Milk Tea as a Metaphor

Summer heat blows in like a sadness.
I feel it against my skin.
I turn my head to resist it like the first gust of
hot air that escapes from an oven.

It helps to remember that this feeling comes every year.
It’s inevitable: I will feel sad in June.

I feel tiny and insignificant, flying around like a bug
caught in the path of a giant windshield on summer vacation.
I am in danger of being squashed by the heaviness.

It’s been 5 years since we moved to Korea, and it seems to be
getting harder. I look at my kids who barely speak the language,
watch their huge eyes as I try myself to communicate with some
small intelligence.

I am ignorant and unaware.

This is the humbling thing: I live a beautiful life
in the middle of difficult circumstances.

We walk to the big box store
four subway stops from home.
We pass the milk tea stand on our way to the bookstore.
An oasis.

Nearby a lady cradles her older daughter. She looks like she’s cradling arms and legs as she
swings her around and smiles.

When she sets her down,
her white T-shirt shouts across the aisle as
bold black letters bleed in all capital letters:

In an instant I don’t. I stand up straighter as I push my boys
toward the sticker books.

The choices we make when we feel a sudden sadness
find us stripped down and thirsty,
and if we’re lucky, sipping milk tea on the way home.

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.