It’s the last day of my leave and I haven’t started cleaning up half the things I thought I would do by now. First my lungs. It’s still choked up with smoke. In fact, I started the New Year smoking way too much and seem to be on some kind of manic momentum. Then the different corners of my home. Which is so filled with time capsules in the form of piled up stuff, I don’t really know where to start.

So I started with the coffee and tea cabinet. And found packets of things from more than a decade ago. And two bottles of pasta sauce that expired in 2010. It feels good to throw things out. I am attached to objects. They signify a moment in time for me. I can recall strips of time when a decision was being made about whether or not to take this object home. For example, an old packet of Echinacea tea brings to mind the discovery of Dr Steward’s tea and how remarkably effective it was in delivering what it said it would. And making the hard decision to splurge on at least one packet of it for whatever specific purpose it was at that time. I commit that to memory, and throw the old tea packet away.

I wonder if it’s because I have a bad memory that I do this. Or because I never really got to ‘own’ anything while growing up, and as such, have developed this obsession of hoarding stuff as a way to hang on to things. I feel like the subject of a reality television show, and imagine myself sitting in a room filled floor to ceiling in a slightly stained pagoda singlet (which incidentally, I do own). If I had a therapist, this would be fertile ground.

But spaces have always been particularly emotive for me. An uninhabited space, and I let the objects tell me the story. What may have been imprinted there. Some tenderness, anger, longing, boredom, relating. Which reminds me of a photograph that E took and I asked for as a gift in the early years of knowing her. Maybe even in the first year. It was an old chair, that reminded me of the chair that my Ah Kong used to sit in, lit up in a darkened corridor, with a well-used pillow bent at the waist on it. It made me ache.

I try to see CY at least once every couple of months. She is a gifted masseuse, and knows how muscles speak to each other, and intuits or knows through her hands, exactly where it is sore or needs attention. She has amazing energy, greeting everything with a kind of cheerfulness that I could not summon, and always seemed genuinely delighted to see me. From the 7-8 sessions I have had with her, we got to know each other a little bit.

She came from China in 2010, and has a 23 year old daughter. In my broken Mandarin, I get the gist of her doing some kind of work on television repair. Or maybe as a content editor. I really must get better at Mandarin. Before this, she trained under a sinseh. So her foundation skills were probably based on tui nah. It makes sense. She is very good, and healing. But she couldn’t carry on because she was afraid of needles, and can’t do acupuncture. So here she is, and I am the lucky one. On her off days, she likes to go for a beer or two.

Every time I see her, she’ll ask me, when am I travelling next, or when did I just get back. And blames my poor boss for my sore muscles. She knows each of my tattoos and marvels at them (loves the new one). And in the past couple of sessions, she noticed I have lost some weight, and unlike most people who mistake this for being fit or looking good, she tells me to work less. I tell her it’s cigarettes, she sighs and says, “Yes, I used to smoke. When I was in school. I sold them for 1 dollar less per pack (it cost 5 dollars usually) to make some money so I can carry on smoking about 2 packs a day. But it just got too expensive.” At least I think that’s what she said. I really must get better at Mandarin.

Today we had a lesson in English. At first she wasn’t sure what turn of phrases she wanted to learn. So I threw a few maybe useful ones at her. “I” or “me”, “you”, “how are you today?” Then she asked me if I wanted a head massage as well, and I said, “Up to you.” And translated that into English for her. Her hands paused, and I could see her rolling the sounds in her head, and practicing it coming out of her mouth. She said, “Up to you” a few times, over and over again, and laughed. Declared she liked that phrase. And then promptly turned it to, “Up to me.” I love that the word that sung to her immediately was about autonomy.

I wanted her to teach me Mandarin. But how can this work when the only bridging language we have is the very language I need to learn? Right now, she patiently tries to find simpler words to explain things to me.

Maybe after more sessions, we will get more familiar with each others’ universe in the form of words. Maybe even go out for a beer together.