushed me to email him in that chilly office on the second floor of the business school, that for the first time showed me I could live a life full of passion like Varun, combining so many different interests. And it’s my last week here, which feels as though a circle has been completed.

I think it’s really important to experience nostalgia sometimes, as a reminder to feel gratitude for the people who have been a constant support in our lives. I was going to post a bunch of vignettes this morning from my time at Northeastern, because there are so many wonderful and hilarious moments from these two years. I only got to tell a handful at my lovely going away party. This morning I took a Lyft to work because I baked too many treats to take on the T, and as we inched along on the 93 toward Roxbury, I looked out at the Boston skyline centered on the Prudential Center, its windows shimmering in the sunlight, and realized today is my last Monday here. Only two years ago, my mom and I attempted to navigate this ridiculous freeway and street system to move me into my tiny apartment in the North End. I remember sending Varun a picture, knowing I had made him proud. The community here has made me proud, especially after so much hardship. On the wall behind me hangs three simple letters that welcomed me on my first day: J-E-M, my name. I’m taking them with me to hang in my new office (if I get an office).

Link to the story: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-usc-chaplain-20170403-story.html

A Shattered Thursday

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PC: Jilbert Ebrahimi
Let me tell you about my Thursday.

I got to work around 8 am, carrying a cake for my co-worker’s birthday. I stayed up until 2 am making it. It tasted fantastic, so I heard. The weather was cool, and crisp, and dry. Perfect for caramel apple cake with dulce de leche icing.

After I hid the cake (it was a surprise) and bore witness to an angry student before our center even opened, I guided a meditation. 7 people came. I went back in my office and answered some emails. At 9:30, I heard about a miscommunication escalating to a fight, lawsuits threatened, people’s jobs in question. I fielded phone calls from other offices. I cleared my schedule to attend an urgent meeting. A student worker left early from the office because her grandfather passed away. I sent her a text: “So sorry my love. May everything run smoothly. Let me know what you need.”

At 11 am, I set up for a student affairs colleague meeting. We ate lunch and vegan cookies that I brought for the birthday celebration. We discussed mental health issues on campus. Our students are all over-worked, sleep-deprived, and expected to be happy, productive individuals every moment of every day. We imagined a potential collaborative internship for our students that would focus on an exploration of intersectionality and identity. I texted my partner to see if he was awake. He said he would bring the apples by 1:20. My shoulders relaxed. “Thank you,” I texted back. I scribbled some practically illegible notes.

As our meeting was ending, I texted back and forth with a student leader about which flowers to buy for the birthday girl. We went over the surprise plan. I would stall her until my student sent me the ok, at which point my co-worker and I would head to a “meeting” across the hall.  I said goodbye to my colleagues and walked back into our office, to find a student crying on the phone. My phone buzzed with the text “Come now, hurry!”-birthday time.

The crying student, my co-worker and I each took a deep breath. We processed the student’s anxiety all together. Finally, as suavely as possible, I ushered all three of us across the hall again for the birthday surprise. Everyone shouted. My co-worker sped out of the room for a moment. The students had arranged the cake, caramel apples, and gifts on a beautiful table. “This looks like the Garden of Eden!” My co-worker exclaimed. We watched the videos and messages the students filmed- one included pictures of me and her, one a choreographed dance, and one a Scooby-Doo parody. We laughed, and secretly, my throat began to choke up. Did she enjoy the surprise?

Another serious, tense meeting began just as the party finished. This one included several students- they felt angry and scared, but determined. As I finished cleaning, I gave the student who put all the videos together a massive, shoulder gripping hug. “Thank you so much for doing that,” I looked into her eyes. “I think she loved it.”

Back in my office, I found another distraught student. “What’s going on?” I asked. She didn’t want to talk, just sit in quiet. The sound of new emails sliced through the air several times. I got up to fill my water bottle. Students sat strewn around the front desk, the chairs leading to my office, and everywhere in between. The phone rang at the front. No one answered. “The air is tense in here!” Someone said. “MmmHMMM,” I murmured back with a mouthful of water.

Suddenly, the student who bought flowers for my co-worker appeared. She snapped her fingers. “Can you do something!?” I jolted up, hitting my knee on my desk. My water bottle toppled over.

One of the students in the serious meeting had fainted in the Director’s office. I tried to ask everyone to leave. I closed the door. Clutching his head and slumped over, the student explained, “This is too much. Everyone hates me right now. I have an assignment due tomorrow that I haven’t started and I’ve had two weeks. This meeting was so stressful. It’s too much.” One of his best friends had stayed in the room. She touched his hand. “I’ve been there,” she consoled him. “Sometimes you just have to fall apart. We are your friends. We’ll hold you up.” After a few more minutes, the student seemed stable. I quietly excused myself to continue an email exchange about a scheduling conflict in our Sacred Space. The crying student sobbed again. I took in a breath that filled my whole belly, and let it out slowly, through my teeth. My body instinctively stood up again to refill my water bottle.

Back in our Director’s office, I witnessed something that evaporated all the emotions I was so carefully juggling. The two students were hugging. They were smiling and giggling. They stayed in the embrace for a few moments. A tear silently grazed my left cheek. My lips lengthened into a slight smile.

You see, the student who had fainted is a Muslim, very active in the Islamic Society of Northeastern. He is also a Jordanian-Palestinian American. His friend, holding the fragility, channeling her empathy and care into the shattered young man before her, is Jewish. Their friendship exists in tension with the wider world. In other places, perhaps even in the same city, these two people could negate the humanity of the other. They could ignore each others’ existence. But they don’t. Instead, they choose friendship, they seek connection.

Sometimes we need to shatter for our souls to be assured that we are connected, we are seen, we are loved. In the midst of the pain, violence, and terror our world faces, maybe love cannot save us from breaking into a million pieces. Love makes the tiny slivers, the shattered pieces, sparkle like stained glass that is kissed by the sun.