Saturday, September 13, 2014

Jindo Crew, Resilience, and Further Opening

Abandonment pounds through the pulse of Korea. Separated families, orphans, missing spouses, abductions, common during wartime. But after war, during the economic boom, the pattern of abandonment continues. “Goose daddies” whose wives and children fly away to the USA for education, women coerced or betrayed into giving up their children for adoption, overworked parents who rarely see their children, and the myriad of addictions that devastate relationships.

My own pre-verbal pattern of abandonment is triggered here. I didn’t think anything special of the fact that my parents left me for 6 months when I was an infant. I thought it was normal. My father, always devoted completely to his profession as a scientist, took my mom and oldest brother, age 4, to Rochester, NY, in 1964, leaving me and my brother, age 2, with my grandmother. This is so common in Korea it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Not until I had children of my own did I re-think this event. Not until I mothered, breastfed, and bonded with my own babies did I realize how wrenching an extended separation could be. I had a hard enough time leaving my infant for 2 hours to go to an appointment, much less 6 months. What did my mother feel as she left her infant and toddler behind to accompany her husband? What kind of withdrawal must my brother and I have gone through as our bonds with our primary caregiver, our father, and our brother, were severed? Luckily we knew our grandmother well. Nevertheless the role of the primary provider, our mother, is unique, and elicits specific hormonal and neurological responses.

I know that infancy abandonment has affected me in many ways, even if I cannot always recognize or articulate them. In my body, I am experiencing Korea heavily in my heart. Daily I break myself open to both joy and sorrow, to both laughter and tears.

At the same time, my elderly friend and mentor in Detroit is ailing. I said my goodbye before I departed for Korea, and it breaks my heart that I cannot be physically present. I have served as a would-be midwife to the dying, for my parents, and for close friends, as a benevolent angel of death, I darkly joke. I am so sad I cannot be there for my friend, and devastated to be so far away, in a city where I do not have a community to celebrate and grieve our friend’s life and ongoing transition into death.

All of this has my body in a state of inflamed red alert. Old asthma patterns have been triggered. Respiratory inflammation roams from sinuses to nose to throat to chest. I strive to be patient with myself, nurture myself, and to lean into the connections that remind me that I am not alone, I am not abandoned, I am resilient, and am always surrounded by love.

My friend Jung-In points out that Koreans do not identify as a colonized or occupied people. She would not be able to live with such an identity. Instead, she experiences Korea at its best as a nation of resistance and survival. She looks to the fierce farmer activists over generations, fighting for the right to grow food, protect the land, and support their families. She works with teachers dedicated to meeting the needs of stressed and burnt-out urban youth. She allies herself with the protestors and hunger strikers at Ganghwa-mun demanding that the government take responsibility and make amends for the Sewol ferry disaster.

I would also like to identify with the b-boys and b-girls of Korea! I had my first exhilarating encounter at a festival last night, with the fantastic Jindo Crew, whose performance took my breath away, and literally left my poor sensitive lungs wheezing. My breathing is back to normal today, and I am bravely opening my heart and lungs further and further, embracing all that green and pink of the heart chakra.

Beyond decolonizing, I am re-indigenizing myself, taking in Korea’s rhythms and flavors, feeling the land beneath my feet, taking a nightly moonbath on our rooftop, feeling the stars watching me even if the bright city lights obscure them.

Monday, September 8, 2014


the walls of seodaemun prison
are plastered with photos of resisters
each one my brother
or the sister i have longed for

steady unsmiling gaze at the japanese camera
trademark korean cheekbones
broad nose and heavy lids
the features passed through generations

this is my TSA airport face
when i accept the humiliation of a body search
insisting on eye contact with the agent
to acknowledge our shared humanity
innate equality undiminished by state authority

incarceration doesn't dull
strong jaw of the profile shot
the sharp dignified chin
i rest my forehead on cold stone prison floor
bow down to the ghosts of revolution

meanwhile back on the subway
i gaze at the before and after ads
of plastic surgeons
see how our korean features 
are being obliterated by choice
our solemn gaze
turned into a round-eyed anime caricature

i pray to my ancestors
forgive us the frivolity of our lives
in the holocaust of yours
indulge us our escapism
in the face of your captivity
allow us to forget it all
even momentarily
if that's what it takes
to survive yet another round
another hour, day, or lifetime
of polite senseless savagery

Sunday, September 7, 2014


8 sept 2014

After creatively finding ways to doze in O’Hare airport with 2 suitcases, a backpack, and an ukulele (good thing my Iyengar Yoga training involves the use of props), I boarded the plane and landed in Korea. Immediately greeted by my friend, Jung-In, we took a local bus to her place in Bucheon, a city of 1,000,000 adjacent to Seoul.

She is generously sharing her space with me--a studio apartment across from the university. It’s manageable for 2, Korean-style, with sleeping mats we fold up during the day. The simplicity is reminiscent of India and comforting to me. The location couldn’t be better, since I will be studying Korean for 4 hours/day, 5 days/week at Bucheon University. We are not home together for many hours at a time so we are managing to not bump each other. 

Jung-In (Kiara) works afternoons and evenings at a YMCA after-school program, doing enrichment classes with middle and high school kids. We met in Milwaukee, when she was a graduate student in music. I sought her out as a Korean tutor in exchange for home-cooked dinners. We didn’t get very far with the tutoring because we would get engaged in deep, soul-stirring conversations that required English on my part, and we got to be fast friends. She returned to Korea after Milwaukee, and has been re-learning the culture after being gone for 9 years.

As I’ve been bustling about--getting a prepaid phone, learning public transportation, exploring the neighborhood, meeting folks--I totally understand why many folks would never do this. The simplest task is quite daunting without language facility. Right now I am heavily dependent on Jung-In for the most mundane things, like how to use my $10 phone or an ATM. I’m in an incredibly vulnerable and humble position and lots of times feel absolutely ridiculous. For instance, my silly phone was flashing all night, and I couldn’t turn it off so I stuffed it into my backpack. (In the morning, I asked Jung-In, and as a reassurance to my ego, she couldn’t turn it off either!)

Yet this vulnerability and humility is how we grow our souls. I cobble together idiotic, grammatically incorrect, poorly pronounced sentences and questions as I attempt to converse, and although everyone has been super nice, I know they are confused about everything I say, and that they have no idea who I really am. For someone like me who identifies as a writer, wordsmith, language artist, and deep conversationalist, I feel severely handicapped. My main tool has been taken away. So where does that leave me? 

Even my body language is culturally inappropriate. Women in Korea keep narrow personal bubbles. Yesterday I found myself at a bus stop with my arm straight out at my side as I leaned into a column. I realized I never see Korean women standing like this. Then I sat down and took my knees and feet wide and let my skirt fall between my knees. That also felt totally un-Korean for a woman. I’m a poor Confucianist. So there is much to learn, perhaps without completely scrapping my American self.

Nevertheless, I feel very welcomed. People address me as “seonsaeng-nim”--teacher--and I truly feel they are happy I am here and want to explore what I have to offer. I’ve already started teaching a beginner’s Iyengar Yoga class in Bucheon and will add 2 more in Seoul beginning later this month, including a teacher’s study group and an intermediate level class.

However, I am really here to be a student, not a teacher. I’m frustrated at my limited Korean, and shocked at my ignorance of Korean history and culture, and I know 4 months is just the tip of the iceberg. Daily, I must remind myself that where I am is just fine, and that any small amount of progress and learning is still growth. I recognize that this will be one of many trips to Korea, and that I have the whole rest of my life to learn and to heal.

Jung-In and I went to Gwanghwa-mun, the central mall where protests and demonstrations are regularly staged, historically and currently, and another day to Seodae-mun Prison, where resisters were captured and tortured and executed, primarily under Japanese occupation, but also used until 1987 under Korean dictatorship. The prison has become our own holocaust museum. I feel I must weep for months to process it all.

Yesterday, we had a small Chuseok (fall harvest moon) celebration with friends near Gimpo in their cozy traditional restaurant, and it was a most extraordinary meal, followed by a walk to a Koryo-era Buddhist temple, and a visit to a park on the Han River. Later Jung-In played flute with their son, Jin-Kyu, her former student at Gandhi School, a talented guitarist. As they riffed off American jazz standards and Korean folk songs, I felt a glimmer of what healing could be. A warm vibration filled the restaurant, overflowing into the street as pedestrians peered through the windows, under the hazy, almost-full moon. Syncopation, improvisation, deep listening, and play are our tools.

I am here. That is enough for now. More to come.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Poems from Korea

4 sept 2014


watching moonrise
as i eat brown rice and lentils
metal chopsticks tap on porcelain

waxing before my eyes
invisible to my north american friends
who doze in the thirteen hour lag

my moon glows
as your sun rises
i picture lamb’s quarters and queen anne’s lace
in the unmowed section of the field street garden
waving in the pink light

undeterred by clouds and bars on the first floor window
i soak up rays of the virgo moon
it washes away the vague sense of shame
which is a korean birthright
internalized confucianism
distorted into the guilt of not-having-done-enough
for abandoning my nation at the height of occupation
for losing my tongue to speak
the language of the colonizer

this is the season of self-forgiveness
in the generous glow 

of an early harvest moon

2 sept 2014

dozing on and off over dialectics
of being korean
and not

i am most integrated in air element
soaring above overheated
pacific ocean

how am i like
the ajumma flight attendants
and how not?

my hair is not permed and dyed black
i drape my bare feet rudely
in window ledges and seat arms
bunch up my skirt
so i can take my knees wide

but when my feet land on soil
i cannot help remembering
i come from revolutionary stock
impassioned and disciplined
who march in phalanxes into tear gas
and set palanquins on fire
who hunger strike for weeks
to willingly embrace the vulnerability
that connects them to the suffering
of the world

i’ve crossed the ocean
to shed yet another
colonized layer
to come down from yet another perch
of american privilege
where i could gaze from afar
and pretend the the children on the sewol ferry
had nothing to do with me
or that the lawsuit filed by the women
enslaved by their own government
for sex with american soldiers
were in fact not my mothers and aunties
being fucked by no one i know

i could insist it all happened in the past
as if the past
could be encapsulated like nuclear waste
never to harm us again

i could pretend time is linear
and not spiraling
i could numb myself with shopping
and gorge myself on waffles and iced coffee

but instead i am groggy with uncertainty
embarrassed with ignorance
tongue wrapped around broken korean
i squint at newspapers
that only leave me more confused
and remind me
that every healing crisis
begins with an aggravation of symptoms

i wait for it to get worse
before it gets better

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


4 aug 


may you surge like a michigan storm
may you cover the sky in seconds
and explode into brilliance and deafening thunder

may you drop back into the unknown
extend your hands and trust the earth will hold you
may you catch the rebound of your arms and legs
accept your dharma and embrace your fall

may you love like a pack of wild dogs
may you love for the sake of loving
with no expectation of return
may you grow more foolish with each heart opening

may you forgive yourself like trees forgive droughts
may you catch yourself in your own delusions
may you see yourself as your great grandmother sees you
may you gloat in unearned grace

7 july


hey, y’all, why not let me be
the receptacle of all your insecurities?
why not project your fears onto me?
why not hang me out to dry
on that god-forsaken cross?

go ahead
i can take it, i’m a mom
let me be your blank screen 
so you can play and replay 
the narrative of your victimhood
to your heart’s content

attack me all you want
‘cause you know i won’t bite back
i hide under the guise of nonviolence
but really i might just believe your truth over mine

let me wallow in the embarrassment
of my privilege
the daughter of scholars
and degrees i cannot disown
i come from appeasement stock
internalized racism so deep we thought we were white

why not say
“your project is too ambitious”
when i can’t see any other way to survive
“you’re moving too fast”
when i feel i am crawling 
“you’re pushing too hard”
when i’m forcing myself to sit on my hands

let me just roll on over
be buried alive by the brutality of capitalism
white supremacy
let me be crushed under the weight of caste

let my gravestone read
“oh well, nice try”

3 july


fruit so lush
it litters the boulevard
berries fall into my hand
with a mere stroke
staining nailbeds purple

no one loves her like me
if others notice they don’t show it
boughs so heavy with berries 
i must be the one and only who has ever stopped here

mulberries the most under-appreciated berry
come july mulberries stain every street in detroit purple
“a messy tree”
my neighbor says
or “they’re poisonous” children are told

with my empty jar
i stand under her canopy
she rewards me for the attention i pay
dropping berries onto my sweat-stiffened hair
they roll down my shoulders
and under my purple-soled feet
i lavish her with praise by scattering her fruit

sweeter this year than last
let’s just say the ass-freezing winter
is good for berry trees
let’s just say 
winter was good for goddamn something

man pushing a grocery cart 
down the middle of the street
stops to check on me
“y’alright? now be careful”

and he walks on
before i can offer him a handful
of sunned-sugar winter-surviving 
mouth melting black sweet
explosion of mulberry

no one i tell you
no one loves her like i do

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mother's Day 2014

for all us mamas who didn’t know any better
for all us desperate mamas whose own mamas
left us too early
weaned us before we were ready
lied to us trying to protect us

for all us mamas who had to teach ourselves
how to make kimchi
because while our mamas were alive
we refused to learn
who didn’t want to spend the summers
“helping” at home

for all us mamas who had to unshame ourselves
learn the hard way how to love ourselves
who went straight through the hurricane
instead of around it like we were told to do
for all us mamas who refused to listen

for any mama who said the wrong thing to a small child
who sewed her shadow onto a dependent
who blamed everyone around her 
who pushed away those who desperately wanted her to be happy
who shut herself away and begged to be left alone

for any mama who got weighed down with family baggage
who took on the karma of her mama and her grandmama 
and great grand and great great grand
for any mama who survived occupation 
days and nights in the desert
stopped keeping count

for all the mamas broken and patched 
shattered and glued
uprooted and transplanted
remember us 
for any one moment
of sweetness

savor us
for how hard we tried
how our love for our babies
made us wiling to fail 
over and over and over again

11 may

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chakra Poems 2014


why so easily capsized?
where is the depth of your keel,
the anchor of your capacious pelvic basin?

break through the concrete of muladhara
to send roots down
through the trunks of your legs
and meet earth through your soles

you say i abandoned you
but i only sidestepped
to give you fuller contact
with thawed april soil
spongy and fecund


where uterus meets sacred bone
and sacrum broadens its warm orange palm

oxytocin-induced empathy
prevails over muladhara’s fear of survival

from the intuition of my ovaries
come my best ideas and my three children

where quads and adductors meet abdominals
while intestines churn
convergence of process with action

like the mangos 3 for 1 on the 99 cent shelf
ripe for whatever the day may bring


cable to the navel pulls
upper plank of the abdomen up
to raise the sun above the horizon

golden beam from your solar plexus 
enters the room first
seat of asmita:
who do you think you are?
how far will you go to be that self?

the guts to show up and speak up
be your yellow magnificence
no apologies
let others adjust to your brilliance



in the prana-filled cave of the heart
atman sits
like a thumb drive
carrying the archives of my unhurt self
already the green of healing
has generated new tissue

merge of eternal purusha
and the constant change of prakrti
cardiovascular chakra

a bell not to be struck
i contain a celestial song
ringing without touch

i rise above karma
beyond circumstances and history
my ancestors deliver me here
unbeaten and whole
to remind me
i am free to choose


what does the white elephant of your throat
long to utter?
what untold story lies in your larynx?

from the pit of your throat
sweet nectar amrita drips
into life juice or poison
you choose

croak or keen or croon
it doesn’t matter
only that the smoky petals unfurl
into necessary ululations
to transform brutality into wisdom


may your pineal perceive what your eyes cannot
in melatonin-laden lucid dreams

join the cardinal in the dawn chorus
heralding the morning even before the sun appears
you contain knowledge without information
certainty beyond physical evidence
as yet unmanifest

shiva and shakti 
ida and pingala
seer and seen


as you balance on your head
in the center of a bare room
you belong to no caste

evolved as you’ll ever be
you wrap your earthbound self
around the polestar of the eternal

you’ve forgotten all your reasons
to argue with reality
here you remain undisturbed
ecstatic in equanimity
hair standing on end

get ready for the big bang
of instant enlightenment
but come back to tell us all about it