It’s the people you will meet.

A well-known traveler was once asked, “What’s the most important place you’ve ever traveled to?”
The traveler answered, “The next place.”

I’ve always been too loyal. My six closest friends- one of them my brother, three of them from childhood- their names are like a mantra I’ve recited my whole life. I love them more than anyone. But I haven’t seen any of them in years and some of them I only talk to twice a year. Why am I so loyal? Why are those names burned into my heart?

Yes, they deserve it- yes, they’ve seen me through my worst years.

But I’ve realized recently, my philosophy about friendship needs to change.

None of those friends share my life path anymore. So, in considering them the most important people in my life, I consider my past to be the most important part of my life.

I can always love them and always will, but my loyalty needs to be to the future. My actions are loyal to the future. I chase dreams and am unafraid to leave everything behind.

But if you asked me, who are the most important people in your life? I would name my Six.

Somehow, I must unlearn this truth.  

If you ask me, who are the most important people in your life? I must answer:
“It’s the people I will meet.”

I get why people don’t chase their dreams.

Life feels rough, these days. Rougher than I expected.

I am in Seoul for one more month. I moved to a tiny dorm-style room south of the Han and am free of obligations (except preparing for my black belt test) until I move to China in November.

No job, for a whole month! I haven’t had a month off from working, since I was fifteen.

But every morning I wake up with a sinking heart.

In pursuit of my dreams, I’ve left my job, my life, everything I’ve become accustomed to: my colleagues, my amazing students, my beautifully lit apartment, the mountain just up the hill, where a buddhist temple hides. My neighborhood with the gorgeous views; the sound of the crickets along the tree-lined pathways. The skyscrapers, huddled together in the distance like the shy kids at school.

Dream-chasing often comes with a price. You can have everything you ever wanted, you can have it all- you just have to give up everything. 

A lot of people express envy or fascination at my life. I lived in Paris at 19. When I was 22 I left my home and everyone I knew to move across the continent with nothing but a car and a thousand dollars to my name.

Then, two years ago I moved to the other side of the planet, to pursue my dream of teaching abroad. Now, I’m moving again.

Pursuing your dreams, pursuing the things you believe in, is so exciting, such a huge adventure- but the separation from your former life is like being punched in the stomach over and over. Your net, the things that grounded you, that gave you purpose, are gone.

I do it without fear- because I’ve done it many times before. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t grief.

My adorable kindergartners- their smiles, their laughter, their progress, their play- I’ll miss that the most. My older students- their wit, their enthusiasm, the gears turning behind their eyes- that’s next. And my colleagues, their antics, their support, the idea-exchanging, the rapport, the decompressing over soju, the memories.

Now, I’m alone again, starting from scratch. Until November, when I move to China, there’s nothing but me, my tiny goshiwon apartment (66 square feet!), taekwondo, and my thoughts. And time, lots and lots of time to think about everything I’ve pulled myself away from, to pursue an unknown future.

What is this strange space? Not regret, not fear- but so much that was meaningful in my life is now gone.

I get why people don’t do it. Why they don’t make that move that they dream of, whether it’s a job or relationship or physical move. Giving up everything you’ve worked so hard to build is not easy, and maybe not worth it.

Me, though? I’ve done this before, I know what comes next.

Build new meaning. Build from scratch, a whole new life. And don’t look back.

And I know, like so many times before- I’ll find my heart again.

Remaining Vigilant to the Weaknesses in our Hearts

Another paradigm shift this weekend, as I scheme and plot the year ahead, as I wait out these final weeks before I can take action on my next set of dreams.

As I put my full heart into these last few weeks of teaching, knowing I’ll likely never see most of these children again.

It’s a strange thing, but over the years, I’ve noticed my loyalty to others actually works against me.

People take advantage, consciously or unconsciously. They trample on my boundaries, most of the time never knowing. I was always too devoted to speak up, too in love, too quick to make excuses for them.

The same goes for ideas. Beliefs, ideologies, even sets of knowledge that should turn into skill sets, that should benefit me and bring me profit, security, abundance- these fail me as well. I become too entrenched and I drown under the lifestyle, the expectations.

My problem is, I trap myself, with my loyalty. I fall in love- with a person, with a philosophy, with a culture, with a group of people in my life, with a community- but then somehow, I always trap myself, I limit my opportunities in order to continue in that world.

So the solution for me has to be: walk away. Walk away even though you are committed. Walk away from the undeserving boyfriend. Walk away from the community who at first offers all these wonderful ideas and friendships, but then inevitably starts leaking their secret opinions about how you should live your life.

Walk away, even, from the city and the culture you have fallen in love with, the job you love, the children you adore and who adore you, the lifestyle you have cultivated over the past two years. Walk away, even though you are in love, even though you could see yourself here forever.

Because the truth is, though you can see yourself here forever, though you love it with deep loyalty, and though this place is more deserving of your love than any other has ever been- in spite of all this- your nature is to be restless.

Walk away now, because this place has not yet betrayed you or disappointed you. Walk away because you’re still in love.

Walk away before you’ve been here too long, and given up too much to be here, and end up resenting this place, just as you resent the other places and people you spent too much time with.

This is my choice, that I must always contend with, must always remain awake to.

The Experience of Forgiveness

I used to be very anti-television, especially in the days when my loved ones seemed to consume it mindlessly and continuously. I was one of countless children, I’m sure, who grew up with the TV constantly blaring news and violent dramas.

These days I’m not so triggered or judgmental. We crave experience. Our subconscious doesn’t know that it’s not really having an experience, when watching TV. And isn’t it? Though it’s not our body, though it’s not our story- even our bodies get tricked, even our muscles fire off the corresponding neurons, if that’s what our brain is imagining.

I recently heard of a technique you can use to release anger and resentment, especially towards people who have wronged you. Write a letter to yourself, from that person. Write everything you wish they would say to you. It plays upon the same idea- your subconscious doesn’t know it’s not real. Because you tap into the deeply rooted volatile emotions that live under the conscious mind, and provide release for them through the writing of that letter. So the subconscious renders it as an experience.

We all have at least a few people from whom a letter of apology- full, heartfelt, saying everything that needed to be said- would be beneficial, useful to our psychological health, to receive. I can think of three right off the bat. I’m curious at my own behavior though- this kind of exercise, I would normally dive into- why do I hesitate?

When we are given the opportunity to forgive (even if it’s just a psychological trick), why not take it, unless the anger we hold has some use to us? Often, our identity crystallizes around our pain. To give up our pain is to give up our identity. Or perhaps we use the rage as fuel for great accomplishments. What happens to the accomplishments, if we let that rage go? What happens to future accomplishments?

Perhaps, for my part, I’m just too busy. I’ve been working overtime for six months. I can’t give it my attention. I can’t relax long enough around the exercise to give it true power. I can’t stop the treadmill- maybe I don’t want to stop the treadmill- long enough for this. And yes, my accomplishments this past year are absolutely fed by rage.

Or maybe it’s that I secretly believe that one letter of forgiveness- however long, however deep- wouldn’t be enough?

The thing about forgiveness is it never ends. I’ve forgiven a great number of things, a number of people- and I’ve been forgiven, as well. But more people come along who offend, who hurt, who lie, who betray. So the process must begin again and again. And I will hurt others as well- in my flailing, in my clumsiness, in my anger, my short-sightedness, my selfishness, my laziness- in all the usual human ways.

When we realize we need forgiveness, too, the game changes. And we see that forgiveness must be a lifelong companion- we must regularly pay tribute. So we must be willing to engage, to process, to call a truce here and there, to negotiate. To redraw battle lines. To give up that old territory while we claim other territory in new ways of living, growing like some wild thorny juicy brier.

Love,

Laurie

 

Waiting for the Beloved

When you can’t have the thing you want most, you become creative about using the undesired at hand. Limitation molds you. You are forced to focus in one direction when you can’t explore other options.

You can taste that which you desire, when you want it so bad and you have no choice but to wait. The energy of your desire becomes harnessed. Can you direct it into productive channels? Can you work with what you have? Can you squeeze every tiny drop out of your time, building the space for the desired thing to one day flourish?

Because every hour is precious for it. Every hour, bring your presence. 

Like waiting to see a lover again- you can feel all the sorrow of their absence, or you can know that you will see them again and burn with that knowledge.

If Everything Were Different…

What makes you unique? What are the things that make you different from everyone else? What are the things you love to do, that you squirrel away time and money for, that make the hours pass fully unnoticed? That pull you into a beautiful cloud of timelessness? What makes you you, different not in opposition but just in your pure uniqueness, at the fingerprint level, at the cellular level? What things move you, what things drive you to obsession, what things wake you up out of your slumber, cause you to sit upright, straight as cat, and listen and watch everything around you, eyes and ears new to the world?

The things that whirl inside of us, the stories waiting to be told, they need to be told. I didn’t think this for a long time- who can benefit from my stories, who cares? What can I possibly contribute to the cacophony of voices? But the truth is, we are trapped, we need new ways of living, new paradigms. How do we grow out of our moulds? We need to see other ways of living.

The more my way of life becomes unique- the more it becomes me-shaped, true to myself, the more I feel obligated to share my stories with others. Because there must be others out there like me, trying to find a way. If it weren’t for others telling me their stories, I’d have no idea I could live a different way. I’d still be stuck in the traps that I had lived in before.

It’s a sense of obligation, it’s a matter of conscience, that I tell my stories. If I can help anyone the way I was helped, just by hearing and reading other’s stories, learning of other ways to live- then that’s worth more to me than anything. It might be the highest purpose I can fulfill.

You can live a different way. It starts with asking yourself, what makes me different from everyone else, if I were stripped down to my very bones, if everything were different, what would have to remain the same? 

Then follow that thought until it becomes a path, and follow that path until you fear for you life, and then follow it more. Never stop following it, let it swallow you. And then you’ll come to the clearing.

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

How to Show Up to Your Life

Show up sleepless, with the waking thoughts still in your eyes. Coffee in one hand, outdated beliefs in the other. Show up with your scars and your trophies, your playlist, your tea and scone, clutch and tumbler. Bring your crazy dreams to this war. Bring your rage and your gunpowder. Bring your apologies, half-hearted and otherwise.

Bring the smile from that guy on the bus, the gust of fresh air, the sudden showers, cicadas in the afternoon, crickets in the evening. Bring your cramps and your bleeding, bring candy or alcohol to bribe your underlings for their cooperation. Wear your mother’s brooch, or not- show up clothed, show up naked. Show up ornate, show up unadorned.

Show up lost, show up utterly, completely, dizzyingly, hopelessly lost- show up hopeless, show up happy, show up at the very end. Show up just in the nick of time, show up too late. Show up, fat parts, ugly parts. Show up still reeling from your break-up. Terminally in love. Wishing you hadn’t said the things you said. Show up still missing him, even after all these years. Show up breaking the rules. Obeying the rules. Enforcing the rules.

Think of the graveyard you walk through every day to get here. Don’t do it for you. Do it for them. And then do it for you, when no one’s looking. Show up despite the work piled up on the desk, despite your unwashed hair, despite your heart’s so shattered, shards of it stab your lungs and you can’t breathe. Show up, though it feels like you’re drowning- it will be your beginning.

Show up, always. Show up to what is and what could be-

and everything under the sky

will show itself to be

worthy.