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.

 

Happy Birthday!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ideal is Possible

Today I did something really cool- I spoke on air about my work with the Revolutionary Love Project for L2O, a platform that organizes online communities. We talked about what Revolutionary Love means from a Buddhist perspective, how we practice in our own contexts, and most importantly, what it means to stand in love with our opponents.

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PC: Jeremy Bishop

I really enjoyed thinking critically about these questions, especially when it came to calling on wisdom from faith traditions and sacred texts. I realized as I was talking that much of my faith comes from stories and written wisdom- stories take us from a place of wonder or discomfort to a new idea. They often involve learning. I feel most connected to my own practice when I think about stories of the Buddha, and the stories tucked away in the Zhuangzi and Laozi. Whether or not they are factually true, I think these stories reveal the essence of what kind of people we hope to be. They hint at values and ethics. We walk with the protagonists to learn lessons.

At the end of the interview, Sara from L2O asked, “What does an ideal world with Revolutionary Love look like?” I admit I was rolling along through the other questions, having practiced my elevator pitch several times before. The Fourth Precept of Engaged Buddhism tells us not to turn a blind eye to suffering. We must practice knowing our own innate goodness in order to know that of others. I have a sizable story bank that allows me to illustrate what I believe quite often.

This question forced me to think about my end goal in this work. What is it all about? I know that writing and reading and dialoguing give me life, especially on the topics of faith and social justice, but to what end? I admit: I don’t know what “the ideal” is.

Pause for a second. One of the ways I ground myself in love is recognizing that everyone suffers. My job is to help alleviate that suffering- but not the reality that suffering is the way of this world. I think it’s important to acknowledge that everyone holds pain and fear. I believe further that it’s important for us to sit with it for a while. Running away only further embeds these harmful emotions into our bodies and minds. So an ideal world is not one free from suffering necessarily, but one in which the suffering translates to discomfort. When we sit in a place of tension and discomfort, we are learning. When others share with us that we contribute to their discomfort, we learn how to alleviate that. I found myself saying out loud that a world grounded in Revolutionary Love isn’t one that is absent of sadness. Instead, it is one where every emotion has a purpose, and every person sees relationship as divine. It is one in which fear drives us to build bridges, not retreat.

And finally, I turned to my old friend gratitude. Gratitude for me is the acceptance that we may not have fully realized a goal or gotten exactly what we wanted, but we acknowledge that we are better off having met someone, experienced something, learned something. A world grounded in Revolutionary Love is one in which gratitude abounds. I must say, I feel very grateful to have gotten this opportunity today.

Jesus the Teacher

As traditions abound this time of year, my family hastily put up a tree, wrapped gifts, and cooked all kinds of complex dishes, culminating last night with Christmas Dinner. My dad and I always attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and this year was no different. I could see my breathe walking up the hill in Sierra Madre to St. Rita’s Parish, perhaps the greatest sign of winter that will come to Southern California. My dad and I found a seat in a pew almost in the very last row, off to the side. Normally, my dad sits front and center. As we sat down, he muttered something about the people who only come on Christmas and Easter. “But they’re here,” he corrected himself. “That’s good.”

Midnight Mass at St. Rita’s looks the same every year. I mean, exactly the same. The same carols welcome everyone to their seats. About 15 minutes late, we all stand as the procession of altar servers, deacon, and priest come down the center aisle to the altar, where they bow and take their places. The priest and deacon “visit” the nativity scene off to the left side, sprinkling the scene with incense. The first and second readings remain: Isiah (the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light) and the letter of Paul to Titus (the grace of God has appeared). The gospel rotates from Luke to Matthew to John each year. In elementary school I learned to remember: Luke= shepherds, Matthew= wise men, John= The Word. Everything else, down to the beginning of the priest’s homily, remains the same. Tradition, ritual. Sometimes, we find relief in the expected. Truthfully, I fought sleepiness the whole time.

There was one essential difference that woke me up. During the homily, the time when the one who says mass teaches the congregation about the readings and offers lessons, the priest acknowledged that our brothers and sisters of another faith were also celebrating: our Jewish neighbors were celebrating Chanukah, the festival of light and rededication. “We must pray for them, and for people of all faiths that they experience peace, enjoy relaxation, and welcome a new year just as we hope to,” he said. 1000 people heard that message, a message of interfaith cooperation in the form of prayer. The priest, our teacher, offered us an important lesson. I believe one of the most important teachers, Jesus, taught that lesson over and over.

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PC: Ben White

Yesterday among the cinnamon rolls and piles of gift wrap scattered around the family room, I reflected on the importance of teachers and the gift of learning. Teachers come in many forms: people, sacred texts, books, stories, experiences…anything can be a teacher if our persons are open to learning. One of the most powerful things about Jesus as I see is that his teachings transcended a particular time and place, and often related to the divine potential of each human being as a steward of resources. Many of the prophets and founders of great traditions of wisdom were also first and foremost teachers, and they were concerned with the flourishing of humanity. The Buddha traveled across Southeast Asia, teaching crowds of hundreds about suffering and liberation. I concluded that teaching is one of the highest forms serving human kind, especially because in teaching, we learn continuously.

Many of us will admit to spending too much money on something in particular: fancy food, clothes, alcohol, sporting events, you name it. I have much to work on in this regard. In particular, books are my downfall. The last time I walked in to a bookstore, there was a table with a “sale” sign, and I walked out with four new paperbacks. In this moment in time, memoirs and books dealing with race, gender, and religion are stacked in my “to read” pile. Besides my students who always prove to be my best teachers, books offer me a constant window into learning, the process that makes me feel most alive. Over my lifetime, the people who have most impacted me have been teachers: they have challenged me, believed in me, journeyed with me.

I closed my eyes with everyone else as we prayed for our neighbors celebrating Chanukah. I remembered something my friend Steven, an Orthodox Jew, taught me while we were on the Interfaith Council at USC: “When we light the Menorah, we take the first candle and light the others with it. Lighting one candle with another does not diminish the light in either.” Such is the case with great teachers, the more we learn from one another does not diminish the vast capacity we have to continue.