Did you know that we are on the eighth week of the year? Last Monday I felt nostalgic for the 2014 that had already gone, the January and (very soon) February that would retreat to the shelves like archives. It is a little ridiculous, this sentimentality. Yet in the same way I welcome worry as evidence of concern, I like to make room for nostalgia as a sign of consciousness, a heightened awareness that time flees without apology. I try to lighten up about it, but every time I remember that we are nearing Week 9, that 2014 is going as it is coming, I cannot help but feel weighed by urgency. What have I made of the year so far?
I watched January fall off the calendar from the grey of my swivel chair. It happened so quickly, like the flicker of a computer monitor. At work my attention flitted from one Chrome tab to another, and I clawed for insights and inspiration like a drug that might give me the next high, the next rush with which I might mine the next Big Idea. It was intense. I was running on adrenaline. But the ideas came slowly. Soon I was exhausted.
And then for a while I tried to become a morning person. Waking early has been quite the project in failure, although nothing was as spectacularly impossible as sleeping early. One night, I was so restless, I read everything on my RSS feed and when I was done, started on a book called ‘The Swimmers’ by Joaquin Perez Azaustre. All this I accomplished in the painful glare of my iPhone.
There were good moments: a two-hour creative writing workshop with a Hong Kong writer. A young adults fellowship I started attending. They were brief, these pockets of reprieve, as well as a little uncomfortable, but it was all in the peaceful manner of things being right in their place and time.
At City University professor Xu Xi was a character. A small and animated woman out of whom anecdote and aphorism and trivia and thought came in a free-flow. We, students, held cups with an eagerness to learn. At least that’s how it was for me, wide-eyed with awe, straining to catch a little of her bubbling literary sage.
At The Vine I met fellow twenty-somethings. Some reminded me of people I knew, while others had completely new faces. Whenever I attended, though, I never saw the same people twice (save for those who ran the sessions). I was reminded again that we were in Hong Kong. Here was a place where people were a fickle thing, not so much in character as in presence. This was the layover city, the place you stopped by in transit to elsewhere; the city with a deadline, where even if you were set on coming here, it was never because you were going to stay. During my last visit to oneighty I was ready to give up the idea of forming new, genuine friendships. I considered spending my Saturdays entirely differently instead – with Mindy Kaling, perhaps. Or Marilynne Robinson.
But darling, I thought I heard that Saturday, in a game of Apples to Apples with five other strangers, relationships take time to build. That evening I went home convinced I should return; although if I had not gone back since, it is only because I spent my recent Saturdays touring friends who were in town, and sharing coffee dates with those about to leave.
February came. Over the Chinese New Year holidays my mom and I bonded over ‘Her’ and ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’ We had late lunches, taking advantage of tea set meals, and wandered along deserted cosmopolitan streets, its usual inhabitants away at family gatherings.
The weekend of Valentine’s I met up with old friends from Manila. We went for a ride across the harbour on the ferry, had coffee and then hiked up to SoHo, before heading down to Lan Kwai Fong where we bought beers, and talked. There they told me the beginnings of their love story. I listened with fervour and anticipation, that of a child poring over the pages of a fairy tale, until they followed this by peppering my own story with questions and interpretation. Not that it bothered me. I had nothing to hide, but if I had anything to share, they were all punctuated with a question mark.
That week was the coldest February had ever been since ’96. For the first time because of the weather the bones in my fingers hurt. I considered getting gloves, but just as soon the temperature rose. After our company dinner last weekend, after I visited a friend’s photo exhibit at the Savannah College of Art & Design in warm ol’ Kowloon, I no longer found need for them again.
Were January and February good months? All things considered, they were. Reflections like this remind me of the good that might have otherwise been lost in all the lethargy and inertia. It tells me I could rise above things if I wrote them out, not because we should deny they ever happened, but because trying again is the more difficult, demanding task of the two, and all we’ll need is all we have – there is no room for lamentations.
It is true that words inform our experiences, not the other way around. A woman I look up to said once that March is her favourite month, because it is a verb. As the months come, I want to remember that all of life is like March. A gerund, continuous, running till it runs out. Like ourselves, trying and failing, living for the good moments in between, striving in spite of ourselves the next.
Today onward, I shall choose my words, and if I will not have successes I can have stories. That should make things alright. That should make things okay, with all that we have going as they come, and anything to show for them fleeting, too.
I have been thinking about the 14th this year, how it will be different from that of the past several years. It’s strange. I used to think singles who made a big deal of Valentine’s would do better to ignore it, to pass it by like it were just another day on the calendar. But to ignore it now seems no less glaring a behaviour. Valentine’s, I realise, is like a dance to which everyone is invited. It sets itself up in the middle of the street, beckoning one and all to enjoy – with a partner. If you are alone, well, perhaps you should find a way to enjoy it by yourself.
While I’m not despairing, the more I think about it, the more anticipating the festivity by my lonesome feels awkward and displacing. Like a mixed bag of giddiness for the newness, yet as well as anxiety for the same reason. Singleness, during Valentine’s, feels like an elephant in the room that I’ve brought in myself. As practised as I could get with it, as comfortable as I could be about its presence, it still is massive. Gaping, like a hole wounded out of a woollen sweater. How does one not notice? How does one ignore one’s aloneness?
I have to admit that pondering this has been quite the source of amusement. Because, truthfully, beyond that little black hole in the calendar, being on my own has been quite nice.
On my own, I am learning to make a home of where I am. Laying foundations for a new life is challenging, but it is teaching me the difference between what is solid and unstable, what is invaluable and unnecessary. That good habits take building; new relationships take intention and time. That while raising walls is important, there is value in a door that is not only open, but eager to welcome. While mounting a roof is critical, it is only fruitful for recovery and the occasional shelter, for it is outside the safety of confines that life happens.
On my own, I am learning to be present with company better. To listen to people’s gestures, and the story they are telling behind every story. But I am also learning to tune in to my heart, and identify what it is looking for and why. To recognise what it responds to – what captivates it – and how so. On my own I am seeing the places I cannot expect another person to fill me; places only He can fix and overflow. Just as well, I am learning the ways in which I ought to mend and grow, to better serve another person in the future.
On my own, I am learning to be. The maps are blank and I get to draw, freely. There are no margins, only white space for the many wild and wondrous perhaps’. And while many things remain uncertain, while plenty float up in the air, as they always do at the brink of something new, I know I have a friend in my solitude. With it I’ve found quite the company, and it’s one of the fullest relationships I’ve ever known.
One of my good friends, Isa pointed out something beautiful about the solitude of singlehood: it’s the only season of aloneness we’ll ever have until we marry. Afterward, solitude will be a luxury, if not an impossibility. All this being with one’s self, this independence and learning about one’s ways and tendencies will never again come as easily as it now does.
I am in no way perfect on my own, but I am full and I know I could only get more so. And though some nights it could get lonely, some moments, I could use a reminder or two that I am special (and not just in my head, for the Bible tells me so…), it is, for the most part, worth it.
If solitude were a garden, I would like to sow in mine in time for a visitor to find it in full bloom. If solitude were a home, where one day I’d throw a party, I would like mine to be cozy with comfort and fraught with fun. If solitude were a person, I would like mine to be earnest and welcoming and…easy. At rest.
Even on, nay, especially on Valentine’s Day.
So I guess I’ll savour you, my elephant in the room. I’ll learn to appreciate you in your fullness while I can. God-willing, you won’t be around forever.
On the 6th I boarded the first flight out of Manila, ignoring the settling sense of homesickness through takeoff and waking to a plane window’s view of the clouds. The sky was a blue ball gown lined at the hem with a spectrum of the rainbow. By touchdown, on the bus back to the city, the sun had bared its full body, drenching residential towers and their surrounding mountain peaks in a temporal gold shower. Nature abounds in Hong Kong, if you know where to look. Yet soon we resumed into tight streets, into the everyday: shoulder-to-shoulder with ageing buildings hunched over and worn, with skyscrapers suited up and cocky.
That afternoon I tried the ramen place around the corner that had opened in December. They served it warm with a side of dumplings, all of it flavourful albeit in the wrong places: the thinly pulled pork instead of the broth. The sweet, clear seasoning instead of the filling. I picked up the laundry after that and returned home for a nap, then set back out into the evening for a light dinner of fries with a familiar face. It had been a while. We settled at our favourite place and ordered our favourite drinks, waiters asigh at our predictability. In line with the newness of the year, however, I opted to have my Russian black, instead of white.
That night we exchanged tales of encounters, mishaps and revelations as they had occurred over the course of our holidays apart. Opining with zeal, nodding our heads with regret, we discussed them like tokens of the year we were soon going to put away.
Through all this I found myself acclimatising to the warmth of the candlelight on our high table. Ice slowly melted into my coffee liqueur. The glass, cold and slippery with condensation, sat right in place on the familiar red coaster. The resto was unusually empty, yet it didn’t feel any less. Away for the holidays, our mates. Soon they will return and a DJ will spin and the night will be young again.
Till then it was my best friend and I, the waiters whose names we will learn this year, and a couple at the back. Warming up to the ring of ‘twenty-fourteen,’ revving up for the leg ahead.
Routine was easing its way in, making itself comfortable in the living room of our lives, returning shape and order to the formless reverie we had made of the holidays.
I am going to miss Manila – and Cavite – for sure. Yet it feels good to be back, here in Hong Kong. It feels good to fall back into a new familiar, and in it begin to find a likeness of home. •