Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Crossing Borders, Coming Home

Love takes a person places that they can't go otherwise, I'm finding.  It's like a passport of sorts.  Without it, the soul doesn't have access to distant emotional lands.  Let me explain.

The other night at rehearsal, I was involved in a bit of drama.  It involved fight choreography going bad -- specifically, an uncontrolled fall backward and an inadvertent kick to the face -- and some loud "discussion."  Fortunately, this is a mature enough group that feelings were assuaged and communication was restored by the time we started our preview.

I woke up the next morning, however, consumed by the events.  Having the analytical mind that I do, I spent much of the day pondering my "lessons."  What had gone wrong?  Had anything really gone wrong?  What could I possibly do to prevent another occurrence in the future?  After a couple of cogent and enlightening discussions with friends, I felt better -- better about myself, the people involved and the whole darn process.

Looming on the horizon, however, was a meeting with one of the company members who is not involved in the production.  I knew that said actor would ask me how rehearsals were going.  What would I say?  I wanted to be able to have an honest discussion without being cagey.  Upon reflection, however, I realized that my emotional approach to the whole situation had been different than in conflicts past.  I was breathing deeper and releasing faster than ever before.  That's when my answer occurred to me.

I would respond that theater is making me better person.

You see, I care about my work in a wholly new way.  My heart is fully engaged, and consequently, open.  I now approach work with a softness, and wouldn't you know it, vulnerability transforms everything.  I used to have an ever-present shield around me, tossing off annoying colleagues and perceived incompetence with an eye roll or verbal barb.  (Dear Reader, please remember that the hospital adjoins Death, and therefore is rife with defense mechanisms.  So, don't judge me too harshly.) If an incident arose, I could think my way out of remorse.

But now, my inner landscape has shifted to a new clime.  I care more.  More of me is present, and my heart feels settled, ready to set roots.  As a result, I'm capable of taking it all in -- the rain, the sun, the mud, the fruit.  No need to duck and hide.  No need to act unperturbed.  I can be perturbed here, and it's ok.  I'm in my heart, and there are no costumes here.  Just a blanket of love -- for myself, for my mistakes, for my embarrassments and my victories.  And most importantly, for all of you, as well.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Legacy of a Happy Life - a letter to my mother

It's Mother's Day.  In my closet sits a diary.  It contains letters written to me from my mother in the last few months of her life.  She addresses me by my Korean name, starting each entry with "My beloved Sueme," or something close to that.  Or at least I think they start like that.  You see, I've never read them.

Peculiar, right?  One would think that a daughter would have memorized the written words of her dying mother.  But that diary has been in my closet for several years, maybe even ten.  And I have yet to read it.

First off, someone would have to read it to me.  It's hand-written in Korean, a language I can barely read.  Also, I have little experience with Korean hand-writing, so it's even more of a challenge.  I could have my aunt read it to me, and we've even talked about it.  But I must have a block somewhere.

Where's this block?  I'm terrified of something, clearly.


I'm now of the age where more and more of my friends and acquaintances have lost their mothers.  Several posts today on Facebook caption a smiling picture with, "I miss you Mom."  Since my mother passed when I was so young, I don't think I ever grieved properly for her.  A 4 year-old isn't capable of processing anger, bargaining, denial, depression or acceptance.  Actually, I take that back.  I remember a couple of those, in hazy forms.

I remember throwing tantrums and telling Dad that I missed Mommy.  At some point, I knew I could use the phrase, "I miss my mom."  Did I ever over use it?  Possibly, but doubtful since it was always true.  There's a poignant journal entry from my father.  I called him at the office one day to tell him that Mommy didn't like it up in heaven and wanted to come back.  How does a 34 year-old widower respond to that?  I don't think I ever gave my dad enough credit for dealing with that segment of his life.  I also have a drawing of mine which one of my relatives captioned.  In it, I have wings, and my mother has wings.  The young me explained that it was a picture of me turning into an angel and visiting my mother in heaven.  So there is evidence of my bouts of anger and bargaining.  Although I don't have specific stories, I can definitely tell you that I experienced depression.  So, that's three out of five stages of grief.

Perhaps I'm not reading that diary because of denial.

To be honest, I wish this wasn't a part of me.  It's such a burden to miss your mother.  It's a downer.  Although I've gone through plenty of therapy, this grief raises its ugly head every now and then and yanks me into a headlock.  You would think after all these years, I'd be over it.

Strangely enough, as other people's mothers die, I find some comfort.  I don't feel so alone.  In fact, when people ask if I remember my mother, I often respond that my most piercing memories are of feeling so lonely, a  cavernous loneliness as dark as a barren womb … a soul can get swallowed up by the dark.

So maybe I don't read that diary because I don't want to go there again.  Maybe someday I'll have better footing, and reading it won't seem so daunting.  It may even turn out to be no big deal.  I'll read it, cry a little, feel refreshed and think, "Pshaw.  Why ever did I wait so long?"

But the passing of your mother is an event of monumental proportions.  So, I'm just going to be patient with myself and trust that I'll read it on cosmic timing, when my inner cosmos is ready to accept words from that pivotal time in my personal history.  In the meantime, I'll keep filling my days with as much joy and courage, fun and vulnerability, daring and fulfillment as I can … because I know that somewhere, on a higher plane, she's reading the pages of my diary.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

America the Beautiful

Like all actors, I have imagined my Oscar acceptance speech.  Upon announcement of my name, I throw my hands up in the air, kiss my husband -- like I said, this is all imaginary -- then walk up the stairs in my custom Alexander Wang dress and Louboutin heels.  After words of sincere yet obligatory thanks to my production company, director, agent and cast, I close with words to the 40 millions TV viewers.  Clutching Oscar by his legs, I say straight to camera, "Nowhere in the world can children of immigrants rise so far, so fast.  Thank you, America."

I was born in Los Angeles to two South Korean immigrants, both of whom graduated from the highest-ranking high school in the nation.  My father came for his Master's degree.  My mother, due to family finances, came as a high school graduate hoping to eventually attend college in the US.  She fell into the familiar rut of marriage and motherhood, never furthering her schooling before her death.  As many of us know, education is not a path to happiness.  Happiness is the only path to happiness, but that is a topic for another post and another day.

When I was in sixth grade, my family relocated to Seoul for a year.  After college, I taught middle school science for a year in Switzerland.  I also grew up in Springfield, Illinois at a time when Asians were few and far between.  In a graduating class of approximately 400, I was the only Asian.  In the entire high school there were 3 Asians.  I never introduced myself to the Chinese-American girl who was a couple of years below me.  In retrospect, I wish I had said hello.  But I was too busy keeping my own head above water, trying to fit in with the white crowd, to expend any energy on racial relations. 

Although I've been in the racial minority in my birth country, I've been in the minority abroad -- both as an American and as an Asian.  In Korea, even with my mouth shut, I'm clearly American.  I walk like an American and observe like an American.  I am not "one of them."  Sort of like the Irish-Americans showing up in Dublin proclaiming that they're Irish.  The nationals think it's quaint, but to them, an American is first and foremost an American.  As the ex-fiancee of an Irish national, I write from experience.

On the ski slopes in Switzerland, however, I experienced racism of the playground strain from adults.  Here I was, a college graduate, and grown men pulled back their eyelids and mocked me with "Asian sounds" in front of laughing Swiss children.  I also had similar encounters in Italy.  In countries which have been homoethnic for centuries, the idea of an "outsider" is backed by millenia.  We were easy targets.  When I asked my Japanese middle school students if they had ever been mocked, they remarked off-handedly, "Oh, Ms. Shin, it happens everytime we go down to town."  Theoretically Europe seemed romantic, but my Asian face brought out a puerile reality.

America has grown out of publicly mocking me.  We know too much.  We have Asian faces on billboards now, too.  Racism now is not the racism of 30 years ago, and it is a fact that social injustice will always evolve as society evolves.  But I believe we have made strides, immense and crucial.  In fact, I believe that America is the one of the most evolved nations on the racial front.  We are at the leading edge of an integrative society.  No where else is there such a history of immigration.  Also, no where else is innovation so supported, and the stroke of inventive genius does not discriminate by color.  I may not have always been recognized as being American by some Americans, but I have been backed my by millions of other Americans who support my identity as an American.  I have a right to live here and thrive here.  This country, even with all its racial injustices and social conflicts, is the only place on earth that will welcome me as its daughter.  And despite its turmoils of diversification, it is the only place that I could ever feel a sense of belonging.  Truly, from sea to shining sea, this is my beautiful home.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Heavenly Readings - a tribute to my grandmother

In my pursuit of a Brooklyn accent for my next play, a twisted set of leads brought me to the TV show "Long Island Medium."  I am hooked.  Not only do I watch episode after episode on You Tube, but I outright cry at least twice per show.  For those who aren't familiar with Theresa Caputo, spirits of the dead talk to her, and she passes messages on to the living.  Be skeptical, call me and her crazy … but I routinely pursue the "out of the ordinary," so your opinion doesn't faze me.  I love this show.

I've got two people out there who need my number.  One, of course, is my mother who passed when I was just shy of my fourth birthday.  That meeting would be a straightforward "Hello, Mom.  I've never forgotten you" type of meeting.  The other encounter would be tougher.  I need to right a wrong which has been eating at me for a while.  If I could meet with my grandmother and get her forgiveness ... maybe absolution is a better word … well, I feel like my heart could dance a little lighter.

In short, I didn't help my grandmother learn how to read.  I can still hear her voice sounding out syllables of the Bible, interrupting my all-important TV shows.  As a teenager, she represented everything I disdained.  She was old, wrinkled and hunched, as any farm laborer would be at 78.  She was uncultured and unmannered, belching and slurping.  Even her speech was embarrassing.  Her country accent was thick and indelible, routinely garnering chuckles from fellow Koreans.  Adding smell to the offensive sights and sounds, she wore Korean back pain patches which perfumed her with a blend of menthol, ginseng and adhesive.  My teenage self was aspiring to conform to my All-American classmates, and she couldn't conform at all.

My paternal grandmother was born in the back country of Korea in 1907 when it was still the unified country it had been for centuries.  This was still an age of outhouses, shamans and polygamy, albeit the end of the age.   By the time she was 7, her marriage had been arranged, and when she was 14, she was married off to my then 12 year-old grandfather.  Education wasn't wasted on all boys, and educating girls was out of the question.  Hers was a seaside village in a mountainous country, capable of isolation from modern ideas.  Not 200 miles away, my maternal grandmother was busy completing high school and would eventually graduate from university.  The chasm between old and new was never so wide as in their generation.

Let me illustrate illiteracy.  Of course, a person can't read signs or write directions.  But you also can't tell time or dial a phone.  When my grandmother went to market, she would cup all her money in outstretched palms and trust the merchants to take the proper amount.  Needless to say, not all were honest.  In an environment of scarcity, pinching change from an old illiterate lady must be so tempting.  Remember, this was a post-war era.  Orphans were plentiful, hope scarce and people routinely died of the mundane disease called Hunger.

It's easy to blame her illiteracy on the timing of her birth.  But can't I be blamed, too?  Why didn't I teach her how to read?  She was in my daily life for almost 15 years.  Of course, chaotic family dynamics were in play.  Also, I knew her as illiterate, so it never occurred to me to change that.  The irony is that entire time we lived together, I was furiously learning and memorizing and studying.

Of course, I can't go back and change that.  But I wonder at my capacity for insensitivity.  How often do I turn a blind eye to those closest to me?  It almost seems to cruel to get annoyed at an old lady trying to learn how to read.  Do I still do that -- waft my frustration at those who are bettering themselves?  Since I'm regularly frustrated, it's certainly possible.

I have no answers today, dear Reader.  Strangely, though, I feel better just having written her story down.  She lives with me contantly, my grandmother.  As I walk past a pyramid of glossy bell peppers in Whole Food I think, "Halmuni would have been stunned by this."  She and I were born hardly apart -- a statistically insignificant number of years.  But in that span, the world hurled over colossal changes.  Look at me:  I read, write, tell time … own property … live alone … in her eyes, I must live like an empress.  So maybe I'll carry that with me from now on and see my life in all its majesty.  I certainly can't go back and teach her how to read, but perhaps my grandmother can still tutor me on how to live.  To see the world through the eyes of an illiterate back-country village girl.  To live in a steady state of appreciation and amazement.  Because my ability to read or multiply or tell time does not dim the fact that these are truly amazing times.  Thank you, Halmuni … and I'm gonna bet that out there, you're able to read this.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My Steady Pulse - the pull of acceptance

Rehearsals for "The Jammer" have started, and in keeping with a show about roller derby, we are moving at a fast and furious pace.  Just the words "roller derby" are enough to widen people's eyes and elicit a smile.  So far, we're all laughing and bonding and having a chummy ol' time.

Underneath the brashness and the elbows, however, beats a steadfast theme.  Vince, our director, remarked yesterday, "I read this play again and realized that it's about acceptance."  Sure enough, the play is peppered with outcasts -- institutionalized outcasts, ethnic outcasts, masquerading outcasts, just to name a few -- which, although super fun to play, are people nonetheless.  His next questions were mindful and grounded.  "On the journey to acceptance, what mistakes did your character make?  How far would you go to preserve this acceptance?"

Behind my closed eyelids, in the dim room, I couldn't help but think about all these actors scattered and lying quietly on the floor.  This is the group my parents never told me about.  These are the people who think for themselves.  We are the ones who live in the margins and like it.  It's a far cry from the steady life of an academic or a 9-to-5'er.  It takes some gumption to get there and another dose to stay.

Our desire for acceptance sometimes mutes our free-thinking tendencies, but I dare say that's a universal journey.  No one escapes the nagging feeling of rejection, I think. Even now, I occasionally feel the sting of being "left out of the club."  We're all looking for a safe place to commune, to open up, to engage.  But why?  As Vince pointed out, we all make mistakes along the path to acceptance.  Some of mine have been mundane, others catastrophic.  All have been painful to varying degrees.  So why bother?

I can only give my answer, and like it or not, there are aspects of myself that I'll never touch or discover on my own.  I need other people to extract fresh attributes from my crusty ideas of who I am.  Our best versions of ourselves only come courtesy of the company we keep.  The corollary to that, however, is that our worst selves are also spawned by our interactions.

Therein lies the dance of Intimacy and Independence.  When is it too close or too much?  And when is it too thin, too little?  When should we open ourselves up for exploration?  And when should we distance ourselves to stave off disappointment?  To boot, the buzz of vulnerability often makes us stumble like drunkards, thus adding humiliation to the mix.  So, is this search for acceptance worth it?

I say yes.  Yes, because a life devoid of intimate kindnesses could only be insipid and colorless.  Life bereft of subtle acts of love would be the shadow of a life.  Unfortunately, those qualities only blossom under the shelter of acceptance, the air thick with vulnerability.  I contend that the vibrancy of risk sharpens our feelings and heightens our days.

That, dear Reader, is what has impelled me to perpetually search for my "tribe."  We find our "tribe," I believe, one by one … often disguised to our eyes, though not to our souls.  We recognize them with our hearts, beat by beat, one pulse matching another's.  And once we settle in, we get a taste of heaven, a glimpse of the ultimate coming home.