Floating Home

November 26, 2013

SDC 332 039

This poem was written for my father and is posted in honor of his oldest and truest friend, Michael Power, who passed away this week.

Floating Home

Such strange work
for hands come from away
my father lashes another saltbox friend
to his stern,
dragging him through a bay gone wild
hoping he’ll float.

Resettling his landscape
is spine-breaking work.
Against his precise hands
each salted soul has leaned
as they were scoured out, made hollow,
hoping they’ll float.

When this work is done,
my father will motor home
to his rearranged outport
and walk the outlines of houses,
leveled, dark squares
where once he raised a glass,
settled into his best story,
looking through lace curtains,
lucky to count
such a man as friend.
In these air-soaked walls,
yarns were spun,
hoping they’d float.

“Community” he thinks
“is a winter-shifted house –
a little left of where
you last lived it.
Salt-eaten stories don’t sink.
They just shift
a little left
each time they are told.
My heart,” he tells the ocean,
“has shifted.”
and he moves it a little left
lace-curtains it away
from the spray,
hoping it will float.

Somewhere across the night-struck bay
a kitchen full of re-settled men
shake the salt off their boots
and raise hands gone-thin
to the top of a round-bellied stove.
They speak of oceans crossed,
shortcuts they’ve learned.
My father’s oldest, truest friend
newest to the fire,
throws a teabag in his cup,
hoping it will float.

My father rolls home and dreams
of tea-soaked bread
gone sweet with molasses,
boiled dinner
salted with beef;
strange dream for a hand
come from away.

On the underside of the world,
I spin my salted, lace-curtained stories
of home,
shifting a little left of myself each time,
my heart resettled,
my hands gone lunar.

Around a fire,
I roll moon-shaped dumplings:
strange work for hands come from away.
They are my father’s hands.
Our hearts are knitted of salt and strength.
I hold a tiny, pale moon in my fingers
and make a wish:

I hope he floats.



January 3, 2013

The leap

I’ve been a bad little girl. I’ve been behaving like a drunk, obnoxious tourist on the pristine beach of my own life.
I can’t tell you what delicious naughtiness I’ve indulged in, except to say it is probably not near as shocking as what you have going through your brain. It is closer to the truth to say that I’ve fallen out of character.

The truest version of me is the one that is always polite and kind, always follows the rules and does what is right. How, though, do you maintain that in a world gone crazy? Atrocity is nowhere near my doorstep, but it is all around every one of us in that moment where our breath is caught reading the CNN headlines at night. That intake of breath holds within it a moment of wondering of how people can be pushed so far and every headline holds a little bit of permission to move the line of what you will accept a little further away from your heart. The end of 2012 was brutal in its onslaught of horror-packed news. I too, developed a taste for the dark and thrilled and shuddered at how I could splash a headline across my life, watch it come spinning up to my consciousness like a scene from a 60’s B movie.

The new year finds me calmer, and wondering why. Why have I been playing with the moral code which I have carved out for myself? Don’t misunderstand. My moral code would probably never stand up to any set of church or government rules. It comes closest to the Wiccan rede, “Harm none, and do what ye will.” Love. Be loved. Tell the truth. Don’t judge. Always ask a question before you make a statement. Play within the rules when it is important. Break them when it is essential. Empathize, even when it hurts. Above all, keep the peace. Even When It Hurts.

I haven’t been following my own rules, though. The end of the year saw me fighting, lying and judging, swinging my hard-earned peace around me head like a spiked club, doing damage.I suppose it is easy to blame disillusionment with society, or perhaps just being middle-aged. We are all supposed to rage a bit at this age, aren’t we? No leather pants or motorcycle for me, I’ll stick to my snaked tongue and two faces, thank you. Oh, and pass the tequila.

No, I can’t blame any of these things. I have, however, settled on an excuse…a very special, unique excuse for why I’ve been less of my true self. I’m displaced, dislocated. That is to say, my identity is out of socket.

Being an expat can be glorious in its freedom. You float above both your worlds, and no one ever really gets to own you or define you. You play both cultures when you want or need to and can tune out either when convenient. This has consequences. There is a day when you come to feel like you don’t belong anywhere. When you don’t belong, the rules go spinning away from you, like yesterday’s headlines. A little too free, we expats sometimes find ourselves dropping beneath moments, doing things we would never do at home. Except, we are supposed to be at home, aren’t we?

Maybe, also, this spreads to all of us. Yes, I am a Canadian, a Newfoundlander, an only daughter who built a life on the other side of the world. And you? You may be living in Alberta when your TV starts flashing scenes of war, mass shootings, gang rape into your living room. Are you not then, too, an expatriate…living far away from the landscape you knew growing up? Are you not also dislocated, displaced? Does your heart not move a little left of where you last saw it? Do you not turn off the TV and go lie down in your bed and rearrange what you thought you knew and your rules for living?

I don’t have the answers. But, I’m back to asking questions first. And that begins the process of repatriation that maybe we all need to do. We are all far from home, right now, if you trust the headlines. Here’s hoping the New Year brings us all a train ticket back to the centers of ourselves, the ones that were built before the world got in the way. Here’s hoping you have a window seat and a chatty, interesting companion. And maybe, a shot of tequila.


2012 in review

December 31, 2012

Guess what my number 1 resolution for 2013 is ? I’ve got to write a few more posts so that “Itaewon Prosititutes” is no longer the search term that brings me the most visitors. 🙂

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.


The Scent Of You

October 14, 2012

If I’ve loved you, I probably know exactly how you smell….or more correctly, I know exactly how I smelled when I loved you.

1987, St. Pierre and Miquelon…. I was 18 years old, and used Finesse hairspray to tame my crazy head of curls. I was in love, heart-splayed-open, can’t-catch-my-breath love, for the first time in my life, with a French boy. The affair lasted the 3 months I was in St. Pierre to study French, but has become iconic to me, a touchstone of romance I can call up whenever I want….if I am able to find a bottle of Finesse shampoo.

Signature fragrances are not for me. I’ve tried them. Love’s Baby Soft when I was a teenager….somehow ending up in my stocking every Christmas post age 14, a curiously strong scent that came to represent Christmas for me, but wasn’t how I wanted to represent my true self. I tried on scents of women that were special to me… Chanel No.5, White Shoulders, Giorgio, Anais Anais.  I loved these scents and the women that wore them, but none of them smelled like me.

 The first perfume I ever bought for myself was LouLou by Cacharel. I was drawn by the bottle, a blue, jewel-shaped flask with a red  stopper. It made me feel how I wanted to feel at 20- exotic, special and devastatingly feminine. There are a handful of boyfriends whose  memories lie wrapped in that scent, but above them all, there is an image of me, so very young, stupid and beautiful, more in love with herself than any of them, a girl whose dreams deserved a really arresting bottle and a scent that suggested opium dens and velvet, an exotica far beyond her small-town roads and college routines. It was the closest I came to having a signature, and I’ve often thought about ordering the odd vintage bottle on ebay, just to remember.

In my artist days, I took to wearing Sandalwood and Patchouli. When I came to Korea, the Koreans kept asking me if I were sick, mistaking the scent for herbal medicine. One night, at Macondo, a salsa bar in Hongdae, an older American man stood next to me at the bar, and said ” Oh my god.  You smell like my rec room, circa 1979. Can I smell you?” I took a shot, let him smell my neck, and put my perfumes away, for many years.

About 5 years ago, I decided I wanted to start wearing perfume again. I discovered Demeter and Black Pheonix Alchemy Labs. I ordered vial upon vial of dark, true scent with names like Asphodel and De Sade. Everytime I travelled, I bought a sample pack of big-name perfumes. I threw all my little bottles in a basket, and picked one at random each day, letting the name, the mood of the scent define me, for a few hours. I still do.

You never know which Shelley will show up, nor do I. I have a floral, hyper-femine persona who will offer to help you with the copier and make the coffee- if I pick my bottle of Belle De Nuit by Fragonard that morning. I might cast long eyelashes at you and make little restless sighs over the computer if I’ve come to work wearing Blood Kiss ( BPAL) . God help your heart if I’ve pulled All Night Long ( BPAL) from my cupboard of tricks.Oh and the scent of Birthday Cake( Demeter ) in the corridor? That was me, smiling all the way to class.

I don’t act anymore. Still, I love dressing up, becoming someone else. Yes, I know scent-free is the thing now, and I respect that. Usually, you have to get really, really close to me to know how I smell. Instead, I project the attitude of the scent I’m wearing.  You’ll know I’m wearing Clinique Happy because my smile comes the moment I see you. The moments that I am withdrawn, moody and deep inside myself…Clinique Aromatic Elixir is my scent and you’ll know it before you ever smell it.

And there are moments…. where the experience I have with a particular person becomes intensely fused with the scent of what I am wearing. These moments don’t even have to be romantic or intense; they just come seeping under my base notes and infusing themselves into the shade of Shelley I am that day.

If I can name the scent that makes me think of you, I’ve really loved you. And I will think of you everytime I wear that scent, which I will pick at random, you filling my day and my thoughts like an accident, no matter what age I am, where I live or what I’m thinking about, what I’m writing.

And for a day, a couple of hours, you become my signature.



October 12, 2012





O wake up, my love, my lover, wake up
 – Nick Cave, ” Where Do We Go Now, But Nowhere?”There are a handful of us who have offices in the Humanities Building. We are all accomplished teachers, long-term expats who have married into the culture, or been here long enough to have worked our way up from  academies, national schools  and university-based language centers. We are a collection of about 12 really talented, really good teachers, consistently scoring on the high end of student evaluations. We are off by ourselves – the other two buildings which house the rest of our department – the Institute for Technology and the Second Engineering Building  – have large groups of teachers in communal offices. We are the old guard – in small, dingy rooftop offices of two or three people.  We know each other very well; we have both a coffee and a whiskey fund. Some of my dearest friends that ever I will make in this lifetime work in my building. We love to bitch and gossip, we love to share amazing lesson ideas, we love to give more when it is asked of us, and we love to share a shot at the end of a mid-term Friday evening. Above all, we love to teach..most of the time.

There has been an ennui that has spread through our rooftop corridor, sticky like melted candy on fingertips, the kind that doesn’t come off no matter how much you wash, the kind you are forced to live with for hours. We are all still very solid performers, yet we all seem tired, nowhere near the turned-on, fully engaged teachers we have all been in the past.

When I am on the train home,  I close my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears, filling my head with my music, shutting  my eyelids against the people standing in front of me, the landscape flying past my window, crossing my arms against my heart, and turning my focus inward. I numb myself, until a particularly hot pepper, or a particularly kind smile wakes me up.

I am a jaded foreigner. I have an understanding with the other foreigners I meet. We love the country. Yet we have been here long enough that we have earned our right to complain. Motorcycles driving on the sidewalks, people pushing, two-faced culture, chemical-laden alcohol, sooty skies, empty music, crazy drivers, grade-obsessed students, laws and customs that cause you to shake your head and curl your lip…. we long-term foreigners sing this like a chorus of a hymn. We are part of and yet we are apart. We are strange….everywhere. We respond with boredom and disdain. How can we not?

I always thought this particularly strange experience made me special. The internet proves me wrong. It seems we, collectively, are bored and disdainful. We’ve seen it all, We’ve earned our right to complain, to deride. Life? Nothing compared to the immediate irritation of waiting in line more than one minute. Falling in love? Can’t compete with the glee I find in judgement of the fashion choices I find watching the latest Housewives Of Wherever.

Rewind to 1995. I was cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills my acting work couldn’t pay. I had just accepted a job to teach at ECC Nam-Pundang ( pre-romanization change for those of you who have lived in Korea forever). I had no idea that Nam meant South. As the hotel maintenance man asked me where I was going, I pronounced Pundang like a slur, sure and happy that I was headed for a cultural and literal jungle. “Korea”, my friend V said. ” I don’t know much, except that everytime they’ve poked their head out of the sand, it has been kicked back down.” Dr. Greenlee, my history professor, stoppped me in the concourse of the Valley Mall and said, ” Korea? There’s going to be another war there. I don’t know when, but it will happen. Be careful.”

Still, I came. I landed with my best friend, Didi, and we navigated our way through seedy motels, yoghurt bottles we thought were shampoo, Gotham City-like rows of apartment buildings, beer halls where you couldn’t just order beer, bullet taxis with tires that left the ground when they hit the riverside road, coffee sold in hot cans and hot, buttered squid peddled  in movie theaters. We lived in a building where our neighbors informed our boss of our every move and the children followed us through the streets like we were the circus come to town.

Yes, I went low – I had my moments, preserved in frantically written diaries, where I questioned my sanity, longed for my family and Mary Brown’s Fried Chicken in alternating bouts of intensity. I also took a concealed tape recorder with me as I went through my day, so that I could record the little bits of Korean the corner “supa” – supermarket owners spoke to me, the way that the Mandu shop owner called me “Miss Canada”, the sound of the drycleaner as he walked the corridors at 7 am to collect laundry,  the classical music rip-off that the academy bus used as it backed up… I made a tape and sent it off to my one of my dearest friends, G, so that he could share in this amazing, other-worldly, teeth-on-edge, ears-pricked-up, skin-tingling experience that I was having.

These days, when I meet a new American  or Canadian, our commonality is complaint. I go home to Newfoundland, have a drink in a bar and my commonality with the bartender is how much life pisses us off, how we have so many better things to do than to be there, together in a room, listening to music, telling our favorite stories, meeting someone new.

What human had ever earned the right to be bored by the smell of a changing season? What traveller has ever been so far gone that they should close eyelids against a people so similar in spirit and yet with such differently-shaped faces, different-smelling skins? When did this stop being amazing to me? When did I stop counting myself among the lucky? When did you?

I’m waking up. The curve of a cat’s tail because I feed it…. that’s enough. That’s enough to make me happy to open my eyes in the morning. Not much more is needed. It holds everything… something to learn, love, and understand. The same is true of every tiny thing that happens in my day. The big things hold more pleasure, fear, danger and beauty. How dare I even begin to close my eyes and tune these things out?

Last Thursday, I sat in the back of my classroom, watching my Introduction to Acting students as they presented forum theatre pieces dealing with what they condsider to be big issues: the plight of working moms, age discrimination, lookism and mandatory military service. The pieces were funny and focused. I hadn’t slept well the night before, was coasting on coffee, and waiting to share a bottle of wine with another teacher to mark the end of the teaching week.The students were full of adrenaline and passion, given a voice and using it. They were pushing beyond a very strict set of Korean lines, to say something about the meaning of their lives, to look for alternatives, solutions. I woke up. I connected, again….the first time this whole semester. How dare I think I’ve seen all I have to see in this country? In life? What gives me the right to take a few very limited experiences and turn them into an all-encompassing world view?

Yes, I know what I know.

What I know is nothing.

Oh, wake up, my loves. My lovers, wake up.



Getting Clean

July 13, 2012


The bathing suit was not so racy. It was a black tank suit, but I liked it because it had rainbow stripes around the neckline, and at 13 years old, I loved rainbows.  I was exiting the low end of our town’s swimming pool, pulling myself up the ladder while the weight of the water pulled the top of my suit down, just low enough to expose what should have been a woman’s cleavage. At 13, I was already a very full B cup. As I exited the water, an older boy I didn’t know – maybe 16 years old – stood at the pool’s edge and watched my chest. When I had both feet on the cement he breathed at my chest, “Holy Fuck.”

Years later, “Yes, you were Shelley Collins, the girl with the big tits.”  – a revelation that had come from a guy from my high school with whom I became very close friends after graduation. In high school, I believed I was known as a “brain” – someone who always got too high grades to be cool.  I was also a really great public speaker, bad at sports, a bookworm, good with English and languages, and hopeless at Math. I was overwhelmingly optimistic, a hardcore Duran Duran fan, a “goodie goodie” , a bit of a weirdo and a loner, except for a small group of girls who straddled the line between the really cool girls and the losers, and who counted me as one of them. I was all that and more, and yet, none of the guys knew any of that. My identity began and ended with my breasts. I remember looking at my friend over my rum and coke that summer night, and thinking that the fact that I could be summed up in one sentence was both liberating and overwhelmingly frustrating.

When I had spent many years in Korea, a country where I have been groped more than any other (mostly by old women, curious and praising my ability to nurse babies), I had thought I had made peace with the  message my body sent out. I had been through the older men I had trusted who had assumed that a D cup meant I was horny, I had been through alternately embracing and reviling the sexual persona that seemed to precede every room I walked into, my breasts the first part of me to round any corner. I had been through being called a slut, because I looked that way. I also had been through men who had really, really loved me, who saw me as a whole, incredible being. I had been through and beyond the small town ideas about what defines a woman, what defines me. I had taught children who called me “camel teacher”, and mimed running up to me and bouncing back, and yet who would run to me with hurt elbows and feelings because a hug from me meant softness and warmth.  I had made peace with my body, I thought.

My first university teaching job, I was one of a very small handful of women. One night a staff party had extended beyond the usual barbecue meal and we continued on to a bar.   A male teacher from Australia and I were drinking Tanqueray together at the bar while the other guys played darts. AD and I had been good friends, and we had a little bit of an innocent office flirtation.  At the time, the TV show, Survivor, was really popular and we had an office pool going on who would win. Ad looked at me, drunk.

“ Shel, do you think you could play Survivor?”, he asked.

“ No way in hell. I like my comfort too much.”

“ If you were going to play, what would you wear?”

“ A tankini, I guess.”, I answered, not sure where the conversation was going.

“ Yeah, but, do you think you could run?”

“ What do you mean? Because of the tankini?”, I asked.

“ No, because of…… you know.”, he slurred and gestured to my now double D breasts.

“ Fuck off, AD, You’re drunk,” I shot back with a grin, slammed back my gin and walked out of the bar without saying goodbye to any of the guys, sat down on the sidewalk and cried like the 13 year old I still, deeply, was.

First they had been sexual, then maternal. Now they were a disability – a joke. I was deeply shamed.

Now, I’m a big woman, in a body that isn’t meant to be. I have one of the hardest bra sizes to fit – 36 DDD which means I have small bones. Most women of my cup size have much larger ribcages. I’ve managed to make my hips and belly proportionate, to my breasts and have an exaggerated hourglass figure.  I’ve eaten my way to the point where my breasts are not the first thing you notice about me.

 I am far too bright to think it is all as simple as that. I’ve read so many books, had so many conversations and breakthroughs, so many theories about why I am overweight.  There are layers there I’ll probably never get to in this lifetime. And yet, I believe the relationship of doing harm to myself, my own body, started right there, with a rainbow v-neckline and a hormonal 16-year old boy. How do you begin to forgive yourself for sending out a message you didn’t even recognize?

Recently, I had lunch with two female friends who are lovely and wise and have each dealt with body issues. It was supposed to be coffee and flea-market treasure hunting. It turned into multiple glasses of wine and girl-talk that took us far past the time we needed to make the flea market.

“Let’s take Shelley to the bathhouse”, said SS, knowing that in my 16 years in country, I had never been.

I am the ultimate bath-lover and until I moved, had spent the last 3 or 4 years in an apartment without a bathtub.  Yet, I never went to a bathhouse. In a country of mostly svelte women, I was sure that I would be stared at, talked about and perhaps even poked and prodded. In my clothes, with the right bra and a generous amount of black, I could look a little smaller than I really was.  Naked, I needed to be seen through loving eyes. As strong as my desire for hot, hot water was, I could never bring myself to strip down in front of strangers.

But that day, I was drunk, and buoyed by the confidence of my large-hearted, beautiful girlfriends. Plus, honestly, I have a bit of a 40-plus hormonal kick that makes me feel like a goddess in spite of it all and makes me not give such a damn.

Off we went, three drunk, white-skinned, wet women. SK taught me the rituals – how important it was to get really, really clean before getting in the pools. She pointed to the scrubbing area. The Korean women there were all shapes- some bigger than me. Yet, they were lovingly, carefully cleaning their bodies, spending long minutes on an inner knee or a patch of belly. The scrubbing was luxurious, slow. They gossiped and chatted and scrubbed each others’ backs.  I tried not to stare, but was taken by the simple beauty of getting clean – with no judgment, no shame, no stigma.

After dipping in the first pool, I forgot myself, and happily followed SK from pool to pool each one a different temperature. I was completely naked and particularly enjoying the transition from hot to cold and back again. I was taking care of my body in a way and a tradition that was so much older than me and my hang-ups.

Exiting each pool, I had to climb over a tile barrier to get into the next one. The water weighed my breasts down. Nobody looked. Nobody cared. I felt free.

I felt clean.

Note: For a better idea of what the Korean bathhouse experience is like, I suggest you read my talented friend Grace Smith’s blog post about her first time here.

and here.


Running In The Family

June 29, 2012


If you are a fan of the photography on this blog, my father’s work is now being shown and  represented at the The Aleksandrs Gallery of Fine Art  in Bonavista, Newfoundland.

All these years, I thought I was confounding my conservative, straight-arrow father with my wild, artistic ways. Now I know it was him I have to thank for my creative way of framing the world. Funny how everything makes sense in time.

Bonavista is beautiful. So are the photographs. Go.:-)


Because My Heart Is Island-Shaped

May 8, 2012


As a Newfoundlander, I am a bit of a fraud. Living abroad, I tell long and rocky tales of the island that hangs off the East Coast of Canada. I talk of people riding snowmobiles to work, accents made up of English more olde than new, outport night skies like ink, moose as plentiful as the blackflies, and air so fresh, the smell of bedsheets taken in off the line could break your heart.

Those things are all true of my home. Newfoundland is an exotic, peculiar place. People do flatten their vowels and add fat, round “h” sounds where none are meant to be. You can wake up to moose in your back yard and bears in your cabin. The kitchen party is the heart of the culture where a set of musical spoons or a recitation is just as easily pulled out as a bottle of beer. There are places you can stand where the wind can make you fly, cliffs that are blacker and more treacherous than a sleeveen’s tongue.

And see? There I go again. So many years away have made me focus on the salty air and the half-Irish turns of phrase. I am fiercely proud of my identity as a Newfoundlander. I pull it out like a dare when I meet someone new.  The truth? If asked to ‘do” an accent, I need a fair amount of alcohol and concentration to even begin to get it right. I never had one. My mother grew up in a small community, and my dad has retired to one, but I grew up in a small city. I don’t know how to do a jig or snare a rabbit, there were people in my town I didn’t know, and I never had to snowshoe to class. The pulp and paper mill, the lifeblood of my hometown, made the air stinky and grey. We watched American cable imported from Bangor, Maine. Still, there were woods near enough by when you wanted to disappear and cry your way through a teenage heartache, there were plates of thinly sliced moosemeat fried in butter on birthdays and there was a gorgeous-in-the-sunset bay running right through the belly of it all that could set you to dreaming.

My fiction and poetry of late is full of the Newfoundland outport. Those are places I’ve visited, as exotic and novel to me as the black sand beaches on Bali or the frenetic streets of Ho Chi Min. I claim those tiny, colorful communities as my heritage, but they have never truly been part of me.

At least, I didn’t think so. The last couple of weeks have been a revelation.

I know now that our hearts are informed by the landscape on which they come into being. We are walking maps of where we come from, the topography is in our palms like lines of fate. You can travel as far as you like, redraw your boundaries a million times, but if you are born with a Newfoundland heart and try to force yourself to live in a block of concrete filled to busting with people, damage will be done.

My husband and I moved two weeks ago to a small town outside of Seoul. I take the train for over an hour to go to work and the nearest convenience store is a 30 minute walk away. We live in a house with a garden and trees. Yes, the garden is unmistakably Korean. The trees are low to the ground and there are little stone fertility symbols tucked under shrubs. It doesn’t matter. My heart needed trees. I didn’t realize how much I have denied the Newfoundlander in me by living in Seoul for so long. I feel suddenly full of breath. My God. For how long, had I been holding it?

I am writing this on the upstairs deck of the house. The sun is setting over a squat, lush mountain. I hear only the sound of the odd happy dog, the birds and the Cocteau Twins -the  noise I choose. And of course, the cows. Did I mention there are cows?

I sit here, the only white woman for miles, and I feel more at home here than in the middle of the expat neighborhood in Seoul. I am a Newfoundlander, see, every inch of me. I have ocean in my veins, and wildness in the soles of my feet. It is my birthright. Space and quiet are my natural way and I have never stopped looking for bears in the backyard. You can’t grow up in the middle of such a myth, and then expect to roll it up in your backpack as you board a plane, thinking it will fit. Make no wonder it has been coming out in my poetry and my barroom stories.

I’ve been leaking Newfoundland all over Asia for the past 15 years. That doesn’t mean I need to go back. I do need to respect my inner landscape, find more ways to feel my hair tangled by wind and my fingers soaked with water. I need a kitchen that will fit a party.  I need stars, not satellites. And I need to face the truth. I’m more of a Newfoundlander than I ever knew.


A Barefoot Kind Of Love

April 28, 2012



Eight years ago today, I married Bong Jun. The photo above was taken at our traditional wedding ceremony a little more than a year after our wedding day. That wedding was breathtakingly beautiful, set in an outdoor courtyard at a traditional Korean house, with live traditonal music and everyone, including my family who travelled to Korea for the event, in colorful Hanbok.

Still, Bong and I choose not to celebrate that day as our anniversary, but the stripped down, bare bones day we legally became husband and wife. It’s the most unromantic of stories and yet the retelling of it washes my heart in a fresh coat of love for him, and for our life together.

When I called home to tell my parents that we were getting married, the first question was, “How did he propose?” There were no grand gestures, no ring  or bended knees. There wasn’t even a question. There was coffee in bed, a statement and 15 minutes of expletive-filled protests and incredulity on my part. We had been living together for several years when the university department where I worked decided to close my program, leaving me suddenly out of a job. As my visa was tied to my job, I had only one choice: leave Korea, and come back on a tourist visa to look for a new job. The morning after my last day of work, Bong and I began our usual day-off morning routine of Joni Mitchell and coffee. I was talking about going to Japan for a couple of days for my visa, and would he like to come? Bong looked at me and said, ” I guess we’d better get married.” My response? “No, we can’t, can we? That’s crazy.No F%$%^ing way! You’re kidding, right. You’re F%^$#*ing kidding.Are you kidding? No, We can’t. Can we? Are you serious?”  I never said yes. I ploughed through three more cups of coffee and 20 more minutes of curse-riddled shock before what he was saying began to make sense. If I married him, I wouldn’t have to leave the country, and would have all the time in the world to look for a new job. So, we got out of bed, and decided to talk to our parents. If they didn’t object, we would get started on the paperwork.


On April 28th, 2004, we woke early and got dressed. Bong wore jeans with a dark blue blazer, and I wore my best denim skirt with a similar blazer. We looked like exactly who we were: all business and tradition up top, and hippie rebel free spirits from the waist down. We went off to the district office, having made arrangements with Kyung-Deok and Tara, two of our dearest friends, to come and be our witnesses. We took a number from the machine and waited to stand in front of the sour-faced clerk who had no patience for our excitement and nervous laughter. He looked at my friend, Tara, who had done her best to approximate a bridesmaid by wearing a pretty pink blouse, and informed us that she couldn’t be my witness because she was a foreigner. So, we asked a random stranger sitting in the waiting area to be my witness – a Korean man who kindly and baffledly signed a paper saying he knew me, and to the best of his knowledge, I was free and clear to marry. We had hoped for at least a word of congratulations from the clerk upon signing. Bong and I were still standing at his wicket smiling at each other, like we were waiting for someone to say, “You may now kiss the bride,” when he rang the bell for the next customer.

Starving, the four of us decided to go to the nearest restaurant which was….a Burger King. We toasted our new marriage with paper cups of cola. After lunch, Bong and I continued to the Canadian embassy to register our marriage. I had hoped for at least a little more of a festive mood at the embassy wicket as I said to the clerk, ” We just got married!”  and took Bong’s photo next to the Canadian flag. “That’ll be 40,000 won”, the clerk replied.

Undaunted, we got in our car and drove, intent on some kind of honeymoon. I put a bottle of champagne in the trunk, and we picked a direction and drove with no destination in mind. We came across no place that really appealed to us, and when it started to get dark, we pulled over in the first little town and got a room – the  suite in a love motel shaped like a castle – the kind with curtains over the garage to hide the cars of people cheating on thier spouses.

We found the nearest kalbi restaurant, complete with blaring tv and flourescent lights, and got drunk over multiple bottles of soju and barbecued beef. Mostly, we talked of how unreal everything felt, and how we kept waiting for the big realization to kick in. We were really married, weren’t we? Maybe another bottle of soju would make it seem true.

Walking ( well, weaving ) back up the highway to our motel, we laughed each time a transport truck passed us and we’d have to run down into the ditch to avoid getting hit. Everything seemed hilarious at that point. By the time we made it to the room, we were in tears from laughing so hard. And then we saw the room.

The bed was round, and the ceiling was mirrored. Next to the bed was the strangest looking contraption covered in red pleather. It had a nice laminated instruction sign next to it, with illustrations of an ecstatic looking couple who were apparently boneless. Yes, it was  the often-heard-of but rarely-sighted love motel sex chair, with flipping panels and adjustable headrests, and a rotating seat. Bong and I stared at it in drunken wonder, suddenly heavy with the expectation of acrobatic sex when we were so incredibly tired. Bong looked at me. “Quickie?” , I asked, and headed for the bed, which, without warning, began to vibrate upon contact,  We ended our wedding day, giggling and shaken to sleep, having forgotten to open the champagne.

The next morning, we took pictures of ourselves ( fully clothed ) on the sex chair. Those pictures have long since been lost, just waiting to surface on the internet someday on a website of world’s most embarrassing photos. My “honeymoon” photos are either hidden in the sock  drawer  of some sweaty-palmed loner with a fetish for simulated interracial sex, or are rotting in some garbage heap. It seems fitting.

So, why is this the day we celebrate? In spite of every thinkable bad omen, we’ve made it – well, this far, anyway. We are a truly odd couple. Cultural differences and a seven year age gap were only the most obvious hurdles. I have a need to control. He hates to be fenced in. I get moody if I don’t get enough alone time. He has a restless spirit. We’ve had exactly the same fight about exactly the same thing for the 12 or so years we’ve been together. There were times when I wasn’t sure we’d make it. But we did. There’s still no one I’d rather talk to, no one I’d rather get drunk and laugh with.When I ache, only he can comfort me. If we weren’t together, we’d be alone. No one else could live with either of us. That makes us perfect for each other.

Sometimes, I think the glamour and fanfare of weddings puts too much expectation on a marriage. White dresses and first dances don’t prepare you for the hard work of digging your way through the most emotionally demanding task most of us will ever face. Bong and I learned from the very first day that nothing about being married would be easy.

 Except the laughter. Except the love. And for whatever problem we may face, somewhere in some seedy,dark room in Korea, there is a shiny red chair that makes even the impossible seem effortless and sexy. Mostly.

Happy Anniversary to us.


Note: For those wondering what’s happening with SoundScribbles: I did my first interview with the lovely and talented DJ Free, only to find that my recording app didn’t catch any of it. Since then, I have been busy with our move to a new house in Yangpyeong ( blog post about that to come soon ) . DJ Free has very kindly agreed to redo the interview as soon as I’m settled, so we should be back in business in a couple of weeks.


The Very Long Thaw

February 13, 2012

Can we ever outrun our past selves? No matter how far away you move, how many lessons you learn, how many friendships fall away and are replaced, no matter how many wrinkles and grey hairs appear, must we always carry the weight of our pasts, with all that we’ve done and left undone?

This past week, my little backpack of past caught up with me.  I had to stop and unpack it, see what was inside that was weighing me down, throw out some of the heaviest trash, and repack what was left, so I’d have easy access to the things I needed – like the realization that I don’t know the first thing about what I think I know when it comes to people, the knowledge that things that have never been dealt with never really go away, and a tiny mirror that shows what a boring, undeveloped person I would be had I always done the right thing, had never gone searching for myself at the cost of others, had never made a mistake.

In my college days, I had a boyfriend whom, for the sake of whatever anonymity I can scrounge on a blog read mostly by people who know me personally, I’ll call ….Jeremy.  Jeremy was different than other boyfriends I had. In my previous post, The Cosmic Woman, I wrote about how I had spent my earlier years seeking validation through men. The better-looking, the more desirable the man, the bigger boost my confidence took. Jeremy was different – he was a big guy, tall and a little overweight, a pleasant face and very pretty eyes, but not handsome enough to even cross my radar for the first few years I knew him. Plus, he had a fiancée, placing him even further out of my circle of desire.

Jeremy and I were both theatre students at the same college. In his senior year (my second), we suddenly both found ourselves single.  In spite of my best efforts to try to fall in love with a very good-looking freshman actor, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jeremy. Why? He had an intelligence that was mesmerizing. He was solid, stable and mature – rare in the world of acting students. I started talking to him more often. He had a way of speaking in fits and spurts, like the ideas were coming too fast for breath. By the end of our first date, I knew I wanted him to lose his breath talking to me. And he did. He was one of the first men who ever really got turned on by my brain and not my breasts. He validated me to my very core, and in a way for which I was unprepared.

The chemistry between us became something of a legend in our department. People would walk in a room where we were and comment on the electricity. We had conversations where we would just stand in front of each other silently, knowing we were both getting it, the shared thoughts too quick for words. We’d hang out in his apartment, talking music and plays for hours, the discussions sexier than anything I had ever done with any other boyfriend. Physically, I was so comfortable. Knowing that he was responding to me in such an unbodied way allowed me to drop the femme fatale persona I had worn, and respond to him honestly.

Then, as was my way, I started to screw things up. A beautiful, unattainable classmate, the one that everyone wanted to date, crossed my path one night. Flattered that it was me he wanted, I cheated. This kind of validation, though, isn’t effective unless people know about it. I was somehow perversely proud of what I had done, and I ran to confess to Jeremy.  He forgave me, and we continued on for a little while….until I ended up making out at a cast party with my costar in the play in which Jeremy was directing me. Still, he took me back. I continued to push him in other ways, to see how much he would let me do before he would decide I just wasn’t worth it.

He graduated, and moved to another city for a job. I went to England for a summer. When I came home, we met again. All the good stuff was still there; just a little tattered by distance and pain. We made a decision to try to stay together despite living in different cities.

Several weeks later, I got a late-night phone call. “I’ve met someone,” he said. “I think she might be the one.” So, I let him go, feeling sickly satisfied that finally, I had driven him away.

It took a while before I realized he had frozen me out of his life completely. Having been able to remain friends with all my exes, I assumed that Jeremy and I would, in time, be able to turn the mental connection into a friendship, at least.  But, my phone calls started going unanswered, my messages ignored. I heard news of him from classmates and friends, of shows he was directing, things he was doing. Each time, I put on a big smile as if I had been in touch with him and knew all. Then, several short months later, I was drinking with classmates after a rehearsal, and somebody said, “Jeremy’s getting married. Did you hear?”

No, I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t heard a thing. For the first time since our breakup, I was in absolute, heartbreaking pain. It wasn’t because I had lost him. It wasn’t because I believed that he actually really belonged with me. In fact, I was, in the very back of my heart, happy for him.

It was his silence that ripped into me. I had thought that, in time, in the very small Newfoundland Theatre world of overlapping acquaintances and shared projects, he would come around. I thought about him constantly, even though I had moved on to another boyfriend. The fact that such happy, huge news, news that he must have known would affect me, was not enough to make him pick up a phone completely undid me. Everything good he made me believe about myself became a lie. The man who could set me on fire with his words had decided I wasn’t worth talking to.

I saw him once more in the months following my graduation. He was directing a show, and I dragged my reluctant, gorgeous boyfriend with me, so that I could show Jeremy none of it mattered to me. At intermission, I found myself in a strained, polite conversation with Jeremy. We talked of bad actors and his infant son (another big news story I heard from someone else), and there might as well have been a cement wall between us. Not a spark of who I might have been to him crossed his eyes.  I went home with the pretty, long-haired boyfriend and somewhere, between the hours of 5 and 6 am, released Jeremy from my heart.  I didn’t talk to him for the next 17 years.

Then, along came Facebook, of course. Sure that enough time had gone by, I requested his friendship – twice, I think. He completely ignored me.  My third, last-ditch request was accompanied with a note: “Add me, Dammnit!!” He did, and I sent him a polite message, thanking him and complimenting him on his very lovely-looking family. Again, I got nothing but silence – for another couple of years.

Suddenly, last week somebody posted something on Facebook that caught my attention. It was the word “Sapiosexual” with a definition: A person who is sexually attracted to intelligence in others. I liked it so much; I reposted it on my wall. And yes, it made me think of Jeremy, as well as a rare few others. The next day, I saw that Jeremy had “liked” the post. I imagined him sitting in front of his computer, tickled far enough out of his hatred of me to hit the “like” button. It was the first spark of connection I had from him.  I decided to run with it.

I composed a message, apologizing to him for my mistreatment of our love, for being the record-holding Shittiest Girlfriend Ever.  I told him how much I missed the friendship that never manifested afterwards, and how I hoped that someday, somewhere there would be a stiff pour of whiskey and a conversation that would bring it about. In spite of all the evidence that I shouldn’t, I hit “send”. I wasn’t even sure he would read it. So many years of silence made me sure he despised me. It made me even surer I deserved it.

A few hours later, I got an answer. He had just turned 45, he was reflecting on things. He spoke of regrets, apologies of his own and could we, someday, get that drink?

And just like that, someone I believed lost to me was back in my life. The truth is he never went away. Every hurt we inflicted on each other, me during the relationship and him after, still rang through us like far-away bells. It was done, but it wasn’t over. There had never been a funeral for our relationship, never an autopsy. How could we not be haunted?  I don’t know yet why he turned his back on me, exactly, and I don’t think he knows either. Yes, he may have been rightfully angry and proud. It most likely was the momentum of silence.

After reading his reply, I went into the living room and looked at a photo of myself that was taken in my last year of theatre school. Yes, that girl was cruel, wasting a heart as earnest as Jeremy’s. Yet, she had an impossibly vulnerable soul,  believing she was worthy of scorn, that she could only hurt those who loved her, and that her breasts were still the most interesting thing about her. Strutting around in her boots and bodysuits, her tuxedo jackets and crazy curls, she was just a little lost. In a way, moving halfway around the world, putting on weight, straightening my hair and giving up all theatre, I was ignoring that girl just as Jeremy had ignored me. She had never been dealt with. She wasn’t worth talking to.

Is it odd that reconnecting with him has let me forgive myself for the mistakes I made back then, with him, with myself? My marriage has been incredibly healing for me, mostly, and I thought that through figuring out how to make it work, I had made peace with all the versions of myself I’ve shown to the world. Still, I have only to look in a mirror, still see the weight, the straightened hair to know that there’s more work to be done.

But for now, I am celebrating the return of a very long-lost friend and the insights and understanding that lay around the corner. And I am talking as much about myself as I am Jeremy.