Saturday, June 23, 2012

Would You Rather...?

“Since this is our first time together,” Joe said, clapping his hands together soundlessly once and smiling behind his beard, “Let’s share our names, where we come from, maybe ages—that sort of thing—and whether you’d rather be trapped in a room with a rhinoceros or a room of water with a shark.”

If I remember correctly, most people chose the rhino (or at least I did), but not before many questions were asked (“What kind of shark?” “How old is the rhino?” “Are we bleeding?” “How big is the room?” “How long are we trapped?”) and strategies were bandied about (“I’d get on the rhino’s back and take a nap!” “Sharks are easier—you just punch‘em in the gills.”). And so, a great tradition was born. For the next several weeks we still gave our names before answer The Question and pretended it was a get to know you game, until there was no pretending that we didn’t know Theresa would refuse to answer the question because of its sheer stupidity or that Joe and Jay would chose the unpopular option to even things out.

But it’s always been a get to know each other game, because there are always surprises. When Rob offered 6 inches of hair all over your body against the life of a deaf mute, all the men—with enthusiasm—declared they’d chose the Wookie option, while the women unanimously rejected it. From rocket shoes to Siberian imprisonments and from there to talking hair follicles—we’ve covered a great deal of life and learned a lot about each other’s more bizarre preferences. Even though Theresa hates it and I suspect the others are somewhat ambivalent, The Question is one of my favorites parts of the week.

This week’s Question: “You’ve been forced to spend five years of your life on a new reality t.v. show and you get to choose: would you rather be beaten up once a month or have no friends? For five years.”

There is a spontaneous moment of appreciation in which an inaudible “hmmmm” whirs through everyone’s brain. Then Alison cocks her head to side and says, “So it’s really asking if we prefer mental or physical punishment.” Everyone agrees but as the questions begin and strategies are bandied, the group responds not with the grimaces of Siberian banishment, but with the same excited anticipation as the guys had about becoming mini Yetis a few weeks back.

“Do we still work with people?” Alison asks thoughtfully.
“Can we have enemies?” Brett adds, with a sneaky grin.
His wife, Courtney: “Yeah, what about family?”
Joe (Alison’s husband): “Spouses?”
Jay: “How badly do we get beaten up?”
Me: “Can we fight back?”
Dave: “Do we know when it’s coming?”

Rob fields the questions with humor and aplomb, and when the curiosity has died away to pondering, the answers are given usually in a counter-clockwise fashion.

“No friends option. Definitely. Think how much you could get done in five years, because you have to keep busy. I’d probably have a doctorate finished...”

“I’d join a monastery. So all the stupid people who watch reality t.v. would get bored or be forced to listen to me praying for five years.”

Aside from Courtney who declared she couldn’t stand either and chose the getting beaten up option as the barely lesser of two evils, most people eagerly chose the no-friends option (many of the group’s members are introverts, like me). You can bet I loved hearing my thoughts echoed by the others—all that time to study and read!—but the other option sounded fun too. According to Rob, your bones were never broken and you never suffered permanent injury. You wouldn’t know when the attack was coming, but you could always fight back. Of course, after growing up reading YA novels about kickass heroines that option is embarrassingly appealing to me and thus my inevitable choice.

But some options aren’t really options, and I don’t think I could never chose the no friends one—even if it was between that and 6 inches of Wookie hair without rocket shoes confined to Siberia with only processed food to eat and hair follicles that couldn’t talk. But I really hope it doesn’t come to that.[1]

[1] After all, who could like me without my rocket shoes?!?

Monday, June 18, 2012

It's All Relative

I was worried I’d come to a place called “home” that wasn’t actually. I was scared I’d spend the whole summer halfway between America and Korea, thinking of both of them as vacation spots, equally exotic. I thought maybe I’d come back to Indiana and feel lonely in all this space or harried by the flood of suddenly understandable language. Maybe I’d come back to Chesterton and Valpo and find everyone gone or changed, disinterested or, worse, dis-interesting. I thought I might spend the ride home from the airport begging to get back on the plane to my safe cheese-box of an apartment where even if it didn’t feel like home, it felt like a fortress.

I was steeling myself to relive the realization that words like “home” are meaningless. Words like that wander around your brain when you’re on the road so that any little pocket of comfortability feels like “home.” I believed it, too, that home would disappear simply because the idea of it was no longer clear to me after months of hopping from here to there.

I’m home. Undeniably. There’s grass everywhere and clean, fresh air. My mom’s garden is flowering beautifully and the elephant tree stands in the front yard with a new haircut.[1] My beagle patters about like always and there are exactly as many steps up from the first floor to the second and they are still hazardously carpeted so that I’m liable to fall down when in a rush. My room still has the ugly green walls my parents allowed me to paint despite the pink carpeting.

As nice as the grass feels and as comfortable as it is to sleep on a bed that’s actually comfortable, those things are nothing compared to seeing my mom and dad drive up at the airport in the red Prius and give me big, long hugs. Dad’s smiling and telling everyone we see—mostly ourselves—how good it feels to have the little one back home. He pats his heart a little bit when he says it and I know that “home” isn't meaningless or mysterious.

Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children. (Proverbs 17:6)

[1] Mom hates the elephant tree and vows it will be terminated. Dad has put it on his summer to-do list. I will lobby for its safety as long as it stands elephant-like in our front garden.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Dear Students:

This is what I would say to you, my students—if I weren’t too embarrassed, if the nuances in English meant anything to you, if we had more than five minutes of rushed conversation about beauty, if you were one of the students who answered, “On a scale of 1 to 10 beauty is of course worth ten, and no, I don’t think I’m beautiful and plastic surgery is a necessary evil if I want to be beautiful” and think it’s okay for Christians to want to be more beautiful, to plaster themselves with make-up and cut up their skin for a double-eyelid, to be ashamed of their height, their eyes, their hair, and skin, and to cry every time they look in the mirror. To all of you, I would say this:

You. Are. Free.

You don’t have to worry about those things. You don’t have to hate yourself or your skin or your hair. You don’t have to place your value in how many kilograms show up on the scale or what people think of your style. You don’t have to wear make-up and you don’t have to get surgery. You don’t have to think that if you don’t you won’t be hired, you won’t get married, no one will love you because

You are free—you are in Christ Jesus.

Or don’t you know that our God is the One who created the world, redeemed it through His Son’s sacrifice, and holds every single one of your worries in the palms of his hands? Our God moves mountains, parts seas, and never ever makes a mistake, oversight, or has an iota of malice toward you His child. Do you really think he will abandon you to scorn, mockery, and depression? Do you really think He, who is the arbiter of all blessings, will withhold any good thing from you because of the body He gave you?

Do you really think God prefers you to hate the face He has given you so much that you think you aren’t worth as much as the woman beside you with perfect skin? Do you think rejecting God’s gift—your body, face, and hair—is a smaller sin than smoking a cigarette or drinking a glass of beer? If God cares about your smoking and drinking and studying doesn’t he also care about you cutting into the skin above your eyes for the sake of a scar that might someday gain you a job? Do you think God can’t get you that job through His power?

He created the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and all that swim the paths of the sea and it is good. You are good—you even bear a resemblance to God Himself. Why do you worry not only about what you wear but about every aspect of your appearance? Don’t you know that God knit you together and, like all of His works, you are wonderful. Why change that? Why worry about that? I say it again:

You are free.

You are free to be beautiful without trying.

You are free from doubt.

You are free to love others without being distracted by needing to love yourself.

You are free from self-hatred.

You are free to not care about what you wear and whether someone laughs at your small eyes, big face, or your low nose.

You are free to be healthy, to honor God, to put your energies into something that does not disappoint.

So smile when I ask you if you’re beautiful! Smile and know that the Lord, your God and Father, made you to be wonderful, free, and blessed.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Not Enough Parkour

The awful white highlighting is back and I know why now and it's so completely nonsensical that I refuse to spend time trying to fix it. So while you're reading this, give it a good glare from me. That's it. Thanks.

“Date a girl who doesn’t read because the girl who reads knows the importance of plot. She can trace out the demarcations of a prologue and the sharp ridges of a climax. She feels them in her skin. The girl who reads will be patient with an intermission and expedite a denouement.”

This comes from Charles Warnke’s “Don’t Date a Girl Who Reads.” I love it—as does, I imagine, every girl who reads—despite the last line in which Warnke’s asserts to the girls who read, “I hate you. I really, really, really hate you.” We love it because it’s very true that those of us who read with a passion tend to see life as a book.[1]

Life is episodic, it ebbs and flows like chapters, has paragraphs where life slows down and speeds up. A summer day when the sun shines just right and the wind has that perfect smell in the air, your body is reading, writing, and living a descriptive paragraph, if only for a moment. Books are made to be lifelike and they succeed so completely that sometimes life begins to be book-like.

Seeing life as a book has its downsides. Perhaps most obviously, it makes us expect a happy ending—or even an ending at all—before we’ve run out of life to live. Seeing life as a story also teaches us to view ourselves as the main character and if that’s not the most selfish thing in the world (not to mention unbiblical), I’m not sure what is. Life fails as a story in many ways. The dialogue is absolute crap, the tempo—too often tedious—erratic, and there aren’t nearly enough parkour scenes.

But the good thing is, a girl who reads “knows the importance of plot.” She knows that conflict is necessary for happiness, but also that it ebbs and flows just like happiness. Books teach us to see the beauty and ugliness of the world, to recognize each for what it is—inevitable, but part of a larger plan. All things shall pass, but they will not pass without significance.

[1] For me, I’ll forever be stuck in a coming-of-age novel. Maybe that’s embarrassing—I’m honestly not sure.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Janice Avery of Korea

Being a kid was unequivocally awesome. Maybe I didn’t know words like “unequivocally” and maybe I had to go to science class, but now I will never be as cool as I was back then.

Some friends and I were talking about childhood on the bus ride back to Yeongdo and now I’m feeling very nostalgic for the years I spent running around in the woods near our house imagining I was queen of the forest. A fallen tree was proof of a giant invasion; the raccoon tracks were mysterious signs of spies breaching our outer perimeter. Any stick could be the magic sword I was destined to wield as I rescued my people from evil.  I knew every deer trail—every bump every fork, every misleading dead-end—and I ran swiftly and silently in my Keds as I tracked the bad guys. Those were some of the freest times of my life.

Bring a little childhood to Nampo. Reindeer hat boy
seemed confused.
I usually say that the next few years after that—when I was too embarrassed to admit I wanted to grow up and be Robin Hood—were the worst part of life, but even they had their perks. As a middle schooler, I had all the time in the world to read myself silly and no reason not to do it. I couldn’t drive anywhere and the internet wasn’t fast yet, so my evenings were unhindered reading orgies. Even school hours weren’t so bad. Given how easy homework was back then and how much time they gave us to do everything, I might spend fifty percent of my school day reading. I was miffed at those teachers who actually used class time for teaching and expected me to be focused on biology or geography when a good 50% of my mind was helping to defend Redwall from Cluny the Scourge.
Garfield sidled backwards to stand next to me for the pic.

But now I’m an Adult and there’s all these Adult Things I have to do like Taxes and Cooking and Teach the classes I used to read during. If any of my students pulled out a fiction book instead of their smartphone, I’d honestly probably let them read through my class. I don’t even know how little biology and geography I learned in middle school, but I know a lot about how to solve riddles and who to trust and that good always conquers evil when people put others before themselves.

Plastic water sword is wicked sweet.
Soyoung Moon[1], my tutee, and I are reading Bridge to Terebithia together right now. I can’t even describe the way that book tugs at my soul. It’s as if Katherine Patterson looked into my childhood and stole the secret details of my heart and put them into a narrative that is somehow both brighter than life and the essence of it.

This is the kind of stuff I need to be reading every day, even as an adult, to make sure I remember the lessons of childhood. I’m sure I learned a lot in college, reading Foucault and Henry James and, once, my biology book—but it’s not the stuff that matters. And Soyoung tells me that books like Terebithia are rarely if ever part of Korean schools’ curriculums. As we talked about giants and Janice Avery and bullies, we eventually wandered to Korea’s suicide rate and its causes. She said an article she’s read reports 35 suicides every day in Korea, 5-10 of them middle -schoolers. Societal pressures are huge, success at school astronomically important, and, I think worst of all, there is little to no room for Terebithias here.
Yellow shirt boy in the back knew what was up. He yelled
"Batman!" when we showed him what to do.

It’s rare to find a child in Korea acting like a child—most of them dress like adults, carry smartphones, and are already concerned about which college they’ll enter. They skip childhood here and that’s not something you can go back for. As much as I’d like to, I’ll never be able to read the way I did in middle school and I’ll never be as creatively unchecked as I was before that. But at least I have the memory of it and when I read Bridge to Terebithia I feel the connection more strongly than ever. I can’t imagine skipping the most awesome part of my life and I can’t help but wonder if the Koreans realize the coolness they’re giving up by maturing early.

[1] My Korean alter-ego. I guessed her name was Moon Sung a few posts back.  This is her real name.