Class of 2015: Flare Up, Let Your Life Sing

This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post.

On May 9, 2015, I delivered the 100th commencement address at the College of Saint Benedict, a Catholic liberal arts college for women. I was the first commencement speaker of the Sikh faith in the College’s history. I addressed the Class of 2015 on Mother’s Day weekend.

President Mary Hinton, professors and staff, family and friends, and the College of St Benedict’s Class of 2015, it is an honor for me to address you today. On a bright day like this, not so long ago, I was sitting in your place, my heart wide open, the future spread before me like an unknown horizon.

Today I come to you as a new mother, my son just a few months old, so I must begin by naming the love that has made this moment possible, the same love poured into you by those sitting behind you. I did not understand the true ferocity of this love until the day I gave birth, my mother’s hand on my head while she whispered in my ear, “You are brave. You are brave.” When Kavi was born, holding him in my arms for the first time, I knew that I would give my life for him. That’s what love does. It quiets the “I.” It makes you fearless.

After it was over, my husband said that he didn’t think it was possible, but he loved me more. “Are you sure?” I asked. I mean, wild things happen to you during labor, things spill out of you, things you want no one to see. “Yes,” he said, “It was the most selfless thing you’ve ever done.”

In that moment, I saw my own mother with new eyes. I saw all the ways she had poured her body, breath, and blood into me – selflessly – from my birth to my son’s birth. My mother stayed at home to raise me and sent me out into the world, so that I could live the life she was denied. I thought I wasn’t supposed to be like her. But all this time, she was showing me the kind of love that inspires true service – love no matter the outcome, love no matter whether we are thanked (ask your mothers if they raised you to be thanked), a love so deep you would give your life for it.

Class of 2015: We are a generation of women – thanks to so many of our mothers – who now have a choice about how to offer up our lives. So I have come here to ask you: To whom will you give your body, your breath, and your blood?

Because on the same day, at the same time, that I was giving birth, people were marching across the country to protest the killing of black and brown bodies, hands up, chanting “I Can’t Breathe.”

Because when Kavi was only eight weeks old, I had to take him to his first candlelight vigil, mourning the lives of three college students, all Muslim, shot in the head in Chapel Hill by a man who despised religion. I imagined my son your age one day – a young man with brown skin – and I couldn’t breathe.

Because on this day, the day of your graduation, the bodies of children are lying beneath the rubble of the earthquake in Nepal without chance of rescue; families are mourning the dead in the wake of another ISIS bombing; justices of the Supreme Court are debating the future of millions based on the gender of the person they love; and from Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the streets are on fire with people angry and aching for recognition that black lives matter.

Those who love you may want to protect you from these flames. They might want to build strong walls around you to keep you safe. Staying within these walls is the temptation of privilege – a privilege afforded by the diploma you are about to receive. Your diploma, which should open the world, can also blind you to everything except your own security, salary, and status. Society will not judge you harshly for this; it will even exalt you. And yet, that is my greatest fear for you.

For Students of Saint Benedict, I have sat among you and listened to your longing, and you are meant for more than a life of comfort. You are meant for a life of meaning. Staying within the walls that others build for you may make you feel safe, but its emptiness will breed despair. In the meantime, the fires of life will never stop calling for you.

So here and now, I beckon you to face the raging fires in the world – and walk through the flames with love as your compass. The path of service is not safe. You will find your heart broken again and again. You will wake in the night with ghosts from your dreams lying beside you. You will watch comforts you once held dear will disappear. But as your own life flares up, its meaning will become a beacon to remake the world.

Let me show you what I mean.

When I was a college student, the fires raged high. Terrorists crashed planes into the Twin Towers, and still shocked by the horrific loss of life, I watched the television screen flicker with the picture of our nation’s new enemy. A chill spiked through me. The man with the turban and beard resembled my Sikh brothers and uncles.

In that instant – even though my family has made America home for over a century, and even though the Sikh faith, like the Muslim faith, is a religion of Oneness – we were cast as automatically suspect, perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist. Hundreds of hate crimes broke out on city streets across America. A few days later, a Sikh man I called “Uncle” Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered by a man who called himself a patriot. I wanted to run and hide. And I did.

For days after 9/11, I stayed in my childhood bedroom and buried myself in books. Which ones? The text of our generation: Harry Potter. I have always been ashamed to admit this, but now I see why it appealed to me so much. There was power in a story about a band of young people who faced the Dementors of their world and wielded their own kind of magic. This magic began to feel to me like love. Harry was not the smartest or the strongest, but he was brave.

When I finally put the book down, the prayer my grandfather taught me as a little girl rose to my lips: Tati Vao Na Lagi, Par Brahm Sharnai. It is a Sikh prayer of Guru Nanak, a prayer of fearlessness my grandfather had recited under a rain of fire in World War II.

What would it mean to be brave like that?

I didn’t know.

As a girl growing up in California’s Central Valley, my friend Brynn and I were kindred sisters. We used to sit at the edge of the peach orchards at dusk and dream of escaping the dust of the valley. We talked about our lives as a quest. “Life begins in departure,” Brynn once wrote.

So in the wake of 9/11, I decided to leave the safety of the university. I grabbed my camera and embarked on a trek across America to film people who had endured hate violence, so that that their stories could help end hate and inspire healing.

This experience was the beginning of the rest of my life as an activist and storyteller, a lawyer and filmmaker. But the journey only began when I decided at twenty years old, to leave the safety of the walls built around me – and follow my calling into the fire.

And this is how those fires can burn:

In the Sikh Temple of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a white supremacist opened fire on Sikh families on a Sunday morning, soaking the carpets with blood, I watch two brothers Kamal and Harpreet sit down in the spot where their mother was killed – and pray for the souls of all who died, including the soul of the gunman. From them, I learned that forgiveness is not forgetting; forgiveness is freedom from hate. Forgiveness became my calling.

In a Catholic Church on the eastern corridor, I watch Marcia and Pedro step out from the shadows to challenge police brutality, pulling back neighbors’ sleeves to show the scars. From them, I learned the razor courage required to remake our laws, not as swords to strike the fallen but as shields to protect the most vulnerable. Justice became my calling.

In the supermax prison of Connecticut, Pete sees the prisoners he guards as animals, and Misael sees the guards of his cell as executioners of his living death, and from them, I learned that we can no longer divide the world into victims and aggressors; we must remake the institutions and cultures that diminish and divide us. Empathy became my calling.

On the shores of Guantanamo Bay, where we have incarcerated brown bodies for years without trial or charge, I listen to soldiers whose names I cannot say – young soldiers of our generation who are your age – tell me they have inherited wars not of their own making. Ending them became my calling.

And in the impoverished corners of this country, I watch mothers like Ros wipe away tears for their young black sons who they fear could be taken from them at any moment, and from them, I learned to look upon the faces of those who are different from me – Black or Latino or LGBTQ – and see them as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, yearning for dignity in a world that has long denied it. It became my calling to say: “All lives matter.”

All lives matter.

It’s a simple statement. But when you let your life be claimed by this truth, callings are revolutionary.

In the Sikh tradition, there is a story about a woman warrior of the 17th century named Mai Bhago. Forty soldiers abandoned their post in a great battle, the story goes. But she told them: “You will not hide from the fire. You will return to the fight – and I will lead you.” And then, donning a turban and mounting a horse with a sword in her hand, she led them when no one else would. Mai Bhago not only heard her calling; she became the calling.

So I ask you: Who is calling you? Whose calling will you become?

Living a life of calling requires a warrior’s courage.

“Courage is fear that has said its prayers,” says Bishop Gene Robinson, who as the first openly gay bishop in Christendom, has faced threats to his life in order to fulfill his own call to serve.

And it’s true.

In my most fearful moments – when I found myself behind bars after a protest, my arm badly twisted by a police officer; or facing the barrel of a gun in an empty park for choosing to love a man of a different faith; or looking into the caskets of men and women who look like my family; or in the throes of a hard labor – my grandfather’s prayer always spills from my lips: Tati Vao Na Lagi, Par Brahm Sharnai.

“The hot winds cannot touch you. You are shielded by the Divine.”

The hot winds cannot touch me. No matter how dangerous or deadly, the hot winds shape a space that is holy within me.

“I know that feeling,” Bishop Robinson tells me, “It is the sacred place within me where God lives, a place no one can touch.”

“I know that feeling well,” says Sister Simone Campbell, the leader of Nuns on the Bus who travel the country to inspire people to fight for social justice. “I know it from the story of God speaking to Moses through the burning bush. We are called to be this bush where God can flame up in our lives, and we can set our people free.”

“I know that feeling, too,” says my friend Eric Parrie, who just returned from law school to help rebuild his home city of New Orleans. “It reminds me of the Hebrew story of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego who were thrown into the fiery furnace, but God was with them and the fires did not consume them.”

Across traditions and times, I continue to find this treasure of truth: The hot winds cannot touch you. The fires cannot consume you. Not when you protect that sacred space in your heart filled with love – however you describe it source: God or the Cosmos, your grandfather’s prayer or your mother’s voice. That kind of love calls you to courage. It keeps you on the quest. That kind of love whispers in your ear, “You are brave. You are brave.”

Class of 2015: You are brave. You just need to believe in your own calling – wherever it leads you after graduation: law school or the urban farm, the consulting firm or the classroom. Your sisters here can be your best support. Even after all these years, the sisters I found in college help me hold fast to my callings.

So in the tradition of commencement speeches, here are a few pieces of advice we can offer you:

  • Collect a treasure chest of scriptures, that is, the poems and songs and stories that inspire courage wherever you need it, whether in the birthing room or on the battlefield. Mine has Guru Nanak and Harry Potter.
  • Hold “vision meetings,” with your best friends; brainstorm pictures of your best self in the world and help one another live into them. Do not let others colonize your moral imagination.
  • Train with your sword and shield. No one goes into battle bare-handed. Choose your modern-day arms – law degree or film camera, artist brush or scalpel – and call upon their formidable power. You have the world in the palm of your hand – the open Internet as a ready space to create, connect, and practice with other woman warriors.
  • Honor “justice sabbaths,” meaning, set aside days when you hide your phone, tape over the clocks, live apart from the numbers, and spend time in sacred places, whether in a church or temple, on the ocean or deep in the woods, so that you can “listen… with the ear of your heart,” as Saint Benedict teaches us.
  • Embody the life you wish for everyone you love: weave joy into every new day. My best friend Jessica and I do that together. She is a scholar and I am an activist, but when we get together, we bake scones, tend to our gardens, ride our bikes, gaze at the stars, search for dolphins in the sea, and dance. The way we make change is just as important as the change we make – not over depleted dead bodies, but with alive and nourished spirits.
  • Seek harmony, not balance. The idea of “balance” has never been useful to me, as if I could cut my life into pieces and measure their worth on a scale. At the same time, whenever I have tried to “lean in,” I’ve fallen down. I want to stand up straight, grounded in the earth, and pour my love into my partner, children, friends, family, and the communities I serve. I want to gauge my success by how well I have loved. I don’t want balance. I want harmony. I want to let my life flare up. I want to let my life sing. I want to hear your life sing. Because everyone’s song is a symphony.
  • Finally, treat each day as a single lifetime. When my grandfather was on his deathbed, the Parkinson’s taking his body whole, he was fearless as ever. He died with a smile of surrender. His dying was my final lesson. So before I go to sleep, I think of the day as an entire lifetime containing both joy and hardship. I praise it and then let go with all the gratitude I saw in my grandfather’s face. In these moments, I know that I am enough. I know that you are enough. Practicing fearlessness in the face of death can teach us how to be brave in life.

Class of 2015: Bravery is your birthright.

So before you walk up on this stage to accept your diploma, there is just one last thing we must do, a practice I learned from my college mentor Dean Tommy Woon. Your diploma will honor the achievements of your mind. Now let us honor the bravery of your body.

Your bravery lives in your throat. Touch your throat. May your throat know its architecture as a sanctuary for the sound of words, even when your voice trembles; your song is singular and necessary on this earth.

Your bravery lives in your eyes. Touch your eyes. May your eyes always see the faces of the people you serve, for they are each a stitch that will bind you to the path of love.

Your bravery lives in your ears. Touch your ears. May you always listen for your calling – those moments when your deepest longing meets the world’s needs.

Your bravery lives in your feet. Feel them on the earth. May your feet move you into places wherever love calls you, even where the flames may be the highest.

Your bravery lives in your hands. Open your palms. May your hands know their ability to create out of nothing – Yesh me-Ayin in the Jewish tradition – for the world needs art and antidotes that do not yet exist.

Your bravery lives in your core. Place your hands there. May every cell in your body know that it contains the selfless love of the long line of women who have birthed you. Knowing this, you will never be alone.

Your bravery lives in your breath. Take a deep breath. In every breath, you take into your body as many molecules as there are stars in the known universe, and those 100 million molecules have passed through the lungs of every person who has ever lived. All of us are made of the same elements, cooked in the fiery hearts of ancient stars.

“Accepting our kinship with everyone on earth is not just solid science,” says the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “… it’s also a soaring spiritual experience.” May your spirit soar with wonder as you sense your Oneness with all things.

Your bravery lives in the soul of your sister next to you. Take her hand for a moment. May you reach for her hand to take strength and make meaning, for courage is only possible in community. Your sisters will deliver the toasts at your wedding, hold your newborn child, remind you of your callings, celebrate your swearing in, and kiss the coffin at your funeral. Close your eyes and think of their names. Now open your eyes and don’t let them go.

Finally, your bravery lives in your heart. Place your hands on your chest. Your heart is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. May your heart give you the courage to grieve today as an ending, even as you celebrate a new beginning.

My sister Brynn Saito is now a celebrated poet. She says hi. Lately she’s been writing about women warriors, which seems just right. So I would like to close with my favorite lines from “Woman Warrior On How to Be Free:”

“Go to the ends of the earth / girl / go like a leopard
chasing her longing / go like the grasses grown
and cut and blowing over the valley by autumn
fire-winds / Go away from the valley / girl / go
to the city / go like a fighter / with gold ore
precision / with penny-like pain / with plenty
of power…[and with] women like me / wishing you well / whistling
wisdom into your spine… learn to outlast the flame”

Class of 2015: Let your life flare up! Let your life sing!

Your love will outlast the highest flames. Your love will light a new way for all of us.

Thank you and congratulations!