Monday, May 25, 2009

An arranged marriage of sorts and judgement (two separate topics)

How many times has the following brief discussion taken place recently:

Person: So where are you and Joo living now?
Me: We'll be going to Athens, OH this fall (or as soon as we find a house) but until then we're staying with my parents.
Person: That's cool - good financial decision; save some money in the bank...

And while these past several months of living with my parents certainly have helped us out financially, Joo and I both view it as an incredible relational opportunity as well. Virtually everywhere I've travelled outside of the US - Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, India, Korea - maybe not always in big cities, and not so much in Europe, but a good portion of the households living together are extended families. It's so deeply rooted in the culture that it's not even questioned in a modern city like Seoul when kids live with their parents well into their 30's, many times even after marriage, and some times throughout their entire life (although at some point the emphasis clearly shifts from "kids living with their parents" to "parents living with their kids.")

I started thinking more about this the other day when Joo and I witnessed an interesting scene outside the window. A smaller morning dove flew up onto the deck and was quickly scared off by an adult morning dove who swooped down from her nest on the side of our house wall. The smaller morning dove panicked and, in an attempt to get away, flew smack into the railing of the deck. It went down hard and the adult came and started pecking at it and eventually pushed it off the deck. We ran outside and followed the scene down below where the adult was continuing to peck the youth, which we thought was dead by this time.

We also got a better look at the youth and Joo was quite sure it was one of the two morning dove chicks that had hatched a month or two previously and lived for some time in the aforementioned nest by the house (the same nest which the mother morning dove is now incubating two new eggs in). So, perhaps, the child had been trying to return to its nest when it was rejected by the mother who, in a show of tough love, conveyed that it was time to move on. For the next couple days, the youth (who was alive and well, at least physically) sat rigidly up in a tree branch just a few meters away from the "old nest."

Family. Two days ago, the former president of South Korea jumped off a cliff to his death, apparently due to an ongoing court battle which involved some misdoings of two children and his wife. Whatever drove him to that point was almost certainly related to family dynamics.

I remember meeting an Indian guy, Manoj, who had two wives: one through a love marriage and the other through an arranged marriage. At first I thought it was pretty far out, but in a sense, that's how it is for most of us too- we choose our spouse, but our family is "arranged" - and these two relationships usually become our deepest lifelong bonds on this earth. I certainly feel blessed in both senses and, returning to the opening discussion, that's why these past few months have been such a joy for me.

On a final note, I've been thinking about what it means to judge things and others. Specifically, I was thinking about why we judge some things/people as beautiful or good and others as ugly or bad. Take for example our garden in the above picture. Joo and I check on it several times a day and consider it very "beautiful." In contrast, a recent stench that's been emanating out back led me to find this skunk which is being digested by flies and vultures. The picture alone made Joo feel somewhat sick in the stomach and we would certainly consider it "ugly."

But why? It's not because of colors- the skunk is more colorful than the garden. Perhaps the odor is a turnoff for the skunk (although Joo says the more she smells it in the air, the more she thinks of sesame.) Is it because the garden is moving towards life and the skunk has entered the death stage? Is it because the skunk has nothing to offer us, but the garden has the potential of producing a variety crop of delicious vegetables? Maybe its just part of our self-preservation instincts wherein eating a rotting skunk would almost certainly make us unhealthy but eating fresh organic vegetables reaps health.
I was also thinking back to a time in my early twenties when I belonged to a very intense esoteric and fundamentalist Bible Study. While I have many peaceful memories of the simplicity and devotion of our meetings, I also have some negative recall of the amount of judgement that went on under the guise of prayer requests and prophetic visions. All the guilt, desperation, fear and doubt that accompanied thoughts of "The Great Judgement" where God would send some people to eternal paradise and the others to eternal damnation. And about my days in Jr. High when it felt like everyone was judging and being judged on social skills, physical attraction, clothes, etc.
In fact, I think in general throughout my life, many of the most painful and negative memories deal with some form of judgement, while the most loving and positive ones have dealt with acceptance, unity, bonding, and unconditional love. On the other hand, there are certainly types of judgement I practice in my daily life that seem to be quite healthy practices - most notably, how we spend our time, money, and energy in "good" or "bad" ways and what we put into our bodies (food, air, etc.) and what comes out of our bodies (speech, etc.). So, I want to think some more about this - comments welcome!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lost in translation (but gained in sympathy)

How would you feel if you opened up your paycheck only to find a BILL from your employer saying that you owed money? Perhaps that could come close to explaining how Mom must have felt when Dad destroyed, rather than gave, her flowers on Mother's Day! To Dad's credit, it was a completely innocent mistake - he had just bought a new commercial-grade, zero-turn mower and came flying out of the garage. As Mom dove to the side and Joo watched aghast, Dad tried in a mounting panic to stop the mower (but unfortunately only accelerated it until it had smashed through a collection of flower arrangements Mom had just finished designing.) Of course no one could blame him when he freely offered the newfangled controls to any other member of the family who felt motived to mow the lawn in his stead.

The next day, Wes came through on his recent road trip to the East Coast... he always brings a unique flavor to life and this time it was in the form of pizza. Using a blend of fancy cheeses, sauces, and organic vegetables, we assembled a single homemade pizza that must have cost over $40 and was 3 to 4 inches high at various points (hence its name "Everest"). Wes, ever a devotee of nature, spent a great deal of time simply laying out in the sun in an apparent attempt to prove that the hype over the sun causing skin cancer was simply an overblown reaction serving only to rob of us one of our most primal bonds with nature. Mother Sun promptly repaid with his devotion with a burnt face by the end of the day.

Nevertheless, we had some solid family conference time (although I strategically positioned myself in the shade) wherein we discussed many noble truths and a few relational dynamics. He brought up a relational psychologist named David Deida who, according to Wikipedia, teaches on spiritual practice, nondual sexuality, and sociocultural evolution (I haven't listened to any of his stuff yet, but when I do so, perhaps I can share some less generic thoughts here in the blog).

Speaking of relationships, we seem to have a pair of romantic serpents who have settled their abode mere steps away from our front door. Dad claims to have brought them (Hermy and Cindy, as he refers endearingly to them) for Mom, perhaps in compensation for the flowers that were destroyed on Mother's Day.
Our plants are continuing to grow in our beloved garden, although we had to undergo the painful process of thinning this week. We had become rather attached to our plants, checking on them several times a day and even refering to them as our children. Even pulling the weeds around them was a true pleasure. But imagine our horror when we realized that we had to pull up some of our own children so that the others could thrive! (these are some lettuce plants that we are growing in a non-linear fashion upon suggestion from Mom)
We faced a disaster of even greater potential days later when, two days after the "No Frost Date," the weather channel called for freezing temperatures that night. As Mom scoured containers from around the house and Dad barked out advice on what to cover and what not to cover, Joo and I frantically raced back and forth to the garden as the chilly blanket of night descended upon us. Thankfully, there were no casualties. :)

For some reason though, and perhaps it stemmed from my recent reading of "Three Cups of Tea" (A book about an American mountain-climber who stumbled into a remote Pakistani village and was inspired to embark upon a lifetime of building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan; as you might imagine, his endeavors grew hairy after 9-11), as I held my breath upon approaching the garden the next morning to see if our plants had survived, I suddenly thought about how people in certain war-ravaged parts of the globe might be doing the same thing, but with their family members rather than their plants. Then, I thought about the Digals, the tribal family I had lived with in the Indian mountains, and about how they had just experienced such horrors only a few months ago.
But, for better or worse, as it's hard to grasp thoughts like these for very long when they're so disconnected with this reality, my thoughts soon turned to other matters like how my sprouts were doing...
When I returned from Guatemala as a university student, I felt that it was overly shallow and somehow morally negligent to enjoy the comforts of my American life, but after some time of guilt and frustration, I wondered, what are the alternatives? I could be like the guy in Three Cups of Tea and dedicate the rest of my life to living in such areas but I definitely don't want to do that. It seems like it must be better somehow to be aware of those situations, but how does that really help them other than perhaps sending an occasional donation their way? I guess that's where prayer comes in, but that kind of prayer never really resonated much with me even in my most evangelical periods. I had virtually no faith that it was effective and, to be honest, I didn't even know what to pray for assuming it would be effective. My heart certainly wasn't in it. On the other hand, my "discussion-type, stream-of-consciousness" prayers felt highly meaningful but didn't involve any requests for myself or others, certainly not people on the other side of the globe. Even now, having traveled to several areas where conflicts frequently surface, and having names and faces to pair up with the impersonal AP news reports, I can't really feel that my compassion makes any difference.

Thankfully, none of that applies to my immediate surroundings where I can strongly feel the ebb and flow of relationships, the benefits of love, and the importance of empathy. That said, outside of my parents and John, Joo and I haven't been overly social since we returned to West Liberty last December. One group of people I have enjoyed introducing her to has been the Bethel community. As she had no equivalent of a community like that in Korea, it has been interesting to see how she reacts to sharing in intimate occasions of an intergenerational melange of a very diverse group of people. This past Sunday evening we attended a graduation tea for the high school graduates, which was emceed by the ever-popular comedian, Jerry Landes; here he is planning some of his "spontaneous" jokes...

That's all for now. Oh, one more interesting event that transpired... Joo and I had our first "translation rejection." In one and a half years of translating, we've often had to revamp our translations in a second or third draft until a customer was fully satisfied, but we had never had someone outright deny a translation. Then, last Saturday, that is precisely what happened. The man responded to our first translation by saying, "Why don't you think before you translate? Everyone could see this is wrong." Joo, who tends to feel very personal about her translations did her best to restrain her emotions and calmly revised the paper with me and politely returned it. He wrote back, claiming the English was unnatural (which was ironic since I had proofread it myself and it sounded quite natural) and that he wanted a refund. As this was one of her first jobs for this particular translation company and reputation tends to be very important in securing jobs, Joo begrudgingly informed her boss to refund the customer's money. And we assumed that was the unhappy end to an unfortunate incident.
But perhaps the four-leaf clover I had found in our garden and given to Joo had some magic left to work... since all of our correspondence with customers is online in a forum visible for everyone, other translators began reading about what had happened. The company president sent copies of the original and Joo's translation to all of his best translators to discern the level of the translation. Despite technically being Joo's competitors for employment, the translators unanimously agreed that the translation had been solid and were irate towards the customer who it seemed had been trying to take advantage of Joo to get a free translation and had never intended to pay from the beginning. The postings compiled and grew more and more detail, with each one giving support and sympathy to Joo (and some even urging her or the company to take legal action). Ultimately, the company president deleted the customer's account and apologized profusely to Joo, who was overwelmed with all the support from her fellow community of translators who she has never met - to her, that was worth much more than the money that was lost in translation.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Abstract Painkillers of Belaki and Kregomort

Somewhere before my first journey to Asia, I began investigating Buddhism. I was surprised how little I had known about it throughout my Christian upbringing. I think from some very conservative Christian book (which had essentially equated Buddhism with Satanism), I got the idea that Buddhism was merely a hollowed emptiness, devoid of all meaning or joy. But when I actually spent time talking with some Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia, seeing their daily lifestyles, watching their peaceful and beautiful relationships with the locals each morning (at the crack of dawn, faithful locals from all corners of the village would line the dusty streets with a portion of their early morning cooking and the monks would slowly shuffle around with their food bowls, smiling and blessing each townsperson. Devout monks have vowed to eat not a single piece of food unless it is given to them. When I describe it now, it sounds almost like begging, but it was clearly a much more sacred and equal exchange of love.) And the ancient texts reinforced this with scriptures centering around Peace, Love, and Hope.

So I went through a sort of honeymoon-type fascination with Buddhism where I saw it as truly offering a lot of the answers that were at least partially unanswered throughout the questioning of my twenties. But, as with any belief system, there came a time when that simmered down into a more realistic phase where I began asking myself how I could incorporate Buddhism in my life. There were parts that were clearly out of the question, such as the more superstitious Buddhist "religion" which deals with offerings, sacrifices, curses, blessings, and corruption. But then there was the purer, more tangible and practical "original" form which dealt with how to view and handle the suffering of this world. The core of this can be stated very succinctly as a good friend of mine, Alex, just summed up in an email:

"Suffering arises from attachment to desires; Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases." - The Second and Third Noble Truths of Buddhism

Let me give an example of how this might work. Joo and I have been searching for a house in Athens for the past two months or so and we just recently found one we really liked this past week. It came on the market around 2:00 pm, our agent called us at 2:30 to notify us, and we jumped in the car around 3:15 and drove the two and a half hours down to Athens. We checked it out, loved it, and put in our first ever bid on a home. We gave the sellers until 6pm on the following day to accept or reject our offer, signed all the papers, and nervously but excitedly drove back to West Liberty, talking of various ways we would improve and remodel that particular house.

Around 2:00 the next afternoon, we got a call from our real estate agent Brooks, "Well, Daniel, I wish I had good news for you, but it turns out another couple saw the house around 4:30 and purchased it immediately. Unbeknownst to us, it was already sold by the time you were looking at it. In fact, another couple already put a backup order in cash, and both offers were $15,000 more than your offer."

Now, keeping in mind that this is a very very minor example of suffering, let's look at some different approaches on how to handle this, assuming these could work on much larger forms of suffering as well.

1. Mom took a fatalistic/optimistic type approach saying, "If it works out, it was meant to be, and if it doesn't, there was some reason you weren't supposed to have the house."

2. Communication. Either through prayer, or talking it out with family or friends, receiving strength and comfort in a common bond.

3. Buddhism. The Second Noble Truth would say the house or the lost bid itself didn't cause us suffering, but rather our growing attachment to the thought of living in it. The Third Noble Truth would say that we could overcome that suffering by simply dropping our attachment.

All of them are very valid and effective. I chose a little technique I designed years ago called Belaki, which is really a little bit of all three of the above. It basically consists of listing out the negatives of the thing you're attached to and then focusing on them until they expand large enough so that not only do you lose the attachment, but you're actually relieved not to have it. In this, case it was pretty easy for Joo and I. First, there had been the gaping cracks running all around the foundation...

... and of course foundation issues are generally quite complicated ones. Add to that the fact that we both got stuffy noses while we were in the house which could have been from all the mold growing on the rafters...

PLUS the fact that getting the house would have meant leaving Mom and Dad's house soon and that would have been unfortunate since we're having such a good, positive time there... and our garden is continuously developing every day (we've transplanted tomatoes, broccoli, three varieties of peppers, and the rest of our onions, our radishes are sprouting nicely, and our lettuce and spinach are just beginning to show)...

And in almost no time at all, our "suffering" had turned to relief and joy. I didn't even have to use my backup suffering tool of Kregomort (kregomort = kairos + ego + morte) and basically consists of creating as many memories as possible in a short period of time to push the undesirable thoughts/memories back into the distance where they wreak less havoc on the present emotional state.

An example of Kregomort might be hanging out with several members of the opposite gender after a hard breakup. Or, as an example of something that worked this week even though I didn't intentionally plan it as I would through Kregomort, I began a new hobby of growing sprouts with some seeds and a sprouter Mom dug up out of the closet...
In other news, Joo and I enjoyed our first harvest from our garden this week as we thinned out the radish sprouts and ate them...

And we celebrated an action-packed May 10th- it was Mother's Day, Joo and my Wedding Anniversary, and my birthday!

Dad got me/us a Cleveland Indians coin saver designated as our "cappuccino maker fund," Joo spent a day making cute fabric flowers for Mom for Mother's day and for my birthday, I got one of the final accessories Joo and I needed for our new home, a high-tech blender which we'll start using immediately for smoothies, hummus, and spreads...

Incidentally, if you look close at that last blender picture, I do believe you can see the beginnings of a sarari forming in the back of my mouth where my uvula should be.
So, after absolving ourselves of our own little sufferings for now, Joo and I turned our energy outwards to the sufferings of others, most notably the poor spruce that got knocked down in a recent windstorm and which Joo has been trying to nurse back to good health...

Monday, May 4, 2009

Our first garden!

The time has come for all the past years' dreams with Joo of gardening to manifest themselves- woohoo! Joo has never had a garden of any sorts and the closest I've had was just helping my parents out now and then (probably begrudgingly) when I was younger. A garden has been one of our top dreams, along with decorating a home (we have some elaborate plans for various parts of the house, such as the Peace Room), and traveling (which we indulged deeply in over the past year). There's something about the combination of fresh, delicious fruits and vegetables, saving lots of money, and most of all, just enjoying participating in the whole Life process together.

We started off with some practice shadowing mom around as she took care of and planted her flowers and herbs. She bought us our first miniature herb garden (complete with a pot to transport it in whenever we find a home in Athens). It includes parsley, basil, oregano, and rosemary, as well as a watering ball...

and a marble symbolizing a sarari (No idea what a sarari is? Join the club. Joo was translating a letter from a Buddhist temple in Korea to the President of Sri Lanka and it mentioned a request for a sarari... this was our family's discussion as we dined at Subway...

Me: So how should I translate that word "sarari"?
Joo: Oh, it's that stuff that comes out when someone is cremated.
Me: Oh! Ashes...
Joo: No, the things that are left IN the ashes after the cremation.
Me: Bones?

Mom: Jewelry?

Joo: No, the little balls!

Dad: Kidney stones???

Joo: You guys are just kidding around. You know what I mean- the clear little balls of spirituality.

Me, Mom, and Dad: Huh?

Joo: Like when the body of a famous monk is burned and they telecast it on live television because everyone wants to see how many holy sarari are found in his ashes. Everyone knows about that- even little kids!

Apparantly, the Showalters were naively unaware of such common knowledge. I looked it up as soon as we got back and Joo was right. In the bodies of certain holy men throughout the past couple thousands of years, there are these marble-like balls that turn up in the ashes, even to this day. Just goes to show what an educational experience Subway can be...

Back in the somewhat less mysterious but just as miraculous world of Gardening, we visited some greenhouses with her and picked out our first crops - to date, we have about 5 different types of bell peppers, broccoli, banana peppers, spinach, lettuce, onions, and carrots. We're still growing most of them in pots just to make sure we avoid the last frost, but we broke ground in the old garden (which is now towered over by a 30 ft. maple) a few days ago and planted all the rest (top picture in this blog). The top was overrun with viny mint roots, and underneath was a compact layer of clay, but as we worked it, we turned up 100's of earthworms so we're hoping it'll be as good of a location as any.

It was fun to watch Joo really dig in. Having never done any kind of yardwork, gardening, or really anything with outdoor manual labor (aside from what she's done in the states this past year), it's definitely a new experience and the first few shovelfuls were just kind of timid taps that didn't even break through the layer of mint. But then she grew determined and started going at it full force, stopping on occasion to lift the soil up to her face and savour the smell for a moment or thanking an earthworm for making its home in our garden.
Combining the gardening with our recent upswing in translation work, Joo was pretty worn out and made good use of the Sleep Kit Mom and Dad had brought back from a recent hotel stay - it came equipped with earplugs, an eye mask, lavender spray for calming, and a body/mind relaxation CD... if that didn't earn her a sarari, I don't know what will!