We live in an economy of stories. It seems like every morning or evening, we confer and review the developments of the past 24 hours. These are statistics, new policies, or harrowing accounts by people all over the world. They are all stories, told to us by the news, by social media, by our parents at the dinner table. Not all of them are true. Among those that are false, some are harmless, like that message of positivity that Bill Gates was supposed to have written circulating through email and WhatsApp. Some of them are dangerous, like the miraculous badges that are supposed to neutralise viruses and bacteria being peddled on Lazada. But there are also true stories, some heartwarming, stories of heroism, kindness, and generosity. Some, of course, heartbreaking.
Now more than ever, our everyday is stories. There is no longer time or space, only what has happened and what will happen. What has happened to what. What has happened to whom. What will happen to us.
These places change. The change is usually quick to begin with—bookstores disappearing in the span of a year, skyscrapers emerging from seemingly nowhere, old buildings turned into new condominiums—but they have become immediate and tinged with greater uncertainties. People stop being able to meet friends or loved ones in restaurants and cinemas. Cafes house fewer customers. The hospitality industry is robbed of its ability to deliver its main product. At the bookstore that I frequent, they tell me that most of their customers come from abroad, and with borders practically impermeable now, sales have naturally plummeted.
Rupture—rupture so violent that families, businesses, and communities struggle to respond adequately to it. Given my limited ability to help, I merely support a few of my favourite stores for as long as I am able to. The frequency at which I visit has gone up, but the time in between visits now seems all the longer. Every trip to a café or a bookstore has to tolerate the strain imposed by the crisis. Sometimes it feels like a death has occurred, that there is a dark topic at the centre of it all that we are skirting around, too aware of yet doing our best not to speak of it. And then, we finish each of these encounters with almost excessive well-wishes. Stay healthy. Keep well. Take care. I’ll see you soon—a greeting like a promise like a vow.
And then, on 7 April 2020, like everything else in this developing crisis, even these minute possibilities come abruptly to an end.
[Junior Lim, 24 March 2020]
The past couple of weeks haven’t been great for me.
The shop is losing its vitality, or at least it is, to me. Perhaps it sounds heavy-handed, and I surely hesitated putting these thoughts into words, but I will say it again: the shop is losing its vitality.
It’s funny how things can change in just about two months. I remember shifts where stepping into the shop was anxiety inducing in all the best ways: orders that seemed never-ending, slinging delicate hand brewed coffees and pulling precise shots of espresso at every moment, nailing perfect milk texture and making sure not to overfill your cups, and of course, messing everything up and learning the hard way. It’s been a minute.
Days now are quiet. There’s that occasional slam every now and then, but often, there’s a lull that never seems to end. We all know what’s up with the state of the world, and even so, it’s tough to accept that you can’t do a thing to turn the tables, except to wait it out, even if it is the objective truth. I miss having too many people around and too many coffees to make.
Life goes on and I go to work as I always do. More than ever, restoring the shop’s vitality has become a commitment to me, and I believe hospitality and experience are the way forward. Brewing our guests the best coffee they’ve ever had, filling the space with the right music, and having genuine conversations with our guests, asking them how they’re holding up even if it means being social in a time when we’re encouraged to be distant – an impossibility, because after all, coffee is social.
I see the shop, the space, as alive. Like the rest of the world, its vitality has taken a hit, perhaps more so because it’s a space to be social. There are days where life in its current state bums me out, but today I am reminded of my commitment: to be hospitable in a difficult time, and to brew the best tasting coffee at each opportunity, so we can all talk about how awesome coffee is, even if it’s just for a brief minute.
My name is Junior, and I look forward to seeing you at Kurasu.
I wash my hands repeatedly through the day. Part of it is down to a sense of social responsibility, attached to which is also a sense of guilt. There is also a paranoia that any surfaces I happen to touch are inevitably contaminated. I wonder if there’s a point at which it becomes unhealthy. I keep thinking of that scene in The Aviator.
As advised, I always try to remain conscious not to touch my face with my hands, although it proves difficult. For one thing, the more I do so, the more likely an itch develops out of nowhere. Furthermore, I find that I keep my arms more or less locked at certain angles, that my shoulders become stiff, simply because I start paying too much attention to misbehaving hands and refuse to move my limbs carelessly.
On the train, I do my best to keep a comfortable distance from people, more out of the fear that I am unwittingly spreading the disease around. I subconsciously lock myself in position, adhering to whatever corner I manage to find, so disciplined that when I disembark, I feel the effects of prolonged immobility in my back, a dull ache and a sudden inflexibility.
It is as if my hands my spine my face my body no longer belongs to myself. In this season, I am handless, faceless, a stiff skeleton creature.
But there is a collective body, that of the commune, the body of society, a greater machine struggling to conjure again the semblance of truly being alive—of culture, of community, of song. In this system, we dance like particles trying to avoid one another, yet unable to contain our frightened motion. In this system, we are cells or atoms, participating without being truly able to see how we connect to the larger purpose. Sometimes, it can seem as though this collective body is all we have, this social organisation, this economic machine. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that this collective body is how we find meaning or connection, how we educate our children, how we understand joy and sorrow. It is a body nourished by our words and voices. The songs may have changed, but
you mustn’t forget to sing.
[CY, 2 May 2020]
In February, I got excited about seeing an advertisement somewhere for an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper and told a friend about it. As I scanned through the job requirements, one of which was having to stay for two weeks on the island before getting a day off, I remember thinking to myself, “Hey, I can do that!” It was a job that aligned well with me—away from the city, not surrounded by people, not concrete, not iron, not steel.
I didn’t apply for the job in the end, but one of the first things my friend asked me: “What if there are ghosts?”
But what if we are surrounded by ghosts in the first place?
As I sift through the moments of my past, trying to make sense of how my life has changed with the Covid-19 situation, I feel haunted. Looking at everyday moments, I see the what-could-have-beens hiding behind how things have been irrevocably transformed by the present. It exists in the casual forgetting of the mask as I step out the house, my body remembering how it was like not so long ago when it was not mandatory. It is in the wave of déjà vu that hits as I am riding up the escalator in the mall, flooded by a memory of happier times when riding up the same escalator meant a trip to the library. Moments like these are like closing my eyes after staring at the sun for too long—after-images that exist tantalizingly out of reach.
While I feel lost at sea, I have also been buoyed by more positive moments. I now have a niece, a March baby born in the lull before the current pandemic. Although the circuit breaker means that my family can no longer visit her, my brother updates us with pictures and videos of her, and it warms me to see how much she is growing.
I still run. I’m not very good at it, but I am getting better at listening to my body. During a period of repeated injuries, an ex-colleague once asked me what I was running away from. That was years ago. Even now, I still don’t have the answer to that question. But I prefer to think that just as I’m moving one foot in front of the other, my momentum carries me towards something better. Perhaps in current times, I have become a lighthouse keeper in my own way, scanning the horizon not for danger but for more positive moments.