[INSIGHT]Antidote to November's melancholyAll creation on earth is fading away;
Foggy days wake my anxiety.
When the storms at night pass away
The sound of ice is heard in the morning.
Farewells weep and the world is filled with death.
November in literature seems desolate. Hermann Hesse, who had sung the golden fall, has parted with fading life and farewells. Melancholy is a common feeling in November, when only a month remains before another year comes to an end. Just for today I would like to forget about the political dispute and the sluggish economy.
As in any other year I had a phone call saying, "Have you prepared kimchi for this winter? Take some cabbage." The same call brought 50 of us to a cabbage patch near Seoul. Although I had arranged to take 10 heads of cabbage, 15 were pressed on me, along with almost 15 radishes. There was no charge. The farmer rather ashamedly said that the price of cabbage is so low that it wouldn't even be worth the time it took us to travel to the patch. As it wasn't right to take all those cabbages free, after the 80-year-old farmer had spent all summer growing them, we made a contribution to a student who had difficulty with his tuition fees. The hard labor of one farmer became the foundation for a young man's future.
The 1960s were an era of poverty. As a poet once said, poverty is shabby but there is no reason to be obsequious. With the beginning of dictatorship by the military government, waves of resistance broke out on university campuses. Outside of campus the only sanctuary was religion.
We had Buddha and the Christian God backing us, and religion protected us from the treacherous traps of the public authorities. During those dark ages a few friends and I met a Roman Catholic priest at the Myongdong Cathedral. He preached to us, "The teaching of Christ should be practiced not in prayers in church halls but through participating in demonstrations against societal injustice." Instead of harboring students who walked into the church, this priest would shove us back out to the real world. We were enchanted by his vanguard theology. People spoke of "En-gagement Literature" in those days, but it was some years afterward that "Liberation Theology" became a catch-phrase in Korea.
The priest constructed a clubhouse for Catholic students at Myeongnyun-dong right across from Seoul National University. There he met students freely, a fisherman casting nets into teeming waters.
The priest was a high school classmate of Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan. He had graduated from Seoul National University, majoring in law. During the years of liberation from Japanese colonialism the priest struggled between choosing religion or ideology. Then he went to France where he entered the priesthood. Perhaps it was by God's will that he was caught in the God-cast net of priesthood, but what was the reason we were caught in the net cast by the priest?
As a retired priest he now wields a shovel and a short-handled hoe instead of fishing nets. It's easy to grow melancholy with age, but the priest seems to transcend solitude through harvesting. As he passed the vegetables he said, "I have no intention of depending on you guys. There is still a lot of work for me to attend to." His words seemed to be a pledge to himself. The retired priest turned farmer was teaching us the most beautiful way to grow old. He imparted the wisdom of a farmer to us during a mass at a restaurant near the cabbage patch. He said, "Long ago I thought the quote 'I think, therefore I am' was inspiring. But as a farmer I feel that I exist because Mother Nature exists." During the Mid-dle Ages such words could have subjected him to an inquisition.
Could it be possible that thought and nature have joined as one through a dialectic of sweat and soil? Once I asked the security officer in our apartment why he was shaking off the few leaves that were hanging desperately onto the skinny branches. He said fallen leaves nowadays don't easily decompose, so they gather and burn them. I read in the newspaper that acid rain kills microbial organisms essential to the cycle of life. In an era when fallen leaves don't even decompose, the harmony between earth and the old priest seems more divine. We said to him, "Father, you don't have to worry about the price of cabbage. You only have to save unfortunate souls."
He replied, "It would be easy for me to cast the fishing net if you guys were living a better life." Nah Sang-jo, the old priest who was practicing redemption in the cabbage patch, was already planning for next year's harvest. The only reason that November does not seem too desolate is the hope for new life that will emerge again in spring.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Joseph W. Chung