Friday, November 27, 2015

Thanksgiving Day

The roads were deserted on Thanksgiving Day morning. The air was warm for this time of the year. The sky was clear, and there was sunshine on the nearly depleted trees where the remaining leaves had turned from golden splendor to brownish drabness, which reminded me of my own metamorphosis into midlife homeliness.

I was feeling peaceful and gently uplifted. This day was a reminder to count my many blessings once more. I thanked God for being with me all the time and all the way. I was grateful for the pleasant weather, the fresh air, and the abundant trees surrounding me. I was grateful for my car, which still served me well even though it was more than ten years old and had a leaking oil pan according to the guys at Midas. I was grateful that I had a reasonably decent job even though sometimes I felt tired of it and would have quit hadn't I remembered my bills, that I still had enough brain to keep up with all those pesky new technologies which kept popping up around like mushrooms.

Above all I thanked God for my wife and my darling baby daughter, who would light up a joy in my heart and a smile on my lips whenever I thought of them. While I was driving on the roads of suburban Atlanta my baby was soundly sleeping in Saigon half way around the world with her little pillow tucked under her legs instead of her head, true to her funny ways. My wife had sent me a message on my smartphone to tell me all that, so I was grateful for Viber as well.

In a word, thank you Lord. It's all your doing, I deserve naught.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Girl Scout

Michael is my six-year-old neighbor who once asked me if I had any kid to play with him. The negative reply disappointed him, but he kindly declared that I was his friend and could come to visit him anytime.

One late afternoon I answered my doorbell and found Michael there with a girl about his age. She was very girly, blond hair long and curly, dressed in pink, her whole appearance screaming Barbie. In a flustered yet determined voice she explained that her name was Saturday and she was selling Girl Scout cookies, oh no snacks not cookies, and would you be interested sir?

What choice did I have, except to extend my hand for the colorful menu and browse through it? Something about mint and chocolate, ten dollars. Something else that involved orange and cranberry, seven bucks. I handed her a twenty and asked if she had three dollars to give back to me.

"Yes I do," she assured me and opened her Barbie purse. It was empty, but she was a quick thinker. "I'll go home and ask my Mom for it," she said. "Be right back!"

She hurried away on her little pink bike. Michael also decided to leave.

Ten minutes later she came back and put into my hand two crumpled singles and four quarters. She said to me while getting on her pink bike again:

"I'll come back to deliver your order, hopefully!"

Hopefully? I bet she just learned that word and thought it would be nice to use it to conclude a business transaction.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Reflections on a Dead Leaf

The morning drizzle had pushed a small maple leaf against my windshield. I sat staring at its lobed shape and deep yellow color, captivated by its melancholic beauty. Somehow it reminded me of my mother's hands, which had also shown veins and dark spots. I thought of where her body was now, and where this leaf was going to be.

Why should life be transient and death permanent? The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system always increases. Considering that the universe is a closed system and life does not exist in a state of high entropy, it follows that life is on an inexorable path towards being extinguished. But does it have to be that way?

Years ago I often pondered over this question. It occurred to me that there might be a correlation between entropy and morality, however alien that might sound. Think about this: all the actions that are considered bad involve destruction - destruction of life, of health, of harmony, and more. By nature destruction brings chaos into something orderly, moving it to a state of higher entropy. So here is the correlation: goodness favors reduction of entropy, while sin seeks to increase it.

From this point it is only one step further to see the second law of thermodynamics as a manifestation of the original sin. The original sin put the universe under the rule of the second law of thermodynamics, which dictates that its entropy will only increase and all life will eventually be snuffed out. This is at least partly what the Bible means by declaring that all have sinned and sin results in death.

So how do God and His promise of everlasting life come into this picture?

To defeat death and restore life, the entropy of a system must be reduced, requiring energy. The attributes of an infinite God naturally can blow up any finite mind in incomprehension, but in the context of this topic I would like to think of God as the ultimate source of energy. I would also imagine that His presence exists with zero entropy, sinless and timeless.

Connected to God, the universe would have its entropy pushed back and prevented from reaching a high level. Life would be freed from sin and death. The second law of thermodynamics would not apply anymore, for the universe would no longer be a closed system. And because of no entropy increase, time would be eliminated as well.

It makes sense to me and gives me hope.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Behind the school building was a barbed wire fence. In the middle of the fence was a gap created by cutting down the wire and stomping on it, providing a shortcut to a back lane. Just around a bend on that potholed back lane was a humble cottage, more like a hut. Its walls were made from mud mixed with straw, and its roof was made from a type of long grass. Basic and cheap, this was the type of dwelling that would indicate more or less destitute occupants.

A boy in my class lived there and was reluctant to admit it when I first asked. With his soft skin untouched by the sun and wind, he did not look like a typical country kid. His trademark was a baggy yellow sweater with a white stripe across the chest. I also had a baggy sweater, a hand-me-down from my brother, and maybe that was why I took a liking to him.

He was quiet and had a curiously defensive look when talked to, as if expecting something unpleasant. No game at recess, heading straight home after school, he seemed either to prefer his own company or under strict instructions not to mingle and loiter. Still, since I took the same way home, we sometimes walked together until he stepped on a plank across the ditch running alongside the dirt lane, then disappeared behind a hedge overgrown with winged bean vines.

I never learned much about him, except that he was living with his grandmother in that small cottage, and that they had moved to our village not so long ago. In those years immediately following the communist victory there were many kids just like him around, who did not belong to that sleepy place with cows mooing and hens clucking, but all the same had ended up there like seaweed cast ashore after a devastating storm. Most would leave before long, for better or for worse no one knew.

My friend also left that summer. The hedge with winged bean vines were blossoming with purple flowers, but the little cottage beyond looked forlorn and soon fell into disrepair. I thought I would never see him again.

Friday, September 18, 2015


My childhood came to an abrupt end one day when I overheard a conversation between my parents.

I was twelve years old. Two years ago my family had moved to this new place, a village at the foot of a mountain where most people earned their livelihood from toiling on the land except for a few merchants whose shops clustered around the tiny market pavilion. I had eased into the new normal with my new school, new friends and playgrounds.

My father had ditched his suit and tie and my mother her pretty dresses to put on peasant working clothes. My father had transformed an old bicycle into a contraption that could carry my mother on the back seat, two hoes with handles strapped to the bike body, and a couple of baskets hanging from the sides. Together they would leave early in the morning for the fields and come back quite late, usually when all the ducks and chicken had been fed and repaired to their coops for the night.

It was true that money was extremely low and we had to grow our own food, but there was an equally important reason for my parents to undertake the labor of farming. Manual laboring was the new political correctness; any other lifestyle was deemed corrupted and could result in real trouble for individuals and their families. For the whole country had fallen to communist forces a couple of years back, and we were having our first taste of living under a communist regime.

At school we saluted a new flag and was taught to revere a man half smiling from his beard. Under his gaze from a portrait hanging high above the blackboard, we learned that we had been liberated from cruel oppressors and a new bright future was wide open for us. All thanks to the bearded man and his fighters, whose heroic deeds filled up our textbooks and were measured by how many they had killed. We listened to the demonization of those called enemies and were urged to nurture a deep hatred against them, which despite my eagerness to obey I could not find anywhere in my heart. We sang songs that expressed gratitude to the bearded man and his party, who for some strange reason were credited with providing us with food and clothes.

Ironically at home food was getting less and less on our table, and my clothes became worn and faded with no prospect for new ones. A somber mood seemed to have descended on the household, but I did not mind; for I had friends to play with, fields and streams and groves to roam about, and on a rainy day books to bury my head in. Until one day when I overheard a conversation between my parents.

I was just outside their bedroom when my father said to my mother, "There's nothing we can do." She softly repeated it as if in resigned acceptance, and a sudden chill seeped through my body. I had always taken for granted that whatever trouble the world might bring to our door, my parents would be able to ward it off with a wave of hand. Now by their own admission, we were facing a problem about which they were just as helpless as I was. The wall of security had just crumbled around me, and I no longer felt protected.

From that moment I knew my childhood had ended, and things would never be the same again. One day my father was summoned to the District Public Security Headquarters and did not return until six years later.

Thursday, September 3, 2015


Whenever I am sick, I think of windows. Lying in bed and too tired to think of anything else, I look at my window naturally. Just like today.

Today there is sunshine outside. Through my window I can see it golden on the big gray trunk of an old pine tree and on part of the crepe myrtle tree bearing bright purple flowers in my backyard. The rest of the crepe myrtle tree is stuck in the shadow of a wall where its colors are of a more sober shade. A piece of blue sky shows above the wooden fence. The view, modest as it is, unfailingly steers my thoughts to a more cheerful direction.

I also remember the bedroom windows in my past. One was upstairs, looking right at a maple tree which was green in summer, golden and red in fall, and gray bare in winter. I used to wake up to the sight of that maple tree and the chirping sound of birds which penetrated even the window glass. I was going through a rough time then, but it was good to have that window to start a new day.

There was another upstairs window that looked down upon a young cherry tree in my front yard. It was spectacular in spring when it was blossoming in full pink with red robins flitting back and forth, but I loved it best when it started to show tiny buds that signaled the end of a dull winter. It was comforting to see hope started with such modesty before growing into such splendor.

In my life there were also dreary windows, which offered nothing more than the view of a bleak wall, stained with traces of rain and dust accumulated over years of neglect. Even in the brightest of days they only let in a weak, pallid sort of light, begrudgingly given to the unfortunate occupant of the room. No help to the downtrodden spirit really.

There are windows that I never had, those seen in some impressionist paintings with boxes filled with bright red geraniums overlooking an old, narrow, cobbled street. It must be nice sitting there in the morning, a cup of coffee in hand and the aroma of freshly baked pastries wafting in the air.

My favorite window was one that opened to the front yard of my old home, where my mother planted red roses, purple and coral gladiolas, white marguerite daisies, and a variety of pansies. I used to sit there, watching birds and butterflies play among the flowers and plants, or sometimes the rain coming down pitter-pattering on the shuddering leaves. It was so peaceful I would stay there for hours, the open book in my hand still unread.

Soon I will have that window again, I promise myself. My mother will not be there to plant her flowers anymore, but I will be watching my little girl playing on the lawn. Her little hands will touch the first flowers in her life; and her guileless smile will brighten up my many days to come.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

September, Again

September is knocking at the door again. Early signs of fall are starting to show -- milder temperature, rain, and trees changing color. Soon, more and more leaves will fall.

Yesterday evening I went to the same funeral home where I had said my last goodbye to my mother four months ago. This time it was for someone I knew from church. If my mother had been an autumn leaf, ripe for falling, then this friend was still a summer leaf which should have stayed green for many more years. Cancer has put a premature end to her life and a big empty hole in her young children's life. I stood listening to the sobbing of her daughter and thought of my own pain, which after four months still feels raw.

My friend will be buried at the same cemetery where my mother was laid down to rest, a beautiful place that has become dear to me in a bittersweet way. I first came there to pick out the plot and the marker design for my mother's grave. Then I came to put new flowers in the vase. I came to tell my mother about my life, my job, my feelings, and most of all my baby daughter.

My daughter had been born just one month before my mother passed away, a new joy to fill in the painful emptiness. Such is the way of life, nothing is ever undiluted. In a blooming rose there is always a flawed petal. In a dark night there are always a few stars twinkling somewhere above.

One more September is coming to my life, bringing with it the beauty of fall tinged with a bit of melancholy, and I know I have to embrace both.