I can still smell the incense. My dad would light three sticks of it, prop them up in a bowl of uncooked rice, kneel, and bow until his forehead met the ground. Three times he would bow—slowly, reverently—and the room would grow somber and silent. I remember watching the smoke curl in the air and disappear into the dining room lights.

Platters of our favorite Chinese delicacies filled the dining table. My mouth waters thinking about the sea cucumber, bamboo shoots, abalone, extra-large shrimp, flavorful shiitake mushrooms, and special vegetables we procured from the only Asian supermarket in our area—which was still over an hour away.

A single chair, situated away from the table, represented the spirit of my grandmother. Each dish represented a special offering to honor her memory. She had died from lung cancer, and I had never met her in person. I only knew of her from a portrait in my dad’s office. When I was a little girl, this portrait frightened me—I was convinced her eyes were following my every step.

After all the family members took turns kneeling and bowing, my dad would take the incense out the back door, and we would sit down to enjoy the feast.

The Glow of New Life

I grew up in a culturally Buddhist home. By “culturally Buddhist,” I mean that religion didn’t influence my day-to-day life. When it came to rituals like honoring the spirit of my grandma, I was only going through the motions.

Our family lived in Boulder, Colorado—a beautiful city nestled in the mountains. The fresh mountain air was scented with pine—and sometimes pot. Boulder is filled with granola-type hippies, plenty of new-age crystals, and throngs of the spiritually open-minded. Growing up ...

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