The Red Frame
“Although blaming the victim is often a phenomenon of trauma, being separated from their birthmothers and handed over to strangers in the adoption process is the only trauma where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful. They are not grateful; they are grieving.”
— Nancy Newton Verrier, The Primal Wound
“I have made it my task to reconstruct the text of a family with context clues, and my intent is this: to trust in the mysterious; to juxtapose the known with the unknown; to collect the overlooked, the debris — stones, broken mirrors, and abandoned things. With these I will sew a new quilt of memory and imagination, each stitch a small transformation, each stitch my work of mourning.”
— Jane Jeong Trenka, The Language of Blood
I had an inkling of what I wanted, though I hadn’t seen it yet — a mirror hanging solid and clear to the side of the door in the entryway of my new apartment in California, a reflection of everything I was. A fancy mirror, a gilded mirror, or at least a mirror like you might find in an Anthropologie catalogue. I almost got one at an antiques store. It was a stripped wooden cabinet converted into a mirror that could be painted any color. Blue as the door, or black like a typeface, like Didot, but je ne me suis pas sentie le français ce jour.
I felt corkscrew, so I bought a corkboard with an elaborate dark red frame instead of a mirror. But, I can’t buy a metaphor for my life instead of a corkboard, so I’ll apply divergent thinking to create a story instead.
What is my story? What is my life concept?
I need a new frame, but I don’t know the old frame. Even if it’s past tense, I want to see it for what it was, as a thing-in-itself.
Call me an idealist. Tell me things-in-themselves are illusions. There is no thing-in-itself. Tell me the mind can’t connect frames because we only have sensory perceptions. Say we only have experience. Say existence precedes essence, or worse. Say there is no soul at all, and the only myth greater than the human soul is God. Tell me, and I will believe you.
Tell me, and I will believe you because I am a child.
I read a book on adoption, and then I read another book on adoption, and I lie down in the fetal position in the dark to hear my inner child speak out of fear.
That’s not true. I’m afraid of the dark. I would not lie down in it. Not as a child and not as a woman in search of a story.
Once upon a time, an idealist was born to a fisherman who lost his arm in a boating accident somewhere off the coast of Busan, South Korea. Was it January 1984? Was it before or after he accidentally impregnated his wife?
Who knows; I am certainly not privy to that information.
When she gave birth to a third child in October, they had no idea how they could afford another baby, especially a girl. They already had twin sons they couldn’t feed. They wanted her to have a better life. They, too, were idealists.
Were they idealists? Or is this story a fiction, dreamed up by the adoption agency and then by me?
My child’s report from Holt Children’s Services says:
Reason for Relinquishment — The natural father had his right arm amputated due to a ship collision. The natural mother was bringing up two twin sons aged one in severely poor condition. In no condition to maintain their livelihood, the natural parents came to have the unplanned baby. They said they would not take the baby back in the future. They wished her to be adopted into a sound home.
Stripped of clinical terminology, it sounds just as mythic. My mother told me when I was a little girl:
The family already had two boys and didn’t know how they could afford another child. They wanted you to have a better life, so we got you.
“And I do have a better life,” I said.
Did I say that?
I certainly thought it. What would I do without patent leather shoes, saddle shoes, princess dresses I could twirl in, t-shirts, pink suede cowboy boots, and red leather mini-skirts and vests? Where would I be without rollerblades and hockey sticks, teepees and toy houses, Barbie dolls, American Girls, and books? Where would I be without money? Who would I be without my mother and father? Who would I be with my mother and father?
I was five and afraid of losing class privilege and, also, love. I cried.
Maybe I cried.
Who knows; I am certainly not privy to that information. I’ve already crosschecked facts with my mother twice.
She sent an article from Yahoo that says drinking four cups of coffee daily over time will improve memory functioning in the future and ward off effects of aging, according to several scientists whose names I do not remember. I should drink less Diet Cherry Coke and more coffee. I should write a more comforting story, but is comfort creative?
One year my family hosted an exchange student from Daejeon, South Korea. I loved the idea of Sam. She would be a twin, someone who came from the same country and would look just like me. She would teach me how to speak Korean and write hangul, and we would be inseparable.
She saw my face first in the crowd at the Grand Rapids airport, and her sigh of relief made me smile.
That night, she was afraid to go to bed, so I hugged her, lay down beside her until she fell asleep, and wiped away her tears. After I left her, she put a pillow on top of the lamp beside the bed to dim the light. She was afraid of the dark, she told us, but it was too bright for her to sleep. She didn’t expect the pillow to have burned by morning.
In the morning, I began to see Sam: her dark brown, almost black hair (that was my natural color), glasses and small voice. She was a year older than me, and at eighteen, she liked San Rio, Britney Spears, and telling the truth. We rode our bikes to the graveyard in the summer, and I made her promise not to tell my mother about the time I didn’t hit the brakes soon enough. I crashed head-on into a gravestone, catapulted over it and, somehow, miraculously landed crouched on my feet with only the wind knocked out of me. She was scared. I was alive. I came clean three days later because I also need to tell the truth, especially to my mother, and Sam’s sigh of relief made me angry.
Everything about Sam made me angry. Is this what Korea is like? I wondered because I did not like Sam, and at seventeen, I realized that if I did not like Sam, I must not like Korea either.
“Everybody is so fucking happy,” Jane Jeong Trenka wrote in The Language of Blood about pictures of adoptees she found while looking at magazines in a waiting room at the Lutheran Social Services in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I read her book on the plane ride back to Grand Rapids from New York City where I just met a colleague at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, someone who I am beginning a graduate program in creative writing with in a couple of months. I am going to California, a place that’s lingered in my imagination since I was a girl. It’s the place I dreamt of running away to, the place where I would have become a famous actress, but I chose to study poetry and philosophy instead. Everybody is so fucking happy, I repeat in my head.
Everybody is so fucking happy.
I want to cry, but I can’t cry. I’m on an airplane, surrounded by happy people talking with their hands and laughing. The guy to my left plays on his iPad. The woman on my right reads a fashion magazine. I want to punch the seat in front of me or throw the book down the aisle as far as it will go. Hopefully, it will go so far that it will fly out of the (miraculously) open window and fall down and down and down, and I’ll have an excuse not to finish reading it. But I am sitting in the middle seat, so I close my eyes and repeat it once more, my slow dirge. Everybody is so fucking happy. So why am I so fucking unhappy?
Say it’s a myth — happiness. But, I was a happy person. I was a happy child. Life wasn’t ever perfect, but I felt happiness while living it. It wasn’t a cover for underlying sadness either, though there was always sadness at the core of my being, lying there like molten glass, red and ready to be reformed. It was happiness-in-itself.
It’s happiness-in-itself I miss. Not some romanticized notion of childhood, but the predisposition in my brain to cling to pleasurable moments and to react from the left prefrontal area of the neocortex instead of the right. Now I’ve applied convergent thinking to my story, too, in order to show where happiness lies.
I go back to when I was twenty-one. The city is Budapest, Hungary. I’ve been studying cognitive science, an interdisciplinary approach to studying the brain and mapping and computing its functions. I’ve retained one piece of valuable information. Scientists have discovered explanations for everything in the brain except creativity, but they’re hopeful they’ll uncover the mystery soon. I’ve walked this city and its seven bridges in rain, snow, and darkness. Yes, I was afraid of the dark, but I walked in it anyway. It was beautiful. The gothic architecture — old world, the lights — distant, the bad graffiti — hilarious, the langos sajtos tejfölös — greasy, the air — cold, me — happy.
When I was seven, I met my dog, Charlie, for the first time. He fell in love with me at first sight. He was a daisy dog, bred for temperament and longevity — a black and tan Poodle, Bichon, and Silky Terrier mix. The breeder didn’t want to let him near me because he was too rowdy, and I was too sweet, but he jumped out of her arms and ran to where I sat cross-legged on the floor and immediately curled up on my lap and fell asleep.
“He’s never done this before,” the breeder said.
“I want him,” I said. When we got back to our house, I sat by the open window in our library with the sun shining through and took it all in. I was home and next month I would have a dog. A breeze blew over my arm. Neurons were on fire in my neocortex.
Red frame, red frame, on the wall, who is the realest of them all?
Fairy tales are so fantastic they’re beyond myth. They’re beyond me. Even as a child, I couldn’t feel them. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that far. Or was it the end I didn’t like in spite of the means? The protagonist always lives happily ever after, evil is always punished, the prince and princess are always reunited. It’s so simple, so fantastic; but when I took a course on exploring fairy tales, I was drawn to a Hungarian tale called “The Invisible Shepherd Boy.” It begins with the questions: Where was it? Where was it not?
Where was what? Where was what not? I wondered.
The professor told me it was a rhetorical device like “once upon a time” beginning all Hungarian tales; however, I remain unsatisfied with this explanation. The questions beg for some other layer hidden deep within the structure, that’s been lost.
As I have been lost.
Where am I? Where am I not?
Pick a thread, any red thread, and follow it. It will lead to a story about reuniting with my birthmother, or Korea, or a port city, say Busan, or with birth itself, or with my self, or with death.
Pick a thread, I choose death.
There’s the death of my mother before I ever know her, or worse, after. There’s the death of myself, the self that doesn’t ever want to meet them. The self without a language for them—the self who has no twin brothers, no other mother and no other father.
Then there’s a long list of lost selves: the fisherman’s daughter; the famous actress; the girl who has her mother’s hair and her father’s idealism, who has twin brothers, who looks like someone else; the self that was going to conquer the world; the self willing to die in a flash flood near Columbia, Tennessee, when her silver Tiburon hydroplaned and spun out twice, landing in the side of an embankment at fifty miles per hour, but, somehow, miraculously only the wind was knocked out of her; the self that was going to kill herself with a knife until she listened to Sarah McLachlan’s Mirrorball over and over, and it was beautiful.
It was beautiful, but I am afraid. I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of fairy tales. I’m afraid of what I’m capable of. I’m afraid of what I’m not capable of. I’m afraid of my nightmares. I’m afraid of an evil old woman, named Jung Ho, who lives there. She kills without feeling and dresses all in black. I’m afraid that my family, my real family, will end up with their throats slashed while I’m running up the steps to my house, away from a nameless Asian man dressed all in black, holding a knife. They always wear black. They don’t always use a knife.
But, I, I am a little blue-eyed, blond-haired boy.
Then, I am a blonde woman with red lipstick and a white satin dress attempting to run from a man in some noir-styled 1950s gangster nightmare. When he catches up to me in a bedroom above the nightclub, he knocks me to the ground and strangles me. I stare into his eyes as my life begins to fade away in his hands.
Then, I am the man with cold eyes who kills without compassion and feels nothing for the life in his hands.
Then, I, I am still that little blue-eyed, blond-haired boy.
Red frame, red frame, on the wall, who is the realist of them all?
Here is a story.
In Korea, a fisherman walks to his boat in Busan Bay. The sun has not risen, but the fishermen who hope to sell at the market in Jagalchi must. It’s a competition, not to see which of the men can catch the most or the best, but which wake up the earliest and get their loot back to the mongers in the market first. This fisherman has something to prove. He will get the best price. He will have the freshest fish. The Bay, which lies at the head of the Nakdong River Basin, spreads before him like black oil. All around him is darkness, but he is not afraid of the dark. What can the darkness take from him? He already lost an arm.
He has lost an arm but not his idealism. He has learned about life from the sea, and the sea contains myriad possibilities. There are countless kinds of fish, eel, crab, squirts, and sea cucumbers. Octopus, like sannakji, writhe around, even after having their legs cut off by the fishmongers. Gaebul, a pink water worm called the “sea penis,” does not lose its color. Fugu, a deadly blowfish, is considered a delicacy. He casts the creatures of the sea from his net onto the boat’s deck, and from the deck to buckets, and from the buckets his pregnant wife will display in the market, some will be put into bowls.
From buckets to bowls is the way of life. The sun has been shining down on the Bay now for hours, as the fishmonger shouts to passersby: “Buy a sea penis! Buy a shrimp!” Her red rubber boots, weighed down by the load she carries, are covered in fish flesh. She chops. She sells. She pockets the change in a bright red coat pocket she has now laid aside in the heat.
Red is the color of luck and good fortune in Chinese culture, and it has been carried over to the Koreans. She is thirty-six years old, six years older than her husband. She could use some luck and good fortune, but can she afford to hope for it?
She shifts from right foot to left, trying to balance her load. The sun continues beating down on the Bay, and she looks up at it, shielding her eyes with her forearm as the light overtakes her. She bears the weight of twin sons who are only a year old and a husband with a missing arm. There is no room for luck in her life, as there is no room for the baby girl she carries in her belly.
Pick a thread, any red thread and follow it. It will lead to a story.
Pick a thread, I choose flight.
I was three months old when I flew to America. Did that thirty-six-year-old woman shield her eyes and look up at the sky every time she heard an airplane go by? Did she shiver at the ache in her now-lifeless belly and put on her red coat, reaching down into the pockets for some warmth and good fortune to follow her baby girl across the ocean to America? Like the East Sea, America is full of possibilities, and in America, a thirty-six-year-old woman named her baby girl Kelsay, because it means “from the sea.”
“There is a perfect architecture,” Michael Palmer wrote.
There is a perfect architecture in my imagination. The outside is serene and simple, but if you take the time to come inside, all the complexity implodes in sharp angles of light refracting off the wall. A structural representation of an Asian woman shielding her eyes with her forearm — an image that inspired architect Billie Tsien because of its power and beauty, like the quiet strength of her buildings, such as the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California — a monastery for scientists to study the brain.
In my brain, there’s a monastery for indefinable loss. It is the perfect architecture. In the entryway, a glass ball falls down from the ceiling. It’s a monument to the past, most of which I can’t remember, but when light bounces off of it, the room fills with red angles and shards of light.
Red is the color of intensity. Red is passionate. Red is a range of seemingly conflicting emotions. Matisse said, “Where I got the color red — to be sure, I just don’t know. I find that all these things ... only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.”
I see red years, red shirts, red shoes, lipstick, door, red lights, red ink, red pillows, red roses, a red mirrorball hanging above a red vinyl record player, while outside the window red sky, red night, red morning. My warning: waiting is the present tense.
Is this grief? If this is grief, give me something bigger. Give me something I can taste that isn’t salt. Give me something that smells like the forgotten past — kimchi, sannakji, fish, or umma. Give me something I can grasp with both hands, something that won’t fade. Give me a song that is sad and slow, but full of mirrors. Give me something tangible, something real, something I can define.
Define loss. Define frame.
“A rigid structure enclosing a mirror or picture [or a corkboard],” but my frame isn’t rigid.
It’s red. It’s unresisting.
Define grief. Define gain.
The absence of words, the absence of existence, would be easier. At least it’s a loss that can be understood. Even if my loss cannot be understood, my pain can. My pain is an idealist. My pain is a woman. My pain is a building. My pain is a ball wound up tightly along my neuraxis, dark red and sad like sadness-in-itself, that molten glass waiting to be reformed.
Reformation is the present tense? Reform is the new, and the old is revolution? What’s wrong with revolution? Tell me it failed. Tell me it’s not real. Tell me it’s just an illusion. Say, I’m not ready. Say, I need to be creative, not destructive. Say, It’s childish, and it’s time to become an adult.
Pick a thread, any red thread. I choose evolution.
Is evolution the present tense?
In my apartment in California, I read more closely the Holt Children’s Services adoption file my parents were given after my birth. It says my birth father is a secondhand dealer. He is a pawnbroker, not a fisherman, as I have believed for twenty-six years.
Here is a story.
The bridge that lies over Busan Port is red, some say majestic. Surrounded by sprawling buildings, white beaches, and green mountains, it is a landscape befitting the fifth-largest port in the world. Every morning, people honk horns as they inch along in cars on their way to work. Buses amble by. A Ferris wheel slowly turns in the distance, another tourist attraction near Gwangalli beach. The red bridge itself is a tourist attraction. From his storefront window, he must gaze at the bridge and hope some of the tourism will spill into his store.
His store is full of things. Anything and everything of value to be bartered and brokered: a gold watch, a ruby ring in the shape of a heart, a violin, electronic guitar, fine marble tea set, a honbok made for a queen, and in the corner a fancy mirror, a gilded mirror, like something you might find in an Anthropologie store in America.
A light hits the mirror and all around him are possibilities. The violin might take him to a bar where he can forget his sorrow; the gold watch feed his family for a month. The ruby ring will bring his wife and sons luck. Red is the color of good fortune; the color that followed his baby girl across the ocean to America. Every item is a possibility, but he cannot touch them. He has lost an arm.
He has lost an arm but not his idealism. He has learned about life from these things. His attention shifts back to the mirror where he can see the Busan Bridge reflected. It is so close.
What’s the new frame? Is it reflective? Is it comforting?
I have no words for comfort. I want a frame for truth. I want a flame for it.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s article, “The Creativity Crisis,” urges schools to teach more creativity in classrooms. Scientists, whose names I don’t recall, have found that highly creative individuals — from famous basketball players to famous writers to famous artists to famous scientists — use the same brain waves when coming up with a new play, a new piece, or uncovering a new mystery. Basically, when solving a problem, creative people show activity in both the left and right sides of the brain simultaneously. They also possess the flexibility to quickly shift between divergent and convergent thinking, a flexibility Bronson and Merryman claim probably came from facing hardships or loss in childhood for which they are still mourning.
I remember when my dog stopped eating. He was seventeen. He wore diapers. He’d had cancer for five years. I told him he was my best friend and should never leave me, and when he saw I had a brand new blue-cream Persian kitten to replace him, he finally let go. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and although I cried as he was being put down, I said nothing.
Red frame, red frame, on the wall, who is the realest of them all? What is my life concept? What is my story? Is it a red patina?
Red is the color of luck. Red is the color of blood. The Chinese have a saying that a red string ties us to the ones we love. Red is the color of love, the color that connects all my years together, broken into strands. The color of my land. The color of the residue left on the bottom of the sink in my apartment in California. The color of the elaborate wooden frame that hangs to the side of the door in my entryway, red, dark red and deep.
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