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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.

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Juan came to spend Christmas with me and brought along a nasty cold from Boston. With my powers of gentleness and patience, I nursed him back to health. But, of course, he had to give it to me too, because that’s just what boyfriends do. So while he started to recover, I found myself incapacitated by a drippy nose and muted taste buds. We spent most of our holiday curled up in my living room couch under a comforter with a box of tissues and a bottle of Robitussin to share between the two of us. But even in our misery, our appetites for good home-cooking were not thwarted. With my new Smitten Kitchen cookbook, we made gnocchi in tomato broth, leek fritters, and roasted tomatoes and onions over garlic toast. Easy recipes that make great food without too many fancy ingredients and too much prep work!

The rest of the time, we spent marathoning Alien movies. Alien. Aliens. Predators. Aliens vs Predators. Prometheus. Nothing brings out the holiday cheer like creepy chest-bursting humanoid bugs. I like cheering for tough monster-kicking heroines while jerky male characters get eviscerated. One note on Prometheus, if you haven’t seen it, you might not want to bother. It has all of the action but lacks the good plot lines that made Alien and Aliens so good. It touts itself as a prequel to Aliens but answers almost none of the questions about how Aliens came about, leaving you with just plain confusion at the end. The only thing that made this movie worse was the terrible acting. The main female lead was especially annoying and pales far in comparison to Ellen Ripley. Also, what’s up with Charlize Theron here? She’s awful! Spitting out cheesy lines for a role that I’m still not sure was even necessary for this stupid film. They could write her out and use the 10 minutes it would’ve saved to answer HOW ALIENS CAME ABOUT.

Finally, this holiday, Juan got me hooked onto the animated series, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. I can’t believe I was such a snob about cartoons and comics before, because this show is awesome! It’s so much better than the 2012 Avengers movie, which I thought was way too cheesy and predictable. But that’s because cheesy hero lines aren’t cheesy when they’re coming from animated characters! The writing is also pretty impressive. In the span of two short seasons, they’ve managed to introduce, interlink, AND finish several story arcs. All my questions were answered by the time I breezed to the end of the series. My only disappointment is that they’ve canceled this show only after two seasons. Nay, say it ain’t so! What can I do, except to now turn to The Ultimate Spider-Man series, which is also proving to be quite good.

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Crepe Cake from The Primlani Kitchen

By the time Juan and I finished with this recipe, we have become experts on crepe making. Our first couple of ones were soggy, broken messes until we realized that the reason we couldn’t flip them over was because we were undercooking! It was smooth sailing from there on. I kind of wish that I had used the crepe cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen’s cookbook instead of this one. This was kind of plain even when I substituted the milk with Trader Joe’s vanilla flavored coconut milk (which turned out great if you just dial the sugar and vanilla down when making the pastry cream). This cake could’ve shined more if I had used some fruit. Next time, I may use berries or banana slices to decorate the top. Or even mash up the berries into the pastry cream to spread between the layers.

Recently, I’ve returned to my normal hair style. The short bob, one that I’ve sported for years in grade school and college. As much as I wanted to have long hair, I had to admit that I have no patience for it. I’m the type of person that likes to spring out of bed and spend no more than the three minutes it takes to drag a brush through the tangled mess before sprinting out the door. So yes, I very much need hair that will withstand bed-headedness.

Yesterday, one of my mom’s friends looked at me with my mussed up nap hair and then at my mom with her pristine locks, carefully dyed each month and meticulously groomed each morning, before making this astute observation: “You must be very different from your mom, huh?”

Most definitely.

My mom is the embodiment of orderliness, beauty, femininity, cordiality and warmth. Whereas, I am slobness manifest. She makes a frumpy sweater look good. I make a frumpy sweater look frumpier. People gravitate towards my ever cheerful mom. People flee from my awkward social gestures. And when it comes to creativity, she’s the most creative mom I know.

I bake goodies because I can follow directions. But my mom knits because she’s technically skilled and aesthetically gifted. I’ve learned a long time ago to defer to my mom’s opinions for all things fashion related. Thus, everything that is presentable in my wardrobe has been her doing. I am 25 and I let my mom dress me. I am not ashamed. You would let her dress you too if you’ve seen my knitted sweaters, tunics, and scarves.

This is still in the works, but go take a look at my mom’s knitting blog at joyofknitting.wordpress.com. She makes the most adorable baby clothes with fine quality yarn. They would make perfect gifts if you’re looking for something special. She also takes custom orders if you want a certain design to be made with specific colors.

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Peach Pie from Smitten Kitchen

Vicky and I made this pie on a warm, sunny afternoon in her homey Cole Valley apartment, where I was seeking refuge from my own gloomy, fog-shrouded Sunset abode. I had been itching to make a pie with the eight ripe peaches sitting in my fridge–my last chance to make a quintessential summer dish before the season ends. We divided up the recipe; I took care of the crust while she handled the filling. Meanwhile, Bessie the cat snoozed on the kitchen chair. I didn’t do it here, but my favorite part of pie-making is when you crimp the edges of the top crust with the tines of a fork. It reminds me of the scene in Snow White where the birds use their feet to make the fluted edges of the pie.

Last month, Juan and I discovered that Boggle on Xbox is extremely addicting. We also discovered that I am a huge sore loser. Normally, I don’t have such a competitive streak and I know how to lose gracefully for most things. I’m sure most people are the same way until they find that one sensitive spot. Well, Boggle seems to be mine.

If you play Xbox Boggle, the best–and potentially most dangerous–option is the one where the combination of tiles can rearrange when you’ve found a word. This is great because you’ll always have novel combinations to work with when both players are stuck. But it also means that you have to race against your opponent if you’re trying to grab overlapping tiles; otherwise the letters will get scrambled and the wonderful, beautiful, perfectly arranged word that you were just about to enter would disappear right before your eyes, leaving you with the cold fury and bitter irritation of one who just had a golden opportunity stolen from them.

Unfortunately, when it comes to handling game controllers, Juan has the advantage of adept fingers with hours of practice playing RPGs. I, on the other hand, touch a controller maybe three times in a year, maybe. In fact, I’m the person who runs into the banana peel in Mario Kart even though there’s only one peel in the middle of the freakin’ wide road. That’s how adept my fingers are.

So after losing my tenth game in a row, I couldn’t help but throw my controller aside in a fit of hurt pride.

“Why do you keep taking words from my area?!” I yelled. And I’m searching for a good insult. Something that will really hurt.

“Space hogger!” said I, the best name-caller in the world.

“But baby, at least you won the first game.”

I rolled into a ball in the corner of the bed. From my sulking position, I look over with tears in my eyes, “Yea, but I like to win in the beginning and the end.”

And Juan just laughs.

These days, I’ve discovered Scramble with Friends on my iPhone. Not only does it take the problem with controllers out of the equation, but I’m also kicking Juan’s ass. So for now, I’m quite content. I’ll even be okay if I lose a game or two.

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Double Chocolate Sour Cream Cake from theKitchn

I made this cake a few weeks ago for somebody in my lab who was leaving. This probably would be my favorite go-to recipe for simple, moist chocolate cake that’s easy to impress with the right frosting and decoration. Personally, I adore mini-cakes, so I used half of the batter to fill two ~4 inch cake pans to make a mini double layered cake. And the rest I just threw into a regular 9 inch pan and gave away to my friends. Not only are mini-cakes easier to transport, they make you feel like you’re not indulging too much when you eat it. I don’t know if I especially like the pistachios with chocolate. Maybe almonds or walnuts, but I do love the green and brown colors.

Wow, I’ve finished my first year in graduate school. You’d think that I’d know more about brain science, but I really don’t. After all those hours spent in class and freaking out about tests and reading countless papers, I still feel so damn clueless about everything. Is it possible to feel like you’ve learned so much, and yet know so little? Yes.

I’ve spent so much time worrying whether I’d survive my first year that I haven’t had time to really breathe. But now that I’ve passed my pre-qualification exam, which basically demolished whatever illusions I had of my intellect, I’ve suddenly found myself with free time. No classes, no tests, and all this time to sit and think about my future for the next five years. So naturally, I freak out. The other day found me sitting alone in the break room trying to clear my head, catch my breathe. Because I am terrified. I’m also excited, yes. But a part of me is also beginning to see all the uncertainties in my life, my career, my faith, and my relationships. Despite how much I enjoy my work, feel secure in my faith, or cherish my relationships, there’s always a part of me that questions if I chose right. Am I doing what I should be doing? Am I where I’m supposed to be? Am I becoming who I am meant to be?

I’m turning 25 this month. When I was in high school, I didn’t think that I would have these questions when I’d be 25. I thought I would know exactly what I want and know exactly how to get there. But then again, I also thought I’d be tall, sexy, and intelligent. Haha, I guess I should be more disappointed.

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I haven’t seriously spent time in the kitchen for awhile now. Making this tart reminded me how much I miss it. Even when the flour flies all over the place, leaving streaks of white on my clothes. Even when I am left with a mountain of bowls to wash in the sink. Even when the dish doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would. I still love when everything comes together in the end. It’s those days where I bake for no reason in particular, other than because I simply want to, that I do my best and enjoy the most.

Maybe, I need to remember how to do science for no reason in particular, other than because I want to.

Berry Goat Cheese Tart from Pastry Affair

A long time ago, I told someone that I wished I could believe.  I wanted to, I really did, but I didn’t think I could.  That’s a weird thing to say when you’re not Christian.  Why would any rational and sensible person want to believe that some guy, claiming to be the son of God, died and rose again for us so that we can be saved from our sins?  You may say, It’s a nice story.  But it’s not, it’s not nice at all.  There’s nothing nice about death, betrayal, and injustice.  And redemption and grace is only “nice” if you only believe that humanity needs saving.  Otherwise, the gospel is just some cooked up story that’s implausible.  Fanciful.  Ludicrous, even.

When I said I wanted to believe, I asked for a lot more than I had realized.  It’s not just about accepting what Jesus did on the cross, but it’s acknowledging that something is broken.  And that brokenness isn’t from all the mess ups in my life; bad decisions, regrets, mistakes and whatnot.  It’s not about how I’ve wronged others or how I’ve been wronged.  Nor is it about weakness, pride, and insecurities.  Yea, all those things point you to the brokenness in yourself and in others.  But I believe that brokenness is when I lose sight of my purpose.  Brokenness is when I reject who I was made to be with.  Brokenness is when things are not the way they are supposed to be, because I, or we, chose to have it another way.  So when I say I want to believe, what I’m doing is bringing to Him all that I have twisted, forced, and distorted, and asking for Him to make it right again.

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I still ask to believe.  Because, damnit, believing is hard.  There are days where all I can see is ugliness and nights where I entertain thoughts of “freedom.”  I imagine how much easier and lighter it would be if I didn’t have to believe.  But I don’t have to; I can turn around and walk away.  I am not held against my will or intimidated into submission.  The ease with which I can deny my faith is frightening.  But I choose this, because even when I don’t feel like praying, even when I don’t want to seek Him, even when I am tired of believing what I cannot see or touch, I still want to believe.

That desire, it comes out when I sing in worship.  Maybe it has to do with the music, but when I let my body sway to the rhythm and I hear myself sing these words, I am convicted once again by my own desire to believe.  The desire, it feels like breath caught in my chest, as if a weight is gripping me from within and stretching out to meet God.  My eyes moisten and my heart bursts with emotion, and it reminds me that I can still feel on the days that I feel numb.  It reminds me that He can still penetrate my heart on the days I that I feel impenetrable.  It reminds me that, little by little, He is re-claiming my heart.

Some people think that when you convert to Christianity, you become “different.”  Maybe they assume you are more fake–disingenuous in your compassion, weirdly emotional, brainwashed or something like that.  But I think when we accept Christ, we are just becoming who we were always meant to be.

Shout it
go on and scream it from the mountains
go on and tell it to the masses
that he is God

Pumpkin Chocolate Truffles from Blunder Construction