staying alive

It’s 30 minutes to midnight where I’m at. We’re on our dining table, sipping on calming tea with books and art supplies scattered around. I started making a quick watercolor sketch because this felt like the best way to spend the night – what with everything happening (the most recent of a freakish series of emergencies being the hospitalization of our new kitten). I’ve been so exhausted, my body has started to rebel against functionality. I’m using every ounce of strength on balancing between practicality, impulse, and optimism, reminding myself to prioritize rest.

*

I referred to these two year-end questionnaires to put together a list of 40 questions. This will be my first time doing something like this as part of my new year tradition – new year’s eve being the only annual holiday I take seriously. And by that I mean I make it a point to celebrate it in my own way. A huge part of it has to do with taking stock of what happened, making (some) peace with failures and achievements, and giving myself all the high fives and hugs and dessert-y treats I deserve for making it through another fucking year alive. So here we go.

Also, happy new year!

1. What did you do in 2016 that you had never done before?

  • Moved cities (I’ve only ever moved countries so this was a first). At the start of the year, I moved to Penang to remove myself from a household that’s toxic for me and fought hard to give myself a chance at living a full life.
  • Started a couple of Instagram projects, one anonymous and the other is @projektingkap, both of which are on hiatus at the moment.
  • Started using crystals and gems in my yoga and meditation practice to help me reconnect with my body and nature.
  • Started a balcony garden, which is doing well! Extra points for having them flowery and edible types thrive, though not without some challenges. I feel more confident about gardening now, which is a huge deal for me.
  • Album cover gig that I got to make original art for!
  • Saw fireflies for the first time ever while on a surprise boat ride under the full moon by the river bank.
  • Sat down in the quiet stream of a waterfall and climbed its nearby rocks.
  • Was introduced to Chinese teas I never tried before, different types of oolong, pu er, and rock teas, some of which are just down right magic liquid for the body and mind.
  • Hung out with a friend who came to Malaysia from overseas alone to visit me.
  • Made surprise birthday pancakes for someone because we didn’t have baking supplies for cake.
  • Felt better about saying no to gigs that would’ve been detrimental to my health, or that just flat-out didn’t pay (though there were still some mishaps in this area this year – guys, stop exploiting artists/writers/designers/freelancers, you’re just becoming part of the whole dang world’s problems!).
  • Scored editing and manuscript review gigs, which I realize I really enjoy doing as much as transcription gigs – in that I genuinely enjoy them a lot!
  • Also scored my first real writing gig, which I’ve not announced yet.
  • Made my own hardcover watercolor sketchbooks! I even made a funky abstract-geometric one for a friend’s birthday.
  • Found a log on the beach, which we dragged into the car (it was heavy), which we then got moved into the new apartment a few days later.
  • Curated and participated in an art exhibition that was on for a week at Georgetown Festival, Slumb-a-Chamber.
  • Saw my work animated and projected onto the inner wall of a dome for Slumb-a-Chamber, with my audio poem in the background for my piece, ‘Warrior Walk.’
  • Became the Art Editor of Burning House Press.
  • First ever live drawing session at Gusto Cafe.
  • Got to see my art featured on a couple of social media feeds highlighting local artists.
  • Spoke on a panel on education and art for a Kelip Kelip event.
  • Scored my first ever book cover gig, that I made the cover art, hand-drawn typography, and design for.
  • Participated in my first writing workshop, which led me to read a difficult piece about living with the traumas of child abuse in front of a full-house crowd at George Town Literary Festival.
  • Signed up for my first open mic in Penang during George Town Literary Festival’s finale.
  • I didn’t go out of my way to impress any gatekeepers of local cultural or artistic circles – yay me for learning those lessons!
  • Got a nose piercing.
  • Joined a writing group for a flash fiction challenge!
  • Slowly (and recently) included tarot card readings as part of my self-care regime.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for the year to come?

I resolved to be kinder to myself this year, which was a lot harder to do after a whole lifetime of being conditioned in abusive situations to think that I was unworthy of love or even of ownership over my own living space. I had moments where I was really, really hard on myself. I had moments where I was convinced that, despite all the surviving, I was still a failure. And though it definitely seemed like it on many counts this year, I was able to allow myself to hold on to spaces outside of that abusive household, and to convince myself that I do deserve to be loved. This year, I can say that I’ve started learning how to be kinder to myself, how to love and forgive myself. It’s something I’m looking forward to keep progressing on in the coming year!

3. Did anyone close to you experience a life-changing event? 

There has been so much shifting this year in trajectories – the people around me grew braver and kinder, while some more fearful and dishonest. I couldn’t keep track of their life-changing moments, to be honest, just like how I had a particularly difficult time this year in keeping track of who was growing close to me and who was growing distant. I’m grateful that I got to be there for those who made the effort to have me there and those who allowed me to be there through their own life’s changes and upheavals.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

A kitten we rescued from an over-capacity shelter didn’t make it past two nights with us because whatever infections he contracted there had started to deteriorate his organs. His name was Graphite and he gave us a lot of love in such a short time. He was buried under a big tree by the beach and is missed dearly.

5. What countries/cities did you visit?

None, no traveling this year besides obligatory visits to KL.

6. What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?

A regular enough income to not have to clench up in stress for weeks/months on end worrying about replenishing funds for necessities and health emergencies.

7. What date from 2016 will remain etched in your memory?

January 8th and November 25th.

8. What was the best news you received in 2016?

That a very sudden medical scare (not me) turned out benign, though in need of regular monitoring. We were relieved beyond words.

9. Which personal qualities turned out to be most helpful this year?

Resilience, without which I wouldn’t have worked so hard this year to implement self-care activities to help me connect with my body, history, and my super secular do-it-yourself styled spirituality. Stubborn optimism, which is like a double-edged sword but keeps me seeking out the beautiful and brave things in this fucking scary world. Stubbornness, which makes me a difficult or impossible person – depending on who you ask! – to some people but it really helps to filter out those who are not good for me and allow space in my life for those who are present enough to be beautifully vulnerable within human connections. Anger, which is always difficult to manage but which has also taught me a lot about standing my ground – in addition to lessons about forgiveness and non-forgiveness as healing mechanisms. Courage, to continue learning how to ask for help especially when things are at their scariest.

10. Which mental block/s did you overcome? 

That asking for help thing. I don’t think I’ve gotten the hang of it – I might never – but I have been better at saying “I need you,” even if it goes unheeded. I hope, too, that I’ve been better at responding with grace to those who have reached out to me – and better at knowing when to reach out to those who might’ve needed some companionship in their difficult moments.

11. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Claiming my life as my own. Slowly, but surely, I’m sure this will feel more natural.

12. What was your biggest failure?

My health, which stopped me from socializing well in the new place I moved into and also kept me from looking for more paid gigs.

13. Did you suffer illness of injury? 

With long-term health problems, illness is always a factor. This year was particularly rough. My body is getting more tired and I’ve been dealt with a lot of blows over the years… My stomach problems, in particular, flared up and for three to four months, I was in constant severe pains and had to learn to use a walking stick to get around the house. I changed my diet countless of times because my stomach would reject most foods. Things finally started to ease up when I went to see a Chinese herbalist, included homemade kefir into my diet, and started taking lactase and magnesium supplements. I’m now able to go through a week without these pains, but it also means I can’t enjoy Penang’s street foods – or most local cuisine unless they’re made with fresh ingredients – without having to concoct up some remedies to take right after. I’m glad things have eased up with this because that was unbearable to deal with – it also caused a lot of financial worries. I stopped going to see the herbalist so I can afford to get things like gluten-free pasta and sourdough bread to have things I can eat at home. A few days ago, I started to get severe pains in the right side of my body – I sometimes can’t walk on that leg now. I’m hoping this is nothing to worry too much about, as it could be symptoms of my body going through an intensely stressful time.

14. What was the best thing that you bought?

Crystals/gems – they were such an unexpected addition and I have felt guilty for spending money on them, but they’ve helped me so much! I’ve always been drawn to objects of nature and the vibes they carry with them. Having them around and being able to hold them while doing breathing exercises became a significantly positive part of my routine. They brighten things up and by learning about them, I’ve been able to reconnect with nature, especially on the days when I need to but don’t have the energy to leave the house.

15. Compared to this time last year, are you:

– Happier? Yes, actually! It was such a painful year – such a painful process just to get here. I’m not sure if I can say this was a happy year but being away from KL and that toxic house has actually allowed me to claim some happiness for myself. I’m not entirely used to it, but I’m really digging it.

– Healthier? I want to say yes, because I worked so fucking hard this year to pay attention to what my body, mind, and soul might need – but I think with all the stress of moving and all the changes taking place this year, all the effects this had on me, well, I don’t feel even close to healthy. I’m barely alive and kicking. I’m just determinedly stubborn enough to get up every day and keep trying.

– Richer? Yes, thank fuck. There are still months where I earn zilch, so it’s a slow progress. I’ve gotten a lot more brutal about picking clients carefully, and this has just been so much better for my time and energy. I now spend time looking for ways to earn a living in nourishing and legit ways (and keeping my toes and fingers crossed that this will carry me forward in one piece!).

16. What do you wish you’d done more of? 

I wish I had gone out more! It was a particularly lonely year for me. With the move, I had left whatever semblance of a social life I was building in KL behind. Not everyone’s good at keeping in touch and it’s hard to do so all the time – even me, with all the hello’s and goodbye’s I grew up with. The debilitating health problems kept me at home a lot, kept me feeling left out a lot. There wasn’t much I could do about these things except to learn some patience and be nice to myself about it.

17. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Writhing about in pain from health problems I have no control over. It sucks!

18. Which books, songs, and films affected your life in a profound way?

Books: Full list of this year’s best reads will be on another post! But if I had to pick a couple that were life-changing, it would be ‘Extracting the Stone of Madness‘ by Alejandra Pizarnik and ‘House on Mango Street’ by Sandra Cisneros. Reading these made my heart dance.

Songs: Borders by MIA. Phenomenal Woman by Laura Mvula. Lost Girls by CocoRosie. Freedom by Beyoncé. Stronger than You by Garnet in that one Steven Universe episode. Here Comes a Thought by Garnet in that other Steven Universe episode. Don’t Touch My Hair by Solange. I Ain’t Got No, I Got Life by Nina Simone.

Films: Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966). Ulysse (Agnès Varda, 1982). Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2002).

19. What was your favourite TV show?

Steven Universe!

20. What was your favourite compliment that you received this year?

“I’m so glad you’re here with me.”

21. What cool things did you create this year?

WHERE DO I START. Haha. Galactic animal watercolor sketches, some of which have found new homes! Handmade hardcover watercolor sketchbooks, those were game-changers for my studio practice. Curating the Slumb-a-Chamber show. These two book reviews. A poem I wrote and submitted to Al Ibrahim’s zine on break-ups. My Voices workshop piece, ‘Fire.’ The cover for ‘Wolf At the Door’ by J. Damask (Joyce Chng) published by Gerakbudaya. My #inktober series for this year. A collaboration with Kafayat Quadri, that I haven’t shared publicly yet. I put together a visual poem, ‘Catharsis,‘ which is now up on Burning House Press. And of course, these shiny af paper-cut-outs.

22. What was your most common mental state this year?

Worried over health, continuity, trajectory. I was worried that this life I worked so hard to start living would deteriorate under the weight of a traumatic past or other people’s cruelty, just because I don’t fit into certain (irrational) expectations. I was also very, very tired of surviving. Thankfully these were accompanied by that stubborn optimism I’ve cultivated, because that exhaustion hasn’t really dissipated.

23. What did you want and got this year?

I made it to an important first-year anniversary for something good and new and wonderful. I also got to read at George Town Literary Festival, which was something I’ve wanted to do for years! I also got to move out of that house, finally finally finally.

24. What did you want and not get? 

A regular enough income (I can’t do office or 9-5 work structures, so I have to DIY it outside of conventional systems – it takes time but I hope I’m getting there!) and a (healthy) cat.

25. What did you do on your birthday, and how old did you turn?

I remember being in a lot of pain, but pushing myself really hard to pack up boxes and move things from the old apartment to our new place. My only attempt at going out to celebrate was miserable, with me accidentally breaking a glass and not being able to order anything off the menu because I couldn’t eat most things on it – we were too tired to go look for another place to eat at such short notice… It was a terrible day, to be honest, and it still makes me sad that it was such a horrible way to turn twenty-seven, which was a big milestone for me. It’s something I have to make peace with. At least I can say I made it this far! And the lovely birthday messages I received kept me afloat. I guess I’ve got the whole of next year to celebrate!

26. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Less to no health scares for me and my loved ones. Like, I get it, we’re all going to die one day but let us live first. We work so hard to!!!

27. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2016?

Pajama pants! (Which I’m actually getting quite bored of now) My clothing style has been super casual this year and to save money, I stopped using make-up regularly. Moving up North where it’s hotter had a lot to do with that, too. I guess if I had to describe my fashion sense of 2016, I’d call it ‘South Asian sea witch who doesn’t give a damn about you or your expectations, with a pinch of modern nusantara aunty vibes.’

28. What kept you sane?

Breathing exercises, spending time with my favorite person, writing, the poetry of Alejandra Pizarnik and Mahmoud Darwish, and starting the year with a re-read of ‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih – I know, serendipitous title given that I moved up North in January.

29. What major goal did you lay the foundations for in 2016?

Paying more attention to my body and its needs for the goal of healthier, more functional days ahead. I’m also hoping that I’m becoming adept at implementing a more nourishing routine for my studio work and creative process – I’ve been writing a lot more this year, surrendering to the flow of language. I know this will impact how I use visual language in my art, I just don’t know how yet.

30. Which worries turned out to be completely unnecessary? 

Hmm, those times where I was being too careful about offending people who had no intention of being honest or respectful towards me, and then realizing that it’s absolutely okay to be petty and spiteful in some situations. Especially when taking into account the fact that I never got to be immature. Sometimes you catch up on your youth in weird ways. It might as well be to repel unwanted interactions and burn some nasty bridges.

31. What was the best gift you received? 

I love getting gifts all the time, anytime. I can’t choose a favorite! There’s the moon lamp I got as an advanced birthday gift, “For when you’re missing the moon.” The gorgeous Linestrider tarot deck Syar got me for my birthday – my first ever tarot deck! Sage and kefir grains and shea butter goodness from Kim that has brought so much good vibes. OH! A surprise coupon for a massage that I’m planning to use next month 😀

32. How did your overall outlook on life evolve?

Double-edged sword of stubborn fucking optimism, that is how.

33. What was the funniest moment of your year, one that makes you laugh every time you think about it?

Er… Geez I don’t remember these things. Off the top of my head: making up a whole song with only one line in it, “So many pigeons.” There are a lot of pigeons in our new place – but also in our old place, where we had a couple-pigeon make their nest on our balcony and we had to babysit their squabs at one point because they were idiot parents. There has just been so many pigeons this year.

34. What new thing/topic/concept/idea did you enjoy learning about, and do you have plans to pick up anything new next year? 

Making hardcover handmade watercolor sketchbooks, papercutting art experiments, gardening on a balcony, breathing exercises, and getting used to sketching with color pencils. For next year – well, I always (always) want to spend more time with languages. Getting more acquainted with the ones I know, maybe learning a new one. I don’t think I can make any solid plans for that right now, on this last day of 2016, but perhaps sometime next year I could take a serious look at available options.

35. What new habits did you cultivate?

All those self-care things. Also! New morning routine where I wake up at dawn and just watch the sky change colors, birds wake up, and the squirrel on the tree in front of our building jump around from branch to branch.

36. What/who had the biggest positive impact on your life this year?

Love.

37. Who did you miss?

Aisha (who is leaving the country and I won’t get to see her off), my KL friends who I miss more than I can tell them, and a beloved friend whose disappearing acts were too triggering for me to keep enduring.

38. Who was the best new person you met? 

Spending more time with Winnie and Kim has been one of the highlights of my social life this year. Meeting Ammar, whose solo show I still think about from time to time. The wonderful people at Leo’s Books, who made the bookstore a magical space – it’s one of my favorite places to be. Lean Sen, who is a tea magician and likes to make us smile.

39. Quote or lyric or poem that reminds you of your experiences this year.

Ooh. I’m going to do one for each of these:

Quote:
“I will rise and rise again out of the burning air. You can eat my genius,
rare.” – I Am No Lady, Lazarus by Sina Queyras.
(I painted this and placed it on my studio wall. It’s now near a bookshelf in the living room of our new place. I use it like mantra, like manifesto.)

Lyric:
“She battled through in every kind of tribulation
She revelled in adventure and imagination
She never listened to no hater, liar
Breaking boundaries and chasing fire” – Phenomenal Woman by Laura Mvula.

Poem:
“I speak the way I speak inside. Not with the voice intent on sounding human, but with the other one, the one that insists I’m still a creature of the forest.” – from Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik.

40. If you met yourself for the first time this year, what conversations would you have had and where would you have met? 

We would’ve talked about cats first, then go into discussions on the boundaries between art and artifice, personas and personalities, skepticism and mysticism. And then I would remind myself of why I’m fighting so hard to live, love, and make art. We would’ve met online, at my favorite bookshop, or at the wallflower corners of an exhibition opening because these are the places this year where I was able to be present and open to accept random new interactions.

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