Thread

Meet me in the middle
Cos I’m halfway there
Not sure of the road
Y’know I easily scare

Three steps forward
On a sideway path
Hit another curb
How long does this last

For the longest time
All that loud noise was all I knew
I’m holding out for your whispers now
But that’s barely coming through

Chorus
Thread softly, softly, my dear
That I may feel that difference
Between love and insincere
Thread softly for the sake of my soul
That sunken ash could feel
Like solid gold

They say that you’ve saved
Well I’m not so sure
Here darkness creeps
In innocent ears

They say you’re our redeemer
And how can that be
When you didn’t stop
The dark from its hold over me

For the longest time
I’ve fought; changed so much to save myself
Now you say,
“You are my child, I wouldn’t want you
As anybody else”

An Original Song

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Chalk and Circles

As a child, it was all chalk for her.
Chalk on the sidewalk, in the corridors, chalk on the wall.
A smear of chalk on her forehead where sweat had dripped and tickled
A residue of soapy chalk on her fingertips as eagerly washed hands anticipated an afternoon snack.

Circles were the hardest shape to come round to
But they were her art.
Did intersecting circles cut open or close up even more?

Twenty years later and it’s still circles:
the urge to gather close, to conclude, to separate off.
Where meetings and intersections once intrigued, they were now a skill to master.

Of course in Sunday School she learnt that. That’s what God did — he separated.
Light from darkness, earth from sky, land from sea.
But at each line that marks their intersection, their meeting,
He seemed to know full well
It wasn’t a straight chalk line, not even a squiggly drawn chalk line of a four year old.
No, it was a confusion of shadows, a bleeding bursting red, a flux of waves and seeping sand.
Somehow he made it beautiful.

Twenty years later and it is still chalk on the walls.

Crossword Way

When I was majoring in Literature, one area of interest for me was in Post-Colonial Literature and the focus on the implications of what we might call a “vocabulary”. How the words, syntax, and means of expression we have available inform our ability to, and our way of understanding freedom, love, equality, and so on. Words organize, they give shape, and direction to our thoughts. Coming from the Christian faith, I had always been intrigued by how we were formed through God’s words in Genesis. Even now, we continue to be formed and shaped by words. A vocabulary that we pick up, most of the time unconsciously, involuntarily, from what goes on in our lives, our daily encounters, the people we interact with, the things we read. All these feed into the narratives of what we say to ourselves about God, about ourselves, and about others.

What do we tell ourselves about ourselves? I think about words and narratives that describe us, simple and common in our songs and bible readings: “you are redeemed”, “you are loved”, “chosen”, “forgiven”, “children”. Maybe so common that we often miss the power of the truth these words hold. These are the words, the truth, that God has used to call us to him. However, we go out into the world daily and are prey to the messages the world sends: “you are not enough”, “you are condemned”, “you have much to be ashamed about, you have much to hide”, “you have to earn your way”. Through various conversations with dear friends and mentors, I have come to realize that often frustrations, impatience, anger, fear, the need to be in control, stem from our thinking of ourselves that go awry. When I ask, “what would you say about yourself if you were being brutally honest?”, it is a far cry from God’s tender voice telling us we are wonderfully made, that we are precious in his sight, that we are the beloved children of the Creator and King of this world with nothing to prove, nothing to lose, nothing to hide.

What we tell ourselves about ourselves in turn come from what we tell ourselves about our God. If in our minds our God is not the powerful, loving, zealous, creative, and generous God he is, we will fail to claim the truth about ourselves, that we are all saved, redeemed, loved, and blessed children who can enjoy and be in wonder of life. It is so easy to project our own experiences onto our idea of God rather than learn to get to know him for who he is. Personally, I have come to realize that I tend to be suspicious of God. You know how we all joyfully sing the song, “Blessed Be Your Name”, and rightfully so? Well somewhere along the way, I think my heart changed the lyrics from “You give and take away” to “You give to take away”. A simple, small, deft shift that left me with a very false image of God. This translated to my subconsciously thinking, “I have to protect myself”, “I am alone”, even “God must be against me”. Recently, I had been gravitating back towards that, when watching The Lord of the Rings gave me a warning tap on the shoulder. It is the scene where Gandalf is encouraging Bilbo to part with the evil ring. Bilbo, poisoned by the ring and what it whispers, gets angry and accuses him, “You want it for your own!” What happens next is most precious to me, as the room shakes and gathers in Gandalf’s growing shadow. We had hardly seen him angry even from The Hobbit but now his voice booms and fills the room to its deepest corners: “Bilbo Baggins, do not take me for a conjurer of cheap tricks. I’m not trying to rob you; I’m trying to help you.” Bilbo whimpers in the presence of such might, trembles as he presses against the wall and then runs towards Gandalf’s embrace for protection. I thought, “Oh man, I’m Bilbo”. I knew I had to decide, what are the whispers I listen to and whether I was going to run towards God or away.

A friend of mine recently brought up a character comparison between Peter and Judas: the difference between the two disciples was not really in their faithfulness, for they both betrayed Jesus in their own way. Yet Peter went on to be key in Acts, while Judas went on to hang himself from a tree. I think the difference, then, is in what they believed about Jesus as their Lord. Peter understood his Lord’s forgiveness, love, and the power of his redemption. I have a hunch Judas’ idea of his Lord was closer to my own tendency as I struggled (and still do!) to believe and claim God’s forgiveness, redemption, and love for me. Psalms 119:11 reads, “Thy words have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee.” How do we love, trust, and obey God? Well the psalmist is suggesting that at the root of it all, we need to learn to be consciously dependent on God’s words – what God says or thinks about us, about the world, about himself – over all the many voices calling out relentlessly every day. It is easy to be conscious of physical wounds from our activities, but often we also suffer the more insidious wounds in the form of lies that are inflicted on the body of our identity. It can be tiring and even scary when we first start being honest about how we really see ourselves and God. Maybe the refinement takes years, maybe it happens over a lifetime. But it is an absolute game changer when we understand God’s heart for us and allow that truth to be healing; God’s word never stops at filling a person – it will always overflow and change the way we see and love others.

Of air, water, and suitcases.

She allowed herself momentary grief for the momentary separation.
After which it was merely a layer of her onion skin peeled back. What remained was what she struggled to find in those few hours that ended in sleep: motivation, memory, and a vague misgiving.

Afterwards the coolness of the water slips over her skin. Her arms parting, parting, parting, pushing her way, her legs defiantly gathering the waves back. Perhaps last week as they swam together she would have, had she been in the mood, reflected on this differently. Not a parting and re-gathering. Simply, well, strokes, calligraphy, art.

Nearing the end of the week, no longer an image, it became the rhythm of her life. Going out into the world, opening her arms to the thick, hot, buzzing air and the landscapes and people that came with it. Then returning to that old, brown, lazyboy with its soft cushions — a good deal. Her thoughts attempted to collect as she sank down but she’d come to a realization: peace wasn’t holding everything neatly together. Sometimes peace was just, holding nothing at all. And in the water, not even the weight of her own body.

But it wasn’t lightness and air that settled her mind. It was the heaviness of a jam-packed suitcase you pull up the stairs with someone when you awkwardly, and with slight embarrassment, realize that the end you’re holding didn’t bear much of the weight at all. A reassuring smile is all it takes to ease that situation.

Bloom

“This is why second generation Christians struggle . . .” was going to be the start to a rather dizzying post. Talking with a few friends, I’d gathered how growing up fed with all these bible stories and knowledge, living with the should and should nots brought either guilt or exasperation when in the end, we couldn’t seem to see the change. The knowledge doesn’t do too much does it, except either makes us complacent or makes us feel like something’s wrong with us when we fall short because “I should really have known better”. I would have ended up with a ridiculously neat statement of how I’d raise my kids less “religious” which I’ll admit did balance somewhat uncomfortably on the tightrope of my diaphragm. But with the track my mind was running on, I’d have said it anyway. Silly ammunition: “Mom, dad, if you’d not been so caught up on me being a godly kid when I was growing up, maybe I’d understand better, truly experience what it means that God loves me as a sinner. That I am chosen even when I’m unworthy. That I am precious even when I’m not perfect. I wouldn’t feel so condemned in all the things I’ve gone through”.

A slippery silk. A night undergarment when after all, you just might be better off sleeping naked.

Then a friend of mine made a remark before ascending the wall – a difficult climb, sending festive chalk down. Blinking furiously, it was more than my sight that was challenged: “the first generation goes through it too”. Alas, I had experienced God’s love anew and still I didn’t get it. I turned around, look at the mess my life had gone through and was upset at my upbringing. So just standing up, I manage to somehow trip and fall back down. But perhaps this is a good position to stay in; let me linger.

What my problem had been, was that I needed a savior – flipping through the channels, and catalogues and between the advertisements, the dramas, literature, the fabric, colors, and skin, we find the answer in ourselves, our own person. How to lead a good life: drive, love, passion, confidence, uniqueness, charisma.  Be bold but not too outspoken, love but don’t get walked all over on, be enigmatic but clear, be beautiful but do it effortlessly, be creative, unique but not weird, try hard but don’t appear that way. Armed (or assaulted) with these pointers calling out, we set out to become a self that is acceptable and worthy. At that time, it didn’t seem that way at all, but looking back, that’s exactly what it was. My trust in myself meant I never quite felt myself, never felt quite enough. My arms only opened one way, a “pull” sign on the doors that really meant it. Try pushing through and you are met with clever, glass resistance; a cool camouflage.

Till one day a friend looked at me as I burst to tears and said, “Gloria, you know, you have nothing to lose and nothing to prove to God.” Bless his soul, but I mean, at that time I thought, “well, of course I know that”. No, I didn’t know that. I really didn’t. Goodness in a person is messy. Not that goodness is messy, but goodness in a person is messy. It is an omelette with ingredients you don’t quite like but it’s a bit too late because life has happened and thrown them into the mix. But that’s okay; we must, oh we must, learn to love each other because there is still plenty to love and then we receive a healthy dose of protein, ha. I’ll admit I don’t exactly know how and often I struggle to see, but I do believe that God makes us all beautiful and worthy. If that is so then hoping for a person is seeing the becoming-beauty precisely where he falls short and gets on his knees. And the question of the woman? Well, I’m still seeking that out. Those words my friend offered along with tissue and a prayer has been a flower shyly blossoming in my heart. It was a prod: girl, you can’t save yourself. Because what if our testimony isn’t in our past, isn’t in a decision, a moment. What if it is a becoming, a hope of a becoming that radically changes the way everything looks. The kind that can’t be marked by a date, a promise, a word, a script. But a sense of a quiet difference that grows as we journey alongside everybody else. A second glance we will never know someone else took.

“The first generation goes through it too”: a whisper to focus on something other than myself. For again I’d ended up focussing on the imperfect in my life as the end all, rather than on a God who is making all things good and beautiful in his time regardless of human mistakes and failures, no matter which generation. Deep in my heart I was so exhausted from keeping it together because I’ve lived knowing I wasn’t good enough for church, for people, for friends. And the truth is, I’m really not and my life was unravelling at its seams. But had I stopped focussing on myself, I’d have been in awe of God’s grace that brought me to where I was all the same. For he had come to meet me where I fell, precisely where I fell short and journeyed with me anyway.

Clearly, I need to learn to listen, listen slowly, listen quietly, listen closely. Not just listen but listen to.

I’ve been struggling with writing, trying to weave material that can withstand that stretch of generalizing the particular without wearing too thin it tears. Unsightly dance tights cast aside. A language cheek to cheek? Soul to soul? Toe to toe? But what if the focus isn’t ultimately on what I can give in my hands that tire easily, on what I can do or say that quickly stumbles over, knees-buckled even before the first step? Maybe it’s not about how my writing falls short, but that in falling short, it falls over… a domino.

A note on parenting: I wouldn’t know hog-all actually.

Wild One

Who knew that a step forward would send us three steps back?

“Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell,’ Holly advised him. ‘That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”
Capote

But you know, I think I’m learning to love wild things. I’m learning to love the traces, the presence, the absence. I’m learning to rejoice at another’s adventures, and rejoice with a happiness that I don’t have to be a part of. I’m learning to love friends as an open door – and you may just as well walk out as you may walk in. The door is always open.

Pillow Talk

Dealing with everything is like having sadness and fear living right next door. Even when they’re not over, you hear the comings and goings of their daily life. Especially at night, when the streets are quiet, and the lights are out, your awareness of their existence just next door heightens; the bed-squeaks, an old rocking chair dragged across the floor, toilet flushes.

Often times they come over and knock relentlessly on the door in the middle of a good day. There are days they sneak in through a window for a plate of freshly baked happy thoughts, sitting on the counter to cool. There are days I get lured by the bottle of red and the bowl of chips they offer and give in, inviting them into the party. And then there goes, I end up sitting alone for the rest of the night, drowning in the bottle, wallowing in the bowl of chips. The worst though, are my dreams they visit, every night. They tiptoe in ever so slowly and start to turn every second into a painful, exhausting, circus ride that wouldn’t stop.

Nowadays, I’m finding the courage, energy, and time to bring a bottle of red and bowl of chips over to them instead. We sit down and talk, and I’d get to knowing them a little better. Like, where sadness and fear are from — apparently they’ve been around since I was way little — what shaped them to be who they are, what got them where they are. Some days we don’t make it to talking, we just look at each other and go through a box of tissues, surrounded by the pillow fort we’ve made on the bed.

I’m starting to understand them a little bit more. I’m starting to learn to talk truths into their lives. I’ve stopped asking them why they chose to live next door. Instead, I’m starting to welcome them in as an important part of my reality, that shapes my life.

I’m starting to leave their apartment each time I visit, with a freshly baked tint of hope.

The beautiful

It was like experiencing the shock all over again. The strangest thing is getting hit so hard viscerally before fully understanding why, even though I’d been through this many times by now. Hit again by the blank I drew when I first witnessed the thin thread of order and meaning by which human value seems to dangle so carelessly from dissolve into a Cheshire grin. That blank was a paper-thin page of a bottomless pit I smacked my head hard against; I’m surprised by its concrete coolness.

Later I play connect the dots. But even then it’s like lying on the grass and staring at the wide open sky, squinting a little at the bright canvas and pointing out the animal shapes of the clouds. After a while your skin itches from the prickly grass and it’s time to go home. And the clouds become just another grey pillow nursing your head of dreams with the damp confusion of reality.

A fog that we find ourselves enveloped in; panicking, we try to beat our way out as quick as possible and in the process thrash everything around. Maybe that’s what it is. Not knowing the fight I’m fighting, not knowing what I should be running away from. So there I go, picking the wrong fights, running away from the wrong things. This isn’t simply about staying to battle, facing your fear, though that is important too. This is about knowing where exactly the battle front is.

“I feel like running away”, I told my dad. Or rather, whimpered in between sobs. Surrounded by people who know you but don’t. Does claustrophobia tighten its grip when it’s cloaked with the heavy velvet of irony? Raw irony actually hurts; a tiny splinter, the crevice in your flesh a cognitive dissonance that leaves you paralyzed but God knows where to find that hairline fissure.

“Fight the good fight”. That struck me because well, it made me think, “have I been fighting bad fights?”

“Know your enemy”. As much as I feel the walls close in as I sit on the first row of the back seats, the people around me aren’t my enemy. Not even their misjudgments, with well-meaning shots fired. I finally realize I don’t want to run away blindly from the pains of family into the welcoming arms of the enemy held wide-opened.

The reality is, community disappoints and familial ties can bring out the most grotesque. But I think it’s saving grace that caused me that day, to catch a glimpse through the stinging tears and the bitter bite on my tongue – selfish blindness. A glimpse of a work in progress, a glimpse of the beautiful.

After all, with all my idiosyncrasies, isn’t that me, too?

Less I Forget

Stubby fingers held up to paint
Against the sky.
A woosh of shapes

Headful of dreams
Blanket of giggles
Bedtime adventures, trail the unfinished

So much, too much
Too fast, too soon

Now words once traded
Are traded for sighs
A sorry upgrade
From the lullabies

Heart unsure
Strings a tangle
Reach to love, caught, mid-strangle

Not back, not rewind
Don’t stir, wicked sleep
Not back, no up, up, up.
To the canvas, I once knew.

How do you talk about a wordless wrestle, a nameless sigh?
How do you begin to understand the unfathomable reachings of the heart?

Tonight the sky skirts the edges of a dream
Layers and layers, superimposed.
And you know it’s supposed to mean something, the way the rays kiss the expanse and the clouds blush, an effortless apology.
Rather, you wish with all your heart it’s supposed to mean something
How could it not; the abandoning wisp, the moon painfully far, a teasing, sly, slice?

But even if it does, who can know?
I’m left forced to take a step back.
Tonight the streams of clouds and the whisper down my veins, they’re one in the same.

The clouds do not carry needless tears
The clouds do not carry needless tears.

God, I’m tired.

Aim for the heavens

We’ve all got our noses pressed up close against the stained glass pattern. Too close — we become frustrated with the mono-colored image, a blurred second best.
We’re all standing with our toes furrowing the sand, crinkling as salt water rides up the shore, dissipating. The pleasurable coolness tickles our feet and runs away. The sun slipping, slipping past.

I feel the edges of each word tied precariously to the thoughts in my head. Metonymy gives your state of mind its weight. Metonymy lets words settle in your mind in place of liquid silver you try to wrap your fingers around to grasp, to understand.

I feel… scattered. Everywhere and nowhere. Doing everything and nothing at all. I think about… nothing, because there is nothing sizable enough in the world for me to wrap my tiny head around. So my mind wanders instead, running along narrow corridors, rapping its knuckles on the wooden framed doors, searching.

I feel… out of control. I’ve got one leg extended, pretty gracefully, mind you, ready to take the next step. I know I’m in my sparkly sandals I bought because they were the furthest from sensible shoes I could think of. My toes are pointed — a habit. But I have no idea where my next step will take me and already my other feet firmly planted is sinking in quick sand. My arms would be flailing, but they’re too busy gripping for dear life onto the street lamp.

But I fear that reining myself in, pulling my life together, I end up leading a life only as big as my arms can hold.
I fear that things will go my way in a world I don’t half understand, in a life I don’t treasure half as much as I should.
I fear placing my trust in where I plan my feet to tread as I traverse ever-shifting ground.

See, the problem is not that our dreams are too big
It’s that we can never quite dream big enough.
The problem is not that we hold on too tightly, not wanting the good things to end.
It’s that we do not desire eternity enough to aim for the heavens.