See You Around

As I prepared to leave her grandmother’s home, I offered a perfunctory, “I’ll see you around”, believing that we had left a nice enough impression to think a future rendezvous with these thirty-somethings was likely.

To my slight surprise, our host for the evening took mild exception to my casual farewell.

“I don’t really like it when people say “I’ll see you around” because in my experience, anyway, they never really do.”

Without wanting to dig any deeper and employ on-the-spot therapy, I figured best to evade deep waters and swim around to where it was shallow.

“Ah, so we could say something else then. What would be more appropriate?”, I offered.

The innocence in my tone could not mask the awkwardness that had quietly entered the room. How sneakily of it, to have arrived just as we were about to leave.

I could not remember if anyone offered up another way to say goodbye and another way to ensure there ever was a next time. Our only saving grace this moment was simply, that we were too old, not to.

When you are thirty or hovering around it, as I am, I find that there just isn’t much room for unnecessary pleasantries. By now, we should have learned the tactful art of saying what we mean. As our host did, that evening.

There was a New York Times article making the rounds about how difficult it is to make friends after 30. For my wife and I, it was already true before we had even gotten there. Granted, we left all the friends we had and moved to a country where we knew hardly anyone, and we found ourselves in a netherworld space between families tending to their crying children, and families tending to their aging parents.

Considering the context, not having friends wasn’t entirely our fault. Our cats are partly to blame.

Some of the deeper connections we have made feel somewhat anomalous — one with two avid hikers in their late 40s and their precocious son who never runs out of questions for me about Marvel Superheroes, another with a vegan couple that religiously listens to The Young Turks, and finally, the first family that hosted us when we arrived, a young couple around our age with two beautiful tots that look like golden Viking children.

And then we have the friends we’ve made fortuitously, who surprise us at every turn with their kindness and willingness to tread the deeper waters with us. A “Chindian” who runs a local cafe and his wife, with whom we share the occasional foodie adventure around town. A young couple from East Malaysia, just finishing up at university, who worship the same way we do and share a similar taste in movies. And a young girl with a shaved head and a radiant smile whose gentleness is refreshing, and whose hatred for injustices committed against migrants in Penang, inspiring.

It was she that invited us to our host’s home – a magnificent place in a tucked away part of town we never traverse, with a sprawling lawn and its own little round-about driveway.

We were, for all intents and purposes, celebrating “World Book Day”, which may be all the detail you need to guess the sort of crowd we were amidst. But before I welcome any further judgment, suffice it to say, it was a lovely evening. How often do strangers come together to share passages from their favorite books? We literally read to each other, as if everyone were taking turns playing parents and children at bedtime, except we substituted warm milk and cookies for wine and cake.

The initial goodbye had morphed into a mundane ritual of standing and sitting until we realized that sitting and talking was our fate for the evening. And we welcomed it – this surprise gathering of Millenials, local and expat alike, sharing stories about everything and nothing, really. Just, slowly unraveling.

At this age, there isn’t any more need for pretense. It’s hard enough cutting through all of the fluff to get to the bottom of what it is that we all really crave – human connection. When we grow older, we stop counting stuff, and instead, we start counting friends, desperate to make sure that particular number isn’t plummeting.

To know we sat with strangers and read and told stories for hours is a good enough sign to think that, yes, maybe we will see them around. As scary as it might feel to say it, or as off-putting as it might be to hear it, there’s that hope implanted, for “a next time”.

And if that next time isn’t quite around the corner…well, we’ve found each other on Facebook. Now, there isn’t an excuse.

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The Need to Read

“Throughout my childhood I believed that what I thought about was different from what other kids thought about. It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I’ve started reading Anne Lamott’s book about writing and the above quote was what spoke to me most deeply, so far. The book appears to read part-biographical and part-instructional, which might be why it’s resonating so strongly for me, so quickly.

I am surely in need of guidance, but more so, I am thirsty for relationship. And I don’t mean the kind to replace the wonderful one I have with my wife. I just mean  connection; I mean “friends” of sort, both real and imagined.

Lamott writes about having read Catcher in the Rye and feeling she “knew what it was like to have someone speak for me (her), to close a book with a sense of both triumph and relief, one lonely isolated social animal finally making contact.”

I’ve had that feeling after finishing several books before, but none more recently, or perhaps more profoundly than after Frederick Buechner’s, Now and Then.

Don’t worry, I’ll be sparing you a long synopsis – I only mean to illustrate my feeling. Like the moment after you’ve poured out your worst fears to numerous, ill-prepared listeners, only to, finally, have one person actually nod and say, “Yes, I’ve been there too.”

Buechner’s book is a memoir on vocation, which, if it isn’t obvious already, consumes  my mind more than managing my fantasy sports teams, and that says a lot. He was both writer and minister – and embraced his dual professions with grace and gratefulness – considering the privilege he had to spend his days teaching, writing, and collecting stories!

I can’t help but look at Buechner’s life, at Anne Lamott’s life, and wonder if there any patterns to their life trajectories that align with my own.

Going back to the quote I included in the beginning – as a child, I did feel a bit strange. I didn’t have any obvious quirks; I was never the object of other boys’ silly taunts or the recipient of undeserved beatings behind the playground. In fact, I was really well-liked. Respected, even. I hardly had any problems with anyone, and other kids looked to me to lead. I hadn’t ever asked for that sort of responsibility, but I do know that I always took it when given to me.

My greatest achievement before my teen years was probably getting elected to the position of “Class President”, twice. That is, without ever nominating myself. Not that I remember anyway. I do recall asking for the “Sports Moderator” position, which I was probably most excited about. My classmates, however, had other ambitions for me, and I took them graciously. The authority and power that comes with leading 40 other little school boys can be daunting, but I rose to the challenge, nonetheless.

All this to say, I had no problems making friends. Then. I had most everyone in my pocket. I spoke to anyone and everyone confidently, shared my thoughts on matters I knew little about. I was the kid who could have grown-up conversations with grown-ups, and leave them wondering what business I had hanging around them in the first place. I was a charming little kid, well-spoken, polite, and funny when the opportunity arose for humor. I played sports just well enough to get picked, and performed just well enough to succeed academically. I was good at many things, but never so great that I alienated anyone that was less talented.

What I wasn’t, however, was much of a reader. Anne Lamott devoured books. So did my brother. He and I probably played with our action figures more than anything, but when I wasn’t doing that, I’d be out kicking around a ball or re-enacting whatever it was I saw in basketball games with a wastebasket and rolled up paper. My brother was reading, or writing, or drawing.

Perhaps this stuck with me subconsciously, witnessing how differently he and I had spent our time. Maybe, I felt I needn’t engage that part of me that actually longed to be creative. If I did, it would be solely because I was little brother doing whatever big brother did, but nothing more.

I read whatever was available, but I never asked to read anything more. I never went searching for the next book through which I could live out my wild fantasies. The closest I would get to doing so was picking my brother’s old, Choose Your Own Adventure books and skipping to both page options to see which alternative I liked better. For me, even then, I relished in the safety and comfort of the real, protected world I lived in. There wasn’t this nagging desire for escape and adventure, begging for the freedom to run freely.  I was perfectly content, right where I was. I was a kid comfortable in his own skin, happy being happy and having friends.

But, there was always this one thing I couldn’t quite make sense of, and I still have a difficult time putting my finger on it even now, decades later.

It wasn’t so oppressive a thought or feeling that tortured my young soul into making sense of the world and my place in it. I was too young, too naive, and too content to really care much for it – that is, until I got older, and I left home.

It just wouldn’t leave me, this thing, and neither would I let it. Like a stuffed animal I had obviously outgrown yet took to my college dorm anyway. Except this stuffed animal was really turning into a wild, horned, beast of a thing waiting for it’s moment to run free, and hunt, and reproduce without inhibition.

Yes, something like that…

Maybe I’m getting lost in my own illustration here, but simply put, something in me no longer wants to be tamed.

See, that thing Anne Lamott was talking about – that struggle to make sense of the world – I’ve had that in me since the very beginning. It’s one of the first things I recall about being a kid, having this internal wrestling I couldn’t quite communicate to anyone. How could I, after all? What words did I have then to make sense of something I can barely still describe now?

But whatever it is, it is getting restless. I feel it every time I read something beautiful or heartbreaking, some nugget of truth that I wish I had thought of first, some story that captures the solitary struggle of making sense of one’s self and one’s place in the order of things. My heart beats harder, like it is knocking on the cage of my chest to come out and see the world in all it’s glory and ugliness.

Perhaps, it is here that I can best employ some double-negatives

I can’t, not know. I can’t, not try.

And I won’t wake up these days without wanting to read something, or write anything, just to figure it all out.

As a child I hardly remember reading, but now I can’t stop collecting books. It took long enough to realize that books for me, are the key to a deeper sense of awareness and not just knowledge. They are not merely the answers to whatever questions arise in my head, but they are the food that nourishes my heart.

Books are starting to save my life from the lies I’ve been telling myself for the longest time. Reading writers like Henri Nouwen, Buechner, and Lamott, and a  long list of others are fueling that beautiful, beast inside me that longs for wisdom, for freedom, and most of all, for peace.

So a call to other lovers of books and of words…do send stories my way. I’m hungry, and need to be fed.

The Books I’ve Never Read

Tonight I was sifting through the pile of books beginning to collect dust by the side of our bed. What were once the foundational piece of our do-it-yourself centerpieces for our guests’ wedding tables a few months ago have become an unsightly collection of old, hardcovers, stacked unceremoniously as if they belonged to a second-hand store or someone’s garage.

I had always known what we’d do with the books after our wedding day. We were lucky enough to find a place that had built-in book-shelving by our bedside – and it made me rest assured that all these books we’ve amassed would have a home, in our home.

Our bedroom is surrounded by books. Three out of the four corners have some sort of shelving, not including the aforementioned that flank our bed. Together, the collection of books Shuli and I have make for a sizable library for two.

It’s what we wanted, sure – seeing books on every corner. There couldn’t possibly be a decor more comforting than this.

The irony, however, is that, for a “library” that seems to indicate how well read the two of us are, the truth is, it only accurately depicts how well read ONE of is.

And no, it isn’t me.

My fingers were starting to turn gray from riffling through these old pages. These beautifully-bound, ornately decorated hardcovers, of all different colors. The leather creased with age. The smell of time trapped between the covers.

Oh, the endless supply of books I’ve never read…

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, waiting for my company on a winter evening. TWO Adventures of Hucklebrry Finn books, both red, and both, unread. Milton’s Paradise Lost. Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. The Classics are here for the undertaking, while more modern novels and collections of short stories, and best-selling memoirs still await.

Is it merely the case (or the curse) of being an absurdly slow reader? Was the prospect of accumulating classic works full of wisdom and knowledge greater than the willingness to partake in what these books truly demanded?

I’m far too distracted, far too undisciplined, and I’m feeling so, so behind.

But, the great undertaking before me must begin with one book. One adventure at a time. One piece of truth discovered, then digested, then known. The overwhelming bounty of books can only be tackled so slowly, and so I start with just one.

Juan Rulfo’s The Plain in Flames. You’re up.