Tattoos and the Art of Process

This February and March mark the first anniversary of my chronic illness diagnosis (the anniversary spans a couple months because as some of you might know the diagnosis process for many chronic illnesses is long and weird–arguably I haven’t actually completed it yet). The onset of my illness and the many subsequent life adjustments that I’ve undergone, necessarily made 2016 a long, difficult, seminal chapter of my life. As the year drew to a close I began to reflect on what I had learned from it, how it had shaped me, and what I wanted to be different going forward. These reflections lead me to getting my second tattoo this January.

Chronic illness has challenged me to let go of my perfectionism in new ways. It’s difficult for me to accept that I am worthy of love whether or not I’m perfect, but as I struggled to process what being chronically ill meant about my abilities and my belovedness I was struck by the realization that nothing on earth that I love is perfect. The people who I love and think are amazing and beautiful are not perfect. The natural things I love–flowers, trees, the ocean–aren’t aesthetically or symmetrically, but I still think they’re stunning evidence that God is an artist and that earthly things contain the divine. So, why would the logic be any different in reference to myself? Maybe this line of thinking is obvious to many of you, but for me it was a new framework for gently addressing the flawed logic of my perfectionism. I wanted to give myself a reminder of this framework, and extend a symbolic peace offering to my body, so I settled on a tattoo that I felt would accomplish both.

Both of my tattoos have been symbols of process and reminders of the truest things about me. I find that having physical reminders of these truths can help me to embrace them, assisting me in the process of embracing myself, my purpose, and the world around me. The roses I got on my hip this January are a reminder to include myself and my body when I think about the beautiful divine imperfection of creation. The stars on my arm that I got three years ago serve to remind me that when life is dark there is light inside of me, in my relationship with my family members, and in my relationship with God. Art is amazing because of how it not only reminds us of what is true and visceral in life, but also because of how it changes our perspectives and our processes of transition and grief and creates space for the divine to manifest in our lives. For me, tattoos have allowed me to carry a little of that power with me.

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New Project!!

Hi everyone, obviously I haven’t been very active on this blog in the last 3 months, this is mainly because I have been working on a new project that launched just yesterday! A friend of mine and I have started Ignited magazine, an online magazine by and for people ages 18-26 who are seeking to follow Jesus in our every day lives through art, social justice, and personal development. You can check it out at ignitedmag.com.

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Franny and Zooey, and Jesus, and Me.

“But most of all, above everything else, who in the Bible besides Jesus knew–knew–that we’re carrying the kingdom of heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look?” –J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey.

When I was seventeen, my family took our yearly summer vacation down to the hot, dry, almost completely vacant haven that is Palm Springs in August. It is a tradition in our family that on long car rides, my dad will read books, articles, or scripture out loud to us for a few hours along the way. On this particular trip he brought a small, paperback book that I had never heard of, and frankly had little interest on. It was called Franny and Zooey. Despite my lack of interest, I was hooked within pages. There was something so honest and true about the dialogue-heavy story that made me listen attentively and want more long after the book had ended.

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That fall I convinced my mom to let me read a selection of Salinger’s other works as part of my schoolwork. I read Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters. There are portions of Nine Stories that I now have almost memorized because I often carry it with me in my purse and reread it when I am bored. However, I never reread Franny and Zooey. Until this weekend, when, in an effort to center myself and direct my thoughts in a purposeful way, I reached for the nearest Salinger book, which happened to be none other than Franny and Zooey.

After a few minutes I came across a line that made me get up and find a highlighter. One of the main characters, Franny Glass, is trying to explain to her boyfriend the meaning of this book that she just can’t get off of her mind. The book in question is The Way of a Pilgrim and what Franny is stuck on is the concept of praying without ceasing which the main character in the book masters and shares with people he meets on his travels.

“–you only have to just do it with your lips at first–then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing.”

Like Franny, I am very attracted to the idea of this centering heartbeat. The idea of having a sense of peace and belovedness that is so deep that you are constantly connected with the greater power of the universe, is something that I feel pulls at the very core of my being. However, I often struggle, like Franny does, to balance how I feel about my real life with how I feel about this otherworldly pull on my heart. The belief that it is because I am defective that I cannot attain this level of centeredness and clarity, is one that I often find myself fighting. I’ll think that if I was really good, and committed, and if I just worked hard enough, I could live in a constant state of peace, unconditional love, and a ceaseless sense of connection to God and the world around me. Alas, as both Franny and I seem to forget, that isn’t really how being a human works. You can strive for all the right things and deny your own desires, but still fall short of perfection. And to be honest, I think that a great deal of my and Franny’s shortsightedness comes from an inability to accept what is right in front of us–the truth about ourselves.

In the book, Franny puts her life on hold, allowing herself to become obsessed with the idea that if she prays this prayer she will find peace. She fears that, by doing anything else, she will fall prey to the egotism and materialism that she feels is consuming her peers. While remaining humble and unattached to possessions are worthy goals, Franny uses the prayer to distance herself from not only her own passions, but also her fellow human beings. Here the parallels between Franny and I breakdown somewhat. My criticism is more likely exercised on myself than on others, but the effects of my fears and unbalanced thought-patterns are often similar. They lead me to feel isolated, disconnected, unfocused, and un-accepting of myself. Pretty much the exact opposite of a centering heartbeat.

In Salinger’s novel, the counterargument to Franny’s desperate self denial and feelings of isolation is presented in the form of her debatably insufferable, but somehow also wise older brother, Zooey. Although a complete mess himself, Zooey is able to speak a jarring amount of truth into Franny’s predicament. In a conversation that had me reaching for my highlighter every three of four lines, he forces Franny to examine her beliefs and thought process more close, specifically pointing out that if she is praying the Jesus prayer in hopes of finding peace and to isolate herself from the difficulties and evils of life, then she doesn’t really understand Jesus. Zooey argues that a Jesus who flipped over tables and loves even the most egotistical and frustrating of humankind, isn’t a Jesus that is looking for detachment. He argues that what sets Jesus apart from other profits and philosophers was that he didn’t need to “keep in touch” with God, that he simply knew that there is no separation from God, whether we recognize it or not. Which brings us to the quote at the beginning of this post–a quote that has been running through my mind incessantly for the past couple of days.

“But most of all, above everything else, who in the Bible besides Jesus knew–knew–that we’re carrying the kingdom of heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look?”

Is it just me, or is that a stunningly poignant statement to find in a book that consists entirely of conversations between rich, dysfunctional New Yorkers in the 1950s? (I could go on and on about the literary genius of Salinger for hours, but that is not the point of this blogpost, so I’ll refrain.)

My best self (that is, who I am when I feel confident and connected to something bigger than myself) understands Zooey’s argument completely. My best self is excited and moved by the prospect of discovering how to bring the kingdom of heaven that I carry inside of myself out into the world. But the line between that life-giving excitement and an irrational belief that I should be something beyond the realms of humanity can be dangerously thin. Franny too, seems to struggle with reconciling even her most noble human desires with her compulsion to detach herself wholly from worldly things. I often feel that I shouldn’t want anything. Even things that are good and make me a better person. I shouldn’t want to work a fulfilling job, I shouldn’t want to find a life partner, I shouldn’t want to feel loved and wanted by people in my life. But, as Zooey seems to argue (I say “seems” because Zooey is not the most straight-forward of talkers), it is our desires that make us human. We can’t get rid of them. We can decide how much we allow them to rule us, we can decide how we use them, but whether we acknowledge them or not, they are part of us. Living out our desires for love, fulfillment, and connection in a healthy, God-conscious way, is one of the most important things we can do to honor our Creator. (Note: when Zooey makes this point he speaks very metaphorically, so this is more interpretation than paraphrase on my part.)

The fact that I will never be more than human, may seem really obvious to most of you. But accepting all of the imperfections of humanity, while still appreciating the incredible beauty and responsibility of carrying the kingdom of heaven, is seriously challenging for me, to say the least. Sometimes I can feel it all at once and it’s completely overwhelming. However, every so often I catch glimpses of what balance might look like, and I am driven to learn to internalize and believe the truth that as flawed as humans are, we are infinitely more loved.

*if you have never read Franny and Zooey, please go do so and enjoy it for yourself instead of relying on my crummy (and highly selective) summarization.

The Irritation of Inspiration

Something I have become increasingly aware of over the past few years is that inspiration and passion are often accompanied by a great deal of frustration. Late last night I arrived home after spending the weekend at Wild Goose festival in North Carolina. Wild Goose, as I have mentioned before, is a yearly faith, arts and justice gathering; for me it is a hotbed of inspiration filled with incredibly passionate people from diverse walks of life all in differing points on their journeys. It’s fantastic. As you may know, it’s been difficult for me to find faith-oriented spaces that feel authentic and comfortable for me, so once a year Wild Goose gives me the opportunity to bask in a sense of community and shared values with all kinds of amazing people! Then I come home to find a surprising number of emotions and reflections waiting to be unpacked. So, here is this year’s bout of reflection-induced word vomit.

This year I was given the opportunity to speak, alongside my dad, twice at the festival. Although I have years of stage experience, speaking in a context where I admire so many of the other speakers was exciting, but also made me pretty nervous. I was surprised when, after our first talk, people came up to talk to me (something I have watched happen to my dad for years) to ask my advice on the topics we’d addressed in our interview-style presentation lead by the amazing Mickey ScottBey Jones. We had discussed intentional living in the context of engaging with issues of race, poverty, and injustice in our neighborhood as people with great privilege. Specifically, we shared our journeys in becoming awakened to issues that primarily affect our neighbors of color in ways we hadn’t even realized. Figuring out how to engage with and love my neighborhood is something I have thought about and grappled with extensively. I wrestle a lot with questions like, “How do I do this while I am busy with the commitments of being a college student?” and “How do I find ways to engage with those around me that feel safe? How do I take into consideration that I am a young woman and can’t necessarily interact with everyone the same way my dad does, while still trying to live into a sense of overall safety and provision?” It’s hard to admit, when asked for advice by people who have just spent an hour listening to me and my dad talk, that I haven’t really found the answers yet.

This is where the frustration of inspiration and passion comes into play. I was excited to speak. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity. I hope that I was able to provide some insight or encouragement that was helpful to the people who heard me… But when it’s all over I almost feel a bit fraudulent. Being fairly idealistic and very verbal I am great at talking the talk. I can discuss matters of justice for hours and feel passionate and engaged with the subject and the people I am talking with. However, at this point in my life, the walk that I am trying to walk to live out my convictions isn’t very exciting and doesn’t involve grand actions or ongoing integral involvement with certain movements or organizations. My actions are personal–a series of individual choices I am making about how I live that may not even be perceivable from the outside. It doesn’t feel like enough, but from what I know of myself, nothing will ever feel like enough until I am able to shift my understanding of what “enough” is. This will likely involve me learning not to compare myself with others, as well as convincing myself that it’s okay to be a work in progress and not have it all figured out yet (oof, that’s gonna be a lot of work).

I want to encourage others who may be in a similar position as I feel myself to be, especially students and young adults that it’s okay if you’re not in the position to become a professional activist (or the whatever equivalent for your passions is) in your 20s. If you are, that’s fantastic, good for you, keep fighting the good fight! However, caring deeply about issues of justice, but not being able to drop everything and become an activist or community organizer or movement leader doesn’t make you a hypocrite. That is probably really obvious to some of you, but I have to constantly remind myself that there are lots of ways in which I am making personal decisions that reflect my values and that are setting me up to do the thing that I believe are most important.

A quick (but not that quick, let’s be real, brevity is not one of my strengths) example of where I am currently feeling this tension most acutely is in the job I recently got working at Peet’s coffee. As someone who has only ever worked for nonprofit organizations until now, and who is passionate about fair trade and ethical sourcing, working at a large, corporate coffee shop (that only sells one fair trade blend) isn’t ideal and is something I struggle to feel okay about. However, I am also very committed to be able to pay my share of my college tuition and graduate without debt so that I have the freedom to do work that is meaningful to me without the impending doom of college loans. Not to mention, being able to take courses on topics like the history of race relations in the US and getting to study inspiring activists from history has been incredible formative and valuable in shaping my views and understanding on lots of issues I am passionate about.

So, does the value of my education and the ways in which I believe my education will allow me to engage with the world and help others balance out the questions I have about working for a company I don’t wholly agree with? I am not actually sure. I am trying to remember that it matters that I am putting time and thought and energy into living in a way that resonates with my values and sense of purpose. I am trying to remember that I am working hard in school, in my relationships, in my daily practices  , to become the kind of person who will do the right thing and take the big leaps of faith for what is true and what is right when the times comes. And no, that doesn’t feel like I am doing enough. But maybe that’s okay? Maybe that’s what will keep me striving for better. IMG_6783

When Loving Your Neighbors Means Marching

On Friday night I had the honor of participating in a vigil and march in memory of our neighbor Amilcar Lopez-Perez. It being only my third march, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. To be completely honest I was a little nervous because I knew that the autopsy report released earlier yesterday had rightly angered many people. However, I was humbled by how beautiful and powerful the evening was.

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We started at the place of the killing, right around the corner from my house and marched to the local police station where we had a die-in and left candles along with the names of our brothers and sisters lost to police violence written in chalk. At both locations we had interfaith memorial and prayer time, including moving rituals performed by a local first nations group, Danzantes Xitlali, and prayers lead by local clergy. The legal team also revealed the autopsy report which went public earlier friday proving that Amilcar  was shot six times in the back as he fled for his life from the plain-clothes officers who accosted him. After our stop at the police station we continued our march to a local church where we were offered free dinner and spent some time talking and eating in community.

The wonderful community leaders and clergy who organized the vigil and march did an amazing job setting the tone for a peaceful, sincere, passionate protest and I am so grateful to them for their hard work. I am proud of my dad who has gotten really involved in this and has earnestly sought to support our black and brown neighbors in protesting this issue that so disproportionately affects them.

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photo by Lydia Chávez via missionlocal.org

I also had the incredible honor of meeting and listening to the powerful words of pastor Michael McBride who eloquently encouraged and prayed beautifully over our protest in front of the police station. I admire pastor McBride very much both as an activist and a Christian, so getting to shake his hand and exchange a few words meant a lot to me. More importantly his presence at the protest was very powerful.

I don’t go to church. I rarely find myself engaged in shared spiritual experiences outside of my family, the majority of my God moments are things I experience and reflect upon within myself, even when those moments are a reaction to something outside of myself. However, I felt so many God moments at the protest last night. Listening to the words of pastor McBride and local priest, father Richard Smith, standing in unity with people of all creeds and backgrounds who are passionately seeking justice, truth, and love, and trying to understand the pain felt by the families of those who have been lost to police violence, some of whom were with us. All of these experiences (and others, I am sure, that I can’t describe) felt so real, so much bigger than all of us standing in front of the police station, and so connected to a larger story.

photo by Lydia Chávez via missionlocal.org
photo by Lydia Chávez via missionlocal.org

It was a powerful and spiritually moving evening and I am so thankful to have gotten to be a part of it, yet so sad that such protests are necessary. May we, through our actions and with our voices, help to bring about a world in which our children won’t have to march to protest the unnecessary killing of their brothers and sisters by those employed to protect them. May we one day see evidence that the moral arc of the universe does indeed bend towards justice.

What History Would Jesus Teach?

Earlier this week my mom forwarded me this link about a resolution that has been brought forth in the Oklahoma Senate. To summarize, the resolution would ban the United States History AP test due to its failure to promote American Exceptionalism and its greater focus on the experience of minorities, who have often been treated badly in US history. A similar resolution was introduced in Georgia recently, as well, in response to a new version of the AP test, which lawmakers feel presents a “radically revisionist view of American history.” An additional 3 or 4 states have experienced controversy about this test in the last year.

The articles about the resolution sent me into full rant mode. There’s so much I could say about the dangers of only teaching a version of history that promotes patriotism and a view of America as a superior, Godly country. In efforts to narrow my ranting, I want to discuss this issue in terms of my faith as a Christian, my passion about the importance of history, and why (perhaps ironically) I think that pushing the idea of an exceptional, Christian America is significantly un-Jesus-like.

The reason I chose this image is because it actively shows the erasure of certain people from our history. The artist has intentionally left that empty seat in the corner to represent a woman who you have probably never heard of, but who was an important, though unofficial member of Lincoln's cabinet. Anna Ella Carroll was a master war strategist and one of Lincoln's battle advisors during the Civil War.
The reason I chose this image is because it actively shows the erasure of certain people from our history. The artist has intentionally left that empty seat in the corner to represent a woman who you have probably never heard of, but who was an important, though unofficial member of Lincoln’s cabinet. Anna Ella Carroll was a master war strategist and one of Lincoln’s battle advisors during the Civil War.

The very basis of American Exceptionalism goes against Jesus’ teachings. Part of the revolutionary aspect of the gospel was that God’s love was unbiased and not limited to a chosen people. By stating that Americans are consistently in the moral right because of our religious traditions acts as if to say that ours is a chosen nation and therefore we can do whatever we want. This is incredibly dangerous thinking; thinking that has led to a vast number of atrocities committed in the name of Democracy and Christianity, despite the fact that Christ himself preached non-violence, self-sacrifice, and taught us to love our enemies.

The lawmakers’ concern about the “radically revisionist view of American history” being presented in the AP course material problematically privileges one view of American history over all others and promotes it as “true.” My first thought was that clearly none of these lawmakers could have studied history any time in the last 40 years. One of the first things I learned about history in college is that there is no single “true” version. There are facts, there are events, and no matter what your source, these facts and events will always be presented through the lens of someone’s bias. “Revisionism,” until recently used as a dirty word, is the process of going back and looking at the facts and events we have long been taught through a different lens. This lens is often that of women, minorities and the poor– people who could not control how their history was preserved at the time. One of the Oklahoma lawmakers, Representative Dan Fisher, is part of a group that further objects to the AP History test on the basis that it embodies a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective” (Source).  In Proverbs 31:8-9, we are told to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” How then, is an inclusion of the stories of women and minorities an exclusion of the Christian perspective? By seeking to bring silenced voices and their stories into mainstream historical consciousness, revisionism promotes compassion and a deeper understanding of the complex nature of history.

However, complexity is scary for many of us. It leaves room for questions to which there is no right answer and stories in which no one is really the hero. It’s simpler to believe that things are black and white, and if we believe that then the impulse to write ourselves in as the heroes is incredibly strong–because the only other option is that we’re the villains. This, I believe, causes incredible amounts of anxiety about teaching “the right” history (that’s a pun, by the way, think about it). Here is another way in which, I believe, Jesus’ teachings play into this question of simplifying and censoring our history. I believe that Jesus calls us to something so much bigger than what we can perceive, that there is no room for fear to drive our actions. Attempts to restrict what is taught so that only what we believe will make  “patriots” out of our students is a fear driven action and doesn’t promote the understanding or reconciliation that Jesus taught us to pursue.

Finally, if we teach our children that America is a wonderful, Christian nation that always does the right thing in the end and erase the histories of hundreds of thousands of people in doing so, we do not build for ourselves a future in which we can live in harmony with members of our own communities, let alone with people all over the world. Stories are one of the most powerful tools we have to effect change, if we silence the stories of those who experience injustice at our hands, we give up the opportunity to do the right thing and embrace change. If we only tell ourselves what we want to hear then we never grow. This is not what Jesus calls us to. We are called to compassion and growth, to be free from fear and able to embrace the complexity of life on Earth.

Year-End Snapshot: 2014

Despite the possible cheesiness of a year review/reflection blogpost I feel like 2014 was significant enough to warrant some reflection and since I have the month off of school I figured I would very much like to do some blogging before I am once again flooded with papers to write and books to read.

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While I am not sure I would file 2014 as a “great year” it was definitely a valuable and formative one. After a harrowing winter and spring during which I felt very discouraged, depressed and exhausted in every possible way, I was so grateful that summer brought both literal and metaphorical light. Having free time where I wasn’t intensely grieving for the first time since starting college was incredibly helpful. I had the chance to explore my passions: write, work for a great nonprofit, travel with my dad, and I had time to reflect on all the growing I didn’t quite realize I had been doing in the first two years of college– and adulthood– and to think about the person I am becoming. I am excited to be at a much better place in my relationship with myself now than I was one year ago, and to have been able to more accurately pinpoint my passions, interests, skills and how they all might fit into the larger story of my life.

I have spent far more time with other Christians my own age in the passed year than I ever have before. Although I still don’t feel like I have quite found “my people” I am grateful for the ways in which meeting and having discussions with new people has allowed me to fine-tune my own beliefs and personal theology, as well as helped me to better understand and empathize with those whose viewpoints differ from my own. I feel increasingly grounded in my relationship with the creator and am learning to trust more and more than I am where I am meant to be, even when life feels hectic or lackluster or rough.

I have been able to delve into my academic passions in new and exciting ways. This fall I wrote a 23 page research paper on women in the antebellum anti-slavery movement. Getting to spend so much time on a subject that I find truly inspiring and fascinating was such a gift and a challenge. I especially valued being able to spend so much time with the primary source documents involved–the writings and speeches of the women who worked so hard for this movement and believed so ardently in the rightness of their cause. I also got to write a 16 page mock business plan for the nonprofit I one day hope to found (a mentorship program for teenage girls), which will provide a great basis for a real organization proposal once I am ready to do that.

As always, I am incredibly grateful for my family. I think that perhaps late teens and early twenties are just a bit of a lonely time of life, but I feel so blessed to have loving, engaged parents who I can talk to about my dreams, passions and frustrations with. I am also endlessly thankful that I was lucky enough to have two best friends born into my family in the forms of my giant, funny, smart brothers who always know how to make my day a little better. (I know this is especially cheesy, but you just need to deal with it because cheesy family mushy stuff is super important.) Basically, my family is amazing and I don’t know what I would do without then and all that jazz. P1080732

I feel especially grateful for the discussions I have been able to have with my family about the injustices we have witnessed in Ferguson, in New York, in our own neighborhood and in many other places. They have served as a solemn reminder that our fight for justice, mercy and love, as followers of Jesus is far from over. I have valued being able to process these, as well as many other important issues, with my family throughout the year, and to be able to encourage each other to use our voices, skills and privilege to bring attention to the voices and stories of the oppressed and downtrodden.

I have spent a lot of time observing this year, there is a lot going on in the world, a lot of injustice, a lot of sorrow, a lot of brokenness, but also a lot of healing, a lot of change, and a lot of hope. I am still trying to figure out how best to contribute to the healing, how to promote positive change, and how to live into hope, but I feel like I have learned a lot about that in the passed year and I am very excited to see what I will learn in the coming year.

Thank you so much to everyone who has read my posts and thereby processed my year with me to some extent. I hope to write even more in 2015 and I look forward to sharing it with you!