30 Things I Learned During 30 Years of Marriage

My Dear Readers,

Peter and I are about to celebrate 30 years of marriage. We are headed off for a week in Paris and London without the kids and without my computer. This is serious.

Here’s my list of 30 things I’ve learned during 30 years of marriage. 

  1. Marriage isn’t good or bad or even the ideal because people aren’t good or bad and we are never the ideal. We are complicated and nuanced and so is marriage. 
  2. Sometimes you go to bed angry because sleep is important. Staying awake angry won’t solve things, especially if it’s the same thing that’s been festering over and over. Go to sleep, and find a therapist.
  3. If you’re so angry you can’t stand the sound of your spouse’s breath, you or your spouse should sleep in another room.
  4. Because of #3, invest in a comfortable couch or guest bed. Better yet, buy that king size bed so there is space for the days you’re not angry but just need space.
  5. Love isn’t a feeling. It’s a verb. It’s action. Action takes work. 
  6. I am not lovable when I’m hungry. My dad gave Peter this advice when we left for our honeymoon: Feed Kathy and she will be happier.
  7. Do your own inner work. Your life partner isn’t your therapist, even if that person happens to be a therapist. Mine is my dentist and can actually fix my teeth but isn’t responsible for brushing and flossing my teeth. 
  8. Which means you can’t fix your partner. You can’t love them to mental health. You can make a way for them.
  9. For all the US reality shows, this society is not built for healthy marriages. It is built for whitewashed fairytales. 
  10. It’s ok to want and create fairytale moments. Look, as you are reading this post, Peter and I are flying off to Paris. FAIRYTALE. But the moment is fleeting because the reality is that I have a sinus infection with lots of congestion. We are flying economy, and I am super proud that we bought roundtrip tickets under $500 each. Make sure the moment is grounded in reality.
  11. My friend Tricia asked me what I like about traveling with Peter, and that was a great question. The lesson? Friends who ask you about your marriage keep you honest and real. (I like traveling with Peter because he is up for just about anything and we enjoy trying things the other person is really excited about.)
  12. You don’t have to like the same things, but you should be respectful of each other’s interests. Peter used to run and train for races. At some point I asked him to reconsider the hours he put into training or pay to take care of some of things he was in charge of around the house. I spent a lot of money on scrapbooking supplies, and then when Peter saw the end products he didn’t question the investment. ūüėČ 
  13. You can teach a dog new tricks. I am the dog. (I was actually born in the year of the dog.) Because of Peter I have learned to drink beer, watch a variety of genres of film, and tolerate some classic rock. 
  14. You don’t have to do everything together all of the time, but find things you do enjoy doing together – not things you have to do like the dishes or laundry but things like going to the library and browsing aspirational reading and viewing or occasional trips to a thrift shop. Yes, those are things we like to do together.
  15. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does provide access to healthcare, housing, food, etc. and those early years of marriage were full of stress as we were paying of student loans, credit card debt, and failing at saving. This is related to #9. 
  16. Growing up in church and an immigrant home did not set me up well for a healthy understanding of sexuality and the role of sex in a healthy marriage. Sex is more important than is preached about and less important than it is preached about. It’s not a dial you turn on at marriage.
  17. Menopause really messed up my sex drive. Perimenopause messed up my sex drive. Having children messed up my sex drive. 
  18. Good sex in a marriage is important, and “good” has to be agreed upon between partners. That said, the “in sickness and in health” part really comes into play with sex so it helps to shed purity culture notions of sex and get creative and playful and, if you have young children, quick. Good sex is mutual and sometimes you take turns. You can also take matters in your own hands, or each other’s. 
  19. My spouse doing the dishes is not foreplay. Folding laundry isn’t a turn on. Peter vacuuming the one carpet we haven’t isn’t sexy. If that’s your thing, awesome, but it’s not mine anymore.  
  20. All that talk about sex is really about communication. Over communicate. Conversations in my head do not count. 
  21. The big and little things matter, but you can only hold them against your spouse if you’ve communicated them and agreed to action. I can’t be angry at Peter for not doing “x” for my birthday if I have not told him that is what I would like. I learned this by being angry at Peter for not reading my mind. This is expanding on #19. 
  22. Learn to apologize AND repair. You can say you’re sorry but words don’t matter if the behaviors and actions never change. Sometimes the apology comes years later, but even then we have to decide if we will work together to repair the harm. 
  23. Learn to let go. I got tired of making the bed so I started making my side of the bed. Now we each have our own blankets, and it’s what it is. 
  24. Stand your ground. I thought I was being helpful when I would reorganize Peter’s closet or tidy up his office. It was not, and he told me so. I tried for a few years to convince both of us he was wrong. I was wrong. He just makes sure his closet door is always closed. 
  25. Small gestures count. Peter put the kimchi in a small dish and made Shin ramen for me the other night. 
  26. Big gestures count. A few years ago we made it to Mount Rushmore because Peter REALLY wanted to see it. Many of you can guess how I feel about that place but it was super fun to watch him take it all in. (If you’ve never been in person, it really is something. 
  27. MUTUAL respect in public and in private is important. 
  28. I still close the door to the bathroom even though I know he can hear everything. It’s just a me thing.
  29. I am glad I kept my “maiden” name, and I still love getting junk mail addressed to Peter Khang because the patriarchy is still hard at work. 
  30. Time is very weird. I can remember so much of our wedding day – the cake topper went awol and we didn’t know the guy who caught the garter, and I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. It feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago. I’m so grateful we made it to 30 because if I’m honest I wasn’t always sure we would make it. But here we are, Peter. Here we are. I love you. 
Feeling cute. Might delete later.

Boys, What Do You Want To Eat?

That was the refrain last week as I vacationed with my sons. They are both in their 20s. Their voices dropped into manhood years ago. They packed shaving cream and razors instead of their blankies and stuffies. They needed the extra leg room the free upgrade into exit rows afforded us. And they needed to eat, and I needed, well, really wanted, to feed them well.

My Dear Readers, there is nothing quite like watching your loved ones enjoy food. Wait, am I the only one? Do you love watching your loved ones eat? I don’t know what it is. I have always loved watching my kids eat – the delight of new tastes they enjoy, the looks of “I don’t enjoy this”, and the look of satisfaction at the end. I love it all. The pickiest eater of the three will try just about anything so the possibilities are endless. (So parents of young ones tired of chicken nuggets, don’t worry. They get new tastebuds, and be prepared. Those new tastebuds like it when the parents pay for a good steak or hazy IPA.)

In my mind this was a trip about feeding their stomachs, and it was. We were in LA so the minute we were in the rental car it was off to eat. We ate cheesy kalbi jjim, marinated pork belly + beef, kkal gooksu, Japanese curry, handmade mochi, taiyaki aisu, okonomiyaki, and a good old-fashioned brunch with pancakes and hash browns.

But food is also about comfort and provision, about love and time, about honoring and learning preferences, about sitting and listening. 

It was time to get to know my sons and the men they are becoming.

They take up space and make space

When the kids are little, their stuff takes up space. I remember the days/weeks/eons of trying to corral their toys and books and stuff into cubbies and shelves to be safely accessible and slightly esthetically pleasing. 

But one child moved out more than five years ago. One lives and works remote from home; he took the dining room for his office. We coordinate schedules because we share a car and make each other coffee. The last one is in his third year of college so most days are spent he spends 3/4 of the year on campus. Gone is the clutter of toys, replaced by adult bodies moving about in the same space toddlers once occupied.

So spending 24/7 for a few days with just my boys meant being in each other’s way (one budget hotel room with two “queen” beds and one bathroom) and having a chance to just watch how they made space for each other and me, waiting to walk to the elevator and the car, waiting to enter a restaurant or to get to the door.¬†

The older son took a work call, and it was fun driving with E riding shotgun, whispering and using facial expressions and hand gestures that finally gave way to playlists and commentary.

Different eyes

I think I was watching them more closely because I know that time like this is rare. I love and like my grown children, and so far they like spending time with me. The kids have cleared social and work schedules to spend a week together for a family vacation on top of being together for Christmas. I don’t know how long we can keep that up and how in the future significant others and partners will join in on the Christmas Day movie or invite our kids to join their family traditions. But for now, I’ll take it all in.

Both sons needed time in the morning to ease into the day. They both needed time to exercise and unwind. In another season of parenting, I would’ve pushed to get us out the door to get to one more place and see one more thing, but in this season that started during the college years I let them sleep, workout, fix their hair, and walk slowly. This world can be a cruel, grueling place. I saw them with compassion knowing Capitalism doesn’t all us to enjoy each other’s joy and rest.

They wanted to spend a good chunk of a day watching professional teams play League of Legends and¬†asked if I wanted to join them at the tournament, a little worried about how I would spend my time and a little worried I would rush them. No rush. I said go ahead, had coffee with a friend, and then sat on a bench at the beach to watch the sunset. I know. A mother’s sacrifice. And when C saw two players in standing on the corner in Sawtelle, I asked, “Are you going to say hi and ask for a photo?” A mother’s gentle nudge to shoot your shot, even if it’s a moment of fandom. I’m smiling while typing this, remembering how my boys and their friends took in the random moment and played it over and over in the car with the photos to prove it happened…and I got to see it all, too.

I also watched them eat, trying to gauge if they had enough protein, offering up half of my egg or a chunk of tofu. “Did you have enough? Do you need more? Do you want this piece?” I asked at every meal, not with the eyes of a mom of little ones who cannot efficiently feed themselves but of a mom who will not have many more opportunities to be the one to take care of their needs and wants. Corban said I was doing it more than usual, and maybe I was. There is a bit of a juggling act as a Korean American mom of Korean American sons; my loving and caring should not be enabling man-baby behavior. I’m still learning how to mother young men to be grown men. IYKYK.

And so I listen to Corban and try to eat and listen to what my needs might be as well.

The years really are short

I tell parents of younger children time sped up when the oldest started high school. Before I knew it the last one was a high school senior and we were in a global pandemic. He was so moody and grumpy but weren’t we all? I’ve heard so many friends say that first year of the pandemic was so long and so recent, time bending in ways we don’t understand. That’s parenting. I swear I just gave birth but that’s impossible because I’m also post-menopausal. My joints remind me that my body did some crazy stuff but my mind says it was just yesterday.

But it actually was just last week my boys and I woke up in the same room, and I asked, “What do you want to eat today?”¬†

 

Botox + Anger

I had 15 units of Botox injected into my “elevens” – the two frown lines fighting to take permanent residence in between my thinning but microbladed eyebrows. I’m certain at several points in my life I swore I would never succumb to vanity in this manner, but I wasn’t 51 at the time. I didn’t wake up looking like I was angry or worried or scowling. Maybe 20 years from now I will chalk up this decision to my youth, but for now I’m just going to keep walking over to a mirror to see if I can still move those facial muscles.

Do you have a tattoo? 

It’s one of those things people think about doing but don’t want to readily admit thinking about it, or they do it but don’t put it on blast and may even deny having it done even though it can sometimes be pretty obvious to other people what is going on. Tattoos and body piercing have lost their stigma, even in religious spaces. Skincare regimens are so normal that my sons who are in their 20s asked about moisturizer and sunscreen. (My Dear Readers, if you are not using a facial sunscreen daily AND year-round we need to talk.) During shelter-in-place there were many social media threads about dyeing hair at home to cover roots and the increasing number of gray hairs popping up. I see requests for just about every personal care service on local moms’ FB pages but I’ve yet to see anyone ask about injections and fillers. Facials? Dermatologists? Microblading? Eyelashes? Aluminum-free deodorant? Bikini waxing? ALL THREADS ON MULTIPLE FB PAGES for working moms, community moms, etc.

But I noticed that the one self-care topic that was solely for word-of-mouth meaning an actual conversation or text and never publicly solicited information was around injecting chemicals into your body. (Wink, wink.) And because I am also prone to being Judgey McJudgepants why would anyone talk with me about paralyzing their facial muscles?

So why do it?

I actually think I look good “for my age” whatever that might mean to you. My mom and grandmother did not use expensive serums or get facials, but they drilled the importance of cleansing and moisturizing. I added the sunscreen years after already damaging my skin with baby oil burns. I have great genes to boot. I want to minimize those lines because they remind me of my anger and the loud inner critic.

There is nothing wrong with anger. Somewhere between Sunday School, sermons, and home I learned that emotions and specifically anger was bad. I have since unlearned that toxic lesson instead holding on to the energy and passion I feel and experience when I encounter injustice – anger. Anger has levels, stages, types and it’s all related to how we are experiencing a person or situation in relation to our safety. For example, as a Christian and as an Asian American I feel a great deal of anger when my faith community inflicts pain against another group of people or when my AAPI community is the target of harassment and violence. I am still learning how to deal with my anger in healthy ways, but there was one thing that continued to bother me.

But what about not letting the sun go down on your anger?

BE ANGRY [at sin‚ÄĒat immorality, at injustice, at ungodly behavior], YET DO NOT SIN; do not let your anger [cause you shame, nor allow it to] last until the sun goes down. Ephesians 4:26 Amplified Version

First, let me just say that this verse created unnecessary havoc in the early years of our marriage. Married people, if you are angry at each other and it’s time for bed, go to bed. You need to rest to think, listen, and love well.¬†

Second, the version I grew up didn’t explain how anger could be ok and the emphasis was on the sin. I know. Not surprising. So somewhere in there it gets translated and taught as being angry is sin so don’t be angry and if you are angry make sure you get rid of that ickiness before bedtime.

Maybe I’m the only one who internalized it that way, but there it is. And every time Peter and I couldn’t resolve our conflict before sleeping I felt like a failure and increasingly sleep deprived. That is what I had to unlearn and to honor the anger I feel at immorality, injustice and ungodly behavior. But I still struggle with what it means to not let my anger last until the sun goes down. The morning usually doesn’t hold new answers so much as a continuation of whatever it was that makes me angry.

Which brings me back to my elevens. This isn’t about looking younger. That might come later. I can’t help but wonder if it’s like getting my first tattoo, which lead to my next tattoo. The gateway.

Those lines aren’t really wrinkles so much as they are a reminder of every moment of anger and frustration. They are reminders to me of the anger I feel in my emotions and in my body, reflected outwards to those looking at me, those who might never know me. I already feel the anger, but to see it reflected back at me every morning? I am tired of the reminder. I don’t need another reminder of how angry this world makes me feel.¬†

Asian American woman wearing a face mask with white markings on her face to guide a nurse for Botox injections.

My face marked up for potential injections. We opted just for the three spots in between my eyebrows.

 

Three Weeks and Counting

I have been fighting a bout of insomnia by avoiding reflection. It rarely works, which is why last night I just sat there in silence with God to figure it out.

It’s deadlines.

I missed an end-of-July deadline for a devotional series (Romal, it’s getting done. I SWEAR!) I barely made the deadline for another blog (apologies to my family since we technically were on vacation). I had a moment of panic as the posting schedule for another site went up. Did I forget that deadline, too? No, I did not. I just completely forgot what I wrote about. I’m fairly certain I missed the deadline for my annual ministry plan.

I don’t work better under pressure. I just work. Knowing there is a set “end” puts the idea of a goal into focus, but sitting in that 2 a.m. silence it was deeper than those deadlines I heard God trying to get through my fearful heart. Summer ends soon, and so with some denial and regret I looked at the calendar on our fridge.

Two weeks from today my sons return to school as a high school sophomore and a seventh grader, both having adding inches to their height and a summer of video games to their enrichment. I hear my older son’s voice, and I don’t recognize it. I catch their reflections in a mirror, and I have to look harder to see their baby faces. But they will still wake up in their beds and leave those beds every morning unmade. They are still home.

Three weeks from today we will drop off my daughter at her freshman dorm and then drive away holding back tears and snot. I am going to guess that four weeks from today I will have met that missed July deadline, turned in a ministry plan, washed my daughter’s sheets, and closed the door to her room.

It’s so true. The days are long but the years are short. All those times I wanted to tell older women to stop telling me to appreciate the school years? I’M SORRY! YOU WERE RIGHT! I WAS WRONG! I DIDN’T KNOW! I WAS SO TIRED AND CRANKY! I can still physically recall the exhaustion, anxiety, stress, and numbness of those infant-baby-toddler-preschool, breastfeeding, diaper changing, sleep training, nap dropping, potty training years. The ridiculous stress, anxiety, and #firstworldprivilegedparentingprobs of standardized tests, class placement, team sports, friendship drama, GPAs, and socialization remain as we add on a new frontier of young adulthood and college student parenting. The conversations about drinking, drugs, sex, faith, relationships, and overall decision-making shift into a new space for our daughter and for us as parents, for me as her mother. The physicality of parenting – the late-night feedings, the diapers, the baths – shifted dramatically as they became more independent, and I regained healthier sleep habits until she started driving and then driving without the restrictions of a newly licensed driver because I was waiting up for her to come home.

Three weeks. Three weeks and then we will be the ones driving away to go home.

I know this is what I am supposed to do. I am so excited for her and proud of her. I know in my heart this is what it looks like to trust God, and that is what I’ll be counting on when we drive away and head straight for some restaurant in Manhattan for food, tears, a toast, and a prayer. I know that this is gift for her and for us, a continuation of the privilege of being a parent. I know she will miss us even if she doesn’t call, text or Snapchat within the first 24-72 hours of our departure. I know she will have moments of buyers’ remorse, and I will wish we had demanded she go to school closer. I know this isn’t the privilege of most young 18-year-old women and 43-year-old moms. I know that letting her go has been the point of all of this.

But where in the world did all that freaking time go?

Three weeks. I just never thought it would come so soon.

#flymysweet

 

Of Skin Whiteners & Spam

These are two of my favorite things.

These are two of my favorite things.

I just bought several cans of low-sodium Spam, and last week I used a paper facial mask for skin brightening/whitening.

Yes. I eat gelatinous meat by-products and I want to be white. Not really. Not at all.

I don’t want to be white, though there was a time when I did.¬†I’m just vain and human. I am heading into my mid-40s, getting ready to launch my firstborn, wondering where all that time I thought I had went, and wondering when all those freckles and sun spots appeared. When the melancholy settles into that sweet spot next to gratitude and hope, I like to sit down for some self-care – some nail polish and a facial mask – or with some comfort food – a bowl of rice, a piece of fried Spam, and some kimchee. Sometimes I will indulge in both in the same night.

The funny thing is that both skin whitening and Spam have similar complex roots in human nature, culture, and politics.

Vanity isn’t unique to Korea (my motherland), despite what we could infer from stories about a Korean golfer playing for Japan because she didn’t fit the beauty standards of her homeland or beauty ads asking women “Do you want to be white?”. I just think it’s easier for us Americans to look outside when it’s convenient. It’s called deflection. It’s easier to point out extreme examples in other countries and cultures than it is to look at our own culture’s jacked up standards of beauty and femininity because, face it, looking in the mirror metaphorically can be as frightening as it is to do it the morning after a rice and Spam bender.

Skin whitening exist here in America, but it is more often promoted as skin brightening – eliminating the freckles, sun spots, sun damage, and imperfections that actually come with being alive and aging. The whitening language is connected to class as well as race. I remember being told during my visits to Korea to carry an umbrella or parasol to keep the sun from damaging my skin; darker, tanned skin was associated with the lower-class farmers or outdoor shop owners. I suspect the stigma of darker skin only increased as Western culture influenced Korea. Oh the irony to be Korean & American where just 50 years ago the U.S. government passed and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in the decades since then tanning beds, tanning lotions, and straight up “tanning” is part of looking healthy (by the way shades of orange does not equal tan nor does ¬†it look healthy. It looks orange.). Think about it. We needed laws to protect and give full rights to women and people of color while white people want to be “tan”. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

American culture, in some ways, creates a level of dissonance as it could be construed as a collection of cultural appropriation with a dose of good old-fashioned creativity and varying degrees of separation and offense to the originating cultures. What isn’t American about celebrating our country’s birthday with fireworks? ¬†Fusion kimchee taco trucks? Churches hosting Harvest Day celebrations? Communion wafers or chunks of white bread with grape juice?

It isn’t always clear to me what is the “right way” and how that is different than the “Christian way” or the “American way” of doing, being, eating, etc. In my experience, Spam was American (which meant “white” in my home) food tweaked to fit our family’s Korean sensibilities, served with rice and kimchee, rolled into kimbap, or thrown into kimchee stew. For goodness sakes you can buy it at chain grocery stores in the canned food aisle near canned stew and those little sausages NOT the “ethnic” food aisle! It slowly dawned on me in adulthood that Spam was American but not necessarily eaten by white Americans.

Spam arrived in my motherland through the Korean War and the U.S. military. Pre-cooked in a compact container, Spam was a fairly economical source of protein during wartime scarcity. My father has regaled us with stories about Spam, Hershey’s chocolate bars, and other wartime black market items. He probably thinks it’s funny his daughter still eats Spam but has gotten snotty about her chocolate. The kids can have s’mores with Hershey’s while I whip out the good stuff for mine. But my kids have had Spam musubi, and there is no shame. The blue can that releases its contents with a “splat” is iconic American though many of my white American friends have never had it because it wan’t necessarily good enough for home consumption but good enough to import elsewhere. Fine. I’ll take it. I am told that the Spam now produced in Korea uses higher quality ingredients and tastes differently but is just as prized as it once was. Tradition and nostalgia tied with grief, loss, scarcity, and displacement is a powerful force.

So how can I, as an Asian American woman wanting to dismantle and deconstruct the racial ties that try to define me use a skin whitening product? Because sometimes, I live into my privilege of not examining everything I touch, wear, eat, use, etc. to see whether or not the producers of everything around me were paid a fair wage, did not harm animals, did not contribute to an unjust war I did not agree with based on my religious beliefs. Sometimes I like a good bargain and the facial masks were buy four-get two free so I grabbed one of each kind. Sometimes I don’t want to fight every fight because there are so many things to be against and not enough time to be for something. Sometimes I just want to take care of myself with a facial mask and some comfort food and it not be a political or racial statement but rather a way of loving my family because a relaxed, centered, well-fed mommy and wife makes for a happy life.

Sometimes it’s more complicated and complex.

 

When Life and Death and Life Get in the Way

My grandmother Hee Soon Shin passed away this evening at 5:45 pm. She took her final breaths surrounded by two of her children, one of her sons-in-law and two of her granddaughters. She lived a full 91 years in two countries and several cultural shifts. She left this side of heaven with the same grace and strength I have always associated with her.

She was a widow before she hit her 40s, during the Korean War, with five young children in her care. Shortly after her husband’s death, she lost a daughter – an aunt I had never heard about until I was already a mother myself. She never remarried. I asked her once why she never remarried. She smiled, quickly covering her sweet grin with her right hand, and said in our mother tongue, “It’s not that I didn’t have the chance. But I had children, and I didn’t know if any man could love them like their own. Besides, I had already been married. Why did I need to do that again?”

My sister and I were sitting bedside this evening, urging our own mother and aunt out the door so they could run home, change out of their church garb, and return having prepared themselves to keep vigil. We had spent the day together, at one point in the hospital laughing as we noticed my grandmother was being kept company my mother and her two daughters – three generations of women born into varying degrees (if there is such a thing, truly) of patriarchy. My grandmother’s breathing had already slowed, but as they left my mother and aunt paused to say another goodbye. We noticed my grandmother’s breathing continued to shallow and slow. The stillness, another breath, another pause, another breath, another pause longer than the first.

I suspect my mother is still holding her breath. Waiting.

My grandmother was always a lady. I remember watching her wash her face, a painstaking ritual of cleansing, rinsing, refilling the sink with clean water to rinse her face again. She moisturized religiously, patting, never rubbing, her face. She massaged her neck and hands. Her hair was always cut and styled, her clothes tailored and pressed. She always covered her mouth when she laughed. Fortunately for me and my sister, we inherited some of those genes, though I suspect my tendency to smile and laugh with a wide opened mouth and wild hand gestures are a product of culture and recessive genes.

She came with me and my mother to get tattoos. It was actually a multigenerational field trip of vanity – my mother and grandmother having their eyebrows tattooed while I had my eyeliner, top and bottom, done in between nursing Bethany who came along in her car seat. I will never forget the four of us sitting over steaming bowls of rice and soup after having needles poke ink into our skin. Three of us with eyelids and brows puffy and shiny from the assault staring at each other, laughing over what we had just done, looking at Bethany sleeping in her carseat. Four generations of Korean (American) women who would share creased eyelids and a love for fashion, makeup and style.

She often vacillated between staunch traditionalist – especially thrilled that her first two granddaughters (me and my sister, the only children of her oldest surviving daughter, would give her five great-grandsons), and moments of almost-feminist – supporting my decision to keep my maiden name legally and professionally. She worried about my career ambitions getting in the way of taking care of my husband and children, but she would often tell me how blessed I was to have a husband who loved and respected me for and encouraged me to pursue those very ambitions.

I was supposed to leave for California Tuesday morning for a trip to speak at Pepperdine University’s chapel service Wednesday morning. Those ambitions that often conflicted both my grandmother and my mother (who am I kidding, those ambitions conflicted me!) brewing and developing and growing through writing and speaking and following God’s call and opportunities‚Ķinstead of speaking to college student’s about the pain of being an outcast and alone and the grace, belonging and power of Christ I will be grieving, remembering, and learning. Sometimes, just when you think you’ve figured life out, life changes.

My grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and martial law. She lived through the death of an infant child, her husband, and a daughter all before immigrating to the United States. She was one of “those” people who never learned the language beyond a very, very polite, “I don’t understand. No English.” and yet she remained the matriarch, setting right her three daughters and son and their spouses; four granddaughters and four grandsons; and three great granddaughters and six great grandsons.

She and I didn’t meet until I was in elementary school, after my tongue had lost some of its Korean fluency. Over the years, my tongue spoke less and less Korean, but I understood her fierce love for three generations, each generation speaking and knowing less of her world yet still connected through blood and faith.

It’s way past my Lenten bedtime, but as I finally make my way to sleep I will remember how my grandmother taught me about self-care, grace, and strength. I will wash and moisturize my face. I will rub lotion into my hands. And I will rest in my Christ’s love.

Grief Takes Form

ribbons of mourning

My father-in-law died on Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection on Christ’s suffering, death, burial and resurrection.

The morning he died I read out of Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. I chose¬†passage about God knowing and choosing to live into human suffering, how the resurrected Christ invited Thomas to touch his nail-pierced hands. I don’t know what it is to suffer the failing health and body of 87 years, but Jesus does, and that is what I whispered in my father-in-law’s ear. My only regret was that I couldn’t translate the reading into Korean, forever the Korean daughter-in-law.

Four hours later he took his last breaths, and the family moved into a fog of grief, guilty relief, sadness, memories, cultural expectations, and uncertainty about the future.

Paul Si Kun Chang, 87, lived with us for 7 months in 2006. He moved in with us days after my mother-in-law died. Friends of hers thought I wept because I felt guilty for not doing enough as a daughter-in-law. Little did they know I wept because I knew what was coming, and I wasn’t sure I was cut out to be that kind of Korean daughter-in-law.

My father-in-law had many moments worthy of a K-drama. He and I argued over the sheer amount of stuff he wanted to move into his room and into my house. The four-drawer, heavy-duty file cabinet and pleather recliner sent me over the edge. He would come into my office and ask to be served lunch. My favorite was when he looked at his plate of spaghetti (the kids had begged for “American” food after weeks of Korean food), and he told me he wasn’t going to eat it for dinner.

But we had many more moments as he mourned and tried to find his way out of the sadness while living in the company of a family of five on the move. He trimmed the bushes, rinsed out the garbage cans, tried to teach my boys how to swing a golf club, and he shared with me bits and pieces of his story – how he longed for his mother when he saw me love on my kids, how excited he was to receive confirmation of his arranged marriage, and how he couldn’t believe a poor Korean could live such an incredible life as an American.

Stories all spoken to me in Korean, usually when I served him a traditional Korean meal for lunch or dinner.

My grief is not that of a daughter; my memories of our relationship only go as far back as my relationship with Peter. My grief feels distinctly that of a Korean American daughter-in-law – “myu-noo-lree”. My father-in-law did not first meet me as a newborn; he met me at my prime grandson-bearing years. We both saw and knew each other in relationship to our cultural roles.

It took almost 20 years for us to trust each other with our own stories of faith and suffering and hope. That’s why it made sense to read a Lenten devotional to him on Ash Wednesday while wishing I could have done it in Korean. That was the link that helped us understand each other in ways his son and my husband could not.

Death and all of the preparations were a whirlwind until I sat down with the black ribbon to wrap around his portrait and then the white ribbon to make the traditional symbols of mourning the surviving children and grandchildren would wear.

Grief, remembrance and reflection did not begin with ashes this year. It took form in white bows.

 

The 40s Are Not the New 30s. I’m Looking Forward.

No, this is not a serious case of denial. I’ve had some time to work this thing out.

No regrets. That’s essentially what my Mom wrote to me in my birthday card to me this year. Written to me in Korean (yes, Mom and Dad, I am thankful that you made me do all of those Korean worksheets!), my Mom shared the wisdom of one who has been down this same path. She encouraged me to live life without regret.

Until I was about 20 years old I couldn’t wait until I was “older”. Elementary and junior high teachers asked me and my classmates, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” which lead to daydreams and funny diary entries.

In high school I spent most of my time wishing I was in college.

In college I had a lot of fun. A lot of drama, but a lot of fun. So I guess there were a few years of enjoying the present…with a watchful and sometimes impatient eye to what the future would hold.

My 20s were full of transition. College to career and then another career. Dorms to an apartment with three amazing roommates to an apartment all alone to our first apartment, second apartment and then first home. Singleness to marriage to motherhood to mourning.

My 30s felt a bit like a test run. I tried healthier habits. I tried to figure out a bit more about myself and my baggage and my legacy. I got a decent dose of what it meant to be a dutiful Korean daughter and Korean daughter-in-law and tried to learn a bit more about being a wife and mother. I tasted bitterness and sorrow, and I swallowed a few doses of each.

I made some choices to move forward and pledge allegiance and embrace both my identity and declare citizenship. I came to understand the darker, more anxious moments of my days needed more than an hour of cardio to give me a boost and stabilize things.

But that was literally yesterday. My 30s were wonderful and amazing and painful, but I don’t want to buy into the lie that tells us women that we’ve peaked in the decade prior. My memories may be gilded but my life isn’t.

Sure, today has enough troubles of its own, but I’m ready to look forward to today and each today after that.

Here’s to the 40s! Thank you 30s for preparing me for this next season!