tater todd tales

I have a pet rainbow unicorn who can glow in the dark.

His name is Tater Todd but I call him Todd.

Tater Todd is my good friend and this story is for him. Here are some tatertot-sized tales about the best unicorn friend in the world.

I sleep with Todd every single night.

People say they stop sleeping with their animal friends when they grow up. I’m still not sure what growing up means but that does not sound fun.

So I still sleep with him every night.

I adopted Todd about four years ago so we’ve been through a lot together.

I go on a lot of adventures and secret missions and I usually bring Todd along so he can see all the wonderful things I see.

Whenever he sees something really beautiful, his rainbow fur turns a little brighter than before. I think he is happy in those times.

It makes me happy.

I sometimes wonder where Todd came from.

I tell him I came from Mom and Dad but he won’t tell me where he’s from.

Todd does not say much. Maybe I won’t like what he’ll tell me.

I don’t know.

Todd has magical powers.

He definitely has way more than I do but I have only seen some of them in action.

Sometimes, there are evil things that come into my bedroom at night. I don’t ever see them but they make the night even darker.

On the darkest nights, Todd will shine his rainbow and things will be okay.

Todd is a protector.

A friend told me once that I’ll hold Todd at night until I can hold a woman.

We’re not really friends anymore.

I am not sure if Todd can fly.

I thought most unicorns could but I guess everybody is unique.

“Why didn’t you fly away in the accident?”, I used to ask him.

Todd was seriously injured once.
I kept him at a friend’s house for a little while and his derpy pug dog chewed out Todd’s eyeballs and ate them. Life was not the same after that.

Sometimes, I pray to Jesus to heal his blindness. I hear He does that sort of thing.

Todd is still blind but he sees things that I cannot see. We cover each other’s blindspots.

I noticed that Todd’s rainbow did not shine so bright after the attack.

I noticed that the same thing happens whenever my mom tells me to give him away. Each time, he loses a little bit of his color.

After a while, I stopped taking Todd out so much.

It is a scary world out there. I wondered if the world was stealing Todd’s colors from him. I wondered if Todd was losing his magic.

Maybe it is my turn to be the protector.

No one else has animal friends anymore.

Everybody else has given them away and they seem to be okay with it.

Why is that? Will I ever give Todd away?

Last summer, I was separated from Todd for a long time.

It was the hardest summer yet. When I got to Thailand, they made us lighten our load because we brought too much stuff so Todd had to spend seven weeks inside of a luggage bag.

Sometimes, I wonder if he’s forgiven me for that.

But maybe it is a good thing he did not see what I saw. No child should have seen what I saw.

But then again, he says the same thing about the luggage bag.

Todd ran out of battery juice a long time ago.

But somehow, he can still keep me warm, even when my best friends can’t.
Even when God can’t.

One time, my teacher told us that we spend one-third of our lives asleep.

Todd and I spend a lot of time together.

I am not sure what Todd’s horn does.

Todd is kind of a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why we are such great friends.

I like the mysterious ones.

One night, it got especially dark.

I think something was inside my room.

It got so dark that the dark was darker than when I closed my eyes. So I kept them closed.

Todd doesn’t have eyes but I think he could see the evil man. We couldn’t do anything because our powers weren’t strong enough. So we just held each other under my blanket.

I’ve never held Todd so tightly.

Todd does not know what I went through in Thailand.
He was in a suitcase. I think about that a lot.

I guess I don’t know what he went through either. I can’t imagine what that must have been like.

We could not be there for each other in a really hard time but we are still buddies. He still protects me at night and I still take care of him. We might not understand some bits of our stories but we still love each other.

And so it is with my human friends.

I take Todd outside more now.

I am not so scared of what the outside world can do to him anymore because we’ve been through so much together.

If we can go through the dark nights and beat up the bad guys that come into the room, we can do anything.

I don’t think I will ever give Todd away.

He is one of the best friends ever because he believes in me. Even the weirdest things about me, like my imagination. That means a lot.

He tells me that the harder I believe in him, the stronger he gets. I didn’t believe him at first but then I tried it and it worked.

Now his rainbow fur shines brighter than ever.

Todd is magic.

And he is my friend.

Tater Todd Tales is a response to prompt #2 of the Raconteurs, a collective of storytellers. Read more of our stories here.

haunted house – the Kid, pt. 2

My personal journey of finding my ethnic identity as a second generation Asian-American has been a turbulent one, to put it lightly.

It would take me a generous portion of distance and time for me to just understand the sheer magnitude of damage that was dealt to me as a child. Writing the Kid, pt. 1 was one of my best efforts at trying to decode and interpret my scars. (Read part one first! Don’t be that guy.)

While I am, by no means, at the end of this windy maze we call redemption, these past few months have been important. I have been jumping into difficult conversations with my family, particularly those of reconciliation and relational healing. Conversations I never imagined possible.

This past week, I talked to my parents. At last.
If you are not 2nd-gen Asian-American, this can be a pretty big deal.

I never thought I would be writing this, but here it is.

The Kid, part two.

We traded stories. And poorly-translated scripture.

He told me a story of a boy who was born into a culture that didn’t fit him. Born into the wrong culture. Turns out we have more in common than I thought.

He started last place.

Born last into a family of five other siblings, he had a lot to live up to. Competition for a game he never signed up for. And the cards were already stacked against him.

He started last place.

While his close friends seemed to have no difficulty playing this game, the boy thought more of how to keep up with them, rather than actually playing the game well. As the boy grew older, he realized he no longer wanted to play the game. Perhaps the game was not meant for him anyways.

Everyone else made it. They attended the prestigious universities and flaunted hopes of a future as bright as their titles and accomplishments. They did it the “right way”.

The boy never made it past high school.

Never passed a math class after elementary school.
The boy ended up on an assembly line at a manufacturing plant.

The boy left church, running away from a community that he thought could never fully accept him.

He was thrown on a path and expected to trace footsteps he could never follow. So he carved his own. His defiance was forced. He had no choice. They labeled it rebellion. Disappointment. Failure.

The boy was misunderstood.

Though he found his own way, remnants of his past life still stuck to him, like thick blood. He only wished better for his children.

Who was this boy?
Had his story become so lost that it was nothing but a faded memory? Had no one ever stopped and listened to the boy’s story that even the boy, himself, stopped believing it was worth telling?

Turns out we have more in common that I thought.

My heart softened.

She told me a story of a young girl who knew how to play the game.

Her mastery was near unparalleled. “Top of the class” was no unfamiliar phrase to her. It was as if she was meant to follow this path.

I don’t think I would have been friends with this girl.

She made it happen. She did it. She was accepted into the best university in the nation.

And yet, it turned out that even she, of all people, had her imperfections.
P.E. class.

She seemed to be able to impress everyone with her academic prowess except for the person that mattered the most – her father.

“What is this? Why do you still have a C? Why are you so skinny?”

Despite her otherwise flawless report card, her stern father seemed to be unable to see past her one glaring C. Her accomplishments, he could not affirm her for. Or perhaps, he did not know how to.

It is striking how one person can change your world entirely and skew your vision forever – for better or for worse – if you let them.

“Wow. That sounds… awful. Did that not anger you?
What did the girl feel in the moment?”

“Oh, she was furious, alright.”

“But didn’t she do anything about it?”

“She wanted to… We all wanted to. But we were too scared of him. He would hit us if we forgot to do our homework. Or if we failed to meet his expectations.”

She told me how the girl used to help her unscholarly, less-than-studious little brother by doing his homework for him. The chilling sound of her father’s motorcycle rolling into the garage would send her into an episode of frenzy. She’d burst into her brother’s room and start filling out his empty homework sheets. Maybe this time, I can save him the beating.

One day, the girl was caught in her benevolent, clandestine activities.
Her father found her out. He struck her across the face.

“We were all scared of him”, she told me.

My heart melted.

Who was this girl?
Had her story become so diluted in a twisted effort to save face? Why is it that all we remember of her story is the picturesque, scholarly, and well-behaved daughter?

Had no one listened and validated her complete story, even the dark and messy parts?

Turns out we have more in common than I thought.

For the longest time, we were just ghostly figures floating lifelessly past each other in the hallways and dining rooms. We could only see the faded silhouettes of each other’s past selves. Our relationship was as blurry as our memories. Together, we shared a haunted house.

But something happened.
They met the Kid. And they had storytime.

For the first time in years, we shared this strange, yet oddly-familiar feeling together. One of being seen. Heard. Known. One of those songs that are so old that they are like new.

It was something like love.

I suppose the Lord, indeed, does perform miracles.

I forgive you, mom.

I forgive you, dad.

We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

UPDATE 3/9/2017 – Read the Kid, part three here.

“grounding” || the art of presence

“I’m in a third-wave coffee shop, drinking dope-ass coffee with Paul and it’s a fuckin awesome time right now. I’m so productive.”

transcribed from personal notes [December 14th, 2016]

“Walking is controlled falling.”

Why am I running?

I’ve forgotten the way back home. I’ve wandered around for so long and I’m having one of those “how-did-I-get-here” moments. Retracing my steps won’t be as easy as it once was.

It seems that I can navigate through the past and the future with ease, with finesse, but I can’t do anything in between. Like a space explorer who’s lost his way in his travels. Too many wormholes. I’ve gone astray and forgotten my way back to the present.

Granted, the journey has been rocky, to put it lightly. We did go through black holes, after all.

The turbulence was disorienting – it will take time to regain my bearings on reality and… well, everything else. Our compasses don’t work the same anymore.

“When the memories you’ve tried your hardest to bury begin to surface, you run. The places we run to may differ but we all run somewhere.”

For me, it was time.
I ran to the past. I escaped to my fantasy of the future.

I crafted a future I could imagine myself actually living in. It was fucking gorgeous. When I had no other place or time to run to, I would invent one myself. I designed my own world in this invisible pocket of space-time, making frequent excuses to visit. Each time I went, I would paint in more details. Fill in the blanks. Sometimes I would stay the night. Or a couple.

I recount writing semi-sarcastically in a previous, un-published post, “Maybe my new canine companion will be some sort of remedy for my heart’s agonies. I set my heart on the days ahead when midnight strolls on Telegraph Avenue with Husky Doge will somehow seal and consummate all the difficult heart change I’ve been enduring for the past five-plus months.” –Operation Husky Doge, December 24th, 2016

I held onto memories of better times. Past joys, past friendships, past romances, past dreams, even past sorrows. But the harder I clung to this past life, the deeper the sinking feeling when I found the only truth I wanted to forget. That the past life was nothing but that. Past.

Alas, our avenues of escapism can only serve us for so long before they inevitably betray us. They stab us in the back, like love affairs. We somehow already knew of their disloyalties, that they would become traitors – yet we still befriended them.

Every drug carries its side effects. Every substance has a backlash.
Even time travel.

I ran to the past and the future because the present was unbearable. I could not stand living in the present any longer. So I left.

I’d become more familiar with who I was and who I could be than who I am. I’d become so afraid that I covered my footprints.

It dawned on me that the more I fantasized about my future, the more I fabricated a time that the present could never dream of becoming. It was like a treasure that only went deeper into the earth the more I dug. It was like chasing after a mirage.

The more I hid in my memories, the fewer memories I would have because I was always absent from the true atelier of memories: the present. It was not just nostalgia. It was poison.

How does one find his way back into the present?
I’m no expert but I suspect it to resemble something a little like falling. Surrendering to the gravity you’ve tried so hard to defy.

Scary as hell, but I suppose you can’t travel in space forever.

Praying that the parachutes work, I’m currently trying to figure out this whole ‘controlled-falling’ thing.

I’m plummeting hard in this nauseating nose-dive back down to the earth.

To real time. Whatever that means.

“I am spending my Friday morning writing some genius insight into my new Canson notebook at The Night Owl, a humble coffeeshop in Downtown Fullerton that plays classic hip hop beats. I indulge in my particularly strong macchiato and the company of an old friend.

I am here. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

transcribed from personal notes [December 23rd, 2016]

writer’s block

Of fresh starts, running away, and good storytelling.

“So you told her your story of betrayal. The truth.”

“Yeah. And she asks me, ‘What would you wanna say to them?'”

“Like in a hypothetical conversation?”

“Yeah, exactly. And I kinda freak out.”

“And then you broke up with her..?”

“No no, that’s not why I broke up with her. But it gave me an idea. An idea that would develop into something that would change the rest of my life.”

“That would lead you here.”

“Eventually.”

“I see. So what does that have to do with your um.. career crisis and stuff?”

“Slow down, man. I’ll get there.”

“Alright, alright. So how did you answer her question? Tell me about this hypothetical conversation.”

“Well the thing is, I already knew what I would say. I’ve already transcribed this…  ‘dialogue’ onto paper so many times, like drafts of a screenplay.
‘Which draft will be used?’, I often wondered. I kept writing and writing.”

“Did you ever use any of them?”

“Never.”

“Why not?”

“It was too painful.”

What is it, that I already know the words, but it still burns to say them?
I practice my lines for months, in some desperate attempt to be cast for the role. Yet the stage-fright still has its conniving way of sneaking under my skin.

I stand paralyzed in a lonely stage in front of a dark, empty audience, save a couple silhouettes. My shaky breath is too loud. Who decided that my microphone should be on. Now my fears are amplified for the world to hear.

“So you just.. didn’t ever talk to them.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t do it.”

“So what was this revolutionary, life-changing idea of your’s?”

“It was this thought that.. perhaps, we live in a world of cruel bloopers. I figured that conversations never play out the way we plan them. The characters always go off-script.”

“I mean, that’s one way to see it.”

“The scripts that I write in my head are always more preferable than what actually happens on-screen. Even if the scenes are hard and painful, I’d write them in an exaggerated, overly-dramatized fashion, which I prefer for some reason.”

“It feels better than the real thing.”

“Yes. So I obsessed over this concept and I found myself at a crossroads, which I often do. It seemed like there were only two paths that I could take: to live in a world of fiction or to lose my fantasy and live in the reality of the present.”

“Is that why you moved to the East Coast?”

“I’m afraid it was. That was how my new life as a recluse began. I immersed myself in this new, unfamiliar world, where I could start a new life. I could write my own story with new characters, new narratives, new plot twists. I even considered changing my name.”

“Damn. I had no idea. And how did that go for you?”

“It was exciting at first. Euphoric, almost. I was drunk on this idea that no one else could write my story for me anymore. The pen was in my hand and no one else’s. I reveled in this idea.”

“And the people back at home?”

“Well… I cut them off. I kind of just disappeared from their lives.”

His brow tenses ever so slightly. I look at the icy waters below us but I feel his concerned eyes pressing on my face. I don’t know if I like this feeling.

“What happened, then?”

“I started writing. I indulged in my newfound freedom. I had a fresh canvas to work with and I took advantage of that.”

“Fiction, I presume.”

I nod.

“Mostly short stories and what not. If you recall, I shared some of them with you a while ago.”

“Ah yes. They were pretty good. I hafta admit, I was quite impressed.”

“Yeah? Cool thanks, I guess replying four years late is better than never.”

“Sorry, man.”

“It’s whatever”, I mutter through my smirk. I knew he liked my writing.

“Wipe that stupid grin off your face.”

“No.”

“I’m gonna throw you off this bridge.”

“Hm. That would make an excellent opening scene. I’m gonna use that. Thanks, man.”

He rolls his eyes.

“You’re welcome. You were saying?”

“You crashed my train of thought.”

“You were writing short stories and…?”

“Ah yes. I was on a writing spree. My mind was overflowing with inspiration, it was almost too much. I could barely keep up. It had been a while since I created art that I was proud of.”

“Hm. Seems like Brooklyn did a lot of good for you.”

“Yeah. Everyday, the city had something new to offer me. New tools, new paints, new brushes to work with. It was a wellspring of creativity and innovation.”

“I wish more people thought of us that way.”

“That’s another thing. I had fallen so in love with this town that I almost felt this need to show it off to the world. I wanted people to realize its hidden beauty.”

“Didn’t you?”

“I suppose. It was complicated – wanting to show off my new home while covering my footprints so people in my previous life wouldn’t discover my whereabouts.”

“Did they ever find you?”

“A few did. They tried to get in contact.”

“What did you do?”

“I did what I knew how to do best.”

“…Write fiction?”

I nod again, slowly this time.

“You lied to them.”

“Well in fiction, you take the truth and you sort of… bend it. Twist it to your liking. Paint it with different colors.”

“I see.”

I can feel his skepticism. It is sharp.

“Do you regret that?”

“Sometimes. At the time, I had become so infatuated with the city that I didn’t want anyone to take it away from me. My scars were still fresh. This was my new life and I had no intentions of going back.”

“That’s fair. Do you feel that your new self is incompatible with your old city?”

“Very much so.”

“I think I can understand that.
You mentioned previously that you had become a recluse?”

“Yes.”

“How so? As far as I could tell, you were still interacting with human beings when I met you.”

“Haha well, maybe not a real recluse.”

“Then what? A fictional recluse?”

“I figured I could have people in my life, so long as I didn’t have to get too close and personal with them.”

“And what did that achieve you?”

“Safety.”

“From what?”

“Robbery. I was scared that if I shared too much of my story, if I had let someone in too much, they would steal my pen. Because that’s what tends to happen. I didn’t want someone else writing my story again. It’s too painful.”

“Don’t you already share your stories though?”

“Yes, but only the fictional ones.”

“Hm.”

“For a while, people were nothing more than free ideas for characters I could build and write about. I would have a meaningful conversation or two with a new ‘friend’ and leave the rest to my imagination.”

“That is… fascinating.”

“That was the scariest part though. I needed to know them enough to have something to write about but that usually meant sharing myself with them as well. So once I had enough ‘content’ to work with, I would draw the line and keep the friendship from going anywhere further.”

“So… people were just creative fodder for your short stories.”

I look back down at the waters.

“Yeah, basically.”

“You’re a sick man. A genius, but… sick.”

“I know.”

“Was that all I was to you? A resource you could exploit for your writing career?”

“I may have used you for a few of my characters…”

“Fuck you. I want them back.”

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

“You know, you’re so scared of having your story stolen from people… but isn’t that what you’re doing to everyone else? You earn your friends’ trust, they share their story with you, then you take it and run away without ever returning the favor.”

It made too much sense. Maybe I should jump the bridge now.
We sat in the silence together.

“You know, it’s okay. You can use my story if you want. I don’t mind.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, man. I’ve shared so much of it anyways. I trust you. You’re still an asshole, though.”

“Wow. I’m… baffled.”

“You know, as good of a writer as you are, your scars still sometimes show. I could always tell you were in pain.”

“Hm. I suppose fiction can’t hide everything.”

“There is a fine line between writing fiction and writing lies.”

Wow. I think I almost throw up.

“You know… you were always the most inspiring and the most difficult character I’ve had to work with.”

“What do you mean?”

“You always give out your story so freely… It confused me, yet it amazed me. I was always afraid I’d have to respond in kind. At the same time, it gave me plenty of content to work with. Maybe even too much. Too much truth. I was scared of it. So I decided to stop using it after a while.”

“How long has it been?”

“Years. I looked to other people for stories instead.”

“I bet my story was far more exciting.”

“Well… actually, yes. Remember what I said about how fiction is written?”

“Bending the truth?”

“Yeah. Well, I eventually ran out of truth to bend. If I could only get so close to my friends, there was only so much material I could use. I could always find new friends but I grew tired. I was meeting new people, only getting to surface level, and running away.”

“Sounds exhausting.”

“Especially if you’re trying to be a recluse. I ran out of juice. And that would drive me into the deepest pit of writer’s block I’ve ever had. I guess I’m still in it. And I never figured out how to escape.

My stories became stale and colorless.”

Another moment of shared silence. The sun had set for a good while now and the city slowly ignited its nightly skyline glow.

“You know what. I think you have what you need to escape this hole you’re stuck in. I think you know what to do.”

I paused.
I wondered, how much of this story was real, how much was fictitious? I thought about this new life that I had spent years inventing and how I had ended up in another dead end. I thought about why real life was so terrifying to me. I saw truth as fire and I still live with the burn marks.

“Stop writing fiction?”

“No. Stop writing bad fiction.”

“Excuse me?”

He smiled.

“There’s nothing wrong with writing fiction, my friend. But the best fiction is real fiction.”

“Ah. The great Albert Camus. How could I forget.”

Perhaps I had been asking myself the wrong question.
How much of my life is fiction, how much a lie?

I thought of truth as fire still – that had not changed. It was dangerous. But maybe if I allow myself the risk of playing with explosives, I just might be able to make fireworks.

Talk about grip strength. The pen is slipping from my hand.

homelessness

It’s almost unbelievable.

To remember what’s forgotten.

To be separated from those you love for so long and forgetting what it’s like to be with them.

You forget the nuances of their voice. The tonal inflections. The cadence.

The poetry.

You forget what it’s like to stand next to them.

Sharing a space together.

You forget how to position your body. How much personal space to give. You become extra aware of how close you stand by them.

You forget what it is like to walk with them.

The pace of our stroll. The patterns of our footfalls. The syncopated steps, strangely synced together by odd time signatures. We are percussionists. Our rhythms have so happened to line up in a time like this.

You forget what it’s like to talk to them.

The art of storytelling. Where did we leave off? Which chapter did we bookmark? Which episode? Don’t worry, I’ll re-watch it with you.

You forget what it feels like to make eye contact with them.

The strangeness. The tension. Who breaks contact first. The trust. The intimacy.

The inability to explain what it means but the sureness of knowing it meant something.

You forget what it is like to share a silence.

The nagging of our consciences to fill the emptiness.

The surrendering.

The release when you discover that the emptiness is actually already filled.

With treasures.

The vibrant, colorful dialogue exchanged between two souls at a loss for words.

The richness of silence.

Precious stones. Hidden, yet we somehow have found them together.

 

p

You forget who they are.

And yet, you don’t.

p

p

You learn, and then you learn again.

You taste the sweetness of second and third times.

Fourth. Fifth. Sixth times.

Eventually, you wonder if each time will be your last.

p

p

You wonder if they remember. You wonder how much they forgot.

You wonder if you’ve remembered too much.

You wonder if they haven’t remembered enough.

You wonder if there even is a balance.

You ask yourself if it’s worth the heartache to remember. If you should just try to forget.

You realize that you have no choice but to remember, anyways.

You forget and you remember.

“What is a farewell even?”, you ask yourself.

You figure the human soul was never meant to say goodbye.

So you stop.

You never leave, yet you are always going.

You try finding home. Or building one.

Then you run away.

You protect your heart, for it must be far too frail. You wonder if other souls are as fragile.

You never leave.

You keep them at arm’s distance.

You give up.

The tragedy that we were never meant to bid farewells, yet we have no choice but to do so.

You accept the inevitability of heartbreak.

That perhaps, this is the human curse.

You memorize.

You see the forgotten beauty of remembering. That the world has remembered how to forget and forgotten how to remember.

You collect memories like a child collects toys.

And the toys have names. They have life. They have distinct personalities and you know how each of them would respond to your jokes. To your sorrows. To your battle cries.

“Are they real?”, you often ponder. Sometimes you even ask them.

You realize that they ask the same question, themselves.

Perhaps we’ll never know.

But then, you decide to remember.

You forget, yet you never really forget.

You cannot.

You invent heaven into a place with no goodbyes.

You start to realize why you wander and tread the earth. And why even as you travel, your baggage is yet so heavy.

You understand you were never meant for this world anyways.

You accept that home was never here to begin with.

You begin to see that you’re just a pilgrim, of sorts.

A time traveler.

Never forget.

homesickness

I wrote this during my recent spontaneous escapade to San Diego.

It is a dialogue piece about adventure and escape. As I pensively sipped my iced red-eye at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, a mere coffee-bean’s throw from the cliffs, a young woman sat next to me. No words were exchanged.

p

p

“Oh, I’m not from these parts.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I come from a land far off and distant.”

“Wow, I would have never guessed. You could pass as a local.”

“Haha, appreciate it.”

It is harder than I thought to look in her eyes. She’s pretty.

“Well… What brings you here then?”

“Good question.”

“So you’re not sure why you’re here?”

“Sometimes, you don’t know why until you actually go.”

“Hm. I see. Well, are you making any progress?”

“I think so. I’m still figuring it out.”

“That’s fair. What do you got so far?”

“Well aren’t you quite the inquisitor.”

“Hey, I already shared my story. Don’t leave me hanging. Besides, what are the chances we see each other again in the future?

“I guess.”

She looks at me and I quickly turn away, in an attempt to steal back my glance.

“Alright then. Just for you. Shall we?”

As if in unspoken tradition, we raise our beer bottles towards each other once again and toast. Clink. After a deep swig, we continue our aimless stroll on the warmly-lit streets of the downtown labyrinth.

“…Well?”

“I’m running.”

Her eyes widen.

“Like… a fugitive? What did you do?!”

“No no, not like that… I ain’t like your FBI Most Wanted felon or anything.”

“Oh. How boring.”

“Hey, you asked for it.”

“Okay fine. So what are you running from? Or who?”

“I’m running from life.”

“I’m not quite sure I understand.”

“Well back where I’m from… things aren’t looking so great right now. And I don’t want to be there right now.”

“Hm. Must be pretty bad, huh. For you to run.”

“Yeah. It’s hard to look out the window sometimes. Some mornings, it seems as if I’m waking up blinded. Like one of my eyes forgets to awaken from its slumber.”

“Seriously?”

“My city… we live in shadows. It’s quite dismal. Imagine not being able to see one color for the rest of your life. You don’t fully realize its beauty until it’s lost. Or, the color blue. It isn’t as blue anymore. It’s not a rich cerulean substance with flavor. It’s just… blue. Without the depth. We’re losing something precious.”

“Whoa.”

“The worst thing is… I don’t know if anyone else notices what’s happening. Or cares.”

“Have you tried explaining it to them?”

“I’ve tried. I talked to my family, my friends, Hell, I’ve even talked to the governor. I published articles and what not, trying start a movement or something.”

“So you’re a writer.”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“And nothing. I mean, they’ve tried to respond and ‘fix’ the problem but I don’t think it’s been very helpful.”

“Why not?”

“Well, if your doctor gives you the wrong diagnosis…”

“…He’s gonna give you the wrong medicine.”

“Precisely.”

“Ah. And you think you have the right diagnosis?”

“That’s the thing. I’m not even sure myself.
But… I’m sure as hell more knowledgable than they are.”

“What makes you so confident?”

“I’ve lived here the longest. Even longer than the governor. This is my city. I know every street corner, back alley, secret passage, you name it. I know the underground networks better than I know grade school math. I practically built a good portion of it. I own these streets. My blood runs in the city’s veins and the city’s blood runs in my veins.”

“They should have elected you for governor.”

“Nah, that ain’t me. I belong on the ground-level. On the streets. Front lines, you know?”

“Mm. Can’t you change the city if you know it best?”

“That’s the thing. I need the resources from the higher-ups to make some sort of real change. I can’t do it alone.”

“But they ain’t buyin’ it.”

“They ain’t buyin’ it. I’ve tried to start something on my own initiative but I don’t think it’s possible. I can’t sustain it for much longer. The fatigue is starting to cement in my soul and my soul is hardening.”

“No one understands.”

“No one understands.”

She looks over at me.

“That sounds painful.”

“You have no idea. It’s unbearable. Seeing my own city in flames. Ash clouds trace the skyline. People have been inhaling smog for so long they’ve forgotten what’s in the air they’re breathing. It’s been a while since I’ve seen my city without the haze.

When the city burns… when the city bleeds, it’s not just the city’s blood that flows.”

“It’s your blood.”

I nod at her.

“Damn. I can’t imagine that.”

“Yeah, it’s a lot.”

The pace of our step slows.

p

p

“So… you’re escaping. Escaping your world, escaping the pain.”

“Yeah. I suppose I am.”

“No shame in that. It makes sense.”

“Mm. It’s been a while since I’ve heard that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Many people think otherwise. People at home, I mean.”

“Well, they clearly don’t get it.”

I pause.

“Yeah.     …Yeah. Thanks.”

We make eye contact at last. Mutual contact, that is. Something about her gaze pierces me, through my burning tears, through my dark, fathomless eyes, through my soul.

p

p

“You know, I feel honored. Special.”

“How so?”

“You picked my city. You could have gone anywhere in the world but you picked my home. Even if it was to escape.”

“Well, I was just… I guess I just wandered here. I didn’t have a destination. Just far away.”

“But something told you to stop. Here. Of all places.”

“Hm. I guess so.”

She looks at me again and gives me a soft smile, the way that only your closest friends would give you a soft, yet strangely loving shove.

p

p

“What’s wrong?”

“I… I have to go back. I can already feel the bleeding.”

“This isn’t your first time, is it?”

“No. How did you know that?”

“Just a guess. I can almost see… tethers. And they’re latching onto you, almost like chains, and whenever you leave, no matter how far you go, they eventually pull you back.”

“Damn. You’re good.”

“Hah. Thanks.”

“Do I have to leave?”

“I can’t make that choice for you, my friend. You have to decide that for yourself.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Again, that’s your choice. It’s your city.”

“Sometimes… it seems like the only moments when I feel like I belong are the moments when I am far away. When I am traveling to new, unfamiliar worlds. When I am discovering the treasures of distant lands. When I am wandering. It is in times like those that I actually feel like my soul is in tune with my body. I get that sense of ‘Yes, this is right’-ness. Like I should be here… when I’m not here. Does that even make sense?”

“Ah. You have the heart of a wayfarer.”

“Have you ever gone somewhere and felt a deep yearning for a place you’ve never known? A homesickness for a land you’ve just set foot on?”

“Rarely, but yes.”

“I don’t want to leave.”

“Is it that you don’t want to leave, or that you don’t want go back home?”

“I can’t tell.”

“That’s okay.”

We made eye contact again. Not nearly as intimidating but even more powerful.

“I can already feel it. The… tethers? They’re pulling me pretty hard. It’s almost suffocating.”

“I guess this is it, then.”

We approach the platform. I board the train hesitantly.

“This conversation was not long enough for my taste.”

“Hah. We’ve been at it for quite a few hours, bud.”

“Man. Is that so.”

“Hey, if you ever need to run away… if you ever need a place to escape to, you know where to go. My city’s gates are open.”

“But will I ever see you again? Will you be here if I come back? How will I find you?”

She gave a gentle smile.

p

The train’s doors closed between us.
As the speed of the train crescendoed, the sight of her face waned into the horizon, gradually, yet still too quickly. She disappeared from view but I continued to stare out the window.

The tethers tightened their grip around me and dragged me back into the nauseating timelapse of life.

p

p

Why am I here?

the crescent’s edge

I hold my breath, readying my heart to brace the shattering impact of past and present.

Soul surgery. I smell the metal of sterilized tools and hear the disquieting crinkle of plastic packaging. I can feel the cold air of the canyon’s shadow brush over my skin.

Okay. Deep breath. “What’s next?”, I inquire nervously, expecting to descend the treacherous ladder down the canyon and into the chasm. I even feel ready for it. Let’s do this thing.

But the wayfarer does not move. He continues to stare into the distance, unyielding in his gaze. “Come back”, he beckons me. “Take yet another look. Let it captivate you.”

I hoist myself up the ladder and off the cliff-face, willingly yet hesitantly. I inch towards him like a timid child and sit beside him. My peripherals are not as great as I would like so I attempt stealing a glimpse of his face. But my awkward side glance quickly becomes an awkward stare. Wait. My heart suddenly slows down and beats with greater resonance.

I can see the universe in his eyes.
The star-covered tapestry. I see… the cerulean expanse. It’s real. The waters welled up and left his eyes. A swirl of galaxies lay in a teardrop, hanging suspended in midair.

He’s crying.

I turn my eyes to find the view that held him hostage. Wind. Lots of wind. Rushing through my hair, massaging my soul. At the crescent’s edge, we survey the awe-inspiring scenery of the canyon and the glittering backdrop that accompanied it. The overwhelming sight of celestial bodies and the vast expanse of abysmal darkness, juxtaposed in a scenery of beautiful disparity.

 

 

It’s not time yet. The ticks of two metronomes pound unrelentingly within me, my heart lost between the two tempos, not knowing which to beat to. He’s inviting me to un-sync my heart from the rhythm of one to another. When your being tries to align itself to two different times, something inside tears. Something is ripping. I guess I’m still jet-lagged.

The pace of life around me demands the next step. “Progress”. Solutions. Results. I expect him to pick up the shovel but he prescribes a different medicine.

And so we sit there at the cliffside, not even in anticipation, but in consummate presence. I taste a different-flavored peace, that somehow, this is exactly where we need to be. On the verge of light and shadow. We stare off into the distance. We wonder. And as we do so, we remember.

 

“Let us take the long way, shall we? The view is breath-taking, I promise you.
Put on your helmet.”

fight fire with fire

Last week was deep emotional pain. This week, I nearly cut two of my fingers off with a chef knife.

Losing consciousness is terrifying. As much as I love the ocean, I can’t stand swimming in it, especially when I have to stare down into the seemingly bottomless abyss. As my friends hastily carried my limp body outside, my mind struggled to stay afloat, but my attempts to tread water were futile. As much as I thrashed, I really had no control over the waves. They would wash over me, envelop me, and the frantic soundtrack playing in the background would grow disturbingly silent, save some muffled voices. The world would turn eerily dim. No goggles.

Is this what it feels like to die?

 

The hospital visit was one of the best workouts of my life. One of the first questions the nurse inquired of me was this: “Intentional or unintentional?”

What the hell..?

“Unintentional”, I responded.

I think my grip strength is getting pretty good by now. The best types of exercise involve not only all of your body, but all of your mind and soul. So much of it is a game that is played mentally. How much can you take? Where do your limits lie and do you have the strength and willpower to trespass them?

Fighting pain is exhausting.

One of the most memorable highlights in our workout routine was when my doctor shot anesthetics into my finger. As soon as the word “stitches” was mentioned, I entered an episode of internal frenzy. Mental game level up. Boss level. I could hardly stutter through the pain but in my mind, I frantically demanded, Just give me the damn anesthetics.

Getting the anesthetics into my finger was ironically the most painful part of the process but the payoff was well worth it. Man. The things you do and say when you’re in pain amaze me. When you’re hurting that much, the mere absence of pain can feel like pleasure. Yet my body did not receive even that degree of relief. I was still very much in pain but it felt like euphoria and I was content with it. It strikes me how when one is in agony, he will settle for lesser agony, rather than actual healing.

But what happens when the anesthetic begins to fade away? Apart from passing out, feeling the painkillers wear off was one of the most fear-inducing moments of the day. Wait. Can you give me more? I’m not ready to go back there.

It has been a rough week, being limited in my activity and having the rhythm of my life forcibly hindered behind everyone else’s. But when I come to think about it, it wasn’t all that bad. At least I didn’t have to think about all of the heavy pain weighing on my heart from the previous week. I only had so much energy and mental capacity and I spent all of it on my lacerated fingers. I didn’t have enough space to even think about other scars.

I think I understand why people cut themselves now. It distracts them from deeper pains, the pains of the heart. And I can now attest, it is surprisingly effective. In fact, it works like magic. (Great. Now my heart is breaking for more people.) Sometimes, the emotional suffering is so unimaginable that it only makes sense for someone to resort to physical self-harm. Sometimes, the pain is so unbearable that the greatest anesthetic to pain, it would seem, is pain itself.

But alas, like all anesthetics, pain inevitably subsides and wears off. And the scars of the body usually heal faster than the scars of the soul. My stitches get removed this upcoming week. Panic. Internal frenzy. Doctor, I need more anesthetics. Please. Can you give me more? I’m not ready to go back there. I can already feel the sting of my deeper wounds slowly creeping back. Oh God. I’m scared. What do I do? Need I apply more anesthetics?

 

Fight fire with fire.

#gettrekt16 – “why you came?” (entry 4)

On good days when our Daa finds himself in a good enough mood, he will crack jokes with us, teach us some Thai words, and practice his choppy English vocabulary. On one of these seldom days, he kept saying this one phrase over and over, “Why you came!” Michael and I looked at each other and laughed. We’re still trying to figure that one out, my friend. We’ll get back to you on that one.

 

If God is all powerful, why does He call us into Mission? Clearly, He can just do it all Himself. If He wanted to, He can bring the Kingdom of God to the earth, fulfill the Great Commission, and it would be a cakewalk. So why would He call us, messy human beings, to do His work when He is perfectly capable of doing it Himself? That doesn’t sound very efficient to me. Is God really perfect?

The trek is quickly coming to a close and it’s about that time that we start taking inventory of the things that God has done and is continuing to do. If the trek were to end tomorrow, what can we point to and give God glory for? What testimonies will we hold onto and savor in the years to come? What convictions and lessons will we carry home?

Here at the Ruth Center, God has shoved us beyond the limits that we defined for ourselves and taken us to places we would have never dreamed of going on our own. He has shown us what His cup of suffering really tastes like. He has taught us how to love those we have forgotten how to love, even ourselves. I personally received deep inner healing last week when my team dedicated a couple of hours of their afternoons to pray for me.

But wait a minute. What about the things that changed in Thailand? What about the difference that we made in the peoples’ lives here? As we reflect, we are forced to wrestle with a realization that may be startling to some. It seems like Jesus was doing a lot more work in our lives than the lives of our hosts. As far as I can tell, we spent a lot more time dealing with my long-forgotten childhood trauma than that of the Thai people. What’s up with that? Jesus, what exactly did I sign up for?

As difficult as it is to admit to ourselves and our church friends, Bangkok isn’t going to go through that much transformation by the time we leave. If we are being truly honest with ourselves, we didn’t change Thailand that much. What am I to say to my friends at my InterVarsity chapter when I come home? What am I supposed to tell all those people who donated so that I could afford this trip?

It is a scary place to be, when we are no longer able to hide behind our accomplishments or a nicely-packaged testimony. But that is exactly where Jesus wants us. Because it threatens our source of self-worth when we live and breathe a culture that has idolized achievement and success like golden calves. Because we can no longer shield ourselves behind the damaging notion that the poor need us as much as we would like to believe. Because it is in this place of vulnerability and nakedness that we are forced to face who we truly are.

When God called me to commit to a short-term mission trip this summer, He was not inviting me to change Thailand. He was inviting me to confront the brokenness of my own heart. Is the North American evangelical church ready to face such a scandalous truth that they are just as broken as the third-world countries they so fervently claim they are called to serve? It is easy, even comforting, to point out depravity when we walk the Red Light Districts of Thailand but are we willing to let Jesus walk through the depravity of our own souls? Are we willing to let our consciences be disturbed when Jesus reveals to us that the sin we see in the consumers of the sex trade is the same sin that plagues our own hearts?

That is what Jesus is doing in my life and I firmly believe that is why He asked me to drop all my plans and travel halfway around the world this summer. Yes, to see the messiness of sin in Thailand, but more so, to see the messiness of sin in my life.

Jesus doesn’t need us to complete the Mission. We need the Mission for Jesus to complete us. Because it is in the Mission that we find not only the healing of the nations, but also the healing of our hearts. It is in His perfection that He calls the imperfect to do His perfect will, thereby perfecting them.

 

Why you came?” Whether out of genuine curiosity or just to give us some laughter, Daa poses a serious question that has haunted us the whole summer.

Maybe it’s not so much about us missionaries bringing change to Thailand. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that Jesus is already doing that, with or without us. Maybe we’ve romanticized the short-term mission trip so much in the church that we’ve forgotten that Jesus is on a mission after our hearts. Maybe we’ve obsessed over the idea that “the poor need us” and lost sight of the reality that we are just as in need of Jesus as they are. Maybe our stories of redemption are actually intertwined and we’re just in it for the ride. Together. Maybe that’s all Mission really is. Not the rich saving the poor, not the missionary changing the world, not even the churched converting the pagans. Because to both the Rich Men and Lazarus’ of the world, Jesus is the true Savior, the true bringer of change, and to our greatest surprise, our true reconciler. So maybe Mission is just Jesus’ invitation for us to learn something we’ve forgotten how to do with Lazarus: to share a relationship together.

 

#gettrekt16

#gettrekt16 – dying incarnationally (entry 3)

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.”  –Mark 8:34

Ever since Michael and I arrived on-site at Daa’s household, we have been gradually compiling a list of “deal-breakers” that would send us home immediately. It was a fool’s errand. Every time we added something to the list, we would unexpectedly find ourselves doing that very thing we promised ourselves we would never do, only a couple days later.

On the fourth day, I told myself that if I fell into the trash-filled black swamp water of the slums, I would quit. Send me home, Lord. Within a few days, I fell in. Two days later, Daa told Michael to climb into the trash dump to fetch firewood. There have been nights when we’ve woken up 5+ times to unload diarrhea because of food poisoning. Other nights, we’ve been rudely awakened by monster cockroaches inside our mosquito net and we had to beat them to death with our water bottles. Just a few nights ago, I woke up with 48 mosquito bites on my right arm alone. The list goes on. I’ll leave you to your imagination.

In essence, we were creating boundaries for where we were willing to go and every time we drew the line, Jesus would take us there to cross it. He tends to do that a lot. It’s pretty annoying.

One thing I can be sure of now is that following Jesus into a ministry of Incarnation is much harder than I anticipated. Scott Bessenecker was right in saying in his book (The New Friars) that the Incarnation is not merely a one-time decision that we make when we fill out the online application to the Global Urban Trek. We must choose into the Incarnation daily. And that is no easy task.

I often laugh to myself whenever my friends and family ask me what I’m doing in Bangkok this summer because, quite frankly, I still don’t know the answer to that question. I know Jesus has called me here but as to why He has called me, I am wrestling with that question even as I write this article. It doesn’t help that all we are doing is taking care of grandmas and grandpas and getting harassed by tropical insects all day. In times of stress, exhaustion, physical and emotional pain, I get especially impatient with God and I want to shortcut the process of finding answers.

The past week has been particularly strenuous on both my body and my soul and in the midst of the pain, the Holy Spirit has illuminated some profound truths to me. Sure, our site (Ruth Center) may not have a program or “agenda”, per se, but our mission is to learn how to love our Daa and Yaay’s (grandpas and grandmas), as aforementioned in the previous post. Other sites may have more intense programs, such as dealing with victims of trafficking, but our site has one of the most difficult living situations by far. But I think that’s the point. Our living situation IS the program.

If love is the mission, then living with Daa is our ministry. It is the vehicle with which we must learn to navigate in order to embrace the Mission. Just as Jesus incarnated and dwelled among His people as an outward expression of His love, we live and dwell with Daa to communicate Jesus’ love to him and to make Jesus’ love our own.

It has dawned on me this past week that in order to choose the Incarnation and live with the people, I must first die to myself. That is why it is so hard to live with Daa. To choose into living the life of Jesus is to also choose into the death of myself.

Since coming on the Trek, there have been many opportunities for me and my team to “check out” and mentally quit the Mission. Needless to say, the temptation only intensifies in moments when Michael and I check off items on our deal-breaker list. But those moments are not just opportunities to quit. They are opportunities to let those parts of ourselves die for the sake of continuing the Mission of Jesus. To let our love of comfort die when we are getting eaten alive by mosquitos in the shower. To let our need for other people die when no one visits our Daa. To let my need for verbal affirmation die when all I hear is rebuke and disapproval. To let go of the reality that I’m probably not going to leave behind a tangible legacy when I leave Bangkok. To let my accomplishment-driven, task-focused ministry paradigm die when I realize that I won’t be able to measure the impact that I made in someone else’s life because that’s not the point. Opportunities like this come on the daily and each time they come, we have to ask ourselves: will I choose my own life or will I choose to die to it? Will I choose the Incarnation? Will I choose Jesus?

 

I think I may have found the Way of the Cross. The road marked with suffering. I don’t quite see Jesus yet but at the very least, I think I found footprints.

“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds… Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, my servant also will be.”  –Jesus [John 12:24,26]

 

#gettrekt16