This is where I sink & float

The roundtable with the Lazy Susan.

The roundtable with the Lazy Susan was where it all happened.

The table had made its first debut in 1979 when my father was a boy of seventeen. It had been an early pick because of its functionality and because such tables were common in those days. It was made of wood and could be opened up into a bigger oblong shape for special occasions. It was not fancy or expensive, but it was certainly purposeful. Tok saw it fit for her new home.

Tok, my grandmother, was a thrifty lady with a natural knack for business and a ferocity for survival. She was Cheah Swee Kwan at birth, Faridah Abdullah for the remainder of her life after marriage, but was always known as just Tok to me in the eight years that I knew her. Tok was a strong, exemplary woman who single-handedly raised four children — unabashed laughter and white teeth, soap and medicine, an absolute woman beyond her years.

The roundtable was the centerpiece in the lives of Tok and her children, where everybody gathered around it come Saturday like it was an unspoken yet unconditional rule. The comfort of home-cooked food was integral, simply because it filled everybody up with love, nutrition and happiness.  Tok would rotate cooking everybody’s favourites, her dishes a fusion of different cultures, traditions and ideas. Ikan cencaru pedas for Dad, porridge with minced meat for Auntie Yin, popiah for Pak Bet, otak-otak, Cantonese Char Kuey Teow… the list went on and on.

The celebrations that revolved around the table were arbitrary — joy wasn’t dictated by the idea of commercial celebrations or by sheer digits. Any moment that had rhyme or reason for laughter meant that it would be a shared moment, and sharing was most important of all. After all, the Lazy Susan itself was designed to share.

There were many card games and intense Scrabble sessions that the adults would take part in competitively till the late hours of the night on that table. These sessions were often accompanied by the steady whirring of the fan, the backdrop of faint 90s cartoon sounds from the television, along with endless coffee and snacks. I like to think that all these components combined made for great conversations.

Amongst the comical occasions that colored the roundtable was when Tok would brew the herbs she brought home from the local sinseh. A foul-smelling stench would overpower the air and a suspicious-looking pot would make a feature in the middle of the Lazy Susan. “Drink it to clear up your eyes,” Tok would say. Nothing cleared up the house faster as everybody would suddenly announce their leave with hasty excuses and shifty-eyed glances and yet nobody could escape from their fate of having to drink up their share of the dreaded medicine.

Another memory would be when my mother had walked in on me eating chicken feet from a bowl once. Uncommon to her culture and way of living, she had screamed her head off at the sight of her two year-old chewing gnarly bits of feet. I still faintly recall enjoying the taste although I never took to trying it again.

“It seems like all of you are always laughing and eating and then talking about the next meal.”

There were many meals that stretched the span of numerous happy belly laughs. The family members that came from other lands found the culture, the sheer obsession around food and the (in)activity of sitting around a table for hours, perplexing. Not everybody necessarily understood the beauty of the tradition that surrounded the roundtable, perhaps because it is so typically Malaysian to draw health from an obsession with food and good company.  Nobody knew how to best articulate the experience to foreigners because like love, it was simply an experience that was simply felt or not felt, and it has often been wondered if the experience is a happy inheritance exclusive to every Malaysian.

It was the roundtable with the Lazy Susan that brought Tok’s family together. Things regularly shapeshifted to different forms there – spats, tears, discussion, surprises, reconciliations, but almost always ultimately into a form of joy and familial acceptance. After her passing, it became close to impossible to get everybody together again in one place.

Nobody is certain of the fate of the roundtable with the Lazy Susan. Perhaps it is still at the old house, bringing together other families. I’d like to think so although I am not so sure. Sometimes I dream about retracing or tiptoeing back in time to experience a taste of what it was like to have a familiar favourite dish waiting for me every Saturday and to have a Scrabble game to look forward to.

In my family, that table made history.  That table is history.

How to gracefully disappear in a room.

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The National was beautiful.

It made me very glad and very grateful to be alive. Perhaps it was the affection for poetry, for fine, blue-blazered men that drink wine and have no qualms about breaking glasses, for that great baritone voice with all its assuring masculine charm, for emotional aggression, for not wanting to fuck this over (November or not), and for the beauty in seeking quiet company. Such great, tender flagships to mark off.

Sarah and I met The National after King Krule’s set. We met The National and requested for them to play ‘Sorrow’ and ‘About Today’, which they did. We met The National and sang and screamed and jumped together as my single, most fangirl moment wrote itself that day. And oh, their faces were so kind. Matt Berninger with his clear frames and English major vibes, the twins with their mussed up hair and bright faces. It’s great when the members of the band you’ve adored for so long seem like hugely likable individuals in real life.

Singapore was a pleasing escape, unguarded and unbristled by my inherited worries. It reminded me of pre-graduation, of a lightness I’d packed away under the guise of sensibility and adulthood. It was great to be in the presence of friends I’m glad to know and keep. Sonia, with her kind eyes, matching vanilla candle and stacks of books in her room. I felt strangely at home in Singapore this time around.

Bloom.

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It’s okay, this is the right realm.

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If there is anything I’ve learned at all, it’s that life owes me nothing. The universe doesn’t owe me anything. The big man upstairs doesn’t owe me anything. My family/friends/current interest/career/cat doesn’t owe me anything. The next big beautiful thing to happen in life is not “in store” or “in stock”, maybe because

I owe myself everything.

And it isn’t realistic to keep running from everything, dear one. Packing up suitcases time and again to seek refuge from other countries, other vessels, and other wandering minds won’t help you once you take the novelty out of it. There is a lot of work, effort, and fine-tuning needed to get to somewhere worthwhile. The cruelty of your slowing metabolism should have told you that by now.

But s’all good.

That said, I have been in the habit of writing down skeleton descriptions of people. If you see yourself, it’s not you. Here are a few shorts I hope won’t get me into too much trouble:

  1. A little smug, very much sponsored by limited hours of sleep, the alcohol and sweat of testosterone, the overbearing desire to live. Attractive in that fine-boned, sun-soaked manner of being 26. Knows exactly what he wants when he sees it, doesn’t give two shits about wealth because character comes first. Could be responsible and fulfilling if he put his mind to it, homophobic, consumes high volumes of protein. Would be sorted into Gryffindor if it was an actual thing, not intimidated by sunset-colored bruises, casts or crutches if injuries were sacrificed in the name of a good cause.
  2. The type of person to give it all up; funds, emotions, promises, secrets, everything, moreso to a stranger than a love one. Eats to live rather than lives to eat, often subsisting on a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Afraid to invest in the idea of romantic love after witnessing cultural misalignment from pre-school onwards. Has growing fears that are difficult to suppress, often spouts the most moving lines in spite of her own lack of awareness.
  3. The rat within the grain, grew up on primetime shows and American jokes, always hoped to outgrow the rat race and transition into The Man without dispensing too much effort.
  4. Knows how to love inconspicuously. A quiet, unassuming humor, in control enough to never have to run on auto-pilot mode. Drifted throughout high school, never belonged in a clique, never had to belong in a clique. The type of person you somehow never run into, who owns no less but no more than 3 sweaters, 3 shirts and 2 pairs of pants in his collection of clothes.  Quite possibly lives in a poorly-ventilated apartment with bookshelves filled to the brim with Nietszche and Plato, coldest during winter, warmest in the glow of comprehension. In possession of an adequate enough attention span to sit through slow-loading Internet.


And lastly, I keep returning to this because it is beautiful and I may never get over Japan.

Pandanus amaryllifolius.

I have been held dutifully responsible for the welfare of the Pandan plant.

I was also held responsible for the welfare of the previous Pandan plant. The one that wilted, either due to my ignorance or due to the scorching sun. Or both.

It was my mother who gave the responsibility of tending after it. In my mind, I thought that the act of watering would suffice. I mean, forests are self-sufficient collections of plants, right? So I assumed that little maintenance would be needed for a tiny potted plant.

I was wrong. A month later I became responsible for my first death. I felt icky, guilty, shitty.

Well, that Pandan plant was swiftly replaced with a new one, the current one, as a second chance given by both my mother and by Mother Nature. The same plant which seems to unfortunately be yellowing and drying up slowly, always looking like it could use a tall drink of water. Regardless of the fact that I do water it twice a day, sometimes three times, sometimes four, it continues to shrivel pitifully.

I Googled “How to save a dying plant” and “Can a yellowing plant still survive?”, but to no avail. My knowledge when it comes to gardening is, I’m afraid, really nil. Should I be changing the ratio of my soil (I vaguely remember learning this in Kemahiran Hidup a decade ago)? Are there pests hidden somewhere? Or is my dear plant diseased?

Damn. Wish I knew.

I will continue to root for your battle with the land of the living. Please survive.

January favourites.

HER

  • A search for a lost cable catapulted into a cleaning session which lasted all the way till the early hours of the morning. Amongst the scramble of papers found in the attic was a poem composed by a classmate (Max, powdery complexion, thinning blonde hair, bright red smile) from the Creative Writing course two blazing summers ago. “Her mouth, a tiny mandolin” remains one of those lines which has stayed years after because of the dainty image it conjures.
  • James Blake’s residency for BBC Radio 1 is phenomenal. I don’t pretend to fully understand post-dubstep or dubstep as a genre but this is the type of music that winds you up, the kind of music that is cathartic and emotionally filling. Maybe it’s typical for all generations, but I hear so often of complaints in regards to how people don’t quite make music like how they used to. My primary retort to this statement, time and again, is that those people simply aren’t looking hard enough because there are always things to listen to, given any space of time, given the fact that good shit also doesn’t make its way to you unless you look for it (arguably applicable for restaurants, movies, clothes, cats, and love interests). I’m a fan of James Blake even if I can’t listen to him for hours on end. His music is, more often than not, extremely on point and he is a master of his craft, often showing respect for music of other genres and ages through his samples.
  • I watched Spike Jonze’s Her recently and thought that it was thought-provoking and smart, an overall great movie to begin the year with. If you’re not aware, the movie is set some time in the near future where a man (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his OS. Think Siri, but with the sexy huskiness of Scarlett Johansson’s voice and more miles to go in terms of personality. The colour scheme in the movie relies primarily on sunnies and blues, lending a dreaminess that goes well with the soundtrack. Apparently Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire got themselves involved somewhere, but you wouldn’t really guess it. Or at least I didn’t. Some of the piano pieces in the movie were especially emotive and reminded me a lot of Claude Debussy. Linking ennui and isolated intimacy with the digital age makes for an awfully sad yet effective combination. I think we all spend a little too much time sitting hunched in front of the computer even if it doesn’t really make us very happy. Why do we do so when we could be outdoors?
  • I freely admit that complimentary Chinese New Year dinners, cheap kangkung and many days off due to the abundance of public holidays in January are some of the perks of living here.

We are the 21st century ambassadors of peace & magic.

Night-time hasn’t been wasting into decay lately — I’ve been frequenting the deeper levels of dreams.

Entering one is like exploring the architecture of a long drawn out open space that is expansive and bottomless where all is intuitive and familiar. Each step brings forth the reality of a premonition I know by memory and it’s easy to tell the friends and the crooks from my subconscious even if the faces I recognize are few. But I am always running away. From what, I still can’t tell.

The themes from my nightly episodes are not aligned. I’ve dreamt about disentangling a snake from a tall tree, a neverending ride in a glass elevator to see a woman I highly dreaded in seeing, the fear of marriage, the desire to continue believing in romantic love, and of intricate clothes featuring patterns I am sure I have seen and subconsciously recorded from my day-to-day routine.

There aren’t any great big problems going on lately. Every year is destined with new landscapes, even amidst familiar terrain. Submerging into the new year with a new profession, I am finding my way around with a vow to become more resilient. I do not want to fulfill the stereotype of being a product of a generation that feels entitled to privileges, maybe because I want to earn something bigger even if I am small and even if I have been guilty of feeling entitled to things. My usual antics are outgrowing themselves but that is because there is much for me to outgrow at this age as I redefine and refine the shape of things around me.

I don’t feel like hanging out lately. It could be that I’ve been more tired or that I am reclining back into my own shell or that the fit of my shoes are too small. There is the fear of being boring but maybe I simply just don’t believe in doing the things I don’t want to do.

Standing under the guilt of solemn proclamations, I wonder if things will always be this flighty.

10 Favourite Tracks from 2013

My accumulated wisdom isn’t in full bloom yet (it may never be) so I’m afraid I don’t have a Thought Catalog-esque “Top 13 Truths Every 20 Something-Year-Old Should Know” type of list this year.

2013 has shamelessly been a growing year for me with many moments where I was left clutching at straws while at my wit’s end. But rounding the year up, many moments of light were present too. Being in my twenties, it can be said that every year preceding this one has been a huge learning year to some effect, but I can say that 2013 has been rougher and more concise with its full-on strikes.

I am sharing my year with a personal but slightly less private (yeah, bend your mind over that) list with my top 13 favourite tracks of 2013, with commentary in typical Shari fashion.

10. Border Line by King Krule: King Krule looks like a Weasley but spits while waxing lyrical. A true anomaly the world should welcome.

9. Für Hildegard von Bingen by Devendra Banhart: I had a head of really long, black curls once. They were imperfect, but they were mine. The process to grow it out was painstaking. In a way, it was representative of a body of growth, perhaps the only physical part of me I could take any pride in. My mane was my crown and it was something I could hide under during days where I felt like I could only afford to undercompensate. I used to soak my long hair with sunflower oil in the shower, you know. It really turned my hair to a richer shade of black so there’s a freebie tip for you. Hacking it off was a spontaneous decision.  A dramatic, typical, mad decision. There was just this desperation to feel lighterIf not now then when? I thought. I didn’t cry when the hairdresser snipped it all off with his shiny, silver scissors. These days, I only ever cry during family reunion scenes on Masterchef Australia, it seems.

The idea of driving used to make me very nervous. So after the haircut, I was nervous about driving back home. I was also suddenly unsure if I was in possession of the right amount of confidence to carry out my spontaneous decision. I would reach out to touch my hair, only to feel the naked nape of my neck. There was no longer any hair that could be tied. “Shit hath hit the fan-eth, now this face will be in full view for the world to see”Für Hildegard von Bingen was the first song I played after. Played it as soon as I got into the car and began driving off, in fact. I turned the volume dial to full and could not stop smiling. All fears vanished because there was such a laughing sense of wonderment in that moment. All was bright and carefree, much like Devendra himself.

8. Retrogade by James Blake: Ignore everybody else, we’re alone now. 

There was this one occasion when I thought I had seen you amongst the crowd of students in that jank library. I tried to catch you, but you were moving about too quickly, like a shadow. I thought I caught that gaunt look and that stern profile. Your mouth always looks so stern when you are in deep concentration.

Have you ever realized that people look the loveliest when they read?

7. Open by RhyeHe thought he was going to hell for having loved. He was wrong.

6. Miasma Sky by BathsTall rock shelf, are you maybe here to help me hurt myself? 

mi·as·ma
mīˈazmə,mē-/

noun

literary
1. a highly unpleasant or unhealthy smell or vapor

I did not know the meaning of miasma prior to listening to this song so thank you very much for teaching me a word through a song as scenic as this one, even if it may or may not be about suicide.

5. This is the Last Time by The National: Remembering that feeling, way before the destruction and the inevitable chaos, of wanting to share another with the the rest of the world because he/she was so amazing in every sense of the word and every day felt like a celebration if it meant being able to validate your existence with another’s.

4. Home Recording by Mount Kimbie: I haven’t learnt as much as I have lent.

The sparsity of this song with the steady beat goes perfectly well on a rainy evening spent journaling at home. The blaring horns at the beginning are comical but the song takes a deft turn by accounting dormant youth in an insistent questioning manner that is still enviably eloquent. Still not sick of this one till today.

3. Colombia by Local Natives: Am I loving enough / Am I giving enough?

Hurts like a punch straight to the gut, but only in the most glorious way possible. Beautifully written in memory of Kelcey Ayer’s mother, who passed away recently. 

2. Pulaski at Night by Andrew Bird: Come back to Chicago, city of light. 

I saw Andrew Bird perform live once. It was during winter in Chicago and the show was held in a museum. I remember a few things: He did not make any eye contact throughout the show and he had his eyes closed most of the time. He was stick thin and he had a silver wedding band around his ring finger. He had a sock monkey perched on his speakers. He stopped the show midway when an old man was coughing, resuming only when he was assured that the old gentleman was alright. It felt like every man and woman in the audience fell in love with this perfect embodiment of a shy gentleman living and breathing in the 21st century. Pulaski at Night is a love letter to the unnamed many, and is yet another wonderful gift from the talented Mr. Bird. “I paint you a picture / But it never looks right / Cause I fill in the shadows / And block out the, I block out the light.”

1. Graceless by The NationalGod loves everybody, don’t remind me.

Unarguably my favorite album of the year, so effective in ridding skeletons of self-inadequacy.

Let me take you home.

Relief in driving alone is relief in being in one’s own capsule, independent of an audience. Reenact a movie scene if you will. Cry your eyes out due to indelible frustrations. Pretend that life is GranTurismo without being too much of a living hazard to others. Change your clothes when nobody is looking. Think dangerous thoughts nobody will hear.

Or pretend you are a French lady by the name of Cecil, heartbroken over a man in the summer of ’85.

He was the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen, the most beautiful boy I’ve ever met.

Tough luck, Cecil.

Adapt a hilariously bad French accent. Give long, melancholic, meaningful stares out the window as you’re driving, like one of those corny-as-fuck karaoke videos. Rock it like you’re in the 80s. Go on, it’s worth it.

Pinky promise.

Died on the promise of the fruit.

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Bright Star, 2009

Here is a movie which speaks volumes to me, on a level so fluent it feels like it must have been imbued in my consciousness a decade or so ago.

The dull ache of wanting to give too much whilst having so little, dreaming more often than thinking, of knowing that this tainted reality must still be real if poems exist, if love exists.

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