What I have been working on, what I am working on, and what I've been struggling with.
Dear friends and readers,
Some of you have probably been enjoying your own holidays, and I hope you had a good break, ready to make the most of the rest of the year. I’ve been quiet here because I went away with W.C. to see our families and friends—spread over three weddings!—and managed to squirrel some time to ourselves for a road trip. The holiday was fun but not quite relaxing, since it revolved mostly around social engagements and necessitated zipping around (it’s no secret I prefer extended journeys in one place), but not being on Twitter did do me some good.
In fact, instead of our road trip, I had been hankering to go really off grid, to some place I know hardly anything about and where I don’t even speak the language, to reorient myself, hit reset in some way. But eventually, I had to admit to myself that the intervals between the wedding reunions were just too short, and such a trip just wasn’t in the cards this time round. I’m trying hard to remember that the world will always be going on out there, anytime we choose to go to it. How is it that Billy Joel”s “Vienna” remains as relevant to my life now as it did in my twenties?
Still, being away did shift my perspective a little bit, as it always does. I wasn’t in the best head space before I left. There appeared to be a health scare that, thank god, has turned out to be nothing too worrisome, but at the time it compounded the anxieties I was feeling about work. I felt inexplicably shackled to the news cycle, particularly as dictated by Twitter, even though I am not a “news” news reporter, preferring to narrow in sideways for a deep dive into more little known subjects. Perhaps the compulsion to attempt to hew to the news cycle is a harried bid to make sure one stays relevant? Something an ex-colleague said when I asked how he was doing during the pandemic seems telling of our times: “feeling thankful to still be relevant + employed”.
Every time I log onto social media these days I’m reminded—from a new development on any given issue or a story someone else did that turned out to be similar to what I had had in mind—of the other thing or yet other thing I want to do but haven’t gotten to. It distracts me from the goals I’ve already set before me, and puts me in the constant state of feeling like I have to play catch up. There is always the next thing I have to get to, so I can’t go on this trip yet, or meet the friend I haven’t seen for a while, or do this other thing just for fun. I’m always waiting for my plate to clear, and of course it never does, because I never deem it to be sufficiently cleared.
As such, I’ve been feeling more strongly that I should cut my social media use (discounting Substack) way down to give myself longer, deeper periods of focus to do more considered work on what I’ve already mentally committed to, for which I have a long list to tick off and in which I should start making some serious dents. W.C. tells me that I have an unrealistic list of things I want to achieve in any given year and should really understand that by choosing one thing I forfeit another, and so I should give it all to my shortlist instead of trying to do everything on my longlist—bit by bit, all at the same time—then feeling like I never end up finishing what’s most important to me. I know this already. But it’s easy to wallow in old habits.
One thing, though quite unwelcome, did help. Just before our trip, I caught Covid, but as unpleasant as it was, it did give me the permission to feel like I had the right to just lie back and do nothing for a while. I barely checked my emails, barely logged onto Twitter, barely gave a thought to all the writing I still want to do. I marvelled at how much less anxious I felt, and honestly thought this state of ignorant contentment would last somewhat longer.
Then I got better and was back thumbing through my feeds, bookmarking all the things I thought I might want to look into, and soon, the tenseness in the shoulders, the furrow in the brows, the solemn purse in the lips—they all set right in again. Anyone who experiences this knows it’s not trivial. I have gotten emotional because of this anxiety. I have resented other demands on my time because of this anxiety. I have felt it difficult to do anything else but “work” because of this anxiety. I am always in the thrall of my thoughts, always trying to unentangle them through reading and reporting and researching to better wring some writing out of all of it. Remember my earlier resolution to inhabit a state of being I described as “grounded levity”, to be more in touch with the physical world around me? Well, that is something still very much in progress.
I can only keep trying. Part of my excuse for not having tried harder in the past months was because I felt like I just needed to put in time at my desk to lay the groundwork for projects I hoped to do in the future.
One of them has worked out: I heard in late September that a reporting grant I applied for was successful, which means I’ll be spending some time amid Sabah’s mangroves later this month.
Elsewhere in Malaysia, I’m working on a piece exploring the links between anthropogenic environmental degradation, animal farming, and zoonotic disease through a retrospective on a certain bat-borne virus.
I’m also feeling out other possible stories and informing myself about the all-encompassing nature of our climate crisis in order to better prepare for the reporting I’d like to do more of—though I feel a little overwhelmed by the enormity of what we are facing and figuring out where, in the thick of it all, I ought best to begin and how to tell any given story in its fullest possible form. (Arguably, I need to get over this compulsion to be a completionist).
Beyond that, I’m working on nailing some still-moving parts for Movable Worlds for you, while also trying to better define the hybrid book of memoir + travelogue + and reportage I’d like to get started on. All of which is to say: Send encouragement, please!
Right this very moment, though, I’m busy trying to get my family’s twelve-year-old shepherd medical care for her growing and malignant tumour. The waiting list for doggy patients, too, is long! I’m also struggling with jet lag, insomnia, interrupted sleep, and a constantly racing mind. So, until I have more updates on all the above, you can catch up on some of the things I wrote that were recently published:
Here’s an ode to the extinct Chiriqui harlequin frog for The Guardian’s extinction obituaries series, so beautifully illustrated by Ricardo Macia Lalinde. I had so much run researching this colourful little creature and wrote a slightly longer piece than what was published, which I may share in a coming letter.
And as I shared in my latest Landmarkings, I wrote a piece for Virginia Quarterly Review on the London V&A Museum’s efforts to trace the provenance of its esteemed Gilbert Collection of decorative arts and the stories of Nazi persecution they have uncovered.
If you’re interested, I also wrote a few news features over the past months about the rights of women in Malaysia for Al Jazeera: here, here, and here.
Also, for all you paid subscribers, I’ve extended your Movable Worlds subscription by two months, to make up for the silence here during this time.
Until the next,
P.S. I welcome tips on anything I'm working on.
For Sabah, I’m already in touch with some sources on the ground, but in case you know of any mangrove experts or mangrove communities I should get in touch with, or mangrove stories that may have been overlooked, do let me know. In fact, if you know of anyone or anything interesting in Sabah, feel free to let me know, in case I have some time to explore beyond my assignments.
Comment below or email me at movableworlds-AT-gmail.com. Thank you! <3