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.


Missed missive (2) and other midnight musings

I was sorting through my Evernote archive, attempting to order hundreds of untitled fragments and unclassified notes, when I found the draft of a letter that I wrote for someone’s birthday, but that I suppose I’ll never send now. I forget so much, so that often, I scramble to pin down in words a passing moment, to still and frame the fleeting duration of a thought or impression. I started writing a letter months before I could give it, not realizing then how much I trusted that what I wished to say would not change, that the characters in my narrative would follow a familiar plot, that their bantering would go on, that they would want more of the same. Who gets blindsided? The naively structuralist over-read.

What to do with this fossil of a feeling? I could, I suppose, read the letter as if I wrote it for myself as a locus of my own affection — for if the radiance of attention is what tends love, then surely one can beam this light reflexively?

Missed missive (2):

Dear K,

In Tagalog, the word “giliw” and its adjectival and nominal iterations (“magiliw,” “kagiliw-giliw,” “kinagigiliwan”) denote tenderness and regard, gleam and grace, dearness and delight. I wish you the brightest of days, Giliw, who are one of the kindest, funniest, finest persons I know. This world, I find, seems lighter, more kagiliw-giliw, because you are.


(Alas, this will not do, for I cannot with any sincerity address this message to the self I know, haha. Guess I’ll just throw it away.)


Thought bubble while grooming my eyebrows one cold January morning and reflecting on a recent conversation and a line from Brenda Shaughnessy: It is in the nature of things to change (to move, to end, to die), and perhaps feelings are most mercurial and evanescent of all (a prime lesson of A Midsummer Night’s Dream!), but that doesn’t mean we are powerless to exert a stabilizing force on what is in flux (consider: promises and plans, codes of belief, customary practices, social institutions, dams that shore up rivers, the idea of a house and a family as home). When I say “I love…” I am not just expressing a feeling, I am making a commitment — that my statement of fact retains a claim to truth, because I am someone who likes to think I speak truths.


Dear one, not everyone tries to be so earnest.


Lately, I have taken to sitting in the dark as evening approaches midnight, gazing out the wall of glass in our 8th-floor hostel common room, searching the lit-up windows of surrounding residential towers (Siu Hong, Beneville, Fu Tai) for signs of life obscured by distance, laundry, and drapery.

A dressed-up memory of a conversation recorded one night four months past:

I say, in Hong Kong condominium lights replace stars.

I say, sometimes at night I sit by the window and watch other windows. I watch the movements of silhouettes. In one room, somebody is hanging washed underwear. In another, somebody is drawing the curtains close. Once, I think I saw the shadow of a man dancing. I watch how, one by one, the windows in the towers turn black, while a few stay lit through the night.

He says, it’s like art, isn’t it, this collection of figures living in boxes. When you look at them from afar.


Some nights, I am visited by old anxieties I try no longer to sit down and talk with, because the world’s problems are manifold and dire, I tend too much toward the comforts of solipsism, and I should rather be writing research-related thoughts. Fortunately, in the structures of my previous pieces I may rehearse the processing of stale sentiments, such as this, from four years ago: there is no need for longing.

Romance is rare and thus so rarefied, in the way we speak of it and act on it and think and think and think about it. We cling to it. I clung to it … and I am sick of it, its high highs and low lows, its lightness and weight, its bondage to the other. There is a gentler and more constant love that rises from self-regard, from the affection of family and friends, from consideration of the sky and trees and rocks and wind and sea, from the defense of beliefs and the pursuit of passions, from the appreciation of what is. This love is more grounded and free. And it is enough. I am saying it is enough, for me, now. There is no need for longing.

no need.jpg


Dear one, when will you acknowledge, in your heart of hearts, the banality of romance?

Ah, but that something is commonplace does not mean it has no value. We need air to live, don’t we?

Yes, but need is different from want, and I try to temper my desires, I disregard anyone who doesn’t want me.


Lately, I have taken to sitting in the dark as evening approaches midnight, gazing out the wall of glass in our 8th-floor hostel common room, singing lachrymose love songs in my mother tongue. I sing for no one (and I stop singing when somebody comes), only it pleases me to sail smoothly through refrains, hitting high notes without my voice breaking.

Your language is too neat, too poised, too polished, I’ve been told by literary editors and in writing workshops. I write the way I put on makeup: more artfully when I feel like shit.

Or: these days, when I meet a wild, messy, intractable feeling, especially when it is my own, I prefer not to hug or shake hands with it, but to mannerly move away.

move mannerly.jpg


Dear one, I’m afraid you are forgetting a lesson: that the articulation of feeling is not a demand or admission of weakness, but of the courage to accept vulnerability as a condition of strength.

Fine, but why rush into risk? “Having loved enough and lost enough, I am no longer searching, just opening, no longer trying to make sense of pain, but being a soft and sturdy home in which real things can land.” 

And you know what? The real things… the things that last… they wait for you. Sometimes that’s the only way I can tell if something’s real or not. I go real slow, and if it stays with me, I know it’s for real.

A toast, then! To the ceaseless striving for a cute and drama-free inner life! History already is too much with us; whatever it is of experience that may be isolated from history (and I do like to believe there is some part of our being that transcends the historical — call it spirit or soul, I’m a humanist at heart), one must take care also to isolate from needless pain. And so one learns — to discriminate between what is worth bruising for and what is not, to determine when to hold on and to let go.

Missed missive

I was mucking around my Evernote archive, sifting through fragments and unclassified notes, when I found the draft of a letter I wrote on my birthday last year but probably never sent? I write so much and often, I forget what I’ve put down or communicated. In any case, it seems like a letter to myself now, but I have no time to write a reply–as Martha Baillie wrote in The Incident Report (2009)“There are moments when time dilates like the pupil of an eye, to let everything in.” My eyes are defo dilat(ed) these days, as I’m usually caffeinated, puyat, and pagod, hahaha.


Dear [name redacted],

All I want today is to drink up–something sweet, intoxicating, and ice-cold–while breathing in highland air and scanning the sky with someone whose company I enjoy. Alas, none of these are forthcoming. Tonight I have a class, and by the time it ends, it will be too late to hotfoot it out of the city and wake up to pray at dawn atop a mountain or beside the sea.

Today I turn [age redacted]. It seems that no longer can I claim to be young, or use youth as an excuse for bad decisions, pigheadedness, sheer stupidity.

How the days pass. It feels like I last saw you a lifetime ago. How have you been? How have you changed? Have you changed? Can one go somewhere new, meet new characters, and stay the same?

Still the days pass. Bring me news of your here and now.