When are the hairdressers going to be allowed to reopen? What am I going to do about my hair?
I heard this a lot during the 12 week lockdown earlier this year. It appears that managing our hair growth was something all of us bonded over during lockdown. I think that I’m not alone in wanting to have hairdressers classed as essential services that can continue to stay open if we go into tighter restrictions, or dare I say, another national lockdown.
By the way, I don’t normally like to post photos of myself on my blog, but I’ve taken the plunge for this post because I couldn’t see a way out of it. Anyway, this is me in my final few weeks as I’m having one of my goodbye *sob sob* lunches with friends. I think I’d recently had a hair cut.
About 4 years into living in Cambodia, I was finally brave enough to get a pixie cut.
It turned out to be perfect for life in a tropical climate, albeit at that point viewed upon as an unusual hairstyle for a female. In Cambodia, there is a custom of shaving one’s head when there has been a terrible tragedy. Normally you’d see the eldest in the family do this when there had been a death in the family. Thus when some of my Khmer friends saw my pixie cut for the first time, they thought that I had received some awful news and was very upset. Not so. There’s an interesting cross-cultural difference titbit for you.
I was still pretty attached to my pixie cut after I left Cambodia. It was one of the ways I could hold onto a remnant of me in Cambodia. Nonetheless, come May 2020, I asked on Instagram:
‘This is annoying. Maybe it’s time to cut my fringe myself or shall I endure growing it out?’
Most replied: grow it out.
Then in June 2020, I wrote a little ode to my pixie cut, which I’ve revised a little here.
Dear Pixie Cut,
Dear Pixie Cut, It’s been a long time since we saw a hairdresser. Now you tuft out at the back, You get in my face when we run, We can’t decide what to do about the fringe, And you tuck beautifully behind my ears.
Is it time for us to part, move on and let you grow out?
Can I hold onto you for one last cut?
In July, I was finally able to book an appointment with the hairdresser. I wrote a haiku.
4 months in lockdown. #Growingoutapixiecut Turned into a bob.
Yes, I decided the time had come to say goodbye. And honestly, I was alright with it. Time, eh. There’s no substitute for it being a healer.
By the way, are hashtags in poems allowed? Are they a thing?
From my first week in Cambodia until the end, they were all over me. I used to joke that people around me didn’t need to worry about putting on mosquito repellant because the mosquitoes would feast on me first.
My bites would swell up so much that in my first month I was on anti-histamines to try to convince my body not to get so excited about them. People kept telling me that it would get better after 6 weeks. The mosquitoes would stop making a bee line for me. Nope. It took many years of constantly being bitten before my body decided that a small bump was a sufficient reaction. Then when I got dengue, I decided that I’d had enough of living with mosquitoes. But that is a story for another time.
Other mosquito poems have been published on this blog, testifying to my special relationship with them. Haha.
However, the time date on the holiday photos tell me that it was 18 months into my time in Cambodia, on holiday in Kep, that I started writing this – my original mosquito poem – and Mosquito, a haiku. I tested it out on the group at breakfast. They laughed a lot. We laughed a lot and then I slapped my arm because I’d just been bitten! I’ve tried finishing this poem a few times since but it just didn’t seem to work. This week, wanting to spend an evening, not marking student work, I finally got it out, pulled together the various versions, got some feedback on it from some of the members of the original audience. Et voilà.
Dear Mosquito, Regarding the note you left last night, Notes, in fact. Which I found indelibly written in red. Presumably to underline your point, as a mark of your love.
Inflamed with lust, Laced with a wee dram of poison, As if to say, if I can’t have you then no-one will.
It’s just that, And, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, I mean no disrespect. But wouldn’t you agree that we appear to be quite unsuited to each other? I don’t react well to you. My defences go into overdrive.
Besides you’re not the first suitor of your ilk, who has been pursuing me.
Let me explain. Was it your great, great, great aunt who chanced upon me? Hmmmmmm… Untouched, uninitiated in this mating ritual. A slap here, a sting there.
Did word somehow get out that I was Prime and ready, Sweet and easy pickings?
One after another, persisting with their whining salutations and affectionate greetings. Arousing me after each visit. You’d each leave. Drunk on my blood. I thought, this is my destiny.
We played tennis together. It was electric. You won, love/40.
I’ve clapped my hands for you. Waited up in the wee hours of the morning to find you. I’ve rubbed on lotions, anointed myself with oil to repel you.
Mosquito, explain. What is it that you find so irresistible about me? My bare skin? My blood type? My sweet scent?
Well, you leave me no choice But to say that I have grown tired of your voice. Wised up to your morning kisses. The suffocating silences. The nightly visitations. Your methods of seduction don’t beguile me any more.
I joined a creatives group in the new year while I was in Aberdeen. Caralyn, the same one who encouraged me to blog again, talked me into going along with her and frogmarched me to introduce me to the group leader. This was very much necessary because the shy introvert in me was reluctant to make any new friends.
I should backtrack a wee bit to provide some context. My first month following my return from Cambodia was bewildering. I didn’t know what was going to happen next or where I was going to be, other than I was back living at my mum’s and it had been the right time to end my Cambodia life. I was exhausted from my life being flipped upside down. That October felt particularly cold and I kept looking aghast at people dressed in shorts when it was below 6 degrees celsius. As I pulled on my four layers and searched for some thermal clothing, I started to experience regular moments when I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly, and I’d be scared to fall asleep in case my body forgot how to breath while I slept. This is me, who has never suffered from anxiety.
Two things really helped. Firstly, I got help. I engaged a coach to help me go through this transition. Someone I didn’t know who had gone through major changes moving from one country to another. She gave me a structure to the transition. When things got hard in month 3, she reassured me that months 3 and 4 normally held the most tension as friends asked what you had decided to do, when you had decided nothing because those decisions still felt overwhelming, like the circumstances were too fluid to make any concrete decisions. Secondly, a friend reassured me that my panic was a common reaction to major disruptive changes. He agreed with my recognition that this season was a ‘winter’, so to take it easy, do very little “productively”, to remember to take deep breaths and do a little exercise. It helped to normalise my situation and after that first month, I could breathe a little easier.
By January, I was quite happily in the rhythms of my ‘splendid isolation’ or ‘my winter’ in the North East of Scotland. The name inspired by Britain’s 19th century foreign policy of splendid isolation and all the Brexit chatter. After the turbulence of the last few years, the peace and stillness was exactly what I needed. In all honesty this is what I had nicknamed this season of my life weeks before self-isolating and social distancing were to become a thing. The flip side of my choices was that I had reverted to being a shy turtle. Eyes peering out over my scarf and hat. Checking out who the safe people were to talk to before deciding that I’d rather be talking to trees.
I was also intimidated by the thought that this creatives group would be made up of all art school/’I studied design/drama/writing at university’ type people. However, in actual fact, yes some of the group are like that but the group is made up of a variety of people with different craft/art/food/creative writing/photography/design interests and passions. I surprised myself by enjoying their company and the discussions. The following weeks, I went back and started making new friends.
When I moved to another city for a new job three weeks ago, I didn’t expect to be able to continue to be part of them. However, because of the Covid-19 lockdown measures, we moved to meeting online. Each week we focus on something different. This week, the focus was on peace.
I found myself meditating on this song by Mosaic MSC every time I went outside for my daily walk/run. It begins, peace, bring it all to peace. Apt, right? I would pray for family, friends and people I knew who were ill or in the vulnerable group, or in difficult/stressful/anxious situations to know God’s peace. An hour before we were due to meet online, I suddenly worried that my meditative peace prayers wouldn’t count as a creative output. Thus, I quickly cobbled together this haiku on peace as my contribution instead.
Piece by piece, step by
Step. What was overwhelming
It began as a thought, ‘what if I did a play on words with peace/piece’. (There are a couple of quilters in my creatives group.) For me, it evokes memories of marathon training, running up hills, the times I began a couch to 5k programme after time out because of injury. Then there is the sleepless 48 hours when I had a dengue fever rash that covered my entire body and as I cried alone in pain and frustration I kept reminding myself that this too will pass.
I had to learn a lot about pain, rest, asking for help, sabbaticals and self-care during my Cambodia years but especially so in the last two years. One picture that has really comforted me this year has been of God’s hands holding me in this dark vacuum as I feel like I’m falling. He has got me. You might not be religious, but I’m sharing that picture in case it offers you some comfort.
One more thing. When all the things that you rely on to keep you happy are stripped away, if you can, do one thing each day FOR YOU that you enjoy, whether it’s quilting, DIY, reading a book, burning onions, binge-watching a TV series, talking to the guinea pigs. That’s self-care. Do the things you have to do too. And remember. This too will pass.
As you know, I live in Cambodia. Since the birth of my nephew, anytime I visit the UK, I’ve taken to spending a couple of weeks at my sister’s and hanging out with my nephew (and my sister and brother-in-law). This time at 18 months old, it was an absolute delight to see more of his wee personality coming out. Thoughtful, inclusive, at times ever so sweet, commanding, wanting to be helpful and involved, he made us laugh A LOT. So I wrote this poem to capture this moment in his development.
I’m 18 months and I can do that too
I can do that too,
I’m 18 months old.
I can feed myself.
I have my own bowl, plate and hands.
“HhUM”, I say, when I want something you offer me.
“Kh-heese” is my favourite.
You’ve given me a fork and spoon?
I know what they are.
Mess makers on my face and floor.
“No.” I don’t need your help for that.
Nor when I compose on the keyboard
with my knees and palms.
I’m being post structuralist.
Stay 2 feet away from me.
I can get my shoes and bring your trainers too,
So that we can all go outside.
And I know which direction our walk should take.
We’ll walk past “mee-Ow”
Climb up ‘big step’. “o-Oh” and gingerly go
down them. Walk over black and white stripes.
‘run run run run run’
On our way to the
“Ddu- Ddu-” that go “wak-wak”.
“Ball” is my favourite game.
When I wake up, “ball” is where I run to.
I have three officially.
But a tangerine or a stacking up cup works too.
If you throw “ball” to me, I will like you.
But when you throw it on your head,
I’ll scrunch up my eyes and laugh
when it hits my head too.
I love to play with “ball” so much.
Going outside to play,
Wrapped up in my thick coat and wellies makes me happy.
I’m a good kicker. Everyone tells me,
‘Good job.’ ‘Well done.’ when I send the ball to them.
I get upset when –
I don’t understand why – “ball” runs away,
like it doesn’t want to play with me.
Uh huh uh huh HUH HUH HUH.
I make my ee-mo* run and kick it back to me.
“Der” I point to the big screen.
Why watch it on your small phone
When it’s better bigger?
Cast it “Der!”
The music makes my legs
jump and arms wave.
I love it more when we dance together.
I’ve been watching you.
How you do it.
And I can do that too.
*ee-mo: 이모 in Korean. Translates as aunt in English. This is the basic form for what you call your mother’s sisters. Your father’s sisters are addressed as 고모 (go-mo). Ah, *rueful smile* – the specificity of korean titles. For a more detailed overview on the Korean family and kinship terms, check out this blog post on the talking cupboard.
This happened today
Bernardo needs putting back
Together. Erm, glue?
I had seen a small separation between the fingerboard and the neck the other week. I wondered whether the humidity was playing havoc with it. So I had an inkling that my violin would break this morning. But still, when the fingerboard separated from the neck in my hands, my heart sank. Bless him, my friend Pov said, “Glue it back together, no problem.”
Yes, hopefully. But that will done by a specialist. Bernardo needs some TLC.
About a year ago, I went to visit some friends and their hours-old baby at the Kantha Bopha children’s hospital at the riverside in Phnom Penh. Stirred by the din of our party of four’s arrival, this little boy opened his beautiful black eyes to take us in. “Hello, little one.” He stared back and then closed one eye. *LOL* He got me thinking about what it must be like as a newborn. Do they feel overwhelmed by this multi-sensory realm, full of new smells, noises and colour?
We often think of babies as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, with no sense of self. And perhaps they are. But I wanted to invert that in this poem and imagine that a newborn could form their thoughts, as an adult, self-aware and with the vocabulary to match. I wrote out the first draft and then left it for a few months while life went on.
And then along came little P.
This newest addition to the family has been lovingly provided by my sister and brother-in-law, in the form of a beautiful baby boy who came 3 weeks early. In actual fact, the moment my sister told me that she was pregnant, I began to miss Owotato, as I dubbed him (a conglomeration of their surname and potato). Now, she whatsapps me photos, we google hangout and she sends me wee videos of him. But in all honesty, what I long to do is hold him and blow air on his face! In the meantime, this poem, which is dedicated to him, will have to suffice.
Sweet and high.
Gravelly and low-pitched.
There’s quite a few
close to me.
Shapes of different sizes
loom in. Peer.
Can’t quite make out
Perhaps if you came closer?
Too late. Out they zoom.
One of them is asking,
is it overwhelming
being a newborn?
YES! The air feels cold on my skin.
I miss the wet warmth.
Having said that,
I don’t seem to run out of room to stretch out,
and shake my fist to test it.
And – wow!
I can smell my mother’s milk.
sour notes surrounding me.
I twitch my nose
I’ve begun to use my mouth to suck
and my throat to swallow. Wonderfully,
instinctively, it knows what to do.
I’m not so sure.
I am going to practise making the moves in my own time.
I want to know how.
Shadows reach in
to hold me.
Please be gentle.
It can hurt,
I try to tell them.
But they don’t seem to understand me.
Oh hello! You smell different.
What? This one likes blowing air on my face.
Stop it! I blink.
I daren’t move my head.
that if I turn it to one side
I won’t be able to bring it back.
So, I turn
to take it all in.
This cacophony of colour
Last year, the writing group that I’m part of asked for submissions for a Sputnik creative project, ‘What is it to be Human’. I submitted this for inclusion into their anthology of short stories and poems and it was accepted. You can buy the whole creative pack here or download the e-book for free, if you want.
I deliberately left it a year before posting this poem. When honesty shakes up a friendship, some things are better left carefully tucked away to rest so that the friendship can recover and forge forward in a new way. And then, at some point, when it’s healthy, I think these moments can be shared.
I remember that I found writing this therapeutic and surprisingly making myself write it in iambic pentameter was helpful: the discipline required in da DUM da DUM da DUM, forced me to take the time to work through each painful moment for what it was. Normally I lack the patience to do that, but I convinced myself that this was an one-off – much like the conversation below! As one of my friends remarked after the event, “It’s not like you’re planning to have these kinds of conversations on a daily basis!”
But how necessary, it was. And how my heart soared free, thereafter.
They say that the heart is purely muscle
Beating, pumping, pushing blood through highways
of capillaries and veins. Coursing life
into every member of the body.
It has four chambers. The two small ones are
called atria and the larger ones are
ventricles. The aortic valve is
what controls the flow of blood out of the
left ventricle to the aorta
(the body’s main artery). I learned all
of this in biology. So, how then –
as I’m sitting opposite you, waiting
for my drink to arrive. “Carrot shake, please” –
Does it know to pump doubly hard, rush blood
upwards to my face. Cause my palms to sweat,
hands tremble so I have to sit on them.
Somehow, it has guessed it’s impending fate.
Ah, here’s the drink. “Thank you.” Sip. Swallow.
Breath. Out. In. Steady. I need slow, sure words.
This is a delicate operation.
It will require all my skill to cut
out my heart, in one piece, adeptly
manoeuvre it from the ribbed darkroom where
feelings develop. Reveal my heart to
you so that you understand. And I don’t
have to repeat this ordeal again.
Ever! “I like you, a lot.” Words spill out,
clattering across the table like
loose change, stunning you. Eyes widen. Dumbstruck,
Your swift ripostes rendered suddenly mute.
My eyes hold yours steady and assure you,
I’m serious. Your lips make to move, but
you stop and try to work and rework out
what to say and how. I know your answer
already. I want to tell you that. And
as you laugh in nervousness. I join in.
I’ve joined this writing group and the first assignment was to write a poem in iambic pentameter (penta, means5. iambs, that’s a unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, think daDUM. So iambic pentameter is 5 sets of iambs). They gave us some lines to start us off. I found the exercise much trickier than I thought it would be. In the end, I wrote something but it felt like it was fitting a square peg in a round hole.
So, I’ve unpegged it. And let the lines run free. I think they feel better for it. I’ve tried to keep the ending in iambic pentameter. A bit of discipline never went amiss.
It’s a bit dark… but it was sort of inspired by the upcoming 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.
*Phsar Doeum Thkov is the neighbourhood where I live in Phnom Penh.
An evening walk in Phsar Doeum Thkov*
These streets have no name. They’re just numbers on a map.
Street five hundred is mine.
I walk them as sun sets.
Five-0-two is next.
Dogs shake off hot sun,
stretch and yap at my feet.
I don’t like it.
5-0-4 is cheerfully lined with white, pink and yellow
frangipani trees. I’d linger but,
for the dogs. Besides, I’m meant to be doing exercise.
There, a huge white house stands behind
iron gates. Next door, a wooden shack.
Do the neighbours talk to one another?
These nameless streets hold innumerable,
unsaid, unspoken, memories. Walls, Stones,
dare I ask, what happened? Who fell? When? Who
cowered? Cried? Wept? Died? How? Bludgeoned? Shot? Who