Pinnacle Moments {Cynthia}

Welcome to the first edition of our Pinnacle Moments series! Each Wednesday, I’ll be hosting a series of posts where we share transcendental moments in our lives: moments in which the paths of our lives changed, we made important decisions, had epiphanies, or experienced a defining point in a relationship with a loved one. Starting us off is a Pinnacle Moment shared by Cynthia from Running With Letters, and I truly could not imagine a more perfect beginning to our series. Please join us in sharing these Pinnacle Moments, and we hope that you might wish to share one of yours too.


From Cynthia:

I had no way of knowing that a reflective moment lying on my bedroom floor at the end of a random fall day would become the opening scene in a 16-year long chapter in my life. All I knew was that I wanted to make a difference, but  I had no idea I was making a decision that would not only bring me joy, but also inspire me to pursue of a lifelong dream.

See, I was a late bloomer, of sorts.  A caution-to-the-wind kind of girl with a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for impulsive road trips during school hours. My teenage self was interested in present tense fun, with little regard for future consequences. It was a minor miracle, then, for me to have landed safely on the carpet of the townhouse I shared with my first and only husband and our baby daughter. A husband who responded to my third date announcement that, I “just wanted to be friends,” with, “Well, what would you like to do tomorrow?” –a pattern he stuck with until we were planning a wedding.  When asked why he persisted, he said, “I decided that if what we were was friends, I’d be lucky to have you.”

But as I lay in the darkness thinking of all the ways my life could have turned out differently, I knew who the lucky one was.  I also knew that I felt a sense of responsibility to extend a road map of sorts to my younger sisters—a guide marking the best stepping stones around life’s tough neighborhoods.  That night, I resolved to make it happen.

At the time, I was not involved with teenagers in any capacity, but soon, my husband and I started volunteering with our church youth group.  It would still be a couple years and a move to our own house, though, before I hit upon a winning recipe: Tuesday Night, Open Invitation Meetings in my living room, around a warm pan of gooey brownies.

When I first came up with the idea for a teen girls’ Bible study, even my husband, who has been a constant source of encouragement in endeavors ranging from international travel to the ill-advised adoptions of numerous strays, was skeptical.

“It’s a great idea,” he said.  “But I’m not sure if you’ll get anyone to come.  I don’t want you to be disappointed.”

But come they did—sometimes in trickles, others times in droves.  And our group quickly expanded as the girls brought their friends.  Soon teens from all over the community began showing up at my door each week for a dose of scripture, a listening ear, and, of course, a brownie.

Not every girl that came to Bible study was involved in church–in fact there were girls who would never have felt comfortable sitting on a pew.  Some were youth group girls who seemed perfect, yet hid inner hurts and even outward scars inflicted by their own hand.  Others were vivacious and self assured.  Most just needed encouragement through the everyday ups and downs of growing out of childhood and coming into their own.  But every single one of the teens who came through my door was a beautiful person who was worthy of having a place where they could be themselves for two hours each week, free from pressure of judgment.

To the best of my knowledge, the advice I gave to every question poised came straight out of the Bible but was applied to each girl’s specific situation.  Not that every teen accepted my perspective, but every single one of them respected it.

Along the way, we prayed over lost loves, sick pets, and plummeting grades. We had sleepovers and holiday parties, and, as time passed, older girls would come back from college or married life and get to know the new members, creating a continuous thread. Friendships formed on Tuesday Nights led to introductions that resulted in two marriages.  I’ve been in two other weddings, and attended a couple baby showers.  And once, we sat and cried together at a funeral, too.

I keep a few trophies—but not the kind you have to polish.  My favorite is a little Ziploc baggie full of “contraband” a couple of girls unexpectedly gave me one night at the end of a study.  Not even 24’s Jack Bauer could get me to divulge the contents of the bag, but I promise you, it was worth way more than every chocolate chip I’ve ever had to buy and every hour that stretched beyond our usual two.

And that lifelong dream I mentioned?  My experiences with the girls actually gave me the nudge I needed to jumpstart my frustrated writing ambitions.  It began as a chapter-a-week online saga featuring a protagonist who, as one girl put it, “is a little bit of all of us.”  The experiment grew into two young adult novels that have opened doors for me to talk with girls who would never have the opportunity to walk through my door on a Tuesday night.

Those who come usually hit the door with a single question: “Are there brownies tonight?”  They claim my super-chocolaty recipe has “ruined” ordinary brownies for them. I understand.  A brownie isn’t just a brownie for me anymore, either.  It’s a warm, gooey celebration of enduring friendship and the unexpected joys that can come from a moment of clarity and gratitude on an otherwise random day.

That's Cynthia, second from the left.

If you wish to share your own Pinnacle Moment, just leave me a comment or send an email, and I’ll send you the details. Thank you so much for joining us! See you next Wednesday!




There are usually only a handful of moments in our lives that are truly transcendental. They stand out in our memories as crossroads where our lives diverged from the path that once was. It can be a turning point in a relationship. It can be a moment of profound clarity, where we gained insight into who we truly are, or were meant to be, or finally understood something larger than ourselves…and have been changed ever since.

Sometimes these moments are long in coming, the slow buildup like grains of sand in an hourglass until we reach our time. Sometimes they strike like lightening.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be hosting a series of blogs, where a fantastic group of amazing writers, bloggers, mothers, and all-round fabulous women have agreed to share their Pinnacle Moments. I invite you to join us each Wednesday, to sit in our circle of sisterhood, and read their tales of love and growth, epiphany and change.

The first one begins next Wednesday, October 19. The series will last as long as I have people willing to share their stories. If our stories inspire you to pen one of your own, please share it with us. Leave me a comment if you’re interested in participating, and I’ll email you with the details. I’m so excited to see these stories, and I do hope you’ll join us too!


P.S. A little tidbit I thought I’d share: I recently learned that the Thai word for “travel” is *deurn tang*, which literally means “to walk the path.” I just thought that was so lovely and apropos.

On Not Living Numb

I admitted that part of the impetus for us to pack up our lives and move to the other side of the globe lay in a secret, deep-down need to feel…something. There we were in a little paradise city snuggled up against the mountains and overlooking the beach, and ohmigod there’s the most amazing new coffee shop…and have you been to Red’s yet? And Edomasa is just a little jaunt down the street, for the nights you don’t have the energy for the Farmer’s Market and fresh, organic, free-range, local, sustainable, guilt-free produce to cook Ayurvedic style in between yoga and chai.

It was a beautiful life, with beautiful friends and beautiful habits…and we gave it up. We screwed up our courage and threw caution out the window like yesterday’s old coffee grounds. For a different language. For signs we can’t read. For food that might make you ill if you don’t wash it properly and smog in the air and incoherent traffic. For impenetrable social customs. For alienation. For bewilderment. For frustration. For discomfort.

For joy.

For childlike wonder.

For stretching and growing.

For beauty and profundity and spiritual depth.

For fear and challenge – and, oh, is it not amazing what you learn about yourself?

That you weren’t sure you ever really wanted to know. Things like: the fact that you will rearrange how you dress, how you speak, how you commute, how you show respect and how you conduct business, but you will not – WILL NOT – learn to drive stick.

We had the gauze ripped right off us, and we knew once more what it was to feel.

But the truth is, even the most alien eventually becomes routine. You find the good restaurants, and the good coffee, the pretty mountain views, and the friends to call when you want to share a glass of wine.

And some days you find yourself sipping tea and looking at flowers and realize you could be anywhere in the world, and you’d still be doing this. Just this.

And that’s okay. So long as you’re okay with the you that’s you underneath it all.

Also linking up with Heather @ the Extraordinary Ordinary, for Just Write.

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Native Speaker

Native SpeakerNative Speaker by Chang-rae Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’ve heard me talk about Chang-rae Lee’s book, “The Surrendered,” you’ll know I’m simply enamored of his work. “Native Speaker” is his debut novel and I was excited to read it because it deals with the immigrant experience: about being American, but nevertheless a perpetual outsider, from two worlds and belonging to neither. It’s the story of a Korean-American, whose marriage with his white wife is on shaky ground, while his career leads him into dangerous paths that force him to choose loyalties between the America he longs for and the Korea in his blood.

In terms of navigating a world of conflicted identity, this book speaks more cogently than any other I have read. Lee’s writing is, as ever, beautiful and haunting, with wonderful lines like: “Sometimes you have to meet the parents to figure out what someone really looks like” and “I want to call the simple Korean back to him the way I once could when I was Peter’s age, our comely language of distance and bows, by which real secrets may be slowly courted, slowly unveiled.” I have a tendency to highlight beautifully written sentences and my copy of this book is covered in the marks of my pen.

While it doesn’t quite sink right into your gut and marrow the way “The Surrendered” does – which, I think, shows the trajectory of his growth as an author – “Native Speaker” is a good read to take slowly, in quiet moments. For anyone who too has felt themselves caught in the doorway, able to see both sides, but not quite enter, I think this book will resonate with you.

View all my reviews

Is this Culture Shock I’m Feeling?

By and large, I feel adjusting to life in Thailand is not such a difficult thing. The food is varied and enticing, the standard of living is quite comfortable, and if you remember to maintain a little patience, all things work themselves out – generally faster, the less you fight it. But every once in a while, something will throw me for a loop.

I had several loops today.

I was excited to find a salad-bar type restaurant close to our home. The only other one is quite a jaunt into town, which I’ll do for unique Thai dishes or the perfect cup of cappuccino, but for which I rarely feel the motivation for a salad. The first time I went to this restaurant, I ordered a specialty salad, which was scrumptious, except for the fact that it was drowned in so much dressing it more closely resembled soup. This time, I decided to try a “create your own” salad and ask for the dressing on the side.

Little did I know that by “create your own,” they really meant CREATE YOUR OWN. My salad arrived looking more like a vegetable platter, with each ingredient served whole and organized into neat little piles. Even the lettuce leaves were whole and pristine. I had to cut everything into bite sized pieces (even the corn) and toss it myself. And my dressing on the side? Came served in a cup bearing almost the whole bottle of dressing, of which I used approximately a tablespoon.

No major inconvenience, I grant you, but it does make me wonder why bother going all the way to the restaurant for the salad that’s about the same amount of work of one made at home. After two such bizarre salad experiences, I also wonder whether they’ve quite grasped the concept of a salad.

Then, after lunch, I stopped by the 7-11 on the way home to pay our internet bill. The total for the month was 950.16 baht. The cashier scanned the bill into the register, then asked me how much I’d like to pay. I’m sorry, what? Is there a pay-however-much-you-feel-like plan I was previously unaware of? So I pointed to the amount on the bill and he spent a long time entering in mysterious data. I handed him a thousand baht bill and then he handed me 70-some-odd baht in change. “The bill amount is 950 baht, isn’t it?” I ask him innocently, trying to indirectly show him his mistake. He realizes his error and calls over the manager to void the charge, explaining that he transposed the 5 and the 0. Except I see the receipt from the transaction and it says 905.25 baht. Which, 1) where do the 25 cents/satang come from? Did he just see the first number and enter whatever amount he felt like? And 2) STILL, how does that translate to 70-some-odd baht in change? I could have shrugged it off with a mai phen rai (it doesn’t matter) since it was only a 20 baht difference and in my favor. But really. How does that even happen?

But then, I think to myself, I live in a country where you pay your internet bills at the local 7-11, where you can get an ice cream bar as you hand over your payment.

And later, when I had a late-afternoon hunger pang that I decided to salve/ignore by making tea and going for a walk, I pulled out the box of tea bags, and instead of shrieking and tossing it in the waste bin when I see the cobwebs and spider inside (as I would have done in the U.S.), I reason the cobwebs are really just tiny dust catchers and the spider just a wee little pin drop. I ask my husband, “How safe do you think it is to have tea with spiders in it?” I show him the box and he shrugs, “Just don’t eat the spiders.” I wonder if it’s because I’m more comfortable with waste in the U.S., or that I’ve just gotten used to the ubiquity of spiders, that I can be so blase about the tea.

I wander out for my walk, with tea cup in hand (sans spider), and just as I step outside, the otherwise apparently sunny sky begins raining. I’m a California girl and I’ve never been one of those who welcomed rain. I’d grumble and hide indoors if it rained three days in a row. Well here, it’s been raining for three months in a row, and I’ve long succumbed to the fact that if you wait for it to stop raining to do anything, you’ll never leave your home. I also know, without a doubt, that if I leave the house and it’s sunny outside, it’ll begin raining as soon as I hit the main road and stop as soon as I reach my destination and shelter.

So I grab my umbrella and commence my walk, regardless of the rain, and halfway through the walk, the rain stops. I look out from under the umbrella and see butterflies and a double rainbow and feel grateful I didn’t let a little sprinkle prevent me from seeing this.

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Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
                                 ~ Langston Hughes

This poem is a favorite from childhood. I’ve loved it since before I knew about racism, before I knew about poverty, before I knew about strife – even though I was born in Mississippi and lived my first years with my family of five stuffed in a tiny apartment in a place where my mom couldn’t get a job despite a Master’s Degree in Business because she was Asian and a woman. I was a child surrounded by love, therefore what could I know of racism and poverty and strife?

Though I might have scarcely understood it, this poem called to me. The imagery of stairs and the darkness of wood and shadows and the light of crystal fascinated me. I loved the motif of mother and son, the combination of warning and guidance, all coming from a place of love.

I’ve seen a little bit more of the world now, experienced a few more things, and I understand this poem with a little more clarity now.

And still the poem calls to me, singing its phrases in odd moments, like whispers scattering across my mind. And I find I’m still drawn to the same imagery, the same vision of stairs and darkness and light. It captivates me. I seek it: the stairs, the darkness, and the light.

Capturing Time

In just a week, we’ll have lived here in Thailand for nine months. When I think about what I was going through this time last year, all the pain and stress, well, actually I try not to think about that time too much. But it does amaze me how much life has changed. Different career paths, different countries, different lifestyles, a different language.

And yet, I still feel like the same old me.

Maybe I’m more steadfastly, more assuredly me.

Even if there are a few changes.

Instead of marking time by academic quarters, now I measure it in the number of restaurants we’ve found we like, in the number of friends we can call to join us for a beer or a game of cards, in the progress I’m making in my book (I’m up to 53,000 words! Aiming for  75-80,000). The passage of time goes not by another’s calendar, but in the amount of life we’re actually living and how deeply our roots are stretching and growing in this new land.

Sometimes I ask myself, do I see Thailand as my country? The truth is I don’t know. How much time does it take for a place to become home? How many days, weeks, months does it take to see other people as your brethren? How many years before one “home” replaces another? If people here ask me where I’m from, I’ll say I’m from California. But if I ever traveled anywhere else and got asked that question, what would I say?

It would probably be a long, convoluted, meandering answer (much like this post is turning out to be, sorry!).

Some things about Thailand and Thai people, like the tolerance for difference and the sacrifices made for family and ways of thinking about respect, I understand without having to be told. Others, like how people drive, are an acquired understanding. (I used to think it was a godforsaken mess. Now I see the rhythm and dance.) And some, like the racism, I will always look upon and feel shame.

And yet, doesn’t that shame already suggest my sense of solidarity?

In some ways, I feel more at home here than I ever did in the States. I don’t have to fight to be heard here. People don’t talk over each other; they listen. If I say I have an obligation to family, no one will look at me strangely. There’s no awkwardness over how to greet someone you don’t really know (hug? handshake? smile and nod?) because every one bows respectfully, which I find to be the perfect level of distance and respect for my comfort zone. You can sit and enjoy a long dinner and extended conversation in restaurants because the music isn’t played too loudly and waiters aren’t in a hurry to shoo you off and seat the next table. And everything moves in an unhurried pace, giving one time to take a breath, keep calm, and carry on.

And yet, in some ways, I know I will never blend in. One, simply for the fact that I don’t look very Thai, unless you already know I’m half-Thai. My strange combination of genes render my features more like a fair-skinned person from India, perhaps of Kashmiri descent. I speak Thai better now, but I’ll probably always have traces of a foreign accent and combine words in nonnative ways. And if I see a problem, I have trouble not speaking bluntly about it. I have no idea how to broach a problem from three streets over, with your back to the wind, while commenting on the fine day. But that kind of subtlety and discretion is very much the Thai way.

All this makes me wonder, what is it that makes someplace home? I guess, especially if you’re a person with varied roots, you’re never going to be at home in every possible way. And that’s okay, because sometimes it’s the way you stand out that make you proud, even if it complicates things a bit. And sometimes you have to travel half the globe to find home, but that’s okay too, because having been someplace else shows you exactly why this place IS home. You love it in ways you wouldn’t have done if you had never left. It’s not always “clicking” with a place in every possible way that matters, but the feeling you get when you’re there that tells you, yes, I am home.

Even if it takes a little time to get there.

Capturing imaginations – finding the bigger picture

Sometimes awareness comes in startling revelations. Sometimes there is a moment so simple that the stunning part is how subtly it clued you in to tiny revelations accumulated over time.

I was sitting at the resource center and had finished up some small bit of work. I turned to the group of girls who had been playing together while waiting for me to finish working and join them.

“So you girls want to watch a Disney movie?” I asked.

Squeals of delight erupted and they clambered over to the couch while I pulled out the DVDs. “Which one do you want to watch?”

Without hesitation: “Cinderella!”

I chuckled over their love of an old Disney classic and was intrigued since I hadn’t seen it more than a couple of times when I was a kid. But as I watched it, it seemed to me to be such a stark contrast from my personal Disney favorite, “Beauty and the Beast”. “Cinderella” is a story that captured the imaginations of little girls of the 1950s and 60s and follows the traditional story line of an impoverished and used girl who must be rescued by magic and a prince to find love and freedom. Both Cinderella and her prince are thin on personality; they are primarily just pawns moved about by larger forces (some benevolent, like the King, some malicious, like the wicked stepmother). Slightly different from my favorite, where the heroine must overcome her own fear and prejudice to find love and freedom with a hero who looks terrible from the outside but has similar intelligence and sensibilities underneath.

But “Cinderella” is the one these girls want to see. And as we watch, the tiny memories started to accumulate into one larger revelation.

When I was at their families’ home on Saturday night, the girls were watching cartoons on TV and interspersed between the cartoons were popular music videos. These girls, all around ages 6-8 or so, were belting out the tunes at the top of their lungs. I laughed at the cuteness, though I felt a little disturbed because all (and I mean ALL) the songs were about two girls fighting over a man.

And then I remembered my cousins doing the same thing when we were teens: watching music videos and singing happily about betrayal and loss.

And I thought about all the popular Thai music videos I’ve seen, waiting in bus stations, sitting on the bus, playing in cafes and hair salons, and in shop windows…

Almost all of them feature a woman left behind by a man. A lover who moves on to be with another woman. Two women fighting over a man. Men make all the choices. The women are portrayed as scheming and over-crazed by emotions. And they haven’t the self-respect to walk away.

And as I looked at these young girls, the same age as my nieces, singing lovingly about heartbreak and affairs, jealousy and betrayal, I realize just how ubiquitous this theme is in Thai culture. How do we teach empowerment, when they’re taught to romanticize love triangles and inferiority to men at such tender ages? I’m not going to sit here and blame popular music for how these girls think. Rather, I believe that these songs strike such a chord with them because the stories are so deeply embedded in the consciousness of the culture.

In reality, most Thai women I know are actually incredibly strong. But they are also rather jaded on the whole idea of romance. I’d venture to guess it’s because what is portrayed as romance in the popular culture is really just women being weak.

I want love for these girls. When they get older, I want them to find joy in romance; stability, comfort and honor in marriage. (If marriage is indeed what they want.) I’d hope they don’t have to push away love to survive, for love and strength don’t have to be at odds with one another. In fact, they should support each other. What I don’t want is for these girls to sit around waiting to be rescued. I don’t want them to ever feel like they don’t have the power to make choices. It took forty years for the story of a generation to shift from “Cinderella” to the likes of “Beauty and the Beast”. I wonder what it will take to help even just one little girl see how much power she really has over her own life.

I wonder, if I ever have a daughter of my own, what story will capture her imagination?

What Disney film captured your imagination? What bigger picture did you see this week? Join in at This Heavenly Life!



a new normal

Som Tum - Thai Green Papaya Salad

Looking over my past several blog posts, I notice I’m talking less and less about my observations of life in Thailand. Sure, observations poke through here and there, but mostly I’ve moved on to talking more about the personal aspects of my life. I suppose that, in itself, speaks volumes.

I once wrote that living in a foreign country, especially a developing one, is kind of like having the gauze ripped off you – you feel everything more intensely. Maybe that gauze is slowly wrapping itself around us again. What once was an adjustment is becoming the new “normal”. What once was unfamiliar is now becoming familiar. Expectations and mindsets change, shift, regroup and coalesce.

Last night Toby and I were riding into town for dinner, trucking along beside kids in flip-flops on motorbikes and lean, wiry men riding rickshaws. We live outside the city where, this time of year the farmers slash and burn their crops to fertilize and prepare for next year’s rice fields. But it also looks like rain. So as we were riding into town, the sky was lit up with fire. Tones of scarlet and lavender melted across the sky as the sun set behind the clouds. We felt the heaviness of rain and we looked up, eyes wide like children’s eyes, filled with awe.

Sometimes, I’m tempted to call my mom at home, for no other reason than to tell her the lotuses are blooming.

Mango is coming into season now. They’re still a smidge on the green, tart side, though you can find the softer, sweeter ones that go so well on top of coconut sticky rice. I’ve been eating guavas, longan, and pineapple for snacks after my Thai lessons.

Longan and Pineapple

In certain ways, I feel at home in Thailand in ways I didn’t at home in the U.S. (Not every way, of course, or even a lot of ways. But some things.) And yet…sometimes Toby and I catch ourselves looking around us, and we’re struck yet again:

We live in ASIA now.

What a trip.

Do you have any simple moments in which you see the bigger picture? Join in at Hyacynth’s!

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