Friday, November 28, 2008

post-thanksgiving day gratitude

i am incredibly thankful...

...for the kind banker who, in an effort to calm me down about the devastating exchange rate, gave me a cartload of free gifts: ziplock bags, a calendar, toothpaste, a designer knock-off bank book, and rubber cleaning gloves!

...for mandarin oranges and steamed "candy yams" that fill my belly with so much sweetness...and for the gift of chicken wild rice soup and pumpkin pie from a kind friend.

...for the sunlight dancing on the last hanging, crimson leaves of autumn.

...for the exercise bike at the hole-in-the-wall, underground gym that i've been frequenting this november (for free!!)...thank you, barb!

...for yoga and the sound of jack kornfield's voice.

...for the november presidential election results and the lifting of a heavy, collective, 8-year depression.

...for hot ginger tea with honey, lemon, and a few sprinkles of cayenne pepper that has successfully kept the bugs at bay.

...for the heated floors in the new japanese restaurant around the corner.

...for the elementary school student who asked me today, "are you chubby?" i will be laughing for weeks.

...for my dear, dear loved ones way across the suitcase is packed, and i'm SOOOOO excited and grateful to be seeing you soon!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

chickens in baskets, head over heels, and chanting hallelujah all the way home...

another amusing day with the professors in gumi! we were planning to see "mamma mia," but the theater changed the time, so we paid a visit to park, chung hee's birth place instead. quite a contrast, eh? we all shared similar sentiments regarding president (corrupt dictator) park, who ruled south korea from 1963 until 1979, when he was assassinated by the head of the korean central intelligence agency. however, we agreed that visiting his birthplace would indeed be an historical experience for me, as a foreigner. we were in and out in 20 minutes. the best part was seeing the hanging baskets filled with chickens outside of each door of park, chung hee's traditional homestead. all one had to do was open the door every morning, reach outside and fresh eggs! brilliant.

after the walk down history lane, we made our way to caffe tiamo, where the guys enjoyed americanos and fell head over heels in love with the affogato that i convinced them to order. how sweet it was to see them all with their little demitasse spoons, legs crossed, ooo-ing and aaahh-ing over the deliciousness of their shared dessert!i sipped a cafe latte and savored a generous scoop of hazelnut chocolate gelato all to myself. little taste of heaven. just what i needed on this cold and foggy day. we chattered, making big plans for spring semester. weekly badminton practice and liberal arts softball games. they were pretty tickled to find out that i had participated in many different sports throughout my school days, and that i still enjoy a good competition. they kept referring to me as a "multi-player!" when i told them that i used to teach kickboxing, their eyes got big and their mouths fell open! then, i revealed how i used to take men, twice my size, down to the ground during the years i trained in brazilian jiu jitsu. that sent them tumbling over the edge! now they all pretend that they are deathly afraid of me, like i might strike them or kick them in the head at any moment! absolutely hysterical!

on my taxi ride home tonight, it was impossible to miss that my cab driver had a big, fat bible on his dashboard. he had to have been in his 80's. his driving was frightful, but his personality was very good natured. we conversed a bit, until i ran out of korean! when we neared my apartment, he suddenly let loose a "hallelujah" and started laughing as he handed me a brochure with cartoon pictures of jesus on the cross and directions to his church. usually some part of me recoils automatically in a situation of that sort, but for some reason i didn't have it in me. i just chuckled and gave a "hallelujah" right back to him, accepting his pamphlet. this led to a spontaneous chant, in call-response fashion, "hallelujah, AMEN! hallelujah, AMEN!" over and over, to the point that i think we were both in a trance. i swear, sometimes i just can't believe my life. i can't believe i'm really in korea.
hallelujah, AMEN!!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

somebody once said...

"forgiveness is letting go of all hope for a better past."

-from jack kornfield's "buddhism for beginners" cd series
-photo: early november - my path home from work...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

painting in our slippers

it was just you know who and the guys this afternoon, practicing calligraphy and sipping pu-erh tea in an uptown gumi art studio. as i may have mentioned before, when i teach in gumi once a week, i have 7 hours of free time between classes. i have spent a significant chunk of that with my professor friends and have grown to absolutely adore them. we've made it routine now to go off on little jaunts every week during our long break: climbing mountains, playing ping pong till we're dripping with sweat, sampling new restaurants and now, lo and behold, creating art. we are committed to expanding our horizons! next week, our plan is to visit caffe ti-amo for some coffee and gelato, then head to the cinema to see "mamma mia!" these guys have seriously good taste.professor w. teaches chinese and is adept at chinese calligraphy. he invited the other two professors and myself to join him in his calligraphy practice session today. we drove all the way across town to find a sweet, little art studio way up on the top floor of an unsuspecting building. we took off our shoes, of course, and proceeded to paint chinese and korean characters, and a few zen circles, in our slippers. it was rather chilly up there, so we were bundled in our scarves and jackets as we strove to concentrate our minds into the brush tip..."the single point of power!" professor w. knows that i do yoga, as i bring my yoga mat with me to gumi every week. he kept reminding me that this practice of calligraphy is much like yoga. it is all about focus and stilling the mind. when, by heavenly chance, i drew an amazingly straight line with balanced pressure on my first try, his eyes widened, he gasped with his hand over his mouth and exclaimed, "professor jessa walters (this is what he calls me every time he addresses me) you have BIG talent!!" then he nodded profusely and said, "it is because of yoga!"

or, what some of us call, beginner's luck.

it was my first time using gigantic brushes and ink. there was a specific way to hold the brush with one's fingers, keeping it upright at all times and a particular rhythm and pressure to the strokes. i had to work to NOT let the form intimidate me, even though the atmosphere was light-hearted and sweet. i have never considered myself "good" at art. for years it has been a realm where i feel a bit clumsy and insecure. professor w. must have noticed my furrowed brow at one point because he came up beside me and said in his jovial tone, "professor jessa walters, don't worry, be happy!" after that, i simply couldn't stop grinning...ear to ear.

to close our session of volcanic creativity, we sat together and drank pu-erh tea. professor w. has traveled all over the yunnan province in china as a connoisseur of pu-erh. whenever he tells me stories of the bricks he has stored in his house of this rich, earthy tea, i start drooling! today, he added a couple of chrysanthymum flowers in with the pu-erh tea leaves to soothe our scratchy throats on this dry and bitingly cold november day. very, very nice. dark and smooth. the aroma conjured up images of fallen leaves and twigs returning back to the damp, autumnal earth.

i can't even begin to express how fortunate i feel to have crossed paths with these professors of chinese, japanese language and literature, and asian history. they are truly a group of unique gentlemen. despite our ranging ages and drastically different backgrounds, we all love to laugh. we love to tease. we each seem to be wholeheartedly open and ready to enjoy each moment, whatever it may bring in the wild world of gumi. sometimes that's all it takes for a person to have the time of their life.

this spring, they have invited me to join their badminton team at the university! i feel dizzy at the thought of the hilarity that lies ahead!

Monday, November 17, 2008

revolutionary benevolence

sharon salzberg writes in her essay, "becoming the ally of all beings," that the buddha once said, "develop a mind so filled with love that it resembles space, which cannot be painted, cannot be marred, cannot be ruined." salzberg continues, "imagine throwing paint around in vast, endless space. there is nowhere for the paint to land... when we relax the divisions that we usually make, the mind becomes like space."

a mind as vast as the universe. open, immense and empty (and therefore full of possibility). no walls. no solid surfaces for things to stick to. no fences.

supposedly, there is this place in all of us that is untouched by any of our life experience, no matter how painful or traumatic, no matter how lonely or afraid we might feel day to day. it has nothing to do with politics or religion. this place in us is spacious and deep. it naturally knows how to love and be kind unconditionally. supposedly, this is our truest nature as human beings.

i choose to believe that this is indeed true. not based on some sort of faith or because the buddha said so, but based on my own trial and error experience. i am beginning to recognize more and more tangibly that when i speak/act out of authentic kindness, even if on some level it might seem somehow risky at the time, the kindness trumps any other feelings and without a doubt joy, peace, and a deepened sense of ease follow. and the space within grows. true connection between beings does too.

to cultivate unconditional loving kindness feels fiercely revolutionary, deeply subversive to unconscious, age-old habitual reactions. it also feels like the most self-loving thing to do as it creates peace and freedom inside the heart and mind.

last week i told all of my students it was "kindness week." i encouraged them to commit a random act of kindness and then come back to class at the end of the week and tell all! after the students were finished sharing their stories, the feeling of warmth and openness in the room was palpable. people were laughing and smiling, long after the stories were told. kindness has a beautiful way of lingering...and it's inevitably contagious!

"it is only kindness that makes sense anymore." - naomi shihab nye

-sharon salzberg quotes from: "voices of insight: teachers of buddhism in the west share their wisdom, stories, and experience of insight meditation." edited by: sharon salzberg

Sunday, November 16, 2008


one of my students from last semester invited me to go with her to see the internationally renown performance, NANTA, as part of the korea in motion festival. NANTA is a nonverbal performance that combines korean traditional "samulnori" rhythm (using primarily kitchen tools) with dancing, drama, and comedy.the synopsis of the show, in NANTA'S own words:
"Three cooks start their day.
While they are busy preparing the vegetables and organizing the kitchen, a bad tempered manager appears. He orders them to prepare the food for a wedding by 6 o'clock in the afternoon.
The cooks, who had not been told about this event, are caught completely off-guard.
Not only that, the manager also brings his young nephew with him and demands that the cooks teach him how to cook and prepare food.
The manager exits after barking these seemingly impossible orders.
At first, the cooks don't like this clueless boy, but have to get on with their work.
They start preparing the food, but things don't go on smoothly.
The boy and three cooks get closer, though, and the audience joins the show.
The cooks struggle to prepare the dishes as quickly as possible, and manage to set the table by 6pm.
The wedding banquet draws to a successful conclusion."

i was not aware that this performance utilized audience participation. about 30 minutes into the show a couple of performers jumped offstage and bounded out into the audience. i crouched down as low as i could in my seat, but being that i was sitting on the aisle and stuck out like a sore thumb with my yellow mop, i knew my chances of avoiding this one were slim. as soon as the guy saw me, he grabbed my hand and urged me to come with him. i turned and looked pleadingly at my student. she seemed way too excited and nearly pushed me out of my seat. there was no escaping. the guy led me on stage where i met my husband-to-be.

they quickly donned us in traditional korean wedding attire. they even strapped a crown-hat onto my head. it turned out we were now the happy couple whose wedding feast was being prepared. our duty was to taste and approve the food the cooks had whipped up so far as they danced and drummed all around us. after my eyes adjusted to being blinded by the light, i started to have a really good time up there, to ham it up a bit. my husband-to-be must have been only 16 years old and clearly embarrassed beyond belief to be on display in front of hundreds of people. i tried to make him more comfortable by making faces at him as we were sampling the food. right as he was beginning to relax a bit, we heard a fly buzzing around the kitchen. the cooks looked alarmed and began to chase the sound around the room until it led them straight to the nose of my sweet, little husband-to-be! they swatted him right smack in the face and probably traumatized him for life. the crowd went wild. soon after that we were released to leave the stage, together, arm in arm, with rice thrown upon us as we took a deep bow.

now, the funniest part: i had no idea i was part of a wedding couple in this little scenario until i was back in my seat for about half an hour. suddenly it hit me that i had been brought up there to taste the food being prepared for MY wedding feast, and the little guy who had accompanied me was supposed to be my future husband. i had NO idea at the time. absolutely NO CLUE. i just thought i was one of two audience members being brought up on stage as added entertainment. the rice didn't even give it away. nor did the crown-hat. i had to laugh when i realized how truly oblivious i have grown to such situations!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

bluebird came and sat on my right shoulder

"i give up my fisted touch, my thoughts strong like fences
my totem-pole stature, body chipped to the bone
i'm nobody's saviour, and nobody's mine either
i hear the desert wind whisper, "but neither are we alone."

-lyrics from "proud crowd/pride cried" by ferron

Monday, November 10, 2008

help fight discrimination

proposition 8 passed in the state of california on november 4th, an initiative to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, overriding a right that had been previously granted by the supreme court recognizing same-sex marriage as a fundamental right in california. amidst the joy and elation of barack obama's win, hundreds of thousands of people feel absolute outrage and grief over the passing of such a discriminatory, unconstitutional law. it now throws into question the status of 18,000 couples who recently married in california. in the l.a. times, governor arnold schwarzenegger made a statement supporting equal rights, expressing "hope that the california supreme court would overturn proposition 8." in an interview with CNN, the governor said, "it's unfortunate, obviously, but it's not the end." he added, "i learned that you should never ever give up... they should never give up. they should be on it and on it until they get it done."

i just signed the REPEAL PROPOSITION 8 petition. please join thousands and sign, and contribute to the cause if you can, to help fight hatred and discrimination. click here.

the below photos were taken by photographer and friend, irene young, at a proposition 8 protest rally outside of the mormon temple in oakland, california on november 9, 2008. the negative propaganda used to pass proposition 8 was largely fueled by the mormon church with most of the money coming from out of state (utah).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

the mind of love

"today i love the world.
last week it was a vile place,
broken, beyond repair.
and my mind reached out
in all directions
like a spider's spindly legs
to mend and weave
and fill the empty spaces,
until falling, exhausted
dangling by a single thread,
discouraged and utterly humiliated
that i couldn’t mend the fissures,
that i ever thought i could.

today i love the world,
the faces on the street
the wind and chill.
pausing to look up through
dark bare branches,
reaching out in all directions
against the vast bright blue.

soon buds and leaves
will fill the empty spaces.
In the mind of this love
the fissures mend themselves."

-excerpts from "a heart as wide as the world: living with mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion" by sharon salzberg
-painting by mary rodning

Saturday, November 8, 2008

the man in black satin

i have encountered many surprising experiences in korea, but last night took the cake.
i attended a "dance meditation," which included about a million different activities besides dancing. i have been to one here before, which had its quirky moments, but overall i understood what was happening and it was mostly nonverbal, movement based. i am still trying to integrate what about 30 of us, 4 of whom were foreigners, engaged in for several hours last night.

i can't possibly reiterate all of the things we did in chronological order, it would take all afternoon, so let me simply unfurl my experience spontaneously, with whatever comes.

a journey from obstacles to freedom. from inauthenticity to holiness.

what keeps you from dancing?
we write down five obstacles. some participants take turns acting out what inhibits them and speaking from the voice of the obstacle, such as insecurity or repression. the rest of us watch.

we lay on our backs and shake our arms and legs ferociously up in the air while making loud "aaahhh" sounds.

we stand up and mill around. we are told to greet each other with a "fake" handshake and hello. later, a sincere hello with a hug. the guide instructs us to scream "NO" at the tops of our lungs, like children having a tantrum, while we face another person and look into their eyes. after doing that with about 7 different individuals, i feel blasted.
we go through the exercise again but this time say "YES" over and over, with a partner, while smiling with agreeable energy. much more pleasant.

our bodies as instruments, as drums...we play percussion on our own bellies, backs, heads, legs and arms to the music...then we lay down on our stomachs and allow our partners to drum on our bodies. i am shocked into hysterical laughter by being drummed on so hard by my 70 year old, male partner decked out in black satin from head to toe. later in the evening, i find myself being chased around the room by this man in black satin, at times wanting to kiss my hand and at other times wanting to mosh in a very confucian sort of way. i wonder for a moment if i will make it out of this place alive.

with pretend microphone in hand, we imagine that we are at the noraebang (karaoke room). like rock stars, we go nuts, lip syncing and dancing around the room to a famous korean pop song. i have to say, this was the most enjoyable part of the evening for me. many koreans love to sing and perform. i could tell that as soon as they had their grip around the microphone, they were totally in their element. i enjoyed being in the midst of wild and crazy exuberance!

a dance contest. mind you, this is part of the journey of overcoming obstacles to finding a place inside of unfettered freedom from fear. i feel deeply concerned about those people in the room who may have fears and anxieties around being watched while they dance. each of the four groups chooses the top three "best" dancers in their group. before i even know what i am being chosen for, i am pushed out onto the dance floor. i have a premonition that i should feel very, very afraid at what i'm going to be asked to do. while everyone else sits and watches, myself and two other women dance in true rocker style in the center of the room to a song with a similar sound to "pour some sugar on me" by def leppard. i get way into it as it takes me back to my college dancing days.

after a few minutes the music dies and the three of us are told to each choose a man. i freeze. instantly i can tell that i have left my body. i can't believe what is happening. this is quite possibly my worst nightmare. apparently, according to the minimal translation, we have entered the "TANTRIC" portion of the evening. the room starts spinning and i feel faint. with everyone waiting and watching, i finally choose a man. the music blares again. this time it is not a rock song, it is a slow, sexy, bump 'n grind number. the other two women grab their men and dance close and seductively. i scamper in circles around my guy, keeping a good three feet between us. he looks completely confused but does not try to get any closer. i'm aware that everyone watching must wonder what is going on with me, but i don't care. there is no way i'm getting my groove on with this dude. in the middle of the song, that seems to be lasting forever, i remember a box of scarves used earlier in the evening. i run over and grab two of them. i give one to my bewildered partner. i'm desperate for distraction, to give him something to hold onto so that he won't even think about holding onto me. it works. we dance like fairies around the room twirling with our bright pink and purple scarves.
we all sit on the floor scattered about the room, our eyes closed, hands on our hearts...feeling the rhythm of our holiness. it is silent except for the clicking and flashing sounds of the camera that a man has been using all night long to take pictures of us as we are dancing and taking part in the different activities. suddenly, i sense someone is very close to me. i squint open my eyes and the man with the camera is a foot away from my face, moving in for a close up! i snap my eyes shut trying to pretend he doesn't exist. i can't help but think to myself, "the rules of sacred, ritual space are being totally violated right now. how can i possibly feel my holiness with an electronic device inches from my third eye?" but, then i remember that i am in korea. the rules are different.

with that being said, after the dance meditation we all make our way out into the lobby where beverages and snacks are being served. budweiser - king of beers and green tea. dried squid jerky and salted peanuts - classic korean bar food. we sit around getting our buzz on, gnawing on squid and talking excitedly about the glory of obama's magnificent victory until the wee hours of the morning. what a trip.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

it's november 4th in korea.

this election season has brought out the worst in people. well, especially me. i realize i am traumatized from kerry's loss 4 years ago. i remember as if it were yesterday the hope and over-the-moon excitement i felt that he might win, only to wake the next morning to find out the devastating news that there would be 4 more years of hades. i have wanted to get my hopes up in this election, to feel the elation and joy at the coming of a new dawn. the stats certainly support that. but, somehow, way over here in korea, i have not been able to let myself get into a glory state of mind. not yet, at least. maybe it's the isolation of being far from home during the biggest u.s. presidential election of my lifetime. maybe it's partly due to the strange and hostile interactions i've had with right wingers lately. it could also be the tendencies i've been experiencing towards unusual amounts of superstition, thinking every little move i make could effect the election results! ridiculous. no amount of yoga or meditation or alcohol seems to bring relief. so, i'm just giving in to the massive anxiety and internet addiction - checking the news and blogs every 10 minutes for the latest scrap of information. i'm surrendering to the inability to sleep or eat, as well as to the incessant bouts of rage and contempt that i feel towards mccain/palin supporters. only one more day.
however, mind you, it's november 4th in korea. it has been ALL DAY LONG, but u.s. voters are sound asleep in their little november 3rd beds. it won't truly be election day until tomorrow. this madness has gone on for way too long.

with all of that said, i do hope with every ounce of my being that election day brings us, in the words of mark morford, "the glorious return of dangerous possibility." more peace and less fear, for instance. wouldn't that be something.

Monday, November 3, 2008

our lucky day

woopi, her husband, and two kids met me downtown daegu for lunch at a japanese restaurant and a visit to the daegu hanggyo confucian academy. as luck would have it, a traditional korean wedding ceremony was taking place as we arrived. woopi was jumping up and down with excitement as she's only seen one other traditional wedding ceremony in her entire life! i found that hard to believe, but she said that western style weddings have replaced the old rituals for the most part. she kept saying to me, "we are so lucky! we are so lucky to see this!" as i gazed upon the bride and groom and all the older women in hanboks, surrounded by traditional korean buildings, i felt as though we'd stepped into a different world...traveled back in time.after the wedding party left, we had the grounds to ourselves. it was so quiet and peaceful, except for tommy's squealing and our laughter as we threw leaves in the air and let them fall down around us. i felt like a kid again. that is, until tommy decided to demonstrate a leaf tornado and i ended up with dirt in my eyes!woopie, cookie and me