To my sister on her wedding day:

Today we’ve changed, you and I. You’ve crossed a channel to another side where Cheng becomes Jin, and house and hall become memory and familiar place, but never again home–where a little girl and boy once played and shrieked and swam under the summer sun, and Mom and Dad stood hand in hand, their gaze adoring, their love so flawed, yet true.

But that too has changed, as you and I know so well, the joy of yesteryear clouded, shrouded in funereal form, where four and whole and Mom became three and broken and small. But not all change was dark, for in later years though we no longer played and swam, our play and squabbles deepened into something else: love and care and long talks past night’s nadir about people, God, loss, and even golden days like these.

And you yourself have changed too. You’ve grown wiser and tougher, more firmly rooted in what and Who is true, and yet more tender, more like the Savior. And you’ve fallen in love. You’ve found a new shoulder to rest on, a new heart into which you spill your struggles, sorrows, and dreams, and a good one too.

And yet you haven’t changed. You’re still my older sister who keeps a little food, a small treat to bring home to younger brother, who still outstrips me in generosity and brings me gifts without fail. You’re still my older sister, fiery and fair, whose compassion sounds to the bottom of a deepest well. You’re still my older sister, who counsels, encourages, and always seeks my good. You’re still my older sister who always goes before, in life and now in marriage.

Today we’ve changed, you and I, we’ve changed, but we have not. For we still and always have our double bond of blood and blood, more solid and sure than granite hewn from the highest mountain. We’ve changed, but we have not, for I will still and always be your brother and you will always be something more precious than confidant, counselor, mentor, friend, for all of those words are found wanting–you are something far greater and more precious summed up in a single word: sister. Irene, you are my dear, cherished sister, and I will always love you.

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Three Dreams

Behind the green hills was a wall of clouds that seemed to form the very edge of the world–as if you could walk over those hills into an endless ocean of white to be lost forever. At the bottom of these hills was a city, a vibrant city that bustled and hummed with all of life’s desire and energy, and in this city lived a boy. He was not a remarkable boy, but every day he would look up at those hills and behind it to the wall of clouds and he would imagine the mysteries that lay beyond those clouds. He imagined another city, another world, and all the lives that skipped and ran through that world and at night he continued to imagine but in dreams. Vivid dreams that shifted like dappled light scattered by a forest breeze. Yet some would repeat themselves over and over again.

And of these dreams, he favored three. The first was one where he wrote a poem of great beauty, a spark for the listless, wonder for the jaded, to make the hardened cry, to give hope to a world that drowned itself each night with its sorrow. In the second his dear friends never grew old or sick or distant, but their love for him and each other grew with each passing day, their numbers swelling, the spun threads of their lives never fraying nor departing but becoming so thick that neither light could pierce it nor violence tear it asunder. The third troubled him because he felt something he didn’t understand, but he favored it nonetheless. In the third he looked into the eyes of a long-haired girl in a lovely dress and then she smiled and laughed and spoke to him though he could never quite catch the words. But no matter how he felt—angry, morose, withdrawn, pensive, exuberant—he felt as if she had tied to him a yellow ribbon and would pull him up, down, out, back to the world.

Year Ten

If you know me, I never talk about her much. Maybe I’m trying to achieve some sort of normalcy in an abnormal world, or worse yet, maybe I just forget I had a mother once.

“Hello?”

“Ba, it’s me.”

“Oh, deng yi xia, deng yi xia, let me turn the radio off.” I hear him shuffle across the soundscape of a Chinese talk show, then a click and all is quiet. “So, what did you want to tell me?”

“Nothing much, just wanted to see how you’re doing.”

“Oh.”

I know he knows, but I’ll have to be the one to say it. “Today is ten years.”

“I know.”

“Are you OK?”

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Small Talks

The two of them sat on the curb while he shivered with the cold. The air was crisp with December and the concrete curb felt like ice even through his jeans. He watched his friend light a cigarette and smoke it, the glowing nub pulsing with life after every draw.

His friend looked down at nothing in particular. “Man, I swear she was the one. It just felt so right. And then I wonder—did I just waste the best years of my life?”

He wanted to go inside, to be warm, but the party was loud and raucous and the air thick with marijuana, and he knew they had come outside to talk.

A plume of smoke hissed from his friend’s mouth. “You just never think it’ll end up here, or you hope it won’t, and when it does—even if you wanted it—it’s so visceral. It really is like a punch in the gut.” He took another drag. “You think everyone is racked with this much regret?”

“I don’t know. Don’t we all have regrets?”

“I’m just glad you’re here.”

“Yeah.”

***

“Was it Amelie?—‘Our hearts are resilient, not fragile like glass.’ I butchered that quote. But you get the idea. We shouldn’t be afraid. We can risk again and again—our hearts can take it.”

“I suppose… Though it’s not just the risk of wounds or being wounded, it’s the tangles, all the lives caught between the loops and bonds we try to form. It’s complicated—and it tires me to think about them. It’d be naive to say ‘To hell with the naysayers’ because we don’t live in vacuums but maddening webs of people and more people.”

“Don’t be so misanthropic—”

“I’m not! I mean when I’m frustrated they’re maddening—and maybe they’ll always be, but I know, I know and you don’t need to say it. They’re wondrous too.”

***

“So you’re saying that after a while it’s just not that important.”

“Yes, yes exactly. It’s not that it’s less or more or something, but you just get used it, indifferent almost. And it becomes more about getting along, being able to live with them. And it’s hard work—perhaps the hardest work, but that’s what makes it the most rewarding.”

“Sometimes I think I’m not ready for that—hard work or like the whole thing, like all of it is beyond me or for other, better people.”

***

They sat side by side in the warm summer night while they traced constellations in sky. “And of course that’s the Big Dipper,” she said. Then her tone suddenly grew serious and she turned to look at him, “I feel there’s so much sadness in the world. Why do we make more of it? In the ways we live, in our relationships? Why can’t we just be happy—to choose those things we know deep down will bring life and delight instead of the opposite.”

He thought for a moment, then said, “Maybe we love to be tragic. Happiness seems too easy, too cliché, false even.”

“That sounds good on paper, but honestly it’s just stupid.” She clutched his arm. “Let’s bring a little happiness to this world, ok?”

Wedding by the Sea

The sky was brilliant blue and cloudless, the white chairs much too close together. A breeze rippled through the crowd dressed in spring wedding finery, slim gray suits and sleeveless dresses, catching up words and laughter and causing couples to lean close to hear their lovers’ next words. The chairs and thus the guests faced the ocean and the descending sun, low in the late afternoon, but still bright. Mark squinted and wished he had brought his sunglasses—but in his haste the night before he had left them thousands of miles away. He looked down at the rectangle of heavy paper in his hand and realized he must have picked up the program instinctively—at the guest table perhaps?—because he didn’t remember doing so. It was colored pink and gray, and at the top in script lettering was “Evan + Rachel” and today’s date.

Rachel. Seeing that name next to Evan made him squirm inside, but he wasn’t sure why. Maybe because—

“Are these seats taken?”

Startled, Mark looked up at the two grinning faces suddenly before him and then he grinned back. “It took you two long enough. Was the bathroom that hard to find?”

“Actually, yes! We had to ask the front desk and everything,” said Lisa. Ryan, her husband, didn’t answer because he was now peering through the viewfinder of his SLR camera, which was aimed at Mark. Click.

Mark put up his hand, embarrassed. “Stop. I don’t like having my picture taken.” Click. Click.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make you look good,” said Ryan. “It can be your new profile picture.”

“What’s wrong with my current one?” asked Mark.

“It’s a dog.”

“But I love my dog.”

“I know, but if it’s your face instead, I’m sure the ladies—”

“Are you serious? Girls love dogs.” Mark glowered at them, then jabbed his finger at Ryan. “Look, you married folk don’t have to remind me I’m single. I know it and I’m fine. I get it though—we’re the diseased that can only be cured by matrimony—we’re second-class citizens in a world dominated by blissful couplehood. And—you just don’t mess with Grady. He’s the most handsome dog in the world and he stays my profile picture.”

Lisa and Ryan slowly looked at each other.

“Come on Mark, I was just joking,” said Ryan. He looked apologetic.

“Sorry,” added Lisa. Then in a hushed voice, “Is it because we’re at a wedding?”

“What?”

“Being touchy, emotional, I don’t know.” She tilted her head as if regarding an odd specimen and her eyes grew wide with epiphany. “Oh my god! Is it her? I know weddings. They dredge up the old longings and losses, the what-ifs, the could’ve-beens.” She struck a meditative pose and closed her eyes. “It’s ok to let yourself feel it, to embrace the emotion.”

“That’s not it at all—”

“I so thought you guys would get married.” Lisa opened her eyes to look at him. “And when you told us it was over, I really couldn’t believe it. I mean I never met her, but still, the way you talked about her, I said in my head, ‘This is it. Mark is finally settling down.’” She paused. “You know, it’s not too late even now, I promise you.” She gazed at him with such compassion that Mark—for a fleeting moment—thought she was right.

He sighed. “No, no, Lisa, you got it all wrong. Seriously.”

“Then what is it?”

Mark saw they were still standing. “Oh! I’m sorry. Sit, sit.” He swept his suit jacket off of the two white chairs he had saved for them. They sat but he knew they were still waiting for his answer. So expectant were their looks that he thought of Grady and then imagined them as begging dogs—paws up and tongues out—and nearly laughed, but said “Look, it’s not some girl—or the wedding. Ok, it is the wedding—but not how you think. It’s not the environment, the pink roses, or Canon in D. I’ve been to so many by now. I’m unfazed. It’s—” His voice trailed off and he suddenly looked thoughtful. “I guess part of it was the car ride here, and us—being back together.”

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A Father’s Love

When did he change? It may have been gradual, but I can’t remember now. I only see two panels laid side by side. One black as coal. One white as snow. It’s as if my sister and I are walking across a meadow, our hands tightly clasped in the hands of a man we once knew. Our mother’s grave lies behind us, her body cradled by the earth, peaceful and still. The tears once running down our faces are now dry salty lines, and the pressing weight on our hearts a touch lighter. But the gentle swish of our joined hands and swinging arms over the tall grass suddenly comes to a stop. I look up and the man stares far, far away—and at that moment, the last glimmer of his pupil seems to cloud over, to fall endlessly into a bottomless void.  I feel my hand released. It drops limply to my side. Without a word he veers off into the thicket surrounding us—dark, tangled, filled with eerie silence and unbidden fears—an endless dungeon that goes deeper still.

I sometimes wonder if my father has ever re-emerged. Maybe he still lumbers forward, realizing his mistake, groping for an exit. Maybe he has resigned himself to that living prison that feels bleaker than death. Maybe he has come back, but the father of my childhood is gone, never to return.

I remember something my sister wrote in her journal online, not long after Mom died. The full entry escapes my memory but the final sentences have never left me. She wrote: Oh, how our dad loved us. How often it seemed as if he cared far more for us than for her. But when she died I understood differently. We may have been the apple of his eye, but she was the light of his life.

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On Writing

Writing is very easy. All you do is sit in front of typewriter keyboard until little drops of blood appear on your forehead. – Walter W. “Red” Smith

I’ve always loved to read. To feel crisp pages between my fingers, that sense of wonder and rising excitement as I heft a new novel in one hand, each sentence and chapter waiting to be unfurled. To savor the lingering aftertaste of a poignant book–exquisite, sharp and sweet.

Reading for me is a surprisingly sensory experience, unlike any other. The visual aspect is obvious, but like artistic negative space, the cocooned silence created by an engrossing book, punctuated by the rustle of turning pages is a treasured aural experience in this noisy world. I love the tactile feel of a smooth paperback or the crackling plastic of a library cover or the dense weave of a cloth-bound. Even my nose is engaged. Book smells are singular in nature: the fresh printing-press-and-bookstore smell of a new, and the musty, weighed-down-with-history smell of the old. There truly is nothing quite like reading.

Yet for all those who love to read, who sigh contentedly at my description, who know all too well what I am talking about, I hope to challenge and offend. I am of firm conviction that true lovers of the written word must also love to write.

If one truly loves food, and all that it entails, they cannot stand idly on the sidelines, being a mere consumer, eating at Michelin-star restaurants, but never chopping a shallot, never poaching an egg or whisking a sauce. A true lover wants to create, wants to be involved in the process of which the results bring so much joy.

So it is with reading. To read a beautiful sentence creates this insane and insatiable desire to do the same. To make something sublime, to write something that reaches down into world-weary souls, to the very quick, causing them to weep or leaving them gaping at splendor.

***

GOD

SEX

DEATH

There they stood in large white letters on the chalkboard. Kate finished off the uppercase H with a flourish and spun around to face us. She was a large woman–but not fat, and energetic–almost annoyingly so. Her blond hair was always tightly wound in a bun, which–I thought–matched her snappish voice and quick wit. Her normally florid face seemed even more flushed than usual today.

“GOD.”

“SEX.”

“DEATH.”

She pronounced each word with care, pausing after each one for dramatic effect.

“Every great piece of literature, every great poem, will address one of these three topics. The greatest will almost invariably wrestle with all three.”

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When Theology Becomes Real

I knew in part what he was thinking: Death, you bastard. You cold, heartless bastard. We pound our fists, we scream, we cry out, and we beg you for relief, to turn back, to leave us be, but you do not stop coming.

I knew because I had thought the same thoughts before.

A long silence lingered in the air. Words always feel cheap in these moments.

“I don’t–you know–”

I tried again. “You know–that’s what makes the Gospel sweet, to know that the final enemy has been defeated, that regardless of what happens–her life is hid with Christ.”

“Yeah…I’ve been thinking about that verse, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.'” He paused as if to say more, but just looked away, his eyes wet.

***

Year two we drove up those winding hills, the October air crisp and cool. We parked and walked, carefully examining the map, while the brisk wind whipped through our hair and clothes.

“Section 3… Lot 618…” My sister’s voice trailed off because we saw it then.

Two granite slabs laid snug in the dirt. Mother and daughter, though never met nor related, and the one man who loved them both stayed home.

We cleaned those two slabs, wiping away dead grass and loose dirt, and in the little black tubes underneath each rectangle, my sister placed two bouquets. She wept quietly as she knelt close to rearrange the flowers. My throat felt tight as I looked at those cold words on my mother’s grave: October 23, 1952 – October 6, 2003. It felt so final. All we had left were memories and pointed reminders that she had gone.

The sun rose high as we sat on the grassy knoll just above their graves. My sister had wiped her eyes and now she sat staring off in the distance. She looked impossibly serene. I opened my Bible and I read aloud:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

I felt the wetness of tears roll down my cheeks as I closed the Bible, but when I looked over at my sister she had the same serene expression on her face. She knew.

Inside and Out

On the East Coast, there is a dramatic difference between the indoors and the outdoors—especially as fall turns to winter. In my native and sunny Southern California, on the other hand, the indoor-outdoor border is much more porous. For example, dining out. Year-round, unless it’s raining, the chatter and laughter of families, the tender glances of couples, the clink of ice in glass, the jangling of silverware, the smell of spice, seared meat, and fresh bread—all the familiar sensory experiences of a restaurant surge past the restaurant walls, spilling out into umbrella-covered tables outside its doors.

Thus, I’m always slightly taken aback, yet deeply grateful, for the contrast between the inside and out on a frigid East Coast night. The minute I tug on that hermetically-sealed restaurant door and pass through the threshold, warmth blasts every exposed pore of my skin, displacing the cold. A cacophony of voices rises to greet me. The sizzle and smell of food assaults my ears and nose. It’s probably the closest I’ll come to passing through a Narnian wardrobe to the other side. Much more warm, but no less magical.

Same New Beginnings

I drive past the elementary school just down the block and its sign reads: “Have a great summer!” The parking lot is empty, and at noon the multi-colored flock of SUVs and minivans no longer descends on the silent grounds.

The last day of school must have been a happy one. Who can remember their childhood and not love the last day of school? Each gradually warmer morning in that month of June promises a pregnant summer, bursting with popsicles, beach trips, and lazy days at home. There’s an anticipation that rises to an almost palpable hum–the repressed energy of a hundred small hearts–just before the ding of that last bell. And before the teacher can blink, a flurry of already-tanning limbs and bright, chattering voices charges out of those prison doors into glorious, sunny freedom.

But what about those first days of school? My memories seem more mixed. Some years I dreaded that first day. That summer I broke my foot and had start high school in crutches? Definitely a dread year. But others seemed nearly as exciting, or even more exciting than those last days. The reasons can be many, and perhaps it’s a revisionist re-rendering of my own memories, but I think one major reason is a longing for a new beginning. A chance for re-creation. It’s a longing that grows as the high school and college years pass.

The heart tastes the rich liqueur of moving away for college, truly starting over in a new city, a chance for new friends, a change in image, the potential to become something else, a new beginning. But when that last cap is tossed, the boxes packed, and that backward glance at the alma mater is final, when after your first year of work, there only stretches in front of you an endless succession of repetition, that longing grows. Perhaps that explains in part why people move so frequently in their 20s, not only in locale, but among corporations and even careers. There’s that chance to begin again; to become, not to be.

Perhaps that explains my own wandering life, the jarring changes, the unfinished endeavors. I know ultimately it’s a lust of new and of change, an unsated and insatiable desire. To start again is often my attempt to escape my regrets, my failures, even my own self.

And so, I find myself about to begin again. In six weeks, I will fly back to Philadelphia to begin a new year of seminary. I will begin a new year of my new life on the East Coast. I will attempt to escape my regrets, failures, and self-loathing of the past year. It’s the great irony of fighting restlessness with change. I will attempt to be less capricious, less rash, less impulsive with my words and careless with others. To not stab the dagger of my idiocy and evil over and over again into those I care about.

And you know what? I will fail. There are no true new beginnings on my own. I cannot escape my regrets, failures, and mistakes. I cannot breathe life into my re-creation, I cannot escape the tight bonds of evil self. Only one can exhale that breath of life, only one can snap those bonds. Only one can use both my foibles and my monstrosities for good. Only one person can give me a real new beginning and has, though not in full. Only one person is re-creating, a re-creation that will be complete on a last day, when there will be no need for new beginnings for the last day becomes the first with no end.

Every new beginning I experience now, with all its promise of change and joy is but the empty echo, the faintest ring of that thunderous beyond thunderous, that beautiful beyond beautiful sound that marks Jesus’s return, when all the vileness will be sloughed away, when all will be re-created, when there will be no more same new beginnings, ineffectual and false, but the true new beginning of true life, bursting with promised excitement and joy that will not disappoint and cannot be exhausted.

How I, in my weakness and sin, ought to long for that beginning to come.