About nine years ago, my sisters and I made a pilgrimage with my parents to a place that was dear to my dad’s heart. He was so happy to be able to see the first home he and my mother shared as newlyweds in a foreign land. It was a joy and privilege to share the experience with him. A man so stoic, so impassive, we nicknamed him the Easter Island Head, he couldn’t help beaming as we walked around Hamilton Square Baptist Church and the apartment they lived in under the belfry.
We’ve been accompanying our dad these past couple of months as he embarked upon another long journey. He died this Thursday with his family around him. My dearest hope is that he has reunited with my sister Annabelle, with his beloved little brother whom he spent a lifetime remembering with wistful longing, and with all of the saints who have gone before.Tomorrow we will celebrate his life in the chapel where he preached for many years.
This is the essay I wrote as we headed to San Francisco on a Fall day nine years ago…
I’m on a plane heading to San Francisco for my cousin’s wedding. My parents are using this happy pretext to revisit the place where they began their own life together as a married couple.
In February 1963, my father was a student in San Francisco. Against all odds, he had managed to make his way to the U.S. to pursue the education that had cruelly eluded him during a childhood filled with adversity and suffering.
School was a luxury, a beautiful dream that was constantly interrupted, snatched away, and cut short by real nightmares: air raids, forced labor by the Japanese occupiers, disease…The sudden and premature death of his father was disastrous for his family, already reeling under the privations brought about by the occupation. My father witnessed beloved siblings die from malnutrition – the very thought brings me to my knees. The family was able to scrape together enough money to pay for only one son’s school fees. The others had to help on the farm so that the family could survive.
When my father’s older brother saw how desperate he was to get an education, and though he would sorely miss his help on the farm, he gave him his blessing to leave home at the age of 13 in pursuit of his dream. My father would have to find a way to support himself through school. He still remembers his brother’s sacrifice with deep gratitude.
He walked for days to get to Seoul, where he found a job sweeping glass in a watch factory. He worked during the day, went to night school, and at the end of every long day, he would sweep clean a place on the factory floor where he would sleep. Eventually, he enrolled in a new college that had the lowest tuition he could find.
The school’s president was the scion of a family of Catholic martyrs: three generations of his family were wiped out on one day. His own father had physically survived the massacre, but was a ruined, broken man. The president had gone on to become the leader of a Christian underground resistance movement. He was repeatedly arrested and tortured by the Japanese for his activities and was always on the run. Fearing for her own safety, his wife would dress as a beggar and hide in the busy marketplace all day, returning home to their children only late at night. Eventually, he led a large group of hundreds of refugees to Manchuria, an arduous journey on foot during which his youngest child, an infant, died. When he was finally able to return to Korea, he founded the college.
My father became the president’s star student. He had a fierce hunger and passion for knowledge. He gorged himself on philosophy, history, languages. Emboldened by a degree finally under his belt, and encouraged by American G.I.s he met while doing his compulsory military service, he took and passed a test, which would allow him to continue his studies in the U.S.
Before he was about to graduate, my father went to the president’s office to tell him that he was getting married. The president congratulated him heartily, and it was only then that my dad revealed that he was going to marry his own daughter, my mother. The college was (and is) an institution where skirt hemlines are strictly monitored and relationships between the sexes are discouraged. How my dad worked up the nerve to court and get engaged to the president’s daughter behind his back is unfathomable to me. His placid, gentle demeanor belies the steely determination that has carried him throughout his life.
So in February 1963, my mother stepped off the plane in San Francisco to meet her soon-to-be husband. Their separation had been long. Her arrival had been delayed by a year when an x-ray revealed that she had had tuberculosis as a child. She spent the year listening to tapes, trying to learn English. She still sometimes mimics the stilted, heavily accented recordings that she would listen to over and over again: “I am a boy.” “I am a girl.”
It was a difficult first year for my mother. She cried every day because she was homesick and so far away from home. The birth of my oldest sister, and my second sister soon after, brought comfort and joy. As their family grew and they settled into their new country, my parents began to build a happy life together. Painful memories of the past receded as they made new memories: outings to the zoo with their daughters, the taste of sourdough bread, eating watermelon in their little apartment under the belfry of the Hamilton Square Baptist Church.
My mom and dad want to go visit the church that was their first home again. In fact, they’re dragging us all to the service there this Sunday. Because that’s what you do when you fly across a vast continent to spend a weekend in one of the coolest cities in the world. That’s right. You go to church.
My three teenagers once caught me in flagrante delicto. The day their sweet innocence was cruelly snatched from them was the day they discovered me…watching an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Now that they knew the sordid, long-buried secret of their mother’s appalling vice, there was nothing left to do but try to contain the shameful truth within the four walls of our house.
“You must never, ever speak of this to anyone,” I implored my children in solemn, measured tones that I hoped would impress upon them the gravity of the situation.
My plea was met with a withering look of disbelief.
“Do you actually think we would want anyone to know that our mother watches Keeping Up With the Kardashians?” my daughter asked.
In another lifetime, long before I spawned a passel of scornful children, I got a Ph.D. in Russian literature at Columbia University. Before that, I studied French literature in college, where I read many of the great works of that tradition in the original language. Back in my salad days, when I was just beginning my graduate studies in New York City, everything seemed possible. It seemed crazy not to take advantage of the fact that Antoine Compagnon, perhaps the world’s leading scholar on Marcel Proust, was teaching a course on his roman-fleuve: A la recherche du temps perdu. I decided to audit the course, and for the next semester I tried to keep up with the reading as best I could, along with the coursework that was actually required for my degree. Proust’s brother once famously remarked that it was a pity that only people who were sick or had a broken leg had the time to read the lengthy novel. I was neither sick, nor did I have a broken leg…I had to abandon the Proust.
Decades after I first bought the eight paperback volumes that make up A la recherche in a surge of naive optimism, they were quietly gathering dust on the bookshelves lining the walls of the genteelly dilapidated farmhouse I now live in. They had made the move with me to three different apartments in New York, a brief stint in Northern Virginia, and three different houses in Charlottesville. They had a spot on my bookshelves in every place I called home during those years of academic and professional striving, and the intense hustle of child-rearing, but never once did I consider cracking them open again to read them.
With my children now mostly grown and not needing my attention at every moment, and with the pandemic keeping everyone at home, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. I pulled every unread book from my shelves, stacked them into two towering piles, and read through every single one over the course of a little over a year. The immense satisfaction I felt when I finally finished the last book was marred only by the needling thought that I had not included the Proust books in my inventory of unread books. I eyed them warily for about a week. They seemed to be reproaching me for all those years of neglect.
I considered all the many rational reasons not to start reading them. I hadn’t read a book in French in decades…Starting projects I can’t finish inevitably sends me into a downward spiral of despair and self-loathing…And then there is my terrible tendency to become obsessive about reading to the point of abandoning all the trappings of civilized life, such as sleeping, showering, or spending any time whatsoever with other human beings for as long as it takes to finish the book, or in this case: eight books. Did I really want to put myself and my family through this? Had I not earned the right in my dotage, after a recent bout of cancer, during a global pandemic for God’s sake, to surrender to the placid torpor of mindless entertainment?
But what about us? was the insistent refrain that seemed to come from those eight volumes of Proust.
I am now 51, the same age as Proust was when he died. I have long outgrown the unwarranted confidence of childhood when I was convinced that if I just practiced hard enough, if I flapped my arms just so, one day I would surely be able to fly. I no longer assume I could pick up a new language if I put my mind to it, learn how to play a new instrument, or reinvent myself with a new career. I am at the age for my first colonoscopy. I am at the age where I sometimes hold my mother’s hand so she won’t fall. I am at the age where my Google search history reveals that I have recently been on the hunt for “pretty headstones.” I am at the age where the phrase now or never has never been more meaningful. I roused myself and embarked upon the project of reading every single word of all eight volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English as: In Search of Lost Time.
Lost time indeed. Upon opening the first book, I experienced that quintessential Proustian moment of being swept back in time on a tidal wave of involuntary memory, triggered by the sensation of an uneven cobblestone underfoot, or the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea. With my fingertip, I traced my name, which I had penciled on the inside cover of each volume so long ago. In one of the books, I had added the year 1993 under my name. It was my first spring in New York City as a graduate student. I was a jeune fille en fleurs, fending off the unwanted attention of men who, in those days, swarmed around like bees. I was eating honey-roasted nuts from a warm waxed bag I had just bought on the street corner, helplessly handing over dollar bills as if in a trance, powerless to resist the intoxicating aroma wafting down Broadway. I was walking to class in a gentle shower of cherry blossoms falling from the trees lining College Walk…
With each volume, my underlining and notes in the margins become sparser. I could see that by the third volume, I had all but given up on the project. The swiftly disappearing marginalia began to evoke other memories…I was nervously pressing my ear to the door, late for class, but waiting for the booming voice of the predatory porter in my building to trail away so I could safely escape my apartment unmolested. I was an impoverished graduate student subsisting on a steady diet of canned tomato soup for lunch and dinner. I was desperately trying to keep up with a heavy reading load, and it felt like doggy-paddling in choppy waters with anchors attached to each flailing limb.
I have absolved myself for not finishing the reading back then. No one would ever describe A la recherche as a page turner. Interspersed with electrifying passages that bring you to your knees, wrench tears from your eyes, or make you scream with laughter, are hundreds and hundreds of pages devoted to meandering discussions on architecture, or tedious descriptions of church tapestries. A shocking number of pages are dedicated to recording the idle chitter chatter of a single evening spent in a salon. The narrator’s lengthy bouts of fervent navel-gazing take up the majority of the novel. He luxuriates in the endless dissection of his own neuroses like a cat lolling in a warm patch of sunlight. In its entirety, the novel is an exceptionally detailed record of the narrator’s life from childhood to adulthood: documenting not just the big moments, but even the most seemingly trivial ones.
The Proust Pandemic Project dragged on for months. I read until my eyeballs throbbed in their sockets. “Still at the Proust?” my husband would casually ask me from time to time. If he only knew the murderous rage that roiled inside me every time he tossed those thoughtless, hateful words my way like poison-tipped daggers! I would nod grimly, but inside I would scream: “Oh my God, yes. YES! Eight volumes. In French! Literally, the longest novel in the world. Are you freaking kidding me?! YES! Of course I’m still reading Proust!” I thought it quite possible that even if he were spared death at my hands, I myself might die of bitter frustration or old age before accomplishing the task I had set for myself. But the day finally came when I read the last word of the last page of the last volume.
When I closed that final book, I was mortally exhausted. To my surprise I found that I also felt bereft. I moped for a few days, feeling rudderless and unsettled. I was craving my next fix, but my overtaxed, aging brain needed a rest. It was time…to get caught up with the Kardashians. I furtively watched all eight episodes of the latest season in just a few days, ready to slam my laptop shut at any moment in case my judgmental children happened to appear on the horizon. But having now binged through both novel and reality show, I am prepared to make the bold claim that there are valid comparisons to be made between Keeping Up With the Kardashians and In Search of Lost Time.
My professor advised that in the absence of a driving plot, the best way to read In Search of Lost Time is to simply dip into the novel and let the prose wash over you. This, of course, is the only way to watch the Kardashians. Mostly nothing happens in either ISOLT or KUWTK. In Proust’s universe, the Kardashian family would find their match in the aristocratic Guermantes: clannish, wealthy socialites with little to do but entertain and make public appearances. The Guermantes encamp to Balbec to vacation; the Kardashians escape to Palm Springs. They eat at restaurants, throw glittering parties, gossip about others, start their own side hustle/vanity projects: (a bordello, a blog…). They argue over things like clothing and shoes. One of the most dramatic moments of this season of KUWTK is the vicious fight between Kendall and Kylie over an outfit they both want to wear to an event. In Le Côté de Guermantes 2, the Duc de Guermantes snaps at his wife and forces her to change her shoes because he deems black shoes entirely inappropriate to wear with a red dress. (Perhaps unsurprisingly: in the final volume, she is suing for divorce). Kanye West is also known to dictate his wife Kim Kardashian’s every fashion move. (Spoiler alert: divorce impending)! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Proust, like his narrator, came from a bourgeois background, but was fascinated by the aristocracy and managed to maneuver his way into the fringes of high society. He lovingly documents the clothing, home décor, hairstyles, and makeup of the aristocracy, as breathlessly as might a dazzled tourist, or a writer for People magazine. I bet he would have loved watching the Kardashians.
The slow rhythm of prosaic events and observations that make up the bulk of both the novel and show can lull the viewer/reader into a trance-like state. Sometimes, so little happens, that the protagonists are compelled to manufacture entertainment for themselves. Swann, (in many ways the alter-ego of Proust’s narrator), amuses himself by “collecting” people and putting them together socially in incongruous pairings to see what will transpire. In the same idle vein, in the absence of any real drama in their own lives, the Kardashians love to pull elaborate pranks on each other. But every now and then, unsuspecting viewers/readers are jolted out of their drowsy stupor by shocking scenes.
Scandal is the very foundation stone of the Kardashian empire, with Kim Kardashian’s leaked sex tape the start of it all. Scandals strategically punctuate the reality show’s otherwise routinely banal content. The Kardashians’ scandals pale in comparison to the ones in ISOLT. Proust’s narrator habitually eavesdrops on private conversations and is an inveterate voyeur. The novel’s most graphic scenes are presented through his eyes, as he watches sexual encounters from various hiding places. He crouches behind a bush to spy on the sadistic Mlle Vinteuil and her lover through an open window. He creeps up a ladder to peer through a transom window at M. de Charlus and Jupien having sex. He wanders into a brothel and uses a peep hole to watch a BDSM encounter. The narrator’s gaze becomes the reader’s; we are hiding with him in the bushes, lurking with him on the ladder, and at his elbow as he peers through the peephole. It is precisely these voyeuristic glimpses at what should be private that make reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or the Harry and Meghan “bombshell” interview with Oprah so compulsively watchable.
Midway through the last season of the reality show, the film crew abandons their post to join the rest of the world in lockdown. Undaunted, the Kardashians continue to film every aspect of their lives on their own iPhones. When Khloe Kardashian contracts COVID, she locks herself into her bedroom to quarantine. Her phone camera continues to roll as she lies in bed in silk pajamas, feverishly coughing. These scenes call to mind the image of Proust himself, recumbent in his cork-lined bedroom, laboring to complete his magnum opus despite his fragile health. In the end, his life’s work is a grand homage to his own life: a faithful record of almost every single aspect of his existence, including his illnesses. Even as she languishes with COVID, Khloe doggedly continues to create her chef d’œuvre: the monument to her own life that is Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It is disturbing and somewhat baffling to see her, gravely ill, yet perfectly coiffed and fully made up, whispering wistfully into the camera of her boredom and loneliness in isolation. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
In Le Temps Retrouvé, (Time Regained), the final volume of the novel, the narrator reenters society, after having spent years in sanatoriums trying to recover from poor health. At a soirée at the home of the Prince de Guermantes, he sees the friends of his youth transformed by cruel time into stooped, wrinkled figures. So disconcerting are the changes wrought by time, that he at first imagines that his friends are wearing white wigs and elaborate disguises. Even more shocking is the realization that if his contemporaries have aged, then so has he.
The narrator looks back on a lifetime frittered away on trivial pursuits. Sensing that death is fast approaching, he is spurred into a race against time to be the writer he has always dreamed of being. His grand revelation is that every moment of his life, from the childhood trauma of anxiously awaiting his mother’s goodnight kiss to evenings spent in a salon, is all the material he needs for his masterpiece. As I read Le Temps Retrouvé, I had my own realization. I was reading Proust’s novel at exactly the right time in my life. For I too am no longer young. I look in the mirror and am shocked by the ravages of time. Like the narrator, I sometimes feel as if I have wasted a lifetime. I’ve written in fits and starts and have been distracted and led away from writing by diversions such as binge-watching fluffy reality shows. So here I am, dear reader, wanly lying in bed, typing away at my laptop, baring my soul and mining even the most tawdry and trivial moments of my own existence to write my life story for your consumption.
When we first spotted the fox pups, they were always close to the barn under which they’ve been living. Lately, they’ve been having wild parties in our backyard. I could watch them gamboling and cavorting all day long. I wish I could capture it on film, but they’ve gotten much warier and will usually disappear into their den as soon as they spot me.
They’ve been venturing further afield into the paddock and the woods, I think in search of food. Sometimes they dig in the ground, maybe for worms? I’ve seen them tentatively taste the weeds. This poor pup was hungrily gnawing on some dead leaves.
After a busy day, the pups usually collapse in a tired heap in front of their den.
This morning I spotted them making themselves even more comfortable. One of the cushions from a deck chair must have blown into the yard. I was sure the pups would bolt if they heard the door open, so I took these photos from my kitchen window.
In loving memory of my friend Yang, who was laid to rest today. May her beautiful soul rest in peace. (First posted March 15, 2020)
I’ve been trying to remember when we first met…Was it nine or ten years ago when you first moved to Charlottesville from Germany and our boys became friends at school? This is the earliest photo I can find of our two boys together.
They look like they could be brothers…
I think our boys were glad to have each other through their last years at elementary school. Being a non-white student in a rural community with little diversity can be hard. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been for your son to go from a German school to an American one. Remember when you told me he never uttered a single word at school and I was shocked, because he never ceased talking at our house? I loved hearing his perfectly unique, lilting Chinese-German accent. Our boys are both sensitive dreamers, who have always marched to the beat of their own drums. Remember how we used to laugh and sigh about their shockingly messy backpacks? And to discover they both never knew what their homework assignments were, and that when they miraculously did manage to complete their homework assignments, they both scrupulously forgot to turn them in? Remember when my boy started to learn Chinese, and we talked about him going with your family to visit China one day? Remember how we discovered they both had a passion for music? We tried (as meddlesome parents are wont to do) to get them to play the piano together. We failed, of course.
I’ve been so glad for your friendship over the years. Like our boys, we have a lot of similarities…Maybe we look like we could be sisters? We both married academics from other countries, and followed them to Charlottesville. But you have always been braver and more resilient than I am. I don’t think I could have made the move from China to the U.S. to Germany and back to the U.S. again with three young children in tow. I have always appreciated and admired your open-hearted spirit. I have always loved hearing your generous laugh. Your friendship has been a treasure to me, especially during these last couple of years, which have been difficult for both us. Many of the things that used to bring me joy (like writing) have fallen by the wayside. I wanted to come visit you this week, but I worried about your health. You told me to stay at home, because you worried about mine. You said, “I have to keep you healthy. I like to read what you write to me.” And so this week I will write for you, my dear friend. More tomorrow…
It’s been a rough week…I hadn’t realized how much I’ve been depending on my daily dose of baby fox therapy until they disappeared for a couple days. I thought they had abandoned the nest, and I was devastated. Thank goodness they came out again today, because couldn’t we all use a little baby fox therapy? It’s just been a few days, but they already look more grown up…
Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
Late one night last winter, my daughter heard eerie, high-pitched screaming, and was convinced I was being murdered in our own yard.
What she was hearing was the lovestruck moonlight serenade of this vixen…
Her siren call did not go unanswered, and now we have pups nesting in the old groundhog burrows under our barn.
Septuplets! And as far as I can tell, she isn’t getting any help at all from the baby daddy.
She’s the hardest working mama on the block…
She is always hustling back and forth from the woods to the den.
The pups are still nursing and are always clamoring for her attention.
They are always so happy to see her…
Sometimes I watch her trying to get a break from the pups. She wanders away from the den and wearily gazes off into the distance. I imagine she is reflecting on her life choices, and wishing the kids’ deadbeat dad would show up every now and then to help out.