Showing up

First posted a year ago today…

A week ago today I went to a memorial service for a woman I first met in graduate school in New York City. She had been a fellow student in my department for a year or so before she disappeared. People dropped out of the program all the time, and I assumed that she, like so many others, had decided it wasn’t for her. Although we were never close, I was surprised and delighted to spot her familiar face in the choir loft of the church my husband and I began to attend when we moved to Charlottesville about four years later. I found her after the service and tried to reconnect with her by chatting about our department and about New York. My overtures were coldly rebuffed. I was bewildered, but gave it no more thought until the following Sunday when she found me and wordlessly handed me a handwritten note on a scrap of paper before walking away. In the note she told me that she had been forced to give up her studies because of her health problems. It was painful for her to talk about her time in New York, because it was a cruel reminder of everything she had lost.

“Thank you for your note,” I said the next time I saw her. She did not reply. I’m sad to say that these were the last words we ever exchanged. Over the years, I awkwardly smiled at her or waved as we crossed paths. She would make eye contact with me, but nothing more. I feared that the very sight of me made her unhappy. Our paths diverged further and further. I eventually finished my degree and began teaching in my field. My family rapidly proliferated. She grew sicker and ever more remote. I would often see her walking along the road on her crutches, always alone. I learned from her obituary that on top of her other health issues, she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, which would explain some of the difficulty we had in interacting. From her obituary I also learned that she had graduated from Harvard with high honors, that she had a working knowledge of seven languages, and that she was a Chicago Cubs fan…Now she’s gone, and I’m left wondering if I should have tried harder to be a friend to her. If I had persisted, maybe I would have learned these things from her, rather than from her obituary. In the end, all I could do was show up for her memorial service.

It was a beautiful service given with love and compassion by our minister who knew her and appreciated her struggles, her strengths, her quirks and the essential goodness of her character. Knowing that she was unable to work, the church staff had appointed her as “adjunct staff.” She took care of things like folding the church bulletins, making sure the pencils in the friendship register were sharpened just so, and gathering up bulletins left behind in the pews to recycle. She volunteered at the hospital and for Emergency Food Bank, and many other places as well. The minister read a prayer for her called “For Those Whose Work is Invisible” by Mary Gordon from her series of “Prayers for the Unprayed-for”:

For those who paint the undersides of boats, makers of ornamental drains on roofs too high to be seen, for cobblers who labour over inner-soles, for seamstresses who stitch the wrong sides of linings, for scholars whose research leads to no obvious discovery, for dentists who polish each gold surface of the fillings on upper molars, for sewer engineers and those who repair water mains, for electricians, for artists who suppress what does injustice to their visions, for surgeons whose sutures are things of beauty. For all those whose work is for your eyes only, who labour for your entertainment or their own, who sleep in peace, or who do not sleep in peace, knowing that their efforts are unknown. Protect them from downheartedness and from diseases of the eye. Grant them perseverence, for the sake of your love which is humble, invisible and heedless of reward.

I’ve only been able to locate these prayers on JSTOR, which I hope you can access. They are full of poetry, humor, and empathy for human beings in all of their diversity. Gordon lovingly casts a holy light on human frailties and foibles by juxtaposing them with divine acts of creation, mercy and love. Here are excerpts from the other prayers in this series, all of which are worth reading:

For Liars: “Shelter them in their dream for an earth more various than our own…For your sake, who have thought of universes not yet made that rest, like lies, in the mind of your infinite love.”

For Those Who Have Given Up Everything for Sexual Love: “Grant that we who have lacked their courage may be strengthened by their example to pursue our partial loves with gladness and fullness of heart.”

For Those Who Devote Themselves to Personal Adornment: “Bless them, because a change in fashion can allow us to believe there could just be, for all of us, a change in heart. Grant this for the sake of your love which has adorned the mountains and created feathers and elaborate tails, O Lord, source of all that exists for delight only, for display only, suggestions, in the joy of their variety, of the ecstasy of light that is eternal, changeless and ever changing.”

For The Wasteful: “Look with kindness upon those who travel first class in high season, on those who spend whole afternoons in cafes, those who replay songs on juke boxes, who engage in trivial conversations, who memorize jokes and card tricks, those who tear open their gifts and will not reuse the wrappings, who hate leftovers and love room service, who do not wait for sales. For all foolish virgins, for those who knowingly give their hearts to worthless charmers, for collectors of snowmen paperweights, memorial cups and souvenir pens. For those who take the long way home…We pray to you whose love is prodigal, who multiplied the loaves and fishes so that there were baskets upon baskets left, who turned plain water into wine of a quality no one required, who gave your life when you need only have lifted a finger…”

For Those Who Misuse, Or Do Not Use, Or Cannot Use Their Gifts: “For conservatory-trained composers of incidental music, for beauties run to fat, for the patrons of charlatans, for athletes who watch television, for poets who write commercials, for mathematicians turned card sharks, for legal aid lawyers turned corporate counsel, for actors who are waiters, for wives who do not wish to stay at home, for cat lovers afraid of mess, for paramours afraid of transmittable diseases, for those who no longer go to auditions, for blacksmiths and letterpress printers…protect them from diseases of the spine, so that they may turn and bend to glimpse your hand at the fork of roads not taken, at the tunnel’s end.”

My own prayer? That I will gain the courage, the strength of character, and the compassion exemplified in these prayers to show up for the living, rather than for the dead.

Eating Animals

A post script to Dog, the last installment of Stories from Easter Island:

Earlier this month, the Humane Society rescued 23 dogs from a dog meat farm in South Korea. They have been imported to the U.S., where they are being put up for adoption in the DC area. I can completely relate to the visceral sense of revulsion at the very notion of eating dogs, but why don’t we ever hear about rescue operations involving any of these:

or these:

By Petr Kratochvil [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 or these?!

By User:4028mdk09, via Wikimedia Commons

I decided to consult with some experts…

“Chloe, what is your opinion on this matter?”

“All I can say is that I truly hope you’re not seriously trying to suggest that there is some sort of comparison to be made between me and those other creatures.”

“Anything to add, Tallis?”

“Hunh? What? Do you mind? Could I just gnaw on my cat meat in peace, please?”


Did I freak you out with the title of this post? 

Remember: this week’s Stories from Easter Island are all about the foods my dad didn’t eat. But let’s face it. It is a notorious fact that Korean people have been known to eat dog meat. When we were together over the holidays, my dad explained to us the background behind this practice…

In the old days, nobody ate much meat. People would eat it maybe just once or twice a year. Farmers, after a season of hard physical labor, would need to eat some meat to recover their strength. But because they were unaccustomed to eating meat, they would get sick as soon as they ate it. It would give them terrible stomach aches. The one kind of meat that wouldn’t have that effect was dog meat. Apparently, dog meat is very easy to digest and never causes stomach upset.

Seeing our long faces, he continued his story…

You know, whenever I would go back to visit Korea, people would always want to take me out to restaurants and treat me to the best foods. They were always trying to offer me dog meat. I didn’t want to be rude to them, but I always declined. I had to explain that my children had made me promise not to eat it.

He imitated us in a high-pitched voice that made us laugh, “Dad! Promise us, you won’t eat dog meat when you’re in Korea!

Even though I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, I couldn’t lie to my own children, so I never ate it.

And that’s the last installment of this week’s Stories from Easter Island. I hope you’ve enjoyed sitting in the basement with me, and that you have a wonderful, wonderful weekend!


When my father was eleven years old, his entire family was struck down by typhoid fever. Only his mother did not get sick, having developed immunity after surviving her own bout with the disease as a child. By the end of those terrible two weeks, my father’s father was dead. He left behind a widow with ten young children and a farm to run. This disastrous change in the family’s fortunes unleashed a whole chain of calamities. But this is the story of triumph over death in the midst of tragedy, and it came thanks to two venomous snakes. Here’s another installment of Stories from Easter Island, as told to me by my dad, whom we call (with great affection!) The Easter Island Head

My second oldest brother was thirteen or fourteen when our father got sick with typhoid fever. He tried to help around the farm, but he overexerted himself and hurt his side. He was completely incapacitated for months. He got so sick, we thought he would die. We lived in the country, and there were no doctors in the vicinity.

It was monsoon season, which is when snakes come out of hiding. There were men who would catch venomous snakes to sell for medicinal purposes. These snake catchers would keep them in boxes that they would carry around on their shoulders. One of those snake catchers heard that my brother was sick, so he visited our home. He told my mother that he could heal my brother with two snakes.

He had an earthen jar with a small opening at the top. These jars were used for boiling herbs or for storing food.

He put one of the snakes in the jar with some water and then he wrapped the jar with a straw rope from the bottom to the top. He plastered mud over the rope so the jar wouldn’t heat up too quickly, and then he lit a fire under it. He slowly, slowly heated up the jar, using just a few sticks of wood at a time. The fire burned for two days. The only time he ever left the fire was to use the bathroom. For two days he ate every meal sitting on his haunches, tending the fire.

At first the water felt warm and good to the snake. But as the water heated up, the snake started to feel uncomfortable and got angry. It started to strike at the walls of the jar, releasing all of its venom into the water.

On the second day, it started to smell like boiled chicken. After two days, the snake had mostly disintegrated. The head and bones were all that remained. The man dumped everything into a hemp cloth to filter out the liquid. He squeezed the cloth so that only the bones and some meat remained. The liquid made up a bowlful of soup.

There was a layer of fatty grease on top of the liquid. I remember that he used hanji, Korean handmade paper, to soak up the grease. He did that two or three times to get all the fat out. He said that if my brother drank any of the fat, he would get diarrhea and become even more sick.

Before he would give him the soup, he very carefully checked his mouth for any sores or open wounds to make sure he would not get poisoned. When he was absolutely sure there were no wounds, he let my brother drink the soup. My brother said it tasted good.

After a one day break, he did the same thing again with the second snake and served another bowlful of soup to my brother. After two doses of snake soup, he fully recovered. Two or three years later, the snake catcher returned and told our mother that it was time for my brother to have one more bowl of snake soup so that he could maintain his good health throughout his life. He was exceptionally healthy, even into adulthood, and it was thought that it was because of the snake soup.


Stories from Easter Island, continued

My dad’s fantasies have always been of the horticultural variety. How I wish I could win the lottery and make his lifelong dream of owning a walnut orchard or a cactus farm come true! Having crammed exotic plants into every corner of his own tiny suburban yard, he has begun speculating about the possibilities my yard has to offer. In a recent conversation we had, he mused about the feasibility of moving my house toward the back of the property so that my front yard could be transformed into a fruit orchard.

He’s been fascinated by fruit for as long as I can remember. You know that exotic fruit ghetto in the grocery store? That neglected little corner with strange, lumpy things no one ever buys and wouldn’t even know how to eat if they did? That’s always been my dad’s favorite part of the grocery store. He was always bringing home unusual fruits to try. You’d often find a napkin with seeds culled from these fruits, drying on our kitchen windowsill to be planted whenever he deemed the conditions to be favorable.

Over the winter holidays this year, we ate a lot of pomegranate. The only time my kids and husband and I ever eat this fruit is when we’re with my parents. It’s one of those fruits that I’ve always liked, but not enough to actually buy. For one thing, they’re a royal pain to cut open, though you can avoid some of the squirting and staining issues if you open the fruit in a large bowl of water. Over the Christmas break, my mother did all the hard work for us. Every night after dinner, she would pass around a bowl of the gorgeous, translucent seeds and a teaspoon with which to scoop them out.

One evening, as my dad helped himself to a few of the seeds, he told us this story…

“We had a pomegranate bush when I was growing up. It’s not a plant that’s native to Korea, so it was quite unusual to see one. We were the only ones who had one for miles around. But, I never once got to taste a pomegranate until I was an adult.”

“Every year, there would be only a few fruits, and as soon as they were ripe, our mother would take them to give to women in our village who wanted to have a baby, but were having trouble. They’re supposed to help with fertility. They would be so happy to get the fruit!”

“Gosh, Dad!” I said, feeling sad about his childhood of deprivation, “You didn’t get to eat the sparrows and you didn’t get to eat the pomegranates!”

“Our mother was soft-hearted like that. When my dad was still alive, we didn’t have much, but we were doing OK, so she was always trying to help other people…”

I’ve always wanted to plant a pomegranate…not so much for the fruit, as for the brilliant, flamboyant blossoms that precede it. This spring I’m going to get a couple plants at one of my favorite local nurseries: one for the notional orchard in my front yard, and one that I’m sure my dad will be able to squeeze into his own yard somewhere.

Dogs in America (a post script)

I’m taking a little detour from my next installment of Stories from Easter Island to add a post script to yesterday’s post.

I read Sparrow to my dogs. They were unimpressed.

“So the mutt caught a few birds that could heal sick kids. Are we supposed to think that’s sooo amazing?”

“Remember that time I caught a bird?”

“Oh yeah! Mmmhmmm…The one that was dead, right?”

“And then there was that caterpillar I almost caught once…”

“Oh my God, I’m getting exhausted just thinking about it.”


Let’s pretend we’ve just gorged ourselves on Korean food and are drowsily sitting in the basement, sprawled on the couch with distended bellies full of rice and garlicky banchan. Imagine that you’re listening to my dad telling you more Stories from Easter Island. Maybe it’s because there is always so much to eat nowadays, and there was so little back then that the stories are so often about food. Here’s the first one…

DadI always had a dog when I was growing up in Korea, but I don’t like having a dog here. I feel sorry for dogs in America. In Korea, no one kept dogs in the house or on a leash. The dogs would be fed in the morning and then they’d join the rest of the village dogs. They would roam free in the fields all day long…huge packs of them. There would be fifteen to twenty dogs running around together all day long, having so much fun. In the evening, they would go back to their own houses and eat whatever scraps they were given.

All the dogs were mutts, but one of our dogs happened to grow up to look almost exactly like a purebred German Shepherd. He was such a smart dog. He was really good at catching mice and birds. He’d settle himself down in a patch of sunlight and pretend to be asleep. When a sparrow would wander past, he’d suddenly attack and catch it! Just like that!

Roasted sparrow tastes really good. You only eat the breast. They’re so small that they’re just one mouthful. Nobody ate meat in those days. We only had it for special occasions…maybe a little in dduk gook once a year on New Year’s. My brothers and I always wished we could eat the birds our dog caught, but we never got a chance to. Our mother would always take them to give to other kids in our village who had colds, because roasted sparrow is supposed to be a cure for the common cold.

Next time: More Stories from Easter Island.

Sitting in the Basement

My parents, siblings and I tended to ignore the fact that our house was a mere ten minute drive from our nation’s capital and all it had to offer. When we would find ourselves together again over the holidays, we would spend every day sitting around chewing the fat, both literally and figuratively. Our all-day gabfests would be punctuated only by meals during which the conversation would move seamlessly from the couch to the table. It never occurred to us that this could be considered a squandered opportunity until our family circle began to expand. When my sister got married and her athletic, go-getter husband from New York started coming home for the holidays with her, he would pace like a caged animal while we indulged in our favorite pastime of talking and eating, eating and talking. In his frustration, my brother-in-law mournfully dubbed this particular brand of torture: “Sitting in the Basement.”

Should we go see the thriller that just came out, or hear my sister re-tell the plot? Please believe me when I tell you, my sister’s rendition was far, far more gripping than watching it on the big screen could ever be. Score one for Sitting in the Basement. Go to the Sackler Gallery, or hear my dad’s stories about life in the Korean countryside that presented us with a much more vivid picture than any painting could? Definitely the latter! By all means, and without a doubt – Sitting in the Basement! A) Go to a performance at the Kennedy Center, or B) Clutch our bellies howling with laughter through tears, desperately trying not to pee ourselves as we listened to one of my little brother’s comedy routines? B) Always, always B! Sitting in the Basement for the win! Go out to eat at a restaurant, or eat my mom’s Korean food laced with vegetables yanked out of the backyard only moments before? Hello?! Do I even have to say it? Every holiday my poor, long-suffering brother-in-law would helplessly watch his dreams of exploring Great Falls Park, hitting the museums, or just emerging into the light of day slip through his fingers and swirl away into the vortex otherwise known as: Sitting in the Basement.

These days when we get together, my brother-in-law and husband escape from the house more often, but we still get to do a lot of Sitting in the Basement. This winter break, over never-ending platters of food, my dad regaled us with more stories about his childhood and the foods they ate, or rather didn’t get to eat. In my next post, we can pretend that we’re Sitting in the Basement while I share them with you.

Saturday Morning

Saturday morning. I’m trying not to squander the precious little time I have to get things done. Friends are coming over for dinner tonight and I’ve got to get the house in order. Outside, I’ve swept the walkway leading to the front door. I’ve raked and bagged up piles of endlessly proliferating leaves. Inside, I’ve wiped countertops and cleared off the dining room table. As I vacuum the rug in the foyer, I glance into the dining room and see that the kids have undone my work by piling mugs of hot cocoa, sticky candy canes, dirty napkins, and scattered books all over the table.

“NO!” I bray over the roar of the vacuum cleaner. A casual observer might look at the expression on my face and reasonably conclude that I’ve just witnessed the clubbing of a baby seal. “I JUST cleaned that table off. Clean up that mess!”

“We WILL, I promise! Just let us finish,” my daughter pleads.

I’m about to insist, when I pause for a minute and see. I turn off the vacuum cleaner and get my camera to record this moment. Because this, not the bags of leaves, not the once-spotless dining room table, not the dinner that we’ll have later, this is the most important thing that will happen today, and I want to remember it.

14 and 4

It’s hard getting back into the routine after a wonderful break and time with our family. I’m glad to have the pictures to remind me of the fun we had. This is one of my favorite photos from Christmas. It’s of my son and nephew, the oldest and youngest boys in our extended family. And a special bonus – my dad in the backyard, caught with a rare grin on his face!