I love the sunlight in May, especially here in England where grey is the default colour of the sky. For some reason, at this time of year (perhaps because there’s more light), when glancing up from my kitchen table or breezing past the dresser on the upstairs landing, something will catch my eye: an artifact, an object from my childhood, or my father’s life or even my grandmother’s, and I am still for a moment, remembering—dinner tables, conversations, banging doors, birthday candles, gifts and wishes.
Recently, a Korean black lacquer box caught my attention in just this way. It came to me in a jumble of memorabilia at my father’s passing. Rectangular in shape, it is just about as large as an outstretched hand, measured wrist to fingertips. On the lid, mother-of-pearl images shimmer against their black backdrop; looking at these, I am once again a young girl listening to my father telling tall tales—stories of everyday life that he believes with his whole heart and soul, as do I.
On top of the box four figures are depicted: a wise man at the centre with his top knot and slender staff (or weapon), a seated man who appears to be listening to him, another proffering a scroll of some sort, and a final character, her back to the viewer, fanning the swirling flames under an iridescent pot. Overhead, flies a crane with outstretched wings and gracefully inclined neck, just beyond the stylized branches of a pine tree.
To this day, I can hear my father’s voice as he talks to me about luck, long life, joy and good fortune; of all that he saw and heard in the Far East. It is the same voice that spoke to me of Turkey, Europe, South America, and of course the USA. He marveled at the richness of culture, of life, of people. Every person was an unopened book, he claimed, full of magic and mystery. Endless possibility. “Just look,” he cried, “just look!”
When I hold the Korean black box I am once again with that young man who picked it out and paid for it from his less than princely lieutenant’s salary. Did he buy it to hold his watch, cufflinks, medals… or was he thinking ahead to a future wife who would need something like this to hold her jewelry? Did he buy it for the mother-of- pearl picture, or as a reminder of the 38th parallel north, the DMZ, or simply because he had little else to do on a dusty, hot Saturday afternoon? I like this box in particular because it is a memento of my father as a young man, before he matured into the combat pilot who had to kill as he flew.
There is another artifact high on a kitchen shelf: my grandmother’s table vase, a gilded long-necked swan. I never realized until well after she was gone that she had a fondness for swans, in particular the fact that they mated for life. If one went down, well, the other one, the survivor, just carried on alone. This was her story, in fact – a divorced Catholic, the reason why never discussed – but again, with this golden reminder in hand, I sense her solitary sadness, the vulnerability behind the smooth unruffled persona she presented to the world.
Vulnerability… According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. Brené Brown explores the nature of this condition in her Ted Talk: ‘The Power of Vulnerability’.
Recently, a full-page advert for my book Off-Island appeared in the Bookseller—the inside back cover, to be exact—a precursor to the front page of the May 4 edition, both of them heralding a book written decades ago. Seeing it, I am reminded again of my father’s Korean black box, my grandmother’s gilded swan and Brené Brown’s Ted Talk. Fear and shame, vulnerability, the need to be perfect before taking a risk. Letting it all hang out. Being wrong. Being loved. What a relief it is, finally putting Off-Island out there in black and white for everyone to read. What a release: being self-published.
On sale, paperback released 28th September