Well, it's been a sticky patch, and as I once said before, I don't like writing update e-mails when I'm feeling sticky. (Just wait till the humid heat of summer. . . haw haw haw.) But the fact is, I owe all you folks an e-mail -- have for a while, and by gum, I finally have a fantastic story I can use to finish it off with a laugh. (I didn’t even realize that's what had been holding me back until Sarah delivered her coup de grace of humour that day, and one of the first thoughts was "now I can finally write home."
May as well get this one out of the way: a few of you have already heard in personal e-mails that Exgirlfriendoseyo and I broke up. After a seven-month wait in Canada, and a really hard test, and a variety of tests both personal and paper, we simply seemed to be heading in different directions, and needing different things than we offered each other. It was done in such a way, and at such a time that we still respect each other, I don't have any regrets, and I wish her the best. We tried to make things work, but there was just too much else going on.
It was my first Christmas away from home this year. And my first Christmas without. . . you know, all that Mom dying of cancer stuff. I ran an entire calling card down on Christmas morning, and had some difficult and wonderful phone calls from a group of people who ranged from kind wisdom and caring to full, vulnerable empathy to some wonderful and necessary "talk-about-something-else-ification". Exgirlfriendoseyo and Matt both went down to Ulsan (where Exoseyo’s parents' extended family lives) for new year's, and I in turn got properly sick, and couldn't do much for new year's eve. On New Year's day I was still sick, and the next day, Exoseyo and I broke up, so I just put my head down and worked as much as I could handle for the rest of that week.
Being optimistic isn't always the same as being cheerful, and being hopeful doesn't always mean having a spring in your step. That's one thing grief has taught me. Right now, sometimes I walk as if I'm wearing a lead raincoat, and sometimes the best I can manage is friendly small-talk with my roommate before I disappear into my room to read or listen to music or head out and walk aimlessly through the winter air. However, (unlike the last time I was down and out like this, in 2001), I have absolute faith that, in time, things will start climbing, and in time, I will feel whole again. In time, I will be joyful and engaged again. (Engaged meaning participating fully in life, not engaged meaning rings on fingers.)
As for now, it's OK not to be swimming in a bucket of peach fuzzies. It's OK to feel however I feel, as long as I know that, here on earth, just as no joyous moment lasts forever, neither does any bad time. And until the wheel takes another turn, I can find fantastic, beautiful, funny things that can make me smile and enjoy my life, and think about those things, and I can talk to God if I need to, and God can handle any emotion I have (having invented them and all.) And if I feel joy 20% of the time these days instead of my usual 60%, well, that will eventually correct itself, as long as I don't hold onto my grief, but let it pass through me, effect me, and then end once it is spent.
I've looked up some of my old friends in Korea, from my first and second years here, and I've spent some good time with Matt, and been less distracted from my supervisor work. Those are all good things. Exgirlfriendoseyo didn't pass the test, so that must be disappointing for her (she found out on the 10th, a week after we broke up). I hope she has some good friends nearby right now. I've also made a new friend or two, and am really enjoying the making of new friends. All these things add happiness to my life.
Here are some of my best friends these days:
Deb. In the last year, I'm so glad, Deb, to see us grow closer. Thanks for your phone calls. Every time we've talked on the phone has been absolutely, perfectly, just what I needed at the time. YAY FAMILY!!!
Matt. As always, the staunch wingman. Gives good advice, listens well, and has a great knack for knowing when to engage a state of mind head-on, and when to help me get my mind off it. His good buddy Kris is in Korea now too, and he has proven his measure, and made me glad to have him around.
Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road -- this song sounds like somebody jumping into a big, '70s American gas-guzzler and chasing their dreams down the center line of a winding highway. Better still, it makes ME want to jump in a car (or on a subway, or into a pair of good walking shoes), and grab a map, or a shovel, or a ladder, and start looking for something beautiful and joyful.
Beethoven's 9th symphony, fourth movement. The third movement is full of storm and tempest, and the fifth is unbridled joy. But the fourth movement bridges them, it's still of the tempest, but there, in the distance, approaching like one of those fantastic prairie thunderstorms, comes joy as thrilling and powerful as a flash-flood. When I listen to it, I hear my life -- things are still stormy over here, but every once in a while, like a crack of sunlight through cloud, like a flash of heat-lightning on the horizon, or a rumble of thunder, joy is waiting, somewhere just past the horizon, just beyond my fingertips, at the edge of my peripheral vision, something I can smell but which moves back out of sight whenever I turn my head to look at it. Like a shy animal, I have to sit in stillness and patience, and wait for it to approach me again. I know I will feel well again. More than well. If you can get your hands on the fourth movement (or just all of the 9th), it's best to listen to it really, really loud. Then the fifth movement is awesome -- the musical equivalent of a child running down a really really long hill.
Another best friend: the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Especially his Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus -- Rilke understands how grief and sadness deepen a character and expand one's heart, enabling it to grasp for greater things than before. If you don't dig poetry, that's fine. Just skip to the place where it says "SO ENOUGH POETRY ALREADY" in all-caps (I made it all caps so it'll be easy for you to find it.)
"How we squander our hours of pain
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner year -- not only a season
in time--, but are place and settelment, foundation
and soil and home." -- Elegy 10
***Sonnet to Orpheus - Part II, sonnet 13
"Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winger
that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.
Be forever dead in Eurydice -- more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.
Be -- and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.
To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourSELF, and cancel the count.
***(Dove that ventured outside) - thanks mel.
Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote
housed and protected again, one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.
The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.
Being arches itself over the vast abyss.
Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn't it fill our hands differently with its return:
heavier by the weight of where it has been.
Also John Keats:
(from Ode On Melancholy)
Ah, in the very temple of delight,
veiled melancholy has her sov'ran shrine,
though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
can burst joy's grape against his palate fine.
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might
and be among her cloudy trophies hung.
and if you skip the others, I still recommend you read this one:
"Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And form the selfsame well from which your laughter
arises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the
more joy you can contain...
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and
you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that
which has been your delight...
Verily you are suspended like scales between your
sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at stand-still and
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold
and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow
rise or fall."
-The Prophet, Kahlil
Somebody told me that sorrow digs the mine-shafts in your heart, and the deeper and wider those holes are, the more joy can run through them later, when the
SO ENOUGH POETRY ALREADY
Here it is, folks. This was one of the biggest laughs I've ever had from a student, and it came from one of the youngest students I've taught, but there you go. One of my classes really loves my storytelling. I have a tradition of telling stories on Wednesdays (show and tell days) -- I come into class looking dejected and say "sorry kids. I don't have anything for show and tell today." Then I tell a show and tell story about what I found for show and tell that week, and what ridiculous series of events led to me being unable to bring that show and tell to class that day. Once I invited a polar bear from the zoo to come visit, but he wrote down the date wrong, and once I offended a magical cloud, so he zapped my show and tell with his lightning, and so forth.
Well, on Friday, we had a birthday party for all the students in preschool with January birthdays. Three students in my homeroom class (Tiger Class) had birthdays, so I had three crayon boxes wrapped as gifts, for those three boys. When I walked into Lion class, my student Sarah (a wildly hilarious little girl), asked me if she could have a present. I said, "No. I can't. They're for Tiger Class."
"No. They're not for you."
"Can I open one and see?"
"No. It's not your present."
"Why you don't have a present for me?"
Then Sally said, "Show and tell story."
"Oh," I said, "do you want a show and tell story about why I don't have presents for you?"
"Yes," all the students agreed. So, off the top of my head, I began.
"Well, I was going to get presents for all the kids in Lion class, so I went to a special toystore, and they showed me a new toy that's a small robot, and it talks and sings and it has a TV and 100 video games, and a phone and a helicopter! So I bought six of them -- one for me, and one for each person in Lion class.
"Then, I was so excited that I found a great present for my Lion Class students, that I put on my helicopter hat (a regular appearance in my Show and Tell stories), and flew into the sky. While I was there, I saw Quentin the Clumsy Dragon (another recurring character). He said, 'Why are you happy, Rob?'
"I said, 'I'm happy because I found some great presents for Lion Class!'
"He said, 'Wow! That's GREAT! When I'm happy, I like to chase birds! Do you want to chase birds with me?'
"'Of course I do,' I said.
"So Quentin the Dragon and I flew high into the sky, and we flew down really fast, and we scared some birds, and we flew higher, and we did it again (this is done with hand motions and funny faces), and we flew HIGHER, and we did it AGAIN! And then, Quentin flew SO high, he hit the moon!
"But when Quentin hit the moon, he hit a Moon Monster. The Moon Monster was sleeping, and Moon Monsters get REALLY angry when somebody wakes them up! So the moon monster grabbed Quentin in one hand and said, 'YOU WOKE ME UP! I'M REALLY ANGRY!!!', and he grabbed me in his other hand, and shouted, 'YOUR FRIEND WOKE ME UP! THAT MAKES ME REALLY ANGRY!!!'
"So Quentin said, 'I'm so so so sorry," and I said, 'I'm so so so so sorry!'
"But the moon monster was so angry he didn't say 'that's OK.' He said, "I'm STILL angry,' and he started to shake us in his hands. (This, too, was done with actions and funny faces).
"Finally, Quentin was very dizzy, and he said, 'rorororororob - pupupupupuplease give him thethethethethe prepreprepresent!'
"'Give him the present? But these are for Lion Class!' I said. Then the monster shook us both again, very very hard, so I said, 'Here, Monster. I'll give you a present so you aren't angry anymore.' I gave him one of the special robot toys. He opened the present, and he LOVED it. I thought, 'It's OK, because I still have five presents for the five people in Lion Class. Now I don't have one for myself, but that's OK.' The Moon Monster started playing with his new toy, and he was so happy that he jumped up and down, and when he jumped up and down, he woke up TWO MORE Moon Monsters.
"Very quickly, I gave two more presents to those two Moon Monsters, and they were happy too, so Quentin and I flew back down to Earth, and I went home. Now, I don't have enough presents for all the kids in Lion Class, so I'll give them to the birthday boys in Tiger Class instead. I'm very sorry, Lion Class, but I don't have enough Robot Toys to give them to you.
Well, Sarah wasn't satisfied with that. She said, "It's OK, Teacher, I'll share with Sally. Scott doesn't want one."
"Sorry, I have to give them to Willy and Zach and Steven now. I can't only give them to some people in Lion Class."
"Just me teacher. It's OK." (Please realize that she's saying all this in a playful, bantering voice that's charming and fun -- she's not whining or needling at all, so I'm engaging rather than cutting her off with my teacher-authority.) Before I could answer her, the door knocked, and I was called out of the classroom to deal with something. When I returned to class, Sarah had her head on the desk, so I tapped her on the back and said, "Wake up, Sarah! It's time to get out your books."
As soon as I tapped her on the back, she stood up and shook her fists and growled "WHO WAKE ME UP! I'M ANGRY!" -- demonstrating perfect comprehension of the entire story (very impressive for her English level), and the cleverest attempt yet to get her hands on one of those wrapped gifts. She absolutely slayed me. It's not often a kid will catch me right off guard with a funny angle or comment, but she just about knocked me off my chair with laughter. I asked her if she could shake me as much as the moon monster shook me, and before I sent the students off to get their activity books, I had all five Lion Class students pulling on my arms, trying to shake me enough to convince me that I could only placate them with boxes of crayons.
It was an absolutely brilliant day. I'll hold on to those kinds of laughs and smiles, and after a while, I'll notice them more, and remember them more easily, and in time, the whole world will be as shiny as it used to be for me.
Patience. Hope. Joy.