The nights are growing cold here, and I’m using old memories to kindle a little warmth.
Just enough to feel my fingertips, to not let my heart freeze over.
There was a time when I would have lit a blazing fire, enough to outlast the wintry winds, the night shivers. There was a me who would have fed off of the warmth of another time, who would have nurtured back to life the smouldering remains of dying fires.
But you see, I am not this me anymore. I am brave enough now to venture into the cold, to let the chill crawl up my bare arms and invigorate me.
Now, if I want warmth, I have just enough spirit to reach for it, trusting that it will not burn.
(Because that’s the thing about memories, isn’t it? They warm without burning. But you can never tell what it will be with the present, you can only experience the full shock of it when it happens.)
Their encounter, the summer they had spent together —caught in between afternoon siestas under flowering bougainvillae and warm beaches stirring under summer’s breath— could all be summed up in one moment. It was like accidentally looking into the sun with naked eyes — they were too tender, and the light scalding. Neither of them could hold that light, burning and fierce with the will to live.
Looking back, their relationship (the nature of which neither he nor she could ever bring themselves to settle on— “romantic” seemed too cheap a word for what they shared, “friendship” left a lot uncovered) had happened, in its entirety, in that instant. The one that leaves you momentarily blind, that catches you unaware before you can even think to turn away or flinch. A moment in life when you stumble into something you cannot handle.
The light pierced through their tender hearts as though fragile retinas, burning holes in them every chance encounter, every stolen moment. They snapped away, for the first time feeling the true burn of their encounter, when the first cool night settled in the all-consuming heat of the summer, first her, then him. The gravity of their common mistake fell over their heads like a bucket of ice water, extinguishing any hope of deciphering that odd relationship.
Years later, when they would meet again in a crowded street in some foreign city, passing each other by, they would not know where these burns came from, except from a summer a long time ago, on an island already subsumed by the water. What once was a happy place.
I was going through old boxes of memories and melancholy a little while back.
I am still decluttering, you see, trying to find my way to peaceful minimalism. The great fun in those dusty cardboard boxes is finding little treasures from back in the day and reminiscing, travelling to a glorified past for the afternoon. Sometimes you find objects you had all but forgotten about wasting away under layers of dust, even though you used them all the time back then and they are now infused with your energy.
I found the oddest thing there.
Nestled in between old Maths copybooks (why is that even there? Definitely going in the trash) and a sky blue hand band I wore just about everyday when I was 16, was this feeling. Not the melancholy that gently moves my heart, but something more profound, more ancient.
A feeling I was born with.
A feeling that I lost somewhere along the way, probably during a rainy day when I was growing up. As I contemplated all the darkness I was going to have to face alone, it must have slipped from me.
Joie de vivre.
The joy of living.
It is small, exultant, consistent. Like a heartbeat, like a child eager to see the world.
I sincerely did not wake up that day thinking that this would happen. Actually, joie de vivre had become an impossibility somehow. That kind of constant ‘happiness’ belonged only to childhood and children, in my mind. Like milk teeth that fall out and never come back, instead replaced by stronger, more resistant ones, I thought ‘happiness’ had been forever replaced by fleeting joy.
That’s probably messed up, but I thought the highest the happiness-metre could go was “content”— overjoyed, exultant, well, that’s new.
But it is this observation that did it : “I sincerely did not wake up that day thinking that this would happen.”. There I was that ordinary afternoon, sat on the floor, surrounded by boxes and memories when this thought awoke something deeply ingrained in me. What other wonderful, foreign thing could there be to look forward to tomorrow? What comes next? I can’t wait to find out!
Yeah. Holy crap.
I cannot believe this. Even though I’ve been having a string of mostly miserable days, this is also what I get to feel, on-and-off. It’s not constant yet, but it’s there.
That’s new. Well actually, it’s really not.
H o l y c r a p .
I’m freaking out a little.
Note : I actually like how this one turned out! And I am still freaking out lol.
As though my bones haven’t yet settled into my body and are relearning the shape of the person I have become. Or like maybe I’m just a floating skeleton and my flesh has yet to layer itself back onto my shaking self. My mind’s eye is closing in on the idea of my small everyday life, but my thoughts have been blown out of proportion by the overwhelming vastness of a metropolis. Reconciling the two is proving to be hard for someone like me, who lives in extremes.
Other hard-to-wrap-my-head-around things are: You can start the year, no, the week in London and still be back in time for the weekend in your small, floating piece of land.
It’s like my mother said : “Just yesterday you were phoning from England and today you’re already back. It’s almost like magic.”
And now, as my mind wrestles with old and new truths…nothing feels like it should be. Like I remember. Everything feels strange : my bed, my pillow, my desk, my notes, my scribbles. Any one thing will at one moment feel too small. Too deep, too on the right, too bright. Not like I remember. One world seems too foreign, the other not familiar enough.
But maybe nothing’s changed. Maybe it’s me. And maybe what I’m most scared of is how I don’t know myself. How I can’t find myself in the gap between new and old. And if I don’t, where to will my unfettered self run off ? What crazy thing will she do ?
Get an ear piercing, probably.
I mean, I actually did that.
And immediately felt more regret than physical pain.
What have I done to myself?
I have done things to myself that cannot be undone. I have changed myself beyond repair. There’s no going back.
And I am scared of that above all else. To not feel at home in my own skin. To feel like a grain of sand has infiltrated my skin and has bent my perfectly balanced world out of shape. I am so scared of never being able to go back to the person I used to be. To not have a home to return to after all is said and done.
Countless times I’ve looked at that piercing now, balancing delicately on my upper ear. At times I’ve hated it. Hated that I couldn’t remove it without leaving traces. If I could just make it vanish, things would fall back into place.
But they won’t. The past will not be changed.
And I have to be okay with that. Because travelling did the same to me; changed me beyond repair. Though nostalgia longs for the familiarity of days past, I have to keep moving. Because this is what I want, ultimately, if not immediately.
So I’m keeping the piercing. I’m getting used to my risk-taking, fanciful side. I tell myself it would never have come forward if it hadn’t been there in the first place. So maybe I’m still home within myself. Maybe that will never change. Perhaps I am just discovering new rooms I had left closed before.
In the 8 months (yikes!) I’ve been working at this start-up, it’s the 4th time now that we are moving offices.
Ah, it tugs at my heartstrings to say it even now…But we’ve moved away from the town with an ocean view, where you could conduct business with sandy toes after lunch by the sea. We’ve bid farewell to walks on the beach, to the lure of the sea breeze teasing your nostrils when you step out onto the 4th floor balcony. And ah, I even miss that balcony layered in cigarette smoke and how it allowed me to gaze at a hundred lives busily unfolding below me, a priceless distraction from my own problems. And we’ve moved away from all too-long bus journeys, from weaving tiredly in and out of old villages vibrant with life. We’ve moved away from the silhouettes of an old man and his granddaughter throwing their fishing lines out at the setting sun.
Now we’ve reached all sandy-toed in a business park closer to the heart of the city.
There will be much to love about it, eventually: the silence, the terrace, eating underneath fruit-bearing trees, the nearby orchards…
Except right now, I feel a bit…young. A bit alone, slightly vulnerable while we try to relearn the bases of moving into a new place. I think maybe I feel…uprooted. Although even that may not be the right term. My colleagues and I used to wander a lot, before. And now we are being made to grow roots instead of wings.
It’s not bad though. It’s really not. But I miss seeing people going to work in shorts and I miss the one man I never talked to, who would go running after work, always dressed in the same neon yellow shirt and cowboy’s hat.
I feel homesick for the sea, for freedom, for feeling in control.
But I am not alone in this, and that’s a small comfort. Besides, I try to remind myself that I have a plane to catch soon and that I will be wandering far past all the places I have ever known. I cannot get hung up about small changes…
A day at the beach, swimming, marveling at the feeling of sand and the summer warmth reaching my toes. I want to be sinking into the gentleness of the summer that I have only known to be suffocating. Like a scornful person who has peeled back their layers and trusted me with the vulnerability within, I want my skin to soak in the tenderness of the previously burning sun, to be sun-kissed and sun-loved. I need some wild wanderlust and a jar of freedom bottled like perfume, something that diffuses in the air, wherever I go. I want freedom so fragrant everybody smells it. I want to smell like the froth of the sea, like deep-green forests after it has rained all night.
I want to smell like Nostalgia, like the wind that brings you the scents of your childhood. I want to be both familiar and strange, something that has you running after it to figure out what it is. I want to forget about spilled ink and paper and formal clothes — I, I just want to breathe and not have to do anything.
I want to be want to be so small so the world can seem so big again, so that I can slip inside an iridescent bubble for a while and watch the aggrandised world in ever-changing colours. Jumping from bubble to bubble, I want to rise, rise towards the skies and the sun like Icarus, getting too close, too high, too much and popping into a million tiny luminescent droplets and dropping back to Earth. Then landing somewhere under the sun, falling asleep under its soft blanket of warmth as a thousand moons blink in and out of view. I want to wake up and have nowhere to go, nothing to do except losing myself in the patterns of the leaves overhead, the patches of sky and light that swim through the foliage.
I want lazy afternoons spent in a nap-induced haze, I want stars and the cool blueness of night, I want soft orange lights to illuminate my 1 a.m.s…
I want, I want…
Endless things, endless free things. Free of too much worldliness, of duplicity or heaviness.
I just want to feel light again. And free.
Note : Here, we are currently dipping our toes in the first blistering heat of the summer, and the atmosphere is so heavy it almost feels like something we’re carrying on our backs. Still, even writing things like this helps a bit.
“I am not without my own vices; I, too, have my preferred poisons.”
Just breathing is not enough sometimes.
When the weight of all the worlds is crushed up against your spine, tightly pressed into your lungs, it is never quite enough. Every now and then, I take breaks just to breathe. Deeply, without some misplaced fear of air ever running out.
Meanwhile, some of the people I work with take moments out of the day to smoke, talking about things I can only guess at. Inexplicably, and though I loathe the smell of cigarettes with thinly-veiled passion, I cannot help but feel that maybe people have quite deep conversations over a lit cigarette. On a balcony that quietly overlooks the town and its ocean view (and its waters you can even see glittering from afar), with the sound of the air-conditioners humming in the background to mask the silence, how can you only talk about the weather? As you share in the experience of a favoured kind of poison, how do you not bond? Non-smokers like me do not understand. I don’t think they —we—can. This trade with death—slow, blissful poison that fills your lungs, that settles your restless, drifting, wandering thoughts, for a few years off your life.
An onlooker as I have been most of my life, I watch, from afar, how chests expand and eyes close in unveiled bliss. I follow the trail of relief that comes with the exhale, deep from the lungs, ascending through the throat and liberated through open lips. The relief is so profound, so real. Where the smoke disperses into the atmosphere, its comforts remain. It makes me feel a little like a child. As though one day, someone will look closely and uncover the deceit, and tell me I don’t belong on a balcony with men who are smoking. I’m not sure if that would be a relief or not. I am slowly transitioning into a hybrid of an adult and an evergreen child, I think. Always the late bloomer. And never quite blooming the right way; I’ve always grown a little sideways, a little crooked.
Even so, I ask myself : during the winter days when the sky pinkens far too soon, in the silence between two drags of smoke (ironically so grounding), what do you say ? Even then, even when you say nothing, there is something different about the atmosphere. As though a visible peace has settled, and an invitation for deeper questions, more meaningful conversations, confessions even, is given. I think smoking probably feels a little like this : As though you were a kite that had its string cut before, and were being blown away into oblivion, but the smoke is what reels you back bit by bit to calmer skies.
And yet, I am not a smoker. So for lack of a cigarette between my fingers, I make my way to the balcony where the smell of tobacco lingers still, clinging to the walls in a way the wind could never take away. And in spite of the smell, of the layers of smoking breaks stuck to the air, I breathe in deeply. Taking steadying, shuddering breaths, concentrating instead on the faint yet persistent smell of iodine perpetually tickling my nose. A town with an ocean view, indeed. Really, it is not nicotine I crave. For lack of a cigarette and someone to smoke with, my mind reels back to quiet days and the view from another window.
I am not without my own vices; I, too, have my preferred poisons.
I remember my eyes sweeping across the view outside that window, cracked open to let the sunlight filter in. And I thought : “How bright and warm that light is.” But then you talked, and your eyes lit up, widened, poured light on the things your vision touched, as though what lay behind your eyes, beneath your skin was something akin to the sun, and it, too, filtered through the blinds that ironically, would be your eyes. And the light of the sun touched the inner corner of your eye, where the most delicate, most golden light creased, shimmered in the littlest nook between your eye and nose.
But unlike cigarette smoke, when the vision disperses, it leaves behind no comforts, no ashes. No illusion of warmth to hold onto. I am left cold, like a flickering candle in a damp room.
Dreaming is a slow poison, too, you have taught me.
“It’s hard to explain where I’m coming from when one minute I am laughing with everyone else at the beach and the next, I am staring off into space, into the layers of sand washing away into the sea. Thinking of scenes too otherworldly to comprehend, of thoughts that spirit you away.”
It’s hard to explain where I come from.
Not geographically. Or culturally, ethnically, socially. Not through these kinds of lenses, not through methods tried and true. There is not one lens that fits, not really. Nor is there a combination of them. All they project is an approximation, an à peu près* image, a translation for a word that has no equivalent.
But no, what I mean is that it is hard to explain—when I emerge from dazedly staring off into space— the depths of the worlds I was just a second before absorbed into. It is hard to explain what started it. How, from one blade of grass, my mind has built cities and ignited stars, conjured yellowed childhood memories and movie scenes. I cannot explain where I come from during bus journeys, cannot explain how there is this clear wistfulness pooling in my hands, staring me right back in the face, reading to me memories I have never experienced.
I’d give anything to hear
You say it one more time
I cannot explain how piano pieces make me feel unspeakable things, make me shudder, and my heart tremor with beauty and thinly-veiled fear. The fear that there is, somewhere in this wordless melody, hanging in the air between the vibrating strings of a piano, an echo of my own thoughts. And more importantly, the knowledge that behind it, there are hands and a brain and a heart that knew how to describe all of this giant, wordless feeling that swirls perennially inside of me. In no time at all, I can feel the fear, the anxiety, the disbelief from having found all that I have been looking for.
It’s hard to explain where I’m coming from when one minute I am laughing with everyone else at the beach and the next, I am staring off into space, into the layers of sand washing away into the sea. Thinking of scenes too otherworldly to comprehend, of thoughts that spirit you away.
Sometimes, my mind drifts. Sometimes I am shipwrecked in the Sea of Tranquility, feeling like the last person in the universe. And where silent moments before would find me stargazing from Earth, I am now watching its remains as though it twinkles as the stars do. As though its solitary ruins will guide me through the night, like the stars once did.
I feel like one of them, now, these stars I have longed to hold.
And yet, it all means very little now. I wanted so much to be somewhere else, to be part of the universe as though it were the big city and I just a country girl from Earth. But there is only silence now. The stars are not loud and the planets revolve without a word, while their moons follow. Some days, I think of extinguishing the stars, of putting them out and turning the lights off on this old, old universe. Other days, I sit quietly by a piano, nestled in the sea of tranquility and play a song I’m not sure I remember. I play to no one in particular, I play to keep the music alive, to not forget. I play because if I forget, nobody else will remember. I play to keep a part of my soul alive.
So it’s hard to say where I come from.
I mean, I’m not even sure how I got there.
Which winding paths and dirt roads I took, which side alleys I bypassed, which tracks I made myself.
That the universe was made
Just to be seen by my eyes **
But I think that lenses don’t really help. It is best, I think, to view these things with a naked eye.
* à peu près : almost, nearly, approximately (but it is, to me, one of those expressions best left in the original language).
Listening to :
** The words in italics are all lyrics from this wonderful, wonderful song.
“The day is new, but I am an old, old soul navigating this life through in the old capital…”
The old capital sleeps still as my footsteps echo in its dimly-lit streets, shoes clacking against the marble floor of a colonial-age building that stands proud and mighty, even in the dark.
These teeming thoroughfares that are always loud, infused with smog, resonating the cries of vendors are now so calm, so silent. Almost robbed of life. But there is this silent energy that thrums in the old city, as though the heart, the essence of the city came to life at night, revealing itself to me.
In the orange light of the streetlamps flickering gently in a puddle, the years slowly pass me by.
There is a scent of wildness and freshness, and there is too much sky. Too much sea; the port has yet to be. The city is so young, only now emerging from the ground. Wisps of a language too old for me to understand float in the air. In coaches and carriages, there are men and women, dressed in the finest cottons and silks on their trip to the newly-born capital, hair coiffed, faces painted. But behind them others trail. Nameless. Faces darkened with sweat and grime, with no choice but to be brought to this foreign city and to do as others will. History will remember the names of the ones who brought them there. But their own stories will forever be lost in the nooks and crannies of the capital. The city reminds me that it has never been kind.
But it is archaic, has been there for a long, long time.
The carriages fade, and instead, a crowd amasses near the docks. The first letters have arrived. And newspapers several months old, spices, all sorts of items from around the known world (silk from china, embroidered cloths from India…).
Soon and yet not soon enough, the faces of those who wander the capital freely change. Now, dark skin gleams proudly under the sun, braided locks tumble freely in the wind.
And then all the horses fade. Soon, a few sleek and shiny cars ride along asphalted streets. The capital is changing. It has been changing for a long time now. A boy cries out headlines, stacks of newspapers behind his frail legs. Families bustle around, buying groceries and presents for upcoming holidays. The city is warm and welcoming, now. Many a wayward sailor finds home in one of its hidden places.
And then the boy is gone, and the headlines speak of a war. The streets are cold, the sunlight unwelcome. Whispers of “the war” fan now-sparsely populated roads. The people are glum and thin. Smiles turn out to be rarer commodities than food. Officers, decked in imposing uniforms stalk around, seeming tall and all too important, whisper heatedly of things only they know. The city does not grow much during that time. It hides.
And then the war is over. It is a blink of an eye to the old city, that war. Yet for its people it seemed like it would never end, even when it did. The city is never the same after.
The cars grow sleeker and more numerous now. But protests fill the streets of the city ever so often, and the old capital can only bow to the determined faces, the strong arms brandishing signs.
And then all too fast the years flash by, and even as my eyes water from the whiplash of that much knowledge all at once, I catch glimpses of faces that seem distantly familiar. Faces that I have only ever seen this young and carefree in yellowed photographs. Floral skirts and wild hair flow in the wind, large, tinted sunglasses resting atop noses.
And then there is a child tottering about near the port, ignoring a melting heap of ice-cream, instead entranced by the horizon, the boats and ships leaving the harbour. I know who that child is. I remember.
And later, later, the city rises from the earth and the night, touches the skies and doesn’t mean to stop there.
The day is new, but I am an old, old soul navigating this life through in the old capital.
“If reality were nothing but an agreed upon lie, childhood would be the most beautiful lie we would have.”
It’s always so strange to see childhood friends being adults.
To see them in suits and beards, wearing 9-inch heels and nail polish when I’ve seen them eating glue, their hair a nest, some of their teeth missing or moving precariously in their mouths. It feels like a masquerade, like another school show they’re putting on.
Any moment now, the sticker-beard will fall off, the nail polish will wash off and they will all shrink back to their normal sizes. In this way, life feels so unreal. Like I will wake up from a nap and will find myself in that old classroom with the worn wooden chairs, the smell of flowering trees and summer wafting through the windows, chalk dust all over my hands. And my friends will be laughing at me while my teacher sighs and tells me to go wash my face.
Sometimes, life feels like this weird, far-fetched dream, the kind you have when you’ve had too much sugar during the day.
Other days though, it is childhood that seems too farfetched. Too perfect to ever have been real. Like something a younger version of you would go to a genie to wish for.
But it’s real. Or at least, it seems to be. If reality were nothing but an agreed upon lie, childhood would be the most beautiful lie we would have.