Notwithstanding the stent in my heart, these past two months have been, ironically, the happiest months of my life.
I’ve pronounced these three words, “I’M SO HAPPY”, so many times, I’m beginning to get bored of myself, even as my friends and family are starting to give me looks of resignation and indulgence. …there-he-goes-again…
Yes, yes… it’s time to talk about the new apartment.
There’s something magical about these three words – another three words I’ve been bandying about wantonly to friends and family alike; the words, “MY NEW PLACE.”
The magic, I believe, resides in the word “place” – a rather commonplace word, one would think; but on further consideration, a word that is ambiguous and powerful, laden with so much meaning.
Four months ago, I found a place of my own; the right place for me; my place. And in the weeks before, during and after my procedure and recovery, I was also busying myself moving into MY NEW PLACE, improving and decorating it, such that it would be a place I was pleased to call my own.
The one key difference between this place, and the other places I’ve lived in, is that this is the first place that I truly own, in that I not only bought it, but I picked it myself. All other places had either been rented, or, if bought, had been somebody else’s pick, not mine.
So there is a certain something-more imbued in this new place, this time. This place I can truly call my own.
[Oh gosh… I can see those looks coming my way. …there he goes again…]
At the risk of going all tiresomely broken-record-like and academic, I thought it important to explore the literal and symbolic meaning of Place, in order to better express the complex mix of emotions I’ve been feeling – the mélange-rojak of sentiment that I have referred to generally with the three words “I’M SO HAPPY.”
Because a place is never just a place, it is something deeper and more complex, at once more grounded and more ineffable.
* * *
At the simplest level, place denotes space. A place is simply a sort of volume – a unit of three-dimensional space.
The difference between a place as used in “a place of my own” and any other volume of three-dimensional space, is that implicit in the former is the sense of possession, as well as sanctity.
“Place-of-my-own” might – at first glance – be simply another way of saying “Home”.
Home is generally regarded to be a space in which one is safe and inviolable; a space within which one is free to be one’s self.
But that’s not necessarily true for all.
Certainly, for me, “home” has always had dark undertones. For much of my childhood and adulthood, home has been a sinister place, a place where one treads on eggshells, and is never at ease; the anti-thesis of comfy and cosy.
“A place of my own” thus goes much, much further than “home” in referring to “a safe haven.”
And I’ve never felt safer, in this new place of mine; this place where I feel completely at ease; which I’ve decorated in a manner that reflects ME; in which I can be entirely myself.
“A place of my own” also has spatial meaning of another kind – it refers to a destination.
At least, this is what is implied when one says – “I’ve travelled so far and wide, stayed in so many different places, but nothing beats coming home to my own place.”
These words ring true for the lonely wanderer that I’ve been.
I would go so far as to add the word “finally” between the words “beats” and “coming”.
What a relief, to finally have a place to call my own; a place to return to, from all that intrepid, incessant, anxious wandering.
* * *
Place also connotes bearings – one’s location in space, and also in time.
When one says, “I’m in a good place,” what one means, is that one has found one’s bearings, existentially, in the space-time continuum.
[Yes, yes… we are still in science-fiction-novel mode.]
At another level, my new place also represents, symbolically, the fact that I’m in a good place.
This year and a half of heartbreak, culminating in the stent in my heart, has afforded great clarity.
I now know where I am, exactly. I now know where I’m headed – it is easier to choose a direction to head towards, when one has one’s exact bearings.
I now know what’s important to me, and what is not; what (and who) has a place in my life, and what (and who) does not.
Note that the meaning of “place” has shifted again, connoting boundaries.
This sense of place – of knowing exactly where I am – is materially, tangibly expressed as my new home, which grounds me, fortifies my boundaries, and anchors my sense of self.
Place can also be used as a verb, as in “I’ve placed myself in this spot.”
[Love, love, is a verb… Love is a doing word… The words to that glorious, transcendent Massive Attack+Cocteau Twins number come to mind…]
While it may seem that I’ve merely stumbled upon my exact bearings this year, I wish to emphasise that where I am is the result of a conscious and active process of attempting to find myself – by way of therapy and continuous reflection, the latter oftentimes undertaken on this very blog.
And so, it is fair to say that I have PLACED myself in this exact spot in space and time – I have placed myself in this place.
I’m running us all round in circles, putting us through a wormhole.
* * *
Place also connotes station (in life and society), as in, “I know my place.”
I must admit, that in the last few years of being a Museum Director, I have struggled to find my place in life and society.
Up until then, I knew, sorta kinda, who I was meant to be. I was simply the beloved – who followed rather than led, whose career did not matter as such/much, and whose role it was to tend to the home and the hearth.
That role was thrown to the winds, when I found myself suddenly offered the position that I have today. And I started agonising over whether or not it was my place to do something or another; to be somewhere or another.
I’m not comfortable leading. I’m not comfortable being in a crowd. I’m not comfortable being a somewhat public-ish persona. I’m not comfortable negotiating business. I’m not comfortable with small-talk. I’m not comfortable with words that are not on the page.
And yet I chose to muster as much courage as I could, and to dive into uncharted – and dare I say, shark-infested – waters. I was convinced that this was the right way to go, in order that I may grow; gain new skillsets; challenge myself.
In the last four years, I haven’t been comfortable in the role at all. There has been that constant, nagging voice in my head; the voice of a sort-of-ME, who, surprised at landing where he was, constantly questioned if he was entitled, eligible, qualified to be where he is.
It’s a classic case of Imposter Syndrome. It certainly didn’t help that everyone around me seemed to have the same view as that voice in my head.
And so I set all out to please.
I created this brand-new role for myself – the role of a high-end geisha, so to speak.
My entire life, in and out of the museum – there very swiftly became no life out of the museum – became a finely-wrought performance. [“Minus the samisen,” so I would joke to friends and colleagues.]
The real me I buried beneath this veneer of beauty and perfection; of wit and charm. I always knew exactly what to say – because it would be rehearsed extensively, and then it became second nature.
I paid attention to every single detail – what I wore, down to my perfectly-matched suits, ties, socks and pocket squares, or always-appropriate batik shirts, tangzhuang, kurtas; most recently, in this age of virtual Zoom calls, I’ve even paid attention to my frame (in cinematic parlance), down to the exact artwork that hangs behind me as I speak.
All that perfection – just to cover up the fact that I’m a frightened child inside, and the people I have to engage with have been frequently some of the most important and powerful people on earth – has been exhausting.
Here’s where a brush with mortality has been beneficial.
[And before I get started, please let me express just how deeply thankful I am that I’m alive at all. How deeply thankful I am for the fact that I not only had good healthcare, but could afford it. How deeply thankful I am that I have – can have! – a place of my own. How deeply thankful I am that I have friends and family who have done nothing these past two months but inundate me with love. I’m so fortunate!! And I’m grateful beyond words.]
With my heart literally broken and fixed, I’ve been told that I look and sound different. Certainly, I don’t care as much anymore about what other people think (and think of me).
The most visible shift has been my taking Zoom calls in spectacles and T-shirt, looking obviously unshowered and unshaven, and not caring, in the least, what’s hanging on the wall behind me.
It helps that I’ve achieved a lot as Museum Director – and I’m not afraid to say it now. Certainly, I’ve achieved more than any of my peers, past and present, considering I’ve only been in my position for a very short space of time.
Even as I’ve been High-End Geisha, I’ve been Energiser Bunny, Astro-boy, Juggernaut, seizing opportunities, powering my way through obstacle after obstacle, propelled largely by fear and a sense of being inadequate.
I no longer have to do that.
I’m good enough. I know that now.
I know now what my place is; what my role is.
I know that as Museum Director, I have a very specific task – to educate, to inspire, to change mindsets, to provide opportunity, to preserve, to create, to innovate, to ensure the museum always be a place of Faith, Beauty, Love and Hope.
I know I do that well and that that is all I need to do.
I know that I know exactly what I’m doing – I always have. Even from the moment I stepped into the role.
I know to an exacting degree, the IMPACT I wish to have on the world – on society, on the economy, on the community, on prevailing thought. And I know that I’ve striven to achieve this impact; that I have, indeed, achieved it, often through doing the unexpected, the unorthodox, though never causing offense. I know that I continue to redefine IMPACT even as the world around me changes.
And that is enough.
The knowledge that I know what I’m doing and that I have achieved / I will achieve the impact I set out to achieve, is enough.
I don’t need to care what anybody else thinks.
So it’s time to set aside the far-too-self-conscious Museum Director role that I created; that high-end geisha strumming valiantly at her absent samisen.
It’s time to refresh my role; time to infuse it with more character; with real, authentic personality.
It’s time to let Kennie come to the fore, because after all, D/ACM is Kennie, at least for the time being.
And, so I realise now, it is – has always been – Kennie defining Museum Director, and not vice versa.
* * *
A place is, ultimately, a blank slate; a white cube (in art gallery parlance). You describe it with adjectives; invest it with meaning.
When one says that a place is “beautiful”, or “calm”, or “new”, or “full of life” – that is exactly what is happening: the blank slate that is “place” is being endowed with form, colour, texture, sound, character, meaning.
The last two months have seen me investing time and effort into, and deriving great joy from, decorating my place.
In typical, obsessive-compulsive, Kennie fashion, I created a 50-Powerpoint-Slide DESIGN BRIEF for myself, planning – at a big picture level, as well as in minute(st) detail – every single room and space in the apartment – how each space would look and feel; and the exact pieces of furniture and artwork that would be installed within each.
Yes, I know I’m overdoing it again. I know I’m over-achieving. But my therapist says it’s ok to forgive myself this one lapse, especially if it brings me joy; especially if it’s about me creating meaning.
You see, in decorating my place, I am investing it with MEANING. And you don’t have to look too far to see the “ME” in “MEaning”.
Which makes sense, since meaning is always subjective. One interprets meaning based on one’s own unique world-view, values, and sum-total of experience.
There is meaning in every single piece of furniture, and every work of art I’ve procured and installed in the apartment.
The majority of the works of art in the new place, are actually my own photography – taken and amassed in the course of the decades of incessant wandering from port to port, city to city.
So my identity – please note the “I” in Identity – is literally hung up on the walls.
The place is truly my own, because it is a literal, visual expression of who I am. And I’ve always privileged the visual over the textual.
* * *
With everything in its right place, so to speak, the blank slate becomes the good place; the right place.
Home becomes Personal Universe; even as it morphs into Place-Of-One’s-Own in the Universe.
As if by magic, place takes on a spiritual energy; a cosmic energy. It becomes something beyond the corporeal; something ineffable.
When cosmic and spiritual energy is right; when yin and yang are balanced, nature itself comes to roost.
Outside the apartment, in the planters just by my windows, tiny white flowers bloom, and buzzing around those flowers are bees, gathering pollen, fertilising stigma.
Beyond that – beyond window, planter and balcony – there is a river and there are trees.
In the river, a family of otters play. One of them – the mother, possibly — has grown large. She watches over her chattering brood.
In the trees, there is a pair of hornbills, swooping majestically and impossibly from canopy to canopy. A rare sight in Singapore.
In the trees, also, a pair of green parrots – lovebirds – flashing emerald in the noonday sun, loud and vocal in their amorous pronouncements. Perhaps an evocation of things to come.
Above all, soaring in the midst of towers of glass and steel, there is a lone raptor – the brahminy kite. He, or she, circles endlessly, searching for prey. It is remarkable in itself, that the city outside offers enough to succour this apex predator.
In the midst of this urban jungle – this jungle in the city; city in the jungle – I burrow, book-in-hand, deeper into my blanket on the sofa, feeling all safe and protected, cosy and comfortable; in my very own place, my place in the world; totally, utterly, comprehensively, completely at home in the universe; knowing not what tomorrow or next year might bring, and feeling absolutely fine with that.
Watch this space, for anything may happen.