Finding the Words for Love, Part One

A view of the rooftops of the city of Seoul, from the window of the taekwondojang where I study, at sunset.

We trained together for eight months before I finally worked up the nerve to invite him out. It’s not that I was afraid- but I was asleep to men, still untying the knots in my heart from recent heartbreaks. Taekwondo was my boyfriend, now, and the perfect offering to the gods of rage that seemed to loom over me these days. In the spring I stopped training for a while, and those gods punished me with all sorts of bad luck- another story for another time. But Henri’s black belt test was coming up, and I would not miss that for anything.

I showed up at the dojang at 8am in a dress and blazer- the Grandmaster always wore a suit and tie outside of teaching, so I was following his lead. Henri showed up a little later, and we- him, me, the Grandmaster and his wife, Master Ko- headed to Kukkiwon, the Taekwondo world headquarters where Korean martial artists (and those studying in Korea) went to test for black belt- first degree and beyond. Henri had more than earned it, studying in France for years in competitive sparring. His muscles were hard as rocks- I knew because simple blocks hurt like hell and left black and blue welts on my arms and legs.

But Henri was incredibly humble, always gentle towards me and restrained, and his grace and control meant I could trust him. There were never ego games, there was never an arrogant comment, there was never a word directed at me as a lower-rank, or as woman- always as a human, and even his superior. He always bowed when he saw me, and whenever we said goodbye.

And that attitude slowly started to haunt me- and the slow change over the months, as gaze and touch became more prolonged, but more importantly, as it became clear: the consistency, the discipline, the devotion he showed towards martial arts. His complete singularity of focus. I admired that, I wanted that for myself. He walked me to my bus stop every night after practice and we talked more and more. He was a traveler, too. He’d spend a year here, in Korea- then a year in Japan, then Taiwan, then Hong Kong, then mainland China. Working odd jobs and studying Taekwondo, Karate, Shaolin, Jeet Kune Do. The idea thrilled me. Could do something like that? I didn’t know people could do that. I thought that was a fantasy I wasn’t allowed to have anymore once I turned fourteen.

At some point, I noticed the line of his brow, the little wrinkles on his cheeks when he smiled. Hazel eyes.

At the black belt test, we paced and agonized. Sweat drenched my clothes from heat and anxiousness. It was late June. The Grandmaster sat in a section for Grandmaster judges only. He sat there alone on that early Sunday morning. Parents and photographers shuffled for the best views as candidates came to the mats in groups of nine and ten to perform the complicated forms and techniques they had practiced for months. My heart was in my throat, watching him when it was finally his turn.

Later, we ate cold noodles, watched the videos Master Ko took, laughed at the awkward sparring between him and a ill-matched partner. Dissected the forms, responded encouragingly to small mistakes, admired kicks, stances. Long into the afternoon, we decompressed together, over dessert, over coffee.

Only on the subway, right before we were all about to part ways, did I finally have the courage to invite him out.

“Let’s go to the river,” I said, a little embarrassed to ask in front of the Grandmaster and his wife, but he said yes, and it was simple as that.

There’s a place on the Han under a bridge where the concrete slopes down in a square tile pattern and the sound of the water lapping up at it seems to wash away the traffic noise and the talk of passersby. The Han is wide and deep, too wide for its length from the headwaters. It dominates the city; it looks like if it catches the mood, it might one of these days just reach out at all sides and swallow the city with a yawn. We arrived late in the afternoon, when the sky and the river competed for more stunning shades of blue.

And we talked for hours, about travel, about why we travel- about martial arts, the different styles and our different experiences, which is our favorite (we both agree: taekwondo, although for different reasons). Where we’ve been, where we’re going. We talked about France, where he is from and where I lived years ago. And we talked about China, at which point I found out how, for way cheaper and more possible than I ever imagined, I could study Shaolin full-time.

I wrote in an earlier post about how this one new piece of information caused a complete paradigm shift for me. Perhaps I would have found out about this at some point, but I hadn’t been looking, because I thought it was a fantasy. And the timing of this information was perfect. In just a few months, my contract was up, and by then I would have just enough money saved to do it.

I went home that evening and looked at everything around my little apartment that I had accumulated in the past two years, and started to make give-away piles. Once again, I’d have to pare down my life to two suitcases.

Among my childhood things I found an old necklace- a yin yang, red and black, that a teacher at my martial arts dojo had given me over twenty years ago. He said, “I understand that you need to quit, for the time being, but Laurie, life is long. Don’t quit forever.”

Henri’s black belt test was on a Sunday and the day after, I came back to the dojang, ready to start again.

***

The thing about falling in love with your sparring partner is that it’s tricky. Are my feelings returned? A smile, a gaze, a lingering touch- are these signs of deep feeling? Am I seeing this accurately? Is there something between us, or is it just our shared passion for martial arts?

And there were more practical matters: I was working overtime, and Henri worked weekends, so the only time that either of us had to spare that overlapped was, of course, taekwondo. And why go out on a date when you could be practicing taekwondo? And most importantly, I knew it was doomed anyway. He was leaving in two months for Japan. And though we were both bumming around Asia studying martial arts, it’d be years before we might see each other again, if ever.

But if there was one thing I learned about love, it’s this: never let your feelings go unsaid. Maybe that was the wrong thing to learn- maybe it had never done me any good at all- but I knew if I wasn’t honest with him about how I felt, I’d regret it. Not because anything could happen, but because people should know these things. People should know, when they’re loved- when they’ve inspired someone, when they’ve changed someone

The opportunity came during a national holiday in August. My work was closed, the dojang was closed. It was a Wednesday. On Tuesday during training, I said to Henri, “There’s no taekwondo tomorrow! Let’s hang out.” And he said, sure. And because we would meet at sunset, and because I lack  imagination, I took him back to the river.

And what happened next, I’ll never, ever, ever forget, because I’ve learned to sniff out death and so these days, when death is hiding near, it can never hide long.

***

Part Two coming tomorrow <3

Poem

Rain and fire, breath,

beyond. Storms and silence,

touch the sound. Woven waters,

weft and warp, thread along

this hallowed ground.

Whispering, wording, sinking,

lurking, clenching keys,

abandoned song. My heart’s hue-

here, pull a card- a secret told,

a journey, soon.

Don’t forget to say a prayer,

Send kisses to the moon.

 

Why do we Travel?

Why do we travel? Why do we need to travel, why is the yearning in our hearts?

Where can we go to hide from the Self? It cannot be done.

Traveling is best done to confront, not hide.

In this way travel becomes a double-edged sword: you confront not only what is ahead of you, but what you left behind.

What, of the world you left behind, do you miss? And what still angers you?

In what ways did your friends, your family, or your society betray you?

What aspects of your society, your family, and your friends, utterly irreplaceable, and cannot but be longed for, deeply missed?

These are the things you find out when you move away to another part of the world. The answer to both questions is eerily similar.

The thing that society, and even sometimes your family and friends tends to reject, is your uniqueness. They want you to be things you are not. Society regulates for orderliness and safety. Your family and friends have hopes for you that don’t speak to who you really are. Out of love, you are rejected. Strange, no?

And the things you miss are always unique details. The smell of your mom’s hair, your best friend’s smile, which lovely strangers on the street can approximate but never duplicate. The way the smell of rain lingers in your hometown. The way the vines fall from the trees in the woods. The way the old buildings feel haunted. Or the glitter of the new buildings in the afternoon sky. The glimpses of sunset you can catch on your commute and the feeling you will soon be home, to see your parents, or your roommates, or your cat, again soon. These cannot be found anywhere else. And it’s these details that ground us and give us the rhythm of our lives.

Love can be found very particularly. The details are what ignite the heart.

But let us say these details are mired or lost in the intense stress and murkiness of daily life. You cannot run away from your problems, for they will surely follow you. So if you can’t travel to run away, what do we travel for?

We travel to find the uniqueness in ourselves. To find again the parts of us that we buried because they were rejected by loved ones or society. Many of these are small things, little details- that got stuffed in a closet and forgotten about when we were young, and have thus grown big and ugly and overwhelming in the shadows. Others were huge to begin with, and always set us apart. These are the parts of us that need parenting, loving and accepting.

Some things I’ve had to learn how to tell myself, big and small:

You don’t need to wear make-up, even if everyone around you does, and by wearing no make-up you’re considered ugly and you get mistaken regularly for a guy.

You don’t need a practical job. You don’t need a career, you are not built for just one thing.

You don’t need to save for retirement. You don’t thrive when there’s too much safety, and you don’t want to retire, anyway. And yes, you can know that about yourself at 34.

You don’t need to wear dress shoes. You need shoes you can run, jump and kick in.

Same goes for dress clothes. You’d better be able to do a high kick in that outfit.

You can love a city and still move away from it. You can love a boyfriend and still break up with him. You can love everything and still leave it all behind- not because you’re looking for something better, but because you know that nothing is for keeps, anyway.

 

You can do this without traveling, you can go through this process of finally giving yourself permission to be different from society, different from how your parents and loved ones want you to be. But traveling and living abroad can certainly help. And more importantly, when you travel, if you travel, keep this search in mind, this endless internal search for the yet unaccepted and unloved details of the self. I am convinced that when we travel, when we go on a quest of any kind, this is what we’re looking for.

Life-Changing Words in Liminal Spaces

When I want to feel summer, when I want to hear the voice of nature whispering,  and feel the edge of my soul, I go to the Han.

There’s a spot at this river, under a bridge where two blues- water and sky- mingle with gold of city lights in the evening. Sometimes the sunsets are spectacular; and riding a bus crossing one of those bridges, I can stare out at a cityscape dominated not by city but by water- by this river, disproportionate: too wide for such a short journey from headwaters to sea. The river dwarfs the city- the skyscrapers, underwhelming. Great state buildings, humble.

At the river’s edge, the voice I come to hear is the water, lapping gently against the concrete slope, the bridge pillars.

But I also can’t help bringing friends here, when I want heartfelt discussion. Something about the water, perhaps, brings forth our depths.

A few weeks ago, I brought a friend to the river, and he mentioned an opportunity I have dreamed about my whole life but never thought possible. Not only is it possible, I can pursue it in a matter of months. I won’t say much for now but I will say- suddenly, my whole life is at the river’s edge, about to sail out upon unknown waters.

Everyone has a dream that they keep so deep they hide it from themselves. Because it’s so terrifying, so haunting, so incredibly big and impossible, bigger and greater and more wonderful than one mere person can ever be.

If we are vigilant, if we make a practice of staring through the hidden terror that comes with being alive- if we strive to maintain a dialogue with our innermost souls, through everything that happens in life- but most importantly, if we are lucky, if we are so so so so so so very lucky- sometimes we learn that the dream isn’t quite so impossible after all.

In the end, our dreams are humble- make art, raise a child, travel, dance, whatever the dream is, once the veil of terror is taken away, the dream is seen for what it is- a beautiful consequence of being human, the inevitability of each of us having a unique soul.

Mine is no different- it’s humble, it’s beautiful.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Year of the Moon

moondrawing

Living again among the mountains, there are times I walk at night, or in the dusty hues of evening, and see the moon, hanging perfectly over the summit of a mountain, as though it were the bright ghost of a volcanic eruption or some other cone of energy bursting forth. Like a symbol, like the eye over a pyramid it watches me back, a staring contest loaded with suspicion.

Over water, however- over the lakes and oceans of my childhood- the moon is different. Soft, gaze averted in rippling reflection- forgiving.

Two faces, two personalities: one looking tirelessly into you, through you; the other, the thorough, boundless accepting of you.

Two tasks, two processes. The first: gaze unflinchingly into your unconscious. See so deeply that no part of your ego can trick you. The second: pour yourself out until oceans are filled with you.

The Metrics of the Matrix

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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.”

 

With Love,

Laurie

 


*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.

Linguistics and Starlight

It seems like a waste to stay in bed when it’s 50 degrees out, the eerie winter light of a low sun at its most captivating- through a thick fog. A day to go out and take pictures of dewy dead leaves on park benches.

But, being sick again, what I did instead was stay in at Starbucks and read a book called the Point of Existence (more on that in a moment) and try to stay as still as possible so as not to inspire a coughing fit. All the staff at Starbucks know me by now. They’re impressed with my ability to comprehend their questions but, as I explained to one of them who speaks English, I pick up meaning entirely from non-verbal cues, context, and corporate conditioning. I did manage to successfully tell one of the girls her glasses are cute- a big linguistic victory! Especially considering I can’t phonetically distinguish for them when I want a mug vs. a mocha, even though Starbucks does use the English words (it’s my American accent).

I’ve been focusing my energy and free time on memorizing vocabulary and basic sentences for daily functioning, and to begin the chunking process which will hopefully get me to toddler level speaking in the next six months or so. The process of memorizing is long and laborious and I’m not a natural at rote. It involves getting the words to go from short-term memory to long-term memory through constant repetition over a long period of time. I do, however, have the benefit of checking my pronunciation and aural recognition with my native-speaking friends on the fly- which is invaluable.

But this process doesn’t even begin to touch the level of being able to recall, in the moment of speaking, the words I know and wish to use. So in terms of actual conversation, uh, I’ll get back to you in six months to a year 😉

Yesterday I decided to take a break from the language (repeating words while bronchially inflamed is no fun anyway) and picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read for years. It’s called The Point of Existence, by A.H. Almaas. The title is a play on the quote from Meister Eckhart: “God has left a little point where the soul turns back on itself and finds itself.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the archetype of the Star and some of its variants: the Morning Star, the Behenian Fixed Stars, etc. Those who know me very well know I’ve held a lifelong identification with the Moon archetype. The moon symbolizes the unconscious, emotions, the state of longing- cycles, the cyclical nature of time and life, the cycles of life and death. I’ve always been highly sensitized to the moon, seemed to live and die by her waxing and waning, suffered intense insomnia for years every month at her third quarter, when she would rise late and drag me up with her, and I would watch her disturbing bisected form mocking me through the window as the hours crawled by.

The Moon is ever close to her beloved, though, and I have yet again stepped away from the people I am in love with to disappear into the world. A star in the firmament, of sorts- that “tangible heaven,” in this case, being this city of eleven million people. The Star is unique but not special. It is different only in the way that every leaf or every flower is different. Powerful in individuality, irreplicable, but not special. It is alone in the vastness of space yet part of a glittering, silent collective. I feel the silence in particular depth as I function each day with a language barrier all around me.

The Star in and of itself represents a “point of existence,” and if people are like stars, then perhaps we, too, can access those qualities in ourselves- of being brilliant, radiant, of existing in vastness and depth, of constancy; the feeling of being truly long-lived, which comes not from our number of years but from how deeply we can stretch into each moment; of feeling an intimacy with the eternal- which we reserve in our minds for only the oldest of beings.

There is a state of being deeper than our normal experience of self- “that which renders the very question of self irrelevant,” as Almaas puts it. For the time being, I am grateful to be able to get up at dawn every day, no longer haunted by a sleepless moon.