They Frighten Me

The man was almost a stranger to me when he came through my checkout line. He seemed to recognize me, though:

“Are you Carson’s wife?”

Happily for me, I am. If there had been no line behind him, I might have asked him how he knew this, but there was and I did not try to slow us down while I scanned his items.

When he went to pay, there was a bit of a mix-up between him and the card terminal. “Error,” said the machine, but a tightness leaped into his eyes.

“Do you think I should run it as credit?”

I didn’t think it mattered. There will be errors between humans and computers, and he was neither the first nor the last person to have to run their card twice. But I showed him how to run it as credit, if he wanted to.

It declined.

“Why would it-I know, I’ll just take this off.” He grabbed the drink off the counter, his eyes darting towards the line of people behind him. “Oh, you know what, nevermind.” And he grabbed the rest of his items and hurried off to put them back on the shelves.

“I’m sorry,” I said, but he was gone. “I’m sorry,” I said, not because it was my fault, but because I wanted him to be able to blame me or the machine or whatever would take away the feeling that was making him run with shoulders hunched against the watching eyes.

We were laughing, discussing poses for a photoshoot, a group of teenage girls.

“We could do this,” she said, making circles around her eyes with her fingers. “I think that’s funny.”

As she let her hands fall, there was one of those little pauses that sometimes happen in a group. There was nothing malicious in it, but somehow I found myself terribly aware that there could be and how easy it becomes to slash at someone as soon as they claim an opinion.

The boy was young, so young he’d only recently graduated from wearing training pants to actual underwear. But he was off to spend the day without his mother, and though he was brave and excited, he was also a little vulnerable as small children are when they know their safe place is not available. He came into the house beaming with pride and eagerness, however, because he was wearing his cowboy outfit and he could not wait to show it off to his friends.

They were suitably impressed, but in inspecting the costume closely, one of the older girls noticed something:

“Hey, why do you have underwear in your pocket?”

The light in his eyes dimmed a little as his fingers flew to his pocket, stuffing the offending article out of sight. “You didn’t see that,” he said, smiling gallantly and a little tremulously, suddenly very small.


They seem so unimportant. Random little moments of life, probably already forgotten by the players. But they are seared on my memory as if they were something terrible. They frightened me, these moments. One of them happened over three years ago, but remembering the look in those eyes still makes me ache. And why? Nothing really happened. But it’s as though somehow, in those moments, I clearly saw the vulnerability of the human heart. And that frightens me more than most things.

I told someone this, not so long ago, and though their response was kind, it made me realize that they thought I was referring to my own vulnerability. And that really isn’t it, though maybe it should be sometimes. I break too, and broken pieces are much more likely to cut others.

Because that is what frightens me; not that I could be hurt, but that I could hurt. And I might. I’m more inclined to be incisive than gentle, and most of the time, people’s cracks are hard to see. You never know when you might step on a fault line. And they don’t want to tell you.

I promise I’ll stop ranting about how easy it is to hurt people and how often people are hurt at some point. I’ll talk about how easy it is to make people feel a little bit better, and that feeling of having contributed something of worth to the world every time you make someone laugh, and how delightful I think it is that for socialized humans, the automatic response for someone making eye contact and smiling at you is to smile back.

Because, after all, the best way to keep from tearing someone down is to deliberately choose to build them up. And that is not so hard to do. It is only when I speak my language to someone who does not understand it that I may have the best of intentions and still hurt you. But there, I’m learning.

What frightens you?

Inside the Fence

end

“Can I tell you my story now?” he asked.

It is not really very likely that I will ever say no to this question.

It was an ordinary day at the office. He’d been fighting discouragement for a while. It’s hard, when you have total faith that this is what God is calling you to do and still the doors feel like they’re not only closed before you, but also locked. But he’d been praying and today God replied:

“Go to Cleburne airport tonight and stay until sunset.”

BUT WHY THOUGH. It wasn’t like he could fly tonight. There wouldn’t even be any airplanes for him to watch and wish he would be piloting them. What would be the point?

“Just go.”

Okay then. Whatever You say.

He called his wife to warn her that God had booked his evening, and invited her to go along. His enthusiasm levels about visiting a lifeless airport were not high, but at least they could have a date night. He didn’t think God would say three is a crowd tonight.

The airport disappointed his expectations. Not only were there two airplanes which took off and landed several times before flying away, there was a third which seemed inclined to stay the whole evening; taking off, flying the pattern he knew so well, landing, and then starting all over again.

They parked their car and sat on the hood to watch. But if you do not have the call to flight whispering in your veins, pulling your gaze ever skyward, you can only watch an airplane do the same thing again and again for so long. His wife’s eyes wandered, and she saw wildflowers growing in the field by the runway. Could they go and pick some?

“Just wait,” he said, “It’s not quite sunset yet.” And he hadn’t had any shining revelations. Yet.

He continued not having them while the sun dropped, and when it slipped behind the horizon, he gave up. Maybe he wasn’t meant to have any tonight. They had had a good evening. Maybe that was meant to be enough.

He took his wife out into the field, and while she was gathering her wildflowers, he looked up again to the place where, according to the pattern it had been flying, the airplane should have been. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere in the sky or on the earth either, as far as he could see.

“If I brought it here for you to watch, why would I keep it here after you stop looking?” God pointed out.

Oh, right. This evening had been God’s idea, not his.

“Thank You for the airplanes tonight.” And he turned back towards his wife.

God cleared His throat. “Ahem. Also. Where are you standing right now?”

In a field in the middle of a tiny airport?

“Remember how you used to stand outside the airport fences, watching, longing just to be on the other side? These closed doors you keep staring at? Yeah, there might be a few still before you. But what about the gates we’ve opened? Look around you, Craig. You are inside the fence.”

begin

Homeland

Some people have a homeland; a place that their heart calls most beautiful on earth, a place they always want to go back to. Some people have lived in one township for generations. For some people, the land they live on is part of them, in their blood. The circumference of their world may be small, but their roots run deep.

I have never been one of those people. I was born in Missouri, but I couldn’t take you to the first house I lived in. I have no memories of it. I was less than two years old when my family relocated to Colorado.

If I had a homeland, it would probably be Colorado. It’s a dry land, verging on desert, and the browns and blues of it are restful to my eyes as no other landscape is. We lived on mesas, and the nights sparkled with earth-stars in the valley and sky-stars in the heavens. This where I grew up. This is where I have my first misty memory: a swingset and sandbox and a small neighbor named Mary Esther, in front of a house which I don’t remember.

After that, there were four more houses which I do remember. The first, glamoured and distorted in my memories by the eyes of childhood, had windows stretching wide and an open loft where small Jenny got her head stuck between the log railing posts. The second was an old house with creaky floors and a honey-filled bee nest in the eaves, and after living in it for eight years, we were summarily removed from the dangers of faulty wiring, and, several weeks later, watched it pushed flat. The third, a modern house with clear glass showers and all hardwood or tile floors, was the home where I learned to know myself, where I became friends with my older sisters and saw them move away, where my doors were opened to freedom. The fourth house was built on the edge of the ‘dobe wilderness, had thick white walls and high, echoing ceilings, and belonged to one of my married sisters before it belonged to us. This was my last home in Colorado and my last home as my father’s daughter, for this was the house I left when I got married.

Arkansas was a new story for me, in more ways than one. From the beginning, everything was different. When you grow up somewhere, you grow into a niche without much effort. There was no niche for me in Arkansas. I was lost at first and clung to my books, the only unchanged thing I had left. But then I was given work to do and people to love, and that is really what I need from my niche. My first job was a half year of teaching two little boys with hair of sunshine and midnight, and I fell in love. My second was a secretary job where I found the work my brain enjoys and felt valued for it, and I fell in love again. And then I made friends of every sort: the passionate and candid sort, the sweet and open-hearted sort, the analytical and inciting sort. And though my inside life was still unlike what it had been, I found my new familiar and loved it.

Outwardly, the colors of my world had changed just as drastically. Arkansas is usually green, with so much vegetation that in some places the vine-plants devour the beautiful old trees. It is a damp land, often humid, and even my hair was different in that air. But Arkansas has a beauty that arid Colorado never gave me. In Arkansas, there are gray days, when clear pearl-drops fall for hours and evening brings a white mist, wrapping soft around the dark trees. In the morning, the sunrise burns scarlet through the fog and melts it into nothingness.

Close to the end of my time there, Arkansas became the place where I became my Father’s daughter. And it was home. I knew the people. I had a comfort zone, and I had the confidence to fly out of it, knowing I would be caught when I fell. When the day came that we decided it was time for us to leave, I was surprised by how entangled my heart had become in that place and those people. It hurt more than I’d expected to pull away.

Now, here is Texas. State number four. Big, crazy Texas. It’s only been a little over two weeks. We’re still mere acquaintances. At first, Texas was only southern winter: cold, cloudy, lots of tangled and brittle yellow grass, and just enough rain to keep the puddles in the lane from drying out. And the first week I felt even more displaced than I did in the beginning of my Arkansas days. But I see hope. Yesterday there was sunshine and wind, like a Colorado springtime. And there is potential for niche building: work for my hands, people for my heart. I had some friends here even before I arrived, and I think there might be more budding. I like the way the sun sets here, and I like the way the people make me want to become more.

Texas is flatter and warmer than my Colorado home. It is more dry and has less forest than my Arkansas home. But I think the sky is bigger here.

Palace & Tower – Seoul, South Korea – Day 8

The morning of our last full day here dawns much like the other days have, though our morning calm is slightly shorter than usual; we have a palace to visit.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, to be specific. It is a fascinating place with its countless tile-roofed buildings, its wide sandy courtyards, and its neglected green gardens. There is a large pavilion on a small lake where they once held banquets. There is a throneroom with a wide, red and gold chair and an elaborate, dragon-emblazoned ceiling with many multicolored beams. There are hundreds of small, closed-door rooms that open onto the courtyards. There are guards in traditional dress by one gate, and a changing of the guard ceremony with marching and drums. But what there seems to be most of is people. Tourists. I wish they wouldn’t be there. I wish I could wander this palace by myself, or at least nearly so. This chattering, gaping, selfie-taking horde takes away the haunting mystery an ancient palace should hold.

We eat lunch in another back-alley restaurant in Insadong and then make our way home through a light rain. The men run down the street and bring back pie and coffee, and we have a relaxed afternoon, watching the rain clear away.

I am not very good at being a tourist because I do not want to be a tourist. Even when I like what I’m seeing, even when Seoul Tower is very pretty and I’m glad to see it up close, it irritates me to be one of this stomping, staring mass of people. But the tower is one of those things I’m glad I did just so I can say that I did, and I have fun being both romantic and cynical about the Locks of Love, and it does look cool. I wouldn’t do it again simply because it is too touristy and fixed. None of it makes me feel I am touching the real Seoul the way wandering the city streets does. Still I got a couple nice pictures out of it, and a fun walk while munching Bugles and drinking Chilsung Cider, and on the way back I have a good time conversing with Brady and Olivia. I regret nothing. Except that it is our last night. 

Fish & Fish – Seoul, South Korea – Day 7

I am awakened by my heart stopping. Or so it feels. In fact it is nothing more than a startle caused by the TV turning on with loud volume, sounding like a man bursting into shout in the next room. I must lie still for several minutes to slow my pounding heart. 

On this morning Trennis’s have their court date, so Carson and I have the apartment to ourselves. He uses it to sleep in; I clean up and do dishes and relax in front of my view. 

Down our favorite alley there is a little steak restaurant. Carson and I sit at a brilliant yellow table decorated with a pitcher filled with dried flowers, and we share an exquisite ember-cooked filet mignon with fries and a salad. This meal sounds very American, but in the sauce on the steak and the dressing on the salad there are some distinct flavors of Korea. I am not really sure what the place intends to be; there are no side dishes and we eat with forks, but the menu is all in Korean and so is the name of the restaurant.

Noryangjin Fish Market is the stuff of legend. At least according to YouTube. Apparently even if you go nowhere else in Seoul you should go to the fish market, and having gone somewhere else in Seoul already, we now take a subway ride across the Han River and enter this Seafood Shangri-La. My first impression of this fish market is that it is quite marketlike and very fishy, and by that I meant there is a lot of fish around. Fish dead on ice, fish alive in water, fish halfway in between on butchering boards. Crabs and lobsters stacked on top of each other in tanks. So many tiny octopuses in one large bowl that it is nothing more than a squirming tangle of ribbed tentacles. Shellfish in heaps next to the tanks. Black sea urchins like spiky balls of night sky. Shrimp laid out on trays like fat, crunchy gray worms. Flat, broad mantas with odd, dead faces. And others, so many others, some of which I don’t even recognize. Despite all this, the place doesn’t smell half as bad as I feared. Sure, it’s fish, but it’s all very fresh. The sounds of voices and of water falling from tank to tank blends into a dull roar in my ears, and the wet concrete tugs at the soles of my shoes. Eventually the slow, apathetic way they move, like creatures in a nightmare, makes me a little sick. I’m relieved when the men choose their seafood so we can go upstairs to a restaurant where they will cook it for us. Shrimp, crab, lobster, sea urchins, live octopus, at least one kind of shellfish, and possibly several other things are on the menu for us tonight, but I end up eating very little besides several shrimp; after swallowing an extremely strong slice of garlic, I am left feeling sick and with no desire to put anything else in my mouth. 

Along the edge of the river there is a park. We reach it shortly before sunset and immediately sit on stone steps to watch a magic show. It’s a fun show, but the magician has great stage presence and that is what makes it really worth watching. Further into the park the spaces beneath the trees, too much walked on for much grass to grow, are filled with people on blankets. Some are eating, some are just hanging out, one young man has a guitar. A little further over, no less than three songs are being sung into microphones, all only a little distance from each other. There are people riding rental bikes and scooters up and down the paths, people walking, people posing with the large I SEOUL YOU letters. Many of them are young people, some still in their school uniforms. As night falls, lights come on the city above us and the view across the water is lovely.

Adoption & Alleys – Seoul, South Korea – Day 6

Today after our morning calm, we stroll up to Hapjeong. We eat lunch in a little fish restaurant at the end of a row of little restaurants in an underground alley in the Mecenatpolis Mall. Carson gets a whole grilled mackerel and a simmered mackerel kimchi soup, and despite the intimidation involved in eating something that is watching you, it is one of the best meals we’ve had. Among the side dishes here they serve us miso soup, and you know you’re in a strange land when miso soup tastes like comfort food. 

Brady and Olivia have a meeting with their foster families, so we spend an hour and a half in a small meeting room with them. Carson and I spend most of that time playing with one of the little girls Olivia’s foster parents currently have, a darling little thing, eighteen months old, in pink ruffles and tulle with a pink ribbon in her straight black hair. She’s not much for smiles or chatter, but she lets me hold her and she bows to Carson when he gives her a chip, and we fall a little bit in love.

It’s clear both families still love Brady and Olivia; having seen her only a few days past, Olivia’s are less emotional this time, but Brady’s Omma sits clutching her phone with tears in her eyes. Among all the chatter and pictures and asking the children if they remember this and that, I think there is a moment when their real mother wants to remind them all that these are her babies now and it may not be in their best interests to tear them open with memories of things lost, but she does not. She remains gracious and is only rather tired once it is over. But I think most touching of all is the boy who was Brady’s brother. He’s fourteen years old now, tall and thin and quiet. They’re eight years apart and, brothers of the age they were when they parted not being usually inclined to have many deep conversations, it is rather difficult for them to reconnect in a room full of people and little time. Mostly he just looks from his phone to Brady and back again, sitting a little hunched up, occasionally asking a quiet question to someone sitting close. When the time comes to go the foster brothers hug, the tall one folding up his lanky frame to squeeze the small one tightly. And I think that adoption, like every other great and powerful thing we humans do, has its layers of heartache as well as joy. 

There’s a little alley close to Sangsu Station that looks as though it leads to a restaurant and nothing else, but if you walk down it, you find yourself in a glorious maze of streets closely lined with more restaurants, coffee shops, and small boutiques. Some of the streets are sloping, most are narrow, and all hold more pedestrians than cars. This is where we wandered on our double date, and this is where we eat tonight, next to an open window in a place called Little Papa Pho. I find the pho pretty enjoyable, and Carson finds the pad thai pretty deadly. It makes his throat swell, but after a little panic he survives. Then he takes another bite to make sure it was the pad thai that caused it.

Frozen Greek yoghurt tastes better than I would have guessed, and nitro cold-brew coffee tastes worse, despite how cool it looks. We sit on the patio outside a gelati shop for a long while, because there is perfection in the air. The temperature is balmy to the point of being neutral, and around us lights grow brighter as night falls and the sky turns to black velvet. No stars are there in the city. Music slips around us, everything from Disney to ABBA to Rihanna to something Korean, depending where you listen to, and there is an edge of cigarette smoke in the air of the evening street. Across the way there is a second-story coffee shop all in white with green plants and a friendly lady barista, and a little further down there are people sitting in an open-windowed Korean barbecue restaurant, grilling in the centers of their tables. The proprietor of the gelati shop asks me if I am a traveler.

We walk home slowly, pausing often to look and linger and photograph. It’s a beautiful night, a beautiful city. We’re going to miss this. 

Moons & Meats – Seoul, South Korea – Day 5

20170511_230529It’s a bright new world, with a bright new Moon president. Or so I hear. South Korea had presidential elections yesterday, and by using Google Translate on a newspaper headline I gather that the man who won is named Moon. Regardless of this, I have as serene a morning as usual. Carson has a phone call and Trennis, Ruby, and Olivia go out for groceries, so the boys and I chill in the living room with Moana and my travel journal.

We all head out in time for lunch in a restaurant that is traditional as none of the others have yet been in that we remove our shoes at the door and then sit on the floor around low tables with the charcoal grills in the centers. Have you ever eaten a bit of rice, a bit of grilled pork, green onion salad, garlic, and ssamjang sauce, all wrapped up in a leaf of lettuce? I recommend you try it. It is one of the better things you can put in your mouth.

After lunch Trennis’s have their second meeting with their little Andrea, and again we get to witness. The energy in the meeting room is entirely different today; just as happy but less emotional, less pressure. Andrea herself is an adorable child, who scarcely ever stays still for two minutes together. Her black hair dances and under her black skirt her little legs dance too, as she giggles and runs away and back again. But she already calls Trennis and Ruby Appa and Omma, and there are moments when she stops, when her hand lies quietly against her daddy’s shirt as he holds her, when she looks with eyes that see instead of eyes that run away.

Later, Trennis’ parents take the kids back to their apartment, and Trennis and Ruby, Carson and I go out for the evening. Past Sangsu Station we enter one alley and then spend many minutes wandering through many more. It is fascinating, a world of tiny boutiques and little restaurants and coffee shops crowding next to the narrow streets, with strangers that pass, walking as though they know where they are going, as though this is ordinary life.

We have much debate and indecision about where we should eat, and after some time of walking we start going in circles, growing ever hungrier without knowing precisely what we want. Then to our surprise, we end up at a Texas barbecue joint. But that turns out to be an interesting experience, rather like seeing yourself from someone else’s perspective, and the food certainly does not disappoint. It is rather better than any barbecue I’ve had in the States, though it does not quite taste like Texas: here and there a little Korean tang slips in, and I wonder if this is how these people would feel about our Asian restaurants in America.

20170511_230955Afterwards, we go in search of a coffee shop we saw earlier, and once we’ve walked in another circle we realize that it was kind of across the street from the BBQ restaurant all the time. It’s a sweet place, with a wide-open pink window and dried flowers hanging from the ceiling and a row of white teapots on top of a full bookshelf. We sip coffee and eat thick slices of chocolate cake and talk, and there is some perfection there.

On the way back to the apartment, Carson and I stop at our little artisan coffee shop for more fresh-roasted coffee. I’m starting to fall a little bit in love with this place, with its crowded bookshelf walls and its elaborate cold-brew coffee system and its sweet lady proprietor. Tonight she gifts Carson a cup of coffee to drink while we walk home.

Back at the apartment, we go on up to the roof where we can see so much beauty I can scarcely take it in. I feel I must capture it, hold on to it, and yet I cannot. My camera is too feeble and my words are not brilliant enough, but I try both ways. Picture, if you can, a thousand city lights, sparkling in the buildings, glittering in the night river; arched bridges faintly silhouetted against the shining dark waters; glowing golden streets curving away; and above it all, a gleaming white Flower Moon. It is all so lovely, so perfect, that it hurts me20170511_230409