Small Things

This is a container of salt.

It sits in clear plastic tupperware under a green lid.

It is three-quarters full. The salt is granular and sharp. On hot days, it clumps together, like sand.

“It is all we have left of your aunt,” my mom said.

I’d sprinkled it generously on the tofu bubbling on the stove.

“She sent it to us when Fukushima happened. Because she was worried about the salt we would get here.” She set it back into the cupboard.

“That’s it,” she said. “That’s how fast life goes.”

We consider using the salt to clean the cucumbers, but decide there’s too little.

Such things are more precious when scarce.

When they came over secretly, I would let boys dip their fingers in the salt to taste. It was so pungent that they’d exclaim. I liked seeing their faces light up in surprise. I’d never considered the history of this salt, its context, its weight, its value.

The last time I saw my aunt, we were crowded around her table in Seoul. We were drinking wine and talking about death.

It is a poetic gift.

Salt is one of the pillars of civilization. In our little corner, the English language leans on it heavily. The words “salary,” “salubrious” all derive from the Latin word “sal.” Salus: the Roman goddess of welfare, health, prosperity.

We weigh salt with the thought of permanence and expect it to preserve — though all the juices may run dry, it evolves the object into a new being.

It also heavily laces Judeo-Christian traditions with nuances of grief — “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26).

Lot’s wife rebels against the order of God and patriarchy by choosing to look back on her entire lifetime (honestly, who wouldn’t when their entire home is about to be destroyed astrally — most of the sermons I’ve heard in my extensive Korean baptist church experience then narrates this passage as Move On And Do Not Look Back — Ever Period). She subsequently becomes salt. Literal interpretations take it as Old Testament-level punishment.

Literature-me imagines Lot’s wife (unnamed) to have cried so much that her tears overtook her, cocooned her in its tracks. Metaphors for the kind of grief that kills you.

Or is it regret? One remembers the fateful moment between Orpheus and Eurydice, when he also looks back at the end of the tunnel and Eurydice’s ghostly figure is forever whisked away.

Looking back is heavily chastised.

But all I seem to do these days is look back.

Five years ago, pink salt was a small fad. Friends around us who were obsessed with cooking would give us salt samples from different parts of the world. This mountain salt, this lake salt, this mineral salt. We would lie naked in the salt cave at the local sauna, promised mineral goodness.

Five years ago, I made my own kimchi for the first time. You massage salt into napa cabbages. Cabbage kimchi only a few days old tastes frivolous; the ingredients have only just met. Thus, it’s best paired with a relatively smooth, round-flavored entity. Like pork, or tofu. If you buy the wrong brand in the jars, it’ll smell faintly of ammonia and taste like spicy rubber. The longer you keep it, the deeper the taste.

Only five years ago, I believed I was in love, in control, and in good company. And I was. I just didn’t realize that such things I believed in have expiration dates in their separate, stagnant versions and entities.

I learned that heartbreak is not the moment of separation or non-existence. It is the moment you realize you’ve been left behind to look behind; you’ve been stuck pondering alone on the same narrative while people resiliently move ahead. And oftentimes, it is a result of my own doing.

I do not confuse this with anger or resentment, though they are emotions I’ve become intimate with over the years.

Even the best ingredients become only flat versions of themselves when they do not mingle and grow with such grief, such sharpness, such reaction.

For the next five years, I hope to remember the impermanence of many things in my life, and to hope for depth. I may not move, but I hope to learn to react.

May you cherish the salt in your life. May you continue to ferment.

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