Monday, October 31, 2022

Sorrow in Seoul

This evening I took my "constitutional" -- my 30 minute walk around the neighborhood -- at around 5 pm, when hordes of kids were out, going from house to house in the rituals of Halloween. I was reminded of my love for a neighbor who gave us little bags of candy. The serenity of a New Jersey early evening, dressed as in your Hogwart's uniform, with a wand in your hand, or strange skeleton features drawn on your face, the leaves crunching, the piles of candy, the neighbors recreating this event from the memories of our own joy at so much sugar! A friend in France, incensed that Halloween was infiltrating their country, berated the commercialism of the holiday. I tried to explain, but she just got madder and madder. "What is good about a holiday on which children are given too much candy?" 

I tried to explain about the satisfaction to the human spirit of this strange festival -- deciding what to be, where to go, how to say "Trick or treat." Halloween is the ultimate city festival, a triumph of the collective imagination and an expression -- as all events are -- of the fears and joys that are on our minds, like the explosion of fake tombstones this year, which must be because we are in collective mourning for more than a million Americans lost to Covid. 

It is against this backdrop of our custom, which has been embraced by Seoulites, and especially this year, after two years without this moment of the human spirit, that the profound tragedy hit: More than 150 dead, and an equal number injured. And thousands more who were there, some of whom will be haunted by their own role in the tragedy: the ones who yelled "Push" and the ones who stepped on others. Like Lady MacBeth, they will be wiping the death off to no avail.  

Korea is a country is with suspicions of mental health treatments -- they are only coming to have and use them. Yet they have other resources. The national government immediately declared a week of mourning and lowered all the flags to half mast, erected public mourning sites, with the traditional white carnations, opened a vast investigation into what happened so that they might prevent it. 

While people might not think of it as a resource, K-drama is surely playing a part in this moment. The show, Just between Lovers/Rain or Shine, is concerned with the torment experienced by people in the aftermath of a building collapse -- not the same dynamics as the crush of a crowd, but nonetheless carefully showing the suffering. To be trauma-informed as a society is not a small matter at a time like this. The tormented souls who scream in their sleep or can't concentrate at work will be understood by their family, co-workers and society. People may not know the way out of pain, but they will know that there is pain. 

This is fundamental because it prevents all the harms of secondary traumatization when people are told that their pain is not real or not important. I don't think that Korean society will fall into that trap, because they have been so clearly and consistently shown the harms of trauma through their nightly television programs. 

But in walking my neighborhood -- which is not a mile from where I grew up -- what was on my mind tonight were all the Halloweens of my childhood when I roamed for candy, crunching Snickers bars and fall leaves. These events that happen year after year all live in our bodies. A few weeks ago, seemingly out of the blue, I started to remember how the shaking of the building I was in during the 1989 World Series Earthquake felt. A few days later, Bob Fullilove, who was also there, reminded me that it was the anniversary of that event. And so next year, when Halloween comes, this will be on the minds and in the bodies of Koreans, not with the joy that I have, but with horror and grief. 

For the first anniversary after 9/11, our NYC RECOVERS project created a month of observances -- mainly to keep us from freaking out about the single horrible day. We called it "September Wellness" and people created all kinds of events that felt right, from walking labyrinths to free yoga lessons. From that experience we were all convinced that collective recovery held promise for keeping the population well through very difficult times. It is why we proposed it to so many colleagues as we went through the fear and loneliness of Covid.  

Sending love to Korea, that they be healed and that Halloween be healed for them, and that it grow into the kind of day of the human spirit that we have enjoyed for so many decades.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Potter's Wheel

Michael Lally helped me so much with the Main Street project, particularly by having lunch with me on the Main Street in Maplewood, NJ. His comments were always very Zen, words to provoke thought. Zen pushes us in outward spirals that are not "answers" -- as I like to think of answers (2 aspirin for a headache and call me in the morning) -- but openings for a deeper engagement with the world as it is. I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with him, talking about this and that, including my new project on the Tao of K-drama. We talked a lot about the emotions associated with the trip to Korea I'm planning for the spring semester: the long time away from home, the fear of loneliness, the vagueness of my task. As the afternoon wore on, he said, "I have a Zen story for you." 

This is what he told me:
There was a period when Korea was shutoff from Japan. During that time, the Japanese were not able to access a particular kind of Korean pottery that they prized. In the absence of trade with Korea, they tried to duplicate the work. They set up an academy that worked on the problem but could not achieve the special effects that were so admired. When relations were reestablished, the academy sent a delegation to Korea to visit with the makers of this special pottery. They learned that, when the potters there made a wheel, they did not measure, they made it by eyeballing. None of them were even.
My heart leapt up -- to riff on Gerard Manley Hopkins: My heart in hiding Stirred for a story, -- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!  

Sunday, August 28, 2022

K-drama: Is the Tao (of K-drama) inherently subversive?

My mentor, Rod Wallace, always reminds me that Confucius said to strip the peasants' of their wealth every ten years to prevent them for gaining too much power. He compares this to the policies of the US government that had displaced poor populations on average every ten years. We called this process "serial forced displacement." 

Confucius, it is said, met Lao-Tzu, who is credited with being the founder of Taoism. The two reflect, I think, a fairly deep contradiction between religions that authorize empire and those that strive for inclusion and balance. Buddhism was the dominant religion of Korea, but Confucianism pushed it aside, and became the justification for further class and gender oppression. For example, women lost many of their rights, such as the right to own land. Such traditions have lost some, but not all, of their power. The restoration of balance -- in opposition to Confucianism -- calls for new philosophies. Those, in turn, take from the older religious ideas, including shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism.  

K-drama is fascinated by this trope in the culture. Romance is a Bonus Book, for example, examines the profound difficulties of a woman trying to reenter the workforce after staying home with her child. Misaeng deals with the struggles of young man trying to enter the business world without formal education. Itaewon Class deals with a young man who, having spent time in prison, is working to get on his feet and avenge the death of his father. He is highly stigmatized for having been convicted of a crime. He is joined by others who are ostracized by Korean society, including a transwoman and an African man. Their ultimate triumph is built on their ability to include others. 

The concept of the Tao is that everything -- everything in the world -- is included and in relationship. The Itaewon five-some represent the force of inclusion in the face of the exclusions of the larger society. We could interpret the success of the group as a modest shift -- what they want is to become capitalists like the dominant group in society. 

But some ideas are so powerful that they actually shift the whole world. One example is the idea of "inequality." This idea was developed and promulgated by the ruling oligarchy of the southern colonies -- Virginia, South Carolina, etc -- to justify the institution of slavery. It was inserted into every system of the society. Bishop Rev William Barber has described this as the "seven sins of the United States." This "inequality" has been countered by the concept of "equality," with some success. More recently the concepts of diversity and inclusion -- which are the heart of the Tao -- have been put forward. 

What happens when an idea like "inclusion" starts to work in a society in a time like this? As the world is in deep crisis because of our abuse of the ecosystem, we are forced to rethink our relationship to the All, and certainly to the sentient beings. Once we start to ask about sentience -- as an example -- the ground shifts under our feet. All people -- including ex-convicts, orphans, Africans and transwomen and men are sentient -- of course. But whales and dolphins are also sentient, and so are dogs and cats. Trees, it seems, communicate via networks of fungi, so that the whole system of the forest is perhaps a sentient being. There is no stopping an idea whose time has come, and this is the moment in which "inclusion" is moving into that space. 


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

T-drama: Starring Teo and Taiwan

Sometimes we are watching a show and get to meet a really special person -- in this case, watching A Thousand Goodnights and meeting Nicholas Teo. Teo is a Malaysian Chinese actor and singer who works in Taiwan. He stars in the 2019 Taiwan series, and sang on the soundtrack. The show, despite its many strengths, is confused and confusing. Teo stands at its center, holding it together with his spirit. The character he is playing is able to take in advice on his own unhappy family situation, at the same time as he is able to ferret out the problems in other's lives and help them move on. His gentle persistence in supporting others is heartening. It is in his very special smile and careful gestures that he communicates his faith in relationship. He holds up values of love and independence. He is constantly fending off his mother's desires for his life. At one point, he says very firmly, "Will you stop using emotional blackmail?" He chips away at her impossible position, which liberates them both. In addition to the warmth of his acting, I love the song he sings, Holy Tree

One critic said that the confusion of the show could best be understood by acknowledging that the show is really a Valentine to Taiwan. It uses the wonderful aerial photography of Chi Po-lin, whose 2013 film, Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above, won many awards. It addressed the environmental crisis of the world, as well as the beauty of Taiwan. The shots are so breathtaking and charming that I could not help but wish to visit Taiwan.  At a fraught time in the history of the island, it is good to get to know the people and the place in contention.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

K-drama: The king and queen

I just finished rewatching The King: Eternal Monarch. I think I will watch it again, more closely, because I have so many questions and so much I want to look at more closely, but particularly the way the king and his queen carry themselves in the face of terrible danger. For one thing, they have their priorities straight. At one point Jeong Tae-eul says to her lover, Lee Gon, "If you hadn't had my ID card for 25 years, would you still have fallen in love with me? We're skipped so many things." 

They skipped things because they were facing such terrible evil the fight for survival had to take precedence.  At another point she is in the hospital and says to him, "Stay with me. Let's just NOT save the world." 

What makes this wartime story especially poignant is that very few people know and understand what is going on. The signs of catastrophe had hidden from them. Lee Gon has the privilege of seeing what's coming, and it is a terrible weight.

It is fascinating to watch character emerge in the face of all this. Lee Gon takes time, as much as he can, to court Jeong Tae-eul. He is not so involved in the savior role that he forgets to charm her. She is, somewhat jealously, asking if he dressed in his Navy uniform to cook for previous girlfriends. He skirts the question, but does put the uniform on to make breakfast for her. She arrives at the kitchen to see the staff gossiping in the hall. She asks what's going on and they explain. She peeks in, to be greeted by the sight of the king, his sleeves rolled up, his chest bristling with metals, smiling at her as he washes rice. She withdraws to giggle for a moment before entering.

He has to travel through time to see her and at one point he sees her younger self and says they will meet soon. Her older self counsels her younger self to be kind to him. When the meeting occurs, the younger self says to herself, "If you don't do this now, you'll probably regret it." She hugs him, which is completely unexpected but profoundly welcome. He longs for her is the deepest possible way.

Much as this is love story, it is a wartime love story and they each must go to battle. He goes to battle in a very literal sense, riding his white charger, with a sword at his side and grim determination on his face. This is a gorgeous depiction of male valor. 

She goes into battle with a badge and a black belt in Taekwondo and its five tenets of Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, and Indomitable spirit. He asks her about choosing to be a police officer and she says, "Not everyone is brave, so I decided to learn to be brave." There is no hesitation or anxiety in her bearing. She has completely integrated going into the fight into her life. Yet her endearing sweetness makes her an enchanting model of female courage. 

Nalla Kim says that Korean philosophy is concerned with building character. The key to this task, in my view, is that it requires choosing the fight over the comfort. One has to, as they do, leave the hospital room, leave the pleasant romantic interlude, and go fight. In many stories, the conflict is between the cynic and fighter -- think Casablanca. In other stories, it's just hedonism, choosing self over other -- think Alfie. This king and queen are not in any conflict space. As they see their fate, they embrace it, they embrace each other, and they fight like crazy to save the world.  

It is a strange story because they are so clear and so centered in the right

When she asks if he would have loved her without having seen her ID card, he answers, "Yes, I would have understood." He doesn't say what he would have understood, but it's clear to the viewer: she is the true, strong warrior queen to partner meant to with him.

K-drama: Magic

K-drama is full of magic, that which we cannot explain. And this is useful because so much of life is beyond comprehension. the magic takes many forms, from the North Korean shaman who risks imprisonment to commune with spirits on behalf of her clients to the mathematical genius king who travels among universes to stand up to evil.  

Magic might be saving a boy and losing a year of school, which you share with the boy, who later saves your life and showers you with incandescent love.

Magic might be talking to a plant, saying words you love best, and planting the seeds of the third way to a possible future.

Magic might be finding the place that calls you on your stuff.

Magic might be a van looking for family.

Magic might be slipping into a body so different you have to grow up to understand it.

Magic might be a hug that allows you to release decades of hurt.

Whatever form it takes, it is sure to there to remind us that hurt is incomprehensible, but so is the healing that can come from a sudden moment of magic. 

It is an ancient philosophy, but it's hopeful message has made it a people's treasure throughout many centuries. And we still like it, and know it to be a deep truth. 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

K-drama: Turning Points

Let's think of the storytelling form of K-drama as a labyrinth.  A labyrinth is not a maze. Rather, it is a path that winds in and around itself, never getting lost.  It is a single path, with no dead-ends. We would not have to train rats to run a labyrinth. That is why they are so good for meditation.  It is a sure path, taking you somewhere. You can depend on the path and let your monkey mind rest.  

A key to a labyrinth is that there are turns. Each of people in the K-drama is, we might say, walking their own labyrinth, and turns come up.  In this classic 7-cycle labyrinth, you can follow the paths and see that you have to turn.  What makes it possible to turn?  In Chocolate, a lovely story about two highly traumatized people who make their way to one another, Lee Kang, the hero, literally turns and grabs the arm of Moon Cha-young to confess his feelings for her.  But before he turns, we have seen the slow movement of his feelings, from icy cold to passionate.  It is the discovery that she is his first love that breaks the final barriers.  It is a moment of grace for him, as he asks a series of questions and learns that they'd met before as children. It permits him to breathe. 

A little later that evening, he silently acknowledges that he can't push her away, this person who is so important to him.  And he turns.  What is fascinating in scenes that follow the turn is that he starts to smile and laugh.  He reveals his passion.  While he had been a smoldering icon -- one woman described his as a perfectly proportioned statue, Michelangelo's David -- he becomes a living rock star (which the actor actually is). 

Moon Cha-young still has trauma to resolve, so she says she needs to go away. He says, "Don't get lost." She sends him a text expressing her love and says, "I have never gotten lost because you guide me."

Though rarely expressed so bluntly, this is the point of the labyrinth and the point of the show. Lee Kang's voiceover at the end of the show, after they have reconnected, tells us, "That is the end of our story.  We know there will be ups and downs, but we will pull through as long as we have hope."

One commentator complained that she wanted to see more of the couple when they have finally come together. While that would be fun, as they are a sexy and adorable couple, that's not the story that's being told. The story -- from their childhood encounter, through their traumas, to their healing and reconnection -- is one of hope, and it ended there, reminding us to eat lots of good food!  Wow, what a set of ending scenes!