What Is ‘Wisdom Forever’?

[I’m 60% of the way to my goal for my GoFundMe! Thanks to everyone who has pitched in thus far.]

My middle name, Jeeyoung, is pretty important to me, which is why I often style my name “Christina J. Kelly” and why I included it in my college nickname “CJ.” It’s the only part of my name that connects me to my Korean heritage, and it translates to “wisdom forever” (智永 in Chinese characters). 

When I was a child and “wisdom” was just a fancy synonym for “being smart,” it felt like a name with great expectations. It meant getting A’s in school and never falling prey to the petty delinquencies pursued by bored and/or traumatized kids in a comfortable Boston suburb. It was invoked by Korean church ladies and older relatives, a temperamental father, and others who have since dissipated out of my life.

After surviving the frying pan of formal education and jumping into the fire of adulthood, it started dawning on me that while I’d generally succeeded in being smart, there was something else to wisdom. It was a more ineffable thing — you couldn’t get a degree in it — and it was hidden in old cliches and greying beards. I carried it around like a dusty plaque inscribed in a long-dead language, incomprehensible but clearly valuable. The “forever” bit was almost as enigmatic, dancing as I was in an ephemeral milieu of startups and futuristic technology. Did anything really last forever? My name was significant but out of touch with my surroundings.

Then 2020 came, with its many undeniable reckonings. I found a new meaning in the phrase that followed me as surely and closely as a shadow, the one that was forged for me personally when I was newly minted in the world yet spoke to something eternal that I couldn’t hope to fully contain. I saw the global climate falling apart, and the overlooked oppression of millions bursting through the facade of the richest country in the world, and a deadly disease that simultaneously isolated humans and forced us to work together. Once seen and understood, I knew I could never return to the blissful darkness of ignorance. This cold wisdom, once attained, was forever.

I’m by nature an optimistic person, though, and I’ve kept searching for a new angle on this topic that wasn’t so bleak in its finality. I’ve come to realize that wisdom isn’t just the awareness of the heralds of doom, but also the capacity to trust that life goes on. It’s possessed by the plants and animals who make their way in an uncertain world with unconscious grace. It’s often resisted by us humans, who fill our heads with strange shoulds and shouldn’ts, made-up things like “power” and “money,” and so on, but I think we all stop struggling and accept it eventually. I don’t have to explain it anymore, because it’s just me. I just have to remember it, and that’s why it’s my name.

Feeding Teenagers, Feeding the Soul: My Life in Korea

In Pyeongtaek, South Korea, the city I’ve lived in for the past month, the air is alive. Inside the house of my hosts: the gentle thrum of air conditioning and the persistent meows of Zelda, a large and ever-hungry cat. Outside on the balcony: the hum of cicadas and the barking of three dogs who single-mindedly confront whatever bird or squirrel might have wandered too close to their territory. The late summer heat, mitigated by recent typhoons, presses on the wind and makes it dance, celebrated by the wind chimes that hang nearby.

Unlike Seoul, a city punctuated only here and there by cultivated parks, here the straight-backed buildings with their glittering or faux stone exteriors are balanced measure for measure by greenery and rolling hills. The slim trunks of trees meander upwards from slope to sky, silently judging humankind’s uglier industriousness. When I occasionally bike into the center of town to buy fresh produce, I’m grateful for the fancy electric motor that helps me pedal uphill with ease and cuts out when I glide downhill.

Each day in the last couple of weeks has revolved around two main events for me: meditation in the morning and cooking in the evening. For a hot minute I thought I’d try to become a Buddhist nun, so I read a bunch of online texts about Buddhism and the monastic life. I concluded that I was far too attached to meat, sex, and video games to make a real go of it, but the philosophy made sense to me overall. I started a practice of meditating for 20-30 minutes after waking up, usually with a YouTube video by Thich Nhat Hanh or someone like that narrating and keeping me on track. Once I have enough space in my mind to encounter the day, I noodle about the house reading, researching, petting dogs, playing video games, and doing chores until late afternoon.

There are three other people currently in this house with me, all around 17-18 years old. Two are siblings and part of triplets, and their brother is off in the USA with their parents getting accustomed to college life. One is a student from South America who’s been stranded in South Korea for the better part of a year due to COVID-19. We get along quite well and the house is certainly big enough for everyone, with grand comfy couches and TVs that I use for instructional yoga videos and the occasional Studio Ghibli movie. I’m not exactly in charge here or responsible for anyone, being a short term guest, but I am the only one who really knows how to cook (plus I enjoy cooking for other people). So, I’ve put myself in charge of the big evening meal where all of us are awake and in the mood to socialize.

As this idyllic moment in my life draws to a close, I can feel the many experiences I’ve had in the past few months — both fictional and IRL — mixing into a stew of useful lessons and references to draw from. I’ve had more fun doing nothing than I really thought I would, and fun is a great teacher. I have a great deal to share with the world and I’m looking forward to doing so as the need arises.

Check out my GoFundMe fundraiser here!