Ulsan Journal – August 2003 – South Korea
Standing on a rocky isle overlooking a dirty sea: this is Ulsan, where it jettisons into the oceans. A small family surround me warbling in Korean. I stand next to them, amongst them as a maritime breeze gently breathes through our midst. Nothing seems to separate us. The foreign tongue is not out of place (, nor am I). It is welcome. The children are young...not much past five - one is a toddler - perhaps two. Always he must keep within a stone's throw of mum or dad's legs. That is the periphery of his world. And everything in it comes with questions. You can feel the tenacity of his intrigue. Gulls roll overhead us and the rocks beneath are moving ever so slowly...at the pace of millennium inches. They are alive underfoot; steadying the footing of our family from that moody ocean's constant sway. A butterfly is even here - then gone as soon as you see it. The family speak the language of every family - the children inquiring, standing for photos...going as far as they are allowed on one level - on another they exist unlimited in a playful imagination. The parents' eyes are sharp and you feel as you stand with them a bond - unspoken, invisible...yet palpable and persistent. You feel its strength - a force like the wind that buffets the shore - steady, unremitting...a shaper of world's, a molder of possibility with it's own secret meaning, it's own subtle accent.
Further up on the hill -at another vista point - less exposed than this one, two young men - friends on bikes ask passers-by to snap a picture of them. They pass out the camera and stand backs to the lolling sea...half smiling, half triumphant...their stance says 'here we are'; arrivals, youth, together. And round the bay beneath us a shore fisherman wades into the waters and pulls in his net as local onlookers watch. It's got very few fish in it - all small fry. Perhaps he owns one of the stall restaurants on the strutting peninsular - the ones that are decked out in heavy duty plastic to ward off the typhoon's wet and windy assaults.
School children on the path up here say 'hello' and 'nice to meet you' and 'bye-bye' in one excited breath. They are out with their families and out of school. They roam the woods on route to the beach on this Saturday outing. They giggle like children do. The wild shore seems expectant of these pressured visitors. Today's tame winds embrace them, remind us of what's important.
In the stalls that top the hill before it slides pines and all into the sea, before the next passageway's amongst the living are ocean currents and international shipping lanes, before the lighthouse and the rocky promontories that lunge confidently into gray salt seas, there is a rickety lane of street vendors and the fish restaurants: a plastic oasis of multi-colored canopies, half swallowed by the muddied aftermath of a week of solid rains. Here older women sit large over chestnuts for sale, hawking cooked sea-snails, roasted silkworm larvae and warm fish jerky. Some smoke cigarettes or chatter despondently with her next door. Some are silent watching the world pass them by - their eyes glazed, as they recline their bent backs under multiple umbrellas. Their hair is curly black and their hands are dictionaries of hard work.
Here, too, outside the eateries, are tanks of bubbling sea water overfilled with fish or sea slugs or some kind of nematode brought in from the cold or squabbling octopuses waiting out their final hours in pitiful proximity. They all move or wriggle or pulsate but they all have nowhere to go. A torpid music drowns out the sound of the birds here. and you have to walk a little distance to feel like the nature that surrounds you - the acid soils and hardy trees - are your own. To feel like there's a corner of the earth where stillness has power and the air and it's emptiness can reward you without being disturbed by that most human of diseases - the need to be entertained.
Not the entertainment of fascinated discovery. Rather the entertainment that brews from loneliness. How that loneliness rules. How it begs to be sung and chanted to in the temples, rewarded in the churches; how it flashes and noisily pulls it's captives into the video game arcades; how it beckons us to eat when we are not hungry; how it detracts from the sea her solemn promises, how it blinds us from the pine needles underfoot and the magpies rugged adaptability. How it misses the "tweet" of the finches as they bound overhead in flighty reverie; how blind it is to the ugliness of it's own insensitivity, to it's slothful academic-ness...how sadly deaf it is to the invisible strands that connect all that is amongst the living here - like the threads of the fisherman's net.
The lighthouse is dormant waiting for night to blazen the darkness with it's protective significance - perhaps not unlike the spirit of man. It is also waiting for the cover of darkness to call it from exile. Waiting for night to be so dark, so complete, so fully remembered for what it is - that we may step beyond choices and categories and shine away barren ego' defenses. Yes, how we wait unknowingly to shine. That is the hidden meaning here: the one belying all cruel and tardy appearances - all side issues. One that all vulgarity, all supposed differences, all our tarnished monstrosity (the polluted sky, the garbage by the road side, the city's sprawling indifference) fails to recognize. But the pointing children clinging to parent's thighs...and the waxy plants clinging to these bleached sandstone buttresses, and that sea which clings in turn to the patient earth are all a vital part of this meaning. All are essential contributors to some intensity that is as yet for the most part unnoticed, invisible.
Perhaps that is why one can often feel most at home when one is a stranger to all that is familiar.
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