This Beautiful, Broken Speck

I’m going to start off with cats because today’s topic is pretty heavy.

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“War! I did not hate the enemy, I hated the spirit that made war possible.”

I first encountered this sentiment in an exhibit at the British Library on the Great War, printed on the wall next to an original manuscript for Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Mabel Dearmer, a British woman who would later die serving as a nurse in Serbia, did not like war. She continued in that same letter, “…I envied the proud mother who sends her sons, proud of them, proud of the war that calls them out, proud of the God of battles. But that God is not my God, and my heart was heavy.”

I’ve had war sort of on the mind of late. I do not think there will actually be a war, but this is the closest I’ve come to its possibility in my immediate surroundings. South Korea elected a new president on Tuesday and he seems to want a much more conciliatory approach to relations with the North (Sunshine Policy 2.0?). And, of course, I am thinking about World War I because we are still in the midst of its 100th anniversary. And also, people hating other people.

Some of you will be familiar with the photograph below, often dubbed “The Pale Blue Dot.” It even has it’s own Wikipedia page. It is a picture of Earth as seen from approximately 3.7 billion miles away in the vastness of space. It takes up just over one tenth of one pixel, caught in the middle-ish of the rightmost band of light.

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The Pale Blue Dot, credit to NASA

Carl Sagan, who asked that the picture be taken, said this about the image:

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

I’ve thought about joining the armed forces. Not particularly hard, but I’ve considered it. I’ve contemplated what kind of war I would fight in, how I would handle it, what I would think about it. I honestly am not certain how I would react if our country went to war again, especially if the draft was instituted.

I’m very much a flawed individual but I think that I’ve determined for myself that there is no jus ad bellum. No just cause to go to war. There may be situations in which I think a war should occur, but there is no justice in it.

I’d like to think of myself as a pretty empathetic person but sometimes people totally confound me. It’s like when you’re watching a movie or show practically yelling at the character not to do the stupid thing because we all know how it turns out and then they do the stupid thing anyway. How could someone conceivably act and think like this? How could they be so stupid, so blind, so cruel and hateful? I mean, I’ve taken enough classes on conflict to know how, at least sort of. My undergrad capstone class was literally Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing. Still.

I want to preserve and cherish. I want kindness and compassion.

We live on a cosmic speck. It is full of incredible beauty, miracles, wonders. But it is terribly, if not irreparably, damaged. I truly do not believe that this peninsula will go to war, at least not soon. But come on, you have to actively goad conflict for things to feel like this, the status quo was (I almost don’t want to say it) better. Who do you think you are and what are you doing? This hate thing, this war, what are they good for?

Absolutely nothing.

Divine

Because there is no reason not to start a post with cats. Isn’t she very regal-looking here? And Bubba’s face is visible, so that’s a plus. Photographing black cats is hard.

This week has been decent. The weather has continued to be mostly fine and I’ve gotten in plenty of roof reading. I’ve also encountered a growing amount of lilac which is a major plus as it’s my favorite flower by scent.

There were a few less sunny moments. It did rain quite heavily on Tuesday and, in the midst of the weather, my trusty jacket finally gave up the ghost. The zipper got stuck and then there was…mangling. Poor jacket, I got you in 2010. It had been with me to more than a dozen countries on four continents. May your memory live long. I hardly knew ye.

That was followed by Wednesday, when I was rather suddenly thrust into a new kind of review class (suddenly meaning that I was given 24 hours to prepare). I was to help prepare students for the TOEFL Jr. using as basis a great deal of the material for a class I’ve never taught or even seen the curriculum for. So there was that. I scrambled, fudged, and managed like a champion, if I do say so myself. Which I do. I guess I’ll just be a teensy bit ahead of the curve when I teach that course next term. It was, I imagine, incredibly boring for the students and apparently their practice test scores were pretty low. But I didn’t mind doing it. I’m a test taker, it’s always come easily to me, and the question typology they gave me appealed to my routine-love. We’ll see how I feel about it when I’m actually teaching that course.

Anyway. Other things that happened this week: major religious holiday.

Remembering back to last Easter, and all the weighty history relating thereto, it is a curious thing for me this year. In South Korea, roughly a quarter of the population identifies as Christian (about four fifths of which are Protestant, the rest Catholic). There are churches everywhere, but they represent a relatively small portion of the country. The advanced commercialization of holidays is lessened here as well, so for Easter there is essentially no change to mark it outside of a church service.

Coming from the parades, historical commemorations, and general shenanigans of Dublin 2016, it certainly sets up a contrast. I went to a church like normal, and that was that. There was no lamb, nor eggs, nor rabbits. Probably for the best, actually, since Easter is actually just about the church thing anyway.

In one of my lessons, we were talking about human enhancement and the possibility of human perfectibility. Students, while vocal in support of plastic surgery (this is the plastic surgery capital of the world), were in general agreement that perfection is out of the question. And I tend to agree.

Alexander Pope said it well in 1711: “To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.” I’m a mess. Not in any particular sense, so don’t worry (parents). But just generally. I get by, I do fine, but nothing special, really. I lack commitment to anything particularly admirable or world-changing. I do intend to do more and then I mostly don’t because I’m lazy. Every effort of mine at self-improvement (how much more for improvement of something beyond myself) ends up collapsing after a fairly brief span. I’d like to think that on the whole I’m on an upward slope but who’s to say.

I fail, and will continue to do so. But the important thing is keeping the focus on the other part of Pope’s point. To err is what marks us as these weak mortals. It is forgiveness–and the faith that forgiveness will come–that changes everything. And that is the great transgression of Easter: it completes the bridge between the human and the divine. While we were still sinners (still are, still will be), Christ died for us. In his rising, forgiveness is made complete and perfect forever.

Let’s remember that. And let’s strive to mirror that divine act of forgiving.

 

Things, More or Less

A thing that I said to a close friend during a conversation about general life ills: “I’m not really complaining, I’m just complaining. If you feel me.” Luckily, she did. And I’d just like to say a quick word about that.

I complain a lot. And I recognize how harmful this can sometimes be. But I don’t think of myself as a negative person. I think it’s because I find pleasant emotions simple to work through. Unpleasant ones are less so. Bemoaning petty things does truly make me feel better most of the time. It is a privilege of not truly suffering. And complaining gives me an outlet for more deeply felt emotions that isn’t really that negative.

So I will strive to complain less. But at the same time, I recognize complaining about little things as a way to process bigger things constructively. Maybe. I don’t know, but there it is.

A recent message from a different friend contained several precious pictures of Captain Kirk, featured on this blog once before. So here’s a little update for you, looking very cute in the early morning light.

So this week. On Sunday, I was happy to briefly host a friend who had an extended layover at Incheon. He was pretty wiped from the preceding week so we pretty much just hung out (which was 100% in line with things I like doing). It was great to catch up with him and just chat with a good friend for a while. I’m not what one might call a fast friend maker, so it was sort of a relief to be with someone who just already knows all sorts of things about you without you having to explain.

On Wednesday, I had a surprise day off and so went in search of flowers and, hurray, found them. I heard tell of a nice place to see cherry blossoms on the other side of town and set off. I wasn’t actually certain where I was going, but I assumed the green blotch on Google Maps was the place, and indeed it was. It was, in fact, a theme park sort of thing next to a ginormous mall (I cannot describe to you how ginormous) circling around a small lake. It was lovely and the weather was nice and it was just all sorts of good. I took a book and read a bit in between walking around and admiring.

It was truly a pleasant day. Not perfect, of course. Plenty of little things to complain about. But the little complaints enabled me to enjoy what there was to be enjoyed. I could take it all in, soak up the little things that made me smile mixed with the little things that made me frown. I didn’t get lost in the maze of deeply troubling things going on in the world about which I can do nothing.

Certainly, I still think about those things. But I don’t obsess like I know I could. These are troubling times, especially here, but I’ve done what I can to be prepared. I follow the news, but I don’t want to rehash the same conversation a million times. I’d rather complain about the breeze being too chill.

I am not sure how coherent this post sounds. I wanted to tell you about my lovely time at the lake but also include everything else. It is what it is, I guess. I’d like to leave you with this lovely tune because I like it and I think the world could use more alleluias and fewer of the other things. More gratitude and fewer complaints. More peace, less war.

Good luck with that.

Peak Bloom

So I mentioned last week that I didn’t post this because I felt I was being too impatient. Impatient I may be, but it is what it is. I remain impatient. And so.

My friends back in D.C. experienced ‘peak bloom’ recently, a term referring to the maximum beauty of the cherry blossoms that blanket the district each spring and provide an incredible backdrop to monument, festival, and school alike. Here in Seoul, as best as I can determine, we did not.

I have finally found where Seoul has been hiding all the flowers, but they were not…exactly…there. Some were freshly tilled beds awaiting spring planting and others were bulbs that had just breached the surface of the ground. The cherry blossom area as designated on signs in the park totally eluded me. We’ve had decently warm weather and the Spring Equinox was last week so

Certainly, I will readily admit how very little of Seoul I have seen and so I will not say the city only has flowers in flower shops, but it’s not been great on the flower front thus far. At home, even if we have a late spring we’d have daffodils up early, with whichever other flowers following on their heels. I don’t know, I’m confident that I’m just looking in the wrong places (when I manage to actually get out and look). But still. I’m not used to having to look. Also, Seoul’s cherry blossom season is supposed to be next week or the week after, so things should be looking up. But there are flowers other than cherry blossoms.

I’ve alluded to this fact before, but Seoul is a city of over ten million. The greater Seoul metropolitan area is home to approximately 25 million people (yes, that’s half the country and the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world). There is some nature here, but it’s urban nature even beyond the likes of Phoenix Park or Rock Creek Park. And definitely not in the same league as Penrose Point or Sunset Beach. I’ve never harbored any doubts about not being a city person but if I had they would be put to permanent rest.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like. And this is 100% not an invective against Korea generally, rather cities generally. Dublin and D.C. managed to be okay because they’re neither one very city-feeling. Seoul is extremely so, even in relatively sleepy Seodaemun. Like I said, there are some truly beautiful things around here. Very picturesque mountains and trees that very much put me in mind of those classic East Asian watercolors with ruggedly steep and rocky mountains draped in leggy evergreens and silky streams. I’d post some pictures, but the haze doesn’t allow my minimal photography skills to do them anything like justice.

Part of me is still just adjusting to the idea that I’m going to be living here for a year. As the times comes to put away my winter clothes, I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not actually done with them here, just waiting until winter comes again. And it’s weird. I have not spent this much time consecutively in one place since I got on a plane to D.C. on 16 August, 2012.  (I’m like 92% certain it was the 16th. Maybe the 17th). When I was in Ireland it was close, I was there for pretty much exactly one calendar year, but I had almost an entire month home for Christmas which meant I had to pack things up and get settled then pack up and leave again. There will be no such break this year. I may spend a few weekends away, but that’s it.

As it is, I am adjusting. And that’s what counts. On Sunday, I spent some time reading in the sun up on the roof. Expectedly, it was not perfect, but it was good. I will return there often, I hope, and perhaps find a few other good reading spots for the heat of the coming summer. Ups and downs or, as we talk about in class often, pros and cons. Benefits and negative effects. Good things and bad things. As in life, so in Seoul.

In the meantime, take a look at the cats. Or cat and demon spawn, it’s hard to tell.

You may recall back when I first arrived in Ireland a phrase that I used to cheer myself up about a less-than-ideal circumstance. Things here aren’t so bad, but the little plants I bought this week will not fill my flower quota. So I will repeat it now as a mantra for new places which, even having been here for a month now, this still is.

Bloom where you’re planted.

More Stately Mansions

I will not apologize for the amount of poetry-related content on this blog. Just wanted to put that out there. But more on that later. I promised a glimpse into my life in Seoul so here are a few things.

  • Both my building and apartment use touch screen keypads and it’s so liberating not to have any keys (though it occasionally freaks me out)
  • I can get a decent variety of triangular kimbap (pictures forthcoming eventually…) at 7-11 right down the street for ₩800 or a little less than 80¢
  • The apartment has heat, so that’s an infinite step up from the house in Dublin
  • I live maybe a two minute walk from the school
  • Korean Netflix is more reasonable than I expected, it’s growing quickly since it’s relatively new here

So those are a few things that have helped make the transition easier. I regret (so very deeply) that the cracker situation is pretty hopeless. As great as Paris Baguette is, it simply cannot compare to those Tesco doughnuts and I don’t even want to talk about crackers. Alas, you can’t win ’em all. There are crackers here, but I think once you go Tesco Cream Crackers, you just can’t go back.

I’ve also now found out what I’ll be doing on Wednesdays. I will spend three hours calling students one-on-one to have ten minute conversations with them. They’re mostly not my students in class, we just talk. The headset is very uncomfortable, but otherwise it’s not bad. Occasionally I will also do intensive study sessions or review groups with small numbers of students. But mostly it’s the phone classes, at least for now.

In terms of Korean experiences for the week, I haven’t had many. Other than getting a bank account and having barbecue, I’ve pretty much stayed home. As you know, that is my default setting. And I won’t be rebuked for it. I know I said that I want more out of this year than just work experience, but that doesn’t mean that I have to spend all of my time eating Korean food, wandering around, seeing what can be seen. I have time, I have eaten food, and nothing’s wrong with me cooking for myself. I want to see what I can see, but I also want to be me and me is a person who stays home nine times out of ten. I came to Korea, that’s plenty for the moment.

Also, first post-departure contact with a certain very pretty kitty. The other was indisposed by illness, unfortunately. He’s on track to recover though.

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So about the poetry that I mentioned earlier. Here’s the thing: because I have so much of it in my head, much like music it can suddenly pop in and get stuck like a song, but just a couple lines of text. This one has come to me occasionally for years and I really like it.

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!

This, of course, is from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ wonderful work The Chambered NautilusIn it, Holmes describes the way in which the nautilus is always moving onward and upward, building itself larger and more lovely shell space until at last it is freed from the mortal (and nacre) coil.

I don’t even have anything in particular I wanted to say, that poem has just really been sticking with me this week. It really is a lovely poem; it is a song of freedom and release. To close yourself with a dome more vast until you finally expand beyond all confines. Ugh, I don’t even know what I’m saying, but read the poem, I really like it. More stately mansions indeed.

Till thou at length art free.

Quite Ready for Another Adventure

Last week, my post was quite late and for that I apologize. I’ll give you a bit of a run down on recent goings on and perhaps you’ll forgive me. Also, I know I’ve been slacking on the cat pictures, so I’ll remedy that as well.

I almost moved to Korea last Saturday because of a whole chain of events centering around the timing of my visa application. So last Thursday evening I drove up to Seattle so I could be at the consulate first thing in the morning if need be. Need wasn’t. So I drove home, made sure I was packed, and said a final few rushed goodbyes. Then, a little before I was going to go to bed, I got the email that said wait until Monday and, lo and behold, Monday was the day! I drove back to Seattle, turned in my application, and everything has fallen into line for me to go this Saturday. This is my last post from the US for a while. Hurray that things have figured themselves out.

And here I am, once again moving to a foreign country and writing a blog about it. Just before going to Ireland, I had just barely secured housing (that, in the event, wasn’t available for like a week so I lived in hostels…) and was extremely nervous about doing a graduate degree program. In this case, my housing is secured (though the first week I’ll be staying in a hotel, I don’t have to pay for it!). I’m extremely nervous about teaching but I expect I’ll get over it. I just hope it doesn’t involve the same agonies of ‘getting over’ my dissertation. Anyway.

Details: the first week is just intensive training while stationed at a hotel, then I begin teaching on the 27th. Also, how remiss of me, I’ve been placed. I’ll be teaching and living in Seodaemun-gu in the western part of Seoul. Is it odd that I’m sort of looking forward to my Facebook updates being tagged in Seoul?

One of my biggest worries, obviously, is what the cracker situation is going to be like. I’m still a little raw over losing Tesco and I’m just not sure that I can handle a dearth of solid crackers.

I say that partly because it’s true and partly to obscure the panic I’m feeling about leaving. Don’t worry, it’s nothing too crazy, just the standard feeling whenever I go somewhere. People have told me how cool it is that I’m grand just to go gallivanting around the world and I’m like, “Yeah except I feel every bit as awful about going as you do.” I guess the difference is that I go anyway. I don’t know. But I’m leaving on Saturday and that’s that. At this point, at least, I’m pretty good at knowing what I need to take and what I can do without. There’s a lot that I have and do without even though I have it; over the course of my trips it has become easier to just not bring it. So that’s nice, I’ve managed (with substantial help from my mother) to get everything into a large suitcase, my ‘luggage’ garment bag, and a carry-on suitcase. Which is good, especially since I probably will not easily find clothes once in Korea, seeing as I’m 6’2″ and wear size 12 shoes.

On a totally non-Korea related note, I finally watched The Giver this week. I had put it off on purpose because I assumed that it would be terrible, having so enjoyed the book. If you haven’t read it, can recommend, it was required reading in eighth grade. Anyway, I enjoyed the movie, definitely surpassed my expectations. I do not think that our current world is in particular danger of erring toward the dystopia depicted in the story, but all scenarios are worth remembering. Certainly, it’s been a long time since I read the book so I can’t say how closely the movie adheres or how my perception of the story has changed. A takeaway that I’m just now thinking of, at least in these words: ignorance is not bliss–ignorance removes the possibility of bliss by also removing the possibility of pain. We cannot choose, we must simply accept it all.

Also, a quick look at the cats before I leave them again : (

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In her natural habitat. Can you spot her?

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And him in his. Much easier to see.

General panic mode coupled with an intense distaste for doing things has made for an interesting last week, but I’m grateful I’ve had this week. And I’ll recover as I always do. For those of you who followed this blog while I was in Ireland, you already know about what to expect in terms of tales of my international exploits. For those of you who are new, prepare yourself. I don’t really… do things. Being abroad is enough for me.

Anyway, onward and upward. The road, I hear, goes ever on and on.

A Discontented Sojourner: Now Free

This week I have encountered plenty in the national and international news cycles that put a cloud over my head. Perhaps most of us are often made aware of Syria ongoing, but how often are we reminded of Ukraine? Yemen? Myanmar? How many other things are simply overlooked? It sometimes feels overwhelming to care about all of these on top of threats and challenges in our own lives, much less our own country.

Rewatching The King’s Speech with some friends, I was reminded how precious it is to have a voice and to have that voice heard. Certainly many problems we have been collectively facing of late stem from voices being too strong, voices that speak loudly and falsely. But for others of us, not on the national or global stage, the problem is with speaking too quietly, if at all, and too timidly. We do each have a voice and, while I might not wish to hear several among us, their speaking is not the problem. See, the privilege of having a voice is accompanied by the privilege of having ears.

I was going to write this whole post about that movie and some good, topical take-aways I got from it. In the event, surprise, that is not how it has happened.

There’s not loads to report on my life this week, other than frustrating paperwork being worked on and the like. Going on a brief trip this holiday weekend to Ocean Shores so I had to stock up on warm and cozy cat snuggles.

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I did not watch all of the farewell speech this week, but I did read the entire transcript. It was well written and well taken, more than I anticipate from any speech that will be forthcoming from the Oval Office in the next several years. Anyway, I liked the speech overall and I wanted to discuss a bit one particular moment from it. Talking about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Obama said,

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

Self-executing indeed. I am always struggling with what these rights look like in my own soul; I cannot imagine working them out for an entire country millions strong. As much as I fervently believe that we can, together, build a more perfect union, I also believe that perfection is unquestioningly unattainable. My teleological worldview does imply an eventual end to history but it does not require an arch bending toward justice. I do not believe that we inherently march toward goodness. All I know is that one day, everything will be good and perfect, regardless of what has come before.

In the meantime, it’s difficult not to feel a deep-seated restlessness. This restlessness stems from a knowledge that we will never get it right but somehow we’re meant to. We had the blueprints for perfection but somewhere along the line each of us tore them up in favor of living in comfortable squalor instead.

I contemplated, briefly, having this post simply reproduce Wordsworth’s The Prelude because it’s over six hundred lines of magic. But I did not because it’s over six hundred lines. Then I contemplated including just the first stanza because it’s beautiful. But I did not because I could not decide where to cut it off, perhaps it needed more than just the first stanza, perhaps I could use just part of the first stanza. Alas.

In the end, a single line from the opening made its way into this entry. It is the title. This line haunts me with its eloquence and tenderness. And its truth aches and emboldens.

Every day, I feel myself a discontented sojourner in this world so often dismal. Every day, I must remind myself that I have been freed. It does not matter where my steps are directed, they are taking me home. I am yet a wayfaring stranger in this world of woe, but while I’m here I can embrace the freedom that comes from declining to care what this world thinks of me. I can use that freedom to love in ways that other people think are foolish at best or downright disgraceful at worst.

I would much rather be counted a fool for loving much than wise for loving little.