Once in Seoul

once photoThanks to globalization, I ended up seeing the excellent Irish musical Once here in Seoul. To make a long story short, my Japanese friend Mimi once studied in Ireland. She’s also a ballerina and had an Irish ballet teacher. Cut to eight years later and her ballet teacher was in Seoul last weekend to watch her son perform in Once. Mimi comes from Tokyo to see it and invites me along. Now, Once is a very bittersweet Irish production centering around ‘Guy’, (a thirty-something whose life is at a standstill after he found out his long-term girlfriend betrayed him) and ‘Girl’ an immigrant from the Czech Republic who is separated from her husband and who is living in Dublin with her young daughter. Guy and Girl are brought together by a shared passion and talent for music (the song Falling Slowly probably rings a bell).

What is both beautiful and heartbreaking about the story is that it is not a typical Boy Meets Girl narrative and their relationship, more than a friends but less than lovers – undefinable in a sense – is a passionate interruption from the mess of their lingering heartbreak from their messy relationships and stark realities. In one sense, the ending is tragic and in another, it signifies a new beginning for both characters. Regardless, I don’t recommend that you go and see this show while PMS-ing. I may or may not have started sobbing in the last minutes as my own heart wound, months in the mending, was ripped opened at the sheer tragedy of love. It’s just not a good look when you have snot running down your face and you are using your nice, recently dry-cleaned wool jacket to wipe the tears and mucus away as your fancy ballerina, diplomat’s wife friend looks on in horror.

Luckily, there was a welcome distraction just around the corner. Time for a photo, but not just any photo. It turns out that the ballet teacher’s son’s girlfriend was visiting from Ireland. And she is, I heard later, something of a celebrity – a model slash actor who was runner-up in the last season of Big Brother UK. So yes, I went to an Irish musical. I felt my heart break all over again AAAND I got to meet my first reality TV star. It doesn’t get much better than that. No, wait, it does – I got to stand next to her and feel like a little frumpy dwarf.

At least the lyrics to Falling Slowly lingered gently and reassuringly in my ears on the taxi ride home:

Falling slowly, eyes that know me
And I can’t go back
Moods that take me and erase me
And I’m painted black
You have suffered enough
And warred with yourself
It’s time that you won

The Anti-Romantic Child

gilmanOver the past year I have read Priscilla Gilman’s memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child, twice. As a former English professor, lover of Romantic poetry and current writer, Gilman writes lyrical, mesmerizing prose. Her story, which is, in part, about her own childhood and upbringing, is mostly about her relationship with her first son Benji who is diagnosed with autism. It is told intimately and sincerely.  In the prelude to the book Gilman writes:

“This book began as a lump in the throat, as a homesickness for the magical world of my childhood and for the home life I was looking forward to with my child. It began with a sickness of love for a child I adored but did not understand, a love searing in its intensity, overwhelming in its sense of longing and vulnerability, a love I feared would never be reciprocated, and worst of all would never make an impact…at its heart, this book is a love story: a story of two very different people learning to accept and affect and make space for each other in mysterious and powerful ways.”

Gilman, exceptionally smart and beautiful, hails from the American East coast upper crust. She dated Mia Farrow’s son, attended Yale as a student and worked there as a professor. Her parents were well known among New York’s intelligentsia. While it could be easy to write her off as privileged and entitled, her openness about her wounds and disappointments means that the reader is always on her side. An idyllic, fairy tale childhood, for instance, is ripped away from her when her mother divorces her beloved father. “It became clear to me…that my father had had another life, another side, a secret life of affairs and indulgence in drugs and hard-core pornography even as he was playing the role of the good family man and daddy who watched Sesame Street with me and presided over my innocent imaginative world,” she writes.

Throughout the book, Gilman weaves a rich tapestry of her triumphs and failures. She puts her all into her academic studies, obtaining her doctorate and giving every ounce of herself to her research, writing, teaching and her pursuit of tenure. Until it dawns on her that academia is not for her. Gilman becomes increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned – the cut-throat competition for the few jobs in her field, the direction of her field, the insecurity of academic life, the way all it impinges on and threatens her well-being and family life. Set amongst the perilousness and instability of her career is the birth of Benji. Not only does Gilman struggle with being a working mother, but it soon becomes apparent that her son has special-needs, adding another layer of complexity to her life.

Benji comes to be known as ‘brilliant but quirky’. Gilman and her husband struggle to support him and find themselves pushed to the limits in their never-ending quest to meet his needs. His unpredictable nature and inability to cope with new situations and in new settings takes its toll on the family. Despite access to the best doctors, psychologists, therapists and teachers, it is only after myriad visits to such specialists and exhaustive research that Benji is given a diagnosis of autism.

This is set against the chaos of the birth of Gilman’s second child, her increasingly strained and rocky marriage, the long illnesses and eventual death of her dear father and in-laws and a transition to a new career working with her mother as a literary agent. In a short space of time, they move house, cities and schools. Over time, and with unflagging commitment and persistence, Gilman is able to find the right care for her autistic son and care for her family as a single mother after she and her husband separate. She begins to think about their experience as a journey, one in which she doesn’t have a map but is dedicated to scoping out the territory as she goes, never giving up, always finding a way to be resilient and keep on moving forward. Gilman revels in the unexpected delight of her son’s intelligence and musical talent. She never sees him as a burden, but as a precious gift. Eventually, while not part of the book, Gilman soon remarries and becomes an advocate and spokesperson for autism awareness.

After both readings of this text, I was struck by the fact that while Gilman had access to what is probably the best care in the world for a special-needs child and the resources to access it, it took so much time, effort, energy, persistence and sacrifice on her and her family’s part to find the right combination of care that has allowed Benji to thrive. It is a sad reality that many special-needs children around the world do not have access to the same care and are therefore unable to achieve their potential.

Gilman concludes her story by writing that: “In parenting Benj, I have gotten more in touch with a profound kind of romanticism; I have been given access to a transcendent sense of mystery and awe and wonder…While initially Benj presented as the contradiction of romantic ideas of childhood – he defied and rebuffed every expectation I had – ultimately he has reaffirmed, in a deeper and truer way, my romantic ideals and given me ‘more than all the other gifts’ [to quote Wordsworth].”


Little do we know…

stonesAs summer segues into fall, I’m reminded of the impermanence of life. This year, the end of a relationship and a job drove home the fact that nothing is forever. More recently, the death of a good friend’s father after a long battle with cancer served as a jolt, as did the ten year anniversary of a friend’s tragic death this week.

I only met this friend once when I lived in Japan. He was a friend of a Canadian colleague and a bunch of us went to visit Kyoto for a long weekend and were able to stay with him. Little did I know that he would be dead in a year. He was a visiting professor in his early 30s from Canada with a penchant for motorcycles. His widow wrote about their last conversation in commemoration of the anniversary. She was living in Vancouver at the time of his death (and still resides there). They spoke on a Saturday evening as he sat outside a mechanic’s waiting for his motorcycle to be repaired. He was reading a book by his favorite screen writer he told her. It was his real passion, much more than his teaching job. His wife told him that life was too short, he should do what he loved, that he should return to Canada and she would support him through a graduate degree in screen writing. Little did she know that in a few days, she’d be on a plane to Japan to identify her husband’s body after he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

I was travelling at this time and received the news while sailing down the Nile. Little did I know that in just a few months, one of the close friends I was travelling with would be killed in a botched robbery. But this is the unpredictable and impermanent nature of life.

To stop myself jumping on the merry-go-round of rumination, I find it helpful to think about impermanence in a more spiritual context.

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield proposes that impermanence is both an act of courage and compassion and allows us to face the difficulties from which we have always run.

As he writes: “According to Buddhist scriptures, compassion is the ‘quivering of the pure heart’ when we have allowed ourselves to be touched by the pain of life. The knowledge that we can do this and survive helps us to awaken the greatness of our heart. With greatness of heart, we can sustain a presence in the midst of life’s suffering, in the midst of life’s fleeting impermanence. We can open to the world – its ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.”

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron also chimes in and writes about the bittersweet nature of impermanence: “Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring to summer to autumn; just as day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again – in the same way, everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is meeting and parting. It’s falling in love and falling out of love. Impermanence is bittersweet, like buying a new shirt and years later finding it as part of a patchwork quilt.”

Buddhist writer Natalie Goldberg believes impermanence snatches away our illusions: “We have an illusion that a certain time, a certain place, a certain person is the only way. Without it or them, we are lost. It is not true. Impermanence teaches us this. There is no one thing to hold on to.”

And now, let’s leave the Buddhists behind and take heed of what was written in Ecclesiastes (3:1-10).

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”