Less is More

A common half-joke about Chinese cuisine is that the Chinese don’t waste anything. That’s why your most popular dim-sum items include chicken feet (which I’m fairly certain have no place in the USDA food pyramid) and tripe. I grew up eating liver, heart, and pig feet, though I could never get myself to stomach bites of brain or cubes of pork blood. Whenever the husband goes deep-sea tuna fishing, my mom will come over to watch him filet his catch, and will always insist that he refrain from throwing out the portions of fish with the bitter blood line. She remains convinced that it is perfectly edible, and scolds him for wasting ‘good stuff.’

This was, at first, the greedy mindset I brought into growing my herbs. My basil plant started off growing beautiful, large, fresh leaves. But as time passed, it began to produce flower buds on most stems, and the leaves, though many, were looking smaller and less substantial. I had read that once your basil starts to flower, you need to prune the plant or the leaves will become bitter. The plant will also wind up spending energy on the flowering process rather than on growing large, sweet leaves. I was reluctant and doubtful at first, so I only pinched the top flowers off. I wanted to somehow preserve as much as I could.  It quickly became obvious, however, that there were not only too many flowers, but too many stems and underdeveloped leaves competing for limited space and resources.

Reluctantly, I pinched off the first stem and mourned the loss of the accompanying leaves, some mature but others less so. I could hear my mom’s voice in my head. “That’s good stuff! Don’t waste it!” My reluctance soon dissipated, however, as I saw the healthier, younger leaves underneath with the real potential, if only they would be allowed. Pruning became addictive, fast. The loss mattered less than the gain that I could foresee. More than that, the gain necessitated the loss. I wanted my plant to grow, and grow well. A reluctance or failure to prune on my end would signal foolishness, neglect, or ignorance at best.

Father in Heaven, You are wise, loving, and so attentive in Your pruning of my life. Where I often look for quantity, You look for quality. Where I look for breadth, You look for depth. Now I understand a bit better that You want me to grow, and grow well. Now I understand a bit better how.

I’m (not) sexy and I (don’t) know it

I heard the word used in a couple of different contexts today and I couldn’t help but feel curious. Sexy. What is that? Someone’s original topic for a book proposal was initially rejected because it wasn’t sexy enough. And of course, the more common context. Girl, you are sexy. (Please note, not said to me. I’m not sexy and I know it.)

It’s a curious word. Let’s take the context of getting a book published, in this case, non-fiction. The topic has got to be beyond interesting. It’s got to be beyond important. Even really important. It’s got to be sexy. I’m disappointed to say that the first comparison that comes to mind is Super Bowl Sunday when everyone is scrutinizing the commercials to pick out the most memorable. Meh, we’ve seen the typical Toyota commercial showing a spotless new car gliding along the shoreline, a happy family laughing, a dog grinning in the back, and 0% interest for 12 months. But it’s the commercial where the car door opens and out emerges the very long-legged woman in very high heels in a very tight dress that causes even the most ambivalent football fan to stop mid-conversation to gaze at the screen for a few extra moments. This, I suppose, is the desired effect with book topics among publishers. Sexy. The bookworm will be perusing the bookstand in the “newly released” section. We really do judge a book by its cover. Some, you look at and you just don’t take seriously at all, ever. But there are those books, with just the right play on words in the title and subtitle, just the right delivery of visual interest in the cover design, that lure you. They make promises and you want to know if they will deliver. They draw you in on a deeply personal level, in ways that you have not been drawn in, or drawn out, before. Sexy.

And of course there’s the more common context for the word sexy: people, usually female.  I am not sexy. I don’t know how to be. I’m way too practical for high heels and I shave on the minimal end of minimal. I look at magazine covers and they confuse me. Who makes those kinds of facial expressions in everyday life? The ‘come hither’ look. Am I supposed to learn how to make that kind of facial expression with my husband? I think he’d just laugh. I’d laugh. Who are you and what have you done with my wife? I like that he thinks I’m pretty when I wear a nice dress, do my hair a bit, add a touch of blush and light perfume. But I like that he loves me when my matted hair tells him that I’ve clearly slept on my left side all night, when I don’t feel like getting myself out of my pajamas and bedhead until 10AM on my days off, and when I’ve come in from an evening run with hair pinned back, my face red and dripping with sweat. Truth be told, I like being demure. A lot. I love that my husband wanted to get to know me for demure me. I know he’s not immune to visual temptation but I love that he makes a concerted effort to turn his eyes away when those commercials come on, looks at me and tells me I am beautiful. Who knows, maybe I am sexy. If being demure means that I can draw my husband in on a deeply personal level, like a sexy book where all you want is to spend time getting to know more of what is going on in this amazing life that a well-written book takes on, then maybe I do want to be sexy, maybe I am sexy and I just don’t know it.

the time the post office sent me to the Dominican Republic

It was a beautifully sunny day outside but the disposition indoors was not. The air was thick with the tension of people driven by a strong need for efficiency, straightforwardness, and personal justice. I had forgotten how time stands still in the post office. Few things there feel straightforward when you’ve got a frail package in an odd shape that needs to arrive at the other side of the world yesterday, and no I’m not willing to pay that much to make that happen but could you somehow just write “expedite” on the outside for free? Few things feel straightforward there, which means few things feel efficient. Which means that some will violate the justice of a line that everyone must wait in to jump in front with “just a quick question, sorry.” You are reduced to staring at the back of peoples’ outfits, eavesdropping on the conversations at the windows, some pleasant and some inane, and making fast judgments about people.

Smiles waned. Arms crossed. Throats cleared. Sighs escaped. Strangers slowly connected with one another in mutual frustration and the growing desire to gang mob those who disregarded the line and scurried to an open clerk with mumbled apologies.  I saw the cameras mounted in the corners of the post office and thought, how those cameras must capture the quiet worst of people, day after day, here in the US post office. I wondered if they caught me staring, ok well, glaring, too long at the man who jumped in front with his “quick question, sorry to interrupt.”

When I left, a memory surfaced of my experience with my summer internship at the International Services department of the American Red Cross during my public health grad school years. Our American team had traveled to the Dominican Republic to develop and conduct nutritional surveys among hurricane-affected communities in the DR. We had a 9:00AM meeting lined up with local leaders who worked with the World Health Organization and the Dominican Red Cross. By 10:30AM, it was still only the American team present in the conference room. Sometime close to noon, the Dominicans showed up with big smiles, firm handshakes and no apologies. My supervisor turned to me and said, “Welcome to Dominican time.” That was just their way. The American need for timeliness and efficiency was completely foreign to them. It was not an issue of disrespect or unprofessionalism. Their worldview was simply not like ours.

Sometimes my world becomes as small as a US post office and all of a sudden everyone is at everyone else’s throat. Which is ironic because in theory, the post office tells me that the world is a big place, beyond me, beyond us and our efficiency-driven culture.  I don’t know that my personality type would allow me to live as lax as a Dominican. But at the very least, when I find myself being overtaken by the muted but heavy tension in the post office, I fight to remember that I don’t have to give into it, feed into it, become a bit of it. Not at all. God is on His throne, the sun still rises, and the world is so much bigger than this.

Set me free.

why I might like summer a little

We all have our favorites, and that’s ok. My favorite TV show is Food Network’s “Chopped.” My favorite sound is that of quiet, if quiet can qualify as a sound. My favorite season is Fall, followed closely by Spring and then Winter. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever been a big fan of summer. I don’t particularly enjoy hot weather; 70 degrees is as warm as I’d like on any given day.  But some snapshots over the weekend may have changed how I feel about summer, at least just a little bit. Each season has its own emotional attachments, its flavors, its appropriate behaviors. I suppose in Southern California more than anywhere else, you could go to the beach in December and it might make just a little sense. But only a little. Every Christmas, I always tell myself I should just slowly buy and wrap gifts throughout the year and avoid the mad crunch in December. So practical, but it just wouldn’t feel right to wrap a Christmas gift in April. We are people shaped by seasons.

And so, from a non-summertime gal, here is my ode to the joys of summer.

Summer is a season for bubbles, lots of them!

Summer is a season for outdoor crafts.

Summer is a season for boys being boys.

Summer is a season for stealing moments and sharing secrets.

Summer is a season for eating cake shaped like fishies in an ocean because pumpkin pie is for Thanksgiving and classy cakes are for Christmas. But cakes shaped like fishies in an ocean, those are especially reserved for the summer, of course!

What is your favorite season, and why?

The Case for Counseling

At first, I thought it was a copout response. My patient’s mom knew that her child was extremely sick, but she told the medical team that she didn’t want any real “bad news” until the father was able to join her in a week. The overly practical part of me thought, with a shameful lack of sympathy, “So we’re just supposed to keep this poor child in medical limbo, and an expensive one at that, until Dad gets here to make any sort of plan one way or another?” The more that I considered the mom’s position and response, however, the more I saw and respected her self-awareness and her humility. She knew that any decisive family conference would essentially determine the entire course of her child’s life – aggressive but painful measures to try and fight the awful disease with a poor prognosis, or comfort measures that would likely lead to an earlier but hopefully peaceful death. This mom was aware that one set of shoulders and one heart, valiant but frail, was not enough to hold the weight of this burden. She needed the help of another, and not to mention, the dad certainly deserved a voice in the matter. She was wise to advocate for herself, because it would not do her other child, healthy and growing, any good for mom to become consumed by the heartache of a burden too great.

This is my case for counseling. A friend and I talked over lunch about the taboo that still exists with regards to seeing therapists. I understand completely that therapy might not be for everyone, or perhaps only for certain seasons of life. But why do we hold such judgment towards one another for our common brokenness, our need for the help of another?

When a person has a broken leg and cannot walk, the doctor is wise to prescribe a crutch and the patient is wise to lean on it. Unhelpful pressure is alleviated, and healing can happen. The person who tells the patient that he should be strong enough, brave enough, to just keep walking without a crutch is not kind nor wise. It always saddens me when I hear deeply hurting friends say in response to the suggestion of counseling, “I just don’t want to be seen as someone who needs counseling.” I have to ask again, why do we judge one another and judge ourselves so harshly for our brokenness?

I’ll dare to get even more controversial here. Some Christians say that the Bible and prayer should be sufficient for any faith-filled believer to work through his or her troubles. I love the comfort and the direction of the Word of God. My heart has been relieved of many burdens through times of prayer. But does this mean that the Apostle Paul was wrong when he wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in so doing, fulfill the law of Christ”? Did he misunderstand the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, our Wonderful Counselor, when he penned these words? God knows I need my family and friends when life is hard. Why can an insightful therapist not be another tool that God uses to help carry out this exhortation in our times of trial and confusion?

I have not been a parent to a dying child in a pediatric intensive care unit. But I have faced issues in my life that have been bigger than me, bigger than my understanding, bigger than my maturity, bigger than my solitary heart could manage. It is the discernment, the objectivity, the outside, unbiased perspective of a tender-hearted, insightful, truth-speaking therapist that has helped me untangle myself multiple times from the mess of painful circumstances, the twisted lies of Satan, the flawed voices of people too close to the situation, and my own spinning thoughts. I can see situations for what they actually are, and I can breathe again. The outside pressure is alleviated, and I have the space I need to heal.

I am thankful to God for those who have the courage to help bear our burdens this way. It is my prayer that we will be kinder towards one another and towards ourselves when considering the option of undergoing counseling in our times of need.

my belly says no but my soul says yes

I like free things. It’s so easy, so convenient. Really? I can just have it? It always feels a little funny, a little cheaper, however, when the giver of the gift says, “Oh, it’s no big deal. I got it for free too.” They care less, and suddenly, I care less.  Oh, that’s cool, thanks.

After embarking on my test run of this photo project to raise funds towards fighting child trafficking, I was overjoyed by the requests that began to come in for prints. People have been so supportive and so excited to contribute to this amazing organization, to this incredibly important cause. ZOE staff will go to the ends of the earth to rescue children in great poverty who face the potential of an otherwise horrific future of physical and sexual slavery. This video of my dear friends in Thailand as they carry out a child rescue brings tears to my eyes every. single. time. Every aspect of the video is real. I’ve been exhilarated to see how this hobby that is so much more than a hobby of mine could suddenly become something that could also fight a terrible evil in the world on a very practical level. I’m so thankful for my full-time job, which allows me to do this project with no strings attached. People can pay my suggested price for the print, but they can pay less if they need or donate more if so desired, given that all of the proceeds will go towards ZOE Children’s Home, either way. I have the joy of sharing my photography, and serving as a glad conduit for the fundraising.

As deep as my joy has been with this project thus far, however, there was still curiously something that did not feel quite right. Something felt incomplete.

It felt too easy. Selling the prints doesn’t require a whole lot of effort from me, just a little coordination. Then I get to write the final check from this test run to ZOE, which will be wonderful. But it’s just been so convenient. It hasn’t really cost me anything. I think I still feel like this rich person doling something out to the poor, something that’s not even mine for that matter. The sense of personal disconnect unsettles me.

My heart began to burn. God’s conviction, His gentle but deep push. Match the donations, dollar for dollar. Feel the pinch in your own pocket. See again how rich you really are, how you think you don’t have a lot to give, but you actually do if you’re willing to forego a little of your own extra indulgences here and there. Taste even just the smallest hint of feeling your own financial resources challenged. Learn how to identify yourself, even just a little bit, with those who have so little.

Honestly speaking, it’s not as if I’m taking any real financial risk by matching donations at this point in the project. I can match dollar for dollar and not worry about where my next meal will come from. But the conviction to do even this much already reveals how much selfishness still exists in me. There is reluctance in me. I crave the fancier meal that the extra money could buy if I kept it. Which is exactly why I need to give. Somehow it means a bit more, to ZOE and I think to me as well, for this to cost me something too. I feel as though I’m experiencing for the first time in a while what it means to actually live out the Gospel, to practice a little of what I preach. That God loves the broken, that Jesus saved me to give me a new heart, a new mind, a new purpose, to live out His love through who I am and what I have so that others might know that His love is real. That they might know that His love is tangible and practical in the face of something like human trafficking.

I’ve got a feeling He’s looking to push me more in this area. And I’ve got a feeling this work of His Spirit in my heart is at least partly about loosening money’s stranglehold over me, and flipping it up on its head. Taking hold of money to use it for all the good that it has the potential to do.

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:

To loose the bonds of wickedness,

To undo the heavy burdens,

To let the oppressed go free,

And that you break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;

When you see the naked, that you cover him,

And not hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light shall break forth like the morning,

Your healing shall spring forth speedily;

And your righteousness shall go before you;

The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’

Isaiah 58:6-9

Taken in a remote Thai village. Photo credit: Stephen Sato

clasped

There are moments that come that just make my heart really, truly glad.

There was the moment my patient’s parents finally received news about the MRI’s results. The mom was exhausted from lack of sleep due to nights spent consoling her inconsolable child, afraid of the strange tubes and lines and the strangers who kept coming at her with a mix of unpredictable comfort and pain. The surgeons were able to get the entire tumor out. No translator was needed to explain the cry of relief, that unstoppable strong clasping of the surgeon’s hand from an otherwise shy and reserved family. They could breathe and hope and plan again. Maybe they will see their daughter get married one day after all.

There is the moment every morning when I see my neighbors go for their walk. He with his old, soft, black hat, his hunched back, and his walker. She with her large glasses, soft smile, braided grey hair, hands quietly clasped behind her back. She always walks just a few steps behind him, just to make sure. They walk patiently around the block, no sadness or fear or shame about them, just glad to be out for their daily walk, together.

There is the moment when I’ve pulled into the driveway and open my car door. I can already hear my sweet silly dog barking that particular bark he lets out when he knows one of us is home. It’s so endearing, how he already knows by just hearing our cars. That sweet moment when I walk through the door and he scurries over, tail wagging, tongue hanging like a goof in expectation of me dropping my bags and smothering his furry head with kisses. His collar clasp jingles against his dog tag as I rub his happy round belly.

Sometimes these are all the moments we need.

A Terrible Evil and a Multiplied Joy

It was my thing. My therapy. My place to retreat to when I was empty of anything meaningful to give to others, and needed to take in by way of my camera lens what was simple and good again.

I have never had an overwhelming desire to make anything professional out of my photography.  I was already receiving all that I wanted from it. The few paid jobs I have done, while certainly enjoyable in their own right, have not given me the same kind of satisfaction that I receive from my spontaneous, quiet, unpressured walks exploring old and new places alike. Perhaps this is partly due to the expectations of other people that come along with paid work. It was wonderful to have something I could do purely for the personal joy I could gain from it.

The thought that came to me out of nowhere one evening was, then, very unexpected. But incredibly compelling. If I were to offer my prints for sale, and give the proceeds to fight child trafficking through ZOE Children’s Homes, an organization that my husband and I know and love deeply…what would happen? What could happen?

I had to give it a test run. I quickly assembled a collection of some of my favorite photos, and posted the album on Facebook with the question, would anyone buy these in order to help fight child trafficking? One by one, the requests began to trickle in with so much support, so much encouragement. This test run is still in a very early stage, but there is already an amount raised that can do a tremendous amount of good in a place where the US dollar can go so much farther than a $4 latte.

Then the temptation came. Keep some of the profit for yourself. The temptation was strong. Do some good with it, but hey, keep some for yourself too. Nothin’ wrong with that. True, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But I’ve got a full-time job and I’ve got everything I need. Any excess income would just go towards buying more excess. And I don’t need any more excess. These kids at high risk of being sold into the human trafficking market due to the vicious cycle of poverty, however, do need safe shelter. Food. A healthy, loving environment. With Christ as my example of what it looks like to give oneself away in love for those who are broken, I am convicted and therefore making myself publicly accountable that anything I gain from these photography sales must go 100% towards helping others. The love of Christ compels me.

Suddenly, my joy in my photography has multiplied. Tremendously. The vision runs deeper, the purpose is greater. I understand Christ’s words a little bit more now: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Edmund Burke once said, “Evil prevails when good men do nothing.” I want to stop doing nothing. I want to do my part, for His glory. I think this could be the beginning of something kind of amazing.

my oil of joy for mourning

I started out as a photographer not with a camera in hand, but purely through observation. I studied photographs taken by my creative, artistic friends. How one captured the less-oft seen underside of a flower, as the sun caught the petals in a magical moment, bringing new glory to what I otherwise had already seen in a thousand predictable contexts. I pictured how my friend must have positioned himself on the ground to gain the perspective that he did. I began to see how he saw things. Really saw them. There was suddenly so much for me to discover, to create, with my own perspective. The photographer in me was born.

As a pediatric ICU nurse, I am surrounded by a great deal of darkness. There exists, in my patient’s room alone, enough heaviness to tip the scales for a lifetime. I walk down the hallway and as I pass one room after another, I remember that there are at least 23 more stories, lives, families, that have been severely disrupted with undescribable sadness in our unit. This is for just one point in time in just one shift. A patient may transfer or pass away; another patient, another story, eventually comes to take their spot. These are the stories that their families will tell with the unavoidable break of heartache in their voice. These are the stories that many of us try to avoid. These are the stories I am surrounded by, and often deeply involved in, every day when I go to work. My eyes have grown accustomed to the dimmed light, and I am afraid at times that my heart has as well.

The art of photography provides more than just an escape or a mere balance for my work as a nurse. My photography and my nursing shape, enrich, and inform one another. Photography pushes me as a nurse to look for the moments when the wind blows for just a second, in just the right way, to let the light in for my patients and their families. It trains my eye to look for those moments in the unexpected places. It trains my heart to believe that those moments exist, brief as they might be. To anticipate them, to hope for them, to even help create them when I can. When my heart aches from sadness and despair for my patients, I grab my camera and take a slow walk, searching. Sometimes I walk through the neighborhood I know. Sometimes I go to a new place. Searching for that picture that will tell the story for my patients when they have run out of words.  Searching for that life, that light.

It’s there. And it is beautiful.