the time a fishbone threw off my routine

It takes events like a trip to the ER for a fishbone lodged in your throat to make you appreciate the most basic things operating ‘as they ought’. We sat down for dinner on a normal, quiet Saturday evening. I was glad to have the weekend off from work to rest, be with my husband, and worship with my church family. But with that first spoonful of soup slid one small, sharp, insidious bone that decided it didn’t quite want to be eaten alive by my stomach juices quite yet, so it parked itself in my esophagus, just past my vocal chords. After a big, painful swig of water, a few meek attempts at swallowing, and some tentative coughing, I just pictured this bone digging itself deeper and deeper into my throat muscles, and I could imagine the nurses describing me in their handoff report to each other: Adult Asian female, aspiration on a fish bone, inflamed esophagus, pneumothorax, chest tube in place, on antibiotics for pneumonia. OK, so I’m a little paranoid, but after some of the crazy stories I’ve seen and heard at work, this is where my mind goes now.

So off to the ER we went. I walked myself up to the check-in desk while the husband parked the car, and with no small amount of embarrassment, I rolled my eyes and told the gentleman at the desk, “I… have a… fish bone stuck in my throat.” To my relief, neither he nor the other staff seemed particularly surprised by my dilemma. After some X-rays, the ER doctor tried giving me a couple of muscle relaxants in hopes that the fish bone might become loose enough to make its way out of my throat, but to no avail. The gastroenterologist had to drive in from a couple hours away to eventually knock me out with Morphine and Versed – which I now have a new appreciation for – to put an endoscope down my throat and hopefully pluck out the bone with some forceps. Too bad the medications didn’t last long enough for me to stay asleep before he finished. I awoke quite suddenly with the scope down my throat and was quite convinced I was about to vomit the bone and other goodies out onto the doctor’s sparkly white lab coat. Fortunately for all our sakes, we were spared of such pleasantries. The doctor removed the scope only to announce he did not see the bone, that it must have passed down my throat at some point prior to his arrival. Alas, it will remain a mystery as to when or how that bone made its way out of my esophagus. I apologized to the doctor that he had to drive four hours round-trip to not find this elusive fish bone. We got home at 3AM, tired but more amused than anything at what had just happened. It was supposed to be a simple Saturday evening dinner of leftover fish soup. So much for a routine weekend.

With the luxury of self-scheduling at work, routine is thrown out the window since my work hours can and do change week to week. It is both incredibly wonderful and slightly disorienting. Friends and family are never quite sure when I am free. I’m never quite sure myself. My weekdays become weekends, and I perpetually lose track of what day of the week it is. You miss out on family traditions when you have to work holidays. Somehow, fireworks on July 6th just don’t have the same effect.

I most definitely now have a new appreciation for routine. One of the many reasons I went into nursing was because of the variety that each day and each patient can bring. It is exhilarating to always be learning in such a dynamic and challenging environment. It can also be tiring and extremely humbling. I am finding that the right doses of routine can help to center us, quiet our busy minds and hearts, and help us regain our footing on what is familiar and dependable.

I think this is partly why God created seasons. The sunrise and the sunset. The rhythms in our body that tell us to sleep and wake. The peace we find when our homes are clean and in order. After all, what if we awoke one morning and found that the sun did not rise, that the moon stayed out until noon? I can only imagine what our reactions might be. We need a fundamental level of routine; more than that, we need the One it points us to as our foundation when things start to get shaken up.

Storms will still come, life will still be full of rude interruptions, and yes, embarrassing trips to the ER for a fishbone in the throat will sometimes happen. But at the end of the day, our bodies will still tell us it’s time to rest in the faithful hand of the One who will assuredly still cause the sun to rise and the sun to set, just as we expect.

courage is a curious thing

Sometimes, we throw around phrases without really knowing what we are asking of ourselves or of others. Take courage. I have had a number of friends use that word courage with me in recent conversations.

It takes courage to live in community.

It took a lot of courage for those parents to withdraw life support.

That patient was so courageous in his years of battling his disease.

Courage is a curious thing. It is not quite like strength. It is more pliable, more dynamic. Strength takes on a more solid form regardless of its context. Courage, however, can take on new skin as its circumstances change. For many of our patients and their families, they take courage for weeks, months and years as they fight for the patient’s life. They take courage to undergo surgeries, to tolerate the debilitating side effects of strong medications, to endure agonizing hours of rehabilitation. But for many of these same patients, there sadly comes a point when they are challenged with what can feel like a complete undoing of courage itself. But in reality, it is simply a transformation. Going from the courage to live, to the even greater courage to die. Some families in our unit struggle deeply with this, and become stuck. Part of the reason, I believe, is because there is a moral aspect attached to courage, particularly in the context of a pediatric intensive care unit. (Or at the very least, there is a social aspect, because typically in situations where courage is required, other people are affected.) Purported courage without wisdom can easily slip into recklessness. Courage with wisdom does not come easily.

In another context, my artist friend Chia has a tagline on his business card, “Creativity takes courage.” I never fully understood this until I started becoming more aware of my fears. In my creative life, I began to notice that moment of hesitation, that quiver in my stomach whenever I finished a piece of writing, finished processing a set of photographs, or sat on the verge of playing an improvised melody. In the lingering seconds before opening these up to the world, I would feel those surprising yet familiar trembles in my gut. I began to realize there is a certain vulnerability that you open yourself up to when you share expressions of yourself to others. You begin a certain kind of dialogue with others when you begin to share your creative self, and in that dialogue, the door to criticism opens, whether you ever actually hear that criticism or not. But so too opens the door to exhilaration, encouragement, self-discovery, and growth.

It takes courage to live in community. This is not to say that we all need to become socialites, as Adam McHugh articulated so wonderfully in his book, which is gospel to introverts like myself. But introverted or extroverted, living in community requires creativity because we must learn how to define, accept and express our unique selves in the context of relationship. And creativity takes courage.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” True courage can feel, at times, terrifyingly elusive. But when it is found, its beauty and value are beyond measure.

chicago sightings

I have this thing when I travel someplace and am taking photos. I have a strong aversion to taking the pictures I know everyone else has taken. Even if it’s a beautiful shot, I still just hate the thought that the perspective is so unoriginal. Nonetheless, to some degree, I suppose you simply can’t get away from it.

So let’s get the predictable shot out of the way…

Alas, the bulk of my visits to the more touristy spots in Chicago took place before I developed an obsession with my camera. Now, when we visit my sister out there, we just eat, lounge, walk, and repeat that 3x daily. Once in awhile we will think of a new place to explore, but in terms of photographs, it becomes less about the place itself and more about what is interesting right in the place(s) where I am at.

So here are some recent shots from this last trip. The first few were taken inside the architecture firm where my sister works.

This next shot comes from the inside of a small Chinatown store. Super placenta! Why not?

Next we have the zombies who nearly took over the city…

But thankfully the clouds brought in a hailstorm and chased the zombies back underground.

The clouds eventually cleared and made for an incredibly beautiful day at the Botanical Garden:

The above is the flower of an artichoke, which I found fascinating!

Finally, just a few random fun shots that caught my eye:

Headwear of some patron at The Yolk, a hipster restaurant popular for its brunches.

The combination of ongoing development in the city, together with the good ol’ local spots like this Italian lemonade stand that is only open in the summertime, is, I think, what makes Chicago so intriguing and unique.

Hope you enjoyed this visit to Chicago! I haven’t gotten to the point of putting a copyright stamp on my photographs, but if you would like to share them, I would ask that you kindly put a pingback to this site, or at the very least give proper credit. Thanks!

Words (Un)spoken

“Words are good for saying what things are, but sometimes they don’t function for what things aren’t.”

– Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin)

She wore the sorrowful, profoundly bittersweet expression of a mother who had experienced a love from her son that could only be birthed from the harsh, undeniable reality that his life was soon coming to an end. Gone were the hushed whispers that this might be a possibility that they had to consider. Doctors would ask if she wanted to discuss things outside of his room, but she would shake her head no. He knew. She knew. There was no longer anything they could say that he should not hear.

I only took care of him for a day, and it was a day full of sincere, warm interactions, but our relationship was not nearly as deep as the ones this family had formed with other nurses. This being his last day in our unit, however, I had rehearsed in my head what I might say when I saw them. A condolence? A sober blessing? It had to be more than just, “I’m so sorry.”

And there in the hallway, I saw her walking with a faraway gaze, her heart betraying her mind’s insistence that he would be in a better place. She looked up and saw me. I swallowed. “I just wanted to say…”  I was surprised myself at how abruptly my words escaped me.  And then there was just a hug, and finally I whispered, “Grace to you… I’m glad you had a nurse today who was so close to you all.” I heard her sniffle, and eventually, we pulled away. We gazed at each other, and my mind raced. What more should I say? You’re amazing. He’s amazing. You’ve all been such an inspiration. She’d say, no, we’re really not…we just pressed on for as long as we could because we had no other choice. I wish I’d gotten to know you all better. She’d have no response to that. There was no more time left, no reason to voice such regrets now. And so all I could do was hold her gaze, slowly nod, and let the silence fill that space as it ought.

I remember standing in his room, preparing his medications, while his friends visited with him. I remember feeling curious and surprised at the light-heartedness, the utter normalcy of their conversation. They chatted about all the normal things boys their age would chat about: sports, girls, and a somewhat heated debate about which fast-food pizza they should order. And I saw how the chit-chat meant something now, because it meant something then. Because for just a while, it brought them back to a time when life was simple and uncomplicated, when enough of the future was open to them that they didn’t have to think so hard about what to say during the time they had together.

Sometimes we say too much in the guise of honesty. Sometimes we say too little in the clutch of fear. Sometimes the chit-chat is what we need most. And sometimes, the silence fills it all.

the food of my peoples

Every time I plan a trip, the food is one of the key highlights around which I will plan all other activities. I will spend hours on Yelp to make sure I know exactly where I’m going and why. When the husband and I return from a trip and friends ask how it was, our answer is either, “The food was so good!” or “The food was just ok.” Never mind that we were in Spain or Colorado or some other breathtakingly beautiful location. We just always come back to talking about the food.

Well, my parents and I went to visit my sister in Chicago this past weekend, and any foodie knows that Chicago has no dearth of incredible cuisines to choose from. The Parthenon in Greektown, Rosebud Steakhouse, Shaw’s Crab Shack, and of course the plethora of coma-inducing deep dish pizzas are must-visits. Caramel ice cream french toast at the Bongo Room for brunch? Yes please.

But on this particular trip, what we really craved one morning was dim sum in Chinatown. The food of my peoples. The shared understanding with the other immigrant families in the room that this food is at the heart of our own hearts, and hence it never gets old. The yuppy brunch boutiques couldn’t compete with the carts of savory deliciousness brought to you by women reminiscent of that favorite jovial-but-borderline-bossy Chinese auntie who glowed with pride at the morsels they offered, and hardly hid the fact that they were more than slightly offended when you declined their offers. Only in a bonafide dim sum restaurant would this attitude from your server be both expected and appropriate, and earn them a better tip. After all, it only showed how much they cared.

There is, of course, the pork or shrimp siu-mai. Savory, salty, juicy, deceptively light morsels of meat and finely chopped vegetables enclosed in the thinnest of wrappers, subsequently dipped in soy sauce, hot sauce, or hot mustard. I don’t need the fancy overpriced dumplings at Din Tai Fung. Sit me in an old B-rated Chinatown restaurant anyday, so long as I see the aunties with their carts and the wrinkles of pride on their faces, I know what they have to offer must be authentic.

My sister and I reminisced about how adding the thousand-year-old-egg always made the best pot of rice porridge. Don’t let the black-and-green color or the pungent garbage-like smell of those eggs fool you. That stuff is nothing short of gourmet. Barbeque pork steamed buns, taro cakes, deep-fried sesame balls with red bean filling, and egg custard pastry cups are non-negotiables.

But somehow, what we look forward to the most are the chicken feet and the cow intestines. Frightening as they may appear, these delectables deserve a spot on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Even if you need to close your eyes to eat them, or need a good Tsingtao beer afterwards to help you forget what you just consumed, the flavor in these dishes, when prepared correctly, is absolutely incomparable. (I have to admit though, when we found a small hair in our cow intestine dish, it seemed rather pointless to complain about it to our waiter. I mean, how clean can this cow intestine dish be, really?)

I could tell you plenty of other stories about the crickets and deep-fried waterbugs offered at Typhoon in Santa Monica. The live snake at the hole-in-the-wall in China that was subsequently sauteed into two dishes – one based on the skin, and the other based on the scant amount of meat running along the snake’s slithery skeleton. (That snake dish left me reeling with dizziness in the airport later that day, but it was so worth it.) The raw beef lips that I gleefully found in a 99 Ranch supermarket as the ultimate tool for a future practical joke. The brain soup of some poor unidentified creature that my uncle offered to me in a Taiwan night market. Just a brain in a bowl of broth. (No amount of Tsingtao was going to help me out with that one. I passed.) But alas, this post will remain dedicated to the glorious, incomparable cuisine known as dim sum, the food of my peoples.

more introverted than you know, more social than I realize

Not too long ago, I read this book by Adam McHugh called Introverts in the Church. As soon as I heard the title, I knew it was something I had needed to read for a long time. When I reached the last page, I let out a long exhale of relief as I felt for the first time that someone had helped put words to some fundamental aspects of who I am and why I operate in the ways that I do as an introvert. Not only does McHugh help articulate these things that I until now only vaguely recognized in myself, but he validates the strengths and giftings in introverts which often can go unrecognized or even be looked down upon in a society that truly does seem to be much more strongly geared towards extroverts. The guilt that I have experienced in feeling like I somehow had less of a “heart for people” because of my fairly strong need for solitude is slowly dissipating, and I find this both healing and liberating.

McHugh provides a wonderful summary of common attributes of introverts. I identified unhesitatingly with each one – some more than others, but definitely saw each of these in me to a fairly significant degree:

–       Prefer to relax alone or with a few close friends

–       Consider only deep relationships as friends

–       Need rest after outside activities, even ones we enjoy

–       Often listen but talk a lot about topics of importance to us

–       Appear calm, self-contained and like to observe

–       Tend to think before we speak or act

–       May prefer a quiet atmosphere

–       Experience our minds going blank in groups or under pressure

–       Don’t like feeling rushed

–       Have great powers of concentration

–       Dislike small talk

–       Are territorial – desire private space and time

–       May treat their homes as their sanctuaries

–       Prefer to work on own rather than with a group

–       May prefer written communication

–       Do not share private thoughts with many people

I am learning now to not only embrace but also cultivate my strengths as an introvert, and it has been wonderfully life-giving. I would even dare to call it exhilarating. I am more comfortable with silence, particularly with my patients and their family members. I used to feel as though I needed to always be able to talk it up with them to put them at ease. But I am finding that sometimes, they appreciate the space to think and rest after being inundated with so many people and so much information, not to mention the inner emotional and mental battles that come with being in an intensive care unit. I also feel that McHugh’s book sparked a new fire in me to write, take photographs, and write some more. McHugh talks about how introverts often appear calm on the exterior but our inner worlds are always “noisy.” Writing has given me a place to filter and share a bit of that noisy inner world in a way that comes more naturally for me. It has been encouraging to find that some people have been edified by my photography and writing, and I am grateful for those of you who visit and dialogue with me in this space.

A good number of people have expressed surprise when I tell them that I am an introvert, and a strong one at that. Some have told me that I am the most social introvert they know. What I have concluded is that I am more introverted than people know, and more social than I realize. It is both a good and hard tension to live in.

I have appreciated McHugh’s website a great deal, and I am excited that he accepted a guest blog post that I submitted about the introverted worship leader. I feel that he is reaching a significant number of people, and I feel very honored and humbled to participate in his dialogue in this small way. Please check out the post and his site, and I strongly encourage you to check out his book, for yourself and/or for the introverts around you.

the creep who changed my life

I honestly never expected him to make such a lasting impression on me after so many years. I didn’t really know anything about him except his first name, and all the assumptions I made up in my head about who he was, where he came from, and how he probably treated other people. I had relegated him into the “creep” category just because of how he looked – skinny, hair slicked back, a certain intonation in his voice that told me everything I needed to know about him. Or at least enough to keep my distance.

There we were, in those awkward, unforgiving junior high years when this was the way you chose your friends. (Or this was how they chose you.) This was how you decided who was cool, who was forgettable, and who was just a flat-out creep. The truth is, I wasn’t so cool myself. But he was less cool, and that made me feel better, so it worked for me to keep thinking of him that way. Until he humbled me, proved me wrong, and sort of changed my life.

We were in physical education class together. We stood on our assigned numbers out on the cement and did our jumping jacks to the count of our P.E. teachers as we admired how they could stay so tan, so fun, so cool, even at their ripe old age of 20-something. On this particular day, they were going to time us as we ran four laps – one mile – around the track. We were nervous and we were out to impress each other, out to impress ourselves.

I am goal-oriented, and I push myself hard to reach my goals. This is my nature now and it was my nature then. I wanted a really good time for that mile. I was mildly annoyed when too many classmates were in my way and I had to take extra steps to try and get around them. I looked at people ahead of me and made up little goals in my head to try and get in front of each person, one by one.

And then I saw him up ahead, running alongside a girl. She was heavy-set and was clearly struggling to keep running. He was trotting with little effort. As I approached, I heard that voice that I was always so quick to condemn as the creepy voice.

“Come on, Christy, you can do this. You’re doing a great job. Keep running. Look how far you’ve come! Great job, let’s keep going!”

I ran past them and finished my mile. Somehow I didn’t care nearly as much as I thought I would about my time. I took a few steps to cool off, and then I sat on the benches as I watched him trot the remainder of the mile with her.

The world suddenly looked very, very different.

say yes to the dolphin

We first met at the Mount Hermon Career / Young Adult conference. You were a workshop speaker, and I was there from a small local seminary to network with pastors and other leaders. When we started talking on that last day of the conference, it was purely business on my end. I did, however, remember hearing a lot of people make unsolicited remarks throughout the week about how much you had impacted their lives for the better, and that made an impression on me. When we started dating, my boss laughingly said, “I didn’t send you there to find a husband!” I shrugged and said, hey, I networked.

We had similar temperaments and similar life goals. I felt incredibly safe with you. I remember saying to you early in our dating life that I just didn’t think there were guys like you out there anymore. I remember when you invited friends over for a sushi feast after a spectacular tuna fishing trip. For hours, I just watched people walk in and out of your house as if it was their own home. Your heart was and is so big. The sink got clogged with fish remnants and fishy water at one point in the evening and flooded the entire kitchen floor with fish-gut water. As calm as could be, you went about cleaning the floor as if it was just a small spill. I marveled.

You endured all the wariness that came from my lovingly protective parents, and weathered their grilling the night you asked for my hand. You recruited a dolphin to help with your proposal in Oahu, Hawaii. How could I say no to a dolphin? I kid. That was so creative, so outside-the-box, so you.

In our first months of marriage, I was so amazed that you were my husband. So I would constantly just address you, in awe, as “husband.” You would respond, “wife.” I find it hilarious that we still call each other as such, but with a different, more comfortable, and well, less romantic tone, and people who hear us find it amusing and almost insulting. But we know how it started.

Outside of your crazy sushi skills, I love that you went from having all of three items in your refrigerator – an old ketchup bottle, a small foil-wrapped packet of soy sauce, and a half-empty bag of baby carrots when we first met – to becoming one of the most elaborate cooks I know. Your repertoire now includes pulled pork tostadas, mango mochi, and sweet tamales. Oh how I have domesticated you!

People say that once you get married, you discover all the weaknesses of the other person. But I constantly think about how I have been so blessed to have seen your strengths and your integrity shine through more than anything. Of course we’ve had our differences and our issues that we have needed to work out, as any two individuals would when they try to bring their lifestyles and habits and preferences together under one roof. But you have consistently treated me with love and respect. You look away from scantily-clad women on the television and fix your gaze on me. When I have spoken with grumpy, sharp words, I see you pause and make a choice time and time again to only respond with gentleness and kindness. You have always made it clear that I am not a “pastor’s wife,” but I am your wife. You live an incredibly generous life. At times I struggle to keep up, but you are always patient, always gracious, and always inspiring. You have always sought to protect me, from things outside of me as well as the voices in my own head that can sometimes be too harsh. You have been a safe place for my heart. You show me through your life who God is, and who I am as His beloved.

I have no doubt I take you for granted more often than not. But as our 7-year anniversary approaches, I want you to know that there is no one else in the world that I would have rather spent the past 7 years of marriage with, and there is no one else I could imagine going forward in life with, in all its joys, storms, twists and turns.

I love you, husband.

– wife

the strength that comes

I hear it and I say it a thousand times a week in one form or another. “I’m tired.” “I need a vacation.” “It’s been so busy.” We are tired people. It seems to be a given, just inevitable. It’s the pace of our society, and it comes with growing responsibilities coupled with the physical changes of getting older.  Gone are the carefree days of being a five year-old whose primary concern was which toy offered the most entertainment at any given time. What a life that was!

I think a lot these days about the weight of our lives. Heavy issues in my family, heavy issues in my patients’ lives, heavy issues in friends’ lives. Sometimes it’s easier not to think about it. And sometimes it’s important to give myself the freedom not to think about it all for awhile. But the reality is that it’s still there and can’t be ignored forever. Not if I want to live fully and discover the redemptive joys and lessons in character and faith that are to be gained from working through even the most painful situations.

After a particularly harrowing day at work, I commented to a coworker, “I choose to be here, right?” At the start of each day, it is still ultimately a desire and voluntary choice of mine to come into work, even when I know that it can be intense and beyond crazy-busy. The ability to choose our burdens, in that respect, is truly a gift. Because sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are outside of our choosing, from which we cannot escape. I watched the family member of one of my patients carry unbelievable burdens and responsibilities on her shoulders after a horrific accident. She was honest about her exhaustion and deep struggle, and yet she carried on with such fortitude, such commitment. She never would have chosen to be in this place, not for herself and not for her family member lying in that hospital bed. They were so tired. A vacation was not on the radar. But there was and there is a strength that comes.

According to Isaiah 30:15, “This is what the Sovereign Lord…says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’”

Some days I have to remind myself that for every legitimate complaint I am tempted to utter (and often do) about how tired I am or how hard things can get, I have ten things I can be thankful for. I really do. I’m not trying to be over-spiritual, unrealistic, or dishonest about what goes on in my heart. There just comes a point where I need to let my complaining grow quiet, and let renewed strength come from a grateful heart. To look less to the shadows and more towards what is lovely and good.

Sometimes, I try to escape burdens through busyness. Clean the house, fill my schedule with activities, watch movies. All good and helpful in the right time and right amount. But it is only in the quiet place of prayer before a loving Savior who Himself bore the burdens of a broken world on His shoulders where I can truly relinquish all the brokenness I feel for myself and others to Him once again. Let my anxious heart look upwards to trust that He is still Emmanuel, God with us.

I do not and should not expect Him to fix everything now, to free me of all trouble for the remainder of my days here on this earth. There are a lot of very uncomfortable uncertainties for my life, my loved ones, and for what I see in my patients, that I am learning to live with, and it is hard. But there is too much left for me to learn about resting in His presence, trusting Him more, longing for heaven, and responding to hard situations with better character, for Him to give me less than what I need to grow. Simon Rodia constructed a beautiful testament to what beauty can be brought out of brokenness when he built the Watts Towers, and I am thankful for his reminder.

So I am learning slowly that strength does not ultimately come from venting all my complaints, escaping all burdens, or having all the answers to all my questions.  Let strength come, rather, from the quietness of knowing His hand is over all things, and trusting that His hand is faithful, loving, and good. For my home is with Him now in the midst of a broken world, and my future home will be with Him when the brokenness is no more.