Let’s start with some figures to tally the substance of January:
I worked roughly 45 hours a week. I was alone for probably six to seven hours a day: 2 hours in the morning, 4-5 in the evening, minus about 3 hours a week in language exchange and, let’s say, 10-15 hours total for the month otherwise socializing. I read over a thousand pages of books and memorized about 600 words in Korean (so my Memrise app tells me). I wrote 90 pages in my journal. I drank 40 cups of coffee, 80 or 90 cups of tea, and no alcohol, juice, or anything else besides water. I managed to stay within my weekly budget two weeks this month and the other two weeks broke it by 9$ and 32$. I went to bed by 11pm every night and woke up between 6am and 7:20am, and have only woken up with the alarm (as opposed to before it) twice this month. I’ve watched no TV and didn’t watch any movies: the one exception being that I’ve watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty five times (I have this thing where I will watch the same fluffy/romantic movie over and over again- I’ve probably watched Casablanca a hundred times).
Being in a foreign country, not yet integrated into society here, and away from all my American loved ones, has taken away the delightful chaos of being part of a community, but has given me something I’ve never had in my life: regularity. I have a job with regular hours every week. I have a regular sleep schedule. My free time is completely without plans and boring. Being sick so often this winter also means I can’t spend much of my free time exploring the city- but all this quiet and solitude give me time to contemplate life- and, it seems, measure it. I stare off a lot (Mitty-esque, perhaps?), I waste time, I putter around, and I write down every won spent (and therefore every coffee bought), every workout, every new word learned- with a consistency of record-keeping that my accountant father would have been proud of.
The only thing is, amid all this solitude, on the odd weekend when I do get to spend the afternoon with a friend, wandering around the city, making conversation, I’m pretty lonely the next day.
I had just such a day on Saturday with a friend who, as we were talking about spiritual matters, was trying to explain a theory about three levels of existence. His English, though excellent, was falling short of the task (to his standards), so he said, to simplify, it’s like metrics. The idea was curious- we had just been talking about God as a visceral experience arising from one’s innermost being, and spirituality as the direct experience rather than belief, and religion as a life lived with each decision informed by that experience rather than as a doctrine. But metrics- evidence, perhaps, by which one can judge whether their life is in or out of alignment with their connection with God?
(I was pretty sure that, by metrics, he meant performance metrics and not the study of poetic meter :P)
Normally I would be averse to the idea (especially with today’s happiness measurements hype and the obnoxious habit, which I just above indulged in, of statisticizing one’s life to show off how disciplined you are) but the mere fact that I *can* measure my life is so novel, so endearing- 90 cups of tea! How cute! -that of course I wanted to know more.
In the pause of conversation, thinking now of course about poetic meter, I was reminded of the poem I re-read the night before (incidentally, over a cup of tea):
“I am living just as the century ends. A great leaf, that God and you and I have filled with writing, turns over now, in strange hands… unmoved by us, the Fates take its measure and look at one another, saying nothing.” -Rilke
The Fates take its measure.
And another, by a poet influenced by Rilke:*
“In the evening I came home- my skeleton came with me and lay at my side. The dark room opens to the universe- a wind blows like a voice from- is it heaven? Gazing at the skeleton gently weather-bleaching in the darkness- who is it that weeps?” -Yun Dong-ju
If spirituality is a visceral experience, coming forth from our innermost being like a dark room opening to the universe, manifesting in phenomena that is felt so profoundly it can only be likened to the brilliant landscapes of nature- peace so still and pristine that glitters like a lake clear as glass; warm, golden love that feels like honey pouring out of the heart; the soul’s individuation as a crisp, cold star shining in the deep blackness of space, whose velvety perfect darkness is the essence of the Absolute- what, then, is the use of measurements taken at the dim level of ego activity?
My new friend interrupted my thoughts:
“I can’t believe you haven’t seen the metrics.”
Three seconds and it dawned on me.
“Oh, the Matrix!! Oh my god!!”
I think there can be power in metrics. Each thing we measure is a clue to what we value, and each thing we do is evidence of what we are informed by: are we informed by the inner spaciousness of a peaceful life, by the honey pouring out of our hearts? Or are we informed by ego-activity, by the matrix?
The next day, to abate the loneliness that followed such heartfelt conversation, I wrote my first poem in Korean- “poem” because it’s too short to be anything else and also my understanding of Korean grammar is so completely absent that I’m limited to a handful of sentence structures (whose repetition lends itself well to bad poems :P). I’ll share the English translation below:
“Now, it is snowing. I drink hot coffee. I am happy to be alive. Whose life is this? I am grateful. The scenery is beautiful. I see umbrellas. I see boots. I see white roses. I see a church. The roses are near the church. The sky is white and spacious. Worries are far.
To live is to borrow from God. The heart is a lonely hunter.
These days, I wander around a beautiful empty city.”
*There is so much more to Yun Dong-ju than being “influenced by Rilke”: he was a resistance poet during the Japanese occupation… but I’ll save adorations of him for another essay.