Saturday, July 18, 2015

Summer Blues and the Ghost of Snow

I sit at the kitchen window, staring at the cat. It's hard to believe I'm here, that the cat is beside me, that this window is one I can consider mine. We are back in Seattle -- home -- but we've portioned off too many pieces of ourselves and left them in enough corners of the world that now, home is too small a word to hold all the places it recalls. California, Seattle, Seoul, and now back to Seattle, with countless other cities and towns littered in between. Our first month back balanced on the endless generosity of friends and family, of their air mattresses and spare floor space and patience. Meanwhile, our backpacks strained, as did my sense of belonging; I felt like a blur in a photograph. Physical distances can close so quickly, but traces of isolation still lace my blood, and coming back to Seattle - the same apartment building, even - make all the changes in me and in the city more acute and harder to reconcile. It's not reverse culture shock - nothing so urgent as that. Rather, I imagine I'm resurfacing from amnesia, that the world I knew spun on and lives were lived while I chased my own unseen. Events were missed with the details excused, and stories retold for my shadow. There are moments of dissonance, feelings of being invited to laugh at an inside joke you don't remember, of trying to recover a dream first had by someone else. In every overdue phone call or delayed hug I feel that lingering gap, gentle and persistent: a mild miasma of time apart settling over the reunion. The smoke of foreignness and inaccessibility to which I grew accustomed just needs to be given the time to dissipate. 

It takes longer than a plane ride to catch up. It takes longer than the fall to land on your feet.

Regardless, it feels good to be back.

So much has happened that I haven't really processed. Adam and I got engaged in Cambodia at the dawn of the new year, alone atop tucked-away stone steps inside Angkor Wat. Just a few months later, we left the lives we'd built over 2 and a half years in Seoul, parting with friends, muddling my way through heartbreaking goodbyes, and making last trips to favorite haunts. We became the ghosts we always used to feel.

We spent a week with elephants in the mountains of northern Thailand, helping in small ways to keep their sanctuary a reality. We were ceremonially blessed by grandmothers from the nearby village, befriended by resident cats, and escorted to breakfast by rescued dogs. In Chiang Mai, we trailed our fingers along the stripes of tigers lounging in the late morning heat, and at night we wandered the stalls of markets crowded with noise and smells and sweat. In Krabi, we watched the rain smooth mountains into mist and swam between sheltering islands to tease the smiles of giant blue clams.

Farther south still, we stepped into autumn on the edges of Australia and met old friends along the way. Countless marsupials were fed and cuddled at every opportunity. We drank whiskey with Ned Kelly's death mask, close enough to count pores in the plaster, and felt cold for the first time in weeks. Adam drove on the left while I questioned if the maps were right. We held our breath for the chance of a platypus, scrutinized tree lines for fur among leaves, and scanned waves for a flash of dorsal fin. We startled wallabies in the underbrush and played chicken with geese made indignant by our very presence on the path. Our voices echoed in caves and drowned in the thunder of waterfalls. 

In New Zealand, we sat in silence under the Southern Cross while cows whispered through the neighbor's fields and we witnessed how stupid sheep can be. I saw how green the grass is on the other side. We solved puzzles to escape a bank vault and rushed through a vertical cycle of luge and gondola while recklessness reined over better judgment. I lusted over mountain ranges and touched moss-coated history lessons. We marveled at the faded corpse of a giant squid before we were crushed by the weight of war memories one hundred years heavy. We sipped Sauvignon Blanc on a train passing Mordor and drank ale at the hearth of the Green Dragon. I cried at Hobbiton, at my nerd dreams come to life, at having to leave. My arm was tattooed and my appetite frequently fished-and-chipped (and craft beered).

And then it was over. We fought jetlag to rejoice in familiar faces and forgotten foods before preparing yet another rearrangement of belongings, and now here we are, resuming life as ex-expats from scratch. Despite leaps in progress toward the trappings of reestablishment, I'm finding difficulty in the stillness. I keep expecting another airport, adjusting phantom backpack straps on shoulders rapidly losing their tan, and making acceptance of where I am - geographically, metaphorically - a daily exercise.

We documented our travels well, and I'll be fleshing them out here over time with the stories they deserve as the hundreds of photos are organized and edited. For now, I'll just revel in the Seattle summer blues, paying dues of adulthood, and await the ghost of snow.

We're home.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Belated Blogiversary: Slurring Toward Epiphany

November has done away with itself quickly despite having had an abundance of long days, probably aided by an absence of any typical Thanksgiving to observe and a slew of post-op hours spent waiting for the pain to pass, eyes closed and mind wildly unfocused. Posting anything on the blogiversary proper was impossible as sensitivity to any light source, be it computer screen or morning sun filtered red through clenched eyelids, felt like what I imagine is the reason we warn children not to look directly at an eclipse. Adam lovingly played guide-dog through the weekend, alternately spoon-feeding me limited distractions and finding amusement in my inability to be still (I am a restless patient who is anything but).

I'm still relearning to see, still adjusting to a different blur with the eventual promise of clarity. Much like waiting for a drunken story to slur its way toward epiphany, I hold out for a resolution of keener sight in a sharper world. In a matter of frenzied weeks, our last travels from Seoul begin with New Year's in Cambodia. I'll be meeting the sunrise over Angkor Wat with eager eyes and ready heart, and such a sight is well worth this wait.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Shrapnel into the Ether

I've been writing a lot, albeit (obviously) not here. For the most part, nothing I've secreted away in a notebook - or, in paperless desperation, clumsily typed into a blank note on my phone - has wanted or needed an audience, even one as small as this. Nonetheless, I may as well shake off the dust here with a handful of bursts of thought and send a little unnecessary shrapnel into the ether:

The older I get, the dumber I feel. It seems contradictory to be hypersensitive of such a dulling, but there you have it.

Ginkgo trees are another contradition I'm struggling to reconcile. They are at once beautiful in their golden feathering and nauseating in their miasma. Every fall, they scatter their leaves in their ancient shape, tiny fans scalloping the pavement. They also drop their hell-fruit to be crushed underfoot, reeking of baked dog shit, or vomit rotting in the musty stacks of an old library. Sidewalks and shoe soles will only be safe come winter.

Adam took me to feed some spotted deer in a park. Their muzzles were soft and muddy and I felt the kind of joy I imagine must be typically reserved for Disney princesses when squirrels braid their hair and songbirds hang their laundry. Also, translated from Korean, their name is "flower deer" because Korean can't leave cute things well enough alone.

My anxiety is changing, and I've begun to recognize its old weight in the new guise. For years, it's felt like a bird sewn where my heart should be, with useless, beating wings and a burning for air. Lately, the bird has quieted; rather, it's been favoring the form of a wet stone, rolling just under the split of the ribs, scraping the sternum without the calm of a current. It's the slow turn of a river rock, worn smooth and cold by worry and want for sleep.

I feel myself quieting, too. I've never been one to command a room, but I'd always been able to hold my own in conversation. More and more often, my legitimate comment will go unnoticed to be posited verbatim by another for discussion minutes later, a joke slipped in only to be retold by another and laughed at the second time around. When I assert myself, I sound abrasive to my own ears; if I withdraw, I appear aloof. As a mumbler, I try to speak up, but I always doubt others' will to listen.

I fear being forgotten, and I have picked up the unfortunate habit of ostracizing myself even further when it happens.

I ran 100 miles in about 40 days. Now I don't want to stop.

If you want to pick a fight with me, try pigeonholing me as anything. If you want to make me happy, walk with me where there are trees. Or tell me I remind you of Amy Poehler.

Experience and age are not the bedfellows I believed as a child. Some people will have something to prove at any age, at any cost. I have met people who have covered enough empirical ground to understand that being a fully-realized person isn't a zero-sum competition those around them. Others navigate conversations like their own personal Hunger Games arenas, clutching their insecurities in one hand and wielding half-formed opinions like weapons with the other.

Months from now, I will be surrounded by elephants and I don't yet have a plan for what to do when my mind and body shut down from sheer excitement.

I would trade many things for some good bourbon, some good wine, real cheese, and my cat, but I wouldn't trade my years as an expat for anything.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kind of a Big Deal

Things have been happening since April.

I flew back to the U.S. for a short visit, which was filled with family, friends, forced cat cuddles, rehearsed answers to inevitable questions, hectic running of errands, walking in good weather and good company, and a LOT of good food. I felt a little out of place and as if the time was spent in a vacuum of premature nostaligia, but it satisfied a need for the familiar and it satiated a craving for the trappings of "home" a little while longer.

I started wearing jean shorts again for the first time since my early teenage years, body image be damned. My legs, like the rest of me, aren't getting any younger, and if I can't bear to bare my skin now, then when? I'm trying to pay less mind to the matters of thighs and the blues and purples of veins whispering through thin skin.

I've had my first patbingsu of the summer, the cold, sweet clarion call of the season.

Most importantly, I've made a decision. It's kind of a big deal, and it affects quite a lot. After much research, deliberation, and support from Adam and my supervisor/mentor at work: I've been accepted to a teaching certification program, and next month, I begin the first course. It's a big commitment on top of my current teaching schedule over here, but it's also a big step toward a future I really want. Doing this requires a certain sacrifice and a little change of immediate plans, but if all the logistics work out according to plan, I'll be a certified teacher by 2016.

So things are happening, and I'm excited. Here goes nothing, and everything.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Threshers in the Grain

I am an anxious existentialist. I arrived here reluctantly, but am quietly resolute, without proud convictions or comfort in belief. I understand death as a kind of erasure, final and empty, a soft smudging-out, then nothing.

(I sometimes imagine death smells like cold perfume, at least at first - insistent, with designs to be subtle but cloying instead, like Easter lilies and alcohol. Maybe that's why I find the over-air conditioned shopping malls of summer so oppressive.)

I once thought people who subscribed to this brand of thought might live with a sense of freedom, a sort of resignation-come-liberation: if nothing matters, then there's nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, I am not one of this ilk (or maybe fortunately - I would most likely be an asshole). In fact, I do quite the opposite. I worry constantly. When I can't busy myself with distraction or am not tired enough after giving priority to the details of daily life, insomnia and fear of oblivion blend into a nighttime mental paralysis. I often envy the solace some find in their faiths, but sometimes I desire doubt. After all, reincarnation sounds so pleasant. An Elysian afterlife appeals to me enormously. But I can't accept them. I asked too many questions for my Roman Catholic heritage to handle and so I abandoned most of its trappings after my first Confession, although I have a lingering fondness for its rich ceremony and colorful aesthetic. (I wore St. Christopher around my neck when I surfed and sometimes even now, but only then for misplaced cultural longing, and now, out of nostalgia. I often wear a St. Benedict medallion from Mexico tied loosely around my wrist, dangling from a strand of clay beads the color of rust after rain, but I don't believe it will ward off evil - although I wish it could ward off indecision. Curios that catch my eye in crowded markets hold no special power; I imbue these trinkets with nothing to worship but second-hand sentimentality.) I don't have the confidence or selfishness to entertain solipsism, and I find most religions too myopic, too limited in scope to satisfy me. Instead, I pick and choose the values I find valuable and collect them as tools to navigate whatever I encounter, too practical or paranoid to harvest from only one crop. None of them, however, change the ending of the story.

Momento mori, and all that.

I have a long-held affection for Rosencrantz's simplistic, rambling thoughts on the matter (although, unlike myself, he seemed rather nonplussed about it):

"Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, laying  in a box with a lid on it? Nor do I really. Seems silly to be depressed by it. I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account that fact that one is dead. Which should make all the difference. Shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box would you? It would be just like you’re asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box mind you. Not without any air. You’d wake up dead for a start and then where would you be? In a box. That’s the bit I don’t like frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it. Because you’d be helpless wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that. I mean you’d be in there forever. Even taking into account that fact that you’re dead, it isn’t a pleasant thought. Especially if you’re dead really. Ask yourself: if I asked you straight off I’m going to stuff you in this box right now– would you rather be alive or dead? Naturally you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lay there thinking well, at least I’m not dead. In a minute somebody’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (knocks) "Hey you! Whatsyername! Come out of there!" [...] Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. It must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory like that. And yet, I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we knew the word for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squaling…with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction and time is it’s only measure."

Quickly-derailing trains of thought like this are why I lie awake at night, fretting over nothing – or, nothingness. There are things my tiny human brain cannot ever comprehend, only entertain (like space - I can't even). I am not equipped with the ability to encompass such notions without a very primal fear kicking in, and kicking hard. Yet I kick back. I kick and scream and wish I could squeeze these oceans of thought – the kind thousands of better-qualified philosophers have pondered before me – into droplets small enough to seep in.

I am a scared little field mouse, wishing she couldn't see the threshers in the grain.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Try Not to Blink

Most posts like these hover closer to the turn of the calendar: heralding a New Year, pondering all it may portend while probing the experiences of the one so freshly left behind. Accomplishments are crowed and hopes are cooed, bearing the standards of our midwinter rebirths. The good is grasped tightly in writing so any bad beyond the horizon can't blot it out entirely when the world feels darker and colder. This post attempts these things, of course; however, it requires that I slide the scale a bit. My last and coming year are not framed by the beginnings of Januarys, but the ends. January 25 marks our anniversary of living in Seoul, where we've just signed on for another contract to end February, 2015. My year is therefore slightly shifted from the usual count, and my reflections are skewed accordingly.

'Expect the unexpected' is a trope of the traveler, and, as expected, the past year it has proven it true enough.

I've learned a new language - not enough to hold a conversation, but enough to form grammatically-correct sentences with a little struggle, and more than enough to survive. I learned to read and write a new alphabet in less than a week. I can navigate the subway and direct a taxi with the basics. I can peruse a menu and order the usuals, and while my vocabulary may not always suffice, I can at least amuse those patient enough with a decent accent.

I've tried to embrace the cultures that have welcomed me as a guest, even if there are times I've wanted to fold my arms and click my heels on the off-chance such a transplant doesn't require a tornado and a head wound.

I've visited three countries outside of Korea, four if you count a few steps beyond an invisible line into the negotiating territory of North Korea. Malaysia, Japan, and the Philippines have shown me glimpses of worlds to which I'd never previously given much thought beyond romanticized stories or fingers tracing a map. I've stared like a child at whale sharks and guarded my belongings from unscrupulous monkeys. I've sipped soju on rooftops and tasted corner store sake on my boyfriend's lips. I played darts with an audience of chirping geckos and learned how to shuffle cards like an adult. I've wandered through painted palaces built, burned, and rebuilt over thousands of lifetimes before mine, and I've spent several cumulative hours looking for a place to pee. I've collected prayer beads from cool-tiled mosques, shrines in caves, and temples on the edge of the sea. I've retraced countless steps and found my way before I even realized I was lost. I've confirmed an uncanny ability to know my way around by recognition of subtle landmarks, and I've thanked God for Adam's sense of direction in the face of my hopelessness (without a handy compass or the convenience of tree moss, I've accepted that I will never have those bearings - seriously, where the hell is North?).

My ability to endure spicy foods has grown to a point at which I am not filled with dread to try a bite of something new (and instead, every so often, I'm filled only with mild regret and temporary pain). I saw Basquiat's art and remembered to try to make some of my own, too. I nursed bruises and scrapes from a Spartan Race and hunted mosquitoes with vengeance. I explored with my parents when they came for a surreal visit. I climbed a mountain with terrifying, humbling views, afraid to reach the top, but more afraid not to. I was caught by the monsoon in the park when we lingered too long for the summer sun's liking. I cried under cherry blossoms and laughed in the glow of thousands of lanterns floating through crowded streets. I played in the mud, sang in sweaty bars, and fed neighborhood alley cats in the rain.

I've fallen in love with teaching and had my heart repeatedly broken by dozens of unfairly-adorable 6-year-olds. I encouraged sarcasm in a couple third graders, fanned infant flames of feminism in a few others, and asked "Why?" a million times.

I've forged new friendships while aching for the ones on the other side of the world. I've seized opportunities across oceans while missing milestones at home - weddings of dear friends, the birth of my nephew, my cat learning patience - and knowing there will be more. Technology helps to soothe the pangs of these particular casualties of my time here, but sometimes the sense of removal is strong and homesickness flairs when I can only celebrate these occasions via Skype. I also feel these things knowing that one day, I will feel the same for my life in Seoul. There is a certain peril with this brand of adventure: the heart-seam-ripping feeling of longing for home and longing for hazard abroad, as if one can be ignored or made dormant while the other is satisfied. This longing exists, dully, just under my ribs, with semi-frequent  bouts of acute immediacy. It has taught me that Home is not where, but with whom (which seems to make things infinitely more difficult), and it spurs a selfish desire to transplant everyone I love to wherever I happen to be.

I've been reminded over and over again of my luck, that I get to share all of this with someone I love in ways I never knew possible. He has taught me more about living - and about myself - than I'm sure he ever intended. I couldn't ask for a better partner (or a better travel buddy, to boot). I wouldn't be where I am without him, physically and otherwise, and I'm excited for our next year together, and the year after, and the years after that.

I've felt unsure more times than I thought tolerable. There were stretches when depression stole the throne, as it does from time to time. I've known discomfort as a constant shadow, and I've let fear drive discovery.

I've been happy.

Altogether, 2013 delivered more than I could have imagined; I'm sure this year has much more in store. I'll look forward to good things - expected and unexpected - and try not to blink.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Place in the Sun

In Seoul, autumn is short and winter is sudden. As November is still finding a foothold, our brief excitement of trading flipflops in humidity for boots in brisk air is ended before spark has a chance to fade. Autumn's brevity is a precious gasp air in our lungs - we'll be holding our breath in the dark until spring brings promise of the surface.

After Christmas, we were lucky to escape for a few days, to find a place in the sun before winter steals the memory of such a thing. Arriving at 2am wreaked havoc in jetlag form, but our first stop in Cebu allowed us a first taste of a welcome thaw before heading to the islands.

A day and a ferry-ride later landed us on Panglao, a small island off the bigger, better-known Bohol. Our tiny resort was at the end of a winding dirt road, perched cliffside over the ocean.

We named him Cecil.

Having only two full, proper days on the island (bookended by two half/travel days), we took advantage of what we could, namely a "countryside" tour spanning 8 hours, including encounters with a number of animals (some cuter than others), a Jungle Cruise-esque lunch with decidedly fewer puns, and astounding geography despite the temperamental skies. (P.S. Remember the devastating earthquake in the Philippines at the end of last year? That was on Bohol, where we saw a good bit of sad aftermath, i.e. centuries-old churches reduced to ruins as you'll see below.)

The belltower of the Baclayon Church. Post-earthquake, the bell now lies at the bottom of the ruin.

Adam and a monkey exchanged a polite handshake.

A few pythons (the dark one holding the record of "Largest Snake in Bohol") and I exchanged a polite ew-I'm-pretending-I'm-not-a-little-freaked-out.

Adam loves amusing me more than he hates snakes.

The breeze we enjoyed during the cruise (and lunch) on the Bohol River dried our sweat-damp skin long enough to find an appetite and to stoke our ultimately-misplaced hopes of seeing the backside of water.

Another church, crumbled by the earthquake.

To get a better idea, I made a quick video of our riverboat excursion.

Next up, the tiny, furry-tree-froggish buddies I'd been dreaming of meeting for months. I found it difficult to contain my squeals when silence was enforced at the Tarsier Sanctuary. The world's smallest primate = Kait's overdose of cute.

We posed in the designated way because we're adults. Because tarsiers.

The man-made mahogany forest was... tall.

The butterfly garden survived the earthquake, but Typhoon Haiyan decimated the numbers of insects. Thankfully, there were still plenty of beauties flitting about and plenty more pupae, patient and safe.

The Chocolate Hills are a crazy geographical formation, named for the distinctive brown of the adorable Hobbit mounds rising above the green of the jungle.

Most of the observation peak didn't manage to survive the earthquake.

More animals, obviously. 

This little guy was a sniffing machine. His name is Chummy.
New Year's Eve was spent absorbing our last rays of sunlight on the white (hot) sands of Alona Beach.

Of course, with any international trip, I would be remiss not to give a nod to some of the delicious local fare I lustily inhaled sampled.

For breakfast, sunshine on a plate.

Lumpia, lumpia, and more lumpia.

Sorry, shrimpies. At least I resisted reenacting a particularly silly scene from 'Good Morning, Vietnam' with your remains.
Although we heard them, we did not see any fireworks from our tiny island. Instead, this New Year's Eve, our riots of color and light came instead from the constellations burning bright and absolute in the southern sky, the riches of experience, and the indomitable life we beheld, abundant and enduring. This year, I celebrate that I am both witness to and part of something infinitely grand and wondrously intimate.

Manigong Bagong Taon and 새해 복 많이 받으세요 - Happy New Year, friends.