If you've known me for a long time, then you know that for the past decade or so, I've written an annual Christmas letter for my family, which my parents send out (before Christmas) every year to friends and relatives. This year, I shirked that duty, going to the desert on a road trip instead, skipping out on a traditional Christmas entirely. To make up for that, I promised my parents that I would write a New Years letter, so I did. It used to be an update of the family, but since I don't live with my parents, it's become more of a rambling digest.
There's some of you whom I talk to every day, others of you whom I haven't seen in years; and still others with whom I've had only a brief but meaningful encounter. But like I've written before, I believe that once a kinship comes into being, it will never cease to exist, even if it is silent, or latent, for awhile. So for the one time per year when I can flip through the rolodex of my mind, remember the heartstrings each of you have plucked, think fondly of every meeting I've had with you, I do so joyously. I write this letter to all of you, knowing--hoping--that in some way, we're all still connected to one another.
So I hope you enjoy the letter that I've written to you this year--about my trip to the desert, about 2013 and beyond. And if you have a minute or two, please write back and tell me how you are. I'd love to hear from you.
With candor and affection,
On Friday night, after 2000 miles on the road over the span of a week, I arrived at a warehouse in a desolate neighborhood in Oakland. It was quiet and dark—just parking lots and brick-lined warehouses. My stomach was knotted and tight. For the past six days, I had been out in the desert, on the road, and in a convent; beneath a flowering garden of stars in empty stretches of black sky; in a graveyard of fish bones by a salty, white sea. I had watched the red sun descend spilling warm waves of color over the mountains, black smoke billowing like an ominous cloud behind; floated through fields of dusty blonde cat tails and curlicued reeds of dried desert grass; sailed down a straight and breathless road snaking endlessly through the chiaroscuro contours of purple-hued mountains; freely reeled, rambled, rollicked, never in one place for too long. I breathed in the silence of a monastery, steeped in a wilderness away from everywhere; walked a yellow brick road on a rainbow hill; wrote letters to loved ones on a plain wooden desk; napped; stoked a fire in the still stands of a desert homestead.
Now, in Oakland, at our friend’s dinner party, we were about to join the bustling throngs of civilization again, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to encounter, swallow, and sift through all the noise. Or smile and make small talk, try to yell louder than the music in the background. Wasn’t ready to return to the patterned routines of my ordinary life with dulled senses and a twittering heart.
Of course I knew I’d come back, like every other time I’ve left home, which always begins with a feeling of wanting to leave, wanting unfamiliarity and novelty and a different breath of air. I am, by instinct, a hoarder and archivist, always hungry, always trying to fill up, which has often left me more restless than satisfied, feeling like a wanderer. I read somewhere about the “capitalism of the heart,” in which happiness and experience are currencies to be gathered and seized. Maybe I’ve been wanting to get rich, thinking I could fatten up my spirit by moving from place to place, always looking for the next place to go, anticipating a deadline to usher me into a different geography, awaiting some future joy, as if somewhere else is something better. If you’re lucky or wise, sometimes you won’t desire anything at all.
Sometimes it’s easier to displace yourself and surround yourself with strangers you don’t know, people you’re not attached to. That’s why the first time you leave home, you feel liberated, uninhibited. You’re not responsible for much more than observing lives in which you have no stake. You can construct barriers around yourself. You don’t have to care. You may be living a messy, scrappy life, but you’ve tucked your heart away, falsely manicured, or festering.
When I first left for college on the east coast—a little more than five years ago now—I was hopeful for the revelation of a wild and unhindered life. I was under the impression that the farther I flung myself, the more people I met and the more things I saw, the more worldly wisdom I’d gain. I associated this experience consumption with happiness—with the ultimate pursuit of truth, too—and I constructed my own hierarchy of experiences, which was based on the way I wanted to be viewed, lauded, glorified.
At school, I experienced major culture shock. People talked and dressed differently. Social hierarchies seemed more important, as did your lineage and blood. The details of your résumé and birth certificate carried much more weight, and your taste—in books, music, art, and clothing—reflected how cultured and intelligent you were. Your taste was a boon or a shame; either way, it was judged. As a result, I always felt like I fell short of what I was supposed to be: my taste was never refined enough, the depth of my knowledge too shallow. I didn’t try hard enough, even though I felt like I was always trying and wanting more than what I had. I also felt burdened by the expectation that I should be grateful—and thus unconditionally happy—for admission into a school that the world branded as ultimate, the apex of all college experiences.
Even beyond school, I searched for a place where I could be more than an observer and outsider. I lived amidst constant noise, hoping that the voices of each place I sojourned would light my way through a labyrinthine maze of discovery. There were stretches of time when I lost sight of God, who isn’t forceful, but is easily forced out, if you’re constantly searching for a home in this weighted world. In this relentless pursuit of gratification, of what you think is self-enlightenment, you begin to collect every shard of tragedy that breaks open along the way, while little joys fall through your fingers like pixie dust. You’re the perambulating ruffian pushing a shopping cart full of useless artifacts. Your cart is brimming, but you’re still looking for more.
The desert is empty and sparse, a thinly veiled landscape that is purposefully uninviting. Everything protects itself. The physiology of its fauna and flora are telltale signs: spiny, prickly, precarious and beautiful, guarded by needles that stab lest you try to steal its treasure.
But the emptiness of the desert calls you to pay attention and fully inhabit your consciousness. You see the desert quail scurry across the road; notice the detritus laying haphazardly on the open plain; watch the trails of steam rise up from the hot sands. Like a monastery in which lack strengthens presence, silence focuses your attention; sometimes it sharpens sadnesses and amplifies joys. A fermata is held over every feeling. Solitude beckons. You have everything you need in this moment. Nothing is urgent. The future does not require your attention. Your heart is filled because you are no longer in want. The horizon, a bottomless basin that cleanses you with its smooth wash of colors, filters out all the thorny noise that was pricking you just days ago in the city. Now you have space and time to listen to God, and the first principles by which you want to live your life float to the surface, a buoy so achingly clear in an infinite blue: love God first, and love others. By that principle all else will fall into place.
Another year of moments is passing: moments of indefatigable ecstasy, moments of grief-worn insanity, moments of wondering why and how I ended up here, and whether I’m okay. This year I began to invest deeply in one place, in a real community in San Francisco—and how delightful that has been, to have a family of friends in this ever-changing city, while living so close to the family who raised me—both are gifts. Since I left home, I’ve never felt more anchored to a place than I do here—but I think it’s more than the place: I’ve begun to anchor myself to a way of living that gives up everything that school taught me to cling onto: productivity, success, being good enough, worrying that I don’t have enough or am not enough, stressing out.
In a letter to my sister, Naomi, I recounted to her ten ways of living that were important to me in 2013. Here’s what I told her: Live in community. Live vulnerably. Live freely. Live with God. Keep searching for God. Prioritize your life so you have no regrets. Let things go. Leave room for serendipity. Rest. Call Mom and Dad. And in all those things, love deeply, unconditionally, and sacrificially.
On the night of Christmas Eve, we arrived at a Cistercian abbey after hours of silently winding through the dark dirt roads of the Sonoita Mountains. At midnight, we attended mass in a small chapel on the hill, with a few other guests scattered among the plain wooden pews. Faded paintings of saints lined the white brick walls, and potted poinsettias graced the aisles. Guests sat in one room; nuns in another. We could not see the sisters. We saw only Father William, a visiting priest, who sat behind a massive pulpit carved out of a gnarled tree trunk. Between scriptural readings, a sister sang unaccompanied, a single, shrill voice quivering, warbling, humbly following a melody line. Father William urged us to “enter more deeply into the mysteries of the son of God,” and retold the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, a children’s book by Margery Williams. He read these lines, in which the Rabbit asks the Skinned Horse what it means to be real:
“Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”
So often we wait for the whisperings of the world to teach us how to exist, and we let the whistling winds blow us from one place to the next, with a vague vision of where we want to end up, but no idea of how we want to live out the moments that will get us there. So we continue to fill our lives with momentary pleasures, aesthetic pursuits, crafting and arranging a life that is fit for the person we imagine ourselves to be. In the process, we forget our souls; we forget the one true love that makes our hearts real.
In the coming year, let love guide your every action and thought. May you experience the joys and heartbreaks of intimacy, baring your soul shamelessly, fearlessly. May you welcome the discomfort of the change you cannot control, and patiently bear the little battles of a mundane existence. May you continue seeking God, a changeless face that never bores, never turns away. May you breathe in every moment, listen to the silence, fling doubt away, and let faith and prayer inhabit your being. May you remember God, even when you are weak and hurting. May you call a friend, ask for help. Thank God for every meal, blessing, and heart you touch. May you love God first, and love others accordingly.