Tuesday, December 6, 2011

100 Things

For four months, I've been weary and congested. It is easy to disintegrate into gloom and grump, especially as the days shorten. The light dims early, and by the time O. gets home, I can barely keep my eyes open. The antibiotics I finally started taking two weeks ago have suppressed but not expelled my sinus infection. Mild despair is a constant temptation.

My home remedy today: gratitude list. I recently encountered from two disparate sources (one of them The Good and Beautiful God) the suggestion to make a list of one hundred things you are grateful for. I am keen on lists, but the idea of a 100-item list is somewhat daunting, and I've been putting it off. But I think today is the day! So...

Today I am grateful for...
  1. the return of my sense of smell
  2. the smell of orange and the fine spray that bursts from its rind as I peel the orange
  3. a super-comfy sleeping bag to curl up in
  4. the Persian carpet I'm sitting on--the most extravagant-feeling item in our apartment
  5. how most of the things in our home were presents from friends, and came accompanied by well-wishes and expressions of affection
  6. the hundred friends at our wedding
  7. all the other friends who couldn't be there: for loved ones scattered across the continent and globe, for such an abundance of relationships that it's impossible to gather the whole network into one room
  8. God's provision of new relationships in this new place
  9. the way that God often waits for me to realize I need something before He gives it to me
  10. O. & our relationship (marriage!)
  11. that miserable programming class where I met O.
  12. O.'s amazing persistence in pursuing me
  13. my mother's cooking lessons
  14. Douglas Hofstadter and his beautiful & fascinating books, especially Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
  15. having read GEB, without which I probably would have remained another silly/stupid Christian in O.'s eyes
  16. parents who read me bedtime "stories" up through high school
  17. my father's love of mathematics and ideas, and his audacity in starting to read his thirteen-year-old daughter an 800-page tome that is packed with propositional logic and number theory (GEB)
  18. the pain of my mistakes with IJ the spring before I met O., without which the lessons of IJ would not have stuck.
  19. the lesson of my sin: God is merciful and I need His mercy so very badly.
  20. the book of Ephesians which changed how I see myself and my God
  21. the sermon on Ephesians 1 and God's riches, generosity & abundance, which turned me to the book of Ephesians in the first place
  22. the university library which provided me with so many books: educational, edifying, entertaining; informative, influential, inspiring
  23. three years of leading a Bible study / small group with Intervarsity
  24. my co-leader, my brother in Christ: without you I couldn't have led, certainly not for three years
  25. God's faithfulness in keeping me at Intervarsity even when all I felt toward my chapter was disappointment, frustration and pain at how I couldn't fit in
  26. my brothers and sister in Christ who showed me the love of the body of Christ and made me see for the first time that the body can't say to me "I don't need you."
  27. the joy of running barefoot across a lawn, chasing a frisbee, surrounded by friends
  28. dandelions like little suns in the green grass
  29. planetariums
  30. the night sky, the million billion stars
  31. the internet
  32. Google, which helps me find so many things online, provides the software for this blog, and pays O., thus providing our food, shelter, savings, health benefits, etc.
  33. electricity, especially for lights
  34. candles and the freedom to burn them here whenever and wherever I want
  35. fresh bread on the counter and sharp cheddar in the refrigerator
  36. being able to walk everywhere I need to go in this town
  37. money for groceries, including the "luxury" items: clementines, apple cider, goat cheese
  38. ready access to the Bible in my own native language
  39. the several hundred books O. and I own between the two of us
  40. my sister's paintings on our walls
  41. my sister & the shape of our sisterhood
  42. free phone and video calls between here and Vietnam (where my sis is): thank you, Skype
  43. ice cream
  44. O. spontaneously buying ice cream for my benefit
  45. the dozen roses O. sent me once upon a time, which I still have, sere and somewhat shriveled but still scented
  46. antibiotics, decongestant, allergy med.s
  47. medical insurance
  48. the way the light marbles when it passes through our glass pitcher, leaving a pebbly shadow on the painted wall
  49. minuscule air bubbles inside the glass sides of our water glasses
  50. the look of the naked winter trees--like so many veins and capillaries, the sky a lung and the earth the heart
  51. such a good high school education, in science and writing and math
  52. having graduated college; the end of homework (for a time).
  53. washing machines
  54. central heating
  55. hot water
  56. the current absence of mice and mouse-droppings
  57. how cute and small mice are, with lovely round eyes
  58. glasses that let me see clearly
  59. eyes that see
  60. the ability to read quickly and easily
  61. an upbringing that taught me to look for the effects of personality, culture and personal history
  62. how friendly and approachable the Bible (usually) feels to me
  63. the relative ease with which I believe the vast majority of the time that God is good and trustworthy
  64. God's trustworthiness
  65. God's love of beauty
  66. Christ's saving sacrifice: that now "in him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence" (Eph. 3:12)
  67. the parable of the Good Shepherd: that it's okay that I'm a sheep and I can't take care of myself, because I have a Good Shepherd (John 9)
  68. the bread that came down from Heaven (John 6)
  69. the gospel of John
  70. language, words, speech, writing
  71. the diversity of languages
  72. Tim Keller, particularly his talk on marriage, given at Google
  73. my intuition for spelling which I really can't take credit for but which makes my life so much easier
  74. poetry workshops and the cool people in them
  75. Kevin Kim, whose presence in the MPPC leadership tells me it's okay to be Korean, it's okay that I only partially resemble an Anglo-American (in both looks and culture). He also gives fantastic sermons.
  76. being biracial, neither one thing nor the other
  77. knowing what it's like to not belong and to stand out on the street as a stranger, because without that experience of exclusion and isolation, how could I empathize with the stranger and foreigner?
  78. having someone to belong with and to, and who accepts me & wants deep intimacy with me: O.
  79. a place that feels like home
  80. the beaches of northern California: the color of the cold, cold sea against the shining blue sky; the grit of the sand under my feet; the green anemones in the dark tide pools; the flocks of sea gulls white against the sand and sky and sea
  81. small groups at church here
  82. free time in abundance
  83. the story of Elijah being fed by ravens as he hid in the ravine for three years: sometimes God calls us to long periods of inactivity and non-productivity
  84. not having any food allergies
  85. the widespread availability of soy milk that actually tastes good
  86. free access to the Oxford English Dictionary through my alma mater's website
  87. art and art galleries and art museums, accessible to me
  88. professors who spent time with me & loved me
  89. a pastor who knows my name and takes time to meet with the people of the congregation
  90. Latin classes in high school, so much etymology just under the surface of my mind (congregation has as its root "grex, gregis: a flock or herd")
  91. a God who is Love and who is Three in One: "God is the opposite of solitude" (Letham in Holy Trinity)
  92. peace when I'm troubled
  93. being called to hope (Eph. 1)
  94. the sky which is visible wherever I go, beauty freely given
  95. cameras and photographs
  96. my memory, a healthy brain
  97. legs that can climb stairs and walk for miles
  98. not being discriminated against because I am a woman
  99. being here to be a person and a story, not a machine or a formula (thanks, Thomas Merton)
  100. freedom in Christ. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (2 Cor. 3:17)
  101. chocolate*
*N.B.: These are in the order in which they occurred to me; there is no other ordering principle. :)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Flip Flop Weather

Today I walked to the laundromat in my flip-flops. No scarf, no hat. The clouds disapproved, and the wind made sure I noticed it. But there was just enough sun to justify my bare feet, and my toes rejoiced for one more experience of freedom before December snaps shut around them and they hibernate for three months.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I love this song:

This is the place I am. Restless, restless, unsure of my path, unsure of where I'm running. Why? I keep wondering. Switchfoot tells me what I should know of myself: "I'm looking for You."

Life Questions

Lately, I've been asking myself a lot of questions. Life-changes (especially those in the box of surprises we call marriage) seem to generate these questions--or perhaps it's the conflicts created or revealed by changes that give birth to these questions. The questions come in flocks. They descend from the skies, their wings clattering. They leave the ground a mess of droppings and feathers.

One flock is the color of money. Its birds sing about saving, about future expenditures, about how I spend too much. They demand to know why I need so many things, why I want them. They remind me, people are starving in other places. Children are shoeless in the Russian snow, and here I am, my closet floor full of shoes, considering whether I "need" a pair of boots.

When that flock drifts away, another flock settles around me. It pecks at me. It caws about newer clothes, more make-up, a different purse, more care in putting together an outfit. It tells me I am not doing things right.

Like sparrows that fill every bush and peck every square of sidewalk, questions twitter at me about chores. Has the laundry been done? When are you going to do it? What's for dinner? How about breakfast? Is there granola? Is the bread dough going to go bad? Are we getting enough vitamins?

There's a bird that shrieks that I'm not accomplishing anything, that I'm going nowhere. When will you apply to grad school? Why do you expect anyone to accept you for a PhD program? Why haven't you sent out any poems yet?

There is a rooster that crows some mornings: What do you have to contribute? What could you possibly have to say that is worth reading? (This started after I read a couple of posts on how to get more readers for your blog, which introduced previously unconsidered goals and standards into my brain.)
There is a vulture circling overhead, asking, What are you forgetting?

And I keep hearing the questions, Am I a child or an adult? What makes me happy? Why am I here? But at least those questions are asked by my own soul, not by insecurities and fears and the polluting influence of a materialistic, narcissistic, workaholic, kaleidoscopic society.

I constantly need to remind myself: I am not what I accomplish. My worth is not measured in statistics of any sort--in fact, it isn't quantifiable. I am a person, a story, a poem, a picture: not a machine. In solitude, in silence, in stillness, I still exist.

I breathe in deep, and blow out. I blow away the birds.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Things a sick person is grateful for

This gratitude-list is perhaps not very dignified, but it is entirely sincere!
  • lotion-enhanced tissue
  • Ricola cough drops
  • a husband to bring home the cough drops & take out the trashbags full of dirty tissues
  • herbal tea that tastes of cinnamon
  • honey in the tea
  • the microwave (or the stove & kettle) to heat the water for the tea
  • decongestants recommended by the doctor
  • the doctor
  • insurance to pay the doctor
  • a furnace
  • the furnace being on and working properly
I have essentially been sick for four months straight--ever since marrying and moving here. At the same time, I've been struggling with questions about whether it's okay for me to be here being absolutely unproductive (by external standards), for months on end. What does rest mean? What does it mean for me to rest? Who am I when I'm not doing anything?

I think this sickness, annoying as it has been and continues to be, may be God's way of making sure I know it's okay and even good for me to rest and to do nothing. In the ordinary course of life, I believe rest is good but I don't necessarily believe it is good for me to rest. When I'm sick, though, I know I should rest, that it's the right thing to do. I tend to see that as a temporary state of affairs, though: the sickness departs, and at that point I ought to go back to doing and doing and doing. I've never been sick this long, and I've never rested so much. I'm learning. I just hope it won't take lifelong sickness for me to absorb the lessons of lifelong rest and an identity dependent on relationship, not accomplishment!

But thanks, God, for teaching me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Baseboard heater contents

For your combined amusement and horror (or perhaps simply sympathy, if you have lived in a brownstone yourself), a list of things I have vacuumed out of our baseboard heaters in the past week:
  • 3 leaves, of a shape that does not match the leaves on the trees outside, whose highest branches end ten feet below our windows anyway
  • 1 green thumbtack
  • a round plastic thingy that goes on 
  • several lumps of plaster, presumably from when these walls got replastered, almost certainly from the previous millennium :P
  • 1 feather, dark brown and crumpled
  • at least 100g of what looks like sand. What it actually is, I really can't say. I've vacuumed it up before but it keeps coming back...
  • 15 cents in pennies and dimes
  • copious spiderwebs
  • plenty of what appeared to be cat hair but may have actually been (a) dog hair or (b) more spiderwebs
  • dust
  • dust
  • dust
  • and more dust
  • [update:] ball-point pen
  • [update:] at least 3 screws
How most of these things got into our heaters is a mystery. I can only hope that now that they're out, my allergies will go down and maybe the chronic fatigue will dissipate.

But let me stop a moment to be grateful: for a vacuum cleaner, for the narrow pointy attachment on the vacuum cleaner, for electricity; for heaters, for the pilot light on the furnace finally being lit, for the furnace working properly, for the expansion tank on the furnace not leaking or blowing up; for an apartment; for private space.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

House Perspective

Today I started vacuuming the living room while the toaster oven was heating up my lunch in the dining room. It worked for a few minutes, and then suddenly the vacuum cleaner went silent. The air filter five feet away in our bedroom was still puffing away, so it took me a bit to figure out that the circuit had blown out... Yup, no light in the kitchen, bathroom or dining room.

Oh well, I thought. Last time, when I stupidly ran the microwave and toaster oven at the same time from the same outlet, the electricity returned to us in about 30 minutes, seemingly not connected to anything we actually did. The circuit will fix itself after a while, I figured.

An hour and a half later, the situation remains the same. Half the outlets in the living room still work, though, as do the ones in the bedroom. For this I am grateful.

And as I wander the house, frowning as I flick light switches and see no results, the thought occurs to me: I should be grateful that I can still heat water and cook things (thanks to our much-maligned gas stove). Yes, I am grateful for the gas stove/oven, and grateful that there is still running water, and grateful that normally there is electricity throughout the house, and grateful that there is a house at all.

Thank You.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Reflections on Place

Having moved recently to this new city, place has been on my mind lately. Actually, place is on my mind by default, because I am a person who does not have an obvious geographic home (which is also to say I don't have an obvious cultural home). I was born in California, but we moved to Japan when I was four. During our six years there, my identity was: American, gai-jin, foreigner. Then we moved back to California, and I found I was not a normal American. I certainly didn't fit in with the kids in my classes, some of whom were living in the same house they'd been born in, and who would still be in that house until they moved away for college. When I was fifteen, I spent five months in Nîmes, France, where I became, again, American, only to return to my high school where I knew I was not the same kind of American as the others. It wasn't until I moved across the country to Long Island for college that I came to call myself a Californian and to realize that, yes, California feels like home (Northern California, anyway). And now here I am, living in technically-New-Jersey,-practically-Manhattan, married to a Turkish man, and I a Californian who is simultaneously sort of Japanese and, deep in my blood, half Korean, while somewhere down in my genes I am German. Where is my place? What is my country?

This apartment, with all its quirks (the slanting walls, the mold in the bathroom, the exposed water-heater, the leaking furnace): this is home now, this is my place. Home is where my books are, home is where I cook, home is the place I have to clean, home is where I am the one who changes the sheets on the bed. Home is where O. is. Yes, this is my place.

But my place extends only as far as the front door. Maybe out onto the landing, on a good day. This city is not home, not mine. I still worry if I stand out on the streets. I am still busy watching the other people, wondering how I should dress, walk, move. Then the Spirit moves in me and I remember that it doesn't matter what those people think of me.

Still, I would like to know what impression I am emanating. I think home is the place where you don't have to wonder about that. You know already.

Will this place ever be home to me? I should give it time. It's only been three months. But we're only planning to stay here two years. Yes, we've planned to uproot ourselves again, soon, soon. Is it worthwhile? Is it right, to act as if this place is just a brief stop?

Every place is a brief stop. Home is not on this earth. Home is where my Father is, and I'll be there someday, regardless of how much I move around this continent, this planet, during my three score (or four or five score, God willing) sojourn here.

[Thoughts in this post catalyzed by this fine essay.]

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reading Poetry on the PATH Train

We hurtle through the earth.
Water above us. Fire beneath us.

Within us, poems
twisting                   to breath--,
                 to wind--,
                                       to air.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Today I am grateful for...

... O. getting the oven pilot light re-lit without any explosions or injuries! The smell of gas, a flurry of "what now?"; a prayer, a decision, a protracted moment of terror; and a flood of relief.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Once upon a time, we sat by the window in the third floor of the library and watched a hawk chasing a swallow. We were young, and I was unbroken. Later, night fell. You came for me, and I could not drive you away, and I could not dip and soar like the swallow to escape. Your hair was the color of night. I should have known the sun would leave me, and like the silent owl, you would arrive.

You left. You left me, broken; you left me broken. You left my space, my time, my thoughts, but I could not leave you. I keep finding you, a splinter in my heart. You are still exactly the same as when we soared over the island and the waves diminished into minute wrinkles below us, and between us the silence roared so I could scarcely hear the music that still calls up your ghost for me, when I hear it, these long years later.

It is November, a season I never saw you in. Yet I find you living in my memories, as you have lived with me since that single rainstorm.

In a few hours, my husband will come home, and I will live again, in the beautiful present. In a few years, these memories will be buried under more strata, starting with the autumn leaves of today. When I die, they will die with me. And when I live again, there will be no more tears, no more secrets, no more death, no more night.


[I've been going through the drafts I wrote but never posted, and found this specimen from 2010, when I was living in school housing with girls I didn't know. Reading this time-capsule account, the scene (or one of a host of others like it) resurrects itself in my mind. I am so glad I am not there any more. I am so glad I am here, in this apartment, in this marriage, in this new time and space, where I the only invasions come through the internet, or come very small, beady-eyed, through holes in the wall, and O. and I can catch them and send them away.]

I came home tonight to find a strange guy lying on the couch, playing with some device from the iPod family. He didn't look up at me when I came in, though I stared at the back of his head. I bristled inside, but held back the desire to bark or growl. I did lock the door though: keep out any other wanderers that might try to invade. And then I marked my territory by collecting my scattered dishes and washing them all, and starting a baking project.

The guy on the couch kept his eyes bound to his phone/toy/iPod, as though so secure in his position that he needn't observe anything in the environment, because there was no way that any of it could possibly have any bearing on him. Nothing would dislodge him, and nothing would threaten him. That couch had become his.

Well, the kitchen would remain mine. I measured and stirred, poured and sprinkled.

A few minutes later, someone knocked on the locked door, and the couch-occupier opened the door to another unknown male, this one an Asian in a red baseball cap. This guy, too, walked in, as though this were his apartment. My suitemates, meanwhile--the people who do actually live here--were nowhere to be seen. I couldn't stop myself from glaring at the two guys, but they didn't seem to notice anyone else was in the room. But the newercomer soon went to my suitemate Y.L.'s door, and disappeared inside.

I returned to mixing. Half an hour later, with midnight around the corner, the guy on the couch was just as well-settled in his new territory. Hostility rushed over me again--rage that my home had been invaded, terror of who this person might be, what he might do--and I spoke.

"Hey, excuse me," (and he finally looked up.) "What are you doing here?" Suddenly anticipating the answer, "playing with my iPod/etc.", I elaborated, "Why are you here? What are you doing?"

"Waiting," he said. "For that guy."

I know how the dogs feel.

Lunch (a post with pretensions of being a poem)

Bell-pepper bright red,
goat cheese pure white, pesto glowing
emerald with olive oil. Brown bread
still steaming from the oven.
(Softer than usual: too much water?
Who's to say?)

Japanese mothers strive for three colors on every plate.
I throw together lentil soup, eggplant curry,
grilled cheese sandwich: nothing but brown.

But today's lunch was
fresh, bright, raw,

like this snappy autumn day of leaves still green on the trees,
of snow drifts stubborn in the sidewalk-shade,
of a sky so blue I almost believe

it's still summer, and I'm at home
in California where the clouds retire at noon,
and the joys and pains of these three months are distant
as my memory of the Atlantic, unimaginable
as this wintry cold
during that summer simmer.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

For K.

Phone fragments       (135/160)

form our friendship     now
Words so freighted     a decades memories
hang from                   a bright screen
small as my palm       A pocket stone 
sings                          days gone by

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The air is crisp now, and cold, and the flowers are all flame-colored. These are chrysanthemum days. They burn against the cold. They wait for winter.

They bloom among leaves like stretched hands, peach-fuzzy. They grow on stems whose innards are dry and spongy. They are gold and ruby and topaz.

Here on our dresser, they are amethyst. Here they are concise, precise, with pale centers glowing like the cool sunlight of today. Here they face ceilingward, skyward, heavenward, looking up from the ends of their long, long stems. I tied them with a silver satin ribbon, one of many that wrapped around gifts to us from our friends. The glass vase is from our wedding, too.

Three wedding things in one simple arrangement of hope: symbols of ceremony, communal blessing, a celebration that continues, punctuating the passage of months. Frost is on its way, but flowers are still opening.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quote from many days ago: Ballet as Religion

From this NYT article on Natalie Portman training in ballet for the movie "Black Swan":
Ms. Portman’s experience gave her a taste not only of the physical sacrifices, but also the mental ones. “It was very religious in my mind,” she said. “The ritual of, like, breaking in your point shoes and getting them soft, all of that, it’s almost like tefillin wrapping in Judaism, this thing you do every day, this ritual.”
Portman's comment evokes for me the ideas of Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. In this book, Alva Noë argues that consciousness and self are more deeply intertwined with bodily existence, physical action, and the surrounding environment than we typically admit. Identity doesn't reside in our skulls.

There are two connections here to ballet as religion. The first connection is dance. Noe says that "dance [is], for me, the perfect metaphor for consciousness" (see this interview). The second connection is religion--not that Noë speaks specifically about religion (as far as I remember). The connection is in Noë's ideas and the claims of religion. I won't try to speak for all religions since I am only immersed in one, but Christianity at least has been telling humans that their identity doesn't reside solely in themselves, much less solely in the way they think or worse solely in their brains, for thousands of years. Rather, it resides in our relationships, to each other and to our Creator.


Temptation: to bury the confusion in my heart under a layer of television; to cut consternation off from my consciousness; to shelter my mind from the visceral knots by thinking hard about other things, or by not thinking at all--

(Somewhere along this road, I stopped being the stable person I thought I was. Maybe my bike got a flat tire. Maybe it's a cobblestone road now, and I was only good at riding on asphalt. Better yet, I'm biking down a mountain trail. Rocks lurk under the dust and sand, and the trail writhes back and forth between tree roots. The trees themselves are prickly, the live oaks and pines of my hometown hills. I careen down the hill, occasionally falling off my bike and into a bush. So far I've avoided the poison oak, thank God, but I've gotten some nasty scrapes. I am trying to get out of these hills by sunset, when the mountain lions prowl.

(I am not accustomed to riding alone. My partner keeps disappearing around bends, and I keep thinking I am about to be left behind, if I haven't already been abandoned. Maybe the momentum is just too much for him, and he can't wait for me. I skid and scramble to catch up. So far, we are still on the same trail, anyway; we will come out in the same place, may it please the Lord.

(I would like to get off this bike, and walk, slow, taking in the sights. I know there are birds here, and deer, and at dusk there are rabbits. And even sunset's scarlet, with your hand in mine, could be the flame of the rose, and not the blood of the pumas' victims.)

--Always I expect peace to sprout from understanding, but the lesson keeps coming to me, persistent: peace transcends understanding, and I must surrender to not knowing. I must accept the place where I am, before I can walk safely out of it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Home-making, or Nest Building

Three months ago (give or take, depending on how you measure), I moved into this apartment, which O. had been sleeping in for two months already. I can't really say he was living here, since he didn't eat here or spend his weekends here. This explains--or perhaps is explained by--the fact that when I arrived, the floors were too dirty to feel good about walking on barefoot, and towers of boxes loomed in the center of the living room and the corners of the dining room. At the edges of the living room, misplaced furniture awaited its new home. In every corner, boxes of books languished. Furniture that was in use was: a bed, an air mattress, a plastic set of drawers which complain alarmingly every time they are pushed all the way in, and a card table littered with mail.

Anyone wondering if I am a neat freak would have received affirmative proof had they been present for my initial arrival into this labyrinth of boxes and dust balls. I groaned, I yelled, I cried. I went silent. I shoved the boxes around, restacked them against the wall, stacked the mail into precarious piles. Space: I breathed again.

The weeks passed and we acquired furniture and unpacked boxes. (Most of their contents went on the bookshelf, no surprise.) The furniture has come from a variety of sources, not all of them entirely orthodox. Below is a graph for your amusement:

Packaging material? Yeah... That's cardboard boxes. 

We also considered making a couch out of the super-bubble-wrap from Macy's, whose chambers are interconnected so that it's almost impossible to pop them without a sharp object. It would have been too slippery, though--unless we used duct-tape. :P

Quote of the Day: Real World

From this long but insightful and interesting interview with travel-writer Pico Iyer:
I try not to think too much about writing as a business. For me, all the joy comes at the desk and what comes after is a kind of sales tax and is what you have to do to pay admission to this otherwise wonderful career. So I live in rural Japan, and I have never really been on the world wide web, and I live very far from New York, and, from, I suppose, the day-to-day real world details of publishing. But that’s a conscious choice. It was almost a choice between, I won’t say happiness and success, but between being very plugged into that world or being plugged into the real world, and I figured I didn’t have enough energy for both, and I got more satisfaction from the real world. I did, after all, move from a 25th floor office in Rockefeller Center to a Zen temple on a backstreet in Kyoto when I was in my late 20s.
I'm glad he didn't use the words "authentic" or "experience", which are all glossy and plastic now from being mass-produced. Real world: he goes for the jugular. "Authentic experience" is marketable and inoffensive. "Real world" is a judgment and a challenge.

What is the real world? It is not the world where you worry about paying your credit card bills on time, or the world where you have to know how to tie a tie properly to impress the right people, or the world where no one will look out for you and you have to take care of yourself by yourself, or the world where being 15 minutes late will ruin your life. That is the world people here mean when they say, "In the real world, that just isn't going to work."

No, the real world is the place of life. Depth. Breathing slow. Green leaves, a wind untainted by exhaust. Light on the water. Peace in your heart. One thought at a time.

I wish I lived in the real world all the time. I don't. I live like a squirrel, chittering and skittering, collecting acorn after acorn, burying them, forgetting where they are. Sometimes I am so happy as I run and leap. Other times I am frantic, and I can't make up my mind which side of the street I should be on as the car zooms closer.

But there is peace, there is joy, there are full stops instead of restless commas. I can end my sentence; it doesn't have to continue with a semicolon--a dash--one more thought. . . I can slow down. Isn't that what this time is for? For rest, not restlessness. Peace of mind, not a mind in pieces.

Breathe. Breathe. This is the real world.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In which an unknown blogger/author expresses my thoughts for me, and I add a barely related parenthetical post-script

From this blog post on Sci-Fi and the Technocratic Impulse:
When we pursue advancements through technology we surrender something in the process. It’s obvious that a device such as the iPhone is more than just a communication tool. It is a culture-shaping tool that can easily master its user if not used carefully and reflectively. It has the power to disconnect and isolate as much as its power to connect.
EXACTLY. I have been thinking this thought for ages, but in an inarticulate way--like a cloud of feeling-droplets condensed around motes of ideas. Every time I attempted to express it (especially in the face of O.'s spiffy smart phone), I ended up sounding like a Luddite. Perhaps I am a Luddite--but I don't think so. I think I just end up overstating my case when it seems like the other party, or perhaps the whole world around me, is rushing headlong into a tech-enabled dystopia. Thank God for other people's writings that say what I want to say but can't!

Another comment as counterpoint: I usually speak in technology's defense when I hear people saying things like "Facebook prevents people from having in-person interactions" and "You can't have a meaningful conversation over IM." I don't think those statements are true--not because I think Facebook and other tech-enabled communicational media don't have inherent limitations (on the contrary, they absolutely are limited) or that they are inherently good. Rather, it's because I think all the agency still resides with us, the users and abusers of technology. Technology doesn't create in us character-traits ex nihilo: it only exposes and fertilizes what was already there.*

(In that sense, technology is like suffering. It is a test of sorts. Suffering exposes weaknesses in my character, and seems to be bringing them into existence. In reality, those problematic beliefs were there in me all along, and it's not the fault of my circumstance (suffering, technology) that I am full of fears and doubts and lies (or shallow communication, self-absorption, etc), but the fault of the sin in me. I should give thanks for the light that comes through the cracks made by the blows of suffering, instead of screwing up all my energy into experiencing the pain.)

*Not to imply that technology is crap. :P

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kitchen Gratitude

Some things in my kitchen that make me happy every time I use them:
  • garlic press
  • attachment for garlic press that pokes through the little holes and cleans it
  • stainless steel strainer so I can drain pasta and not worry that the plastic is going to melt like the plastic spoon that my sister stirred hot rice with and which, curved in ways not intended by its designer, is now part of an artwork on our wall
  • ladle for the soups that are half my diet
  • actual hot pads, crocheted by my aunt
  • a wok that is finally developing its non-stick coating, now that I know not to wash it with soap, as per this advice
  • a proper set of silverware, rather than the mismatched collection of yesteryear
  • cooking chopsticks, long enough to save my bare arms from flying oil drops
  • a second mixing bowl, which I originally did not appreciate but which I now rejoice to use, especially when the first one is already full. I especially appreciate that it is large enough for four pounds of bread dough!
  • a sauce pan: I've been cooking for myself for 3 years with only a stewpot, a wok and a cheap frying pan. This little sauce pan charms me every time I use it, whether for rice (which really doesn't belong in the huge stewpot), sauce (which spatters all over the stovetop if cooked in the frying pan), or hot chocolate.
  • steamer that is prettier and more effective than steaming things in Tupperware in the microwave
  • bamboo cutting boards with little feet, the wood sleek under my fingertips, natural and almost alive
  • orange heat-resistant spatulas! in three sizes! [added 10/21]

Refrigerated Rice and Its Redemption

My father has always spoken of refrigerated rice with sorrow in his voice. Fresh sticky white rice is ambrosia, as well as a necessary accompaniment to any true meal. Refrigerated rice, however, is a dessicated record of what once was: still food, but to be endured, not enjoyed. If at all possible, rice should be consumed within 24 hours of being cooked, such that it is never desecrated by the cold and dryness of the refrigerator. Refrigerated rice is irredeemable.

So it was with sadness that I contemplated my rice options for lunch today. Having tarried overlong in looking at papasans (my new favorite word!), I was already hungry when I started to stir-fry string beans and green pepper. As the aroma of fish sauce and curry paste rose from the wok, I suddenly realized that to have fresh rice, I'd have to wait almost half an hour to eat. On the other hand, the cooked rice on hand had already been frozen once, and since being defrosted three nights ago, it had been sitting in the refrigerator. Surely it would be barely edible.*

Nonetheless, my impatience trumped my rice-snobbery. With some trepidation, recalling the last time I combined refrigerated rice with a fresh stirfry and regretted it, I toss the old rice into the wok and stirred it in. To my delight, it soon absorbed enough soy and fish sauce to turn it a warm brown, and it plumped up, probably because of the excessive olive oil** in the wok. When I ate*** the whole concoction a few minutes later, everything was delicious. It is with no regrets that I say: I ate month-old rice today.

*This sentiment: only one of the many obvious indications that I am part of the "first world." 

**I know this is the wrong oil for a stir fry because of its smoke point or whatever, but it's all I had after the (mostly failed) falafels consumed my meager supply of canola oil!

***Using chopsticks at first, but quickly succumbing to the convenience of a spoon.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


[something I wrote a week or so ago and forgot to post]

Having breathed water into my lungs in the deeps, have I retreated, choking, to the shallows? So much writing, reflecting, weeping, last week. And this week? watching "Castle" and researching monarch butterflies, making multiple trips to the grocery store each day. But no, this week has been phone calls and emails, Skype and Facebook, dinner with the pastor, discussions of Nahum and Ruth, meeting new people. The water temperature has changed, but I am still treading water. My feet never touch the floor. But even if I tire, I will not drown. There are hands to hold me up, there is a voice to call my name and bring me back to life.

Things I love about living here

[Thanksgiving is coming up, and I am going to start making lists and lists of things I am grateful for. Because of my compulsion to be thorough, they are all going to be themed so that I don't get overwhelmed trying to cover everything.]

I love...
  1. the toaster oven and its broiler pan. Lunch today was a taste from my childhood--the tuna melt. Multi-grain bread best eaten toasted; half a can of tuna left over from putting tuna in my mac and cheese*; thick slices of a tomato that had been begging to be eaten; extra-sharp cheddar on top: stack 'em up, stick them in the toaster oven, broil for 10 minutes. The cheese boils and bubbles into something supremely delicious, and the hot tomato and bread with a layer of tuna hiding between meld into meaty succulence. At SBU, toasters and toaster ovens were contraband, to be hidden under a bed or even in the bathroom during the monthly dorm inspections. Not so here!
  2. shutting off the smoke alarm. It is such an immense relief that the smoke alarm's hypersensitivity doesn't result in the building being evacuated and the fire department whirling in in a blaze of sirens. I can just slam on the button to shut the thing up, and knock out its batteries. (It's brutal treatment for an object that is trying to save my life--but hey, I don't need to anthropomorphisize the smoke detector.)
  3. the freedom to be unclothed. When I come home sweaty and sticky, I can close the curtains and peel off my clothes. There is no one to see me walk to the kitchen or the bathroom, or when there is someone, it's my husband, and that's even better than no one.
  4. the sound of church bells ringing the hour, calling me to worship. The song drifts across the rooftops. It floats over the engine noises and the exhaust. It softens the chatter of the crusty Italian men across the street. As my sister says: The bells remind me I'm not alone.
  5. striking matches and lighting candles. I love candle-flicker and scented air. I love wax melting into clarity, spilling like a waterfall, pooling and cooling, reshaping itself.
  6. the panting golden retriever that lounges downstairs. He lives with the landlord's nephew in the basement apartment. Today when I came home, the dog was sleeping in the sun in front of the building. He smiled at me and waved his tail a little, though he didn't come to the fence when I called him.
  7. the roof with its sprouting chimneys. I slip out the window on to the fire escape, then climb up the rickety ladder, praying it holds together. And then I stand on the sloping silver-painted roof. I feel like Mary Poppins up there. The setting sun makes the sky blush. As darkness drifts down, a hundred windows light up, golden in the blue twilight.
  8. having the refrigerator to myself. O. and I have the whole refrigerator! Not just one shelf and one drawer. All the food there is ours, and no one is going to steal any of it. If something is going bad, I can make sure to use it up in time; or I can throw it out, without having to ask five other people if they know whose this is.
  9. using all the cupboard space, all the counter space, all the pantry space. I loved living with friends in college, and I even loved sharing the kitchen with them and cooking together, but I am definitely loving how I have this whole space to myself. As I realize more and more that I can't tame my emotions and have them happen at convenient times, I appreciate the areas of predictability and control more and more. The kitchen is one.
  10. our huge bookshelf. After four years of stacking books to unsafe heights on my desk, now I have them arranged, orderly, vertical, alphabetized, categorized, looking happily toward me when I walk in the front door.
There are more things I appreciate, I know, but ten is a good number for the moment. Much as I flinch when I notice how the walls and ceiling slant at various angles, much as I groan every time the mold resumes its conquest on the shower tiles, I am still so grateful to be here, and to be here with the best person, and to have a place to make our own.

*Another nostalgic meal, this one recalling nights with a baby sitter while my parents snatched some couple-time. I only recently found out during college that other Americans apparently don't combine those flavors.

[Added 10/17/11]
For anyone concerned about the safety of my rooftop explorations: I hereby inform you all that the roof being walked about on is neither steep nor slippery, but on the contrary is sticky and flat, if somewhat slanted (estimated slope: 10 inches of vertical change over 30 feet of horizontal space). Moreover, said rooftop is surrounded by a low wall, such that falling off accidentally would be a challenge. This is a rooftop begging for a garden and a lounge chair (and possibly a new paint job).

Friday, October 7, 2011


From Ten Thousand Questions:
If you had to pick one of the following words to serve as the central theme of the next chapter of your life, which would you pick: tranquility, prosperity, triumph, or healing?
Healing. I didn't recognize my sickness, my scratches and scars, until this season started. When did it begin? At the altar when we vowed forever and evers? That winter evening when I made a promise? A year ago, when I was crying every weekend and it seemed for a time that there was no way out?

How far from that I feel. We are in a different place now: married. Time together is still a limited resource (that, if nothing else, I learned at breakfast today), but we aren't suffocating for lack of it. We are thirsty for more but we are not parched, and the rains fall regularly.

Yet it was in that time of stress and distress that I found myself vulnerable: woundable, and in fact wounded. It forced me to see my wounds, so that I could begin see my healing.

I had learned, once upon a time, not to rely on Another. I learned this so long ago that I cannot say what book or teacher told me. Was it stories, was it disappointments? my mother, my father? the very nature of the world? --was it whispered to me by leaves dying from the cold, then by the melting snow? I used to think I could preserve myself by growing in the right shape, with a shell around me like an oyster, or like an insect with its jewel-hued armor. I used to think I could have everything I needed by taking so little from each one that none would run away from me. I used to think you would all run, if I leaned too hard: or if not run, then fall; or if not fall, then attack.

I am trouble. This also I learned, and I locked it up inside and then I lost the key. How can I take it out of myself?

Healing. Already this has been a season of healing. I had to be healed and I had to unlearn and be sliced open by truth till I bled relief and I knew myself anew.

I have oozed other things, along the way. Self-pity, self-hatred. Condemnation, anger, judgment. Confusion. But I am coming clean. This is the season, the season of healing, the season of soothsaying.

 Say to me forsooth, the truth. Pull away the supports that have me leaning all the wrong ways, and settle me on the firm foundation. Unbandage me, and let the sun sterilize my skin. This is the season of straining and growing. Let this be the season of healing.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reading Poetry

The mystery is alien to you, you
dislike the veils and fog
that conceal what would
in sun or firelight
blaze like trumpets
and like tears.

Cold in the mist, you turn away
bewildered, you call
for a storm to sweep the world
clean and clear. Breath
comes easier to you
when the air is alive. I

rest in this understanding--
that silence speaks
not of stillborn meaning
but of stories so laden
with feeling
words cannot carry them.


I can't get over the thunderstorms here. Just past noon, and suddenly the light has been swallowed up. A roaring tears through the clouds and bursts through the open windows. The wind whirls inside, swinging the venetian blinds inward, knocking over bottles, snatching up scraps of paper. The serene sky has stretched itself into a lion, roaring as it stalks the city. Rain runs through the streets like many small feet.

Now the drops sprinkle the window panes. Now they batter against the glass and they burst through the screens. The rain is trying to get in. I close two windows, and return.

Listen, the water is drumming on the tin window sill, drumming on the AC unit. Listen, a lion is roaring in the clouds. The streets turn silver, and the people hide in their boxes and holes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


"What's your name?" asked the lady on the phone.

I paused. When did this become a difficult question? My name is now J------- B-----, but not all of my identification documents say so. I'm going to have a bank card with the new name in a few days, but three weeks ago when I made the online order being discussed, the debit card I was using had my old name on it, which in turn is not the name that I ever introduced myself by, since I have always called myself by a shortened form of my first name.

In reality, only a fraction of a second passed by while I hesitated over how to name myself. (In retrospect, it was a bit of a White Knight* moment.) But it was another reminder of the confusions of being a new wife.

*From Ch. 8 of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass:
`Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?' Alice said, trying to feel interested.
`No, you don't understand,' the Knight said, looking a little vexed. `That's what the name is called. The name really is "The Aged Aged Man."'
`Then I ought to have said "That's what the song is called"?' Alice corrected herself.
`No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called "Ways and Means": but that's only what it's called, you know!'
`Well, what is the song, then?' said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
`I was coming to that,' the Knight said. `The song really is "A-sitting On A Gate": and the tune's my own invention.'

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I always make granola by hand, but this time I stuck my hands in the oats and mixed them with my fingers. Cinnamon breathed out of the mixing bowl. I smashed the walnuts in my fists and let them infuse my skin with their oil and grit. Scooping raisins into the bowl, and then coconut, and mixing it with my hands, I felt like I was experiencing the granola in a deeper way... Despite having made it so many times, there is always something new to be learned!

Thinking lately about how humans are defined by relationships--with other people, with God, and also with creation, a.k.a. the physical environment: from the mouse in the kitchen, to the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, to a painting on the wall, to the raisins in the granola that swell up so surprisingly in the oven. Even this granola is part of who I am.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Social Life

From David Dobb's feature story in the Oct. 2011 National Geographic, "Beautiful Brains":
"This supremely human characteristic makes peer relations not a sideshow but the main show. Some brain-scan studies, in fact, suggest that our brains react to peer exclusion much as they respond to threats to physical health or food supply. At a neural level, in other words, we perceive social rejection as a threat to existence. Knowing this might make it easier to abide the hysteria of a 13-year-old deceived by a friend or the gloom of a 15-year-old not invited to a party. These people! we lament. They react to social ups and downs as if their fates depended upon them! They're right. They do."
(David Dobbs, National Geographic, Oct. 2011 issue. )
--But do they?

On the one hand, the statement that "we perceive social rejection as a threat to existence" resonates deep inside me. I didn't experience that level of wild oscillation as a teenager, but now that I am in the most vital human relationship of my life (this thing called "romance," which has become "marriage"), I know in a new way the feeling that something in me will die, is dying, when the relationship is damaged. I never depended like this before, I never hurt like this before (& I never rejoiced like this before).

Which brings me to the other hand: though humans are meant to live in society/community, and to be defined by relationship, I don't believe our existence (as the essence of ourselves) is meant to be threatened by social rejection, no matter how severe. I think we're meant to feel threatened by it, and that that sense of threat should shake us into realizing: this isn't my life. Or rather, it's my life, but it's not my Life.

--if that makes any sense. Let me be more explicit.

As a Christian, I am at the same time profoundly dependent and connected to the people around me ("one flesh" with my husband, "one body" with the rest of the Church), and radically independent from them because who I am is who Christ says I am, and Christ is life, light, truth, salvation, and hope for me. He is the Bread of Life. He is my Refuge. No one can snatch me out of his hand.


I started cooking when I was small enough to need a stool to reach the counter, but only for the past two years have I been cooking my own meals. Going across the country for college was a major step away from childhood and my parents' house, but it didn't particularly feel like a move toward adulthood and maturity until I moved into an apartment and, for the first time in my life, had my own kitchen. It was still school housing, and there was still a cleaning service, but suddenly I was cooking my own meals. Grocery-shopping, cooking, keeping track of left-overs: it required so much more forethought than deciding which cafeteria to go to.

This made me feel like an adult in a way that no number of good grades or 15-page papers could. Hadn't I been doing homework and projects for school since I was six years old? If anything, I was less responsible about my schoolwork in college than in high school, because I had finally figured out that success isn't predicated on perfection. In contrast, hadn't my mother (or father) always served a good dinner at the proper time?

Feeding myself three times a day was totally new. No one was going to provide dinner for me if my program was full of bugs and I lost track of time trying to hunt them down. Also, if I wanted to eat something other than grilled cheese sandwiches, lentil soup, or stirfry, it was up to me to find a new recipe. Feeding myself required initiative and creative thinking, above and beyond the organization and time management skills that school requires.

So in a way, I grew up in the kitchen.

I came to recognize and understand the spices whose names I had heard all my life, but who had always been strangers, the friends of my parents. Yesterday, I truly made the acquaintance of the noble bay leaf for the first time, when I made my second batch of split pea soup ever and found it radically better with the contribution of the bay leaves.

I began to understand my mother's enchantment with unfamiliar ingredients. Today I wandered the aisles of the organic grocery store with an attitude of meditation more commonly found in book stores than grocery stores. Celtic Sea Salt, Thai Wok Oil, Sucanat: so many mysteries waiting to be experienced.

And I recognized anew my weakness. When my mother was feeding me, when the school was feeding me, hunger was an experience I consciously chose at times, always accompanied by a promise of good food to come. Now that I cook for myself, I stumble into hunger at unexpected moments, and I find myself grumpy, despairing, insecure. It feels like the world is ending when I expect food and I don't get it. Perhaps I am still a child after all, crying when the milk doesn't flow or when my candy falls on the floor.

I am more than what I eat, but I am what I eat. In my own kitchen, it's a self that I am cooking.

Monday, September 19, 2011


I don't know where it comes from. The windows opened to the dirty street? The walls and ceiling, slowly disintegrating? Our own skin? Wherever it comes from, it goes everywhere. The white sink basin in the bathroom wilts to grey. The floor grits under our bare feet. In the tassels of the rug, my long hairs are tangled like kelp washed up on the sand. A colony of dust bunnies grows up in the shelter of the shed hair. I wonder if by sweeping, sweeping, sweeping, I am thwarting the emergence of a new and microscopic civilization that lives off of dirt and discarded skin.

When the broom goes back in the corner and the rag goes into the bucket, the floor reflects the afternoon light, unclouded. I close the windows and study the walls, wondering when the next dust-storm will come. I think I can smell it in the air, on my fingertips.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


I want so badly to run away from this conversation, situation, hesitation, devastation. Email leaves such a distance between our spinning minds, a space measured in light years. It will be years before your mind seems a source of light to me, before mine seems a star to you. Right now, you look like a black hole, endlessly devouring. At the bottom, do you twist into an alternate universe, full of unexpected life? or are you what you appear to be: a gravity that compresses even souls into a point of zero dimensions?

Who are you that I should fear you so? I should not, should not fear. "I will not fear the day, I will not run from night. I will hold onto You for life."

Black holes cannot tear me out of His arms. You are no threat to me, while He stands between us.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Free Time

This is my second week as a homemaker. There are many things to do, but few firm deadlines. I need to buy vegetables and soy milk and a strainer for the kitchen sink--sometime soon. (Today? Tomorrow? It could wait till the day after.) I need to find a laundromat, and haul our dirty laundry and a couple dozen quarters there--before we run out of underwear. I need to research grad programs in linguistics--sometime in the next year.

Astonishing how hard it is to have my schedule completely amorphous. Time is a liquid. It returns, like water, to the lowest place. It settles into low spots in the vinyl floor. It pools under the dusty baseboard heaters. In the summer heat (top-floor bonus), it evaporates and steams up the windows and condenses on the ceiling.

As the days pass one minute at a time, two years stretches before me into eternity. I can't seem to imagine that far in the future. My foresight extends to this weekend, and not much beyond. I have never been so deprived of vessels to pour time into: schedules and meetings and activities. My calendar is a field gone fallow. I wander through it, blowing dandelion seeds and picking wild flowers.

What is this time like? Not like school, though I am learning things. Not like childhood before school's tyranny: I do have responsibilities, and I cross the street without holding anyone's hand. Not like summer vacation: I cannot go to the beach and I am not with my parents or sister (which is no longer to say that I am not with my family); also, if I don't cook dinner, then there will be no dinner. Not like work, where someone else set my goals and told me when to go rest.

If it is like anything I have experienced, it is like writing my thesis last year. My own project: defined by me and executed by me, refined by me and scheduled by me; dealing with whatever interests me, but needing a focus; a source of pleasure and confidence, but also of anxiety and vulnerability; and built around a relationship.

When I read my poems to my mentor, I exposed myself. Criticism stung, while praise surprised me again and again. His approval made me stand taller. It gave me courage to call myself a poet. I prepared poems around the scaffolding of our meetings. I waited for those conversations.

Here, I am not arranging words that will speak into eternity. I am making dinner that disappears within a few hours, I am cleaning a floor that will be dirty again tomorrow, I am emptying a laundry hamper that fills up a little more each night. But here I still have my uncertainties, my fears. Approval still makes me glow, disappointment still makes me shrink. I wait for the reunions. I wait for the connections, the conversations.

I could be a little more stable, more driven, more independent in my heart. But I think this time is about waiting, about resting; about leaning on O. and on God, trusting and depending in a new way; about opening myself wide; about taking down the fences, about letting the wind blow through and plant what seeds it wills.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Education as Essential

Two days ago, a young man with a British accent and a clipboard stopped me as I was walking through Manhattan after having lunch with my husband (! (Two weeks of marriage is not at all enough time to make this word mundane.)).

The young man was fund-raising for an organization that claims to "punch poverty in the face!" by provide basic care and education to children in impoverished countries. He asserted, in the course of his spiel, that education is the most important thing to get people out of poverty. When I looked skeptical, he demanded to know why. I didn't have a good answer. I mumbled about the primacy of food and water. It wasn't until I was walking away that it occurred to me that I believe knowing the true God is the most fundamental precondition for true success.

Anyway, I don't instinctively think of education as something that nourishes the human soul. "Learning," yes. "Education," no. But today I read this interview of a philosophy professor who teaches a course on hope in modern philosophy--at a maximum security prison! (Good read.) At the end of the interview was this exchange:

This program that you were doing is part of a Bard College Program to make a bachelor's-level education accessible for prisoners. Based on your experience, what do you think of the role of education for our prison population?

The facts are pretty compelling. The recidivism rate goes way down when people are involved in these kinds of programs—60 percent, I think, is the normal rate for people coming out of maximum security context, and it goes down to below 15 percent for people who've been involved in the Bard Program, and the ones who actually get the B.A. are even lower than that. For the ones who will get out of the prison someday, it becomes much more likely that they'll live productive or at least not-incarcerated lives in the future.

(From the Veritas Riff "Hope Unbound: A Philosopher Goes To Prison.")

If I had known those statistics, maybe I wouldn't have made such a face at the volunteer on Tuesday!

I wonder what the impact of more specific classes like the philosophy course discussed in the interview might be, statistically speaking...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Christian Identity / a quote I want to be able to find later

As I was eating breakfast this morning, I picked up a book I found lying on the counter. Reading a few pages, I was struck by this:
Some Christians base their identity on being a sinner. I think they have it wrong--or only half right. You are not simply a sinner; you are a deeply loved sinner. And there is all the difference in the world between the two.
Sin is a corollary to our primary status as greatly loved children of God. First we were loved into being, created in the good and sinless image of our Creator God. And although sin damaged that which had been utterly good, it allowed us to discover that God's love is directed toward us just as we are, as sinners. The sequence is important. We must never confuse the secondary fact with the primary truth.
Real knowing of ourselves can only occur after we are convinced that we are deeply loved precisely as we are. The fact that God loves and knows us as sinners makes it possible for us to konw and love our self as sinner. It all starts with knowing God's love.
(David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself, p. 64-65)
This is so well-put! Yay!

[... And that's all I really need to say about this. But here follows some of my thoughts/recollections that have to do with why I love these paragraphs.]

I heard a distorted version of this argument a couple years ago when missionaries from a Korean Christian-esque cult (Good News Corps) interrupted my Bible study preparations when I was sitting outside at school. Their English wasn't very good, so it took a while to see how much of the confusion and expressed disagreement was due to language issues versus theological differences. They asked me if I was a Christian and if I believed that I am sinful and if I believed that I was saved, and then they kept saying that if you're a Christian, you can't/don't sin, because you've been brought out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of God's light. I had a really hard time figuring out how much of what they said actually lined up with what I believe. In the end, I realized that I don't believe their central claim (saved people never sin). But I couldn't articulate what I actually believe (and what I believe the Bible teaches) without overemphasizing the fact that Christians do continue to fall short even once they've come into God's kingdom.

I think what I said to them was something along the lines of:
  • I agree that the identity of the Christian doesn't reside in being a sinner
  • and instead the identity of the Christian is as a follower of Christ and a child of God and as forgiven and redeemed
  • but that doesn't mean that we already live entirely according to that new holy identity.
Our primary identity is as holy people, but our behavior (which in my definition covers thoughts and feelings as well as external actions) is still a work in progress. In conclusion, Christians do sin, and so it is true to say that I am a sinner.

I think I put my point across, but it's not good communication to pin such a freight of concepts onto a verbal distinction between sinner-as-identity vs. sinner-as-behavior. I'm really happy to have discovered Benner's passage which articulates the Christian (& human) identity so much more clearly, and then explores its significance--that "it all starts with knowing God's love."

That last paragraph also connects with something I've been telling a friend who is a young Christian and who is deeply concerned about his sinfulness. He is extremely impatient to become a better person, and he is frequently frustrated at his slow growth. As a result, he is perpetually looking for things to do that will make him better.

And so I keep telling him that his focus is in the wrong place. He isn't going to become a better person by trying to be a better person. Doing good things does have good effects, but it doesn't change your identity. Transformation requires time and the uprooting of lies. (c.f. Grace + Truth + Time => Transformation, the sermon series from which this great sermon on Hosea comes) Focusing on our selves and our sin will not fix things. I told him he needs to lift up his eyes to Jesus and worship Him by giving Him his attention, because by focusing on his own sinfulness he is ultimately still being self-obsessed and self-worshipful.

I still think what I said to my friend was true. But again, Benner says it better. "It all starts with God's love." "God's love is directed toward us just as we are, as sinners."

This passage of Benner's writing also speaks to a third thing in my life: Paul Washer's theology. I can't speak for exactly what Paul Washer actually believes, because it's possible that he is just using language in a much less precise way than I would like, and in a way that promotes some untruths. So I will address the things he says, and not worry too much about whether he really means exactly what he is saying.

Paul Washer preaches radical depravity (for instance, in this discussion), and his definition of the doctrine states that there is no good in humans whatsoever. I can't agree with that statement, because no matter how messed up a person is, a person is still a person. A person is created in the image of God, and even when that gets horribly distorted, that image is still there. I agree with Paul Washer that people cannot save themselves, and that we need provenient grace even in order to turn to God, but I can't agree that humans are completely devoid of goodness on their own--although, as my father brought up when I asked him about this, all goodness comes from God. "Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of the heavenly lights..." (James ?:?), especially life, so maybe it's absurd even to speak of being alive without God. I don't think that's what Paul Washer was talking about, though, because the question he is addressing in that clip is about election and whether God has picked out you, you and you to go to heaven, and you, you and you to go to hell. Ugh.

Anyway! I think Benner's second paragraph really speaks to the question of human goodness. On our own, entirely without God--well, we wouldn't even exist, much less be alive. Christ holds everything together (Col. 1:17), and "in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). These things are true of all of us, Christians or no. Also true of all humans is that "we were loved into being" (Benner)--Christians or no. There is no human who is utterly and totally devoid of goodness, because there is no human who is not made in the image of the perfect and good Creator.

Truth: it's a good way to start the morning. Thank God.


"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." I don't remember when I first heard this verse. I must have been a little girl, curled up in bed, my father reading to me and my sister by my side. I remember thinking, long ago, that I didn't have any enemies. I remember asking, long ago, what "persecute" meant.

These days, I know what persecution is. We recognize each other, persecution and I. Persecution is the acquaintance I run into every so often. I know its face, though I can't always bring its name to mind in time. We are not bedfellows; many people know persecution much better than I do. But I do know persecution.

I know its flavor: raw, bitter, tough, like kale just pulled from the ground. No amount of chewing dissolves it. When swallowed, it sticks in my throat. It fills my mouth with sand.

I know its color: by turns scarlet and green, depending how the light strikes it. At dusk, it looks black. By night, it is as dark as the rest of the world.

I know its sound: my name, screamed in a voice like nails. Rocks grinding together--or it might be teeth grinding--it's hard to say. You see, we don't know each other so very well, persecution and I.

But I know its name: Pain. The different parts of a person pronounce pain differently, but body and heart and mind, they all say the same name. I hurt, and what am I to do?

Love my enemies. Pray for the one who persecutes me.

Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.

Friday, June 24, 2011


From linguist Deborah Tannen's You're Wearing THAT?:
A daughter reveals something personal in the spirit of closeness. Her mother, wishing to protect her daughter and to see things go well for her, offers advice; the metamessage she intends is caring. But the daughter hears a different metamessage: that her mother disapproves of what she is doing and therefore of her. This implication hurts the daughter's feelings, so she lashes out, hurting her mother's feelings in turn. Both are tied up in the knots created by the double meaning of advice: while it offers to help, it also implies that you're doing something wrong; otherwise you wouldn't need advice. The knots are hard to untangle because, more often than not, the threads that form them are found not in the messages, which are easy to pinpoint, but in metamessages, what the words imply.
Linguists know all the answers. If only that meant we could solve all the problems.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Still summer

For a moment
as my bike bore me
along the road
the smell of California summer
captured me: dry dry dirt,
warm in the sun, sending up
little wafts of dust,
oak leaves, old weeds.
Then a car swooshed by,
and exhaust invaded.
But the sun was still
warm through my t-shirt,
and the moment was still
summer in California

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I have been sadly neglecting this blog, but I don't really feel bad about it, because my life has required a lot of tending to, and I have been staying away from computers. Now that I'm back, what am I to write?

It's summer again. I'm in California again. I'm in the bed I've slept in since I was four years old again. I'm living under my parents' rules again. But after this summer, never again.

It's June again. D. is climbing Mt. Shasta again. I went to the beach with friends from high school again. Again, we are all home. But after this summer, this will not be home again.

The addresses I know are expiring. My room will soon be in boxes. The illusion of being back in high school, of traveling back in time when I travel west in space, is about to dissipate for the last time. Everything is falling apart.

And all the pieces are being put together in new shapes. It's not like a mosaic, because the pieces are not fragments. We haven't been shattered or shredded. It's just a rearrangement. The elements are intact, really. Chemical reactions alter substances beyond recognition, but deep inside, the atoms remain unchanged, though the molecules have been destroyed. Change: life transitions are not nuclear fission or fusion. They are just rearrangements of the atoms. Bonds break, bonds form. Sometimes the product is purer than the reactants; sometimes the new bonds are stronger than the old; other times, the reverse is true.

I don't know what is being produced in this complex series of reactions. There are flashes of light, sparks sometimes. I feel the heat. I see colors changing. I am sitting here, watching, and I am counting the crystals as they form. One. Two. Three.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Speech: "About how it's good to know things"

[My professor friend asked me to give a speech at an induction ceremony, with the very vague topic of "Yay liberal arts! Yay knowing things!" And here's what I wrote! I'm speaking it tomorrow, wish me luck!]

Not quite four years ago, I arrived at Stony Brook as a freshman. I thought I would learn everything. Four years is a lot of time, right? I would pick up four or five languages, satisfy my curiosity about geology and botany, take all the classes in the linguistics department and still have time for computer science, art history, philosophy, writing, psychology, multivariable calculus...

Seven semesters have sprinted by, with me chasing after them, perpetually surprised at how fast they run. And now the eighth semester is slipping out of my grasp, and I still haven't learned half the things I hoped to.

In retrospect, it was absurd to imagine that I would leave my undergraduate education no longer hungry to know more and more and more. For this seems to be the nature of learning--that the more I know, the more I want to know. The more answers I hear, the more questions become possible, in a cycle that evokes Meno's paradox. How can I seek something of which I am wholly ignorant? If I don't know the shape of the things that are unknown, how can I look for them? and if I don't even have the vocabulary to formulate a question, how can I ask it?

But these are the things a liberal arts education provides: words like paradigm and instrumentalization, shapes like top-down and bottom-up; the ability to ask questions, peers who are also seeking wisdom.

We speak of the pursuit of knowledge, as though understanding were a deer stalked in the woods by a solitary hunter who carries the scientific method like a lethal weapon. But maybe learning is more like constructing a house, or a temple. We work together to build a framework of ideas to dwell in. When confusion rains down, these walls of knowledge will keep out the storm.

Or maybe learning is like tying knots, or like weaving. After all, text and textile come from the same root. What can I possibly have in common with Achilles, the brutal warrior? And yet when I read the Iliad, I can see myself in him. We are connected. Literature weaves us together.

Or maybe learning is more like farming. We aren't just hunter-gatherers, roaming the wilderness to collect disparate bits of data to add to a collection which, we hope, will sustain us through a winter of meaninglessness. Rather, we are planting ideas and watering them. We are weeding out false dichotomies and over-generalizations. Sometimes we cross-pollinate (psychology with literature, or computer science with linguistics).

When spring comes, the flowers are glorious. Then summer arrives, and we find ripening in our fields a harvest of connections and causalities, proofs and poems, paintings and paradigms, criticism and creativity. The whole university turns out to reap.

The fruit of learning is good to eat and pleasing to the eye. Knowing history makes the future less daunting, the present more intelligible. Knowing pragmatics brings order from the chaos of an argument. Knowing Shakespeare's sonnets makes falling in love less terrifying. Ideas that seemed at first hopelessly abstract, upon approach become surprisingly relevant; they bring comfort in confusion, they equip us to face the unforeseen.

This knowledge is a good fruit. But we don't climb the tree of knowledge hoping to fill an empty stomach. Hungry for understanding, we don't expect that understanding, once plucked, will eliminate our hunger. We expect only that there will be pleasure in eating the fruit of knowledge.

The pursuit of knowledge is not a quest for satiation. Rather, it is a quest to touch things that were once unattainable, to connect bits of data like broken twigs and build a tree that, astonishingly, blossoms, grows leaves, bears fruit. The pursuit of knowledge is a quest for greater understanding and for a greater hunger for understanding.

College has given me knowledge of many things--which is to say, college has connected me to many things. When I arrived at Stony Brook, I was interested in everything but each subject seemed to stand apart from the others, like a mountain peak separated from other mountains by an ocean. I thought I needed a boat to get from one idea-island to the next.

But now I see that all those peaks grow from the same mountain range, and that ocean is just fog that clears up when the sun comes out. Everything is connected. I know a few things, and if I just follow those things I do know, they will take me to all the others.

[I essentially wrote this speech all in one piece without an outline, and yet it came out pretty coherent and orderly. I don't think I would have been able to do that if I hadn't been keeping this blog for the past three and a half years. Yay for writing regularly! Looking forward to having time to blog properly soon...]

Thursday, May 5, 2011

In which I feel sorry for myself

I never really thought I'd be here. Here, this state of mind.

Here I am, though, pouring time through my fingers like sand. The dishes in the sink are sitting unwashed, and the paper I meant to write is untouched, and I am unrested.

Un un un. I am unwell, unwise. And for no reason--unreasonably--I am feeling unloved.

Neglect. Loneliness. I don't feel those things often, especially not these days. I remember being small, though, sitting in the corner of the storage room, snuffling by myself while my family finished eating dinner. It was cramped, in an almost-comforting but almost-stifling sort of way, and it was dark, and I thought maybe I would never come out and no one would care that I had gone. Maybe I would just stay there until someone came to find me--I'd stay overnight if need be, or for days, weeks. A month. A year. When the family was packing everything up to move again, they'd find me, still curled up, wrapped in this quilt like it was a kimono.

I need a quilt again. I need a small corner to stuff myself into. But really, I need a shoulder to cry on, and I need a reminder that it's all okay.

It's okay. It's okay.

It's okay. I'm okay.

(Maybe what I am really saying, have really been saying all these years, is: Please don't forget I exist.)

It's okay. It's going to be okay.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Time Runs Out

I've seen the days sneaking away in the twilight. They think I'm not looking, that I won't know they've gone, but I see them. They slink away like cats in parking lots. They swoop away like sparrows on a breeze. They dissolve. Silent.

I never counted the days or even the weeks, when they were all here. Now I can't say how many of them have escaped.

I sit inside, surrounded. The tasks are piled around me like Jenga blocks. I keep my eyes focused on the sector marked out by this one hour. When the hour passes and I am still alive and that one region is now clear, I am surprised to open my eyes to the mountain of to-dos in the area of the next hour. Occasionally I peek at the block-towers for the succeeding days. This is invariably an exercise in being overwhelmed.

Eventually my body reminds me: it is time to sleep. I gesture frantically at the things that ought to get done, in vain. I am carried, kicking and screaming, into rest. As the dream-key locks my eyelids shut, I see the tail of a day flicking as the day waltzes away, never to return.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Spring is capricious this year

Has it really been twenty days since I posted anything here? How sadly I have neglected thee, o my blog.

Spring came, and spring left, spring leapt away like a deer vanishing into the trees, irretrievable. Chasing after it does no good. Like a child crying at every inevitable loss, I cried when spring abandoned me to winter again, and I whined and whined about the rain.

But like the deer who returns at dusk to nibble delicately and destructively at your garden, spring has returned, again. Spring has come bounding in so many times, and then has gone bounding out just as many times... But I think spring is here to stay this time. I really hope so. (Spring, did you hear that? Don't leave me again, don't break my heart by only staying one day. You have my hopes up now: two days of sun, light, warmth, the promise of sweat.)

It's almost May and the tulip trees are blossoming. The dandelions are out, biting my bare feet. The grass is still a swamp from yesterday's thunderstorm, but it shone in the hot sun all day today. I have high hopes for tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

[Thesis abstract] A Lyricist Responds to the Iliad

[Here is the 330-word abstract of why I only made one post during all of March.]

Art refers back to other art, and literature is no exception. The Iliad belongs to the body of literature that has deeply shaped English writing. A knowledge of this poem and the mythology that accompanies it enriches a reader's experience of a much greater body of literature, from the Roman masterpiece the Aeneid, to Dante's revolutionary Inferno, to modern books such as James Joyce's Ulysses. Moreover, deep engagement with this poem, as with any great piece of literature, enriches a person's life by bringing a consciousness of its lasting themes into quotidian existence.

For this project, I lived with the Iliad. In reading, I first inhabited the Iliad as poetry and story and human experience, then tried to capture my emotional and intellectual reactions as lyric poems. Some aspects of this experience were familiar and easy to accept as relevant to who I am and what I believe. Other Homeric attitudes, though, are diametrically opposed to my beliefs; dwelling within those perspectives during my reading was emotionally challenging. The mix of intuitive familiarity and utter foreignness of the Iliad was fertile ground for reflection. The fruit of this meditation was a body of close to a hundred lyric poems that respond to the Iliad.

These poems first reflect my deeply held beliefs about the subjects treated in the epic, then proceed to explore my own emotional experiences from outside my reading of the Iliad. The Iliad is a war poem, taking place within a polytheistic spiritual/religious framework. Its characters belong to a patriarchal society whose culture relies heavily upon the externalization of emotion and identity, defining a man by his reputation among his peers (and defining a woman by her value to the surrounding men). My reactions to these characteristics of the Iliad fed the themes of my responsive poems. This paper discusses my poems and their relation to the epic, approaching my experience of reading the Iliad from an analytic rather than poetic perspective.

[I now have an extremely rough but relatively coherent 23-page paper as well as 75 pages of ordered and clustered poems. Huzzah! There is a lot left to do but this feels like a major accomplishment as is.]


This morning I woke up 45 minutes before my alarm actually went off, but I hallucinated that I'd woken up to my alarm, and I never did get back to sleep. A headache and a new batch of colored nose-fruit greeted me. On the other side of the window, the trees were writhing. Rain battered the glass and the wind sounded angry.

My morning improved once I got out of bed: Tulsi tea, Nutella sandwich (I need to find a fair-trade alternative to Nutella), comfort from John 17. And it was better when I got back in bed and read Poetry 180, and journalled, ink bleeding through the lined paper, the notebook almost full.

But before I actually got out of bed the first time, and in flashes of sorrow throughout the morning, discontentment pervaded me. Sick sick sick, and all alone. I wanted someone to take care of me, be with me. Actually I didn't want just any someone, I wanted the person who holds me, the person whose presence reminds me--life is sweet. I thought: I am tired of sleeping alone. I want to wake up with O. (109 days...) I want hugs in the morning.

And I thought: Waah, I don't want to be sick.

But I got through the day (cancelled almost everything but made it to my German test; drank at least 5 cups of tea).

Then around 6pm, O. called. "I was partly calling to ask if you've had dinner?"
Me: "No..."
O. "I was thinking about coming by and making you dinner and trying to take care of you."

So he did. He improvised dishes from ingredients I'd been worrying about cooking before they went bad, and it was all very unplanned and it was all very sweet, and much better than chicken soup or Tylenol or breathing steam or all the honeyed cups of tea.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Trusting Judgment

If I say I trust you, what does that mean? I think of it has having two dimensions:
1) I trust that you have good intentions toward me.
2) I trust that you have good judgment.

(1) is fairly self-explanatory: I believe that you mean me well.

As for (2): If you don't have good judgment, then I don't believe that you have the capacity to discern what is actually good for me. In that case, your good intentions are not particularly reliable.

But what does trusting someone's judgment mean?

Let's start with what it doesn't mean. When I say, "I trust your judgment," I don't mean that I believe everything you say must be absolutely right. I don't mean that when you talk to me, I forfeit my right and responsibility to think about what you are saying. I don't mean that if I disagree with you, I will assume that I am wrong and you are right and discard my ideas without a second thought.

But when I say "I trust your judgment," I do mean: I believe you are intelligent and rational and well-informed. I believe you have good morals/values/priorities (in whatever area we are talking about; or if I say I trust someone's judgment without any qualification, I mean I believe that person puts God first in their life). I am biased toward believing that your decisions and beliefs are well-founded. If you say A and I believe B, my belief in B is likely to be shaken; I won't just abandon B, but I will question it, and I will operate under the assumption that you have good reason to believe A; I will ask you what you mean by A and why you believe A.

And often when I say I trust someone's judgment, I mean that I am biased toward believing that they are more likely to be right than I am. For instance, I trust my father's judgment. If he were to tell me (heaven forbid) that he thinks I am too young to marry after all, I would be really shaken up, because I am strongly biased toward believing my father is more likely to be right than I am, but I really wouldn't want to believe he was right in this case. I wouldn't immediately conclude that I should cancel the wedding in July, but I would immediately ask him why he thought this, and I would listen very carefully and with the expectation that what he said would be well-founded.

I should note that I have a bad habit of assuming that I am right and people who disagree with me are just wrong and not thinking clearly. I say it's a bad habit because I know it grows out of arrogance on my part, not because I think I have poor judgment (which I don't think). Being aware of this habit helps me deliberately counteract it; but what I really need is not another filter on my thoughts, putting another layer between my mind and my heart. What I need is a change to the way I actually think/feel in the first place. What I need is an attitude of humility.

In some circumstances, I already have the humility that allows me to truly listen without assuming that any point of divergence from what I think must be a divergence from what is correct. The trivial case is where the person I am listening to is an expert and I am not. The significant case, though, is where I trust the person I am listening to. If I respect and trust him, then it is natural for me to set aside the assumption that any point of divergence is him being wrong. If I respect and trust her, then it is easy to learn from her. If I respect and trust her, I can accept correction from her.

On the other hand, if there is no one whose judgment I trust, then there will be no one who can effectively correct me, which is a bad situation to be in. Moreover, there will be no one whose reassurance I trust, because if I'm worried and someone tells me things are going to work out, I won't be able to absorb that comfort because I will assume they are wrong because they are disagreeing with me. Clearly this is maladaptive.

In order to truly live in community, I need to trust. I need to trust people's intentions and at times I also need to trust their judgments. "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Submitting to someone means placing myself in their hands, and it makes a lot more sense in the context of trust. Granted, it's possible to submit to a person without trusting that person, but that requires trusting Christ. In fact, I think that trusting Christ enables trust in other people. Why? There are two major hindrances to me trusting trustworthy people: pride and fear. Fear keeps me from trusting their good intentions; pride keeps me from trusting their judgment. But trust in Christ eliminates fear, because I know that He is taking care of me, and trust in Christ eliminates pride, because I know that God is God and I am not.

Trust is a risk, like love is a risk, like hope is a risk. But we are called to trust and to love and to hope, because they are worthwhile risks. Trust doesn't mean checking my brain at the door; trust means entering into the full range of relationships.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Simple things that are suddenly complicated

I went to a conference on human trafficking during January. And now:

I want to make chocolate chip cookies. Or maybe I just want to always have the option of making chocolate chip cookies. But I can't buy chocolate chips at the regular grocery store because they are slave chocolate. My cookies are not worth supporting slavery. I'm trying to find fair-trade chocolate chips, and I'm thinking I'm going to have to order them online... Maybe I should stick with oatmeal raisin for the moment. I wonder if cinnamon is a slave product.

Also, complicated things that have become more complicated. Was my wedding gown made by slaves? (Apparently David's Bridal does better a lot of other major clothing companies--with its score of C- instead of D- or F. Sheesh.) What about all the things that I might put on a wedding registry at Target? (Can I even shop at Target anymore?) Where can I order a fair-trade blender??

Justice is so inconvenient.