Liberality: With Open Hands

Of all of Aristole’s 12 virtues, liberality was one I had to look up to understand. It’s not a word that is used anymore, at least not in the way it originally meant. Perhaps a more familiar term would be generosity, which is practiced faithfully by many followers of Jesus. However there is a component of wisdom in liberality that is not captured by the use of “generosity.”

Liberality is “the virtue disposing a person to the observance of a reasonable mean between the opposite extremes of prodigality and stinginess in making expenditures intended for the benefit of others.”[i] In other words, liberality is the disposition of a person towards giving for the benefit of others while avoiding two erroneous extremes of wasteful spending and miserliness. Aristotle explains in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, Chapter 1, that liberality also incorporates the discernment of giving to “the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time.”[ii]

Much discussion has gone into the economics and ethics of liberality in terms of wealth and wealth management. When it comes to the spiritual life, liberality has its place precisely because it has to do with money. A wise man once said, “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt 6:24) Serving God frees us from being slaves to the want of wealth and enables us to bless others with our wealth. Thomas Aquinas calls liberality “open-handedness” towards others with the goods one possesses. When one’s quits their hold on something, they free it from their keeping and ownership.[iii]

For my immigrant grandparents and parents, stinginess was a way of life. They were not educated professionals. Their lot was to do laborious work in a small working-class city. That meant time away from their children, and lost opportunities for self-improvement. Miserliness was a weight that they would shoulder for the sake of the next generation. Every penny earned meant a penny saved for food, shelter, and children’s education.  Education meant opportunities for better work and ultimately a better life for their local-born children.

In this way, working class Chinese Canadians prided themselves. They earned their wealth and success, and they have professionally educated children to prove it. Why give to those who will squander gifts on drugs and drink? Better to invest in your own family for they can one day return the favor; others must learn to defend for themselves.

This mentality didn’t seem to fade in the immigrant Chinese church I came to faith in. Giving to God meant giving to the church and to denominational projects. Not once did I hear about giving up one’s wealth to clothe the poor. Or to open doors to house the homeless. One must take care of one’s own first. But are these the only “right” people that Aristotle was referring to? Or are we also to give to those who have faced misfortune, whoever they might be?

The heart of God is a generous one. God is always lavishing His care on His creation from Eden to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. We know this because while we were still sinners, Christ gave his life for us. The call to Christ’s followers then, is to walk in this way of grace, mercy and sacrificial love: to love one’s neighbor as oneself (or one’s own).

According to Aristotle, the wisdom to give rightly (taking from the right resource, and giving to the right people in the right amounts) is meant to keep one from either excessively spending or severely withholding. We see this in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who showed mercy to a mugged traveler. The Samaritan stops to help, pays out of his own pocket to house the man until he is well, and then continues on his way.

For Asian women in the church, this is an encouraging thought. The invitation isn’t simply to give everything you’ve got (though that certainly may be an invitation for some), but to give freely and rightly. Giving frees you from the fear of scarcity and from the fear of others.  Giving “rightly” involves both what is limiting and what is just. You don’t have to give to the point of destitution or resentment, but you ought to give when mercy requires it. So one can give to the hurting stranger because it is the compassionate thing to do. One can give, because it is the right thing to do.

Still, it is difficult to lead with open hands. As a woman I fear being harmed. As a visible minority I fear being taken advantage of. Some would argue that Aristotle’s take on liberality is meant for the privileged and elite, but Thomas Aquinas said that, “liberality depends not on the quantity given, but on the heart of the giver.”[iv] In a time of confession and prayer not so long ago, I told God all my rationale for withholding love and I had many good reasons to do so. His answer was to show me His nail-pierced hands and said, “Love me anyways.”

It is difficult to lead with open hands, but impossible to follow Christ with closed ones. May His liberality, His generosity, kindle ours. May His heart bless yours.

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

[i] “Liberality, Virtue of | Encyclopedia.Com,” accessed March 30, 2019, https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/liberality-virtue.
[ii] “Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle: Book IV. Moral Virtue: Chapter 1. Liberality, Prodigality, Meanness,” accessed March 30, 2019, https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ari/nico/nico035.htm.
[iii] “SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: Liberality (Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 117),” accessed March 30, 2019, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3117.htm.
[iv] Ibid.
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On Aging: God With Us

Today I forgot to buy red peppers for a dish I’m making for a church potluck. A week I ago I forgot I had a house community dinner. A few months ago I completely forgot a meeting and left a friend eating lunch by herself. Age, it seems, is catching up with me. It’s not bad if I remember to write things down. Still, it’s rather disconcerting when your mind, or body, begins to betray you despite your best efforts to live like nothing is changing. 

Christmas, like most birthdays, tends to be that season when I’m reminded how the world keeps revolving and changing. Every time I go home to visit my family I marvel at how the young ones are maturing. I see how my friends are adapting to new challenges and situations. I notice how my hometown is slowly, ever so slowly, developing. And I feel it within in my old prairie bones, weakened by mild west-coast weather, the aching of nostalgia. But it’s weighted with the realization that I am changing and aging with the rest of the world.

I think of that old prophetess Anna in Luke’s gospel. She appears in the story of baby Jesus as Mary and Joseph present him at the temple, a mere eight days after his birth. All we know of her is that she is the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. And she is old. Whether she has been widowed for 84 years or she is 84 years old, the point is that she’s seen a many long years and most of them alone. While her counterpart Simeon gets to belt out a hymn, Anna’s voice is simply narrated; she recognizes the baby as the redemption of Jerusalem. 

Did Anna ever think that she would get to see God’s promise fulfilled after so many years of praying? The Holy Spirit had told Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. But it’s not mentioned if the same promise was given to Anna. So I surmise that Anna devoted her entire life to God without any sort of that expectation. And she is rewarded.

I don’t know if it is a matter of getting old, but I am starting to expect less of this life. It’s not that I don’t appreciate youthful enthusiasm – it’s just that I don’t hang my hopes and dreams on what I can accomplish. I am a mere mortal, getting closer to death by the second, and bound to a fleshy, wrinkling body. This doesn’t stop me from doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. But I attempt these things because they’re the right thing to do – not to change the world or even “be the change.” The world, as we see, will always shift with hourglass sand and we along with it. 

Forgive me if I speak with unacknowledged privilege. I admit that these musings are afforded to me because my life isn’t being threatened by corruption, greed, and hatred. In the darkest nights we need the hope that our lives indeed matter to God, and that what we do has an impact. But we can also rest knowing that our salvation has already come. All this shall pass. We might forget a thing or two, and our bodies may begin to protest, but our eyes have seen what is good and what is true: God is with us. Praise the Lord, Emmanuel!

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

Imagination: The Shaping of Reality

Trying to get to Narnia

“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. “I wonder is that more mothballs?” she thought, stopping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I can be faulted for having a vivid imagination. As a child, I would have no problems reading stories about magical worlds late into the night. Dragons? Fairies? UNICORNS?!! These other-worldly creatures beckoned me to venture into a place that was incomparable to the usual trek to school with standard workbooks and bullies. That place was in my mind and yet, it wasn’t. The words I read painted images that were beyond anything I could normally experience as an Asian girl growing up in a small prairie city. Those words took me into worlds where misfits could be heroes and children could be powerful.

Of course those worlds also included evil and sinister motives. But good seemed to always triumph after a long perilous journey. These stories tended to involve a group of characters that were unlikely to cooperate if not for a common purpose or enemy. And because these characters were a hodgepodge of personalities, I could be one of them on this adventure. These stories took me in because I could see it, I could picture it in my mind as though it was happening to me.

Remarkably, it all began with a picture, according to C.S. Lewis, author of one of the most beloved children’s stories in western literature. Not a painted picture, but an imagined one of a faun bearing umbrellas and parcels in a snowy woods. That image launched an exploration that resulted in a series of books, which in turn invited countless readers – including yours truly – into the world of Narnia. This imagined story was so powerful that even after all these years Narnia has never left me. Last spring I placed my palm at the back of an old wardrobe in The Kilns, Lewis Close. I pushed – half expecting the slates of wood to give way to a forest. My friend and I laughed with mirth and a tinge of disappointment. Who wouldn’t want Narnia to be real?

That’s the drawback of imagination. Reality is never as beautiful or fulfilling as we imagine it could be. Reality is chaos and random, or mundane and pedestrian. Reality punches one in the gut from time to time, and leaves you gasping. Reality can drain you of energy with its demands and responsibilities. In these moments, my imagination can easily slip into fantasy when I want control or an escape. Fantasy is seductive and sweet, but leaves one feeling hungry and perhaps even angry when the illusion fades.

Without my imagination though, my faith and capacity for growth would have died long ago. Certainty would have ruled my thinking and would have told me that this is it. Life is just a series of happenstances that mean nothing and will never mean anything. Close the door and move on; run with the rest of the children.

Imagination makes me pause and consider another interpretation. With my imagination I can see reality being shaped or fitted into the arch of a larger story yet to be completed. Imagination is the ability to visualize a different view of things. Or perhaps it’s not ability at all but a divine grace because who can see beyond this world without the aide of something or someone outside of us? Perhaps this is what is meant by the “Christian imagination.” Christian imagination is hope-filled and generative. It’s looking beyond what the natural senses say are the boundaries to real life and believing that there is more. There is more grace, more joy, more love. Faith is being sure of what we hope for. It is being certain of what we do not see. I have found that prayer is the means to access that divine imaging. Prayer is that doorway where we are invited to step further into God’s reality that is far grander than our own.

Therefore, I’ll always keep reading and keep imagining the possibilities. Maybe there is a purpose. Maybe there is a hopeful future. Maybe there is a goodness that will win in the end. And maybe, should I ever come across another wardrobe, I’ll take a step in.

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

Old Post: A Changing Mind

It’s been a year since I’ve posted here. Not surprisingly, now that I’m off FB, there’s a growing desire to write more. Here’s an old post that was first published at Asian American Women on Leadership

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I’m not getting any younger. My body protests with aches and discomfort from sitting too long or from sleeping in an awkward position. I don’t recover from physical activities as quickly as I did a few years ago. And my thoughts don’t seem to come as readily. Granted I have always been slow to formulate an opinion or response. I am one of those people who usually slap themselves with an “I should have said …” epiphany days after an altercation. But learning new things take a lot more effort now. Aging is a firm reminder that change is happening. For women that can often feel more like a sentencing instead a cause for celebration.

In my early thirties, my mind felt like it was being reshaped into another organ that couldn’t possibly fit in my skull anymore. I was immersed in theological studies and asked to learn subjects entirely foreign to my training as an engineer. Things like philosophy, history, and hermeneutics to name a few. Worse yet was being told that all they were all part of my Christian heritage. So why was I only learning about them outside of the Church? Why in graduate school was my first encounter with the language of sacrimentality or voices of women saints? And why did my brain feel like it was running a marathon — a three-year marathon – fueled by coffee, beer, and instant noodles?

Those years in theological studies were years of deconstruction and reconstruction occurring in repetition. Build up, tear down, and repeat. The paradigms I once held had been shattered but there was still a lot of debris to rummage through before anything new could be created. I knew that formulas for faith and salvation no longer satisfied a disillusioned person. But what will? Would I be able to put anything back together enough that can make sense of a diverse world, complex lives, and a frustratingly transcendent God?

The answer came slowly but positively. Words like “paradox” and “mystery” created enough breathing room for discussion and pondering. Time has afforded me ability to see how my theological thinking has shifted in surprising ways. What I once believed was universal was actually contingent on my context. What I once thought was inconsequential was actually essential to spirituality. What I once thought was dichotomous became a spectrum of colors. But the most remarkable shift of all is realizing that greater knowledge also meant greater love. It could have lead to conceit if not for community.

When the dust had settled, I found myself in good company. My friends were my teachers and my prayerful companions. Our shared experiences gave me consolation for the pain of loneliness and the grief of what was lost. Their stories gave me courage to receive who I was becoming. Their voices helped me to sing new songs and to remember a God who is eternally love.

In the English language, “heart” refers to both anatomy and the center of human emotions. Human thought is typically regulated to the brain or mind. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for “brain” does not occur anywhere. Instead we have words like leb translated as heart or mind. It seems that ancient wisdom did not separate the affect from the intellect and yet that’s exactly what we’ve done in western Christianity. In the Church the notion of loving God usually meant ardent singing and dutiful service. And in academics it meant the exaltation of the reasonable and rational. But where in the bible is love compartmentalized into either feelings or thoughts? Divine love is undivided. This is the aim of human love.

All this to say: my heart/mind, whatever you call the center of feeling and thinking, expanded and not collapsed. Ruins simply became material for a larger structure that allowed for deeper essentials of the Christian faith and broader scope for what is peripheral. This helped to me love God, his image-bearers, and creation, more — not less. Don’t get me wrong; this was a painful process mitigated only because I was looking for it. I was ready for change because what was taught to me before left me hungry and stunted. The dismantling of my tightly-held beliefs required grieving, grace, and the acknowledgement that this was what God wanted for me all along: to be transformed by the renewing of my mind i.e. to mature as a Christian.

We can never go back to our young, simplistic selves. The invitation is to keep loving Jesus with all that we got. Even when it means tired minds and aching backs, or a chorus of “alleluias” in the midst of rubble and dust.

 

Friendship: The Grace to Be a Spiritual Friend

“You and I are here, and I hope that Christ is between us as a third.”

Thus begins the opening dialog in St. Aelred’s classic, Spiritual Friendship. Written in the early 12th century by the highly reputable Cistercian abbot, Spiritual Friendship is a short treatise on the universal experience of human friendship and the value of relatedness through common affection and goodwill. Few would deny that friendships bring comfort, companionship, and courage to the afflicted and contented. Yet for all its good, true friendship is difficult to attain on this broken earth. Why is that? Why are good friends so hard to find?

Looking back on my short life, I can count numerous friendships that started off as “close” but now have faded over time and circumstances. And as I have aged, new friendships feel tentative and fragile. Gone are the youthful ideals of forging bonds that can withstand all the storms of life. Perhaps we have Facebook to thank for that. We can fill our social media feeds with acquaintances and strangers, buying into the illusion of tribal bonds based on common interests and political leanings. Sharing life is a news feed. Or perhaps in our busy schedules we have less energy and time to devote in knowing someone well. Or it’s the consequence of a transient society as people move from place to place. But that still doesn’t explain why making good friends, friends that are cherished in this life and in the next, can be an arduous task.

What makes a spiritual friend? According to Aelred, a spiritual friend is one whom you share a common bond with Christ. Spiritual friendships are the truest of friends that find their origin in divine love and are maintained by it. All others are deemed carnal or worldly and such are not real friends.  To differentiate, friendships ought to be tested for its trustworthiness and consistency. Loyalty is the “nurse and guardian of friendship itself,” and “proves itself a comrade in everything.” No matter if times are difficult or prosperous, friends are friends for its own good and not for what it can give. This undoubtedly weeds out the fair-weather friends, the friends of convenience, and the social-climber friends (particularly when they have surpassed your life station). So it would seem that friendships are formed through trial and, most bothersome, through time.

Who has time these days? And if they do they must not be all that productive. But everyone makes time for what they care about or what they are committed to. Even in an instant-gratification culture, one still has to devote the time to be immediately satisfied.  Friendship needs that time to grow, like proofing bread dough for that soft and flavorful texture. Time is what’s required, but who gives? And if one does have the time, as yours truly, then what gives?

The inevitable question we come to after some consideration of our friendships is whether we can pass the test ourselves. Who have I been a spiritual friend to? Am I a true friend in all times, good and ill? In all honesty, I think I’ve come to the sobering conclusion that I’m a deeply selfish person. The primary person that I want to see happy is me and I’m happy being an emotionally limited person. I would like to be a good friend to everyone, but I’m reaching that stage in life where in order for me to be a good friend to some I have to be a fair-weather one to others. I know others have done the same, which is a relief. But at the end of the day, when my usefulness to people wanes, I wonder who would be around to appreciate my friendship just for friendship’s sake.

Nothing in human life is hungered for with more holiness, nothing is sought with more utility, nothing is found with more difficulty, nothing is experienced with more pleasure and nothing is posses with more fruitfulness. Friendship bears fruit in our present life and in the next (Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship).

Now here’s a sobering thought: our earthly friendships somehow matter beyond our earthly deaths. This isn’t about being best friends forever, but how good friendships change who we are. How twisted, jaded and bitter I would be if not for my friends. How scornful, conceited, and smug I would be if not for being a friend to others. Instead I am bearing witness that the love of a friend changes everything; it changes our reality.

Finding good friends is hard because I have to be that good friend. Oh Lord, have mercy. I need grace to extend beyond my self-imposed limitations and to not buy into the lie that friendship uses up time, but to know that time was meant for real friendship.

You and I are here, and so is love.  May we give true friendships the time it deserves.

 

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

 

On Self-Regulation

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

–Gal 5:22-23

This past week I was in an ordination workshop. The class was made up of people in the process of being recognized as set apart for the ministry of shepherding God’s flock. What this all means is still being worked out both for me and for my church. For the record, I have no actual agricultural experience. The closest is of the gardening variety and pet-sitting. I feel unqualified and doubtful most of the time. Nonetheless, it’s a journey worth traveling, even if it is rather daunting and lonely.

Daunting because of the weight of responsibility (wandering sheep, wolves, treacherous terrain). Lonely because of the self-sacrifice that’s required (sleepless nights, vigilance, few social benefits). Don’t get me wrong; being a pastor isn’t the only role that’s demanding. Perhaps I’ve wallowed on rusting grass while gazing longingly at green fields a bit too often. Truth is, life can be daunting and lonely for anyone, especially at a time with a great deal of uncertainty and social anxiety.

The backdrop to our preparations is the ongoing turmoil we see evident on our social media and news. What’s happening south to our borders is impacting Canadian ministries and congregations. As a pastor I find that I have to tread a fine line between engaging in what I believe to be important social issues and not alienating those who may hold different viewpoints, especially those within my congregation. In calmer times, there is already enough diversity within the Church to cause division. But with recent events and the unfettered access to un-vetted, un-loving opinions we are seeing the proliferation of fear, disdain, and hostility. It is so tempting for me to drop a comment or two (or three or four) in attempts to defend people, to stand for righteousness, and to silence offensive voices. And when I get the “likes” I inwardly seek, it feeds into my sense of right-ness.

And it’s precisely in these kinds of moments when God’s word breathes life into my soul. Galatians 5 has been foremost in my mind in the area of self-regulation or self-control. In contrast to slavery, God’s Spirit gives us freedom. Freedom to make choices not out of fear of punishment, but out of joy and hope in Christ who reconciles all things through His body and blood. And we are to use that freedom carefully, to serve and to love, not to provoke or exasperate. If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other – Paul’s words, not mine.

As Christ followers, we can feel secure and we can say “no” to our impulses that find root in barren soil. I wonder how we would all behave if we truly believe that God loves the whole world and wants to save it. For many of us who exist on the margins, whether it’s because of our gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc, we have to work out where we place our source of affirmation. We don’t have the benefit of social privilege. For others gifted with power and privilege, we have to take care not to become conceited or unrestrained, especially when that privilege actually means dying-to-self.

I hope that as leaders, we can reflect on what it means to say “no” to ourselves on behalf of those we serve and have influence on. And to take a step further, to see this as gift. Perhaps it means being aware of the stressors that deplete our capacity to love others, and ourselves, well. Or perhaps it means you have been blessed with enough security in Christ that you can extend grace to those who don’t. Or perhaps it means avoiding vanity by living sacrificially and creating space for dialogue and engagement (i.e. Get out of the armchair and into the fray). I do believe that out of that self-control is greater freedom and capacity to love.

We live in fretful times and even the most faithful of us can feel threatened by what the future may hold. And yet, we continue because we feel life is worthwhile somehow. Maybe it’s finding fellow weary travelers. Maybe it’s the lure of greener pastures. Hopefully, it’s the vision of finding a place within God’s Kingdom and sharing it. No, not proselyting, but saying, “Here, take and eat. I’ve already had my fill.”

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

EDIT: This was reprinted by Christianity Today on April 17, 2017

 

 

Overdue post…and epic failure

I never did get around to posting my new year’s contribution to AAWOL, and suddenly it’s Spring. Well here it is, on resolutions. The spoiler: my freezer is still full –  of mostly new things. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Here we go again…

It’s that time of year again. The beginning of the year when we feel the slate is clean and fresh. When we traditionally make decisions to improve ourselves and find the resolve to implement them. When it comes to New Year’s resolutions though, I fail every time: Lose ten pounds. Get fit. Spend less. Do my daily devotions. Blah, blah, blah. After so many failures I decided to quit making promises of self-improvement a few years back. Yet this year I found myself declaring a new resolution. A resolution that, unbeknownst to me while making it, is a “SMART” goal; It is specific, measureable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound. Hence all the elements that can guarantee success are there and I can look forward to feeling satisfied instead of guilt and disappointment.

My goal, simply put, is to use up or eat all the items in my kitchen freezer. Granted, I haven’t set a time frame, but I think it’s a reasonable goal to achieve in the immediate future. But isn’t this goal a bit….pathetic? Shouldn’t I expect more of myself? Will you, dear readers of AAWOL, judge me for a silly resolution of freezer-bag proportions?

Well, this decision isn’t so vacuous as you may think. First off, to eat everything in the freezer requires me to stop adding more things to the freezer. This goes against every immigrant-vein in my body. My ancestors taught me to save, to hoard, to never throw anything usable out, ESPECIALLY uneaten food. Using up these frozen morsels is to dig into my reserves and to live by faith that the good Lord will provide. Secondly, to clean out my freezer means thinking creatively how to use each item, which also means making an inventory of what I actually have. And if I know what I have, then I am obliged not to buy more of the same item (even if it’s on sale). So in one stroke I’m being creative, organized, and frugal. I’m simplifying my life one frozen pea at a time. Thirdly, eating food at home means less eating out. I’ve already had a friend over for dinner, which helped me get rid of soup broth, beet sauce, and a pork roast. I’m exercising hospitality, eating healthily, and saving money! Not bad for a lowly goal.

I do have a confession though. My inspiration for this resolution didn’t come from a place of deep prayer. It came about when I couldn’t add more things to my freezer. My initial thought was that my freezer is too small. Then I realized – this is ridiculous, I have things in here that I haven’t touched in over a year. Something had to change. The freezer was meant to store perishable foods so that they could be later consumed, not to keep mementoes of a bygone time. And so when a practice no longer fulfills the intended purpose, then one needs to re-evaluate that practice. The question is not: how can I put more food in the freezer but why do I have so much food?! As Simon Sinek would say, leadership needs to “start with why” not with the “how” or “what.” We’ve disastrously tried to simplify Christian living into a list of what to do and what not to do when all the while God is constantly engaging in the “why” of our lives.

Why do we consume so much? Why do we need to protect ourselves? Why do we fear people who are different? Why do I do what I do? Why did I make so much beet sauce? Some “whys” will take much more than a resolution to get to an answer. And sometimes the answer is not anything more than, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Which, it turns out, is not a bad way to start 2016.

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.