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.

Blowup

The title of this post comes from a conversation I was having with a friend about taking care of infants. Y’all who know, know what we were talking about and I’m just going to leave it at that. So this past weekend and mainly this morning, I had an experience to which many of us can relate. I don’t want to use specific words for it because there is no one title for it, so I’ll call it “coming up.” Stuff came up for me. Like, a bunch of stuff.

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The first thing that happened was a real impulse to cry. I fed that impulse. Mascara was everywhere, and then makeup, and then other stuff. You know that phrase “ugly cry?” Imagine the ugliest. Then my body started to hurt, like after a really tough workout. My neck and shoulder muscles especially just ached. It was as if they were holding in all these unexamined emotions right there, right in the fibers. The knots began to stiffen, and then suddenly release. An outpouring. I curled into bed, clutching a pillow and waiting. While I waited to calm down, I tried to observe the thoughts that scrolled through, the visions that caused these feelings- feelings of worthlessness, being small, being unlovable and irrelevant and a failure, feelings of living in a body that holds guilt and shame inside of it- flashed over and over. It was a blowup. Except instead of a diaper to clean up, it was the thoughts. Slowly and carefully, I imagined a mop gently wiping the inside of my forehead. It felt soothing.

What is this blowup thing, and where did it come from? Different folx have different answers. Sometimes it’s a place. A smell, a noise. Sometimes a person. Sometimes a memory that appears out of nowhere. Sometimes there is no explanation. If I try to pin down the origin of this time, I’d say it has something to do with returning to writing my own story. Sometimes knowing is helpful, and other times I think it’s really about processing. Because I am writing, I wanted to lean into what was happening. I drew a thought bubble chart that helped me parse some of what’s happening. Stress about the exhibit opening. Fear of failure. Rage about injustice. Trauma in my body. I circled body because I continue to struggle with the healing process. And I started writing, and crying, and listening to the first sermon ever preached at the Women’s Mosque of America in my home city. Edina Lekovic, the Director of Policy and Programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, gave a call to action. “We must build upon this beautiful truth,” she said. “The truth that we now have a Women’s Mosque, and our daughters will say ‘of course we do’ when they grow up. We are inclusive, not exclusive. We are open, not closed***.”

I want to help build these beautiful truths for which women continue to lay the foundation. I am glad everything “came up,” because like a foundation the pain sits and stirs once in a while. Upon this foundation, we can build not walls but windows into beauty, and greatness, and love.

You can check out this amazing sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4g26wK-VYV0

Women Who Grieve

Happy International Women’s Day! I love the outpouring of pictures and writing and speeches about the women who have trail blazed and led and mentored, those who are, and those who will.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I’m going to say something bold. This week, it seems like grief and death have surrounded me- from Coco winning at the Oscars to thinking about empathy in end of life care in my class to an interfaith memorial service to…the horrid violence that can occur when grief goes unchecked. Now, this violence is also rooted in toxic patriarchal and white supremacist attitudes. Grief can play a role in exacerbating this. In my short life, I have encountered lots of grief and found that frankly, often women deal with it better.

On Sunday my partner and I watched a live performance of “Remember Me” at the Academy Awards. The song was up for best original song (and it won!). I think many people would say it’s easy to cry- the premise and the melody remind us of friends we have lost. We cried too. This morning my partner texted me saying that he listened to the song while looking at pictures of his father, and he didn’t understand why he did that. It only made him cry again. “It’s been more than a year, why am I still doing this?”

I’ve written about death and grief a fair amount. In my work, we think about memorial services, funerals, and other ways of ritualizing death quite often. I think what goes unnoticed is not the raw grief from more “fresh” loss but the grief we carry through the rest of our lives. We often hold this idea that at some point in time, grief will exit, it will leave us. We “get over” it. But that’s false. Several people that came to to the interfaith memorial service grieved for people they lost five, ten, or even thirty years ago, and perhaps their grief looks different than someone with raw pain, but the entity is there. Grief becomes a part of us as soon as we experience loss, and it stays with us- it morphs and changes and takes different forms. This is why we wake up crying, or feel empty, or sometimes even laugh out loud for no reason. The other day I was thinking about my grandmother who loved to tell anyone, much to their chagrin, who visited her house about these dolls she had- King Henry VIII and his wives. It was one of those moments that explodes with joy and pain and yearning and sorrow all in the same instant.

I think it’s crucial to talk about grief often. Grief is not always related to the end of life, but it is always related to death as an end. The end of a career, the end of a relationship, the end of living in a particular place. Is grief our friend? I think we might discover different ways to relate, but knowing it exists within us is helpful and actually soothing, sometimes.

Today I am lifting up the women in my life because they hold grief in ways that push them. My mom, my sister, my friends, my classmates, my professors, the activists and teachers and writers I admire- we all hold grief for loss. Some of this loss is what should be and simply isn’t because women constantly fight for space. Our grief can be shared by the space women make for each other.

Forgetting to Remember

76 years and two days ago*, Japanese fighter planes bombed Pearl Harbor on the Island of Oahu. Just two days ago I went about a normal graduate student day, writing fiercely about saints and early Christian monastics and interfaith dialogue using storytelling as a model for transformation. I took breaks and went on Facebook. On the right side of the news feed, the subjects trending included the college football playoff, more heartbreaking news about assaults on young women (this time in academia, very close to home), the terrifying fires in my city of birth, and something about bitcoin.

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Photo by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

I don’t remember seeing anything at length about what happened 76 years ago. 76 isn’t a particularly meaningful anniversary- we tend to recognize milestones in fives and tens and fifties. The next day, more news appeared about Baker Mayfield as the Heisman trophy favorite despite his controversial behavior on and off the field. I went to my last day of classes for the quarter with a small feeling of triumph- I made it! Only five papers and an oral presentation to go. I looked forward to baking as motivation to get my writing done. After my last class I sat and chatted with some religious studies undergraduates and laughed about the sassy monks we read about this week. I went to my professor’s office hours and discussed my thesis for the paper. In passing, he used the phrase “I forgot to remember” to describe the woes of historians’ work. I kept repeating the phrase in my mind over and over.

What we forget is much more than what we remember, due to limitations of human memory. What we forget to remember is due to something else- pain, trauma, events we don’t want to relive. A recent article detailed why victims of sexual assault often describe the assault inaccurately- trauma often forces them to push the events out of their minds simply to go on living. They subconsciously forget to remember- though there is no such thing as erasing.

A couple years ago I was watching Archer with my divinity school classmates. The crude yet intelligent humor appealed to us amidst the brutal winter night. Archer, the brash but charming hero, finds himself in a situation involving a Japanese gang. Archer’s mother saves the day- she prevents the gang from wreaking havoc and at the end shouts, “that’s for Pearl Harbor!” The line is meant to be funny because as we say, it’s not “too soon.” Time passes and heals. Except that last part isn’t really true. Pain passes down through generations. We forget to remember atrocities because history is often about what we’ve forgotten. What about the two atomic bombs that killed over 300,000 people instantly and left years of radiation illness lingering for generations to suffer? It can be hard to connect with places and times far away, but progress is a dangerous assumption. We can’t forget to remember those before us suffered as many suffer today, from oppression and supremacy. Time can heal, but healing isn’t forgetting.

 

 

*Note: this post has been published retroactively

Me Too

Me too. Of course.

The patriarchy runs deep. So deep. How many of us hesitated to post the hashtag because a) we felt ashamed, b) we felt triggered, c) we felt invalidated (I “only”…”just”…”not a big deal”…) or d) all of the above? No victim or survivor owes social media any indication that they, too, have suffered. But the problem is a tangled web, not a straight line of perpetrator- victim.

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Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Who is “us”? We can’t just include women, here. Not only does that invalidate the experience of queer, non-binary, non-conforming, and others who have born witness via their own bodies to sexual harassment and/or assault, but by ignoring anyone except women, we take away agency from everyone. Survivors live every single day, and that takes agency. As little as it might feel we have.

Something else that bothers me about the past two days’ worth of posts on this hashtag: it is so easy to sympathize without owning one’s role in the abuse. This doesn’t just go for men. The first time I grappled with the truth that I experienced assault, I was not much younger than I am now. Not only did I have to relearn that what I experienced wasn’t “meant to be flattering” or “because of what I was wearing,” I began to realize that I had said those things about other people. I questioned women who wore short dresses and high heels and layers of makeup. What did they think would happen? By thinking these things, I participated in the patriarchy. Even as a survivor, I can still uphold misogyny.

Dismantling is not a one-and-done experience, either. Even now, I catch myself feeling irritated by a student who speaks too much in class- but would I feel as annoyed if the student were a man? Subconsciously, I felt more comfortable calling a female professor by her first name than a male professor with the same qualifications. Why? I’m disgusted with my subconscious. This is the problem with categorizing “assault” and “harassment” as different from “microaggressions” or “casual sexism.” While one may involve physical violence, and each experience brings a different kind of trauma and need for subsequent processing, the idea that one can’t participate in the hashtag campaign because the only real experience they have was “just” when their boss interrupted them constantly, or they’ve “only” been catcalled by strangers, not raped after drinking at a party, so blatantly hides the existence of misogyny everywhere, among all people. These “small, meaningless” gestures are the most dangerous because they are so hard to call out, and further, to explain to the perpetrator- the burden of course falls on the oppressed. Yet these acts uphold rape culture. As harmful as this has been to me, I cannot help to dismantle unless I examine my own interactions with it.

I am in awe of the friends who have shared their voices and stories these past few days. I couldn’t do it. It is so common to internalize our shame. Me too: I am a survivor. Me too: I am complicit. Me too: I pledge to bring my subconscious participation into the conscious, stomp on it, and work to liberate my fellow survivors.

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.

 

 

 

Starting Fresh

When I was 14, I moved across the country to go to boarding school. There were a few reasons for this, none of which involved discipline (what many assumed). Attending this school was a huge privilege for me, it meant studying with classmates who also wanted to immerse themselves in learning, meeting friends from around the world, and most especially spending a big chunk of my junior year studying on exchange in Japan. I even got to study two languages all four years.

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PC: Margot Pandone

There was another reason I was excited about going to school 3000 miles away. Since kindergarten, I had attended the same small Catholic school. That’s 9 years with the same 45 people. I wasn’t popular or cool in my class, I often felt invisible. This was mostly my own fault- I spent most of my time pursuing interests that my classmates didn’t find interesting. Like learning Japanese, or reading about religion. Middle school is hard, period. I don’t know anyone that didn’t have a hard time. For me, boarding school not only meant opportunity for rich study, it meant leaving my life behind. It meant a fresh start.

Moving at 14 was hard. I actually almost didn’t make it. I called my mom every hour the first week at school, most of the time choking through tears, “I don’t think I can do this, I want to come home.” My mom listened with endless patience. “What’s next on your schedule?” she would ask, and I would tell her the next class, or sports, or dinner. “Try that, and see how you feel after.” After a while, it became, try it for a day. Try it for a week. Look- you’ve almost made it half way through the semester. And suddenly, it was time for finals, and I was flying home for winter break.

I believe a large reason why those first few months- the first year, really- were so difficult was because I had a false perception about what this experience would be like. I could be anyone I wanted, I thought. In some ways, I had no idea what to expect. But I was so sure-and wrong- about one thing: starting fresh. Starting fresh is a farce. Sure, this experience was new and unique, and I certainly changed and grew at this school. But starting fresh in place and people doesn’t mean starting fresh by forgetting who I was proved impossible. I carried with me the same pain, fear, curiosity, and love to this new place. I still carry it today.

Instead of forgetting the unpleasantness, I have learned that new experiences- entering a new community, starting a new school, a new job, leaving a life behind- actually teaches me more about who I am at the core. Interestingly, one of my most firm convictions comes from the Buddhist tenet that change is constant and inevitable. Nothing is permanent. Yet, just because change occurs does not mean we let go of the impressions made upon us. Outwardly, we can withhold anything we want and no one may have any idea what we’ve been through. The most permanence in the world is our internal truth.

A student very dear to me gave me a book, called The Shack (it’s now a movie). I don’t normally choose novels, but this one intrigued me because it’s a story of struggles with pain and faith and the image of the divine. The beginning of each chapter is marked with a quote or two. The second chapter starts with one by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician who is well known for pastoral counseling. “Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” I paused after reading that. Of course, we feel most alone when our inward truth feels dissonance with our outward environment. This is why starting fresh only really teaches us what we are already carrying.

My first year at boarding school I tried hard to re-imagine who I was by convincing others that jem was not Mary Ellen. I don’t believe I lied explicitly- but I hid the pain of being away from my family and the struggle to do well enough and be enough for this highly talented and hardworking community. I felt so lonely, even when I was surrounded by classmates who perhaps were feeling exactly the same as I was. As I slowly started to realize that my inner truths were not only accepted but embraced, my presence at this school began to feel legitimate. To be sure, I always struggled with questions of self-worth and being enough, but I found people who could walk with me. To this day I can call my best friend that I met in our freshman dorm and talk to her as if we’ve lived next door our entire lives.

As I transition to a new experience (more on that later), I’m bringing some baggage that’s tough to carry. I’m also bringing a ton of love and memories of joy. The freshness of this beginning isn’t about erasing what I’ve been through, but opening to the possibility of learning more about who I am.