myquanamThe little Quan Am, carved by an artist in Hoi An of pink Vietnamese marble, sits on a shelf in my living room. On either side are beeswax candles in ceramic cups that in traditional Vietnamese dance are held in pairs in one hand and tapped together like castanets. Before her are shells picked up along the shore of the South China Sea, a dish of rice because she is, after all, from Vietnam, and three chocolates because the papers are red and gold.

In the time she has sat there, facing the comings and goings of the house, I have begun to imagine I hear entire conversations taking place within the niche. It is as if, by bringing her here and honoring her with gifts as she would have been honored in her home, I have summoned the powers she represents and of which she has deep knowledge.

These wordless conversations usually begin with the candles. One is anguish, the other forgiveness. One is grief, the other joy. One is fear, the other love. One is despair, the other hope.

But then the exchange takes a darker turn, frenzied, the voices no longer so neatly separated.

The United States. Vietnam.

“Democracy.” “Communism.”

Pride. Horror.

Rage.

The conversation becomes chaotic. The strands interweave, turn into snakes, jaws snapping.

One candle is Agamemnon, humiliating Achilles. The other Achilles, spending his rage upon Hector.

One candle is Persephone, abducted by Hades. The other Demeter, fierce and determined.

One candle is the bravado and daring of youth. The other the lifetime of misgiving and memory.

Knowledge. Nightmare.

Vision. Grief.

Denial. Truth.

And between them – tiny, tender, improbable, and vulnerable – the Quan Am. All we have to set against the dark.

Compassion.