I’m lounging in my cozy room, watching CNN, wearing my snazzy Hill House Hotel sandals. Just taking a break after an action-packed morning.
I woke up very early today and decided to wander with no specific destination in mind. I didn’t want this trip to be devoted to checking boxes on my to-do list. What I’m looking for can’t be seen anyway, let alone planned. And maybe not even findable.
I was the first guest to show up for breakfast here at the Hill House. I was expecting some kimchi and rice, a traditional Korean start to the day.
Instead, an exuberant Korean woman greeted me from behind her frying machine and asked how many eggs I wanted. Her English was excellent, and she was hilarious. She told me how everything was self-service, including the clean up.
“Only me here!” she explained. “And I make the eggs!”
She asked me where my partner was. She actually used the word “partner” in English. That never would have happened in 1988.
“I am alone,” I answered. (I guess that means I’m self-service, too!)
I tried to speak Korean with Madame Egg-Chef Galore, but she was all about enunciating ebulliently in English.
When I asked her if I could take a coffee cup up to my hotel room, she said, “Yes! But bring back downstairs. Everything here self-service.”
Later, I went out in search of nothing in particular. Outside the hotel, I saw Namsan Mountain in the near distance. I headed in that direction. I walked up Namsan in my younger days but I decided not to risk my aging body on the icy steps. I bought a round-trip on the Gondola to the look-out area and shops.
Fog and gray skies limited the view, but I didn’t care. At the top, I checked out the stores, cafes and a temple. Then I walked to the other side of the mountain to see if a view could be had from there. Nope. Just more grayness.
I did notice a lot of “things” attached to the safety fences. I couldn’t figure out what they were at first.
I looked closer. Oh, right, like that bridge in Paris, people can hang “love” locks with messages and nicknacks.
I headed back to the Gondola and passed a gift shop. The shop sold the locks. I stopped. I could get a lock too.
But what would I write? It took me about 3 seconds to figure it out.
The reason I came back to Seoul was to remember my friend Carolyn who was killed by our mutual friend on Dec. 20, 1988.
She was 26 years old when she died.
She’d be 51 now.
Putting her name on that lock and attaching it to the other locks on a safety fence high above Seoul was surprisingly powerful. My hands were shaky, and not from the cold. It was the sacred shakiness that I recently learned to observe.
I looked out at the landscape covered in fog and low-hanging snow clouds. I was someone else when I stood in that spot more than two decades ago. Someone who would have mocked those locks. Someone who fought against whatever she couldn’t understand. I am kinder now, more gentle, more subtle.
I recalled the lines of The Shadow of the Magnolia, a poem by Eugenio Montale:
..but not you, eaten
by sun, and rooted, and withal delicate
thrush soaring high above the cold
wharves of your river – not you, fragile
fugitive to whom zenith nadir cancer
capricorn remains indistinct
because the war was within you…
The last word of the poem is “Goodbye.”
I said a final goodbye to Carolyn by accident today. I hadn’t set out to do so. It just happened. In the process, I also bid a formal goodbye to my former fighting years.
I will always be a fragile fugitive, but the war is no longer within me.
Don’t be alarmed. The story of Carolyn’s murder and my history with Korea isn’t over in one fell swoop. It’s just taking a different turn. An unexpected one.
Unlike the Koreas, I’m feeling unified. I was pretty sure there’d always be a DMZ in me.
Today I chose for there not to be.