A parade of feathered treetops
Surging past the low moon
Whiter than usual, brighter than usual
Larger than life in a silky mint sky

A prolonged morning past
Costing me thirty euros
The price of an hour on Rue des Martyrs
Small trouble for some solitude

A moment of planned spontaneity
Stepping into the night in pyjamas
Feeling big and brave and funny
Amidst a sad and failing reality

This afternoon, I took a long walk along my usual jogging route. The route runs along a stream and through the patches of farmland that hide a mere ten minutes away from the main road and my flat. It is a surprisingly large and tranquil place, and is simultaneously overlooked by the Taunus mountains and the Frankfurt skyline – a spot of cosy contradiction. I hadn’t visited since September, which essentially means since the 5km run I was jogging in preparation for.

The landscape was a lot more green, less brown than I had expected it to look in the winter. But despite the 2-degree temperature and sun-warmed footpaths slick with rainwater, the ponds were still frozen – bright white anomalies amidst the muted tones, trapping twigs and leaves on their surfaces. And lots of people were still  running, which put me to shame a little for allowing the weather to be an excuse for giving up on my newly-acquired determination to exercise more, which had been going so well by my usual standards.

But a slow walk can be much more absorbing. You are acutely aware of the people around you, more so than when you run. Your mind is a lot less preoccupied, and you really see faces  rather than a succession of figures. Enough time lapses between each passerby such that you can anticipate the possibility of making eye contact. It happened multiple times today, of course – a flicker of the eyes sideways to see if the person coming in the opposite direction was doing the same, if so, should I hold the eye contact, and if so, should I smile, or dare I even think it – say “Hallo”. This is always a slightly awkward process because sometimes a smile is returned with a blank stare; and I realise I was happiest after I found a spot on a bench by one of the ponds, where I had a view of the snow-capped Taunus and was completely alone.

This is one of the things I assumed I would grow out of as I got older. Yet here I am, with a reasonable amount of years in age and experience, still occasionally feeling like an awkward child, cringing at the feeling of rejection from an unreciprocated smile. I suppose the trouble with constantly thinking about who or what or how you want to be is that you keep on building on that prototype in your head, and you grow convinced that at some point you would achieve a “stable state” of sorts where you have it all figured out, you’re confident and comfortable and no social situation in daily life would seem insurmountable to you, ever.

Life however doesn’t seem to work like that…it’s bumpy and unpredictable. Sometimes you’re your best self, sometimes you wake up with a throbbing neck ache, the coffee doesn’t taste right and you fail miserably at small talk on an 8.30am work call. Sometimes people smile back and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you spend years with someone you realise wasn’t right for you, and sometimes you find a kindred spirit but time is short. And that’s okay. Because it has to be.

 

 

There is a certain pleasure in trudging in the cold to German lessons after a long, long day. Today the streets are glossy from melted snow, and the hodgepodge of city lights, now back to their unadorned selves in the aftermath of Christmas and New Year’s, shimmer and stir in the puddles. One is reminded of looking out through a rainy car windscreen. There is a kind of humming contentment, omnipresent and all-encompassing, derived from just looking at the mundane – a maudlin appreciation for life that weaves like a silver thread from passerby to passerby, sludgy footprint to sludgy footprint, forming a tranquil tapestry of a city quieting down under the evening sky.

Some months ago, on the brink of the move, I wondered if I would genuinely be happy hieing off to a new place, completely alone among new people whose language I could not speak nor understand. I feared  loneliness would be like a cold…you think you can bear it but when it hits you, it’s suffocating.

But 7 months into my year here not only have I found what a joy it can be to lose myself in a sea of unfamiliar faces and views and words, but that a large part of the joy is in the struggle to become a stronger and more resilient person for it. Learning to be alone is a wonderful privilege. Even if you have to fall down and acquire a scar or two on the way…and I literally mean while running to the bus stop after singing lessons with a plastic bag of avocado, clementines and spring onion that eventually found themselves rolling merrily on the pavement.

The last time I felt compelled to put on record my feelings about the year gone by was 2012. 2016-2017 has been and will be worth remembering to say the least…two years of finishing things and big leaps and discovery of self, people and place. A writing workshop. A policy paper and a publication. Special farewells. A move. Snow shovelling. Hikes and walks. Middlemarch. Losing and finding people. Representing, presenting in metaphorical suits. New language. A run (5 km but hey expectations). Fitting life into two suitcases. (Still) bad time management. Finding adult shoes, buying kid-sized Heat Tech gloves. Jumping on trains. Birthday. Solitude and quiet company. London and family. Singing lessons. Snow on my nose. Gospel gig. 27 hour flights. Lots of postcards. The list will only on in the next 5 months at least.

Oh, to be alive, to be here, to be able to relish this freedom to simply be.

I used to look at the development of civil society as a trajectory. Reading news articles about repulsive Malaysian politicians telling women that they should have sex with their husbands on a camel if the husband demands for it, my first reaction is usually to wish I knew stronger swear words, then wish violence on them, then feel guilty for being a bad person.

After I’ve calmed down, I try to be rational, and accept the fact that we are a growing society with teething problems and long for the day we become a society like “the UK or US” where I imagined such behaviour would immediately be pounced on by the press, an outraged public would kick up a fuss, someone would inevitably resign and be condemned to eternal humiliation – which to me was punishment enough somewhat? To me, civil society was a destination, and Malaysia was on a journey – albeit a long, rocky one – there.

Boy, has America finally driven home that I was ever so wrong.

Who do I look to now that societies who are the supposed bastions of humanist values, who were supposed to be what we wanted to be, have degenerated to the point that the democratically-elected leader of the supposed free world is a corrupt sexual predator? Yes, I know I’m being incorrigibly idealistic and foolish, because everyone is intuitively nativist or racist or sexist to some extent or whatever, and I read too much of the New Yorker and too little everything else, and all these governments have their own agendas anyway, don’t get anyone started on drone strikes and Guantanamo…

…but at least, in day-to-day life, there is a clear divide between things you are allowed to say or think or do in private as opposed to in public. Yes, that means everyone a hypocrite, but I don’t care about that as long as I like my friends and I can go out of the house knowing what the boundaries for right and wrong are, what people can or cannot do to me, what people should or shouldn’t be allowed to say and how mad I am entitled to feel or what sort of retribution I am entitled to when people cross the line.

I don’t want to worry that I am exhibiting far too much cleavage and people could feel entitled to grope me without fear of punishment. I don’t want to have to be wary of the ethnicities of people around me and wonder if the rude cashier just needs training or is being rude because I am a ‘Cina babi’. I am tired of being constantly weighed down, or seeing friends or relatives weighed down, by a general sense of bleak defeatism because institutions – scholarships, business opportunities, job opportunities – will never be on their side as long as they aren’t the right colour or class or cousin. In Malaysia, the system is rigged. Many elites are part of the conspiracies (which are real). Newspapers are partisan.

It drives me mad all the time that everything everyone always ever talks about on Facebook is politics, politics, politics, because coming from my cushy little armchair it’s easy to look down my nose and say hey there are so many other things wrong in this country that you CAN do something about…but honestly, I can understand how reading about molesters of schoolchildren and paedophile scholarship holders who seem to get away with lighter punishments than they deserve can stir a really all-consuming anger.

So I look to “Western societies” and wistfully think about how long Malaysia needs before we get our shit together and by shit I mean grow up.

Stealing David Remnick’s quote of George Orwell however: ‘The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.’

Society is not a concrete block rolling along a trajectory at all but a shapeshifting electrically charged cloud of individual temperaments that are bound to fluctuate, especially when they find their dearest priorities and basic necessities under threat – and when these temperaments fluctuate, so does our collective sense of wrong and right, so do boundaries between one person to the next, so does how free or how safe we are from one another.

Which means there is no telling how long we will be stuck in this stupid rut and how long the world will just be generally a sucky place run by twats.

 

Sometimes, on especially good days

The sky softens into sleepy pastel shades

The clouds sink onto the horizon, impersonating rose-tinted Alps

And for those ten seconds

The entire expanse of sky looks like

Everything beyond imagination.

 

 

 

Landscapes

Imaginary

May

Minute after minute, and no stillness in between.

June 2017
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