You know a beautiful chord has made an appearance when a hushed peace suddenly falls like a veil upon the room and comes to settle somewhere at the bottom of your heart. The vocal arrangements of Loch Lomond have many of these moments. Yet like other kinds of beautiful creations of art, songs like these often belie some sort of poignant history.

“Me and my true love will never meet again on the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond” – that’s the line I’ve always heard and remembered from all the times I’ve listened to the King’s Singers’ Loch Lomond, and I’ve always assumed it’s a song about separated lovers. Sad enough, of course, but more wistful and yearning than tragic. Then the other night, I found myself fully immersed in this song for the first time, and was then moved to properly look up the lyrics.

There are apparently a few versions of the history to this traditional Scottish song. Most are related to the Jacobite uprising of 1745, and turns out the stories are really quite sad. The saddest of all to me is this one that is rather suggestive of Sophie’s choice (excerpted from Wikipedia):

“The Hanoverian British victors were known to play cruel games on the captured Jacobites, and would supposedly find a pair of either brothers or friends and tell them one could live and the other would be executed, and it was up to the pair to decide….The song is sung by the brother or friend who chose or was chosen to die. He is therefore telling his friend that they will both go back to Scotland, but he will go on the “low road”, his body being paraded along the main road controlled by the Duke of Cumberland’s forces, whereas his friend will have to head for the hilltops, taking longer to get back.”

Oh, how my heart aches now…but! Like any good old folk song (so I have come to discover from my excellent sample size of 2), there is of course a jazz version – a lovely chirpy thing, complete with bagpipe vibes, that one just must do the lindy hop to as one traipses between the living room and the kitchen. Here it is.

P.s. I would be remiss not to also share the King’s Singers version and this choral version that makes me want to cry, and then pick up a black ring binder and dive into a choir right now. There’s also a great arrangement by Jonathan Quick on spotify that starts with giving me warm fuzzy feelings, then makes me think of galloping about on a horse, and then finally reminds me of Vuelie.

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Each time I peer out of the window as the plane leaves or approaches KLIA, I marvel at how vast the landscape is, and how strange it is that I could live in a place forever and never set foot on most of it. How inconceivable it is that I would see this same landscape so many times but never be able to identify anything in it. Nighttime is especially mysterious, because all the shades and nuances that are visible under sunlight are uncompromisingly reduced to black and orange, and one can’t even tell trees and water apart.

It is so easy to dismissively say I know KL, and that I know it enough to have earned the right to tire of it. Yes, I know the overall political narrative, spare me the salacious details. Yes, I talk to Grab drivers, everyone is worried about cost of living and everyone seems to have voted in Harapan. Yes, I look right out of my apartment or the LRT and I see the blatant disparities in housing between the gentry and the migrant workers and everyone else in between. Yes yes, it’s a mess, everything is always a mess.

But an aerial view is a stark reminder that this place, any place, is so much bigger than my existence in it. It will never be possible for me to make a fair and decisive assessment. No matter how many times I stand and stare at the infinite number of windows of the flats opposite, no matter how many times I start or dodge conversations with Grab drivers, no matter how many pangs of guilt or sympathy I feel every time the LRT whizzes by the ramshackle roofs of the construction workers who built my home, most of it will remain beyond my grasp, and I will only ever know hardly anything at all.

I wonder if this is the reason I feel so restless living in KL. It is not that I hate it, I suspect, but rather that I don’t know or don’t find enough to love. And because I want to placate my anxiety that I am being rash with my decisions, I grapple for a stronger reason than just “meh” to leave, and so I find fault with it. No matter how many times I say and reason it out loud, cavalierly saying “not feeling safe and free” or “all the markets are the same” are not convincing even to me. I feel this in my gut.

I still don’t know the root cause. But I definitely know the symptoms. I know my heart feels heavy when I arrive at KLIA, as I approach the tangled queues at the passport counter. There is no sense of gladness that I associate with the feeling of coming home, unlike, in no particular order – the moments of waiting for the gates of the house in Melaka to roll open, the lurch of excitement as I climb up the stairs to YCA, the relief as I swing open the door and smell the Ikea emanating from my apartment, the swell of confident familiarity as I step out of the train and submerge myself in the hushed bustle of Frankfurt Hbf, unlatching the gate of Adrian’s house as snatches of whoops and laughter float into the evening air from somewhere up above.

What makes one feel connected to a place? Is it all chance and feelings? Can these sentiments be planned and forged by choice?

Surely it’s not just about the people and good memories, because of course I have made great memories here. It cannot be about how formative the time spent was. I do not feel that any particular period of my life was “more” formative than others – every phase in life is formative to me, and even if the criticality of now is not yet clear, it will establish itself in hindsight. It is not about how formative the time is/was – the distinction to me is more about how much I value what was formed in me as a result. Even then, there are aspects of living and working and taking part in KL that have shaped me and my purpose in life and I wouldn’t erase these for anything. And surely it cannot be about the politics or conflict of values and ideals, because that would make me the worst kind of hypocrite – the kind that claims to want to make the world better but doesn’t actually want to get their hands dirty coming in contact with it.

Or maybe the only reason I feel this way is that I have actually spent concentrated time as a financially independent adult in KL, unlike other places where my time was far too fleeting or where I was a child or student interacting within the cocoon of institutions and routines rather than the with real word. Which means, unfortunately, that anywhere I come to settle I will find reasons to be dissatisfied. But fortunately this also means that it is within my control, because the only solution is choice – wherever I go I must actively choose to find and forge meaning, rather than wait for meaning to come to me.

Every so often in my late night meanderings on Spotify or Youtube I find a song that gets to me so viscerally, I feel as though I have found a soulmate – and wish nothing better than to disappear into the folds of melody like how Ariel became one with the waves. Tonight’s unexpected romance is with Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, written by Stephen Foster, the same guy who wrote Oh! Susanna. I have been listening to and liking Bill Murray’s version from his New Worlds album with Jan Vogler (which I cannot recommend highly enough) for a while now, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon Sam Cooke’s version just now that it really hit me – what a beautiful, beautiful song. I switched back to Bill Murray’s version, let the piano notes trickle in, let Bill Murray’s quavering, despondent voice envelope my heart, and then lay on the bed covers, quite unable to move.

I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne, like a zephyr, on the summer air;
I see her tripping where the bright streams play,
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.
Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour.
Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o’er:
Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.

I long for Jeanie with the daydawn smile,
Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile;
I hear her melodies, like joys gone by,
Sighing round my heart o’er the fond hopes that die:—
Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain,—
Wailing for the lost one that comes not again:
Oh! I long for Jeanie, and my heart bows low,
Never more to find her where the bright waters flow.

I sigh for Jeanie, but her light form strayed
Far from the fond hearts round her native glade;
Her smiles have vanished and her sweet songs flown,
Flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and gone.
Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore
While her gentle fingers will cull them no more:
Oh! I sigh for Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.

There the sky begins to melt into the watery grey, taking the hard edges and pointy tops of buildings with it. The wind, with its cold insistent bite, tunnelling its way through the people and the cars, dodging walls, rushes past ears and eyes, grazes the skin, throwing the world into sharp sensory relief. Grimy water gushes nowhere and everywhere, all at once, its unstoppable weight descending upon all objects that dares to stand upon the earth, heedless and flawed and free. A lone cigarette butt clings on to the top of a rubbish bin and then makes one last desperate spin before falling to its liquid meaningless death. And then thunder! Blessed thunder! It resonates and shakes and booms, enveloping all before it, vibrating through every atom, burrowing through the very depths of my existence…

 

…and suddenly, silence.

A car door slams, a man steps out onto the curb. He walks round to the boot and extracts two umbrellas and passes one to his passenger. They walk off together, chatting about some banality or other. The pitter-patter of drizzle and feet. People walking in all directions, umbrella in hand or slung on crooks of elbows, some disappearing into the shadows of the evening market. Puddles lie dormant and disparate. A splish splash or two, a feeble rivulet of rainwater. The sky, now still. The veil, lifted.

“Now that I’m walking again to the beat of the drum” I cannot be more grateful that I have my little cave to escape to. There is, at least, joy to be found in the pinks and the blues and the green and earthy hues that drape my walls and windows and things, little hums of peace as I run my fingers over the rows of X’s adorning the duvet sheets and the rough threads patterning the sofa rug-turned-throw. The evenings seem so short, however…the day’s music goes on for far too long, far too jarringly.

Many times since I’ve returned to KL I’ve looked back upon Frankfurt as some of my happiest days. The surface contrasts are hard to deny. I miss the feeling of liberation one gets from meandering by foot about the city, choosing to settle on an empty bench if I wish, without fussing over a plan to Waze and park or Uber; the feeling of losing oneself without actually getting lost. I miss my old habit of looking up at the sky – if there is one definitive memory of Frankfurt for me, it is that of returning home after the sun has set, about to cross the threshold of my flat, hands stuffed in coat pocket, and then stopping in my tracks to look up and marvel at the countless stars – how vast, how clear, how beautiful.

But memory is a most unreliable thing, especially when viewed from the lens of present-day emotions. So many sayings, so much research tell us that memory is always relativised to the present. Our brain is not flawless, and often falls in thrall to our heart. The past is always a pretty story mainly because it’s no longer here for you to cross-examine. And therefore on occasion one feels like such an irrational overwrought thing, because you know you are pining for an abstract, a concept, and conveniently glossing over the day-to-day humdrum that, if remembered, would make a memory seem a lot less wondrous, and the present a lot more to be happy about, than it seems when one is sunk in the depths of stubborn despondence.

But then there’s the other side of the coin, isn’t there? Emotions colour how you experience life and love and everything else in between and beyond – and so they shape what you create, and they make what you create uniquely yours. My singing teacher has often told me – bring your day into your lesson, bring your life stories into your singing. Singing at 25 and 40 are different, not only because your voice physically matures but because how you see the world changes. As Rebecca Mead says – “All our loves, realised or otherwise – all our alternative plots – go to make us who we are, and become part of what we make.” A final word of comfort from Goethe in The Sorrows of Young Werther, through which I am currently midway –

“He values my understanding and talents more highly than my heart, but I am proud of the latter only. It is the sole source of everything of our strength, happiness, and misery. All the knowledge I possess every one else can acquire, but my heart is exclusively my own.”

 

 

 

 

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