Seven years ago, I started going to church. I remember asking myself what the hell I was doing as I walked to my first bible study. Religion was never something that I found attractive. I didn’t consider myself the type of person who needed to find strength in a higher power. Certainly, I could never be one of those Campus Crusaders for Christ, who went around asking unsuspecting students trying to enjoy their lunch in peace whether they’ve ever thought about Heaven and Existence. I did not go to church because I was persuaded by some well-meaning, starry-eyed evangelist. I’m going to be really honest here: I went to church because I was trying to get over a guy.

Seven years ago, I met a someone who I only knew for three days. I don’t know what it was about him that I found so intriguing. He spoke of his faith with a passion that I found charming. Charming, probably because I was flattered by his attention. And because our interaction was so fleeting that it made the connection I felt all the more dramatic and intoxicating. So when he said that knew I could believe, that I was meant to believe, I drank up every word. It really doesn’t take too much to captivate the mind of a twenty year old girl.

I went to church because I wanted to understand his passion. I wanted to understand the person who claimed to understand me. So I learned to speak the words and to act the part of the Christian girl he saw that I could be. It’s such a foolish thing to do, isn’t it? But I’m not the first young and naive girl to put some guy on a pedestal.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that I’ve let someone else define me. Not him, really. But the version of him that I’ve built up in my mind. An imaginary person whose approval that I inexplicably sought. I’m not mad and I’m not bitter. Because even though I ventured into the faith for all the wrong reasons, I have found in myself, a genuine, deep-seated desire to believe.

red wine chocolate cake

I have not gone to church for a long time. Nor do I plan on going back anytime soon. Not because I’m reacting out of spite or anger. Not because I finally came to my senses. Rather, I left because I’m trying to extract the part of my faith that is my own. I can’t say that I believe everything in the bible. That is an intellectual struggle that I suspect I will always face. But I can also never say that I don’t believe in God.

Some people probably think that I’ve fallen from the faith. Fallen, as if failed to live up to some standard or arrived disappointingly short of some ideal. But I don’t think that I want to know God any less. If anything, I want to know more. I just know that I don’t want to claim that I believe in Him because I think it’s the right thing to say.

Others might say that I’ve wasted the last seven years of my life. That is absolutely not true; it is anything but. I’ve had the good fortune to meet people in church whose faith astounds me. They have shown me that faith isn’t a product of weak-minded people desperately trying to find an escape for their fears. These are people whose struggle for belief is a reflection of tremendous courage and strength. And it has shown me how the desire to know God can be a beautiful expression of humanity.

Last night, a friend asked me how I pray to God. Yes, I still pray. I used to fret over the right words and phrases to say during group prayers. Prayers like that were always such self-conscious and forced ordeals. But I’ve found that my favorite way to reach out to God doesn’t involve any words. I simply close my eyes and imagine myself standing in front of the ocean under a star-filled sky. There are no resounding pleas or desperate cries; there is only the weight of what I am feeling in that moment, matched only by the weight of existence that so profoundly surrounds me. And in this wordless prayer, I am not asking for words in return. Only that I am not alone as all these feelings pour out.

Smitten Kitchen’s Red Wine Chocolate Cake

I’ve posted about this cake before, but it’s worth posting again. It’s the cake I dream about as I slog through a tough week. And there has been many tough days lately. It doesn’t take too much to cheer me up. Just the aroma of red wine, creamy mascarpone frosting, and some Margaret Atwood.

Today I stopped to admire the high-rises awash in the golden hue of the setting sun. There was no need to capture the moment with my iphone. Because what I really want to remember is not just the beauty of the image before me, but all the thoughts running through my head as I stood at the intersection of 2nd and King, oblivious to the cars whizzing past me and lost in that dreamy, dusky glow. It’s so hard to define this moment, or any other moment for that matter. Because it has less to do with what is happening right then, and everything to do with all the conversations, actions, and interactions leading up to this very particular moment.

There was a time in my life when watching the sun set over the city would fill me with melancholy because it would remind me of how very single I am. And all I would have thought about was how the beauty of this moment would be so much better if I had somebody to share it with.

But tonight, I’m watching the sun set over the city, and I feel so free because I am single.

I can’t say that I’ve been in terrible relationships, because they were not. I’ve been very fortunate to be with guys who were caring and supportive. But now I realize it was the person I became in a relationship that I don’t want. I played the girl who wants to be coddled; I made excuses for my failings; I demanded attention and comfort to cover my own insecurities; and I expected too much of the other person to bring out the best in me.

It’s so easy to stay in one place when you know what to expect. It’s so easy to let another person define your life when you don’t know who you are. But I’ve discovered that I am so much more than I expected, so much more than anybody can ever know. And I don’t want to fit nicely into a category that somebody has placed me in or even the one that I put myself in. For the first time in a very long time, I know what I want. And it’s not the arms of another guy that I could fall into. What I want is to finally be me.

If I have the good fortune of finding somebody in the future, it will be because I love myself enough to share who I am. But it won’t be because I am looking for somebody to save me from myself.

Tonight I am reminded of all the other people in this city illuminated by the waning afternoon light. I’m not wondering whether Mr. Right is out there waiting to be found; I’m thinking that somewhere out there, I’m waiting to be me. And I am comforted by the fact that my story is one in thousands of other stories being lived out right now, in this moment, in this city, as we all navigate our own way.

Juan received a call from his father on his 30th birthday. He asked him whether he could come over with a DVD he was bringing from CVS. When he arrived, he handed Juan the disc and said, “Happy Birthday.” Juan figured it was a movie that was probably on sale at the pharmacy. He didn’t expect, when he pressed play, to see images of himself as a child flash across the screen. His dad began to narrate. Here was Juan and his mother walking through the Boston Commons when he was three. Here was Juan walking down Thornley Street in Savin Hill when he was seven. And here were pictures of Juan as an infant being held by his smiling father. For twenty minutes, Juan relived moments from his childhood captured by his dad’s old 8 mm film camera, moments that he never realized his dad had recorded and kept. And for the first time in more than twenty years–twenty very hard years marred by fear, brokenness, anger, resentment, chaos, violence, and poverty–he could finally feel the love of God through his father. And he wept.

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to meet God at the end of your life? I used to think that I would ask him to reveal the answers to all the scientific mysteries of the universe. Demand an account for all the horrible things that have happened in the history of humanity. Maybe even ask him to clarify all the contentious and confusing parts of the Bible. But I think, the question that matters the most to me, that I care most to hear the answer for, is simply, “Were you there?”

tiramisu cheesecake

tiramisu cheesecake

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

John 1: 47-49

tiramisu cheesecake

I always wanted to know, what happened under that fig tree? Why was it so important to Nathanael? I used to wish this story had more details, but now I realize that it wouldn’t make a difference. It doesn’t matter if Jesus had said, “I saw you under the fig tree when you were at the lowest point in your life and couldn’t find another reason to live.” Or whether he had said, “I saw you under the fig tree as you rejoiced the birth of your first child.” It doesn’t matter whether we know the details and circumstances, because we could never understand the significance of any moment in somebody else’s life unless you were walking in their shoes.

What if, when you meet God, instead of a series of questions and answers, you were shown a movie of your life? And in this movie, you saw every instance that you’ve experienced sadness, fear, despair, anger, and embarrassment. What if you relived your life through the eyes of God and realized that he was there to see everything, including the moments that you hoped nobody would see or prayed that somebody would? And what if you knew, that even if nobody else could ever understand what you’ve seen and how you’ve felt, God does, because he had been walking beside you from the beginning?

I can see myself that night, standing under a light drizzle, gazing across the deserted field in front of Doe Memorial library, and felt sadness. I can see myself, braving the wintry streets of Cambridge, gingerly picking my way over the icy brick sidewalks, and felt loneliness. I can see myself, standing behind the bedroom door, listening to the uneasy stillness of the household, and felt helplessness. I can see myself, huddled up in my chair in the solitude of my room, and felt despair.

These are my fig trees.

Tiramisu Cheesecake

Lady Fingers from The Cilantropist and Tiramisu No-Bake Cheesecake from Guilty Kitchen

I baked this cake because I finally passed my qualifying exam. Now that I’m officially a candidate for the PhD (my mom was surprised to find out that I wasn’t a “real” graduate student before the test), I can finally do things for fun again. This called for something really indulgent, like a cheesecake or tiramisu.

Instead of the cookie crust in the cheesecake recipe, I made a lady finger base from The Cilantropist. I also halved the recipe to fit my six inch pan (mostly because I forgot to buy enough mascarpone for a full sized cake). I also used Philz Coffee instead of espresso, since it was pouring rain outside and didn’t feel like leaving the house to get espresso. I’d get the espresso if I wanted a stronger kick.

My brother, mom, and I took a 1.5 week trip to Japan and Hong Kong right after Thanksgiving. I wish I took more photos while I was there, but I was too busy 1) eating 2) planning and navigating the whole trip and 3) dealing with whiny family members who dislike waking up early and walking too much. We almost had soba/ramen for every meal while I was in Japan–still not tired of it. I wish I had more time to eat more food and to explore more of Japan outside of Tokyo, but that will have to wait for the next time when I can go again, by myself.

Tokyo is probably the only city in the world that I would not hesitate to use the subway toilets. Why are they so clean? After experiencing the hygienic miracle that is the Tokyo Metro, there is no doubt that the San Francisco Muni is disgusting in comparison. Don’t even get me started about the cesspool that is BART.

We visited Tsukiji fish market and ate a ton of sushi and kebabs of fried squid and fish. We walked through the outdoors market around Asakusa shrine. We went to the temples in Kamakura. We saw the hot springs in Hakone and soaked ourselves in in hot spring water at an onsen. We went to Ginza and saw a kabuki show. This last one I got a lot of flak from my mom and brother both of whom ardently opposed to going or seeing anything akin to museums and other “boring” stuff. Well, I enjoyed it.

We also went in time to see the last bit of autumn color.

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One of the temples in Kamakura:

 

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This is the first time I’ve been back to Hong Kong for eight years. It certainly has gotten a lot smoggier, and it definitely was not 70 degrees in December last I remembered.

Hong Kong

green tea macarons

My first attempt at making Green Tea Macarons. Still don’t understand why they’re such a big deal. They taste good but not particularly awesome. I will probably make more just because I like the challenge.

The tutorial from the website I found the recipe was actually quite helpful.

Matcha Green Tea Macarons from Iron Whisk

My friend invited Juan and I to go rock climbing at Planet Granite in July. I agreed, reluctantly, buoyed more by Juan’s enthusiasm than my own affinity for thrill-seeking, physically exerting activities. As I strapped myself into the harness and surveyed the beginner’s wall, I told myself that it was okay if I don’t reach the top. Halfway would be respectable. Except that I’ve seen six year olds dauntlessly and effortlessly scale these routes.

Juan belayed me as I hoisted myself up the wall. The first few feet were easy. The rocks were easy to grip, and there were plenty of them. But my nerves failed at the halfway mark. I peeked down, nauseated by the seemingly enormous distance between the ground and myself. I desperately clung to the rocks, elbows contracted as I fought to keep my body as close to the wall as possible. I was really glad that Juan and Vicky were out of earshot, because something like a whimpering whine escaped from my throat. They were chatting down there with each other, oblivious to my physical and mental anguish. I could give up. I could shout for them to lower me down. I could tell them that I’ve tried it, and it just wasn’t my thing. But I looked up at the endpoint, so tauntingly close, and I knew that I didn’t want to take the easy way out.

meyer lemon chiffon cake

It’s been four months and I’m still climbing. There’s so much I’ve learned. How I should hang from my arms, instead of bending my elbows. How to step up with my legs, instead of pulling up with my arms. How to balance with feet apart, instead of standing with feet together. I have come to love the smell of chalk on my hands. The way the rocks feel under my fingers. The scraped hands and bruised knees. I love the triumph that comes with every conquered ledge, the exhilaration with every successful climb. But more than anything, I love that when I’m up high, there is nothing left except for me and my fear.

meyer lemon chiffon cake

A few weeks ago, I found myself stuck in one spot on a particularly difficult climb. I needed to step right with my foot, so that I can grab the hand-hold that was out of my reach. I needed to trust that this rock would catch my weight as I made this lunge. I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t want to do it. Or rather, I didn’t think I could do it. So I clung tight to that spot for a good 20 minutes, straining to keep from slipping. I felt my grip loosen from the rock as it became slick with the sweat pouring from my palms. I called down three times for Vicky to let me down. But she wouldn’t let up. She told me, do it even if you fall. Try something even if you slip. Just don’t do nothing.

What if every instance we had accomplished something that surpassed our own expectations and self-estimation was not a fluke nor a stroke of luck. What if every time we break out of the box we put ourselves in, we were meant to see a much greater truth. What if those are the moments when God breaks down the deprecation and the doubt, so that our real selves can shine through. What if this is His way of showing us that there is a presence in our hearts that cannot be contained, deeper and more powerful than we can ever fathom. What if this presence is what determines how we fall on the precipice between victory and defeat.

meyer lemon chiffon cake

For the past month, I have struggled with writing my qualifying exam proposal. For a long time, I had no idea what I wanted to study for my thesis. Didn’t know if anything I did was going to amount to anything. Every day, I found new ways to tell myself that I didn’t belong. I wasn’t smart enough, or as thoughtful and driven as my classmates. I feared that somebody would see through my guise and discover my mediocrity. I spent countless hours re-reading the same phrases and sentences in my proposal. Second-guessing every point that I put down on paper. Suspended and frozen in my fear of failure.

Rock climbing wall

Sometimes the hardest part about climbing is trusting that the harness will catch you when you fall. I know that the rope will hold. I know that my knots are good. Yet I can still imagine myself plummeting to my death. I am terrified that if I don’t fight with every muscle to keep from letting go, then there would be nothing there to hold me up. So I waste so much energy, put myself through so much pain, until I realize that the easiest way to move forward is to let go. And every time I do, every time I get back up on that wall, I believe a little more. I don’t want to be afraid to try, I don’t want to be afraid to fall. I know, and I believe, You will catch me.

Triple Lemon Chiffon Cake with Meyer Lemon Curd from Notes from my Food Diary

My first backpacking trip

It took less than five minutes for the sweat to soak through the back of my shirt. Less than a hundred yards before I ran out of breath. More than an hour to finish the first mile. And yet, somehow, I lugged thirty pounds of backpacking gear up and down a mountain. Those were probably the most excruciating twelve miles of my life.

Two weekends ago, my friends and I drove to Yosemite for some much needed time away from the city. We arrived late Friday evening and “stealthily” set up our tent on somebody else’s campgrounds. That’s when we realized that we were woefully ill prepared for the frigid night.

I woke up the next morning to numb toes. We drove to our trailhead, stopping by Tenaya lake to admire the beautiful backdrop of mountains rising above the water. By the time we started hiking, it was close to noon and the morning chill had dissipated, replaced by a steady heat that radiated from the surrounding soil and rock.

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We made our way north from Tioga Road towards Ten Lakes. During the first two miles, we couldn’t go more than a hundred yards without calling breaks. When we finally hit the switchbacks, it took everything I had just to put one foot in front of the other.

But there would be moments–and they would be so sweet, and oh so rewarding–when the beauty of the mountains would be too loud to ignore. When you become keenly aware of the smallness of your being, and your heart wants to be swallowed by the vastness of it all. And it is those moments when you forget about the thoughts in your head, the ache in your legs, and the path ahead or behind of you; because what you have beheld is too overwhelming for words, and too overpowering in its glory.

It could be the sight of mountains beyond mountains.
The way the sunlight illuminates the bark of the trees.
Or the towering cliffs of granite that speak of eons long gone.
The way the butterflies dance in the meadows.
And even that one lone tree, stripped bare, standing defiantly against the rocky slopes.

Surely, there was no other place that I’d rather be. Than here, in the midst of Your peace and beauty.

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As we were descending the other side of the mountain that we had just painfully climbed, we could see four of the lakes that make up Ten Lakes. I really wish that we had the time to explore all ten, but we stayed at the first one. I could not have been more glad to finally kick off my shoes and dip my feet into the water.

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I wasn’t really planning on swimming in the lake, but I guess I had to do it after all the sweat and tears I shed to get there. I definitely didn’t regret it.

 

First time in Yosemite, June 2012

These are photos from a trip last year that I had been meaning to post up. I forget where I took these pictures, but words and names don’t really matter. They speak for themselves.

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Don’t be fooled by these Rainier cherries. They may look plump and juicy, but they are disappointingly bland. A few weekends ago, I went to Brentwood to pick fruit. I saw these bright red orange bunches hanging between the leaves, and my thoughts immediately turned to cherry pies, cherry galettes, cherry cupcakes. But my excitement was for naught. Somebody told us that this year’s cherries are particularly lackluster. I wonder if this is true everywhere else. Perhaps better luck next year?

cherries

At least the blackberries were delicious. I didn’t even mind the prickly thorns. We gorged ourselves among the vines, picking until our fingers were stained purple.

blackberries

Do you like your peaches barely ripe, crispy, with a good crunch? Or soft and bruise-able, with its juices spilling into your hands at the first bite? There were white peaches at the fruit-picking farms as well. Unfortunately, the one good peach that I bit into also had a large insect surprise inside.

Speaking of peaches, I made this white peach galette a week before going to Brentwood with insect-free fruit. White peaches tastes more delicate and sweet than yellow peaches, but the latter seems better suited for pastries. In any case, I won’t be eating anymore peaches for awhile.

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Today I walked into a cacti and succulents show and walked out a proud owner of two fine looking specimens.

I’m in love with the patterns on the leaves.

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Juan and I devoured sandwiches from Ike’s place at Dolores Park and immediately regretted that we didn’t just split one sandwich between the two of us. But it was too late to be thinking about curbing excesses while our mouths were full of halal chicken, avocado, and beer battered onion rings. We comforted ourselves that, at the very least, we were able to prevent further caloric imbalance by not splurging on Bi-Rite Ice Cream. The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering through the Mission watching hula hoopers, drummers, spray painters, and capoeira dancers.

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If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

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I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die. 

And whoever lives by believing in me will never die.

Do you believe this?

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A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

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Where, O Death, is your victory?

Where, O Death, is your sting?

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You have seated us above the fall.

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Oh, to be like you

Give what I have just to know you