images of the crossing over


Happy New Year’s; as we say twice in Korea–once for the solar, once for the lunar–새해 복 많이받으세요! (Lit., “May you receive many blessings in/for the new year!”)

Even temples party. Each class at the seminary played yut-nori in our respective halls last night. A traditional Korean game involving two-sided dice made of wooden dowels, a game board often drawn ad-hoc on whatever material is available at the moment, and much team rivalry, the only thing I understand about it is the louder the contest, the more fun the contestants seem to have. The specific rules of the game still elude me. I mentioned this to a sister this morning, and she said, “If you understood yut-nori, you would be Korean.” I’ll take this to mean there’s still hope for me, providing I can grasp the rudiments of this new year’s tradition.

Most folks reflect on the year past or the year to come during this highly symbolic season. There are ample opportunities, regardless of your religious, spiritual, or chronic orientation: beginning with Solstice, in Korea we then roll through Christmas (the nuns in my class sang carols in accented English and blew out candles on a store-bought chocolate cake), solar New Year’s, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, and finally lunar New Year’s. Where we’ve been, where we’re going; more importantly, where we’re standing now.

The shoes above are our summer shoes, light blue rubber slippers poured into a mold made to resemble traditional Korean shoes. Mine are the ones to the far right, reading “amicus mundi,” a phrase found in an interview with Thomas Cleary and a standard of vocation and work that resonated with me. I’ve gotten in the habit of writing typically Latin phrases on my shoes, not merely to distinguish them from the over 200 other pairs but to remind me of something that struck me as particularly relevant at the beginning of the season. Before “amicus mundi” was “pax [sic] e bene,” the latter borrowed from the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal with a purposeful mis-spelling of “pax” for “pace” to make the lettering even on left and right. My current winter shoes, low-heeled black rubber with a plastic-fur ruff around the ankle, read “lux” and “fide.”

I look at my shoes each time I slip in or out of them countless times each day. It is surprising how what strikes a chord with you at the beginning of a season has a way of becoming, without intention or conscious construction, the very center of your life. Or, perhaps more precisely, what was an echo in your mind at one point is revealed a little bit at a time as having lain all the while at the core of things. “Amicus Mundi” became a moment-to-moment reminder of the struggle to be a “good friend” to the world immediate to me, my sisters and other members of this monastic community, and all those beyond these walls. The struggle to work well with and be considerate of others–the very basics of being a friend–had always been there. The words were the key to bring my awareness to it. “Pace e bene”: peace is good, better than pettiness or anger, and the highest peace of all worth working for daily. “Lux, fide”: in the coldest season, the darkest time, light and faith become one, and like all lights, it is one you must kindle and hold yourself.

Once during a special lecture series at school by the Korean artist Kim Ho Seok, he remarked that he kept a journal, I wrote in my own journal (now at my home temple and not available for reference) a short poem that went something like the following.

“Kim Ho Seok’s Journal”

We all leave tracks/ not knowing where we’re going/ only knowing where we’ve been,

Wherever we’re going, don’t know. Wherever we’ve been, already over: right now, happy holidays, all of them, and many blessings for the new year.


6 responses

  1. Roy

    Happy New Year Sunim!

    January 1, 2011 at 5:10 am

  2. Happy new year! Your post brings back memories of my own time playing yut nori on new year’s day (during retreats). I even brought home a set of sticks and a drawing of the board – but now I’ve forgotten the rules. No longer have Korean mind, I guess.

    I also used to wear the blue rubber shoes but they’re just too weird for people here in the US. I do have several pair of black rubber shoes that I wear out into the garden and somewhere there’s a pair of the winter shoes with the furry ruff.

    Only don’t know – then we can go anywhere!

    January 1, 2011 at 5:25 pm

  3. Happy New Year, Sunim. I love this, both the picture and the post. Somehow a picture of strangers’ shoes seems shockingly intimate: such an ordinary thing, usually overlooked.

    January 1, 2011 at 7:59 pm

  4. …and happy new year’s to everyone, too.

    Barry: you got further than I have. I still haven’t learned the game!

    Lorianne: we’re supposed to wash our summer shoes every day, to keep them from looking just as you see them in this picture, scuffed and dirty. (They come clean fairly easily with a scrubber, soap, and some elbow grease.) But I’ve always liked our shoes dirty better than clean, because in truth clean shoes only last five minutes, anyway. The real situation is just like this. (I think we’d been out either weeding or helping in the fields before I took this picture, so the dust was a little thicker than usual.) Thanks… and I loved your pictures of Snowball, too!

    January 3, 2011 at 5:00 am

  5. Today’s poem-response on The Morning Porch and Via Negativa pay tribute to this image you made of these shoes. Thank you.

    January 7, 2011 at 1:25 am

    • “Paired or unpaired in all the world…” It’s a toss-up which line is my favorite, this one or the last two. Again, thank you, and this is lovely.

      January 7, 2011 at 9:32 am

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