I’m at it again, this time because I need to get a helluva lot of shyte done in the coming months, the kind of shyte that requires intense and prolonged concentration and much mind space. I need to unlearn the habit of checking my newsfeed when in want of recreation, intellectual stimulation, affirmation, or a faint sense of company. Before there was Facebook, I used to spend all of my free time with my nose buried in an actual book, so much so that I mastered the art of walking in courtyards, corridors, and stairways while reading and not bumping into anyone. When on Facebook I tend to click on link after link after link like a doped-up bunny, poke my nose into other people’s private yet publicly proclaimed business, or stalk people I shouldn’t even think about anymore. Enough. I wish to reclaim something in myself that I seem to be losing—my erstwhile capacity for deep focus, the comforting fiction of my subjective authenticity, my desire for personal connection stronger than a summary “like.” I wish to reclaim the inviolability of my solitary moments, the inaccessibility that precludes intrusion—not that I could achieve that just by deactivating Facebook. But as I’ve determined that my primary Facebook account is the biggest source of distraction in my life, so it has to go, for now, until I’ve disciplined my attention. There are always other things to do, better ways to spend my time.
(or how I came to be drenched in a thunderstorm one Monday night)
“You’re making me look like a villain,” he says, as a tricycle driver turns to stare at us walking on the rain-sluiced asphalt—me, shivering in my drenched black dress and strappy sandals, while he keeps dry under the purple umbrella I gave him, its color almost neon under the orange streetlamps. “I should hold a placard proclaiming, ‘Nag-iinarte lang siya!’”
In the courtyard of Shwedagon Paya, after we had prayed at the Sunday shrine and poured water from silver cups onto the statue of Garuda, while walking barefoot around the gilded stupa surrounded by spotlights and glinting against the dull indigo sky, a young man held my arm to keep me from slipping on the marble tiles wet with rain.
“Andami mong alam,” I tell him. “Who cares if I’m walking in the rain?”
“You’ll get sick,” he says.
“I’ll take a bath later.”
“Use your umbrella already.”
He moves to shelter me. I wave my hand.
When I was traveling in Myanmar, the young man would call me five times a day, and with the little English he knew, would ask me where I was, what I was doing, and if everything was okay. “Mingalarbar!” he would greet me. It was the first word of Burmese that I learned, and the only one I remember still, aside from the phrase for “thank you.”
Two hours before we left the restaurant and a hundred minutes before the rain started to pour, I stared dumbly at the man across from me at the table, his eyes and fingers stuck to his phone, again. “Wait,” he said, answering emails. “Wait,” he said, replying to Facebook chats. “Wait,” he said, looking up something on the internet. “How much longer and why should I?” I didn’t ask. Instead, I took a book from my bag and pretended that I was dining here alone.
At five in the morning, when I arrived in the overnight bus to Yangon from Bagan, I found the young man already at the transport terminal, waiting for me. It was raining. Across the potholed tarmac he led me to a cab, which drove us to a restaurant, where he treated me to a breakfast of noodles and coffee. He wouldn’t let me pay for anything that day, or the days before that. “I want you to be happy here in my country,” he said. “Are you happy?”
“What are you reading?” he asked.
I held up my book, and he reached across the table and took it from my hand.
“Stolen Air,” he read. “I like the title. The cover art, too”—a discordant, discoidal scrawl, mad lines that look like they were drawn by a five-year old in a fit of tantrums.
“Yes, they suit his poetry well. Osip Mandelstam. He’s my favorite poet. He wrote his best poems and died in a Siberian gulag, where he was exiled by Stalin. No other poet I’ve read expresses anguish and despair with such particularity, and transforms them into something terribly beautiful, and sometimes, bizarrely, tinged with hope.”
“Of course. If he practically lived in an arctic tundra—”
“You know how I found out about him? I follow this blog, called The Floating Library. Its owner used to post excerpts of prose and poetry that struck him from books he was reading, including Stolen Air. I like that blog very much and still go visit it, though it hasn’t been updated in years.”
“The author killed himself.”
Whenever he asked me how I felt, I told the young man that I was happy, though I didn’t feel like it. Around him, I acted like a smitten colegiala, just to be Someone Else, which was the point of going to this Somewhere Else. I bought a longyi and wore it, walking slowly—unaccustomed as I was to donning ankle-length skirts—like a nice Burmese girl. When walking, he enjoyed being ahead with his longer tread and turning back to look at me, blowing smoke from his cigarette and teasing, “Hurry up, woman!” Outwardly I giggled and inwardly I snarled. I pretended to see in him someone he was not.
I refused to look at him. I bit my lip to suppress a cry. I wondered, again, why I stayed, why I still saw him, if I was only wasting my time. I opened my journal and read Timothy Steele’s “Sapphics Against Anger” thrice.
She pointed to her heart and mind and eyes, mouth, ears**
I am this haunting music. Never look
Beneath the mask. There is a monster there—
Oh yes! And yet an inch or two below that seeming,
Under the raddled flesh and slightly too
Prominent teeth, my spiritual self
Is hard at work, is indefatigably yielding
You these treasures of its inwardness.
In time I’m sure you’ll really like me.
Listen, darling! I am playing Bach!
– Tom Disch, “A Note from Your Jailer”
Mozart, he said, “There’s nothing to composing.”
And that’s all we do,
We just write and play and write and play and write and…
Here, here, and here
He pointed to his heart and mind and ears
He said, “Here, here, and here”
He pointed to his heart and mind and ears
– Meg and Dia, “Here, Here and Here”