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!