Shelter from the Storm

In June of 1988, I caught my first glimpse of a gray winter sky.

It didn’t look much different from any overcast day in Singapore, the eight-year-old me had reckoned, though I was sure I was far from home. Where we came from, poufs of mist did not escape your mouth every time you spoke or exhaled. Also, no one bundled themselves in this many layers of clothing. I was wearing a robin-egg-blue cardigan my mother had hand-knit especially for this family trip, but it was buried too deeply beneath layers of pullovers to be seen.

“Where’s the snow?” I’d asked Mum, hoping she could explain why we hadn’t stepped into a Christmas-card-worthy snowscape which to my mind was synonymous with wintertime. For her part, my mother was too preoccupied with the logistics of collecting our luggage from the coach we’d just alighted. I never did get an answer as to why winter was gray and not white.

While waiting to enter our hotel for the night, I studied the streets of Christchurch. In place of falling snow were dead leaves. They were everywhere, blanketing the ground and swirling in the air. On this dramatically drafty day, passersby hurried about with their faces shielded from the onslaught of leaves, their hair blowing in all directions.

I didn’t mind the wind so much. I was eight with a chinadoll bob, also known as a permanent bad-hair-day. No weather condition could do further damage to that.

___________

This morning, thirty years and two months later, it felt like  NZ c.1988 all over again. On a walk around my condo grounds, a familiar scene played out—same leaden sky, same blustery wind, scores of dead leaves scattering about like confetti. Under other circumstances, I’d take that as a clear sign that a storm was imminent and head back indoors. But this morning, I was in the mood to linger just a little.

Sure enough, the rain soon came pelting down in sheets. Together with the cleaning and landscaping crew, I ran for the nearest shelter. But while I revelled in childish delight, I couldn’t say for same for the janitors and gardeners, whose dismay was apparent on their faces.

They’d after all spent all morning painstakingly clearing away fallen leaves and branches, scrubbing and hosing down dirty spots, and tending to the beautiful greenery my condo is known for. And a fifteen-minute downpour was all it took to undo all of their efforts. This was not an uncommon scenario, but it still bummed them out every time it happened. Once the sun came out, the place would be littered leaves and foliage, with slush and wet bird droppings added to the mix. The results of their backbreaking work only ever lasted until the next turn of weather.

When today’s mini-storm passed, I ventured back outdoors to resume my walk. Only a handful of the maintenance crew had returned, however. Can’t say I blamed them for sitting it out a little longer. In fact, if I were them, I might just choose to tear off my cleaning gloves and call it a day.

I began to imagine an alternate scenario. Suppose I decided a large garden was just too much to handle and instead cultivated a tiny garden in a sheltered area. There’d only be enough room for just a few plants and maybe they wouldn’t grow as tall and luxuriant without direct sunshine, but I’d make up for all that with conscientious care and landscaping. Protected from the destructive winds and rains, my tiny garden would always be immaculate. Most important of all, I’d always be in control.

Except, how boring would that be?

Isn’t that large garden we spend our whole lives slogging to make perfect a whole lot more exciting, even if storms constantly reduce it to a grubby mess? Why should the thought of a little rain hold me back from enjoying so many more plants and trees? Do I love them only for looking beautiful, or do I love them for the potential they have to grow and flourish under my care?

As I gave up the idea of the tiny garden, I saw more cleaners and gardeners return. They picked up their equipment and resumed whatever they were doing before—mopping, sweeping, cleaning, pruning and trimming. Some were whistling, as if the rain hadn’t happened at all. The gardens would always be restored, I reckoned, for these people wouldn’t have it any other way, whatever the weather conditions.

On my way home, I realized I had the answer as to why the New Zealand winter of 1988 had looked gray instead of white. The country’s coldest months are June, July and August, but I was there only at the start of the season. There’s a time for rain, as there is for snow.

___________

It finally snowed towards the end of our trip—one morning we woke up and saw the frost on our hotel windows and the roads beneath. It’d snowed while we slept, and we’d missed it.

But just as I’d imagined, winter was white.

Image via Pexels

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Everything Takes Forever: A Story of Waiting (Part 16)

[Continued from Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, Part 14, and Part 15]

That damn dream again. It was years ago—singular, inconsequential, illogical—but it’s stayed at the back of my mind, refusing to fade from memory.

I’m sitting in a hotel room with green patterned wallpaper. Everything’s sort of out of alignment in the way that picture frames are slanted and door knobs are oddly placed and purposefully out of reach. When I stare hard enough at the walls, they melt a little and threaten to close in on me.

I’m in some sort of maze or sick escape room situation. This ornate room is reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s Places des Vosges apartment, except I’m at the Grand Hyatt, even if I have no idea how I arrived at that knowledge. I try to exit the room, but each doorway leads me deeper into a labyrinth of hallways.

In the next scene, I’m at the pool, presumably on holiday at a resort. It’s a nice sort of urban oasis, though the motel-like blocks flanking this one main pool are low-rise and people are chilling on balconies. I’m with someone from my past, and his presence troubles me. Maybe he’s telling me this is our last vacation together, or something in that vein. There is something final and absolute about being in that pool at that specific moment. Enjoy it while it lasts, is the message, but I’m unable to.

In the next and final scene, I’m fleeing. I’m desperate to get away from the mixture of humiliation, sadness, anxiety, and fear that’s bubbling inside me. Along the way, I spot a friendly face from a distance. Someone is waving and calling out to me and at first I think it’s a neighbor because he’s standing in front of a laundry line, in what looks to be a backyard. However, as I approach, I see that he’s that someone from the pool.

He seems like a different person—for one, he’s completely dry and is acting as if whatever conversation or agreement we had earlier at the pool never happened—but he’s eager to tell me something.

I’m relieved to see him and I listen in. But then he breaks into a fit of hysterical laughter that is at once frightening and condescending. “I believed you were better than this,” I say, before turning to run.

As my bare feet pound the ground, his laughter trails me all the way. It echoes in my ears long after I’m jolted awake.

I still remember that crazy hotel room with its green-patterned walls threatening to melt into me. The very pool scene where I felt compelled to put on a happy face even if I was dying inside. However, the thing that haunts me most is that humiliating, maniacal laughter.

Everything about this damn dream chills me to the bone to this day, and I’m almost angry at my inability to simply forget about it. I’ve certainly had dreams I’ve struggled to remember, but never this one. This dream will likely follow me to my grave.

Which is why I may as well write about it.

[to be continued]

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The Storybook Villain

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So I’m twelve chapters into my sequel and something is bothering me—there is no obvious villain in the story. Or should I say I still haven’t decided who, among the many characters, I want to assign the role to.

Literature is littered with too many cases of cardboard villains who, for reasons unknown, have decided to exist solely for the pleasure of thwarting or doing harm to the protagonist. These days, however, it’s hardly enough to be a baddie, just because. One’s gotta be a good baddie, complete with a credible backstory, unjustifiable yet understandable motivations, a dangerous but persuasive personality, an underlying vulnerability, and so on.

Given the implications, and how I’ve grown to care deeply about every single character, no matter how minor or major a part they play in the story, I’m going back and forth on several possible scenarios. Even the possibility that the baddie is everyone and no one.

Stop overthinking it, just write, I tell myself. But to pull off a convincing showdown between opposing forces, I first have to be convinced—and I’m struggling with the struggle because I’m a toughass critic when it comes to these things.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to have a villain simply for the sake of having a villain, especially the sort that everybody loves to hate. And then I wonder, more generally: in life, do we even need villains in order to overcome obstacles? Granted there are many irritating people in our lives who’ve made difficult situations almost unbearable—but are they the issue itself or just the catalyst that forces us to face a more significant, pre-existing problem?

Pondering on the subject of villains has got me a little introspective, I’ll have to admit. Revisiting my history of run-ins with ‘baddies’—and dredging up memories that are tied to specific times and places—has not been easy. Also, in order for me to reframe these unpleasant individuals within a larger narrative, a fair bit of reconditioning is involved.

That’s been an interesting exercise, to say the least.

As I unpacked my memories (especially ones I’d much rather forget) and reconsidered their place within my mental catalog, I was able to detach them from the emotions that went with the particular encounters. As a result, many horrible people of my past started to look less like the powerful and enigmatic villains I’d made them out to be, and more like, well, people. Yes, they were manipulative, calculating, opportunistic, and mean-spirited, but still just people.

And as I examined the various instances in which various ‘baddies’ made my life hell, I noticed that my fears and insecurities—and how I responded to them—were a common thread.

These same fears and insecurities were the real villains, whose rules everyone played by, me and my tormentors included. The ‘bad guys’ only won because they recognized this fact, and I didn’t. As a result, even if I believed myself to be on the side of ‘good,’ I lost. Every single time.

As someone who grew up reading any book she could get her hands on, and being thoroughly acquainted with every storybook villain imaginable, I always assumed the bad guys came to bad endings. The evil character was always, always vanquished, no matter how seemingly weak the protagonist was. Because that’s how it is in fiction. Good always wins.

But frankly, since I began to write my own books, this whole villain conundrum has made me think twice. Why did I always assume a novel’s main character was ‘good’ just because they narrated the story, and that the antagonist was someone outside themselves?

So what happens if the villain lies both without and within? I guess I’ll have to keep writing to find out.