to shine like a starstrewn sky


a prayer

Dear God,

God of all the infinite heavens,

of limitless stretches, of extreme precision,

of lush wonderlands, of wanwoods leafmeal,

of pied beauty and dear freshness deep down things,

of glory that oozes out whether we see it or not,

of eagle’s wings and a hen’s caring warmth,

of kindness and wisdom and understanding past all of the extent of our knowledge,

of dreams and visions and bravery even when we’re deeply scared and our hearts turn to flesh.

These days, I’m wondering what it means to give praise to you

and bring glory to your name –

for your name, dear Lord, is great, and what insignificant accomplishment,

what scratch in the structure of the universe,

what desperate flailing to make a mark in the framework of fate would matter to a God as great as you?

Someone once said, “Saying that I will bring glory to God could easily be a flash of arrogance.

After all, what can we do that would really bring glory to Him?”

And on the brink of college, with so many things I’m eager to learn –

about oceans, identity, philosophy, mathematics, visual culture, creative writing –

will any of it bring me any closer to the truth?

I always thought studying would help me know you better

(finding your infinity in the soaring arches of mathematical graphs,

sketching the intimate warmth of your world in my drawings,

expressing your beauty through carefully crafted words that might do anything near justice to you).

But the thought that all of this is really very insignificant,

that it cannot bring you glory, makes my heart fail within me.

It is true, dear Lord, that knowledge is not the same as wisdom.

It is true that studying might not reveal you in the same way as your Scripture,

or praising you through song. But isn’t the world also your handicraft?

And isn’t studying the book of nature and humankind around me also a way to understand you better?

I have understood, this year,

how easily my dreams and ambitions can take precedence

over the purity of my wish to give praise to you.

I hope my motives in studies are not clouded by similar motives of idolatry or pride as well.

Please guide me, God, so that my heart can be fixed in the right place,

so that my life may please you and bring you glory.

Whether through my studies, or the time I spend in church, or in worship,

or by praying by myself in quiet rooms,

let me bring you praise.

Lord, lift me out of the dust,

and make me shine in your image,

let me, lowly as I am,

bring you glory.

Much love,


the double-edged sword of beginning anew

Once upon a time, there lived a small pebble,

on the shore of a stream.

It was an impatient, ambitious little pebble,

and felt that its dusty sphere was limited.

Sometimes, birds would fly by, laughing,

“Caw! Caw!

I have seen a great whirlwind swallow up boulders

a hundred times as big as you!”


“Have you ever seen an avalanche of snow falling

in pure white clumps from craggy peaks?”

Sometimes, too, fish would swim by, gurgling,

“We have seen sea snakes give birth in water

and toads that tear through their mother’s back.

Oh, all the sights and wonders we have seen!”

The little pebble felt very bitter, and often sighed,

“If only I could see those sights and be shaped by these wonders!”

One day, a child ran to the stream, giggling with her friends.

“Look! See how far I can skip these stones!” she cried.

And before the pebble knew quite what was happening,

it felt a warm, pudgy hand clamp down around its middle,

and the pebble was hurled into the middle of the stream.


The pebble spun, careened, whirled, tumbled, cartwheeled its way

down the clear, bubbling brook. Water licked at its sides.

The sky was bright and sparkling with fresh, dear, bluish hope.

The pebble squeaked, “At last! At last!

I will see the world at last!”

The stream then diverged into two pathways,

and the pebble was whirled along to…


a muddy rivulet.

The water grew slower and slower,

then trickled to a tired brown coil of mud.

The pebble was wedged into a pudding of dirt with a foul stench,

and its heart grew as heavy as its little body,

as it sank into the depths.

“Oh, why was I so ungrateful with my little plot of ground!” the pebble sighed.

“At least there, I had sunlight, warm wind, birds to listen to,

the reeds to dance and sway before my sight.

Here, there is nothing but darkness.

Why was I so ungrateful?”


the stream broadened, then opened to great, sparkling expanses

the pebble had never seen before.

White froth foamed at the glittering surface of the ever-changing liquid.

Sunlight cast jewels and gold necklaces on the bosom of the large river.

The pebble felt its heart soar on light, sweet wings,

and it sang at the top of its voice,

“Beat me and pound me and whirl me away,

Carry me into the midst of the fray!

Whatever befall me, I am not afraid;

Better tossed in the sea than dead in the shade!”

healing the heart

Last night, I realized how unhealthy my heart could still be.

It’s strange how complex and unexplainable and sometimes downright frustrating

the process of healing can be.

I should be patient,

because I can certainly feel God healing me this year, step by step.

The relief and assurance that washed over me as I broke down in front of the piano.

The disappearance of my hatred and resentment towards one of the people I loved most

after I spent half an hour praying in the subway, shoulders shaking with desperation.

And the quiet peace that flows over me day after day when I need it most.

“But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed” –

I realized how bitter my heart still is,

how tightly coiled with aversion to grace, how unwilling to forgive.

My little sisters and I were getting ready to go to bed, when the subject of Y came up.

And Lydia lightly said,

“Well, Esther, I think he may have done some wrong to you in your relationship,

but you did a lot of wrong to him.”

Eunice agreed cheerfully,

naming several instances where I had been unkind to him.

“You were really quite rude and immature to him,” they chirped.

How amazed they were when I burst violently into tears.

And I couldn’t stop crying for about an hour.

A pent-up rage I had barely known existed slammed into my chest and made me cry until my shoulders shook and the caverns of my throat echoed keening wails.

“What right have you to judge me, when you don’t know the whole situation?

What right have you to scratch my wounds?

This isn’t the first time!” I flared at Lydia.

And to Eunice, cruel, biting words:

“After all you’ve done to ruin our relationship,

after all the unhappiness you’ve given me,

how dare you talk to me about him?

Do you hate me?

Do you have any care for my feelings left at all?”

My sisters glanced at each other, pale and astonished,

and then Lydia patted me gently and said in bewilderment,

“Well, there, there, Essie – I am sorry if I hurt you.

But I thought it was all over and done with,

and you guys were on friendly terms again.

Why are you so unhappy still? He doesn’t seem unhappy anymore.”


I do admit that I was rude and unkind,

bitter and demanding in my relationship with Y.

But I was also deeply hurt, and disappointed,

and so many of my hopes shattered.

I can’t even imagine holding hands or hugging anymore with pleasure;

duty and affection, coldness and kindness are so mixed up in my recollections that I’m not sure which is which;

and I don’t think I can begin a romantic relationship again soon.

It pains me to think at length about my relationship with Y,

because as hard as we both tried, it unraveled badly.

And it enrages me,

that I should suffer all the guilt of an oppressor

while also having all the hurts of a victim.

Yet isn’t love all about forgiveness?

I’ve found it in my heart to forgive Y sincerely.

Our friendship has mended itself little by little,

and I no longer feel hurt or seething when I see him.

I’ve opened my eyes to his generosity, his kindness,

and his loyal sweetness to my family again,

instead of distorting them as self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and arrogance.

But I still think I need to forgive my family – especially Eunice.

Both directly and indirectly,

I have suffered so much pain during the last several months from her hands,

that I can barely look at her with the affection I used to in the past.

Her sweet little voice only rings with ugly words in my head,

and when she comes and wraps her arms around me,

I can only see the sharp flash of her eyes as she told me angrily that I was wholly to blame.

I’ve been thinking about the Lord’s Prayer, the part where Jesus says,

“Forgive us as we have forgiven others.”

And I think I still lack in forgiveness and grace.

“But I’m hurting!” I exclaimed to God.

“And so did I,” he replied, “for hundreds of years of Israelite idolatry and desecration.”

If God could still look on us with grace and forgiveness and enough love to give up his own Son after that,

shouldn’t I be able to fall in love with my sweet youngest sister again,

forgive her and treat her with kindness and see the best side of her once more?

And – I should be able to forgive myself.

My self-image has crumbled. I see myself as rude and manipulative,

inconsiderate and impulsive and full of anger and depression.

Many of these qualities I actually discovered in myself as I advanced in my relationship with Y,

like unearthing skeletons from poor soil.

But God is watching over me like a mother hen,

resplendent wings spread out over my head.

He sees past the cracks of my splattered, besmeared shell,

and into the warm, live embryo of my struggling spirit.

And he’s still waiting for me to be born.


Memory is such a deceptive, confusing, painful thing.

It grabs us by the teeth and shakes us with love

for people who have betrayed us.

It poisons new relationships with guilt and hurt over old wounds that can’t quite heal.

It keeps our heartstrings stretched tightly over oceans and continents,

it fuels hate and sparks action,

it makes forgiveness both difficult and worthwhile and makes empathy possible.

Are there memories that hurt me? Yes.

Are there memories I’ve wished that I could erase, and start all over again? Yes.

But then again, would I ever be able to forget.

Can the hurt cancel out the happiness,

and is it worth forgetting the unutterable fragrance of the roses

simply to tear out the thorns?

Instead of trying to forget you,

I promise I will never forget the gratitude I felt for every kindness and joyful memory you gave me.

Instead of running away from the past,

I will use every broken pebble that made me cower as if I was stoned

to rebuild myself from the very foundations.

Even if my memory was erased completely, I would find you, somehow, somewhere:

I would find you, and I would love you,

and I would make those memories all over again.

Don’t forget me,

because I will never be able to forget you.

dreams of water

Receiving an uncommon kindness

or beginning to emotionally depend on someone

is a really frightening thing.

It makes us realize how alone we are in this world.

Just how precious and difficult it is to be regarded as special by anyone –

an unexpected gift, like coming across a spring of clear water in a wasteland.

Just how scary it is to draw near and touch our lips to the liquid,

for fear it might be a mirage that leaves us

crazed with newly recognized thirst.

And so we move on, loneliness parching our throats,

and the question of whether the rejected spring was an oasis or a mirage

always lingering at the back of our minds.

refined gold

These days, I’m learning to deeply admire

people who can be kind after enduring great suffering.

Suffering seems to be a fire that flickers both ways.

Some people emerge from it like refined gold,

the dross of selfishness and pettiness burned away,

and equipped with the courage and experience to withstand great misfortune.

Some collapse into ashes and are swept out with the dust.

My heart aches for them, and then I resent the suffering that God allows in this world.

But I have come to value suffering as one of the most cleansing things in the world.

It opens our eyes to the importance of love.

It opens our ears to the sufferings of others.

It opens our hearts to God, and to living life in color.

There is a wisdom and compassion that only those who have gone through suffering can acquire.

Many of the people I love have suffered greatly—

from depression, dysfunctional families,

traumatic experiences, abusive relationships, and even near murder.

I almost wept when I heard their stories. And I lay awake in bed a long time after that, thinking bitterly,

“This is a cruel world. This is a difficult world.

And how unfair it is that people so beautiful and so good should go through so much misery.”

But slowly, I have come to see the strength and steel that such experiences have given them.

Everyone suffers: I have, too. Yet every unbearable pang that I ever felt

pales in comparison to the stories of survivors that I hear around me.

And I am awed and humbled at how different and more mature many of them are from me,

and how much more they have to offer.

When others come to them for advice, they can empathize from the heart,

and weep tears of blood for their neighbors, because they have gone through the same upheaval.

When forgiveness is hard, or life seems bitterly unfair,

they know how to throw back their heads with a sparkle in their eyes and set back their shoulders and say,

“The Lord has weathered me through worse; he will do it again.”

I’m not saying that suffering is always a blessing or something to throw a party over.

Of course not.

I’m still afraid of suffering to come in my life, and still my heart breaks to see anyone else suffer.

But for the people who have gone through such experiences,

who have been thrown screaming and weeping to the bottom of the pit, and have crawled tooth and nail out of hell,

I applaud you with all my heart.

To those who have had the wisdom to reach out

and grasp the hand of God by recognizing the futility of their abyss—

I believe that you are beautiful.

And to those who transform their suffering into compassion for others,

like base metals into pure gold—

I can’t admire you enough.

If evening must fall for me as well, let me bear it bravely.

And let me walk back into the morning, holding Your hand,

and with eyes that can comprehend and compassionate the sufferings of others more clearly.

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.


Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.


Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

–Naomi Shihab Nye, Kindness

the echoes of what if

“You’re possessive about people,” said Mother to me.

“It’s one of the nicest things about you,

and also one of the most self-destructive,”

added my little sister kindly, looking into my face.

She knew she had been loved by me to distraction

for years, and relished it,

together with the privilege of telling me uncomfortable truths like this.

“You really love people with sincerity and can recognize sincerity in others, unnie.

But you have to learn to let go sometimes. You see?

I’m very popular. I have tons of friends. I really care about them.

But if they leave, I don’t make a big deal out of it.

And if we part ways and go on with our lives, I think that’s okay.”

I’ve always struggled with relationships I care deeply about.

I still do.

And in this gap year, I’ve come to question my own beliefs

about a healthy relationship.

Where is the fine line between obsession and adoration?

What is the difference between possessiveness and care?

Y and Mother told me, “It’s better to focus on God instead of trusting too much on people.

They can disappoint, drift away, who knows what? Love them,

but give them an agape-like love. Don’t tie them

too closely to your heart.”

And my heart recoiled at these words, because it was a paradoxical thought.

God had said that we would show our love for Him by loving each other.

And I still firmly believe that the power of sweeping, overwhelming affection

is one of the strongest and most beautiful in the world,

something that can show us a glimpse of what God really meant for us to be,

something that keeps this world still alive and flickering.

My love for my family is like this. My love for the very, very few friends I cherish deeply.

But –

I also can’t deny that my love often becomes selfish and sad,

a mere squeaking and sniveling shadow of the noble flame which it should ideally be.

Love often leaves me in tatters – grasping at the remnants of self-confidence,

horrified at the depth of my own capacity for hatred and jealousy,

and hanging around corners and begging silently at the feet of my idols

for mere breadcrumbs of kindness.

I weep and dream of them at night.

I let everything else go to try to hold onto them when they leave.

I unravel.

I’m still trying to learn the secret of balancing relationships with my love for God.

Perhaps it’s not so much about balancing it, having a little less of the one for more of the other,

but of becoming deeply closer to God, and a better person overall,

and thus prepared to be a better person in my relationships with people as well.

It’s so complicated. Where should love stop?

And where should it begin?

I unfurled a plastic umbrella a few weeks ago, watching its glistening, transparent folds

jump cheerfully into the gusts of rainy wind.

And a little piece of me trembled with joy

when I saw a faint pink, cherry blossom petal from last year’s spring

clutching onto the plastic for dear life.

But I also felt sad to think that many of my relationships have become like that:

leaving no trace of their fragrant spring but torn cherry blossom petals,

to shiver under your eyes at the most unexpected moments…

It’s okay. We all make mistakes, and we move on.

The important thing is to remember to keep those cherry blossoms drifting in your heart,

to never forget those memories of spring or the lessons I have learned from it,

tremble and let the petals fall, and be prepared when summer comes.

I still love every person who I lost: with every inch of my heart.

And I’m still sorry about every mistake I made,

still afraid that I won’t be able to hold onto the beloveds in my future.

But I have to keep trying.

And I have to keep learning.

That’s what life – and loving – is all about.


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