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.

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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.

Why now; why again

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Six years ago, I walked into a ramshackle bookstore in the left bank of Paris & something in my soul shifted. I have always loved books & the worlds of words contained in them but until then I never thought that it could be this: a sinuous stream of kaleidoscopic thought, an abode for the poor dreamer. That night (in a musky room of a slightly-dodgy boarding house in the 18th arrondissement), I wrote these words:

“…ridiculous as it may seem, stepping into this tiny English bookstore in Paris felt like the entire reason why I was in Europe; the endpoint of the crossing of continents.

& now, six years from that day, I am realising that one doesn’t get many moments like that in one’s lifetime. That moment when lock meets key; that quick, momentary tightening before things click into place, whereby one can gently sigh & say: ah, yes. Yes. Do you remember what it was like, to be young & idealistic? Yet untouched by the world. Even if it was a very long time ago, you must have been like that once because everyone was before, even if they have grown quite a fair bit since.

This blog was started after a prolonged silence & an irreversible unravelling. It is an effort at pursuing respite, a harkening back to the things that once brought joy – selah, if you will – after a long time of wandering & wondering. It is inspired by a quote from George Whitman, the quixotic & sadly deceased bookseller of the rag-&-bone store, Shakespeare & Company:

“Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”

These words, a reinterpretation of the bible verse Hebrews 13:2, are painted & forever immortalised above the slanted indoor-doorway of said bookstore. They resonate deeply because this is my story – always has been, always will be – of venturing out & returning destitute, of running away & running back home. Home. In the words of fictional character Holly Golightly:

“Home is where you feel at home. I’m still looking.” 

& so am I, so am I. & when I finally arrive, oh, on that fateful, glorious day, I would like to feel a cascading warmth; I would like to hear that all-familiar voice say: hello, welcome stranger. Welcome home.

More to come.

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