The Songs of the Humpback Whale

Whenever I’m ill, I think more, I write more. I think it’s a coping mechanism. 

***

It’s a strange afternoon. The sun hasn’t made up its mind on whether it wants to be in or out, and so the sky is a little grey, with the occasional light burst. The gossamer curtains are slowly being lifted by the mid-afternoon breeze, and then slowly placed down again. Once, I’d taken a picture of this scene and called it: this is how poetry looks like.

We don’t know this, but we see poetry in motion, every day.

***

I’m currently reading When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams. It is an emotional book for me to read because she talks about things that are very close to my heart: mothers, being a woman, the voice of a woman as a writer, and the voicelessness, birds, birds, birds. It feels like I am drifting along with her this afternoon.

In one of her chapters, she talks about how her grandmother brings her to watch whales off the coast of California. It was in the thick of the Save the Whales movement in the 1970s. Reading about her experience, I am reminded of Roger Payne’s album, Songs of the Humpback Whale. As I think this, I come across her own reference to this album. I log onto YouTube to put it on play, and I try to read on, but a memory finds me.

September 2012, Fraser Island, Queensland, Australia.

It was the peak of a road trip with a nearest, oldest, dearest, photographer friend, L. It was a trip that had come in the middle of many difficult things, and quite like Fraser Island, it was an oasis of comfort and beauty when little else made sense. We were there to see whales, and to visit a shipwreck. They had told us that we would be very lucky if we saw the whales. Usually, the whales would come very close to the shore, they said. But only, if you’re very lucky, they said.

I couldn’t think about whales when I saw the shipwreck. Pristine in its utter devastation, it stood, almost majestic in its decay. The waves were crashing against it relentlessly, angrily. The sun was beating down on us. It was hot, the air was heavily laden with salt, there was sand on my skin, and it was a glorious moment of being alive. It was the first time I was seeing a shipwreck. Who would have thought that there would be so much beauty in the broken? (That was my first lesson, but I didn’t realise it then – the beauty of the damaged was poignant, a stepping stone for rebuilding, recreating).

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We got back into our jeep, drove along the sand expressway, keeping our eyes peeled for whales. We never did see them, except for one moment, where we saw a spurt of water being gushed upwards, vertically. Exultant cries; it was from the blowhole of a whale, far away from us. Not near enough for us to see the actual form of the whale, but enough of an evidence to know that it was real, that it existed. Such a simple, but worthy reminder of how life worked. Again, I hadn’t known this then, but it was my second lesson. Keep your eyes open to what was around you, and you’ll find the love-notes that life had left for you to pick up, and carry on.

(We never realise these things until in hindsight, isn’t it?)

***

My eyes are closed. The Song of the Humpback Whale reverberates in the room, and behind my closed eyelids, I see the golden sand, the heat of the day, the reminder of a trip that brought me to life. L, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but thank you for bringing me to the oasis I needed when life was nothing but a dark, bleak, pain-ridden desert.

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It will get better.

Yesterday, someone whom I love and respect deeply told me this: dying is probably the strongest catalyst for anyone to truly start living.

(The context of our conversation was a little different, but it made me think about how much truth there was in that little snippet).

I can tell you the exact point it happened to me, though there had been various instances before that that I’d conveniently disregarded; because I was stupidly stubborn about making the wrong choices repeatedly; because I was complacent that that “really bad things could never happen to me”; because I was masochistically comfortable in whatever sordid situation I was trapped in – I couldn’t tell you.

But, let’s go back to the story.

Nov 2012; I had just landed in Leicester on a winter evening. I entered my new flat; everything smelt of disinfectant, clean, clinical, stripped bare, empty. There was a lumpy white mattress, bare shelves, a slate grey carpet, a large window, showing the grey, grey sky. 

I started shaking. Shaking, as if it finally dawned on me that I was back, and this was the reality of my coming-back. Shaking, as I realised that I was coming back to this all this grey, cold aloneness. Finis.

I picked up my phone and texted a number; a dear friend had passed this to me before I had left, this dear friend who had always thought of my needs, who had known what I had needed before I had realised it myself. 

Half an hour later, I was shivering outside a large wooden door, on the other side of the city. This was a door I would soon become very familiar with. I had not known then, but I would also become very familiar with the person it woas associated to; someone, who would grow to become my teacher, mentor, guide, friend, sister, mother.

The same someone whom I had only exchanged a few emails with before I had landed outside her flat.

She opened the door to the main entrance of her place; the corridor was dark, warm, with the stale smell of damp carpet and old wood. She shook my hand, put her arm around my waist, held me a little closer as she realised how badly I was shaking.

We walked into her apartment. In the gold candlelight, she sat me next to her fire place, wrapped her throw around my then-bony shoulders, pressed a warm cup of tea into my hands. All the while, I mumbled several things, probably apologising for barging in on her, and for not introducing myself properly – you know, the usual things people say when they have absolutely nothing worthwhile to speak about. Then she placed herself beside me, calmly took my hand, and looked into my eyes.

At that precise moment, seeing that display of pure, quiet, unquestioning love in her eyes, everything, everything inside and outside, came completely undone. For five hours that evening, in that stranger’s home, I cried for all that had happened in the past decade and then some, as she held me.

That evening was the point in my life where I took a step to begin living again. Not just for the sake of getting through each day and crawling into bed each night, but to truly live, to do something with my existence, to reach out to someone, anyone out there who needed it. Even if it meant that I had to start from scratch, from the bottom, from the place where there was really nothing else left to lose.

I remember penning in a journal at that time that the best place to start rebuilding your life/self/spirit, was from the ground, when you wereon your knees, tears streaming down your face, because from that space, at that point, there was nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, but to build and move upwards.

The few months before that, however morbid it sounds, had been the process of my “dying”. I understand it better now in retrospect, but it doesn’t change the fact that I would not wish that part of my life to anyone I know, ever.

But, I digress. I’m not writing this to tell you about how bad it was and how it got to that point; I’m writing this to tell you that breath by breath, one sunrise at a time, one hug by one hug, one prayer after another, it got better. It did mean that I left repeatedly, it did mean that I cried more than I thought was humanly possible, it did mean that there were many people who left my life (as there were many who came into it, let me not dramatize this unnecessarily), it did mean that there were bad days and good days and sometimes all there were, were days, but…. It happened, it passed, and it got better. Life, slowly, slowly, became about living again.

……. I just read through everything I’ve written and wondered what exactly I was trying to say.

I suppose it is this: it will get better.

(And I think I needed my reminder more than anyone else).

Of Old Habits.

Seems like this has been the theme of the week for many people I’ve been talking to : old habits, and how to let them go. 

***

Old habits are like the lovers under your skin who refuse to leave.

They sit on the back of your neck, in the base of your spine, on the underside of your feet, tattooed black and grey, and sometimes a little red, pretending that they are permanent.

(Foolish fellows, they don’t understand that even tattoos in the softest, reddest corners of the heart fade with time.)

Old habits are like the childhood scars that you never could quite remember about, seemingly inconsequential, omnipresent.

They reach out and grab you by the hair when you’re walking down a quiet street, and the sudden pain makes a scream rise in your throat, one that you quickly swallow because that’s what you have been taught to do.

(Ah, but you see, even childhood scars can be rewritten into light-ridden stories, those swallowed screams released into the morning dawn as bird song, or as a conversation between two people after a long, long night of lovemaking).

Old habits are like the recurring nightmares on dark nights, and the heavy hearts of cold, grey mornings, the drudgery in your soul and the muck in your hands as you clamber on and around the ravines of life, trying, trying, to trip you up and dirty your mind, insisting on excreting venomous power that they don’t quite have any more.

(Remember, remember, old habits are old only because you have let them grow in age with you – even today, even now, you can dive into the waterfall of belief and possibility, and let all of it, let all the fuck of it go. Even now. Especially, now. Go.)

Picture taken in Kerala, India.

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It isn’t really about me.

I actually wrote this yesterday, but I thought it is better to post this today. Because today, it isn’t really about me, it is about the people who’ve made me, moulded me, loved me to death and back.

***

I turn a year older tomorrow.

I’m currently in the car, waiting for my father to buy some grapes. We are going for our weekly Sunday breakfast (I’m paying), before we head off for half a day of meditation. This is our new ritual, our new discipline for 2015.

I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m a disciplined person. Each time I hear this, I laugh. “If you think I’m something, you should see my father.” I respond. Everything I’ve learnt about discipline, I’ve learnt it from him.

A memory: I was about 5 years old, sitting in the void deck with my mother, and my newly purchased pencil and eraser. My erasers were usually extravagantly shaped; that particular day, it was a unicorn. (I know, I had good taste, even back then). My father was at his dojo, completing his weekly martial art class. Not one he attended, mind. One he taught, my father, the black-belt superhero. He would teach martial arts to a group of eager, bright-eyed young men and women in their crisp white kis and different coloured belts. While my father taught these classes, my mother would sit with me, and my brand new stationary, watching as I wrote, or worked on my school work.

It’s an abstract memory, but one that is terribly poignant.

Soon after, my mother quit her job to be with me and nurture me to be a responsible young adult. (I think she has succeeded,  but this is a discussion for another day). This meant my father was supporting the family by himself. He worked two jobs; one, as a supervisor at the airport, and the second, as a taxi driver. On top of his professional commitments, he also ferried me to school everyday, made time for his wife, discussed books and people and international affairs with me, ran every day, and did some art projects now and then.

All within the same 24 hours that the rest of us, the plebeian masses had.

He probably slept for about 3 hours a day, and spent the rest of his time being the family superhero. It never struck me at that time just how much he was doing, and so tirelessly, without complaints. Now, at an age where I am trying, trying, trying to be a better person, I wonder what kind of open space, determination, love, he must have been carrying to be so relentless in his pursuit of life.

As I type this with one finger on my iPad while finishing my breakfast, he’s stirring sugar into my tea while trying to cool it at the same time. Ever considerate, this man.

“So, about my birthday tomorrow…”

“We can talk about that later. Just settle this for now.”

Upon saying that, he slowly slides the bill over to me, a cheeky grin on his face.

Oh, father.

 

Photo taken in Singapore, by my lovely mother.

 

Another year older.

I turn a year older tomorrow.

This time last year, I was recovering from an awful bout of stomache flu and tonsillitis. I couldn’t eat anything for days, everything hurt, and I realised, for the umpteenth time, that health was the greatest wealth that any human being could have.

This year, I am well and healthy, though I still haven’t eaten anything for days. I started the New Year on a liquid fast, intending to finish after 21 days. The first few days were all right; I was constantly pumping myself with liquids, I felt light, I felt free, I felt like I was accomplishing something. All was rosy in my world.

Come Day 5/6/7, I started experiencing mood swings. Cramps. Exhaustion (the bone-weary, world-weary kind). My tongue started turning a strange colour. Something wasn’t right, and I had to stop. On day 10, 11 days before the end of it, I called it quits. When I had my first morsel of food, I think I cried. I didn’t know whether it was because I was so thankful for having food in my life again, or because I was disappointed in myself for not seeing something through, or because my throat was so sore that I couldn’t handle the spices that were in the meal I was having.

This is the first lesson I’m taking along with me as I grow a year older. It is okay to stop, give up and say that I can’t do this anymore. Not because it is a sign of failure, but because it is a sign of self respect and humility to bow down to the ego and concede defeat. “No, the self isn’t all that great. And that’s perfectly okay. Perfectly okay.”

It’s going to take me some time to ease into this new paradigm. I’m okay with that too.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try it again, though.

And that’s the second most important thing I’m going to hold close to me as I move into another new beginning. That the possibility of success the next time around is even greater, because of this awareness, understanding and humility that I now have. Possibilities always exist. It’s just about whether we are brave enough to consider them after not quite having succeeded, before.

It’s a funny thing, this life. It keeps throwing us these opportunities and curveballs for us to keep moving forward, doing, being, thinking, always for the better. If only we take that step to fall into risk, fall into vulnerability, fall into surrender, knowing that we are going to succeed, despite the odds.

Anyhow, here’s to another year of trying to be a better person.

Picture taken in Nongsapura, Batam, Indonesia.

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