River Garden

This poem was first published by Upwrite Magazine.

In the early evening, a Korean grandmother
works alone in her garden by the river.
She sits low to the earth, hunched over like a bright purple cushion,
planting vegetables and picking weeds.

One side of the garden is outlined in garbage:
bottles, plastic bags, empty food containers
dumped in a line and partially buried.
The other side is lined with bundles of sticks roughly tied together.

I watch her from the river trail as she works in a tiny section of the dirt.
She never moves farther than her arms can reach.

Next to her walker, in the shade of the cherry blossoms,
she silently manipulates what she can,
ignoring every bicycle as it passes.

I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work
and her lack of mobility. Her efforts seem impossible
until I notice the canola flowers rising in a patch of triumph.

They blow quietly in the evening air like yellow canaries behind her back,
still parallel to the ground at the other end of the early spring garden.

There is no praise, no congratulations, no one to keep her company.

Just the sunset arriving shortly,
bouncing through the yellow flowers,
reflecting off the line of trash,

and the woman in her garden,
dutifully tending to the next thing.

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.

Azaelas (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.

An Invitation to Church in my Kitchen

I wish I could invite you to church in my kitchen. I never know when it’s going to happen, but when it does, it’s just what I need.

Here there are intimate views of our food trash (a ziplock bag full of egg shells and fruit peels, mostly) and a sink full of dishes. Crumbs congregate under the table where chubby hands help themselves. Remnants of preschool drawings are always on the table. A tray full of vanilla chai tea waits next to the water machine. I stop to sip water or write something down in my notebook every few minutes. This is my offering.

Today the chorus is an old one. Washington Phillips sings “Lift Him Up That’s All“. I turn the volume as high as it goes.

I sing along and for the first time in a long time, music moves me.

The kids don’t slow down, neither do their voices: “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” They cry.

But my soul is quiet and I hear the words deep inside as if I have a moment to close my eyes:

“…lift him up that’s all. Lift him up in his word. If you tell the name of Jesus everywhere. If you keep his name a’ringing everywhere that you go, he will draw men unto him.”

It seems so simple, these words I’ve heard a million times. Like a bratty kid I usually roll my eyes and say “I know, I know” but today it’s different.

The power of someone declaring the gospel in my kitchen thickens the room with a tender insulation. I need this message to echo in my life.

After this impromptu service, if you were here, we’d step outside into the sun where everything has suddenly turned green, and we’d walk until we heard the Spirit move us. My guess is we wouldn’t have to walk far. We would speak of Jesus. Then hopefully we’d take His words seriously and write them down, say them out loud, pass them around.

We would consider the Word who became flesh and moved into the neighborhood, and we’d rejoice that He is inviting us to meet Him in the regular moments we live out every day.

Because this God who came to live among us, who died for us, who lives again, He’s with us in the kitchen.

Before We Say Goodbye

Before We Say Goodbye

Suddenly the cherry blossoms burst
above the gravel parking lot
at the beef restaurant across the street.
Hundreds of tiny flowers delivered overnight.

They cling together, shaking like pompoms at a halftime show
or miniature wedding bouquets held tightly in the hands of nervous brides.

They stand out against the cobalt sky
like the snowy “up hair” of the halmoni who sits next to
my four-year-old daughter on the subway
and holds her hand.

In awe we look up through the barrier of our
phone screens, shifting on small rocks, adjusting to
capture the best angle of the trees.
Knowing soon
the petals will fall and stick
to the ground like used confetti.

We are spectators and participants
conscious of our short-lived, ordinary lives:

a magnetic display
even if they tower over gravel,
a miracle
even as they fall to the ground.

March Books

Hi Friends!

It’s rest-time at our house right now on this cloudy Friday afternoon. It’s also the last day of March, so while my kids are “resting” (using all the pillows and chairs to make a limousine), I figured I’d record what I read this month. As always, I would love to know what you’ve been reading, too!

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott*
This is a classic. I read it in college, so I wondered if it would still resonate the second time around, but it still inspired me and fueled my desire to write. I especially love the chapter on giving because I often grapple with the idea of submitting work for publication (with thoughts like my writing isn’t good enough, it feels arrogant to put it out there, these experiences are precious to me, I don’t want to sell out). She writes, “You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.” I love this perspective.

A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver*
Poetry is my heartbeat. It is my preferred genre. It is how my mind works, and the form I am most comfortable writing in. I am learning to embrace that. For real this time. It’s ok to write mediocre poetry! I tell myself this multiple times a day. This book is a pretty in-depth overview of poetry and is such a helpful reference and encouragement for poetry nerds.

Heaven And Wind And Stars and Poems by Tong-Ju Yun
This is a book of poems by one of Korea’s famous poets. He wrote during the 40s and 50s, a particularly volatile time in Korea. His writing is full of strong, memorable images. My husband ordered an English translation that is beautiful and effective. Translations don’t always ring true, but this one did.

Dirty Glory: Go Where Your Best Prayers Take You by Pete Greig
This one was surprisingly powerful for me. I don’t say that lightly. The first half of the book shares insight into our relationship with God in prayer and the second half shares insight into our relationship with others. I have heard Pete Greig speak many times, and his insight and authenticity is so refreshing. I highly recommend it. “This is the staggering message of Christ’s incarnation: God’s glory became dirt so that we  — the scum of the earth  — might become the very glory of God.”

A House of My Own: Stories from My Life by Sandra Cisneros
I was excited to read this one because I really love the way Cisneros writes, but it was a little disappointing. There were definitely gems sprinkled throughout, but it is mostly a collection of talks and essays she wrote for universities, art exhibits, etc. It’s not what I was expecting. However, this quote helped me feel less alone and more accepting of my writing process: “I can’t explain my process. I just know when given a topic, I can only try, but I give no guarantees. “It’s like fishing,” I explain. “I can get up early, mend the nets, get my boat ready, and row myself to an area where there are plenty of fish, but I can’t guarantee my catch. I’m just the fisherman, not the creator of fish. It’s a matter of waiting.” I can relate 100%

This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Kay Mills
This might be the first massive biography I’ve ever read. I thought of my dad the whole time because he’s always reading a 500 page biography. It was hard to get through because it is so dense. SO dense. But it was totally worth it because I LOVE FANNIE LOU HAMER. Seriously, she is a hero of mine. If you don’t know who she is, she was a civil rights activist in the 1960s. Her focus was on voter rights but she also advocated for education and started a farm to provide work and food for the poor in Mississippi. She is known for her knowledge of scripture, her no-nonsense speeches, and her consistent, passionate singing (YES FOREVER). She was committed to seeking justice for all people—black and white, for championing the family, and strongly opposing abortion. These stories need to be told and remembered. I’m so grateful for women like her who refused to back down even after being badly beaten and threatened. She spoke boldly in truth and love.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros*
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Cisneros’ works, so this book is really special to me. I re-read it in hopes of feeling the spark of creativity it ignited in me so many years ago. It’s written from the perspective of a Mexican American girl searching for her place and a home. I love her imagery and the way she masterfully and memorably mixes poetry and prose.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Our English library has so many wonderful books. Have you read this one? It was on display in the YA section with all its shiny metalic stickers, so I picked it up. I’m so glad I did. It’s a novel written through poetry. A sort of autobiography that traces relationships and prejudice and dreams of one girl through time and place. I really loved the voice and tone it was written in. It rang both hopeful and true.

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
I found this book on the jumbled shelves of our smaller English library. It’s a children’s novel about a Japanese American family in the 1950s. It’s mainly about the relationship between two sisters, but it touches on the prejudice they face in the south and the intense working environment their parents took on in order to provide for their family. There is a scene where the girl’s father teaches her a powerful lesson that costs him a lot (I don’t want to give it away) and I’m still thinking about it. It’s a really beautiful work with a powerful ending. I also loved the subtle elements of Japanese culture that are mentioned throughout.

As you can tell, Jase is still not sleeping well, which is the reason I have so much time to read (particularly during the hours of 2am—5am). I don’t recommend sleepless nights, but if you have to endure them, at least there are plenty of books.

Happy almost-April!

Books I Read in January
Books I Read in February