by Esther Vincent Xueming
I find myself standing again at the edge of the road, although now, there is something different, I can’t quite pinpoint what, about this road from the road I remember. In search of the field of my childhood, I cross. In this dream, the place I grew up in is familiar yet strange, and instead of a small patch of grass that used to mark the boundary between this estate and the next, there is now a manicured lawn with various kinds of weird and wonderful animals perambulating.
But this is not the field of my childhood—where as a child of nine or ten, I used to ramble for hours on my own while my mother did her chores in our apartment on the third floor, leaving me to return with bunches of wildflowers and rapt stories of tiger moths—so I continue walking down the road, on the red road tiles shaped like arrows pointing me home, through the void decks of the housing estate, under sheltered walkways connecting block to carpark, past the empty playing court where you could string a net or ride around in circles on your bike, towards the lift lobby, normally flooded with natural light, now morphed into a dark corridor. But I walk further still, towards the phone booth near the letter boxes on the ground floor, because my memory tells me that beyond the labyrinth of pillars, the grey of concrete will give way to a field of green.
Mary Oliver writes in Upstream that a writer’s subject may just as well be what she “longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty”. And yet, to long for the subject of this essay, the field of my childhood, is to long for a broken and irretrievable past. A place or habitation I can no longer enter in the physical sense though I keep returning to it in my dreams, in various iterations and permutations, the field changing each time, but still the same.
The field of my dreams was once a field of green, inhabited by wildflowers I would only later learn the names of. One day, upon visiting my mother, she hands me two books I used to own as a child: A Guide to the Wildflowers of Singapore and A Guide to Medicinal Plants, scientific handbooks published by the Singapore Science Centre. I flip the cover and on the reverse side, my mother’s name “Mrs. Vincent Elaine” is written in blue ink, dated “10/3/99”, against paper ringed with the sepia of mould. These would be the same two handbooks I would consult twenty one years later as I revise a poem for a Creative Writing Graduate course about childhood, memory and change.
But what of the field, you ask?
To paint a landscape from memory, one has to take certain liberties. But let me endeavour to recreate the scene as accurately as I can remember. As accurately as it is deserving of memory. To a child, the field was an immeasurable expanse of grassland, a gentle slope leading up to a plateau where all around, an ocean of green. Of course there were already high-rise blocks bordering the edges of the field, but a child’s mind is immune to limits and boundaries, and so I invented stories and places, telling myself that to my north was a strange and forbidden land (in reality, my mother had disallowed me from venturing too far, the field containing my adventures and exploits), to my east, the road of daily traffic, to my south, my castle, my home, and to my west, nothing of real consequence.
The adventure begins with waving goodbye to my mother, walking out the house gates in slippers, my fingers trailing the white walls of the corridor, fingering the peeled beige paint of the metal staircase. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I would be greeted by a tiger moth resting on the wall, but if not, I would skip down the three floors of stairs, walk past the lift landing on the ground floor, towards the pillars at the void deck, phone booth to the left, letter boxes somewhere nearby. Past all that, the block would end with a narrow strip of metal drains, and all I had to do was take a breath and cross over, and I would enter another world.
The field was always there for me, waiting. And I was always eager to be alone in her company. I remember climbing up the little slope with great effort, imagining it was a steep incline, and then running across the wide expanse, lungs bursting like the white tufts of the common vernonia fruits when they explode from the tight cups of their flowering, or blowing bubbles into the air when I brought along with me a small bottle of cheap soap. I remember touching and sniffing the wildflowers, knowing they were common weeds but loving them all the same. How I would look for grass blues, little silver-blue butterflies that were ever in abundance, flitting from wildflower to wildflower, doing their work diligently, interrupted only by my thumb and forefinger when I picked them up in wonder, before setting them free on their powdery voyage.
The grass was green and the field of my childhood was open to me, like a mother whose heart would daily welcome the daughter who stood at the door, asking to return home.
We are told a story of scarcity and economy, one whereby our government’s land use policy is predicated upon the need to “optimise limited land” to meet the demands of the people. As a small nation-state with supposedly little natural resources, we believe that people are our key resource, and that our land should be subject to stringent planning for the continual growth and development of the nation. Redevelopment, the word is sandy in my mouth, and so I gather it into a ball and spit each grain out.
Here, it is common for the average citizen to view land as a scarce commodity, a piece of real estate that appreciates or depreciates in economic value, a thing to buy, sell, rent, cordon off, tear down, build over. Rationalised in pragmatics terms, land is partitioned into parcels and plots, put up for the wealthy to acquire and commercialise. A house serves its purpose well in so far as it facilitates day-to-day living, and most of the time, when housing decisions are made, factors like proximity, accessibility and convenience rank at the top of a homebuyer’s list. Home owners buy and sell their houses when the property market works in their favour, buying when low and selling when high, and so we trade our homes for houses of brick and stone in the housing marketplace.
Marshall Sahlins, cultural anthropologist, writes that “modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. Inadequacy of economic means is the first principle of the world’s wealthiest peoples”.
As a child growing up, I had little notion of this at the beginning. My childhood before the age of six was a hazy blur, and much of what I recall about home was aided by old photographs, which conjured long forgotten memories of sand-filled playgrounds, a bulky, red, wired telephone, a tricycle in the living room, dark sliding doors in the bedroom, my father carrying me in his arms, smiling by the main door gate. We had lived in two different parts of Singapore by then, Yishun which was in the north, and then Serangoon North, which was the northeast. Much of that I have forgotten.
The home of my remembered childhood, the one that appears to me time and again in my dreams, is the place of my primary school years, of taking the school bus, then the public bus to our school at the other side of Tampines, of crossing the road, past the small patch of green, and plucking a handful of Cupid’s Shaving Brush to secretly feed the neighbour’s rabbits before heading home. Going over to the Thai home-based hair salon for a cheap haircut, then walking past the basketball court quickly to avoid getting hit by the ball. Spending hot afternoons after school watching Speedy Gonzales on the television, and then racing for joy downstairs to the void deck with my father, back from work in the evenings, to rollerblade from pillar to pillar, pillar to his arms.
Cycling in dizzying circles in my living room, holding large birthday parties, and once, hearing the sounds of an Indian wedding from down below, I ran to the kitchen window and caught a glimpse of the procession. Bride and groom smiling, flowers strewn on the red road tiles, the scent of jasmine and the drumming of the tabla lingering in my awestruck mind long after another season of monsoon rains washed over the city.
Before I turned thirteen, we would sell this house, and move even closer to my secondary school, affiliated to my primary school and located at the same site. Here, high-rise blocks lined both sides of the small road. We would only be a five-minute walk away from school, where before, we had to take a thirty-minute bus ride with our ponderous school bags. There was a coffeeshop and some amenities on the ground floor, which made it convenient. While this new place was much smaller, there was built-in air-conditioning, as well as cabinets in both bedrooms, so we could readily move in with little renovations.
True, there would be no more large birthday parties, no slipping next door to our Malay neighbours’ place for cookies and cake. I would no longer be able to meet my cousins who lived a few blocks away to rollerblade, cycle, or play. There were no sand-filled playgrounds with the smell of rank piss, but by this time, I had outgrown playgrounds, and moved on to crushes instead. While downsizing from a spacious four-roomed to a three-roomed apartment financed our first family trip down south to Sydney and Melbourne, in hindsight, I now regret the price we paid just to afford ten days of leisure.
I remember our last weeks in my childhood home. Our bedroom was locked, and now filled with the belongings of the new homeowners. The house no longer smelt of the five of us, but of an inevitable past and a beckoning future, housed into one living, breathing space. We would leave behind wall posters and charts of fruits, vegetables and Chinese characters, for the new homeowners to do with them as they pleased. Perhaps I visited the field everyday, perhaps I willed myself to forget, perhaps I truly forgot about it in my delirium to grow up and move away.
Or perhaps I shut the door to the memory of my field because the pain of separation was too much for a child of twelve to bear.
A girl observes from a distance an indiscernible shape on a hill, which unfolds into a red fox. The fox unfurls, bows and stretches its body, unaware of the girl. It takes its time, licking its front paws, looks around and eventually ambles away. The girl comes to a profound realisation—that life goes on in spite of her. The red fox and the girl, both alive, both sharing the same space for a moment in time, the girl regarding the fox, the fox disregarding the girl.
This is what I reimagine of a poem by Mary Oliver, although I have taken the liberty to dream that the girl stands in a field at the foot of the hill, wishing she could peel off her skin, shake loose her luscious, red fur, and bound off to join the others in the woods just beyond the hill.
Secondary school would pass with little nostalgia for my childhood home. I entered polytechnic, I graduated, I worked for over a year in a small marketing firm. I received a teaching bond and travelled across the island for four years to complete my education degree, and returned to my secondary school, this time as a teacher.
The field did not come to me in my dreams, and I was now a young woman of twenty-seven. Jo Gill writes in her chapter “Poetry and Place” that a “return to the country is also a return to the self”. In this case, the field was my country, the country was my childhood, my childhood was the part of my self I had barred shut behind a door in order to survive.
Perhaps it is Eavan Boland, who in “The Woman, the Place, the Poet”, says it most poignantly, that “there is the place that happened and the place that happens to you”.
The field of my childhood happened to me, and when a tiger moth landed on my kitchen windowpane one evening as I was doing the dishes, it was as though the waters in the well of my memory, the silence and loss buried within my subconscious, began brimming and running over, flooding the shores of my conscious waking self. The tiger moth as spirit guide, as patient teacher, as intuitive dreamer, leading me by my fingertips on a bittersweet journey of returning.
Let me tell you the Iroqouis creation myth of Skywoman.
Skywoman fell from Skyworld down into the water below, and was greeted and cared for by all the animals there. Turtle carried her on his back, and after many gave up their lives trying to get her mud from the bottom of the lake, little muskrat succeeded before he too breathed his last. Skywoman was grateful to the animal beings for their sacrifice, and she created land with that mud, blessing the earth with all manner of seeds, plants and trees, her hair, wiingaashk, or sweetgrass, reminding us of Skywoman and bringing to mind forgotten stories that tell of our indigenous and reciprocal bonds to the land.
I read this moving creation story from the first chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass, written by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a mother, scientist and Potawatomi nation citizen, and I think of how, like Skywoman, my ancestors too left their homes, leaving behind memories and maps of the rocky plateaus, hilly plantations, waterfalls and beaches of Sri Lanka, the salt deserts, arid scrublands and coastal plains of Gujarat, the mountains, farmlands and infamous harbour of Fujian, known also as the starting point of the “silk road of the sea”, the forests and caves of Ipoh.
What did they expect, crossing the seas, when they finally set foot on a land whose name, derived from Sanskrit, meant lion city? Displaced from the lands of their ancestors and the homes of their births, they would soon forget their own stories of home. What was once memory, now lost and forgotten, like the winds that blow gently away at the sands of time.
But if I look back even further, if I dive into the darkness of the pool of my ancestry, beyond the abyss of time and remembering into the mantle of history to witness the first birth, my first mother, I will find her in the Northern Islands of Melanesia. Towards the end of the book, in the chapter, “Defeating Windigo”, Kimmerer writes that we all come from “people who were once indigenous”, and in genetically tracing my ancestry, I am beginning to understand why I have always felt drawn to the song of the sea, the tug of the winds in the sails of a boat, the beckoning of the stars like a celestial map charting my coordinates, pointing me home. On my right thigh, an anchor to steady the boat, and an eight-pointed compass star for direction.
Perhaps, I am remembering the way of my ancestors, who could once read the winds and the stars at the back of their hands, who one day sailed away from their islands and did not return, whose travels, migrations and displacements over land and sea over time has birthed me home on this new island, this island whose body of red hills, green forests and thriving coral reefs has been shaped by the sickled hands of men into a sinking first-world city. Like the non-native Flame of the Forest trees that hail all the way from Madagascar, my roots have sprouted and continue to tunnel deep into the earth in a land I call home.
I sing myself home as a child of ten in a field of green, wildflowers still wet in the grip of my fist. I sing myself home as I walk down a familiar road, navigating my way back home in a dream. I sing myself home at the edge of a lush, verdant field full of rolling hills, finding myself in another dream. I sing myself home as all around me, wildflowers and green fields turn into terrifying towers rising like pristine chimney stacks against the dazzling sky.
To be indigenous to land is to care for the land, to nurture and cultivate it so that it looks after our children long after we are gone. If we look to nature, we find that she is the best teacher, showing us how to tend to the gardens of our lives, through planting and watering seeds of gratitude, balance and reciprocity, and weeding out greed, strife and selfishness.
A few years back, I learnt the Hawaiian word Kuleana, which embodies the reciprocal relationship and responsibility we have with and to the land. Kuleana, I write this in green on my chalkboard door as a daily reminder to myself. Kuleana, my heart jumps with joy when two stray dogs lie in the empty field in front of my new home, where I now live in the northeastern part of the island. Kuleana, from my window, fourteen migratory egrets visit today in the field down below, wintering here all the way from southeastern China or Korea. Kuleana, the workers have set up wooden fences, they have wrapped you, field, in a ghost net of blue. Kuleana, they have sent in the excavators and towering blue cranes; so it begins. Kuleana, how do I still find the strength to sing on as their drills bore deep into the wet belly of the earth?
This time, the field is lush, full of vegetation that only takes on such girth when nursed by the tropical sun and rain. There are verdant, rolling hills, and wild animals grazing. I see boars and dogs together, and I know then that I am in another dream, and though my body now sleeps in yet another part of this island city, my mind is travelling in space and time, excavating the dream-world of the subject of unquenchable desire, a desire for home.
According to Martin Heidegger, the topology of Being is to dwell on the earth by means of building. Apart from physical buildings, language too can be a way by which human beings attempt to build their dwelling places. A prerequisite of dwelling is caring for one’s dwelling place, by cultivating and constructing home as we know it. The English word eco can be traced to its Greek origins oikos, meaning house. The house as a home, the earth as our first home, the home as the centre of our universe.
It is hard for me to return.
The field that used to occupy my time and imagination no longer remains. Instead, it is replaced by another estate of high-rise apartments, buildings that house nameless, faceless others, weeding their way into the field of my childhood, blocking off the view my mother used to have when she looked out the corridor from her chores. When I was a child, she tells me she loved to watch The Little House on the Prairie. Googling it now as an adult, I wonder if she too felt the prairie’s call through the screen, halfway across the world from Plum Creek, that unspeakable urge to burst out of the metal gates and launch into the open of an endless green. Her own prairie in the tropics, her daughter in the field.
Canadian poet Anne Szumigalski, who spent her formative years growing up in the prairie, acknowledged how its open landscape was “an enabling psychological space” for her writing. Reading that, I think back to how I would imagine scaling mountainous terrain when I climbed up the wee slope. Tiger moths, with their instinctive trust, would wander from flowers to the twigs I held, and to my fingers. I collected wildflowers of all sorts—Kanching Baju, Common Vernonia, White Weed, Cupid’s Shaving Brush—and brought them home to my mother, hoping to brighten up my home the way homes were brightened by flowers in vases in the English story books I read.
Like the prairie of Szumigalski, the field of my childhood was not bound to a beginning or end; there are no boundaries to a child’s imagination. From the Greek, peras, boundaries did not indicate where something stopped, rather, the Greeks recognised how, like horismos, or horizon, boundaries were places where things began their “essential unfolding”. The field unfolding into the prairie, the prairie unfolding into the world, the world unfolding into the self.
The field as the beginning of knowing, and in knowing, I navigate my way home.
Let me end then, with the beginning. Let me invent and narrate a new myth, one that pays homage to the fields of our childhood, the homes we have lost, the mothers who taught us the meaning of love.
In the beginning there was a field.
And a girl was born into this field.
That field, with its tiger moths, grass blues and wildflowers, was her world.
That world was her mother.
And the mother was good and beautiful, and she loved her daughter well.
Esther Vincent Xueming, is an editor, poet and educator. She is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Tiger Moth Review, an eco journal of art & literature based in Singapore, and has co-edited two poetry anthologies, Little Things and Poetry Moves. Her poems have been published locally and internationally, and her unpublished manuscript was a finalist for the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize 2020 (New York). She is passionate about the intersections between art, literature and the environment.