Post A Selfie From January 2020, Not Knowing What Was To Come

This pair of black jeans, bought on the run last January, became a lifeline and a lesson.

My black jeans, a little worn at the knees, laid out flat on a wooden floor.

Last weekend, a friend on Twitter asked, “We’re not all still wearing jeans, are we?” I didn’t know what prompted this on her part — I forgot to ask if she meant, “have we all given up on clothes now?” — but an unlikely revelation floated up as I answered They’re all that’s keeping me together. And to be clear, it isn’t just jeans, it is black jeans. These black jeans.

When I think back over what I learned during quarantine this year, most of it is not particularly practical, and some of the gentler things come to mind first — some self protective gesture, no doubt. Gin, it turns out, helps take out a pen stain, but not vodka. The black raspberries I found in the yard of my new house are indigenous to Vermont and also Korea , and no, they are not the same as blackberries. A bird feeder is basically a bear feeder, if the bear gets there first. Broccoli, which I’d always scorned as the worst of vegetables, is in fact a prince, if you grow it yourself, maybe even a king, though the crown is the least of it. The leaves, which grow abundantly after the crown is harvested, are delicious, and I even like them better than most other greens. I felt a terrible sense of loss remembering all of the broccoli leaves I threw away before I knew this.

A favorite detail: My husband loves The Bee Gees so much he hears them when he wakes up. ‪I learned this one morning when I was singing “Run To Me,” and he came downstairs to find out why I was doing that. Part of how I survived the first months of quarantine was through listening to what I think of as the kind of songs the DJ plays to say good night and send you home. I was imagining the night when I finally get back to a Karaoke Bar with friends and we sing it together, and everyone sings along and helps.

That was in April, when I was nursing him through COVID, and I would sing along to the song softly to help me cry about my fears while I did the dishes, so as not to burden him while he recovered, and also just to feel less alone.

Until the far-off night my friends and I will be singing karaoke again together, I have my black jeans. Which I will probably be wearing on that night. And which I recently learned I had stopped wearing, for no reason I can think of, when I started wearing them again.

In January of 2020 I was in Washington, DC, dressed up and ready to be honored on Korean American Day with Min Jin Lee, and I didn’t like my pants. Something to know about my friend, the incredible Min Jin Lee, if you ever do an event with her, is that she always looks amazing. Not just put together, either — she looks like the Writer You Came To See. Looking in the mirror, I wasn’t feeling that way. I had about an hour before the organization honoring me picked me up, and, afraid I would disgrace myself in front of her, I searched online and found a Marshall’s one block away.

I have done this to myself before, if you’re wondering. The other clothes bought at discount stores in the hours before I am supposed to speak in public are almost all disappointing and glare at me from inside my closet where I ignore them, as I feel guilty for having bought them, and yet also determined never to wear them again. As I descended the escalator into this Washington DC basement Marshall’s near the White House, the disappointing belts, shirts, and shoes floated through my mind like the Ghosts of Speaking Occasions Past. I resigned myself to doing this one more time, and quickly grabbed two pairs of jeans, both black, and a pair of jean-cut khakis.

I made my way first to the dressing room, where everything fit, which almost never happens, and then, on my way to the cash register, I kept finding clothes I wanted. This particular Marshall’s seemed possibly like a magical cave of clothes for me, somehow. I put some back as it just felt too chaotic to be on a discount clothes shopping spree when I was about to be honored. I paid, ran back to the hotel, changed, wore one pair of jeans to the ceremony, where I did not embarrass myself in front of Min Jin Lee and the Korean Economic Institute — our hosts — and then I wore a pair of the new black jeans on the plane home the next morning.

I showed them off to my husband on my return and when I asked him why it was I hadn’t had black jeans in so long — a rhetorical question, really — he said, “They were sort of… out, weren’t they?”

And I laughed a tiny laugh at the thought of us as those kinds of people.

I like to tell myself I’m the more fashion obsessed of the two of us, but in truth, he is a stylish man, and I have the bad habit of choosing clothes because I think they’re funny. Most of my clothes are message t-shirts that I wear until the message wears off, with a few sweaters — usually crew neck, usually charcoal grey — and jeans. And that has just been true for decades.

The jeans I wore home, I am wearing now as I write this. They are my favorites, a pair of black Levis, apparently the first I’ve had in so long, I don’t even have any old pairs to compare them to. What was so strange to me was how they made me feel like myself again in some way I hadn’t expected, a way I didn’t know I was missing, and the feeling was immediate. While I wore these jeans home, I felt like I was home already when I put them on that morning in DC. And I understood that I had gotten lost somehow, as if I’d turned down a wrong street and walked, for years, away from myself.

I don’t remember when I bought my first pair of black jeans and I don’t remember when I stopped buying them. I probably began in 1985. I was at college, taking art classes, and prone to spilling coffee on myself while running to class, and wearing pens in my front pockets, leaving a black circle most of my pants still have, as I still do this. The idea back then was that black jeans meant they couldn’t show what had spilled on me. They were just practical.

Black jeans are like fishnets, though — the right ones seem to come with lessons on how to wear them and what to do while wearing them that arrive when you put them on. I’m pretty sure they taught me how to move away from home, flirt with strangers in a bar, protest the government and strike a match one-handed. There is never a walk of shame in black jeans.

When quarantine began last March, I knew we were doing it because it was our last resort after the failure of the federal response, and that my best chance at helping our healthcare workers was not to end up in front of them. I turned that frustration inward, trying to write as a way to control my life in relationship to what I couldn’t control. I threw myself into writing assignments, and spent most of the first half of the year researching and writing two different features for the New York Times, on parallels between the AIDS Epidemic’s first years and COVID, and on the legacy of the Japanese Occupation of Korea. I told myself I wanted to stay home anyway, having just moved into the house we purchased a year ago last November, here in Vermont, and tried to make the best of it. But this whole year, writing has felt like my head is a needle I’m pushing through a leather belt.

As hope and time disintegrated together, in the face of the weaponization of the virus by the Trump administration, it was hard to feel real sometimes at home amid so much death and nihilism. The summer fires in California and Oregon sent smoke I could see, like a tint in the air, all the way to Vermont. Now it is the beginning of winter, and what we’re too often calling quarantine, or second wave quarantine, has renewed itself, and so we’re having to go back inside again, even as the hospitals are overflowing, the Senate is back to confirming judges and letting people die without aid. We’re told about Trump’s feelings about losing the election as if it matters, and I’m counting the days to when I never have to know what he’s feeling again.

It is the smallest thing, putting on these jeans, I know. That’s ok. Putting on these jeans was never meant to be a charm against all of that. It just means the first decision of the day has already been made and I can feel my way onto the path of another day. I can stand up and keep going, and these days that is a lot. It’s as if I knew that day in DC as I ran through that magical Marshalls, that I would need at least one talisman to take home with me, something to help me get through the rest of 2020. And I found it.

And yes. I did order more.

If you’ve gotten this far, this is when I introduce myself: I’m a Korean American novelist and essayist, living in in a small Vermont town near the border of New Hampshire with my husband, Dustin. At my day job as a professor of creative writing at Dartmouth College, I have become the sort of professor in an adventure who either greets the hero at the beginning of the story, or has the unlikely solution to some world ending problem. I haven’t worked out which one I am yet, but of course, if I had, I probably couldn’t tell you here anyway.

My last blog, Koreanish, ran from 2007 to 2015. I wrote it while writing my second novel, and while I used to worry that it interfered with other writing projects, I seem to blog when there’s something I’m trying to figure something out, something I can only do this way. So here I am.

Some upcoming blog posts: how to write when the world feels like it is falling in on you; house-hunting during climate change; walking up and down stairs (something I’ve only just been able to do again); the Japanese occupation of Korea; the pleasures of reading in public alone. There will be some gardening in Eastern Vermont posts, and of course, there will be writing about writing fiction and essays. Sometimes I will answer some writing questions and post about what I’m reading and what I’ve read. Sometimes I will make up a writing prompt. In any case, thanks for checking this out, hit the follow button if you enjoyed your time here, and I hope to see you next time.

Some continued reading:

· “Did You Die At Home,” a new short story — a ghost story — from me in the new T Magazine, along with new ghost stories by Ayana Mathis and Ruth Ozeki. The editors asked us to write about a place. I chose Leipzig, where I lived back in 2012. I wrote about it here.

· My author site, with links to my books, and other essays.

· The Queer Art Film COVID-19 artists resource page if you are in need of help or able to offer some. I’m on the board and this work has been one of the great joys of my year.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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