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.