the ruining has begun
& I am going to the other side
I must reach before the night seeps
(already the clicking of cicadas
are prising apart my mind)
yes, it has begun, the setting
the sun altering
into a pool of gold, licked up
from the concrete
it’s all in the detail
all in the cracks
like the note folded thrice
in my back pocket
the sweat, diamonds on
my neck, slicked back
& you’re jittery, I get it
so am I
because this tension
it’s found its way into everything
sticky heat, a pomegranate
splits open at your feet
scooped out like a bad habit
the rupture, it sickens me
& so I quicken my step
on this covered lane
that never seems to end
like the ruining
the quick stab in my left side
this ramshackling of a time
I try & lay it all to rest
but if you could tell yourself
a lie in a dream
why not in real life?
I saw Paris first through lenses, like everyone else.
The first lens was that of literature. In my little library at home, I have arranged my books in the following sections: Contemporary Fiction, Classic Works, Food & Cookery, Music & Movies, Poetry & Plays, & finally… “Books about Paris”. There, you will find Wilde’s Down & Out in Paris & London, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Sartre’s L’âge de raison, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Stein’s Paris, France, Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil & perhaps the most definitive novel in my education on Paris, Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon (sublime, alluring, swelling with fervour & acute observations on the quotidian… but more on that later). That Paris as a subject should merit an entire shelf by itself may be astonishing, but wait – let me explain this peculiar obsession.
I read about Paris first in the children’s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr which chronicled the growth of Anna, a young Jewish girl living in Berlin during the Second World War. The story follows her journey across several countries with the rest of her family – Papa, Mama & her older brother Max – as they leave Germany for Switzerland & then France to escape the Nazis. In the book, Papa is a francophile & loves Paris with all his heart, & after the first few days of being in their new home country, he takes everyone out to explore the city & they somehow end up at the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There is a moment where Anna is rendered speechless at the sight before her – the roads glittering with lights, the dim shapes of domes & spires & the twinkling Eiffel tower in the distance – & she turns to Papa in wonderment, who can only stare off in a daze & say breathlessly: Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it a beautiful city?
I saw Paris through the eyes of a child, heard the sounds of Anna playing with her friends in the école communale, smelt the whiffs of freshly made coffee from the market boulangerie. The words of the book painted scenes that seemed so distant & strange for a young girl who had grown up in a tropical island her whole life, whose experience with coffee was limited to her father’s daily “kopi-c” – hot & sprung up, held, in a little plastic bag. Like Anna, herself so foreign & yet so immediately enamoured by the French capital, I could feel my mind expanding, dreaming, pushing against the boundaries of that stretched plastic to taste a faraway place where children drank espresso in the mornings & sipped wine diluted with sparkling water at night, where they sampled snails & onion soup for supper on the fourteenth of July & danced with their parents by the left bank till dawn. This was my introduction to the city, as were most other things – through literature.
Then I saw Paris through my second lens – that of film. As a young teenager, I was (still am) besotted by Audrey Hepburn, & besides wanting to be Holly Golightly walking down Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, in her little black dress with a flaky pastry in hand, I watched her in Charade, How to Steal A Million & Funny Face with Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole & Fred Astaire respectively, hand-in-hand with her leading men & clad in Givenchy, finally in a city that seemed worthy of her beauty, something New York City never quite managed to be. I watched Moulin Rouge & Amelie, saw their characters bring colour to an already flamboyant Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement full of night time light & sin. Paris, I believe, is the city most fondly remembered & distinctly portrayed in old cinema, matched only by its equally romantic sister city Rome (Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris, the famous saying goes).
& then there was the last lens, a collection of the more secondary images of the eternal city – the photographs, the stories from first-hand travellers, the music of Edith Piaf & Pink Martini. There is a picture taken by the famous photographer Robert Doisneau that is seared into my memory forever though I can’t recall where I saw it first. It was something that I unconsciously held to my chest as representative of the atmosphere of Paris until the day I finally went.
In this photograph, one can make out the famous Hôtel de Ville in the background, faint but magnificent, which means that this picture was taken right on Rue de Rivoli from a café during rush hour. Everybody in the picture is well-dressed – pea coats & trilbies & silk scarves – on their way to wherever they are going, & right in the thick of it, there is a pair of lovers kissing tenderly yet intensely, the lady beautiful in her fitting sweater & her head thrown back, & the gentleman (which has come to represent all French men for me, unfair as that may be) with his thick waves of hair askew, his arm forming a perfect nook for the lady to lean into. This struck me immensely, that Paris seemed to be a city where one could be right in the middle of this sprawling metropolis, the premier city of the old world, but still be completely abandoned to passion & romance whenever the situation presented itself. Could I one day have that too: structure & spontaneity?
You can imagine how these three lenses made my idea of Paris swell to disproportionate sizes. My Paris before I knew Paris was pink & pretty & artistic. I always let sentiment get the better of me (the forlorn poems & endless daydreams speak for themselves) & this is often to my detriment especially when I travel. In From Paris to the Moon, Gopnik encapsulates it perfectly in these sentences:
“There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see & sees it, & the kind who has an image in his head & goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, & maybe even with his heart, or tries to.”
I knew before I went to Paris that it would be difficult because I was the said second visitor, rich in expectation, laden with the lenses & the distorted views that they had produced all my life. So when I came to the city for the first time in 2011, I was full of trepidation. It was then when I would be confronted with the truth, see for myself if I would truly love Paris now that I was right there, or if I had only loved the idea of it. I was only eighteen then & my friends & I were backpacking around Europe & had just finished our stint in Rome. As we finally rode into Paris on the ten o’ clock Orlybus, I knew that I couldn’t be wrong about my assumptions because there was a distinct click between the images in my mind & what I saw before my eyes. I felt like I was dreaming for something like five consecutive days. It is a city that inspires words, poems, songs; it flows out of you, like the waters of the Seine.
Days like these
when things don’t matter
when you don’t matter
I only want the smell of rain
of cities & streets
& eyes dreary with sleep
indelible & sublime
swallowed dappled light &
leapt in air, soared
& curled up in love & silk scarves
This is where I belong
in liquid sound
I am going heady with grey
douse me in flowers & sweet tea
I returned to Paris two years after that, & again in March this year. Paris was the same, no matter how much it had changed. It still elicits the same emotions, perhaps only more intensely each time. In between all these sojourns, I have learnt what it means to truly love a city for all that it is, all the pretty parts but all the ugly, raggedy bits too. Images & nostalgia are all well & good, but you cannot say that you love Paris if you do not know its pain keenly, if you have not seen the gypsies who inhabit the street corners, wearing everything they own, their eyes hungry & searching, or the dark-skinned immigrants selling their wares outside the Louvre with a sense of intimidating urgency, who have come from very far away because they, just like you, believed that Paris was a city of magic, of hope. You must love every dirty cobblestone, every dinghy backstreet, every overcrowded café you dine at, rubbing shoulders with a stranger, your nose itching from the unceasing cigarette smoke. You must not complain at the offhanded Parisien service at the brasserie or at the rising prices of croissants because after all, this is the Paris you fell in love with, & love means to accept something completely.
Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.
So there it is, my elaborate answer to the question, Why Paris? – because I love it wholly, the same, through the lenses & without. Nowadays, whenever I read a novel, I can’t help but think of the legion of lost generation writers (Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Eliot, Fitzgerald) who graced the grounds of Les Deux Magots & Café de Flore in 1920s Paris,who did not know yet that they were one day going to write books about the eternal city – they simply lived. Nowadays, I never stand in the middle of a museum & not see the marble arcs and gold-glided ceilings of the Louvre at the corner of my eye (I still expect the Winged Victory of Samothrace to appear right before me, her pose dauntless & her well-chiselled shoulders carrying the weight of centuries). I see the Tuileries in every garden, the Seine in every river, Shakespeare & Company in every bookshop.
I cannot help it. Because of these innumerable, tiny pinpricks on my psyche, I sometimes dream a million dreams in a span of a day. Edith Piaf knew what she was talking about when she sang that famous tune, seeing life coloured in a rose tint, full of spirit & song. Quand il me prend dans ses bras / Il me parle tout bas / Je vois la vie en rose… Six years on, like that black & white photograph, so do I, or so I would like to believe. Because of Paris, I now see the world through a different lens – Paris itself.
All comely, you drift by
wrapped in words & pages
of a book which name I can’t remember
I do not know you
& yet I do.
Let us not forget-
I once breathed fire too.
so pay me no mind
& grow into the space you need to
because soon the sunken morning
will give way to the noonday sun
It is here,
the aberration of winter into spring
the weeping will pass
& someday, perhaps
our laughter will tumble down
these sparse, breathing hills
…O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.
I think I grow tensions
in a wood where
Each wound is perfect,
encloses itself in a tiny
Pain is a flower like that one,
like this one,
like that one,
like this one.
yes is a pleasant country
yes is a pleasant country
let’s open the year
both is the very weather
when violets appear
love is a deeper season
my sweet one
(and April’s where we’re)
Most days I am in love with the world. The sharp syrupiness of strawberry jam, the bitter kick of my morning espresso. Walking down the little lane that cuts through fields of wild grass, drifting through the mist that rises from it like steam. The red doors I see on the way to town —
one, two, three, four, five, six
I collect them & before the afternoon is over, I have half a dozen or so sitting in my mind’s eye. They are so out of place in the quotidian — so stark is the scream of colour that it lifts me out of daydream. I love it all, I am basking in the pleasure of being present; I am treading lightly on this beautiful earth. On days like these, there is always a quickening of heart, a deep appreciation for the little things, an unspeakable gratitude.
Most days I am love with the world, but then some days, I’m not. They are unsuspecting & they come like a suffocating wave, those sunken mornings & heavy nights. On days like these, I pray for strength, strength to remember all of it: the strawberries, the grass fields, the six little red doors, all of these bright beacons of hope in bleakness… I rub the memory on my chest like soothing balm. I breathe in, say again & again:
I’m still here
I’m still here
…till I remember the rhythm. Till I remember it well. How could I forget it? It is sweetness; it is hope. It is within. It is there, has always been, will remain until the very end of age.
Selah my soul, selah.
Bits of poetry I’ve been collecting & enjoying lately. Red Doors originally appeared in a recent SELAH article. Our stories are art forms & at best, testimonies, & the good people at SELAH are just doing a brilliant job curating each & every one of them that comes their way. I’m terribly grateful for the opportunity to contribute to such a wonderful online publication that is doing heaps for the Christian community.
In other news, work has started & it’s like the cogs in my head need a good oiling. How did I wake up at 545am every weekday to go to school in the recent past? & do math & PE & go for band practice & all that? Where did all that energy come from?! It boggles my mind. Anyway, no complaining – just gratefulness, for the new season that is to come.
Untwist yourself from the life that you had Oh we’re falling, yeah we’re falling in the in-betweens
Let the sun sun sun Wash away our shame
I am a terrible performer. I’m not saying it in a self-deprecating way but because it is the truth – I really am. I don’t have natural stage charisma & I have difficulty telling song stories & maintaining an on-stage persona or even calling my song “my song” in front of other people because I don’t like the way it sounds when I say that. I shudder when people call me an “artiste” or a “singer-songwriter”. I have been surrounded by many people who do all the above things with ease & of course, it wasn’t fun that these things just eluded me when it seemed to be a prerequisite for the creative field that I was in.
Whatever the case, I stopped gigging in early 2014 & shoved it aside for a couple of years because it all seemed too trying. People urged me persistently to give it another shot but there just never seemed to be enough time, or it wasn’t important enough, or I just couldn’t muster the courage to. The real push finally came at the tail end of 2015, when an artiste & friend who I really respect told me rather firmly that I had better get over my stage fright & get my music out there or I would regret never trying in the years to come. Faith was then brought into the picture. She said that ministering to people often happens through the most unexpected songs in the most unexpected places & challenged me to not put God in a box i.e. ministering only through worship songs. Who was I to say that my “secular” songs couldn’t reach people in a profound way? If I got my act together, maybe something could actually happen. Ouch.
So I reckoned that if God really wanted me to do it, He would open up doors for me. So right there, over supper at a crowded dim sum restaurant, I kinda struck a deal with God (obnoxious, I know) & told him: OK God, your move. Three shows for 2016. Your move. Within a week, I had gotten a really unexpected call to do a gig by Kevin Mathews. It kinda turned out to be a big deal & even though I was incredibly nervous & mucked up all my lyrics & talked way too much / way too little at times & had a loud ringing sound in my left ear the whole time – told you I’m a terrible performer – I managed to pull through the 45-minute set, breathless but still alive. The biggest compliment I had that night wasn’t about how catchy the melodies or poetic the lyrics were, but that it seemed that my songs were different as compared to the others in the way that they “emanated joy”. Bless your soul, stranger. I choose to think that this uncontainable joy comes from a love for Christ, & a subsequent overflow of that very love.
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him & rejoice with joy that is inexpressible & filled with glory.
(1 Peter 1:8)
I managed to score two other gigs in 2016 (The Rooftop Sessions & The Night Festival) but unfortunate circumstances forced me to drop the latter. It was a tough year, & it was such a bummer to not fulfil a resolution that seemed just about attainable. So when the opportunity came up to do a spot in January when I was still in the thick of things, I felt like it was a fight against the flesh to say yes. Truth be told then, I had sincerely felt that I had been silenced by my transgressions, that God had taken away my gifting. I could feel a very tangible mental blockage whenever I tried to do anything creative. Simply put, my river of songs & poems had dried up. It was only a week before the show that I agreed to do it, mostly because I was seized one night by the feeling that this would be extremely important for me, spiritually & emotionally, & that I had to trust that the big guy upstairs was about to teach me something. So there it was – the moment to jump. & I did.
Long story short: with the help of my ridiculously talented friends (Nick the basslord who sacrificed his usual funk grooves to play folk bass for a night & Anthea who is a much better singer than me by miles), we put on a half-hour set of six originals & a cover. It wasn’t great, but it was a grand time all the same. My friends came & I made new ones; I sang & people listened. There was beer & food & chatter & laughter & for a single night, it was enough. I survived. I am still a terrible performer but at least I was still trying, & isn’t that what matters, the trying?
Artistry was one of the smaller shows I had ever done but in many ways it might have been the most significant because unlike the others (which was mostly a mixture of fanfare & fear), it was then, on 21st January 2017, emerging right out of a rough season, that something in the spiritual realm shifted & I was hit square in the chest by this realisation: Hey, I can still sing. Not fantastic, not fancy, but look – the voice is still here. I’m still here.