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the 1%

I used to be terribly afraid of being friendzoned,

And wrote its definition as another word for “not enough”:

Not pretty enough, not attractive enough,

Not charming or funny or exciting enough to be anyone’s significant other.

That is,

Until I became the one friendzoning someone I loved.

That’s when I learned that sometimes friendzoning doesn’t mean “not enough,”

It just means “not now,” and simply, “not like this.”

It means, I could love that person deeply and dearly,

Think him handsome, feel my heart sink and my stomach flutter at his sight,

Feel my hands empty without his warmth,

And my heart hollow without his laugh,

And still push him away,

Because of fear of promises I cannot keep,

Responsibilities I cannot fulfill,

And obstacles I cannot surmount.

/

Today I read through “Ten Signs That He Sincerely Cares About You,”

One of those shallow, teenager-oriented Facebook pages about romance

I only subscribe to for the tips about good cafes and restaurants to visit.

And I felt my heart splinter a little, because so many signs were all about you.

You kissed my hand when we were together.

You contacted me night and day.

You were always the first to call,

Never the first to break off.

You were quick to admit your own faults,

Quicker to brush away mine.

You held my hand tightly on our first (and last) date and refused to let go.

Your phone always had traces of my presence in it,

Even when I had never touched it once.

And yet, I let you go.

Was my decision right?

/

Another totally unscientific article about romance

Which would usually send me vomiting to the bathroom

And shaking my head at the bad prose.

I guess my own feelings are making me into a desperate reader,

Searching for traces of us in the lines of strangers around the world.

In the article it claimed that when girls say the three fatal words,

“Let’s break up,”

52% of men don’t ask for the reason,

14% reply dryly, “Why?”

8% ignore explanations that they can’t understand,

6% pretend they didn’t receive the text containing the words and delete it,

4% quickly change the subject,

5% start swearing and shouting angrily,

8% eagerly seize the opportunity and agree to break up,

2% call back late at night, apologizing,

And the last 1% “show the tears of sincerity.”

/

UGH.

AUGHHHHHH.

I KNOW.

IT’S SO DARN CHEESY,

I CAN FEEL MY FINGERS COAGULATING TO MILK PROTEIN MOLECULES.

But even while I was cringing and slamming my laptop shut,

Saying with a laugh, “That’s enough Internet for today,”

A little piece of my heart whispered,

“So he was in the last 1%,

Because when he said goodbye,

You saw tears in his eyes.

Didn’t you?”

/

Love can overcome any obstacles—

You said, and I once believed.

But.

But.

But.

What if your love for your family and your love clashes?

What if your love for your dreams, for your future, clashes?

What if you know, deep down,

That pursuing this relationship will involve

Giving up an enormous part of who you are,

And changing the rest of your life in ways that you’ll regret?

Then,

Sometimes,

A beautiful, clean ending

Is better than bitterness and dishonesty on both sides later.

/

Or so I tell myself,

I tell myself,

I think.

a day to blush for my country

I had planned to teach English to one of my friends this afternoon,

but as he had to go to the hospital, we agreed to move the date to another day.

What he said next, however, shocked me:

“I was wondering why there were so many Americans and policemen in the hospital,

and then, feeling something brush past me,

I looked around and saw the US ambassador in a wheelchair.

I couldn’t hold up my head for shame.”

Alarmed, I searched up the latest news on Google, and my stomach sank.

It was true.

Mark W. Lippert, a US ambassador, had been slashed this morning by a man with a knife,

a man who declared his attack was to oppose the defensive American-South Korean military exercises.

There were photographs of Mr. Lippert with blood splattered on his collar and cuffs,

hurrying into a car as he shielded his injured face.

This is not a protest. This is an act of terrorism,

a blatantly disgraceful, terribly timed, awfully embarrassing act of terrorism.

All my friends buzzed with whispers of shame, hanging their heads in disgust and disgrace.

It’s astounding, and deeply saddening,

to see what extents extremism and misinformation can drive people.

I hope this is an incident that never happens again.

I fervently hope Korea can be defined, not by people or attacks like this,

but by the many people whose hearts are heavy with shame,

and whose lips are full of prayers of sincere concern.

my inheritance

When I was younger,

my family called me an unaccountable child with quiet, stubborn ways

and a quaint, rather disturbing way of speaking.

Father kept a file full of the unsettling things I said at age three, like

“Where did humans come from? How did the world begin?” and

“When great people are born, the whole earth trembles.”

“You were always wrapped up in your own world,” said Mother,

“and I was afraid of you, because it was hard to understand what you were thinking about.”

And Lydia, my younger sister, smiled and said,

“You were so quiet, Essie – your eyes always wide open and drinking everything in silently,

and so full of stories and strange, strict rules and judgments.

But I loved you very much anyway.”

One of the things I actually remember saying when I was three or four is this.

Adults would often come up to me and ask, “Who do you love more, your father or mother?”

I remember feeling distinctly guilty,

distinctly pained by this innocently barbed question.

And I remember replying coldly,

“Questions like that should not be asked.”

Yes, I was a strange, unaccountable child,

with a talent for making adults uncomfortable.

/

If you were to ask this question to me now,

I might be able to come up with a politically correct, diplomatically neutral answer.

But the truth is, I care about both of my parents very deeply and very differently,

and every answer I think of seems far too simplistic to say.

They’ve loved me deeply and differently,

given me different gifts and lessons and sorrows,

and carved different impressions into my heart.

After all, they’re different people.

/

My father is a lively, witty, eccentric man,

at once intensely generous and undeniably infuriating.

A hypochondriac, a pastor, a professor, and a writer all at once,

he has a way of repeating everything at least three times in rapid-fire succession

and driving his point in like a nail through a wall.

People always admired him and avoided him,

found him both clean in spirit as a breath of fresh air

and as annoying as a smack in the face.

I could sympathize.

When I was younger he would always take me on his lap and say, “Once upon a time…”

and spin homemade Korean fairytales for me in serials,

about hedgehogs and rabbits,

about children who found worlds inside toilets and behind church crosses,

and when I begged him to tell me more he’d say slyly,

“To be continued! Now go wash your hands for supper!”

Despite the fact that Father was a to-the-point,

confidently aggressive professor who enjoyed arguments and thesis statements

more than poetry or shimmering metaphors,

we both knew the power of words to paint black wolves into white sheep,

resurrect fresh roses from dead soil.

He gave me my love for words.

/

Here are some other things Father has given me:

my pale skin;

my thin wrists and ankles;

my way of flashing out with alarming rapidity when I’m irritated;

my carelessness about scores and societal standards;

my startling stubbornness about points I’ve set my heart on;

my devotion to the very few I love;

my allergies;

my ignorance of direction and inability to read maps;

and my general distaste for strong perfume.

/

I love Father the way I love my body, or the air I breathe.

There are times when I look in the mirror and see only the flaws,

or breathe in and taste nothing but dust.

There are times when I’m ungrateful and brutal,

and unable to see past the eccentricities, the loud voice, the jokes I don’t laugh at anymore.

But then, I know that he is as much a part of me as my body or the air I breathe,

and just as necessary. He’s my father,

someone I can neither change, nor abandon, nor stop loving,

even while we shout each other down in quarrels.

And I wouldn’t change him as my father with anyone else –

not for the world.

/

Dear Mother, she is the poetry of my childhood,

the bitterest song and the most beautiful.

I believe I’ve already written much about her, and will write much more in the future.

So here, instead, are some things I have inherited

from this strange, strong, small, and inexplicably sweet woman:

The capacity to cry at music.

My voice at its quietest and gentlest.

My fondness for pretty designs and flowers.

My thirst for adventure and constant pining for bigger dreams.

My propensity for sorrow. My fear of depending on people too much.

My unswerving politeness to everyone and my coolness about most.

My passionate love for a very few.

My best attempts at diligence.

My yearning to be elegant.

My shyness around people.

And my strong desire to never, never, never swerve from the path of duty,

even at the cost of happiness.

/

When I was younger everyone said I was the very image of my father.

I had his slanting vixen eyes,

his stick-thin figure, his quickness of movement,

his calmness on the stage.

Now, people say I am more like my mother:

in soft sparseness of speech, in quiet adoration of beautiful things like music and art,

in a face that has grown rounder and less sharp than in childhood.

But I still have both of them in me, in unexpected flashes and sparkles and streaks of gray ashes.

I have my father’s way of flaming out in anger and repenting quickly afterward,

instead of my mother’s ice-cold fury.

I have my mother’s tears in times of trouble,

and my father’s appreciation for clever, witty people.

This is me: Esther Ra, with her parents intermingled inside.

/

This is my inheritance; this is my song.

Sometimes I have tried to run from it.

Sometimes I have treated it as a curse, an object for either fight or flight,

and much of my life has been spent in desperate prayer to change my family,

to escape my fate, to pull the last threads of connection out of my body and flee into thin air.

Our family has not always been a happy one, and there have been times I resented it deeply.

But now, far from seeing anything in my past or my present as a burden,

I see it for what it is: a gift.

A gift I will be grateful for, in every year that comes.

A gift I will seek to repay, from the moment I can, to the best of my power.

/

Thank you, Mother and Father, for my inheritance.

I shall try hard to make both of you proud of bestowing it on me.

the necessity of love

My greatest ambition in life is to be loved.

And my greatest fear is its loss -

or rather, a lack of it from the beginning,

because it’s better to have loved and lost

than to never know its existence at all.

/

I am still very much a novice in the giving and receiving of love.

It thrills me.

It scares me.

It saddens me.

I have lost many of the people I have loved:

to differences in paths, in beliefs, in physical distance,

to (perhaps saddest of all) change of heart.

And I am not a generous giver.

I’m still afraid of giving myself away, piece by piece.

Look! I can count on my hands the number of people I love,

dearly, desperately, without reservation or misgiving.

They are very few.

And I know that some will leave me, sooner or later;

I know this will happen as surely as the tides will rise or the moonlight shine.

And yet I keep loving, without a thought for the future,

only grateful for the gift of having someone to love, just for today,

just for this moment.

If only there were more people I loved in this world.

If only I could be more certain of being loved in return.

/

I am not only a novice in the act of love,

but also, as of yet, ignorant about its very nature.

I know a very few things, however, as certainly as the palm of my hand.

If you love, it is forever: neither anger nor misunderstanding,

neither coldness nor reason can eradicate the small piece of yourself that you have made theirs;

even if they can no longer be part of your life,

they will always be part of your life.

If you love, physical distance shrinks to mere leaps of thought.

If you love, obedience becomes a pleasure; it becomes a positive joy.

If you love, you bear fruit, simply and without calculation:

emotion manifests itself in action and expression.

If you love, you hurt deeply, you cry frequently -

but if you love, you also find out the fleeting, exquisite, breathtaking meaning of joy.

/

So here is my question. Here is my greatest fear.

How can we love this deeply,

can we dare to love this vulnerably,

when we know that there is loss and heartache and betrayal

so often lurking around the corner?

How can we love, when even God seems silent sometimes,

and humans are flickering candles -

here one day, scattered smoke another?

How can we love,

when our love is so often betrayed, deemed unworthy,

discarded and flung out like a used-out rind?

I’m still trying to figure this out.

“Remain in my love,” said Jesus, “and your joy will be complete.”

“How?” I’ve always asked, genuinely puzzled,

genuinely longing for an answer to joy.

How?”

/

While reading the Bible today, the answer appeared with a simplicity that startled me.

“Follow God’s commands,” Jesus said. And this was the command we were to follow:

“To love each other.”

To love one another, deeply, dearly, simply and sincerely,

with the fervor to lay down your lives and open your hearts.

To choose before we have been chosen.

There is nothing in the world that is simpler.

And nothing more difficult.

Because it’s inviting hurt,

it’s inviting embarrassment and shame and disappointment.

Can I do it?

Do I dare to disturb the universe?

Oh, the irony!

One of the reasons I wanted so much to fall in love with God,

was because I wanted to become free from the shackles of loving those around me:

because I wanted a love that neither hurt nor betrayed.

But here is Jesus, saying, “Love one another.”

Here he is, saying the only way to remain in His love

is to open myself to loving others first.

/

I’ll try, God.

It’s not easy. I’m still scared. I’m still only beginning.

But I’ll try.

a date with mother darling

These days I’ve begun working.

Oh, the delicious thrill of honestly, independently earned money in one’s hands!

And its thought-provoking weight.

I save all of my earnings for airplane tickets.

Mother once mentioned that if I get accepted into university,

she would love to see it with her own eyes and step on American soil again, at least once.

My heart broke a little when she said that.

After all, she’s been working so hard to pay for my high school tuition these three years;

so humble and so sweet a wish from the best of mothers certainly deserves to be answered.

And then, of course, it would never do to leave my two little sisters behind.

They, too, have pined dearly and desperately to see once more the land of our childhood memories,

and it would feel wrong to leave them both behind while taking only Mother.

So here I am, trying to work up the money for airplane tickets to America and back,

tickets that would amount to at least four thousand dollars.

That’s quite a lot of money.

Well, thankfully, there’s quite a lot of work out there for me to do,

and even more thankfully I actually enjoy most of it.

I teach English mostly – and, thank Heaven, none of it test material.

I had been so afraid I’d have to teach classes on “How to Get an 800 on Critical Reading,”

“How to Get a Perfect Score on SAT/AP English Literature”, or “How to Ace the TOEFL.”

This makes me sound very ungrateful. I’m sure there are harder, more unpleasant things to teach.

But all my life I’ve been convinced that test-prep English doesn’t really help

your fundamental English skills, and teaching these subjects would kind of go against my convictions.

Thankfully, all the students who have come to me cheerfully allowed me to teach whatever I liked,

in whatever style I liked. So I decided to go crazy (at least by Korean standards).

I teach Creative Writing. I turn on obscure OSTs from Japanese short films no one has heard of,

then ask my students to imagine scenes for the songs.

I show them five-minute animations or Old Spice commercials,

then discuss themes of standards of masculine beauty / synonyms for “fragrant.”

A little more traditionally, we read short essays / stories.

I recommend “Paper Menagerie.” I read it two years ago in a World Scholar’s Cup contest,

and it’s stayed with me as a beautiful, striking piece of emotion ever since.

 So, I’m doing what I love, and I’m having fun, and I’m more grateful than I can express.

But as a very shy person who finds it stressful to make small talk for five minutes,

let alone teach nonstop for two hours,

it’s not easy. And it’s not easy to work without thinking.

About the people I’m doing it for.

About the people who have worked tirelessly for my selfish needs for the last three years,

for my whole life really,

without a single word of complaint.

Especially Mother:

dear, elegant, charismatic, musical Mother,

with her large, suffering, wonder-filled eyes,

her lips parted in a shy, self-effacing smile,

her legs trembling with years of driving and working,

legs that once looked so beautiful click-clacking briskly in polished high heels,

legs that can’t even walk up a flight of stairs on their own anymore.

She’s given up so much.

The slender fingers that used to touch grand pianos at the Tchaikovsky Music Conservatory

are now worn with years of scrubbing floors and cooking meals and washing dishes.

Despite her prettiness, her youth has fled in seven years of working for the church,

for a very difficult marriage, for a household that has never been rich.

Well, I’m trying to repay her for all that now,

trying to express all the love and gratitude and guilt I hold in my heart for her.

Although most of my money goes toward the airplane tickets, I always save a little,

to keep a steady fund of resources available to make Mother happy.

It’s not much. Little gifts she’s always liked but never bought for herself:

candles – camellia and peach-scented ones, knots of flowers, boxes of tea, red bean porridge.

It’s not much. It’s not nearly enough.

But it’s a beginning.

“Taste certainly changes with age,” Mother remarked fondly,

stroking the last bunch of daisies in her glass.

“When I was younger I longed for jewelry and pretty clothes.

Now, I look for objects that give me peace, like soft lights and pretty flowers.

I think I’d be satisfied even if I didn’t buy another outfit until I die.”

I listened sadly, thinking, “My dear,

I’m sorry I couldn’t buy you all the pretty dresses you wanted when you needed them.”

Well, until Mother’s taste changes again, I’m going to try to fulfill it.

Yesterday, we went to Cafe Arriatte in Insadong, Seoul!

I had searched all over the Internet for a nature-themed cafe,

since Mother loves flowers and grass and nature so much,

and I was very happy to have come upon so pretty a place.

The whole floor was thick with pieces of wood and soft brown soil,

and it felt as if I had just stepped from the bustling, car-streaked city streets

to a small haven of herb-scented paradise.

arriatte

As I walked into the cafe, I lifted my arm,

letting my fingers brush gently against the smooth, cool leaves hanging overhead.

I bought Mother a glass of herb tea (organic herb tea from Jeju Island, no less!),

and we also shared some honey-drizzled, bean-paste-sprinkled toast,

with hot, melted tteok (rice cakes) squished between the slices of bread.

It’s much tastier than it sounds.

honey injeolmi bread

All around us were clear glass bowls filled with water, on which rosebuds and candles floated.

“When I grow up and have enough money, I’ll build you a little room like this,

just for yourself,” I declared in delight, looking around us.

“That would be very nice,” said Mother, smiling warmly at me.

mother drinking tea

I love it when she smiles.

When I was younger, her smiles and hugs,

even her expressions of affection were a very rare delight;

Mother was not a person of much laughter.

I feared and suffered for her almost as much as I adored her.

She was full of so much anger, so much hurt and bitterness and deep, incurable sorrow.

Now her smiles come easily and naturally, like flowers blooming in spring.

If there were no other proof of God in this world,

I think Mother’s softened eyes and beautiful smile would almost be proof enough for me.

It’s taken decades for Mother to be able to say, “I’m happy,” and mean it.

If I have nothing else, I should still be eternally grateful for that.

There is nothing that affects me as strongly as the sight of long-suffering, kind souls,

lives that have gone through great sadness and changed for the better at last.

Anyway, I smiled back. “Thank you for existing,” I said sincerely.

“Trying to make you happy, makes me happy.”

Then, ducking my head a little shyly, I sniffed at the flowers.

sniffing flowers

There wasn’t much else that needed to be said.

My Pew by Franz Wright

Ever since I remember, I’ve grown up on the threshold of the church.

With a pastor as my father, I ran down the honey-redolent, wood-paneled corridors

Of decade-old churches. I learned to walk in rooms

Where cripples had been healed.

Of course, I’ve had my moments of doubt.

Of splintering uncertainty.

There was the dark, confused period of cold resentment.

The period when I questioned why we had to spend our lives saving others,

When we couldn’t even hold our own family together.

There was the wavering period of doubt.

The period when I questioned everything I came across,

From the Trinity, to the creation of the world, to the meaning of life,

To the authenticity of the Bible, to whether my faith was real or a mere product of my upbringing.

Finally there was the period in which I struggled -

not with the question of God’s reality or nature,

but with mine.

High school unearthed the roots of bitter wounds inside me,

and unable to find remedy for the injury, I spent day after day

and night after night

meticulously crafting and fashioning the idols I could lean on:

idols that came in the shape of friends and loves

that could never return my affection in full.

And so I hungered and thirsted.

In the end, although I’ve never let go of God completely,

I’ve come to understand much more that He isn’t just a philosophy to admire,

or a religion to chant,

or a vending machine,

or a supernatural force.

He’s that rarest of treasures – a friend,

One who sits quietly by my side and listens attentively to my thoughts,

from trivial, shallow wishes for pretty clothes and more self-esteem

to deep longing for deliverance from despair.

I feel so thankful for that.

I learned: it’s okay to question. It’s okay to cry, to be angry, to wander and get lost.

The important thing is to keep coming back.

Thank you, God, for holding Your arms out for me every time I do.

———————————–

My Pew

Franz Wright

I love this
window
way in the back
in early gentian morning
down which light’s long
labyrinthine whispers
reach my ear, I
would like to describe it to someone,
to myself, my blind companion—
                 Why did I turn to this
                 forsakenness again?
Are You
just a word?

Are we beheld, or am I all alone? And

as that little girl on the psych ward
recently asked her father,
When I am very old

can I come back
home, and
will you be there?

the pieces that make up happiness – 2.

2. I’ll wait for you

Having people who love me despite my faults,

Despite childish tears, eating too much,

Uncomfortable honesty, blushing, middle fingers,

Punchlines gone wrong, uncombed hair,

Tantrums, tongue-slips, quick despair,

Despite everything and worse,

Being able to look me in the eye and say,

I’ll wait for you. Don’t worry.

And even, You’re special.

Not just with lips, but with kind eyes

Refulgent with hearth-warmth and heart-glow;

And hands that wrap blankets around me

And feet that get up to fetch me the things I need

Before I knew I needed them:

Joy. Confidence. Unfading peace.

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