These past couple of weeks I’ve been in a dream of a city… an imperial city… wandering its streets, admiring its architecture and its art, appreciating the warmth of its people even as I remain wary of the danger that lurks just around the corner.
And it seemed to me that this was a city that couldn’t be further away than any city I’d ever known, with its rich, colourful culture and cuisine, surprisingly influenced by (far-flung) contact with the East; by way of those fabulous Nao de China, or Manila Galleons – treasure ships! – that took precious commodities from China and Japan, via the entrepot port of Manila, to Acapulco and then on to Here.
Though physically in the City, the City itself was a distraction, and therefore it was never clear if I was truly in this City, or if the City itself was a dream, so caught up was I in my own deeper reverie, my own deeper and occasionally confusing, occasionally painful searching for the self.
For, of course, that’s what I’ve been doing these past few weeks since signing off on my 440th blogpost here: searching for the self.
It’s been impossible to concentrate.
That chance encounter in Bali revealed to me how the source of the issues I’d been grappling with went further back than I had hitherto thought, and with some help I’ve been delving deep, resuscitating dead memories, re-encountering that which I had buried so long ago.
For starters, I realised and acknowledged that the situation with my childhood and both my parents was far more complex than I had remembered and will perhaps continue to be; that my obsessive pursuit of perfection and my constant need to please were a result of my own needs always being subservient, never being met; that Home for me was always fraught with fear and danger, and my own considering of it as “home” (with all its positive implications) these past 20 years was ironically a result of systematic, Pavlovian conditioning (I won’t elaborate).
[As an aside: I happened to have binge-watched three seasons of a marvellous MARVEL TV series called LEGION, marvelling at how the Lead Character’s predicament – the monster ensconced in his mind since he was a child, conditioning him to grow up to be a confused and broken adult – seemed to resonate so strongly with me.]
I now know that what I’ve always craved, was simply a sense of being safe: safe from the world outside, safe from the world inside, safe in and from my own skin.
And since there was never anyone there to protect me, I had to protect myself.
I did so with an armour that consisted of an impenetrable veneer of beauty and politeness; a wall of roses with thorns hidden just underneath – the forest of thorns that protected the Princess Aurora as she slept her dreamless sleep, waiting for the Prince to arrive…. La belle au bois dormant… not knowing that the Prince was never going to arrive, because there was no Prince in the first place.
And so I slept on, dreaming of a City; another city, in which everything was picture perfect, and the life I led was the very epitome of perfection – loving, supportive family and partner, ideal job, everything in its right place.
Except it was all a dream… a construct doomed to crumble…
…and suddenly I find myself awakening…
* * *
Even as my slumber-heavy eyes awakened inevitably to the light, the world around me also awakened – so it seemed – to a kind of chaos, plagued, as it were, with a bug variously called the Wuhan virus, the novel coronavirus and now the COVID-19.
Ensconced in my dream of a city, far, far away from the epicenter of the imminent – so people thought – pandemic, I watched and observed as people and nations became paranoid and vigilant in turn, as best-laid plans for the year crumbled in the wake of something beyond anyone’s control; as it became increasingly clear that what the virus symbolised was the need for a New World Order to emerge from the eventual-ruins of the world-order-before(-COVID-19).
At the museum, our next exhibition had to be postponed as it was a collaboration with the Chinese, and the latter could not travel. This meant all exhibitions for the next 3 years – we planned our calendar 3 years in advance – had to be postponed. This also meant there was now no urgency to travel in preparation for upcoming exhibitions, and so all my trips for the next few months were canceled.
Suddenly, I found out myself experiencing a sort of pause… a breather from the constant swirl and churn of work and activity.
Suddenly, there was time to think.
And the first thing I reflected on, in this moment of respite, was how one could have the best-laid plans, but the Universe had its own Order, that trumped all.
In the years since I became an adult, I had believed that my world needed to be scrupulously circumscribed; that what I needed, above all else, was STRUCTURE (in capital letters), self-imposed in the form of goals, strategies, frameworks, deadlines, daily and weekly schedules, etc etc.
That my work-day was meticulously scheduled would seem self-evident. But even on weekends, I was unable to function, or at least feel comfortable, without the Saturdays and Sundays being similarly, scrupulously planned out (literally, with activities slotted into my calendar): 8 am – Run, 930 am – work on blogpost, 11 am – grab lunch, 1230 – meet-up with friend… and so on and so forth till bedtime.
Again, with professional help, I have since realised that the obsessive Structuring and Scheduling was a form of escape; a way of filling in the time, to leave no gaps within which my pesky inner voice – the voice of my parents that had become my own – could tell me, punitively, how I was being lazy; how I couldn’t possibly be doing nothing at this moment; that I needed to work hard in order to succeed, in order to be beautiful and perfect, in order to be loved by anyone.
And so I structured, and I scheduled, and I worked, and I worked, to the extent that I even penciled in time for “relaxation”, and relaxation itself became a sort of work. Reading on the couch – which I used to enjoy as a child – became a kind of achievement: an “I MUST finish reading these books I PLANNED to read”, rather than enjoyment.
And there was no spontaneity, no serendipity, no possibility of encounter in my tightly-structured and -scheduled life. Just a continuous, circular, circumscribing… a constant, reassuring certainty… even as I was ostensibly “exploring” the world on my Grand Tour, which, unbeknownst to anyone, was always scrupulously planned and scheduled such that there was never any time or opportunity, really, for real, spontaneous exploring and relaxation.
With the virus in full-play, faced with an enforced pause, or breather, in the coming weeks, I sat in a random Starbucks on a street corner, in the far-off Imperial City where I was, staring into the distance, unsure of what to do, or if there was a need to do anything at all…
Sipping at my latte, I simply observed…
Outside, beyond the glass walls of my glass box, a sort of street carnival spontaneous happened. A mariachi band had popped up out of nowhere on the pedestrianized high street of the city’s main shopping precinct. A couple started dancing on the street, watched by a crowd that thronged bigger and bigger… It was a Sunday, after all, and in the afternoon, after a late lunch, people were emerging from their homes and the restaurants, to take in the sun and to generally enjoy themselves.
Just in front of me, beyond the glass walls of the Starbucks/goldfish-bowl I was in, a young teenaged couple – a girl and a boy – walked into view. They were both randomly dressed in Spiderman costume – something I found particularly amusing. To the pulsing Latin music in the background, they embraced and kissed, right in front of me, in full view of everybody – Spiderman kissing Spiderman.
That’s it, I thought to myself, tossing my coffee cup into the trash. I’m emerging from my goldfish bowl to explore the streets.
I had hitherto only explored the street leading in the direction of my hotel. The Street of Certainty.
But what about the other part of the street? I thought. The street that led away from the hotel, that extended to some uncertain, hitherto unexplored, possibly scary, maybe beautiful destination?
Striding out of Starbucks, I stood momentarily at the street corner, mariachi music playing as cinematic soundtrack. There were two choices before me: I could take the street back to the hotel – walk the familiar path, in other words, and spend the rest of the afternoon in my room. Or I could head toward where I had never been before, to see what lay in that direction; to see what lay in store.
The first path was the path of familiarity. In taking that path, I would risk nothing, give up nothing. And I would perhaps, gain nothing new in return.
The other path was the path of Risk. I had to take a leap. I had to give up control completely and to just go with the flow. And maybe I would discover something. Maybe I would discover nothing at all. Maybe I would be striding headlong into danger. Who knew?
It was all or nothing.
I had to decide.
Taking a look at the still-kissing Spider-couple, I knew which length of the street I had to choose.
I walked in that direction, without hesitation.
And as if by magic – or perhaps it was the Universe making a point – as soon as I walked down the path of uncertainty, I was very quickly rewarded.
I stumbled upon a whole Museum!! One I had no idea existed, one that sat literally around the corner from my hotel, but which I had not even realised was there!!!
That was how myopic I had been; how limited my whole life had been!
In the Museum was an exhibition of contemporary Mexican craft – an epic, mind-blowing exhibition full of the most beautiful things; things I never thought man could create. I spent the rest of the afternoon giddily meandering through this exhibition – this feast for the eyes and the soul – taking countless pictures of the objects with my smartphone, peering over details of flowers, birds, skulls and crosses, losing myself in the surfeit of colour and materials, imbibing all I could about the traditional crafts of the city, and how they were being preserved and innovated on.
What a delightful surprise!!!
As it so happens, that afternoon spent in the (Banamex – El Banco Nacional de México) Museum, admiring these beautiful objets d’art, happened to be my happiest afternoon in that dream of a city, that Imperial City, la Ciudad de México, aka CDMX.
And so it was in this far-flung dream of a city; furthest away from my own; far, far away from any city I had ever been to, that I realised the following: only when one laid one’s self bare; laid one’s self open and vulnerable to uncertainty and thus experience; only when one decides to take a leap into the unknown, would one allow for the possibility of encountering unprecedented joy, beauty and wonder.
Dear Kennie, a new inner voice emerged to tell myself, in dulcet tones… It’s alright, you know. No one’s there to judge you anymore. So just relax, go with the flow and be surprised by what the Universe has in store for you. You deserve it.
And indeed I do!
* * *
In the last year and a bit, I’ve been laying myself bare on this blog and on social media, using the blog as a kind of journal, in order to better process heartbreak, change and growth.
I’ve been told, on occasion, that I’m “so brave to expose my vulnerability”.
I’ve exposed my vulnerability partly as a form of self-defense… to remind the people around me, especially those I work with, that I am only human. That beneath the veneer of an ever-smiling, ever-forward-looking Museum Director, I’m a human being. And human beings have emotions, moments of weakness and vulnerability. This is what it means to be human.
And so indeed, exposing vulnerability is perhaps a sort of strength, because in admitting my own vulnerability, I am admitting that I am a whole human being; I am allowing myself to be WHOLE, which is not the same as perfect.
Whole assumes imperfection, whereas perfect excises the less-than.
In the process of allowing myself to be whole, and understanding that I am whole, I am suddenly made to see that I don’t need those self-imposed defenses anymore; or at least, I should more closely examine those self-imposed defenses, in order that I may consider which parts of those self-imposed defenses I can discard, and which parts I can retain.
Structure is always good; but overdoing Structure is not. A new Order needs to emerge, organically, from the ruins of the ME-Before.
Roses are good, but a forest of thorns, is perhaps, not quite. In today’s world, princes no longer brave thorns to rescue slumbering princesses. The princesses themselves need no rescuing. They clear their own self-assured paths through the riotously blossoming rose forest, to merge whole and wholly-awakened in the world outside, ready for experience and for love.
Speaking of roses…
The most important thing I’ve discovered in this year of processing, and in these couple of months of self-reflection since Bali, is that I am LIGHT, COLOUR and LIFE.
I repeat: I am LIGHT, COLOUR and LIFE.
I am not Darkness.
My spirit is ultimately strong and luminous.
And I express this vitality and luminosity through festooning myself, literally, with flowers.
My friends and colleagues will know that for months now, I’ve taken to exclusively wearing floral shirts; and for much, much longer before, I’ve had a penchant for adorning my suits with floral ties and pocket squares.
This is because, to me, FLOWERS, more than anything else on earth, represent LIFE.
And I want to ALWAYS be BURSTING with LIFE. I want to throw my head back and find myself metamorphosing rapidly into an exuberantly flowering tree à la Daphne.
In my dreams, I see myself as a walking (Persian or Mughal) garden, replete with flowers, bees, birds, and courting lovers with their wine and mandolins.
When I dream, it is always in Technicolour. Never black and white or in shades of grey.
My cup is always at least half-full… its water succoring a grand bouquet of roses.
And so here’s to a new beginning: 在一个风和日丽的早晨… Once upon a time, on a bright and sunny morning…
Beautiful writings and photos!