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.

 

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It Hurts!

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(currently listening)

  1. Way It Goes – Hippo Campus
  2. Super America – Bad Bad Hats
  3. Love That’s Gone – La Sera
  4. Brooklyn – Fickle Friends
  5. Jennifer – Little Comets
  6. Away from Today – Dan Croll
  7. Talk Too Much – COIN
  8. Drive It Like You Stole It – Sing Street
  9. Wait Up – Roosevelt
  10. Not A One – The Young Wild
  11. Until We Get There – Lucius
  12. Musicians – Gold Motel

Lo-Fi

(adj.) Short for lo-fidelity. The production or reproduction of audio characterised by an unpolished or rough sound quality. First known usage: 1957.


Once, I hitched a ride with an older couple from Malaysia to Singapore after a weekend church retreat & we got stuck at the causeway for a couple of hours. That was when the husband said that we should all take turns to play some songs off our own devices because all the radio waves were still staticky & it would be interesting to know each other’s music tastes & so I plugged in my phone & played them a few tracks off Gold Motel’s Brand New Kind of Blue record. I thought they would like the songs because they were bright & nostalgic & summer-y but then when I asked what they thought, the husband turned around & said, they’re alright I guess, but they’re a bit juvenile, don’t you think?

Oof. Well, I suppose they are:

“Forget it all, it’s just a sun-drenched dream
I bet you make a good memory
I’ll come back soon, when you least assume
Oh, Santa Cruz”

(Santa Cruz – Gold Motel)

“Pluck a heart-string, duck for cover
Hear the phone ring, start to stutter
He wants to know why I sit & sigh so
I yelled your name like a secret out the window
Oh, the night is so young
It hurts!” 

(It Hurts – Bad Bad Hats)

The thing is, I would like to write a lo-fi, “juvenile” love song but I just don’t know how. I think it’s one of the hardest things to write. I did a gig last Saturday with some friends & while it was fun to play Quiet Man & Santorini & Waves, the artists before & after us all had their fair share of juvenile love songs about high school crushes / cheesy declarations of love / bad break ups & I just realised that I didn’t have anything like that in my song repertoire. Just songs about cities or fictional creatures. Hmmm.

I suppose that artists like Gold Motel & Bad Bad Hats appeal to me because the songs they write always seem raw & tender & almost Bukowskian in all their juvenility. No frills or poetic anguish to hide behind. Sometimes that summer road trip really feels extraordinary & transcendent, or that break up just plain sucks. Sometimes, the best way to describe what you’re feeling is to write a two-minute, two-chord song, & shout: It Hurts!

Mr & Mrs Svensson

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Sometimes, on the way home from school
I would see Mrs Svensson
out on her big, front yard.

She would be reading or just sitting there
enjoying the sun, her hands languid
across her lap. We always said hello.

The Svenssons would throw these parties.
Even with the winter, nascent,
I remember the tables laid out on the yard

& cherry-coloured lights, strung,
from evergreen to evergreen
& all evening, they would come

men with scraggly beards & women in sleek dresses
the whole spectacle framed in copper red
all of them drinking till the sky dwindled to a dull glow

I remember the women always
sounding less important
even from a distance.

Yesterday evening I saw her again
sitting on the side step, her mouth agape.
A book sat on her lap

opened, unread
the wind rifling through its pages
as if to say, have you looked here yet

(2014)

Twelve Square Meters

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Like life, I am unhinged, as large,
In an apartment high above
with streaked windows like doors
This dream becomes
solid as the ground I stand on
Lick my fingers clean from an unconscious song

I have been thinking a lot about my time in Sweden lately. Of course, here & there I think about Stockholm, abbreviated & embroidered on every facade of the city – train stations, street signs, guidebooks – as STHLM, chic & straightforward, not unlike its people. I see the city as surely as I see water in all its forms; the numerous islands & bridges & river inlets that make up the city & create an openness that is rare in European capitals.

‘Water is the nerve of Stockholm. It opens up the sky & lends a glow to this incredible fairytale city of the north, not far from the Arctic Circle. Stockholm is the city, it is always the same, everything changes, people come & go…’

But although STHLM is immediately identifiable to the cosmopolitan traveler, it is my humble town of Linköping that I miss the most. It is the fifth largest city in Sweden but the city name & its pronunciation (lin-sher-pin) is usually unheard of. & I too, did not hear of it till it became part of me.

I remember arriving in my tiny square space & spending that night on a threadbare & musky IKEA mattress, the room startlingly dark & all my possessions contained in two luggage cases, that feeling of lightness of being (but also an acute emptiness) unfurling in my chest. I had arrived at Linköping after applying for an exchange program on a whim with my then-boyfriend, picking the place only because it seemed like a whimsical, faraway town to runaway to if only to escape the sticky Singaporean heat. In that moment though, it did not seem at all appealing. I missed my own room, my home.

After a night of crying, I refused to stay in the stagnant & decrepit state of not belonging & thus unpacked, sparse as the shelves looked under my five or six possessions. At least I tried. & I tried the next day, & the next day, & the next. & as the weeks passed, I began to develop a routine & I slowly felt the previously hostile walls of the room begin to mould around my daily activities, or perhaps I was changing myself to fit the contours of the room itself. Every day after art history or political science class, I would park my pink bike outside my dorm, unlock my door & hang my coat & scarf on the rack next to my bathroom (coat, left; scarf, right). I would shake the snow off my boats & leave them to dry between the radiator & the front door. Then finally, I would stumble into my tiny bedroom & collapse onto the sheets to thaw from the minus five-degree weather.

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I began to decorate, dragging a white table & chairs & boxes of abandoned books from the college residential halls into my room. Piles of research papers & discarded poetry collections began to form little towers on my study table. I grew accustomed. Every morning I would wake up, turn my body to the right & gaze at the blue-grey shafts of light that slid between the blinds & made their way into my room. It was almost winter then & the sun would climb up lazily into the sky at ten in the morning & then melt away again into the horizon at four in the afternoon. I liked that counter flux of dark & light; it suited my introverted tastes.

Rydsvagen 254 A17 58438
Linköping, Sweden

But when did this room become “home”, exactly? I can’t remember which weekend trip I was coming back from, perhaps Oslo or London, but I do know that it was in the dead of the night & we were exhausted from lugging our bags from train to bus, bus to plane, plane to bus again. & I remember this moment so clearly as we approached the Ryd intersection & went separate ways to our own student apartments & I turned to whoever I was traveling with then & said, okay well, see you later, I’m going home. Home.

The four-letter word hung in the dark intersection, crystallised in sleepy breath. & for me, that inherent moment of the sense of home shifting within my mind’s eye was monumental & I felt a rush of yes, the other-home sweetness & warmth, the belonging, like when a person fits her arm into the crook of her lover’s & it sits there snug… like when there’s a catch between bolt & key, like when you’re no longer suspended in air. & almost immediately I felt a little guilty, as if I was cheating on my own room in Singapore, but then I reassured myself with the thought that my old room would understand. There, there. It wouldn’t mind one bit. It would want me to feel at home in another place, at least for a certain period of time.

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I took many pictures of the European cities that year, stunning sights & historical monuments. I took pictures of the celestial lights in the midnight Scandinavian sky, of the deep velvet forests I hiked in, of the people I had met. I took many pictures at an attempt to remember, but now when the names of towns & municipalities & street names are slipping off the edges of my mind, all I have to do is close my eyes & think about my room, my little twelve square meters of home. It is the one thing I can’t forget.

I guess the thing that I’m getting at is this: you only have one birthplace but you can have more than one home. Even though I’m back in Singapore right now, I am always wondering what my next destination will be & whether it is a place where I could one day reside & make my own. & as I recollect memories about my time in Sweden, I also find myself feeling fluid – like water, like the rivers of Stockholm, like that sense of home.

It should’ve been me

Just two days after the first of June
A pine with arms brushing off the dew
Unlike a sky copious with death
Precipitation of heart & head
She’d wash the rest of her youth away
& carry on with it as she may
But something’s pending curvaceously
‘Cuz sunburned skin won’t agree with me

It should’ve been me
It should’ve been me

The pleasure’s good as the pleasure sounds
My chin held shut so my heart can talk louder
I was a mess just like the pool
Our days spent crossed out of Sunday school
July has always been shy of June
Some monsoon, monsoon, monsoon
Come heavy of a golden hue
My monsoon, monsoon, monsoon

It should’ve been me
It should’ve been me

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

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“Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.”

 

Adam Zagajewski

A reminder that in all things, there is hope.

Happenstance;

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My contemporaries like small objects,
dried starfish that have forgotten the sea,
melancholy stopped clocks, postcards 
sent from vanished cities,
& blackened with illegible scripts,
in which they discern words
like “yearning,”, “illness”, or “the end.”
They marvel at dormant volcanoes.
They don’t desire light.
Adam Zagajewski

A typewritten copy of this poem hangs forlornly on one of my bookshelves, held down in place by some candles & foreign coins. It caught my eye yesterday as I cleaned out my tiny library. As I skimmed through the poem, it took on new meaning for me because whilst I had always enjoyed it before, I think I finally understood what Zagajewski meant when he talked about his contemporaries liking small objects & not desiring light. It invokes a kind of sadness, when you let the collecting of small objects replace the joy of finding these small objects in person on a journey, picked up by pure happenstance.

Happenstance (adj.)
: a circumstance especially that is due to chance

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Incidentally, my shelves are filled with “small objects”: trinkets, curios, gifts from friends, souvenirs from faraway. Sketches. Leather bound notebooks from Melbourne. A ceramic turtle from Kyrgyzstan that produces a high-pitched whistle when you blow through its mouth… Ah, you get the picture. A hundred little things. & as I looked at Zagajewski’s poem & all the dusty tchotchkes scattered around me, I was filled with the sudden desire to return back to the things that once brought true joy – travel, photography, writing, sketching, eating – instead of being reduced to The Collector.

 

You are The Collector
bringing together
the hidden places in people
collarbones, forearms, ears…
you’re storing them up
in the city that is your mind
O, that deep, swirling darkness
Won’t you let me in?

But do I want to go in? I don’t think so; not anymore. It comes down to this: I don’t want to be reduced to a forgotten thing on a shelf. It’s time to open up, let the light in.