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.

 

 

IDK

Every time I travel somewhere, two Yelp searches happen. The first is for donuts. The second is for used book stores.

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PC: Glen Noble

I have a pretty significant habit of collecting books on my shelves that go unread. For a while, I started feeling guilty about this habit. What a waste! Sometimes, ultimatums get thrown around. “No more buying until you finish this shelf.” That works approximately .2% of the time because lo and behold, another trip comes up, another bookstore appears only blocks from where I stay, and my suitcase fills up with volumes. Especially if the bookstores have a religion section. Or a cookbook section. Or memoir.

I read a delicious article the other day that demanded I stop feeling guilty about acquiring unread books (within limits). It suggested that seeing unread books on shelves makes us eager to keep learning each day, because we know that our knowledge is limited and we can keep expanding it. The unread books serve as a reminder that we don’t know everything.

As a PhD student, this attitude of “not knowing” often translates to poor work. It can be difficult to admit when we don’t know a particular fact, or an entire body of literature. There have been moments in class, in a workshop, even in a meeting when I feel silly asking a question that “I should know the answer to.” But not asking the question breeds further imposter syndrome, no matter how many Google searches one can do to alleviate the feeling of not belonging due to a lack of awareness.

It almost feels comical sometimes, the way we pivot conversations to disguise not knowing for what we do know. Think of the typical politician who somehow always gets their talking points in an interview, without being asked. One of my professors assured me that the longer I do this work, the more I will realize I actually don’t know.

Reframing my work brings some comfort to this awkward admission. Maybe my job isn’t “to know,” but actually to recognize what I don’t know, and to strategize ways to find out. Moreover, maybe it’s about the questions we ask. Why are we fascinated by people of the past? What do their lives mean for us? If I interview 50 chaplains about their work, will they give me similar answers?

Academia’s most exciting aspects rest in the unread section of the bookshelf. In fact, I believe life’s most virtuous moments appear in the form of the unread. Often, the stories we tell deal with surprise and an unexpected turn of events. How we react to our surprises dictates the kind of memory it is.

Perhaps the biggest question we will never know how to answer is what our purpose is, and I think it right that we never cease wondering. We can continue asking, and continue seeking, but in this case, not knowing is the one thing that connects us beyond our towns and counties and states. If only we could celebrate not knowing.

Ramadan Sunset

This post appears on the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ blog in the series “Interfaith Ramadan.”

 

I’m watching the sunset over Teddy Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota and thinking about my Grandmother on this first night of Ramadan. She passed away a few years ago, but growing up, my family would visit her in Lake Isabella just above Bakersfield in Central California. This view before me, a vast scatter of pink, purple, blue, red and yellow, also reminds me of the many evenings I spent as an archaeologist in Antalya, Turkey overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, watching the sun kiss the warm salty water before it disappeared behind a nearby mountain range. I remember these nights during Ramadan, in July or August, when we would fast for more than 16 hours and eat our iftar meal, the time to break fast, outside overlooking the coast.

As far as I know, there is no mosque here in Medora, North Dakota, population 132. Minneapolis, the city I drove from this morning, is about 550 miles away, but feels so much further. Compared to Boston and Chicago, my two previous home cities, Minneapolis is a small city, but boasts everything a metropolis would- art museums, fancy coffee shops, skyscrapers, and of course religious diversity. I’ve been on the road now for almost a week across the Northern United States, westbound eventually for Los Angeles, and have used the long drives to reflect on leaving Boston, a place I celebrated Ramadan with a sizeable number of my students and colleagues who were Muslim, and others who have grown to cherish this time and tradition, just as I have. As the landscape has subtly shifted every day on the road- from forest to plains to badlands- I can’t help but think about Ramadan as a time to notice subtle threads of particularities- the things that make us all different- meeting in the middle, finding a common center, flourishing in the most sacred part of the year.

Our world right now feels pretty scattered, just like this sunset in front of me. Driving this road has also exposed me to ways of living I have never encountered, growing up in one of the most physically vast cities in the world, Los Angeles. And yet, if I step back for a moment, while the colors in the sky remain distinct, they each meet and blend slightly. All over the world, Muslims practice in distinct ways during Ramadan- from eating particular foods at Iftar to feeling anxiety about celebrating publicly in places where Muslims are marginalized and under threat. From breaking fast under big city lights to listening for the call to prayer in small villages, Ramadan differs greatly from place to place, people to people. Nonetheless, the common knot in the center is stronger than the particular strands of thread. Ramadan always reminds me that no matter how divided and far we feel from those with whom we disagree or those whom we do not understand, there is something that binds us together- to recognize this is sacred. For me tonight, this connection is with the spirit of my grandmother who would be admiring the same sunset 1700 miles away if she were still with us. The valley seems to carry on endlessly in front of me, and at the furthest point where the sky meets the land, I wonder if there is a family breaking fast at this moment.

Dining Alone

I’m in New Mexico (!) which is probably my favorite place besides LA and Tucson. The National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC) Board meets once a year to plan for the upcoming school term, and this year we chose Albuquerque. I was elated. The desert is definitely my home spiritually. I took advantage of my downtime and drove in a day early to stay overnight in Santa Fe. The city is small but full of absolutely stunning colors and art everywhere you turn. In my experience, people quickly warm to you, offer hospitality and just generally want to know your story. I’ve been meeting folks from Texas, Arizona, and even Ohio.


As a foodie, of course I did my research. Santa Fe boasts some of the best chefs in the world who specialize in Southwestern fare, which involves lots of corn and spices. My favorite dish is called Chile Rellenos, which is stuffed poblano peppers and fried in an egg batter. In New Mexico, it’s essential that you choose a side on the sauce front: red or green? Of course, if you really can’t decided, you can order “Christmas”, which means half of each. I certainly love both, but tend toward team green. I had been waiting for years to try a restaurant called Sazon, a romantic Mexican cafe with several moles. And since I came by myself, I made a reservation for one- just me.


To be truthful, I googled what dining alone is like. As an introvert, being by myself is energizing. However, the self-consciousness surfaced when I considered bringing a book or just my phone. In airports it seems quite normative to eat by yourself, but this restaurant is a popular date night spot. Several bloggers offered great advice- most importantly, do it! Don’t worry about what other people think. I worked up my courage and arrived right on time.


Despite the slight awkwardness of people watching while they gabbed with their dinner dates, dining alone was a learning experience and surprisingly, a communal one. Both servers and diners were more willing to talk to me. The couple to my left had come from North East Texas to take a short vacation after their daughter graduated from college. This was their first time at Sazon. The couple to my right, two women, wanted drinks stat. They drove in from Arizona for a bachelorette party. The server, Miguel, came from Mexico City to work at Sazon because of the chef’s renown. He demanded I try the special dessert, because it was that good.


Of course, without distraction from a dining partner, I noticed more around me. Servers watched their tables like hawks so they could whisk dishes on and off the table to quickly move courses. The diners at the tables next to me talked to me at length- though on both sides, they began the conversation with “I’m sorry, this is so rude but…what did you order?” What surprised me the most was the silence at most tables for long lengths of time. A relaxed silence, the kind you know isn’t stemming from not having anything to say. It comes from feeling so comfortable with someone you don’t need to speak for hours at a time.

I’m grateful for the experience. Spending time alone in a public place made me aware of an important contrast we often don’t consider, the loneliness some feel even in large groups. Yet there is an importance to experiencing things without anyone else because we receive no influence to judge except our own thoughts. And for the record: that dessert was more than worth it. You’d never guess the ingredients.

In My Grandmother’s Footsteps

The first road trip I ever took was not by car, but by train. My mom, grandma Mary, and cousin Meghan flew all the way to New Hampshire to help me pack my room after my freshman year at St. Paul’s, and we began our journey. We stopped in Philadelphia, Chicago, Santa Fe, and finally arrived back in Los Angeles, weary but fulfilled. Grandma Mary and I both agreed that Santa Fe was our favorite. Not only was the food unbelievable, but the colors everywhere astounded us. Every building, facade, and even road seemed like a “pow!” to the eyes. We loved the smells and the art and the fantastic desert all around us. To this day, Santa Fe and Tucson are two places I feel completely at home. The last time I was in Tucson, I wrote a letter to my grandma every night, even though she has been gone for a few years now. I told her about the cacti and the dry heat, and the house that we stayed in. The owner described it as “living on the edge of things.”

Teddy Roosevelt National Park

I’ve been on the road for a week now, and every day has felt stunningly long. From Boston to Cleveland to Chicago to Minneapolis, the terrain has changed from city night lights to plains and now forest over the last three days in North Dakota and Wyoming. In Medora, North Dakota, I hiked the vast trails across Teddy Roosevelt National Forest and spent the night in an old west town complete with a saloon. In the evening, the air grew cooler and even fresher. Today I passed through South Dakota and almost immediately ascended a mountain at the Wyoming border, which would eventually lead to the Devil’s Tower National Monument. Devil’s Tower is the first ever national monument, and an extremely sacred place to several American Indian tribes. I watched the sun set over the gigantic volcano remnant as crickets chirped and I read about maps.

Devil’s Tower

Since arriving at the National Forest, I have been feeling a subtle longing for the house in which my grandma Mary lived in Lake Isabella, California. We called it “the lake,” and a few times a year, my family and my mom’s brothers would fill the house for a week or so. The lake house was “on the edge of things.” Everyone ended up sharing beds and only two bathrooms, and during the day we would hike out to the lake and set up chairs, coolers, and life vests. We liked to float in them after we felt too tired from jumping off rocks or swinging from trees into the water. Several moments over the course of the last few days have given me pause, like the taste of the air after a quick and intense rain shower or the sound of running shoes crunching on gravel on a dirt path. “Just like the lake,” I repeat.

If this road trip has taught me anything so far, it is that I find sacred in physical place and space. My senses bring back memories of grandma Mary and I speak to her. “You’d love this view,” I whisper. “This night sky reminds me of you and when we used to sit under it roasting marshmallows.” It’s amazing how much our senses remember and how connected they are to our emotions. I’m glad my grandmother is still with me, even if only in my footsteps.