Halfway.

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I’m back on a plane again. Surprise, surprise. Today, I’m forty-thousand feet above the world, currently passing over Arizona on my early morning flight back to Stanford after going home for the weekend. Tomorrow, I officially start the second half of my Stanford career, beginning junior year with a sense of uneasy excitement.

My constant restlessness makes it hard to stay in one place for very long. That’s why I traveled through five different countries this summer, which included a ton of cities throughout the United States. It’s why I hopped on a plane to go home the weekend before classes started, even though it didn’t really make all that much sense to do so. It’s why I’ll be traveling through parts of Europe this December, studying at Oxford University in England in the winter, and then returning to the Middle East for a week in March. My mind always wanders, and only recently has my body been able to follow.

It probably comes as no surprise then that home presents its own challenges for me. Other than the fact that my time at home is often me staying in one place—Dallas—for however long I’m back, there’s also the fact that there’s so much happening around me. Just yesterday, I was hit with the weird realization that my younger brother is growing up. He’s only thirteen, but he turns fourteen next month. He has all the teen angst that comes with his age that I, quite surprisingly, outgrew. (My teen angst has been replaced with a different angst more characteristic of one’s twenties.) He’s beginning to grapple with difficult truths about the world—most of all questioning why the often cruel world we live in doesn’t match the values of kindness and love that have been instilled within him.

Yesterday, he came to me telling me he didn’t think he wanted to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, a rite of passage in which, according to Catholic belief, seals the recipient of the Sacrament with the Holy Spirit. I asked him why, and he said that he didn’t believe in most of the things that the Catholic Church taught in regards to moral teachings—already, at the age of thirteen, he supported reproductive rights and he supports equal rights and dignity for gay people.

There’s a certain irony that I was the one tasked with convincing him that he should go through with his Confirmation. After all, I’m his openly gay brother who unapologetically criticizes the Catholic Church for its dangerous moral stances, especially on reproductive justice and marriage equality. I’ve written on this blog about how it’s not a matter of if I abandon Catholicism officially, but when, thanks to the Church’s anti-gay stances, which include a belief that I shouldn’t be allowed to get married and that all romantic love that I could feel for someone is inherently sinful. Not to mention the Church’s frequent fights against equal rights ordinances that would prevent me from being fired from my job or kicked out of my home just for being gay. Even the seemingly simple question of “do you believe in God” gives me so much anxiety that I usually answer with some combination of “God is love” and something about how if God didn’t exist, it wouldn’t change anything about my belief in treating people with dignity and respect.

So what did I tell him? Other than me trying to be the good child who was trying to convince him to not rock the boat too much, I told him that it doesn’t really matter what you believe about Catholicism—your Catholic identity is cultural so this is a cultural responsibility; there are good Catholic priests, nuns, and laity who uphold Catholic social teaching and understandably disagree with Church hierarchy these moral teachings, and you should align yourself with them; Catholicism is what brought us the preferential option for the poor, and its social doctrines are radical and about the fight against the oppression and marginalization of the poor; and oh God, please don’t make a scene that leads to you not getting confirmed because I really don’t want to be blamed for it just because I’ve helped nurture your ability to think critically, to dissent, and to call out injustice as you see it. I’m not really sure if I convinced him or if he was just momentarily sympathetic.

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Stanford’s Memorial Church

After trying to put out the fires that I may have accidentally started at home, I’m now returning to campus to both put out some existing fires and to most likely start some new ones. My penchant for starting fires continues to be ironic because I’m really not that radical of a person, and I think the ways in which I’ve embedded myself within Stanford institutions makes that clear. I’m a quiet radical who, in some ways, has created a personal brand of my own, unafraid to critique people from both the left and the right and to simultaneously point out the realities of the world while also encouraging others to dream big. I use my writing, my creative art, my academic career, and the strength of my personality to get people to listen to me—often a difficult task that comes with varying levels of success.

Like I’ve done throughout most of my life, I’ve probably overcommitted myself to trying to build my vision for the world. I’m taking a full load of classes this quarter (again): my anthropology postfield seminar, an anthropology seminar on religion and politics within the Muslim world, a second-year Spanish course with a focus on immigration and the Spanish Civil War, a course on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a philosophy course on justice, and French cooking. I’m still involved in the Pilipino American Student Union, this year as one of the three social co-chairs. I stepped up into the role of the co-president of the Stanford Cancer Coalition after being somewhat desperately asked to take up the role. And beyond that, I’ll be an editor for the anthropology department’s undergraduate journal, a teaching assistant for a weekly queer poetry workshop, running the Alumni Reunion Homecoming’s twentieth reunion, and a member of the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board—but at least I get paid for some of these things!

And of course, I’m slogging away at my thesis: an examination of the formations of class identity among Stanford students with strong attention paid to the idea of “class shame.” My goal is to tie together queer theory, affect theory (which is about socially experienced feelings), and anthropological understandings of class as an identity in order to dig deeper into the somewhat surprising phenomenon of students from wealthier backgrounds feeling ashamed of the wealth and class privilege that they grew up with.

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So yes, I’m going to be busy. Again. Actually, in writing all this out again, I’m not really sure why I’m doing so much. But like I said, I’m incapable of sitting still. And the way I see it is that considering I managed to do most of these things in my sophomore year and still have an incredibly active social life and average about seven to eight hours of sleep a night, I can do it all again—with the bonus of getting paid for some of the work that I already did. Whether that was a sustainable lifestyle or just a fluke remains to be seen.

When I was on my way to Yom Kippur services on Tuesday (how’s that for religious pluralism?), a friend of mine who I ran into said that this summer it seemed like I was having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Except, not just one—it was more like one every few days. She’s not wrong—I’ve done so much in the past few months alone that I haven’t even had the time to process all of it and write about it here. All my friends seem to want to know all the stories of my summer, but so much happened that they’re going to have to handle hearing small stories about my experiences randomly throughout the next year as I remember each of them.

But during the incredibly beautiful Yom Kippur service I attended, the rabbi told us a parable of another rabbi who was on his deathbed. The rabbi said that he was filled with regret, and the people surrounding him asked, how can that be? You’ve always been kind, you’ve always shown love, and you’ve always been careful to never say anything that would upset anyone. The rabbi responded, “But that’s the thing. I fear that, in the next world, I will be judged for not having said or done enough to fight for justice. Maybe if I had spoken up more, I could’ve helped change the world.” I constantly find myself asking that question—when I die, will I be able to say I’ve done enough to create a just world? And on a smaller scale, when I leave Stanford, will I be able to say that I’ve done enough to make my community a better place? Will I be able to say that I’ve used Stanford’s resources to the fullest—not just to help myself, but to help others?

I’m halfway through my time at Stanford. I have two more years. I’ve decided pretty definitively that I’m not going to shell out money to get a master’s in a fifth year, mostly because I just don’t have the financial resources to do so. I still think I’d really like to pursue a PhD program in anthropology, and my goal is to get into a good, fully-funded program so that my graduate education won’t cause any financial strain. I’m still trying to figure out my life’s “mission statement,” and I’m hoping that years from now I’ll be able to look back at this post specifically and laugh about how filled with uncertainty I was, in the same way that I look back at all the worry and dread I felt in the college admissions process, not knowing that I’d end up with an abundance of resources and opportunities at Stanford. So many, in fact, that I’m still trying to figure out how to take as much as I can from this university while it’s throwing more opportunities at me than I can feasibly take advantage of.

Lastly, I wanted to leave y’all with a poem and a prayer that a friend of mine shared with me last week when we were catching up. They’re a pretty cool, amazing person who’s coming into their own in terms of organizing and activism, and in the spirit of Catholic social teaching that I wrote about earlier in this post, I thought I’d post it here.

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Until next time.

6 Things I Learned in Venice

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What a whirlwind it’s been! I’m currently at a Starbucks near Penn Station in New York City, finally having returned to New York City after spending three weeks in Venice and the surrounding areas, with a short stop in coastal Slovenia. (If you haven’t yet, read my blog post on Slovenia, “The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa.”) After drinking delicious cappuccinos and espressos every day, I’ve officially switched back to good ol’ American brewed coffee, something I never thought I would’ve missed!

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1. Walking doesn’t stop you from gaining weight.

I’ve definitely gotten a little pudgier since I was last in the United States. Part of that is my fault… I maintained an eight-day streak of getting one to two scoops of gelato each day, and even when the streak broke, I didn’t give up this Italian gift to the world. Eating mostly various pastas and pizzas for three weeks straight, while amazing for my taste buds for the first week and a half, was ultimately less amazing for my physique. And this is all without factoring in the many Aperol spritzes and glasses of wine I’d have before, during, after, or between meals!

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Everyone had assured me that the sheer amount of walking that I’d be doing would stop me from gaining too much weight. I can emphatically report that that’s bullshit. I don’t know what kind of black magic everyone else has been practicing, but I walked so much that my feet blistered, spent three days literally pickaxing the earth, and yet, I still gained a lot of weight.

Did I maybe overdo how much I ate? Sure. Of the seven deadly sins, I most identify with envy. But for these past three weeks, gluttony started a coup d’état and overtook the throne. And let’s be honest: temperance certainly isn’t the most exciting virtue, especially when surrounded by fresh pasta, delicious cheeses, seafood of all types, a sauce for every mood, and delicious desserts. But you know what? Fuck it. This was my vacation. (Yes, I’m a Stanford student, which is why I considered a two-unit summer course in which I had to prepare a presentation and write a paper as “vacation.”) My goal was to treat myself during this unique experience, and if that means gaining some weight, so be it.

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The whole month of September—when I’m on campus working on my thesis and no one will be around—can be devoted to actually getting my diet and exercise habits back on track. Maybe. We’ll see. I might just ban all mirrors and scales instead.

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2. Catholicism is a perpetual piece of my identity.

The Roman Catholic Church has an obsession with perpetuity. In the Catholic tradition, the Mass connects the past, the present, and the future in its pivotal climax: the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the literal Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Mary reigns perpetually as Queen of Heaven, and she remained a perpetual virgin throughout her entire life, despite her marriage to Joseph—a belief not held in Protestant denominations of Christianity.

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I, too, have this same obsession with perpetuity. Once someone has earned and won my trust and respect, they hold it forever. I crave stability, desperately clinging to my family and my closest friends to keep me grounded during my naturally volatile teen years and twenties. And—as much as I often hate to admit it—I am public-facing; I want to make an impact, but a public one. I want my most well-thought-out ideas, my painstakingly detailed solutions, and the inherently political nature of my existence and my resistance to be remembered. I want to inspire. And I want to make change, but without suppressing my identity and agency in the process.

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IMG_4447 2The Sacraments of Initiation bind an individual to the Catholic Church forever. And the culturally hegemonic role that the Church inhabits in places such as Italy, the Philippines, and Latin America continue to bind individuals who received any of these sacraments to it forever. That couldn’t have been clearer here in Venice, a former city-state and maritime empire whose historical tensions with the Papal States and deeply-rooted (but fabricated) cultural ties to the Byzantine Empire didn’t stamp out its Catholicism.

A part of me wanted to roll my eyes with every church I entered, especially in the beginning of these three weeks, when most of the churches I visited were adorned in gold and worldly riches and often charged for entry. But it was in seeing the Franciscan monastery of San Francesco del Deserto that I felt deep stirrings of peace and comfort. I’ve entertained changing religions altogether many times, with Reform Judaism and Western forms of Buddhism being the top contenders. And I’ve considered being confirmed in the Episcopal Church, which is something that I’m more likely to do than not closer to a hypothetical marriage, partially because the idea of a church wedding is deeply important to me and the Catholic Church remains deeply regressive, oppressive, and discriminatory—although moving in the right direction under the current pope!—in the way it treats LGBT people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But it was here in Italy, in seeing basilica after basilica, small church after small church, and that one, quiet monastery, that I realized how strong Catholicism is as a piece of my identity and cultural heritage.

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3. Archeology is not for me.

I’m an aspiring social/cultural anthropologist, and in many ways, it’s a perfect fit for me: I love people, I love to listen to people’s stories, I want to better understand the social fabric of the world we live in, and I think there’s significant value in qualitative methods of combining social theory and the ethnographic method to do so. But every now and then, I get fixated on other ideas—one of those, weirdly enough, was pivoting to archeology. Maybe, I thought, I could do an archeological methods class in the fall, do archeology in Peru next summer, and pursue a PhD program in sociocultural anthropology that includes strong training in archeology.

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To give you a sense of how ridiculous that is, consider the following facts: I hate bones. Few things bother me more than dirt. My eyes glaze over whenever anyone tries to convince me of how cool a shard of pottery is. When I go to museums, I try to appear cultured by going to the classical art section, but after about five minutes I venture elsewhere. Just like how I’m not meant to be a chemist or an investment banker, archeology isn’t in my future, regardless of how many people assume I’m an archeology major instead of an anthropology major. My course of study is not even remotely like Indiana Jones; if anything, I’m closer to a brooding pseudo-intellectual who lays on his couch reading ethnographies and philosophical works and then hastily writes long essays the morning I have essays due.

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I blame the fact that I have a Gemini Sun sign, an air sign that floats with the wind and is notoriously averse to commitment and personal responsibility. (In that sentence alone, I refused to take personal responsibility for my lack of commitment and instead chose to blame the constellation I was born under!) But hear me out: unlike all the other passing ideas I flitter in and out of, I actually entertained this one!

I did a three-day excavation on the island of Torcello, a relatively uninhabited island in the Venetian Lagoon about thirty to forty minutes away from Venice by boat. The first thing I gravited to? The pickaxe. “I have a lot of anger I need to release,” I told my Italian colleagues and babysitters, who wanted to help me learn but also needed to make sure I didn’t destroy months of hard work. Turns out, pickaxing becomes substantially less fun after each minute of crushing reused Roman bricks in the beating sun. Also, it turns out I’m terrible at actually finding things. My classmates found pottery shards and even an infant skeleton. You know what I found? Dirt. Lots and lots of fucking dirt.

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4. The United States is my home, and it’s where I care most about.

It’s taken a long time for me to truly feel at home in the United States. This country was not built for me, and much of its institutions were built to oppress people like me, from immigration restrictions to anti-miscegenation laws to the outlawing of homosexuality, to name some of the more obvious ones. This country was built on systems of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, as well as capitalist systems of oppression meant to keep power in the hands of our elite Founding Fathers. But I owe my ability to now consider the United States as my home to the many (mostly black) activists, changemakers, and revolutionaries who have given their lives to fighting and transforming these systems, something which I first began to reckon with and think about more concretely and intentionally this past Fourth of July.

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Even earlier this year, I felt like I was missing an opportunity by choosing to travel the United States for my fieldwork this summer. So many of my peers, both within my discipline and outside of it, took their grant money and left the country, and a part of me had really wished that I was based outside of the United States instead. Funny how actually leaving the United States can really change your perspective on this.

Italy was a tough country to be in. I don’t speak any Italian, so when someone I was talking to didn’t speak English, we had to resort to a difficult and embarrassing game of charades. There are so many things I take for granted in the United States, as small as even just having free water with meals. It’s exhausting to have to constantly think about the whereabouts of my passport, to have a temporary Italian phone number (and to keep getting texts in Italian from my service provider that I couldn’t read!), to not be able to speak about the histories and cultures of Italy with the same depth as I can about places within the United States, and to not know what anyone is saying most of the time.

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I was speaking with my professor on a nighttime boat ride from Torcello after an excavation about this. He’s from Mauritius, attended Cambridge University, and spent much of his time studying in the United Kingdom. I told him that, as much as I love this experience, I realized how clarifying it is to know that the issues within a country like Italy don’t resonate in my heart the same way that issues in the United States do. I have a stake in whatever happens in the U.S., especially within Texas and California. Should I continue down the path of a PhD within anthropology, which I feel better prepared for each and every day, the question of where my fieldwork will be done will inevitably come up, and I know I’m going to stay domestic. Possibly even within Texas, an often misunderstood state that has so much to teach the world about politics, immigration, class status, and the rural vs. urban divide.

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Italy has even clarified what I want to do next summer. It’s certainly too early to be certain, and I’m not even done with my current travels yet—I still have to go to West Virginia, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, and parts of Israel and Palestine! But originally, I thought that traveling through Japan next summer would be my goal, returning to the country in which I spent the first three years of my life and exploring its cultural homogeneity and how that influences identity formation, especially in my case as a non-Japanese person. Now, I think I’m ready to travel through the United States yet again. We’re in a unique political moment, and there’s so much that anthropological methods can teach us about the country we live in. By next summer, we’ll have a new Speaker of the House (hopefully a Democrat!), and considering the rise of democratic socialism on the left as a response to Donald Trump, we need bright minds in anthropology to examine our world at home.

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5. I’m (probably) a democratic socialist.

Surprise, surprise! My first day in Venice, while walking through Strada Nuova, a large street filled with restaurants and stores near my hostel, there were people passing out communist newspapers. It was a shock to my ingrained American McCarthyism. A communist newspaper? I thought. What is this ridiculousness? But yes, the United States sits far to the right of the developed world’s political spectrum.

I’ve definitely felt myself lurch to the left ever since Donald Trump was elected president. I supported Hillary Clinton’s run for president since even before she announced her candidacy, and I had absolutely no problem with supporting a neoliberal who was deeply socially progressive, especially on gun control and abortion rights. She was a policy wonk, and at the end of the day, I believed—and still believe—that Hillary Clinton would’ve been a far better president than Bernie Sanders ever would’ve been.

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Hillary Clinton’s loss, which I sincerely believe was an inevitable result of decades of sexist attacks from both the right and the left and the left-leaning media’s attempt to appear “non-partisan” by drawing false equivalencies between Trump and Clinton, ushered in new energy within the left. And as someone who is solidly a leftist, it’s exciting to see left-wing ideas become mainstream and be represented more by someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Bernie Sanders.

Italy helped expand my Overton window, breaking my own beliefs of what I think are reasonable to envision for U.S. politics. I think progressive politics can be bold and unabashed in the Trump era, and like Europeans who’ve been doing this for decades and decades, I’m not afraid to say that my beliefs align pretty strongly with the democratic socialist movement that’s sweeping the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in compromise or won’t vote for more moderate candidates; I’m still a carefully strategic voter who just wants the people who I think will win and will also do the best job in office. But I’m just not afraid to put forward a boldly progressive vision for what the United States can look like.

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6. I’m powerful beyond belief.

I only began to realize my true power when I managed to take a nap during lunch at our dig site in Torcello. (Thanks, chronic exhaustion!) But I didn’t truly realize how powerful I was until I managed to walk away each evening after excavating looking perfectly clean. Ironically, the day I was dirtiest was when I spent an entire day cleaning off bones and pieces of pottery and organizing them for analysis.

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But beyond that, I’ve realized I’m truly a strong and powerful person. I spent three weeks in Italy (and Slovenia) after already spending weeks traveling the United States on my own. I may have packed my summer with more than most people do in a year, but I’m still filled with energy and vigor—although a nap would be much appreciated! Every time I talk to random passersby who aren’t affiliated with Stanford, I always have so much pride in being able to say this is my project. I have a faculty advisor who helps oversee everything and provides support and advice, but at the end of the day, I put in the heavy lifting of coming up with this research, securing funding in a year in which the grant I applied for fell to its lowest acceptance rate in recent history (37%), identifying interlocutors, building relationships with people, and personally planning the jigsaw puzzle of my summer schedule.

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IMG_4245I realize at every step of the way that my natural kindness and charisma carry me through so much. The students who were supposed to just be “interlocutors” have since become some of my closest friends, whether we started as friends or acquaintances. I made some amazing friends in Venice, including one person, Jackie, who has already become a close confidant and will be a colleague and partner this spring as we work to deal with mental health problems at Stanford.

I’ve managed to receive so many votes of confidence from my peers—being asked to join that Mental Health Coalition, being brought in to oversee outreach for the Cancer Coalition, being recruited to fill a vacancy on the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board, being asked by an editor of our undergraduate anthropology journal to apply for an editor position, and being elected to a third year in a row of leadership within the Pilipino American Student Union. It’s so great to feel like I’ve earned the respect and confidence of my peers and my communities simply by being my most authentic self, all without any posturing, manuevering, or begging for any of it. And having earned that much respect is a wonderful confidence boost to start the second half of my time at Stanford.

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***

So what’s the plan now?

Here’s an overview of everything coming up (this is for you, Mom and Dad!):

  • I finally finished On the Road by Jack Kerouac! The next book on my list is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which I picked up at an independent bookstore in Austin due to the recommendation of a trusted friend.
  • Speaking of independent bookstores, I canceled my Amazon Prime account in opposition to the terrible ways that Amazon abuses its workers and in solidarity with Amazon workers who have been striking in Europe. While you’re at it, check out this great article in Jacobin Magazine about the right to strike—and then cancel your Amazon Prime account too.
  • Today, I head to West Virginia, my first time in the state. I’ll be taking a long train ride all the way from New York City to Pittsburgh before my friend picks me up, so I’ll be having a restful and beautiful nine-hour train ride through all of Pennsylvania.
  • I’ll get to go home to Dallas by the end of the week! It’ll only be fore about four days, but it’s better than nothing! After that, I head to Boston, where I’ll be taking day trips to parts of New England and spending time working on this project in the daytime and hanging out with my best friend since preschool in the evenings.
  • I have one more international trip: Israel and Palestine. Stanford’s Hillel graciously reached out to me about participating in a trip to the Holy Land for non-Jewish campus leaders in order to get firsthand experience with the many perspectives and narratives on both sides of the Israel–Palestine conflict. I’ve been grappling with the Israel–Palestine conflict for a while, and I’m excited to continue clarifying my own beliefs and my own strategies for how peace could be achieved.
  • In a little over a month, I become a student yet again! So far, my course schedule looks busy as always, but I’ll be taking anthropology, history, and creative writing courses, including a course about the history and politics of the Spanish-speaking world taught in Spanish.
  • I spend ten weeks studying at Oxford starting this January! I’ll be doing a tutorial in anthropology and a history seminar on Western thought and the origins of semiotics. I’m working on arranging for a Spanish tutor as well so I can stay on track with my Spanish courses.

Until next time!

The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa

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* Names changed, as usual.

For most of the spring and summer, I’d been looking forward to my time in Venice, Italy, as a three-week break from traveling the United States for my independent research project on educational mobility. Or at least, that’s what I told my advisors, my classmates, my family, and my friends when they posited the completely crazy, totally out-of-left-field idea that maybe, just maybe trying to travel to about twelve different states in the span of about six weeks. (That number bumps up to thirteen if you include Oklahoma, which I didn’t stop long in, per se, but drove through on my way to the Texas Panhandle after being re-routed.)

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Inside a church in Slovenia

Turns out, rapid travel is pretty tiring. It’s something I wrote about in my last blog post about Venice and New York, where I found so much magic in the quiet, simple moments in each place. But now, with only about three days left in Italy, I can definitely say that I’ve found peace and rejuvenation.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — Audre Lorde

Spirituality and travel go together. It’s partially why I’m reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a Beat Generation writer whose travels heavily influenced his eventual turn to Buddhism (as chronicled in The Dharma Bums, which takes place after the events of On the Road). My friend Jackie* and I have laughed a lot about how this specific leg of our travels—the Veneto region of Italy—feels an awful lot like the beginning of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Except that it’s mostly been “Eat Eat Eat” instead. There’s no real time to progress to the third part of that book title—”love”—but there sure has been a lot of time for deep spiritual connection and personal contemplation. It’s just that I didn’t expect so much of that to be in coastal Slovenia.

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Piran, Slovenia

I embarked to the coastal Slovenian cities of Piran and Koper for about three days total at the beginning of this month, which was when I posted my most recent blog post on Venice. The purpose of the trip was to understand how cities outside of Venice were influenced by the Republic of Venice, and after stepping foot in Piran and Koper, it was pretty clear that these two cities on the very small strip of coast that Slovenia has were very Venetian in character.

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Streets of Piran

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The city center in Koper

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Excavating in Torcello

I’m not gonna lie—Slovenia ended up being my favorite piece of these past three weeks altogether. Koper and especially Piran had all the character of Venice, but with more open space, fewer people, places where we could actually swim, and so much less humidity. It was perfectly timed, too; our excavations in Torcello, which is an island near Venice that’s still in the Venetian Lagoon, came right after returning from Koper, and there’s no way I would’ve survived the heat and exhaustion of an archeological site if I didn’t have the time to rest beforehand.

Jackie and I made the single best decision of the entire trip: going to a spa together. We found one in Koper that was about €40 per person for 150 minutes in a private spa room, complete with a hot tub, sauna, shower mister, and a few bottles of Prosecco. Our professor, Krish, had told us about how great Slovenian spas are; apparently, because salt mining was a major piece of industry in Slovenia, the spas are wonderful, although you’d have to be naked (unlike Italian spas). As it turned out, the spa Jackie and I went to in Koper was less Slovenian—the name “Veneziana” should’ve tipped us off on that—but considering we only knew each other for two weeks, avoiding full-frontal nudity was probably for the best.

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Those two-and-a-half hours were some of the most restful, rejuvenating, and reinvigorating hours of this whole last year. Jackie and I had brought our books with us—for her, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (she’s an English minor after all), and for me, On the Road—but the two of us ended up not spending any time reading since we were so busy talking and really getting to know each other at a much deeper level. We spoke about everything: past loves, our aspirations for life, our visions of how we want society to look, and the pains of losing a friend. That hottub became a site of deep spiritual and emotional connections, where two wandering souls were finally able to come together and begin wandering together.

It’s cheesy, but getting to know Jackie here in Europe has been so incredibly special. Our paths probably wouldn’t have converged on campus—she studies psychology while I study anthropology, our social circles are fairly distinct, and the areas that we devote our time and attention to on campus are different. But starting this spring, after she returns from studying abroad in Madrid and I return from studying abroad at Oxford, we’ll be working together on one of our shared priorities: improving mental health and wellness at Stanford’s campus. The way I see it, my time at Stanford is not just about learning material; I’m here to assemble a team around me. And Jackie is someone who I’m so excited to be working with through the future, as well as just having as a friend!

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Jackie and me in Pellestrina, Veneto, Italy

The next day, we left Koper and returned to Venice. But before we left, we made sure to eat well, including having some delicious Thai food made by a woman who served as a cultural food ambassador for Thailand! Since coming to Venice, a lot has happened. We helped out with an excavation for three days in Torcello, where one of us in the group found an infant skull. That was pretty freaky… especially since we didn’t expect to find any actual human remains and had been joking for the past week about our trip not being complete unless we find a human skull (be careful what you wish for!). I spent a morning at a cemetery. And I started working on my final paper for this class: an examination of the exertions of state power and the development of biopolitics in the Republic of Venice, using the Jewish Ghetto as a case study.

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Feltre, Italy

Right now I’m in Feltre, which is closer to the Alps. I’ve been sitting outside at a café, drinking an espresso and letting the cool breeze cleanse me. It’s been a pretty emotionally draining last couple days. I’ve been having trouble shaking the weird realization of my mortality after seeing that human skull. Going to a cemetery the next day didn’t help. I had a painful falling out with someone dearly important to me, and I turned to the friends closest to me for comfort—the time zones don’t help, but the love and support they’ve given me have only solidified my belief that I’m assembling the best possible team around me I could ever have. I’m incredibly proud of how I handled the whole situation with a sense of dignity and grace that was consistent with how I believe people should be treated, even when that same respect and kindness is not reciprocated.

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My brother is in the hospital for pancreatitis. He’s been so kind and loving about trying to make sure that I don’t worry from 5500 miles away, but it’s hard not to be worried about him every waking minute. I’ve been visiting quite a few more churches, and every time I go, I make sure to light a candle and say a prayer for both him and me.

Before I know it, I’ll be back in the United States. I’ll be making a return to New Jersey to visit Whitney again (who made an appearance in my post about New York City). It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, and it’s not even over! Truly, it’s been such a clarifying experience already. But until then, I’ll just continue sitting here, in Feltre, watching the rain and finishing my espresso.

Finding God in Texas

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This is a continuation of my previous post on Canadian, Texas. The first part can be found here. *Names in this blog post were changed.

I struggled to sleep last night thinking about how I would write about my time in Canadian, Texas, and then Austin, Texas. The original title of this blog post was supposed to be “Making the Lone Star State a Little Less Lonely,” or some similar play on the state’s nickname. I was going to write about how much fun I had watching my friends Thomas* and Paul* film, how after hours and hours of watching them set up lights the first day, the second day where we drove around Canadian and got shots of everything from the town to Paul’s family’s orchard was really fucking cool. And while all of that is true, the more and more I’ve thought about my time in Texas, the more and more I’ve realized that it’s left me haunted—not even by existential questions, per se, but rather existential feelings and discomfort that’s difficult for me to put my finger on.

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Beekeeping

Canadian is a small town filled with dust and trees and kind people and Christians and an overwhelming sense of community. But that’s to be expected of a Panhandle town with a population of 2649, although the trees are maybe a bit of an anomaly from the rest of the Texas Panhandle. Time seemed to pass slower here. On Sunday, their heavy filming day, lots of local restaurants were closed through the morning and early afternoon. As we searched for breakfast around 8am, already finished with that morning’s shoot, I realized that place after place was closed, regardless of their posted hours. One bakery had a sign that read “Abrimos a las 3:30,” but shockingly, the one next door was open despite their posted hours indicating they’d be closed for at least another few hours. I was surprised to use my very broken Spanish there for the first time in many months—worse Spanish than either of my friends can speak—and the pan dulce and coffee was deeply comforting despite that not being a typical breakfast for me.

I had assumed that Canadian would be an ultra-white town, a fairly reasonable assumption on my part that made me incredibly nervous. I’m a pretty fearless person, but at the same time, I’m acutely aware of my own identity as a brown, gay researcher, and I wasn’t sure how that’d play out in rural Texas. Especially coming from the incredibly diverse Dallas suburbs and then the even more diverse and queer-friendly San Francisco Bay Area, a place like Canadian wasn’t somewhere I had any cultural context for. Those concerns about looking and feeling out of place ultimately ended up being more psychological than anything grounded in my physical experience, and as it turned out, there was a pretty large Latino population within Canadian. But eating pan dulce and coffee and seeing other brown people was still deeply comforting.

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After breakfast, I watched Thomas and Paul film interviews with Paul’s dad, a hilarious man who indulged me in all sorts of stories about his family history and the history of capital within Canadian (incredibly interesting for me as a student of sociocultural anthropology). We spent time in Paul’s family’s orchard, where I became a feeding ground for mosquitos—but on the bright side, I can now say that I’ve collected bug bites from Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Oregon, and Texas. And then we drove around Canadian collecting B-roll of the town while Paul lost his hat into the wind far too many times. His love of always wearing a hat confused me since he had such beautiful hair, which is something I told him probably so many times that it became weird; I repeat it again here knowing that the odds of him reading this are pretty good, and if it wasn’t weird before, it’s probably at least a little weird now that I’ve pointed it out. (Did I mention he has really nice hair?)

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But it was in these many hours of filming B-roll—watching the sun set over Canadian and seeing the stars light up the dim night sky—where I began to realize this trip was a far more spiritual experience than I had expected.

It was such a weirdly formative experience that when we made it to Austin the next evening and we all had tacos with a different friend, he asked me what the most exciting place I had visited so far was. “It definitely can’t just be Canadian,” he joked as we all ordered our food. But I didn’t know what to say, still processing the many moments, experiences, and conversations I had that made the trip so special. Thomas quickly stepped in and asserted “Portland” on my behalf, which so many times in this past month I’ve said is my favorite West Coast city.

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I’m not a particularly religious person. I was baptized in the Catholic Church as a baby and I was confirmed at the end of the eighth grade, a standard process in my Catholic middle school, even though I find it pretty funny that anyone expects a thirteen-year-old to express any sort of true spiritual maturity or profession of personal commitment to anything at that age. Since about the age of fourteen, I had always been pretty comfortable with dissenting from Catholic moral teachings, and my Jesuit education encouraged doubt and struggle as a means toward a deeper, more meaningful spirituality. By the end of high school, I essentially abandoned Catholicism without regret—or more accurately, the Catholic Church abandoned me—for a mix of reasons, but mostly due to justified frustration with the Church’s lack of true acceptance of gay people. Pope Francis is doing a lot better, but I don’t think I can ever go back to a church that believes the love I feel is sinful and disordered.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

 1 John 4:7-8, NRSV

Religion was a surprising topic that came up within this journey of three 20-year-old guys. Entertaining conversations about dating, love, and sex were to be expected, and those definitely filled up long stretches of our workdays in Canadian, the way-too-long car ride through Dallas and Austin, and our time lounging around in Austin the day after we came back. But it was interesting to hear about how religion affected our sexual morality and our dating and sex lives since Paul and I grew up within Christianity and Thomas grew up in a culturally Protestant environment, especially since such a big anthropological interest of mine is sex, sexuality, and sexual behavior. Thomas made it clear to me a couple times that he finds this academic obsession with theorizing about sex pretty weird—he doesn’t understand the appeal, which is honestly pretty fair—but as someone who felt fairly repressed and ashamed by being gay in a Catholic school, sex is super interesting to me. As Michel Foucault once wrote, “sex is boring”—it’s everything surrounding sex that’s interesting, such as how sex and religion play together. (As an aside, Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, the healthiest thing you can do for Jude that didn’t happen for me is radically open and honest conversations around love and sex so that he doesn’t end up with the same feelings of repression and pain that I did.)

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Sunsets over Canadian

In the long car ride back to Austin, while Paul slept in the backseat, Thomas and I spoke pretty frankly and honestly about our personal beliefs, stemming from a conversation we were having around Calvinism and predestination. He and I approach the world pretty differently: he’s a deeply logical thinker, I’m an incredibly emotional feeler, but I think our core values are fairly similar. As he explained his own religious philosophy around God, which stems out of quantum physics and ontological debates around time, I had to articulate my own religious beliefs for the first time in a long time.

I’m fairly certain that my parents and brother think I’m an atheist, but—as Thomas correctly posited—it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m spiritual but not religious. At my core, I believe so deeply that God is love. It’s something that, in many ways, I believe both literally and intuitively. I’m motivated by a desire for social justice, which is what I think is at the core of Christianity and many other religions. I don’t have any proof or evidence for this belief that I have—that God is love—but it’s a deeply intuitive feeling, something that I feel within my bones.

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Leaving Canadian

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A Buc-ee’s on the way from Dallas to Austin

I believe in God, and believe that God is love, because that’s what I experience. And while most—maybe all—experiences are socially constructed and meaning is given to them by us, it’s something that feels authentically true to me. I’ve felt God every day that I’ve been traveling. I felt God the second my friend and I saw each other in Chicago, right before we began driving up to Milwaukee and catching each other up on the past couple weeks of our lives. I felt God as I biked behind my friend through downtown Portland, stopping every now and then to take pictures of each other in front of the water. I felt God the night that Thomas and I stayed up talking about what’s been weighing on our minds for the past couple months, verbally working through the hurt and confusion that comes from moments where we didn’t feel valued by people who were important to us. I felt God as I watched Paul lean out the passenger-seat window and take video after video of the Canadian sunset, the wind blowing his hat right off his head and into the street. I felt God as I took that first bite of pan dulce. I felt God in every thank you letter I left for my friends before I went to my next destination, in every handshake hello and hug goodbye, and in every warm, fuzzy feeling that overwhelmed me as I would get on the plane and think of all the great memories I’d made and all the new memories to come.

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A Vietnamese food truck in Austin

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The philosophy section of Book People in Austin

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Right now, I’m currently spending the day in New York City, New York, hanging out with my friend from New Jersey. (I’m actually posting this from Ladurée in SoHo.) This Sunday, I leave for Venice, Italy. If you’d like to keep up with my journeys, I post all my day-to-day adventures on Instagram and I try to write up more of my thoughts here on this blog once or twice a week.