People Watching

I see you; the man in his early 30s, eating alone at the food court, eyes bleary from watching anime the night before. You don’t hold the door open for others because you were never brought up to think beyond a certain field of sensitivity. Whose fault could that be, the system or your own? Your lanyard’s frayed, your hair’s out of shape. You could do with some sleep.

I remember you; the Indian auntie with the charisma of a well-liked English teacher. You carried the same worn out black Bonita handbag throughout the years, your purse fat with coins and membership cards. Your smile had a way of showing the generosity of your spirit, the way it’d light up your eyes and show the softness of your laugh lines. Your thick black hair smelled faintly of coconuts.

I miss you; oh, friend from my youth. How we spent many hours not eating together, sitting on different floors as we talked and talked about everything under the sun. On bad days, good days, okay days. We’d do each other’s hair with heating tools, curling the bottom parts into loose curls that’d last a few days if we were lucky. The worst of our worries then would seem trivial to us now. Today you remain as just a face which I occasionally ‘Like’ on my Instagram page, a memory of an innocence long lost.

2020

Quarantine Thoughts

When you stare at the sky long enough from your window and observe the subtle changes, it’s possible to be lulled to a sense of rest. This year, I stared and stared listlessly in search of something. Meaning, beauty, a revelation of some sort, only to realise that there isn’t always something to be made out of something. There isn’t always a need for something proper or profound.

Nobody really talks about the inbetween state of things, such as the hours where there’s not much to do except wait. This is time handed to you which you’re not sure what to do with, like the hours you’d spend in transit in an airport. So much of 2020 felt like that; I’d wake up again in my room to resume from the day before, a Saved point from a story with little progress as the world raged ahead outside. This was the year where the line between work and rest got blurry. Being home cleared my skin and eased some work-related anxieties but it felt strange to have so many days in the year pass by when you’re locked inside for fear of the outside. My mood would dip each day to the point where I found myself napping a lot – a surefire sign of depression. 

When I think about the first lockdown, I think about how our fears were less restrained. We didn’t know what to do or expect. Even a trip to the grocery store proved to be a high-risk occasion. That we’d later be desensitised to this fear, in spite of rising numbers, is a living irony in its own right. 

I purchased a ton of pointless things during the first lockdown. Items include a fake gua sha roller and a tie dye shirt. There was so much madness in not being sure but there was also a weird (oftentimes short-lived) sense of joy in rediscovering fascination over pointless things. I learned how to paint, reorganised my wardrobe again and again, took joy in taking walks outside and surprisingly wore out my sneakers. 

There’s this CAPTCHA checkbox with the phrase I’m not a robot I have to manually tick each time before a Zoom meeting. I’m not a robot. What robot would try to time shampoo days to coincide just a day before workout days? What robot would feel resentment towards other robots for not wanting to mute their mic while on a Zoom call? What robot would, quite honestly, ever worry about living through a pandemic? 

Reticence

I picked up driving regularly again this year. One of my most vivid memories I have from teh year would be driving from Bangsar at 2am whilst listening to Have A Nice Life’s ‘I Don’t Love’.

My favourite thing about the song is the buildup; it starts off super quiet, so quiet you might think nothing’s playing at all, only for the drone, bass and fuzz to come in REALLY loud when you least expect it to. The song is about existential agony but there’s a relief to it which speaks strongly to me. 

It brings to mind one of my favourite poems is by Jean Valentine called ‘I Came to You’. 

“I came to you

Lord, because of

the fucking reticence of this world

no, not the world, not reticence, oh….”

There’s so much restraint we carry with living but there’s also humility in surrendering, in being able to say, This is my limit and I don’t know where to go from here. So much of my life has been about being afraid to turn around only to find nobody there. A lot of 2020 felt like that, in a way. 

Turning 30

I’m surer of myself now, more forgiving of the things that do and don’t make me whole. I no longer want to waste time on half-baked things or books or people that I’m unsure of for too long. I’m surprised by how much is left to learn and how vast yet small our existence feels in the grand scheme of things and am grateful that there’s still a pervasive sense of curiosity.

Maybe parts of it speak laughably like a crisis of some sort. I got a helix piercing this year. Dyed parts of my hair green. Ended a long-term relationship. Co-wrote an app for one of Malaysia’s major banks to generally positive reception. Started seeing a therapist. Made new friends. Lost some friends. Collaborated with other artists. Fell in love and got into a new relationship. When asked what I’d title this year, ‘A Second Adolescence’ immediately sprung to mind. It did feel like a coming of age of sorts. They weren’t all acts of protests but rather acts of discovery. 

We hear it time and again. 2020’s such a weird year. There’s no denying that it’d been a weird year. I just didn’t expect to find so much amidst all the weirdness too.  

September, 2020.

Prompt 108. Just Ten Images (taken from The Isolation Journals. Prompt by Priya Parker)

Your prompt for the week:
Your life might look nothing like mine but maybe you also feel that you lack the time, emotional space, or the presence of that saucy minx, “inspiration,” to write. Maybe you can’t sit down and write multiple pages or hundreds of words but I bet you can come up with ten images from the last 24 hours. Give it a try.

Just three images from my Camera Roll’s past twenty four hours, because maybe it’s the ones that describe things best. These days I find myself splitting my efforts in a thousand different ways. And yet, most days I wake up not short of wanting; I want to write, I want to draw, I want to know, I want to dress well, I want to read, I want my friends and family to know I love them, I want to be present, I want to laugh and make others laugh, I want to question things, I want to believe, I want to feel, I want to let go, I want to hope, I want to imagine that all of this isn’t futile, I want I want I want.

‘Forgotten Eyes’ by Big Thief came on in the middle of a hectic work day the other day and there was this feeling of frustrated elation that I had when I listened it. There was a particular line that really resonated with me. Of late I’ve been thinking about how much I miss going for shows and that communal feeling of being so connected with the music that’s playing. It’s almost spiritual to be in a place in the cold where it smells like beer, sweat, cigarettes and multiple bodies packed in a place, all trying to soak in the same light from the same band playing onstage.

I truly believe that Big Thief is one of those rare, special bands that make music because they have to get it out of them. It’s a band that gives me hope to be better and it makes me believe that it isn’t so bad. The energy you get from their songs is just so visceral.

Is it they or is it I / Is it me who is more hollow as I’m quickly passing by?

What I make from this line is how caught up we get in chasing for things that don’t ultimately even mean anything. It’s so easy to lose ourselves in the everyday and a lot of us choose to unwittingly dim our light the older we get. An inevitable part of getting older is recognising the level of contempt we have towards the world and choosing what to do with it. Maybe it’s a privilege to even be able to choose what we want to do with it, but a recurring thought I’ve had of late is how amazing it is to still have wonder and love for the world in spite of everything.

In a world of performative wokeness and cancel culture, it’s easy to forget that all the boundaries we create to field ourselves from each other are also manmade. Sometimes choosing to move beyond our differences and choosing to instead focus on our own journeys of wanting to be more accountable, present and aware of how we can contribute is a lot more important than celebrating the resentment we feel for other people and other things.

I hope it’s not jinxing it or too optimistic of me to say that I’ve been feeling healthy. I’m not the best figure of patience or kindness but I want to learn how to be soft, even when the world gets hard. To remember the joy and the small comforts, in spite of it all.

Everybody needs a home and deserves protection. So why not start by making it just a bit better for ourselves?

Sayang, jangan lupa.

There’s this memory I have of a young man early in my 20s whose face I wanted to commit to memory. To run his features, forwards and backwards, as if they were lines that could be read and stored away in the depths of my mind. I wondered if the more I saw him, the more I’d remember, if time and memory could function as sinews to become something that’d make a part of my being instead of turning into something that’d fade with time. There was no way I’d forget the asymmetry of his mouth, the darkness of his brows, the freshness of emotions. But I knew that forgetting would be eventual even as I was living through it.

There’s this memory I have of when my grandmother died in 1998 when I was eight. I remember hearing the loudness of my thoughts in the quiet of the night. Days after she passed, I was afraid of forgetting the sound of her unabashed laughter and the way she smelled like talcum powder, Tiger balm, soft fabric and sweat. In her absence, I’d cling onto the things she gave me – the pillowcase cover she sewed using the fabric from one of her old blouses, the wooden comb we picked out at the mall together that one time I slept over and my mom had forgotten to pack me a hairbrush, the bar of expensive soap she gave me from England that felt too precious to use up. The impermanence of things made me wonder if there was any point in loving any material thing too much, if maybe part of savouring something is in not taking care of it too carefully but to instead love it abundantly and even recklessly.

There’s this lip tint I used to wear when I was younger. It tasted like rose syrup and coloured my lips and cheeks a shade of pink. Whenever I wore it to class it felt like a new part of my identity, that dry sensation on my lips, that hint of colour on my cheeks, letting me be how school never let me be. It was a sense of hope in a colour. I could carry that sense of hope along with me in my pocket, wherever I went.

What a strange sensation it is to be alive and to still live through the grief of losing, even decades after. What is forgetting – relief, or loss? And what is writing, if not to commemorate these fragments forever?

Trying.

I wish I could say how much too much feels like, how on some days living feels like a non-negotiable choice and waking up is a reminder to get through yet another day I’m not too sure how to feel about. I wish what I’m going through has a fixed timeline and that some clarity could be gained by the end of it but I guess it’s the uncertainty of life that also keeps us plodding along. I wish it didn’t have to feel this selfish and personal and how, at the same time, it feels like mental health is exactly the thing that you can’t share with others because nobody would completely understand the trappings of the mind as much as you’d understand it yourself. I’ve started going for therapy and I think (hope) that it’s something that will eventually help me.

These days I’ve been getting a series of strange dreams. In these dreams, people I barely talk to in real life have conversations with me. Sometimes, animals appear. These people talk about their jobs, mundane things, and what to to look out for in the future. At this point in my life, I’m no longer invested in the idea of a clear future simply because I can’t visualise one. Growing up, I never had the maternal fantasy of becoming a homemaker. Each time I thought about marriage I’d cut myself short to instead think about what it means to be as a person. Always, this strange determination in wanting to make something out of nothing, to carve a name out for myself and to feel and talk and write about things that are real and alive to me. I used to be so in love with the world and have never wanted to drown in the definition of the other, of solely being somebody else’s person or to cave in to the pressure of fulfilling society’s standards of what a woman should be. But now, at almost thirty, I can’t help but to feel like I still can’t tell left from right, even when it comes to the simplest things. Maybe it doesn’t have to be so non-negotiable, maybe it’s normal to feel this lonely and disillusioned and unfulfilled but still want to try to find a space to belong in out there. Maybe, maybe.

What am I bumbling towards for in this life? All these lamentations feel so futile, even if I know a lot of sense has been made out of writing and really solidifying these thoughts out.

I tried to take an objective backseat with how things have been since the end of my recent relationship. The relationship was the longest one I’ve ever had, long enough that I really thought it’d be more permanent than it turned out to be. What I wasn’t prepared for, aside from the initial liberation and then the sinking in of the heartbreak, was the complete physical reaction. Days where my mood would completely dip out of nowhere only to improve so suddenly in the evenings. Days where taking up space almost felt offensive and I wished that I could just drown myself in endless work and endless sleep. It’s a phase, they say. I myself have told a loved one that getting through a breakup is like going through an illness; you just have to let it run its course and there’s no fast forwarding the damned thing. But now that I’m experiencing it myself, I can’t help but to wish that the year is over and done with already.

Maybe getting older is realising the scary truth of how much dependency is involved in being in monogamous relationships. The relief of having been liberated is in reconnecting with my individuality and not being too attached to this collective definition of what it means to be when you’re with someone else (even though, as a hopeless romantic, I always hope that there is a someone else in my story, but only if that ‘someone else’ makes sense in the grand scheme of things). The more I think about it, the more I realise that choosing to be with anyone at all takes a lot of courage.

People talk about that a lot, feeling right, when it feels right, it’s easy. But I’m not sure that’s true. It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something weak people do.”

Hot Priest, “Fleabag”

So much about growing as a person is about becoming more certain but this trajectory isn’t always linear either. Perspectives change as we change and it feels like there’s always new ground to discover or navigate. It’s possible to regress as much as we also progress though I suppose it’s all about having courage in the journey to trudge along.

I don’t know what I’m trying to get at here, if not to just shed light on what it feels like to be a mess and how the fixing of the self doesn’t alway have to be a clean journey. I’m scared to hope, but I wish that there’s some assurance in greater things out there, eventually.

A Love Letter to KL

Dear Kuala Lumpur,

This is a love letter, an homage to your streets with its sudden turns, pitted roads and peculiar names like Jalan Lemak and Jalan Hujan Emas. There’s no clear distinction as to what separates you from Selangor aside from man-made lines and yet, each time I visit you a sense of familiarity rushes through me. It feels like home, this city where I used to visit my grandparents while they were still living. I remember the hot afternoons in Wangsa Maju and how nenek would deep fry a fresh batch of cekodok to go with iced syrup every time we came to visit. Our shoes would get dirtied by the muddy ground and I used to think, Oh, so this is what the ‘Lumpur’ in ‘Kuala Lumpur’ stands for, at least for me.  

My dear capital city, I love how every big step I’ve taken in life has started with a foray into your very heart – be it for renewing official documents, taking exams or going to visit different embassies to get my visas sorted. You’ve seen me across the years, awkward in youth and awkward in adulthood. I’ve had countless memories of taking the train and starting the day while the sky’s a clean blue, the smell of the morning so crisp it’d be impossible to think it could cause harm in anybody’s way, a Bismillah on my lips and a Touch’n’Go card with just enough credit to go into the city for many different reasons. Job interviews, work conventions, writing workshops, brunches with friends, a visit to the pasar… you name it.

Kuala Lumpur, the world has changed and so have you. I’ve aged out of my early memories of girlhood into a much more jaded self. The other day I found a few strands of silver in my hair and with it came a wistful feeling of realising how much more weight the years carry and how it has affected not just my outer self but also my inner being.

My dear city, you’ve seen transformations in the form of protests and many new malls and skyscrapers. Different governments have come and gone. Our feelings reached a high during the last election only for us to be embittered inside and out again. You’ve seen your bustling streets empty out in the month of Ramadan during this pandemic, sparse of its usual bazaars, and migrant workers cruelly turned away from their usual big contributions to the city. Those who were young have been replaced with a younger, more stylish batch of promising individuals. Causes have changed. Such is the pattern of living.

I love you, though the love hasn’t always felt mutual. What does it mean to be in a place that makes you feel small as much as it makes you feel whole? Could we pretend, just for awhile, that no matter the years, we’d always have that safe space in the form of KLCC’s Kinokuniya, a safe refuge in a city that’s not always completely felt safe or equal in its love for its people? I long to hear Mozart playing softly in the background as I browse the aisles, thumbing through books with no care for the outside world in spite of being in a city that feels like family – not completely known yet still loved in a way that feels unconditional, even with time.

The Secret History

Day 26 – Together, Apart (taken from The Isolation Journals. Prompt by Priya Parker)

Your prompt for today:
What’s a memory of a collective ritual, inherited or invented, that was meaningful or formative to some part of your identity? Write about it. Who was there? What was the activity? What were the words that were used? What time of year was it? How did it make you feel? And years later, how might it have shaped you?

My post-SPM days are now a blur but I remember how it felt then. It was 2007 and I was 17. My future held like an open-ended promise but the days felt like one big, lazy yawn. It was a weird post-high school, pre-university state of limbo where I had the luxury of focusing on the art of doing absolutely nothing. I spent most mornings and afternoons playing Final Fantasy or reading any book I could get my hands on as thoughts about my future would flit through my mind.

I had a neighbour named Amelia whom I’d trade books with. We went to the same tuition centre and would meet at the park for afternoon walks. We talked a lot about wanting to be fit and healthy but really, these walks were our time to hang out. Amelia liked reading and writing as much as I did which meant that she was a rare sort of friend to have around. I didn’t have many friends to begin with, let alone any that liked to read and write. We’d walk uphill, downhill and many laps around the neighbourhood park as we talked about boys and their attractive shoulders. We’d discuss about our favourite books and the promise of what the future would bring. Amelia would later go on to attend an Ivy League university.

At the end of our walks, we’d sit on the tarmac benches as we drank from our plastic bottles. This usually also signalled the part where we’d take out our favourite books from our bags for our book swap. During one of these walks, she lent me her copy of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’.

How do I even begin to explain why this book was love at first read? Maybe it’s the first sentence in the novel itself:

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

‘The Secret History’ is a reverse murder mystery that revolves around Greek/Roman history and rituals. Its characters are all terrible and morally questionable, with an unhealthy obsession with beauty and youth that could be deemed borderline pretentious. And yet, I loved these characters. The academic setting depicted in the book whisked me away to an elsewhere where it’s okay to be careless, young, smart and beautiful. I could see Camilla with her tousled curls and floral dresses, looking like a character from a Sofia Coppola film. I could feel Henry’s tension headaches creeping at the back of my own head and hear Bunny’s bitingly insensitive remarks. It felt like I was part of the group. Reading this book was hypnotic.

“After all, the appeal to stop being yourself, even for a little while, is very great.  To escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s  moment of being.”

“Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls- which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow old, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?”
― Donna Tartt, The Secret History

In an ironic, roundabout way, this incredibly long, intriguing book showed me how beauty can be found in macabre things. It helped me to address and think more about my very own first encounter with death which hurt me for many years. It made me yearn friendship and beauty and intellectuality, as well as to understand the inevitable impermanence of it all. Best of all was the realisation that a woman wrote this book. This amazing, solid book. I loved her use of language and her descriptions which, at times, made more for the story than the plot itself. And, in a way, I found a writer to look up to.

For a person who struggled with self-esteem at the age of 17, this book helped me find a less lonely place in the world. You know how they say that things find you easily when you’re younger because you have less impressions about your own preferences? This was one of those special books where I could escape in its entirety and which also helped to shape some of my tastes later on. I wanted to be more involved with the craft of writing because of it and I still think about this book till today.

Till Work Ends

[Disclaimer; this is a work of fiction]

It’s one of those days. The kind where words that escape my mouth feel like they’ve gone through a paper funnel – clear in thought, shapeless in form. The clock says there are five hours to go till sweet liberation. I glance at my screen and see twenty tabs open, ten unread emails awaiting my attention.

Bob the Creep is making his rounds again, making inappropriate jokes tinged with his usual amount of indecency. I suppose a part of him sees himself as ‘clever’ or ‘witty’. I think he’s an idiot.

“Would you date an ugly woman who’s nice or a hot woman who’s mean?” He asks, jowls wobbling. He smells like damp cloth mixed with the sour stench of body odour.

Oh, God. Yet another question tinged with the usual hints of misogyny.

“You can’t save an ugly woman, bro. Of course I’d choose the hot but bitchy one,” someone answers.

As if on cue, the group around him erupts in laughter. As days pass by, I find myself worrying that the rest truly enjoy his sense of humour.

I put my headphones on and increase the volume. It’s hard to focus when you’re not in the mood but there’s a lot to get done and I need to get there, whether I like it or not.

These days I find it hard to navigate around my social circles, in or out of work. The right words fail me and I stumble on everything that comes out of my mouth. I say ‘yes’ when I mean ‘no’ and pretend not to understand if it allows someone space to talk or explain, even if it involves something I already know. I understand how much it means for some people to talk and to be heard by others. And so I try to give them that, because it’s what decent people do… right? Or have I turned into yet another spineless people-pleaser?

I’m tired.

I suspect it’s because of all the group lunches and dinners I agree to go to, even when I’ve maxed out my social capacity. You see, I’m not built for big groups or loud places or huge parties. Or people like Bob the Creep, who make my head and heart hurt because they make me feel annoyed and inclined to say something to correct them.

To me, being passive is a sign of defeat. Being passive only reinforces the terrible behaviours of others and I won’t stand for that. But is there even a point in saying anything at all in a place where you’ll always be the minority?

Maybe one day. I increase the volume on Spotify even higher and let the sounds of post-rock drown me deeper and deeper so I can wipe off the impatience building deep within.

Like a Dream

 

Falling in love is simple. My memories of it are clear. It’s stepping into a room and taking it in, breathlessly, with no need for explanation. It’s a scene that doesn’t need a set-up. The feeling would seep through, sudden and sure, a sensation you thought you’d forgotten made real again. ‘Invigorated’ is the word I’d use to describe it. Like getting coffee first thing in the morning, the way the clarity would hit as you feel the caffeine coursing through your network of veins. No longer lost, no longer blue. A feeling of tenderness, absolute love and some semblance of sadness. A reminder that one day, this music too, would and could be over again.

Go Slowly

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It’s getting dark again and, after almost two weeks of the RMO, I can’t help but feel my thoughts going astray. There’s an onslaught of words inside me, looking for a release.

It’s been months, maybe years, since I took the time to do this properly. By this, I mean writing. By writing, I mean the act of doing it for myself. There was a certain point while working on my Master’s that I started worrying about not being good, not being enough and not being good enough to put my things out in the world. I reached a point where I found my way of writing too convoluted. I grew a certain distaste for it, like waking up one morning and realising you’re unable to continue with a relationship. A feeling so strong, you’re unable to ignore it. I could recognise the new voice and style that was emerging from my year spent abroad but I didn’t know it at the same time and that scared me too.

Of late, I’ve been thinking about how self-serving the very act of creating can be. In the past week or so, I’d placed myself on a social media fast of sorts and the distance made me think about how I relied too much on it for validation and for the sake of referencing. I remember leafing through an issue of Monocle and stumbling upon a quote by Masayuki Kusumi about the importance of not relying on reviews because forming our own opinions and cultivating our own sense of taste is a crucial part of the human experience too (you can read the article, ‘The Art of Eating Alone’, here). In an age where everything and everyone and even brands are becoming a copy of a copy of a copy, I can’t help but to agree.

What then, through the act of creating, is my purpose? Surely the main intention shouldn’t be in getting recognition over how good I am, even if validation is important. What I’m hoping to achieve is in letting others feel like they’re able to have a space or feeling they could resonate with.

When I started illustrating by the side, I wanted to be a faceless entity. I didn’t want to get sidetracked from trying to create a separate identity for myself, but wanted a way where people could find something to resonate with. I wanted them to feel like it’s okay to not always be super optimistic about the world because A) life is fucking hard and B) as Fiona Apple would put it, this world is bullshit (okay, let’s not forget its good parts too, but let’s agree that the more we know, the less space there is to navigate and stay afloat). It doesn’t necessarily negate the fact that we should stop trying, but there’s relief in having a laugh over the sheer ridiculousness of it all. I try to remember this, in whatever form of art I choose to pursue. I’m trying to remember not just the intention but also the joy.

So here’s me trying to lift a pen with less disdain, in spite of the disdain. You know, time takes on a different shape when you choose to notice it closely. It’s the same as when you’re in hospital waiting rooms or waiting for a text you know isn’t coming. The uncertainty of living while going through a pandemic is not something we’ve prepared for. It swooped in so suddenly in 2020, the year our leaders once told us would be the visionary future to look forward to, that there was no time to grieve about the loss of our usual joys. There’s so much about it to process and it’s easy to crumble from the uneasiness of it all. But here’s to writing as means to cope, as means to stay afloat.