Thursday, October 27, 2011

Running With Scissors

I've read a handful of child abuse accounts, but that didn't make Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors (2003, Atlantic Books, 304 pages) any more palatable. It's the sort of book that I hope will never become palatable to me -- yet that I go on reading anyway, because I don't want to be someone who assumes that bad things go away the moment I stop seeing them.

For a number of reasons, everything I read and watch gets pushed through a detailed assessment of how appropriate it would be for various audiences, mostly broken down by age. Between these pages lie stories that make me think, "This is no book for a child." A moment later, I'm jarred anew by the realisation that this is no life for a child, yet there it is: it happened, and here the grown Burroughs is to tell the tale. Given away at age 12 to a psychiatrist who appears -- pardon the expression -- loonier than anyone he's treating. Left to cope alone with the most frightening manifestations of his mother's severe mental illness. Allowed, while still legally a child, to be in a physical relationship with a man nearly 20 years older. What are they thinking? a voice yells with every chest-aching turn of the page. Don't they know that's statutory rape? Why doesn't she get help from someone who will help her get better? I know she's ill and that's not her fault, but how can she do this to her own child?

This one gets louder and louder with each passing chapter: Is there anybody -- just one person -- in this story who looks out for this boy? Who will give to him without expecting return? For whom he is priority number one?

I made it to the end and found that said person never turned up. It colours the world grey and powdery, bitter like dust in your mouth from walking around a construction site, to know that this evil happens constantly in the lives of too many small, vulnerable people. Yet, even with mouth dry, eyes streaming and heart wrenched, I knew this wasn't the last such book I'd read.

Reading helps me to understand, and that helps me to help. I have no illusions of myself as some magical healer, toting an all-purpose bandage for emotional wounds of all shapes and sizes. In fact, the more I see of just how much ugly this world is capable of, the poorer-equipped I feel to fight it. It isn't fun feeling helpless, but I think that's the key to being of any help at all. My colleagues who've been in helping professions for way longer tell me this is true. Clients come to us broken. We so crudely insult them if we give them the false promise that we, or anyone, will fix it. On the other side of that, though, is this great honour: that we get to walk alongside them while they discover the beauty that can radiate through the cracks. That, if we allow it, we are shown in the process the brokenness that is inherent in us, every one. And there, at our weakest, we find strength from beyond these broken selves.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Heigh ho, heigh ho

It's off to work we go! The donkey too? You bet your stripey socks. We don't stock pickaxes in this house (or in most counselling offices) but a well-loved Muji pen does the trick.

I'm glad I woke up early enough to post this before I set off. It would have been that much harder to rhyme "ho" with "went".

Friday, October 14, 2011

These days

It's nice to sit by the river with a book or two now, when the wind rolling off the water carries neither the biting chill of winter nor the fan-forced-oven blast of summer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A borrowed welcome

Dear newest little nephew,

This past Saturday, which I would later discover was to be your birthday, I went to the local library. As usual, I entered with the purpose of unburdening myself of borrowed reading and watching material; I left more heavily laden than I had come in.

For some reason, one of the things I picked up that day was a paperback copy of The Complete Nonsense & Other Verse of Edward Lear. Not that there's anything nonsensical about you, of course.

Today I was thumbing through the pages of "nonsense" (it's terribly insightful, more so than many of the "sensible" writings lying around) and came across a letter Mr Lear wrote to a newborn niece. It's quite long and I imagine your parents are busy feeding, burping, bathing, changing, dressing and altogether adoring you, so I won't require them to read you the whole thing. Only these lines:

"... I congratulate you heartily on coming into a world where if we look for it there is far more good & pleasure than we can use up -- even in the longest life... I therefore advise you to live & laugh as long as you can for your own pleasure, & that of all your belongings."

I look forward to seeing pictures of you that, doubtless, your parents will be sending along ANY MOMENT NOW (no pressure!). I look forward even more to meeting you in person. In the meantime, I give thanks, as I have done constantly from the moment I was told of your existence, for all that you are and were made to become.

One of your Kor-kors

1: One

I thought it was fitting to end this last of my 31 series with "One". Not only because it's what comes after 2 when you're counting backwards; I do try to avoid redundancy in my language. "One" signifies a few things for me:

It signifies the idea of beginning; round number counting always begins with one. In order to have arrived at whatever age I am at the present moment, I first got to one. The seconds and days and years added themselves on -- but always one at a time, despite the seeming quickness or slowness of some seasons.

It signifies unity; within a person as well as with others. You don't have to be diagnosed with DID to be prone to disagreement with yourself. If you don't believe me, see what happens in your head the next time you reach for salty high-carb snacks that don't go with your diet; or when you need to decide whether to get out of bed for your daily run on a particularly drizzly day when your quilt is being very affectionate. For me, "one" is a reminder that I no longer fight myself over whether to go to work, whether to eat, whether I am bookish and analytical or creative and unstructured. I have found that it's absolutely possible, absolutely livable, to be bookish and creative and analytical and unstructured. Once I ceased to see the elements of my life as mutually exclusive, it became possible to live with them all, and that's such a relief because it doesn't feel nice to be rejected -- if only by yourself.

Finally, "one" signifies my Creator, the one without whom I wouldn't have made it through these nearly 31 years, let alone written 31 daily posts about them. I wouldn't say that faith is a huge part of my life; it is my life. It's a faith that has grown quite separate of my earlier experiences, mostly for the better; a faith that I have sought and asked for and wrestled with in order that it could become every bit my own. And what is faith without an object? Mine is utterly in God, who is one. Not "one of" a pantheon of guardian deities; just one. Not "one among" equals. One. Only. So massive that I can never coax my mind into understanding Him; so good that I can never stop wanting to.

When I began on Day 1, I wasn't sure I'd make it over these 31 days without skipping a day here and there -- there was this one particularly close shave that only barely scrapes through as an excuse for writing, but still... I did it! In case you missed any of them, here's 31. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

2: Deep

I was 75% of the way through my Master's before I realised I was achieving more than I was learning.

I was 23 before I saw that the Bible I'd been shown all of my life -- a confusing tangle of chapter and verse numbers, colons, names of people and races long dead -- was really a narrative, rich in meaning and experience, that continues to present day with a core message that never loses relevance.

I read so many books, essays, speeches out of context, never understanding until I saw the situations and backgrounds from which they'd arisen.

I met a great deal of people of people who were eager to know, "What do you do?", and from whom I was eager to hear the answer, before I realised that I would much rather know the answer to this one: Who are you?

More than ever before, now I want to know what's truest of any human, animal, idea, object or belief that crosses my path. I find that's usually not lying around on the surface for just anyone to see. I'm sick of taking things only at face value, of the laziness that leaves us ignorant and uncomprehending of the depths.

I'm far from the first to feel this way. There must be more of us around than I'm prone to think, or how would Leunig have thought to write the following prayer?

"God be with those who explore in the cause of understanding, whose search takes them far from what is familiar and comfortable and leads them into danger or terrifying loneliness. Let us try to understand their sometimes strange or difficult ways; their confronting or unusual language; the uncommon life of their emotions, for they have been affected and shaped and changed by their struggle at the frontiers of a wild darkness, just as we may be affected, shaped and changed by the insights they bring back to us. Bless them with strength and peace." (From When I Talk To You: A Cartoonist Talks To God)

Saturday, October 08, 2011

3: Sky

I enjoy looking up at what encircles our little planet. These are only samples; I think the best views are the ones that have me too enraptured to bother getting out the camera.

Clouds over Penang, Malaysia

Twilight in Macdonaldtown, Sydney

Overcast sunrise in Tamarama, Sydney

Morning in Wentworth Falls, NSW

On the road southward, NSW

Summer blue, Haberfield, Sydney

First light, Mosman, Sydney

Friday, October 07, 2011

4: Body

Eleven: A male schoolmate zips past the badminton court where we're having rhythmic gymnastics practice after school. "Hey you, I never noticed before that you have FAT LEGS!" For the rest of primary school -- a year and a bit -- this is what he calls me whenever he sees me. Up close, from a distance, anytime, loudly if nobody else is around to hear it, hissed under his breath when he doesn't want nearby classmates and teachers to detect his one-person verbal assault. FAT LEGS. Always I see it in block caps, stout and round as I must surely be, to have so caught the attention of a peer.

Fourteen: My aunt, sitting at the dining table with me and her daughter, demands of her, "Why is Sharon's face so nice and long? Yours is so round. Sharon, you don't eat a lot, do you? She [elbows my cousin] should learn from you."

Twenty-five: Walking to the basement car park after church, I rise on tiptoe to squeeze through the narrow gap between two bollards. Boyfriend-at-the-time drops his jaw in mock amazement, exclaiming altogether too loudly for an echo-filled basement, "Wow, you made it through! Guess you're not built like a house after all."

Six: Friends of my father who meet his family for the first time comment on his hefty son and slight daughter. "Of course, that's the way it should be. Girls shouldn't be too big. I wouldn't worry about her not eating much, that's how they stay thin."

Seven: "Is this your daughter? The one I met last year? She's bigger now, so cute! What happened, does she eat a lot now?"

Sixteen: "You've lost so much weight since I last saw you! Must be the stress from your dad's heart attack and all that. ['All that' = his nearly dying from the heart attack; a two-month recuperation before a quintuple bypass before a long recovery; helping my mum to deal with the strain of a husband and father who would not take responsibility for his health and never seemed to realise he was capering about on death's door.] But it looks good on you. Better than being on a diet!" Again I hear this at 18, 19, while being run off my feet with the combination of tertiary study in KL and accompanying a terminally ill mother to treatment in Singapore. Stress keeps you from eating. Stress makes you thin. Thin looks good. Stress makes you look good.

Twenty-three: My first ballet class since I was 11. Leotards and tights, hair in buns, the whole form-fitting outfit again to make it easier to note alignment and form. But I no longer have the uniformly pudgy, curve-less body of a child. I am almost at my thinnest ever, but I cannot bear to look directly at my reflection. My rented room in Sydney is a compact, tidy space of which one wall comprises floor-to-ceiling mirrored wardrobe doors. I am constantly in my own view, even when I don't want to be. That would be always.

Twenty-eight: I can look at myself now. I haven't made a hobby of it, but I don't cringe at the sight of myself or wonder if I'm taking up more of the mirror's width than I used to. I started eating at least three solid, nutritious meals a day only a year or two ago. I exercise regularly; because I want to stay flexible and healthy, not to keep myself from growing fat. I don't own a car anymore, so I'm forced to get up and walk to public transport if I want to get anywhere. People tell me I look good. I meet a good friend from KL when his ship sails into Botany. "Boy, you've gained weight!" are the first words I hear from him, yes, even before "Good to see you and thanks for travelling an hour and a half to meet me." They will continue to prick at me for a couple of years, the freely given comments on increase and decrease alike. But there comes a day, sometime in my 31st year, when they cease to bother me.

Nearly 31: Weight is only a number. Health can't be quantified, however much we try to take safety in "good" lipid counts and blood glucose. Food is no longer synonymous with control, nor size with power. As a child I never knew what it felt like to be enough, exactly as I was, to not be made much of just because I was thin and delicate or chubby and cute. As an adult I struggled to erase the memories of male taunts while trying to squeeze into a size and shape that would protect me from further attack. No more. I eat well now, with less concern for how much than how good it is for me. I move as much as I can. And I delight in every inch of the way I look, because I know that it's all a good idea to the one who made me this way. Nobody else's opinion matters.

Writing this post brought to mind this forgotten one from March 2006. Hope it also gives you something to chew on.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

5: No

Poor misunderstood No. It's associated with selfishness, with disobedience and disrespect, with impatient inflexible uncooperative people and difficult toddlers. It's assumed to be on the Dark Side of a duality on which Yes resides with sunshine, popsicles and all other Nice Things. So, Yes is good because when someone says Yes they're saying "I will do this", "I will make room for that", "I will give this to you". No is bad because of all the things we see people not doing, not making room for, not giving. It's harder to see that the No we hear is simply the other side of a Yes said to something else, something that might very well be far more deserving of that person than we are. That if we really want to nod to the important things in our lives, it's going to have to be a sideways shake to everything else.

I've found that most of us have a severely maladjusted sense of who/what deserves which answer, especially if we grew up with parents whose lives regularly said Yes to more work and No to spending time with their families. Or Yes to anything that would take us closer to being the Perfect All-Singing All-Dancing Plate-Spinning Excellent In All Areas Child and No to allowing us space to occupy this earth as our unadorned little selves. But childhood is far behind my generation now and life constantly lays a fresh multiple-choice question before us, with only two options. It could be time we learnt to decide for ourselves, instead of letting our families and pasts pencil in the answer on our behalf.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

6: Language

Yes, "Sharon" is my name. Yes of course I mean my official legal name. Well, it is the name my parents gave me -- um, there are lots of non-white parents the world over who give their children "Western" names at birth but, if you want to split hairs that way, mine's actually Hebrew. Oh, and my parents approved it but it was really my brother who chose my name when I was born. I know, not bad work for a four-year-old boy. I do realise I'm fortunate not to have had to go through life as Millennium Falcon Toh.

Thanks, you speak English really well, too. Oh, it's your first language so I shouldn't be surprised? Well, it's my first language as well, so where's your surprise coming from? Yes, really. It is perfectly possible for people born outside Australia (or England, Canada, the US, wherever else your Zone of English Language Exclusion extends) to speak English as a first language. It's not the only language I speak but it is the one that I use the most and therefore am most fluent in. I do wish I spoke my other languages better, especially the ones my ancestors spoke, but seeing that that ball got dropped at least two generations back it's been a lot less accessible to us than English.

I might have accumulated a tiny bit of angst after several years of introducing myself to ignorant people. It's only in the past few years that I've stopped trying to explain myself, and still more recently that I've given up the overcompensating streak that I subconsciously applied to make up for any handicaps that others might have assumed I needed on the sole basis of where I was born.

By the way, it works both ways: there are elderly members of my family who, despite our best efforts to explain the diversity of the world's geography, cannot be persuaded that there indeed exist "red hairs" (direct translation from the Hokkien term for Caucasian) who don't speak a word of English. It's easy to assume things based on your narrow experience of people of a certain skin colour or birthplace. I just hope this awareness has adequately transferred into all areas of my life, not only language. I want to experience people and places at their best and truest, not through the distortions of my preconceptions.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

7: Stationery

Town Hall Square Library Link, Sydney

This is what I'm likely to have with me on any given day: donkey, blank book, pens -- alongside the things more typically found in a handbag. (Keys, sunglasses, phone, camera, yes; five colours of lipstick, no. Maybe "typically" wasn't the best choice of words.) It isn't great for the shoulder, but at least I'm never caught without a place to write down a sudden observation/story idea.

I have a special place in my heart for inexpensive writing implements that write reliably and maintain their nib integrity up to the last drop of ink. I like even more that this Pilot G-1 (my favourite inexpensive reliable model of pen, most vexatiously not sold in Australia) in the picture has an old-fashioned price tag on it, and it's even reinforced with sellotape to prevent customers' itchy fingers from peeling it off. On that price tag is the logo of the stationery shop a few roads behind my family home in PJ, a shop that has been there since my childhood. My brother, youngest ketchup sister and I used to walk over as a special after-lunch treat on some days. The dim, dusty aisles topped with tidy rows of decorated pencils, arranged by design and lead colour, were fascinating to pre-formal schooling me.

It's no longer dim and dusty; some years ago the owner put in air conditioning and rearranged things a bit, probably wiping things along the way. But whenever I'm back it's still my go-to place -- to stockpile pen refills, of course, but also to browse other Malaysian stationery shop ephemera: badminton racquets, harmonicas, ping-pong nets, carrom men, ledgers, fishing rods, hula hoops. Things that can't be labelled stationery by any stretch of the imagination. So maybe it's not only stationery that I have a weakness for; it's the idea that it is possible to endure without conforming to a label.

Monday, October 03, 2011

8: Age

I chatted online with a former teacher almost exactly a year ago.

"Hurry up and get married lah! You're nearly 30 already!" she urged.

I hear that sort of thing all the time, so that one event wasn't noteworthy. What made it memorable was the fact that this was the same woman who had said the following four years before, as part of a text message:

"[Husband] impossible n driving me nuts. Advice -- remain single til 30. Freedom priceless. Take care. Ms X"

So, if I'd taken Ms X's advice both times, I should have spent the remaining four years of my 20s in determined pursuit of being single. And then, it seems, shortly before the stroke of midnight on my 30th birthday, I ought to have found someone to marry and then made sure that everything was signed, stamped and toasted by 500 raucous Chinese* before carriage turned to pumpkin, horses to mice, and humongous glass slippers to humongous everyday flats (let's be realistic, even in a fairy tale I'd still have outsize flippers for feet). Because seemingly, 30 is a magical age when a woman's value expires unless validated by the institution of marriage.

More on marriage another day, but for now let's look at age. So it seems I've already failed one of the criteria that I'm supposed to have been able to tick off by 30. Not to mention that I am still, at time of publishing this post, jobless; have yet to recover the majority of my savings that I plunged into further study and the necessary relocation that ensued; do not own real estate or have a significant investment portfolio.

But I'll tell you what I do have, much of which I didn't have when I was 16, 21, 25, all those ages of which people like Ms X wistfully mourn the passing: I have joy. My mind, after 23 years in the gloom of depression, is at peace. I wake every morning with a sense of purpose and direction. Every task, big or small -- from making coffee and mixing cake batter to emailing people with Big Important Titles at international organisations engaged in helping-people-type things -- is informed by the knowledge that I am enjoying this moment in this place with these resources and these people because this is exactly where I'm meant to be.

Baking for other people gives me an excuse to make frosting.
Cupcakes for the New Year's Eve picnic of 2009.

Maybe one reason for so many to lament their age and the increasing distance from childhood is that they miss that time. On my part, I never had a carefree childhood so there isn't much to miss; or whatever I do miss -- such as people and pastimes -- most of them are easy enough to connect with here and now. Those that I can't, such as people who've stopped breathing and playgrounds that have been torn down: well, no amount of mourning for them will bring them back, so I do as I've learnt. I remember them fondly, and I find ways for my present life to reflect the riches they brought to my past.

A lot of my female friends a year or two younger than me have told me they're petrified of celebrating their 30th birthdays with no man in sight. For their sake I'll put it out here: I've spent the past five and a half years not in a significant relationship, and my 30th birthday was wonderful. I spent the day at the beach. Then I met friends for dinner, new friends who'd lived in the same apartment building for half a year without my knowing until I ran into them at my new church. She baked me a cake; he sang to me in Spanish. Later that week, I flew to Perth courtesy of nice cousins for a five-day celebration that included cake, a road trip, bad 80s rock, more of the ocean, and way too much food for five people with 30- and nearly-30-year-old metabolisms. The day I flew back to Sydney, another cousin invited me to a Moroccan dinner to celebrate two birthdays: mine and her daughter's, seven days after mine. The metabolism was unchanged. That was the beginning of a good year for me, one that has surprised me at every possible point.

The birthday cake Erin baked for me last October, which revealed
that we share similar principles in cake decorating. Picture by Erin.

When I started keeping a regular journal, one thing I resolved to see between its pages was growth. I wanted to honestly say with each passing year that it's the best I've ever had. So far, I've kept that resolution. Life has continued to be rocky. My family is as it has been and might never change. Still, I've given up worrying about elements beyond my control and instead invested all I had into improving the quality of my life where I can: the work that will take up the bulk of my time and, in return, give me some of that stuff that we use to pay rent and buy food and look after our neighbour; the relationships that have been entrusted to me; the body I'm left with for the rest of my time on Earth; whichever place I call "home" for the time being. Maybe the reason I don't work up a good sweat approaching every birthday, why 31 doesn't scare me and, I hope, neither will 84, is that I don't wait for birthdays before I contemplate where my life is headed and whether I'm doing it well.

So, in reply to Ms X and everyone who's hovered anxiously around me telling me that I need to get married/look for a house to buy/think about voluntarily increasing my superannuation rather than giving more money away... thank you for caring enough to say these things. (And by the way, the 3 of you to whom I owe money: don't worry, it isn't your money I'll be giving away. I won't resume my former habits of giving to causes until you've got back everything you kindly lent me when I needed food money and a roof over my head.)

Thanks for telling me, in your own ways, to go after the things that you feel go best with my life at this age. But I'm really OK. I'm more than OK. I'm 30 years and 357 days old, and passionately enjoying every moment of the passing time. Because it isn't being married at 31, successful at 31, wealthy at 31, or even healthy at 31 that will make me happy. These things are all great and I believe I'll have every good thing I'm meant to have, when I'm meant to have it. But if I'm not able to find joy now without these things, I doubt I'll be any good with them.

Great timing, by the way, that as I started writing this post I saw this link on a friend's Facebook page. Wouldn't there be a lot less stigma attached to ageing if more of us approached it the way Hedda Bolgar does?

*This statement is no indication of disrespect towards the Chinese. I'm Chinese (at least on paper, and I'm positive that genetically my family is predominantly Han, but there must be some Benetton-advertising sensibility weaving through our lineage or surely my brother and I wouldn't look the way we do). I'm glad to be Chinese. But I'm not blind to the fact that apart from being the world's most populous ethnic group, we might also be its loudest. Especially at weddings.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

9: Driving

I'm not huge on cars; to me, they're nice to have if your life requires you to move around a lot. They're very nice to have in bad weather when you're cooking a recipe that calls for half a dozen eggplants and two pineapples. When I own one (or have charge of one), I do my best to keep the car happy. But I am not one of those people who's got a dream car all plotted out, down to the model and engine capacity and colour and detailing. If I had to choose, I'd probably go with something sedate and timeless in a neutral colour that doesn't show its dirt too easily, because car-washing isn't high on my priority list.

Which, I suppose, is what amused everybody in my life when I bought the very first car that was all my very own, and it turned out to be


I named it shortly after bringing it home, a steal at more than 20% off the market price. After years of driving my family's much-loved but increasingly erratic '79 Corolla, I had been wishing I could have a brand-new car for once. Whoda thunk I'd get my wish, well within the reach of even poorly-paid musical production assistant me? Granted, I had no say over the colour, or the fact that it had been a lucky draw prize for an equestrian event whose organisers saw fit to cover each door with a stylised horse. But it was still under manufacturer's warranty, had barely 200km on the clock, and the plastic still on the seats, and you could still see the original colour of the dipstick handle. And it had been released as some fancy-pants "Special Edition" with additional sports features, like a brushed-steel gearshift. Ah, the number of times I blistered my left palm getting Spunky into gear after a couple of hours parked under the Malaysian sun.

But I never minded, because it was clean and new and it didn't overheat, stall or leak. It was a safe vessel to give people lifts in, to get around with as work and leisure demanded without worrying about whether my outfit was waterproof enough. I could park it without straining my triceps sore. I could lock the doors when I was driving alone, confident that the locks wouldn't jam and require me to climb out a window. And it was mine, all mine.

Spunky is only one example of the way I rarely get exactly what I expect -- the way I usually get way more than I would have known how to ask for.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

10: Ocean

For an inland family, we spent a lot of time by the ocean when I was younger. My parents had membership at a club in Port Dickson and there was a time, hard as it is to believe now, when everyone was not too busy/distracted/angry for the two-hour southward drive to be made frequently.

Another big source of childhood memories is spending school holidays in Pangkor with my mother's family. Other than Thailand, this small island served well as an annual holiday destination. It was conveniently located almost exactly halfway between Penang and PJ, making it not too far a drive for any of us.

This is my memory of Pangkor, a place I've never visited since our last family holiday there in either 1992 or 1994:

The long drive up to Lumut (remember, there was once a time when Malaysia didn't have an expressway along its whole length? When all journeys were long and fraught with unhappiness for those drivers who cannot stand to be stuck behind a smoky, clattering lorry on a single-lane trunk road, and for passengers of said drivers?). A happy reunion with my aunts, uncles, cousins and sometimes grandmother. Parking the cars in the open-air lot near the petrol station. Gathering luggage and children, beach toys and inflatable dinghy, and walking to the jetty to wait for the ferry. I have no idea what the ferry service looks like now, not having taken that trip since I was 14 or younger, but I remember it to be an oligopoly of mostly family-owned firms. Each had a small number of vessels painted in a signature colour. That palette seems to speak for an entire era of limited paint colours, especially waterproof paint colours. There was green, the pale green of enamel drinking cups, and yellow-beige, and a lurid blue that kind of made you want to sing the Smurf song all the way over to the island, all together, as loud as your little lungs could manage. I won't say this actually happened. (I am surprised at how youthful our parents remained, in spite of us.)

Once on Pangkor, we'd check in to our accommodation: the old government-owned guest house when that still existed; a no-star beach motel once the guest house was decommissioned. That I say the motel had no stars is no indication of its quality. I'm just trying to introduce you to the island as I remember it before the developers for international hospitality chains swooped in and started building brand-name hotels. The Pangkor we knew as children was a place where accommodation was fancy if you could lock the door -- or, actually, if it had a door to begin with. The room might come with mosquito netting, sometimes for a price, but insisting on air-conditioning was what officially set you apart as a gringo. The rooms were clean and had attached bathrooms, and the showers even had hot water. There were showers; you didn't even have to take splash baths with a dipper from a built-in open-topped tank. What else could you ask for?

There would be fresh seafood at every meal, as befits an island holiday. Whole days were spent on the beach building and renovating sand castles. Often we'd be building the same sand castle for a week, because even though the beach was public and popular nobody went out of their way to wreck someone else's work. Rain didn't deter us so long as there was no lightning; we were going to be wet anyway. My father would use the rough weather to teach me how to dodge and dive into waves, a skill he learnt well in his athletic youth in the choppy waters surrounding Penang. Of course, he couldn't have known his daughter would grow up into someone who rarely spends any amount of time in water that isn't chlorinated and tidily contained in a lane-divided indoor pool.

At night, in those days when open burning was not illegal and the air was pristine enough for us not to mind polluting it a little, my uncle the Scout master would supervise the building of a campfire. We'd sit around it and have a singalong, listening to stories from these great big grown-ups who can't possibly have been children like us once, and what outrageous children too. It seemed just a little unfair that these sometime hellions, now respectably settled in the middle class, expected their offspring to be buttoned-up good kids. Just metres away, the waves would roll and recede, their voice remaining for all my life as a sound of safety and identity, good times and warm relationship.

Sorrento Beach, Western Australia

This was the answer that came to me as I drove along the coast the other day, windows down so that I could hear the surf even when the road dipped too low for me to see it. I wondered, why does the ocean mean so much to someone who was born and bred inland? What is it that draws me there time and again when I need comfort or perspective, and why does the sound of waves make me want to sing? Then the memories tumbled in with the waves, and for a moment I was home.
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