Letter from Boston

The girl in the Beacon Hill cafe has a double-strand of Job’s Tears around her neck. They are a shiny pale blue and small. Looking at them lying against her smooth nape, I think of Korea. In Korea we made malas out of them. One late summer we harvested the hard pods from a Job’s Tears plant growing on the edge of the fields. They were pale green and unpretty, the awkward color of unripe fruit. But the harvesting was the work of our hands and the cleaning of the thin seeds from inside the pod was the work of our hands and the stringing of the pods into wrist malas: the work. Of our hands.

What are you doing with our malas around your neck?

In my head, I sound confused, unable to square what I see with what I know. I shake my head. Those aren’t our malas. This is not Korea.

What does it mean to constantly be pulling myself back over the divide between worlds, between cultures?

On Beacon Hill I passed a brownstone with a burgundy upholstered settee placed against a curved window on the second floor, between sheer ivory curtains. The brownstones of Beacon Hill were well-appointed. I could tell looking in the windows, observing the fresh coat of paint on each graceful door. I could never have chosen that burgundy, those curtains, placed the settee in that window, visible to the street. The moment I looked at it, walking by on the street outside, I knew it to be an emblem of a life of which I could not partake. I don’t have the knack, not for that kind of life.

What are you doing with our malas around your neck?

Yesterday in Harvard Square I marveled at how unlike New Haven Cambridge is. The small neat shops lining the streets unfurling in arabesques around the square, the several “Irish Pubs” with gilded lettering on their signs, the evident affluence of the entire area. Harvard itself, much more self-contained than Yale. I tried to go into the library, but didn’t have a Harvard ID, so I gazed up the interior steps to a door, through which a powder-wigged portrait was visible, and I thought I could catch the gleam of polished wood and sconce lighting. Then I left and walked across Harvard Yard, noticing the preponderance of crimson clothing.

Today I rode the bus from Central Square to Newbury Street. In fifteen years on and around the East Coast, I had never been to Harvard’s campus, I had never walked Boston Common. Today was a steel-gray day. I underdressed. I had anticipated yesterday’s sunny warmth, the thin cheerfulness of early spring in New England. What I got was the scorpion’s sting of winter’s last.

I stopped in every church between Massachusetts Avenue and the Common. At Trinity Episcopal Church I stepped in and said a few rounds on the mala.

I am in sore need of guestship.

I find solace and welcome in the empty pews of churches. No one looks for me there, no one asks me to do anything. The crucifix brings the body back into the experience of suffering: none of that “no-self” stuff here. I am not a theologian. I am not making a theological statement when I say: in churches, I feel that my suffering is allowed in a different way than I feel it is allowed in temples. I need to see the hurting body, the crown of thorns, the obvious pain, to understand our own suffering.

When I say understand, I do not mean cognize. I mean experience. Which also means the words have already failed me, trying to write this down.

What does it mean to fail in the attempted crossing between two worlds?
What does it mean to fail?
Is it a failure?

I approach the altars and the icons unburdened: this is not my religion. What are you doing with our malas around your neck? I finger the beads, look up at the stained glass. Another woman is walking around, taking pictures with a digital camera. She is silent, the camera is silent. Not even the digitized shutter click retrofitted on new technology like a forgery, like antiquing documents with tea and dirt. I get up and leave.

In the gift shop, I buy a small glazed ceramic cross, solid red on one side and a shattered confetti rainbow on the other. I put it in my pocket and finger it the whole day. My senior year in seminary I was told that I needed more “red” energy in my personality. The person who told me this was a senior administrator who was getting into color therapy. It was something she did, call each of us into her room and run us through a rubric of color selection not unlike Tarot cards, in my opinion; we selected bottles filled with colored liquids, one of water and one of oil, so that they separated out. Each bottle had two possible colors, one on top and one on the bottom. I chose a set of four bottles, with only two colors throughout in different combinations: olive green and aquamarine. What I needed to balance out that set was red or magenta, the senior administrator told me.

I thought of that today in the gift shop of Trinity Episcopal. I was drawn toward the emerald crosses, the deep indigo crosses. I deliberately chose the red one. I put it in my pocket and I rubbed it between my thumb and forefinger all day, a talisman.

Of what?

I do this. I find a little thing, an icon, and I try to anchor myself with it. But in a few weeks I’ll pull it out of my pocket and it’ll go on my altar with all the other mementos. An altar to the shifting relationships between moment and memory. An altar to the mutability of need. I needed a red cross in my pocket today. When I look at it tomorrow or even later I’ll remember a steel-gray Boston day, the calm silence of the church, the graffiti in the alleys, the mounted policeman in the park. The burgundy settee in the window, between the parted ivory curtains. All the things I saw and knew I would forget, have already forgotten. The beautiful girl with long dark hair pulled into a bun and a double-strand of Job’s Tears at the base of her graceful neck. My confusion. What are you doing with our malas? But the need will be gone.

I once kept a photo-journal whose theme was red. I photographed red, and found red in poems everywhere, wrote those poems down next to the photographs. I asked myself what red might mean. It was a dark winter. Red was the living ember, red was blood and life. Among other things. Other things included fire hydrants and stop signs. Those could also be read, like texts or Tarot cards: interpreted. They did not have to mean one thing or another. Sure, they meant in case of fire and squeeze the brakes until forward motion ceases. But if this were a novel, if this were a poem, if this were a life and you weren’t in a fire or a car right this instant, they could mean many different things beyond their strict utility, depending on the person reading them, the time of year or life they were read, the previous events of the day. They had mutable meanings within the general frame of common utility associated with the object and the color.

What are you doing with our malas around your neck?

I took the subway back to Central Square from Beacon Hill. The wind was persistent and I didn’t want to walk all the way back to Mass Ave to stand in the cold for a bus. Used to the multi-line, 30 minute-plus rides that characterize Seoul and New York, I was amazed to get off a mere three or four stops later. I walked back to my room, shoulders hunched and hands jammed into my pockets, feeling the smoothness of the cross, stopping at every intersection. Waiting for the light to change.

Then walking on.

With apologies to JD Daniels and Joan Didion.

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13 comments on “Letter from Boston

  1. Justin says:

    Amen.

  2. bighominid says:

    Beautiful and evocative. I guess you really were immersed, for a long time, in Korean monastic culture. You about ready to write the feminine version of Robert Buswell’s The Zen Monastic Experience? Ha ha. At a conference in Anyang a few years back, Buswell joked that he had, up to that point, written almost nothing about the lives of Korean nuns. You’re perfectly positioned to fill that gap, methinks.

    I know it’s impossible to assign percentages to a phenomenon as fuzzy as this, but how “native” do you think you’ve gone? Do you really feel that deracinated from your home culture? Are you really in a liminal state? (My buddy Charles will have an orgasm if the answer is “yes”; he’s all about the liminal.) When you say “our malas,” how intensely do you feel the “our”?

    • seon joon says:

      Kevin,

      “How ‘native’ do you think you’ve gone?” Honestly? No idea. I was so “American” in Korea. No matter how hard I tried to play the part I was asked to play, as a good Korean nun, I couldn’t (obviously, now, but I truly tried). But the effort also fundamentally shifted my interior world and view to such an extent that I feel it keenly here in the US. In Korea I came to understand that I would never be “native” and developed a strong understanding of myself as a permanent outsider, which is true here as well. If I’m native anywhere, it’s to the state of outsiderness. That “our” is always deeply felt, but always relative. In Korea, the “our” is often other foreigners. In America, it’s other monastics, other Buddhists, and especially other “Korean-trained” monastics. The line between cultures is a line I keep cutting myself on, and it’s in that moment of being opened (and exposed) again that I mostly exist these days.

      In seriousness, I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready or willing to write the nuns’ version of Buswell’s book. But I say that now probably because I’m still too close to my own seminal formative experiences to articulate anything useful, and I know that. Evocation works in a format and forum like this blog, but I’m far from objective, and a book like that needs objectivity to be relevant and helpful. Maybe after I finish my PhD thesis… *grin*

    • seon joon says:

      Also, Kevin, if you haven’t read Joan Didion, you might want to read a selection–just a chapter or two–out of either “The Year of Magical Thinking” or “Blue Nights.” I owe a lot to Didion’s own style and rhetoric with this post; it actually started as a mash-up imitation of Daniels and Didion. Daniels writes a “Letter from ~” series published in Paris Review. Anyway, the post got away from its original mashup parody intentions, but Didion’s integral to its style.

  3. […] In response to thus: Letter from Boston. […]

  4. Beth says:

    I was really touched by this. “Seeing” you at Trinity Episcopal made me feel as if we were invisible friends standing side by side, and I thank you for that image. I haven’t done something as radical as you did, going to Korea, but there is something about the contemplative mindset and determination to pursue a spiritual, reflective, and also intellectual life, that condemns one to perpetual outsiderness no matter where we live. I cherish the intersections with others who also inhabit those spaces undefined by the usual lines of borders and cultures — if it’s any comfort, it gets easier as you grow older.

  5. Beth says:

    And I meant to say that I also bought something when in Mexico recently – a plain rosary made of brown beads on a knotted cord, with a hand-carved very simple wooden cross. It was made by Huichol Indian women. I took it to the last meeting of the meditation group I lead, and told them about it, and passed it around – but they couldn’t connect, of course. It is on my altar at home, and sometimes I hold it during meditation or wear it, but I have also often imagined the maker saying, “What are you doing with our rosary around your neck?”

    • seon joon says:

      Dear Beth,

      It is some comfort to think it gets easier; and it already has, maybe simply because of a mellowing toward the need to “belong,” and also by finding other “outsiders,” paradox though a community of outsiders is. A good friend of mine makes rosaries of all stripes, Catholic rosaries, Buddhist malas, contemplation beads, and has often said he felt like a fraud, as a skeptic and apostate, and never knew what to feel when people told him they cherished and used the rosaries he makes and gives away. Insofar as objects are what we make them to be and ask them to do, I’ve felt that I could offer some small answer to the challenge of “What are you doing with our ~X?” simply by using those objects. A priest-friend used Buddhist malas to say his rosary because the 108 beads could be broken down exactly into the cycle of decades and Hail Mary’s etc. An Orthodox priest gave me a prayer cord one time, because his God “condemns no one to hell,” not even non-Orthodox or even non-Christians. I’ve come to love this conversation, through objects, about prayer, love, and salvation beyond what we think it is.

      I love the thought of us standing side-by-side! Maybe someday, more corporeal than visible, we can make that happen.

      • Beth says:

        I’ve wanted to invite you to Montreal, both to have some time together, and to invite you to talk to my meditation group — but have been shy about asking. Maybe, as you say, we could make that happen…but email is better for discussing that sort of thing.

  6. This post resonates so much for me. There’s something about being native to Otherness, native to a certain kind of decentered / outside-the-frame experience, which is familiar to me. I wrote in a poem once that among Jews at Christmastime I want to talk about the tree we cut down and dragged home in the snow, and among Christians at that same season I want to talk about the miracle of the Chanukah story and the evocative scent of latkes frying in oil. I’m always both inside my own story, and somewhere outside looking in.

    The mala you gave me is looped twice around a picture frame which holds a beloved picture, on my desk, at my office, at the synagogue. On particularly difficult days I unloop it and hold it in my hand and recite silent prayers (shema Yisrael, the one-line assertion of Jewish faith in One God) while thumbing the beads one by one. I thought of that as I moved through this essay’s repeated refrain.

    • seon joon says:

      Dear Rachel,

      …Having just spent a couple days at Dale Favier’s, I can attest that “natives to Otherness” always find themselves in good company with other Others. *grin* And I find it so wonderful that people use sacred objects in ways suited to their needs. Although I’m not sure I conveyed this particularly well in the post, and is something I would work at in subsequent revisions as a matter of technical skill, I wasn’t upset by the thought that someone had a rosary around her neck. I was caught off-guard, though, and I had an almost child-like curiosity, the way a kid sees something familiar used in an unfamiliar way and might ask a parent, “Why is that lady wearing an ~X?” In the end, I think the young lady simply had a very lovely necklace made out of Job’s Tears, and I came to wonder as much about the materials from which various things are made as the things themselves. It was a matter of context, whether Job’s Tears were rosary beads or part of a necklace.

      I love that you use the mala! That brings me a lot of joy today, indeed.

      • I came away from this post with a clear sense that you weren’t troubled by the notion of someone wearing Job’s Tears as a necklace — more that it was startling, disjunctive, to see something which is familiar to you in one context, used in a different / decorative way. That said — as I read this comment now — I’m struck by the fact that these are called Job’s Tears. Where did that name come from? On a certain email list to which I belong, we’ve been talking about theodicy and suffering and the book “Wave” and the Book of Job, and suddenly (re)discovering that those beads are called Job’s Tears feels strangely poignant to me. If this were a work of fiction, that would be the sort of detail that’s almost not believable — here I am thinking and talking about Job all day and suddenly, poof! an ordinary strand of beads is transformed not only into a rosary but also into a reminder of suffering and surrender. Holy wow.

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