Riffing on a commonplace



Walking up a street toward the old Blue House in Wanchai, dodging commuters on the busy sidewalk on a Friday afternoon, my friend suddenly asked, Do you think it’s possible to be in love with the same person for the rest of your life? He thought that this romantic ideal was doomed to produce boredom. I said, I think it depends on the quality of one’s attention. Walking briskly, he did not ask me to elaborate.


Pico Iyer in My Ideal Bookshelf: What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart.



Months ago, when I was new to this city, the same friend told me about his evening walks along the river, a walk that usually ended at the Light Rail station in the Town Centre, and recommended that I walk in that area sometime. Like most rivers in Hong Kong, the Tuen Mun River courses through an artificial channel, its bed and banks covered with concrete, its natural tributaries turned into underground waterways or cut dry. This means that even when it rains for days, people around here don’t worry about the river spilling into the streets, but also that when I gaze at the river, I do not think “river,” I think “canal,” and if I wanted a picnic on a bright day, I would rather spread a red-checkered cloth in a more idyllic elsewhere.

I said, Do you find the river pretty? He said, It depends on my mood, my state of mind.



Another time, he said that he didn’t find the beach I frequented beautiful, that it was just like any other beach, that it was not even natural, that the white sand there was quarried and brought from somewhere else (I wonder if they brought the sand from my home country that has the longest coastline and some of the finest beaches in the world). Maybe so, I may or may not have replied (this was a long while ago), but I like that beach because I’ve had memorable conversations there, nursing a bottle of soju or beer, sitting on the shore and watching the sun sink down the horizon, or dipping in the water, bobbing with the waves.


Lionel Shriver in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel on nihilism: Nothing is interesting if you are not interested.


Written after an afternoon spent with J. in Golden Beach in the last month of last year: “Love, like so many other things that make life worth the bother of being in the world, is a willful fiction, anchored on and realized in concrete, everyday practices. In an object-world devoid of inherent value, meaning-making is a matter of mythopoesis.”

If love occurs as a function of meaning-making, then it is imperative to remember that this labor is constant. Because circumstances change, because mere feeling is fleeting, because what is real and true and beautiful here, right now, may be gone in a minute.

As to why this labor must be done and redone — how do we decide what anything or anyone is worth?



The people I find beautiful, I find beautiful not because they conform to any aesthetic standard, but because I’ve decided that I like them. When I want to find someone beautiful, I look them in the eye, I attend to the timbre of their voice, I call them by their name, I learn what makes, what could make, them smile. The people I don’t care about, I often fail to see, because I require a reason for looking.


No one would accuse me of having fallen in love with handsome men, but every person I have wanted, I’d imagined was the objective correlative of my desire. I look long to see more of what I could find interesting, believing that, as with the books I keep, every reading would reveal something I hadn’t considered — especially since a man, unlike a book, doesn’t stay put. In a sense, it is possible to love many different persons in one, changing body in the course of a lifetime.



Lately, I have been taking photographs more than I have been writing “creatively,” whatever that means. I feel, less than ever, the need to process my inner life, which, these days, is as serene as an aquarium, disturbed only by little fishies of anxiety relating to my thesis. No Sturm und Drang for me. I must be on the way to becoming halaman.


John Berger in Ways of Seeing: Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.



Things I don’t fail to see: the sky, flowering plants, trees, dogs in the street, bodies of water, the way concrete buildings change color depending on the time of the day. This is how I photosynthesize pleasure in the succession of days unremarkable for their similarity — by fishing an image out of the river of sense-perception.


As I have taken to taking photographs daily, I am realizing how the apprehension of beauty is not about vision but selection and composition — deciding what is worth paying attention to, from which standpoint to gaze, what to put in the frame, what to leave out, what kind of light or color resonates a certain feeling — choices that rest on the structure of sentiments that shape the perception and understanding of the seeing I/eye. The aesthete approaches life and meaning-making cognizant of the power of selection and composition, of image, interpretation, narrative. The aesthete lives everyday life as curatorial practice — she chooses what to keep in her room, in her closet, in her pantry, in her contact list, in her thoughts. She knows why and what for.



Solmaz Sharif: Let me LOOK at you. Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.


Instead of wondering whether someone looks at me the way I look at the world, I look at the world, and yield these treasures of my inwardness, even if they matter to no eye but my own.


Spring blooms elsewhere

Here, alas, summer hath not “all too short a date.”






Notes on training in the exercise of solitude


From a Facebook status update posted on January 11, 2015:


I went on a guideship climb with Trail Adventours in Mt. Batulao yesterday. Since our group had a number of first-time hikers, the other guides and I paid close attention to participants who needed more assistance. There was one girl whom I stayed with a lot–during ascents and descents, she seemed so scared that she couldn’t stand upright and walk, and just slid her butt along the ground, so I carried her bag and held her hand throughout much of the climb. I held her hand high so she wouldn’t try to bend over to touch the ground or blades of grass and lose her balance, and gave her tips on footing and what to do when she’s starting to slip. It struck me, though, that by the end of the climb, she still clung to my hand. Obviously, feeling secure about footing doesn’t happen in the course of one climb, but the girl got me thinking about this holding-hands thing and its relation to my own “issues.”

As we descended the mountain, I thought about how one must learn to stand on one’s own feet and walk alone, because people won’t always be there to walk with you or hold your hand. This is a truism, yet it amazes me to know so many people who can’t be alone, who always feel the need for other people to walk with, talk with, eat with, who feel lonely and incomplete without another’s company and attention. I do not understand these people, or, rather, I do not wish to understand, and therefore empathize, with these people, because to do so would destabilize my fundamental acceptance of existential loneliness. We live alone and we die alone, and to say that we can share our lives with other people is not to say that they can live our lives, too. No, we think our own thoughts and tread our own paths and process our own lessons from living.

This existential loneliness pushes us to sociality, but it is what we return to every night, locked in our own heads, in our dreams. All company is fleeting, all sense of unity with another being or a social entity, a necessary myth we willfully suspend disbelief to be comforted by, to derive a sense of value from.

That said, sometimes loneliness makes me want to believe that this were not so, that one day, somebody would live my life with me. There are moments that bring this truth to the fore along with a desire to rail against it: getting off a plane from a long trip and wishing that somebody’s at arrivals, waiting for me; walking home alone at 3 AM from a night of working in a cafe; sitting at a table in a crowded restaurant, facing a plate of good food that’s too much for me to finish. I respond to this longing by planning another solo trip, or thumbing the whistle around my neck and securing my bag in case of an attack, or dividing the food on the plate into two and asking the waiter to have the other half wrapped. I breathe deeply and think that desired company is a gift, but I can do stuff on my own.


It’s a tradition for me to do something creative for Valentine’s Day, especially when I’ve no romantic partner to pass this Hallmark Holiday of Mass Hysteria over with. This year, I made a Relationship Venn Diagram to print, mark, and give to those who pry about the state of my heart:


My heart’s still pumping blood through the circuits of my body, thankyouverymuch, and I’ve been trying to raise my cardiovascular fitness by running.

Actually, I think I’ll do more running in the coming weeks to strengthen my heart, since I got the damn organ in a state of anaphylactic shock yesterday by pushing someone to more sharply articulate his rejection of my affection, so that I might finally jump from the intersection of “umaasa pa, i.e. tatanga-tanga” and “busy” to simply “busy” (the ultimate goal is, of course, to enter the “halaman” sphere of no desire but for gentle flourishing, drawing energy from the earth, rain, sunlight. Because fuck longing in its unsatiable behind). It was a selfish move, and I believe it pained him to say he could not love me, but I needed to hear it, I needed to kill all traces of the hope that’s infected me for several months, so it could stop producing toxins to our friendship. The treatment hurts, of course, but not as much as I thought it would–there’s something to be said for frequently indulging in pain that’s merely thought into existence, as a kind of pre-emptive measure against the onset of pain with more concrete causes.

So, that’s it, I prefer to think, I’m through. I’m setting arrested affect free to roam and starve and die–so I might grow.

EDIT (March 2015): That is not it, I am not through, this is more difficult than I thought it would be, are there no shortcuts to being halaman?