Roll On Roll On

Essay For Miyeon Lee

Miyeon’s painting The plain of GimJe - Land of my grandmother is right next to me wrapped up and ready to return to her. Through the layers of bubble wrap, I can see the mountains and the plain; this is the landscape of Miyeon’s grandmother, GimJe in South Korea.

‘I often look at the sky, don't you?’ Darla says rolling onto her side to face me.
‘I hadn’t given it much thought,’ I reply.
She raises her heart-shaped face towards the sky with her eyes half closed.
Lying in bed that night she tells her lover for the umpteenth time that she loves the sky, at the moment of sleep, she becomes troubled by her lack of curiosity. Tomorrow she will ask me: ‘do you think that it is bad to love something that you no not know?’

What would our grandmothers, Miyeon and mine, say to each other? Both have experienced war in very different ways. Their offspring are deeply affected. A memory without voice becomes a canon, a silent song sung at various times. It is a delicate subject, easily damaged. What is an appropriate response to family trauma in a historic national narrative: this is the question that Miyeon is dealing with—in this painting.

I never told anyone this. In the evenings on the way home, I find pleasure in seeing people at home leaning against the adjoining wall. It is as if these people, in separate apartments, are in the same room. They sit back-to-back to each other engaged in unconnected conversations with a person in front of them. One is chatting with a heart-faced lover who is standing at the stove frying chicken. The other is nagging a mother pruning a treasured houseplant. Neither of them is aware that the other is so close to them that they look as if they are touching.

If our grandmothers, Miyeon, and mine, were to meet they wouldn't be able to understand each other. There would be a need for an interpreter; might Miyeon be that intermediary as she is now through her painting? Even so, our grandmothers could communicate with other means such as the way that they pour tea. Would they be able to know each other without speaking: know each other as women, as mothers, as mothers of mothers. As people uprooted from homes that no longer exist? And I am sorry that Miyeon’s painting has gone. I enjoyed her painting’s presence; this is why I keep looking at where it used to be. I gaze at it as much as I do the sky. When I do, it is as though I am looking at the land of Miyeon’s grandmother from the sky.

‘Put these on,' says Rick handing Dinah a radio headset. ‘It doesn't work in the backseat, but you should wear them on all the same.' And here Dinah is in the Sky! Sky! Sky! Her hair is whipping around her face as she leans further and further out the side of the windowless helicopter. Even if the headset worked, she isn’t able to articulate how she feels. All she can do is smile like one of those dogs hanging out of car windows, panting, the rushing wind flapping her cheeks. Taking everything in, observing, observing everything at one time.

For those that left their country of origin, like Miyeon and I, the subjects of belonging and home is difficult as we get older. We interrogate ourselves about who we are, where we belong, and the decisions that we have made, and will make. We are troubled. And feel guilty, while appreciating our mobility, our right to come and go as we please. As the years go on, the urge to return builds, to go back to a place that seems surreal and distant. How nothing changes, but at the same time is different. Everything is leaning slightly to the right or the left, but we aren’t sure which. And so we trouble at the door, uncertain how it should unlock. We ask our parents to tell us stories about their life, and of family members who have long past. We do this to find how these stories weave into the history of our homelands. In this way, we search for something. Asking ourselves what right do we have to call a place home and is it right to love something that we don't know?