You Don’t Have To

This afternoon I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. I hadn’t been since June 2001, and even then, it was a brief visit. Today,  I ducked into the Cathedral after crossing the street and fighting tight throngs of tourists. It was nice to sit in the church and take in all of the images and sights I ignored as an 11-year-old: The high ceilings, the shrines, the beautiful altar, and of course, the stained glass windows.

Twitter, Facebook, Together

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Around us, hundreds of tourists (many traveling in from outside of the United States), took pictures. The time spent of the photographs was often detailed, even with a high quality camera. As I knelt at my pew, I felt the urge creep up in the back of my mind.

“If you snapped a picture of the altar right now, it would look great on Instagram. Especially with the right filter. Think of the ‘likes’ you’ll get!”

As I live and breathe, the very thought crossed my mind. I don’t hide my love for social media. Through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve connected with old friends and friends I’ve never met in person. I enjoy posting photos of my travels, and I enjoy that other people enjoy the posts, too. Likes and hearts are nice.

However, I often find myself under pressure. Pressure to find a perfect Instagram filter, pressure to word a caption just right, pressure to share every event.

But, as I sat in the pew this afternoon, I mentally sat on my hands, thinking,  “You don’t have to document every single event, every single moment. It’s okay to let life fly ‘under’ the radar.”

As difficult as it was (and I struggled), I kept my phone in my purse. I didn’t take any photos at St. Patrick’s today. And the result is clear: I still feel as fulfilled and satisfied as if I had taken a photo, doctored it up with filters, and posted it on Facebook. More the same, while eating dinner at a kitschy new Korean restaurant in Manhattan Koreatown, I sat on my hands. I can eat galbi and bibimbap without posting a picture of it on Twitter. It tastes the same, and I enjoyed it without all of the pressure of “Is this lighting good enough for this picture?”

In conclusion, has this moment of clarity “cured” me? No. I have a picture of a flower and chocolate box window display in Rockefeller Plaza I’d like to post. I may, I may not. We will see. Only time and Instagram will tell.

But…

Next time, when you feel hurried or pressured to post an update or photograph of an event, remember: It’s okay. You can live life in peace, without the worry of likes and external validation.

 

On the Island of Peace: Thoughts

Every July 13th, I remember my Korean host father.

It was the day he died.

When I was a Fulbright teacher, I lived on Jeju Island, dubbed the “Hawaii of Korea” (and the namesake of this blog). One of the highlights of the Fulbright Korea English Teaching Assistantship is that for your first year, you must live with a host family. As I’ve said in past posts of past blogs, I truly hit the host family jackpot. I was seamlessly knitted into the fabric of my family, and I was welcomed into every aspect of Korean family life. Chuseok (think Thanksgiving), New Years’, Christmas, birthdays, I was present. Unlike other teaching assistants, who were sometimes pushed to the side during the year, I was blessed with a warm home.

In August 2014, as I was moving into my new apartment in Western Kentucky, I received a KakaoTalk message from my host sister saying that her father had died. I was stunned, as if a pile of bricks had hit my head. Just some 400 days earlier, my host father (whom I called Bruce), had dropped me off at the Jeju International Airport so that I could meet my connecting flight in Seoul back to the United States. While I won’t linger on the shock and aftermath in this post, you can read more about it if you click here. Today, instead, I’ll ramble for you.

I had lost family members before, sure. It hurts. For example, I still think of my paternal grandparents each and every day. But, when I found out that Bruce was gone, it was unbelievable. Young people die, but not young people that I know. That is far from fair, and not the life I planned. I imagined reunion upon reunion in Korea, and now, that is but a dream.

The family I lived with has shifted dramatically. The house I stayed in for my year is no longer occupied by my family. Last June, I stood outside of the house, wondering who lived inside.

Now, my host brother is now serving his mandatory 2-year military service. My host sister and host mother have moved to a large city, about 50 miles outside of Seoul. As for Bruce, he rests on Jeju Island: where he born, where he lived, and ultimately, where he died.

Jeju, Jeju Island, Sunrise Salary

Jeju Island, South Korea (pixabay.com)

Sometimes, when I’m using Google Maps or Naver (the Korean equivalent), I’ll use street view outside of the house. I’ll see Bruce’s truck, or my host mother’s car. Often, I’ll just smile when I see the little island on the map. It reminds me of a time of goodness and love, a time that I’ll never get back. In a way, I think that’s a very good thing. I treasure my time on the island, and with my host family, even more. Maps are good for that nostalgia.

Today, life is different. It moves on, rather we want it to or not. Sure, the home stay is empty and my host family is gone. But, in my heart, Jeju is the island of peace. It’s where I formed lifelong friendships and bonds. It’s where Bruce’s life touched mine, if but for a single moment in eternity. And for this, I am perpetually grateful.

 

 

 

 

Church in the Wildwood: A Story

I originally wrote this post on June 4th, 2017 or Pentecost. It took me a very long time to write this, and an even longer time to decide to publish it. When I announced my conversion to Catholicism on social media, the situation became very nasty, very quickly. I know that whatever is put on social media is for the world’s consumption, and I didn’t expect everyone to agree with my choice. I even expected a few objections.

However, I just didn’t expect the enormous social media blow back. Facebook statuses were composed, indirectly directed towards me. Other posts were written, with my name not used. I was unfriended. It was open season. I’m no martyr for the Faith, but those actions and words hurt. I know some of these people may see this post, and that’s fine. I forgive them, not for their theological opinions and beliefs that they are free to have and express, but for their nasty outreach tactics.

For you dear readers, I pray you find your way to Jesus, Our Eternal Hope.

-Sarah, July 10, 2017

Chapel, Eifel, Germany, Wayside Chapel

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An April 2002 quote by the late Richard John Neuhaus, founder and editor of First Things, captures the spirit of my post in complete clarity (changes my own):

I became a Catholic in order to be more fully what I was and who I was [in the Churches of Christ].

If you’ve followed my writing for a while, you probably know I’m a decent writer, but I’m not terribly eloquent or convincing. I’m not a trained Catholic apologist, and I’m not as intelligent as I once thought I was. That’s why it’s taken a while for me to put my mind and thoughts to the page regarding my decision to join the Catholic Church. On Pentecost, today’s feast commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection, I want to talk with you about church, changes, and the joy of the Lord.

I was raised in the Churches of Christ. My little church, however, was different that other Churches of Christ. While we didn’t use instruments in corporate worship, we didn’t believe that those who chose to attend other congregations in town (Baptist, Methodist, Christian), were bound for hell because of they are worshiped in  “denominational churches” or had piano accompaniment.

Like Neuhaus, who was raised Lutheran, I cherish, and still cherish, my spiritual heritage in the Churches of Christ. The little Church of Christ around the corner is where I was baptized, took communion on a weekly basis, and was instructed the in the tenets of Christian orthodoxy. I truly do not remember a time when I did not know of Jesus Christ and His presence in my life.

Yet, I struggled with a strange emptiness. I am a firm believer that if you have a problem with whatever church you’re attending, the first step is to look in the mirror. Usually 95% of the time, you and I are our own problems in any given situation. Despite my own self-assessments, this emptiness followed me to college where I faithfully church-hopped for four years. I went to churches in traditional buildings with stained glasses and padded pews, I went to churches in store-fronts and refurbished supermarkets with rock bands. (At one church, the minister and his wife took me out for lunch, and I never returned. I still feel guilty about it).

But, the one time in the four years I attended Catholic Mass with my friends, I was at peace. In high school, my Catholic friends would talk about their Lenten fasts, Ash Wednesday, Advent, and liturgy. In my heart, I wanted what I saw as a fullness of the faith. But, I stayed away. In college, I continued to bury my feelings about Catholicism, but voraciously devoured the writings of and by the saints. In the courses for my religion minor, I almost always wrote about topics regarding Catholicism. For my English oral exam my senior year, my exam partner and I talked for the better part of an hour about female martyr saints. I admired and knew so much about the Catholic faith, but I hadn’t taken a step.

Several months after college, while beginning a Fulbright year in Korea, a few other grantees and I were looking for a local church to attend. I watched as two of my fellow teachers boarded a bus to a local Catholic church. I so badly wanted to go with them, but instead I traveled with the majority of Christian teachers to a local Methodist church. I struggled with my faith. Not in a “I don’t know if I believe who Jesus said He is,” but in a “I don’t know where I belong in my faith journey.”

I asked (maybe hinted to) God about my feelings.

For the next ten months, I lived with a host family: Catholic mom, non-religious dad, and two kids. It was some of the best months of my life. In July 2013, I returned back to the States and taught in Western Kentucky for two years. During my second year in Western Kentucky, on Thursday afternoons I tutored English language learners at the local Catholic school for a semester. I yearned to be part of the Catholic Church even more.

At this point, you may wonder: Sarah, why didn’t you just start going to a Catholic parish? The short answer: My faith was inhibited by anxiety. Though firm in faith, the Churches of Christ tend to emphasize dotting every “I” and crossing every “T,” lest one lose his salvation. Growing up, Catholicism was cast in such a negative light (not necessarily by my parents), and I was scared of the thoughts I was having about the Catholic faith. For years, I was between a rock and a hard place.

Fast forward to November 2016, and I found my courage and decided to enroll in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults or RCIA. The first Sunday I was to attend, I chickened out. Seriously. I was that afraid. I curled up in bed when I should have been in my formation class. I was like a dog who had finally caught the car she had been chasing, only to wondering “Wait, what?”

After the next Sunday, the rest was history. I cannot tell you how many times I found myself near tears or in tears during the Mass, or how many “Aha!” moments I’ve experienced before and after my Confirmation this past Easter. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve felt sweet relief from anxiety and pain (imagined and real) after receiving the Eucharist. I cannot tell you how sweet it is to spend an hour with Jesus during Adoration. I cannot tell you how simply wonderful and full my faith is. I believe that God was calling me to the Catholic faith for years, and in His blessed timing, I was able to find my place. I am home, and I am in a state of peace I simply cannot put into words.

To conclude, I’ll leave you with this:

Maybe you don’t know Jesus. Maybe you do, but you’re not sure what to do next. Maybe you’re in a very difficult spot in your life and you’re not sure where God is. You scroll through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and see a perfect world that others are living. You feel alone and forgotten and full of fear. But, here’s the catch: everyone is broken.

There is no perfection. Only Jesus.

I encourage you to say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). I can’t promise you that life will become a bed of roses, in fact, after choosing to follow Jesus, your life may become more difficult. Why? Because our enemy, the devil, hates it when he loses. Don’t be fooled: evil will work overtime when you surrender yourself to the King of the Universe.

Jesus did not promise us a carefree life, but He did promise that He would be there as we go through the difficulties. I encourage you to hand yourself over to Him, and to listen to His call on your life. You are worth so much to Him. You were created in His image.

Finally, to paraphrase quote my friends over at Catholic Bridge,

If you are not a Catholic we suggest that you ask Jesus what he would have you do next. We trust He will guide you. Ask him where he wants you. Ask him to surround you with believers. Ask him to guide you to the church that He would have you attend. We believe the answers will come if you sincerely ask. We encourage you to read the Bible every day and ask Jesus to guide your every step. Jesus led me to the Catholic Church. Perhaps that will be where your road will lead also. If it does, I hope to meet you some day. I put that in God’s hands. May God bless you and keep you until that time.

May God bless you, friends. I pray that my story can help you find the faith you need or encourages you in the faith you already have. Praise be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

 

 

 

 

Vacation Sandwiches

I’m currently working on a post about my conversion to Catholicism. It’s taking a while to get from my brain onto the page. For now, enjoy a post about the finer delicacies in life.

For those who travel often: you know the feeling. The suspension of time, the bluer skies, the world is on pause. Also, your taste buds are heightened. The things that you love outside of the space-time continuum of vacation are suddenly even more delicious. Heck, even foods you may not like, for some reason, are infinitely better while away from home.

I, personally, know the power of vacation taste obscurity. Throughout my life, I have been haunted and delighted by vacation sandwiches. First, I am no stranger to sandwiches. I was raised on sandwiches, my first memories of the kitchen table are of eating sandwiches after church for lunch. Sandwiches, while good, are not at the top of my list. Take it or leave it, it’s a sandwich.

Breakfast, Sandwich, A Sandwich, Toast

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But, on vacation, sandwiches are top of the line. The filet mignon, the Queen of the Food Pyramid, top notch vacation food. What is it about the vacation sandwich? Is the Miracle Whip? Is is something about the way the vibe of the hotel mingles with the vibe of your stomach? What makes a pimento cheese sandwich 100 times better while on vacation, as opposed to life at home? Or, is it just me?

As I write this, I am sitting in a Microtel in Gatlinburg, TN. It’s my first time here in over four years, and may I say that the sandwiches are as wonderful as ever. In true fashion, we brought a cooler with us packed with lunch meat and homemade pimento cheese. Paired with mini King’s Hawaiian buns, homemade pimento cheese is glorious, vacation food paradise. At home? It’s good. On vacation, it’s delightfully amazing and soul wrenching. If you’ve never had your life temporarily wrecked by a pimento cheese sandwich, I cannot recommend going on vacation soon enough.

Happy travels and amazing sandwiches.

During Dark and Daylight: The Story of a Tokyo Denny’s

Last summer, while barreling over Russia and the Pacific Ocean on a return trip from South Korea, I was engrossed in After Dark by Haruki Murkami. With a clock counting the hours between 1:00 AM and 6:00 AM at the beginning of each chapter and typical Murakami surrealism, I regret that I’ll never be able to read this book for the first time ever again. Like all good things, After Dark begins in a Denny’s, like my own Japanese adventure in the infant days of 2013.

Lanterns, Japan, Tokyo, Temple, Shrine

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I don’t know if we were hungry, jet-lagged, eager to get out or a combination of all three. But, in the cold New Year’s Day, Alley and I bundled up and made our way around the corner. In all it’s familiar glow was the blockish-sign with hazy red, suspended in the neon darkness that was Tokyo. After eight hours waiting in the airport, subsisting on thin wheat cookies, I was in relief.

You see, I don’t travel to places to try the food. I just don’t. I like the sights, the sounds, and the culture. But, I don’t particularly care for an authentic culinary experience. I’m the world-traveled American, who at the end of the day, just wants the comfort of Taco Bell. On this New Year’s Day, as per usual, I wasn’t leaning towards a bento box or authentic sushi. I wanted to familiar, and that familiar was a Denny’s.

Our meal began with ordering drinks – rich, savory Coca-Cola. In the States, a soda at a sit-down establishment may cost you up to $3.50, with free refills. In Japan, the world is different. You can order a Coke, but it’s just one Coke. It will cost you around $6. Yes, $6. Or, if you’re a high-roller, you can order unlimited Cokes for $12. What did we do? Order unlimited Cokes. I was thirsty and Coca-Cola in Asia has a magnificent taste.

I scanned the menu, smattered with Japanese characters and pictures. No English. Traditional pancakes faded into spaghetti with raw egg on top, strange salads, and other pastas. I love pasta, and I was ravenous. I didn’t want a burger, but rather the dish with fettuccine noodles and white sauce topped with steamed crab meat caught my eye. We ordered, and I took in the view.

In one corner, a Japanese woman in a mint green kimono sat with her two children. This was not a flimsy, tourist kimono, but an authentic kimono. Her hair was tied up in a bun, and she ate with chopsticks while her children fought over french fries. I tried not to stare, but among the chrome and the neon, there was this traditionally dressed woman with a serene aura eating in a trademark American restaurant.

Even further down the row of booths sat a legitimate sumo wrestler. A group of teenagers bustled in, heads buried in phones and thumbs texting away wildly. I watched the cooks in the kitchen slide french toast and burgers and raw squid in salad into the window, waiting for the servers.

Everything that one would image you’d see in Japan, I saw in the Denny’s. Our food finally came, I savored the thick sauce and chewy crab meat. I drank the most expensive Coke I’ve ever purchased. I struggled to wrap the long noodles around the cheaply made chopsticks.

Unlike Mari, the main character and Denny’s patron in After Dark, my evening did not spiral into a mystical journey across Tokyo’s seedy underworld. It ended with me tucked into my bunk bed at the hostel, only for us to arise and return to the same Denny’s. While I can barely tell you the other meals I ate in Tokyo, I can tell you about going to Denny’s. And I can tell you about the woman in the kimono and the endless stream of Coca-Cola, punctuated with a foreign chatter.

Something About Airports

“You mean to tell me the gate for Charlotte has been changed again?”

This comment was spoken all too often by an older gentleman that afternoon; gate changes were too frequent. I was headed home from San Diego, perched at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport during a layover. Despite the weekend travel crowd, I found a seat at a charging station, plugged in my laptop, and enjoyed the ambiance (in spite the gate changes of my Charlotte-bound flight).

Airport, Satolas, Lyon, France

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The gate changes didn’t bother me and neither did the man cursing at a gate agent about 100 feet away. I watched a woman wrangle her small child while waiting in line at McDonald’s. Nearby, and elderly couple with canes waited for their flight to Chicago to begin boarding. In the distance, a group of college-aged women gathered around a phone-charging station. In the chaos, I was at near-perfect peace during the three-plane journey home.

Airports are happiness. I’ve posted on other blogs how much I love airports. On a trip, getting there isn’t only half the fun, it may be most of the fun. Often, when I fly, I’ll arrive at the airport 2 hours early. My primary motivation is people-watching and wondering where everyone is going and why. Why is that elderly couple flying to Dallas and then on Hong Kong? What is that woman flying to Albuquerque? How many people here have never flown on a plane? Why is anyone traveling today? The possibilities are endless.

I remember well the time I flew to Tokyo via Narita Airport on January 1, 2013. I was waiting on a friend to arrive from the States, and from there, we would go into the city. I had about eight hours to kill and my Korean Air flight had been delayed while departing from Seoul. No worries for me, though. I walked through the terminal, back-and-forth, for hours. Across from me, a father and daughter, sat. The father was an airline pilot from the US, and I assume he had brought his daughter along for free to experience Japan. I ventured onto the observation deck to watch planes land and take off to the corners of the earth. I sat in a massage chair. I eventually made it to downtown Japan.

Other times have been just as exciting and/or traumatizing. In February, I went to New York over a long weekend. As I returned to LaGuardia Airport, a blizzard began to fall, delaying traffic. I was terrified and my flight was delayed. I checked my bags and ventured down to the terminal where hundreds of other people stood, waiting in herds to know if their flights were canceled. I struggled to find a seat, and luckily, I found a seat at a bar-like restaurant in the terminal. I ordered a Diet Coke (way overpriced), and waited. A flight to Wisconsin canceled. A flight to Detroit was rescheduled for the next day. I sat anxiously, praying a flight to Kentucky was still good to go. Long-story-short: I made it home, but at 1a.m. and with work the next day. I survived, surprisingly, with a lack of sleep.

In my mind, airports are like a contained mini-society. There’s so many different types of people with so many different places to go. We all have our different reasons and purposes, but we’re all going somewhere. The energy of so many people traveled to so many different corners is nothing short of exhilarating – at least for me. Maybe you hate airports, the lines, and the chaos. Maybe you’d rather ride a camel across the country than fly in a plane. But, I can’t think of a better way to travel than to watch people in an airport, with the spirit of travel in the air.

 

 

The Beautiful Peril of Language: Stories

The hill, steep and unruly, was especially difficult in the humid Korean spring.

However, before the hill, I was always in a steady descent, looking at the Pacific Ocean and the shoreline. Somehwere beyond the horizon, was California or Japan, depending on which direction I gazed. This day, as I finished the gentle slope, and began the ascent into the Seogwipo city center, was no different. I shifted my backpack and began the trudge. I thought about the strawberry smoothie at Ediya Coffee waiting for me once I conquered the hill.  The Bible, Book, Religion, Christian

As I passed the duck meat restaurant at the steepest part of the hill, my phone rang. In Korea, my phone never buzzed with incoming calls, save for a the time a drunken Korean man butt-dialed me at midnight or my host sister thought I was lost on a city bus. On the screen, it was my host mother. My heart stopped for a second. I spoke as much Korean as much as she spoke English. I wasn’t worried if this was an emergency, I was worried about the language barrier.

I picked up, “Hello?”

My host mom starts in a slow string of sentences in Korean, I hear words what I believe to be o0-chae-kook (post office) and tek-bae (express package service). I rattle my brain: The night before I packed up my winter clothes and supplies to be shipped back to the United States, nearly 100 pounds. My host mom said she would call tek-bae to pick it up and ship it. Other than that, I had no idea what she was going on. Hopeless, I launched into my roughly standard “Cho-nun rotary, o-di-ay-isseoyo?” or “I am in the rotary city center, where are you?”

She replies, “Ne, ne, kamsahamnida,” or “Yes, yes, thank you.”

After I returned home, my package was gone, and my Korea Post receipt and customs form was on my desk. It had successfully shipped. To this day, I’m not for sure what my host mother was trying to tell me about my package, and I only have a rough idea.It was one of many unique moments where I was left wondering, “What did that mean?” or “What did I mean when I spoke with shoddy Korean?”

However, I tell the package story to tell you another one: I love languages.

In elementary, middle school (and beyond), I was captivated by the idea that somebody, somewhere could not understand my language. I obsessed, wondering what English sounded like to someone who did not know English. It would hit me like lightning as I sat on the porch or read a book: We use these words to say certain things, but isn’t that strange? How do we know it means what we’re saying? Middle school is a difficult time when you’re trying to figure out the meaning of life, much less the philosophical meaning of language.

When I applied to be an English Teaching Assistant through the Fulbright program, one of my goals was to learn Korean. In my application, I said I wanted to be fluent by the end of my grant year. In the seven-week orientation for new grantees, we were told that according to the U.S. Department of State, Korean was at the top difficulty level for native-English speakers to learn, alongside Chinese and Arabic. We learned that government agents stationed in Korea often take three years of full-time classes just to learn the language.

During our mandatory classes, the difficulty of the language was alive and well. Some of my classmates took to Korean like a fish does to water. I was more of a wary new duckling who was not sure the water was safe. I struggled, and I was disheartened. I wanted to be good, better than anyone else. Though I improved my Korean throughout the year in a real-life setting, I was not fluent when I left the peninsula. I still love the language.

Now, I’m in a relationship with a speaker of Mandarin Chinese. He knows I deeply admire the tones and rhythm of the language, and every night we practice with a workbook over the phone. I love it, but it’s painful to my ego. The tones, necessary for meaning in Mandarin, are difficult for English speakers. There are ways I have to position my tongue, lips, and teeth I’ve never had to before, even when I spoke toneless Korean. I become frustrated when my Mandarin tones are tinted with a Kentucky accent and don’t depart my mouth the way I intended. Nevertheless, I press on because I love my boyfriend and I admire the rich language.

Through these experiences, I’ve learned that acquiring a language  is like trying on a dress or shoe that is two sizes too small. It has the potential to look wonderful on you, but when you try to model it to well-meaning friends and relatives, they lie to you and say it’s “Really, really good!” In reality, you’re stuck in this dress or shoe until you can adapt to it and fit into it without a struggle. Some learners adapt to a strange new size quickly and slide right in, while others determine that being “snug” in their new language clothes is quite alright. Some choose to toss the dress or shoe aside.

I’ve determined from various linguistic ventures that language is a wonderful peril. We often misunderstand each other in the same language, but two people who don’t speak the same tongue can easily find a connection through silent language. We can all be silent. Finally, for those who are earthbound, language education is a wonderful way to sample a foreign culture and a different way of life. For those of us more inclined to flee the continent for periods of time, it’s one way to thrive in a strange environment. Especially environments with steep hills, duck meat restaurants, and concerned host mothers.