On faith

My brother was baptized on Sunday.

It was completely unplanned. When he stood up to get in line after the sermon my family exchanged surprised looks. My cousin Michelle asked me what I thought. I simply said, “It’s something he would do.”

Some background: I was not raised with any concrete religious ideology. My mom was  a Roman Catholic, my dad was a Buddhist (further tensions that may have contributed to their eventual separation: she was a Raiders fan, he a 49ers). I was taught to burn incense before the image of Buddha and pray to my ancestors for protection and fortune. I was also taught to turn to God in times of trouble, and to fear damnation in hell. You might say I was confused.

With middle school, religion of any kind faded from my life. I still to this day, though, burn incense for my ancestors on special occasions out of respect for tradition.

In high school I found that my friends fell into 3 categories with regards to faith:  the indifferent, the atheists, and the devout. All were typically passionate about what they believed, but I never really was because I just didn’t know what I knew even though I still cared about the questions and answers. I labeled myself an agnostic as a sophisticated name for my confusion.

There was a period in my life when I had wanted so much for God to look out for me and perhaps stop my life from spiraling out of control. He didn’t pull through in the magical divine intervention way I thought He would, so I withdrew from earnest prayer into a wary cynicism.

However, I reconciled with the fact that if God exists, it’s not to solve my problems for me. I’m not bitter.

The existence question was never the problem for me. I believe God can coexist with science. The whole resurrection thing is sort of weird, but I guess a lot of things in the universe are weird, too. There are also plenty of clever proofs of His existence that are quite convincing, albeit headache-inducing. The fact that He doesn’t explicitly assert His presence does not bother me in slightest. I’d feel uncomfortable praising a visible god of any kind anyways. The fact that He does not intervene when people do horrendous things to each other across the globe or that evil exists does not undermine God’s existence. Frankly if He exists, it’s not His job to make sure we all get along.

I won’t argue whether or not He exists, but I don’t think the question is an exclusive reason to reject religion altogether.

My personal reason not to follow Christ/God/Supreme Anonymous Being, then, really boils down to my stubbornness. I can’t deal with the idea that someone else is in control of my life or wants to do something with it, true or not. I can cognitively take in the teachings of  “Do good unto others” and “Love they enemies,” but I could never give my whole self away like that. It scares me. I’ve chosen to bumble down the search for meaning and truth alone, not because I don’t believe a higher being could come with me, because I just don’t want one to. I am not willing to surrender myself like that, and that has been my personal decision.

My brother, of course, was brought up like I was. As he entered middle school during which skepticism is at its peak popularity, I remembered him coming home one day declaring himself an atheist. I have listened to him scoff at the old men handing out orange New Testaments outside schools and rant on about the hypocrisy of Christians throughout history.

My family started attending a hip nontraditional Christian church in San Jose at Michelle’s insistence. I did not resist, partly to not make a fuss, partly because I saw the sermons as mini philosophy lectures, partly because of free tea.

One day my brother said after Sunday morning: “What a load of bull. You don’t believe this, do you?”

I responded ambiguously, “Keep an open mind. Jesus was a good guy.”

Then he started going to a youth group, mainly because my aunt believed it would be good for him in a moral sense. It was an experiment at first but he soon began to really engage. Once I asked why. He said, looking me in the eye, “I just need something stable in my life for once.”

A week ago, about 6 months after we began going to church, I’d relapsed into a spiral of self-hate. This time my brother said, as he was trying to convince me that I was loved, “That’s what God’s love is for.”

He said, “But I know you don’t give a shit about God.”

He said, “It’s like you’re afraid of happiness.”

Yes, he’s growing up. So perhaps the baptism was not so unprecedented.

As with most things that people around me do, I took his decision personally. I took it as a sign he was through with my contagious cynicism and doubt.

I remember this past September at La Jolla Beach walking alongside the ocean lost in busy thoughts. I turned around at one point to see my brother determinedly walking in my footsteps, literally, leaping from one indentation in the sand to another.

As I watched my brother stand in line next to the pool and he gave a little wave, I was afraid he’d never want to walk in my footsteps again. I thought selfishly that in a way Jesus was taking my little brother from me. This was why I wasn’t sure if I teared up out of pride or out of fear when he was plunged into the water.

The first thing he did once he was toweled dry and changed was come to hug me. Neither of us said anything this time. In that moment my anxieties melted away and I ran my hand through his hair. I just hoped maybe someday I’ll have something I believe in as strongly as he does.

I love you (restrictions may apply)

Unconditional love is looking more like a burden that eternally ties you to others, a love that cannot set you free because it is a heavy weight. You stride when they stride, but if they fall you cannot walk away. So you fall, too. Unconditional love is the hacking old man you keep tending to with washcloths and steady spoonfuls of soup. You can’t kill him, but he won’t die. He is immortal, so he keeps existing instead. He sticks around but he is too decrepit to lift anything, not even his own head; he’s too senile to tell you stories like he used to. He just exists.

Unconditional love is: “I will love you no matter what. If you murder my family I will still love you. If you rob a bank I will shake my head but I  will still love you. If you are mean to me when you have a bad day I will not be happy, but I will still love you. If you stab me in the back, even if I don’t understand why, I will still love you. If you choose the path of destruction and return unrecognizable, I will still love you.”

Unconditional love is forgiveness, forever. It is the perpetual gamble, even when you run out of all you had to bring to the table. Eventually you’re playing with nothing at all. You want so much to stop, but this is their game so you cannot leave.

With unconditional love there is the certainty of soaring together and crumbling together.

Conditional love is: “I love you, but if you do that I cannot love you any longer. If you break these promises, I won’t love you. If you turn into someone I do not know, I won’t love you. If you smash me to pieces too may times, I won’t love you. If you lie to me, if you dishonor me, if you betray your friends, if you go too far, I won’t love you. If you do not love me, I won’t love you. If you give up, I won’t love you. If you refuse to change, I won’t love you.”

Conditional love has standards and boundaries. Conditional love doesn’t mean ephemeral, or fickle. It means there is a threshold at which, once reached, you will choose your own heart before someone else’s.

Cities and Colors

I was curled up on the backseat trying to ignore my brother’s snores as we headed northbound on I-680. The pink clouds were struck with glorious morning light, and I caught myself in time before scribbling something down about them to wonder why we compared clouds to cotton candy; the sky has been here a lot longer than carnivals and artificial colors. Blood tastes likes pennies, but the red that runs within us has been here a lot longer than pocket change.

Red is what I wear when I want to tell the world I’m not afraid.

I caught my reflection in the rear view mirror and turned away quickly in disgust. I never liked my body because it has no defined colors. No candy lips or bronze skin. I am blotches, smears, and scars instead. My eyes are the kind of brown you find on the walls of old buildings, the kind you wish would be painted over. They are nothing like my mother’s eyes, or her mother’s, which were the kind of hazel that burned with light. They are the kind I wish I’d inherited.

Two hours later we ambled along the neat grids of the city trying to find the Sheraton. As we waited at a stoplight, I watched a fountain outside a building. It continuously sprayed into the air in spurts of an unnatural Jolly Rancher blue, choking with chlorine and cleaners.

That night sprawled on the pristine hotel bed with the ceiling gaping high above me, I let childish fears keep me from sleep. I tip-toed to the wide window after a few hours of over-thinking to look at the city lights. The view was disappointing. I found only lines of parked cars and the bald tops of smaller buildings. Neon blinked in the distance but it was nothing like the amber constellations I remembered from home.

The gray sidewalks were the same, though. It’s always come back to gray for me.

I am like the color gray. I am faded. I am pale. I have been washed out and wrung out and slapped out in the wind and sun.

Gray is the color of the newspaper pages I poured hours of love into when all the print could do in return was smudge onto my fingers in blooms of black.

I was another color once. I was many colors. Color dies. Gray remains. Gray is the shell, and gray is the core, eventually at least. Gray has nothing to do with photons or bouncing light. You cannot project the color gray with spotlights. You cannot stand in it. You’re either in it or you aren’t  Gray doesn’t stand still for anyone. You cannot capture it. You cannot put it in a jar or catch it with a net. But it’s not nothing either. Gray moves.

Don’t be mistaken, it is not watered down. It carries weight. It is steel, it is newspaper, it is iron resolve. It is morning fog that slips through your fingers and sifts through your hair. Gray is complete. It does not sparkle or shine or give off fragrance. It will not glow for you unless you’re willing to look through it, because it filters all that is too bright to look at. It’s the color of this breathing in and out that keeps us standing, walking, dashing along stone and pavement of the same color. Romance doesn’t happen in the gray, but understanding does. Euphoria doesn’t happen in the gray, but satisfaction does. It is the in-between and the blunt edges. It’s the catch in your breath upon disbelief. Gray is intuition. It is resounding clarity.

And it was in the gray that I was able to finally fall asleep that night.