“The act of forgiveness is the act of returning to present time. And that’s why when one has become a forgiving person, and has managed to let go of the past, what they’ve really done is they’ve shifted their relationship with time.”
“Grief requires time.”
—Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
Osiris pitches a tent at nightfall. Two children—a boy child and a girl child—trail him, their feet moving over small stones clacking together in the starlight. Dew creates small trails of water at the reinforced seams of their pants, seeps into the cotton fibers and sinks its way down to the bottoms of their rubber-soled shoes. An amber haze leads from the mouth of the father, who mutters and makes abrupt movements with the arc of his hand through the air. He motions for the boy to help him move the poles deeper into the softer earth, close to the river. It, the river, appears in passing cloud cover and disappears again.
The girl child watches, sometimes tugs at cloth where tent is pitched over lean pole, pole that seems reluctant to stay moored in earth. Osiris smokes a cigarette as he pitches the tent, throws its stub into the river, calms himself with a sharp exhale, then starts again. The tent—a riverside constellation that, if imagined in narrow-eyed vision, could almost resemble the triangle of stars in the sky—is up now.
My Korean mother leaves me on a fall day in the 1980s. I don’t know the year, only that it is cold, and she—who peels red apples in one unbroken skin, massages my calves when they’ve fallen asleep from sitting too long—is very suddenly gone. At night, I search the streets for her. When I return to my father’s house, he stands in front of me, accusatory, drunk: Your mother came to see you, didn’t she? He plucks the desire straight from my closed lips, but the truth is she doesn’t come back, and it is two decades later when I go to see her. She sends me a letter when I am in a Buddhist monastery in the south of France, and finally I know where to go and what to do: Go to Korea. Go to my mother.
Like all thwarted desire, I contradict myself. In the monastery, I want to forget. Safe to be motherless and fatherless. At night I sleep, and in the morning I wake up so early I cannot think or remember. Cold water and soap to wash my face, flossing the night before so that the morning requires only toothpaste, toothbrush, and a swill of mouthwash if there is enough time.
In 2009, I live on three different continents. On the cusp of its arrival, in November 2008, I try to cancel the flight for a round-trip ticket to France that I’d bought in September, fearing I’m being impulsive, vaguely aware that I move a lot and seemingly on a hairpin. I am in my 20s, living in New York, and cannot stop thinking about my Korean mother. When I call the travel company, they tell me the ticket is nonrefundable, nontransferable, and cannot be canceled. I am almost relieved that the decision is made for me. I leave New York and head, with one layover in Madrid, to Bordeaux. What to bring: Towels, sheets, sleeping bags, personal items; alarm clock; flashlight and umbrella; warm clothing and footwear for rainy, windy, and cold weather in winter, advises the packing list on the monastery’s website. Although I have never formally meditated, I am sure that the only thing that will make me happy is to become a nun. It is the chanting of the monastics that opens me. I download a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, given in 2007, the year he was finally allowed back to Vietnam, from which he was formally exiled in 1966. This makes me trust him. The day of my flight, on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, I buy a thick brown coat that comes down past my knees. I don’t know it, but brown will be the color of the monastic robes at Plum Village.
In Europe, I couchsurf—a first for me—in the lofted apartment of an osteopathic medical student who speaks better English than my nonexistent French, which is nominally aided by a travel language book I’d bought last-minute in New York. Once we’re back at his apartment and after he’s given me a brief tour, I pull three green Mutsu apples and a baked tart—from the Union Square Farmers’ Market—out of my backpack and place them in his hands. The next morning we wander Bordeaux’s narrow streets and stop in a museum before my host sees me off at the train station, making sure I punch the ticket before boarding and looking vaguely worried for me. Call me if you have any trouble at the monastery, he says. A joke.
France accustoms me to the cold. In France, I no longer fear winter. At Plum Village, the sisters wear brown robes and thick brown coats. On a sunny day in mid-November at Sainte-Foy-La-Grande station, one hour by train south of Bordeaux, two bespectacled nuns meet a group of arrivals, and I am one of them. In the first week, working meditation finds me kneeling in a greenhouse with my clear-plastic-covered hands pulling at grasses among the lettuce. To my surprise, one of the monastics asks me questions in quick succession: Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want to be a nun? Another nun comments, You’re wearing a brown coat like us. Is that because you want to ordain? I think to myself, The monastics ask me the kinds of questions a Korean mother would ask her daughter.
In the monastery, I meet a French woman with the most beautiful sad blue eyes I’ve ever seen, who left home at sixteen and now travels through Europe in her home, a camper van, which she shares with her cat. She says her teacher was in India, not France, and was not Thich Nhat Hanh. Voice thick from smoking, a soft pale face marked with deep vertical wrinkles, offset by those brilliant sad eyes. A picture of a woman named Amma on her dashboard, which I saw when I sat beside her the day I got a lift into town, my red backpack at my feet.
Her name is Sister _____, and it is she who finds me. In her hands she carries a small pile of mail, one larger envelope sent by FedEx airmail held apart from the rest. She asks my name, then says something has come for me. Sister _____ shares that she was adopted, has met her birth mother, and has found the whereabouts of her birth father, who refused to meet with her. Do I ask her to sit with me? Sister _____ says, If you want me to hold onto it for you for a little while, I will. Just ask. I watch her walk away before finding a quiet place to read the letter.
That night, I read and reread the letter in Korean and English—the former handwritten by my mother on typical Korean anglophile stationery themed black-and-white and headed by large red block letters that announce, I [heart] London; the latter a typed English translation officiated with a red stamp. Afterward, I find Sister _____ and ask her if she could hold onto it.
Of course, she says, and I imagine in that moment that she tucks the white envelope beneath the sleeve of her robe or into a coat pocket. In my pocket, the letter feels as heavy as the stones lining Virginia Woolf’s pockets as she lay drowning at the bottom of a river.
My health is bad, but don’t worry about me, I read. So of course I leave the monastery. So of course I go to see my mother. Because a remembered mother is no mother at all.
I am a serial subletter, but in Korea I sign a two-year lease. Four months after signing the lease, I meet my father’s sister. On the phone, and again in person, she tells me, Don’t tell your father I met you. My father’s sister is wearing a black sweater tied at her waist and brown aviator sunglasses that hide her eyes from mine. We are both cupping lukewarm mugs of tea between our hands, in a café named for Marlene Dietrich, when she says, Do you remember this? At one point, your father took a tent and slept out by the river, because he didn’t have money, with you and your brother.
I miss her every time I leave her. My mother. Partings leave me unable to breathe, crying in bathroom stalls into which I quickly retreat after leaving her side, in bus stations, at large department stores, in coffee shops, waiting for the bus, seated on the subway.
It’s late January. Every day, I’m pulled back into sense memories by the smell of street food, by the body memories nudged awake while sleeping on the floor in my friend’s apartment, thick blankets tucked into corners come morning. It’s the first day I’m seeing my mother again—twenty-one years since I’d last seen her. The morning is a blur of sleeplessness, a numb sensation of no appetite overlaid with the vague feeling that even without hunger I may need to eat, and a cab ride to the adoption agency office. What can I say about seeing my mother again? The way her eyes are filled with tears. How I keep smiling at her.
We are finished. We are finished meeting. And although I keep holding my breath, waiting for the moment to end, my mother doesn’t leave, nor does my aunt, nor do I. Are you hungry? my mother asks. Dae, I say in Korean. So we three leave the office, a jumble of arms and crisscrossing legs, and we are outside in the cold January air, walking together toward the Seoul subway. At the subway station, we part ways with the translator, and it’s just my mother, my aunt, and me.
My aunt and mother tremble inside of the subway station, going to the ticket machine, entering money, and hesitantly placing their tickets into the turnstile slot as though not quite trusting they will be allowed to pass. On the train, warm smiles and glances come from my aunt, while my mother barely looks at me. At first, she keeps her back to me and, in her other hand, tightly grips the black handle of a large silver metal box, my rented digital video camera and clip-on microphones inside. Your mother is strong, she can carry it, my aunt reassures me, or so said the translator, a young man and business student from Seoul, or so said the social worker who passed us onto him after our scheduled office meeting time was up.
My mother stands uncomfortably on the train, holds onto the railing nearest her, stabilizes her feet, on which she wears black wedge-heeled shoes that zip at the heel. I am watching her hand, the one that is not holding onto the smooth metal pole for balance, the one that is close to me, within reach. I think about it for a moment, and then I move my hand to hers, asking softly in Korean, Is it okay? My mother quickly nods, takes my hand in hers, and squeezes back.
Eventually it feels awkward, so I let go and stand in my own space, as though she were just another woman in the car with me. To my surprise, I see my mother begin to cry, and she turns away from me, wiping tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.
On the day we meet again, my mother wears a light tan leather jacket and all-black clothing beneath: black shirt, black pants, black shoes. I love her immediately. She also wears her hair back, simply held together at the nape of her neck with an elastic hair tie.
I love her without knowing why, without needing a reason. A love that infuriates me.
Soo Na, spa, do you like? my mother asks. This is the day I will meet my father and brother, and I’ve been staying in my mother’s home for the past two nights. In the morning, my mother walks with me to a nearby bathhouse. She is again dressed all in black—black jeans, black shirt, black leather jacket—save for a white baseball cap that reads on the front, in rhinestones, TB, and in the back, in embroidered lettering, Cleveland Police Department. When I stand beside her, I realize how small she is. I am probably two or three inches taller than she. A woman so enormous in my imagination and longing, suddenly dwarfed by things like height, metric and U.S. units. I realize my mother means a bathhouse, jjimjilbang. She laughs at my wide eyes and discomfort. I remember going to one as a child with my father, but cannot figure out the grammar or find the words to tell her this.
We undress in silence, and my mother carries a plastic shower caddy filled with soap and, curiously, a pint of 2% milk through the door of the main room to the showers—but not before she asks me to step on a scale: fifty-one kilograms. How much I weighed when I had you, she tells me later. Just as quickly, she motions for me to come with her, to where I hear water splashing. Inside, I see a low tiled row of shower stalls, and there my mother pulls forward a short plastic stepstool where I am to sit. She takes a seat beside me. A young woman takes in my naked body and smiles with the slightest curve of her mouth. The slapping of wet, naked skin sounds behind me, as a woman in a bra and underwear stands over the body of a middle-aged woman laid on a table, her skin flushed and reddened from exfoliation and rapid, forceful massage.
There is a faucet and, beside the faucet, a showerhead. Sitting beside my naked mother, the immediacy and intimacy feel terrifying. My mother—whose last words were I will come back for you when I was a girl of four or five—begins scrubbing me with her green-shower-mitt-covered hands. I take a loofah from the caddy and wash my own body. My mother interrupts with plastic basins of warm water splashed over my back, and then I watch her open the paper carton of milk and pour it over my body.
Yeppeuda, you look pretty, my mother says to me in the backseat of my aunt’s car, my aunt driving.
My father seems so benign in the hotel room, wearing tennis shoes, black pants, and a yellow Reebok zip-up coat. My brother is tall and thin, with thick black eyebrows. He looks at me with a face so unreadable that this inability to know a face I, as a child, saw beside mine when turning in sleep, pulls a sharp line from my sternum to my stomach when I inhale. We draw elaborate circles around each other, my brother and I, unsure of how to relate, he standing at the hotel room business desk, flipping through a shopping catalog, and I seated on the hotel room bed, sometimes taking photographs of his back with a digital SLR because I’m too shy to take his picture while he’s facing me. I scroll through the English–Korean dictionary on my rented cell phone, trying to find words, but come up with no sentences. He hands me his business card: he works in a nuclear power plant. I don’t know where my father works or what he does with his days, and I don’t ask.
My brother is seated at the window, and suddenly he begins to sob. I don’t know what else to do, so I hold him.
In a combination bar and café by the ocean, I am seated across from my Korean mother and father. I watch them—long divorced—drink beer and laugh across the table from me, and a sick feeling moves through my body, a prickling of skin, a rising of the fine hairs on my arms. My brother is seated beside me, wearing black-rimmed glasses. I realize that on the previous day, he must have been wearing contact lenses when he held my hand with a soft urgency as we rode in the backseat of the probable rental car driven by my father. My brother is by now a grown man, but I let him hold my hand, surprised by and afraid for his vulnerability.
When I see my father again, his face is ashen gray indoors, red and windswept in the February air. He smokes while simultaneously holding a small Sony video camera to his eye. I am distantly curious about my father. Around him, I feel as though a cold wind is blowing, and it is difficult to hear what is happening around me.
I do not want to be surrounded by them, suddenly. I do not want to be seated in a café, posing for pictures taken by my mother. I do not want to know that my brother never met his own mother. I do not want to become saturated in stories I cannot heal. I do not reach for my mother, do not reach for my brother, do not reach for any of them. I go, instead, to the ocean, its loud waves, its cold salt water, its breadth and wetness and movement, its comfort and holding, its size and capacity.
I exit the café, make a beeline from the front door of the restaurant tea house down the wooden deck stairs, cross the road, proceed through the parking lot, and go down the steps leading onto the beach, toward the pounding ocean. The waves are dark and loud, coiling forward and backward, toward and away from me. My green silk scarf, the one I bought in France for color, to wear less black, flutters in the evening wind. It is only my brother who comes to me without guilt, who felt for a time neutral to me, and his arms are holding me. I let him.
The last time I saw my father, when I was five years old, we stood in an alley. A white car waited there, a man in the front seat. I walked up to the car and noticed that, in the fold of his arms, the driver held a baby loosely wrapped in white blankets, blood still visible at its umbilical cord. He was driving the baby, and he would also drive me, but to a foster home.
Behind the white car, my father and this man spoke together, and I sat inside the car, waiting in the passenger seat, peering through the side window at the rearview mirror’s reflection. I sat on my hands and noticed with a start that my father had tears in his eyes. He was crying. I had never seen my father cry. Quickly, I lifted the door handle and climbed out of the seat, then shut the door before walking toward my father. I stood beside him, unsure of what to do. It took a few moments for him to notice me.
What are you doing? he yelled suddenly. Get back in the car!
When I meet my father, he chain smokes as soon as we are outside. Although I am 25 years old, I find myself in the backseat of a four-door sedan, unable to communicate with any nuance with the three passengers—my Korean mother, father, and brother—and stifling my growing unease in knowing I am being driven but I do not know to where. The disorienting timeline of mother, then father, foster home, orphanage, plane ride, the United States, still haunts me in the car with my father, driving through southeastern parts of the Republic of Korea, unable to communicate. Because I want to see his face, and because I want to look again, I allow my adult self to be driven by him. Then, I will leave. Relax, my brother will tell me when we’re seated in a restaurant. I can’t.
It starts slowly. Mother, father, brother. Not quite meeting myself in the mirror. But, almost imperceptibly, when I meet them, I realize I finally know what I look like. An indent of lip here. A slope of eye there. I stop looking like a stranger to myself in the mirror, mute and unrecognizable.
We are outside of the house where my father lives. It sits back from the road down a narrow walkway, flanked on both sides by similar houses of graying white paint and overlapping waves of concave slate roof tiles. We are in the countryside of southeastern Korea. He shares his home with another man, around his age, single like him. Inside, the roof is low, and I see where my father sleeps. There are photographs of people I do not recognize in frames of shiny mahogany and a low wooden table beside the bed, a yoh covered with blankets. His bedroom is raised above the floor, and I notice plastic sheeting used for insulation around the doorframes and windows.
Soo Na, cha? my mother asks for my father.
Okay, I answer.
My father disappears into another part of the house, slides a door shut behind him, then re-emerges a few moments later with a tray bearing steaming mugs of tea. He stirs the tea for me and sets the tray down on the floor where I’m seated beside my brother. It is not just tea he brings. My father is holding a thick glass jar, squat, filled with a brown paste, dwaenjang, patting it encouragingly in his hand while he talks in Korean, his voice low and steady. He hands it to me.
Outside, as we walk toward the black car to leave, my father stops. A small black dog cowers and shivers, does not wag her tail, which ends in a U-shape behind her. Attached to a red collar encircling her neck is a chain-link leash that is hooked on its opposite end to a small concrete shed resting at its four corners on smaller concrete blocks. When my father extends his fingers to the dog, she looks at him but does not move. Her body is a horizontal line from head to tail, hips splayed behind her as if squatting when my father crouches and rustles the fur atop her head and neck. She seems to take no pleasure in it and appears as confused by her desire to be seen as she is by the fear that pulls her back like the limit of her chain-link confinement. To any observer, my father is a stranger to the dog, for when he stands upright again, the dog sniffs at his shoe, her entire body stiff and alert.
In the monastery, there is time to inhabit memories. I am seated in the dining room of New Hamlet after sweeping the floor of carrot peels and potato skins and bits of brown earth tracked in from outside. The orphanage remembers me. It’s the brooms that do it, their strong straw scent bringing on the same nausea I felt from the same smell in the orphanage. It is early morning, before dawn. I am five years old, and I leave the sleeping bodies of the other children. Unable to sleep, I lie on the cool tile floor leading into the bathroom, my entire body feverish. I cannot seem to cool down. My cotton nightgown, with its frilled sleeves and its hem reaching to my ankles, feels itchy and suffocating.
In the morning, a woman touches my forehead, a concerned look on her face. She places a mercury-filled glass thermometer beneath my tongue and tells me to hold it, and from her face I can tell I am sick. For the rest of the day, I am given the exalted position of a seat in her lap, and she feeds me a steaming bowl of ramen. We are seated, nested there like Russian dolls, a bowl of ramen inside of me inside of the woman on whose lap I sit. Later, I will read the adoption paperwork in my file, learn that I was treated for amoebic dysentery before my flight, that my arrival to the United States was delayed because of the illness.
In the orphanage, I remember eating orange rinds from the trashcan, and eating from a plastic bag of what I now know were croutons, to the point of nausea. Did I starve in the orphanage, too? Was I hungry? There is a one-legged toddler boy whose diaper I change. I love him, how he stands and watches, his two small hands gripping the light brown wooden slats of his crib.
This is how I say goodbye to Korea. Quietly. This time I know I am leaving. This time I know what is happening to me. Birds fly on the air. Dragonflies land and rest on power lines and thin sapling stalks, their wings opening and closing as though respiring. I am in the mountains south of Seoul, at a silent meditation retreat. I don’t want to go, but a college friend who is traveling through Asia with a stop in Korea, suggests it, says it’s free and that there’s good food. Try it, she says. Just go. At the retreat, two other women share a hastily assembled and still incomplete one-room cabin with me. One roommate’s hair is permed, and the tight curls come down to just below her ears. She is long-limbed and soft in her loose-fitting clothing, shorts and T-shirts, always napping between meditation sits, pulling crackers from her backpack to eat after lunch, offering me the bag, too. The other roommate has shoulder-length hair, and smiles easily at me.
At first, I slip into the ease of their assumption that I am like them, from the city, that I speak like them, understand what they say. But when I open my mouth, I no longer pass. It is then that they switch to their high-school English, whispering explanations to me during the early days of the retreat. The one with tight curls still whispers to me when she is sure none of the attendants enforcing strict silence with their wide eyes and fingers held to their lips can hear her. I watch her protectively as she struggles with sleepiness in the mornings when we are roused by the clanging of hand bells. Every morning, for the first few minutes, she sits up, very still, her eyes closed, willing herself to consciousness.
In the mornings, all the women descend the hill toward the shared shower, carrying toothpaste and toothbrushes, bags of fresh clothing or dirty clothing they plan to wash in the cold shower water before meditating. There is no warm water. We shiver together, naked, and I see what I never knew, could never know, living in the country where I grew up: these are our bodies. These are our hands, these are the mysteries I’d forgotten, no longer mysterious, no longer odd or out of place. I am comforted by the bodies, the black hair, the same curve of leg, the bodies of women. Some of the women are cranky, pulling away and washing in their own corners. Some of the women shower with the showerhead; others fill plastic tubs full of water and pour it over their sudsy heads of hair, no hint of cold on their face, just the serene concentration of getting clean.
I leave the meditation retreat early, irritated by a meditation teacher we watch on DVDs and by how we are reprimanded for stretching our legs out in front of us as we watch the TV screen. How I cannot write. On the morning I leave, I hug my roommates goodbye, then start the thirty-minute walk across a stream, down a dirt road, through a forest, accompanied by a swarm of black gnats that surround me and then suddenly disappear fifteen minutes into the walk, past a torn-up field and an idle tractor, to the main street, where I sit on a bench outside of a general store, flanked by a halmoni and a young mother with her toddler son, all of us waiting for a bus headed toward Seoul.
I keep going to monasteries, I realize, because I don’t know where else to take my grief.
I go to Korea so it can open me.
Rumpus original art by Paige Russell.