“It Hurts to be Alive & Obsolete” – 20th Century Women

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When you were born I told you life was very big & unknown. There were animals & cities & music… you’d fall in love, have passions, have meaning, but now it’s 1979 & nothing means anything, & I know you less everyday.”


The Clash. Jimmy Carter. The pill & feminism. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California & free-spirited, single mother Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) worries about the growing distance between herself & her 15-year-old son Jamie & the lack of a strong male role model in his life. She enlists the help of two women to help “raise” him: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), Dorothea’s tenant & a talented photographer who is well-versed in women’s liberation & the punk rock scene as well as Julie (Elle Fanning), an independent & promiscuous 17-year-old who is simultaneously Jamie’s best friend & love interest. A kind but hapless Billy Crudup features as William, a live-in handyman & car mechanic who does pottery in his spare time & can’t quite seem to get a grip on why he does the things he does. Together, this ragtag bunch make up a bohemian family who attempts to navigate life in a turbulent time in history or at the very least, get by.

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Dorothea: Men always feel like they have to fix things for women or they’re not doing anything but some things can’t be fixed. Just be there. Somehow that’s hard for all of you.

Jamie: Ma, I’m not all men. I’m just me.

Dorothea: Well, yes & no.

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Dorothea: I just think that having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world… & wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed.

I won’t go into details – you can read a proper review here – but you must know that this film is a beautiful masterpiece & one of importance. I don’t think I’ve felt this way about a movie since Amelie or Phoebe in Wonderland, or anything from the Wes Anderson catalogue. It educates, yet reaches deep; it has profound historical significance, yet is relevant to any time & place & person. Through its curious mix of light & dark, its dramatic & comic tenors, this film has moved me inherently & perhaps not in the way one would expect.

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Dorothea: (listening to punk rock records) What is that?

Abbie: It’s The Raincoats.

Dorothea: Can’t things just be pretty?

Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair & corrupt society is.

Dorothea: Ah, okay so… they’re not very good, & they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it’s like they’ve got this feeling & they don’t have any skill, & they don’t want skill, because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?

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Julie: (on having sex) Half of the time I regret it.

Jamie: Then why do you do it?

Julie: Because half of the time I don’t regret it. 

The cinematography & soundtrack & the poetic script are stunning, the dialogue is peppered with all the right kinds of pop-culture & literature references, but most importantly, the characters are well-crafted & intriguing. After you’ve watched enough films, you’ll find that what makes them compelling isn’t the love story or the happy ending, but the exploration of the people themselves. It’s not about what happens, but who it happens to, & why. 20th Century Women demonstrates this wonderfully, & is all at once a study of gender & generational differences, an accurate depiction of the fickleness & frustration of family, & a tender yet aching coming-of-age film. At one point or another, it hurts to be alive & obsolete…

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Julie: This is just my opinion. I think being strong is the most important quality. It’s not being vulnerable, it’s not being sensitive, it’s not even being… honestly, it’s not even being happy. It’s about strength, & your durability to get to the other emotions.

I’ll leave you with that.

Welcome Stranger

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“Singapore? Oh Singapore is wonderful isn’t it? Well I actually haven’t been there but I’ve been to Hong Kong & that was really fantastic. I was a competitive sailor for 16 years & I’ve been all over – Sweden, Spain, France, the Caribbean – & now I’m back here & I make these fabric structures for indoor & outdoor events, sort of like a very specific type of architecture. But yeah, Singapore is great… I know sailing is a big thing there, right? I mean, Swansea is terrific & all, but I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side.”


Here’s a fact: it is impossible to go a single day here in Wales without having an interesting conversation with a stranger. Cafes, supermarkets, open-mic poetry readings… you just can’t escape them. It is a new, strange phenomenon, but not necessarily a bad one. If you have lived only in cities your whole life, the tendency is that you get used to being ignored, or overlooked, or worst of all, forgotten, & when someone starts talking to you over your morning coffee at the local bistro, you can’t help but be taken aback by this foreign human tenderness, by the simple want of having one’s life brushed against another for a few minutes…

“You’ve ruined my day.”

“…Huh?”

“That hash you’re eating looks amazing. I’m regretting ordering my beans on toast right now.”

After our long chat about traveling & nature & Chinese food, I asked Matthew John if I could take his picture to which he promptly responded “of course!”. Then he deftly took the camera from my hands & snapped one of me without asking.

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I am again reminded of that verse: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2), & far from insinuating that I am some kind of heavenly being, I am humbled from being welcomed by a city of angels, generous in their hearts & in their time given.

We Cut Our Teeth on Iron – A Photo & Poetry Essay

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At Sea

It is not through weeping,
but all evening the pale blue eye
on your most photogenic side has kept
its own unfathomable tide. Like the boy
at the dyke I have been there:

held out a huge finger,
lifted atoms of dust with the point
of a tissue and imagined slivers of hair
in the oil on the cornea. We are both
in the dark, but I go on

drawing the eyelid up by its lashes
folding it almost inside-out, then finding
and hiding every mirror in the house
as the iris, besieged with the ink
of blood rolls back

into its own orbit. Nothing
will help it. Through until dawn
you dream the true story of the boy
who hooked out his eye and ate it,
so by six in the morning

I am steadying the ointment
that will bite like an onion, piping
a line of cream while avoiding the pupil
and in no time it is glued shut
like a bad mussel.

Friends call round
and mean well. They wait
and whisper in the air-lock of the lobby
with patches, eyewash, the truth
about mascara.

Even the cats are on to it;
they bring in starlings, and because their feathers
are the colours of oil on water in sunlight
they are a sign of something.
In the long hours

beyond us, irritations heal
into arguments. For the eighteenth time
it comes to this: the length of your leg sliding out
from the covers, the ball of your foot
like a fist on the carpet

while downstairs
I cannot bring myself to hear it.
Words have been spoken; things that were bottled
have burst open and to walk in now
would be to walk in

on the ocean.

(Simon Armitage)

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Blackberrying

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

(Sylvia Plath)

 

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Atlantis

..Early spring,

too cold yet for green, too early
for the tumble and wrack of last season

to be anything but promise,
but there in the air was white tulip,

marvel, triumph of all flowering, the soul
lifted up, if we could still believe

in the soul, after so much diminishment…

(Mark Doty)

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& now, perhaps too boldly (after all of my favourite poets & their beautiful pieces), one of my own.

The Speechless Villanelle

i taste the salt cloying on my face
lay down continents before it’s too late
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

watch the moons while they go out to play
& quell the part that dwells for far too long
it’s all part of the story anyway

so i’m reaching out for heaven’s gates
& my tendency towards love & song
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

i climb the edge of your craggy face
lay waste to a situation unexplained
it’s all part of the story anyway

the daughters that fall away again
& the sons that cut their teeth on iron
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

perhaps it was all worth the wait
the ocean’s striations are now mine to take
i ask myself: what do you want to say?
it’s all part of the story anyway.

An Afternoon at Dilly’s Kitchen

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It’s past noon. I look at the stack of Chinese delivery menus & frown. Sichuan Savour has something like one hundred & fifty items on it, most of them dishes that you would never see in an actual Chinese restaurant back home, or China for that matter – pork lo mein, kung pao chicken, egg rolls, beef curry with chips – & none of them sound very appealing so I grab my coat & decide to walk the one & a half miles out to Sketty for some lunch.

It’s 6 degrees out & it rained in the morning, so by the time I reach the tiny cluster of shops my ears are stinging from the cold. I duck into the first cafe I see before I turn into a human popsicle. Dilly’s Kitchen.

The cafe is so small that it only has two tables & one of them is taken by a strapping Welsh man in construction boots, inhaling bacon & eggs & beans on toast. There is a 50-something year old lady (the eponymous Dilly, I presume) behind the glass counter arranging the bowls of raw salad greens & a teenager making some pies, up to her elbows in pastry dough. I order a cappuccino from Dilly, who smiles at me & says:

Do you want chocolate with that, sweetie?

…to which I reply, yes please, because you never say no to chocolate even if you’ve never heard of it being added to a cappuccino before. I take a seat at the second table that’s right next to the glass store front & Dilly serves the coffee a minute later, sprinkled with chocolate powder. I take a sip & sigh with pleasure as the welcome heat spreads across my chest. I take out my book & start reading & it’s another twenty minutes before the next customer wanders in. It’s an old man & immediately, Dilly greets him.

Hello dearie. How’s your wife?

She’s alright, thanks for asking. Last week she got a bit of a cold & it was quite hard for her to come out of it but she did.

Oh that’s a relief.

Though I must say that all in all, her health hasn’t been that good since the last scare…

They chat quite a bit & a third lady appears from the back kitchen & joins in the conversation. Did you get a second opinion? We’re working on that. Here’s something, a little extra to take home. He gets some pies & walks out of the cafe after a chorus of goodbyes & take cares.

I get back to reading my book & am just getting really wrapped up in it when suddenly I hear a shriek. I look up, startled. The three women are squealing because they’ve unplugged the dishwasher & dislodged something & the kitchen is flooding. Immediately, the guy at the other table gets up & asks:

Is everything alright?

Oh it’s fine, but it’s so funny isn’t it! Our kitchen is completely soaked.

Is there anything I can do?

Oh no, that’s sweet of you to ask, but we’ll just have to clean up & get it fixed in the morning…

We’re so spoiled – we don’t know how to do dishes without the dishwasher. That’s the biggest problem. What will become of us!

Everyone laughs, including me.

A while later, a woman who is even older than the last man shuffles into the cafe, walking stick in hand. She’s at least eighty, terribly hunched-back & dressed in a leopard print coat & a grand black hat. It takes her an excruciatingly long time to get from the front door to the counter & the third lady spots her & calls out:

Hello Patricia, how are you today?

Lovely, just lovely. What do you have today?

Well, we’ve got some good pies… a real nice three-fish pie if you’re in the mood for that. & we’ve also got the salad with ham or chicken…

Oh, could I get that please? With the ham.

Certainly, just take a seat & I’ll get that to you in a jiffy.

The big Welsh man gets up & leaves & the ancient woman sits down at the now empty table. I smile at her but she doesn’t respond & I realise that she’s blind.

We don’t have iceberg anymore, Patricia, only mixed greens, is that alright?

That’s perfectly fine. *pause* Is that lettuce though?

It’s lettuce, but in different colours.

Lovely.

I order a slab of mixed berry cake. It is warm & moist & wonderfully sour. Patricia & I eat in silence. I people watch for a bit, looking at the comings & goings of this small town where everyone knows everyone else’s names & their family members & who is ill & whose kid just went off for college & to where. Someone drops a plate in the kitchen, & then another.

She’s dropping the dishes on purpose so she doesn’t have to wash them. Ha!

School boys with cigarette trousers & skateboards. A few couples in sleek coats & beautiful haircuts. Mostly old people walking their old dogs. I feel like I am an outsider that has crept into an arcadian novel, made privy to the inner workings of this Star Hollow-esque family. The store front is the glass of a snow globe & I am holding the ornament up & seeing everything that is happening in this dream-like, homespun sphere.

How’s the salad?

It’s very nice, thank you.

You’re welcome, Patricia. Would you like some fruit?

Oh yes, if you have some.

It’s about 3 o’ clock. I read this passage from my novel:

“For now, I’m happy to be alone. I’ve spent my whole life with others – my parents, girlfriends, Jennifer. Maybe I want something different.”

“Loneliness?”

“Aloneness isn’t loneliness.”

(Here I am – Jonathan Safran Foer)

The rest of the afternoon passes mostly in silence. A few more customers come in to get takeaway dinners, some just to get a coffee & say hello to one of the three ladies. Patricia finishes her fruit salad. She realises that she’s forgotten her wallet at home & apologises profusely but Dilly waves it off & says it’s no hurry & tells her to get home safe.

Next time, next time.

I’m so dreadfully sorry.

It’s okay, Patricia. Remember to check everywhere. Give me a ring if you still can’t find it. 

I will. Thank you.

Okay. Buh-bye.

Buh-bye.

It’s 440pm. The flow of customers slows to a trickle. It’s time to go. I pack up & get a ham salad to go. It takes Dilly 15 minutes to assemble the salad because she’s asking me three questions between the addition of each ingredient, hardly pausing long enough to let me answer which I’m perfectly fine with.

Where are you from, then?

Your English is really excellent!

Do you want some sun-dried tomatoes?

The weather is a bit awful today, perhaps it’ll be better tomorrow, what do you think?

What kind of cheese would you like?

I suppose you’d want a nice paper bag to carry this in?

I pay my bill & we exchange the necessary “English” pleasantries & then I hold my breath as I exit the warmth of the cafe & step into the snow globe, into the biting wind. It’s only 5pm but already the sky is darkening, so I quicken my step to get home before the sun sets.

“Home, I’m making my way home
My mind’s already there
Yes, my mind is

Light, you’re with me in the dark
Light my way at night
Let your light shine”

(Going Home – Asgeir)

I have said less than 10 sentences the entire afternoon. It’s a casual lesson in slowing down, in listening. For what though? Nothing & everything. Sometimes that’s enough. I’m making my way home.

The wild blue yonder looms

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Hello there.

Finally in Swansea after 24 hours of travel consisting of two long-haul flights, multiple train & bus rides, an airport layover & a very expensive taxi ride. Why I am here is a story for another day but for now, know that it is the right place to be in & that I am happy to call Wales my temporary home for the next three weeks.

“If you want to come down
down with your bones so white
& watch the freight trains pound
into the wild, wild night”

(Swansea – Joanna Newsom)

I arrived last night – grubby & grumpy – & after being shown my room at the Bible College of Wales, I took a long, hot shower & promptly fell asleep for a good twelve hours. It was easily the best that I had slept in the past year & when I awoke to the muted, blue-grey sunrise & the bucolic view from my bedroom window, I was filled with nostalgia & a strange peace of simply being. Alive & present.

It is a lovely feeling, the quietening down of one’s soul.

I am only filled with echoes

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if your heart is a splintered log
let it ruminate in the
whitewashed morning
keel over from the feeling so keenly
the agony of being-
i am only filled with echoes.
& if the darkness touches you
does it also define you
(or is the silent promise of the light
that is to come)
& then all at once, over
lavender, the violet blinding spell
ending with the realisation
that i will never get this rhythm
right
i can only try

(09/02/2017)

The Perfect Moment – A Conversation with Nick

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I had the rare treat of having dinner with my friend Nick last week. Nick & I are the same age & we grew up together in church. I’ve known him for twenty years ever since I was a bespectacled nerd/tomboy who loved playing soccer & he was a chubby kid who liked to draw dinosaurs. One of my earliest memories with him was when he made a catapult out of ice cream sticks & craft glue & shot a little wooden arrow at me & I cried. Bully.

My fondest memories of friendship however, were the times when we travelled to Yangon for a mission trip when we were twelve & then to Sydney for Hillsong Conference a few years later where I think we both truly encountered God for the first time. We played a lot of music & wrote really bad original songs together with our friend Luki, talked about things like Naruto & the English Premier League (!), got on each other’s nerves, ate a lot of late night suppers, talked about our dreams & served in church together. Though our paths have diverged considerably, I respect him a lot because I feel like we have reached a certain level in our friendship where we can talk about things that are difficult to talk about & call each other out on certain things. He is my cell group leader & #1 antagoniser & a pretty amazing musician & it was nice to finally have a decent conversation him after the crazy 2016 we both had. Here are some snippets of our conversation that day.


[On Art]

Stacy: I took art history when I was in Sweden.

Nick: Really?

S: Yeah. I loved it so much because I always love going to museums when I travel.

N: Is it? I cannot do museums. Like I can look at a painting & I have no idea what I’m looking at. The only museum I kinda enjoyed myself in was the Louvre.

S: Yeah? How was it?

N: I mean, it was okay because I had the audio guide to kinda explain things to me. But I remember being SO disappointed by the Mona Lisa. I was walking down the corridor & the place was getting crowded slowly & I thought, oh, this is it, it’s coming & I saw that huge crowd of people & I was so excited & tried to get to the front & when I finally made it I thought… That’s it?!

S: It’s pretty bad isn’t it?

N: It was so ugly. In my opinion, there were so many other nicer paintings. But that being said, I feel like I have no context for judging art. I just don’t know what I’m looking at.

S: I totally get what you’re saying. Which was why my art history class gave me so much context to what was going on. I found out that if you laid out the different “creative” spheres such as art, music, literature, fashion, film, etc, side by side & looked at them at different time periods, there are so many similarities. They just had different names. Like if you looked at the 1920s, they call it the “jazz age” right?

N: Yes.

S: It’s cause jazz & big band music was starting to become huge in America. This was accompanied by flamboyant literature from “The Lost Generation”, surrealist & expressionist movements in art, flapper girls & androgynous dressing in fashion & so on. These were all tied together by the same values – liberation, extravagance, boldness – even though they all had different names.

N: Right.

S: Same can be said of music in the baroque period, the romantic period, whatever… all of the periods run parallel to other artistic spheres. Art influences all art. & for someone who only knew a little about books & a little about music her whole life, it was cool to finally get perspective on creativity as a whole.

[On Hearing God’s Voice]

N: Sometimes do you wonder, what does “God’s Will” even mean?

S: Yeah. It’s so vague.

N: Right? Like for me, I feel like there’s this music thing that I really want to do, but I’m just not sure if I’m just being selfish & pursuing it instead of God’s will. & it’s even harder for me because I never ever hear God’s voice audibly, although I’m sure that there are people who do. I never really hear Him telling me to do something.

S: Maybe God’s Will manifests in the doors that opened & closed to you in that moment. Maybe those are the signs… but of course, you MUST be walking with God closely to know that these opened doors are from Him.

N: Right.

S: Also, I think God’s voice gains more clarity while you’re having a sabbatical, or right after. It’s like a period of “quieting your soul”.

N: Definitely. After I came back from Spain after exchange, man, was I on fire… I was so sure I was finally going to get it right this time – pray, read the bible, spend more time with God like how I did when I was in Spain. I was so sure that I wouldn’t let the busyness of Singapore get to me. But well… look at what happened.

S: Tell me about it. I’m horrible at it too.

N: But I know what’s right. I know what I should be doing – meeting up with people, sharing lives, knowing God. & I’m going to try to do it.

[On Music]

N: Words always fly right past me. I don’t know why, but they have the tendency to. Which is why I love instrumental music. I think sometimes it says things you can’t really express. Do you ever get that feeling, like right here *puts hand on chest, tightens fist* when you hear a piece of music & it just “hits”?

S: All the time.

N: Yeah, but it isn’t the case for me. I mean, there are exceptions, like recently there was this song by… 2Pac.

S: Tupac?! Shakur?! Since when did you listen to rap music?

N: Eh no, I know it sounds lame but I’m not kidding. I think the title had the word “mama” in it or something. You should definitely go check it out, it’s like a spoken word. The message was fantastic.

S: Okay, I’ll definitely check it out afterwards… (the song is called Dear Mama by the way, & yes, it is pretty good)

N: Yeah but you see, that’s a one-off. Usually it’s jazz, particularly instrumental jazz, that does it for me. Think about it, there are only twelve notes & yet there are so many combinations. You just have to hone your craft till you get to the stage that your expression isn’t limited by your instrument, & I feel like I’m not at that stage yet.

S: You mean like when the instrument becomes an extension of your body?

N: Exactly. & you just have the freedom to create on the spot. & when you get really into it, especially when you play in a band & everyone is just going together, you get that feeling…

S: The Perfect Moment.

N: The Perfect Moment. & it’s not just about the notes or the combinations or technique. There are so many factors that matter when it comes to playing music. Two people can play something simple like a C major chord, just three notes, & they sound totally different – one does so without any feeling & the other does so with…

S: Conviction. Yes, there are so many things that contributes to a person’s playing. To have a signature “touch” sounds vague, but I know what it means. It’s a combination of playing with intention & joy & awareness & so many other things.

N: Yeah, like there was this duo that I saw at Java Jazz a few years ago. Brad Mehldau & Mark Guliana. Wow, I’ll never forget that. I remember seeing them & it just inspired me because there was something special in the way they were playing, so filled with passion… I felt it. You know what I mean?

S: Yes, when I was in Sweden, I discovered this band Volcano Choir. The textures were amazing & kinda reflective of the landscape of the place I was in… but again, you see, it was the lyrics that really reeled me in. So maybe The Perfect Moment isn’t limited to instrumentals because each of us has things that we connect to at such a deep level, whether it is art, or literature, or food, or whatever…

N: Yes, yes, I don’t doubt that.

S: … & we need to respect everyone’s unique, deep connections. No one’s connection is better or more sophisticated than the other. Yours is instrumental music, mine is through words. They’re all just different routes to arrive at the same Perfect Moment. Remember we were talking about hearing God’s voice earlier?

N: Yeah?

S: Maybe it’s about learning to recognise God in those rare, Perfect Moments. I know you sometimes see pursuing music & pursuing God’s will as two very separate things because you connect the former with satisfying your own wants, but think about it this way – if you could just submit your entire being to Him & steward the gift of creativity rightly, the first thing you should feel when you arrive at that Perfect Moment wouldn’t be guilt, but peace. It’s because it comes from a very different place. Everything seems to make sense. & everyone can get to that place.

N: Yes. Maybe. Maybe.