Be my guest

day 808: living la pura vida

This week I've had the good fortune to playcation in Costa Rica, arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world. Here, the smiles tend to linger and the locals wish you all the great hope of a "pura vida" or pure life.

I find it no coincidence that it is in this zen state that I devoured Walter Isaacson's biography of the inimitable Steve Jobs.

It was as if we vacationed together, he and I. Though tethered in a fat hard cover the size of which outweighs all I've toted since business school (I'm in a light and airy phase), he came with me everywhere. He was with me when I teared up over his first love, whose longing for him and the hope she let sit inside an ellipses was still palpable 25 years later. He was with me when I got so fired up by what a colossal and cowardly ass he was to the colleagues whose visions he pulled close like a first kiss. And he was with me as I choked up when he resigned from his post as CEO, lifting his body from his wheelchair with slow strength, his arms elongated in their own weight.

And I looked at this man, this character that looms as large or as small as the oz in our lives, and I realized he is not the great product of imagination and pen. He is, was and will be the artist, the frail human, and the imaginarian some comfortably call Steve - a man who generations from now will continue to be the topic of great debate. Did he move us closer to our most creative selves through the revolution of technology or did he tickle the chasm that already divides people, where gadgetry replaces intimacy and we embrace great access, alone?

Whatever the case, no person can argue that like so many of the most impactful leaders of our time, his frailty, his humanity, made him real. The kind of real that was manifest in the love story of he and his wife, a woman who walked beside him through all chapters, all innovations, all mudslides of hope and discord and rhapsody and banal. The kind of real that sang truths as loud as the church bell tower or the collective violin of voices during Muslim prayer. The kind of real he shared in his fateful commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005.

In that speech, he boiled down his lessons for the young brilliant minds about to turn their tassel to the left to three unique stories that gave his life wings - that he quit Reed College and only then did he start learning, that he got fired from Apple and proceeded to embark upon his most creative work through animation, and that he got diagnosed with cancer. And that diagnosis became more than a foreboding, but also and more impactfully a forgiving, a license to go after the extremities of what was possible because each day could literally have been his last.

In the wake of his death, I watched and read that speech with the same voracity and affection as I would imagine did many of us, and of course did so on a product of his creation. In the wake of reading about this speech again through this book, I found myself even more melancholy than the first time and curious to discover what would be my three stories - my three whispers of wisdom before that generation next ascends to do their thing.

Perhaps because I have more living to do, I have come upon only two.

The first is that I am in recovery. I believe we are all in recovery of something - of a secret, a broken heart, a broken bone, a failure, a sadness. In my case, I am in recovery of abandonment. In brief, I have a parent who has chosen actively and perhaps with the most severe of means, to erase me from his story. I have known about his choice for 13 years, not seen him for 24, but I think about it (and him) everyday. I go through it to get through it. And though I am not there yet, every day I get stronger at looking solidly at me, just me on me, and not me through his lens and his choice. I start to draw myself anew, not as the sum total of his abandonment, but as the beauty (and the beautiful ugly) of my presence. I get better at seeing and doing me. And it has become, in a way, my sentence to remind me of my own strength that I will happily serve for the rest of my life.

The second is that I have the power (and the curiosity and the will) to reboot. In 2005, after years of hoarding money under mattresses and the like, I switched careers to tip toe into my vocation. I transitioned from the private sector to fall deeply into the social purpose sector, now helping men and women affected by homelessness and poverty get and keep good jobs. I was 35 when I flipped, and my only potential regret is that I wished I had done it a wee bit sooner. I knew when I was 14 what I wanted to be when I grew up and I needed a sign of some sort to tug me out of my revelry to get me there. Because I leapt when I did, I came to this brave new world with a set of skills that have served me well in this industry. I was scared out of my wits to leave the tepid water of what I knew only to plunge into the cold springs of what I didn't, but thank god I did. I like to think the world and I are better for it.

In both stories, I realize that it is in the art of knowing the deepest truth of who you are, of spelunking to identify the broken that defines you, and the strength that propels you, that you can live your most bad ass life. Perhaps that is my redefinition of la pura vida - it is a life lived in true step with yourself, with your grain, in honor of your voice, against the tidal wave of your naysayers and your boo crowd, and amorously and vigorously in the direction of you.

Again, as for my third story, I'm not quite there yet, which leads me to believe I have many arcs left in me to weave my true (pure) life's tale. I think that's a pretty good thing, and I can't wait to see what is in store for me next.

Here's to all our stories in this pura vida.

Maria Kim


day 762: peace, love & (over) understanding

This season is always interesting for me - a mixture of hope, abundance and absence all rolled up into one.  As is often the case, I spent Christmas morning at mass with my mom - feeling good to be in the house of the big g, and acutely aware of the fact that I'm not there to visit all that often. 

The priest, not one whom I recognized, gave a homily that was difficult, truthful and, I would imagine for many of us in the pews, a little too close for comfort.  He spoke of the fact that, put simply, Christmas is under understood. 

Yes. Under. Understood.

He quipped that when he stands outside of chuch during this season, he is often confronted by individuals who shake his hand and implore him, jokingly, to pray for them - because the inlaws are coming to town, or because the holiday stresses are cloaked around them like the weight of a velvety over-embellished Christmas skirt.

He told us then (as he told those who asked for his prayers leading up to this day) that we just didn't get it. 

That Christmas - as we all know when we hover above the event of these days - is neither about the spats nor about the stuff.  And that if we focused on being more present, on looking at our families by default and families by choice and saw this holiday as an opportunity to visit each with new wonder and new discovery, then maybe, just maybe, we may get it after all. 

In truth, I missed this chance this year.  Not being at an "event" surrounded by an abundance of kids and gifts and food and drink, it was all too easy for me to see this holiday as any other day.  I under understood the import of this day and let an opportunity for celebration in the purest sense of the word pass me by.  I'm going to get better at this - not as a resolution for the new year, but as a resolution for me. 

So as we stumble towards New Year's Eve - this gateway between this year and that, let us toast not necessarily to new beginnings, but to new overstandings.  We keep getting a chance at bat, because we keep getting a new opportunity to get it right.  And, especially this holiday season, I am abundantly grateful for that.

Cheers to you and yours this New Year's. 

Maria Kim 


day 699: there are no monsters under here

Though it's not necessarily spring, I have had a bit of the spring cleaning bug - of diving into the nooks and crannies of drawers and closets and underbellies of beds to filter out the old and make room for ... nothing. Not in a negative way, but in the most meaningful of ways - to make deliberate and intentional and dust bunny-less space for something or nothing to emerge. An act where the creation of space is trump over knowing precisely what you're making space for.

A strange and exhilerating space indeed.

For context, I have lived in the home I live now for the last 13 years; and as I often don't fall victim to the spring cleaning bug, the underbelly of my bed has become a repository of my life - not only for the last decade plus, but also for the shoeboxes that hold the tactile slideshow of my decades growing up. As I pulled out box after box, I became obsessed with the forensics of the process. Each memory served itself back up to me not in the actual chronological order in which it occured, but in this artificial dream sequence that was dictated by the happenstance way in which I spelunked. Memories were sardined together - a waltz between the present day and the past a la Midnight in Paris - and I found myself melancholy ...

  • mourning lost friendships which based on the artifacts of photos and cards were my lifeline at the time;

  • feeling newly romanced by a lost love as I read through the chronicles of our highs and lows through dusty love letters;

  • tearing up by my mom, my sweet sweet mom, writing me cards half in Korean and half in English, where she articulates affirmations and "I'm proud of you's" that are easier said on paper than they sometimes are in person.

And through the whole process, I was reminded of the things I miss. I miss relationships - the discovery and the courtship of them. The lazy Sunday and the gussied up of them.

And, if I'm entirely honest about it, the filled up space of them.

Also, as odd as it may sound, I miss paper. I miss the intention with which someone must write in pen when you don't have a back space or delete button at your rescue. There's something inherently romantic about it, whether words between friends or whispers between lovers. Paper, en fait, always beats rock.

In the end, I found myself surrounded by bags upon bags of trash and treasure. Stuff to hold on to (rightfully or wrongfully) and stuff to set free. And I have wondered, for weeks now, why this single act of purging has sat with me so much. The lesson has since revealed itself to me in hesitant clues, and I took to them as I did the purge - opening them gingerly and waiting for the randomness of them to suddenly make sense. What I realized in those moments was that I needed to make space. Space for something or nothing to emerge. In the past few months, opportunity has tugged at my coattails inviting me to be open, and I am realizing I need(ed) the underbelly of my bed and the underbelly of my head and my heart to lay their cloak down so that hope may flood back in. Perhaps it's easier to start with the bed, because the head and the heart have cobwebs more complex to unwind. Whatever the case, I feel now I am steadily on my way.

Yup, I needed to bust the dust out, to make sure there were no monsters under there.

Maria Kim


day 578: yo, yo are you equally yoked?

As I write this on day 6 or so of a 25-day excursion, I find myself struck by a single concept: the concept of being equally yoked.

First, an explanation: My 25-day wee rabbit hole existence is actually an excursion in Europe called the American Marshall Memorial Fellowship, an experience that is part cultural, part political, part provocative - and all in the spirit of promoting transatlantic relations. Through this process, the fellows get a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore issues of immigration, education, workforce development, climate, economic development and the building of cultures, institutions and next generations, with the grandiose hope to see how we might take Europe's lessons learned right back home to our own backyards.

And on day 6, after going to NATO, and visiting the European Union, and meeting with leaders in the office of the minister of workforce development, I realize (in this violet hour), that my biggest lesson so far was rendered not necessarily in the halls of the European Parliament, but on the terrace of a pub not far from La Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium.

One new friend was sharing her thoughts on the power of relationships and the pivot point that happens when a couple first realizes (gets freaked out by, accepts, slowly falls in love with), and eventually eases in to the fact that they are equally yoked. That they are in step with one another, carrying equal weight (though not necessarily at the same time). That they are teetering and tottering as two oxen in step - sometimes clumsily, sometimes in competition, but often and almost always earnestly and sweetly looking to the other to make sure they trudge along, and are present in the times when the load feels light and "all in" in the times when the load feels almost too heavy to bear. And I found that idea - that truth about the ugly and the pretty of walking hand in hand - as one of the most arduous, but most beautiful walks of all.

While this concept completely resonates with me when I imagine true partnership in the most romantic of senses (and may be the utopian state to which a lot of us aspire), it frankly also represents so much of what I'm learning and seeing on this trip. Denmark, with its robust social welfare state, requires deep investment into its system by each of its citizens (a tax base of at least 50%), in exchange for the government's deep support of its citizens to be happy, to build skills (all education is paid for through university, with other investments in one's lifelong learning), to live with limited visible and visceral distinction between the haves and the have nots, and to derive comfort and true welfare in knowing that their health (healthcare is free), safety, productivity and prosperity are of utmost concern on the national agenda. Denmark is just one small example. Indeed in each of our partnerships - whether between nation and citizen, member state and union, or partner and partner - we look (scratch that, we crave) a cadence of balance. We crave a spoken and unspoken understanding that binds people together - beyond blood, or a promise, or a piece of paper. We crave true and unequivocally equal yokedom.

Another woman I spoke with this week is celebrating her 25 year wedding anniversary this Monday. And when I asked her what the secret was to her successful marriage, she told me quite simply:

"Forgive each other. Enjoy each other. Pursue your own interests. Yet choose each other."

I opt to live in a world where love is great and life is messy, where mistakes are made and forgiveness abounds, where pursuit of yourself is equally important to what you give to a partnership, and where every day, with intention, you want to choose your partner, even if he or she really pisses you off. It has worked for my friend for 25 years, and for Denmark for plenty more.

Forgive, enjoy, pursue and choose. Yup, this is what I hope for - in the relations of my life and in the relations of our world.

Maria Kim


day 525: sacrifice, thy name is momma

As we near our annual holiday where we celebrate our mothers by umbilical cord (and mothers by another accord), I cannot help but be reminded of what it means to be a mother. 

Scratch that.  A momma.

A few Sundays ago, I sat across the table from my own mom.  The same table we have sat across Sunday after Sunday - wiping our hands with the hot towels from the not-so-Japanese wait staff, sipping hot green tea where the first sip - without fail - scalds my tongue, and noshing on the salmon teriyaki bento.  It's a routine I dare not tamper with. 

My ritual, my time with my mom, our meal. 

This past visit, my mom shared an interesting story about a young 27-year-old co-worker who was leaving the hospital and for whom they had had a goodbye party.  Much to her delight, in this young woman's parting comments, she publicly shared her gratitude for my mom.  For the way she taught her, the way she enrolled her in what can be a staggering learning process, the proper way she modeled how to use the instruments, navigate the charts, understand the impact between this act and that vein, this test and that organ.  At 70, my mom had been to this up-and-coming nurse a mentor, a coach, an educator who found the process of ensuring true learning (for the generation of new practitioners to follow) tremendously valuable and fun. 

For this young woman, my mom was the difference between her just checking off a list, and understanding the real medicine at work.

And as she regaled this story with me, almost as though it were just another ho hum story to update her daughter on the week's goings-on, I heard her say - and in fact, almost whisper - that she really wondered if she should have been a teacher.  That she never feels more alive than when she is sharing something of value - a lesson in the form of a gift - served up to a student at his or her pace with care and provocation. 

And then it hit me. 

Unlike my mother, I have never had to stop myself from pursuing a professional aspiration.  At my age, and without itty bitties at my ankles, I have never had to pause my career for an other.   My mom wanted to teach.  Decades ago, she wanted to stay in school so she could do just that.  But my brother and I needed things, wanted things; and my mom chose being a mom and a nurse, over following her real life's passion. 

I know in my heart of hearts that while my mom may have never been an official teacher, she has taught more people than goodbye parties and performance reviews can effectively articulate.   But the truth is she still is melancholy over what could have been had she followed her vocation. 

And so this Mother's Day, I tear up a bit over the life my mother gave up in order to give me and my brother our own space to grow. 

And I recognize the many forks in the road, the countless sacrifices, the big and small moments in which mothers everywhere let a bit of themselves fade away so their children's lives can be more vibrant.  It breaks my heart and fills my heart all at the same time. 

As for the mother I aspire to one day be, I hope I will have the same sense of self and sense of us that can give my child the model she deserves, while giving her the wings to let her heart sing.

Yup, sacrifice, thy name is momma.  And to mothers everywhere, thank you for all that you do to create opportunity for your children.  Words can never paint the depth of your sacrifice nor the gratitude we all feel for it.

Maria Kim