Thursday, June 12, 2008


Yesterday, I popped into an old photo studio in my former neighbourhood for a peek.

In an age of digital photography, I was curious about how such an old-time business sustains itself. The owner, who is this wiry old man in his seventies was familiar to me. Uncle Han (in asia, we traditionally address anyone more senior, especially the elderly as uncles and aunties as a mark of respect even though the person could be a total stranger) and I got to talking, sitting down on old rattan chairs and sipping some really potent chinese coffee that was sure to keep me up for weeks. And in the course of our conversation (filled with much nostaligia and reminiscing), we got to talking about love. He got up and reached for an old album which he kept wrapped up in the silky folds of a ladies' scarf, and unbound a lifetime of youthful memories to share with me.

Mostly, it was filled with old pictures of himself as a young man standing next to the love of his life. She was a beautiful girl. They must've both been in their teens when these photos were taken. There is much to be said about subtlety, when so little is physically expressed but so much love, bonding and depth is evident from the simplest gestures and smiles. As uncle Han spoke, I could feel the deep stirrings of his heart for his childhood love. It was a tale of deep and earnest love, in a time when perseverence, forgiveness and commitment meant some things. Unfortunately, this precious love was cut short by the onset of war. With violence, oppression and danger came sickness, poverty and want. (Uncle Han belongs to a generation of old chinese men who still have difficulty forgiving the Japanese for the atrocities of the last century).

Amdist this historical struggle, this man suffered the personal tragedy of losing his love to pneumonia when no medical attention was possible or sufficient. Her parents were fearful of having him over since the Japanese kempetai (or secret police) was always on the lookout for young men to round up and execute. And communications and visits had to be sparse and cautious. Hence he was denied much contact with his love, although letters carried their hearts to each other whenever that was possible. And only after some weeks did he learn that she had passed on in the heart-rending loneliness of calling his name.

That was well over 60 years ago. Han survived the war, survived the difficult years of rebuilding that followed, settled down, got married, survived personal sickness and tragedies, survived his wife, survived the sweeping technologies that swept away a generation, but sitting there right next to me; his eyes brimmed with tears, he never survived the loss of his young love and I suspect he will continue to love her to the end.

There is something beautiful about love that perseveres even in the face of death. Today, we see so many relationships die because people have no idea at all about what it means to know real love and commitment. They're always searching for something grand and smooth that they don't see the extravagance of generosity and love in their difficulties, disagreements and struggles to stay together. Perhaps some will say that Han's longetivity in love is common in the face of love unfulfiled. Because he never had to live with his fiance, marry her, put up with her, quarrel with her and take her nonsense that his idealism remains intact, unsullied by reality and human imperfection. His memories of love in other words have preserved unnaturally his devotion to love.

I don't believe that to be true at all. Rather I believe that to be an excuse for people who lack any idealism, any hope, any true desire for love and commitment; which always comes with pain, sacrifice and above all, personal and lasting choice. I feel in my own heart great love for a relationship that has died and which was wrought with painful and disappointing moments. But I do not wish to turn my back on what is true in my heart, even though that love may not be appreciated nor reciprocated. Choosing to love beyond the transient separates us from beasts of gratification; whose choices are fleeting at best and prisoners to selfish satisfactions that have nothing to do with real love and devotion. We are not such beasts when we love with Christ and in Christ so that our relationships, our hearts and our romances may also be redeemed experiences that lift us up in our human and Christian dignity, not tear us down to vulgar commonality.

In that dingy, tiny photography studio with the blue doors and rattan chairs, I found real respect for the man who continues to develop memories for people when they bring in their own cameras, while cherishing his own memories in a celebration of lasting and faithful love - ever young, ever present, ever faithful, ever real.

And in that great hope of the resurrection, I pray our dear God to grant him the fulfillment of a lifetime and more - to one day finally hold his love in his arms, and to know her love for eternity.

I like this quote from Mother Teresa, and I share it here with you.

"Don't think that love, to be true, has to be extraordinary. What is necessary is to continue to love. How does a lamp burn, if it is not by the continuous feeding of little drops of oil? When there is no oil, there is no light and the bridegroom will say: "I do not know you". Dear friends, what are our drops of oil in our lamps? They are the small things from every day life: the joy, the generosity, the little good things, the humility and the patience. A simple thought for someone else. Our way to be silent, to listen, to forgive, to speak and to act. These are the real drops of oil that make our lamps burn vividly our whole life." – Mother Teresa