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& Other Stories

I fear forgetting how to write. A couple of stories hum in the pipeline, waiting like children in a Charles Dickens novel waiting for porridge. This isn’t a priority, the way a poet friend’s foreword is a priority, the way tales about Sydney are a priority, but if I don’t begin again some place I fear I will forget. This here is written in hopes of not forgetting.

*

Tonight rain poured without inhibition, as though the skies were done holding it all together. My flats, a glittered, golden pair reminiscent of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s daughter’s in that scene at a party, turned into boats of pavement water, my toes sloshing in disdain with every step. From Sheung Wan I made it to Central where a good friend of mine and I had dinner, gracing parma ham and cheddar on thin crust with stories of music, hostels, fishing and sinking ships. It feels nice turning around to find a pal on the same boat, rocking with the same questions you are.

Last night was humid, the air wet with terrible Viber connections and the other end of the line due for a hug. It is people, more than places, that fuel all vain hope for teleportation to be a thing of reality. Rooted on my spot by the streetlight, I could only listen to desperation – frustration turning to question turning to justification turning to determination. Just a few days ago I listened to a similar story play out in different colours: wondering turning to clinging turning to admitting turning to relinquishing. In both threads were a vein of hope. Maybe, if only, just maybe.

*

Atop the IFC tower a few weeks ago, peach beer by our ankles, a girl friend and I brewed a plan with one objective: to be able to say that “we tried.” For two months we would do all sorts of crazy things, things that don’t even cross our minds inebriated – nothing shameless, but neither anything that either of us felt were ‘our style’ – to affirm suspicions about the chances of finding love in this city, known also as, in the words of another friend, a Wasteland. Just two months, by which we mean eight weekends: enough for a speed date, a blind date, a setup…

We forgot about it the next day.

*

After work this Monday, a friend divulged contentment in single-seat boarding passes and the basic need of being by one’s self. It would be lovely for a surprise seatmate to fall from the sky, but until then the view from down here remains just as exquisite. Until then, the questions and reveries and all of life’s mysteries make for entertaining company.

*

We shift and shuffle between stories. We feel our way about, attentive to outlines for the next possible tale we’ll tell over chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream, over terrible Viber phone calls and disjointed Skype dates. We are equal parts occupied and expectant, our days brimming yet available, packed yet with room. For one, it is about being there, as good friends do. But it is also, hopefully, in order for good friends to possibly become…

For another it is about leaving without regrets, if it means fighting to the end.

Others take apart the threads. Disassemble what happened and move on from it not empty handed.

And others linger by the shelf, convinced a story is done, but not enough to walk away.

In the words of one of these girls, we believe in Soon. But we also believe in Here, and Now, and in the presence of a warm body or words on a retina display. We believe in Better; we also believe in Good, With Potential.

We hope.

And we wander. Not aimlessly, I would like to believe, although perhaps a little recklessly. A little less cautiously than would do us good. A little farther off the path of certainty.

We shift and shuffle, in and out of stories, content and expectant both.

And maybe not for long, but maybe long enough for us to grow accustomed to it. To be comfortable by one’s self, and comfortable hoping. That would be a sweet, sweet spot, the kind that would welcome disruptions from the sky in no eager manner. In no strained rush.

The kind that would look over at the empty seat next to them, then back at the passenger standing nearby, and say ‘hello.’

Void of expectation. Filled only with welcome, and wonder.

Already Taken

Someone who inspires me to be a better version of myself.

Nay, someone who inspires me not just to be better, but to want to keep growing. To never stop moving forward for as long as my lungs continue to draw breath. Someone with a passion for life and living that cannot be contained, that all who encounter him come away changed in some way. Even if only just a little. Someone who keeps me on my toes. Not to earn his love, but because that’s what incredible love does: it embraces all that you are to the point that you couldn’t help but want to be more. To live more fully. To give more.

A good listener. Someone who knows how to connect. With whom you have room to move, to ponder. An unassuming soul with whom you could freely share in world’s wonders – yes, quite like the way children do. With whom you could question and conclude, and eventually be content with questions alone. Someone who takes a genuine interest in what moves you, and is unafraid of letting you in on what compels his days. What fuels him to do what he does.

A leader. Someone with a vision for his time on earth. Whose dreams border an expanse far beyond his own comprehension, not because he is truly amazing and knows it, but because what – Whom – he lives for has called him to it. Yes, he is well aware of his calling, and will live for nothing less. Someone who knows his Maker, and lives to make Him known.

What crazy adventures we’ll have as a team! I thought, lost in reverie.

And then God said, “Johna, it sounds like you’re describing Me.”

*

It rained the evening of a good friend’s dance recital. I was on the bus, feeling every inch spent from work, listening to Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s ‘Collide.’ The windows were a waterfall.

Let’s roll the dice, one more time, take a chance on love again tonight…

Songs do the craziest things to my imagination, but that is probably why I indulge them. I wondered, then, what’d it be like to encounter love again. I don’t believe it will be effortless, but neither do I believe that we need to put up a front for something true and real. On such few occasions do ‘be yourself’ apply so literally; meeting somebody new and being their friend is one of them.

This is how I picture it: we will shed all pretensions of being impressive and having it all together, and just be. We will be strangers and not pretend otherwise. We will ask questions and go through particulars, because how else do you get to know a person? Hopefully, it will feel like the most natural thing in the world. Void of consciousness. Entirely forgetful of the fact that neither of us are doing this for the first time, but that it’s the first time in a long time that introducing ourselves does not feel like a chore.

And we’ll sit there, at first unaware of how easy it feels to be with this person, and then later marvelling over the fact of it all.

With him, I could just be, and likewise him with me.

Then, getting up from my seat, pressing the bell to alight at my stop, an interruption cut the closing chorus of Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock:

“Like the way I enjoy being with you, Johna?”

*

I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to an Easter Sunday service with this much excitement. April had been a dark month for me, and there was nothing like celebrating Christ’s resurrection to lift me out of my selfish mood swings. (Still a selfish motivation, I realise…)

I was in high spirits that morning, donning a printed black-and-white skirt with my favourite patent kitten heels. ‘Oh, happy day, happy day,’ I hummed to Tim Hughes, ‘You wash my sin away…’

And then, in what I consider to be playful banter with my Father, I thought: “What if I meet him today, Lord!” Plays to be prepared.

The funny thing is, I did.

At worship that morning, they performed a new song to celebrate the occasion. Because we hadn’t heard it before, we couldn’t sing along, but soon it didn’t matter. The words just did their thing and stirred:

“Calvary
Covers it all
My sin and shame
Don’t count anymore

All praise to the One
who has ransomed my soul

Calvary covers it all.”

In that moment, romanced by my Saviour, I had no doubt about it. My soul was to die for…not out of anything I have done, but because of all that He is.

Crazy, I know. What truth!

The truth that I was, and have always been, already taken.

*

A good friend of mine, the beautifully talented Kaye Matriano has penned a song whose title inspires that of this post. It’s called ‘Truth Is, You’re Already Taken’ – give it a listen over here. :)

Look

I tried to write about God once and found it incredibly difficult. I don’t believe it had anything to do with my faith being personal; nowhere else do I mine writing material as deeply as I do with the personal. For a while I feared offending some people, but then, even Jesus came to wield the sword. So I tried, but it all felt a little contrived. God wasn’t someone I could write about.

Looking back at those times, I realise I couldn’t write about God because I did not know him all that much. What is known is always personal; what is merely subscribed to is generally superficial, intellectual. Unlike everything else I try to put pen to paper for, I was writing about God from my head, instead of my heart. I could not write about him from my gut.

They say that when you go through difficulty, God is probably trying to get your attention. This makes sense; I don’t think one needs to be a Christian to start seeking divine help and solutions beyond the physical world when things start to go wrong. But what happens when you turn your attention toward God and still the throbbing doesn’t stop? When the loneliness refuses to ebb, and your pain finds no relief?

Last month, I had a strange bout of moodiness that stretched far longer than normal. For weeks, I felt only dispirited, my body a strange weight I had to carry, and my mind, a source of agitation I did not want to face. I’ve dealt with debilitating loneliness plenty of times, loneliness so strong it feels like a glaring white room in your head, but this was different. This was a musty, grey basement, from which I could only see the door open a creak on occasion before swinging back shut. It was excruciating, the kind you couldn’t even numb because it was of your head, not your body.

What I couldn’t understand most, though, was why I was going through it. Nothing bad had happened, and for this I was – am – grateful. There was no cause for worry that was new. Still, the moments crept by. It was the littlest actions that were the most difficult to do. Simply bearing the passage of time felt like a burden, like every moment of the second hand on the clock bore pain and relief.

To say that God held my hand throughout that difficult season would be to lie. If he did, I did not feel it. If he did and I felt it, I would not have been depressed for that length of time.

One thing did get me through, though, and it was music. Just songs. I clung to those songs and their words like an addict did a drug. I know this only because, midway into the phase, I grew increasingly anxious about my reliance on plugging in my earphones to get my fill and hold it together. It sounds dramatic and ridiculous, and I wish I could say that God, not music, were then my lifeline. But it was. I would have lost it otherwise.

The songs that brought calm were ‘Stay & Wait’ by Hillsong United, as well as ‘Christ Is Enough.’ Every day, on loop, for most of April. They were not God, but they reminded me of God. They were not Jesus, but they reminded me of his promises. I did not see how things without a clear cause would solve itself, but for that long, difficult stretch, the songs were enough.

What happens when struggle is prolonged without clear cause or reason, and all you have to turn to are songs that remind you of the God you wish would rescue you?

I think, it teaches you where to look.

Like desperation narrows your vision down to that which would bring relief, so did the pain seem to bring into clearer focus whom you really need. It lets you learn to let go of the need to be rescued and directs you straight into the heart of the rescuer.

I don’t know how it happened, but come the close of April, the muslin cloth on my moods gradually lifted.

I think, life works in ways that bring us to look at our maker. I remember a random morning in the past year where I woke up without the help of an alarm clock, and in my head was an idea articulated with rare clarity: that our knowledge of God is uniquely shaped by the wounds and holes in our life.

Just as joy and contentment and abundance all plant in us a deep sense of gratitude and reverence for God, so does suffering and sorrow, pain and lack give us a different appreciation of him. In everything, God leaves a print of his hand working in our lives, in the moments that feel small and painfully inconsequential. He is there, stretching and pressing on our character, working on us and with us as we slog through the mud.

I used to think that surely, there is more than just knowing Christ. That simply knowing Jesus is not the end-all, be all of life.

I couldn’t be any more wrong.

What else is there than knowing Christ? What else is there apart from meeting your Maker, beholding his love, knowing him with an intimacy that is uncomfortably and desperately and liberatingly excessive and deep?

I think, deep down, what we want as human beings is simple. We want safety and security. We want to be known and seen, to be loved without fail.

We want what we were made for: heaven. To be in the presence of the One who created us. We were made to dance with glorious gallops of the heart, in the presence of a father who ultimately delights in us and loves us enough to allow some things to happen, to work his way in us and be with us through it all.

And by getting us to look at him – to know him – God gives us these very things, and more.

Knowing this does not bring me happiness, per se. It does not promise me perfection, fully assure me of safety and guarantee security.

But it tells me something about how we are meant to live in this world.

I will not always believe this or remember it. Stretches of indescribable, unbearable sadness will come, and so will other things that befall a life.

But I will know where to look.

Worst case, he’ll probably direct my gaze with the help of a song or two. He knows this is how I cope.

Hopefully, I’ll know how to write about him afterward.

Bloom

Do you know that feeling you get, watching the world move on its own?

The one like meditating by a river, breathing to the water’s flow. Where the moments inch away like scales that undulate on the surface. There is no urgency in the current, just movement resulting from certainty in its nature: time moving like a river because that is what time does. Do you know that feeling you get when you discover a thing or two on how to be – how to live in this world wholly you?

Do you know that feeling you get when things begin settle into an indefinite calm?

Where it’s as though the cocoon you’ve been wrestling so fervently against has finally begun to budge. The fight turns to quiet, and then the sonorous choir of cicadas fills the space. And before you know it you are drunken with dew, enamoured by the gradual seeping of watercolour into the dark, far ahead. There is more, you begin to see. There is elsewhere, and now you can let go. Resist less. Become.

Do you know that feeling you get, looking at the world and realising there is nothing you can take away from it?

at this lifetime and knowing there is nothing you can carry with you at the end?

then back at your hands, and realise that neither is there anything the world can take away from you?

The feeling that you are a whole being, full with the seasons, full when fruits ripen and when branches string thin. Full through loss and heartbreak and lack and pain, full as you run your hands over the holes, the vacancies, the parts of you that long to be filled; recognising that they are as much a part of you as the ones that hold you up?

Do you know the feeling you get when you concede to a wholeness that is yearning, and learning, to flesh itself out?

I don’t. These feelings, they’re new to me, and I welcome them like strangers I look forward to calling family.

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Shots

It’s important to clarify what’s in a drink no matter how good it sounds on the menu. When my best friend, A. and I came across mano’s barista special, we went ahead and got it. I suppose you couldn’t get any more one-of-a-kind than to be named after the place serving it, in this case a cozy little restaurant called Mano, on the ground floor of The L. Place, in Central.

What I pictured was a typically-sized cup of joe with a surprising ingredient or two. What we were served was a 30mL shot of expresso (I’m not very good with measurements, so this is a guesstimate).

I admit, I was a little disappointed. I was looking forward to my Saturday afternoon fill of coffee; an espresso shot was only barely going to cover that fill.

I consoled myself with the reminder that it was, at least, the restaurant’s exclusive. It could only be good, was my wishful thought.

The shot came with cream, cinnamon and lemon, and sugar on the rim. Interesting.

At first sip, it was alright. Very sour, very strong, but of course, it was an espresso shot after all. I was grateful for the cream on top, thick and rich, although it was only comfort to the lips as the coffee managed to filter through separately, bitterly. The sugar also barely helped.

Thankfully, albeit the tiny amount of coffee served, mano’s barista special allowed for some two, three sips – unless you dunked it all in one go, which I’m glad we didn’t. Not after we decided to stir the entire concoction, which apparently was what we should’ve done at the beginning. (Of course, Johna: that’s what the spoon was for!)

Then on, it was magic. Mano’s barista special turned out to be a rather decadent cup of coffee, strong and bitter but also thickly creamy. The tones of cinnamon were an aromatic kick, and the sugar perfectly complemented the sour keys from the lemon. For a cup of so few ounces, it offered quite the orchestra of flavours.

Having tried it, I can no longer say I regret the order. Mano’s barista special was an experience in itself, and for that I’m grateful. I used to wish The Cupping Room served their cappuccino in larger cups, but recently I’ve noticed that their current serving size is perfect – you’re filled at the end, and satisfied that every sip was as good as the last. I’m starting to be convinced that some things are indeed better contained and, in some ways, limited to only so much: you savour and enjoy them more that way.

That’s what mano’s barista special was like: a brief symphony of flavours in a single shot of espresso. Pay attention when you drink, or you’ll miss the music.

I have to say, though, that in all of my little coffee adventures – which have yet to expand beyond the city – this has got to be the most I’ve ever shelled out on a cup. Mano’s barista special is HKD60.00 plus service charge – pricier even than Cafe Loisl’s Viennese iced coffee! (Which also comes in a cup far taller…)

But because it was as good as it was, I’m not going to complain. As I said, we should’ve clarified what we were getting before we went ahead and got it. All things considered, it was a good and pleasant surprise – especially given that, when it comes to coffee, A. and I will take a good, pleasantly surprising cup over an unremarkable – or worse, a disappointing one – any day.