Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Tao of K-drama: The Flexner Lectures

I am honored to have been selected to be the 2023 Flexner Lecturer at Bryn Mawr College this fall. I will give three lectures and participate in five classes and two symposia. Out of all that, I will finish my book on the Tao of K-drama, which is slated to be published by Harvard University Press as part of the lectureship. I hope you can come! These will be hybrid, and you can find all the info here.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Yin and Yang of Main Street

Two fascinating articles in the Times touched on issues of Main Street. The first, by Emily Badger, was about the empty ground floor stores in San Francisco. She quoted Conrad Kickert on Main Street. He organized a special issue of the journal Built Environment, which included a paper by Jacob Izenberg, Doug Farrand, Molly Rose Kaufman and me. We wrote about using music to support the small businesses on Orange's Main Street. In Badger's piece, Kickert said butcher paper covering windows of empty stores was the worst. 

These scenes have such an effect on us, Mr. Kickert said, because the vast majority of our interaction with architecture and buildings happens at the ground floor. It’s where we form our sense that a street is safe and vibrant, or that something doesn’t feel right. It’s where the city comes to life in its jumbled diversity: the cocktail lounge next to the dry cleaner next to the ramen shop, but also the financier next to the tourist next to the retail clerk.

At the same time, an article about the "Republic of Super Neighbors" in Paris showed how small-scale relations of neighboring make the city a happy and safe place. Even, the article noted, improving composting, the return of lost items and street safety.  

So we could leave our cities for dead OR we could reanimate them by helping people connect with one another, making the living village in the city. Years ago, a student in our "Urbanism Track" at Mailman School of Public Health took a photo of dilapidated Harlem storefront that had a sign: "Space for rent. Huge potential."

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Tao of K-drama: Last Day of My Sabbatical

I am writing a book about K-drama, Korean television shows that, I believe, teach us Wisdom about managing our world of upheaval and challenge. I've written books before, but this time I have had a very special experience: I had a year off to work on it. 

For 26 years, I worked at New York State Psychiatric Institute as a research psychiatrist. The great thing about the position was that I had guaranteed salary and job security, which are hard to come by for anyone and maybe especially for black academics. The nature of working for the state is that one is expected to produce information that will improve the health of the citizens. That kept me on my toes -- I wrote 100 scientific papers and four books during my time at NYSPI. 

In 2016 I moved to The New School, where I am a professor of urban policy and health AND, wonder of wonders, the seventh year of employment is a sabbatical. I started mine on  July 1, 2022. 

The day before -- June 30th -- I turned off my daily alarm. Why have to get up at a certain time??? Then, on July 1, I really took my time drinking my coffee and reading my morning paper. Those changes helped me feel that I was in charge of my time and could use it as I pleased. That said, I needed to use that time productively as I had a lot to do: Korean lessons twice a week, shows to watch and re-watch, a pile of books to read, and several decades worth of needing to stare off into space so my brain could process all that information I'd collected over the years. 

The New School, for its part, really offered protection by taking me off a lot of lists. I never saw emails about the faculty meetings or my department's accreditation process. Of course, the fall part-time faculty strike intruded on my consciousness, largely because my daughter Molly Rose Kaufman, is a member of the union and was on strike.  Molly, in fact, was on the front page of the Times the first day of the strike. Like other members of the full-time faculty, I walked the picket line in solidarity.

It was a tense situation. The University called in union-busting lawyers and used a long array of terrible tactics to break the strike. As the end of the semester approached, and those efforts had only created a student sit-in and animosity towards the leadership, a settlement was reached. We could all relax for the holidays. 

As for me, I was looking forward to spring semester, when I was planning to go to South Korea, as a necessary part of my study. While I am very committed to "God Willing and the Creek Don't Rise" and "Plan B" -- meaning things that you plan don't always happen -- in this case all went well and I went to South Korea, spent three glorious months, and came home. There I really had a feeling of time, because everyone agreed to give me time to be there and not here. My whole plan for my time in South Korea was to sit in a coffee shop and watch people go by. I did a lot more than that, of course, but those really low-key moments were very special. 

Since I've been home, I've had time to recover from Covid -- fully, I hope -- and to dive into writing a draft of my book. I've been very deep in analysis of one of my favorite shows -- Just between Lovers -- and it's required my full attention. It's been lovely to have days and days without other demands. Friends have been grading papers and going to faculty meetings -- I have been reading obscure books on such subjects as Han and the Holy Spirit, trauma treatment in World War I, and meaning of the Tao. I think I've found the answer I've been seeking, but it would have been very, very hard to get there without this protected time. A professor at another university asked to speak to me about redlining. When he realized I was still on sabbatical, he thanked me profusely for sharing a bit of my precious sabbatical with him.

Tomorrow, Friday, June 30, 2023, I'll take down my sabbatical message. I still have six weeks of free time before classes start again. For the last day of my sabbatical, I'm going watch The King: Eternal Monarch, tracking the ways in which the king, Lee Gon, builds the team that will defeat evil and save the parallel worlds. It's a fascinating question -- how does a person, trained to be a ruler and diplomate, build a team from scratch in a foreign country??? It will be a glorious day and I will surely, as I have for the past year, luxuriate in time to just stare off into space, letting images and concepts percolate in my fertile brain -- such a great thing! 

And then I will reflect on my gratitude for these two jobs -- one that allowed me to do research for the public good and one that gave me time to wander and think. 

Monday, June 12, 2023

The Day the Sun Disappeared

I had that terrible "my best friend just died" type feeling this morning -- just a powerful feeling but puzzling because it had NO basis in reality. I wandered from room to room and tried to think why I felt so dismal Molly happened to call and I shared my confusion and dolor. She said she was miserable, too, and that Doug, her partner, said it was because of the forest fires in Canada and the smoke that blotted out the sun for us last week.  Here's how the NY Times depicted it:

It was the opaque orange that was so terrifying. I talked to Molly at the time and we commiserated about how scary it was. But thinking about that moment as the source of my despair, I can see why I feel such terrible mourning: I really liked our climate -- no, I LOVED our climate -- and this slap in the face that it's gone is both a terrible loss and a harbinger of even worse to come. Who knows what? I don't know. 

I used to say to students wanting to plan their careers, "How can you plan decades out? Do you know what will happen with the weather?"

Even then we knew something would happen. But I'm here to say that having a suspicion and not being able to see across the street are two completely different things. But what makes me feel so terrible is that I don't know what to do. I read in the paper that Greta Thunberg has finished school, so no more school strikes. Yikes. Not that I went on school strike, but it was something. 

I am often reminded that I am powerless, but watching the sky darken took that to a whole new level. 

If I'm any indication of the human response to looming terribleness over which I am powerless, we are in for not just erratic weather, but also erratic emotions. That a third of the nation is clinging to the belief this is not happening is going to make matters -- they will push for autocratic strongmen who say that they will be able to manage this. [snort]

What the strongmen will manage is their profits and our freedom. 

I heard a remarkable sermon yesterday by Reverend Darrell Berger, who was the minister for our Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Orange and came back as guest lecturer, you might say. He wanted us to know that UUs don't sit on the sidelines at critical moments. During the Civil War, for example, they were leaders of the Abolitionist Movement and joined the fighting for the Union. He gave the example of Robert Gould Shaw, a white Unitarian who led the first all-black regiment in the Civil War, the Massachusetts 54th. They were in the second battle of Fort Wagner, and took massive casualties. Colonel Shaw was one of many who died in that fight. The bravery shown by the regiment inspired the nation -- in its aftermath, a hundred thousand black men enlisted in the Union Army. 

Saturday night we made the most desperate charge of the war on Fort Wagner, losing in killed, wounded and missing in the assault, three hundred of our men. The splendid 54th is cut to pieces…. If I have another opportunity tonight, I will write more fully. Goodbye to all. If I die tonight, I will not die a coward.
The battle for our climate is heating up -- sorry for the pun! -- and leaders will offer us new ways to join. In the meantime, remind your network to wear masks when the air quality takes a nose dive. Doug said that being of service by distributing masks helped him feel better that terrible day. There is always something we can do and this is a lesson that will come in handy as the best friend of homo sapiens, the climate in which our species evolved and thrived, pushes upheaval and change we can't even imagine. 

Friday, June 2, 2023

Home Again

I have had a slow and easy re-entry, relieved of almost all work because of the kindness of friends and family. The triple task -- Covid recovery, getting over jet lag and returning to the US -- has been a challenge, but I'm getting there.

A couple of updates --

1) I watched two movies of Heidi and re-read the book. Heidi never says, "Grandfather, grandfather, I'm home." In the Shirley Temple movie the action is moved to a kidnapping in Frankfurt -- you know how Hollywood is -- so she reunites with grandfather under those conditions. In a 2015 German production, she does greet grandfather on the mountain, but they have watered down the life-threatening nature of the nostalgia Heidi had in Frankfurt and deleted her spirituality. So the book remains its wonderful self, but the scene I imagined was just that -- my imagining.

2) My book-writing plan was to write a mini-book before going to Korea, a second before leaving Korea and a first draft of the book over the summer. I did write mini-books 1 and 2 on schedule, but when I got home, the first draft of the book just popped out of me, like a baby that just HAD to get born. It was very stunning and very much appreciated. It is helping me relax. Daphne Gray-Grant, Publication Coach, says to put such a bit of writing on the shelf for some weeks before trying to edit. I'm doing that, with a plan to get to the next stage late June. 

3) Having just had Covid, I'm disgusted with the "pandemic is over" rhetoric of the US government. Please be careful -- it's not over and we're flying in the dark with no data to guide us. So please take precautions -- wear masks when you must go to crowded indoor spaces, and take advantage of the summer to socialize outdoors!

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Home Again

On Monday, May 15th, I woke up in Seoul, and what flashed into my mind was a poem that my son, Ken Kaufman, wrote when he was in grammar school. It is the epigraph to the chapter about my three adopted children in House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place

My granddaughter Lily had said about my trip to Korea, "You're a 72-year-old woman, 15,000 miles from home." Slight exaggeration, but it did capture a certain angst about the trip. It took me all these years to study in a foreign country so, instead of junior year, I was on my senior semester abroad.  

So, echoing Ken's lines, I thought, "Now I'm Mindy Fullilove age 72, Bye everybody, I'm going home!" 

It was so satisfying. Then as I went through the long day's journey into West Orange, I thought of many other "home" poems and stories. Ken and I read and re-read Dr. Seuss' Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now? so many times. I said to Ken that after I leave, people in Korea will say, "The time had come so Mindy went."

It occurred to me to say to myself that in the interim period -- between waking up and getting to bed in my own house -- "I have miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep." 6,900 miles to be exact.  

And then, in celebration of the success of my journey, I chanted, "To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggety jig!"

More seriously, I was pondering the question people have begun asking me, "What was your trip to Korea like?" The answer that came to me was, "It was a combination of Heidi and Merci La Ville." I wasn't exactly sure why I said Heidi, so I re-read the book. There are many relevant parts, but what I was remembering on the journey was Shirley Temple as Heidi, running up to Grandfather on her return to the mountain and saying, "Grandfather, grandfather, I'm home!" 

Friday, May 12, 2023

Tao for Travelers: The Flow of Healing

When we travel, we place ourselves in the hands of strangers. We depend on them to accept and help us. When I woke up last Saturday morning (May 6) with a scratchy feeling in my throat. I did a Covid test and was pleased it was negative.  However, the cold came on like a Mac truck, and I feared the home test was wrong. I wrote to Dr. Bora Lee, who has been so kind to my family and me, and asked for advice. She wrote back immediately and said if it got worse, she could see me. Monday I was feeling a little better, but went for a PCR test. I got the test down at the Yongsan-gu Community Center, which is an imposing building around the corner from where I'm staying. As opposed to any other Covid test I've had, the young man who did the test jabbed the back of my nose fast and deep and said, "OK, that's that." He said I'd hear on Tuesday. Could one jab like that work, I wondered.

Tuesday morning I got the result that I had Covid. It came with a certificate saying that I was quarantined for 7 days from Monday, the day the test was done. The long text message, in Korean, was followed by a phone call from a public health worker who spoke English. She asked a lot of questions and explained the procedure. I said, "Well in the US, we only quarantine for five days, so can I go home on Saturday?" She laughed at me, and said, "Quarantine ends Sunday at midnight and then you're free to go." 

Happily I really like my apartment in Itaewon, and I had enough food, assuming I ate rice three times a day. I texted the results to Dr. Lee and she said she would see me that afternoon. She had the day off from her job in Incheon because it was her daughter's K-pop dance recital. She was squeezing me into her busy day. I was enormously grateful. She even picked me up and took me by cab to the National Medical Center where I was seen by a pulmonologist. My oxygen saturation was normal, which was reassuring. I explained all the symptoms, and got Paxlovid for the virus and painkillers and antihistamine for the rest. I left with all the medicine I would need. I went back home by subway -- happily it was not crowded and I kept distance from others. 

After that, there wasn't much to do except make a chart for taking medicine and set alarms to remind me to take it. I had no energy and my mind was cloudy. Professor Eunju Hwang wrote that she would order groceries for me and what did I want? I said I had food. She wrote again and said, "I'll order groceries for you." So I sent what I could think of -- not brilliant -- all I could imagine was chicken soup! Happily, the groceries came, I made chicken soup and the healing began. 

A lot of the healing involved me NOT doing, so that I wouldn't get in the way of Nature. The body knows how to heal -- I am fully vaccinated so my body was sending antibodies into the fight against the virus. the body knows how to use the food for energy and sort out the essential vitamins that are crucial to the metabolic process. The conscious me -- the Ego -- really had no part to play except to calm down. It was quite intimidating to be alone -- truly alone -- in Seoul, and feeling so sick. I tried binge watching a K-drama, but picked Dodosolsollalasol -- which should be called Dodo, after the extinct bird -- which irritated me. Rather than tackling the central issue and sending people off stronger, that K-drama refuses to tackle the issue, passing the problem on to the next generation. As a family therapist, I was incensed. So I had to quit that drama. Just don't watch it, is my two cents. 

So instead, I stared out the window, texted with family and friends, and slept. And slept. And slept. What weird, technicolor dreams with the most vivid, amazing images. I didn't really like them. As the days went by (really 1) the Paxlovid taste accumulated in my mouth. Granddaughter Lily said to get cinnamon candy. I'm really at a loss in Seoul because I don't know enough Korean to work the apps. She said, "Just ask Eunju." I was feeling like this was an imposition, but I did anyway. Eunju ordered them for me, no problem, and that worked like a miracle. Not only did cinnamon candy take the Covid taste away, but also it enabled me to eat, which gave my body energy and vitamins I needed for the fight. Eunju even wrote to ask again what food did I need? She thought the chicken soup might be running out, which it was. And she asked, "How about bread? do you need bread?" The truth was that the loaf I had gotten on Saturday was a bit stale and I was eeking out the last slices, so I said yes. And in a bit more food arrived, including the most glorious half loaf of whole wheat sourdough bread I ever saw! I kissed it and cut a slice.  

As I near the end of my quarantine, and get ready to take the Monday flight home, I am reflecting on this twist of events. I started to study K-drama because I was sheltering-in-place to avoid Covid. I came to Korea as part of that work, knowing that there was still Covid in Korea and that my plan to be out and about would put me at risk for the infection which I'd so diligently avoided for three years! So here I am, with Covid. But I am able to appreciate how different it would have been for me, if I'd gotten it earlier -- I was exhausted from overwork in March 2020, we hadn't worked out treatments, there were no vaccines. We have all these tools now and Korea has a well-developed system for connecting people with the treatments they need. Dr. Lee and her colleague looked at me with experienced eyes -- they'd seen a lot of Covid and knew what they were dealing with in my case. And people had discovered such arcane things as cinnamon candy is the trick to handling Paxlovid. This is the result of worldwide effort, carried out at every level of scale. 

I've been studying the Tao, whose founder, Lao Tzu, observed, 

If there is to be peace in the world,

There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,

There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,

There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,

There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,

There must be peace in the heart.

"Making peace" -- as he points out -- is a complex project, and one we talk about all too little. But in the achievement of the world's fight against Covid, we have demonstrated these steps: an international effort to find a vaccine, a national effort to distribute vaccines and treatments and institute an array of public health measures, local efforts to help people understand what was happening, household efforts to adapt to the demands, and the call to each of us to have peace in our hearts as we went through this. 

I am a beneficiary of all this worldwide effort. Not that we did it perfectly, but that we did cooperate to control a pandemic, perhaps the most international cooperation the world has had to date. 

What was left for me, in between the alarms reminding me to take my pills, was to have peace in my heart. To go with the flow of Nature's healing, leaning on the kindness of strangers who'd become friends, supported by family and friends from around the world, supplied with food, shelter and medicine, and aware that no further action was required on my part -- I was to let Nature take her course. 

I'd wanted to know what the Tao of K-drama was, and this illness has been my own little mini-drama, revealing not only what it was, but how it was at work in my own life. As we say at Faith + Works UU Congregation of Orange, "Amen!"

Friday, May 5, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Delights of Staying for a While

I've been in Seoul for 11 weeks now. I can more or less find my way to new places. I know a bunch of foods that I like and others that I would rather not have. I have found some nooks and crannies that help me feel at home. I've been to the DMZ, the war memorial, several museums and temples, a concert hall and lots of stores. I've learned when coffee shops open in my neighborhood (11am) and when the party stops (never). A waiter remembered me. 

In 2000, Bob Fullilove and I went to Paris for two months. I got a very large map of the neighborhood and plotted all the places we got to know and when. Cafes were first, internet cafe second, grocery store third -- all in the first week. Laundromat trailed. So the process of settling in is a very particular one and I know that it takes a bit of time. 

There is so much to get to know, even besides speaking the language and making the right change. Little things, like the routines around garbage. I don't remember how we disposed of garbage in Paris, but I distinctly remember that the trucks started their rounds at 5am. As the loud parties didn't stop until 2am, that left very little quiet time for sleep. In Seoul, there are a variety of ways to put "trash out" -- in Itaewon we have three kinds of trash bags and we pile them on the corner in front of the bank after 6pm. I think the rats are very discrete about their enjoyment of this, because I've never seen one. Here the trucks start early as well, but perhaps it's not right under my windows because I often sleep through their coming and going. 

A bigger thing: finding the best food. In Paris, food I loved was all around me, everywhere. So vague differences in quality rose the top of the issue. Bob fell in love with a particular cafe on a particular street at which we had particular seats every morning for croissants and cafe au lait. Oh my God, what a way to start the day! Seoul is a bit more complicated. There is astounding food everywhere and wonderful coffee every two feet. But the staples of my life -- bread and cheese -- are a bit harder to find. And of course, I have to factor in the "getting lost" part. My host had recommended Maybell Bakery. I found my way to the place where it was said to be, but no bakery. It was only later that I discovered that it was there, but downstairs and the sign is blocked by the "closed" box if you go on Sundays, which was the next time I was foiled. The hird time, I got there easily -- very familiar with the route by then -- but they were sold out, a man said, wringing his hands at my evident disappointment. Then I actually got there at the right time and with lots of bread on hand -- obviously I bought out the store. Then I sat on a bench right outside the door and ate a breadstick, savoring every mouthful. Real bread. 

Public transit is also a big part of the learning. Subways move in particular directions and getting to the right direction is not as easy as I would wish. Often the trains are not on the same platform. Lately, when I get to the wrong platform, I just go right up the stairs. If I've been unfortunate and come up right at the exit, I just exit, pay the fare again and go to the right one. I console myself by saying, "It's a dollar. All in all, not the biggest expense of three months in Seoul." 

Is this consoling? Well, it makes me think about other expenses, like my NEED for a signet ring, which I've had for a long time. I adore the seals that people in Korea use in addition to signing their names. We went to AnnivMik, a jewelry store owned by a friend of a friend. She had sterling silver rings with the name of her store on them. I got the idea that I could have a ring with my name instead. She said oh yes she does that all the time. So I went there with my new friend, the English professor and painter, Eunju Hwang. I was faced with a lot of choices about the font or it could be in my handwriting. Better idea: Eunju's handwriting! The ring says, "풀리러브" which is Fullilove in Hangul. And that is how I came to have a unique, one-of-kind sterling silver signet ring, which cost slightly more than the price of getting to the right direction of the subway!

I just picked up my new ring, another joy of staying for a while -- plenty of time to get something made for me. I had orthotics made for me -- not as flashy as my ring, but very very helpful. I had tee shirts made and photobooks. And I've seen the prayer plant at the apartment put out a new leaf, and the little tree get a little bigger. So lots of things happen with time.

But then the arc of the visit shifts from "where am I?" to "I'll miss my favorite bakery when I leave." And then comes the inevitable, "Oh hell, I'll just have to come back!"


Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Directions

I have come to think that nothing matters for travelers more than good directions. This conclusion is influenced by the fact that I have a comfortable lodging, a lovely array of electronic gadgets, and excellent shoes. So what do I need next? Directions. What else do I need? The humility to take directions!

I got directions the first time I went some place in Seoul. It might have worked better if I knew enough to follow them precisely, which I didn't. I took the bus instead of the subway (big mistake). It was made worse by my confusion over "next" -- you know the problem -- "next stop is [blank]." I had [false] pride in hearing the word word "next" in Korean. Note: they don't give the next part in the English announcement, another clue I overlooked. Well, after getting off at the "next" stop a couple of times, I learned that by "next" they mean the one after this one and I should wait for it to be the one. 

These [pretty fatal] mistakes of mine were compounded by the bewildering experience of getting off and looking around and seeing everything in Korean and nothing that vaguely resembled an orderly grid with streets named by numbers. This threw me into the next problem: getting from the bus or subway stop to the place. Google maps represents this as a straight line passing right through buildings, a trick I haven't mastered. So I need to abandon my idea that I can get there and accept my dependency on directions. It turns out there's a reciprocal to getting directions and that is taking direction. 

Having accepted my dependence on good direction, it turns out that people vary greatly in the directions that they give, from rather vague to exceptionally detailed and clear. Here's an example of great directions: "Take a taxi. Show this [address in Korean] to the driver. Come to the second floor." These directions are perfect and I know I will get there. One caveat: Seoul has some pretty cranky taxi driers -- maybe they would like to be tipped??? I will tip, even though it's not the local custom. No one will know but him and me. 

I have asked permission to share the "best ever" subway directions in the hopes that this will set a standard for all of us, me included. A guest who was annoyed about getting to my house scolded me for not saying that one highway ended and another began. Frankly, I had never noticed that. So it's easy to overlook small details and editing one's directions will lead to improvement over time.  Let's all try!

What makes the directions to Noah's Roasting so excellent? First of all, they are Seoul-ful (horrible, I know). There are very particular assets and challenges in Seoul, and these directions avoid pitfalls and use strengths -- one of which is the numbering of exits from subways and trains, etc. If you take the right exit, you're halfway there. Then, more generically, the author used google street maps to give a visual -- this was a huge help. And there was a tiny mistake -- so always room for improvement! If you want to go to Noah's Roasting, at the last step, don't turn into the driveway. Instead, take the next turn, which is the alleyway. 

Noah's Roasting, by the way, is a lovely place for a meeting. Spacious, not rushed, and great coffee!

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Lilacs in Seoul

Spring has come to Seoul. The showy glory of the cherry blossoms has been washed away by the rain. In their place, the quieter thrill of lilacs is everywhere. Lilacs unfurl their petals slowly, to the colors lightens, like the arrival of the dawn. The heady scent fills the air, especially when the sun heats on the flowers. I have so many memories attached to the blooming of the lilacs that I am thrilled by each and every shrub or tree I see. 

Just to mention a few of the associations. Louisa May Alcott wrote a book called Under the Lilacs. It is a book about finding a home. At the center of the story is house with a lilac that hangs over the porch. I had a house with lilac at the door. Walt Whitman"s famous poem -- When Lilacs Last by the Dooryard Bloom'd -- was seared into my consciousness when I read it one spring.


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

I couldn't help but think of time. My own version was:

Last year in the bowl of trees I did not know of now.

Perhaps my surprise is in contrast to Whitman's certainty -- two faces of the process of looking back.

This spring in Seoul -- far from my own lilacs but among lilacs nonetheless -- seems a metaphor for continuity and change, and this in a city that that is emblematic of both. I was smelling some lilacs the other day and a man stopped and looked at me. He seemed to be searching for a word, then said, with triumph, "Lilacs!" Short pause. Then, "Smell good!" I nodded vigorously. He finished with, "Now write a poem!" and walked away. 

I thought it was a surprising assignment from a passerby, but maybe he sensed my adoration of the flower. 

So here is my poem:


Saturday, March 25, 2023

Tao for Travelers: My weekend in Hong Kong

I have an old friend, Rosann Santoro, who has lived in Hong Kong for decades and it's been that long since I've seen her. As Korea is so close, I decided to visit for the weekend -- how cool is that? Looking at what's going on in my hotel, I was reminded that one thing people come to Hong Kong for is shopping. They come back from their forays with shopping bags from all sorts of luxury stores. And I'm told that there are underground stores that sell the fake versions of everything and even the fakes of the fakes. Mind-boggling. 

As I don't shop enough to know what's what, I have stayed strictly on the sidelines: looking for small presents, a camera case and a fountain pen. Now, I don't need a fountain pen -- it's just that a stationery store had a great display of pens and the announcement that it was their annual sale -- and this was interesting because a fountain pen represents a lifestyle of ease and pleasure, which dances in my head when I see one. I do have a very pleasurable lifestyle, but not so much ease, and rarely use the fountain pens I have -- you see my problem. 

Hong Kong is a "love at first sight" kind of place if you like crowded cities, which I do. It throngs with people, the buildings are jammed together, the majestic, historic banyan trees shelter the nearby avenue -- it's quite spectacular. And I haven't even really seen the harbor yet, except from the air. 

In the meantime, Rosann has been taking me to dinner at the Kowloon Cricket Club, a sea of green fields that completes the urbanity. The club is and has always been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, so you can get food from around the world. I've been focused on the Cantonese dishes, the like of which I've never tasted before. I say to myself, "Oh this is what they mean by the difference between Chinese fast food in my neighborhood and the real thing!" 

Today it is raining, so we may go to the nearby museum of the history of the city -- always a top choice for me! And then we'll chat about our families, our lives since we last met, and the curious state of the world and how we might help.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Touring

I am visiting South Korea for three months so I haven't felt any pressure to see the sights or even to leave Itaewon. But my visitors are here for shorter periods of time and getting out and about is, I've learned, more a part of short visits than long ones. Because of my guests, I've been to museums, lovely restaurants, parks, markets and a long list of coffee shops. 

Marisela wanted to learn about Korean Buddhism, so we did a templestay at Tongdosa, the oldest and largest temple here. We spent four days and three nights there, immersed in the culture of the temple, meaning the structure and practice of the religion. We watched the ringing of the four instruments of Buddhism, went to a variety of services, and had tea with three monks who kindly answered my questions. Because Tongdosa is south of Seoul, spring was already arriving there and the plum trees were coming into bloom. The experience of sitting with a monk and having tea is one that I will cherish -- so different from rushing to a coffee shop or even grabbing a cup of tea as I head into a Zoom meeting.

Lily wanted to go to Namsan Tower for a second time. Lee Bora, a physician we were introduced to, took us there but it was a foggy day and we could see only the fog. We got a ticket to go back for free and Lily thought that would be great. We wanted to take a cab there, but the cab driver explained that they're not allowed on the mountain and could only take us to the cable car. Lily, being braver than I am, took lots of pictures on the way up, while I stared straight ahead. When we got to the top of the tower, it was so amazing to see the difference between complete whiteout and sparkling sun!  

Molly wanted to go for a Korean facial. She researched online for one that was highly recommended. She decided on Spa 1899, because it was both great and friendly to people speaking English. It was really an amazing experience. NO extractions -- just massage and masks and lovely ginseng oil. It actually started with a cup of ginseng tea and five minutes of foot bath with the ginseng added to the water. What an experience! We came out glowing! 
Doug was deeply committed to food adventures. We went to a variety of restaurants and to several markets, including a night market tour. I liked the Mangwon Market best. Dr. Lee took us there. Her husband is a social activist who helped to organize the market and manages its coffee shop. Her daughter likes to get a special ice cream treat which is like an ice cream S'more, with the toasting of the marshmallow provided by an alligator blow torch. Dr. Lee even sent us home with a Korean version of chicken nuggets in three fabulous flavors, which we savored at dinner. Both of Dr. Lee's tours included fabulous food, which I could never have experienced on my own. 
And hosts also have ideas what one should see. Lee Bora has been so generous with us, taking us first on a City Bus tour, which included our first visit to Namsan Tower, and then second on a "miserable history" tour, which took us to Seodaemun Prison History Hall and the War and Women's Human Rights Museum. The latter is dedicated to telling the story of women who forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army duing the colonial period and World War II. There is an ongoing protest of the Japanese refusal to acknowledge the government's role in this violation of human rights. For the 1000th protest, the protesters made a statue of a young girl staring at the Japanese Embassy and an empty chair beside her, inviting us to join in solidarity. We took turns sitting with her.  

I'm on a short pause with no visitors at the moment, so I've settled into my own wu wei idea of getting to know the country. I had a great conversation with Professor Eunju Hwang of Sogang University. She agreed with me that no woman would have ever expressed whatever the sentiment of wu wei is as "do nothing." That formulation had to come from a wealthy man. But what is the intent? We agreed that "do one thing at a time" was a definite possibility and it was certainly something my mother said to me, usually combined with "don't get ahead of yourself," similar to the more current saying of, "keep your head over your feet." 

There are lots of things to do today, so I'm taking them one at time, while appreciating the sunlight pouring in the windows of my apartment in Itaewon. I have time to listen to Han Kang's Human Acts, and ponder the many ways in which deep suffering colors this splendid place. I might otherwise be lulled by the wonderful bus system and the gorgeous movie stars into thinking they have it all. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Tao for Travelers: All the Food

When I told people I was going to Korea, they'd invariably say, "You're going to eat such great food!" It didn't matter if they'd been to Korea or not. Some stereotypes are true and some are not, but this one, so far, is true, true, true. And it's not simply that high-end places have exquisite fusion cuisine. The street stands, the hole-in-the-wall joints, the restaurants from back-in-the-day are offering such delightful meals it makes every day a holiday. Of course, in a way for me, every day is a holiday, as my work is to wander around and take in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feels of the place. 

Seoul is all about style -- places like Starbucks or McDonald's are the same here as anywhere and you can't say they're stylish or not because they're frozen. Cool is what is being invented. Two of my favorites -- a coffee shop and a small restaurant -- have these signs: 

In a space of amazing food, bread not so much. And I'm just a person who likes toast for breakfast. Being a stranger defamiliarizes habits and I find myself asking why. I suddenly remembered dinner at my house growing up. My dad liked bread with dinner. If we didn't have bread, we'd make biscuits -- that was always great by me. The bread in the supermarket or even Paris Baguette is in the spirit of Wonder Bread, not Liv Bakery, the fabulous bakery near me. Happily, tucked in among the neighborhood clothes stores were three marvelous exceptions -- a Turkish bakery, a bagel shop and an Italian coffee place that has fresh bread. Ahhh! Simit and coffee get the day off to a very good start -- and then food exploration is right outside the door. 

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Clambering on a Tank

I am slowly venturing here and there from my little home base in Itaewon. Yesterday I got a T-money card, which is good for getting on the subway and buses. Then I took a walk toward an area that is large and green on the map. I thought it might be a park, but it is not. It seems to be a remnant of the US army base that used to be here, now with some museums at the edges. My path took me to the Korean War Memorial. There was a demonstration going on. About thirty people in matching red vests were sitting on mats in orderly rows listening to inspiring songs and speeches. I have no idea what this was about. There were more police than protesters, so I thought of joining just to boost the numbers.  Instead, I walked into the vast area of the War Memorial. It was quite a jumble -- an array of divergent symbols jostled together without creating either grief for those we've lost or the thrill of military might. The giant missile that stood at the opening to the plaza of the Korean War Memorial struck one note. The children clambering around the tanks and planes were an entirely different power move. Several statues of fighting confirmed for me a thought I've had for a long time, which is "don't mess with Koreans." This boy's face, in particular, captured that sense for me.  

And if you shouldn't mess with Koreans, Koreans fighting Koreans is a particularly desperate moment. I am not sure how the two sides will emerge from the impasse of the moment. I did leave the War Memorial even more convinced that they will find a way forward that we cannot imagine from this vantage point. It is the corollary of "don't mess" -- "don't underestimate." 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Reading the Signs

In Korean, there are two forms of the future (that I've learned so far...). One is the definite future -- it will be a holiday tomorrow. The second is the "probable future," that is, all the things that probably will happen, like "I will go to Korea." In Korean this is said, "한극에 간 거예요," meaning it's probable I will go. I personally live in a probable future mentality and this was true long before I got to the probable future in my Korean textbook. With things that will happen in time, I often experience it like the area under the curve which comes up in calculus as an infinite series of steps. We arrive at the answer by integration of the small steps into a single number. In the real world this was most vividly illustrated for me by waiting for 12am, January 1, 2000, and the start of the new millennium. Or would we get stuck in the infinite divisions of time?  I felt like the countdown to my trip was in that space/time trap. Probably I would go, but maybe not.  But then, as Dr. Seuss put it so brilliantly in Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now?, "The time had come, so Marvin went." The time had come and so I went, or came, depending on how you look at it. I got to Korea.  

One description of beginning language learners is that they will have trouble understanding and will make mistakes in speaking. This is certainly what is happening to me as I walk around Itaewon, the Seoul neighborhood where I am staying. People are on the kind side -- put it this way, it's not like trying to speak badly accented French in Paris. One thing about my beginner level of proficiency is that I can tackle signs, and there are lots of them. Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is, by now, nearly as invisible to me as the Latin alphabet. I rarely know what the words mean, but I can say them, at least quietly to myself. And I love the way the signs are written. Korean is composed in syllables, and signs play with syllables in an infinite variety of ways. Having only recently come to appreciate the syllable, I am delighted by this, like a baby with a mobile. 

Which brings me to this encouraging sign I saw on a walk around the neighborhood, happily in English -- "No worries, Br*. It will be fine. D*. Wait. Trust."  

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

K-drama: From the Hermitage to the Hermit Country

Well, while I have not been in a hermitage for the past 3 years, I have not been jetting around the way I used to. And Korea is not the "Hermit Country" anymore, by any means. In fact, on the street where I'll be staying are all kinds of businesses representing the whole world, including a Converse store, Italian Optical, and Global Dentist. But in leaving one place and going to another, I do have a bit of uprooting and reconnecting to do. My spiritual director said that monks who move from one monastery to another have a "transfer of vows." One of the reasons travel is so important is that visiting another place creates connection -- new vows of concern -- with that place. We can read this in Michael Kimmelman's beautiful piece on the earthquake in Turkey, which has killed more than 40,000 at this point. He noted, 

You may rightly ask about the logic of rebuilding time and again in these risky places. The notion comes up around a different threat: climate change. Scientists predict large-scale migrations in the coming years from zones where rising seas, floods, droughts and extreme weather will make life increasingly difficult or impossible. Already, climate change has displaced millions of people around the world.

But logic is not the point.

Cities are only nominally bricks and mortar, after all. To residents they are repositories of a hairbrush and a photograph — collective threads of a social fabric that, over time, weave together a life, a family, a history, a neighborhood, a community. 

Which is to say that I am loosening my connection to my daily life here in New Jersey and settling in Seoul for three months, God willing and the creek don't rise. It will be a lot the same -- morning coffee and reading the Times. But it will also be different in ways that I don't even know yet but am curious to learn. In the heart of catastrophe, we learn how much place means to us, and teaches us both how precious home is and how deeply meaningful it is go to another place and get to meet it as well. At Girl Scout camp, we sang the song, "Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other's gold."