The Sestina of a Lifetime

If you are not aware of the poetic structure of a sestina, it is a poem of highly structured word repetitions (6 words) following this pattern of retrogradatio cruciata: wherein all six chosen words appear in every end-position possible within 6 stanzas of 6 lines.

Table of sestina end-words (columns for stanzas, rows for lines, order+word listed as number+letter)
1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B
2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D
3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F
4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E
5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C
6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A

This is followed by a final 3-line stanza, the envoi, containing the 6 words again in this order: 2-5 / 4-3 / 6-1.

You might surmise by now that a poem with such rigid and repetitive structure that lasts for a significant number of lines (39 in total) is good for expressing something about the more repetitive things in life. I’ve seen good ones about a long train ride with strange people (Sestina of a Train by Al Purdy), and obsessive lovers who can’t stop thinking about each other (The Lover’s Sestina by Bruce Meyer). Both poems capitalised on the repetitive aspect of the sestina form to create that (oppressive) feeling of reading the same words over and over. But I really wanted to try a sestina in which the words clearly repeated without such a heavy feeling of them repeating. For this I had to choose the kind of words that could have varied meanings. I did “cheat” in that I intentionally chose to make one of the six words change throughout the poem, but I decided that before even beginning to write. Besides that disclaimer, I don’t want to over-explain the poem. Here is my attempt:

The Sestina of a Lifetime

9 months she ate the things she craved to eat.
On Monday noon he heard the doctor call,
with trepidation rushed in from the hall,
to see his babe emerge from head to feet,
untangled from the womb to be set free:
To hold her was to see her as The Only.

They sent her off to school when only 5:
a sandwich, fruit, and cookie she would eat,
then play with friends outdoors when time was free.
When bullies nasty names of her did call,
her mother taught her how to turn defeat
into the courage shown in concert halls.

Then, fresh-faced from her graduation hall,
she joined a firm to ‘start her life’. Only,
Monday mornings she would drag her feet
and wonder, “Eat to work or work to eat?”
She’d close her eyes her childhood to recall,
and wonder how she squandered times once free.

When dreamy man her passions did set free,
they tied the knot and filled a banquet hall.
Guests watched as pastor at the altar called
them husband wife – each other: one and only.
They barely sat to celebrate and eat;
their life would start once they had thrown their fête!

But changing diapers proved to be a feat
from which young parents struggled to be free
when seven mouths would cry, “I want to eat!”
Then soon their children passed through college halls,
and once again they were each other’s Only,
except when grown-up children came to call.

On Friday night she got a sudden call:
his heart attack had brought him to his fate,
and once again she lived with herself only,
until her soul fled too. Finally. Free.
Some tears were shed by loved ones in the hall,
then dust to dust and soon the worms would eat.

All counted, would you call your life as “free”?
Which Way goes your feet walking down the hall?
These questions, only, away at you to eat.


A Sunday School Lesson: If only…

You are never too old for the word of God. If you’re a children’s ministry worker, or a youth worker at a church, it might seem as if you’re doing it for the kids, and everyone says you’re doing it for the kids, “thank you for your dedication to serve”, but you probably often find that you are gaining so much personally from the ‘preaching’ of God’s word there. (Or, say, the telling of it at story time.) I quite regularly cry during the slower meaningful kid songs…

Today, what got me was the lesson on the Israelites complaining to God. Complain complain complain. God frees them from slavery in Egypt, and what they have to say is that if only God hadn’t. Do they not know God is faithful? That God knows better? (I direct that question at myself too.)

Numbers 11:18 “If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!”

Numbers 14:2 “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert!”

Numbers 20:3 “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD!” [all NIV]

In addition to this C for complain, we also have C for compare; we want to try on other people’s stories for size. “Maybe my situation could turn out like theirs – that’d be pretty neat, it worked out great.” “Ohno-ohno what if my future is like theirs? That is a ridiculous mess.” But no. We are only ever to live our own story. Not that The Chronicles of Narnia are a pinnacle of systematic theology, but I like how complicated concepts are simply presented, such as Aslan’s words to Aravis in The Horse and His Boy: “Child,” said the Lion, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.” (Much like Jesus and Peter’s conversation in John 21:15-23.)

In futility, even the least novel-reading book-loving of us will fabricate story after story of possible scenarios for uncertainties in life. Fantastic beyond belief, some are B-grade romance, some are C-grade drama, some are explosive grade action (where you KO all the bad guys with hidden in-born martial arts skill, win a Nobel prize, and retire to the Algonquin forests).

Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.  — Psalm 46:10-11

“Be still” is not to say ‘do nothing’, but to let the rumblings inside be still, so that you can keep looking forward, doing what is right as the occasion arises, as things are revealed to you and as you realize it, and stop fixating on the past or the fantasy.

Flies or Children?

The following concerns how one sees oneself when unceremoniously dumped into a less than ideal situation: am I a dirty, hairy, worthless fly, or a beloved child dealt a painful but sobering blow?

In other words, am I with the stricken and woeful King Lear, infamously betrayed by two of his daughters while having unfeelingly rejected the third one who loved him? In his suffering, he says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.” He seemed to think the gods tortured people for fun as boys tortured unsuspecting insects like flies, ants, etc. to sate their curiosity. (Apparently I have some fascination with Lear, as I found two other previous posts on this!)

If not Lear’s perspective, then might I have a more sober view of myself as one who could use some discipline, and a more reverent view of God than to see Him as a wanton boy looking for cheap curiosities and thrills?

The following passage from the Letter to the Hebrews makes me want to read it all in a sitting!

Do Not Grow Weary

[3] Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. [4] In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. [5] And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
[6] For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

[7] It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? [8] If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. [9] Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? [10] For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. [11] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
[12] Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, [13] and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. [14] Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. [15] See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; [16] that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. [17] For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

(Hebrews 12:3-17 ESV)

3 Things of Interest

  1. I’m not that interested in my holiness, on a standardized scale. Perhaps relative to a handful or more of people I could think of, I’m more interested in my holiness than they are in theirs. Nevertheless, as the author of Hebrews points out (correctly), in my struggle against sin I have not yet resisted to the point of shedding my blood. Touché.
  2. To our benefit (in most cases), we receive painful discipline from our legal and loving guardians, a.k.a. parents. We also reserve our energies and thoughtfulness to express the painful truth to those we love, not to any old acquaintance. We expect nothing less than the painful truth from those we trust. (“Do I look stupid wearing/doing this?”) Shallower words are for shallower relationships. Hence, we can expect painful discipline from a holy and loving God who wants us to be holy, like Him. (Romans 8:28-30)
  3. Pain always sucks because it hurts. There’s not really a way to go around this predicament or sugarcoat it. But as for the pain of God’s discipline for the followers of Jesus Christ, his adopted children, at least we know that this pain will eventually yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1 Thing to Keep in Mind for the Rest of Life

  1. I am not yet holy enough for God to stop disciplining me. (Not even after next time. Or the time after that.)

I happily self-identify as a beloved child of God! I am no fly :)

Working with kids

As much as working with kids makes me think children are cuter than ever, it has also reinforced what I know of children being depraved (corrupt with sinfulness) rather than innocent.

Yes, even that little boy who stays behind and says, “I don’t really need anything inside; I just wanted to be with you.”

Yes, even that little girl who says, “It’s cold in here,” and snuggles up to you.

Yep, and even that tiny boy who decides to hold onto your hand with his itty bitty one just after you’ve met for the first time because you broke the ice with him and amused him.

Cute, but also depraved:

Children want to be first.

Children care most about their own needs.

Children love if they are loved, and even then the love is often fickle and changing.

These are not always true to the same extent in each child, but having spent a good amount of time with children this past while, these strike me as much as their littleness and lovableness do. For me, this realization is always accompanied  by a surge of feeling, where sad is indistinguishable from glad.

Usually when I realize that I’ve been “childish,” it is a similar selfish strain of behaviour. Depravity changes surprisingly little between generations.

Discipline and Punish

Positive reinforcement. Encouragement. Suggestions. Warnings. Consequences. Time outs.

Some educators and parents I have come across in Canada/North America tend to be more lenient than your average Asian (or other culture) regarding discipline. Some don’t believe in punishment. ‘Learning should be positive.’ Aye, instead of telling people what not to do all the time, we should be suggesting what they should do. That is a splendid way of being positive yet corrective. Still, I submit that punishment in the right context is essential for a good parent/educator:

  1. Punishment must exist in the context of unconditional love. (Love the person, not the behaviour.)
  2. Those subject to punishment must be made aware of the possibility and consequence of punishment.
  3. Punishment should take the individual into consideration. (What is the person’s track record?)
  4. Punishment must be proportionate to the transgression.
  5. Punishment needs to be reasoned, not emotional.

I am inclined to claim with confidence that punishment meted out from someone also giving unconditional love is more appreciated than tolerance from someone not giving an assurance of unconditional love. I feel this topic is too vast for me to expand upon with the amount of thought I have given it (some 15 minutes on and off) but that bold line, that punishment must exist in the context of unconditional love I believe to be key. Without unconditional love there is nothing to discuss as far as educational/growth related punishment goes. (Not really talking about legal punishment.)


The system that God has going with us reflects all these things. Given, the ultimate punishment for sin (death) Christ himself suffered for us [1], but God allows suffering (a consequence of punishment) to take place in the world (suffering being the residue of sin/misbehaviour) for our good [2]. We are made aware of eternal life vs eternal separation from God through God’s revealed word, but even without it, we are aware of our mortalness [3]. God deals with each person according to the individual and everything we do is relevant. [4] God does not function according to moods as we do [5].

[1] This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. – 1 John 4:10
[2] For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 6:23. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope… -Romans 5:3-4
[3] Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. -John 3:36
[4] Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” – Ezekiel 33:20 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. – Matthew 16:27
[5] “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.” – 2 Chronicles 20:21  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. – James 1:17

Disclaimer: This post has barely anything to do with Foucault’s text. I just wanted to make a literary reference to a text that gives a negative idea of discipline and punishment for the purpose of ironic juxtaposition.

If life is painful and God is loving…

… why would LovingGod let us have PainfulLife, knowing we would screw up and let the world run amok with sinfulness?

Children. That’s the thought of the day.

It came from somewhat unrelated reading on Augustine’s Confessions, quoted below for your perusal, if you’re interested in the thought process. The Confessions are basically Augustine’s prayers of confession to God that he recorded.

In those years I lived with a woman who was not bound to me by lawful marriage; she was one who had come my way because of my wandering desires and my lack of considered judgment; nevertheless, I had only this one woman and I was faithful to her. And with her I learned by my own experience how great a difference there is between the self-restraint of the marriage covenant which is entered into for the sake of having children, and the mere pact made between two people whose love is lustful and who do not want to have children – even though, if children are born, they compel us to love them…

I say this reading is unrelated because the main thing I wanted to draw from it was the idea of people wanting to have children and bring them up. The average person knows their share of pain in life, though some people lead more painful lives than others. Still, no one will really stop a decent kid-loving person wanting to have children with an accusatory, “Now why would you subject kiddie-winkies to the pains of living?”

In fact, we do realise that loving parents want us to be with them,
want to provide for us,
want to always be there for us,
want us to be responsible,
want us to obey them for our good,
want us to face challenges and grow stronger,
want us to enjoy the gifts they make available to us,
want us to trust them,
want to trust us,
want to deal justly with us when we do wrong and to forgive us when we are willing to change,
are pleased to have us reflect their good attributes,
and much more.

A person with parents who really care and love them is not known to let the harshness of life be an issue in determining their estimation of their mother and father’s love. I think a similar principle applies to God although a Heavenly Father is different from a father.