Loose Leaves is a collection of poems written between 1994 and 1998, that is, between the ages of 17 and 21. Poetry then looked like an indulgence of heady emotion through words and awkward phrases. (Maybe it is still the case today!)
Instead of using Canva to create a book, I’m trying out Google docs with links to each poem and the contents page. A two-page and mobile-friendly pdf version are also available.
Only just last week, life in Aotearoa New Zealand was about being ultra conscious about staying home if sick, washing hands, and being alert to symptoms of COVID-19. From today and moving forward into an indefinite period, it looks like we will have to live in a constant state of heightened awareness and adopt new practices of reduced contact and socialising.
Ordinarily I would be disgruntled at disruptions, upset at being inconvenienced through no fault of mine. But this situation is far from ordinary, in fact, simply extraordinary and unprecedented. It first caused me the typical anxiety about keeping well and protecting myself and my family. But now as the world enters into extreme measures of border control and social directives, my anxiety has turned into more of an uneasy calm. Uneasy because I know the worst thing to do is to be anxious and indulge in panic buying and behaviours; but not ever sure that I am doing enough to do the ‘best’ thing like washing hands and avoiding crowds.
How does one do ‘social distancing’ and keep sane about not being in the company of others? Perhaps my introverted friends welcome the prospect of avoiding the world and all its filth. But for me, I’m trying out alternatives to handshakes and hugs – smiles, awkward gestures and the like. Working from home will be encouraged and while I welcome not having to journey to and fro on the train, I know I will miss the hum of busy minds and bodies about me.
To use a musical term, it feels we have reached a long pause (or a fermata) on a note that was meant to lead on to the next, but holding back for longer than usual. According to the Wikipedia definition, “[e]xactly how much longer it is held is up to the discretion of the performer or conductor, but twice as long is common.” If we are the performers, we take the cue from our country’s leaders, the conductor. Twice as long is probably not long enough, but if we want the music to continue playing, we’ll have to keep on holding the note.
While on this pause, I’ve begun to think about who I want to hang out with, who I could do without, and my obligations to my family if any of us should have to self-isolate. I have learnt to welcome disruption as a way to shine a light on my taken-for-granted values, re-consider knee-jerk reactions, and actually learn how to chill.
For the most part, I would like to be able to meet with people and have conversations. But perhaps they would all soon like to avoid meeting others and making unnecessary contact. And I would probably be persuaded to do so as well. Maybe we do it in the name of self-preservation and keeping the community safe. Maybe we seek solace in avoidance. But we will do what we will be conditioned to do, by political will, by common sense, by social pressure.
May we find the long pause a gift – a gift of restraint to help us become better versions of ourselves when the music resumes.
The poems in Journal Notes feature a different life season from those in Nine at 35 which were written almost eights years ago. I am startled to realise how I’ve grown weary of family life and take the opportunity to escape ever so briefly for coffee and solitude.
My personal fav is ‘Dreaming of Castlepoint’. I initially had ‘a sonata in ten movements’ as a subtitle, but realised it was more dramatic than soothing piano music. ‘An operetta in ten scenes’ felt more appropriate for the highs and lows of a family outing.
“Nine at 35” is a short collection of poems that were written to mark my 35th birthday some time ago. That was a time when my children were still young, not yet in primary school. It was also a time I was trying to return to my creative writing pursuit.
I used to write poems late into the night in my late teens and had a couple of poems published in poetry anthologies in my early twenties. When adulthood and responsibilities caught up with me, the writing seemed to slip away.
At 35, I had formed my family, settled into a teaching career, and now had ambitious plans for a creative comeback with 35 poems. I landed with 9. After that, there were snatches of verses for birthdays and milestones, but little else.
Now I’m in a different season of life. I’m into my 40s and have started journalling during my commute to work, holiday respites, and any other in between pauses. I’m rediscovering my creative voice and doing a stocktake of my earlier writing. This poetry eBook is a result of reviewing my forgotten poems and experimenting with layouts.
With a renewed passion for creative writing, I’m embarking on a personal project to create folios of work – a ‘folio series’ of poems and essays – forgotten, refreshed and new creations.
Despite what feels like a ‘long’ time, I’m really still a newcomer to Aotearoa New Zealand. And considering more than 4 of the 5 plus years were spent in Hamilton, and having recently relocated to Wellington, the Aotearoa I know is just an emerging picture.
It is a picture coloured by intense periods of questioning my various identities and ‘trying’ and ‘doing’ social integration. It is also not a stable picture, with emotional highs and lows heightened in periods of uncertainty and angst, in the overall quest for ‘settledness’ and normalcy.
With my heart on my sleeve, and a restless mind seeking anchors, I invite you to pause and examine this picture that usually hangs unnoticed on your wall.
Rooting for my team
In the current climate of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in workplaces, these trendy terms fail the reality test of working in a largely Anglo/Euro-centric culture. I recall the jaw-dropping audience of old-timer administrators when I related my ‘confinement’ experience after childbirth. As I sat at the lunch table with a story that grew scandalous with each cultural revelation, I felt humiliated for trying to strike up interesting conversation. But at the same time it thickened my skin and forced my sensibilities to learn from this faux pas.
When I share such experiences with others, it is often fellow migrants, often Asian, who nod along in agreement and commiserate with sighs of resignation. We learn quickly from our mistakes and embarrassment, but we nonetheless feel indignant over unequal opportunities in accessing jobs and opportunities. Often we hold a special gratitude for our first boss who let our foot in the door.
These ‘migrant’ or ‘ethnic’ conversations can feel familiar and safe. There seemed to be a natural urge to express solidarity, whether outright or implied, of asserting our shared experience and struggle in a hostile environment, whether real or imagined. There was tacit solidarity over the necessary ‘struggle’ before achieving success for ourselves and our family.
In recent times, I’ve become more ambivalent about my role and identity in the community script. I’ve moved cities, work environments, professional sectors, and social circles. My affiliations have multiplied, and so have my social identities. But to suggest I play a different role can seem unnatural, unusual, or worse yet, an act of betrayal against my own kind.
At a recent forum on Asian leadership, there was a pervasive presumption that Asians were overlooked and undervalued. I could identify with feelings of indignation and injustice, but also wanted to share my positive experiences of being treated with respect and included in a Pākehā dominant work environment. My story, however, simply jarred with the plot of the day.
Finding safe houses
I have also shared my journey with another group who are not necessarily migrant or Asian. This is a group I call my ‘safe house’ because with them I felt free and safe to be who I was and who I was trying to be. You could characterise them as empathetic multicultural-minded friends. Some of them were from mixed cultural families, others worked in pastoral care for international students, or had professional or volunteer jobs that served the needs of migrant communities and new citizens. I found them in churches, university services, associations, communities, government agencies, and in families of my children’s schoolmates.
Of course, just being involved in cross-cultural contexts does not automatically make one empathetic to others experiencing or experimenting with new cultures. I’ve met those who claim to be migrant champions or international education professionals but couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend them to others. By all accounts, they did their job. But to me they lacked a personal desire to affirm your value for who you were, whether they found you familiar or strange.
A more recent discovery of a safe house is the kapa haka group at work. The welcoming nature of the group and encouragement by instructor-colleagues to sing boldly and accurately exemplified to me manaakitanga (hospitality) and kotahitanga (togetherness). What a gift and privilege to learn about, and express through performance, Māori culture – as an outsider looking in, as one welcomed to learn and belong in all my shades of difference.
Who am I again?
I come back to my picture which has emerged as a self-portrait. It hangs on the invisible walls of my dwelling which intersects with the dwelling places of migrants, Asians, colleagues and friends. The question of who I am will inevitably be answered differently by the various co-dwellers.
To answer that question today in the season of the Lunar New Year, can be simply expressed as ‘I am Chinese’. At work, together with a few Chinese colleagues, we will put together a shared morning tea celebration for all staff. (And I would ask you to think of ‘Chinese’ as diasporic rather than singular!)
Non-Chinese colleagues will look to Chinese colleagues for cultural expressions of the season and explanations of its significance. In doing so, I also hope they will find the opportunity to build safe houses for multicultural-minded conversations flourish in.