Poetry is oft for lovers, rarely for mothers.
Theirs is the thrill, the mystery, the romance, I suppose. They command our devotion, with a drama of ecstasy and despair. Some strange charm beckons us in the star-crossed tale and the daring plunge of two naked souls.
But what do we write of the ones who fold the laundry, steam the rice, and frighten the ants away? What glory do we dismiss, when we relegate her to nursery rhymes: the ones who bore us to life, and in times of thunder, hold up our skies?
Quietly, they build the world, when the world is not watching.
My mother, she builds
with thick skin and iron fingers—
She never wears mittens, juggling pots with bare hands. She is not delicate, as fearless in the face of man’s mockery as she is with boiling dishes. Let them laugh, she says, why spend your life saving face? We choose whether their words wound us or not.
Grown in the soil of her country, she will always love its food, but never wear its masks. Who will judge you, when Heaven has pardoned you?
as a romantic and a realist—
She once danced for farmers in the rice paddies as dusk shimmered away, back when Mao was god. Her limbs moved with childlike grace, a brief light in poverty, a defiant laugh in the dark. Beside her candle and banned books, she dreamed of being a rural schoolteacher. Now, she visits suburban homes and American libraries, teaching calculus to the fearful and probability to Ivy League-dreamers. Still, she labors with compassion, and knows in silent wisdom that the rich may be poor in spirit.
like Sherlock to my Watson—
She fires every gardener she hires for costly incompetence. She cannot bake sweets, but solves puzzles instead. What sort of grandmother will you be? I lament. Oh, I will teach your children about Calvin, not cookies. She forgets, sometimes, how to convert her height to feet and inches, and the order of planetary orbits. But communism was thin in the education department, and she has deeper things to ponder. She does not hear, sometimes, satire and sarcasm, because her habit is bald sincerity. She might offend you, or she might inspire you.
She lives good stories, and I try to write them. And sometimes, she wears funny hats.
in sorrow and splendor—
She is there when my world cracks and catches fire. Though she knows, in all her logic and reason, that tears do not fix broken hearts or dreams, she lets me weep. And when I cannot believe the kind, empty words of men, she speaks, like a songbird piercing hollow cathedrals. How splendid, when the strong in truth walk beside you in suffering. How steady and sure, the promises of God sound in her voice, whispered into the summer night.
Quietly, she builds the world
when she lays new dirt in the spring, when she fills the kitchen with garlic and soy, when she questions my sanity in all the right moments, and when she takes herself lightly, serious only in what matters most.
Quietly, she builds the world, yet teaches me—in triumph or in tragedy—not to love it so. But to store up in heaven the treasure of my soul.