Precipitate/Solution

Distilling wonders into words, says my “about me” page, since two thousand ten.

While true, and catchy, and a play on the blog’s subtitle “Words and Wonders,” I’ve never taken considerable time to actually say what these four words mean.

In times of continued self-exploration, I often find myself thinking, “What do I value?” Today, these two questions seem more intertwined than distinct.

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The Jew Who Would’ve Been a Hindu

Let me tell you a secret: After my bar-mitzvah (the ceremonial step from childhood into adulthood for young Jewish men), I was convinced that I had learned everything Judaism had to offer. I could read Hebrew, lead the prayers; I knew Torah stories, could even offer some midrash (commentary). So, I said, my journey in Judaism is complete.

I pursued spiritual fulfillment from other traditions, and I ultimately settled into Paganism, and Wicca in particular, for about three or four years.

Then, well, then I was Jewish again. Let me explain.

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TBT: Sacred Space

They say that home is where the heart is, but it’s an empty saying without articulating what we mean when we say the heart. Is it the space where our bodies physically rest, or the space we feel most embraced, or is it something less tangible, more spiritual?

The synagogue pictured above is the oldest in Mexico, literally known as the Historic Synagogue. We went to visit it our first day together, but it was closed, so we went back the next day. We went upstairs and ogled at a temporary exhibit from the Palafoxiana Library (the oldest library in North America), and we were amazed by the stunning architecture, how small and perhaps insignificant I felt inside this place.

But also how expansive, how endless, how holy.

Outside these doors, after signing the guest book, we walked away wondering what we’d write if we were married, one last name, or two? Hyphenated, his first, or mine?

It was inside these doors, five months later, when we exchanged engagement rings.

I don’t always know where home is–or if there’s only one. Home is with my family, and in Raleigh, and in Hoonah and Punta Gorda and San Francisco and in Mexico, in the guest house where we spent our first night together, in Queretaro where we bought our rings, in Puebla where we kissed inside a volcano, in Mexico City where we met and embraced and kissed for the first time.

Home is in each of these places, because in each of them, my heart grew.

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Sealed in the Book of Life

Funny story: So Yom Kippur is perhaps the most somber and important day of the Jewish year; it’s the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the Day of Atonement, the day our names our sealed in the Book of Life for one more year.

And Yom Kippur is tomorrow.

But my calendar (don’t trust calendars) implied it began last night, so I began fasting, trying to think of Yom Kippur things, and then I realized, today isn’t even Yom Kippur.

So clearly, the year is off to a great start.

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Apples and Honey and Homework and Death

The beginning of this week brought the beginning of a new year: Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year, began on Monday. I had in mind a few thoughts I wanted to share, and every intention of doing so on Tuesday.

Then on a Monday a student at NC State completed suicide, and on Tuesday I had homework, and on Tuesday night I fought to finish my homework due Wednesday.

So in the midst of all these things, I never even realized I hadn’t welcomed the new year on my blog, and being on campus, in classes, the most I had been able to do to celebrate this occasion was share some apples and honey with others in the community. On Monday, a fellow math student had shared challah in the graduate lounge. That had made my day.

The truth is, death is a great occasion to think about life, and a new year is a great occasion to think about what we’re doing with our lives. So, naturally, I did.

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Three Winners

Sometimes the weather says it all: cold and bitter, turbulent, frustrated and uncertain–should it rain? Turn to ice? Remain indecisive, unfulfilled, until it blows aside?

Earlier this week three Muslim students at the blue school up the road (UNC Chapel Hill) were shot and killed over an alleged parking dispute, but in my heart, in my gut, I believe it truly was a hate crime. The small-town feel of our campuses was shaken, shattered.

The students, filled with fear, tragic loss. The weather said it all. A good friend, when I crossed her path yesterday, said it better: “They were our age, Darren. Our age.”

Since Wednesday I’ve heard nothing but the inspiring and heartwarming stories of these three students, their compassion, their faith, their service toward building bridges of understanding and commonness between diverse groups. And I can’t even bring myself to say their names, or write them, because to do so brings them too close, closer than I can handle. I didn’t know them, but I feel now as though I do, and it’s a loss I cannot bear.

I’ve thought all day, repeatedly for days, that hatred against anyone is hatred against everyone; violence against one is violence against all. And the oppression of Islam and Muslims in a Christan-dominated society recalls the same oppressions once faced by Judaism and Jews, and still often experienced if not at the same explicit and violent level as that experience by my Muslim sisters and brothers. I recall, as long as I can remember, the police officers guarding my synagogue’s doors, but what must they go through daily?

It’s rather atrocious, to think of it, that anyone should need security outside a house of worship, but that’s the virulent symptoms of a one-minded, belligerent society.

That’s not what I was trying to say. What I was trying to say is that today they were Muslim, but they could’ve been Jewish. They could’ve been gay. They could’ve been me.

Our age, my friend said. I think too often of death, but death is abstract, and in my mind I run through my obituaries, hopes and dreams of what my life should be: …survived by his husband and their children… well-known for his books of poetry and fiction series… They don’t stop at 25. They stop at 70 or 80 or 90. My greatest achievements are not serving in student leadership roles or working as a tutor–in these obituaries I’m praised for inspiring a hundred mathematicians, for being senator or governor or even president.

They don’t end at today. They certainly don’t end at the end of a gun.

It’s tragic, but that’s the wrong word. It’s sickening. Vile. Evil.

The Sages once asked, “Why was the Temple destroyed?” And their answer was sinat chinam, senseless hatred–and I believe that it is this same senseless hatred that has shook our community and every day still threatens to topple our entire world.

God, however, has provided an alternative: Chesed, compassion and loving-kindness, the lifeblood of these three students and the service that defines their all-too-short lives. Binah, understanding, the open-minded willingness to accept and learn. And gevurah, courage, strength, the candle flame flickering in the wind that holds on, burns brighter, stays alight.

I pray. I cry. What else can I do? I keep breathing, living, believing.

Names Like Snowflakes

When I left my room at four in the morning to leave for Alaska, I expected a lot of things: It would be cold, maybe I’d see snow, I’d get to learn about a new culture, work in a school, and maybe see some whales or the aurora borealis. And except for the last two, I did all of these things–but one thing I didn’t expect to learn about was names.

Names mean a lot to me: As a writer, a character’s name (or lack thereof) can be the most defining element to a story. As a leader, learning the names of my fellow students is not only a great way to attract new members, but also to establish a genuine sense of community in our group. And as a gay man in a world where marriage equality seems inevitable only a few short years after it seemed impossible, I’ll someday have to choose my name, his name, or a strained attempt at something in between.

But as I learned in Alaska, the power of names doesn’t end there.

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Hope in Evolution

I’ve been reading through my archives in preparation for relaunching my blog next month, and paging through my personal history has been both trying and inspiring. At its most basic, it feels insurmountable, and with posts averaging about 1200 words each and over 350 posts, that’s a wall of 0.4 million words to read through, all while balancing committee duties, education, and personal wellness goals.

However, it’s been amazing to watch the evolution of my writing quality from month to month, which has given me hope my blog will continue to improve as time moves on–especially after it’s been visually and thematically remastered in the coming weeks. It has also reminded me of some often forgotten ideas that could continue to bring light into my life if I take my own words, said so long ago, to heart now.

Most amazing of all is how, given time, my words of yesterday have grown into blossoming trees today.

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Fire and Fuel

My greatest vision has always been a world without discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. This hope brought me to discover my own potential for leadership, and this compulsion has enabled me to push myself further from my comfort zones and make the greatest impact than anything else.

In part it’s probably obvious why I care (indeed it would be a greater mystery if I didn’t care), but in the spirit of the week–my vision quest–it seems only fitting to dig deeper.

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Final Predestination

For a few Tuesdays last semester a Chabad rabbi joined with a few of N.C. State’s Hillel students and spoke with us about issues in contemporary Judaism. Not to be confused with contemporary Jewish issues such as Israel, people leaving the faith, and the degradation of traditions, he instead led us through discussions about the modern significance of Yom Kippur, suffering, and free will.

It’s obvious, then, why I thought of him when I read today’s teaching.

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