Staying in the Room

This blog is non-fiction, in as much as we can argue that real life is not fiction but “true.” I prefer to write non-fiction. I prefer to read it too.

Sometimes it’s good for us to step out of our comfort zones (it’s usually always good and often necessary to learn and grow) so in preparation for the writing retreat I will attend next week in Taos, New Mexico, I read a book about writing fiction and decided to try it. The book gave me just enough food for thought mixed with inclinations to panic and run that I decided to give it a try. It seems a little meta to be writing about writing about something that didn’t actually happen.

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Photo by Don Ross III on Unsplash

First, I sat down and reflected about a recent experience I had with selling a textbook on Amazon and the post office. Let’s just say my seller account is now suspended even though I sent the book on time. I followed the process laid out in the book and heeded the most important advice: stay in the room. It was helpful to read that because admittedly, when I try to write and don’t know what to say next, the coffee maker calls to me. Then the vacuum. Then that new book on my reading list. Then my bed…a little nap…I tell myself it will come later, and close my laptop. Sometimes this does feel necessary, especially writing pieces or passages that involve shame, guilt, or something humiliating. Yet I wondered what it might be like to stay in the room when emotion gets the best of me. In some Buddhist practices, we do this through meditation. Sitting alone with yourself brings terror to the mind if it is full of anxious thoughts, but we remain in stillness even with tears rolling down our cheeks. There is no common outcome for this practice, but by facing the pain we take a step toward allowing ourselves to heal.

I felt embarrassed and angry about this Amazon situation. I sent the book on time, why should I be blamed that it never arrived? And then I lost money! My frustration caused wild thoughts to coarse through me. The person probably did receive the book and was now sitting on her couch counting my money like Scrooge. Or, took friends out to lunch as they all laughed at the scam successfully executed.  Worse, now it looked like I had tried to cheat someone, and it felt like I should go sit in the corner, facing the wall, and endure my timeout. I knew this was the situation I had to write in my story.

My character left the post office feeling just as I did- angry and embarrassed. The post office couldn’t find any record of the package. As I wrote, taking inventory of the scene around my character, her quirks and spontaneous inclinations, the characters she meets along the way, I realized this exercise is nothing more than active listening. I stayed in the room, listened to my character, and reflected her feelings back through the next actions. I finished the story after a few hours. There were definitely moments when the coffee pot called out, or it took everything not to check a Facebook notification. In the end, I’m glad I attempted fiction, because it helped me realize what’s true for me in this moment.

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.

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.

Graduations are the Worst

It’s that time of year again. Early May- when the rain is simply unbearable because it’s supposed to be April showers May FLOWERS, but it’s 55 degrees every day and the clouds just can’t seem to leave the party. It’s the time I should be starting my summer plan- to read 300 books, write 500 pages, workout every day (twice), hang out with friends, and “relax”, because somehow the ideal summer schedule includes eight extra hours in a day. And, in these weeks of caps and gowns, honor cords and club sashes, gifts and moving dates and yearbooks and parents, everything feels like chaos.

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PC: Faustin Tuyambaze

I’ve been through a few graduations. At the end of eighth grade, my class sat on bleachers in our school gym facing the audience in a commencement mass. We were instructed to keep our knees locked together, because the white nurse-like pinafores we wore would reveal much too much if our legs flared out. Every picture of that day portrays me in deep concentration- I had gotten my makeup done for the first time ever, and I’d be damned if I let my knees separate. In high school, my classmates were forced to travel to our own graduation, because a flood had forced the school to end the Spring Term three weeks early. We wore white rain boots with our dresses for fun. I remember spending the last night before graduation in my dorm room, which I hadn’t occupied for three weeks. That night, tradition dictated that the seniors participated in one final chapel service while the rest of the students waited for us outside to say goodbye. Students stay on the chapel lawn until well past midnight, usually. I admit- my instinct was to silently sneak through the crowd and back to my room, safe from the tears and awkward exchanges. College and graduate school certainly offered their own rights of passage- black gowns, caps that made me fuss with my hair endlessly. Everything must look perfect for the pictures!

After several rounds of this pomp and circumstance, I cannot help but admit that I simply hate graduations. The word “commencement” obviously brings up cliches of new beginnings and opportunity, but I experience these ceremonies as downright anxiety inducing. No one says what is actually true. “See you in a very, very long time…perhaps never!” After each grandiose ceremony, complete with advice and rituals, I feel as though a place I’ve inevitably worked to call home, to build relationships, to find my place within the place, is kicking me out without a second glance. “Welcome to the alumni network, you can donate here and here and here.”

This post probably sounds like a rant, because it’s masking how I really feel at graduation ceremonies, which is so incredibly proud of every single person who has achieved this magnificent goal and yet, so undeniably sad. Graduations mark a transformation of your place in the community- namely, that you’re moving on from it. Even after four of my own and several of friends and family, I will never get used to these ceremonies. They break my heart as much as they make it fly.

I do feel immensely proud of everyone graduating at this time. You deserve every bit of congratulations for working your behind off for one, two, four, six, or maybe thirteen years! I hope you throw your cap in the air with everyone. I hope you wave at your friends when you receive your diploma (even if it’s really a blank tube- you’ll get it in the mail six weeks later). I hope you cry a little- because this moment is bittersweet and you deserve the difficult goodbyes too. Congratulations, classes of 2017! All my love to you ❤

 

 

Nightmare

I woke up screaming at 2 am after experiencing a nightmare.

This certainly was not the first time I’ve had bad dreams- often when I am stressed or anxious about a meeting, a test, even the amount of work ahead of me, my sleep has been fitful or disturbed. My dreams include strange and weird images. But this was different. This was terrifying darkness and powerlessness. This was screaming in sleep and out loud. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this dream means.

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PC: James Stamler

I’m in a dark room, laying on a bed. Someone outside the room is keeping guard. I’m shouting to let me out- please! But the person doesn’t respond. I realize I’m dreaming within a dream, and try to wake up. I’m paralyzed, just lying on this bed. Wake up, wake up! Until finally, someone shoves me and I am, in fact, awake.

I have never been so happy to see my room in Boston, dimly lit from the moon peeping in through the curtains, my stuffed animals strewn about the sheets. After a few deep breaths, I felt a little calmer, but disoriented still. I clutched my penguin Plush and tried to fall back asleep.

This weekend I revised about 25 pages of my memoir. Revision may indeed be harder than writing in the first place. After receiving feedback from my classmates, I was forced to grapple with the questions they posed to make my narrative clearer.

“Why did the narrator (me) say she didn’t believe in God when this is a memoir about faith?”

“What made the narrator hide the fact that she was traveling by herself?”

“Why does the narrator feel so guilty about almost everything?”

I kept writing and deleting, writing and deleting. I found myself scratching my head.

I don’t know why.

Just as nightmares illuminate possible emotions we are hiding deep within, perhaps these questions led to a stir where there has long been no movement. The only way for me to understand this terrible, terrible dream is to wonder what came up as I faced these questions, trying to honestly tell the story of my life and my journey. Darkness. Paralysis. As if stirring kicks up dust we are forced to inhale, sneeze, and clear away.

Aliveness

I, like almost everyone around me, am a mess.

I feel exhausted.

I feel exasperated.

I feel anxious. SO anxious.

Every morning, I wake up much before I hope to and feel awake. Not awake in a refreshed sense, but in a nervous, jittery, need to run off the energy awake. My stomach feels upset, my neck aches, even my breathing feels shallow. I end up reading or scrolling through Instagram in bed, which only entertains for so long. Sometimes after literal hours of tossing and turning, I get out of bed, rush through my morning ritual, and head to work on a crowded sweaty train.

I remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom: When you are in a rush, slow down. Seriously, we need to slow down.

In the past couple of weeks as this sleeplessness and anxiety has really started to affect me, I have noticed another feeling creeping up. It directly relates to anxiety: it’s called helplessness.

Helplessness, as if losing agency, power, the ability to control anything in a situation. That causes anxiety. I have been in several situations this year that felt completely out of my control. In these situations, I find myself wishing things, like, “I wish this person wasn’t here.” Or, “I wish I knew more than I do.” I find myself begging. Who, I’m not sure.

In my sleepless mornings I have sped through several books. My “to read” pile is diminishing. This past week I finished Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. The book offers 52 chapters of “lessons” for spiritual formation, to be divided up into each week of the year. As an instant gratificationist, of course I couldn’t save the lessons, I wanted them now. So I read the book in 2 days, and learned some fascinating perspectives on biblical narrative and how McLaren defines spirituality, calling it “the quest for aliveness.” I began to think about how I cultivate aliveness- running, writing, reading, and resisting. These activities bring me joy, challenge me, and allow me to see growth in myself. Aliveness. Perhaps the opposite of anxiety.

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PC: Jared Erondu

As I continued through the lessons, toward the end of the book I read this:

My anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about. My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others. My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly loved. (McLaren 143)

And suddenly it was clear: I have been my own worst enemy. I have been completely in my own head, and frightened myself to the point of insomnia. I have blamed others. I have felt miserable. I am miserable, and there is absolutely no reason for me to do nothing about this misery.

I am a mess. But I don’t need to sit in filth forever. In fact, I could do one thing today that would make me feel empowered. And celebrate that empowerment. I could be more congratulatory about finishing a run- not just feeling like I had to. I could write for the pure joy of writing, and not worry about it being terrible. And I could start thinking along the lines of what I can control, and focus on those things.

It sounds SO simple and easy, but it’s so easy to feel frozen in anxiety and misery. It’s hard to name for ourselves what we can’t control. I think aliveness is making peace with this, and learning to hold the things that give us our uniqueness. I’m done being a mess, at least, in my own head. It’s time to start assessing what needs to float there, and what can drift away.

 

Birthday

It’s thaaaaaat time of year, again. I definitely understand the shift from getting excited about one’s birthday to really dreading having to say you’re another year older. Anyway, change is inevitable, so here we are. I do feel like my birthday gift came a little early this year, that is on January 2nd, the Trojans battled until the end and came out on top. I hugged my dad so hard and then definitely shed some tears (mostly releasing the pent up stress I carried for 3.98 quarters of the same). After starting out 1-3, I’m so impressed with the coaching, the teamwork, and the unwillingness to give up. Even if it’s only football.


Before the game started, I met my friends Darlene (affectionately Darlo) and Veronica (affectionately Vero) and stayed with Darlo’s family for a while as we counted down until the gates opened to the Rose Bowl (our natural habitat). As my dad and I walked the almost three miles to find them, I noticed some Penn Staters tailgating with a Confederate flag on their pickup truck. Admittedly, my face scrunched up in disapproval before I fully registered what was before my eyes. And I started thinking about how strange and unique this humongous group of people was that came together, at least physically, to watch a sporting event.

My dad likes to be overly friendly to visiting fans. Having traveled to many games, we have witnessed our fair share of mean, rude, drunk and nasty people before and after games, win or lose. No one likes getting trash talked, at least, I certainly hate it. My dad and I walked most of the way from the train station to the stadium with a family from the Jersey Shore, decked out in their blue and white jerseys. After we parted ways eventually and passed that pickup truck, I thought about what the two schools represented in this space- their locations, their atmospheres, their populations. USC lies in the heart of a densely populated uber-metropolis. Penn State is more than an hour away from a midsize city. USC is a medium-sized private institution that brags about their international population, and Penn State is a massive public school, about 3/4 of the students are white. Both schools’ NCAA football programs are considered in the top 5 of all time, and for the most part, both schools respect each other as historic rivals. Statistics aside, frankly, as I looked around I noticed how ethnically diverse the USC fanbase seemed compared to Penn States’. This isn’t a judgement, simply an observation.

I spent my week off reading, because that’s how I veg. Since the election, I have committed to exploring genres and authors who have written notable works in the past few years on identity-based politics. It feels like a tiny step in the right direction when I feel “frozen” in terms of social action. Reading by no means represents direct action to dismantle or tear down, but my thought process was that by sharing my own mistakes and reading about those who share theirs, I could take some small steps to avoid committing microaggressions, or be more thoughtful in my language. On the plane to LA two days before Christmas, I finished Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, a sociologist’s reflections and learnings about spending time among working class whites in rural Louisiana. The book has been a conversation piece in my circles lately. I wanted to read it because Hochschild states that her mission with the study was simply to try and understand a group of people who live in a very different world from her, and subsequently, consider politics quite distinctly. I think that’s a solid mission- it echoes goals of some interfaith communities, not to change minds, but to educate and understand, to find some common ground.

Hochschild interjects a few times throughout the book that she vehemently disagrees with her newfound friends on many issues- taxes, welfare, and the “right to choose”, among others. I found myself wondering, “how could this person have spent five years with people whose views make her terribly uncomfortable?” And yet, I believe that’s exactly where I need to push myself. Perhaps it wasn’t appropriate then, and would have led to unnecessary trash talk- but what would it have looked like to start a conversation with the pickup truck driving, Confederate flag touting Nittany Lion?

I’m going to keep reading, but recognize that only through some difficult conversations will I actually begin to educate myself. I think my toolkit as an interfaith dialoguer and someone who strives to sustain a meditation practice is helpful, yet not something to hide behind. Another year older, and hopefully, just a little bit wiser. Fight On!

 

 

Preflection.

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PC: Niels Weiss

HAPPY 2017!!!

Another day turns into another year. Here we are! Today I checked my social media channels frequently to see what friends and family were feeling as the new year approached. I’m so proud of y’all! You achieved an incredible amount this year, despite some serious tragedies amidst every day strife and violence. If we are honest, changing the last two numbers of the date today to 17 don’t wipe any of this away, and surely, as we have already seen in Istanbul, tragedy looms over and over.

I really loved my friend/co-worker/colleague/tea buddy Kaitlin Ho’s reflection questions that she posted a few days ago. They certainly helped me put my own experience in context and focus on the present time. Though so much could be written for my responses to each question, here are my reflections and preflections as we begin a new year:

Where did I see glimmers of hope/light?

My students and co-workers. This past semester was exhausting for everyone, I have never seen so many young people physically show signs of fatigue and anxiety. Yet- the people around me, students and co-workers alike, delved deep and found unrelenting compassion for each other. The day after the election, 45 of our university’s community members gathered to dialogue and share, and I witnessed active listening, people making space for each other, and even strangers hugging. A week after that, a group of students attended a workshop I facilitated for the Global Citizenship Project around storytelling for social change- republicans, democrats, and international students included. Though I felt nervous, the students made themselves vulnerable to each other and shared some heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories about living with depression, experiencing their parents’ divorce, and other touching experiences. For a moment it felt like we had created community across an unbridgeable divide.

Where did I experience darkness?

I witnessed the ugliness of bureaucracy and large corporate institutions. I felt dehumanized and witnessed through my own lens of privilege how deep-seeded oppression is around me.

What did I see in my character that I’m proud of/want to see more of?

I ran 3 half marathons and started training for my first full marathon this past year. I’m gearing up for Boston in April. What I’ve learned in my running journey so far is that health cannot be achieved through only physical well-being, it’s so much more about the mind. I found that attempting to be gentle but encouraging of my body and mental state got me so much farther than beating up myself up for missing a day, or running too slow, or not stretching enough. I felt more motivated to take care of myself when I was merciful. As I start the serious training, I want to see more appreciation of the immense task it is to live, love and breathe on this earth day in and day out- appreciation of my own body, and of others’.

What do I want to change?

I want to engage in more honest, uncomfortable conversations that will continue to educate me in the fight for equity. I learned this year that I can’t expect people to call me out unless I create that norm and culture, demonstrating that holding each other accountable is an act of revolutionary love. I don’t want to feel frozen in my humble social justice work, and staying in motion means finding opportunities to educate myself at every turn.

Who are people I’m grateful for?

I literally start to cry when I think about how many people rooted for me this year, and how I could never repay the kindness and generosity they have shown. People I love donated to the charity I will run for in the Boston Marathon, listened to me complain and express frustration and still stuck by me, read my blog and other writings, gave me meaningful projects to work on, and met with me to give advice or just be in good company. I’m grateful for the interfaith movement, for the Revolutionary Love Fellows, for my students, for my new writing partners, for my family, for my partner, and for the people who were not afraid to ask for favors.

Who are friends with whom I need to reconcile?

I struggled with forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation this year. It took almost all year for me to realize that forgiveness and mercy are truly divine, but cannot be hurried. Rather than thinking about specific individuals, I’m going to continue challenging myself to hash out these concepts as they relate to healing and how I can be a better friend and family member to others.

What are my greatest desires and needs in my relationships, my faith, my work, my health?

This is such a good and difficult question. I like being needed and feeling important, but I think what I actually need is the opposite- a chance to be in communities where I don’t play a leadership role and simply exist among others. I need to continue struggling in my faith and what I believe about ambition and justice. I need to keep writing, focusing on meaningful writing rather than quantity. I need to be my own best advocate for my health and in doing so, learn to be a fierce advocate for others.

And finally…here’s to reading 100 books this year 😀 mostly for pleasure.

New Year’s Resolution

Wow, there are 19 days left in December. 19 days left in 2016. The “Me in 2016” memes have been keeping me going- though truthfully, the passage of 2016 to 2017 is merely night into day, a rotation of the earth, nothing more. Hope is important, and so is integrity. Lots of work and struggle ahead.

Have you started thinking about your New Year’s Resolution? I’ve thumbed through the usual: drink more water, go to the gym more, lose weight, eat more vegetables. All good ideas and things to work on, speaking for myself. I see a pattern in the popular resolutions: they all identify a deficit. They all require discipline and motivation. Time and again, I have made resolutions like this, and I can’t remember a year in which I successfully went more than a month in keeping the habit. Something is missing in our resolutions, and that is mercy.

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PC: Jay Ruzesky

The reason I’ve been thinking about mercy is because I hoard books and two of the books on my nightstand have the word “mercy” in the title. Traveling Mercies, by Ann Lamott, and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. I actually had to look up the definition of mercy, and according to google, means something between forgiveness and compassion. When we practice mercy, we actively harness our power to condone those who have harmed, rather than punish them. Action, power. Mercy requires agency, it’s a choice. The way I see it, forgiveness is self-practice primarily. I can forgive someone without their knowledge. I let go of anger and resentment not for the purpose of forgetting, but for the purpose of freeing myself from the suffering. Mercy changes the plan- it’s active compassion in the face of pain. Teasing out these differences, I remember something my writing professor said to us the first day of class: “To be a successful memoir, the narrator (you) must be compassionate toward the younger self.” I thought to myself, “Uh, why? I was the worst back then. I deserved to be thrown in jail and rot.”

And there it was, my New Year’s Resolution: Be Merciful. First and foremost to MYSELF! How can one understand the freedom from resentment, anger, disappointment, failure and actively change behavior toward it when we are not merciful toward our own selves? Pfffft. That’s a rhetorical question, but an important one nonetheless. Maybe mercy is about mindfulness. Everything is about mindfulness. But let me explain.

Thinking back on my 2016, it was a hard year. That’s an understatement: it was an excruciating year for me and so many of my friends, my students, and my colleagues. Some days getting to work on public transportation felt like the final battle in Lord of the Rings. But if I’m really honest with myself and what I accomplished, it was not nothing. I ran two half marathons and made a decision to run a full one. I wrote over 70,000 words for a memoir in progress- it’s no where near done, but I’m not giving up on it. Beginning in June I published an average of a blog post a week on this site and some others. I started therapy, took charge of my health, and spoke up about being a white woman. None of these processes has been perfect- there were days I didn’t run because I wanted to sit on the couch and eat pizza instead. There were days I didn’t write because my mind was uninspired. I gained some weight, skipped some therapy sessions, and missed a SHIT ton of opportunities to speak up about oppression. What does it all mean?

One of my students highly suggested (borderline demanded) that I try Forrest Yoga recently. Truth time: yoga freaks me out. It’s boring and slow and I have to sit with myself and my terrible flexibility for far too long. But I did it, and as our instructor repeated several times, I noticed where the struggle was. My mind really wanted to yell at my stiff body for using a block in pigeon pose. Mercy itself is the block- it’s an act of mindfulness as the world hurls crap at you over and over. it’s acknowledging that imperfection is better than not doing something at all- the end justifies the means. No, wait- the means get messed up sometimes, but you can still get to the end. That’s mercy: finding compassion and changing course. It’s acting on love that has been buried but not extinguished.

I don’t mean to pat myself on the back. That action is extremely dangerous- congratulating ourselves too often lulls us into complacency. The reason I started this blog was to think about how we sustain ourselves as activists when justice fatigue is real. Though I don’t practice in the Pure Land tradition, the Boddhisatva Kannon has always inspired me. She’s known as the Goddess of Mercy, the one who listens when we cry out in suffering. As a Boddhisatva she has embodied the ultimate mercy by forgoing her ultimate attainment to help us out. In the journey rife with suffering mercy is about taking our power we could use to get even with others or ourselves who have caused harm, and instead applying it to change course, focusing on the goal and being mindful that we can still find a way to get there.

 

 

 

The Feast

I have been feasting for two weeks. It started with Thanksgiving, understandably, but since then I have been enjoying time with my family, and quite often that includes food. What I mean by feasting; however, is not solely about a buffet of delectable dishes from various cuisines. My time in LA has been a cornucopia of meetings and greetings with friends and mentors, and even new colleagues. I visited five campuses this week across California for a few reasons. First, when would I not take a chance to go back to USC’s campus? I also wanted to get a pulse for interfaith efforts around the election and the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock. Visiting these campuses also gave me the chance to road trip up the coast listening to tapes of Grateful Dead shows all the way up (another post on that coming up). A feast for the belly, the eyes, and the ears, yes. This week I also enjoyed a feast for the heart.

On Tuesday I drove to Claremont to have lunch with an esteemed and beloved professor, someone who has mentored me since college. She consistently bridges the scholarly study of religion with spiritual practices with activism, which we desperately need right now. We caught up on projects and our families and the latest American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. After lunch, I got to sit in on a class with one of her closest colleagues, Dr. Frank Rogers, who studies narrative pedagogies, religious education and engaged compassion practices. In class we discussed several paradigms of religious education and even played a riveting game akin to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” a popular game show. The students welcomed me warmly, and we laughed about our struggle to put historical events in order. At the end of class, Dr. Rogers sent us with a sending question: What metaphor would you use to describe education? At first consideration, my mind thought “prism,” but after reflecting on this week, I think “feast,” and perhaps more accurately, “potluck.” Mmmm, potato salad.

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PC: Sweet Ice Cream Photography

On Saturday, two Revolutionary Love Fellows Meha and Simran and I met up for brunch and to finally see each other in person after working closely together for months having never done so (technology is great, but so strange sometimes). As we shared updates on our personal lives and then planned for our upcoming retreat, we commented on the remarkability of the unique gifts each fellow possesses. On our team, we’ve got doctors with facilitation skills. We’ve got lawyers who also do graphic design, and writers who are expert marketers. You could say our group is “stacked.” Meha noted something I’ve been thinking for a while. “I get excited to come home and do RevLove stuff,” she said. “Not only is it so important, but the fact that we all get it, there’s 15 other people who are giving their time for something they feel passionate about is really motivating.” Returning to the question of a metaphor for education, let me explain my choice in “potluck.”

I never would have met Meha and Simran had I not joined this team- Meha has a background in health care and is working toward an MBA, and Simran works at UCLA as a Project Manager. Their background alone brings a different kind of dish to the potluck, and no one likes a potluck with the same dish. Education for me is about bringing great minds with distinct experiences and beliefs, unique ingredients, together to learn from each other at a common table. If too many people with the same identity crowd the gathering, we lose other important perspectives. We need appetizers, main dishes, desserts, and drinks. At the same time, we’ve got to be prepared for the unexpected. The potlucks I remember from the Japanese Community Center where we played basketball often included pizza, spam musubi, and chocolate milk. While this might not represent a conventional meal, educational spaces are enriched by new epistemologies, new ways of learning. On the #RevolutionaryLove Team, I especially see how this happens. My understanding of the legal field and even what motivates teams has increased dramatically. Most of all, a potluck is never successful without a vibrant community committed to maintaining the space, and education is definitely most especially about community. As social creatures, we learn most effectively among others.

My sending question then, is: what will you bring to the potluck? What ingredients and textures will set your dish apart for others to enjoy? Are we hungry yet?