A Beautiful Life

Last week I pulled out our oversized bag of fall decorations: fake leaves, Thanksgiving banners, holiday cookbooks, pumpkin candles.

I lobbed it onto the couch and reached in for the first item before I realized there was nowhere to put it. The huge, overcrowded bookshelf across from the couch bulged with bins of toys, stacks of my husband’s theology texts, and the kids’ library books about whales and amphibians.

I took out the first bin and minutes later the living room was covered in the contents of an empty bookshelf in transit.

In the afternoons we’ve been walking along a tree lined path in between a factory and a massive apartment complex. The street next to the path is quiet, tucked away from the main roads. It’s where the massive machinery and semi trucks park on their off days, when they get a break from the busy traffic lanes of Korea.

True found a stick that looked like a rake the other day. It’s the perfect length for her height and forks out on one end into three distinct branches. She rakes the same pile of leaves every time we go, peeking over her shoulder to make sure no one will mess it up.

Jase barrels through the leaves and waits for me to turn around so he can run for the curb. He likes to step up and down. I catch him just in time as he bobs away in his stiff jeans. He runs just like a pigeon. 

Evan always finds the biggest stick, one twice his size, and pretends to fish in the trees. He sweeps across the lowest branches, flattening leaves as he passes over them with his massive fishing stick. “I caught one!” He says.

I follow behind surveying, supervising, moving the stroller just in time to avoid grandmothers on a walk together and white dogs on their leashes.

There are sticks and leaves everywhere along the path. Fallen, broken, crumpled, smooth. They mix together on the dirt, next to the path where we play and imagine, filed next to the road where the big trucks wait for their drivers, across the street from where apartment windows tower over all of it and people live inside each tiny box strung together in the sky. 

We walk beside each other even if we don’t realize it. We wait together even when we don’t know what we’re waiting for. 

Give me a minute to collect what I see, to snp a picture, to write it down.

Let me makes something of these pieces, scattered and piled together, let me think about the ways we are discovering the discarded treasure along the path, beauty in the smallest places, the crunch of the leaves under toddler tennis shoes.

Eventually the bookshelf is up against another wall in another room, away from the center of the house. I arrange the books in no particular order, shove the bins of toys back in place, and put a card from my grandmother front and center. Now every time I walk by, my eye catches the buds she painted stuck in a shallow vase of water, and I see the words I need to hear written in her handwriting: you have a beautiful life.


corn lattes and street bouquets: thoughts on living cross-culturally and writing poems

Our local Starbucks sells corn lattes now. The advertisement caught my eye at the register this morning, “Made with real corn!” (and topped with whipped cream) it specified. In the picture it looked…yellow. The real corn kernels were highlighted floating next to the ice. The whole thing was hard to process at first before I read the description. It’s bizarre to my western palate, but it makes sense here. I kind of want to try it.

This afternoon the kids and I left the post office and crossed the blazing crosswalk just so we could check out the unruly bouquet of zinnias on the other side of the road. The flowers waited on the sidewalk like a temporary exhibit housed between the constants of the tiny shoe repair shop and a couple of blue plastic chairs. I smiled so big and snapped photos like I had unearthed something spectacular, as if I had discovered zinnias for the very first time.

My favorite thing about living cross-culturally is that it wakes me up and forces me to pay attention. All of my senses are constantly saturated in the unfamiliar but at the same time extremely alert to what I’ve always known. This tension is where I find beauty and therapy and poetry. This baptism into newness has caused me to adjust my thinking, re-posture my prayer, and ultimately depend more on Jesus.

The longer I live overseas, the more I write poetry. And the more I write poetry, the more obvious it becomes that the ordinary and the sacred are forever intertwined.

I see this in the slippery starch of a potato, in the water on a lotus leaf.

Even in a corn latte, which is my favorite kind of poem. One about the beauty of preferences and differences, the known and unknown.

May Books

Observations by Marianne Moore

Moore’s poems are intelligent with a spark of wit. I like how she quotes found phrases throughout her writing. The introduction explains that she constantly adjusted and reworked her poems. In her mind they were never finished. I relate to that so much as I reflect on my own writing. It’s hard not to keep changing things.

Linking Arms, Linking Lives:How Urban-Suburban Partnerships Can Transform Communities by Ronald J. Sider, John M. Perkins, Wayne L. Gordon, and F. Albert Tizon

This is one of the books Jase threw out of the spinning bookshelf at the library when I wasn’t looking. I turned the corner, saw it on the ground, and I had to get it.  It’s funny how our dreams follow us. How our passions rarely leave us alone. How my God-dreams of living in urban America stick around even when I currently live on the other side of the world. It was encouraging to read stories of people who are successfully working together to transform communities. The church desperately needs encouragement and practical tools for partnering across racial/socio-economic lines. This book is a helpful beginning for those who are serious about building bridges and serving each other.

That’s all I had time to read in May. Looking forward to all my June books.

Happy reading!

Potato Starch

Potato starch

Creamy film coats the outside of a peeled potato.
Turns it brown if you leave it on the counter.
Stays behind if you wait too long to wash the used knife.

It leaves a map on the blade. 
Creates faint white lines on the resting cutting board.
Turns to chalk if left to dry.

Scribbles of starch mimic the layers of earth that
once buried the growing, golden thing.

It hides beneath thick skin until exposed,
coating my fingertips as I slide the pieces
of potato from the knife into the frying pan.

Each one pops in oil as the outside heats up.
And as the cubes flip and crisp,
the starch sticks.

current favorites

When Ev can’t stop crying and blames me with the most insulting name he can come up with: “you’re a tear-maker!”

When True makes cards for Evan and they read “I ♥ U NAVE”

When Jase crosses his baby ankles in the stroller or stands on his tippy toes as we push him on Evan’s scooter.

When my husband does all the dishes and vacuums and somehow restores order in a matter of minutes to what I deem an impossible disaster. We’d be (literally) lost without him.

(Thanks Babe)

April Books

I’m behind on everything, but I’m still here, reading the days (nights) away.

Here’s what I read in April:

Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser
I love how Ted Kooser writes about the world. Every time I read one of his poems I remember why he is one of my favorite poets. He makes the best observations and the way he writes the reader into ordinary life with ordinary people in ordinary places is deeply moving. His words are authentic and true which makes them like an invitation to join him in capturing the moments that make up our lives…instead of feeling inferior or overwhelmed by his talent. He writes poems for all of us. That’s what I want to do.

Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity and Writing by L.L. Barkat
I really like the way Barkat integrates essays from her life with insight into the writing life. It was enjoyable to read her thoughts on writing through the lens of everyday life.

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice by F. Daniel Rzicznek (Editor), Gary L. McDowell (Editor)
I didn’t know much about prose poetry until I read this book, and it is still a mystery. There is no set definition and there are many kinds of prose poems. (A lot of them are honestly a little weird and I can’t follow them at all). They usually involve some kind of surprise element or a mixing of strange topics. I enjoyed reading the essays about the form and learning why particular authors choose to write it over other forms of poetry.

The Martyred by Richard E. Kim

I absolutely loved Kim’s novel Lost Names (one of my very favorite books), so I was excited to read this one. It’s set during the Korean War and follows one soldier’s mission to discover what really happened to 12 pastors who were murdered and 2 who were released by the communists. Truth and propaganda and religion are strong themes throughout the book. It’s deep and thought-provoking and maddening and mysterious.

Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto by Paul B. Janeczko

Oh man, you guys. This one is intense. The poems provide an inside look into the lives of prisoners of the Terezin Ghetto. It was heartbreaking and real and incredibly moving.

At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe by Tsh Oxenreider

I have been following Tsh’s blog for a while, so I was curious to read about her trip around the world with her family. I appreciate her thoughtful and honest assessment of her experience. It made me sad that her time in Asia was so difficult. Obviously Asia is an extremely special place to me, particularly China. Her chapters on Asia ended with her having a massive headache in a hotel room, which made me sad. It reminded me how unique our experiences are. What I love and adore and think of with great fondness is the very part of life in China she couldn’t stand. Needless to say, the book really made me think. I definitely enjoyed it overall. I would love to pack up my fam and travel the world. Top 5 places I want to visit: Japan, Morocco, Laos, Spain, and New Zealand. (What’s your list?? Mine changes almost every day).

The Magic of Motherhood: The Good Stuff, the Hard Stuff, and Everything In Between by Ashlee Gadd

This is the perfect gift for new moms everywhere. Such a sweet collection of honest accounts and encouraging stories from women who take their roles as mothers and writers seriously. I donated a copy to our English library here in hopes that an English-speaking mama in the trenches will find it and feel encouraged on her journey.

Happy Reading!

at the bottom of a mountain

There’s a small mountain behind our apartment complex that’s popular when the weather’s nice. A handful of middle age men and women can usually be seen walking together near the wooden stairs that lead to the start of the trail. They wear their brightest coordinating active wear, an essential in the wardrobe of Koreans over forty.

A few weeks ago we were walking home from a trip downtown when I noticed a lady standing at the bottom of the stairs in rising panic. She held walking poles in both of her hands, but she was completely frozen. Since she was walking away from the trail I could tell she had just come down the mountain. I tried not to stare, but I was worried about her.

True and Evan were busy inspecting bugs and leaves and anything new on the sidewalk. Dandelion buds were breaking through the tops of their milky, hollow stems. Azaleas were starting to grow wild in the sun. A couple apartment maintenance workers were planting flowers in the giant brown pots that line the entrance to our complex, a few feet from where the woman stood. They worked together, pouring dirt from giant bags, digging holes for bright red and purple flowers.

We watched them plant for a while as I glanced over at the woman stuck at the bottom of the stairs. At one point she tried to take a step but her leg collapsed under her. She barely made it to a short barrier wall before she sat down awkwardly, clearly in pain.

She grabbed her phone and stared at it for a moment as if the battery had died or she’d forgotten how to use it.

Help her, my mind screamed across the apartment gate to the maintenance workers lost in their planting. Do something! Ask her if she’s ok!

Do they notice that she is wincing? Possibly confused? Something is not right, my mind continued.

A man walked toward us from the restaurant across the street. He saw the woman and stopped in the middle of the road to stare at her for a minute.

CHECK ON HER, I wanted to yell, but I was too panicked myself.

I should go over there and see what’s happening, I finally decided. I grabbed my phone for possible translation needs, but it was dead. The kids were nearing the curb and the baby stirred in the carrier on my chest.

GOD, I finally mustered, why have you put me in this place where I am stuck and unable to do anything useful? Why am I forced to see suffering when I’m unable to act?

All these feelings I’ve felt deeply for so long came bubbling to the surface, and like the lady, I was paralyzed at the bottom of a mountain.

Once again He gently reminded me that the world does not depend on me.

You could pray for her, He suggested.

Prayer. A thing I take for granted. A thing that seems mystical and ineffective when I’m staring at a lady whose legs are giving way.

We walked home, but the picture of this lady at the bottom of the steps kept playing in my head. I felt like everyone except the good samaritan.

It’s so hard to live here, I complained.

You’re not in charge of saving anyone, God reminded me.

His work and His love and His presence don’t depend on me.

A few days later I pick True up from Sunday school and as she’s putting on her shoes, her teacher runs back into the classroom and grabs a snack. “Here True!” She says cheerfully as she hands her some ramen noodles. It’s the kind you break apart and eat right out of the square package. True hands it to me and I inspect it. That’s strange, I think. I’m picturing the usual handfuls of candy and thinking about the fact that True can’t eat this. (She can’t eat wheat and her teachers know it). I shrug and hold it in my hands as we walk home from church.

We hit the stone steps and then turn into our apartment complex. A few steps in I see a young woman walking toward us on the brick sidewalk. Her long, black hair is wet and clinging to her cheeks and neck. Her shirt is also black with some kind of skull on it. She isn’t wearing makeup. She’s holding her phone and walking quickly.

I wonder for a second what her story might be. I pray a quick, selfish prayer that the image on her shirt wont give my kids nightmares. And then she approaches, “Excuse me” she mutters to get my attention. “Yes?” I reply cheerfully. The kids start digging in the dirt and inspecting the magnolia bush that looks cross-bred with a rose. “Look at the red stripes!” I hear them observe behind me. They are bouncing around from bush to bush, from dirt to dirt.

The woman stares at me. She lifts her hand and slightly opens her mouth, only to close it tightly and glance down at her phone. She punches something on the screen and then shows me a trail of Chinese characters, like a string of waffle fries. I’m completely flattered that she thinks I can read Chinese. The characters will always be a sort of comfort food for me.

I shrug and explain that I can’t read the message. “Oh! English?” she asks with hardly an accent. I wonder why she isn’t just speaking to me.

She switches the translator app to English, and turns her phone toward me. I read a line of jumbled words, but the ones I can make out are “Aunt..” (a polite way to address me) “…lost key…a little hungry”. I immediately look down at the snack in my hand and in a split second I am handing it to her, beaming because I actually had something to offer. She refuses it at first and tells me she has no money to pay. “You don’t need to give me money,” I tell her, “take it!” I insist. She says thanks and scurries off before I can say anything else.

I think about what her story might be. Was she in danger? Was she running away from a bad situation? Should I have invited her over or called my husband for backup translation? Was she even Korean?

It all happened so quickly. I immediately wish I could have done more.

Be obedient with what I’ve given you, I feel the Spirit whisper, and I sigh in the reality that obedience is not manipulation or clever planning. It’s not dependent on language skills or a savior complex.

Sometimes the most helpful thing I can do is pray, and sometimes the thing God’s asking me to do is simply pay attention to what I already hold in my hands.

This Kind of Love

We took a shortcut on our walk home today. At the last minute I decided to swing under the bridge so we could come up closer to our apartment. As we started down the back alley to our building, I looked over and saw one lone tulip blowing in the wind. Random, out of place, providential.

When my sister passed away 9 years ago, I found myself suddenly clinging to things she loved. In my head I’d go through a list so I would feel more connected to her.

Favorite color: purple.
Favorite flavors: peach, mango, strawberry.
Favorite flower: tulip.

It’s funny how significant these things have become even though if she were sitting next to me right now, she would probably roll her eyes and tell me they’re not even her favorites anymore.

Still, in an effort to feel close to her, I do strange things like snap 20 photos of a mountain dotted with purple flowers, buy a giant box of imported peach tea when I pass it in the store, and gasp every time I stumble upon a tulip.

Over the years it’s become more than a way I connect with my sister. It’s a way that God connects with me.

I don’t pretend to understand all the theology of heaven, but I imagine her sitting next to Jesus this afternoon, the red in her hair glowing in a perpetual golden hour. I imagine them smiling and watching me herd my crew down the sidewalk. I imagine they smiled at my kids pretending to be vegetables and delighting in every dandelion. They probably listened carefully as True suggested to Evan, under the shade of new leaves and bursting flowers, “let’s thank God for this!”

I imagine them both on the edge of their seats as I glanced over and saw the bright red tulip in full bloom.

Maybe the breeze mirrored the movement of a cloud of witnesses bending over to see my eyes widen and my face remember that my heart can’t comprehend or contain this kind of love.

Azaleas (Instagram re-post)

Last year the azaleas were a sign of stability and beauty as I walked to call a taxi to the NICU every afternoon. They were one of the only colorful things in a world that felt black and white with uncertainty. They were a path to grace and mercy.

This year when I noticed the first signs of growth in the shrubs, I felt triggered. I felt panicky and nervous. I wanted to shove the tiny buds back into the sticks or pluck them off and put them in my pocket. Sometimes it seems safer not to feel.

But I’m learning it’s ok to remember. It’s ok to enter back into the darkness to see where Jesus was in the middle of it.
Yesterday afternoon Jase stood distracted on my lap. His chubby feet balanced on my chubby thighs.
I started singing a song I have whispered in his ear since visiting him in the hospital for the first time. As soon as he heard my voice switch to these familiar words, he froze. His eyes looked directly into mine. He pulled my face close and kissed me with his precious mouth gaping open.
These moments are the answers to prayers prayed in a dark season–pleas for healing in a time of distress. They are hope and assurance that the power of Christ transcends circumstances.
I stand on God’s lap and when He finally gets my attention, there is no greater thank you than to show my affection.
The flowers bloom and it’s ok. Each one ushers in another whisper from above: “I love you”, “I’m with you.” This presence is more precious than healing, more hopeful than the promise of defeating death because it’s all wrapped together–in Him we live and move and have our being.
In Christ we are deeply loved. And even the hard paths we walk are flowering because the gaze we fix our eyes on is fixed on us.