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,
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!”
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.
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.
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
“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.
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’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.
During the past few months, I’ve subsided into silence.
My broken-winged poems have fluttered into their cages.
The pouring out of my novels have threaded back into dust-rimmed corners,
like water threading back into a drained pool.
And after this long hiatus, I’ve come back again,
breathing the dust off my bowl of rose petals,
trying to revive my rose gardens of old.
In those months, I’ve been thinking.
About a lot of things that I’ve taken for granted, actually,
and a lot of things that I’ve held dearer than life.
First comes human wisdom.
And with it, my dreams.
For the longest time, I’ve admired wisdom as the ultimate virtue.
An anthropologist who uncovers the secrets of buried cultures,
a marine biologist who dedicates his life to understanding two species of jellyfish,
a composer who captures every emotion from sadness to fury to gentle joy in the space of a single concerto,
a poet who conjures up heaven and hell in the space of a thin sheet of paper.
I admired them. I admired them.
I almost worshiped them –
did you know, incidentally, that the first museums were temples to the muses?
In a small part of my heart, I think I, too, laid sacrifices at the temple of human wisdom.
Museums and art, making the world better, learning something new –
These were the creeds I carved into my heart.
“Lead me,” I said to God,
but I was thoroughly specific:
lead me to success, to wisdom, to recognition, to acceptance,
comprehensive in my understanding and extensive in my knowledge.
I scorned purity in favor of polish;
I lowered my estimation of kindness and good temper in comparison to cleverness.
My dreams of becoming a writer were also inextricably linked with this:
“Give me my dreams,” I cried, “or give me death.”
A pale, bleak existence with no fire of passion,
no advancement, no way for me to change this world,
was something I dreaded and shrank from with terror –
such a life, I exclaimed, is not worth living!
But in this past year, my temple has been demolished.
Here is a hard-wrung confession,
the result of many months of bitter tears, close questioning, and heart-searching.
Writing. Wisdom. Changing the world for the better.
Yes, these are beautiful.
Yes, these are things I love.
they are not the reason to live.
They should never be the reason to live.
How quickly these can be tainted.
How many writers and poets have tread the path of words,
only to crumble into the chasm of suicide and self-pity?
How many people have risen with hearts bright as gold,
eager to make the world more beautiful,
and ended up falling apart with arrogance, playing at god,
thinking of others as inferior or ignoble?
I still love wisdom, and I still believe in striving to the utmost excellence of one’s being,
in pouring oneself out in raw honest words, in changing the world with our own blood and sweat.
But I’ve learned to accept the gnawing, gaping uncertainty of “even if”.
Even if I can never quite be the writer I dream of becoming,
I will find happiness in You.
Even if I can never become as clever as those I admire, or as the person I wish to be,
I will love myself because You love me.
Even if I throw myself into the world to try to change it,
and find my efforts disintegrating into squeaks and gibberish instead of noble trumpet calls,
I’ll still keep trying, and still find meaning in this bitter and complicated life inside You.
Thank You for being my happiness;
thank You for being my meaning of life.
There was a day when I was at church, feeling absolutely – terribly miserable.
There was something hard and closed shut in my heart, and I could scarcely breathe, for the unhappiness that pooled inside me and hardened into a crust of anger.
But I felt, strangely enough, that God wanted desperately to speak to me.
So, unable to pray, I walked over to the piano and sat down and began to sing.
The first song that I opened to was the hardest confession I ever made to God, because –
there was a time when I couldn’t live without dreams.
And there was a time when I thought I couldn’t live without many things.
But now, I was ready to give them up.
And as I sang, the tears flooded down my face, and something inside me shattered.
I was free again. And I felt as if I had just crawled out of a long, narrow tunnel, and into the sunlight.
I was able to breathe.
I could live without dreams
And never know the thrill of what could be
With every star so far and out of reach
I could live without many things
And I could carry on
But I couldn’t face my life tomorrow
Without Your hope in my heart
I can’t live a day without You
Lord, there’s no night and there’s no morning
Without Your loving arms to hold me
You’re the heartbeat of all I do
I can’t live a day without You.
—Can’t Live A Day