Sunday, June 23, 2019

Slowly is the fastest path

I couldn't help but pull up these Perth zoo pictures from my first adventure in Australia two years ago, after seeing the creatures that have become Velma's neighbors. I'm not sure exactly why we think these animals are slow but they do remind me of a certain constancy that is both real and not about the cycles of our lives.

Almost as soon as I landed in the American South to begin teaching a couple of weeks ago, my mom managed to get a text to me (hard in the mountains with almost no reception) to let me know that my grand-aunt had passed away in Korea. My father (she was his aunt) left almost immediately to pay his respects and I was sorry I could not join him.

Lee Hee-ho was an incredible person who changed the course of our family, not only through her marriage to Kim Dae-jung (who would eventually go on to become the president of South Korea in the late 1990s), but her example. I was only able to meet her a handful of times in my life, especially once she became Korea's First Lady, but read her two books almost 20 years ago and so admired her ideals, values, and commitments. Not only did she devote her life to her country, but she received and pursued opportunities that were rare for women in her culture at the time. She studied in the best universities in Korea as well as the American South and was a tireless advocate for women's rights and peaceful reunification of Korea. [Above is her wedding photo. Seated at her side is my grandfather, the polyglot patriarch of the family who inspired respectful fear. Next to him is my grandmother and in front of her is my youngest uncle.]

I remember examples of her calligraphy in our home and how a simple image of her making hanji alongside a Wonju papermaker made it possible for me to visit his studio. When our parents were able to visit her in the U.S. after her lengthy house arrest, they came home with beautiful gifts from Korea that she had selected. I still have a silk drawstring pouch from her and felt like she truly cherished and appreciated Korean art, through practice as well as patronage. Her choice to marry an opposition party leader made my family a target for oppression, but she did it even against their wishes. Eventually, her sacrifices became our greatest pride.

My grandparents passed away before and soon after her tenure in the Blue House (Korea's version of our white one), so this generational loss feels especially final. I wonder about leaders today, if they could even hold a candle to her faith and devotion to causes she knew she would likely not see completely fulfilled in her lifetime. If not our leaders, then I hope our ordinary people will be able to stay the course.

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