Jeju May morning, and the rain drags across the island catching on the newly green leaves and blossoms. They shrug it off from time to time, letting loose big drops that splatter with a satisfying crystalline plops. Multiplied by hundreds.
Billy, an old NYC band member from The Red Rogue got in touch the other day, added us all on an email thread. He suggested we collaborate on a song, if I could send something along. I was invigorated by the idea, the guitar on its stand next to my couch winked at me with possibility.
But when I sat down to write, nothing took shape. In this compounded world, it’s feeling hard to find creative rays. But in reality, it’s been tough to write songs for years. The carefree 19-year-old days when a song could just pour out seem long gone. I strummed the guitar. Found a few good chords. Tried to think of words, hit a roadblock, gave up.
The Red Rogue played our first gigs in seedy lower Manhattan bars, then a little farther up at the Sidewalk Cafe, and then expanded our radius to Brooklyn and upstate. We’d break out our instruments on the Staten Island ferry on the way back home, Carolyn smiling over her accordion, Evan hunched over his mandolin, Billy tapping out a beat with a goofy grin.
An hour with a guitar and a notepad could produce a song then. The band would throw down parts and we were running with it. There was an audacity to our approach, and we were grabbing any music that we could get our hands on. Some influences that come to mind now are: The Band, The Pogues, The Replacements, Leonard Cohen, Patsy Cline.
But the world complicates. As leaves grow and fall and grow again, the branches and roots lengthen. We kept the band going for a bit after college, then eventually I needed to get out of NYC. The city had become overwhelming, constant worry about money, sacrifices of time and commute and living situation for what? The future was slowly starting to set in.
We got together for about a week in an upstate New York cabin a few years after that to record again. The town was called Phoenicia. It took engineering our lives, making arrangements, lots of e-mails. But we made it happen, deliberately setting aside the distracting world.
The NYC contingent of the band rented a van for equipment and made their way up from the city. Colby, who was producing the album, and I drove down from Maine. He was blaring old gospel tunes on his tinny Jetta speakers–songs from Hank William’s alter ego Luke the Drifter. We met up with the others in an empty church parking lot, the peeling white paint on the steeple, and made our way to the cabin.
There was a tree down across the driveway. It had taken out the power line. Shit. Calls to the AirBnB owner as we got it sorted. We went into town to a gem of a restaurant called Mama’s Boy for hamburgers and coffee, our unofficial home base for the week. The power was restored, and we claimed our beds for the week.
And then we hammered out the album. Wires ran to every room in the cabin from the central brain of Colby’s mixing console. We recorded onto tape, we wanted to capture this authentically. And in our free time we swam in the stream on the property and laughed and drank. And then we scattered back to our lives, me to Jeju, a few to New York, Colby to Maine. For just a little while, everything peeled back.
There’s so much in the world engineered to derail your creative momentum. When I really think back, the songs didn’t come easy then either. They were a suspension of the world, a deliberate setting aside. You need to open up a space big enough to get a few clear ideas in before the clouds crowd in again. I’ll keep trying to hold it back long enough to get song down. And sometimes it starts with something as simple as listening to the rain.
I won’t call it a mid-life crisis because I’m only 34 and plan to live until at least my mid-80’s. Mid-life crises don’t happen until the middle right? So I have 8ish more years until that. It has to be something else that’s pulled me into picking up surfing.
I had this vision once in my early twenties while living in Maine of driving clear across the country until I hit California. I’d find my way to Hawaii and settle down for a relaxed existence on the beach and pick up surfing. It was one of a million plans that I seemed to have bouncing around in my head at all times, and so I was easily discarded. But it did have some steam for a few months. From then on, it was a brief flicker from time to time that left an impression. It was still illusive though, and I had no solid plan. I kept it as an ember.
Maybe it was this vision that I was chasing when I packed up my car with music essentials and started driving west in my beat up Mercury Sable. The dream of the west coast where all unknown urges would be realized. Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” blared it’s pristine drop-d tuning over my tinny speakers. Robert Plant crooning, “going to California with an aching in my heart.” That line always crested like a wave for me, the silence after the matter of fact statement flooding with pensiveness.
But I didn’t make it to California. I made it to Kentucky, and my car broke down, and I worked for a few months in a deli slicing meat, bagging groceries, and selling cheese. The giant wheels of apricot-colored parmesan that I attacked with cheese wire every day were a poor substitute for the west coast sun. I had to get out of there, and the job in Korea appeared like someone propelling down from a helicopter, hand outstretched, to my life boat of prosciutto slicing and olive scooping. I blindly grabbed the hand and didn’t look back, escaping to an unknown island in Korea.
I lived on Jeju Island for six years and never tried to surf once. Jeju is one of the best spots for surfing in this country, a sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years. I had friends who surfed, and would occasionally spot a board strapped to the top of a car on the highway, feeling a pang of ache for my lost dream. I never took the initiative to try it myself though.
Returning to Jeju after two years in Shanghai, I had a chance to reassess what I had missed. The nature of Jeju contrasted with Shanghai’s sprawling metropolis. The outdoors called, and eventually my mind started to turn back to that ember that I had held for years: the itch to surf.
My plan was to go to Maine for Christmas, and then work my way back to Korea from there. I’d fly to Oregon to see my brother for a few days and then go on a solo trip to Hawaii, that vacuous vision, where I would take surf lessons and get the basics. By the time I got back to Jeju, I would be a competent surfer. After a cold few weeks in Maine and a damp five days in the pacific northwest, I was ready for a tropical getaway.
Hawaii was a shimmering dream. The days were ideal, and time flowed. I cruised in my rental Jeep listening to local radio for the first day, mapping out Oahu, discovering rush hour traffic on my return to Honolulu. I ran my first full evening there along the shoreline under Diamond Crater, and took in the coast and the waves.
I booked a surf lesson on AirBnB, carefully weighing all of the instructors before deciding on one that seemed to fit my pace. Matt turned out to be a good-natured Frenchman who had relocated to Oahu many years ago to pursue his dream of surfing. He was pro for a few years, and now is building a business teaching lessons and taking people turtle watching on paddle boards. We met at the Waikiki Aquarium at 7am, him pulling up in a battered surf van packed with various boards and leashes. “Let’s do it bro!” he said and I jumped in.
The wind was enormous that morning, and we stood on the shore overlooking the waves in silence. I felt like a warrior in my newly bought convenience store swim trunks and my breathable running shirt–the closest thing that I owned to a rash guard. Matt and I were ready to brave the elements, and I was primed to become a surfer. “Very windy this morning!” Matt said with confident enthusiasm. This seemed to be his only mode.
We drove up the coast a bit more to a cliff overlooking a sea of choppy but surfable waves and then started working our way down to the water. I clutched my large foam board, my fingertips barely wrapping around the rails, readjusting every few steps to prevent a drop. Matt confidently strolled with his shortboard ahead of me. And then we jumped in.
My first float on a board made me doubt the whole endeavor instantly. I couldn’t find a spot on the giant foam board where it didn’t tip and try to throw me off. Matt gracefully paddled circles around me on a board that seemed half the size, giving instructions about placement and paddling. Eventually we battled out to some wave breaks and got ready.
It happened fast. Matt yelled, “OK it’s coming!” and I felt my board spin into position. He was tossing me around, getting me primed for the wave. I wasn’t ready. “Now! Paddle! One! Two! Three!” I felt him give my board a shove and I was off, the surge of the cresting water throwing me forward. I put my head down, almost kissing the board. I tried to do what I had been trained to on shore. Push up, place the back foot, and then the front. My result had the grace and fluidity of a robot standing on an exercise ball. I fell forward, the wave swallowed me up, I tasted brine on my tongue and salt in my sinuses. And yet I was grinning.
I paddled back to Matt. Was that a hint of skepticism that I detected for the first time that day? He said in his French accent, “slow it down, plant your back foot. Here we go!” And another wave grabbed me and threw me off of my board. “Whoo! Yah!” Matt yelled. I battled back, and we repeated the process again and again. Paddling to different spots, making small talk before I awkwardly slipped off my board and had to reposition. He told me about his wife and daughter and his love of Hawaii and surfing. The wind was kicking up more and more, and my arms were getting tired. I kept getting smacked down, but this is what I had come here to do, right? Learn surfing?
Matt kept giving tips, and I kept pushing down my discouragement. And then, on one of the final waves of the day, I got to my feet and rode a wobbly invigorating ride. “Alright, bro! You surfed!” Matt said, masking what I’m sure was impatience. I scrutinized his face, but could only detect that chilled out enthusiasm that had been a constant through the session.
We made plans to go later that week when the wind died down. After practicing pop-ups on my hotel bed for a few days, I met him at the same spot and we jumped into the ocean. The surf was more reliable, the waves coming in smooth lines that hummed and crackled. There were occasional rain storms rolling through mixing with periods of sun. I looked out over Honolulu and followed the shore down to Diamond Head and breathed deep. Almost on cue, Matt called out, “I think there’s a whale!” I scanned the horizon just in time to see a massive humpback breach and then looked right to see a full rainbow connecting the city to the sea. “Yah!” Matt yelled. “Alright!” I said. And we grinned.
Since getting back to Jeju, I’ve stocked up on the requisite gear: a long board, a thick wetsuit, a roof rack, and began the frustrating business of reading surf forecasts. It’s erratic, to say the least, and on the good days people swarm Jungmun Beach, the most reliable spot on the island. I’ve slowly been working my way from the small beginner waves to the bigger ones, standing up more frequently, gaining confidence, working up to turns. It’s a process. But waves need to start somewhere. Some travel thousands of miles before finding a shoreline.
There were many doubts that swirled around in my head at the outset of my surfing dream, when I was first driving across the country before my breakdown in Louisville. It was ephemeral and out of reach. What felt like a detour to Korea, actually turned out to be an entry point into the sport. Years of waiting and slight envy at people actually surfing slowly transformed into the plan to do it myself. Without those years of slow maturing, I’m not sure if I would have had the patience to keep getting back onto the board. I don’t think I would have had trust that I was making imperceptible progress with each fall during my early twenties. At that time, I might have walked away after that first windy session.
Part of youth is the generation of dreams. The overwhelming possibilities of what can be. The standing at the beginning of a million paths that sprawl in different directions, and the impossible task of choosing one. What you don’t realize is that these paths aren’t exclusive. They cross each other, and even circle back sometimes, perpetually churning and reforming like waves in the sea.
Recommended listeningMemories in Beach House by Seaside Lovers. This is an album that I picked up based upon the cover alone. The record itself is a beautiful see-through sea glass. From the album drop on track one, the ocean is conjured and I float away on a tropical dream. This is the quintessential soundtrack to summer.
I keep seeing older versions of me on the subway
A nicer coat with a brand that I’m clueless to
A streak of gray overcutting eyes that aren’t concerned
I whittled the minutes
Thinking of the next
Peeling them away
Putting them to rest
Flower petals on the well-lit floor
Lightly bucking with the tunnels
And didn’t see the young man
Pick one up and compare
It to his own smooth fingernails.
“In a past life I was a velociraptor,” Adam said with intense eye contact, his Jurassic Park poster framing his bowl cut on the wall behind him. I didn’t know what to say. I had never had a connection to a previous life. I didn’t possess such spiritual sagacity. The gravity of the situation was magnified by the silence of Adam’s house. It was a silence that had an eerie personality. Maybe it’s because every time I went to Adam’s place I was always doing something spooky–watching Poltergeist or Alien, playing with an Ouija board, discussing games such as “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” or “Bloody Mary.”
The general consensus, though, was that Adam’s house was haunted. It was a labyrinth of wood–dark hallways and door ways leading to nooks and rooms. Nestled against a beautiful grove of pine forest, the house was a quintessential New England home. Granite foundation built to withstand the cycle of seasons.
As I sat there in the aftermath of the “velociraptor” statement, I felt the need to come up with something. I tried to concentrate, connect with the spirit world that flowed through the house, and get a glimpse into any previous dinosaur life that I might have had myself. Nothing came to my 10-year-old brain. So, I lied. “Yah, well…I was a triceratops.” “Cool!” Adam said, the moment that had slowed down returning to normal time. “Want to see my Alien toy?” I ended up also buying an Alien toy to fit in with Adam. It, quite frankly, terrified me.
Adam was always able to balance the serious, playful, absurd, and brilliant. His mind always seemed to be grabbing whatever it could get its hands on and cataloguing, cataloguing, cataloguing. We both had the macro curiosity for the world that only youth affords. We would go from ghost-hunting his house to the stream on his property where he could enthusiastically describe all of the natural life that made up its ecosystem. I would stare into the clear, flowing water and try to see the source of the passion. That’s the effect he had.
We drifted apart when Adam moved up a grade in elementary school. His precocious tendencies moving him to a different plane of “a year ahead” that is untouchable at that age. He took on a new group of friends, and our close-knit trio of Adam, Tommy and Timmy that began in preschool became a duo. I started hanging out more with Tommy, and from there other teenage friendships evolved through middle and high school.
We didn’t reconnect until college. Many of my hometown friends opted to go to the state school, University of Maine at Orono, a near three hour drive northwest of my hometown. I went six hours in the other direction to Staten Island. The Orono clan in the north began to form, and I would hear stories about them playing made-up games, going on nature adventures and other silly endeavors that can only be given proper seriousness and care by college students. Included in the group of merry pranksters were Tommy and Adam, a few other close friends and some other solid people who I would get to know over time. From there, I started to get to know Adam again during my trips home on vacations.
Adam and I reconnected over guitar. We were both self-taught guitar slingers who had ears for a good song and an appreciation of the folk wisdom of the legends like Bob Dylan. In one of our first jam sessions, we covered Wilco’s “Reservations” with youthful seriousness, yearning for enough life experience and relationship experience to convincingly deliver lines like: I’ve got reservations/About so many things/But not about you. Adam could talk at length about the Wilco catalogue, constantly digging for b-sides and rarities.
In the summers, we started playing open mics at The Big Kahuna– an out-of-place blues venue in our tiny hometown with an owner who brought an air of NYC snarkyness to his small-fry operation. We’d get 15 minutes each week to hammer out covers and originals. Our reward each week was a CD ripped from the soundboard. We’d change our band name each time, The Bottle Rockets being our default when we couldn’t think of anything clever.
We truly re-cemented our friendship during a long winter in Maine. Adam had found a nice apartment attached to a library in nearby Waterford. He was one of my few friends who stayed in our hometown area after graduation, his summer job for a local conservation not-for-profit turning into full-time work. So when I found myself living with my parents at age 23, Adam was one of the few people still around. I’d drive the dark backroads to his house where we’d listen to full-length Pink Floyd albums while battling hordes of Nazi zombies. The winter days were short but grueling. One time I showed up and Adam had put up black-out curtains He said that the CDC had been calling him and wanted his information. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or serious.
On most weekends we’d make the long drive to Orono together so that he could see his future wife, Beth, another childhood acquaintance from my hometown. Before hopping onto the highway, we’d buy giant coffees from Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes we’d chat, expressing doubts about decisions or the the future, or talk music, or make plans for grand double albums with lofty concepts. Or we would just cruise to music. The dirty snowbanks on the empty northern highway moving by to albums by The Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective or classics like The Beatles. We almost always listened to albums in their entirety. As spring came, we took a few camping trips to secret spots that Adam knew about.
After that winter, I left Maine for good. Adam gave me an empty notebook as I was leaving. It was one of those high-end ones that populates the turnstyles of independent bookstores. He encouraged me to keep writing, and I shyly took the gift, giving him an awkward hug. It was a moment that yearned for something profound and sentimental but, in the end, probably didn’t need words. We had helped each other through a dark winter and now had found a fork in the river.
We saw each other here and there from that point on. I made the trip up to Maine from Kentucky for his wedding. Adam and Beth always made lots of space for me in their lives. We shared trips to music festivals and getaways in Maine cabins together. There is an air of tell-it-like-it-is straightforwardness to Beth that added an honest dynamic to the time spent together. She’s always been a grounding force. They had adventures in Montana together, toying with the idea of moving there before settling near our home town.
As the years in Korea started to tally up, the diverged rivers slowly brought us further apart again. I’d see Adam a few times in the summer for some pick-up basketball or to go camping. We’d check in by e-mail from time to time. The responsibilities of our respective lives piled on as he bought a as house and prepared for his first kid to be born. But it was still a friendship that eschewed awkward society courtesies. When I found the time to see him, he would cut through the time spent drifting apart with a quick joke or anecdote. He was never afraid to tell you a slightly embarrassing story about your past to bring you back to roots and reality.
Adam died tragically while driving on a clear April day through no fault of his own. I got the call from Tommy about an hour before work. The beautiful spring day in Maine was reflected on the other side of the world in Jeju. Like now, the flowers were in full eruption giving perfume and pollen that suddenly soured when Tommy said in a concerned voice, “Tim this is big.”
The community shook. Adam was a bright young force in a small town where most people of our age, myself included, leave. It was one of those things that doesn’t process. The event multiplied the distance between me and home. I sat for weeks at my desk at work in Korea completely numbed, reading news stories about Adam, looking at pictures of the stretch of highway, feeling like it wasn’t real. I think that’s part of the reason that I didn’t go home immediately. A piece of me thought that he would still be there that summer in Maine, waiting to make sarcastic comments over hoops or to play me a few of his newest songs.
In the last e-mails that we exchanged, I was complaining about college debt. I was just starting school to become a teacher myself. Part of my decision had been inspired by he and Tommy. They had been teaching for a few years and had worked into comfortable lifestyles. Teaching suited them, a meeting place of passion, intelligence, and altruism. Adam was able to share his love of the natural world with the next generation, bringing the streams and woods and lakes to life for them. Adam said that “debt is inevitable” brushing aside financial worry. It’s the passion and the goal that matters, and the rest is secondary.
I was always a bit jealous of Adam’s clearsighted confidence. I hung out with him enough to know that this was well-earned and didn’t come without its fair share of worry and anxiety. But still, Adam seemed to live by a code rooted in sharp intelligence and common sense. His particular folksy code of ethics served him well. He generally knew what was right, and kept things in perspective. A series of well-grounded decisions brought him to a hard-earned place of comfort.
It was this worldview that attracted people to him. It should have been no surprise that those times when I was off on my own branch of experience, Adam was having the same effect on other people. He left behind a scattered collection of friends who believed in him and the ideas that he planted. These ideas and impacts still continue to grow and evolve.
After his death, I became even more certain that I wanted to become an educator and share my love of words. It is a rare profession that rewards and often requires passion. I still check in with Adam every once in a while to make sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons and making decisions based upon what I know to be true. The world of education can easily become complicated and convoluted and perspective is important.
Since childhood, I’ve left behind my belief in the supernatural and mystic. I no longer look for signs of ghosts. But that doesn’t mean that there doesn’t continue to be surprise and awe in the world. That initial tributary of childhood wonder is something that flowed toward grander things. With age and maturity comes a perspective that invites comfort and confidence. I’m getting closer to knowing the secret that Adam seemed to have figured out and, if I’m lucky, we’ll get to hang out as dinosaurs in a next life together.
Most days I run the same 10km loop in my neighborhood. There are a few little landmarks throughout the run: there is a friendly dreadlocked dog who rolls around on his back while I scratch his head, a colorful barn door, a top of a tiny mountain, a view of Mt. Halla across fields, a horse near an old well hundreds of years old. Pretty damn idyllic. They’re all little check-ins that border on ritual.
Running for me began in Asheville, North Carolina. Broke and wanting to kick a post-college smoking habit, I started running a small loop up onto a ridge near my apartment at 59 Annandale. I had no idea what the limits of my body were, and no real clue about how to run. I was making about 4.50$ an hour plus tips at a downtown cafe that tried to recapture 1950’s nostalgia by making everyone wear suspenders. The real effect was to make everyone miserable. And so, the few customers I did have didn’t tend to tip well.
That’s all to say that buying running shoes was a big deal. I saved up for a few weeks, eating left over hush puppies, pasta with cheese, and popcorn until finally I could afford the shoes that I had decided to splurge on: the majestic Asics GT’s. I can still feel the luxury of my first real running shoe. It sprang my foot off of the ground and propelled me forward. Rocks didn’t infiltrate my cushy armor. I could fly.
And with my new shoes, I carved out a loop. The ridge was a grueling initial ascent, but once you got up there you could cruise for miles. Sometimes, to add mileage, I’d add smaller laps in the park. One night I added another and another until I got to 10. I got home and peeled off my socks to discover my first bloody toe. It didn’t hurt, and I had heard that this was a thing. “I must be a real runner now,” I thought to myself.
The loops only got bigger from there. I spent a winter in Maine tracking larger runs in my hometown on the backroads. Plodding away through snow and slush. The silent tapestry of a winter dirt road in Maine dotted with the sound of wood peckers, chickadees and the creak of iced branches.
I had a vague sense of distance, but all that I had to measure my runs was a cheap wristwatch. The runs went from 30 to 60 to 90 to 120 minutes. Eventually I figured out that I needed to start running with a water bottle. I didn’t eat anything on those early runs.
I learned as I went, notching my first marathon in Louisville, Kentucky after a spring spent running the 2 mile road through Cherokee Park and a nearby reservoir. And then that brought me to Korea where I started my first Jeju loops. That’s when I first laid the groundwork for the runs that I do today.
Recently there were a few years in China, running the flat neighborhoods of Pudong on good air days. I had an 8km run that took me down the long tree lined streets overlooking brown canals. Some weekends I’d travel with other runners from my school to the mountains of China in Moganshan or Wenzhou for races, one time even making a trip for a marathon on the Great Wall.
From time to time I, like every runner, get the question, “Why do you run?” I can never come up with an answer. Usually I shrug it off or say something like “Why not?” But it’s certainly something deeper than that. There’s a reason to go through the ritual of lacing up a battered pair of shoes and heading out on the same piece of road or trail each day.
As I’ve run over the course of time, I’ve noticed something. Like the landmarks of a single run, there are other landmarks scattered over time throughout experience. There are moments when the current experience lines up with the past and clarity snaps into view for a brief second. Maybe it’s the endorphins, a runner’s high, or just simply the unplugging effect that running has, but it’s something that feels real.
These landmarks might not be as concrete as a barn or a weirdly shaped tree. They are more like feelings. Either way, there is something recognizable in them. During a run, a simple image such as a bird erupting from an orange grove or a shimmer of leaves can lead to a sudden overflowing memory. Triggers for golden moments planted along the course. My mind goes to a place where it can connect the new and the old. I see a snapshot that I forgot and it lights me up for an instant.
Of course, this isn’t every run. Some runs are 5 AM slogs through sopping rain that leave me shivering at my doorstep, blowing on my fingers before I tap the entry code to my apartment. On other runs, the body is spent and my eyes want to close. The landscape is ignored and I spend the 10km staring at my watch as the kilometers add up. But part of me thinks that the terrible runs need to happen in order for the clearer moments to occur.
These small loops seem to add up to something bigger. They overlap in grand patterns beyond my understanding or comprehension. Running is humbling in this way, and there’s a mysticism there that keeps me coming back. Although the runs might feel mundane sometimes, they are worth it. The loops might be the same, but each run is different–imperceptibly altering chunks of time that meld the past and present, leading to something better.
There’s been something uncanny about the whole situation. The response in Korea has been, by most accounts, timely and effective. New infection rates are dropping daily, and normalcy seems like it could show up on the horizon at any time. Yes, there were a few scary weeks in South Korea where it was uncertain what the virus would do. The initial outbreak here was made even more surreal by a story involving a cultish church in Daegu with connections to Wuhan. But since then, a calmness has found its way into the cracks of everyday life and people approach public spaces with more ease.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks the news on the other side of the world seems increasingly ominous. Negative numbers have increased: infections, deaths, periods of quarantine, the number of feet you should keep between you and another human. It’s hard not to open the news tab without anxiety.
On the day that things got real in the States, I hiked Mount Halla with a group of friends. There was no small amount of naiveté at that point. We began our hike with jocularity on a diamond Jeju day, packs full of too much food and not enough water. The virus had been starting to pickup on the mainland, but Jeju still felt sheltered from the events of the world. I had been watching the news, but didn’t feel concerned enough to stay indoors.
For a lot of people, realizing the heavy gravity of this situation seems to have been like watching an approaching train. At first it is moving forward with a hypnotizing graceful muscularity in the distance, dancing on an unseen but predetermined path. It gets closer and closer–another harmless piece of the countryside. At some point though, an invisible barrier is broken in an instant and the train savagely shakes the ground beneath your feet, screeching a million fiddles that you can’t reconcile with the idyllic picture that you were just staring at with quiet wonder. I think that this whole pandemic has brought into focus the personal dissonance that we suffer from with the news.
My friends and I came down from the mountain after eight hours of hiking. Two people went in a cab to grab the car from the trailhead. While they waited, the remaining three sat and talked on a wooden platform. The convenience store had been closed due to the virus so we halfheartedly tried to distract ourselves from our hunger and thirst through light conversation. When they got back in their car my friend jumped out. He had a look of excitement on his face that had not realized its unease: “Tom Hanks has the virus!” “Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA is shut down!” “The market is going to crash!” Humanity smacked into a wall of reality that we’re still aching from.
There’s a guilty longing to being overseas at this time. The truth of the situation renders going back impossible, while at the same time that’s exactly where you want to be during this period of history. Jeju is one of the safest places to be right now. The only comparable thing that my friends and I have been able to think of is 9/11. A diamond day into which a vividly painful memory is suddenly lodged like a knife. The pain slowly moves outward. It’s like a bad movie where you keep looking up and down at the wound in disbelief as if it will disappear. An initial feeling of uneasy excitement that gives way to very real facts and numbers.
I’ve talked to several friends who can’t seem to stop watching the numbers go up and down. There’s so much data right now to keep track of but so few answers. There hasn’t been enough time for clinical trials to take place, and so we’ve been forced to be armchair scientists, gleaning what we can from the news and the experts. I do know at some point, that the numbers that matter will start to recalibrate. Respirators, masks, and testing kits will become more readily available. New cases and deaths will go down. Breakthroughs will go up. Then we can start the work of healing.
I think that one reason I keep looking at the numbers is to try to anchor myself to my home country. The numbers should be reflections of the truth through all of media fog. It can have the opposite effect though, and make my head spin. Instead, I’ve been trying to excavate memories that I haven’t revisited for a while and talk about them with loved ones. There’s a therapeutic element to delving into the past. It blurs time and ameliorates the impossible wait that is happening right now. Personal stories can help to facilitate a meaning that feels so much more immediate and real than the stories cycling through the media. There’s something unquantifiable and uncountable about them, and in that specific ambiguity is something in which I can take comfort.
A few haiku:
Pond inverts to sky
I throw a stone with
my eyes To see a ripple
Blue marble we're inside
Spring with domed walls and birdsong
And then hard quiet
Currently listening to: Funky Kingston by Toots and the Maytals
As spring comes to Jeju and with it a series of stunning moons, I find myself reflecting on a project from grad school that my advisor, Gale Jackson, put into motion a few years ago. It was a time when I thought I’d be leaving Jeju for good, and so I started to say goodbye over the course of the springtime months through poem.
Gale told me to “look at the moon” and encouraged me to write. I started jotting down a haiku each evening and then compiled my favorites. Haiku should be written fast like brushstrokes, and I slowly painted a picture of spring. It’s interesting to retrace the footsteps – to see the journey from cold to warm as the earth woke up, and to apply meaning to familiar images through a newer lens.
Last year, I took a trip to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms. I arrived at peak time when there were fluffy pillows in the gutters. I wandered the streets snapping photos, admiring the silence that the city and the season has to offer. I walked into Nijo castle at night and the illuminated trees took on eerie and mythic personalities with their translucent pinks and whites.
I was supposed to make the same trip this previous weekend. Again, the timing would have been perfect. I had the weekend circled, and as I waded through the day-to-day of work I held that on the horizon. But as events played out in the world, the trip drifted away and I found myself planted on Jeju spending much time at home, wandering the surrounding farm roads with my dog, and running my familiar trails on the weekend. The weekend where I was supposed to be in Kyoto drifted by like an easy petal in the wind.
When the global news became serious, at first there was disbelief, and then frustration, and then fear and then acceptance, and now? Now, I find myself wondering what can be done. I think for many it’s been a good chance to reconnect to family and friends, which I’ve been doing, but also it’s been a chance to reconnect to the land. This week a calm has set in as I look around my island. It’s not without the flavor of uncertainty and fear, but my day-to-day has been in stronger contact with the details. I’m trying to take this as a chance to notice, and to see where the past lines up with the present to form a clearer picture.
Reading these poems again, I think about how I felt in that month before leaving Jeju and moving to Shanghai. The mounting electricity of spring that builds and propels you to the full splendor of summer. Trees shake off their delicate scales to show something more verdant and enduring. And it was at that point that I said goodbye to Jeju.
Now that I find myself more or less stuck here on the island, I realize that that electric energy of leaving Jeju might have been that of staying–that my nightly check-ins with the night sky had built an appreciation for something that I have often taken for granted: where I was. When I left Jeju I missed it, and when I came back I forgot that I had. When I wrote the poems or wandered Kyoto I wasn’t enamored by the transitory cherry blossoms of spring, but by the enduring heartbeat of the island or the city. This is an awareness that only honed observation can bring.
And so tonight as a reminder of that I’ll tilt my head to the sky and pause for a few seconds to look at the moon, knowing that it’s a meeting spot for all of the places where I’ve felt the comfort of place. It’s home to a thousand translucent threads of time, space and memory that it only takes a few moments of pause to connect with.
Recommended Reading: The Essential Haiku from Bloodaxe Books. An essential collection from haiku masters Basho, Buson and Issa.
I woke up the final day at Haeinsa feeling rested and ready to hit the trail. We had made a new friend the previous night who wanted to show us around. Her Buddhist name was Arona and she had been sweeping outside of our door as we came back from dinner the night before. Seeing our cameras she became very excited and insisted that we come see her pictures later. She was a sweet lady who told us about her family and her beliefs and showed us her workbook where she honed her English skills by copying famous speeches. She was all in all very motherly.
So the next day we woke up to rain and walked around seeing the temple with a new sheen. Arona snapped pictures and took us to her favorite spots that we had seen on the previous day but were made better by her excited chatter and picture taking. Before we left she made us go to the gift shop with her where she bought us Buddhist bracelets. The temple was empty due to the rain, so we had time to make small talk and sip instant coffee with the gift shop’s owner. The owner also wanted to give us a gift, and insisted that we take a pack of postcards and a bag of potatoes. Arona walked us to our trailhead and we said our goodbyes before leaving Haeinsa behind.
I made my way up the trail to the peaks of Gayasan quietly listening to the rain lightly smack the leaves. The dampness eventually found its way through my old raincoat and I gave up on keeping dry, taking off my hood and feeling the cold drops on my forehead. The hike to the top seemed brief. We found ourselves on a huge rock enveloped by fog. The first true peak was a silhouetted stone giant about a hundred meters away. A few Nepalese hikers snapped their pictures with us and we continued on to Sangwangbong, one of Gayasan’s two peaks. I looked into the grey fog and thought about the view that it was hiding.
The second peak is called Chilbulbong and is a few meters taller than the first. We reached it in ten minutes and then started making our way back down the other side of the mountain. Near the bottom a few Korean hikers emerged. They were having a picnic and offered us some fried chicken. We refused, but didn’t turn down the apples that they offered instead. We said “Thank you” in Korean and continued on down.
At the bottom we took a rest at a campground under a roof with benches. I used the automatic hand dryer in the bathroom on a few of my things that were especially damp. Following the road we came to a strange terrarium with a museum attached. It was all in Korean but had to do with the ecosystem of the park. The museum was completely empty. A man appeared to take a small entrance fee. I wandered through the museum section and then into the silent terrarium. Attached was a glass room with a woman inside. I went in and she handed me flower tea. She let me smell the different varieties and I bought a glass jar of purple petals.
We walked on the road toward town as occasional cars whizzed past. There was a small chance that two soaking wet vagabonds would be picked up so we resigned ourselves to the long walk. As we came closer to civilization we noticed that a celebration was going on. There were giant beach balls floating in the air and giant expo tents set up. We walked down the hill to the entrance and were greeted by a Korean with an Australian accent named Lucy. She was an English speaking tour guide for the Millenial Anniversary Expo of the Tripitaka Koreana. Amazingly, we had tickets to the event from our Templestay host.
Lucy, who had lived in Australia for a while, showed us around the Expo and then put us on a bus headed for Daegu. We reversed our trip back to Busan. Arriving around nine, we quickly checked into a hotel and ditched our wet gear before walking out on the street to reacquaint ourselves with civilization. We walked to the strange set of bars named after American cities and states excited to see it at night. However, all that greeted us was a depressing ghost town where strange women urged us to come in and drink with them. Feeling dejected by the sad scene, we walked half-heartedly around a few more blocks and then made our way back to hotel.
The next morning we met up with our other boarding assistant friends who were excited about what they had been exploring while we were gone. They took us to a much livelier part of town to the cheap but classy brand-new love motel where they were staying. From there, we went to the largest department store in the word called Shinsegae. It is nine floors of disorienting escalators and commerce that left me feeling dizzy. It even has an ice rink. We walked by the beach and through a strange downtown business district where a protest was happening.
The city was full of restaurants and bars. Many of them had strange allusions to America or were American chains. I picked up some books at a store near our hotel before we made the rounds of a few nightspots in the area. In the evening the street was lit up in neon and there were countless street vendors all selling similar food. We stopped at a few of them they quickly cooked delicious greasy dumplings and Korean pancakes on their carts.
The five of us left our motel early the next morning, got some coffee and made our way to the airport, leaving behind the mainland and heading back to our island.
Waking up at three AM was something that I’ve never attempted. I’ve experienced it from the other angle and stayed up until three to see the most quiet part of the night. I’ve woken up at four to catch airplanes or buses. I’ve driven through the night in the middle of America watching the lines on the highway. However, waking up at three for the sake of starting my day was something foreign.
I was not groggy as I awoke – there was more of a pensiveness to the atmosphere as we all began to stir and roll up our mats and take turns in the bathroom and make for the door. Outside the moon still dominated the sky and as we convened in a courtyard we couldn’t help but stare up at it. We made our way in line to the drum and watched the monks and then went to the temple and listened to the monks chanting. The rituals were repeated but took on a whole new meaning in darkness of the very early morning. The routine had kicked in and I had come as close to immersion in temple life as I would during my stay there.
So we made our way to the tea room where we laid down mats in lines and faced forward at our guide and she put on a CD that took us through 108 bows. Backing a man’s voice was music that could have served as the soundtrack to Braveheart. The music wove it’s way through moments of intense adventure and tranquil lulls. After a while I stopped counting the bows and tried to focus only on the movements I was making. The bowing process becomes somewhat strenuous when repeated, and a few people had to stop and rest. After the bowing we meditated. I might have fallen asleep if it weren’t for the intense pain in my legs unused to being crossed for extended periods of time.
We had a delicious yet simple breakfast of rice, kimchi, and soup and pickled things and then went on a tour of the temple. We were shown a building that houses the Tripitaka Koreana. The building is carefully planned to provide the right conditions for almost thousand year old wooden printing blocks of the Buddhist scriptures.
After our tour the silence lifted and the Templestayers dispersed. Wesley and I were the only ones staying another night so I nodded goodbyes to the people I had not really spoken to. By this time it was mid-morning and I had been up for seven hours. I decided to take a nice long nap before lunch, unfolding my mat.
After lunch, Wesley and I took off toward town. We made our on the path and witnessed the full degree of tourism that occurs at the foot of Haeinsa. The flea market that had been empty the previous morning was bustling with school children and tour groups and people in costumes. It was a shock after spending nearly 24 hours in almost complete silence. We quickly made our way through saying hello to curious school children eager to try out their English on us.
After a little searching we found the trail head that we were looking for and began to make up way up toward the summit of Namsan Jeilbong. There were a few hikers who smiled or tried a little English. The path was well marked and maintained and took us fairly quickly to the summit using metal stairs where the rocks became too steep to be safe. We took in the view and continued on a steep descent down the other side not quite knowing where it would end up.
The trail meandered to a small temple at the base of the mountain with a garden full of greenery. I smiled at a lady as she made her way past us to do some harvesting. The path continued to a town with distant noises of cows and dogs and the occasional car. We saw a festival in the distance and walked in its direction hoping it would bring us to a road that would loop back to Haeinsa. We had slightly misjudged time and distance and the day was wearing on.
A van sped around the corner and came to an abrupt stop. “Haeinsa?” the driver said. We nodded and he motioned for us to get in. The man drove with a confidence a person can only have in their hometown roads. He cut the s-shapes right down the middle and honked at anything or anyone that was encroaching on his path. His foot slammed on the gas for straightaways and flexed precisely on the brake for corners. We soon found ourselves in Haeinsa town. The driver handed us a card for a nearby hotel, smiled, and took off up the road probably rushing to get back for dinner.
We trudged up the hill, set our packs down in our room, caught dinner and made our way outside to view the temple at night. The lanterns that lined the path had been illuminated and the atmosphere was one of quiet festivity. I heard the drumming and chanting from a distance – this time slightly muffled and enchanting, and night had returned to Haeinsa.