Monday, December 27, 2010

Two Worlds

Two Worlds

The day is sunny and hot
Not as oppressive as a sauna
but more oppressive than an apartment with no air conditioning.
We twelve wade out to the catamaran 50 meters apart from shore
holding our towels and knapsacks high to protect them from the
azure blue lapping at our knees.
We carefully mount the boat, flanked by Filipinos extending hands to help
as the rickety stepladder sways to the rhythm of the water.

"It's hot,"  I say.  "Almost unbearably so."
Four men with dark skin and hair and friendly smiles take their positions
on the bark having done this a thousand times.
But this is our first time and we chatter "This is so cool!"
"I'm so glad we waited for good weather."
The sound of the engine suddenly drowns our musings,
it is working hard to back out of the shallow water at Boracay.  The sails flick int the wind
We silence ourselves and secure our bright orange well-worn life preservers.
"Isn't this fun?" someone asks Anna.  She interrupts her singing long enough to smile and nod
head full of braids flopping around in the breeze.

The wind is intense on the Sibuyan Sea.  I hold my hat with one hand and the boat with the other.
Our group is talking again, laughing at the sea spray hitting and soaking us.
Alec holds tight to the boat and his blue eyes squinting lest more salt water splash in.
After refueling, we head to a small uninhabited island.  Again, we wade in.
The sand is brown and rough, not nearly as soft as the white sand on Boracay Island.
The palm trees and sand welcome us. But it is quiet,
and only a few straw huts sit about empty
like a forgotten set for Jurassic Park.

We follow our leader around the island to two caves and two lookout points.
The waves are crashing quite violently on the ocean side of the island.
I decide not to descend the narrow spiral staircase to the tiny rock platform below.
My view is just fine.
I breathe in the deep blue of the water and the foamy white of the caps and spray.
The breeze threatens to snatch my sarong and hand it to the ocean as a gift.
I clutch it tighter and explore further, pondering what a tsunami must be like.
This place makes me think of shows like Lost or Cast Away or Survivor.
I wonder for a moment which of we twelve would be voted off of the island first
if stranded here by our guides to fend for ourselves.

Off again to the next leg of our outing, the part we've all been waiting for-
snorkeling around the coral.
The waves are too high to take us to the usual spot, so we hold tight as we move with the 6-foot powerhouses to another, quieter spot.
The kids are brave and excited to snorkel for real
Someone wonders aloud what we'll see "down there."

I secure the mask and fit the breathing tube snugly in my mouth then
Jump feet first into the sea.
The water is a rich sapphire blue and feels warm and refreshing
The mask forces me to breathe through my mouth and trust that
I'm not sucking in salt water.
I see the others are already floating away, discovering the treasures below.

As soon as I begin floating on my stomach with my face in the water
I know I've entered another world.
Even my ears are attuned only to the sounds of my breathing - like some sort of Darth Vader -
all sounds of the world above are blocked
The world below is primal.
We are visitors - or invaders, in the case of our anchor wedged in the coral below.
It is simply our privilege to view the life teeming beneath the floating human vessels.
Brown, green, blue coral, black spiky sea urchins, Nemos and Dories,
and a school of fish that swim upright and look like seaweed floating near the bottom.
Someone spots a blue starfish and we all make our way over to admire it.
No need to swim here, the current of the waves takes me to one exotic coral to another.
Fish with neon colors swim alone while others swim as a school.
This is the world under our very noses and we'd no idea it was here.

I muse about the existence of these two widely diverse worlds
and the thin membrane of water that separates the two.
Lift up my head - man's world full of sails and ships and coke bottles used as markers of waterways
full of poverty, and 16 hour days, threats of war, and unfinished grading
Lower my head - Triton's world of coral, fish, seaweed, starfish, and urchins.
Head up - creatures breathe air for oxygen
Head down - creatures breathe water.
Head up - airplanes, boat engines, men mumbling at a distance.
Head down - water, only muffled water.

I wonder if this is what it is like to enter the world of souls.
Head down.  Earth, land, sea, and sky.
Head up. (Who knows?)
But if Life after Death is even a smidge as wondrous as the sea below us
I think I'm gonna like it there.

By B-
Dec. 27, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Welcoming the Messiah

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.

In this time of Advent, preparation for the Lord's coming in both remembrance and reality, I was delighted when Handel's Messiah was to be performed at a Methodist church in Seoul.  The Messiah runs deep in my family's blood.  I grew up making the pilgrimage to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa,  many years with my family to hear the 3 hours performance at my parents' alma mater.  The director back in those days was Weston Noble.  The chorus numbered in the 100's.  My dad would join the chorus as an alum and my sister and I would sit with mom in the bleachers.  I remember in those early days groaning about how boring and long it was.

Thus saith the Lord of Hosts; yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.

Now I'm an adult living near Seoul where a divided peninsula has been a bit shaky.  The words of the bass recitative ring a bit differently in my ears - words about God shaking "all nations."  Here I sit amongst 400 Koreans and Westerners listening to another 3-hour performance of the Messiah.  There are about 70 in the chorus and another 30 or 40 in the orchestra.  Believe it or not, the director is Weston Noble, now in his mid-80's.

For unto us a child is born,  unto us a son is given;  and the government shall be upon his shoulder:  and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,  Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

When I attended Luther College (like everyone else in my family), I sang in the Messiah under Weston Noble's direction each of the four Christmases.  It was a highlight of my winters.  I remember him teaching all 700 - 800 singers about the text and how it interacted with the music.  During Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, and Prince of Peace, he would close his eyes and drink in the magnificence of the moment.  So did I.

And suddenly, there was with the angel a heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest and Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men."

I remember Dr. Noble making us believe WE were the heavenly host.  The soprano would announce our coming and suddenly we'd be singing "Glory to God. . ."  At the end of the piece, the strings play lighter and lighter the same few measures.  Dr. Noble would tell the strings players WHY they did that; they were playing the part of the last little angel rising to heaven and disappearing.  Sitting in the upper balcony of the Methodist Church, I could see him direct the strings the same way and I could HEAR that last little angel disappearing.

Why do the nations rage so furiously together. . . 

These words to the bass air held a new significance in the wake of the recent trouble between North and South Korea.  I sit here marveling at how loudly and meaningful the words of such ancient texts ring today.  My husband and I are sitting behind the US Ambassador to Korea and other dignitaries in the VIP section.  I pray that the leaders can find ways to Peace,  and I marvel at how so much of the Messiah is about bringing Peace to Peoples and Nations.

Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!

The booming Hallelujah Chorus is the most familiar song of the Messiah by the general population. Heck!  Even Anna walks around the house singing it at random times.  (When I was a little kid this was about the time I'd wake up again from dozing on the hard bleachers in the Luther College gym.)  It is tradition for the audience to stand during this chorus.  Rumor has it that the King himself stood upon hearing it and thus everyone else in the joint did the same.  To this day audiences stand when the Hallelujah Chorus begins.  I wonder how sophisticated this group is.  As expected, everyone rises to their feet.  The chorus and orchestra sound glorious.  We are transported to another place and time.  Chills.

Shortly will be my favorite of all the pieces: Worthy is the Lamb and the Amen Chorus.  One leads right into the next.  When I was a child I hated the Amen Chorus.  I would make fun of it saying, "They just repeat Amen over and over for 5 minutes, what's the point?"  Now it is the point where for decades I have waited for Weston Noble, a man of impeccable character and faith, to ascend directly into heaven.  My senior year at Luther we had 1000 people praising God through the Messiah.  Imagine 800 singers and 200 musicians playing and singing "Amen!"  I simply love the glory of the Amens overlapping one into the next Soprano, Tenor, Bass, Alto.  They weave and flow and rise to heaven in a glory fit for God himself.  My heart fills with the music.

It is Christmas in Seoul!

Worthy is the Lamb; Amen!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Recycling Nation

I had a nice conversation with my parents the other day about


I know it's an odd thing to think about, but I've noticed some differences here in Korea from my community in Wisconsin that are worth highlighting.

We do a lot more recycling here.  Even at the restaurants.  Typically real plates, cups and silverware are used for everything except take out.  Any eat in restaurant will use the real thing, even the food courts!  When you finish with your meal you'll take your dishes and sort them for cleaning.  At our school we use real plates, silverware, and cups.  Anyone from my previous school will know I was a fanatic about using real silverware; I brought real forks to the teacher's lounge so my colleagues wouldn't use plasticware every day. 

So far this may not seem so unusual, but what about this?  Let's say you order delivery from a Chinese restaurant here.  I've been told they will bring your meal on real plates!  So, when you're done eating you are supposed to put the dishes outside your door; the delivery person will come back and pick them up later!

Still not impressed?  Well, the fast food places (Western)  DO use paper products HOWEVER when you are finished eating and are about to throw your waste away you will notice that everything is recycled.  First, empty your cups one place, then put the cup on one place for recycling, the lid goes in another pile, other paper waste may have another recepticle and food garbage in another.

Still not impressed?  I've noticed that products made here are designed for easy recycling.  Products that in the States might have metal attached to cardboard (difficult to recycle) aren't made that way here.  Different materials are easily detached fo recycling purposes.  Styrofoam products and "other" are recycled.

At the grocery store or shops you must pay for every bag you use; therefore, most everyone brings their own canvas bags shopping.  When I need a paper or plastic bag I need to ask for it.  This is not true for the street vendors, however.  They are rather liberal with the plastic bags.

Even napkins are at a premium.  I haven't found napkins in the store yet; so we don't have any.  Napkins at the cafeteria and restaurants are small 1-ply squares that barely do the trick, but certainly trees are being saved.

I know I've mentioned this before, but I'll say it again almost everything we generate in our apartment has a home other than the landfill: paper, plastic, glass, cans, newspapers, styrofoam, batteries, clothes and food for compost have their place.  Each week we actually generate only about a 3 gallon bag's worth of garbage for 4 people!  According to International Environmental Law Committee-Newsletter Archive, Vol. 5, No. 1 - Feb. 2003 (internet), "in 1994, the Ministry of Environment introduced a so-called 'volume-based waste collection fee system.' After Jan. 1, 1995, all households and commercial building owners were required to purchase specially designed plastic bags for waste collection. Waste collection trucks only collect waste put in these bags. Under this system, people who generate more waste pay more."  So we pay for our waste removal, but removal of recyclables is free. Big items like furniture sometimes find their way to the garbage area; residents have to pay to have them removed (not sure where they go) BUT lots of times those items that are in good enough shape end up picked up by someone else (dumpster diving!  No Problem!)

 It seems all of this is a part of a recycling initiative and laws put into place by Korea about 1992.  Apparently, the system isn't perfect, but it sure seems better than what I'm used to!

Friday, December 10, 2010

First Snow at School 12-6-10

Winter Wonderland

Perhaps you've been wondering about winter in Seoul.
Well, it is December 11th and so far we've gotten two small snowfalls; both have burned off. I'd say we've made 3/4 inch total. I know our friends in the Midwest are bracing for a second snow of 6 - 10 inches. I've seen your pictures; the landscape looks beautiful.

Signs of winter are much more subtle here. The temps have lingered at about freezing the past few days. But so far we've seen more of 40's than 30's (Fahrenheit). We've secured our winter gear and wear it faithfully when we venture out, but so far, no biting wind to deal with.

I'd have to say, I'm liking winter so far! Also, not driving has its advantages. Someone else has to worry about slick roads. This brings me to the first of two stories.

The other night on the day of a snowfall equaling about 1/2 inch, our family missed the school bus home. It had snowed that day and there was a bit of slush on the road. Our school sits quite a ways up a small mountain/large hill. If we ever hit icy weather the hill will be quite treacherous and maybe impossible to mount. But at this time - just a little slush. ANYHOW, I asked the guard at the guardhouse to call a taxi (something I've done many times with no problem). He looks at me and says, "No. No taxi. Impossible." What? Apparently the taxis must not want to drive up our hill in the slush.
I thought it was funny, coming from Wisconsin winters.

Second story. This is a cultural difference we've noticed. It has to do with the heating. At our school, the rooms are cooled and heated individually. This means that in hot weather the rooms cool down but the halls are sticky and hot. Likewise, in the winter the rooms are warmed but the halls and skybridges are cold! Result? The students always wear their coats. They wear them through the halls and into the classes and during class - even though the room is comfortable. Interestingly, this spills over into winter fashion here. Cool long boots are all the rage as are circle scarves that are constantly worn around the women's and men's necks. I find it interesting that the way heating works around here drives the fashion!

See the accompanying post to enjoy a bit of video of the winter snow at our school. Winter wonderland!