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.

Wanderlust

Won’t you come, and walk these rugged roads with me?

We can drive that beat-up van through stretches of golden cornfield, dappled with dying sunlight, listening to the tired hum of the engine and wondering breathlessly when it will sputter and give out. Dusk descends and the crickets come alive with their calls—a song to the last embers of summer, a mournful goodbye to a lover.

A crack and sizzle snap the rhythm of the nighttime harmonies and the engine is gone. But this is where the real adventure begins. This is the part, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where they sail past the Lone Islands, and there are no more maps, no more plans, only dreams. This is the part where the thrill of uncertainty sets into our bones the way deep crimsons and oranges have inked themselves into autumn leaves.

We’ll wade through the knee-high grass and weeds, run until we collapse, and sing old songs under the unfurled scroll of stars. And miles and miles later, we’ll find an airport and buy two one-way tickets to see the mountains of the world.

Thousands of feet off the ground, we’ll find another sort of sea, lost in the white tumble of clouds blending with snow. Sweating and bleeding from cuts, shivering from icy gales. Lightheaded with euphoria. Barely breathing from the thinness of the air. The taste of Death and Heaven both suddenly too close, but not the taste of fear—we threw it off the steep slopes on the way up, listened to its shrill shriek swallowed by the winds.

Won’t you come, and walk these rugged roads with me?

We can cut across red deserts and ancient pyramids and the city of kings. Press the soles of our shoes against the hot sands and stones that once touched the feet of a God. Fishermen may still be casting their nets. Beneath hails of gunfire and the terror of modern warfare, men may still be teaching about a kingdom that does not fade. Souls passing from death into life.

Snaking through the knot of bodies, we’ll watch a foreign city come alive with night-lights and signs we don’t understand. Voices fly past us in strange languages and bands play on the street corner with makeshift instruments. Dancers step to the beat, and the bloom of bright dresses decorate the evening.

When we grow weary of the people scenes, we’ll find our way back into the solitude of nature. We can pitch tents under the northern lights and stay up waiting for the skies to sweep us into their performance of color and ecstasy. Then we’ll bravely whisper our secrets into the silence because we remember once again how small are even our greatest regrets and heartbreaks.

And at the end of it all, we’ll find ourselves sitting in a familiar, favorite café, speaking once again of the inconsequential—the office joke and the latte art. But I’ll have seen some of your soul, and you mine. For away from Home, we lose and find ourselves.

Come, and walk these rugged roads with me.

 

Featured in Germ Magazine August 2015.

The Match Beneath our Hearts

“Find your passion.” I’ve been hearing those words for years on end, ever since I began the journey into Making Big Life Decisions—what to study in school, what career to pursue, what activities to get involved with. But I can hardly remember someone defining what that vague, nebulous word meant. Passion. Find it, and then dedicate your life to it, they say, implying we are each created for some unique purpose that must be discovered, pursued, and perfected. Some lifestyles and careers are immediately associated with the concept: social workers, missionaries, artists, doctors. If passion colored a circle around a set of occupations, these would be dead center, bright orange. Floating in the white space outside we might find janitors, fast food workers, and 9-to-5 office people. And so many of us are taught that chasing what we love is a prerequisite to a full life.

Yet, pragmatism finds a voice in our world too. Perhaps echoing in the concerned tone of a parent, or dropping on us like a hammer when the reality of jobless, penniless living sinks in like claws. When painting flowers and philosophy can’t attract any cash flow, the scales slide from passion to pragmatism. In one sense, it’s almost a rite of passage for entering adulthood. We see the few friends who defy that norm, traveling the world or starting a business and generally living the good life. But for most, it’s a passage into tiresome day jobs, driven by a need to make a living and put some semblance of food on the table. The first paycheck inspires a heady thrill of excitement and independence. A couple more, and we’re asking, Is this all? Is this the rest of life?

And passion begins to speak again. “Don’t spend your life just getting by.”

“We are all called to find and do our life’s work.”

But passion is a privilege, simply put. Few can afford to drop a steady job, an income to pay the bills, to undertake a risky venture for the sake of “doing what they love.” (Certainly, some can, and succeed, and some should. But by and large, it’s implausible for most, and often irresponsible.) Someone has to do the job you don’t want—someone has to drill the fences and scrub the toilets. Most of the world is living for survival, not for dreams. It is those who are blessed with abundance and don’t fear for providing the next meal that grow agitated and begin thinking of doing something greater, more impactful, and more transformative.

The desire is not wrong; in fact, I think it’s a good and beautiful thing. But we often channel it into the wrong objects and seek fulfillment in the wrong places. And we run up against the troubling tension between passion and pragmatism, the core of which stems from brokenness. The brokenness of our world, and the brokenness of the human race. Imagine work in a sinless world. For one, entire industries would collapse out of superfluity—law enforcement, security, and the like. There is our own, personal brokenness to contend with too. We are naturally lovers of self-glory, and the unglamorous, unseen jobs are found wanting. Even the pursuit of service to others can be a veil for selfish ambition and recognition.

How then, do we channel our thirst for chasing that undefined, glint of a dream on the horizon? The thing that we can’t put into clear words, and yet strikes a match beneath our hearts?

Passion is inconstant, because we are fickle and lazy people. One day it sets us on fire, and another, it’s been snuffed out by gray skies or a minor headache. Can we set our eyes and life on such a capricious concept? It seems a dangerous thing. This is not to throw my hat in the ring for fatalism, passively awaiting whatever comes down the pipe. Yet neither do I believe we should chase every whim, captained by our emotions. Again, it is a tension we must hold: to pursue, and to accept; to speak up, and to submit; to fight, and to surrender. There is a time for everything. But I think it is wisdom, not passion, who will speak best in how to do that.

We are made for a life of chasing loftier things, but that may be packaged in either prosperous or humble appearances.

Let us not chase mere passion, but bring it with us in higher pursuits.

The Real in the Surreal

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

surreal

I’m not sure how one defines growing up, but from an unschooled eye, I see it in the small, insignificant things—trading in sneakers for the next size, dismissing mom as the personal chauffeur to sports games and parties—and I always see it in retrospect. The quiet evolution in interests, tastes, personality. The sometimes subtle, sometimes sudden, shedding of youthful naiveté. Childhood shifts into adulthood in a slow whirlwind of changing landscapes, foreign city lights blurred by rainfall, abandoned bookshelves and silent studios. A world marked simultaneously by noise and loneliness.

We leave behind the children’s stories and fairy tales. There are broken hearts strewn across our streets and suburbs, stomped over by a world in a rush to the subway and office, never pausing for a second glance. Sometimes, those are our hearts. Sometimes, we are the ones trampling them underfoot. Finally, we see—victims and oppressors all—happily-ever-after are for the idiots. We read survival guides for life and watch shows about messy people with frayed relationships and aimless days because it’s like looking in a mirror and laughing. Life doesn’t make cynics out of all of us, but we are hard-pressed to find the same lively spark of wonder and hope in the eyes of the aging.

Perhaps there is another shift from adulthood into old age, when we return to the past tales. When we grow weary of the world and the next new thing, and find there is really nothing new under the sun. That psychology, technology, governments, wars, treaties, prisons, corporations and social movements will never fix our brokenness. When we come to the end of ourselves and stand on the brink of our last heartbeats, perhaps the light will break into the crevasses and we will find that ancient wisdom speaks with new authority.

Perhaps we will pick up the old fairy tales, and we will see them like never before—not with scoffing condescension or childlike wonder. The scales will fall off our eyes and we will see the truth in the myth, the real in the surreal, and discover a magic that all the world cannot suppress—

—sunlight piercing the morning dew—

—fierce, untamable love —

—glory beyond the frailness of words—

Are these not the truest tales of all?

Between Mercy and Justice

Mercy and justice are not opposites, but they often find themselves at odds, particularly in the justice system. The tension between the two, between gracious love and rigid law, is a core conflict in so many stories. Recently, I’ve developed a penchant for legal dramas (by which, I mean Suits and The Good Wife) and I can’t help but notice this theme replaying itself. Suits has a spectacular ensemble cast, and I’ve grown to love each of the characters: their quirks, wit, heroics and vulnerabilities. I cheer when they win, when they beat their enemies, when they have their moments of glory. I ache when they ache. (And yes, I realize I may be overly emotionally invested.) But let’s be honest – all of my favorite characters are basically crooks. By the law, they deserve to be thrown into prison.

Good storytellers know how to play on our sympathies. Call it manipulative, but you have to admit, it takes skill to do. A well-executed emotional appeal strikes our heartstrings harder than impartial justice. Storytellers know that. The justice system knows that: attorneys would not be so bent on picking impartial jurors if most people could not be swayed by compassion, personal experiences, or anything other than cold, hard facts. We find ourselves rooting for “good” protagonists even if they aren’t completely by the book, even if they’re rule-breakers, because of something redeeming in their motives or heart. We empathize because we’ve been in their shoes, or simply because we understand their dilemma as fellow humans. We’re not robots, we don’t see the world in binary, and there’s no algorithm to our emotions.

But there you find the tension. The other day, I was watching an episode of The Good Wife where Alicia defends a middle-aged Indian woman facing deportation. She entered the U.S. illegally 27 years ago, but built her entire life in the States: two children, a job, and a home. In desperation, she tells Alicia, “I have nothing in India.” Her situation and her plea tugged at my feelings. I was totally rooting for Alicia to kick the opposing counsel’s behind on the case and save the poor woman. But as the other side put it, the truth is, she entered the country illegally. In the eyes of the law, she should be deported. It is mercy that cries for an alternative. So, what’s the right thing to do? The courts weren’t created for charity, and if every case like that was granted an exception, all sorts of chaos would break out. And yet … I felt compassion, and out of pity, I wanted an exception for her case. (I promise, I haven’t forgotten this is all fiction. I just get this way about stories.)

Where is the perfect meeting place of mercy and justice? Where is the sweet spot? Sorry. I don’t know. Sometimes, the two seem to be in direct opposition to one another, and we can all empathize with both sides at different times, depending on our natural bent and personal experiences. The only good answer I have isn’t my own: the cross of Christ is the only place I see the two come together in perfect, agonizing union. A picture of perfect justice and a picture of perfect love. The fair and full punishment for the wickedness of sin, and a love so unfathomable it embraces the worst of us unconditionally. It is something we cannot hope to emulate as broken sinners in a broken world, with our imperfect love and laws.

Personally, I love stories that deal with the tension well. Not in a cookie-cutter approach, where everything gets simplified and squared away. We are messy and complicated, tarnished by sin. Yet at the same time, we see a reflection of the image of God, the Imago Dei, imprinted on our souls – a God who is holy and just, yet also compassionate and slow to anger. One day, He will set all things right.

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Resolved to Read

I don’t go about New Year resolutions in any orthodox way, and I write them more to inspire than to formulate a checklist. I ignore all the advice to make resolutions that are “achievable” and “measurable”. Psh. But to each his own, and there’s certainly wisdom in being realistic. I may be neither wise nor realistic – which would explain a lot.

For the first time in (I think) ever, I put together a reading list for 2015 as an addendum to one of my resolutions. Every reader says their book list is far too long to finish in a lifetime. I concur, though I’ve never actually had any sort of list. I picked up books to read haphazardly, often on impulse, and occasionally on recommendation, since everyone’s taste is so distinct. In December, I started thinking of ways I could live more intentionally in the coming year, and since books are a significant part of my life, it struck me that I could read more intentionally too.

So I wrote down a rather rough and vague resolution.

Read widely. Read all the works of one author. Read classics. Read Christian books that deepen my understanding of God and help me live for His glory. Read for the thrill of it.

And I put together a list of books to go along with this. Looking at it holistically, it’s actually a very random mix. Oh well. Variety is the spice of life.

 

C.S. Lewis

The Four Loves
The Abolition of Man
A Grief Observed
The Great Divorce
Surprised by Joy

* Yes, I’m trying to read all his (major) books. He’s written bucket loads, so the plus is that I’ve already read a good number. But I also picked him because the blend of his life journey, profession, faith and storytelling make for a fascinating thinker. I’ve already seen bits and pieces of how his theology and worldview weave in and out of his fiction and nonfiction alike, and how the trajectory of his perspective morphs over his lifetime.

 

Classics

The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky)
Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)

 

Christian

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Burroughs)
Assurance of Our Salvation (Lloyd-Jones)
The Promises of God (R.C. Sproul)
Jesus the Evangelist (Richard Phillips)
Surprised by Suffering (R.C. Sproul)
Orthodoxy (Chesterton)
One Perfect Life (MacArthur)
Alone with God (MacArthur)

* Confession: I snagged a lot of these from free Kindle book deals and they’ve been collecting digital dust. In case you were wondering how I decided on this list.

 

Fiction Fun

The Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson)
Dune (Herbert)
Scarlet / Cress; Lunar Chronicles (Meyer)
The Sign of the Beaver (Speare)
Calico Captive (Speare)
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Konigsburg)
Flipped (Draanen)
I Am the Messenger (Zusak)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)

As many new year resolutions go, they begin petering out towards the end of January. I admit, I’m slogging through Dostoyevsky right now. At my current rate, I may not get to a single other book in 2015. But now that I’ve posted this … I hope the public accountability kicks me into powering through. After all, murder and the meaning of life and all that good stuff – shouldn’t this be the sort of book that keeps you up at night?

(I know, who am I kidding?)

[photo cred]