Today We Talked About Stories

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Today we talked about stories. “No literature is truly profound,” you said, “that does not gaze upon death and wrestle with it.”

You come from a culture that looks away, hiding behind white garments and doctors’ hushed tones. When you asked after your friend’s mother-in-law, she said they were observing her 100th birthday. I remember, with a flash of humor, that you nearly sent her well wishes before you realized the woman was cold in the grave. There is no soft synonym for death in our mother tongue—she’s gone, passed away, no longer with us—so we say nothing at all. We cover it in silence and dirt, by the millions.

I grew up in a culture that sugarcoats, inventing euphemisms as if an exchange of words can temper our ruthless fate. We listen to a society spin convenient yarns: In our youth, Death is incentive to chase happiness, because You Only Live Once. In our contemplation, Death is dangerous to dwell on long, turning thinkers into maniacs. In polite company, Death has no place in conversation, drowned in teacups and gossip. At a funeral, Death is a sure entrance to A Better Place, affirmed by the man at the pulpit. All of us who are living are also dying, and we convince ourselves it is not so bad.

You read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Hugo and Dickens. Like Greek philosophers of old, the best minds press on the vein of the deepest questions, cut into human nature until it bleeds. But in the end, they also must look away, or sink into despair, or treat it too lightly.

“No literature can bear the weight of death,” you said, “without a right theology of God.”

Martin Luther said, “Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.” Thank you for teaching me the True Story, that by God’s grace, I may do both well.

Today we talked about truth. “Every religion is man trying to reach God, or some higher spiritual plane, or some better sense of self,” you said. “But the truth is, we cannot reach God. God reached down to us, in Christ.”

You sent me off to the halls of higher education, a hailstorm of evolutionary theory and existential philosophy, without batting an eye. Maybe it was nothing compared to your college experience—complete with high quality communist movies from North Korea and Russia. But now I know why you were not afraid. The truth is not something fragile, that needs iron bars to protect it from the world. No, the truth is something fierce, that tears down strongholds of lies. That shakes the pillars of the Earth and stirs our blood. That says, with Paul, we are most to be pitied if Christ did not rise from the dead. That dares you to find it false.

Your heroes are not the celebrities, the entrepreneurs, the Nobel Prize winners. Yours are the ones who fought to know truth and fought to defend it, who pursued the glory of God despite the displeasure of men, who counted all things as loss for the sake of knowing Christ.

Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” You will not settle for less than that either. When a Man comes into our world and says He is God, who can take that lightly? Thank you for teaching me never to trivialize truth, that it is a hard and holy thing, and that it can set the sinner free.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. “So every year,” you said, “they will make another movie about this fake universe and fake characters and people will pay to watch it? Zhen me wu liao.”

How boring, you said in Chinese, and we laughed. It’s difficult to capture the full-orbed meaning in English—boring, silly, tasteless—and harder to describe why it’s gold coming from you—candid and genuinely perplexed, but not cruel or condescending.

“Of course,” I said staunchly, but I don’t fight back. I gave up long ago trying to convince you why Star Wars was not just for idiots, and sometimes I need your honest irreverence to see the absurdity of our lives.

Our times are in desperate need of people like you. Hence I suggested, with varying degrees of sincerity, that you should record a podcast, host a talk show, or write an autobiography. You laughed at me and said I would be the only listener, follower, or reader—and you continued quietly with your life.

I doubt it, but you made me think. How many mothers do their thankless duties with an audience of one?

Today a strong, independent woman comes with a particular characterization: a feminist empowered to break the chains to societal expectation, religion, institution, and men. To be whatever she wants, to define her own destiny. In pursuit of freedom, we have shackled womanhood to a religion of self-worship. In a march for equality, we have defied divinity to count nothing sacred but the Self: my way, my truth, my life. I wonder, what makes freedom and equality so worth fighting for, if they are nothing but man-made ideals?

Yet if they are divine, we all sit under the judgment of the Creator, and the Maker of its morality.

In a world spinning wild, you show me strength: to forsake what is wrong and hold to what is true. You show me freedom: to think little of self, so I might know a Savior. You show me womanhood: to be gentle but not timid, to have a simple faith but a probing mind, to fear God and not man.

Jim Eliot, echoing the words of Jesus and Ecclesiastes, said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Thank you for teaching me to have eternal eyes, that I might hold these fleeting things loosely, that I might have Christ.

Today we talked about stories. Sometimes you laugh at the ones I read, and I snooze at the ones on your shelf.

Today we talked about truth. We have God-shaped souls, though we are small people, anchored by gravity to a small world, hung on a spiraling, galactic canvas of creation.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. We sit in a quiet corner of the globe, eating breakfast and watching the rain. On the scales of eternity, our lives are but a flicker, and a moment lapses into memory with each breath. But I thank God, that in the time and space he carved around us, He made you my mother.

A Silent Salute

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I love and hate that tributes to those we lose can be so eloquent. We can max out profundity and pretty words, inspiring tears and shivers, yet eloquence ends at the grave. We say these words, share these memories, but you’re still gone.

And we will continue with our lives, and slowly forget.

I guess that’s why funerals are more for the living than the dead. The tributes we pay are closure for us, even if they are infuriatingly, eloquently inadequate. But we have no other means. So here are mine.

You taught calculus and not poetry, but you were a type of John Keating—Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society—even though my friends thought you looked like Brad Pitt. Not that that’s an insult by any means.

I remember how you loved astronomy, and that was fitting for a man who lived with such fervor. The world couldn’t confine your spirit to a small blue orb spinning in a galaxy spinning in a universe spinning in infinity. Funny, you might have been the first one to teach me about infinity, outside of Scripture and church and the infinitude of God. I remember hearing it in your classroom, probably on a dreary gray morning, when you introduced asymptotes and limits, and bewilderment shot the sleep out of our eyes.

Why do we wait until someone is gone to remember, and realize the little things were really the big things? I can feel the years standing between then and now, with the space, the distance, the merciless drumbeat of time. Yet it also feels like yesterday, with the memory pressed so close.

You must have believed in strong ripple effects, and if not, your life has contradicted you. I wonder if that is why you chose a small classroom in a quiet suburb. Because I scrolled through your Facebook page today and saw generations of lives you touched, some that came before me, and some after. I read silently and left, unable and afraid to think of words to leave you in such a public place, but inspired by those who did. Instead, I scrolled through my old photos to graduation and found the one I took with you.

You, with your strong smile and hairstyle we poked fun at. Me, in my cap and gown, grinning with genuine unconsciousness of adulthood and its trials.

I stared at the picture for a while, thinking of how it marked an ending. The close of one chapter, and the start of another. I wish I visited more, kept in touch, after I left. I wish you had more real estate on the pages that followed.

I don’t think you were the Facebook stalker type—that belongs proudly to our generation—so here’s a brief summary for you: I went off to chase sunshine and dreams in California. Found some and lost some. I still laugh a lot, and at dumb things, but the smiles have stretched over a few more scars. Which is okay. The battle wounds of adulthood are bearable because of strong refuges. Like memories of your pi jokes and class pranks and juvenile things that remind me how good it was to be a kid, and how to savor the present before it’s gone.

I still make impulsive decisions sometimes, and that’s partly why I’m doing a graduate degree in engineering. When I took Optimization last year, I understood my professor about 10% of the time, and I owe a large part of that to someone who taught me well so I could still do derivatives years later like it was second nature. I’d get stumped after that, but thanks for the partial credit. This time, the kudos goes to your teaching, and not my begging.

John Keating and my old English teacher used to tell us Carpe Diem. Seize the day. You never said the words, too busy making lessons and helping the helpless—which were most high school students sitting in a math class. You never had to say the words because your life said it all.

You Carpe’d the hell out of every Diem.

I don’t like goodbyes as much as gratitude, so I will simply say thank you—

Thank you for teaching (so tirelessly).
Thank you for believing (that it doesn’t take a genius to survive math).
Thank you for sharing that one video (I still share with friends to make them laugh).
Thank you for accepting our insanity (and sharing your own).
Thank you for being kind (to the difficult and the downtrodden).
Thank you for your courage (in sickness and in health).

Thank you for the memories.

If I was back in your old classroom, I would—don’t laugh—stand on my desk in a silent salute to you.

Oh captain, my captain.

Quietly, She Builds the World

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.

Maps in the Dark

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.

I look around and wonder what we are, really. A mortal yarn that spins its life away with each second, each breath. A small beating, blood-colored muscle surrounded by a fragile cage of bones. Thump, thump. A frail fleshly body that houses an eternal weight of glory, made to worship and chase and love with an undimmed blaze that we have canned and isolated like preservatives with a shelf life. Here’s a candle for your career. A brief, colorful firework for your love story. A lamp for your Sunday religion, if you want it.

We have learned to make filters that cover our brokenness. What, I wonder, would we find, if we tore the layers away? Where is the raw, bleeding heart buried in the rubble?

A splintering world can’t be bandaged by human hands and machines. I want to shake you, when I see you drawing maps in the dark and sprinting through a maze with a cliff at the finish line. What good are these bits and bytes, these Babel-like structures, these soaring speeches if we all come to dust and ashes?

Still our hearts love these glints of gold, gleaming in the dull iron landscape of existence. Oh, how we live for that bright and elusive tomorrow, forgetting that all tomorrows will end in the grave. I suppose we must forget – because we are not human without hope. Hope that there is more, that the glimmers in the gray are not liars, but angels. Hope that we simultaneously cling to and crush because we love and hate holiness.

Before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 

The mad world spins on. But on the other side of the veil, glory dawns like a sunrise. And in the still, quiet moments, it calls to us.

The stone was rolled away. And He is not silent.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

An Assortment of Unspoken Words

Can you piece a life together from the words that go unsaid? Sometimes, I think the things we never say—because of missed opportunity, fear, or delayed realization—define us more deeply than the words we bring into the world.

An experimental drabble. Undefined mixture of fiction and reality. Take it however you will.

She told me there were tears in your eyes at the end of the day. We were catty schoolgirls with masks over our hollowness before I understood—in the trenches of my heart, not just Sunday school—what it meant to be a sinner. I wish I knew where you were so I could tell you: I’m sorry. I’ve had my heart broken by grief, but I’ve learned that time mends wounds yet magnifies regrets. I can live with scars. It’s harder to think I’ve caused yours.

I am waiting for you to be the miracle story I tell. Will the scales fall off? I am afraid to say how I am afraid for you. You are my longest, trembling prayer, the one I never forget, the one that brings me to my knees.

You were the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Taylor’s music. She just wasn’t famous then and I was too scared to dream.

I looked through my old yearbook but it didn’t list your first name. I wonder if you’re still a missionary, or a teacher again. I wonder if you ever had a daughter, and if she turned out anything like me (I hope not, for your sake). Thank you for answering childish questions kindly, for giving me second chances, for teaching me about the assurance of salvation in a simple sentence. If we don’t meet on this side of eternity again, please wait to trade stories with me in golden streets.

Sometimes I hated that you couldn’t take anything seriously. But I wish we stayed friends, if just for the silly, stupid reason that I miss your jokes.

Summer Thunder

I woke up last night to the skies rumbling—like horsemen storming through the heavens, white light lancing through the thunderclouds. Curtains of water unleashed on our dry and thirsty streets. They fell in ceaseless waves, like mercy and mourning.

Do you ache for the broken beauty? The splendor of creation, diminished in our minds and narrowed to the small confines of our festivities, troubles and traffic jams.

We spin in the familiar orbit of our daily routines, insignificant creatures on a blue orb soaring through space. Stars wink out of the universe, their violent gaseous flames extinguished, and our lives continue untouched. Galaxies bend and spiral into a black unknown and we linger on, blissfully unaware. What is man, that You are mindful of him?

But when the thunder rolls, I am cut with heavenly hunger.

We spin, a world made for heaven but flying straight towards hell. We stand at once in rebellion and in shame, with one hand thrown into a fist against the skies and another chained to the collar of corruption. People cry out in a hailstorm of contradictions. Truth is a joke and life is cheap. But still we fight so hard—stirring words and bloody bodies—but for what?

We hate hypocrites yet find them in the mirror. I will preach the full and unmatchable value of life, of the equal worth in yours and mine. But when the waters rise, I’ll know, painfully and clearly, how empty pretty words are if I can’t trade my mortality for yours.

How much we need someone who sees us all the way to the core, in a wreck of frailty and failure, and loves us even in agony.

Do you ache for glory undimmed? Think hard and search deeply and tell me. Because I don’t believe you’re an existentialist. You don’t want to watch the world burn. You want to be on the right side of history with your trumpet of justice and kindness, these noble things that have no meaning in a world that exploded from nothing for no purpose. Simply to spin and spin and spin and die.

Like a diamond in the rough, lies only spring from pale imitations of truth. And it is there—the truth and the glory—gleaming beneath the dirt and grime. A crimson flower, blooming in the ashes of ravaged land. Creation groans, but not without the silver edge of hope on the horizon.

I listen to the rainfall and the roar. The mercy and the mourning. Our little corner of our small world trembles quietly.

But one day the skies will rend wide open for Heaven and Earth to collide. You will fling off the dark covers and creation will shrug off its old burdens. Shadows flee. Beauty unbroken. Glory undimmed.

Have we seen Light, until we see that day?

 

The Truth About Your Fairytale

Yesterday, you told me about a boy who wears a crooked grin and plays with hearts like they’re poker cards. We sat in a rundown coffee shop, our piping hot cappuccinos blowing smoke into your tired eyes. Like Han Solo, you said, and a ghost of a smile reached your lips. I wasn’t sure if it came from a memory or the knowledge that I’d appreciate the reference.

I’m sorry, I said, before you even told me the story. Because you are like me—not a Princess Leia, who looks stunning in white and inspires men to die for good causes. No, we are Meg Ryan from Sleepless in Seattle, closet romantics until our idealism gets stomped all over. We are the ones who believe in soulmates, first love, and forever. We are from a generation raised on a diet of fairytales, and the first broken heart we meet is our own.

Yesterday, I told you about a boy whose antics could put Nora Ephron to shame. He wasted gas, sleep, and dreams on me. He made August nights perpetually sound like Ed Sheeran and my apartment smell like Calvin Klein. But it’s not like the books, I murmured. The sweetness comes with scars, and the idea of having eternity in one moment is a myth. If we could, why do we always want more? How absurdly helpless we are to squeeze the infinite into a flickering breath.

Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Yes, you whispered, adamant, but I know that’s your romanticism battling down your grief. That was always my response too—almost born more out of principle than conviction. Almost, but not quite. Because I think I would have loved him anyway, knowing it would end. I might have judged you, but for that realization, I ached with you instead. We are all fools in love, I offered, drawing upon the inimitable wisdom of Jane Austen.

Young, innocent, and a little heartbroken: it makes a cocktail of daring and desperation.

Yesterday, you told me you were waiting. Waiting for the pain to pass, waiting to be the Cinderella in your fairytale. Waiting for the one who would sweep in and make all the past a distant thing. It’s like I’m holding onto a single glass slipper, waiting for someone to knock on my door with the other one. I don’t know if he’s lost, stuck in traffic, or nonexistent. We laughed, and sometimes I think that is our greatest answer to agony.

The coffee burned in my throat going down. I don’t think he’s coming, I said.

Perhaps it is better to have loved and lost, but it is best to love and never lose. I think that’s what we’re made for, and that’s what our fairytales are grasping for. We are not created for tragic romances and hurting hearts. Romeo and Juliet sagas romanticize a broken reality, but Cinderella stories reach for Eden-like eternity. We don’t have the words that follow happily ever after because we haven’t lived that tale yet.

Someone who will cover all your scars and never leave you with another one—he isn’t coming.

He’s been knocking on your door for a long time already.