I still miss you. sometimes.
very, very much.
I still miss you. sometimes.
very, very much.
how terrible it is to flee from nightmares,
only to find reality even more frightening.
and we humans, after all, spend our whole lives
trying to escape from the brokenness of both.
I’ve just returned from giving a keynote speech at the 2013 National Youth Interactive Forum on the importance of literature! I never thought I’d be giving a speech to about a hundred bright-eyed middle school kids, but it was a fun and enlightening experience. As soon as I walked in, Haakyung, who was both my friend and the manager of the whole youth forum, waved her hand for attention. I had never seen her in formal attire before; she had on makeup and looked very pretty. “Hey, guys!” she said into the microphone. “This is Esther, who, as I told you, won first prize in essay writing in the World Scholar’s Cup and always gives English literature lectures for kids at our school before the test. She’s both smart and really kind, so please listen up and participate nicely!”
“Ooh – she’s pretty!” the girls whispered, which made me blush and realize these were pretty generous kiddos; if I couldn’t inspire them, it must really be my fault. Haakyung flashed me a warm smile and hurried away.
Now, I ABHOR those awful keynote speeches where the speaker, usually some important-looking corporate millionaire who has significant ties to the UN and too much money and experience at golf clubs on his hands comes out, pats his abundant belly, and gives us a long, somniferous, absolutely useless harangue about how awesome his rich and oh-so-stimulating life is—without ANY realistic advice to us about getting happier, smarter, or even richer. I was firmly determined to be as informal and pragmatic as possible, even if I couldn’t have the reflected glory of such a glamorously soporific brag fest. Therefore, I told the kids straight off, “I’m really happy to be here, guys, and I promise I won’t torture you too long! I don’t want to give a boring speech to put you all to sleep, so instead, today’s lecture is really going to be more of a fun storytelling session, where I tell you fun anecdotes about high school life, writers’ love lives, and show you cool videos on Youtube. Okay?”
The kids cheered faintly. The little boys looked skeptical; the girls slid their thumbs aimlessly over their phones. I smiled nervously and began my speech, which was about the importance of literature in daily life. I talked about how literature helped us communicate directly and transparently with people far away from us – even people from the past! “Which makes us sort of, you know, able to talk to the dead,” I said with a grin, showing them a few photos of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then I went on to talk about how important literature was in every field of life, including science, history, and even rap. To make my point, I taught the kids about the use of extreme alliteration in “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious. The kids thought it was pretty cool, and I was gratified. I also taught them how important literature was in getting a girlfriend/boyfriend by reading them a stanza from one of Neruda’s love sonnets, then reminding them that Hemingway wrote a novel for each of his four wives (although, of course, his stormy love life is not one I would like to recommend to any of those pure, bright-eyed youths). The boys perked up their ears at this and whispered to each other, “That’s incredible, man. Maybe knowing some more literature might be useful for getting girls after all.”
Then I went on, “So at this point, I’m sure most of you are like, ‘Okay fine, literature might be important, but HOW am I supposed to read and write well? Give me some PRACTICAL ADVICE, madam!’” And I proceeded to tell them three examples of people who managed to get dramatically better at English through hard work and constant effort:
* A blind girl I knew who listened to the tape recordings of all her favorite English books over and over again. Although she never went to any costly hagwons (cram academies) or received coaching, by listening again and again to all those tapes really paid off. She memorized several books by heart and went on to win several English speech contests.
* A graduate of our school who had never learned how to debate, but practiced his English by reading English newspapers to himself in front of the mirror every day until he became good enough to be accepted into the prestigious debate club at our school, and then went on to become the national representative debater of Korea and grab a world championship in debating!
* Me. Um, yeah. I didn’t want to talk about myself, but I kind of had to, because, y’know, I was the person GIVING the speech. So I talked really briefly about how I copied down all my favorite passages from the books I liked, even the ones I couldn’t understand, ever since I came to Korea; first by hand, later by retyping hundreds of pages. This really helped me get a grasp of intricate English expressions and bolster my shaky vocabulary. I also talked about how writing a diary every day for over a year really helped me honestly convey my emotions through writing.
At the end of the speech, I said, “Questions?” and was terribly grateful to the kids, because at least ten kids’ hands shot up into the air with the force of exploding bullets. They asked very intelligent questions and told me my speech had been inspiring and moving, which made me want to kiss every one of their adorable faces. That sounded kind of creepy. ANYWAY, it was a great experience, and I’m so glad nobody slept through my speech or glared at me when it was over. And I really hope, secretly, that maybe just one or two students were actually inspired enough to rekindle their love for literature through my speech.
Although the actual event took less than 10 minutes, I feel like we’ve just climbed to the top of an unconquerable mountain. I am SO happy that we managed to hold a real, actual, genuine English poetry reading in a Korean high school all by ourselves!! It’s the first poetry reading that’s ever been held at our school – actually, probably one of the first in a Korean high school. One of my biggest (and most awkward…and impossible…) literary dreams has come true! I am so grateful to my literature club friends for having the patience and faith in me to carry through with what could have been a horribly awkward risk to their social rep and for their diligence in practicing with me. I’m also sooo grateful to all my friends who actually came to the poetry reading and listened attentively and enthusiastically. I had been so afraid that we would be greeted by nothing but cold stares and stilted silence, because most of the kids at our school have no great fondness for English, and a positive antipathy for literature. Yet they found common sympathies in the simple joys and sadness of love, they had the humor to laugh at all the right parts, and the grace to say they actually enjoyed it when it was over. I’m especially thankful to Cecillia, one of my friends, for being moved enough to actually cry when she first saw me and Jonghyup practicing “When Love Arrives.” I’ve regained hope in inspiring a love of literature in Korea! We are not totally devoid of emotions, or totally incapable of being moved by great works yet. Thanks once more to everyone!♥
It’s the day after Christmas, and I have been thinking about happiness today. I don’t like showing my emotions or complaining, so I usually seem sparkly and happy to my friends, twirling around en pointe and always trying to keep a smile on my face. But really I am not a naturally happy person at all. When I was younger I used to have fits of despair for no reason at all, when I really felt as if everything was meaningless. At times like that my little sister Lydia (good, dear Lydia) would curl up and put her arms snugly around me, whispering, “It’s okay, Esther. Cheer up,” and maybe read me some of my favorite poems. Then I would be soothed by her kindness, and try to shake off the dark, painful cloud which oppressed me so.
For a time, things briefly became better when I first entered school. Novelty always excites and elevates, and I was fairly happy at first simply enjoying the rush of the current and the heady thrill of a new life. But then around the second semester of my first year at high school, things grew suddenly worse. I lost two of my very best friends—one, my first love, someone I would have given everything for, and loved with an intensity which took my breath away and left me dizzy and shaking; another, my first real friend, a girl who had the kindness to stand up for me when I needed her and listen to me when I spoke. I lost both. And so I spiraled deeply into depression again, and this time, without the sweetness of Lydia to help me at a boarding school, I spiraled out of control. In fact, I began to sink into major depressive disorder. There would be days when I woke up and looked at the ceiling, blanched white as skull heads, and wish I could die. I saw no reason to live or get up in the morning or breathe or do anything. Everything – everything was meaningless. And when our class would go on field trips, everyone would be laughing and giggling and chatting merrily, and I laughed too, but it was empty laughter, and I walked slowly like one in a trance, unable to find joy in anything, and just wishing and wishing with all my heart for the heavy opium of sleep. For though my sleep was fitful, it was the only way to escape from a reality which I hated so much. I stopped eating regularly, sometimes starving two or three meals a day. I withdrew from my friends. I couldn’t even find happiness in writing. I just wanted desperately to cry all the time, but even crying felt so pathetic I didn’t want to begin.
One day I reached my limit. My mom chanced to remark, “I always knew you liked being a thoughtful wallflower, Esther, but even when you were thoughtful, you were never dark. I remember you as a very bright, a very pure child. Full of hope. These days, though, I can’t find that brightness in you. Your eyes have lost something.”
Then I broke down. I took her hand and said, very seriously, “Dear Mother, please tell me just one good reason to love myself. Because you know what I’ve lost? It’s a reason to live. A reason to love myself. I hate myself.”
Mother was shocked. I expected her to begin with the worn-out old white lies: “You’re smart, you’re pretty, you’re healthy, you’ve got a good family, you’re not hungry, you can afford three square meals a day…” But I didn’t care about any of that. I had run the old moralistic sermon through my head all the time in an effort to free myself from the chains of depression. However, Mother showed a wisdom in one shining moment that made me respect and love her more ever after. She squeezed my hand and said, “You should love yourself because, darling, just for being you. God loved you so much he created you and died for you. I love you so much I would give up anything for you. I love you. I do. And if you don’t love yourself, it means that you don’t value my love or God’s love, either. Oh my dear, my dear, and putting all that aside, isn’t it enough to be alive? Isn’t that enough to love, to be happy, to be grateful for?”
Then she began to cry, and hugged me.
Thank you, Mother.
Ever since that day, I began trying harder—much harder—to overcome my depression. Whenever I was unable to muster the courage to love myself, I would remember my mother’s words. It was a gift just to be alive. I had people who loved me. I had love in my life.
That was the beginning of 2013. I still had days when I would suddenly sink into such utter dejection I would sit in bed for hours, silently crying, and see life as forever a glass cup that would be half empty rather than half full, and begging God to fill up the emptiness that would never go away. But I kept trying. I kept reaching out, to God, to my mother, even to myself, as I hadn’t before. I found healing through writing poetry and praying. And then, hope began to grow again – pushing forth from the icy-cold soil of my heart, a struggling, transparently tender spire which shivered and shuddered but still grew straight and pure. One of my best friends – the girl – returned to me, and we became close again: although we saw each other’s faults more clearly than before, we loved better and more deeply than before. And though I had lost my first love forever, and his heart would never be mine, I learned to let him go. And I grew happy again.
It’s only a few days before 2014, and I hope this year will be a hardworking, fruitful, and above all happy one. Yet happiness is not a potato, that I can plant it firmly within me and rear it well through my own effort. It is a gift from heaven, spontaneously given and gratefully received as a miracle.
Even now, I am deeply afraid of how dependent I am on the love of other people. I have exactly four people I really, really depend on at school. Of course I love and respect many other people, but these four are especially dear and invaluable to me, because they are the only people who can shake me out of my depression. However, sometimes the extent to which my happiness depends on their kindness to me makes me afraid. If I begin to live off another’s kindness, I will die from his neglect – or worse – indifference. This is why sometimes I almost even hope that people will not be too kind to me, too good, because then I shall begin to love them too much. And that will leave me vulnerable and raw.
Happiness which depends on so fragile and extrinsic a source as the love of other people is like flying along attached to a balloon. It may seem like flying, but the moment the thread snaps, I shall plummet back into depression and darkness.
Instead, true happiness is when I have learned to grow wings – strong, beautiful, shining wings – for myself. When I have learned to launch myself into the air by myself, and fly. Fly with confidence and joy, in complete freedom and independence.
Therefore, my most earnest prayer for 2014 is that I shall be happy – but not happy in a way which depends on other people. I want my happiness to stem from God, from love and faith and hope, from an ability to love and be comfortable with myself – just as I am.
I have two friends who are both near and dear to me. As a private joke, we call ourselves Moonlit Orangbbit. I’m Moonlit, because my friends say I have the pale peacefulness of the moon, and the lit is a reference to my crazy love for literature. Orangbbit refers to my two friends, Orange and Rabbit. It’s been two years now since we’ve been friends. We only have one year left to be together, but I do hope this is one friendship that will outlast mere distance and remain true through many more years.
“the problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” -charles bukowski
so many lions in the world see themselves as mere kittens, while so many cats mistake themselves as lions.