Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Heresy of Hardship

There are, without doubt, many difficulties in life.  There are, indeed, nights that we cry ourselves to sleep, and days when we wished we never had to wake.  But much more profound than all of the tears, the groans, the whining, and the paying for our groceries with the pennies pried from between the seat cushions of our ancient Ford are the moments we spend laughing at the very hardships we are facing.

I have recently been repeatedly reminded of my final year of college at Penn State.  Let me state up front, unequivocally, that it was not a good year, and, in fact, it may have been bar none the worst year of my life.  But it was also profoundly funny.  Faced with living with a felon (well, I don't know if she was actually convicted), from whom we were supposed to keep the fact that we KNEW she was stealing, my roommates and I engaged in bizarre behavior.  Our roommate would lie to our face and we would so, "Oh, okay then," as if the fact that we weren't supposed to know that she had taken checks and "borrowed" debit cards had also erased our capacity to see our name Sharpied on our own Tupperware container.  "It's yours?" we would say.  "Okay.  I'll just pretend I don't see my name in the corner."

Later we laughed about such things.  It wasn't funny.  Except that it was.

It was later comical to me that I went to worship in the cute little skort my roommate had given me for my birthday, a skort which she had stolen from a friend's girlfriend, who also happened to be attending the same worship service.

My other roommates and I laughed together when we were told that the police found our felon roommate when her grandmother called to report her missing--the same grandmother that she had claimed died the year before.

I was the only one up the morning that the police came to question her, and for some reason, I was uncommonly hungry.  I usually skip breakfast, but we had all ordered a mess of Hawaiian pizza the night before and I had just popped a piece in the microwave when the detectives pounded on the door to our apartment.

I let them in, called my roommate, and retreated to the bedroom.  For the next hour and a half, the police questioned my roommate while the other two roommates and I listened at the bedroom door.  I don't remember much of what they asked her.  But I do remember that we didn't want to walk out and past them while they were talking to her.  And so, for the next hour and a half, the microwave beeped once every minute to remind me that I had left my pizza in there.  No one said a word.  Let's discuss thousands of dollars missing.  But no one make the beeping stop.

Not at all funny was the fact that while the detectives were questioning my roommate to the very slow cadence of the microwave oven, Jillian Robbins lay under the cover of a bush on the HUB lot and began a shooting spree which killed one student and wounded another.  Some people asked where the police were.  I know exactly where they were.

Later that night, as our roommate lay in her bed asleep, my other roommates and I debated what to do in light of the day's events.  "We'll be fine," said my calmest roommate.  "As long as we hide all the knives."  And we all knew then that we weren't sleeping there that night.

Most of life is like this.  It is impossible to predict, enormously painful, and riotously funny.  It is like having acute diarrhea when your spouse wants "to talk."  Or having the hiccups during the most disastrous moments of "Schindler's List."  It is moving to another country with an infant and not being able to find the word for "diaper."

I recently visited my grandparents, and my grandfather pulled out some of his photos from the end of World War II.  As he was showing us pictures of the duffel bags to go, the remnants of towns, and the bridges he had built, he mentioned traveling to Nuremburg during the trials.

"Did you go up for the trials?" my uncle asked.

"Well, no," he answered sheepishly.  "The Red Cross was up there, and they were giving out doughnuts."

And you see, that is the crux of the matter.  It's not that the doughnuts undercut the horror of World War II.  It is that we mere mortals require levity to deal with life's less lovely lessons.

When we discuss hardship, we are often tempted to skip over the funny parts.  But it is the moments of humor that define us.  When life pins us to the wall, we can whimper and cower and give up the fight, or we can choose to laugh in its face.  And in choosing to laugh, we are choosing to live.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


There is a theme in my life.

I try hard to do something, but I don't do it like everybody else.  This is because I don't always think like everybody else.  I know this.  It has caused problems for years.  Three and a half decades later, those problems still have not been solved.  Therefore, I am resigned to the fact that it's not always apparent to others what I am trying to do.

This didn't usually bother me--until I went to live in Korea.  Suddenly, it wasn't just that I was different than everybody else, it was that this difference was wrong, as in deeply, morally, fundamentally wrong.  And I couldn't seem to get past the barriers to communicate that this wasn't the case.

Like my differing thought process, I started to become resigned to this problem as well.  But accepting this perception of myself also meant accepting anger, resentment, isolation, depression, and sorrow.  And it would have stayed that way if it weren't for NVC.

My husband says that NVC destroyed our marriage.

Truth be told, our marriage is probably stronger than ever, and NVC is the cause of it.  I just went through a very obnoxious period when I was learning to use it.  Alas, I am still learning to use it.

NVC stands for [N]on[V]iolent [C]ommunication, and it is Marshall Rosenberg's brainchild.  It is, in part, an attempt to bring psychology to the masses through a "simple" 4-step process.  I use "simple" loosely because, while the process is conceptually simple, it is emotionally very difficult.

In NVC, everything is boiled down to 4 things: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

You observe a situation objectively and describe it in clear, objective words.  Then you express your emotional response (feelings) to that observation of the situation, noting that the situation in itself did not cause you to feel that way but that you are responding to it with an emotion, usually tied to a need that you are trying to fill.  Once you have identified these three aspects of your response, then you take it all one step further by formulating a concrete request that will help you move closer to filling that unmet need.

NVC actually entered my life over two years ago at a free meeting that a friend had organized.  I cannot thank either the friend or the trainer enough because I most surely wouldn't have gone if I had needed to pay.  Both time and money were restricted then, and if it had been an expenditure of both, I absolutely couldn't have made it.

I didn't want to answer the question when the trainer asked, "When is a time that made you felt less than wonderful?"  Several others had answered, and I thought that my strategy of keeping my head down and scribbling furiously had exempted me from this exercise.  But when the trainer called on me, I thought of an example from that very morning when I had tried to find something in a local store and had run into someone who had different ideas about what I should buy.  I tried to explain that I wanted what I wanted while the other person explained that what I wanted was inappropriate and generally no good.  Then, with a huff and swearing under his breath, he turned and stalked away.

And even though I was describing the situation at the store, it was actually a recurring situation that occurred at stores, in restaurants, on street corners, on playgrounds, and anywhere else you might imagine.  It usually involved strangers, but not always.  Sometimes it involved parents, students, colleagues, and friends.
And, unluckily for me, the trainer asked me how I felt in this situation.

"Angry," I answered.

"And?" she prompted.

"Disappointed," I continued.


"Ashamed.  Inadequate.  Completely inadequate...," and the floodgates just opened completely.  I had had no idea that I really felt so strongly about these interactions, that they completely felled my self confidence and left me reeling, wondering whether I had any business living in this country, any business being a wife and mother, any business even being human.

I had not expected to sob, not expected to need tissues, not expected to have any emotional response whatsoever.  After all, this was an experience that I usually shared with strangers!  What were they to me?  Apparently more than I had thought.

But what that session opened to me was the very real area of connecting needs to feelings.

Until I had (alas publicly) had such a strong reaction to a memory of an interaction with strangers, I had largely believed that my problems with Korea boiled down to problems with my family.

Now I knew this was not the case.  I needed connection, yes.  And, no, my immediate family could not necessarily fill that need.  But neither were they causing the problem nor trying to stop me from solving it.

I could seek fulfillment of the need elsewhere.  Oh, and I did.  I developed a number of Korean friends who radically altered my perception of the country.  I tried things more.  I turned my back on my German background, which asks me to blame others or swallow all negativity, and actually started to request things I needed.  My life got radically better.

It was a little hard for my husband because at first I didn't know how to request things kindly or to state my feelings without blame.  I had a way of asking him about his feelings that sounded like an accusation.  He said it was like saying, "Well, I'm all calm about it, now what the h*** is wrong with you?"  And he was probably right.

I have learned to internalize a little more and process inside before speaking now--and I get better results.  I have also turned elsewhere for additional help.

But the biggest thing that I learned and experienced is that hiding the negativity doesn't make it go away; it buries the joy.  As I started to face these feelings, find underlying causes, and move toward resolution, I started to recognize the joy I found in other things.  I felt great love for my in-laws, affection for my husband, fierce pride in my children.  These emotions had been completely deadened in the general novacaine of accepting that "it is what it is."

So let me say thank you to those who introduced me to NVC, those who encouraged me to practice it, and my family who suffered through my initial transformation.

And then let me say to everyone else: Yes, it is what it is, but it doesn't need to stay that way.  You, too, can walk out of the darkness, but only if you're willing to fumble a little for the light switch.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


In 1997, in the middle of a HORRIBLE period, I decided to take Oprah up on her gratitude journal challenge. As I strained to write something in my very first entry, I pondered my recent break up, the need to move IMMEDIATELY from our apartment so that the management could recover "real property" from a delinquent (in payment, not intellect) roommate, my honors thesis that was not going well (and in fact, it never did turn out the way I wanted it to), and what on earth I was going to do with an English degree.

In the end, I wrote "Merry has been such a good dog for the last fifteen years."

Thirty minutes later, my sister called me to come home because Merry was dying.  I saw her last coherent look before she fell into a coma and died.

I didn't really keep the gratitude journal after that.

The next time I recall a real "gratitude" moment, was an evening that my husband and I were talking as we watched our sleeping boys.

"You know," my husband said, "We may not have everything.  Things may not be easy.  But our boys are healthy.  What's more important than that?  I'm really thankful to your God for that."

The next day, the little one had a seizure.

I am careful when I give thanks now.  I am reminded all the time that there are no guarantees.  Life doesn't go as planned. 

In the end, in God's book, I don't deserve anything.  That is hard.  Everything is a gift.  I should be thankful for it all.  And yet I still hold back.  I feel like my hand has been slapped.  And I forget that the Giver is bigger than the gift.

And I am so grateful for my husband--a husband who kicks me in the rear when I need it.  I always think that I could not love my boys more than I do, and then the sun rises, and I love them even more.  And I am thankful for every moment that we have had, both with them and with all of our family on this and the other side of the ocean.  And I am terrified every time I say it.

But for however long it lasts, I plan to enjoy it.  And when the sun rises tomorrow, even if life changes, I will try to remember that I love the Giver too and that each new day brings bigger love.

My Years in Happy Valley

This post will not be as poetic, nostalgic, romantic, or well-worded as many of the other posts I have read on the whole PSU issue.  But perhaps this less lyrical lesson I learned (the hard way) is just as important.

I was at PSU between 1994 and 1997.  The early years of the scandal, no?  Unfortunately, I was also involved with the police, not once but twice.  It was never for anything I had done but because I had been "duped."  Not once.  Twice.  Well, not exactly, but more on that later.

You see, the Penn State problem isn't just the Penn State problem, and for every JoePa who didn't say as much as he should have, there are hundreds, if not thousands of us who said nothing.

Four days into my college career, I was in a car accident.  I lost my memory and had short-term memory problems for the entire first semester.  And somewhere, during that time, I picked up a stalker.  He said I led him on. I think.  At this point, I'm going on secondhand accounts and journal entries I wrote and then hid from people (who could have convinced me of anything since I couldn't remember) but ultimately hid them from myself (I still stumble on a rogue entry from time to time in an old book or envelope of photos).  I don't think I did.  He was told to leave more than once.  Others would come and flush him out.  I once slept somewhere else completely to escape him.  He was using his access as a computer lab administrator to follow me when I logged in.  I quit using campus computers.  Toward the end of the semester, I remember returning roses to him only to have him chase me, thrashing those same roses at my face.

I complained.  I talked to people.  I was told that I had no proof.  I was told that I was violating his rights.  No one in power helped me at all, although my friends around helped a lot.

Three years later, I again talked to someone in law enforcement.  There had been at least two girls after me, and they went through a whole lot more than I did.  At that time though, I was done.  I wanted nothing to do with it anymore.  There was nothing that I could say that would be admissible anyway.  Who was going to believe the word of an amnesiac?  Particularly when I didn't have such a bad experience, comparatively.

In the interim, you see, I had had another brush with law enforcement, this time through a roommate who was alleged to have stolen thousands of dollars of goods and other things.  When my other roommates and I were initially told what was going on, we were advised to keep quiet while the police were investigating.  If there is one thing I wish I hadn't done, it is keep quiet.

I learned, as I had before, that predators pick their prey for a reason.  With my roommate, it was that Christians were big on forgiving and forgetting.  So she could keep stealing and lying--things large and small--for a very long time before it ever caught up with her.  My stalker picked prey no one else would like or believe.  How was I to know if I led him on or not?  Thankfully, I'm not that stupid, and he underestimated my friends (yes, my dear, even wee freshmen can find friends).

But the point is, I wasn't the only one to see either of these two.  In fact, many of us saw them.  In some cases, we spoke, and nothing happened (stalker episode).  In others, we trusted those in authority and said nothing, to our detriment (roommate episode).

Either way, in neither case was there only one person to see.  Nor was there only one person to turn their head.  Predators survive for a reason.  They are good at camouflaging, and they pick prey nobody misses.

Maybe JoePa was wrong.  Maybe others were also.  But I am sure that many others saw and said nothing.  It happens every day.  It happens every where.  My acquaintance Stephanie White, whose son Mike died in South Korea, will attest to that.

But let's not push the blame off on someone else.  Let's shoulder some of it ourselves.  And the next time we see someone being bullied--even if it's the kid who routinely spits on our car or the guy who insists on coming home drunk (and loud) at 3 AM--let's hope that we stop it because it's right.  And hopefully when it's us, someone will see--and say something.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Magical Morning

So Grandpa gave us the DVD from his Blu-Ray Harry Potter Combo pack, and the boys have seen it about six times already.  These viewings have been supplemented with other films from the series as they are airing (some would say ad nauseum) on the ABC Family Channel.

And so it was that, wakened out of a sound sleep by a series of loud bangs and a shout from the downstairs, I catapulted down the steps to find my eldest gripping a wooden chopstick.  "I pranked you pretty good with my loud spell, didn't I?" he giggled.

Half an hour later, we were joined by the little one, who also picked up his wooden chopstick and shoved a third at me.

"He's Harry.  I'm Ron.  You're the Mione."

It's nice to know my children are starting to pick up English noun markers, even if they get them confused from time to time.

We ate our breakfast, the little one relishing the pumpkin soup since he knows Harry drinks pumpkin juice (close enough, right?).  The big one, who believes you-are-what-you-eat, is willing to try a Harry diet, but only if it doesn't include too many vegetables.

As I washed the breakfast dishes, though, I noticed that two little ghosts in a snowman and Steelers blanket were stealing the Kit Kats from Daddy's care package (and dropping the wrappers on the floor). 

"Hey!  Pick up those wrappers and get out of that box!"

"Shhhh!" hissed the snowman blanket.  "We're not ghosts.  These are invisibility cloaks!  You can't see us." 

"C'mon, Ron," said the Steeler with a very bad British accent.  "Time to leave Honeydukes."

A few minutes later I heard the little one's voice from the living room.  "The Mione is a lot nicer in the movie."

The mean old Mione smiled, picked up candy wrappers, and was grateful for the magical morning while childhood still lasts.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Go to war in shoes of peace

This week, our pastor skipped the benediction and sent us out with an exhortation instead: "Go to war in shoes of peace."

There are just so many thoughts about this.  The first of which is that I received this message in a place that I completely didn't expect to receive it.  You see, when Daddy was working six days a week, we were going to church on Saturday night to maximize the boys' time with Daddy.  That's no longer the case.  So we were left looking for a Sunday church.  At first, I went back to my old home church.  It was good, but, in a way I'm not good at explaining, I heard explicitly that this was not the place for us.

I contemplated returning to the Korean church.  Lots of issues there.  Two of the biggest are distance/driving (I am NOT a good driver, and the church is far away) and the class I usually belong to and get the most out of has been moved to a different building than the children's worship.  Because of my little one's separation and health issues, I NEVER leave him somewhere either I or a family member can't IMMEDIATELY get to him.

I discussed all of this (and more) with the children.  Together (well, the little one needed a bit of arm-twisting) we decided to go to the Korean church, and I decided to go to the Korean service, which happens to be more of a traditional-presbyterean rather than the contemporary-charsimatic or fundamentalist service that I'm used to.  That, combined with the language and cultural differences, and I just didn't expect to get anything out of the service.  This was a good choice from my children's spiritual and cultural development, not mine so much.

But I should never underestimate God's ability to feed us.

And so we went to the Korean church, and I sat in the Korean language service.  And God does amazing things because I understood (well!), and I felt like I had come back home.  And more importantly, I understood how important it is that I sat there.  More on that later.

Go to war in shoes of peace.

"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." Ephesians 6:12

Yes, I have quoted the Bible here, but it isn't here alone--it's just very succinctly put here.  It is elsewhere as well.

Read Tolkien's Ring Trilogy.  That is the point, which the movie kindly cut.  The last section of the last book is devoted to understanding how evil came to be rooted in the Shire and how it had to be rooted out.

Arun Gandhi summarizes the lessons he had learned from his grandfather, M.K. Gandhi, lessons which underscore the point that the problem is within, in this way:  "One of the many things I learned from grandfather is to understand the depth and breadth of nonviolence, and to acknowledge that we are all violent and that we need to bring about a qualitative change in our attitudes."

Hannah Arendt wrote of the difference between attitudes in places that the Final Solution worked and in those that it didn't, asserting, "[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that 'it could happen' in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation" (italics in the original).  Her point was one of attitude, not military prowess.

And I so deeply believe this. Our struggle begins at home. In our houses. In our hearts.

I try very hard to be the change I want to see in the world, to love my neighbors as myself, to not assume that I am right, to actively seek information that would disprove my theories of life.

But it is hard.  Very hard.

Take for example this weekend, the very afternoon following the exhortation of the pastor.

You see, we have a neighbor who is on the autism spectrum.  So what?  So many people are on the spectrum these days.  My own children have had provisional and rule-out diagnoses on the spectrum.  My nephew is on the spectrum.  My heart goes out to this child, and I try very, very hard to be fair, to include him, and to protect him.

However, he is not perfect.  He doesn't understand most social things, as is common among like children.  He can't, of himself, help it.  He routinely takes the other kids' toys, hits the other kids, spits on them, and accuses them of stealing his things which he simply hasn't put away.

On the other hand, this isn't the whole story either.  He isn't the only child who hits.  Other children take toys without asking permission.  Other children have been known to spit.  And accusing others of malice (stealing, in this case) when the problem has been your own ineptitude (not putting your toys away) seems to be a biproduct of elementary school (I can't begin to tell you how many of these arguments I break up every single day!).

But, like most children on the spectrum, the difference is in the severity/frequency/quality with which he behaves in this manner.

As a result, he is treated like a fringe member of the group, and like all fringe members of groups, he is held to a higher level of compliance to group norms (which he is naturally incapable of meeting).  And, like other members of the fringe, he is sometimes attacked by other members on the fringe because they are able to attack him without reprisal from the ingroup, because attacking him reinforces their own connection with the ingroup, and because they have learned this behavior from being bullied by others and it therefore seems natural.

This makes the behavior understandable but not excusable.

Anyway, on this particular afternoon, all of the kids were a bit out of sorts and acting up.  Said child was especially having trouble hurting smaller children.  I don't think any malice was necessarily intended, but no care or consideration was being shown either.  I generally simply tried to redirect (my step toward peace).  But the older (and therefore bigger) kids were getting frustrated with the whole situation and were really wanting to pound the child--although none of them were quite willing to cross me to do it.  And since I was literally standing between them and this child, he was saved said pounding.  This is my version of shoes of peace--prevent harm, do not provoke, redirect toward peace and understanding.

BUT then my son's teacher arrived, and we had to go in.  I was concerned about the child's safety if he was left out in that group without supervision.  I was also a bit concerned for the safety of the smaller ones because, while no malice was involved, they were still being physically injured without someone (again) to redirect and physically just stand between the two parties, making it more difficult to tackle them.

So I went to the child's parents and tried to warn them that the situation was not the best, and adult supervision was necessary.

This is what I would want myself.

It was not, apparently, what his parents wanted.

Repeated attempts after the fact to try and clarify that I was warning them about their son's behavior to protect their son from reprisals and not to accuse him were only met with direct threats toward another neighborhood child and veiled threats toward my own.

Go to war in shoes of peace.

What do you do in that situation?  What do I make of these threats?  Are my neighbors serious or just running their mouths (which I know that they do from time to time)?

Go to war in shoes of peace.

I haven't figured out what to do yet, but I don't want to up the stakes.  And I want to act with love.

Living peace is hard. 

Back to the church.  It is hard for immigrants (living anywhere in the world, not just here) to face cultural difference and premature judgment everyday and still choose to think the best about their neighbors.  It is harder when you never see those neighbors accepting anything about you.  It goes beyond just simple apathy. It might be okay if they never learn your language, accept your mores, or learn anything about your culture at all.  No, oftentimes they disparage your attempts to speak their language, call your mores amoral, and openly scorn any aspects of your culture which don't match their own.

And therefore, seeing someone from the outside accept you, seek you out, try to assimilate into your culture instead of demanding it of you--that, my friends, brings hope.

As an old woman made her way out of the church and blessed me, I could tell I gave her hope.  But even moreso, she gave me hope as well.  There was no feeling of trespassing, no hesitancy to accept me, no anger--things that I have often faced in such situations.  These are small steps toward breaking down the violence in our own hearts.

To paraphrase Arendt, my friends, hate can happen anywhere, but it doesn't need to happen everywhere.  It is a choice that we can choose not to make.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

At the feet of masters

Socks went in the top drawer, which was quite far from the floor where I was sitting, so I tossed them onto the bed next to my prattling sister.

"I finally got this room under control while you were gone, so don't you just come back here thinking that you can just stick your clothes anywhere.  There is an order, Sis, do you understand?  An order."

As she continued on with further regulations--"short sleeved shirts, here, by color, dark in the back, light in the front; long sleeved shirts go here, unless they wrinkle, in which case..."--I was not really listening, intent on unpacking my now bigger dreams as I unpacked my bags after a summer of studying at Harvard.  The phone rang somewhere in the midst of this mess, and my sister's recitation of clothing placement restrictions was cut off as my mother yelled, "Beth! Phone!"

Leaving my protesting sister on my bed with the socks, I hustled out.


"Elizabeth? I'm calling from ... School of Business and we'd like to tell you about our secretarial program..."

"I'm not interested."

"Our records indicate that you would be a great addition to our program..."

"I'm sorry.  I'm not interested.  I'm second in my class.  I just came back from Harvard. I don't want to be a secretary."

"But just think of all of the exciting papers you could type!"

"Listen, lady, if anybody is going to be writing papers, it's going to be me."

I hung up the phone.

I was hitherto unacquainted with Matthew 12:36, "But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment." 

Later in life, I was a secretary for six years.  I firmly believe it was the Lord's revenge. 

And yet, with that job came a host of truly invaluable lessons that I never would have learned otherwise (not that I would have minded TRYING to learn them more easily, you know, like from a book and not life...).

So, I want to talk about the lessons that you learn only by sitting at the masters' feet--two different kinds of masters. Two sets of those lessons seem pertinent to me right now, lessons from my bosses--three deans of varying levels--and from some of my secretarial coworkers (not that my other coworkers haven't taught me anything--in fact, I still learn a great deal from one all the time!). 

The Deans

1.  They use rules to include, not exclude.

"Elizabeth," the first of these bosses advised me, "Make sure we get that to her in writing and keep a copy as well.  That will be useful for her promotion."

My first boss ran a committee on appointment, promotion, and tenure, and many feared that she was a gatekeeper barring the path to advancement.  In truth, she was a nitpicker dedicated to making certain the faculty cleared every conceivable hurdle thrust up by higher administration.  Her numbers were phenomenal.  I'm not sure anyone's packet was sent back.

People complained that the process was slow going, but she painstakingly reviewed every piece of correspondence and wrote out magnificent letters on behalf of every candidate that crossed her desk. 

2.  When they're on the team, everyone's statistics rise.

Each of my three bosses were phenomenal at pulling in others to succeed with them.

"This department needs more of a web presence," my first boss said.  "And we need to be more collegial and show our students that statisticians in public health are team players."  Some might have found this last statement at odds with her personality.  In her own words, "It gets a bit boring without a little trouble." But she, who could easily have stayed set in her ways, started a web-based course that was team taught.  It wasn't easy.  Coordinating the professors could be as or more difficult than coordinating the students.  But she was dedicated to it and poured love over those students, the professors, and her own lectures.  She clearly cared deeply for what she did and considered it a true privilege to train up others who would carry on and produce work she truly felt made a difference.

My second boss and third bosses were less into pulling in teachers but they were incredible at pulling up junior faculty and students.  Whatever research they were doing, they looked for a way to include someone coming up.  If the junior faculty weren't co-authoring the paper, my second boss made certain that he cited them. 

"Didn't she write something on that?" he would ask me.  "Pull all her papers, and make certain we find the right one and stick it in there."

My third boss had a nose for those who were gifted but discouraged, and he constantly pulled them into his office to encourage them, suggest various paths to continue, offer to speak again.

3. They love to teach.

My second boss was the dean of the school himself, and yet he considered it a great privilege to teach a course in his department every year.  And he always wanted to grab a TA.  Not to pass off the work.  Far from it!  He wanted to teach these up and coming students what was expected of them, how it was done.  He wanted to mentor them so that the rules were a stepping stone and not a stumbling block.

"Elizabeth," he'd call, "I've got to write this test.  Make sure to get our TA up here.  I want to make sure he can do this."

And he didn't mean he wanted to dictate to the TA.  He would painstakingly delineate his goals for the assessment and the types of questions that they needed to test the various aspects of the materials.  Then he would solicit questions from the TA.  Here was a man who had been in the field for more than 40 years.  He was internationally renowned and could have written that test in his sleep.  But he made certain to include the student.  If the TA didn't come up with a good question at first, my boss would model the behavior, develop the question aloud, and then ask the TA for the next question.  He never gave up.

My third boss also bent over backward to include students.  At every turn, there were more students in his office.  He was utterly invested in developing their writing.  "They need to get it out there, and it needs to be understood," he would say.  "It needs to be simple."  He should know.  He was included in the Web of Science--a position received for frequent citation in your field.

The Secretaries

1.  Love your enemies.

So often, secretaries are overlooked as pieces of office furniture.  It's not only their bosses, although some bosses certainly do see those who work for them as less than human; many times, however, it's other people who simply need something or who are angry with the secretaries' bosses but can't get in touch with them.  The best, happiest secretaries did not escape this behavior.  They managed to transform it. 

One secretary I knew never yelled at anyone, even though she was frequently berated.  She managed to provide for almost everybody--and they nearly all came to love her. 

The funny thing about it was that she did this mainly by appealing to their most basic needs--needs that the average university skips over since they are educating the mind.  She had an uncanny way of knowing when someone was hungry or thirsty, when they needed to simply feel that they were part of a community, or when they simply needed a quiet place to sit.

One of my other coworkers, too, taught me that the fastest way to disarm someone was to save them something (usually food).  She simultaneously met their need for nourishment and their need for community--or, perhaps more importantly, their need to know that someone CARED about their base human needs and did not see them as any less because of it.

2.  Pray for those who persecute you.

Without revealing anything, the secretaries I most admired were the ones who knew all there was to know about their bosses and who took flak for (and from) them on a daily basis and yet came to work every day trying to make the next day better.  They were always rewarded (not necessarily--and in fact hardly ever--from their bosses).  In the great karma of life, whether it be fairness in the universe or love covering a multitude of sins, I have never seen this fail.

3.  Love not your life unto death.

The harder you defend yourself, the less effective it is.  When you are truly powerless, when most people don't listen to what you say or believe it, then you need to rely on the wisdom of your boss to understand what has happened and to make appropriate judgments.  I have been on both ends of this--of bosses making both the right and wrong assumptions and of making the right and wrong assumptions as a teacher/coworker myself.  But this world is not our home.  Life exists outside of the little system we currently navigate, and I truly believe--and have seen with my own eyes on the lower levels--that if we are pushed out, so what? God, karma, synchronicity, whatever you want to call it, SOMETHING BIGGER catches us.  Do what is right.  Make the loving choice.  Hand over your extra cloak and turn the other cheek.  Not only is this not the end of the world, it just might be the start of a better one.

And I have been pondering these examples for a while now because we see them on the bigger stages.  Sure there are some in power who are greedy, but that is not everyone in power.  Certainly there are some underneath who are jealous, malicious, power-hungry, and lazy, but that is not everyone underneath either.  In each group are masters of skills that are required to make the community as a whole function, masters whose lessons are worth learning and whose footsteps are worth following.  In this time of upheaval, I suggest we sit at (or better yet, follow after) the feet of the masters.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Not Nice

"I don't like her.  She is so mean."  I had settled into one of my favorite fifth-grade subjects during recess.  My then best friend and I were busy climbing up and over, flipping and spinning on the playground equipment.

My friend took her time answering.  Finally, she said, "She's always nice to me."  She paused, not really meeting my eyes and continued, "Sometimes, Beth, you're not always nice."

It was the first time anyone had ever told me that, and I thought really long and hard about it.  In the end, I began making a bunch of changes.  It might be that "Tim and I were on the swings" and not "Tim and me," but I wasn't in English class, nor was I the English teacher, and Cheri didn't appreciate my insight into grammar during recess.  You might not get a symmetrical object if you don't cut along the folded line, but it might be okay to let the other girls find that out themselves or to show them gently instead of leaning over them and saying, "You're still doing it wrong!" I might be right and other people might be wrong, but I didn't necessarily need to tell everybody that.  I started to let people do things their way, even if it didn't make any sense to me. 

I started to smile more and talk less.

I had dealt with bullies for years, but until someone explained what I was doing wrong, I still had problems.

I learned a lot about life, myself, and parenting from that situation.  Yes, it is wrong to bully, but something's going on both ways in bullying.  If there's one bully, then deal with him.  But if there's one kid being bullied over and over, then maybe you want to approach the kid.  Trust me.  As that kid, the kid will thank you.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Duck, duck, goose

Driving to a farewell dinner about a week ago, we passed a field of geese.  I love this time of year with its busy skies and large, mind-bogglingly airborne, chubby waterfowl.

Alas, just as my children get a kick out of the mallard ducks of Daegu and Pittsburgh, our family seems equally migratory.  Yesterday, Daddy headed back to South Korea.  He is needing to see his family, be assured of their love and wellbeing, as well as to investigate better ways to support us, discover more about himself, and find a healthy way to raise his sons.  It is love that drives him away and love that will bring him back. 

I should also mention here that this pattern is hardly novel in Asia, and not just Korea alone.  It is quite common for family to be separated by months and sometimes years as one member looks or leaves to provide for the rest.  It isn't comfortable, but it isn't rejection either.

In the meantime, we are also navigating.  Our migration this summer was good for us all.  The boys are more secure that family doesn't disappear; it just comes and goes like the seasons--perhaps exactly like the seasons because the big one is convinced that Santa Claus will bring Daddy back.

But I am reminded of the day Daddy became Daddy, of the inexplicable moment I saw love fill his eyes as he awkwardly took all four pounds three ounces of little boy and gazed at him closely for the first time.  "It was sweet bondage," he said.  Trained as an EFL teacher, I am always quick to correct misused words, but I think "bondage" over ""bonding" here might be much more accurate.  We are chained to those little beings, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

So our season apart has begun, and though it will hurt us all a bit, I have been watching migrations all my life, and I trust the goose to come home when it's time.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


"I just can't pray for that right now," weeps my friend.

"You don't have to," I say.  "God will send friends alongside you for that."

What I mean and what I'm not quite able to articulate at the moment is not that your friends can solve the problem or make it go away but that God sends a friend who has been there, done that, and knows how to pray for you, particularly when you can't bring yourself to ask for what you need.

And last night, it happened to me.  We were at a dinner with friends.  It was a goodbye dinner for my husband, who will be going back to Korea for an indeterminate amount of time.  Like so many such affairs, it was lighthearted and continued as though nothing were really out of the ordinary--until my husband left the room for a few minutes.

Immediately, our hostess leaned over to me and asked, "Are you going to be okay alone with the kids?"  At first, I was startled.  They translated for me, but it wasn't the words that were the problem.  It was the abrupt recognition that, no, not everything was normal (as I had been pretending), that my husband had told others about his plans and it was really going to happen, and that--and this was most important to me--they knew what it was like and cared about me.

I almost cried right there.  "I'm angry," I admitted.  And I hoped they understood that I'm not so much angry with my husband but with the situation, with not seeing a way out of it, with realizing that periods of absence are just going to be part of our life together.

We talked for a little bit, and I don't even really remember everything that we said.  They knew and empathized with my husband's feelings.  They had been in similar situations.  They had felt those feelings and struggled with those decisions.  Sitting in that room was a woman in nearly my EXACT situation (complicated by the fact that she is in ANOTHER country with the kids while her husband is home).  What we said didn't matter.  They understood.

For the second time in as many days, I just felt completely upheld in Korean family and friends.  Even though we can't say everything to one another, we are connected, and we care. And perhaps that is all that is required to keep going.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


I am writing this post in awe.  Sometimes the way God works is too weird, but this is the third time now...

I guess it starts with a phone call.  At some ungodly hour (i.e., long before the school bus and still before the late autumn sunrise), my husband's cell phone rang.  I glanced at the phone, ready to answer, but recognized that it was a Korean number (we never answer Korean numbers but always call back using a phone card to avoid international charges--I repeat, avoid charges, not people).

Things have not been happy lately.  Not bad, per se, but stressful.  There is some work transitioning going on (where in the country isn't there?), and some of us are not transition-friendly people.  And others of us have just run out of ideas.

So, of course, in addition to brainstorming and getting stuff out there, there is a lot of praying going on. And when the praying doesn't work, I pawn it off on God and ask Him to rally the troops and have other people pray for us and remember us.  And as odd (and self-centered) as it may sound, this strategy often works.  I start praying like this, and things start to happen (apparently the troops God rallies are more effective intercessors than I am)!  And I get calls from people telling me they're thinking of me.

But this morning, my mother-in-law, a devout Buddhist, called and was the answer to my prayer. 

Yes, I know how incredibly heretical that may sound, but this is the third time we have been linked by prayer.  Nearly six years ago as God and I were having it out over a siblng for my oldest son, my MIL had a dream a boy was coming into the family.  Of course, she thought it was my SIL who was pregnant at first, but I am convinced that it gave my husband confidence that this baby was right for us at that moment (I knew it was right for other reasons).

Then, this past year, I had a vision of angels bandaging my MIL's knee, and I just couldn't shake that something was wrong in the family.  I kept hinting that my husband should call.  I didn't really want to push him over the crazy edge with a vision or the worry edge with a bad feeling, so it took a while to get him to actually do it.  But it turned out that my SIL had surgery--things were not well.  And, by the way, my MIL's knee was so bad that she stopped cleaning the floors on her hands and knees and started using a mop.  If you knew how much this woman loves clean, you would understand just how significant that change is.

Then, of course, there was this morning.  I can't tell you what this morning meant to me.  To hear my SIL's and MIL's voices coming out of the phone and to just know from the pit of my being that this was part of the response to my prayers--even though they, in their formless worried suspected the little son was the problem (who wouldn't?  In his meager 5 years, he has amassed 3-4 ambulance rides.  I swear he is trying to send me right over the proverbial edge!)--I knew it was for my husband in this time of change and that it was prompting.

And more than that, I knew it was a reminder, "Be still and know that I am God."  For almost a year God has been impressing this verse on me and it's relation to Buddhist thought.  If even a Buddhist is still, they will know (or perhaps if I am still, I will know). "You will seek me and find me when you seek for me with all your heart."

Is it synchronicity?  Am I wrongly interpreting coincidence in a bizarre case of confirmation bias or is this form of inductive reasoning right in this case?

I don't know.  But I believe.  Once again, the answers aren't neat.  They aren't immediate.  The problems aren't solved yet.

But the response was beautiful.  It was enough to keep going.

Yes.  He is absolutely able to do IMMEASURABLY more than all I can ask or imagine.  I couldn't have imagined that.  But it was perfect.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


I suddenly knew that morning that the depression was over, at least temporarily.  You see, I wanted to get up.  When the hall light seeped through my eyelids and cast a ruby glow on my dreamy world, I wasn't tempted to bury my head beneath the pillow, and I didn't immediately start belittling myself for the many things I had to do--like brushing my teeth--that just seemed utterly impossible.  When I heard my husband's voice, I was floored by how much affection I felt for him.  I noticed every detail of the way my oldest son's pajamas gathered around his little rump that he had pushed into the air while he slept--something he has done since infancy.  I was amazed by the warmth of the little one's feet pushing against my legs and clambering up my back in his (multi)daily stim.

I was floored because I knew that as suddenly as it had come, the depression had evaporated.

I don't know why it comes.  I don't know why it stays.  I don't know why it goes.  I only know that since I was a very small child--almost as long as I can remember--there were long dark periods.

This is not about being happy.  I am a happy person.  I am always smiling.  I can usually think of something encouraging to say.  And, in fact, most of the people I know who struggle with depression are some of the "happiest" people you will ever meet. 

No, this is about living life through novocaine.  This is about knowing you need to get up, that you want to get up, that life is waiting for you, but being unable to reach for it, unable to open your eyes or get your feet to respond to your summons to repel the covers.  For me, this is about wanting to look up but being blinded by the sun.  It is a low level stomach ache that is always present, always nauseating, always craving never-satisfying food that it has lost the ability to taste.

Depression is about pulling away from those who love me and crawling into a hole that I just can't get out of.  It is about forgetting to eat and sleep, forgetting to dress my children and brush their teeth.

This is not about the power of positive thinking.  Positive thinking for a depressed person is deciding, after three hours of hitting the snooze button, that there might be some shadow of a point to getting up after all.  Positive thinking for the depressed is choosing not to eat the comfort food because in an hour and a half the sugar high will drop you from the cliff's edge into the ravine of despair below.  Positive thinking is dragging your butt out for a run or a walk because you know that if you can just stay out for at least 20 minutes in the sun, your seratonin receptors will work a little better, and if you can just get in that run, even if it's only 10 minutes, your anxiety will drop just a bit.  Positive thinking is dumping the tylenol bottle before you can down all the pills and telling a friend before you jump out the window. 

But why write about it at all?  Why bother?

Because so many people suffer from it.  It's humiliating.  We don't like to talk about it.  We like to blame each other.  And there's no easy answer to it.

And depression is not somebody's fault.  You may have a situational reason to be depressed.  You may not.  It doesn't matter, and it's not your fault or anybody else's.

Depression has visited so often now that I know the sound of its footsteps.

I knew that depression was coming when my allergies and my eczema suddenly flared, followed by waves of fatigue, low level migraines, and sudden urges to weep over little things like finding a flying beetle that looked surprisingly like a dead begonia blossom in the wind.

I knew the depression had arrived when I heard the swift scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch of my mother-in-law's early morning sweep of the yard and instead of being propeled out of bed, I wanted to vomit.

I knew the depression was pulling me under when my son held his hand out to me, and I didn't even have the strength to take it.

Depression robbed me of gifts of happiness that I would have liked to have given my in-laws before we returned to the US, things I just wanted to do for them that I was suddenly unable to muster the energy to do.  I didn't have the chance to once again take the satisfaction I used to get from managing to clean the floors before my mother-in-law .  I wasn't able to move myself to see as many people as I wanted the last week.  I just couldn't put the words together to let my family know how very much I love them before we went home.

Yes.  Depression took that from me.

But I also took something from depression.  After a lifelong struggle with this "friend," I have learned to fight back.  I look for ways out.  I grab vicarious happiness.  I read novels all through the night if I must in order to imbibe the delight of fictional characters, to sip hopefulness from between the lines of fabricated lives.  I make the trip outside as often as I can make myself.  I get a suntan.  I force myself to both laugh and cry, hoping that the chemicals induced by the outward expression of feelings I can't feel might somehow restore balance.  I run when I can.  I walk when I can't.  I try to make a friend, even if I feel it's killing me.

And when it suddenly departs and I once again find myself in the real world, I realize just how much my friends and family have helped me.  I give thanks to my husband for forcing my butt out the door to walk or run, to my children for taking me by the hands and leading me into the life activities of brushing teeth and eating popsicles, to my sister for calling and calling and calling, to my friends for waking me up to joy and encouraging me to reach to it.

I don't have an answer for it, or a nice pleasant ending for this post.  But this I hope I have shared, depression cannot be beaten alone, although it may seem a lonely battle, and judgment and blame of the depressed or his/her loved ones for the depression does absolutely nothing to help.  When you see a hand out, grab it.  When you hear a cry for help, respond--even if you don't have the answer, maybe even expecially if you don't have the answer.  Yes, perhaps that's the important part.  The key is to respond, not to answer.

Friday, August 5, 2011


"When you choose to be friends with a foreigner, you have to be brave.  They will hurt you again and again, and you won't understand why.  But you have to forgive and try again."

My first living-in-Korea Korean friend told me that, and I'm so certain that she is right. 

It has been twelve years last week since I first arrived in Korea.  I thought I knew a fair bit about the place.  I had Korean friends, had taken Korean lessons, had read Korean books, had watched documentaries on the place.

The difference between living some place and reading about it is like the difference between becoming a parent and babysitting a newborn for an hour.

My husband and I once spoke about his family and some different issues during which, he turned to me and blurted, "You think you're nice, but you're not.  You think you're patient, but you're not trying to understand at all."

Perhaps he is right.  I have learned that there are different rules for being nice.  I may not always follow them, and, to be honest, there may be times I may not really care to.

I listened to a sometimes inspiring talk on the Golden Rule last night only to come to the conclusion that it is not exactly universal.  Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you assumes that others share your tastes and desires.  Of course, there is the underlying principle that perhaps doing unto others includes listening to their own desires and attributing to those desires an equal worth to your own, but that sometimes gets lost in the literal translation.

This struck home with me the other week when I met a friend.  I brought a couple small gifts with me, a homemade wind-doo-dad and a mess of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.  As I was preparing to head out the door, my mother-in-law looked at the gifts I had and said, "Are you giving her that?

"Yes.  She will like that."

"Let's cut some watermelon."

"It's okay.  We don't need it."

"I'll go buy it.  Quickly."

"It's okay.  She likes this."

The phone rang.  My friend had arrived.  No time for watermelon.  My mother-in-law was beside herself with worry.  She was being nice.  She was doing her very best.  And we were surprisingly uncooperative, and I'm hoping that we didn't seem ungrateful.

Later, alone, I gave my friend the candy and wind-doohickey. 

"Oh. My. God," my friend said.  "Are these really Reeses Cups?"

"Would you rather have watermelon?" I asked, now slightly paranoid that perhaps I had miscalculated my friend's tastes.

She rolled her eyes.  "Please. I will hoard these in the refrigerator for years.  Seriously."

"My mother-in-law was very insistent."

She laughed.  "Yeah, I know."

We weren't laughing at my mother-in-law.  In fact, in some ways, we weren't really laughing at all.  This is one of those times that you choose to either laugh or cry.  And the truth is that if we chose to cry then, we would be crying all our lives.  So we chose to laugh.

But the sadness doesn't exactly go away.  It stays there uncomfortably because at the core of our being there are people who are very important to us whom we simply cannot understand. And it's not about the words.   We get those.  It's about vague expectations of love that we seem to have missed the lessons on.

Take the other day. 

I have a tendency to think of cultures as the five love languages.  The US is a country in which we show love through affirming, appreciative speech.  Korea is a gift-giving country.  That's just how it is.  I get that part.  What I apparently didn't get was a difference in how gifts are generally received.

We were staying at my sister-in-law's, and she was doing us some favors.  I had been visiting a friend and was coming back, so I picked up some fruit as a typical thank you gift.  I know that I would never give fruit or juice as a thank you gift in the US, but that's just how it's done here. And to be honest, it might be better than the plethora of "Best Teacher" pencils and "# 1 Mom" mugs that float around in the US. 

But back to the story.  When I gave the fruit to my SIL, she said, "Why don't you take some back for our in-laws?"

I quickly responded, "Oh, no.  I'll stop at a bread store and get some bread for FIL."

"But MIL doesn't like bread.  She likes fruit."

"I know, but I can't pick Korean fruit well.  Every time I buy fruit, she says it tastes yucky.  So I don't buy it any more."  I realized that I don't buy her anything any more because she never seems to like it.  In fact, she has ended up giving most of what I have bought for her back to me a few years later.  I have felt a little guilty because I'm obviously such a bad gift-chooser.

My SIL smiled as she ate a piece of the fruit.  "It's sweet.  You picked well.  Just take it."

So, about two hours later, the two of us walked up the steps to my in-laws' house, my SIL carrying the fruit because I was too much of a wimp.

Sure enough, my MIL appeared at the door and exclaimed, "Why did you buy melons?  They taste terrible at this time of year!"

But, undaunted, my SIL carried them in and said, "She (me) bought them for FIL."

Now, before you think SIL is just shifting blame onto me, I need to explain that I had an epiphany at that moment.  I had often heard my MIL berate my SIL for various gifts that she had bought in the past, but once SIL was gone, MIL would brag about them to her friends.

Apparently, this show of dissatisfaction is simply, at least for my MIL, an expected behavior.  Now she may really not like what I give her (as evidenced by regifting it back to me), but that doesn't mean that she didn't appreciate it in the first place.

I was simply too wrapped up in my own feelings of not fitting in to recognize that she was treating me just like the rest of the family.

And of course, this is the predicament of loving others as you love yourself.  They may not love the same way, but they still love.  You have to be brave and carry the melons up the steps.  You have to do it again next time. 

But most of all--and this is important too--you don't have to do it alone.  Perhaps the most important part about being brave and trying to fit in is expressing those "not-fitting-in" moments to someone else.  Even if I would have bought the wrong melons, I at least learned that my SIL was brave enough to not-fit-in beside me, and sometimes that is even more important than getting it right.

Monday, July 25, 2011


"You don't understand what I'm saying," my MIL said.  "I know he went out to play and spread fertilizer, but I want to know did he go straight out or did he wait a little while and then go out?"

She was right.  I didn't understand.  But it wasn't what she was saying.  I got that part.  It was what she was meaning.

You see, what she said was, "Is Father out playing or is he in the other room resting?"

My automatic response was, "Father isn't playing.  He went out to the field with the fertilizer."  You see, my mind is just totally western sometimes.  It never dawned on me that this was a question of when something was done, even though I have lived with my in-laws long enough to know their habits quite well.  Instead, I thought this was a question of what was being done.  Both choices seemed to assume that my FIL was not working, when in fact, he was working quite hard.  I wanted to make sure my MIL knew he was working.

But that's where my western mind made the big mistake.  IT'S OKAY FOR FIL TO PLAY!  It's expected!  It's healthy!  Only in my backward culture (and I am not being sarcastic here) is this an accusation. 

I can't tell you how depressed I was after this conversation--mainly because I know how hard we are both trying to communicate. 

You see, we leave for home in 17 days.  That's it.  17 days.  And there's still so much I would like to do with my in-laws and so much I wish I could say and so many ways I wish they knew that I do love them.

How do you tell your MIL that you're sorry that you have to take her grandchildren back, but that you're just not good enough to navigate the Korean system?

How do you tell your FIL that you believe in his son's ability more than your own?

How do you explain how grateful you are for what they try to do, even if you don't entirely understand it?

Of course, it's not the first time we have misunderstood one another. There was the infamous time before my oldest was born that my mother-in-law desperately wanted to wash laundry, which I understand by gestures and which I was trying to tell her would have to wait until our downstairs neighbor was finished.  That part was okay, except my MIL could not understand what I was trying to say (my Korean was not good enough) and I did not realize that the word she was saying was "laundry" and not "faster"--the Korean words are virtually the same to western ears--and so the two of us were reduced to frantic messes.  So when my husband came home 90 minutes later, he was greeted by an exasperated father and a mother and wife in tears. It was not our finest moment.

But then, we can misunderstand each other without saying a word.  When we first moved to Korea, there were many times when I just couldn't communicate what was happening.  My parents-in-law would tell me something, and I would be completely unable to respond.  I was so angry at myself and so frustrated.  How was it possible to have studied Korean, lived here for a year, and have been married for six to a Korean, and still not be able to say simple things? (Well, I'll tell you--no language book or class I've ever been in has provided socially appropriate phrases for things like, "Sorry, but I have to nurse the baby RIGHT NOW," or "The baby is completely out of oufits because he peed through his last one and I haven't yet learned to function in a country without clothes dryers.") I was very clearly frustrated, often breathing heavily and sometimes even leaving the room.  But later, I found out my in-laws were worried that I was angry with THEM. I was so ashamed.  Not only was I unable to find the right words, but in my inability to speak, I was accidentally hurting the people who were trying their best to help me.

And let me tell you, trying your best to help is not always helpful.  Like the time I wiped and put away all the dishes for my mother-in-law only to have my sister-in-law wash them again because the towel, which was totally dry and out the way we westerners keep our dish towels out, was "too dusty and dirty," and should be rinsed first.  Or the time I put up the squid where it was cool only to have it come crashing to the floor when someone used what was below it.  Oops!

Will the four years I spent learning Korean customs which are so opposite mine make up for the two in which I snapped at poor Eugene for putting wet silverware on the table?  What is poor taste in America (didn't you even have time to dry the dishes?) is considerate and cleanly here (see? These are newly cleaned--no dust).

I don't know the answers only that whatever the solution, it is not a simple one.  I only hope each day brings us closer to understanding.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


“This world is not my home.
I’m just a-passing through...”

It’s an old hymn, and one that I love--every last line of it.  But until I had lived in another country, one that will never see me as belonging, did I ever see that hymn as literal.  I have a home where I belong and everyone knows it, but it is not a home in that way to my husband.  My husband has a home like that too, but it will never be a home that way to me.  And, unfortunately, as the last 18 months have shown me, neither will ever be that kind of home for my children.  It is this last that leaves me weeping.

Prejudice and racism are such subtle things.  True, there are occasions where they parade naked like the emperor bereft of his clothes (because truly the arguments behind such things are no more than vanity), but most of the time, it is not obvious.  It often masquerades as “just following the rules” or “not doing more than expected.” Racism and prejudice are very subtle, so subtle that when you point your finger it seems an illusion, but...

A couple of weeks ago we went to the school after lunch to hopefully meet some friends for the boys.  There is very little to do in this town, and until summer vacation starts, there isn’t even a hagwon for the kids to go to.  In bigger towns, the hagwons start around 1:00 because elementary school for 1st, 2nd, and sometimes 3rd graders ends at 12:30 most days of the week.  But there aren’t enough little ones here to support the business, so if we want to meet some kids the boys’ ages we need to go to the school around 1:00.  We’ve done this a couple of times now and run into kids, but we haven’t met them often enough to befriend them.  

So today we went, and an older gentleman actually stopped me and told me to leave because the kids are studying.  This is true, bu-ut...
  • Again, half of the school releases at 12:30, and there are usually kids on the playground at 1:00 on any given day of the week (barring torrential rain and/or blistering heat).
  • We were careful to stay far from the building.
  • We were careful to speak softly.
  • There are other businesses (like the new local lending library for ADULTS) which operate on the school grounds (literally inside the school fence) DURING SCHOOL HOURS (according to the sign, they are open from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM).
  • Hagwons from neighboring towns often pick up kids at the school ground during those hours and so, while they are waiting for the hagwon kids, those kids are often out playing at exactly that time.

So...why should he ask us to leave when what we are doing is perfectly normal, usually done by many of the people in the town, and when we were especially careful not to bother anyone?

Is it racism?

It’s hard for me to see how it is not.  Yes, what he said was true, but it was also not true.  Half the school had been released and those kids are usually playing.  Would he have said it to someone else?  A kid, maybe.  A parent? Probably not.

I was super mad, probably not super nice, and made sure I did not make the kids leave right away because they had done nothing wrong, and I didn’t want them to feel that they had.

So we went back home, had an ice cream, and walked to the mountain.  I was debating whether or not to turn around and go home since the last time I had gone to the mountain, a guy kept demanding to know what I was doing in this little town and how I knew about the mountain.  For the most part, I can brush this off when it’s only me, but it’s a lot harder to watch my kids take it.  

But I decided to keep going out of respect for my husband.  

You see, the first I really became aware of the subtlety of racism was after I married my husband.  I saw he and his friends discriminated against.  There were times I could do something.  There were lots of times I couldn’t.  And it was then that I became aware of how “following the rules” and “not going out of my way” were excuses to treat those who were different as less than those who were not.  And my husband has never chucked it and gone home, although I am sure he has felt like it more times that I can count.

For example, my father has been using the same mechanic shop for about five years now, ever since the one he used since 1974 went out of business.  When my father and I go, the people couldn't be nicer.  Do you need to use the phone?  Do you need a lift home?  Etc.  When my husband went, they told him he needed to sit in the smelly, grimy (it is a repair shop after all) waiting room for the four hours it would take for the car to be finished.

Again, is it racism?  Not necessarily, but when you normally go out of your way for people who look like you but don't do it for people who look different, isn't that a type of prejudice?

I don't think we see it.  I don't think we know it when we do it.  It is subtle, like the morning fog or a heat haze over the highway.  It is nebulous like the early stages of a headache.

But its nefariousness cripples like a migraine.

Thank goodness, though, not everyone falls into it.  The rest of our afternoon was terrific.  We ran into people who had known the boys since they were babies, and they made over how much they had grown.  The boys rejoiced in seeing things that they remembered again and climbing walls they had climbed before. 

Yes, it is easy to mistrust and to be less than fair, less than kind.  And it is even easier to do so when you don't understand the other person, when they act in surprising ways, or when you simply don't know them. 

But for every one who acts unkindly, perhaps there are even more who try to act with kindness.  For all who reject us and cast us out, there are gentlemen like this one below, who cradled my little son and carried him across a busy street.

For every negative word, I am told we need seven positive words to recover, and so we are fortunate that it is beautiful and healing to decide to love.  And in this little town, we are so blessed that so many choose to love.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Right and Wrong

"난 형이야!!!" My oldest son cries.  Literally it means "I'm the older brother," but figuratively it means, "I'm in charge and know what's right for you!"  And sometimes Big Brother really is right; Little brother will really get hurt if he climbs that rock or tree or banister.  And other times, Big Brother is not so right; flies are not bees and won't bite you; citronella stickers will protect you from mosquitoes, but you don't need one for ghosts; and you will not float away after you have a really big fart.

I recently watched an amazing talk by Kathryn Schulz on being wrong.  And it mirrors the situation above.  One thing she points out is that, until you know you are wrong, being wrong feels JUST LIKE being right.  You can't tell until reality hits you in the face.

For example, when we first moved to Korea, I almost went to war with my in-laws over hiccups.  Yes, hiccups.  You see, Little Brother was 9 weeks old.  9-week-olds hiccup.  They just hiccup.  It's part of development.  Their lungs and diaphragm aren't in sync.  I believe What To Expect When You're Expecting says something like, "Kids don't die from the hiccups.  It's part of growing up.  Leave them alone, and they will go away."

Koreans do not see hiccups that way.  No, there must be a root cause and it must be remedied.  FYI-natural human development is not one of these root causes.  They also do not believe in the same remedies we do, but this is not about that.  The most common of these root causes is being cold.  So when Little Brother was hiccuping ad nauseum in 90 degree heat, naturally he needed more clothing.  And when his body was covered with heat rash and the child was sobbing uncontrollably, it must have been caused by something else.  Finally, another halmoni intervened and said, "He's dying of heat!  Lay off!" (Thank God for halmonis!  This halmoni is one of my particular favorites.)

But another root cause of hiccups, according to Koreans, is having just urinated.  That was always halaboji's question:  "Did he pee?"  And you know what? He had! In Little Brother's case, this was right!  Now, it took a long time for me to get over myself enough to check and see if halaboji was right (and if it had been the other halmoni, Little Brother might still be hiccuping), but when I was able to question if somebody else might be right, then I actually found part of the cause of Little Brother's problem (and saved Little Brother from a lot of diaper rash as well!).

You see, as I am spending a lot of time in a different culture as well as preparing to send kids back to school, I am facing a lot of backlash about right and wrong from all directions.  And in this case, the backlash from Christians is the worst.

Yes, God gave us the ten commandments.  Yes, there are commands in the Bible.  Yes, Jesus came to fulfill the law and not destroy it.

But I also think he came to show us we were wrong.  Not wrong as in "we have sinned."  Yes, we have sinned.  But I think he came to show us we were wrong as in "we haven't got a clue."

Just think about the sermon on the mount:
Think you haven't murdered?  Have you ever been angry?  Have you ever called a name?  Same deal.
Think you haven't committed adultery?  Really?  Ever said, "Man, s/he's hot!"?  Same deal.
Think you can help your neighbor improve?  Have you checked the plank in your own eye?

I keep going back and looking, and I can't find Jesus calling anyone a sinner but the people who thought they were sinless.  Sure, he called out, "Repent!" and people listened because THEY KNEW THEY HAD A PROBLEM!

It's when we think we don't that we have trouble.  And, oh, I have trouble a lot of the time.  I thank God for giving me a husband with an awesome BS meter and a super low tolerance for the stuff.  I miss him terribly and can't wait to be back home with him.

But that will take me away from people I love, whose ways are not my ways but are not necessarily wrong ways.  Every day here teaches me about love--how hard it can be but how much it is worth it.

And it teaches me about my savior who is love, who teaches me daily that if the rule doesn't feel like loving, then perhaps I haven't understood the rule.  And it teaches me about humility.  The drunk guys at the local grocery love to laugh at me.  And they are right; I am usually wrong.  Of course, I am not too fond of them when they laugh, particularly when they call out to a friend who missed the excitement, "Did you see that?  Her mother-in-law said that was the wrong kind of noodle!  Hahaha!  She didn't know about the noodles!"  They don't mean anything, but it is a little hard to take in the moment.

But mostly it teaches me to accept brokenness, that loving from a broken place is more welcome than loving from a perfect one, because when we acknowledge our brokenness, when we are open, we grasp the opportunity to accept one another and to become whole.

Finally, I leave you with the words of Birdia Tak Wai Chan
posted on (And listen to this talk!  It is perhaps my best spent 20 minutes in a very long time--cuddling my babies aside.)

Jan 5 2011: i think she may have found Tao accidentally:

"To be whole, let yourself break.
To be straight, let yourself bend.
To be full, let yourself be empty.
To be new, let yourself wear out.
To have everything, give everything up.

Knowing others is a kind of knowledge;
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Conquering others requires strength;
conquering yourself is true power.
To realize that you have enough is true wealth.
Pushing ahead may succeed,
but staying put brings endurance.
Die without perishing, and find the eternal.

To know that you do not know is strength.
Not knowing that you do not know is a sickness.
The cure begins with the recognition of the sickness.

Knowing what is permanent: enlightenment.
Not knowing what is permanent: disaster.
Knowing what is permanent opens the mind.
Open mind, open heart.
Open heart, magnanimity."

Peace :)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Movement, thy name is Mother...-in-law

"We were up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning!" my mother-in-law cried, relating her escapades with my father-in-law in bailing out the basement with, it turns out, buckets and dustpans.  "Aboji didn't even go out to play.  I didn't even go out to play!"

And this is really saying something because, aside from the fact that "going out to play" is not an expression we in America would ever use for anyone over 6-years-old without meaning something steamy, my mother-in-law never stays down.  She seizes life with both hands and throttles it.

Life has not been easy for her.  She was born in the mountains in a very small rural area that her brother now operates as a fruit farm.  During the general poverty that followed the Korean war, which she in fact lived through, she was unable to continue school after the 8th grade.  Later, when circumstances were such that she could finally return to school, she found that her eyes were not so good and trying to learn with all of her responsibilities was impossible.

But she never gives up. 

I don't really know about the time in between then and the time I met my husband, but I can certainly tell you that since I met my mother-in-law in 1999, she has never stopped moving.  Even in her sleep, she will occasionally bark an order...lest you think she is out of commission!  Never!

After my husband and I met, I am told my mother-in-law told him not to marry me.  What can I say?  My husband is as persistent as she is.

When we returned after being married, intent on explaining everything, my mother-in-law seemed truly pained to her two sons, and so the truth wasn't completely sprung on her at the moment.  I was out of vacation after two weeks, so I had to return home.  For the remaining 6 weeks that my husband was there, my mother-in-law dutifully tried to set him up with another Korean girl.  Like I said, she never gives up!

And this turns out to be a truly terrific thing, because in 2006, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, had two-thirds of her stomach and much of her esophagus removed, went on chemotherapy, and received a whole host of other instructions. 

Let me tell you, the woman never gives up.

The reports we heard about her weren't good, so we packed up and went to Korea as soon as my second son was born.  The woman had paid such attention to the doctors and taken life by the horns so strongly, you couldn't tell she had ever been sick.  My father-in-law, who had been diagnosed with cancer in 2004, yes, you could tell.  My mother-in-law?  No way!

The doctors recommended exercise, so three times a week, she heads over to a pool in a neighboring town (well, technically they are now the same town, but historically, they have always been two).  I went with her a few times.  She takes two buses to get there.  She makes herself completely at home in the locker room with the other halmonis and enjoys the conversation as much as the sauna, which she indulges in both before and after her swim.

I had always avoided Korean public baths, but there was no avoiding the locker room if I wanted to get in the pool.  Let me tell you, those ladies scrub themselves raw!  No wonder kids never want to go with their moms to the baths!  Just when I thought she wasn't going to have any skin left, she pulled on her suit, and out we went to the pool.

Now, I have always taken it for granted that most Americans know how to swim.  We are usually taught from a very young age, and most high schools require swimming.  But such is not the case here, and I immediaately understood why my mother-in-law thought swimming was so difficult.  She was trying to pull herself throuugh the water with splayed fingers!  Needless to say, she wasn't going very far.  But she never gave up.  She just kept going until the clock signaled that her time was up.  Then she climbed out and headed back into the locker room to scrub off what remained of her skin.

Five years later, she still heads over three times a week.  She can work me, my sister-in-law, and half this little town under the table.

She's always selling vegetables to someone, giving away something, or headed to meet someone else.  She is the local farm-union liaison, and as such, not only holds a monthly party for most of the women in town (which my father-in-law is none too thrilled about. let me tell you), but she also sells huge old bags of rice, which she manages to lug up and down the basement steps on her nearly 70-year-old legs, and occasional other things, like the bags of myeolchi (anchovies) that sent great cascades of fishy fragrance up from the driveway in the July heat.

Her eyes have seen her country transformed before her eyes.  Symbol and language systems have changed more than once.  Different calendars are used, and fewer and fewer in this country are doing kimjeong (the traditional kimchi making for the year), much less making their own doenjang and soy sauce.

But she never gives up, never lets go.

I sometimes don't realize what an awesome example I have in her, and I hope as I near seventy, I have half the persistence and energy she does.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Be Still and Know

My mother-in-law and I may differ on many things, but one thing is certain: we both would die for my children.  My mother-in-law's love for my boys cannot be measured.  It exceeds all boundaries.  That is a terrific thing for them, but sometimes a trying thing for me.

I remember when my second son was a baby, he was a terrible sleeper.  He cried himself to sleep--for afternoon naps as well as for the night--for the first three years of his life.  For the forty ear-splitting minutes preceding each and every rest, he needed to be bounced and walked until his little eyes could no longer reopen and his gaping mouth no longer emitted shrieks.  It was awful.

When he was finally asleep, I would oh-so-delicately place him in a reclining seat (the only thing that wouldn't immediately jolt him awake), and my father-in-law and I would gaze at him with bated breath to see if he would actually remain silent and slumbering.

And, inevitably, approximately three minutes later, my mother-in-law would re-enter the house, stand next to the peaceful infant, and volubly inquire, "애기 잔다? (Is the baby sleeping?)"

Not anymore, Omoni, not anymore. 

And so, one day, as I laid the little one down and his eyes remained faithfully shut, I whispered a prayer that today, please, Lord, may Omoni not shout and wake up the baby.

Three minutes later, Omoni arrived.  My heart sank.  Then she opened her mouth, and nothing came out.  She was completely hoarse.  For three days, she didn't speak.  I felt terribly guilty.

I learned to be careful what I pray for.

Lately though, there are prayers that seem to go nowhere and situations that seem completely unchangeable.  There are days that I am so disheartened that I can hardly lift my eyes from the floor.

And perhaps then I am not listening. 

I say that because maybe eight months ago, maybe longer, the Lord began telling me, "Be still and know that I am God."  Now He told me a lot more than that, too, but that's unimportant to this story.  "Be still and know that I am God."

Periodically, He reminds me of this.

This last week has been hard.  The honeymoon period is over.  I realize how very much I love my family--ALL of my family--and that we simply are never going to be together and that some issues (neither good nor bad, just there) will simply never go away.

It was a hard realization, even though I could have told you this more than 11 years ago when my husband first asked me to marry him.  It seems that I have to come to terms with it over and over again. And it seems that God just doesn't hear these prayers.

So, I wasn't supposed to go to church this Sunday.  We were supposed to do family things.  But for various reasons that didn't happen, and I got to go with the boys.

And I prayed for so many things.

And the pastor stood up and preached from Exodus: "[Y]ou will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. ... [Y]ou need only to be still." (14:13-14)

Be still and know...

And the pastor noted somewhere along the line that he hadn't meant to go this direction but that God had taken him that way.

Be still and know...

And that night, my little one accosted me with questions about God, which, in fact, was one of my prayer requests because his brother is so close to God, but the little one stands off.  In a world that changes as much as theirs does, when their language, culture, and family members come and go, they need the firm foundation of God.

And AJ asked me, "Does God really hear you?"

I don't tell him that his very question is an answer to my prayers.  Instead I say, "Oh, yes, child. He really does."

I am seeing even my small prayers answered and though I stand in the middle of differences and situations that seem unconquerable, behold, my whole family will see the Lord's deliverance because He is already moving.

We simply need to be still.