here, my lungs are tea-stained & soft

two oh oh one six

The year I did not write.

I wrote the stories of people I was paid to meet, I wrote the stories I was paid to write, I wrote narratives and presented them to clients – but they are attempts at objectivity, they are representations of an ethnographer, meant to be consciously reflexive but also unconsciously detached.

I spent time trying to slip into stability, perhaps led by some Singaporean bone laden with pragmatism, with the desire to stop standing out as a wanderer – coming home was also a nod to try and be normal. Netflix nights, a partner that sounded great on paper, family meals, weekend recovery from weekday exhaustion, the bi-annual holiday to cities to eat and shop. I was trying to grow some roots. I wanted time to pass quickly, to be thoughtlessly brought through tasks and activities, and it seemed that conventional stability should be achieved on autopilot. Thinking slows things down.

In the middle of 2016, as we sat in a womb in a city of dust, I felt I was truly happy, if not in the city then at least while trudging for 8 hours along the ridges of Ourika valley, watching the earth break along brown swirls, still impatient for rain. Later, when he told me he had been unhappy, I was horrified, because it was the best vacation we had taken together, with tension minimized for a largely happy exploration, affirmed after with love letters, happy photos, public declarations of having levelled up in life somehow. But then today I found out that I wrote a few weeks after, randomly, to myself, in a note, “Had a very unhappy weekend. How much time does it take for two humans to settle, to get used to each other, whittle down to smooth edges?”

Too much time, it seems, or not enough – there are no answers now, and to quote from “Days of Abandonment”, ‘…but above all I no longer wanted to know if it was strychnine or something else that had killed Otto. The dog had fallen through a hole in the net of events. We leave so many of them, lacerations of negligence, when we put together cause and effect. The essential thing was that the string the weave that now supported me, should hold’. I searched for answers and found them to be multiple and confounding, each memory colluding with the present, signs that said I should not have gotten back together with someone who had already abandoned me carelessly so many times, who did not even remember doing so at times – whose feelings and memories are adrift on a turbulent sea that determines their directions, even if away from me, outside of anything I could control – how did I decide to try again with such a trajectory? How to risk waking up again, to an assumed partner, who says, and who does not know why he says, I do not want you in my life? How to risk having that burned into constant repetition in my mind and memory, in various forms, shapes, words, and women?

On hindsight, it’s been a ridiculous four years. No, I am not free of imperfections, flaws, or unkindnesses of my own – but perhaps it is the exact degrees of difference of our flaws, or the jarring angles at which we view the world, that made whittling a painful exercise instead of a happy one. It is perhaps what puts these qualities into my closed fist, making them unbearable.

So now, at the end of this year, the words are flowing back, finally. It’s been two months of struggling to understand everything, to getting the specifics, to re-visiting, to stalking, to desiring, more than ever before – and then to letting it all go. And now lightness descends. I’m starting to ride again, into the natural world, by the coasts I’ve always loved. I’m walking again, for hours, whenever I want, wherever I want. From afar, so early in the morning, the trees shimmer green gold at their edges, then slowly come back into focus.

on evolution and devolution

“Are you well?”
“Me, yes.”
“Is it true that you don’t love me anymore?”
“Yes.”
“Why? Because I lied to you? Because I left you? Because I humiliated you?”
“No. Just when I felt deceived, abandoned, humiliated, I loved you very much, I wanted you more than in any other moment of our life together.”
“And then?”
“I don’t love you anymore because, to justify yourself, you said that you had fallen into a void, an absence of sense, and it wasn’t true.”
“It was.”
“No. Now I know what an absence of sense is and what happens if you manage to get back to the surface from it. You, you don’t know. At most you glanced down, you got so frightened, and you plugged up the hole with Carla’s body.”

He made a grimace of annoyance, he said to me:
“You have to take the children more. Carla is exhausted. She has exams to take, she can’t take care of them, you’re their mother.”

I looked at him attentively. It was really true, there was no longer anything about him that could interest me. He wasn’t even a fragment of the past, he was only a stain, like the print of a hand left years ago on a wall.

– Excerpt from Elena Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment”

Excerpt from “Minerals and Biomass” in Alexandra Horowitz’s ‘On Looking’

Each building is, of course, forged of stone or hewed from a once-living tree. So-called man-made objects are just those that began as naturally occurring materials and are broken apart and recombined to form something customized to our purposes.

Viewed with this lens, the city feels less artificial. The cold stone is natural, almost living: it absorbs water, warms under the sun, and sloughs its skin in rain. Like us, stone is affected by time, its outer layer softened and its veins made more prominent. And viewed as a natural landscape, the city feels less permanent: even the strongest-looking behemoth of an apartment tower is gradually deteriorating under the persistent, patient forces of wind, water, and time. Weather continuously wears at the building, carving its influence by subtraction. Dirt stains; rainwater leaves a trail of salt tearing from a sill to the ground; a decorative copper touch oxidizes – and then its greenness washes onto the stone below it; steel rusts earthly red. Little is as convincing of the naturalness of the city as the process of weathering. Stones become covered with moss; ivy creeps up, disjoints, and eventually obliterates brick; wood darkens with moisture and lightens with age, then gets worn into a soft-cornered version of its former self.

Eventually, this town – all towns – will dissolve and become fodder for another generation’s construction.

Excerpt from Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

When I woke up, the earth was no longer visible. All I could make out through the spy holes were the white spots of the distant and unattainable stars, blurred by the lenses. I imagined the existence of a huge, immensely hot sphere hanging entirely unsupported in the icy void, billions of kilometres from the closest stars, those tiny gleaming dots, of which all we know is that they exist, and even that’s not certain, because a star can die, while its light will carry on travelling out in all directions, so really we don’t know anything about stars, except that their life is terrible and senseless since all their movements through space are predetermined and subject to the laws of mechanics, which leave no hope at all for any chance encounters. But then, I thought, we human beings always seem to be meeting each other, and laughing, and slapping each other on the shoulder, and saying goodbye, there’s still a certain special dimension into which our consciousness sometimes takes a frightened peep, a dimension in which we also hang quite motionless in a void where there’s no up or down, no yesterday or tomorrow, no hope of drawing closer to each other or even exercising our will and changing our fate; we judge what happens to others from the deceptive twinkling light that reaches us, and we spend all our lives journeying towards what we call the light, although its source may have ceased to exist long ago. And me, I thought, all my life I’ve been journeying towards the moment when I would soar up over the crowds of what the slogans called the workers and peasants, the soldiers and the intelligentsia, and now here I am hanging in brilliant blackness on the invisible threads of fate and trajectory–and now I see that becoming a heavenly body is not much different from serving a life sentence in a prison carriage that travels round and round a circular railway line without ever stopping.

honeysuckle, earthiness, sardines, swordfish, witches

Patience ripens. On quiet mornings I contain it all within myself and walk to the sea. It blooms, bursts – so silently it is merely a light pop in the air nowhere near you. 

1. In the rainforest I watch strangers fall in love with each other over son jorocho, brought from the coastal areas of Mexico to the South China Sea, its romance intact.

The trees are lit green. The hills are watching. Somewhere nearby the sea breaks. Somewhere in the crowd a girl is looking for her partner, the one with dreads under the cowboy hat. Somewhere in the crowd a father has brought his children with him to enjoy the music, sans mother. It’s always been this way. Somewhere else in the crowd a girl in a hijab tries dancing publicly for the first time.

2. On a night out in this city some band is singing about the inadequacy of duct tape and sex. They are adorned with matching white guitars and earnest faces. F looks over at me from my right with suspicion and says, this is quite strange. S whispers wonderingly from my left if it is about masturbation. I’m vibrating with laughter. Some kid on the side falls on her ass. What is wrong with this scene? Or rather, what is right?

3. Everyone is home. It is like being on a library rooftop again, aged 21, except we’re a little more shy and a little more rude. The battlefields remain. We fight for solitude and strange love and jobs that don’t pay the rent, but tonight we’ve cleared the field to be together. Tonight I’ve cleaned so that the parquet shines. We feast on the cream of chicken curry and the feta of o deli, prowl the alleyway and curbside, cry with laughter, complete the circle. Everyone is smoking some shit just like old times. I’m hopping from one leg to the other, loving everyone, loving this home that is the first to contain us. Feeling brimful, if there were such a thing.

4. We’re hunting for an wuxia novel when we find ourselves in mandarin wonderland, in little Taiwan, in between cute drawings of dead rabbits and somber scribblings about swordsmen we’ll never know. I keep saying the words wrong. It’s a different world, but everyone is kind about my mistakes. Another day we wandered out onto the right side of Punggol, stuffing our faces with crab and the river and the scent of the sun on a Monday before six. Fieldwork is fun, is what I write these days off as.

5. Then there were the afternoons of storytelling to understand joy. This cluttered house, that hot and drowsy scent of outside heat waiting at the door, the hospitality of softened cashews, the tears of a mother and the dreams of an ex-pilot attempting to capture temporality. Above all, across all, the infinitely recurring crystal ball of Asian luck. Their stories are my mother’s stories, my father’s, mine. I receive them with gratitude.