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Notes from Singapore: Ordinary inspirations

By Ranjani Rao

“Walking is a pastime rather than an avocation.” Rebecca Solnit

In the weeks since social distancing measures were imposed and circuit breaker measures implemented in Singapore, despite having more time on my hands, my writing output has decreased. Have I been afflicted by the dreaded writer’s block?

By working from home, I save almost two hours of commute time every day. Instead of writing more, I find myself in a slump. Is my well of inspiration drying up?

Topics to write (mostly Covid-19 related) still buzz around in my head but I am surprised to discover just how much I depended on the world outside my home to stimulate not just my senses, but also to rouse my muse.

Unexpected encounters on the train, surprising conversations with colleagues at work, casual lunches with friends, all served as triggers for ideas, inspirations, and epiphanies. Without these avenues to spur creativity, I fret about wasting these precious extra hours that have landed into my packed schedule like a much-needed gift.

All that is left of my pre-pandemic life is the ability to step out of my home for a walk, as long as I wear a mask, walk alone, and avoid crowding. Not a bad idea, since walking is my favorite ‘sport’.

Walking has been my savior for as long as I can remember. Walking has rescued me, given me a respite from life, and a reason to continue with it. It has served as an exercise to maintain physical health, a mindful pause to collect myself emotionally, and as a conduit to receive guidance in turbulent times.

The wonder years

As lanky teenage girls, my friend and I walked hand in hand, two pairs of braids swinging around our shoulders, wearing similar if not identical clothes through busy Bombay streets. Some evenings we walked to the temple, on others we did some errands, or stopped for spicy street food when we had money.

Traffic fumes engulfed us as we navigated streets crowded with vendors pushing cartloads of bananas, people queuing up at bus stops, and beggars lining the pavements. We talked as we walked, trying to make sense of growing up, and understand the world of adults while we contemplated our future. We didn’t know then that she would get married young but remain childless, a lingering regret that she is yet to come to terms with. Neither could we have predicted the marital troubles that would plague me for several years before I took action.

Working mother

As a young working woman, I resumed walking in California during my lunch hour. Stuck in a laboratory all day, mothering a baby in the evenings, and catching up on housework on weekends left few options for exercise. I strolled around the one-mile periphery of the triangular campus in the mild sunshine. A gentle breeze blew around my face as I walked in my comfy Easy Spirit pumps, taking in the pleasant greenery of the beautiful site. Walking helped my body lose some of the pregnancy weight and enabled me to make peace with my decision to be a working mother without letting debilitating mommy guilt weigh me down.

It was an era before cell phones became appendages. Getting away from your desk meant truly stepping away from co-workers, computers, and chores. I made a new friend one afternoon, a young woman who had arrived from China. She seemed excited but bewildered by the world around her. Her lack of fluency in English was no barrier to our connection. We spoke about important things, matters that were hard to articulate to others but easier to say aloud to a relative stranger albeit one you met regularly.

An unexpected life trajectory

The terrace of the duplex house in Hyderabad that I moved into when my child was eight served as my walking track for several years. The large L-shaped structure overlooked a frangipani tree in the front yard. Although too big for just the two of us, the spacious house with a private gate shielded me from inquisitive neighbors and well-intentioned strangers curious about my life.

The moon would hang low on some nights, yellow and heavy with promises of better days. On dark moonless nights that reflected my somber mood, I wondered about the string of circumstances that had now made me a single parent. Managing a full-time job and holding complete responsibility for a growing child were clearly not compatible. Nightly walks along the edges of the small terrace gave me clarity and confidence that I could leave my job and still maintain financial independence. It would mean reconfiguring the career path I had planned, but in the long run, it would enable me to create a more balanced work life.

Lockdown blues

These days, instead of a nightly walk after dinner, I sometimes take another one after lunch, especially if the sky is overcast, or if it has just rained. The gently sloping street is lined with condos, many among them bearing some variation of the word ‘hill’ in its name. Not surprising, since I have a clear view of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve from my balcony. 

Each condo has a personality that is not as evident at night. Used to the seasonal lights that adorn the entryways, each condo trying to outdo the other for every major festival, I now observe subtle differences that I had not previously noticed.

One has an impressive two-level waterfall at the entrance that pours into a pool where koi fish and small turtles swim. A newly-constructed condo has terraced spaces in its outer walls where flowering plants bloom. From the opposite side of the road, they look like tulips, reminding me of a missed opportunity for a trip to Keukenhof, Netherlands for the spring tulip season.

The cemented court, a short distance from the community center that served as a gathering point for the gardening club as well as the tai chi class, is taped off. A lone collared kingfisher sits atop a light pole. Mynas chirp loudly and assemble on a small flowering tree and gobble all the seeds that are yet to flower before rushing off to their next halt.

Joys of walking

As we navigate these unprecedented days of the pandemic, I am grateful that I have the freedom to walk. Much more than mere exercise, walking is my moving meditation. Now walking is my catalyst for creativity. 

Through walking, I have once again learnt to zoom in on the things closest to me, the ones with the most significance. I am hyper-aware that time, like breath, simply slips away if we don’t give it our attention.

Even though the days seem interminable, sooner or later, life will return to normal. Before that happens, I want to make sure I observe and imprint the beauty of these ordinary days, and savor the pleasure found in simple activities like walking,

In the words of John Burroughs –

“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”

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Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir.  Check out her writing at her website www.ranjanirao.com and receive a free ebook. Connect with her at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

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