A White Glow

An excerpt from Familiar Messes, a book of essays by Anya Rompas. The book is part of the Self-Portraits series, a collection of personal essays by women that explores their work, relationship, ideas, and lives. Buy now here

It is one of those very hot days that if you go outside everything seems to have a white glow. I am now sitting at the canteen at my daughter’s ballet school. Half reading, half eavesdropping to what the other parents are saying to one another to kill the time. The couple sitting next to my table is talking about an old friend of theirs, who’s now retired and setting up restaurant businesses in Singapore and Spain. The lady at the other end of the room is whispering complaints on the phone, obviously to her partner, but this place is too quiet for a whisper. and then there are the cheerful tones of a familiar game from someone’s mobile phone. On almost all of the tables lie a plate or two of gorengans, fried mendoan and/or bakwancut into polite bite-sized slices by the waiter/cook, plus its mandatory condiment, a mini bowl of runny but delish peanut sauce with just a little bit of chilli to give it a fresh kick. All this while the children are upstairs, dancing in their pink tulles. Point and flex, point and flex, kick and skip, kick and skip.

I remember when I was my daughter’s age my parents never took me to lessons like this. The only extra-curricular activities I had was extra hours on math, and, when I got older, physics and chemistry only to get me through school. So I blamed them for my non-existent talent in music, dancing, and swimming because even if you point a gun to my head, I will never be able to do a single equation or finish a formula anyway. Not that I wanted to take ballet or piano lessons (tried swimming, which gave me a life-long phobia of any kind of body of water), but sometimes I thought trying to figure out what your kids were like wouldn’t hurt. Or maybe my parents knew me too well. I would totally hate going to such classes so they saved me from even trying altogether.

I remember walking home from my elementary school with my best friend. Our school, though private, was not a very sophisticated one, bless them. We walked through one housing area after another, on wide streets where the houses have gardens and a garage into smaller, winding streets where houses cling to one another like siamese twins. Sometimes we would take a becak or mobet, especially if we arranged a playdate at my best friend’s house. My parents rarely let me invite my friends over. They rarely let me play at my friend’s house too. But to be fair it was not like my childhood was unhappy and somber. Or was it. Well, that’s not the point. Not for today at least.


So, there was this one day, when on the way home, we decided to stop at a friend’s house, one of those conjoined houses at the end of a narrow back street. We played cooking, with kid-sized but actual utensils. She took some ingredients from her mom’s kitchen and we built a makeshift stove using bricks, some chipped, and sticks, broken into shards, in her tiny backyard. We minced garlic and chilli, and made our own stir-fried kangkung. We ate them in small kiddy plates using our hands and giggled like the little girls we were.

I don’t know how many days, good and bad, have passed since then. And I have now become a parent to a bubbly and inquisitive little girl I never thought I would have. She is so different to how I was. And today I am taking her to the ballet lesson I never had, something she actually has some interest in and seems to be good at. Am I also becoming the parent my parents never were? Or am I exactly like them, who seemed to know their daughter’s place in this world before she ever did?

Obviously, my attempt at reading has failed horribly. I have been trying to gobble up almost three decades in a single hour instead. But then I stumbled upon this paragraph:

 “The poets read their poems, two each, and were applauded. Some of these poets were to fail and fade into a no-man’s-land of Soho public houses in a few years’ time, and become the familiar messes of literary life. Some, with many talents, faltered, in time, from lack of stamina, gave up and took a job in advertising or publishing, detesting literary people above all. Others succeeded and became paradoxes; they did not always continue to write poetry, or even poetry exclusively.”

And I think of all the lovely girls upstairs, with their buns, pink leotards, and shoes. Which one of them will someday wander and “become the familiar messes” of their lives? or achieve some success to only become “paradoxes”? And ponder the answer to these questions at the waiting rooms of their children’s schools? I hope it’s just me, because their parents would knock my head off if they read this. But no, really, what is success and failure anyway, let alone poetic ones? If one blooms only to wilt and dance only to fall, who are we to tell her not to? And who are we not to love her still?