here, my lungs are tea-stained & soft

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.

The White Vase, by Henrik Nordbrandt, translated by Patrick Philips

The summer has still not gone
and you are still not gone
and I am still not gone.

And the door is closed
and the afternoon sun warms the windowpanes
and the shadows of the birch trees darken

the dust on the black table
with the white vase.
And the dust just lies there.

Excerpts from “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison

I learned to rate Dave on how well he empathized with me. I was constantly poised above an invisible checklist item 31. I wanted him to hurt whenever I hurt, to feel as much as I felt. But it’s exhausting to keep tabs on how much someone is feeling for you. It can make you forget that they feel, too.

I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. Now I’m not so sure of either. I know that being in the hospital made me selfish. Getting surgeries made me think mainly about whether I’d have to get another one. When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.

Dave doesn’t believe in feeling bad just because someone else does. This isn’t his notion of support. He believes in listening, and asking questions, and steering clear of assumptions. He thinks imagining someone else’s pain with too much surety can be as damaging as failing to imagine it. He believes in humility. He believes in staying strong enough to stick around. He stayed with me in the hospital, five nights in those crisp white beds, and he lay down with my monitor wires, colored strands carrying the electrical signature of my heart to a small box I held in my hands. I remember lying tangled with him, how much it meant—that he was willing to lie down in the mess of wires, to stay there with me.

It all returns to this: you want him close to your damage. You want humility and presumption and whatever lies between, you want that, too. You’re tired of begging for it. You’re tired of grading him on how well he gives it. You want to learn how to stop feeling sorry for yourself. You want to write an essay about the lesson. You throw away the checklist and let him climb into your hospital bed. You let him part the heart wires. You sleep. He sleeps. You wake, pulse feeling for another pulse, and there he is again.