Home, Here by Lily Khin

From my bedroom window is the view of a tree. It’s a tall tree. A few days ago, I stood at the bottom of the small hill atop which our apartment block rests, and tried to figure out how tall this tree is, eventually settling on an arbitrary number: ten storeys. Ten storeys, perhaps more, perhaps less, but that should give you a sense of how immense this tree is, the manner in which it towers over its landscape. It’s also not an expansive, wide tree. Its branches don’t yawn outwards, but are packed with small oval leaves that remain austerely close to its central trunk – dark, almost black such that it looks perpetually rainkissed –  with no evidence of being trimmed. It occurs to me that I’m only able to speculate about the colour of its leaves from its ever changing view from my balcony, where they flicker green and yellow in the changing light. This tree is home to a flock of small birds, magpie robins or swallows, I can’t tell, who can be seen but most often heard at dawn and dusk, when they swell briefly across the sky before returning home. 

This tree lives alongside me, bursting with life, yet the act of looking is what brings this life into focus. The quiet self-sufficiency of nature doesn’t compete for our attention, and so it is all too easy to forget that there are worlds around us beyond just four walls and the day-to-day. Life is everywhere and abundant, from the billion microorganisms that live a teaspoon of soil to the ancient trees, and we are a part of this system of beautiful design. This perspective of human existence, as being in constant dialogue with the ecosystems in which we live is one that at once fills me with gratitude, humility and a sense of deep responsibility. 

Before this life, there was another life. In this prior life I woke up in a hurry, often stumbling out of bed half-asleep and beginning to run. Not running in its most literal sense, but in the constant chase against a seeming deluge of tasks upon which life’s rhythms were listlessly superimposed. In this life, I was haunted by the need to make a living. In this life, there was never enough time. In this life, the concept of a global pandemic remained invisible and formless, a wall of distraction offered by modern life erected between us and the terrifying truths of our time. 

When the news of a lockdown broke, I crossed the crowded intersection at Upper Serangoon Road to the now evicted nursery, taut with adrenaline and an inexplicable lump in my throat, to pick up a small bougainvillea plant. A thorny creature with unruly, snaking branches and dusty orange blooms that gave a sense of perpetual autumn, of an aching, prolonged unbecoming. In hindsight I wonder if what I was looking for was assurance – that flowers would continue to bloom, that this too would not disappear, leaving us behind. 

Lockdown – or Circuit Breaker as we called it in Singapore – was in many ways a reckoning, of being confronted by our own distorted image, realising in horror that we were looking into trick mirrors of complex design. How far away was reflection from this new reality? Inequalities and injustices that simmered now rose as unmistakable fault lines in society. Who are “essential” workers? Indeed, what does work mean to different people? What do we need to live fulfilled lives? What do we do in the absence of external forces that give shape to amorphous time? What is this period of chaos and stillness forcing us to see? 

For me, these anxieties played out in my inner world, spilling into the four walls of our tiny apartment that suddenly felt too small to contain the entirety of two messy lives: two world views, two lived experiences, two stubborn ways of being, and now too much time. Suspended in this liminal state, the claustrophobia was often unbearable, and I took myself frequently on long walks around my neighbourhood to give myself respite from the feeling of constant renegotiation with the act of existing. 

On these walks, it became easier to breathe. The streets of Kovan became a site of great entertainment and exchange. A curry leaf plant appeared out of nowhere outside the apartment complex, a vortex of baby leaves unfurling, and I stopped to inhale their deep fragrance. The once pristinely manicured grass now grazed my calves, studded with wildflowers blooming in rebellion. Bird rivalries and chivalries elicited belly laughs. I found myself often walking the inner roads I hadn’t explored in my four years of living there. I’d walk along Kovan Road, turning into Lowland Road, Richards Avenue, eventually reaching the open field at Parry Avenue where dogs would once gather to play. If I needed affirmation of life, it was on these walks that I found it. Where my phone and on news spoke of grim despair, the streets were hush, nature unflinching, unfolding, existing without fear. The act of truly seeing, of paying attention was what I was rediscovering. Everything I considered familiar (and therefore unworthy of further attention) was reborn with every purposeful step forward. If the trees, the birds, the insects can survive everything we’ve put them through, surely we – of the same cloth – possess the same innate wisdom?

Somewhere in Tanjong Pagar, streets emptied of people and traffic, I saw a law-abiding rooster and his little family – a plump hen and two chicks – use the pedestrian crossing to cross a six-lane road. They made it to the other side, and then disappeared into the maze of streets that compose the Central Business District. 

Attachment Theory suggests that children who have secure bonds with their parents or primary caregivers are more likely to develop into well-adjusted, successful, happy human beings. The idea is that when the world is uncertain or scary for a child, knowing that a caregiver they trust is close by helps them feel safe and confident. While this might be a gross oversimplification, it was something I thought a lot about in those early days. I was struck by the notion that for humanity, nature is the caregiver that stands by us unwaveringly, that holds us when the house of cards we’ve built comes crashing down. What are we if not children, running back to Mother Nature when we’ve gone too far and things don’t make sense. Acknowledging my spiritual, emotional relationship with nature has been one of the biggest sources of resilience. 

The light in Aroozoo park at dusk blazes orange and clay. Sitting on those northeast-facing metal seats painted a cloying pastel green, I experience sunsets here as a fire overhead, an almost gaudy display, but also as a beam of warmth at the back of my neck, a clandestine kiss. 

I live in a different neighbourhood now, in an old apartment atop a small hill, with a view of tall trees from my bedroom window. Life flows again, but the texture of time remains significantly altered. For many of us, going back to the way things were isn’t a choice we’d make. We can’t push fault lines back into the earth, but what we can do is acknowledge what their existence is pointing to. We can swap our trick mirrors for clear ones that show us the consequences of the ways we’ve chosen to live, who and what we’ve chosen to leave behind, at what cost. As I look upon the tree, its inhabitants darting from branch to branch, its leaves glistening gold, I’m reminded of the small part I play in the glorious whole. I feel fiercely responsible for this landscape that has held us through pain and destruction, that has stayed with us while we’ve ventured into the unknown, knowing more than ever that it’s my turn to do the same. You see, I’m home here. 

Recommended Reading: 

Arbos, Teju Cole (Granta)

Weather, Jenny Offill 

Intimations, Zadie Smith

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