By Simone Grace Seol
The most infuriating insult of my life came when a college friend told me, while my friends were anxiously discussing our futures, “I could see you becoming an event planner. You’re so good with parties.”
Event planner? Are you freaking kidding me? Do you even know me? This “friend” always patronized me a bit, perceiving that I was a spoiled ditz from a wealthy family. Looking back, I believe she thought most people without avowed communist sympathies were silver-spoon-fed space cadets. For most of my life, my father had been an assistant professor of education at a middling university in South Korea. I never wanted for anything, but trust me: that does not translate to a Paris Hilton childhood.
Telling this story makes me angry even now — an event planner?
I’m sure I’ve been called worse. But this ‘insult’ cuts the deepest because it pokes at a really essential fear that I’ve always had about myself — that I must always mask large parts of myself to be understood. I always felt that I was too internally contradictory, almost schizophrenic, to be truly appreciated as a whole by most people.
You see, I have always been loud and gregarious. Warm, open and a bit exhibitionistic, I am in fact the life of every party, the one most likely to do something fun and embarrassing while drunk. In a way, this friend could have been excused for her suggestion. At the same time, for most of my young life, I was an excessively serious kid. In my teenage years, I was thoroughly convinced that I was being called to a religious vocation. I fought with my parents who said they didn’t bring me “all the way to America” to become “just a nun.” Plato’s Republic and the Catechism of the Catholic Church were my best companions in high school.
During the same years, I had also prepared an art portfolio in case I wanted to go to art school. Once, I asked my art teacher pensively: “what do you think is the definition of beauty?” She laughed at me and told me to keep shading. After my parents vetoed Catholic universities and art schools, I went to Wellesley College and majored in Religion, as a compromise. Once I was there, I tried hard to hide the earnestly seeking aspect of me. I wanted the aloof, cool kids who knew about hipster bands to like me.
Graduating from college and moving to New York, I had zero clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that it wasn’t an event planner. I was going to save the world, you see. Incidentally, being a religion major turned me into an atheist and I discovered I quite liked having a sex life, so being a nun was now out of the question. But I never stopped probing at the Deepest Questions. I wanted to stop everyone on the street, shake them and ask, “Who created us and what happens after death? What does it mean to have a moral life? What is meaning, and where do you find yours?”
Let me see if I can track all the jobs such a person can fall into. I was determined to live a secular humanist version of sainthood, of course, so I started as a lowly associate at what turned out to be a fantastically dysfunctional battered women’s shelter. The last straw was when a board member drunkenly accused the Executive Director of having a lesbian affair with an intern (she was). I quietly emailed out my resume and moved onto doing research at a healthcare start-up. There, I realized working in public health — figuring out how to help more sick people get un-sick — was a way to engage with the damning physicality of our earthly existence while also striving toward a kind of moral transcendence. I wrote my application statement to Columbia University about how I thought public health and liberation theology were essentially the same thing (la lucha continua!), and earned my master’s in health policy there. I ended up an epidemiology researcher. Subject of my research? Substance abuse, because what better to study than my own condition? (Jesus turned water into wine, you know.)
Population-level health research started to slip from my gaze; movement from the excavation of scientific truth to shaping good health policy was excruciatingly slow, and patience has never been one of my virtues. My spiritual orientation had me asking what else was out there, and I turned toward more holistic and personal forms of health promotion. I found a hypnosis teacher on the Lower East Side. She used to be a punk rock singer, she cursed like a sailor, and her book came with a glowing recommendation from a Columbia psychiatry professor. I became a believer in the power of tapping into the unconscious mind, trained with her, and got certified in clinical hypnosis. It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing something for money; people quit smoking, snapped out of months of depression, and re-discovered a sense of purpose in my Midtown office. But, as a private practice hypnotist, I got flustered trying to run my own business. It all became overwhelming fast. When my quarter-life crisis coincided with a painful divorce, I ran away to Korea.
Once in Seoul, I sat crying on my parents’ couch for about three whole months. Once I picked myself back up, I somehow landed a job as a news writer in English radio. They were desperate after one writer left unexpectedly; I showed up and didn’t disappoint with my test writing. In addition to Korean politicians and intellectuals, I interviewed an Olympic medalist, Michael Bolton, the Finnish president, the PEN International President, and most memorably, the daughter of Che Guevara, who praised North Korea as a “good friend of the Cuban people.” That was awkward.
I thrived in the fast-moving pace of the broadcast media world. I was energized by the challenge of having to attain at least a basic level of fluency across many different fields. I loved coming up with smart interview questions that elicited thoughtful, interested responses from interviewees. Let me be honest, it was also such a high to be able to say, “Oh, I work in radio.” I was having such a good time that I felt, if I didn’t force myself to go back to New York, I would stay in Korea forever and I would never have another boyfriend because it seemed like divorced, tattooed women were total damaged goods there. So I packed up and moved back to New York without a plan.
It turned out that all of my time working in academic public health had made me an excellent grant writer, and that skill was in demand. I worked on behalf of a great health advocacy non-profit in Brooklyn, where I blew their ROI out of the water by winning brand new federal and private funding in the six figures. But if you’re detecting a theme, you might begin to guess that that didn’t last long. I fell in love again, you see! I moved to Europe with a new boyfriend who I thought would make me a modern day Gertrude Stein. Instead, his constant criticism and the total, disorienting newness of my surroundings made me only an anxious Hausfrau. You win some, you lose some; the relationship didn’t work out, but while I was there, in the vacuum of a real job I became semi-conversant in German, met new soul sisters, and started an intensive course of self-study in computer programming. I styled myself a freelance web designer, and helped a number of friends and NGOs look spiffy online.
Am I done yet? Almost. Now I am back in Seoul, where I took over operations and marketing for my parents’ business, teach hypnosis classes, write and make feminist art. I hired a coach who specializes in adult ADHD, and she helps me achieve emotional balance and functional constancy. I recently started writing a column with a literary journal, and I’ve been asked to contribute my illustrations to a children’s book as well as an indie clothing label.
About to turn 31, I am happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve lived through many of my greatest fears (a failed marriage! losing your entire support system! moving across the Atlantic for your love, only to have him call you fat!), found that I am not only fine but emerged from the other side with a whole treasure chest of stories and hard-won wisdom. All of my life’s ups and downs have given me oceanic reservoirs of empathy for my fellow humans; there’s probably no mistake of yours that I haven’t personally made or could very well envision myself making. I also earned a measure of insight about the precariousness of our loves, triumphs, losses, and tragedies. I have to believe that they make me a better writer, artist, and citizen of the world.
I used to fixate on the question of what to be “when I grow up.” You might be wondering how a girl like this could ever work toward becoming one thing and stay with it. Interestingly, more than ever, I believe in the importance of pursuing a long-term vision, and realize that I’ve been doing it backwards. Yes, long-term visions are important, but they don’t consist of specific job descriptions or external signifiers of success — all fleeting things — but of emotional qualities and spiritual significance. I meditate, and my vision comes to me in little flashes and whispers; sometimes, in a dream, it comes in panoramic full color. Through story and art, I want to create the connections between people, ideas and institutions that can dissolve oppression, both in society and in the privacy of our own hearts, where the greatest storms rage.
It’s a mouthful, but I might actually start saying that at cocktail parties: “I make stories and art that dissolve oppression.” Everything I’ve ever done — writing news stories and grants, inducing hypnosis, and drawing — is an expression of that same desire to narrate and connect. When we tell other people true stories of what we see and how we see it, we can go a long way towards healing and thriving.
My communist friend may have been right; I have, in fact, become a kind of an event planner, striving toward this vision, event after event, until I reach my final event — death. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, they say. There is a finite number of unglamorous things to do on a given day to move ourselves forward: clean house, sit through meetings, submit portfolio, pay bill, take out garbage, talk to people. Occasionally, if you’re me, pick yourself up from the bathroom floor and splash cold water on a tear-soaked and snot-smeared face. I try to do each of them reverently, like a Buddhist monk whose devotional practice consists of sweeping the fallen leaves off of the temple grounds. That is the work of our lives.
Simone Grace is a Seoul-based writer. She will, one day, move back to the States to live on a Texan ranch, hunting and dressing her own meat. Her art can be found on http://simonegrace.me/.
Image credit: drawing by Simone Grace.
After a long hiatus, the essays are back! With any luck, I will publish twelve new pieces this year—one a month. To submit a draft, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Kate Gace Walton, Editor of Work Stew