Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Mommy, what's more powerful, love or pain?

Living through unrelenting anxiety, fear and panic is something that I am used to. All the what ifs and possible disastrous outcomes of the future is what I do on a moment by moment basis. It's npr, fox news, cnn, bbc world news, and msnbc all crammed into my brain with a 24 hour streaming of bad news on top of bad news. Planning and critical thinking is the ground that I stand on and how I identify with myself. So keeping up with the on slot of the news stream in my brain was my duty and honor.

But all of these things did me more harm that good when I was in the grips of anxiety.

Eli once asked me what's more powerful, love or pain. I asked him how he had thought of that question. Eli was suffering from a cold at the time, and he answered, "Because when you are in pain, if feels so powerful, I was curious to know if it was more powerful than love."

When I am in pain it is very hard to look at the pain of others. And I start to think about if there is a quota on pain. If I am brimming to the rims in my own pain and suffering, will I be able to see the pain of others? Can one pain be compared to another pain and be judged based on a value system? If I am in pain because my arm has been cut off, is that more painful than a person whose finger has been cut off and less painful than a person whose leg has been cut off? Comparison of pain is a source of more pain. Comparison seems to arise when we are not heard or honored in the reality of our pain. The pain can be physical, the pain can be psychological, the pain can be cultural, the pain can be economical. If you have never suffered from depression, or anxiety consider yourself blessed. If you have never suffered from debilitating physical pain, consider yourself blessed. If you have never had to worry about where your next months meal for your kids are coming from, consider yourself blessed. 

We cannot compare our pains. We have to listen to each others pain and come together through it. 

Watching the outcome of the election and trying to answer the question, why, why, why the one word that keeps coming to the forefront is privilege and access. I have privilege. I have parents who believed in education and learning through traveling. I live in the first world where running water is not one of the major issues of life. I have a sustainable job and work with colleagues who I honor and respect. I have access to cultural diversity and multitude of life experiences which have given to the blossoming of wisdom. And I think of the people in the middle parts of America, where they are living in a different reality than the reality of the Americans living on the coast. Access and privilege. I know that I am who I am not because I am more smart, and more hard working than my peers. I am who I am because I was given vast amounts of privileges that I did not ask for, but was given to me as a gift. 

In my mind Trump and Clinton were like zits on an adolescents nose and forehead. They are both big, red, and throbbing with pain. We would rather such things never existed. But maybe what it did is bring to the front all of the pain of America growing up with it's hormones and all. And it is reveling all the pain that has been hiding under cover. One zit is about social issues and one zit is focused on economic issues. I feel much more righteous in that social issues are at the forefront of my concerns. And I want to be right. (And I might still feel right and righteous in my belief.) But that is because I have privilege. And I cannot compare my pain with other pains. I have to stop, look, listen and see if I can find a place inside of me that can postpone the panic of engulfment and see if I can give attention without judgement to the pain of others. It's easy to give empathy to those who are in pain that we can understand. It is much more of a challenge to give empathy to those whose pain we deem unnecessary and irrelevant. Which will only enhance the pain.

Has modern society always struggled with xenophobia? Yes. Are we shocked to find it in our family, friends, and neighbors? Yes. Has modern society always struggled with inequality of capital? Yes. Are we shocked to find it in our family, friends, and neighbors? Yes. Current American politics has unveiled it's basic paradigm: us versus them. It's called a Splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) and it is the failure in a person's thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism used by many people. The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual's actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground). -

Mommy, what's more powerful, love or pain?
I think love. What made you ask that question?
Because when you are in pain, if feels so powerful, I was curious to know if it was more powerful than love.
... You know, pain is powerful, but I think love is more powerful.
Me too.

We want to control and predict the future. That is the purpose of research and the definition/goal of learning and studying in our world. When I am in the grips of panic and anxiety I want to make the world black and white, us versus them. And I want someone to blame. Brene Brown says the blame is a way to discharge pain and discomfort. Being human comes with a lot of pain. Let's all honor our own pain. And maybe then we can honor the pain in others. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Death, Anxiety and Death Anxiety

Most of my life I have wanted to die. When I believed in God, I wanted to go to heaven sooner than later. Living was too hard. Living was too painful. Living felt like a punishment. Most days, I did my best to live my life as God wanted me to, because I wanted to go to Him sooner than later.

I no longer believe in God, but as my son says, I do believe that god is probably Mother Earth. I still live like a Christian. Or Catholic. Or Buddhist. I just don’t call myself by those names. I live a moral life. I live an ethical life. But I still find myself in massive pain.

Death has always been the last resort of comfort, painlessness and a relief from being human. I knew I was going to die someday, and hoped it would be sooner than later. Death was a friend who was waiting for me with softness, cool warmth, lightness and dignity.

But in the last years something changed.

I remember when I was seventeen I had a conversation with my friend Sookjin. I said something like, “I am living because I cannot die.” She responded with “I am living because I was born.” Almost thirty five years later this conversation is still with me. For the last 50 years I have been walking away from birth. Walking away from ignorance, walking away from helplessness, walking away from being dependent. I walked with meaning and vigor as I was determined to become strong, intelligent, and independent. Something about the 50 years old milestone has me now walking towards death. Not the glorious peacefulness of death. But the messy process of getting to death. If walking away from birth was about gaining, walking towards death feels like losing something. Death in the abstract was peaceful. Getting to the destination of death in reality is as messy as life. Death is barreling down in slow motion. Death was supposed to be my liberation. I am confronted with having to live until I get there. In the last few years, I have been holding my breath for death to come. And in doing so I created more pain. Because I stopped living. Waiting for death is not proper living.

In order to understand the mystery of my pain I have searched for and found many sources of insight, wisdom and comfort. One of them is an interview that Krista Tippett has with Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and teacher, on her podcast “On Being.” At one point, Ms. Tippett asks Brother Steindl-Rast how we can deal with gratitude in the mist of anxiety and fear. Brother Steindl-Rast goes on to explain the difference between anxiety and fear:

MS. TIPPETT: We have to acknowledge our anxiety, but we must not fear?

BR. STEINDL-RAST: Not fear. There is a great difference. See, anxiety, or anxious, being anxious, this word comes from a root that means “narrowness,” and choking, and the original anxiety is our birth anxiety. We all come into this world through this very uncomfortable process of being born, unless you happen to be a cesarean baby. It’s really a life-and-death struggle for both the mother and the child. And that is the original, the prototype, of anxiety. At that time, we do it fearlessly, because fear is the resistance against this anxiety. See? If you go with it, it brings you into birth. If you resist it, you die in the womb. Or your mother dies.

I have anxiety. I have massive anxiety. Everyday when I drive to work I have to remind myself I am not driving into a war zone. When I have to open up my email account, I expect a bomb to go off. When I leave my house I expect a firing squad. None of these things are true, but my brain tells me these lies. I have been wanting to carve out the anxiety and throw it away in the ocean, bury it with the landfills, burn it into hell, free it into the heavens. And yet, like my puppy who forever wants to be next to me, my anxiety is by my side, hugging my leg, nipping at my ankles if I walk away.

When I heard Brother Steindl-Rast explain the difference between anxiety and fear, it was as if the clouds opened up after two years of rain. Anxiety: if you go with it, it brings you into birth. If you resist it, you die. As scary as it is, I have to walk through anxiety. Maybe this is like walking through fire.

I started meditation. I am using the app Headspace. On day two or three, the app showed me an animation about watching thoughts versus chasing thoughts in the context of meditation. ( It explains the difference between watching your thoughts go by and chasing your thoughts down. All this time, I was chasing my thoughts down to the bitter end, thinking that I was honoring myself. Thinking that it was a critical part of being an intelligent human being. Critical thinking has its place and time, but mindfully ignoring, (watching) the buzz of the brain has great merits also. The binary idea of “not doing anything=being lazy” is being washed away.

I just finished listening to one of my favorite authors and teachers of all time, Irvin Yalom and his book “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.” He tells us numerous stories of how people are paralyzed by death anxiety and how they have worked to move through it. I did not know there was a thing called death anxiety. I was putting pain on a scale and balancing it off with the goal of death. I can get through living or I can live. Having a word, a concept, a definition of what you are experiencing is an empowering experience. It gives it context, it gives it a home, it gives it parents, and so you are not so lonely anymore. You are connected to the rest of humanity instead of being set aside alone in a desert with no water.

I am still haunted by the reality of the messy death. There is cancer and alzheimer’s in my family. I find myself wishing for cancer instead of alzheimer’s. In the face of the seemingly inevitableness of cancer, alzheimer’s, dementia or some other fatal, painful disease, I looked into death with dignity and found “Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking (VSED).”

Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking (VSED): To voluntarily stop eating and drinking means to refuse all food and liquids, including those taken through a feeding tube, with the understanding that doing so will hasten death. This is an option for people with terminal or life-limiting diseases who feel that with VSED their dying will not be prolonged. The US Supreme Court has affirmed the right of a competent individual to refuse medical therapies and this includes food and fluids. This choice is also commonly accepted in the medical community. (

The care takers (doctors, nurses, hospice workers) who have had experience with VSED give it an average rating of 8 on a scale from 1-9, 1 being a messy death, and 9 being a peaceful death. Finding this option is comforting. I am not a victim of life, nor of pain, nor of disease. I do not know that I will ever exercise my right to Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking. But it is a great relief to me that I have found a “get out of jail free” card if I need one.

On the outside, I have a great, most privileged life. My life partner is my best friend, my teacher, my earth, my rain, my sunshine. I have a son that bewilders me with joy and love I never knew I had inside of me. I have family, friends and students that move me deeply with their courage, hope and struggles. I still struggle with pain. I have been holding my breath for death. I am learning how to live the rest of my life. By watching mindfully the water, the sky, the wind, the trees, the thoughts, the pain, the anxiety, the fear. I watch it go by. As it ebbs and flows. By breathing. By listening. I am going to live and not wait for death. I will honor the breath I have right now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Snail and the Cactus

I am a snail. I am a trapdoor snail. I have a door that I can close so that all the outside noise is shut out. And then I can be in peace in my own little house. I never invite anyone here. First, it's too crowded, and second, then they would see all of my secrets. And no one will ever see my secrets. I would rather die. And speaking of death, my house is also going to be my coffin. My friends tell me that I'm morbid, but it's a great convenience to live in your coffin. Do you know when you’re going to die? No one does. I'm so glad that I know where my coffin is at all time. Because we do all die. I am no dummy. I know this truth no matter how many people want to forget this little fact.
Being a snail I can only see in black and white. And that means there is no middle ground. No grey area. This "process" people keep talking about. What a load of bullshit. I can't see it. I can't touch it. I can't smell it. No evidence. It doesn't exist. I know what a goal is though. Water, shade, moisture. Those things are tangible. And without these goals, I am dying. Literally. And it’s not your grand death. Big crash, huge explosion with blood and gore. No, it's the slow, burning, stinging, smelly death. Ugh. This is why I have goals. There is nothing in the world but goals. And you better get out of my way.

Inside my small mouth there are even smaller teeth. They might be small but they are powerful. Like the power of tiny raindrops that can bore a hole in a boulder. My teeth can gouge out a hole in your heart. I also carry poison. I drink my own poison so I can build up resiliency to my own venom, but I also feed my poison to my kids and husband everyday. So that they will become resilient and strong. So that they can overcome the harshest elements of the world.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My mother is my harshest element. To survive her, I have morphed into a cactus. But because I am a potted plant, she can find me again and again. She climbs up my body slowly and carefully. She is so careful that sometimes, I don't notice she is on my body, whispering her truths in my ear.

I only notice she is on my body when she is on the verge of feeding me her poison so I can grow strong and resilient. When I am fed her poison, I feel like I am drowning in a vat of vomit.

In my next life, I want to be water or a piece of sand. Yes, sand might be better. With water, I can't be sure I won't end up being a part of a hurricane or typhoon. A piece of sand in the middle of the largest dessert, or a piece of sand in the deepest part of the ocean where you can't see the sunlight. These are the places where the virus of humanity hasn't had its impact quite yet. I just want to be left alone. In stillness.

I'll have my buddies and with subtle and not so subtle disturbances we might hover, cuddle, run and fly. Make new friends and communities in the mist of quiet eternity. To be a piece of sand. This is my wish.

What if I end up being mixed with cement, and made into concrete blocks? I might end up being built into a childcare center full of cries and laughter only to recover during the quiet night times. Or what if I'm part of a new building for inmates, full of systematic brutality, rage and meaninglessness day in and day out. Entombed with my buddies listening to the suffering. My hope will be that the stupid animals called humans will implode themselves sooner than later so that we can start over. How much quite this place would be without those fuckers.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Life lessons: March babies

March 21, 2015: two kitties adopted
March 21, 2016: a puppy adopted
My son detected this pattern and shared it with me.

This prompted me to write a letter to my future self:

Dear Yoon Soo,
Come next March, you might start looking at chickens, or ducks that lay eggs at five in the morning and dream of having a whole mess of them in your backyard as they follow you around looking at the peach tree, persimmon trees and blueberry bushes. You will fantasize about building your own DIY chicken coop and how you will have two coops: one cute outdoor coop for the ducks or chickens to use during the day and one night time coop that will be inside of the garage which will be sound proofed so that the clucking will not disturb the neighbors.

Or come next March, you might start fantasizing about taking in pregnant cats who need homes. You might fantasize about the birthing, and the tiny, tiny, tiny kittens, and their sweet mothers. You might imagine how silly their limbs look at first and how soon they will grow into fluff balls.

I am here to tell you and remind you of the dog we now have. I am here to tell you the truth about the dog. I am sorry to tell you that, YOU, Yoon Soo, wanted to BE THE PUPPY--so cute and lovable that all people would love you and take care of you. What happened instead was that this puppy is reminding you, every single moment, that you are a responsible adult who now has to take care of yet another creatures' poop, food intake, water intake, bite inhibition, stranger fear, other dog aggression, and food aggression. You are now prying out half eaten cat poop from your puppies mouth that he has found in our yard. This is the reality of having a puppy. Chunks of decomposing cat poop. Prying it out of your puppy's mouth. With your bare hands.

If I may be so bold, I have an opinion about what is happening. ALL OF THIS HERE that is happening, might be your ovaries talking through you. And I am here to tell you Yoon Soo, that your ovaries are drying up. They are shriveling up and they are calling to the world I WILL NOT DIE YOU MOTHER FUCKER! And this is their final hurrah. You might confuse them with your true self voice because it is so strong and self-righteous. But previous life experiences has taught us that self-righteousness is quite often a cover for vulnerability. And fear.

So, Yoon Soo, your ovaries are drying up. And you are slowing drying up. And you will eventually die. But you are not going to die just now. A very small part of you is. And that is okay. Because we still have so much to celebrate.

Love, Yoon Soo

- - - - -

I will look at the dog, and remember: my freaked out, death fearing ovaries brought to me my lovely puppy. And he will soothe the angst of death with never ending kisses and snuggles. And I will continue to pry out decomposing cat poop from my puppies mouth. With my bare hands. And then I will let him lick my face.

I am officially a puppy mom.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

I Lay Before You My Sword: an Educators Manifesto. Version 2016

As an educator, I pledge to uphold Sister Corita Kent's rule: "find a PLACE to trust and try trusting it for a while."

That PLACE will be:
The heart of students.
The mind of students.
The spirit of students.

I will not practice and promote the pedagogical damage that has been placed upon us.

I will not tempt nor woo students with intellectual or psychological insight.

I will not hold the students' growth as hostage while trying to build up my own sense of self worth. (That shit I will take care of on my own time, on my own dime.)

And when I do make these errors—for I have and know that I will again—I will name it, claim it and apologize for it.

I will practice listening to my students. And not confuse listening to their voice with my need to be heard.

I will practice balancing my overly critical brain (who knows competition, who thinks she is right and who is incredibly judgmental), with my overly emotional heart (who needs to be liked and who needs approval desperately and persistently.)

In between the heart and the brain is the spirit, where my whole self as a human being resides.

I will practice speaking from this place—this place of wholeness. And it is from this place that I pledge to practice meeting my students.

Judgment and Beauty. An essay by Yoon Soo Lee for a special issue of "Luminalities" edited by Myron Beasley

Liminalities: On Contemplation

Judgment and Beauty (pdf download here)

Friday, April 1, 2016



What a cat needs: food, water and a kitty litter box. A scratching post and occasional snuggling depending on the temperament of the kitty. A sunny or warm spot to sit still and to be left alone.

What a dog needs: food, water, potty training which may or may not lead to crate training, then you need a crate, treats to tempt them into the crate and affirmation that they are doing a good job. Most of all they need a schedule. Especially if you are crate training. Wake up at 6:30, go pee and poo, come inside for food and water, play some with owner, then crate time. Mid-morning pee break, some play with owner, then crate time. Lunch with water and pee/poo. Play with owner and crate time. Mid-afternoon pee and play time, then crate time. Dinner at 5:00 with pee and/or poo. Play time with family and final pee and bedtime. One or two night pee breaks between 2 and 4 am. Then back to the crate. One week of consistent training is a good starting point. 

You also need chew toys of various textures as the puppy is teething and will chew on anything with a bit of give: like your shoes, rug, glasses, and corners of boxes, chairs and sofas. They need a collar and a leash and definitely socializing. Which means our Bubbles has already started preschool.

My good friend told me about crate training the first day I got the puppy. I presumed I knew what crate training was: put a puppy in the crate at bedtime. What I didn't know was what to do with the puppy during the day. So for the first two days, I followed my puppy around, every waking moment, looking for signs of pee and poo. At the end of two days, I felt like a sixteen year old girl who had accidentally had a baby. I was confused, worn out and deeply troubled about my new relationship with this being.

Almost ten days has gone by since Bubbles came into my life. And with that I am learning about puppies and dogs.

It turns out I am a cat person. Feed me, water me and leave me alone, I'm fine. I dislike being scheduled, I dislike authority, I dislike chitchat, I don't like groups, I never pick up my phone, and I love my solitude.

My puppy needs a schedule, he needs me to be an authority figure, he needs numerous affirmations and communication, he loves social mixers, I need to be "plugged into" our relationship, and he doesn't like being alone.

I have been looking for various methods for coping with life and its hardships. I have been on the lookout for distractions. Some took on the form of sabbatical smocks, some took on the form of necklace and bracket making/buying, some took on the form of cleaning out the garage and basement, and some took on the form of obsessing over baking and kombucha making.

But they all seemed to come with an expiration date. The spark fizzles, the attention wanes and I am in search of a new kind of high. So I started to focus on chickens. Maybe ducks. Critters that lay eggs and follow you around in the yard perhaps chasing away the cat that poops in my yard. (This part is just a fantasy.) Chickens are also tick eaters and compost makers. I wanted some chickens for my yard. I did research on the best kind of coops, breeds to choose depending on noise level, egg color and docile nature. Balancing my budget and looking into zoning regulations, my heart started ballooning at the potential of this new relationship and distraction.

When I was visiting two of my best friends, I was telling them about the chickens. These friends have two amazing dogs. And this is where it gets fuzzy. Because somewhere between talking about chickens, we started talking about dogs. And before I knew what was happening, a day later, I came home with a new puppy.

My husband tells me that I made puppy faces at him. He tells me that I promised to take care of the puppy. That I would be in charge of the potty training and that he wouldn't have to help with anything if he didn't want to. He told me that I promised to take full responsibility of the dog and all the nitty gritty details. All this is very fuzzy to me. I feel like I have amnesia around this part. What I do remember is that he was so much happier with the idea of a puppy than that of chickens.

The ultimate distraction: I now have a puppy. This feels like a full time job. Mostly because there is the poop and pee fear factor. But I am learning. I am learning to be in the moment. To look into this creature’s eyes and try to see what they see. I am learning to be in the moment. To remember that pee and poo and be washed away, but neglect cannot. I am learning with him the importance of structure, consistency, and using appropriate amounts of authority in order to negotiate love, joy and the order of the universe. I am learning the way of the dog.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

ptsd and the art of fermentation

I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) last fall. The story behind why is for another time. The process of healing has been tedious and frustrating. However, I am a good student of life, so I saw all the doctors and professionals to help me in this journey. I did my best to regulated all the lies that my brain was sending down. In spite of all the negative data from the brain—“you are worthless,” in its  simplest from— I got up most days to eat, drive, work, buy groceries, cook, do laundry, scoop kitty litter, be a mother, be a wife, be a daughter, try to sleep, wake up at four am, and start the day all over again.

At the core of the healing process was to balance the mind, body and spirit. I am good at honoring the mind. Or at least the brain. I am good enough at honoring my spirit. I am not good at honoring the body. Actually, I have complained about the limits of this body for most of my life. My brain is the abusive landlord that sends nasty messages from high above to the slum of a body.

So what happens to a women who mostly relies on her brain to get the job done, when that brain of hers starts to go haywire? Because my brain started sending out massive amounts of wrong, negative, fear based data. I was lost at sea. 

There is some good news. I needed a distraction. Something that would sooth me. Netflix thought I would enjoy this show called The Great British Baking Show. 
What the fuck does Netflix know about me anyway. I am not a baker. I am not interested in anything remotely connected to baking. Fuck you, Netflix. 
I had watched and re-watched Sherlock in its entirety for over twenty times. I needed a new show. Abandoning most of the shows within the first ten minutes, I finally succumbed to Netflix with the huff and gruff of an angst ridden teenager. “Fine. I’ll try it. But I know I’ll hate it.”

And, of course, I am in love. Not only with the show, but with baking. Or more specifically, fermentation. The analogy of rising from mere dusty flakes into nourishment. That all the elements of life, in the form of yeast, is living in the air. It has been all this time. We breath it in everyday. It is invisible. But it has been there, all along. Like your puppy waiting for you to come home. Or a mother that loves you without any judgment. They are just there for us. This stirs me. To my core. And gives me hope. 

I am now a baker. I baked my first loaf of bread last week. I could not stop making bread. There were too many. So I brought a loaf to my students. They loved it. It was oh so very cool. And filled my heart. With joy. And love.

My brain still lies to me. Everyday. Throughout the day. It is worst in the mornings. In the evenings I am too tired to function properly. My body hurts. My neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips. My migraine have been worse this year. But I am healing. I am coping. And now I am baking. Baking with joy. Baking with hope.

My first bread loaf:
I am in the mist of making a sourdough starter, another example of the magic of fermentation. I am also in the mist of making my first batch of kombucha scoby, otherwise known as THE MOTHER:

Ironically, I’ve been writing about the scoby as THE MOTHER in all caps. I wondered if I was referring to myself, or to my mother. 

My brother asked me what kombucha was. I started to give him my definition, but then chickened out, because I decided my definition wasn’t good enough. I researched the internet for the definition of kombucha and its scoby and found out that the internet is torn between its ideas around the benefits of kombucha. And furthermore that brewing your own kombucha CAN LEAD TO DEATH. I panicked and almost threw out my first attempt. I will continue to breed/feed this first batch of scoby (aka THE MOTHER), who has the potential to kill me. (OMG.) And decide later what I want to do with her. It’s a science experiment for now.