“This is called terrible love. It’s a good thing.
Terrible love is good.
It’s the only kind of love.”
“This is called terrible love. It’s a good thing.
Terrible love is good.
It’s the only kind of love.”
“Now I can’t change the way you feel
But I can put my arms around you
That’s just part of the deal
That’s the way I feel
I’ll put my arms around you”
This is an old piece I’d written during my time at the U. of Iowa, under the impromptu assignment of threading together frenetic details concerning nothing in particular. I’d written it under a weak, yellow light before bed and still remember how easily it had come about. It was well-received and sparked a friendship with my instructor. I like to think of this piece under fond terms because it reminds me of frost-covered trees, the crisp smell of Fall, of long walks appeased by the promise of hot coffee and solitary time spent in crowded coffeehouses filled by students and professors alike, of burgeoning interests and of the simple joy that comes out of the act of writing.
But without further ado:-
lover / destroyer:
After several tragedies and triumphs, I am withering and prospering again. Humans navigate, calculate, deviate, complicate. Some choose to room in attics of the mind temporarily, while others are permanent tenants. There are fewer things lonelier than the pains and sorrows of living in the 21st century. Retweet, unfollow, reblog, where’s Waldo? Invisible mediums dictate and doctor the captive audience, often with little retaliation. Many quarrel and steer from the unknown, wrestle with self-made concepts yet missing the painfully obvious. I have learned that to be realistic does not always mean having to be pessimistic and age becomes two mere digits the more you grow. With 100% certainty, the real beauties in life are silent, stunning, captivating, dizzying, rare, almost a myth, almost a whisper of a whisker, for sentimental specters to observe and consequently lose, the hallucinogenic muse, nothing the media will ever be able to fully speculate or validate. Love is falling into a body composed of music, exists as the epidemic that has the world spinning as it erodes the soul as much as it nurtures it. Feel it bloom delicately and sweetly in the bones. Not many know that heartbreak, the execution of the prodigal youth’s innocence, is the rite-of-passage to have saved us all. Although sorrow in its purest form is a chaste vision, if you burrow long enough, it gives. It gives in its abundance of generosity and symmetry. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. It glows, slows, flows.
The Wallflower Social Club was created on the basis of aiding social cripples in gaining some vestige of confidence in their everyday communication skills. Its target audience consists of reclusive folks that fail to blend into social functions no matter how hard they try, no matter how bad (or great) the jokes they make, no matter how interesting their personalities can be, no matter how long they pretend to be engaged with their phones at social events. Most of the members of this club possess the desire to be sufficiently commanding without drawing too much attention upon themselves.
It was at the Wallflower Social Club that I met my fellow contenders.
There was a palpable slyness to these fellow wallflowers that was positively delectable. Awkward Joes and Bashful Susans, the type of individuals that were blessed in a multitude of wonderful things that did not involve great body language as a requisite but whose eyes were nevertheless alive with a strange keenness, a rare curiosity to find amongst everyday folk.
I noted upon my first visit at the Wallflower Social Club that none of the attendees were in possession of an alarming need to draw attention upon themselves and found this to be both refreshing yet highly impractical at the same time. There was a certain relief to this. It felt very sharp and alive.
In retrospect, the whole situation reminded me of birthday parties as a child. How, in the atmosphere of cheer and colorful balloons and Musical Chairs and screaming children, there would always be the presence of a child uncomfortably and glaringly excluded from the festivities, fiddling away in a corner trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. The image proved to be very touching to me. It reminded me of my one true self from birth. The whole room was filled with people like that.
The group at the Social Wallflower Club itself was incredibly small, consisting of ten or so folks, and an instructor who possessed enough panache to handle a group of socially awkward people. The instructor was a woman in her forties who looked like she would teach meditation techniques she learned from her yoga classes and who would be on anti-depressants (this all later proved to be very true). She was shapely and had frizzy hair, much like Julia Roberts in the 90s. There was an openness to her that was very American in its form.
It was also at the Wallflower Social Club that I met Joseph.
It was when we were scooping punch into our respective red, plastic cups that I noticed his presence. He was awaiting his turn, and I noted the ‘HELLO, MY NAME IS…’ sticker on his grey pullover, the ‘Joseph’ written with perhaps the wrong choice of pen as the ink had smeared unforgivingly. His penmanship reflected elegant handwriting nonetheless. Admittedly, this had been what had attracted me to observe him better. There was just something in the way he looped his letters.
There was just something in the way he looped his letters.
His hair stuck out at strange angles and he had a tired look on his face, as if he had been up the night before contemplating life a bit longer than he had intended to, as if he was suffering from a hangover, or perhaps the aftermath of a thudding headache inspired by the complexities of running daily work errands. He had a five o’clock shadow on his face. His sleeves were rolled up. He smelled like despair and sleep and cheap, thin coffee. I wanted to comb his hair.
He seemed befuddled by his presence there, as if he had somehow dropped into a hole in the ground to be brought into the other side of the world into the world’s most strangest club.
I smiled at him. At that point in my life, I had the misleading interest to be very tender in everything that I did, and he looked like he needed some tender care. I wanted to be convinced that gentility would alleviate the roughing redness of the world, that I had some say with even the littlest influence of kindness. I wanted to be accommodating in the hope that it would single out my growing frustrations with the discouraging world. It was very sweet but not very smart.
“Would you like a smoke?” I asked.
The things he shared:
I have been meaning to write. I have been busy, and I know I have been careless.
No huge call for error as most time slots have been messily sectioned for a variety of different activities meant to keep me occupied, the type of busy where you forget that you have a stomach and an ego and a mind to feed. It often feels like there is so much to do but there is only one of me. But I have not been unhappy, and things are mostly green, and I am okay and persisting and surviving. Whenever there arises a call of distress over the repetition of routine, as common amongst folks like myself, I remind myself that if the Japanese are able to maintain a rigid schedule in order to attain a higher state of mental strength, then realistically I should be able to do the same. Realistically.
So, something new: as part of a writing program known as UnRepresented KL, I managed to complete a short-story-and-a-half (the ‘-and-a-half’ is because story number two is not complete, and I foresee it not being completed until much later down the road). The ten weeks of this program proved to be wonderful in many aspects, firstly because I inherited with it a group of comfortable, kind, and wonderful new companions, and secondly because it gave me the exposure I needed exposing to. The story I managed to write and which I eventually read at the Cooler Lumpur festival is one that I still feel a little funny about. Hesitant, because for the first story I’ve ever completed and pushed out to the public, it arguably still has its faults. But on the other hand, I am also proud that I managed to sit through and complete something. The story is based on a person dear to my life, and I still hope to rework at it enough for it to become fuller and riper someday.
Things have been bleak here. Whatever happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is a human atrocity if there ever was any, and my heart and prayers go out to everybody affected, from family, friends, loved ones, and any individual that has been somewhat moved by the news of great tragedy.
I will stop here for now.
If anybody out there is still reading this space, I thank you for your patience and your time and wish you the best of health.
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.
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.
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:
And lastly, I keep returning to this because it is beautiful and I may never get over Japan.
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.