One of my earliest memories starts with me bleeding.
I was standing in front of the mirror, my face pale and round, my pupils quivering slightly. Father’s fingers dug into my shoulder blades, his grip narrow and fierce with concern. “Look at yourself, Esther,” he said. “Don’t you see how much you’ve hurt yourself? Do you really want to look like this?”
My mouth was in ruptured tatters of shredded red. I had pulled and torn at my lips with my fingers until it had spread open in an efflorescence of bloody crimson, like a frenetically shredded flower. I was around four at the time, and I looked in the mirror and was frightened by my own reflection: I looked ugly, terrible, slaughtered. Tears gushed into my eyes.
“Come on.” Father shook me by the shoulders, gently but impatiently.
“You have to stop this. You look like a ghost whose mouth has been ripped open.”
From age four to my teenage years I continued tearing absently at my lips whenever I fell into thought, from when I was reading to daydreaming to solving math problems. Mother threatened to hit me whenever I touched my mouth, but even as she struck my fingers with hard rulers, my fingers refused to stay still. Church members offered to buy me Chapstick, and relatives asked if I didn’t get enough vitamins. My parents were stung, hearing in these remarks implied accusations of malnutrition and misfeeding. “You look insecure. Stop acting like you were abused as a child,” they urged.
And I tried. But the habit stayed.
When my youngest sister Eunice developed a similar habit – picking at the skin under her fingernails until she had peeled an entire layer of small, curdled white flesh away – I scolded her daily in dismay. I didn’t want her to grow up like me, hands restless and simmering with the dregs of self-destruction.
We both grew out of these habits eventually. My fingers are still restless; when Eunice coats my nails with mint-colored polish, I still struggle with the urge to scratch at any flaw or crack in the paint until it chips off, tearing and scraping until they splinter off in small, bright green snowflakes, clattering to the ground in ragged half-moons.
But, at least, my lips remain whole.
And here is something I have found. Even when my habits were strongest, even when my lips bled and my fingers jumped compulsively to tear, scratch, and immolate myself, there was a time when they could always be still: when I created. When I was typing or writing down a world of spinning stories. When a flowerbud or florid face blossomed beneath my pen. One of the best ways out of self-destruction, I have found, is of new creation. In the absorption of extracting beauty from the depths of myself, I forget that pain or ugliness exists, or that I have flaws which need to be scraped and torn away. In bleeding my soul onto paper, I stop drawing blood from myself.
Perhaps that is why so many wrist slashers become compulsive writers.
In some ways, perhaps writing has saved my life.
We were infinite.
We prayed, we sang, we dreamed.
We were children of God who dined on cold gimbap and limp kimchi
left over from Sunday services.
We were children of dust,
but breathed in the words of millennium-old prayers
and believed in a sea of eternity.
We were pastor’s children.
This is how it began:
with the brittle, calligraphic quiver of trees across the Bukhan Mountains.
With the cold kiss of steel against my ten-year-old fingers
curled tightly around an electric heater,
straining to carry it uphill to Kookmin University.
With a school that looked dreary and desolate in the barren winter morning:
wet-eyed, bedraggled students shuffling across our path,
clutching thick textbooks to thin chests.
When we reached an empty classroom,
chalk dust settled faintly over everything from the broken chairs to graying walls,
we knelt in a circle with Father and Mother and joined our hands in prayer.
There, the first kernel fell into a frozen plot of holy ground.
There, our church and home was born.
We watched the church grow with hope and misgiving;
we scratched our fingers bloody
against the husk of privations that sheathed the green shoots.
We shared our mother with university students who called her at 3 a.m.
to piece their broken lives together;
we watched, wide-eyed, as unemployed graduates she had been teaching English
for free threw tantrums of insecurity or tore their textbooks in two.
We mishmashed our own language
to speak fluently of the secrets of our least favorite church members:
scandals, sex tapes, drinking sprees, and violence.
And when insults were hurled and chairs thrown,
when members left church because “pastors shouldn’t jiggle their legs”
and our ears ached with angry quarrels,
we scrambled under the blanket covers and spun our own world:
bright with crystal tears and rivers full of glow-worms,
a world where reality ended and fiction began.
We were sisters and pirates, adventurers and animals.
We were three princesses locked in a quest to find goodness,
and in our world there was always a happily ever after.
“I’ll go back to America, and take you with me,” I said,
springing lightly onto the sofa and lifting my fingers upward:
for the world as if we were three young bluejays,
that having migrated back to a strange, cold homeland
that cast us out like foreigners,
we could simply beat our wings and fly back home.
“We’ll become successful, rich, and famous.
And then we’ll give our parents all the beautiful joys they deserve.”
“We will,” Lydia and Eunice promised, as solemnly as an oath,
snuggling and kicking under the frayed white sheets.
We were Esther, Lydia, and Eunice -
bunny, poodle, and pug;
classic, creamy, and spicy;
vanilla, chocolate, strawberry;
pastel, purple, and red.
In a world where so many hurt our parents,
and where it took all our prayers
to hold our family (let alone the church) together,
my coldness towards the church members
multiplied my adoration for my sisters until it ached.
Of course, there were also beautiful people in our church
who threw hearth-glow over our lives as well as the ungrateful;
they made our lives richer, and I loved them tentatively but loyally.
There were “older sisters”
who read Ecclesiastes with me over fresh pizza and laughter,
designed my poetry books, filmed my spoken word,
and massaged my mother during sleepovers;
“older brothers” who took us out for pizza
and gave us chocolates and compliments when we most needed them.
Yet it was all the more heartbreaking when we hugged them goodbye -
sending them off to the workplace, to different countries, or even to heaven.
One of the hardest pangs came when Young-sang and Mi-sang had to go.
They were two toddlers, aged three and five,
whom I had taken care of since infancy.
Young-sang, he was simplicity and coconut jelly, wonder and confidence.
At that time he asserted he would marry me when he grew up,
and nagged me for more cookies.
Mi-sang was coy and clever, prim-mouthed and pink.
At first, she refused to give me her hand
except when she teetered down the stairs,
but as we grew closer, she latched tightly onto me
and howled if anyone else tried to carry her.
She was my secret favorite.
In a tiny church with only one service, we were their Sunday School teachers.
Holding hands tightly, we ran around Kookmin University for hours every week,
acting out Bible stories and chanting songs to ward off mountain monsters.
We braided flowers for Mi-sang’s hair
and kissed Young-sang’s cheeks for luck every week.
The day their parents decided to leave the church,
we stared numbly after their departing car,
watching them wave their purple dinosaur dolls and cry,
They must have forgotten our existence by now.
We were the children caught betwixt sand and stardust;
we smiled brightly, and spoke politely,
but our strings were strained taut with untold words.
Our hearts bled and beat and bristled with trampled love.
Yet just as death is the father of beauty,
those bleak days spent huddling in frozen, borrowed classrooms
has shaped me into the person I am now.
I have grown up in a household devoted to serving in every way possible:
in silent, patient endurance;
through insincerity and backstabbing, ingratitude and hunger;
saying goodbye sorrowfully, yet welcoming new members joyously;
poor, yet making many rich;
having nothing, yet possessing everything.
My calling is different from that of my parents:
where they healed with prayer, I long to heal with prose, with poetry.
But through our family’s church,
I have learned innumerable lessons in kindness and love.
I learned to share my last cent with those in need.
I learned to touch thorns and think roses.
I learned to hold onto my sisters with every inch of my heart,
because they were the only treasures I were sure of
in a spinning flux of farewells.
And most of all, I learned the grace of gratitude,
in spaces small as well as great.
That, at least, is a beginning.
As I went to the grocery store to buy onions for Mother,
a middle-aged man with a red face corrugated with flesh dragged himself in behind me.
“One bottle of soju!” he barked, slapping down a wad of bills.
“That’ll be one thousand and three hundred won, sir,” the woman at the counter said,
placing a shiny green glass bottle before him.
It doesn’t cost much to drink yourself to idiocy, I thought disapprovingly.
As the man drew nearer I was hit with a whiff of cigarette stench.
And one addiction often leads to another.
Then, much more sharply than the stench of cigarettes,
my conscience smote me as I picked up the onions and strode into the open air.
What are you doing, Esther?
What right do you have to judge this man for his drinking and smoking?
Are you a perfect person yourself?
Isn’t this snide judging, this sniffy better-than-thou attitude
just as horrible as any addiction?
Color flashed into my cheeks as I reminded myself,
You have no right to throw the first stone.
One of the worst flaws about good people,
(and I’ve met almost nobody exempt from this flaw)
is that the better and kinder and more honorable they are,
the more harshly they judge those around them.
I don’t call myself a very good person.
But too often I find myself criticizing the people around me impulsively and unsympathetically.
I have to keep correcting myself mid-thought.
I know that if I were to be dragged before the pedestal of justice,
my sins and flaws and cracks and weaknesses would be ludicrous and numerous.
I hope I can pull out the dregs of hypocritical judgment inside me
before I become too old and too inflexible to change my ways.
But here are two things that comfort me.
Firstly, I read somewhere that the first thought that pops into your mind
is the product of society;
it’s the second thought that defines who you are.
So when I walk into a subway and think scornfully, “Ugh, what an ugly face!”
and immediately snap fiercely back at myself,
“What do you know about ugliness?
Who are you, Miss Universe? Do you think you’re remotely pretty enough to judge anyone for being ugly?
F**** you and your society-manipulated,
surface-shallow standards. That woman is beautiful just the way she is,
and shame on you for thinking any different.
I hope she has an awesome day and feels dearly loved.
And if her expression looks pained,
perhaps she has a suffering within her you can’t even dare to think about.
So shut up and don’t be an unpleasant, stuck-up jerk yourself, Esther Ra.”
I like to think that my second thought is more sincere than my first.
Secondly, that’s what writing is for:
to capture the small, transient, beautiful qualities of people
that are often forgotten amid the everyday flaws that irritate.
Writing is there to remind me of the brightness of the orb,
despite the craters that might deface its surface.
The way she knelt by the side of my bed, saying quietly,
“I’ll never let anyone be unkind to you, Esther, ever.”
The way he bought me yogurt milk when I was near breaking down in tears.
The way my little sisters saved their favorite meal to share with me when I got home.
These things will continue to sparkle in pieces of my heart,
however many times it gets broken by anything else.
Y once told me,
“If you don’t love that person deeply, you don’t have the right to criticize.
I never criticize your parents because I know I don’t love them as much as you do.”
I was struck with his words then, and still remind them to myself now:
Before criticizing, be kind.
Before you sit in judgment, stand up for them in love.
Don’t rush forward to throw the first stone,
I tell myself.
Be the first to clean the wounds of other stones away.
A familiar face,
glimmering faintly above the bookshelves like a distant star.
I walk quickly forward, barely realizing my breath is gone,
barely comprehending how much I’d actually missed him
in just the length of time it takes for him to take my hand and pull me into a hug.
“Where were you?”
“Where were you?”
“Have you been waiting for me long?”
“Not very much,” I say,
and the words carry more significance and weight in their four syllables than I had meant.
We head into a bakery: sweet and spicy fragrance, spun sugar and the warmth of fresh-baked flour.
A woman with smoky makeup and a faraway smile pops up behind the counter, saying,
“We’re only open for one more hour.”
He leans over the loaves of bread, pointing here and there.
“This one is very good…and I’ve tried this, it’s delicious.” Recommending quietly.
I pick up a sugar-crystal apple tart and turn it over gingerly in my hands before placing it on the counter.
“This, please. And a green tea latte and a cup of tea.”
I slap down a million-won bill; at the same time, he slaps down his credit card.
“I’ll pay,” we both blurt.
The woman lifts her eyebrows, condescending and faintly amused.
“Oh? And whose money am I supposed to take?”
“Mine,” he says.
“Mine,” I insist, glaring at him.
She chuckles softly and picks up the card. “Then I’ll take yours, sir. Oh…why don’t I be generous for once.
You can have another loaf of bread for free: take your pick.”
Amid our startled looks of gratitude, she grabs a coffee bun and flips it onto our tray.
Quickly we walk to a nearby table and sit down, my coat flaring open like the petals of a flower.
He raises his eyebrows at my pastel mint-colored skirt and says, smiling, “Wow. You look pretty today,”
just as he does every time he sees me.
Stability. Safety. Kindness, and protective admiration: these are qualities he will always represent to me.
These qualities are what make me like him so dearly;
but perhaps these qualities are why I feel that we are so different.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes you are. You’re being shy.”
“Oh, shut up.”
He grins. I flip him my fourth finger.
“You curse too much.”
“It’s my fourth finger, not my third.”
“You always blush when I say that you’re pretty.”
“Ah, you spoil me,” I say rather earnestly, coloring, and turn the subject:
“As for prettiness, I saw a really, really, really pretty girl on the subway today.”
“Why? Did you look in the mirror?”
Wow. Points for creativity. Caught by surprise, I blush again, then burst into laughter.
“Oh, my goodness. You’re getting pretty good at this. No, of course not.
But what I was meaning to say is, she was very drunk –
shouting ‘Idiot!’ and ‘Trash!’ over and over again in the subway compartment.
I felt very sorry for her,
and very sorry that someone so pretty should be saying those things.
I hope she reached her destination safely.”
“Whoa. I wouldn’t call that sight pretty,” he says darkly.
I shake my head. “The drinking culture of universities is really deplorable.”
Silence again, for a few seconds. Then he flips on his phone and hands it over to me.
“You said there were thirty-six questions in the New York Times
that psychologists made to make people fall in love,” he said. “Want to try it out today?”
I looked up at him and smiled. “Okay!” We breeze through the first questions flippantly.
“If you could have any superpower you want, what would you choose to have?”
“The power to see through things. The things I could see!” He grins, looking me up and down.
I flip him my fourth finger, again.
“Just kidding. Teleportation? Flying? I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”
“If you could pick anyone in the world to have dinner with right now, who would it be?”
He juts his chin out at me. “Isn’t the answer obvious?”
“What? But you can meet me all the time! You shouldn’t throw away an opportunity like that.”
“I can’t meet you all the time,” he objects.
“It’s hard to meet you, and it’s important to me. Who else would I rather meet?”
“Oh – that’s very kind of you,” I say, startled into stammering.
Where has he learned to flirt so fluently, when I still feel so embarrassed?
Then, recovering myself rather sharply: “Well, I’m not going to choose you!”
He rolls his eyes. “Fine. Fine. What scoundrel would you choose in my place?”
“A famous author?
Someone who has changed the world through writing and can tell me how to improve mine?” I smile.
He’s quiet for a moment.
“You’re certainly very ambitious. I guess that’s one of the things I like most about you.”
“What is a quality you like about your partner? I like your eyes—the way they’re so calm and clear.
I like your trustworthiness—you never have ups and downs,
and you’re always even-tempered, and know how to laugh at jokes others crack about you.”
“I like the way you’re both thoughtful and innocent – it’s hard to be both.
And the way you try so hard to be honest.
You don’t have to all the time, you know;
but it’s so nice to see you always trying.”
We talk quietly like this, for an hour and a half.
We run through all thirty-six questions,
but realize we’ve already asked most of them to each other in our numberless conversations.
“I like your random questions better,” he says. “They’re funnier.”
We reach the subway around the time we reach the last question.
“What is a personal problem you’re struggling with recently?”
“A personal problem?”
He digs his hands into his pockets.
“Do I have one? Um…I guess the biggest one right now would be…you?”
He lifts his eyebrows at me. “That I can’t meet you more often?”
“But I’m happy right now,” I say.
“I could make you happier.”
“I’m a little scared of being too happy,” I say, hesitantly.
“I think sometimes I rather – try not to like you too much. For when I have to leave.”
And I try to stress my last words:
because still, the guilt of uncertainty lies heavily upon me,
the inevitable parting that I feel afraid will be permanent.
He is silent for a few moments, and then, quietly:
“Don’t try too hard. There’s ample time for that later.”
He starts suddenly. It’s his stop. Wang-shib-li Station.
“Go,” I say, jerking him upright.
He hesitates, turns slowly to me, as if pushing through viscous water.
“Go – go!”
I push him out the door, hard.
He stumbles forward in a daze and turns back to me, eyes wide, in a startled goodbye.
I twist myself around and press my palms against the glass window as the doors wheeze shut, mouthing,
He raises his hand in reply as the subway lurches forward.
Why is it that, despite all of his sweetness, despite being happy with him, all of our goodbyes feel so ominous?
Turning around, I was surprised at how pained I felt,
and the world faded to a cold and lackluster gray.
“If someone loves a flower,
of which just one single blossom grows
in all the millions of stars,
it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars.”
–Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince
This morning, my youngest sister Eunice had looked me up and down, smiling critically.
“Hmm! You look pretty, but very cold.” She pointed at my bare legs. “It’s freezing today.”
“I’ll be okay.” I dimpled as she smoothed back my hair in her precise, fretful way.
“Ooh, I like your bunny-and-carrot earrings.
Personally, though, I think the carrot’s orange color clashes, so hide it with your hair.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, thanks a lot, kiddo. I don’t trust your fashion sense.”
“This isn’t fashion sense, it’s common sense.”
As we walked down the stairway,
I was rather alarmed to see that the door of the church building had actually shattered
because of the strong wind. I hoped it was not an ill omen.
Eunice paused, again concerned.
“Can’t you wait just another hour?” she pleaded.
“The wind will just get stronger – and colder.”
I shook my head. “Thanks, though. Goodbye!”
She spun me around and jabbed a finger in my chest.
“Don’t you even think about coming home again if you don’t end up with him.”
I blinked at her, then smiled, partly amused and partly touched.
“Sweetheart, I have no idea how the end of this evening will go.
After all, we’ve always had a complicated relationship that’s gone in circles for months.”
“CIRCLES? CIRCLES, my Aunt Fanny!” Eunice exploded. She took in a deep, furious breath.
“Okay. Look. If you break his heart again, I’m going to DISOWN you. DON’T disappoint me.”
I shrugged, smiling. “Wish me luck!” I said lightly,
kissed her on the top of the nose,
and tripped out of church.
A gust of wind blasted into my face, blowing my hair back and leaving me breathless,
but I plowed on.
It would take more than some wind to stop what I had to do today.
Standing pensively in front of the glass window of the subway,
I traced my finger over the filmy blur of dilapidated buildings and crumbling pavements
that whizzed past my view.
Please let this be the right decision.
“This stop is Jam-sil.
The doors are on your right.”
Turning around, I stepped onto the glossy fake-marble platform.
Sitting down in the Jamsil Kyobo Bookstore with a Penguin copy of Washington Square,
a novel by one of my favorite writers – Henry James,
I pondered on my relationship with Y. and all the strange convolutions it had gone through.
Y had asked me to go out with him when I was still in high school,
and I’d rejected him with hurry and distress:
the thought of losing my pseudo-big-brother in the bewildering, unpredictable sea of romance,
the disparity in our ages and futures, the unshakable conviction that I was going to leave Korea
and that he couldn’t, the realization that my family strongly opposed our relationship,
my long-cherished ideal of dating a quiet, clever, serious person fluent in English and exactly my age,
all of these were obstacles I recoiled at, and with some real terror.
Then as we became closer, I had struggled miserably with teetering on the precarious line
somewhere between friendship, and romance, and brother-sister-ness,
and finally caved in enough to ask him if we could be in a temporary relationship until I left the country.
He’d refused. “I don’t see how much I could devote myself
to a relationship with a fixed end,” he said, rather coldly.
Then just last Saturday, he had turned around quietly when we were studying together,
and asked in a low voice, “Do you really want to date me, if only for three months?”
And I felt struck with the blood-deep, guilt-sweeping conviction
that if I said yes, he would date me, even if he knew we would break up in three months,
even if I would forget him entirely once I went to America and move on to a life without him.
Well, now I was here: crumpling and uncrumpling the edges of my skirt
in a tremor of anticipation and the same request he had asked me in high school now on my lips,
wondering where we were going, how long we would last,
if this was the right direction at all.
“My daughter is a very weak woman,” said the doctor in the novel that sat open in my lap,
and I wondered to myself,
Am I being weak?
Then, startled, I flinched violently. Y was crouching down beside me, smiling.
“I can wait for you,” he said, catching me under the chin. “Finish your book.”
“That’s okay,” I said, springing up quickly. “Did you eat dinner?”
“Nope. Let’s go get something to eat. What do you want to eat?”
I laughed. “I saw a Facebook post about a restaurant literally named ‘Anything,’
because that’s where girls always want to go when consulted.”
Y made a face. “Well, we don’t have that convenient restaurant around here.
Want to go to a buffet?”
“Oh dear no,” I said, rather alarmed.
“Well – all right. But nothing too expensive. I don’t have much money.”
“That doesn’t matter,” he said, pushing open the thick glass doors of the building. “Dinner’s on me.”
With a plate of spicy noodles and chicken-embedded rice before us,
I folded my hands together.
I felt so dreadful and nervous, and so anxious to get it over with,
that my voice came out sounding most unnaturally bright.
“So! Um. The reason I wanted to meet you tonight was…”
He looked at me – an unquestioning, calm glance. “Yes?”
“I was speaking with Mother yesterday, and she said – it’s all right.
We can date. All the obstacles I talked about,
they’re not enough to compensate for how miserable we are every week.
And I just wanted to tell you,” I was speaking too quickly, my words trembling and falling all over each other,
but he was smiling and he looked at me neither critically nor coldly,
and I was plunging headlong into a quagmire of complications but I needed to say this:
“I want to begin a relationship with you.”
Y stared at me for a moment. Then he said,
“Is that what you came all the way here for?”
“You could have just called. You know I would have said yes.”
“That’s ludicrous. Of course I should come here and say it myself.”
He broke into a smile then – warm, incredulous, happy.
“Then is this our first date?” he asked, reaching over and taking my hand.
I nodded, feeling a wave of relief wash overwhelmingly over me.
“I like long walks and conversations over coffee. You?”
“Libraries, mostly.” I smiled timidly. “But it’s so nice just sitting here talking with you,
without feeling guilty,
I can’t really think of anything else I’d want.”
He smiled and exhaled slowly.
“Wow. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we.”
And looking at him, I still wasn’t sure of anything:
would we be able to keep dating once I went to America?
Would my family be okay? Would I hurt him? Would the church disapprove?
But we were happy, and a great burden of forced-back tears and heavy loneliness
had vanished from my heart. It was enough.
It was more than enough.
Here is something I have learned.
When you love someone very dearly,
everything about him or her becomes beautiful.
When he snaps on the light,
the movement seems as glorious and monumental
as if he has just lit fire to the opening torch of the flipping Olympics.
When she drains a glass of water,
you get to analyze the Fibonacci sequence in the curve of her arm,
and see the light of the universe playing in every glistening drop of liquid that touches her lips.
In short, as the poet Lang Leav so succinctly put it:
His charm -
Of course, being Esther
(forever the quirky book nerd with more volumes than shelves to hold),
I feel the same about words.
My fascination with their wrenching power and delicate beauty
spills over into a fascination with every letter that makes up their parts.
Prim p’s, quaint q’s (who are really just p’s trotting back from a walk),
exuberant j’s, and warm, cookie-dough m’s –
I treasure every letter deeply, and they grow dear to me as friends.
And this is where my love for words,
and by extension letters, has led me:
into the beautiful, bewildering, and exciting world of art and calligraphy.
Although I’ve never learned to draw or even write in cursive,
let alone learn calligraphy, it’s so much fun pressing pen to paper –
twisting my wrist in spiraling o’s, curling and swirling inky-black y’s.
As we couldn’t afford expensive calligraphy pens or costly nibs,
I improvised with permanent markers and watercolor pencils, but felt very happy with the result.
I use art to express the beauty I see in this world and explore it in new ways,
to celebrate and admire Jesus,
and to voice my deepest, most innermost desires.
I can see why some psychologists believe art has a therapeutic effect.
When I draw, I feel as if I’ve withdrawn into a small, quiet room in my heart,
rather barren but gently comforting.
The rest of the world—concerns, terrors, fright, stress, anger, joy, sorrow—
everything retreats a little into the distance:
not gone completely, but muffled in tone and kept at bay,
to let a small slice of beauty glance sideways into my soul.
This certainly is a very long-winded rhapsody about a hobby I’m not even very good at yet.
I won’t pretend I’m the next master of the calligraphy guild,
or that I’ve even inched past the amateur novice stage.
But I love words; and art has made me grow closer to them,
and touch them, and myself,
in ways that I feel deeply grateful for.