To Everything There Is A Season

“Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
J. R. R. TolkienThe Return of the King (1955)

Time is either a gentle breeze, or a sandstorm sweeping the Arabian coasts. If the former, it soothes the melancholy soul with a whisper; if the latter, it is blinding and abrasive, tearing into the skin like a serrated claw dripping with the vengeance of the endless hour. Time is a forgetting. Our chores and worries wash over and smooth those burning footprints at noontime, and suddenly it is evening; the toll of the day’s burden weighs heavily on us, and we sleep to wake and sway to Earth’s diurnal rhythm once again.

Two weeks have passed since his passing. He died twice—once on a bed embraced by a tangle of plastic tubes with a flatline for a eulogy, the next when he was wheeled into the fire to the tune of cacophanous wailing. Death pervades all realms of signification.

I was there when he left the second time.

As the climactic closure and public acknowledgement of a life lived and expired, the final send-off at the viewing gallery of Mount Vernon crematorium is a theatrical experience that is at once surreal and sobering. As family and friends file onto the tiered platforms, the scene is disconcertingly reminiscent of an amphitheatre silent with anticipation. The cue is the forlorn appearance of the coffin below draped in white lilies, slow but sure in its fatal course. Then a sudden outpouring of grief ensues. Behind the veil of glass, a paroxysmal clamour erupts as the scene momentarily transforms into a grand spectacle of mourning—one that seems almost as contrived in its orchestration as it is heart-wrenching in its desperate pathos.

I remember clasping instinctively onto the wooden rail in front of me, as if for metaphysical support, with a strange detachment even as I was for many reasons emotionally invested in the scene. To be sure, it was a moment of lasts—last farewells, last professions of love and promises of waiting, last apologies muted behind the unmoving glass, last glimpses of the mortal vessel we call the body. Nonetheless, even in my blinding sorrow I did realise: this procession is undoubtedly a symbolic performance of our mortal condition. The glass of the gallery itself metamorphoses into an existential barrier between the living and the irrevocably dead—and our powerlessness over the decrees of Nature seems palpable in every way. It is a moment of human defeat—one we cannot bear to concede willingly but will need to, eventually, because it would be folly to stand vigil by the husk of the one we love, indefinitely (love them as we may). Our time is a life punctuated with many such losses and partings—and seated deep within our anguished reluctance to let go is the knowledge that we must.

And Time is a remembering that our own grains of sand will one day fill our graves. While the narratives of the dead are spent, ours continue to be written. That is why, in spite of our fierce grieving, we enlist the services of those who wheel the dead into the place of ashes; they play the part of fate and necessity, to do what we alone cannot.

Brief Candle

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
Shakespeare, Macbeth (5.5.19-28)

I was fearful of what I might see. How much has Death already taken away from a man struggling to breathe, not to drown under the weight of his own mangled body? Pallid green curtains, like a shroud of shadow, enclosed the beds—encapsuled—each leaving its resident to fade away in quiet privacy; or else to shield the wet eyes of those to be left behind, weary with grief, from the visible inevitability of what is to come.

We stepped into the ward. There was a silent pall hanging about in the still sanitised air. The short path to the bed at the end was lined with a scattering of mourners—here a pair, arms about one another in shared pathos; there a solitary boy, face hung with blank resignation; then there were the unmistakable sounds of sniffling and blowing noses like the early drops of rain before the monsoon.

As the hospital drapes were drawn, an unfamiliar visage faded into view—more unfamiliar, and distant than I had imagined. He was a crumpled canvas, almost bleached white; his cheeks were hollowed out like a palette that had run out of paint. The easel that once stood propping up vital colours of boyish mischief and paternal severity lay now in shambles. How vividly he had appeared in my memory as I left him some ten years ago, when our cars left each other at the Tuas causeway after our routine family trip (the last of many) to Genting Highlands. I still remember that face—full, glowing, my father’s friend. I recall navigating the theme parks with his boys, my childhood partners-in-crime—all of us blazing with unspoilt youth, all of us candles dancing in the dark.

Now I see them standing around me, heads once dizzy with childish delight, now hung with indescribable sorry. We have all grown up, some taller than we remember. All of us look tired, like the years have chipped at our gleaming mantles and left the frays drifting in the wind. How I wish I could reach out to embrace each of them with the same yesteryear innocence and careless glee. All of it has passed, irretrievably.

I look at his face, spaces once filled with hearty laughter. I do not recognise him. Those gentle eyes are now bereft of joy, only agape in shock like one trying in vain to escape the onslaught of an oncoming catastrophe—a speeding train, or the sudden collapse of civilisations. He stares as each of us draw closer in turn, his sobbing wife whispering our names as though they were her best kept secret. I know she wishes we had met one more time before, under lighter circumstances; now she sees us for the first time in years, all past our childhood prime—like her own children. Oh, how the years have worn us out.

Standing bent over what is left of her husband, she seems not to have aged at all. Her trembling fingers sweep his fringe to the side, and turning, she flings wide her arms with bitter reunion. We embrace her, the three of us—like her own children. And she sobs into us; we are all helpless. The scene melts into a torrent of tragic nostalgia. I feel his skeletal fingers as they twitch in my own, and I know it wouldn’t be long. He nods weakly, like a leaf of a book flipping in the breeze. What could I say? How much I wished I had seen him when I still remembered him as he was? Now the rest of him floats in frozen images in the darkroom of Memory—undeveloped spools of less trying times up in the cloudy mists of the Malaysian highlands.

“Rest now, close your eyes,” she says, maternally, in an assuring but broken voice. And he momentarily shuts them, but opens them soon enough, mouthing in weak whispers something else back. Here, there are no more formalities; the hiddenness of private souls are laid bare. Here, in a room at Gleneagles Hospital, on a Sunday afternoon, there is only a naked, desperate, helpless humanness—among us all, between us, we know.

I know he is going.

The Poetry of Witness

“… and those blessed to survive wrote their poetry not after such experiences but in their aftermath—in languages that had also passed through these sufferings; languages that also continued to bear wounds, legible in the line breaks, in constellations of imagery, in ruptures of utterance, in silences and fissures of written speech.”
Carolyn Forché, ‘Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art’ (2011)

The experience hit me like a slate of cold light—illuminating, but not without a sense of abandonment. I imagine: it is the leaden feeling that settles in when the lid of an innocuous box is turned over to reveal a convenient grave. The skull stares eyeless at me—a hollowed witness.

It felt like this when I read Miklós Radnóti’s poem ‘Forced March’ (1944), a forlorn rendering of his staggering with thousands of others en route to Hungary during World War II—where he would later die by gunfire, shot because the Nazi soldiers were ‘unable to find a hospital with room’—a tragic perversion of the nativity. The original ‘manuscript’ (if one may term it that) is a withered leaf off the body of a notebook found on his corpse after his grave was exhumed. Soaked in what looked like the fluids from his body, so they say, it was later left to dry in the sun. The stains remain on the original like an unfinished chromatogram.

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Manuscript of Radnoti’s ‘Forced March’ (1944)

The penmanship is remarkably measured for one tormented in both body and soul—for one whose mortality lingered on the fray of a frail thread like the sword of Damocles. But it is ponderous; the ink does not bleed, it curves with a heavy finality. It does not stray, but bends to an unseen, final purpose. There are blots that try to scratch out honest mistakes—an endearingly human gesture. Even in such savage scenes, there remains the impulse to perfect and revise that reflects a mark of aesthetic sense. This man seems to have been lucid till the very end, for better or worse. You can see it not only in his poetic resolve, but in his methodical verse architecture. The poem is cleft in twain by what appears to be a fracture that runs in a meandering chasm across its length—a concrete signifier of a spiritual wound and lacerations hidden by linen tatters. It is a trauma made visible and material; it is the cry of a man in the throes of a death that he foresees. In these undulating lines, there is a seismic shattering. They are condemned hereafter to speak to fill the spaces between.

What is the reader to do? I can only gape, mouth ajar, like the jagged perforation on the page. Now reproduced in print on a sheet of white paper, there is no stain. Yet the wound seems still to bleed; it is slit and carved in all the right places. In duplicating the poem, one has also duplicated the wound. The fracture is a sign that seems to have escaped the deconstructive impulses of repetition over time and space; how is this possible? I trace the emptiness with a tentative finger, fearful of what I may find in the crack. I see a dishevelled Radnóti, clothed in filthy despair, purposively pausing his pen to leave an aching gap in the line—in every line; the gaps begin to appear in deliberate unevenness to create a disturbing asymmetry. There is the scrunching of Nazi boots nearby—he tucks his notebook, gorged with crumpled paper paraphernalia, into his pocket. He is done. The poem is torn apart.

I stare off into the space in front of me. In my sense-making quietude, the zigzagging fissure on the page seems to chastise me for my melancholia which, in light of this man’s monumental suffering made material, is nothing but the petulant groan of a good-for-nothing modern romantic.

The Spaces in Memory

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)

I’ve been seeing you in the places I least expect—in the sand-swirl of gravel roads less travelled by, along the corridors of nondescript buildings we never visited, in a sky that is no longer the same since we left. Memory is a morning that coats the most unlikely spaces in a diaphanous cloak of dew; and momentarily, even the most mundane object glistens with a familiar light like no other. Your phantom fingerprints smudge like the hiss of a burning brand—on benches that we never sat holding each other, watching the rain. Out of sheer exasperation at times, I try to shake myself out of this retrospective stupor. But the nostalgia bleeds into the present and tints the future a faded gold that cannot stay.

It is difficult to see how things could have turned out any way other than the melodramatic banging of clenched fists against closed doors we’d shut from the inside. Had I the perspicacity of hindsight, I would have let nature run its wrecking course and grind what was left of it to the ground. I would not have, in defiance, ended it before its time. That would have saved the both of us the debt that one of us would continue to pay long after the curtains fell. How would I have known—how would you have known? All the time after, I wish I knew better.

Sometimes (admittedly) I find myself wading and wallowing in these dysthymic pools that show only a reflection rippled with wistful regret. Like one Narcissus who reaches out to caress his lost image in a liquid looking glass, I set the surface in motion to witness history repeat itself again, and again—if only in my mind. I draw nearer the threshold: a part immersed in fantasy, the other gasping in doubt. Therein lies the danger of drowning in shallow water.

In writing I sometimes try my very best to recollect the bitter harvest and recreate the picture in finest grain. Yet it is either too painful or too inexpressible—I always find myself falling short of representing the scene in its tragic fidelity. To be sure, the actors are positioned on the stage, and memory—this masterful dramaturge—orchestrates the movement and the sound. The transparent look of naive wonder on your face, the tentative glance half wishing to be returned, or so I think. We stare out at the relentless downpour from the safety of the shed—the world disappears. How did I feel then?

Many a year ago in chemistry class, I learnt of what I thought was a rather poetic phenomenon at the level of the atomic nucleus. At any one time, either the position or the momentum of an electron can be determined—but never both simultaneously. This is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And this is the catch-22 of memory: to remember the factuality of the scene is to forget the drowsy sensation of something a little like love. It is a feeling that is at once an ache and a warm glow. And yet to recall this is to let the canvas dissolve into a knot of irresolvable qualia. I can never piece together the full picture. Or else, I fear that doing so would finally fill the absence and extinguish that imaginary flame. Memory is a wall of dancing shadows—every man’s private Plato’s Cave.

Now I understand what you meant when you said feelings are a funny thing. We never really forget them—only how to describe them. For all its signifying potential, the reaches of language are frustratingly limited. I have realised, with protracted dismay, that I will never be able to render in writing the firing of a billion neurons on that rainy afternoon—and that terrible, terrific memory of something a little like love.

I can only fill those spaces with words, words, and more words.

The Future is Restless

“Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (I.3.150-52)

To say that it was a fantastic year that began with promise and ended in fulfilment would be a flagrant lie. 2016 was, by all counts, outwardly nondescript; it was a year steeped in sedate contemplation of first principles and final destinations. I went back to the drawing board many times; for hours I stoked new fires from old, expired embers—they blazed bright momentarily, then vanished into the night sky of my mind. What had I set out to do before the churn of the middle-class machine drowned out the siren song? Where am I going—this bleary-eyed passenger whose life is beginning to slow down with the comfortable lull of the dreamtide? Restlessness and nostalgia were uncanny bedfellows this year: one in frustrated anticipation of an uncertain future, the other wallowing in the mists of a distant past.

As the socio-political pendulum swings right once again, the world is cloistering—each in their own sacred conclave, like houses shuttering against the onslaught of the angel of death. Truth be told, I have professed to hate politics in my earlier, more naive teenage years, content to muse and mope within the confines of oblivious youth. Now in my late twenties, however, I have never felt my psychology more influenced by global events transpiring outside my immediate locus. The recent scourge of anti-globalisation has induced in me a gnawing sense of urgency, and I cannot help but feel that time is running out. There are things I have yet to do. The doors are closing. The future is restless.

Recently, I’ve caught myself drifting back into the past like a ghost haunting a terrible shipwreck. It is one thing to let the flood of images float past consciousness; it is another to dive into the raging stream to search for something lost. The pursuit is almost painful. You latch onto fragments and inch your way towards a reconstructed whole—and, my god—when the picture of that tragic encounter is complete, the memory is suddenly saturated many times over, blinding like the piercing gaze of a passing foglight. Then you remember why you chose to forget.

2017 is a few hours away, but I still cannot seem to shake off this feeling that I have not accomplished anything noteworthy in the past year. Surely, this must be the work of a faulty perception that grossly understates what I have done. But for the first time in awhile, I’m prompted to consider what it is that truly affords me that elusive calm of fulfilment—or whether I’ve ever found it before.

Wherever We May Roam

“Horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The Hell within him; for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step, no more than from Himself, can fly
By change of place. Now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered; wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue!
Sometimes towards Eden, which now in his view
Lay pleasant, his grieved look he fixes sad;
Sometimes towards Heaven and the full-blazing Sun,
Which now sat high in his meridian tower.”
— John MiltonParadise Lost (IV.18-30)

Let’s face it—the June and December holidays are sacrosanct to the sanity of the teaching profession. In private moments between disciplinary routines, the marking frenzy, and lesson planning, our minds are already one step ahead of time and rife with thoughts of our next respite, our next great escape. It therefore comes as no surprise that many respond with an irrepressible tinge of astonishment when I happen to mention—with unusual nonchalance, no less—that I don’t have travel plans this holiday season. Gasp.

‘You know, it’s always good to take a good vacation elsewhere—you know, get away from work and recharge mind and body. You should consider going somewhere; it’s still not too late.’ Well-meaning advice, sure; except that I’d already made up my mind about staying put a few months ago.

These days, with a slew of budget travel options, planning a free-and-easy getaway is significantly more affordable in more ways than one: it rests easy on the mind and the pocket. Peer-to-peer services such as Airbnb—offsprings of a maturing sharing economy—provide the necessary platforms for a self-sustaining online travel marketplace to thrive. They effectively remove the cumbersome middlemen—tour agencies—and their associated costs. This is the era that marries the spirit of adventure with self-determination; never mind the ebbing tide of globalisation, the aeroplane nor automobile nor ship is going to vanish overnight. A right mind and some middle-class travel capital are all we need to traverse the shrinking world.

A right mind. The motivation to travel stems from a desire to roam away from home, momentarily, and to chart new geographies—physical and psychological. Complementary to this drive is also the undeniable posture of awe and wonder as we navigate the fringes of experience, and expand the horizons of memory to take in new sights and sounds. Travel is a renewal. One must set down old burdens and sentiments, to be made vulnerable to a reconfiguration or reshaping of consciousness; because let’s face it—encounters with the hitherto unknown changes us by virtue of prompting us to form new relationships and associations between memory and new acquaintances. Like an ink drop in clear water, we are changed, even if imperceptibly, by novel experiences. We are never quite the same after travelling.

I am never quite the same after travelling. But there is always a haunting sense in which while the periphery of experience has been indelibly altered, some deeper recess remains still unchanged, brooding. I have peered out of a train passing natural vistas roiled with hills and valleys in undulating shades of greens and whites. I have gazed out into the mist from one of the highest peaks in Europe, snow-blasted. I have mingled in museums with the souls of artists whose masterpieces have christened the golden age of Western culture and civilisation.

Yet as one standing squarely at the centre of these enveloping reels of phenomena, I cannot help but feel this unsettling sameness—a shadowed similitude that persists from moment to moment and beyond. No, it is not the proverbial Self nor some concept of identity; sure we do endure in that metaphysical sense, but there is something else amorphous, lingering, that remains unaccounted for. It is a creeping silhouette that, for all the awe and wonder I feel at sights new and majestic, eclipses the scene with a mysterious and haunting penumbra. It is always there, always waiting to be demystified—a gaping internal absence that escapes understanding, but wants to be understood. Perhaps the question has never been about what lies behind the psychedelic screen of wild images; but rather, what lies beneath the spectator.

Or else this is merely a farcical symptom of some more profound fear of passing, or some more deep-seated longing for things lost; or perhaps I have become my own world’s worst cynic, or am forever prey to the wiles of a broken-hearted memory.

Regardless, such is my dispassionate response to travelling while half the world revels in its prospect: it does not quite make the expected difference for me.

Because if we bring home around wherever we roam, then everywhere and anywhere we are still at home—for better, or for worse.

Flickering Compass

“I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’ other—”
Shakespeare, Macbeth (1.7.25-28)

I’ve always counted myself as one quite vehemently resistant to change, perhaps in part due to my pathological sentimentality: an undying, smothering longing for Edens that I have lost—and that I lose every day. I think about moments that arrive, linger, and pass on, never again to be experienced again in their phenomenal immediacy—only as haunting phantoms in crude succession, like a silent opera in the amphitheatre of the mind. Never a day goes by without my peering out, rather forlornly, of the weatherbeaten window of Memory at the swathing vista of what has been—temporal fabric in folds undulating into the yellow of a perpetual sunset. I always go back.

But nestled in the coils of this recursive hindsight is always a desire to strike out against this sea of similitude. Ambition is a strange thing. It empowers and emboldens—and arrives in sporadic surges of gripping adrenaline; and momentarily, we are Herculean and all our labours become wit and strategy—the games we win in our heads. These moments flash by in comet streaks: in the privacy of a warm shower, through the dew-bleary windows of the morning bus-ride, at the deafening monotony of our work-desks. They, in their serendipitous passing, pull our thoughts in the trajectory of their trail—and jolted into a realisation faster than the speed of light, we contemplate the possible future. A want—an aspiration, its forward movement—is inaugurated.

But oh, how in two minds we are! Our steadier judgment anchors us to our resting place where we have been content to take root and blossom—and yet there is such hopeful dissatisfaction that makes our mind wander so far from home.

As I edge towards a certain future (in both senses), I can’t help but feel that all I’m doing is fulfilling a prophecy—connecting the dots, or walking through open doors. Like a passenger gazing wistfully out of a train fastened long ago to the rails of an ever receding track, I watch the nomadic pedestrians amble aimlessly, all going somewhere—and I wonder why I haven’t thought of getting off. I got on years ago wanting to get somewhere, but I think I’ve lost track of my destination—or else, I have set my mind on some other realm to which this train cannot run, or runs too slowly. There is an anxiety—for the first time, of youth and daring. We do not grow younger.

I’m arriving at the station soon in less than a year, to be exact. My feet have been set so long on the worn-out cobblestones of this straight and sure path; how then can I step out when the road home is so clearly lit—when the road itself is home? When is it ever rational to step away when the ground before us is so firmly trodden?

Still the more I wonder: what lies beyond the lighted way?

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Road by Scarborough Beach, Perth, Australia.