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Breathe, Live, Rest

by Ju Minhyeon Translated by Giulia Macrì March 1, 2024

When I saw the painting Breathing Space, I remembered feeling like I was taking a deep breath. The piece was part of a solo exhibition, Wandering Mind. The painting depicted a person leaning against a small window of a large building, gazing at the sky—the artist’s way of saying that sometimes a small window can become an unexpectedly vast breathing space. The sky stretched beautifully above the building, its hue a poetic blue.

 

     I, too, have moments where I do nothing but space out. On such days, I make a conscious effort not to plan anything or assign tasks to myself. I silence my alarms and sleep in; when I wake up, I give the house a thorough cleaning. I take in the tidy surroundings and gaze out the window—sometimes sunrays pour in, while at other times snow falls in large flakes. During those times, I don’t turn on the TV or play music. I savor the freedom to spend time in my own space. I observe the people passing beneath my window, simply letting myself  feel the quiet flow of time. The days I purposely spend in idleness fill my heart with a strength that eludes me on my most productive days.

     Until a few years ago, I didn’t know how to properly rest. I constantly thought about what needed to be done the next day, or the manuscript I’d be working on at the time. One day, I woke up, and my neck felt stiff—I couldn’t turn to the side. At first, I brushed it off as a result of a bad sleeping position, but as days passed, the symptoms worsened. Stretching only seemed to amplify the pain, expanding from my neck down to my shoulders, and I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep. I went to see an oriental medicine doctor who pressed and prodded my neck, shoulders, and back. His diagnosis was as follows: “You frequently experience tension-related pain in your neck and shoulders, don’t you? It’s because when you do something, you pour yourself into it, which results in a tension build-up.” I almost fell to my knees at how accurate his observations were. It was like he had read my mind.

     He emphasized the importance of concentrating during the day and fully relaxing at night. He told me that I unfortunately wasn’t able to unload the burden from my shoulders, which caused me pain. “It’ll get better over time. But you shouldn’t try too hard. When you’re resting, you need to let the burden go. Otherwise, your back will keep hurting.” I hadn’t even realized how hard I was pushing myself, and that my body was already overloaded. I was used to my frequent back and shoulder pain, and when I started hearing a popping sound in my jaw whenever I opened my mouth, I just thought it was a symptom commonly experienced by people in modern society and neglected it.

     From then on, I began carving out dedicated time away from work and writing. For a while I threw myself into swimming; these days I opt for an occasional run. I head out at night and just run for about twenty minutes, without a set route. Running at night has its charm—you can hide your face in its shadows. What’s surprising is that I’m not the only one; many others walk or run in the darkness. Running is good for the heart, lungs, and legs, but it’s especially beneficial for your mental well-being. Focusing on each step gives me a temporary escape from my worries. Afterward, I feel light and refreshed in both body and mind.

     I’ve also started learning the violin as a hobby, and I’m being consistent about it. I take lessons once a week and practice the pieces I’ve learned whenever I find the time. I don’t mind if I’m not good at it—it’s something I do for fun, and I enjoy it as such. When playing a piece, there are rests in the sheet music. These rests are periods of absolute silence, and when the next note comes along, it’s that much clearer. In the passages where the music needs to be delicate and soft, you have to play more quietly so that the emphasized notes stand out. Well-played music has good moments of rest.

     Rather than trying to excel at everything, I’m practicing letting go of a few things. I was lying in bed, listening to a podcast, when one of the speaker said something I empathized with a lot: “In South Korea, from the moment you open your eyes until you close them, everything is all about competition: catching a bus, taking the subway, making a restaurant reservation.” Though this may not apply to all countries or cities, I believe it holds true for many places that have developed as fast as Seoul. Long commuting hours, repetitive labor, constant crowds wherever you go, a life of never-ending competition. Even when you’re resting, you crave more rest, and just taking a breath feels draining. At morning rush hour, the commuters’ faces on the subway carry a particular weariness. Sometimes they argue, hoping to get a seat. They’re all on edge due to how exhausted they are. I, too, have spent a few years among them.

     I’ve worked as an editor for a decade now and made my debut as a poet seven years ago. Last year, I edited the highest number of books in my entire life. In the summer, I also published my second poetry collection. It wasn’t a new way of life for me—I was used to scrutinizing other people’s manuscripts and coming home to look at my own, but for the first time I was sick and tired of it. It became hard to make simple decisions; I didn’t have the will to do anything; I woke up in the morning crying for no reason. I wondered if that was what burnout felt like.

     For a while, I did little else besides pour my heart into the violin. I hardly wrote or read, but I found myself drawn to reading several books related to music. Music revealed new territories for me. Reading Show Me Your Hands, I slowly delved into the inner world of a pianist, and with Lev’s Violin: An Italian Adventure, I envisioned countless violins, each made of different wood, each with their own unique timbre. Reading Schubert, I discovered all the failures the world-renowned composer had faced. Knowing that others have failed brings a smile to my face: it means that they were serious about their dreams and struggled to make them come true.

     I feel that, rather than success, moments of failure are needed; instead of constantly pushing forward, we need periods of rest. For me, rest is a time to regain a pure perspective on the world. After a deep rest, I find that the words trapped in me start bubbling to the surface. I become eager to reveal what I’ve seen, what I’ve thought, and what I’ve experienced in my subconscious.

     Through the COVID-19 pandemic, I came to realize the increased importance of a good rest. Koreans habitually go to work even during a typhoon or push through tasks when feeling unwell. But we are not machines—we’re humans, and as such, it is impossible to keep producing and creating without taking breaks. We know this, and yet we live as if it were possible. Rest is a fearful concept for me, even though ironically, I always long for it. I always think, “What if quitting my job and stopping to write means I won’t be able to start again?” I know that pausing doesn’t cause the world to collapse, but I’ve always had this irrational fear. Now my neck and shoulders hurt, my back is damaged, and on some days, my mind is so exhausted that I fall apart completely.

     I have asked my poet friends what they do when they take a break. One of them mentioned isolating at home and immersing themselves in a movie or book they’ve been longing to watch or read. Another said they go camping or take a short trip somewhere. All their ideas were nice. How wonderful would it be to light a fire in the woods, grill and eat a delicious meal; or bury yourself in a beloved book—splendid! I, too, used to relax while doing the things I enjoyed. Do what I want, read what I like, eat something tasty, go to my favorite places. However, when true burnout hit, none of these activities seemed possible. I needed a time devoid of plans, a moment to pause everything and do nothing. 

     At the end of the year, I took my remaining vacation days and enjoyed an extended break until the new year rolled in. I stood in front of the window—as I stared at the large snowflakes, it almost seemed like they weren’t falling down, but instead, rising towards the sky. Like music played in reverse. I thought it resembled the rhythm of life. My puppy was asleep on my lap; gazing at that serene view brought peace to my heart. I’ve always enjoyed going to the library, the swimming pool, the museum, or just wandering around aimlessly, yet I liked this freedom of being alone, doing nothing, meeting no one, with no music or media. 

     Now, I’ve finally come to understand the beauty of this solitude, one that I do not need to rush to fill. I don’t need to go to cool places—a stroll around my neighborhood brings me a new joy. Instead of constantly reading books, I’m happy to take a break from all kinds of texts for a while. While being surrounded by friends is great, savoring the solitude of being alone is also perfectly fine. Once I embraced this mindset and spent my time resting at home, doing nothing, I began looking at my routine and the familiar places I frequented under a new light.

     I’m not talking about resting in preparation to move forward, to take a leap; rather, it’s about indulging in unadulterated rest for the sake of resting itself, a complete acceptance of the nothingness that is the self. It is the freedom of existence, of reverting to an amoebic state, a form with boundless potential. This kind of rest brings me back to my innate self. Back to my childhood; to my early twenties when I was passionate about so many of the things in the world; to the days when love was the sole occupant of my heart; when I looked at the world with more simplicity; when writing brought me pure joy.

     Writing is sometimes like a motionless swamp that offers no answer or reaction. Embrace that lack of an answer, let the emptiness sit there. Do not fear loneliness—step willingly into it and spend time with it. When I ceased fearing loneliness and heeded the doctor’s advice to lay down the burdens from my shoulders, I finally could slip into a deep, dreamless sleep.

     Good rest isn’t merely a gesture in preparation for optimal movement, much like emptying your mind isn’t just a preparatory process for filling it up again. In Korean, 잘 쉰다 means both “to rest” and “to inhale and exhale.” So, 쉬다 (“to rest well”) means “to take deep breaths, exhale, and empty the body.” This implies that resting your body leads to resting your mind, which then leads back to resting your body in a seamless cycle. I wonder if leaving the empty spaces created by rest untouched isn’t just another way of saying “to be alive.” To rest essentially means to live—not to excel at something or to have a busy life, but rather to feel the happiness and fullness of simply being alive; to focus on the present state of both the body and mind.

     In September, for my birthday, I went on a trip. I wrapped up all the work at the company, finished the manuscript that had held me captive until dawn every day, and escaped to Yeosu; the sea I saw there was the most wonderful I’d ever seen in my life. It took me four hours by train and then a little taxi ride to get to my accommodation, and once I got there and opened the curtains of my hotel room, the sea glittered beautifully in front of my eyes. I looked down to see the locals walking along the colorful street that followed the stone wall. At last, outside of Seoul, I could enjoy the different scenery and lifestyle of another city. It felt like a breath of fresh air after being stuck in the daily grind of commuting between home and work. With no particular plans, I strolled around with a little jump in my steps; I ate a patbingsu, looked at the cats, and relished the joy that complete relaxation brings.

     During these empty times, I feel new stories and new desires emerging. The beauty of emptiness. Poetry knows this very well—its charm lies in the space between the lines, after all. Rather than the act of adding, I find the gaps left by subtraction more fascinating. Poetry is a game, a confession of your inner self, a reflection of all things of the world. It’s ironic, but after I spend periods without writing anything, my poetry becomes better, and I feel that the act of writing becomes more precious, and more fun. 

     During my experience with burnout, I learned that any weary heart finds restoration through proper rest. You don’t even have to work hard for it. Whether it is love for someone, an open heart towards the world, generosity towards others, a desire to write again, or a yearning to stand tall—all these feelings will eventually resurface. All you need to do to rekindle them is to bask in these moments of pure rest. I didn’t want to escape from work or writing; rather, I always wanted to break free from the monotonous landscape that was “me.” I didn’t realize that this person I knew as myself, who looked the same every day, was undergoing a constant process of internal change.

     Someone once asked me, “Why do you write poetry? It seems lonely.” Back then, I couldn’t provide a proper answer, but now I think I can. Poetry allows one to peer into the solitude of one’s inner self, to appreciate life’s empty spaces. It’s the joy of filling the spaces between the lines by leaving some deliberately empty. Only after a good rest do you come to realize the multitude of answers that are out there.

 

Translated by Giulia Macrì

 

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