Willy Loman, Mary Oliver and the real story of joy

I’ve been collecting notes to do an essay on the theme of suffering in art.

For it, I had the scene of Jesus’ entombment painted by that fastidious German master of the grotesque, Matthias Grunewald. I had Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait as a leaping stag, pierced by a dozen arrows. I had a Modigliani titled, quite plainly, “A Suffering Nude.”

I was going to write about how I read these, the mutilated body of the Son of God, self-conception of the wounded artist, interior pain made visible, etc.

I might still write that essay, but it’s hard. It’s hard to contemplate suffering rendered unto art when my heart feels so raw.

Nowadays, my energy field feels porous, like my empath tendencies are magnified to the utmost. Today, on my way to do some Christmas shopping, I saw the poster for a production of Death of a Salesman (in Korean) on a train platform and felt overwhelmed to the point of tears.




Looking at this photo, snapped on my iPhone, I am near the point of tears once again. Goddamnit.

The Korean Willy Loman’s funereal, ill-fitting black suit hangs off his slouched shoulders, sapped of pride or energy.

His gaze is both confused and resigned. The deep creases and the shadows on his weary face mirror the dramatic, blurry chiaroscuro of the background. Others pass him by in a hurry like indifferent ghosts, busily headed everywhere and nowhere. I almost hear that whooshing of the trains, muffled announcements, the sound of people looking away from each other.

My heart aches for the midcentury white American that Arthur Miller’s original Salesman was, and it aches for his incarnation nearly 70 years later on a different hemisphere.

I am not a salesman, nor am I any kind of a failed patriarch, but I am a student of alienation. And deep alienation has followed us Koreans in our pursuit of wealth and happiness. It is the shadow of the American dream, which begat the post-war Korean dream.

I wondered if Willy Loman is Don Quixote’s grimmer descendent — both succumbed to fantasy and death as a response to the absurdity of life, but the former is rendered without much humorous irony.

Is it that modernity has sapped us of the will to irony (let’s say, der Wille zur Ironie, in place of der Wille zur Macht)?

I had to turn away. I cannot go and see this place. Nor do I feel hardy enough to write that essay on suffering in paintings.

Nowadays, I see the darkness and sharp-edged inside me, too easily mirrored without.

Reading the news, both American and Korean, feels surreal. I doubt I have to do much explaining about the surreal despair of observing the Orange One Who Shall Not Be Named occupying the place he’d just been elected to occupy. In Korea, though, the president is embroiled in an impeachment scandal that is rocking our sense of civic solidity to the core.

Anger, suspicion and hopelessness abound. People’s emotional wounds are in the air and swayed by the wind, raining on creation like allergenic pollen at springtime.

At times like this, I have taken to turning to Mary Oliver.

I recently took a wonderful writing course (which actually is code for mind-body-spirit integration course) with Nadia Colburn. The course, Align Your Story, is a quiet, shimmering and softening invitation to carve the space out of our busy-busy lives for creative contemplation. It asks us to lean into wholeness as the principal way of becoming artists, which is an integral truth I now fight to keep in my heart all of my days.

(If the course sounds completely amazing, it is! And I cannot recommend it more.)

In it, there is a lovely module focused on the idea of Joy, which I find myself returning to time and time again.

Wouldn’t you agree with me that it is somehow so much more challenging, disruptive and subversive to study joy in the current environs than rage and despair?

Hardly a day goes by when I am not reminded of Yeats’ great poem, The Second Coming, the eerily, depressingly ever-relevant, muscular indictment of human folly. Is the engagement with joy somehow a negation of all the legitimate and justifiable anger and disbelief we feel at the state of the world?

Is engagement with joy a betrayal of those who have been profoundly wronged and mutilated — in our own hearts, in our homelands, far away in Aleppo?

Is engagement with joy more puerile than the fastidious study of sadness? Does it require less courage?

Nadia has reminded me to study who, to me, is the Poet of Holy Joy — Mary Oliver. I picked up my beloved copy of Why I wake Early and found myself totally arrested by the following poem. (Bold is mine.)



by Mary Oliver
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

Poems like this make me feel that Oliver was such a consummate artist of Joy. (And how joyful her language is to read, her short-syllabled American English, radiant with the acuity of love.)

Oliver’s eyes never look away from anything. This is a quality I most admire about her: her absolute insistence on looking at everything unflinchingly, including the scarredness, including the death and decay, and also no less curiously at that which is beautiful, blessed. There is a certain elegant discipline to this way of being and seeing.

You learn from Oliver that joy isn’t a state of “la-la-la”.

Joy is not a choice toward childish insouciance, effervescent and unweighted buoyance, or denial of the hard what-is.

Instead, Joy is the story of wholeness. Joy is the story of seeing that everything is broken and also not ugly; tattered but also shone on by the sun. Joy is salty.

Joy is the story of patience, of taking the time and the breath to not stop at each little word, but to weave together the many thousands of words, of knowings.

Joy is a kind of sober decision to wait to find out. Joy is the story of there is more, and that is always true.

And this is the best news of all. It means joy is possible — yes, even now, especially now.


Why it matters that Mormon women don’t want to vote Trump


You are living in the most secular world that ever existed. Everyone still has an opinion about religion.

  • It’s an antiquated set of beliefs about a bearded man in the sky.
  • It’s a tool for bigots to push their misogynistic, homophobic, anti-science agenda forward.
  • It would be nice and comforting to believe in a religion if I could get past all the irrational stuff, and oh, all the hypocrisy.
  • Opiate of the masses.
  • It is enough, or preferable, to abide by your own morality.
  • There is no God, no Creator, no-pie-in-the-sky spiritual truth.
  • We make our judgments by empirical science and accept only the cold and mysterious reality of physics and biology.

Actually! I find every single one of the statements above highly defensible and compelling, each in considerable philosophical and moral weight. That said, there is something that really bother me about the current state of socially- sanctioned unreligiousness.

People often mistake the leadership for the religion itself. This happens all the time, and it’s tempting! After all, the leaders are the ones who make the rules for their adherents. Leaders are the ones who symbolically and practically speak on behalf of their church to the outside world. So yeah, it feels like a reasonable thing to do.

Except, it kind of is and it kind of isn’t.

Judging a religion by its leaders and public doctrine is kind of like judging a country by the actions of its government. Is that fair? Kind of, maybe, in some circumstances, depending on the situation? I think a lot of Americans I know would prefer not to be judged by, or held accountable for G. W. Bush’s decision to start the Iraq War. A lot of non-Americans who are pissed off about our involvement in the Middle East don’t have much sympathy about that. On the other hand, many believe that the German people deserve some of the responsibility for Hitler, having brought him to power and abetted his decisions.

In other words, it’s not so black and white to me.

Catholicism is often judged by the actions of the Vatican. It’s a little disingenuous to say that you totally shouldn’t do that, because Catholicism is an explicitly centralized, top-down religion, and the Vatican does kind of control everything. And unlike a nationality, strictly speaking, there is an element of choice in professing a religion. But also, there are one billion Catholics in the world, spread out across every continent. Damned if you think that Indian rural Catholics and Korean progressive Catholics and Peruvian indigenous Catholics and Brooklyn hipster Catholics are all fairly represented by the PR put forth by a small group of balding men wearing dresses in Rome. In fact, I’d wager to say that the vast majority of Catholics don’t keep up with, or don’t particularly care about whatever the hell is going on in Vatican, or what the New York Times thinks about it.

People live their lives, get together and spread mayo on sandwiches for the church picnic, argue about the correct way to dip Easter eggs in paint, raise funds to fix the rectory ceiling, hike to the faraway parish to get a newborn baptized on time. The mundane, trivial and profane goings-on of human lives everywhere intersect with communal sacred space where we find meaning, forgiveness and comfort.

The people make the church; not the other way around.

I just read this article: 7 Popular Mormon Bloggers on Why They Would Never Vote for Donald Trump, and it got me thinking about the tension between the official authority of a church (and perceptions thereof) and the lived experience of its adherents.

Statements like this:

On the night that Hillary got the nomination I was alone, because I didn’t know who in my community I could talk to about it. I was too nervous to reach out. […] But I’ve turned my daughters into Hillary fans, so now we’re all in it.”

I’m very engaged in some of the feminist movement in the church. Having a candidate that’s a female is something that’s really important and interesting to me, especially as a mother of two girls.

I have a few friends who are not plugging their nose while voting for Trump, and they’re really excited about it, which makes me nervous.

Abortion is a big issue for Mormons. Based on my research, Trump has never been particularly conservative or antiabortion. So I’m not sure why people are voting for him based solely on this important issue.

Sounds to me like evidence that Mormon women are — GASP!! — critically-thinking, modern women with a nuanced perspective on cultural norms that sometimes conflict with their private truths JUST LIKE MOST OTHER WOMEN EVERYWHERE FUCKING ELSE.

I wish this kind of a thing were less of a surprise for people. It’s very important to see the ways in which the people make the religion, not the other way around, and people are smart and resourceful and conflicted and grappling and kinda fucked up and courageous and inventive and dissonant wherever you go. At least, that has been my experience and I’ve lived in five countries in three continents.

Failing to realize this so puts us at risk of other-izing (to use the parlance of our times) entire groups of people. Religious people are not always fairly or adequately represented by their leaders. Even when the leaders claim otherwise. People, in the complexity and beautiful messiness of conducting human lives, make religious doctrine an living, adaptive animal. People imbue meaning and beauty into ritual, which would otherwise only be a mechanistic series of movements.

If you want to know a church, look not at their book but at the parisioners’ hands, broom closet, the way they crease bills before putting them in the collection basket, little baby fingers dipping in holy water and making the tiniest ripples, the after-service gossip, the preacher’s secret stash of anti-balding shampoo.

People is where you find their God.


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