Twelve Months, Twelve Words

January 2020
Jata (Pali): the word that means tangle; can also be a name.

I really like finding words that are uncommon or unfamiliar to me. They help corral the droves of my confusing emotions and thoughts. They are like filters for my biased mind and new glasses for my jaded eyes.

Augusta asked what I would like to do for my upcoming 70th birthday, and her ideas were excellent and aligned with what would be my normal interests. But nothing appealed to me. Usually, the new year has brought me an air of freshness as though a Great Power were presenting me with a clean slate for infinite second chances.

For Christmas, I stayed with the kids for only one night, cutting short the traditional three nights with little Ruby who is so much fun to be with during any holiday. The feeling so familiar to me—a restlessness, an ambivalence, or both—settled into me and I just wanted to go home, to my own bed, and to silence and stillness.

I often use the word ambivalence when I feel like this. I thought I’d been misusing the word, thinking it meant lassitude and blahness. But it means fluctuating from one thing to another or contradictory attitudes. I wonder if this feeling (as conveyed in the real sense of the word) came about when I was a baby. The natural ease of the newborn may have intertwined with the stress patterns of the adults who held me, unwittingly imprinting upon me their responses to war and violence: their rapid heartbeats, their heavy flow of adrenaline and cortisol, and their subtle tremors in voice and body. Childhood in rural New England among blond-haired and blue-eyed Americans may have created another set of polarities: on the one hand, the trepidation of the foreignness of the white people; and, on the other hand, the deep longing to become one of them. Like Jata, I am searching to find my roots and untangle the tangles to understand how I have come to be who I am. “Tangle within, a tangle without, people are entangled in a tangle. Gotama, I ask you this: who can untangle this tangle?” (SN7.6)¹

February 2020

Awumbuk (Papua New Guinea): the emptiness after visitors depart from the indigenous Baining people who live in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. It is believed the departed leave a heaviness, an oppressive mist, that causes those remaining to be apathetic and distracted.

The fire was contained to Jim and Janie’s apartment and the attic in our two-family house. But the water to put out the fire flooded everything, ruining all the internal walls and floors, and much of my belongings. Surprisingly, I have been pretty calm through this; Augusta has been my rock, even-keeled while handling the complex processes with insurance companies, assessors, expeditors, and her tenants, Jim and Janie.

I found a furnished unit a couple miles from Augusta’s house in Brookline. Ruby loves the apartment, especially the fire escape outside my bedroom, and the large tv that’s braced on a tilt high on the living room wall—just like in some hotel rooms. She spends a lot of time singing and humming on the fire escape, watching people slowly saunter by with their babies.

And I like this temporary place with only the basic essentials; it makes everything simpler. I do not miss having “more” of anything. I brought little to this apartment other than two boxes of books and research notes for the thesis on the Therīgāthā. After months of studying these poets, some of the first nuns who lived in the time of the Buddha some 2,500 years ago, I have been disappointed to find them, along with the Buddha, less than what I had expected. And I have come to realize how much I dislike several of the enlightened poets. They remind me of women I have known and know. Comparing these women—separated by millennia and continents—I see there is something about them that triggers me. It may be related to their arrogance and backgrounds of great privilege. I’ve kept this buried for a long time, even to myself; but with the thesis work, it has popped up quite surprisingly. It’s a tangle I need to attend to.

March 2020

Monachopsis (Greek): the persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to surroundings as a seal on a beach.

We’ve entered a new world. We are locked down in our homes and the children can’t go to school. Coronavirus has become the force behind all that we do or don’t do. Thank goodness this rental came with a good amount of toilet paper and cleaning products. I am in my bubble of one; the kids in their bubble of three. Ruby and her mom came by a couple times. I taped notes on every window of the apartment and made a game of it. Ruby kept kissing the dirty window of my bedroom as she sat on the fire escape looking distressed. Augusta and I agree it may be less stressful to visit via FaceTime for a while.

My days are streamlined: thesis work and daily walks. All appointments have been postponed or cancelled. Medications are mailed to me by CVS. Managing a toothache, I floss and brush my teeth 4+ times a day; I gargle with salt water and apple cider trying to make the toothache go away. My dentist calls me to say he will meet with me at the office if the tooth gets worse. I hope it won’t.

We are all maladapted for such a time as this. I walk the quiet car-less streets of my new Brookline neighborhood, around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, and nearby parks, emptied of children. The houses I pass are enormous. I wonder who live in them and what they’re doing inside, and what kinds of jobs and furniture they have. These are familiar thoughts that stem from an old wish of a child who believed that living in such a house would bring her happiness and a sense of belonging.

April 2020

Forfend (Middle English): to avert or keep away from something unpleasant; protect something by precautionary means.

Months ago, I had agreed, with hesitation, to give a talk to a group of therapists and members of the mindfulness community. The write-up I prepared, without much thought in 2019, turns out to be the actuality of what I am living out this year: “In these extraordinarily volatile times of racism-related dukkah,² it may be imperative for all of us to delve into—and better understand—who we are and what constitutes our identities, as individuals, as corporate entities, and as a nation—so we can awaken from ‘such stuff as dreams are made on … rounded with a sleep.’³ ‘From the Margins’ reflects a search for identity—in this case, quite late in life—of a Korean immigrant on her uncomfortable travel toward freedom, while shedding the outdated coverings of her Westernhood.”

If I had been asked to give the talk on Zoom, I would have said no thanks. I was pretty certain that had the presentation occurred, I would have been bombarded with questions by the almost all-white audience, prone—as I have found with other similar groups—to a literalness that requires a lot of details. I thought of the years I’ve spent clarifying and reclarifying myself, with the accompanying undercurrent of anxiety about being misunderstood. To realize that this sensibility has been born in part from being marginalized—living on the fringes of white society—has been a significant revelation. Until now, it’s never been stated in such an unambiguous manner, having laid dormant for 65 years deep within me. I don’t want to explain and reexplain myself anymore, but it’s a hard habit to break. I’m tired.

May 2020

Querencia (Spanish): the place where one’s strength is drawn from, where one is authentic; also, a spot in an arena taken by the bull for his defensive stand.

A recent conversation with close friends, in this country and in Europe, have touched upon race and racism. One woman, a Trump supporter, expressed her belief that Meghan Markle was manipulative and untrustworthy. I found myself defending Markle for no reason other than she is a woman of color. Another friend expressed her belief that the people in the UK had received Markle with open arms. I retorted, “That’s why there was the cartoon of her pushing a pram with a monkey for a baby?” And still another said, “There are a lot of biracial couples here” as if that were proof of non-racism. Many one-on-one talks were to follow. I continue to be surprised—even hurt and disappointed—with comments that reveal false equivalencies, white positionalities, and defensive excuses. To be fair, my dearest friends have not known me like this—this “other” woman struggling to free herself from aspects that no longer suit her, particularly as related to her voice and her world views. The women who simply listen, without answers or giving me their thoughts, are those I appreciate. Sometimes silence is the best support.

June 2020

Quaesitum (Latin): that which is sought; an answer.

I saw one enormous march of protesters on Beacon Street, heading toward city center. Most of them were younger than baby boomers; and they were diverse in color: black to white and hues in between. Watching them gave me hope.

I joined a newly formed BIPOC group facilitated by a first generation Dominican-American academic previously tied to the 400 Years of Inequality Project based in NYC. Using a contemplative approach to racism, the weekly gatherings focus on the historical inequalities of the US. Often it is in silence. Our ancestors are always acknowledged and present. The moment I saw the wall of faces appear on the Zoom screen with its rainbow shades of color, my body was changed. It was as though every cell shifted in recognizing this wall of strangers as a refuge where my guards could relax. Until then, I had not been aware of how tightly wound my body has been for nearly all my life. The BIPOC wall of faces was transformative for me; it was a coming home like I have never felt before; it was something I did not know I was seeking.

July 2020

Mono no aware: (Japan) The ahhness of things or the bittersweet poignancy of things, such as the realization of impermanence.

We went up to the house in New Hampshire; and Ruby got to swim at the cove at Lake Sunapee from morning to night, day after day. The change of scenery was much needed, especially by Jason and Augusta who have managed to work and oversee Ruby all these months. We are her only playmates; and I try not to get too bossy when I am playing with her. It takes me back to being seven again.

It seems just the other day that she was so small, barely talking. She had fallen asleep on the drive to her house. I nudged her gently to awaken her. She opened her eyes but wasn’t sure where she was—like the feeling we have when we are neither in the realm of sleep nor the realm of being awake. And she asked me, “Where is me, Gaga?” I wish we could have remained right there forever. Mono no aware.

August 2020

Bardo (Tibetan): the state between death and rebirth, varying according to a person’s conduct in life; a time of vulnerability.

I’ve moved into an apartment one door down from Ruby’s house. Oh, how happy we are! The movers have come and gone; and the settling has begun. Ruby has arranged my things; the skin and hair products are grouped together by color (with pink things taking prominent positions)—so too the pictures in my bedroom and the study, and the spices in the kitchen. I don’t care if everything doesn’t go where I would put them—like the slightly rusty shower rack that is now in the kitchen for our aprons, oven mitts, and calendar with wild baby animals and birds. The controlling aspect of me has diminished, perhaps because no one other than this family sees my apartment? I hope that’s not the reason. I can’t control anything other than myself; this fact is setting in.

September 2020

Retrouvailles (French): rediscovery; happiness of reuniting with someone after a long time.

I woke up to thoughts of Halmoni, with the sudden realization of my nonthinking of her over the many years. Only now, as a grandmother, can I look back and see her differently, stripping away our childhood labels of her as “eccentric” or “crazy.” Tidbits of memories of her come to me, slowly, in unexpected moments: her suffocating hugs of my little body which made me say, “Halmoni, you are hurting me!”; her dramatic storytelling as she and her friends sang pansori, laughing and giggling behind their hands; her directing the many women in the seasonal kimchi making process, surrounded by mountains of cabbage heads and spices in the open courtyard of her house; and her constant sighing as though she could not release all the sorrow packed deep in her innards. She yelled constantly; she woke us up with the rattling of pots and pans in the middle of the nights when she couldn’t sleep; she scolded and frowned more than she laughed and smiled; and, always, she sighed as she smoked her cigarettes, staring into space. She raised me for more years than Mother could. How did I not know that love takes many forms? I have been using the wrong words for it when it didn’t look the way I wished love to be.

When Ruby was younger, she ran—as she often did—the long stretch of my hallway, pounding the wood floors in exactly the same way as my grandmother had long ago: with a determined force on the heels of the feet and a sideway sway of the full length of the body. It was as though Halmoni had returned in Ruby’s body for just a brief moment to be with me.

October 2020

Sonder (coined): realization that every person you pass is living life as complex as your own.

After a short stint of combining our bubbles, I have returned to being alone as Ruby is now in school two days a week. It took my focused attention to be her supervisor for online schooling; but in those six weeks, I came to understand what her parents have been juggling, and what the children and their teachers have been living through. I am struck by the patience of everyone involved, despite the rare meltdowns on the screen or in person when it got too much for Ruby and she would crawl under her desk for a break. It only happened twice, a testament to her pliability and desire to learn and be with her classmates. She continues to be my teacher; and she is my practice to become, simply, better.

My hours, either waking or sleeping, seem to merge without demarcation. I think in my sleep much like I think when I am awake. I dreamed of an enormous door made of a rare, heavy wood; and my task was to whittle down the edges and make it fit the doorway with precision. A single loud knock came, awakening me as I thought it was a real knock outside my apartment. I even checked the front and back doors to make sure I had dreamed the knock. It seemed so real. On another night, I saw bodies tangled together in twos and threes; and even though it was not a lewd or frightening dream, I shouted HELP so loudly that I woke myself up, hoping my upstairs neighbors had not called the police. So, the boundary between the sleeping and waking hours is fading, like the boundaries that have separated me from my friends over our differences in perspectives and others I have judged harshly.

November 2020

Ghodar-dim (Bengali): term for nothing or false hope; literally means horse’s egg.

Such violence and turmoil over the election results. Such riling up of people by Trump with lies that have become increasingly outrageous, yet spreading like another wild, contagious disease. He cannot alter the inevitable trajectory of this country. The majority will no longer be white by 2045. The demographic trends cannot be reversed. Even so, it is draining to be under these clouds of tension. The collective trauma has changed us all.

December 2020

Saudade (Portuguese, Galician): the feeling of missing something that hasn’t even happened or won’t come back; an absence one carries within oneself.

I’ve joined many BIPOC communities since the summer. They vary in focus, ranging from creative writing to the arts in general, meditation and mindfulness practices, mental health, social justice, and collective healing. I signed up for a few workshops given by a well-known writer/Zen practitioner and a popular mindfulness teacher. The audiences were predominantly white, and I found the setting familiar but uncomfortable. This has been a change in awareness that would not have occurred without my having the comparison of the BIPOC groups. I am more mindful of my physical reactions to different groups. There are differences, some obvious and others more subtle. I am working to integrate myself with myself; but it’s not a fast makeover.

Words have anchored me during 2020. The year has been dense with extraordinary events, both unexpected and inevitable. Things long hidden away or made “invisible,” have erupted into the light and become visible for the whole world to see. Yet, within the world’s tumultuous setting, I’ve come to know stillness and silence, intimately, day after day after day. Here, I’ve been shedding my coverings, including my make-pretend skin of whiteness and other constricting wrappings I no longer need or want. In this foreign territory of unknowing, I’m finding untrodden trails overrun with brambles and weeds where Ruby’s words echo, “Where is me?” It doesn’t matter where I am or where I am going, so long as it is a walk toward understanding, which will be my freedom.


Image: “the neighbour’s grass” by Dario, licensed under CC 2.0.

¹From Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the “Jata Sutta: The Tangle,” retrieved from
²Pali word for suffering, a key concept in Buddhism.
³From William Shakespeare’s,The Tempest.


Kyung Peggy Kim
Latest posts by Kyung Peggy Kim (see all)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.