This evening my family attended an IMPACT meeting that filled the John Paul Jones Arena. IMPACT stands for Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together. Quakers, Mennonites, Jews, Presbyterians, Catholics, Muslims, Baptists, Pentecostalists, Unitarians…26 member congregations in all come together once a year to address an issue of social justice in the Charlottesville area in what is known as a “Nehemiah Action,” modeled after the “Great Assembly” described in the book of Nehemiah.

IMPACT is a well-organized grassroots movement that has made a meaningful difference for thousands of the most vulnerable members of our community. Every fall, the group conducts research to study and identify areas of concern. The group identifies a specific issue to address and draws up a practical proposal to solve or alleviate the problem. Congregation members are then mobilized in the kind of numbers that are meaningful to policy-makers, who are also invited to attend the Nehemiah Action.

In the past, IMPACT has addressed issues such as public transportation, health care, and affordable housing. Here are just a few of IMPACT’s success stories:

  • Lobbying for Sunday bus service, night bus service, and the creation of a new bus route between the county office building and low-income neighborhoods.
  • The creation of the Free Dental Clinic, which serves uninsured patients, who had to go without dental care or who had to be seen in emergency rooms
  • The creation of the Healthy Transitions Program, which provides immediate and on-going medication and therapy for people who have recently been released from jail or prison.

This year, the organization targeted two main concerns: homelessness and employment for youth.

  • To address the pressing need of more than 500 children and young people in our community who are currently homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless, IMPACT has proposed the establishment of a coordinated strategy to move people into permanent housing under the leadership of a “Roundtable to Reduce Homelessness.”
  • To address the serious problem of unemployment for young adults, IMPACT has asked the University of Virginia Health System and Martha Jefferson Hospital to sponsor a job-training program that would open the way for thousands of  young adults to enter the workforce, while also providing the hospitals with much-needed skilled workers.

It was inspiring to participate in this assembly of people of many faiths, races, and socio-economic backgrounds, who were all united and committed to social justice not only in words, but in deeds.

Learn more about IMPACT here:

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Mythology Bee

My seven-year old daughter has been obsessed with Greek mythology all year long.  Her brother was not interested in competing in his school’s annual middle-school Mythology Bee, but on a whim I asked if his sister might be able to participate.

All week long she was both nervous and excited about the bee. As we were getting ready to go, she asked, “Shall I wear something fancy?”

“Sure!” I said, assuming she’d put on her usual cotton knit dress. It’s the only dress she’ll ever wear, because she abhors anything that is the slightest bit itchy. But when next I saw her, she was resplendent in a gauzy red dress and wool sweater. Now I knew the girl meant business. She asked me to help her with the buttons, saying with steely resolve, “This is going to be itchy, but, oh well.”

When we got to the auditorium, she crumpled and decided she wouldn’t compete after all. She was on the verge of tears. I told her she didn’t have to compete if she didn’t want to, but at the very last minute, she screwed up her courage and went to take her place in one of the rows reserved for the contestants.

She looked tiny in the seat surrounded by middle-schoolers, and even tinier when she went up to the microphone to answer her questions.

The older kids were lovely to her. As she made her way back to her seat after each round, they included her in the ritual congratulatory hand slaps they were giving each other.

She was eliminated after a few rounds, but at the end, those who made it past a certain point were taken to another room to be given a written test to determine who would place.

At the award ceremony, my daughter’s name was announced as the 9th place winner!

Her brothers were delighted for her

Of course, we had to celebrate!

“I’m so happy! I’m going to sleep with this tonight,” she announced, gazing at her ribbon.

“That would be too dangerous. You might choke!” I cautioned.

She slept with it clutched in her little hand.

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How My Mom Got a Patient Sprung From St. Elizabeths

My father was the minister of a Korean congregation in Northern Virginia for many years. The church had members who had lived in the U.S. for a long time, but also a fair number of newly-arrived immigrants as well. An important and necessary part of my father’s ministry was to help people with very limited English skills navigate the labyrinth of perplexing institutions they faced as newcomers to America. My mother with her street smarts and sparkling charisma and my father with his legal training and gravitas made a crack ministerial team. Never was the need for this kind of mediation and assistance made more painfully clear than when an older woman showed up at church one Sunday morning wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with: “Thank God, I’m stoned.”

The phone rang at all hours of the night and day. People would call my parents for help when they had to go to court or to the hospital, or when they needed help communicating with their children’s teachers or with their landlords…Many a time, my parents would be roused out of bed by a late night phone call. They would get dressed and disappear for hours on their mysterious missions of mercy. One night they left to try to negotiate with a landlord, who was tossing out all of a congregant’s belongings onto the sidewalk. They managed to work out some sort of solution, but my mother returned with a broken rib  – an injury she sustained when she tripped and fell over in the dark. Another late night mission took them to the Emergency Room, where my mother saved a woman’s life by tapping into her inner drama queen.

One day a frantic young woman called our house. She had been involved in a car accident earlier that week that had killed a Chinese diplomat, and she was understandably distraught. Her boyfriend was so worried about her, that he had taken her to what he thought was the local hospital. He had, in fact, mistakenly taken her to the now-defunct St. Elizabeths: the psychiatric hospital in Washington D.C. that once housed would-be presidential assassin, John Hinckley Jr. The staff at St. Elizabeths took one look at the weeping, disheveled woman and concluded that she should be admitted and committed. When the poor woman discovered that she was unable to leave of her own volition, she became even more hysterical. The more hysterical she grew, the more convinced the doctors were that she should not be released.

My parents drove to the hospital together. I imagine that my beloved father, a.k.a.: The Easter Island Head,  sat impassive and immobile in the woman’s room. My mother, on the other hand, would have leaped into action. Are you imagining that she gathered the poor sobbing woman to her breast? Are you seeing in your mind’s eye how she soothed her with gentle shushing and rhythmic pats to her back?

Ummm, no. This is my mother we’re talking about.

“Pull yourself together!” she scolded as she strode into the woman’s room.

She dragged the woman over to the sink and ordered her to wash her face. She pulled a comb out of her big, shabby purse and made her fix her hair. She dug out her ancient tube of orangey-red lipstick and made the woman put it on.

Stop crying!” she snapped. If there’s one thing my mother can’t stand, it’s the sound of crying. Nobody likes the sound of crying, but for my mother, the sound is like nails on a chalkboard. It unhinges her a little.

My mother continued with her businesslike ministrations, while my father conferred with the doctors. When my parents left St. Elizabeths, they started calling everyone who had ever darkened the door of the church. They rallied half the Korean population of Northern Virginia to go visit the woman.

“Be cheerful!” my mother coached them sternly over the phone. “Smile! Make her laugh!” she commanded.

Maybe the staff of St. Elizabeths was tired of the never-ending stream of visitors. Maybe they no longer wanted to deal with the formidable, whip-cracking, smiling woman, who seemed to be orchestrating the parade. It didn’t take long. The woman was released soon after.

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This morning…

The past two weeks have shaken us all to the core and have left us feeling raw, exposed, and vulnerable. There was the vicious bomb attack at the Boston Marathon, the devastating fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, and the catastrophic earthquake in China. Closer to home there have been great sorrows that have not made it into the news cycle, but have made the people around me painfully aware of how precious life is and how cruelly capricious the tides of fate.

This morning I realized how much these events have crept into my psyche. I had been up to 2:30 am (the only time I could find to write) and had woken up at 6 am to help my son get packed for his three day school trip.The night before, when he had announced that he was too tired to pack and would wake up early to do so, I knew with absolute certainty that this was a terrible idea. I knew this morning would not be pretty, but I didn’t have the energy to argue the point or to start the packing myself.

So this morning at 6, I sat on my bedroom floor with an open suitcase and my laptop opened to the emailed packing list my son’s teacher had sent.

“Bring me three pairs of long pants and three long-sleeve shirts!” I called out to him.

He slowly shuffled into my bedroom with one pair of pants and one t-shirt.

THREE pairs of pants and THREE LONG-sleeve shirts!'” I  bellowed with exasperation, “CHOP CHOP!”

Seasons changed, my skin began to sag, and more grey hairs sprouted as I waited for him to reappear. Finally he showed up bearing…another t-shirt and a sweater.

When I protested, he claimed that he couldn’t find what was asked for in his drawers.

I rifled through his drawers myself and discovered one or two of the things he needed, but confirmed the fact that the rest of the items simply weren’t there. They were buried deep in the mountain of unwashed laundry that I hadn’t been able to get to all week.

You can probably imagine the snarling and generally churlish behavior that ensued, but we finally did get him packed. Already running late, I began getting myself ready for work. As I was getting out of the shower, I could hear that my husband was about to leave the house to drop him off at school for the field trip.



There was one crucial thing I had forgotten, and I didn’t want to miss my chance. If I’d learned anything in these past two weeks, I’d learned that sometimes you never do get a second chance.

I raced out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around me and my hair streaming with water. At the top of the stairs, I barked out his name.

He turned around, and from the bottom of the stairs he looked up at me with a doleful stare and sighed, “Yes?”

The word was imbued with that unique teenage inflection that makes it abundantly clear that behind that monosyllable is irritation, a lifetime of  suffering, and the sure expectation of more unreasonable parental behavior…

I tried to modulate my own tone, but failed.

“I LOVE YOU!” I snapped.

A momentary flicker of surprise registered in his eyes and after the briefest pause, he muttered “Love you” and ambled out the door.

Oh, to be more like…the Tree Peony

When my siblings and I were young, we used to ask my mother: “Which one of us do you love the best?”

Her response was always disappointingly the same. “See my fingers?” she would say as she held up her hand, “Do I love one more than the other? No! I love them all the same!”

Well, of the many flowers I grow and love, this “Shimadaijin” tree peony would be my thumb, or maybe my pointer finger!

Although tree peonies tend to resent being moved, I couldn’t bear to leave this one behind when we moved from our first home in Charlottesville. I dug it up and transplanted it to our new garden, where it reigns supreme as the undisputed Empress of All the Land. I’ve ruthlessly hacked to pieces and uprooted a number of perfectly lovely plants that have had the temerity to encroach upon her territory.

The tree peony is:

  • a drop-dead gorgeous diva – a gardener might sell her soul for this plant
  • imperious – deer don’t dare take a nibble
  • unabashedly flamboyant – those silky, over-the-top, fragrant blossoms can be up to 10″ across
  • surprisingly low-maintenance – despite its glamorous appearance, this woody shrub doesn’t need pampering. Unlike the herbaceous peony, tree peony stems do not die back in the winter and should not be cut back.
  • long-lived – a tree peony can live for decades

The beauty of tree peonies has inspired names as extravagant as the blossoms themselves. Here are a few of the more evocative ones:

Black Dragon Holds a Splendid Flower

Brocaded Gown

Coiled Dragon in the Mist

Companion of Serenity

Cup of Shining Night

Flying Swallow in a Red Dress

Gold Sand in a Black Ocean

Green Dragon Lying on a Chinese Inkstone

Palace of the Purple Clouds

Princess Zhao Marries Beyond the Great Wall

Tipsy Imperial Concubine

Junks I Collect No. 7: Japanese Maples

Japanese Maples (Acer Palmatum) are beautiful in all four seasons. With their many variations in size, shape, color, and texture, they can be arranged as you would flowers in the garden. The leaves can look like little stars or hands (hence the name “Palmatum”); others with more deeply dissected leaves can have a more thread-like appearance. The tiniest leaves are as small as a thumbnail. One of the greatest pleasures of having Japanese Maples is watching the leaves change color with the seasons. They come in a wide spectrum of greens, reds, dazzling fuchsias, glowing oranges, yellows, purples, and almost black. There are some fascinating leaf color variations like the Lily Pulitzer green and pink combination that you see in Higasayama. My favorite combination is green edged with a deep, moody purple. Sometimes the most striking color comes not from the leaves, but from the branches themselves. Sango Kaku and Beni Kawa, for example, have brilliant crimson branches. The most beautiful color can even come from the seeds. I once witnessed the breathtaking vision of a Japanese Maple hung all over with seedlings that looked like ruby red ballet slippers glowing in the sun. In the winter, when the trees finally lose their leaves, the structure of their elegant architectural branches is revealed.

I only have a couple Japanese Maples planted out in the garden. Most of them are in heavy blue ceramic pots that withstand freezing temperatures year after year. Mature Japanese Maples are fairly expensive plants to buy, but you can find them as bonsai starters for reasonable prices. (Check ebay)!

This weekend, my Head Assistant Gardener, aka my daughter and I embarked upon a mission to repot this Beni Otake Japanese Maple:

Step 1 – cover hole at bottom of pot with coffee filter to prevent soil from washing away

Step 2 – Have able assistant add soil to bottom

Step 3 – Transplant tree, then add pebbles and sempervivum (hens and chicks) to the base

Step 4 – Pose trees for a family photo. Say “cheese”!

I grow: Red Dragon, Higasayama, Beni Kawa, Orange Dream, Wou Nishiki, Shindeshojo, Beni Otake, Hanami Nishiki, Murasaki Kiyohime, and Chishio Improved.

I’ve tried and failed to grow Beni Maiko a couple times. I want to try again, because it’s a beautiful tree, but mostly because I love its name:  “Red-Haired Dancing Girl”!

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The last major 17 year cicada cycle I can remember happened when I was in high school. It felt like a nightmare that went on for weeks. The ceaseless shrieking of frenzied, mate-seeking insects jangled everyone’s nerves. That year, a truck jackknifed on I-66 when a cicada flew through the open window of the cab and into the truckdriver’s ear. My walk to school and back was also fraught with peril. It was impossible to take a step without crunching shells underfoot. Every tree and telephone pole was covered with empty brown cicada husks. The lightest breeze would dislodge the exoskeletons and they would waft through the air like wraiths. Their legs were like grotesquely large velcro hooks blindly reaching for my hair, forcing me to dodge and weave to avoid them. Eventually, the shells would get heaped at the curbside in such copious quantities that they looked like piles of autumn leaves. The whole experience was horrifying.

Decades have passed. I’ve learned since then that the cicada has positive connotations in many cultures. In Korea, the cicada is a symbol of  nobility of spirit. The insect, who only sings when the sun is shining, is a symbol of  sun-drenched Provence and appears in provençal fabric and ceramic figurines. Aesop’s fable “The Cicada and the Ant” (not “The Grasshopper and the Ant”!) has given us the image of the improvident insect who sings all summer long while the ants toil away. Because of this fable, the cicada is associated with music, gaiety, and lightheartedness. In Ancient Greece, the cicada was considered sacred to Apollo, because of its ecstatic “music.” In China, a jade cicada amulet would be placed on the tongue of a deceased person in the hope that it would ensure that person’s resurrection. It is this association with rebirth and immortality that is most often seen across cultures.

I finally learned to appreciate the cicada one summer day, five years ago. My family had gathered at my sister’s house to be with my mother, who was being treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering for her primary amyloidosis. There had been many dark days when we were afraid that our mother, the light of our lives, would never get out of bed again. We had each in our own way tried to prepare ourselves for the worst. To our great joy, my mother’s disease went into remission. On that summer day, we were all outside basking in the warmth of the sun and the unexpected blessing of being all together, when my little nephews spotted a lone cicada emerging from its shell. It felt like a rare and sacred privilege to witness this miracle:

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Garden Party

I’m an indoorsy kind of person, except for in the spring months. Here in Virginia, the mosquitoes will soon be out for blood, it will be oppressively hot and humid, and I’ll retreat to my natural habitat: the Great Air-Conditioned Indoors. But springtime in Virginia is so rapturously beautiful, that I am irresistibly drawn outside. It’s a spectacular party that goes on for weeks, where I keep running into old friends that I haven’t seen in ages.

Even the uninvited guests are charming in their own way…

…sort of.

It’s been a difficult week…May we all find peace and solace in nature.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It
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Cherry Blossoms

At work today I had to make a phone call to someone in California. When she found out I was calling from Virginia, she told me she used to live in this area. “It must be beautiful there right now,” she said wistfully, “Are the cherry blossoms out? I miss them so much!”

I can’t imagine not being able to look forward to cherry blossoms every spring. They mean more to me with each passing year. I associate them with my mother and with hope.

After years of traveling back and forth across the Pacific, my gypsy parents finally settled down in their house in Virginia a couple years ago. They arrived in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. My mother had been sick for years with primary amyloidosis, a disease that almost took her life. The long flight from Korea had exhausted her and it was taking much longer than usual to recover from jet lag. My mother realized that she would never be able to make the arduous journey across the ocean again. She was happy to be closer to her family in Virginia, but profoundly sad to know that she had left behind her life in Korea forever.

She became so depressed, we were worried about her. When spring finally came, we were hopeful that this most beautiful of all seasons would lift her spirits. There’s a cherry tree right outside her bedroom window, and she fretfully waited and waited for the buds to unfurl. All around the neighborhood, other cherry trees were blooming, but my mother’s tree stubbornly refused to blossom. “Why won’t it bloom?” she kept asking. I had many anxious conversations with my sister about that cherry tree, all ending with that very same refrain. We were so desperate for my mother to be happy, we would have opened each blossom by hand, if we could have. The tree took its sweet time, but it finally burst forth in the most lavish and exuberant display of ravishing pink flowers we had ever seen…

I called my mom a few days ago.

“Is your cherry tree blooming, Mom?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered serenely, “It’s beautiful.”

by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

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First Birthdays

The Korean first birthday party (dol) culminates with the doljabi ritual, during which the child is shown a variety of objects that represent different possible fates. Whatever the child picks up first is meant to foretell his or her future. There are some variations on what is set before the child, but the most basic objects are:

  • A thread for long life
  • A pen for scholarship
  • Money for wealth
  • Chopsticks for a life without hunger

Here are photos from the doljabi of all the children in my family in birth order.

My niece chose…

the pen!

My oldest son chose…

the pen!

My second son chose…

the pen again!

My triplet nephews chose…

the pen! the pen! and yes: the pen!

“Oh, come on!,” we were all thinking by this point. “Couldn’t at least one of you pick the money? Who’s going to pay off all those college loans for you scholars?”

My daughter chose (cue the suspenseful music)…

the pen!

One last chance. My  nephew chose…

the pen!

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