letter #5

Hi friend,

This morning, when I was reading and sipping at my coffee at the windowsill, and the characters in the novel I’m reading were corresponding with each other in their long, sincere emails, I couldn’t help desiring to correspond with someone like that myself. And here I am.

I hope you’d forgive me for being quite out of touch. Believe me, there were many times I’d tried to write, or felt I need to write to tell you things that were happening. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t feel I was in the right place to write, not in a meaningful or organized way. I still don’t know if I can now, but I will give it a try.

I went to see a piano concert the other day. It was a random event I inserted into my two-and-half week break earlier in September, and I went by myself on a Sunday night. When I was walking towards the concert hall along the harbour pier, I saw a man and a woman – obviously on a date – walking to my direction from a distance, and at that moment I just reflexively lowered my head. I wondered why I did that, though I didn’t regret it. I dated that man. It was a casual thing that lasted for a while.

When we were casually seeing each other, there were a few times he’d say – quite affectionately – “I (really) like you“, and it was always after we’d just had sex, as if it was a meaningful confession. And I’d return a smile in the nicest way I know and feel slightly embarrassed for not wanting to say it back. But still, when I ran into him with his fresh date at the harbour sidewalk, I couldn’t describe how exactly did I feel, but I knew it wasn’t nothing at all. Strange, isn’t it?

I saw them again at the concert venue when the mass of crowds were slowly tubing themselves into the hall. For the whole concert, I tried to sweep them out of my mind. And after it was finished, I walked out of the concert hall as swiftly as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the concert, quite a lot indeed. But the whole evening just felt a bit tainted, emotionally.

There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up, said Oscar Wilde. I agree. I even put this quote on my Douban profile, when I was young enough to think putting some quotes on your profile is a “cool” thing. But this is not one of that kind of circumstances. This is when you see someone else with the thing you’ve thrown away and still wish you don’t have to see that. You wish you don’t have to see that not becoz it makes you sad seeing what you have lost, but becoz it reminds you even when having it how unlikely you could be made happy. And that did make me a bit sad.

I can’t explain why I wanted to tell this episode to you, which is really of little significance in the context of my romance life. It’s not something I’d waste time telling during therapy, let’s say. I guess it’s just easier to put something minor into words, when the major thing is stuck somewhere before it could be channelled out. Does that make sense?

I will tell you what I did tell my therapist in the latest session. It’s not sexy at all. I was complaining about a decision I had to make about work. And the more I thought about it the more it was weighing on me and the more I felt repulsed by the whole thing, the fact that such matter would take up so much of my mental capacity while deep down I gave so little fuck about it. Long story short, I got a new job offer that fell a bit short, and I needed to decide if it’s worth making a move for. It’d be very similar to my current job – some invented role in a big financial corporation that makes profit off of helping rich people get richer, and I happen to be quite good and experienced at this invented role. It was hard to make this decision, I realized, because deep down it means so little to me, and if I’m being really honest, there’s no right decision – maybe in god’s view there is, but in my mind there isn’t – becoz I couldn’t be more disinterested no matter what I decide. But on the surface I had to put on my big-girl pants and acted like a responsible adult knowing exactly what made best sense for her professional life as if that was the most important thing in the world. This made me feel nauseous, this pretence of self-importance.

I’m aware how ungrateful and entitled it might have sounded of me right there, whining about my decently-paid job while there are people suffering issues of real substance in the world. And I guess I whine to distract the real attention from the fact that I’m just deeply ashamed. Of the underserving privileges and compensation, of the means I make a living with, of the unimportance of my work, and of the lack of value of me as a person. I wonder if you’ve ever felt the same way, but from time to time I’d suddenly remember how my life has turned out to be a process of continuous shrinking of the initial wish list. I mean, don’t we all start off with some grand plans with our “future”, as to how to actualize our value? And as the future gradually looms over reality, you realize one day you’re right in the middle of this “future” that you dreamed of as a kid and nothing glamorous has happened, your sense of insignificance is only more pronounced, and your intelligence – that everyone said you have – land you nowhere. You absorb the shock quietly and re-adjust your expectation, you don’t wish for anything big anymore and decide you’d be fine leaving no trace on the planet for future human beings. You reposition your hope for a small, quiet, happy, private life. You want to love someone and be loved. You made some mistakes, and you’ve been failed a few times. Then a new era has arrived, an era where genuine affection becomes a plummeting currency and love is either a taboo or only exclusively exists in hashtagged forms as some sort of public affirmation. Eventually your goal is shrunken to just be less of a burden to the world – use as little plastic as possible, eat as little meat as possible – and you steer your pursuit to entirely inward, feeding on music, literature, any general form of art, developing a personal code of integrity, and wishing for an abstract placidity and happiness. This is just one example of a trajectory, obviously. What I’m trying to say is, I suspect most of us must have shrunken at some point, if not all the time, and we shrink because at that some point it seemed to be the only way we could still keep going.

I turned 34 in the summer. I didn’t write a birthday essay this year as I usually did for I was preoccupied at that time. I was in the middle of a thing that as of now I still struggle to find words for it.

I met someone from the app at the end of May. On the night of my birthday, we’d just known each other for two weeks, and I invited him to my dinner party. We were back to my place after that, both pretty drunk. We had a fight in the taxi over something stupid. After we got out of the cab, I started crying at the waterfront. He stood beside me, quietly waiting for me to finish. I asked him if it was weird to watch me cry. He said no, it was only normal. Then we were back home. We tried to have sex but were too drunk to finish. It was then that he started mumbling, more like to himself. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this but I don’t know, I feel like I’m falling in love.” I pretended I didn’t hear it. But I did, and it was electrifying. I wish I had said it back at that moment, because it would have been true. I didn’t know that it’d been the best chance I could have said it.

The thing ended pretty soon, it lasted a little over a month altogether. But it took me a disproportionately long time to restore a sense of normality and the structure of my life afterwards. It’s as if with just a few weeks’ presence, the absence of him had created this dreadful hole that didn’t exist. I was more shaken than I’d like to admit, you see. And I pondered a lot over the aftermath.

I guess part of me did feel I’ve made a fool of myself, by allowing myself to be vulnerable again, which I don’t usually do these days. Though a bigger part of me was only trying to understand why I’d fallen in love with someone without any obvious reasonings. I also couldn’t help running over and over in my head if there was anything I could have done differently to prevent that from happening, the in-falling, if there was any opportunity of it going down a different path, and if there was any chance I could have stayed, instead of withdraw. I was deeply frustrated not just for the loss of something that felt intense, but more for that with everything I’ve experienced, it turns out I still know so little about love. That it still remains such a puzzle to me after all, and I’m still completely under its spell.

At the end of the day, I suppose, maybe the only thing that matters in a story of love is that you’d know it happened. You’d know it’s real, no matter how hard the critical half of your brain tries to defy it. It might not be how you’d expected it to take place, but it did, in its own terms. As of the rest of it – who with, how flawed that person is, how it ended, what caused it, how long did it last – all these are just the side materials of the core story, the minimal and eternal story of love. I have nothing to complain about it, just as I would not complain about the tide rising and then falling. It happened probably only because it was time for me to fall in love again.

If I may circle back to what I was talking before, I guess trying to make sense of myself, trying to comprehend my own existence, and everything that happened on me, is always and still the one and most important item remaining on my diminished wish list. I don’t mean to ‘memorize a few glamorous quotes and forcefully apply them to everything’ kind of lazy job. I mean to really comprehend and straighten out even the most conflicted, confusing and miserable bit, and to repeat this process every time a new ray of pain pierce through, to understand them as part of myself, even though in my mind I wished for a better, more creative, more loving life. Only with this relentless effort of comprehension, we stand a chance of making peace with the individual truth of ourselves. And with this effort of comprehension, the intermittent occurrence of the desire to love, to create something genuine and good, would no longer come across as the “unattainable”s or the “nonexistent”s, but indeed the glittering moments in a lifelong river of mundane.

I hope the next time I write to you it will have cooled down a bit in Hong Kong. (I’m getting a bit fed up with this protracted summer, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the pink leather overall I’d impulsively purchased during my just-happened holiday.) Until then, I will try my best to comprehend every of my feelings.

All my love.

Ellen


letter #4

My dear friend,

How is life? It might sound less than sincere to ask that when knowing there’s no way I could get a timely, substantial reply. But I guess every letter has to start somewhere, and I wish to not start from rambling about my own life, which, as you might already know, is what the rest of this letter will be about.

I took a whole week off at the beginning of April, of which, four days were spent screen-free. It could be seen as a latest, renewed attempt to replicate my experience of a short stay at a silent retreat two years ago – the previous of such attempt was documented here – but I guess this time, I see it less as a “challenge”, but a “self-indulgence”.

I wish I could relay in a precise way what I had gone through in the four days. But I don’t have that level of confidence in my writing, at this moment, as those days seem so distant already, even though they were only two weeks ago. So I think I will share some (selected) texts I’ve journaled out as I was in it. Although they might read dull and messy, they should at least offer some irreplaceable authenticity.

I’d try not to change/rewrite anything in this process of transcription/quick translation, if I could help it. I might, however, make some minor edits where I find it necessary, to facilitate understanding by an external reader.


April 2, 2021 (Day 2)

I didn't realize I've reached the end of this notebook when I was looking for some notebook to journal with and found this. I also didn't realize it's until April that I think of journaling for the first time this year. The first 3 months of 2021 happened like an eye blink. Yesterday I thought of the last time I met with xx (a female friend), which felt like an event just happened not long ago, but at a detailed reflection it was actually end of last year. 

The distorted sense of time and the increasingly blurred memories, even of something relatively recent, reminds me of the importance of journaling. Even though, at the end, it might as well just be another attempt in vain to grasp anything at all. It is, at most, a conscious effort to offset, or to counter-balance, to sustain, the transitory nature of everything. 

Who would read all my journals? Sometimes I'd think about it - probably not even myself. But I can't deny there's some comfort in doing it. And there's an intrinsic urgency/obligation to do it that I can't be blind to. It shows a genuine effort of being true to one's self. I hope. 

It's been two years since I started with this notebook. I have a special fondness for this notebook, particularly becoz of the situation of the first time I wrote on it. It was such a precious and beautiful moment, alone, that I always feel a warmth every time I think of it. Oh, the magical power of Paris. 

I'm on another isolated break at home now. Today is the second day. I realize I've never really figured out a proper term to name these breaks, that I've been doing several times already. Though to be fair, I also keep changing the rules. This time, it's four completely screen-free days. No cell phone. No TV. No laptop. The biggest inconveniences are, in order: not being able to meditate with my app; not being able to listen to podcasts; not being able to check words on the phone when reading; no being able to use Spotify for music; not being able to set alarm. But all these inconveniences adding up, I still find the eagerness to do this outweighs them all. So this is it. 

I realize I'm not doing this to challenge myself (anymore), coz after the previous experiences, I know perfectly I'm able to do it without any suffering. I'm really doing it becoz I have a longing for it. My mind is calling for it so much that I have no choice but to clear all the obstacles and yield to it - a yearning for this quiet inner life - however brief I can afford at this moment. I guess if I have to give it a proper name, retreat is definitely one word I'd have in it. Becoz it is a sort of retreat - from the chaos and distractions that we're so deeply and mechanically involved with. But it's not a retreat becoz one is pushed to do so, like moving back one's bishop when it's pressured by a pawn. It's an active, conscious, calculated and planned retreat, to create a vacuumed state of perfect stillness, among which one can undisturbedly observe, and live the essence/core truth of one's own being, which is exactly the passing of it. 

The retreat is really not to grab anything, but to be as just as possible, as conscious as possible, and as reflective as possible, to the minutes of life that one ultimately has no hold of. 

There's nothing we can really grasp in life, but it's also a great blissed liberty to choose the particular way of not grasping. 

10pm:  I went out after dinner (cabonara) to look for moon, but she was nowhere to be found. 

   

April 3, 2021 (Day 3)
7:30am:
这几天似乎每天都被过于情节化的梦占据睡眠,早上醒来,需要好些时候去消化。回忆前晚的梦,它们大多荒诞,令我羞愧,但我也难免相信,它们或多或少代表了一些真实的欲望和纠结。而那些现实中彻底失去联系的人,也只能在梦中再见。昨晚我梦到自己拯救了一个已死的孕妇生的第二个女儿,并打算领养她。
--------------------
公园里睡觉的那个女人不见了,可能是今天我来晚了点,而她并没有赖床的习惯。毕竟现在这个天气,早上9点不到就热得人汗流浃背。但她的床——纸皮箱——折叠放在附近的草丛中,我想她或许是这公园的常客,再遇到也是有可能的。

刚才走路时我突然想到,何不将每个星期日都设为screen-free day呢?这个想法令我激动不已,由此我又想起在很多年前阳朔的day trip大巴上遇到的那个一个人背包旅行的澳洲小伙子,Marcus。那是2010年,他一个人在中国旅行,却没有一台手机。那时智能手机尚未成为主流,不知道今天的他是否还会一个人旅行,又是否仍旧坚持不用手机?

7:30am:
In the past few days, it seems that my sleep has been occupied by dreams that are too plot-heavy every day. I wake up in the morning and take a long time to digest. Recalling the dreams the night before, they are mostly absurd, which makes me ashamed. Still I can't help but believe that they more or less represent some hidden desires or unresolved issues. It's only in these dreams, that I get to meet again the people who I have completely lost contact with in reality. Last night I dreamed that I saved the second daughter of a woman who died during labor, and planned to adopt her.
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The homeless woman who slept in the park wasn't there today. It may be that I came a bit later today, and she has no habit of sleeping in. After all, in this weather, one can get pretty sweaty even before 9 o'clock in the morning. But her bed - the cardboard box - was folded and placed in the grass nearby. I think she may be a frequent sleeper in this park, and it is possible to see her again.

When I was walking just now, I suddenly thought, why not set every Sunday as a screen-free day? I was very excited by this idea, along which I randomly think of a young Australian lad named Marcus, someone I met a long time ago on a day-trip bus in Yangshuo. It was 2010. He was backpacking alone in China, but insist on not having a mobile phone. Back then, smart phones weren't the dominating mainstream yet. I wonder if he still travels alone today, and if he still insists on not using a mobile phone on the road?

April 4: 8:10am in the park

I think I'd better start with a new notebook, leave a few blank pages for the previous one to breathe. 

This morning I started early (relatively) from home. I left at 7:30 and walked fast so I can arrive earlier at the park to take a good spot to read. I realized I must look as if I was in a hurry of some sort. But that thought is funny. I was in a hurry, if any, to hear a louder concert of birds. I noticed I was early for real when I saw even the pier wasn't occupied by the usual group of elderly dancing women yet. And the old guy who always read newspaper (or just sit idly) on the same bench near the pier also wasn't there yet. I felt a pride for overtopping them. The promenade was quieter, but you still see some scattered old people, diligently patting at their limps when raising one leg up against some rail at an impressive angle, with an enviable indifference to the external world that's unique to people of that age. 

When I walked through the spacious, wide passage by the mall to cut from the waterfront to the park area, which was usually empty and offered nothing interesting to observe, today there was a group of elderly people practising (huge) swords there. They were not just doing some slow movement with the sword, they were really studying moves to spar with each other. It's such an intriguing and refreshing activity to watch. I wanted to take a photo for them. I have my film camera with me (dear analog life), but I was too shy as usual. I just fixated my gaze on them as I slowly walked by, until my head was tilted at an impossible angle that I had to restore its direction. 

I'm after all not sitting at where I wanted to sit now. The hill top garden of this park is, in my view, the most exquisite part and I've been reading there in the past few days. But there was always something not ideal. Either the shaded bench would be all taken, or some guy with a blue backpack would start playing radio out loud - either him or some dancing women. It's a shame people in this park have the publicly consented habit of playing whatever they want on their phones, out loud, overshadowing the natural soundtracks quietly flowing in the background. But I find it hard to be really angry with them. (I'm deeply annoyed though.) Becoz after all, I feel if there's any level of ownership of this park, it would probably be with them instead of me, who's really just an irregular intruder. 

As I'm writing now, on a bench by the lake, the odd man with blue backpack just arrived at the park and stopped in front of where I'm sitting at, facing the lake, with his radio playing out loud. After a while he marched on (and I know exactly where he's going). There's something that makes me feel sorry for this man. I can't tell why. He seems like someone who's hardly accepted by the world outside this park and can only find his peace here. Am I sounding too patronising? And if I'm honest with myself, isn't that also a description that quite fit myself?

Today is the last full day of my screen-free retreat. It's hard to tell my feeling comprehensively. On one hand, I've been making a mental list of things I wanna do when I regain access to internet. On another hand, I'm dreading the end of this quietness, as I always do, and dreading the rush-in of distractions upon my return to civilisation. I can't tell whether I'm really forcing myself to face my personal reality, or just desperately running away from a public reality. Overall, I didn't do much, and although that was the plan, I still can't help feeling a little guilty. 

I was thinking about going for a swim today. But my calf still hurts from the muay thai training several days ago. I finished reading <The portrait of a lady> last night. The level of details of this journal may be considered as a tribute to Henry James.
  

9pm: If there's any major thing I've done in the past few days, it'd be decluttering my apartment. I've taken all the time I could to go through if not all, at least 70% of things I own, and made decisions about their fate. It's a time-consuming but important process that people don't do very often. Therefore, we constantly forget how much we own and have the delusion of needing more. I'm ashamed by how much I own, how much I've bought and how much I've wasted. It's painful to be reminded of that. 

It started with a little home decor project - the most natural thing to do when you're home all day and NOT spending time on any screens. So I thought I'd drill more holes and put up the little photo shelf that I bought from IKEA 4 years ago, in the study room. I did. I placed some books up there, to give my study room a little class and character. My poor study room, started as a minimal existence when I designed it about 2 years ago, has become a storage room throughout the pandemic year. It's time to do it justice. After I was done with study room, I started re-arranging my main bookshelf in the living room. That's a much bigger project and it took me half day. Again, I'm ashamed of how little I read the books on my shelf, even though I didn't own too many to start with. 

Slowly I moved on to clear all the drawers. It's a total chaos. It's a rabbit hole. All the objects that you don't remember having could easily drag you down the memory lane a long way. I have MANY paper goods everywhere in my apartment - magazines, little artsy cards, postcards, notebooks...I need to decide where they go, and that means opening my mail box - a box containing all the letters, cards, any written stuff on paper that I ever received from people I was once close with. It's always sweet and sad seeing those memories. I also re-organized my travel fragments folder, which was just a huge yellow envelop full of all the stuff (paper goods) that I kept from many of my trips. They are mostly ticket stubs, museum and tourism site pamphlets, small handwritten notes from strangers (eg, a taipei taxi driver who wanna introduce his son to me), printed research material and travel planning emails......I went through each of them, categorised them by countries, and put them into different envelopes, before they all went into one. Again, it's a somewhat silly and time-consuming process, coz it almost always takes me a while to look at something and try to remember where/how it came from. But god, it's such a great feeling when I do, coz it feels like I can instantly regain the joy from that trip. When I went through these pointless little pieces of papers, I couldn't help asking myself what exactly do I keep these for? I guess I'd just keep them for when I'm 80 years old I'd have some obsolete things to go through and smile at. 
 
I did throw away many things, things that survived several times of moving all these years, but eventually didn't make it this time. I've always had this fetish of things that I feel every single thing has its emotional value, and that makes it so hard to throw any of them away. So I've been hoarding everything and eventually it surpassed a threshold of practicality. This time, I decided it's not only the things that I need to say goodbye to, but also the sentimental value I attached to them. Maybe I've held on to them long enough that it's time to let them go. 
 
There are still things I can't bring myself to throw away. I have this white cotton backpack that I wore in many of my early trips when I started travelling around. It's been with me to many places. It's even got my blood stain on it coz I was wearing that when I had the motorbike accident. (I tried very hard to bleach it but the blood is stubborn.) When I found it at the back of the bedroom sideboard this time, I'm very sure I'd never use it again, but something told me I can't just discard it, my longest companion in my young travel life. So she stays. She's NOT going anywhere. 

This afternoon I examined my camera box and checked each of the film cameras (amazingly I don't have one digital camera in this apartment), two of them are completely and officially DEAD. I'm keeping their corpses. Throwing cameras away - I just can't do that. I salvaged one little film camera that I was intimate with at one point. I took him out at dusk time and filmed a roll of expired black and white downstairs. I remember doing something similar once with this same camera in my childhood estate when I was back in Shenzhen for a weekend some years ago, not long after I just bought it. I took some random photos that afternoon,  mostly just trying to connect with this "new" second-hand camera. But it turned out to be one of the few pure and precious memories I have of my photography passion. How I once loved photography. I don't have much expectation of this roll I took today. It was a dreary afternoon. But I loved briefly being that girl with a camera at hand again. Always carefully observing, always eagerly capturing. 
 

April 5, 8am at the park

It was way too dark when I woke up at 6:30 this morning. Another gloomy cloudy day. It took me a while to decide to get up officially. From my bed, I can see the athletic field of TY sports center and I can always see people running on the track, no matter how early it is. So seeing them is one way to motivate me to get up - all I need to do is open the curtain. The track always reminds me of the high school years, when we had to train early every day and run two lapses. Not exactly happy days, but those "bitterness" before I was 18, embodies a pureness and innocence that is deeply missed. 

In my plan, this morning is still mine, where I have no obligation to switch on or be connected. I have a lunch at 12:30 and I plan to switch on at 11:30, when I need to leave home. I already know what I wanna wear today - a vintage pair of overalls that I got in Taipei 3 years ago, also a piece I'm struggling whether I should keep or not. I have a trick (?) of deciding about these struggles - I'd simply wear them one more time and see how I feel about my outfit that day, whether I can still feel connected with it or not. So this is the day for this pair of overall - the day that'd make its fate. 

As I was preoccupied by the outfit thoughts, the alarm in my phone went off. At first I thought it was my neighbours' alarm. It took me a few seconds to realize it's my own. I have a weekly Monday morning 7am alarm! And just like that, my phone switched itself on, like it just can't wait anymore, against my plan and my will. I took a quick scan at it. As expected, I wasn't missed much by the world. Those who might would have been briefed, and there are only a handful of them. There's not much surprise except for one. A text I wouldn't even expect in normal times, came in at midnight last night. 

I left the apartment quickly after that, refusing to let that text disturb me more than it should. The text reads, I don'd know why I never find closure with you. If there's anything I've learned from my past relationships, it's that no one owes anyone any closure. Closures isn't something you can be specific with the way you want it, and it has to be found from within. 

I left the apartment as a gesture of leaving the unwanted trouble behind. I have a more urgent eagerness to be outside -- at the waterfront, in the park, breathing the air together with the early risers and the birds. That's where I wanna be!

I took the same route to see whether I can still find the sword practising group again. And there they were. I took a closer look today. There are ten of them, nine men, one woman. One/two of them still have black hair, but who knows if that's natural or not. And one younger guy was just there to film, not practise. They are such an interesting and vibrant group of elderlies, and I feel they are like acquittances already today. I figure, since I now know about their venue and schedule, I'd never lose them again. I can always reunite with them whenever I want.  

 

There was more I wrote in the evening on the last day, to process how I felt about the text I mentioned. But I guess that can be left out as it’s drifting away from the original intention of sharing these journals – to lend you a first-row “live” view of those unplugged days, instead of a delayed recollection.

It takes longer than I thought to just transcribe, but by doing that, it feels as if I’ve fast-forwardly lived those days again, something I can’t say I have had enough of. I could only hope that through the tediousness of my texts, I’ve managed to convey an air of tranquility, that is essentially what I wanted to share with you.

You might be wondering about the inconvenience that I have short-listed, on which, indeed I might have something more practical to share. I’ve decided it’s ok to be not guided for my meditation for a few days and instead of the app, I’d put on a vinyl disc of ambient music as a timer. (I have the live album of “Two”, performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto , which works perfectly as a 20-min timer.) I resolved to the dusted English-Chinese Longman dictionary for unfamiliar words encountered during reading, which I must say, made me feel very nostalgic. I have owned this dictionary since I was in high school and brought it with me when I arrived in Hong Kong 16 years ago. The ludicrousness is I probably used it less in the past 16 years than in those 4 days. I’d play some vinyls when I miss music. Bob Dylan, Teresa Teng, Cat Power, Beatles. I only have a tiny collection of vinyls so I’d just have to settle with whatever I got. The conclusion is, despite some obvious limitations, I’m luckily quite self-sufficient to live an analog life.

Before I end this note, I wanna return to the topic of music a bit. When I do my long walks, I used to usually listen to either podcasts or Spotify playlists. During those days, as the usual options were not available anymore, I’d instead turn to pay closer attention to the sound of nature – birds conversing, kids screaming, train roaring, runners panting, wind flowing. But during this shift of auditory focus, something else was revealed to me. I realized that without music, or the effect of it, I was compelled to walk with my own bare mood, one that is not intervened by any manufactured sentimentality, amplified joy, or condensed intake of information. When walking without music in my ears, I was almost startled at how disconnected I had been with this organic state of mind, as if I’ve been wearing make up on her so habitually that I forgot what she really looks like.

And yet what precisely is this organic state of mind? I’d venture to say it is a very lack of obvious drama, a sense of restraint, and a vast lake of calmness. With that, one would be able to see the greatness underneath the most ordinary and unnoticed existences, and one would be grateful to be fully there with them, for them.

Until the next time.

Ellen


I planted a little story in this piece. There are always people we cross paths with in the least expected way. They are precious, unique, and transitory. This story is on all these endearing passers-by in life.

letter #3

My dear friend,

I haven’t been writing lately. Things with writing haven’t improved much since the last time I wrote to you. I try not to let the anxiety get the better of me. Deep down, I hope this is just another rough patch that we’re going through. Writing to you, luckily or not, has become the last connection with it that I’m insisting on. I shall always write to you, whether the days are good or not. Because the condition of days is irrelevant to my reaching out to you. You never ask for it – it’s simply a promise I make to myself.

When I’m not writing, or contemplating about writing, I’m either walking or reading, two things that I think resemble writing the most. After all, what’s the essence of writing? Isn’t it just a process of channelling out one’s most urgent and genuine emotions, through words that one organises at his/her best capacity? To do that, you’d need a sheer clarity with your mind, and an extreme sensitivity and proficiency with language, be it your own or a borrowed one. For me, walking helps with the former, and reading the latter – at least that’s what I hope.

I’ve been doing the long walks for a few months now. I started it during the most rigid lockdown last year and relied on it to keep myself afloat over a delicate reality. But I’d admit, I was suspicious whether it was just a personal fad that’d pass like many things in life. But it sticks around, as of now, and I should guess walking to me has outlast sourdough to many. It’s probably nothing worth bragging after all, for I truly enjoy almost every moment of my walks, even when I struggle to find some interesting podcasts to put to my ears, and even when my route is 90% repetitive everyday.

You should know I’m very lucky to be living close to the water, and there’s a long waterfront promenade right downstairs of my building. I usually walk along the promenade to the very other end of it, overlooking the neighbourhood on the other side, the boats in the water, the outstretched bridges, the sun, the moon. It takes 30 mins one way. Sometimes I’d sit by the water or on a bench when I reached the end and read a few pages. Sometimes I’d take a detour on my way back to stroll around in the park. I adore the park in my neighbourhood – small but exquisite – and I love to be there when I’m listening to one of my favourite podcasts <modern love>. In fact, listening to <modern love> in the park is usually an intentional evening treat that I give to myself, when I’m in the mood. In the morning, I’d pick up a cup of coffee or a sandwich from the bakery in the mall before I go home.

I like to make inquisitive observations of the people I pass by on the walk, as if wearing a mask makes me invisible. My neighbours are the most idyllic and self-enjoying group of people in this hustling city I must say. Half naked man swinging arms in every possible directions as some form of exercise, grandmas dancing collectively to vulgar music, uniformed elderly playing tai chi or sword in groups. I often see one old man playing some unnamed tunes on his harmonica as he walks by the water, enviably unaware of the world around him. Every time I ran into him, I’d slow down my pace to enjoy this unintended performance for a few more seconds, and that’d be the highlight of my walk of that day. Generally, most of the people that interest me are older in their age. There’s a mix of humour and authenticity in elderly’s behaviours, and I say that with honour.

I hope I’ve managed to portray to the slightest degree why I’ve taken to these daily walks of mine. There’s a calming power in it, quietly generated from every pace walked, every inch of space glanced at, and every person passed by. I enjoy so much glimpsing at a frame of my stranger neighbours’ lives. So am I frequently moved by the proximity and irrelevance that co-exist in the time and space, a symbolic revelation in the context of our lifelong encounters.

I wonder if by reading this you’d think, what an awfully lonely woman she seems. I wish it doesn’t concern you, or anyone, because it concerns me very little. You might already know solitude is one of my favourite subject. I should warn you this won’t be the last time I speak of it, either. And I will never stop thinking about it, for solitude is not a math problem – once you find the solution it’s solved once and for all – but more like a never-ending literature with numerous layers, every time you flip through it you find some new truth (or myth) in it.

Sometimes I do wonder what do I look like when I’m walking in my trainer, my statement-agnostic clothes, with my hair unwashed and face masked – how do my neighbours read of me? I think about it out of sheer curiosity, not that it’s any of my concern.

I am indeed on my own, increasingly so. And I’m determined to make the most out of it. This is a commitment I make to myself. But when I think about it, even though I’ve been more or less in the same status in the past two years, I can remember the nuanced evolution of my solitude. And I will try to relay it in the least self-fulfilling way.

I will start with one simple truth, that I’m not born this way. I’ve merely learned to incline to this solitary state along the way. In the first 30 years of my life, I spent most of my time and energy questing for companionship, intimacy, deep connections, love, and I have experienced many. The quest of a harmonious solitude was never a priority, but at most a passive and temporary fix, in the intermissions between different people episodes. It was until the recent two years that I started to take my solitude gravely, first out of the rarity of it, for I felt I had so little control over if/when there’d be people coming in and out of my life, then, gradually, out of the gravity of solitude itself. For it comes to my understanding that a woman’s ability to contain her solitude is the ultimate talent she could have acquired.

You see, it’s hard for me to talk about my solitude without mentioning that I’m a woman. And I spend an awful lot of time thinking about this identity of mine, contemplating how is a woman supposed to escape from the “destiny” inflicted on her, in terms of her value, her relationship with men, her options, her experience, her “happiness”, or the absence of it.

We live in an interesting time that women seem to have a vast degree of liberty and choices of their own, and yet so much of it seem to only mask the sheer opposite of it underneath. At the center of it lies a woman’s fate in love, how feeble a voice she has in her own narrative, and how far she is from reclaiming it. Women today can be free on many accounts, but those who are substantially liberated from the perception of her “fate” is still in a pitiful scarcity.

I cannot claim I have managed to liberate myself from my own inherited perception, either. What I have is merely the determination to get myself there, however long it might take. In this process, I see that solitude is not my biggest opponent, but the one and only reality that I’m responsible for. In an effort of containing that, I learned the importance to make myself an ample and just company, and my solitary being an ample and neutral atmosphere. It takes time, as most things worthy of pursuing do, and time delivers progress.

You see, I do not wish to glorify solitude with more modernly preferred terms such as “independence”, for it’s not exactly the same thing. Independence can be an outcome, but it shouldn’t serve to mask or undermine the truth of one’s solitude. There’s sadness in a woman’s solitude, as much as there is beauty; but most importantly, there is strength in it.

I hope you wouldn’t take all these as an argument against love. And I certainly don’t think my loyalty towards my solitude is at odds with my best intention with human connections. If anything, the overweight in one’s inward relationship gives rise to a lightness in the external ones – a lightness that I didn’t have the luxury of enjoying, but with time I find is indeed instrumental.

I have let many people slip out of my life, and some of them weren’t taken lightly. I don’t just mean romantic partners, also close friends, with whom I’ve shared deeply intimate times with. I think of them constantly. I think of the weight they left in my heart, and how I must carry it with me. At times there’s a wave of sorrow washing over me. And I would try to emerge from it, like every time before. The thing is, our past is not always compatible with where we are, or where we wanna be. Yet they are so precious and so personal. Some people choose to defy it, or overwrite it, but I have the habit of filtering through it again and again in my mind. It takes time and nerve to do justice to one’s experience. And remembering them, with as much clarity as possible, seems to be the only thing left to do with what is lost to me.

It was valentine’s day not long ago. I was reminded of a photo of myself (thanks to social media) taken in my last solo trip on that day last year. In the photo I was sitting on a huge rock on the top of a mountain, overlooking another huge rock as the sun was setting. It was a stunning evening, hot and windy. Just by looking at the photo, I could unmistakably remember how much I was in love with the world at that moment, the air I was breathing, the life I was experiencing, and how much passion there was inside me that I was looking forward to share, as much as I was capable of.

As an unreligious person, this is probably the closest I’d ever get to a real confession.

I shall go for my walk now.

Ellen

letter #2

My dear friend,

I’ve been wanting to write to you for months. Obviously, for some reason it hasn’t happened until now. There are so many moments when I was outside, walking alone, drifting in the crowds, I found myself subconsciously drafting a letter to you. The thoughts were naturally flowing out of my mind and I had an urge to connect. But when I sat down properly, facing a blank screen and a blinking cursor, I struggled to find those words.

I recently took an 11-day break and was underwhelmed by how little I managed to do. I should be mending my last story now, or continue to squeeze something out for the new one, but instead, I am writing to you. I feel the calling of writing to you. Or maybe I just feel the calling of writing in a way that is free from any sort of anticipation. Maybe I’m writing in the hope of protecting myself from being hurt by it. I think of you every time I feel frustrated by my relationship with writing. I think you’d be able to understand, or at least, you’d care so little that it’s a comfort to me.

Generally, I believe I am taking good care of myself. I eat healthily (in my own standard). I work out as much as I can (or want?) and my weight hasn’t changed at all no matter what I do. At 33, I take that as a good sign. I meditate daily, journal frequently and masturbate rationally – a variety of attempts at keeping a self-dialog going. I go back to paper books and bought more than I can read. It serves as an effort to counter my insecurity over a gradual losing of my English. Losing here is a merely subjective feeling, it might as well be an objective revelation that I’ve never “had” it.

I start to feel I’m losing my English after my last break in July, which I used as a writing retreat. After that, not being able to keep up with that amount of writing has created an anxiety for me. I feel I’m losing my English in the same way that one is losing muscles when you don’t train them consistently. English words become grains of sand slipping through my fingers, no matter how hard I try to hold on to them, there are only so few left in my palm. I couldn’t help questioning my subconscious intention of exiling from my native language and focusing on writing in a second tongue. Is it really worth it, making so much more effort to write in a language I will never be as good as the natives, creating lesser stories and proses. I used to be proud of my Chinese, now all I have left for it is guilt. When the whole world is in a big existential crisis, I have a mini one of my own, with my languages.

As a result, I’m spending more time with music and piano playing now. And I can’t help comparing it with writing to understand what both of them mean to me. After all, these are the two things that I spend most time on out of my bill-paying job. Unlike writing, I know for sure I have not much talent in music, and that is almost a bliss. (No who am I kidding of coz I wish I was born a music genius!) With music, I’m happy enough to just reproduce; while the one and only goal of writing is always to create something original, something personal, and something good. It’s real work. It is the carbs of life, I love it as much as I dread it.

Meanwhile, music is wine. I don’t have to drink wine, but I can almost always enjoy it. The fact that I’ve embraced my mediocrity makes it a pure pleasure. The only exception is when I try to record a video of a piano piece – a self-defined graduation from a song – and could’t get an ok version after 100 takes. It was time-consuming and physically exhausting. But ultimately, it’s a satisfying process, no matter how flawed the end product is. (My neighbours might beg to differ.) I guess that’s the difference – with music, I don’t tend to beat myself up for not being good enough. There is a lightness that I don’t get to experience with writing. And that might be what has been drawing me closer to it. Would it be so condemnable if I only wanna do things that feels “easy” ? Is it a dangerous situation that I find it so easy to sit down and play some broken piano while it takes so much for me to go back to the story I’m bound to redo? These are only rhetorical questions, of coz. The answer was written in the question itself.

I was briefly back in the dating scene. It wasn’t much of a pleasure, as expected. As I was experiencing it, I was also taken aback at how the sentiment associated with dating can be so amusingly negative these days. It’s like a filthy public bathroom, you made fun of it, you hated it, you really wish you’d never have to go in there again, but for some reason you had to use it. Eventually, you convinced yourself to brave in, masked, praying it wouldn’t smell as bad as the last time. When you were in there, you were holding your breath all the time. You got out just before you could faint in there. You kept walking away wishing no one could see or smell that public toilet flavor from you. And you swore to yourself you’d never be back there, until all the above happened again.

The truth is, despite my cynicism and jadedness with the act of dating, I do not forget the reason why we do it nonetheless and I retain the most serious assumption of love, that it’s worth hoping for. Moreover, I hope for a chance of giving love, as properly as it can be given. In this latest cycle of trial and error, I see what’s really at stake isn’t that there’s no right person or that love is after all unattainable. The real peril of dating is that every setback in this process, significant or not, makes a dent in that hope — the delicate, timeless, yearning of something genuinely good. The space is eventually jammed with hopeless meat lovers, ready to settle for whatever that’s left to be taken.

If I have to choose between building a wall around myself and the ability to feel, I’d always choose the latter, even tho it means feeling hurt. The nuance lies in a balance act of allowing yourself to feel, to get frustrated, to be vulnerable, and not letting these feelings wear you off. In some way, I feel the dating episode is a testament to the fundamental core system that I spent the past two years building. In the past, when I returned to my inner space after every defeat, I was depressed by how empty and purposeless it felt. Now, when I came home to myself, the disappointment was real, the sense of loss was real, but the void was gone. There is something solid I could fall back into. It enables me to always hope for love, but never depend on it.

There are much more I’d love to mumble on, but I should probably stop now to keep this letter a pleasurable read. It’s a lovely time in Hong Kong these days. The summer heat is officially brushed off and it’s so delightful to be under the sun. In the evening, a gentle chillness breezes over your body like a stranger’s hug, ambiguous, lingering, transitory. I wish I could put a stamp on this magical Hong Kong weather and mail it to you, or someone, anyone.

It’s 10:30 in the evening and I’m going for a night stroll before bed. I’ve been taking a lot of long walks recently. There’s a satisfaction associated to it that feels both elementary and novel. And it really helps me think. I figure if people can walk and write at the same time, there must be a lot more great writers in the world. Or maybe it’s just me, going through a boring version of a pre mid-life crisis.

Enclosed a Dylan/Cat Power song I covered recently. I would die for the sandy smoky voice of Cat Power but this is the best I could do.

Until the next time.

Ellen

letter #1

My dear friend,

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? When I wrote at the end of last year, I knew I wanted to take a break. What I didn’t know was it would be so long. Almost 5 months. What I also didn’t know was, in just 5 months time, we’re living in a completely different world now.

So where do I even start? Since I started with the new job in November last year, my work-life balance has completely gone off the track. The job is much more demanding than I expected or ever had experienced and it took me a while to accept the fact that I’d just be eternally busy. Calling oneself busy sounds like such a convenient excuse to account for the writing hiatus – in fact, I wish this was just another excuse – but unfortunately, it’s true this time. Or truer at least. The upside is, if I must stay positive, it does keep me occupied and exhaust me in a way that everything else in life just automatically matters less. And let’s admit it, being occupied is kinda a luxury nowadays, when a third of the global population is under lockdown. Still having a job, a pretty busy one, isn’t something one should ungratefully complain about now.

I had a dreadful a few days around the new year’s eve and let me just skip that for now. In fact, the heartburn I had to go through back then seems so insignificant now, relative to where we’re at. Any personal pain that doesn’t concern life or death seems insignificant.

Then it was Chinese New Year. I remember taking the train back to Shenzhen to reunite with my parents on that Friday close to the end of Jan, also the first day I wore a mask, which I hurriedly bought at lunch break from a tiny pharmacy store near work. Little did I know, that would be the last stash of masks available (at a normal price) everywhere. Little did everyone know, in a few months, the whole world would be so surreally united, through a common trauma. I’m certain you must be also experiencing it one way or another, and you wouldn’t wanna listen to me ramble about it. Repeating information that are publicly acquirable, factual or not, isn’t for me and you. It’s for the elevator small talks that no one really enjoys but everyone still does it anyways.

After Chinese New Year, you probably saw it somewhere on social, I went on a trip to Sri Lanka, which I planned last year. I anticipated I’d need a break 3 months into my new job. In February, travelling was still possible, although probably already not the most sensible thing to do. But I’m barely sensible when it comes to executing a trip. In hindsight, it feels like winning a lottery to have gone on that trip.

To some extent, Sri Lanka to me means the last personal memory when I was out there and unreservedly enjoyed the world. To tell you a secret, I’m still wearing the white cotton string on my right wrist which I received from a Buddhist temple on the last day on the trip. It’s now the 73rd day I’m wearing it, which I was only supposed to wear for 7 days. The string is balling and has turned yellowish and is probably full of bacteria, but every day I looked it, I feel like I could still faintly connect to the tremendous and innocent joy I had experienced. I’m so reluctant to let go of it.

The longer I wait, the harder it is to make the cut. When I was brushing my teeth the other day, I looked at the string on my wrist in the mirror, a thought flashed into my mind and I made a pact with myself. I will take it down after the next time I have sex, which, you could imagine, is quite a small probability event in the current condition.

Speaking on which, with already one and half years in the single universe, I do have new revelation these days and believe I have further advanced in the ancient art of being alone. The pandemic has definitely intensified the purity of single-hoods. I don’t just mean on the love and sex level, I mean on every level. Cutting off the physical contact with some casual dates is, in fact, the least I could worry about. At first, I realized I couldn’t visit my parents in Shenzhen anymore for at least 3 months. Then, I could barely see my friends in Hong Kong, which was already a handful to start with. Just when I thought my level of social contact couldn’t possibly get lower, I was cut off with the gyms, the beauty salons (where I go to trim my brows every month so they don’t grow into a jungle) — almost all the routines that keep me in touch with the outside world, is gone. The only thing left is my piano lesson once a week (my teacher tried to persuade me into doing it online and I rejected) and my therapy appointment, which doesn’t happen so often. I am my own island, even more than ever.

I do everything at home now. I work at home, I play music at home, I exercise at home. I spend a stupid amount of time with Netflix and I developed a serious bond with my kitchen for the first time in my life, which, knowing me, is a small miracle.

Before this, I was deeply convinced I am just the kind of person who’d live her whole life without knowing how to cook, and I was convinced this is perfectly ok in a time where all kinds of services can be available at a price. Well, I still think the latter is true, but after having three McDonald’s meals in two days once which made me feel my organs had dried up, I decided to face my utmost incompetency: cooking.

When I was a kid, I detested a fresh market. When my mum picked me up after school and she needed to go to the fresh market to get groceries on the way home, I’d insist to wait outside coz I couldn’t stand the smell, the fishy, earthy odor of daily lives. I grew up knowing I have zero interest in cooking, knowing there was so many other advanced and interesting stuff that’s more worthy of my attention and time. I also don’t seem to have any talent in it at all, in my very few short-lived attempts in cooking in the past years, it always ended in vain as I was just too frustrated with the mess I created that could barely be deemed as food.

When I most recently reattempted to take up cooking in late Feb, it was purely for practical reasons and I just hoped I could at least develop some basic capability in this area. As I delved into the process, started to try out different recipes based on what I’d like to eat and go through failures and minor success and so on, even though it still annoys me sometimes that all the time and effort spent doing the grocery and jumping up and down in the kitchen was merely for the amount of food that can’t even last a whole episode of “friends”, it occurs to me that the process of cooking is more than making food and eating food. For me, it means facing one of my deepest insecurity, my incapability of taking care of myself substantially.

I start to have these flashbacks when I struggle my way in the kitchen. I thought of how my mother could function seamlessly in the kitchen and sometimes when I was home, I’d just stand on one side and watch her doing her trick, as she’d always make it look so easy. I tried to replicate the dishes that I’ve always liked when my mother cooked them. I realize what an uneasy thing it is to be cooking day after day for a family, no matter how she makes it look so easy.

I thought of the men who used to cook for me. I always have a thing for men who makes me food. I can easily forget about others, but not the ones who’d cooked for me. One morning when I was cutting strawberries into small pieces to put into my oatmeal, I suddenly remembered this moment when I just started dating my first boyfriend and he cut a plate of strawberries for me, in perfectly neat shapes. I felt surprised, why bother cutting it? I can just eat it as it is. And he said, coz I think you deserve to have strawberries this way.

One day I was pondering what kind of salad I could make myself so I can cut down on carbs for dinner. It wasn’t an easy thing as I’ve always hated salads. I thought of one salad that someone used to make for me years ago and I actually loved it. My memory was blurred and I only know there was some sort of meat and strawberry in it, and nuts. At that moment, I felt utterly sad and I cried. It’s the best salad I’ve had and I didn’t even know what it was.

More and more memories like these came upon me as I developed my cooking skills day after another. Through cooking, I was also going through my personal history of being on the receiving end of food and the people who have made me happy through food, from my mother, to my first boyfriend, to the guy who convinced me salads can be tasty, to my exchange roommate in the one fall in New York, to my last boyfriend who made me the most exquisite birthday meal. I don’t know if it’s coz I’m spending too much time alone, but all those dusted moments feel extraordinarily precious now that I’m going through my own journey of making food. I realize I’ve always subconsciously seen cooking as a way of giving love, and refreshing those memories made me see how much I was loved.

These days, for the first time in my life, when I wander about in the fresh market, instead of revolting the fishy smell, I see now the poetry of everyday life, as if I’m living life as it is eventually. It’s funny how it takes a pandemic for me to understand the earthiest pleasure, but if there’s a silver lining to every disaster, this would be it. As I grow increasingly committed to adopting cooking as a way of life, in the reflection of the food and love I once received, I could sense I’m also progressing at loving myself properly. And I don’t mean it in the way that your yoga teacher would tell you in a lululemon-cult-like session. I mean the kind of real hardship it takes to turn the heavy anchor around in the opposite direction. As Oscar Wilde said, to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance. On top of that, I guess I could say with experience, that only when a person has proper self-love in place, is she/he able to receive love properly. I hope I’m now one step closer.

If I’m being honest, this unexpected period of heightened aloneness feels like what I’ve been always longing for, having the luxury to cut off all unnecessary distractions and just devote time to myself, take care of myself, entertain myself, inspire myself and eventually, appreciate the company of myself.

I’ve been reading some news and contents covering how couple-hood has evolved during this time, in some cases, couples become more intimate and co-dependent, in others, the divorce rate spikes. Much less coverage was paid to single people, which I guess, partly coz we’re in a less complicated status. Without the option to divorce ourselves, we have to make it work.

At the end of the day, you must admit the pandemic, despite all the damage it has caused, is an extremely humbling experience for most of us (the one exception I can think of is Donald Trump).

And there it is, what I’ve been up to. Apologies for writing such a lengthy letter. If by any chance you’re feeling stiff under the lockdown in your part of the world, I hope it could help a bit in passing the time. Who knows when would be the next time I write to you. Until then, take care, my friend.