The memories of my first five years in America are inscribed with my mother’s handwriting. Her words were in nearly all the English books in our home, earnestly interpreting the nuances of a new world between printed lines marching in the wrong direction. Not a single unfamiliar word escaped her attentions or annotations: the International Phonetic Alphabet pronunciation, followed by a carefully lettered Chinese translation. As a child, I followed the paper trail of her diligence from the margins of the American cultural manuals she studied by day to the Western fairytales from which she read aloud by night, word by carefully enunciated word.
A few days ago, my mother told me over the phone that she had printed my latest column for a third reading, so that she could study my thoughts more closely. She then sent me pictures of a mauve folder in which she had been collecting and organizing printed copies of my News columns ever since I began writing. I was struck to see a touchingly familiar sight from my childhood clustered upon the pages: my mother’s beautiful script, spelling out Chinese definitions — but this time between lines that I had written myself.
In my mother’s thorough attention to detail was a love so pronounced that it spoke loudly to me. There could be no clearer demonstration of care than her intentness on fully understanding not only my political and personal views, but also the idiosyncratic language in which I expressed them. Just as she had determinedly familiarized herself with the idioms and customs of the country she wanted to come to love, she took nothing for granted in attempting to understand my evolving thoughts, even though I was developing them in a different language. Neither time constraints nor language barriers could impede her dedication to learning and loving.
This attention to detail is the humblest and most earnest way we can practice love. The affection we develop for all the loves of our lives — from family to friends to fields of study — is a never-ending process of learning. It is constantly driven by a passion to unlock the unknown and to internalize difficult concepts. It requires a lot of close reading — and actually having fun doing it. We love sincerely when we are inspired to approach the countless intellectual and emotional worlds around us with a sincere wide-eyed attentiveness.
It is easy to observe a great deal of energy and passion at Yale across all communities and activities. But we sometimes cut corners with our love. We pay attention to our conversations just long enough to pass for appropriately sympathetic or critical; we do just enough of our readings to deliver one solid critique in section. We know that our loved ones deserve us at our least distracted, but the insistent pace of college time is always ticking on. This is all understandable — we’re only human, after all. But in the long run, we can’t become satisfied with a limited set of facts or make a habit of externalizing ignorance in what we care about. We love inadequately when we tell ourselves we can indefinitely postpone deeper conversations with dear friends or get away with exchanging vague platitudes with our families.
Time is indeed ticking on, and we can’t skimp on giving our loved ones their due diligence. We owe it to each other to ask more insightful questions with a genuine desire to learn and to color the margins of our understanding about our world with closer and more informed observations. Maybe we could even aspire to do every word of our readings (with enthusiastic annotations)! Rather than ignoring the gaps in our knowledge, we can fill them with a loving epexegesis. There is an infinity of learning in minutiae, and we are here to cultivate our love for the finer points in life.
As we approach the end of Chinese New Year and with Valentine’s Day coming up, I find myself immensely grateful for how my mother epitomizes this loving attention to detail for everything and everyone she cares about. Whether it’s studying the English language or following the evolution of my thoughts, she refuses to miss out on anything. It speaks volumes. The little things do matter after all.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .