Monday, July 21, 2014

Whatever It Is That I Feel...

I'm not sure if this will be my last blog post about JVC. I might have one or two more in me regarding goodbyes, but they pale in comparison to how raw this post is to me. I've pretty much poured myself into this over the past few months and frankly I don't know if I can or have anything much more to say. I hope, whoever reads this blog, has found some value in what I've had to say...

These people... These beautiful beautiful human beings...
So this is it friends. Three hundred and sixty-two days. Three hundred and sixty-two grains of sand. THIS IS IT. This journey began with a drive on that sunny Sunday afternoon from Naperville, IL to orientation in Morgantown, IN with a slight headache (a euphemism for a hangover I was nursing because as twenty-somethings do I spent the night drinking with friends). This journey will end in that last week in July, in the not too distant future, as strangers who have become friends who have become family slowly fade into the ether of careers, the abyss of graduate schools, and the embrace of families. I have come to the point of...whatever it is that I feel.

This past Easter Sunday as I sat on a deck with the people that I have come to know as family, I felt the warmth of the sun peaking between the clouds, I heard the wind rushing through the leaves as change began to creep, and I felt blessed. Spring seeped into winter weary bones as the worries and the weights, the fears and the uncertainties, the hopes and the dreams all flowed together in unified peace because of this rugged experience. I came here to serve and to care, to accompany and to lift, to be shattered and to be remade, and I will leave with nothing settled, but with everything changed. I speak of change because the bonds I have made, the work I have done, the pain I have felt, the dreams I have dreamt, the tears I have shed, and the meals I have shared have made this little rock called Earth and these passing moments called memories home. So what do I do now after this year has wrecked me?

Some of us have answers about careers or grad schools; others of us have no answers at all. For me, I no longer know how to live my life. I feel like I'm being pulled in a million directions; I am confused and conflicted.

I thought this year was going to be about simple living, social justice, community, and spirituality. I was wrong about that; those values are hard and it was rare for me to be in touch with them. It has been a complicated year. In fact, I think JVC should revise the four values. They should be uncertainty, doubt, inadequacy, and fear: I have been uncertain of my commitment, doubtful in the work that I was doing, inadequate with who I am, and fearful that I was wasting a year. I have felt ashamed of where I stood. I know that I failed at becoming the fantasy of my best self, but I believe that I avoided falling into the nightmare of my worst self. I'm thinking that maybe the point is in living in the tension between the fantasy of success and the nightmare of failure, of the values dreamt and the values dreaded because without the tension none of this makes sense.

Some of us will succeed far beyond our wildest hopes, yet some of us will fail in the most miserable ways. I imagine some of us will walk into packed auditoriums demanding the attention of students and peers while some will walk into half-empty halls where no attention will be paid. From the hallowed walls of Congress filled with history and power to the packed grittiness of the local DHS waiting room where humanity teems, I see us all moving and shifting because of the stories we have lived.

The stories of this year include the hearts that were broken, the friends that have passed, the students that grew, the children that ran away, the highschoolers that graduated, the patients that never got it, the tenants that kept fighting, and, for some, the community-mate that you could never see eye-to-eye with (for me, it was Bob...who is almost a foot taller than me). It includes the story of my past. The story of a child sitting on his father's shoulders feeling the rain, of his father's demons, of his anger, hatred, resentment, and regret, of a grave where rain reminded him of his childhood, and of a year that has helped me grieve. I'm not sure how, but I think all the stories that I have lived and heard, all the successes and failures I have dreamt and dreaded has pointed me towards one direction: to love.

For most of my life, practicality has nagged me to ignore the stories that are periphery to my goals and to commit to a life skimming the narrowed shallows. I have known I would become a doctor since I was 4 years old. For 20 years I followed that belief. For 20 years I checked off the boxes. For 20 years, I did extremely well. But, for twenty years, those achievements and accolades were only things to be collected and accrued. They were hollow. If anything, this year has taught me to throw that out and to jump into the widening depths of stories where the truest of truths are lived and the realest of reals are felt. This realization has made me reconsider how I use the word love. I got it in my head once that the word love was meant for my future wife and maybe my future children. That was foolish because love is wide! Love makes me dream of my better self.

I have dreams of becoming the Surgeon General, of working for the World Health Organization, of winning a Nobel Prize, of writing for the New Yorker, of opening an art gallery in Chicago, of owning a coffee shop called Puzzles, of learning to play the piano, of falling in love with my soulmate, of nurturing children that will surpass me, of saving a life a day, of inspiring students, and, most importantly, of dreams that I have yet to dream. To live in the widening depths is not to live one dream, but it is to realize that we have dreams as disparate as the infinite number of futures to be lived. The reality is that maybe all, some, or none of these dreams will come true. It is silly to say that the answer after this year is to pursue our dreams and it would be equally silly to say that it would be a betrayal if we fail to do so. What I do know, is that because of this year I will always find meaning even if I have a terrible job, a broken family, or a failed mission. All we can do is embrace and love whatever we may choose or whatever may come our way. To live in the widening depths is not to reach all or some dreams, but to realize that dreams are loves to be stayed true to even if they are not lived.

I'm realizing that the difference between dreams and reality is as wide as the distance between you and me or between us and the people we worked with. That is to say, that the gulf can be as wide as eternity, but simultaneously, as narrow as a silken veil.

The widening depths are where my dreams meet yours and theirs. In those depths is where we begin to see that maybe we're all suffering. Doing this work is gritty and messy and painful and heartbreaking. But, by doing so, we start seeing people as a whole; we start falling in love. In the end, love makes us into our better selves.

Forget the shame of uncertainty, doubt, inadequacy, and fear; put aside the efforts around simple living, social justice, community, and spirituality. This year leaves me with one value: love. It is the center where you and I, us and them, reside as one. Eternity between distinctions dissolve and the only eternity that is left is the vastness and inclusivity of love. I will dream without hope of ever finding the answer, but knowing that by dreaming and by loving, the difference between my successes and my failures, my hopes and my fears, us and them, you and me will nothing but be a silken veil because I will live the truest of truths and feel the realest of reals.

In the simplest of terms, whatever it is that I feel as my good friend John Staudenmaier SJ said, is the depths of passion where grief is intertwined with delight in the deep down there... its name is love.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

We Just Decided To + We Can Do Better

Today, I found myself re-reading a friend's blog entry about her ups and downs with JVC. Her entry veered into discussing change. She had this brilliant metaphor because it was so charming and reminded me of a few shirts and shoes that I own.
"Ruined for life” isn't an "Oh shit, I spilled wine on my white shirt! It's ruined!" sort of deal. It's more like those times you spill wine on your shirt, but it's only a little spot of wine and you don't realize it’s there until the fourth or fifth time you wear the same shirt after the initial wine spillage incident. By the time you realize the wine is there, it's been too long to consider the shirt "ruined." Besides, you've been functioning just fine with this so called "ruined" shirt that the tiny stain doesn't seem to matter; it's just a change you decide to live with.- Kristen M (more of her writing here)
The amount of clothes I have bleach stains on because of lab is kind of ridiculous. Sadly, bleach stains are not as exciting as wine stains. Moving on.

One of my favorite shows right now is The Newsroom and one of my favorite characters is the highly idealistic, regularly clumsy, but oftentimes brilliant MacKenzie McHale played by Emily Mortimer. Imagine The West Wing's ever optimistic Sam Seaborn played by ever effervescent manic pixie-girl Zooey Deschanel. Ok, I don't think that does justice to the character; actually that's kind of disturbing. The point is that the character charms us into believing in her idealism and choosing it. The point of her character is summed up by two thoughts: We Just Decided To and We Can Do Better.

Kristen and Mac's words are all about the choice that we oftentimes choose not to make or even acknowledge.

A little over a year ago, I had a choice to make. After months of waiting and receiving rejection letters from medical schools, I finally had my first acceptance letter. Of course during the months between applying and getting that acceptance letter, I had a little bit of an existential crisis. I was exhausted and dejected with the process and with myself. I ended up opening myself up to the possibility of spending a year in service. I figured maybe being rejected was life's way of saying "hey asshole, slow down and think of what matters the most."

I came to the decision of applying to JVC after a whirlwind weekend of going out in the Philippines and Hong Kong, two hungover flights, a lonely return to my house (the heat was broken during December), sleeping for 24 hours, and a whole Giordano's stuffed pizza. I scrambled around asking mentors for rec letters and trying to figure out what the heck the four values meant to me.

Well, all that misery and work came together during a week in May. I received my acceptance to JVC and medical school. Validation! (Not really...more on that in a bit)

I had to choose. My entire life, I can only remember wanting to become a doctor; I idolize my uncles for what they do. I have volunteered in several hospitals, done biochemical research, went on healthcare service trips, learned the basics of being an EMT, observed hours of surgeries, and studied my ass off (ask my cat; she hated it when I would ruin her sleep schedule cause I was studying). Living a life guided by benchmarks can be very unfulfilling because it makes me narrow my perspective. Experiences can be deemed superfluous when you're sprinting towards a goal. Do I keep living in the narrowed shallows or do I try something new?

Before I made my choice, I thought of my frustrations with medicine. I've seen doctors patronize their patients in places I've worked. I've seen patients get ignored because of an overall numbness. I've seen and read of how medicine has failed to tackle social realities (the lady in Honduras, Paul Farmer's anecdotes, or Lia Lee). I've read of how medicine has caused death in its selfish pursuit of success or money (The Deadly Corruption of Clinical Trials). My experiences with healthcare have at times glorified efficiency and action without reflection on human realities. These are the stains that I've come to realize as part of my undergraduate years. Do I choose to keep going and have my life simply guided by benchmarks or to really dig deep and figure out who, what, and where I want to be?

I could've chosen to continue in the narrows in going from benchmark to benchmark. I could have learned the science and the skills in becoming a doctor and I would have been amazing. But, the stains compelled me to be better. I felt boxed in and I had to learn about people first.

I chose to defer my acceptance. I didn't realize it then, but I was choosing to grow in a different way. I'm not saying I would not have grown if I went to medical school; I think medical school forces people to grow and mature, but all this comes in different ways and with different inputs. I doubt I would have met people like Kevin Molloy a future Theologian if I've ever saw one or Sarah Nietz a future activist if I've ever met one or Elizabeth Mahoney a future community organizer if I've ever encountered one. From my experience, the medical field draws a specific kind of person and that tends to create an insulated environment. I believe the reason that there are outliers, people who are not just scientists or physiological mechanics, is because they have opened themselves and chose to be otherwise. I think I subconsciously made that choice a year ago and continually reaffirm that choice.

I really enjoy what Kristen wrote because it highlights the subtlety of what life is about. It touches on the day-to-day moments that dirty my hands. It touches on my development through the years, my interactions with my patients, my misgivings with the healthcare system, and my shortcomings with what I'm doing. All the patients I've grown to love and all the stories I've heard of suffering, unpaid bills, or loss of housing are just moments within a year. Just like those stains that Kristen mentioned, I will carry the stories with me without really knowing where they are or what they're doing until I suddenly see a change in who I am.

Stains can be the joys of life or the pain of suffering. Those stains open us to a world of inclusion that Greg Boyle SJ talks about.

I used to look for "Aha!" moments. I thought those watershed moments would become benchmarks for my life where I thought I would know something. Things like a diploma or an acceptance letter were things I fought to attain because of the validation that come with them. Well, no. Seeing graduation pictures from friends, I began to reflect on my achievements. I used to think that once I got those pieces of paper, I would suddenly feel confident and reassured of my life choices. Well, nope. I've been as doubtful, as worried, as tired, as insecure, and as inadequate as I've ever been even with those pieces of paper.

They were not the watershed moments I had hoped for, but I feel different. Something in between each step of the process, between the pieces of so-called achievement and validation, I was already growing. I began to realize that the change has been happening constantly, endlessly, incessantly. Everything changes every single moment because every experience stains us. But, the stains don't matter unless we embrace them. Validation is about the stains that make my life more meaningful: the stains I choose to acknowledge that make me decide to do better. Kristen and Mac got it right.

Monday, June 23, 2014

F*** Goodbyes

Who does this guy think he is? See you soon friend.
One of our community members left today. As of today I have known Kevin for 323 days. How do I say goodbye to a friend who I've grown to admire and respect through our year of hardships, struggles, and triumphs? It's simple.

I don't.

People write. People read. People laugh. People cry. People talk. People listen. People paint. People study. People die. People live.

People do things and are around all the time, but how often do we slow down to really see people? How often do we say goodbye and not realize what we're saying?

I've been obsessed with the idea of time and transience for a while now. It's partly to do with my transient residence in Detroit, but mostly it has to do with my experience with people. People are transient in our lives. We leave and go home. We make and break friendships. We fall in and out of love. We hold on and let go. We live and die. The amount of time we spend in each others' lives is just a small grain of sand in the hourglass of our existence. To be specific, Kevin stands as parts of 323 grains out of my 8808 so far on this Earth: 3.6 % of my time. That has only made me reflect more on all the other people that flow in and out of my life.

I'm sitting with one fact now: some of the people I've known, I will never ever see again. I have been blessed to meet my fellow JVs, the Detroit JVC staff, the Detroit friends I've made, the colleagues I have at MPCC, the patients I've interacted with, the beautiful lovers in my life, the hilarious friends over the years, and the supporting family I have. Some will stay in my life. Some will fade into memories. Some may even fade completely like stars snuffed out in the night sky. But, does that mean goodbye for all those that have left?

Just with people in our lives, goodbyes are transient. It's the hello's that stick to us.The second we say hello, they become a thread in the tapestry of our lives. It can be a thread spanning one second or a thread spanning decades. Regardless, once we've said a meaningful hello, we can never say a real goodbye. Think of how many times you've said goodbye to the same person, but they return either as reminders, memories, phantoms, or as themselves. Meaningful hello's can never be taken back.

For me, a lot of things are reminders of the people I thought I've said goodbye to. Rain reminds me of my father and all the complications that come with it. Videogames remind me of some of my oldest friends that I haven't seen since I was 10. Random texts from the same bunch of guys since high school make me chuckle every time. A letter in my wallet that I've kept for 6 years remind me of my senior homecoming date. An email from an old friend I haven't spoken to in 5 years out of anger brings a smile to my face. I have several paintings hanging in my room that remind me of my best friend in the world who I can hold no ill-will against no matter how she's broken my heart. I have wanted to say my last goodbye to some of these people. But, they always return in whatever capacity and goodbyes are thrown to the wind. Due to love, hello's touch us.

These are some of the threads that I acknowledge; there are many more that I am not aware of how they have shaped me. That's the tricky thing about memory. Things just fade. But, that's the funny thing about personalities. As the grains slip through the hourglass, they build us into sand castles of intricate forms and dispositions. We won't even know where most of the grains come from. But, then that's another problem. I'm transient. All the grains that build up who I am will be blown away by the unrelenting wind and washed off by the merciless tide. Time laughs at our little pleasantries and victories. Well, I laugh back because I am happy and filled with love. Isn't that what matters?

This morning as Kevin was about to drive off, none of us could say goodbye. Sadness and gratitude filled the room, but we couldn't say goodbye. At least I couldn't. I believe that our greatest gift is our mind. If I know one thing, I know that meeting Kevin has expanded my mind into a world of greater inclusion.

I had no inkling of Liberation Theology in relation to incarcerated youths. Heck, I didn't know much about Liberation Theology. I've lived in an isolated social circle. I've had the same friends from highschool and through college I've had the same group of chemists and premed students. We tend to surround ourselves with people who think the same way we do. So Kevin was different. Theology was never a huge part of my life. Artistry and its synthesis with spirituality sure, but not a formal frame of study. I will never understand how his mind works, but I appreciate the perspective he has to offer and the love that he has given to his kids at work.

Of course I will always remember the laughter and the stories. I will remember the time we devoured 3/4 of a pan of monkey bread. I will remember falling asleep to the Olympics after eating Chinese food for Valentine's with Jonathan. I will remember the night we watched the Conjuring and Elizabeth scared the life out of us. I will remember us getting away from the girls to watch Game of Thrones or Captain America. I will remember the times he bought bacon so that we can have our meat fix. I will remember when we were the Olympic team of two representing Vatican City. I will remember the afternoon our community spent at Belle Isle reminiscing over these same memories. I will remember these tears.

F transience and f goodbyes. There were a lot of tears this weekend because I think it's all starting to hit us: this part of our lives is about to close. But, the fact that we cry means the world. We did something right. We took our time seriously and we have changed because of it. To have a "sad goodbye" is a blessing. The tears, like grains of sand in our hourglasses and in our sand castles, build us up and make what little time we have here and together worth it all.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Silence Will Fall

Colors!
 I didn't find myself on the fields of Tranzalore or writing tick marks on my arm this weekend. I found myself in a particularly ordinary plot of land just north of Detroit...in silence...voluntarily. Kind of. There was a lot of music in my room: classical (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart), synth pop (Phantogram, Chvrches), and folk (Swell Season). There was also a lot of chatter: the chipmunks, birds, fish, and squirrels that frittered about, the water trickling from the fountain outside my window or rushing from the creek across the way, and the half chuckles that were squeezed out among family at the dinner table. There was also a lot of words: Boyle's testimony of kinship, Keegan's stories from the dead, and my own in letters written (6272 words so far in my laptop and many more in my journal).

I was coming into this weekend in contrasts. I spent the weekend before in noise. I met with mentors, co-workers, friends from middle school, high school, and college, a fellow JV, and family:  the connections that I have forged. Kind of all over the place though. So I consciously went into this weekend of silence trying to make sense of it all.

Meditation chair.
I don't have any amazing story of revelation. I don't have a funny mishap in silence like running across some deer. In fact, all I have is hours upon hours of sleep, a few tears shed while reading some stories, appreciation over the fullness that music can bring, meditation in a patch of trees, and writing either in my journal or on my laptop. (Oh, I do have one stupid story. I rolled my left ankle while I was running on the nature trail. Of course I decided to climb a tree after. Natural progression right? I've never climbed trees. I always thought it would be cool. I did. I fell. I rolled my ankle. Not my proudest or most silent moment. For the past 24 hours I've been hobbling along on a bad ankle. What does that teach me? Screw trees and don't fucking climb them). Simple little things that I would do anyway outside of this retreat.

Nothing special here.
Coming in, I didn't really expect anything to happen. I didn't expect a sudden fullness of being. I didn't expect an outburst of artistic creativity. I didn't expect to suddenly be in touch with the sublime. So far I haven't. Or maybe I have?

A few years back, I took a class called Aesthetics by Dr. Vaillancourt. I only remember a few things. We read Plato's Symposium and essays from Philippa Foot and Teilhard de Chardin. In my essays discussing themes, I found myself writing about the unity of love. I was an undergraduate student. I had to write SOMETHING down. I wasn't entirely sure if I understood or felt what I was writing. In hindsight that undergraduate class should've been called “Love 101.” Well, if that was my undergraduate introduction class, I think JVC has been my graduate level current concepts class and silent retreat is my dissertation.
No deer. Just chipmunks and squirrels and sun.

See, when I read Plato or Foot or de Chardin, I kept reading about love as a unifying force. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around loving existence. How is that possible when there's so much ego, selfishness, suffering, and disconnect in human interactions? Wasn't love supposed to be rare and reserved for specific people? If that's the case, I think we screwed up somewhere.

I just got lost.
I spent a lot of time this weekend doing what I said above, but I spent all of it thinking about people. I was thinking of the people that have left my life, of the
people that have yet to come into my life, and of the people that are in my life. I have shed tears over and with them. I have shared and cooked meals with and for them. I have laughed and danced because of them. I have held anger against them.

Back in middle school, my friend Casey used to get annoyed at me when I would use the word hate. I didn't really get it because it was just a word. Like any other word, its power is what we will it to be. At least I thought so. But, I don't think I realized how that word willed itself into me. It's parasitic. Using the word perpetuated a belief that is hard to shake. Casey was right! There should be no space in our vocabulary for the word “hate.” It's a waste of energy and time.

Better yet, the silence has taught me how beautiful inclusion can be. In the noise, I only had space for people that made me smile. I ignored the people that I criticized or judged, but that's because the noise only allows us to focus on easy joys. In the silence, I was forced to think of why I held anger towards some people. No answer came. Then I started to think of the stories that they carry and their suffering. See, I think all anybody is looking for is love. Along the way, it just got confused and muddled. Who am I to add to that confusion? 
I end the retreat with writing and green tea.
The better thing to do is to cut through the noise and listen.


Maybe that's what “spirituality” is about. Maybe the reason I'm so uncomfortable with using a god or God language is because I had such narrow preconceived notions of that language. Maybe I'm looking for something more infinite and inclusive. Maybe I'm learning how to put love to practice.  

Let's Listen to the Noise: Day 3 & 4

I don't have any other picture.
Technically, day 3 started when I got back to Nikki and Andrew's with a 12-pack of 312. As per anytime I drink with Nikki and Andrew, I pulled up my laptop to chat with old friends, kicked back and talked to Nikki and Andrew about random crap, and put Netflix on to watch something. That something happened to be Adventure Time. Yeah, we're growing up right?

Sidenote: I ended up Facebook chatting with an old friend of mine about transience and how much it sucks. More on that another time.

Well, I ended up watching a few more shows and just went to bed.

Did I ever mention how much I love Chicago? I met up with my friend Marie and had my favorite burger in the world: Butcher and the Burger's house blend patty mixed with curry-coconut spice in a butter-topped bun with lettuce, onion, tomato, wasabi mayo, and blue cheese. We took the brown line to downtown because I could never get enough of the Chicago skyline. We walked past the Art Institute, through Millennium Park, across the Chicago River, and settled at Argo tea. As I sat sipping my Matcha bubble tea, Marie and I talked about our futures and our stories of laughter. Chicago is the kind of city that you just find yourself walking around in and feeling its energy. It's surprising the kinds of friendships you build without realizing it.

That evening I ended up going back to the suburbs. I caught up with my mom, had dinner, argued with the internet for an hour, then went over to Cat's house. Cat has probably been my most trusted friend over the past 10+ years. If you want dirt on me, go ask her because she knows it all. We ended up meeting some of our other middle school friends (Sarah and Adam) and chatting through the night over memories and people from the past. It's interesting how you forget the amount of people that walk in and out of your life.

Sunday was more chaos. As with any gathering that my mom plans, a small barbecue became a party of 18. It was nice to be enveloped by family again. From aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews (yeah, they're my cousins once removed, but nieces and nephews are quicker to type), I felt at home. Of course home is chaos because I was grilling 18 steaks, nursing a beer while I chat with my cousins, trying to get baby Amelia to acknowledge me for once, playing soccer with Joe, and trying to enjoy the weather. Family's grand isn't it? It's always a good reminder of where you're from.

Same with the previous night, after spending time with my biological family, I went ahead and met up with my other family. Joe was probably my first friend when I moved to the United States. So of course we had a lot of shared stories. We reminisced about that one stupid AP Physics problem, that time we got a C on a project but ended up at the state science fair, the night his dad accidentally drank one of his contacts, the time we stole clay from a church, and the random stories of our friends doing stupid shit when we were young. Then we talked about the stories we didn't share together. The stories of drunken mishaps in college or the stressful stories of work. We eventually talked about our hopes for our future and where we think we might be going. Oh, Cat was there the entire time. It's funny how friendships can be so easy to pick back up.

As with every “last night” I have in the suburbs, it ended with a case of beer and the same group of friends on Vlad's deck. We always end up drinking at Vlad's. I think Vlad is our go-to guy when we all just want to relax. He's just THAT guy that every group of friends need. Will told us the true story of the morning after one of our parties. Let's just say Will stands as our lovable friend that does the most ridiculous things and who owes his sister a lifetime of favors as an apology. Then there's Marcky Marc with his jokes and his “voice.” Whether it be with song or with nerdy Geekdom over GoT or just a funny story, Marc always makes us laugh. I've known these guys since freshman year of high school and things haven't changed much even if we have. That's good. These are three of the guys that I know will always have my back or at least a good story to tell and a cold beer to offer.


So what are all these stories about? The hustle and bustle of my beloved city, the laughter and the camaraderie of friends, and the chaos and the sharing of family reminded of one thing: there's a home in the noise. I get too caught up sometimes in thinking of the big picture. I get obsessed with leaving a legacy or falling in love with someone that I forget that I already have a legacy and that my life is filled with love. My legacy is sharing a beer with Marc, Vlad, Nikki, Will, and Andrew, walking the streets of Chicago with Marie, reminiscing about the past with Cat, Joe, Sarah, and Adam, and sharing a meal with my family. All these fleeting moments are like flickering fireflies of love in the vastness of my life. Maybe that's the value of noise. They are flickers of life that force us to look deeper and smile.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Let's Listen to the Noise: Day 1 & 2

This campus view...
Long post ahead!

JVC Silent Retreat is on the horizon. Get it? Like the picture above! Haha... hah... ha... On to serious stuff. The Jesuits that have supported us recommended that we take some time to be comfortable with silence in preparation. So what did I do in response? I decided to make as much noise as possible this past weekend.

I'm not uncomfortable with silence. I actually love silence. It allows me to think and find my personal safe haven. Life tends to be noisy and a lot of the noise tends to be disingenuous. Most of the time, I believe people tend to make noise so that they don't have to feel the real weight of the silence. But, this past weekend I found myself in the middle of noise.

It will ALWAYS be Sears Tower
I haven't been in Chicago for 5 months. I have missed the noise, the people, the walking, the food, the public transit, the culture, the friends, the neighborhoods, the university, the suburbs and the lake. Pretty much everything about the Windy City (I missed Chiberia season so hah). Of course I squeezed as much as I can.

Day 1 just involved taking the bus to Chicago. Nothing beats seeing the Chicago skyline at night. I was coming home. I stayed at my friends' apartment in Lakeview. Nikki was my roommate for three years and I've known Andrew since highschool. It was nice to just kick back and talk that first night/day. We talked about where we're headed, what we're doing, and of course Game of Thrones. As par for the course, Nikki and I ended up watching an episode of Futurama before we both left Friday morning. It's funny how easily we fall back into old habits.

The social justice bug has me.
Friday morning, I went back to campus to see some of my old co-workers and my mentors. I have been blessed to meet some amazing professors at Loyola. Dr. Garbarino invited me to be his guest at the Center for the Human Rights of Children's conference on the protection of children from corporal punishment. This was never an issue I had considered before, but after listening to psychologists and neurobiologists discuss the distinctions of discipline vs punishment, the neurochemistry of cortisol levels in children who are spanked, and false notions of the advantages of corporal punishment, I became convinced that corporal punishment should be more openly discussed in our society. I have missed the university setting where you can just hear about issues that you would not regularly encounter.

Afterward, Dr. Garbarino and I had a chance for a quick conversation. I spoke of how much I have changed since JVC and how thankful I was that his class opened me up to global issues of social justice. He spoke of how he was nominated for a university Ignatian teaching award and how as part of his talk about Ignatian values he mentioned a senior in his class that ended up doing JVC because that senior learned about stories of social injustice. Guess who that senior was? Dr. Garbarino spoke of how he got the impression that I am a lot more centered now. I'm not sure if centered would be the word I would use. I have felt de-centered, but I feel more willing to tackle whatever confusion I may have.

Next, I went back to my lab and spoke to Ro and John. I worked with Ro for two and a half years and John was my Biochemistry TA. It's funny. Chemistry has its own language. Being back made me realize one thing: I'm still a chemist at heart. Discussing the progress of the project and giving my ideas about hydrolyzation, auto-fluorescence, and protein chemistry actually felt familiar. I have been out of touch with that side of me that it felt good to use a language I hadn't used in the past year.

After going to lab, I went to visit Dr. Vigen. I credit Dr. Vigen as the first professor to set me on my path as a socially conscious individual. During my second year in college, I went on a medical trip to Honduras. There, I remember a woman who had a leg wound that had gone necrotic. She had two options: 1) to get her leg amputated or 2) to go home and die. She chose to go home because if she chose to have her leg amputated she would have ruined her family. This shocked and traumatized me. For a year, I no longer knew if I wanted to become a doctor. It would have been easy for me to pursue my love of biochemical research. But, I ended up in Dr. Vigen's theology of healthcare. In that class, I began the path of understanding how to accompany people in the path of suffering through the words of Paul Farmer, Anne Fadiman, Arthur Kleinman, and Atul Gawande. A lot of my conversation with Dr. Vigen became about accompaniment, my own growth through JVC, and how I can use my perspective to better my path in healthcare. In the end, all I could say was thank you for what she helped me become.

I finished my time with a two hour conversation with Dr. Olsen and Dr. Dale. (Dr. Olsen is my biochemistry mentor who has helped me develop into the kind of analytical thinker that I am today; Dr. Dale is a lab collaborator that I worked with during my last undergraduate year). A lot of our discussion revolved around what kind of scientist I wanted to become and the change that is happening around Loyola. I became aware of the tension between teaching and research at the university level. The same tension they spoke of is the same tension I am becoming more aware of when I think of myself as a clinician versus a scientist. I still have no answers, but I did come to the realization that I love research. I curse Dr. Olsen's tutelage because that's one more thing that I want to pursue. (Geeknote, Dr. Olsen talked about the new Biochemistry discussion class for majors that revolved around paper discussions, 3D molecular modeling, and homology modeling; I was actually annoyed that my Biochemistry discussion did not involve any of that; Dr. Olsen did his job in turning me into a Biochemistry nerd). But, science is cool so I can't be that mad.

I was unable to meet up with Dr. Vaillancourt or Dr. Parks who developed my notions of aesthetics and ethics respectively, but it was already a full day so I went back to the apartment to take a nap.

Of course, the noise didn't end. I ended up going to drinks with a fellow JV in Chicago. We spent two and a half hours talking about a myriad number of things. We spoke about our respective families (25 cousins vs 16 cousins), our high school days (pop culture nerd vs social justice nerd), our mutual exhaustion over social work, our experiences with JV community life, our respective universities' politics, our hopes for nationwide politics, our mentors in college, our mutual idolization of Paul Farmer, my gripes with idealism, her passion for social justice, my plans for medical school, her plans for grad school/career, my development as a chemist, her experience as a journalist, my excitement about Detroit, her growing love for Chicago, and pretty much anything we could think of. All in all, it was a pretty good conversation about real experiences. That conversation became the seeds of this post. (Sidenote, I found out my hometown has a brewery!)

"A little faith goes a long way."
As the night was ending and she went back to her apartment, I had time to be quiet and reflect. What would a Chicago trip be without a CTA mishap? As par for the course, my connecting bus never came. For any future Chicagoan, get lost as often as possible because that's how you get to know the city! I ended up walking the last two and a half miles from Roscoe Village to Lakeview. I love the CTA! But that walk made me think of my first two days back in Chicago.

What is the noise in our lives? They tend to pull us in different directions. Should I care about global issues or urban issues in my hometown? How do I deal with the suffering and trauma that I see? Do I want to be a clinician or a researcher? Am I on the path of becoming an activist or a scientist? Being pulled in so many directions is beautiful. It made me realize how blessed I am. I have had mentors, friends, and family that have developed who I am to the point where I feel like I have a rich life. The noise has made me an aware advocate, a curious chemist, an imaginative artist, a caring friend, a kind human and a romantic Chicagoan. I love who I'm becoming. The noise nurtures us when we're lucky and aware enough to use the noise to our advantage. Creating silence when we're lucky allows us to become aware to what the noise means. They work hand-in-hand.

The above billboard made me chuckle because of its initial dig on the Cubs. I'm a Cubs fan so of course all I have is faith that someday, one day, all the MLB teams will pity us and let us win a World Series. One can hope right? Upon further reflection, I'm coming to the conclusion that faith will carry us where we have to go. I'm not talking about faith in God (I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with any notion of god or God), but faith in love and in life. If we have faith that love is beautiful, that life will nourish us, we can make a home between the noise and the silence.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Story time!

Journal screenshot #1
A few nights ago I decided to do lead a community night around story telling. I love stories. I'll let a more eloquent writer describe stories better than I ever could:
You are your stories. You are the product of all the stories you have heard and live - and of many that you have never heard. They have shaped how you see yourself, the world, and your place in it. Your first great storytellers were home, school, popular culture, and, perhaps, church. Knowing and embracing healthy stories are crucial to living rightly and well. - Daniel Taylor
That night got me thinking of how many stories we carry everyday from our first memories, our  feared traumas, and our whimsical dreams. I began wondering why at once these stories are so easy to hide but also so easy to share. What makes us fearful and needy in letting others see our vulnerabilities or our inspirations? Let me tell you about the first artist I met.

I love art. I like to write and to draw. My writing is so-so, but if I could show some brashness, I think I'm a damned good artist. I wish I could play the piano or the violin, but I'll have to accept my inadequacy and listen on in jealousy. I don't think I realized until this year why I was so drawn to notions of creativity. I can give some very pretentious and idealistic blabber about Plato's Symposium or Romantic poets like Yeats. Fact is, that doesn't really touch on a few things.

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I am lucky enough to call myself a LaSallian (I didn't graduate as one, but I grew up as one so I win). Funny story on my path becoming a LaSallian: I was a dumb kid. Like really dumb. I spent most of my time watching TV as a child. I remember a lot of Flintstones and maybe some show about other cavemen and dinosaurs. School was never a priority. To start kindergarten in La Salle Greenhills, a prospective student had to pass an initial interview. I remember my mom's anxiety over the fact that I barely knew my colors and didn't care about letters or numbers. We were driving to the school and I didn't even know what colors were on the stop lights or what they meant. Again, dumb kid. There was another kid at the interview with flash cards and one of those fancy educational computers. Yep, I was gonna bomb that interview; I believe I did. But, as with most things in the Philippines, my mom had a friend whose friend was friends with a school administrator. Dumb kid became a LaSallian! Nepotism for the win! Not proud of it, but I believe I made the best out of it. (Side note, what's the point of interviews for children? I didn't care then, but I eventually blossomed into a damned good scholar. Just give children the opportunity to achieve!).

The school was amazing. Not only did they give me a foundation that allowed me to succeed once I moved to the United States, but they taught me to open my eyes. As part of my schooling, we went on several "outreach" trips. As a kid, I took this as a break away from the monotony of grammar and math. As an adult, I cherish these trips because they taught me what being human means.
Journal screenshot #3

The trips took on many different forms. A few trips involved going to retirement homes. In the Philippines, the norm is for the elderly to live with their children. Generally, if an elder lived in a retirement home it would reflect the reality that they may not have a family (I'm generalizing, but that's how I perceived it as a child). From these souls, I learned how to listen.

Some trips involved going to public schools and orphanages. In the Philippines, the school system was/is(?) terrible. Going to a private school with the social capital that a student had automatically meant that they were set for a better paying job down the line. Public schools were underfunded. Also, there is a huge population of homeless people in Manila. When worst comes to worst, a lot of these children would be orphaned and funneled into a terrible school system. What was I to think of this reality as a child? I had a driver to drive me to school, a maid to cook my meals, AC to keep me cool, and a school to truly educate me. It would have been so easy to shut myself off and believe in my socioeconomic and therefore "intrinsic" superiority. No. My school refused to let that happen.

The value of those outreach programs were to say, "hey, before you get a big head, meet these kids first!" How I loved it. The magic of children is that they don't care who they play with as long as they get to play. Money, education, "class," and status don't matter. I got to see them as children that laughed and played rather than what children of privilege might see: poverty, dirt, and disease. That was my first memories of meeting people where they are at rather than seeing people with how society has been trained to perceive them.


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The main reason I'm writing this is because of my experience with a school for the blind. So what do children think of people with disabilities? Well, some would say people with disabilities are broken, or missing something, or incomplete. Kids can be really mean. I remember sitting there and thinking "I'm lucky to be able to see!" I could not imagine a life without eyesight and I was afraid. I probably pitied them deep down. But, what would you expect from a sheltered and privileged brat?

Well how wrong I was! At that school, I was taught how to read braille. I was showed how the blind can develop their senses to be sharper and are better able to doing more things than I could have imagined. My imagination was severely lacking in the power of human creativity and will. I remember one experience brought me to tears.

We came to a room with a man sitting next to his piano. He explained how he had nubs on the keys so that he could align himself when he played. He proceeded to wow me with the music that he created. I have no musical bone in my body and am jealous of any that can play an instrument. There I was, a kid who thought he was better because he was healthy and I was floored by a blind man playing the piano. To this day, I still remember the feeling of being lifted up and nearly brought to tears by that man's creativity. What I learned that day and have kept on learning throughout my life is that creativity doesn't give a crap about what's "wrong" with people. Nothing's wrong with anybody. People are people and creativity just does what creativity does: it creates.