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Jamie Jo Hoang - Author & World Traveler

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Finding the Story

Banh Tet

Bánh tét (The South Vietnamese traditional Lunar New Year Dish)

“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
― Robert McKee

Every year for the Lunar New Year (i.e. Chinese New Year) my grandmother makes bánh Tét. A New Year’s tradition, this dish is known to have originated in South Vietnam. Wrapped in banana leaves and tightly bound by plastic string are sweet rice, cooked mung bean, and pork belly. This was, and still is, my favorite dish to date.

My grandmother is 73 years old, 4’9” tall, and when she smiles a line of blackened teeth appear—the result of over 6 decades of chewing tobacco. Grandma is a badass.

In 1979, after the fallout of the Vietnam War, my grandma made a decision that would change the course of my existence. My grandfather, a casualty of the war, left her alone with five children and a choice: stay and endure the consequences of being on the losing side of war, or flee and hope for a better life. She fled. In the dead of night she escaped Vietnam with only the clothes on her back, a few valuables, and her last three unwed children.

In 1995, at the age of 10, I visited Vietnam for the first time. Over 15 years had passed since my mom last set foot on homeland soil and tensions were high. The searing looks of the guards at customs, the quiet way we had to sneak about commuter trains, and the hushed tone of conversation whenever we passed a Viet Cong officer made for a visit that was less than comfortable.

I remember details from that trip as if they were motifs in my everyday life. The smell of skewers on a grill, the broken pairs of plastic sandals outside every door, the general lack of furniture, dirt roads, large cement barriers between homes, hand washed clothes, dirty drinking water, mosquito nets, and the smell of Tiger Balm.

In the years since my first trip to Vietnam I have traveled back twice more and recently I began to piece the two halves of myself together. I am American, but I am also Vietnamese. Three days before the 2010 Lunar New Year (February 14, 2010) I traveled home to make bánh tét with my grandmother. Together we shopped, prepared the ingredients, and cooked.

Because of her I understand the power of story. Rich in tradition, folklore, and culture, our daylong conversation became fuel, in the form of inspiration, which now drives the narrative in my writing. If Robert McKee is correct and stories are in fact, “the currency of human contact,” than I have been blessed with more riches than perhaps I deserve.

Time has a funny way of shifting perspective with each new generation, but as a writer and avid reader I am certain that the future cannot be written without a clear understanding of the past. Parents and grandparents are not always forthcoming about the truths that they have suffered, but talk to them long enough and eventually the good stuff will flow.

Stories that resonate with readers are the ones that resonate with you. They are the narratives that move you to take action, sway you to believe, and inspire you to write. And finding them, well that’s only a matter of listening.

Rise to the Top, then Humble Yourself

Mutual Respect

Mutual Respect

Situated on a street notorious for prostitution, crime, and drugs, is my parents’ small motel. The area is known to many as the “meth capital of the world”. Cops hardly want to enter. And most of society is simply glad it’s contained to six square miles. As you can imagine, working in an area like this has many challenges beginning with security and ending with a hardened outer appearance. To look weak in the neighborhood is to invite trouble.

When my parents first took over the business 10 years ago, I thought they were crazy. Running a motel was a 24-hour job and it was a notoriously rough neighborhood, but they were entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity and wanted to capitalize on it. I think my dad also saw it as a challenge, which he’ll deny enjoying but deep down he knows he likes.

The first two years were spent fixing it up. Everything from the asphalt to the roof needed mending and my parents set to work right away. They hired day laborers but also worked alongside them doing much of the heavy lifting. The third and fourth years were clean up. I remember coming home from college one summer and sitting outside with my parents as a cop rolled through on his regular patrol. He stopped to say hi to my parents and then turned to my older sister and me and said, “You should be really proud of your parents. Two years ago, we would not have driven through here.”

His words were anything but soothing. If even the cops are weary of entering what does that say about the neighborhood?

By year eight, my parents had settled in. They have learned to sleep with one eye open, neighborhood faces had become familiar, and when ABC News aired a live broadcast of a prostitution raid in 2012, our motel was one of the few left unscathed. How then, I wondered, did they do it?

If you ask them they will tell you it is luck. But I would say it is because of a mutual respect. When I work there on occasional weekends and during the summers, I notice my normal, friendly personality shift rather quickly into a hardened, unsympathetic business demeanor. Nine out of ten people who walk in the door have a sob story and maybe one of the nine isn’t lying about their situation. I can’t tell the difference so I treat everyone the same across the board. My parents, though, they still try to give everyone a chance and they feel guilty when they misjudge.

Every year, during the holidays, my parents set up benches in the parking lot and they cook a full meal with all the fixings for anyone in the neighborhood who’s hungry. To be completely honest, I thought this was a tactic to build goodwill among people who could easily wreak havoc on a motel LA-riot-style. But that wasn’t it at all. They are hyper aware of the fact that their income comes from the so-called “undesirable” residents of the area. “We can never think that we are better than them,” my dad says.

My dad’s English isn’t that great, but I believe what he means is: work hard, build something, and humble yourself as it grows, because you are only as important as those that you profit off of. I can only imagine how much better we would function as a society if our relationships with those above or below us on the social spectrum were founded on the grounds of mutual respect.

Playing Like Picasso

One of Picasso's first cubist Paintings - Les Demoiselles

One of Picasso’s first cubist Paintings – Les Demoiselles

Guest post by: Ryan Andrew

For the longest time, I used to startle awake in the middle of the night. I’d look around and not know where I was… I wouldn’t recognize the shapes of my apartment walls or furniture in the dark, and it would take me a moment to get my bearings. As I’d lay there looking up at the ceiling, suddenly my problems would flood around me like my bed had been floating in the ocean and was just now submerging and dipping under the surface. Things always seemed worse at night: if I was having problems at work, financially, or with a relationship, it was always magnified ten times at these late hours. 

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was In the Night Kitchen. If I remember correctly, it was about a boy who floats out of his bed in the middle of the night, drifts out the window, and high over the city. He eventually drifts into a bakery and falls into a womb-like vat of dough, somehow losing all of his clothes in the process. I’m not sure why it suddenly popped into my mind while lying there in the dark at the age of 32, but I found myself thinking about it.

I imagined myself floating out the window and rising up, high over the city. The streets would be empty around my building, and as I climbed higher and higher, the street lamps would turn into a grid of pinpoints. The moon was full, and its blue light illuminated much of the city, but beyond that… darkness. I could see east and north from Los Angeles, and it was nothing but desert, empty, barren and dark.

This was the best my imagination could muster? This was me “playing” as an adult? When I was a child, I loved the idea of floating around like the boy in In the Night Kitchen, drifting into a bakery, meeting three jovial bakers… It seemed like an adventure. Now I shot up into the sky like a rocket, looked out over hundreds of miles… and saw nothing.

Picasso was quoted as saying that he spent the better part of his career learning to paint like a child again. I have spent the better part of my life learning how to play again. Society subtly removes play from our lives in incremental stages: we have recess up to a certain point (usually middle school), and then we just sit around during lunch and talk. Many of us play sports, usually through high school or college, and then once we get jobs and life gets in the way, we’re relegated to sitting on couches or in bars and watching others play sports on TV. We are shadows of our former selves.

Last summer, I took a business trip to Indianapolis for the premiere of a film I had edited. My boss, the director, invited me over for a yearly basketball game he played with his friends. It was the beginning of July– about as hot as it gets– and about 30 seconds into the game I felt like I was going to pass out. I was so winded and dehydrated, and I could see fingers of electricity crawling in at the corners of my eyes with the impending threat that I was going to black out. I was thankful when my turn was up, and I collapsed in the chair on the sidelines, soaked in sweat. My boss turned to me and said, “You know what’s funny? Every time you go up for a layup, you’re grinning ear to ear.” I doubted the validity of that statement… I was so exhausted, I felt like I could possibly have been smiling… But then I realized what it was: it was a fossilized remnant of my childhood, like a mosquito caught in an amber rock or a giant ribcage bone from a wooly mammoth. But it wasn’t some prehistoric creature– it was my ability to get lost in the moment, to have fun, and play.

In a flash, it was gone. The weekend passed by in the blink of an eye, faster than you can snap your fingers (those summer weekends always do)… and I’m back in Los Angeles. I’m jerked awake in the middle of the night again, and it takes me a moment, but I catch my breath and remember where I am. It’s cold outside– early fall– and I can feel the chilly air drifting in through the open window.

I lie back in bed and stare back up at the ceiling. I reminisce about that summer and I am touched by a moment of sadness. Life is passing by too damn fast. I used to have entire summers full of those moments, but they are now few and far between.

But then, something gently grabs ahold of me. I feel my self lift out of bed, but instead of flying out the window and high up into the sky where I see nothing but desert and darkness, I drift over to my computer. I take off all my clothes until I am completely naked, just like the character of In the Night Kitchen. Instead of falling into a vat of dough, I open a blank document and fall into my imagination. I let go.

I have never written a blog entry just for the sake of writing it. The words aren’t premeditated, there is no outline, and I have no idea what it’s for, or why I’m doing it, but I do it. Because it’s fun.

That’s how I played tonight.

Giving Characters Freedom To Be Wrong

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Aubrey Johnson, the protagonist in my manuscript Blue Sun, Yellow Sky, is a painter who discovers that in six to eight weeks she’ll be completely blind. I myself couldn’t paint a flower to save my life, but I was fascinated with the idea of someone in her late twenties losing the identity she spent her life cultivating. Ideas are fickle that way; sometimes they emerge but require a great deal of research.

To get into the mind of a painter, I spent a lot of time in art galleries and museums. Not being a painter myself, I had to read a lot about painting technique, color mixing, shadow and light composition and historical context. But I also needed my character to be relatable and feel real, so she couldn’t just spit facts out here and there about art. She needed to have a unique perspective.

As the writer, I needed to readers to first believe that she was a painter and then accept the quirky facets I attached to her personality. I was very self-conscious that readers wouldn’t connect with my character or think of her as a real painter if I didn’t adhere to certain artistic standards. So, at first, I pulled facts and ideas from books I read about certain art pieces and I tossed the phrases into her vernacular every chance I could. But when she started to feel like an art history major I knew something had to change.

In my research, I came across a TED talk by Tracy Chevalier about finding the story inside the painting. At the beginning of her talk, she boldly admits that when she walks into an art gallery or museum, many of the paintings simply do not strike a chord with her. This might be pretty universal but not many people talk about it, and that kind of raw honestly about art’s subjectivity was what released me from the chains of “authenticity” and moved me towards creating a unique character with a distinct voice. Characters, like people, are most interesting when they’re flawed, so unbinding her from the idea she had to know everything about every painter and style of painting was freeing.

Unless I’m writing a historical piece my character can be whoever she wants to be. Restricting her tastes to what is commonly considered to be the highbrow tastes of artists limits my ability to create my own character. By allowing Aubrey to sometimes like things that might be considered lowbrow among art enthusiasts, I avoided the pitfall of creating a clichéd character. After all, who wants to read about a character that never surprises them?

I’m not saying not to do the research. Without a basic understanding of the medium it is impossible to build on or strip away an identity. What I’m suggesting is do the research and then give your characters the freedom to choose whether or not they accept or reject those ideas. Then watch as your characters’ personalities open up and they start to come alive.

 

Winter’s for Writing

           desk-rain

           When I used to work a regular nine-to-five job (two of them actually), I found it really hard to write at night. There were so many things going on after work, from happy hour to birthdays, that by the time I sat down at my computer to write, my brain was exhausted and my eyes already drooping. Summertime is by far the worst season to write—people are jovial, they want to go lay out at the pool or beach and every day seems like a party you don’t want to miss. Winter, however, is a different story.

            From the moment winter arrives we know it because it’s cloudy all day, making it feel as if the sun ceased to come up at all—the party stops. Mornings blend into afternoons as the gray sky takes the place of sunlight rays and bright summer colors are tucked away in exchange for muted solids and thick down coats. This is the perfect time to write. It’s quiet outside, the coffee shop atmosphere shifts from a bustling, dealmaking center to a place where people go for caffeine and solitude, and we’re given a long stretch of time to work uninterrupted.

            Consider the last quarter of the year to be a writing retreat for the evenings. Get out of the house and go to a coffee shop where you don’t know anyone and open up that creative corner you’ve pushed to the back of your mind. If an entire novel or screenplay seems too daunting, write a short story, write a diary entry, write a letter to a friend; writing is muscle that needs to be constantly exercised.

            That first week or two of seasonal limbo, where the sun peaks out accidentally and people are conned into thinking fall was given an extension, should be used to brainstorm. If you already know what you want to write then start mapping out your character traits, plots, story arcs etc., and if you’ve got that pinned down then think about your opening paragraph. Should you be a regular social butterfly like me, take this time to start planting the seed in your friends’ heads that you’ll be MIA for the season.

            I tell people a couple of weeks in advance I’m going to into hibernation and will emerge when the sun does. People will respect the boundaries you create, even if they try to influence you to do otherwise, and when you emerge with a screenplay or manuscript they’ll welcome you back with a toast and round of shots that will drop you in right where you left off.

            Novels, screenplays, poems, and short stories take time to manifest themselves into completed, comprehensive masterpieces, but they always start with a first draft. And when it’s cold outside and my imagination is given a blank sheet of paper and no distractions, I tend to come up with my best material. I write fast and with fervor, expecting that most of it will be crap and always surprised at the story that surfaces.

          So what are you waiting for? Pull out your laptop, heat up some coffee, get cozy, and free your creative genius! Winter is here and it’s time to write.

Waiting on Inspiration

Inspiration-true-writers-31646608-1280-853

A couple weeks ago, I finished the umpteenth draft of the Untitled Novel I’ve spent the last two years writing. I should’ve felt accomplished, proud, or, at the very least, relieved. I didn’t. The novel wasn’t finished.

When I started this unnumbered draft, I felt pretty confident in the viability, marketability, and overall concept of the story. I’d tested the idea on a handful of friends who fit the targeted demographic, and they all thought it was interesting to varying degrees. My friends are awesome. They’re super-supportive and wonderful liars. So I could tell when a worried furrow creased their brow at the same time they smiled with feigned interest. The fact that they had finished the book meant the idea held their interest, but I could tell I hadn’t hit a home run. The ending was unsatisfying.

To be fair, before I even sent them copies, I knew this was true. That annoying creature that sits on every writer’s shoulder and nags us to press our fingers to the keyboard day after day when all we want to do is go have a drink with friends…it told me so. But I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to acknowledge I needed yet another extension on my self-imposed deadline. I take deadlines very seriously. I have to– otherwise, I’d never accomplish anything. The art of procrastination was a specialty of mine, but Pride also guided many of my actions, and Pride would not let me miss a deadline.

Guilt and shame rushed through me and I started to panic. How much longer could I keep my friends at bay and hide out in this writer’s bunker in the middle of nowhere before I went crazy? Better yet, was this book even worth all the personal sacrifices I’d made?

I had an incredible network of friends who supported me, literally, with meals and offers of free places to stay while I finished my book. But to be quite honest, coasting along for the past few years on the backs of others was embarrassing. They loved me, my friends, and if I never made a dime as a writer, they would still support me… but two years was enough. It was time to publish this book.

But I couldn’t. It wasn’t done. The ending was flat. The conclusion lacked a soul. I knew it needed something, but I had no idea what that something was. So for the last three weeks, I had ruminated. I thought of different ways the book could end– plot stuff– but that wasn’t what I needed. The ending required something I couldn’t just create. I had to wait for it. I knew I would recognize it when it showed up and that I’d have to be ready with a pen and paper when it came, so I sat around in coffee shops, parks, and the beach ready to jot down notes at a moment’s notice.

It wasn’t coming though, so I left on a short weekend trip to NY with my family and then it happened. The idea struck me as I was walking down Madison Ave window-shopping with friends and without a pen and paper in hand. I whipped out my iPhone and furiously began to record the idea in my “Notes”. It came out as a jumble of specific images and broad tonal instruction, which I quickly translated into shorthand notes I hoped would make sense later.

Elizabeth Gilbert best describes the struggle with creatively in her TED talk on nurturing creativity. But I’d like to take that notion a step further and explore the idea that if something isn’t coming to you…be patient. Go to a museum, park, mountaintop, observatory, your backyard, or wherever inspires you, and just be on alert because it will come eventually.

Tomorrow I’ll start the rewrite of Chapter 24.

On the Subject of Writing

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“Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” — Gene Fowler

I took a photo of that quote for Instagram and blasted it out to my followers, not thinking much more about it. But, as I wake up every morning to a pile of edits for the 128th draft of my first novel, the quote nags at me. Writing is hard. No one will blame you if you just give up. The devil is always sitting on my shoulder.

Writing is an exercise, and every day I have to remind myself of that. I read books– lots of them. When I fly through them in two days, I always think, Man, will I ever be this good? But writing is like running a marathon: no one starts out running one mile the first day and 26.1 the next. A typical training schedule consists of 16 weeks of 3-5 runs per week. Sometimes a 10 mile run will be followed by a two mile run. Writing is the same way. I write like a madwoman for two days, hit writer’s block, spend four hours with a blinking cursor on the screen, and I backslide to the beginning. I am not a marathon runner, but I feel their plight.

For me, reading is like watching others cross the finish line far off on the distance and wondering how long it will be before I pass through any kind of checkered flag of my own.

I read two books last month, Shantaram and The Fault in Our Stars. They were two completely different books for two completely different audiences–each considered to be a masterpiece of its genre. Shantaram is hard to put down because, for the vast majority of us who have never been to prison, Lin’s life and exploits are so different from our own. In 900 pages of fast-paced, vulgar writing, he gives us a glimpse into the life of a fugitive within the framework of a fictional story. For two weeks, I read at night after long days of editing and lamented on all the things his book had that mine didn’t.

In general, I have a rule that when I write I do not read. (Unfortunately, another rule I live by is to break rules as often as possible.) There were, and are, so many problems with my book–from story structure to character development–that it seemed pointless to continuing chipping away at it. So, I downloaded The Fault in Our Stars. The author, John Green, is part of this Nerdfighter online presence and his book is very clearly marketed to the Young Adult population. I thought that this book would be a confidence booster. Wrong.

Green’s audience may be young, but he doles out some serious and heavy medicine in The Fault in our Stars, and in two days of non-stop reading (clocked in as “research” for my writing), I completed this audacious and witty “Juno”-style book about two teenagers living with the knowledge that they will die too soon. Like I said, heavy. The story is fictional, as Green mentions in his prologue and again in his Special Thanks, but it gives a voice to a small niche of the population who are told that death will be a landmark before many others. “You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence,” Hazel, the main character, reflects–wise beyond her years. I finished the book at 2:00 a.m. last night.

At 9:00 a.m. this morning, I stared at a blank screen, with a stack of notes 400 pages deep, and waited for the blood to form on my forehead. I waited for it to exude through the pores of my skin in profuse quantities as fear gripped me and I began the day as I always do: with a blank screen and the vague hope that hundreds of words strung together in fierce combinations will make their way onto the screen and into my own fictional novel.

Moments that Cultivate Big Change

Be Bold, Keep Moving Up

I was doing research for a blog post I was asked to write on food when I came across a video that I couldn’t stop watching. The clip was from Michael Buble’s tour in 2010 and watching it reminded me of a time when I was young and believed in impossible dreams.

The world I grew up in wasn’t horrible but let’s just say it was more akin to The Wire than Hannah Montana. I spent most of my time outside of school, doing my homework, in the back alley of my parents billiard–there’s nothing like a desolate ally to make kids ask for more challenging math problems. Hollywood was a pipe dream, but one that I thought about incessantly. On some crazy level I was sure that one day I’d be hanging out with my friends on the set of Friends.

Of course once I got older, I came to my senses and stopped watching TV. The revolution on learning hadn’t yet been developed and a feasible route for me was to study medicine. Unlike most kids I actually did enjoy the sciences and loved learning about DNA and Mitosis. It wasn’t a tortuous choice but a practical one that promised stability as well as upward mobility–the American dream for all immigrant families. The only problem was, the dreamer in me wanted more.

I had just gotten out of a statistics class in South Campus (an imaginary equator divided the liberal arts and the sciences into North and South campuses respectively) and I had some time to kill so I wandered over to the Sculpture Gardens, which acted as the front lawn to UCLA’s renowned film school. Posters like: The Godfather, Apollo 13, Forest Gump, and Sideways, lined the walls as a testament to the successes of the school’s alumnus. As soon as I’d stepped foot in the door I could feel my childhood dreams resurfacing, and walking into the building felt like a sign that I couldn’t ignore.

In some ways film school imitated life for me, because past the movie posters in the lobby the rest of the building looked like a worn-down warehouse. For a place that was supposed to spawn creativity, the decor could not have been any more depressing. And in the business of entertainment, behind what we saw on screen the industry was also pretty bleak. In every conversation I had in the six years following film school negativity far outweighed the positives, and like film school I got a bit lost in the cold, unwelcoming hallways.

I walked away from the industry having barely entered into it fully and set off to pursue my true passion–story. For the most part I am completely content with my day-to-day work, but there are some days where self-doubt and fear crawl up and threaten to strangle my creativity. Today was one of those days.

So when I came across this video of Michael Buble saying to a 15 year-old boy, “Come up here for a moment. Come up here for a moment because I remember being your age,” all of those daydreams about living in TV Land came rushing back to me. Then, Buble reacted so fervently to Sam’s voice, and I felt the chains of fear loosen. I didn’t even know the kid but I was so damn happy for him because it felt like I was watching someone beat the odds and trump cynicism.

Moments like that cultivate big change, and as someone in the midst of chasing her dreams I felt like Sam’s victory was mine as well. It was a combination of someone (his Mom) believing in him enough to boldly interrupt Buble and the wild praise Sam received from his idol. If Sam wasn’t pursuing a career in singing before, he definitely was after this duet. What’s even better was the magic was two-fold: Buble probably changed the trajectory of Sam’s life and Sam gave Buble a spontaneous moment in concert history that added to and solidified his popularity among fans.

What I took away from the moment was this: If the equation for success truly is hard work meeting opportunity, then all we have to do is the stay the course and wait for the moment we get to get on stage and belt one out for the world.

 

 

Appreciating Experience rather than Memory

I’ve been sick for the past week but I don’t do sick very well, so even though I’m immobilized physically I still want to be somewhat productive. As such, I’ve been watching tons of “Tedtalks.” I’d probably watched about 10 or 15 of them when I came across one that I found very relevant to the way I live my life.

TED Talks

In it, Daniel Kahneman discusses the pursuit of Happiness. Not necessarily how we achieve it but how we find it in our experiences and subsequently our memories. Experiences create memory but there is a distinct difference between the two because we put so much more weight on memory versus the experience. Kahneman says, “Time is the critical variable that differentiates our experiencing self from our remembering self…time has very little impact on the story.” So if we change the way we look at time, most notably as this thing that seems to pass us by too quickly or something we never have enough of, and instead recognize its non-importance—I’m certain therein lies a key to happiness. We don’t have the capacity to remember everything, so our psyches pick and chose moments of significance, whether good or bad, that create the framework for our personal stories.

 

These memories make up the stories of our lives and, as Kahneman says, “What defines a story are: changes, significant moments, and endings.” I like to think that this is what draws us to books. Our experiencing selves get to feel a range of emotions simply by turning the page and when the book is over, what took us three days (I’m a fast reader) can be reduced down to a one-minute synopsis. Try timing someone when they begin to describe a book to you and you’ll find that they’ll probably be done in 60 seconds.

Kahneman’s concept is simplistic in design and while listening, I thought, “Well of course that’s the case.” He presents his idea in a very logical and uncomplicated way so that it’s easy to follow his conclusions. What I took away from it was that we have the ability to change the way we remember things. For example, we could change how we remember experiences simply by spinning the ending. If a stranger spills a drink on my new suede boots but turns out to be the love of my life, what am I going to remember?

I think I’ve spent a lot of the last few years chasing after experiences that I wanted to keep in my repertoire of memories, and it’s undeniable that I’ve created a very picturesque life simply by being open to trying anything and everything. I’ve jumped out of the sky, dove deep into the sea, ate a fried tarantula…the list goes on. But early on, somewhere in mountains of Peru I felt that something was missing. I realize now that I was trying to collect memories instead of living in the experience. Experiences are fleeting, they happen and they disappear into the ether, because our memories aren’t capable of retaining all of them but they are no less important.

I can vividly remember prom, but I can’t remember the first time I rode a bike—that doesn’t make prom a more important experience. Remembering everything is impossible, but appreciating the experience by stepping out from behind the camera and truly living in the moment is the greatest way to live life. In other words, stop trying to capture memorable moments and I think you’ll find that you experience them more often. Facebook is fine—a great way to keep in touch with the people who we meet in life—but is it necessary to post a photo from every angle? My all time favorite moment as a kid was when my cousins and I set up shops that we made out of giant cardboard boxes. I remember it like it was yesterday and there’s not a single picture anywhere in the world of it.

 

 

Belief in God: Good, Bad or Irrelevant

Tree of Life

In the past few months the question of whether or not God exists has come up in many of my conversations. Then this morning when I woke up, the song “What If God Was One of Us,” by Joan Osborne was stuck in my head (I think I fell asleep watching The Voice).

I grew up not just any Catholic, but a Vietnamese Catholic, which might as well make me a Jehovah’s witnesses for all the rules and regulations (aka “sins”) that plagued my life. Needless to say, after college I turned away from the Church. It’s not that I stopped believing in God; I stopped believing in the institution. As did all of my friends who were not already atheist.

So when one of my best friends called me to say that though she wasn’t Christian she did believe that there was a God. I was shocked. Amy had always been an atheist and all of a sudden she became a Deist. She couldn’t explain to me what exactly happened to make her believe, except to say that certain events took place in her life in such perfect order that she knew it had to be divine intervention.

On the flip side of that conversation, another friend of mine was having the opposite experience. He had had a rough upbringing and at a time in his life where everything kept falling apart, he went to see a professor of theology. This professor obtained his degree while in seminary school, but like a lot highly educated people, found it hard to believe in the Christian God. The world was too cruel a place; bad things happened to good people and fortune fell upon the bad. There was no balance. What my friend came away with from that conversation, I found to be really profound: There is no god. And because there is no god, we as people, need to take care of each other.

The idea was so simple it was revolutionary; like Apple. Basic, streamlined and made complete sense.

 

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob like one of us

Just a stranger on the bus

Trying to make his way home

 

Joan Osborne’s song took on new meaning for me, because although it’s a Christian song, likely dedicated to the idea of believing in God, I found something different. Maybe the acknowledgment of the existence of God was irrelevant.

Charles Darwin once said, “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God.” (The term agnostic had not yet been coined). For those who believe, God provides support and moral guidelines and for those who don’t we have a moral obligation to help support one another.

Life is as much about the things we do and see as it is about what we believe. But belief’s are supposed to make us better people–not worse. I don’t have the answer to which religion is better or what people should believe in because that’s the thing about faith; it’s based on intuition, which is an individualistic trait. What I do know, is that the individual belief doesn’t need to make up the whole.

As a devout Catholic turned fallen Catholic: I, like Darwin find it hard to deny the existence of God, but I do feel that in the event there is no God, we need to look out for one another.  I wrote an article a while back for TinyBuddha called the Benefits of Kindness, which I think goes hand in hand with my argument here. Be kind to those around you because you never know when you’ll need a stranger to be kind to you.

 

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