On bellydance, warungs & beautiful armour

A few days ago, arriving at a local community space for a tribal bellydance class (which had me afterwards ruminating about my oft-visited idea of teaching it as a side project, though I later wonder if what I mean is that I would love to simply perform more; of all the dances I’ve danced over a dance-filled life so far, it is by far the most intricate and the most sensual; the most hypnotic and precise), I bumped into a man I’d met here a year ago (we played scrabble together when the whole island shut down over Nyepi; he beat me to a pulp with his easy familiarity with two-letter bizarrities of the English language, only later letting me know that he’d competed successfully for years, by which time I was pretty sulky on the inside). He is an interesting and energetic fellow – speaks Indonesian fluently (I’d forgotten this; it was a surprise when we were ordering our juices together the next day at a secret hideaway warung I’d never been to before) and attends a multitude of AA meetings, dipping in and out of the UK doing short stints of social work to fund his spins on his bike around Bali. Anyway. He introduced me to the local library, which is just inches from my homestay but so tucked away I would never have known about it. Outside, the corridor of approach is lined with what appears to be an installation of giant water bottles; anyone can refill their own bottles for a fee. You have to crouch to hold your bottle neck under the giant bottle as though receiving a blessing.

As I entered the library, I felt like I was walking into a wonderland; books, marvellous books, arranged by theme, language and intention – an overwhelming sort of heaven. I haven’t used a library in so long I had to ask how it worked – you pay a monthly fee, apparently, then put down a deposit, then take out up to three at a time.

I love the serendipity of such places; how do the books get chosen, and how do you choose what to read once voluntarily and excitedly entombed? (Death is a funny collocation here, maybe, but perhaps it’s right to think in terms of endings and beginnings; we are all foetal inside a cavern of books; ready for newness, ready for the next world; uncertain, often, about where we’re going.) To deal with this, I once approached a bookshop with the notion that I would only look at the red ones, and this system helped where otherwise the sky (or shop ceiling) would have felt the limit (or nothing would have been chosen at all, as had recently been happening in a bout of reader’s block); having a rule, however arbitrary, can make you feel like there is meaning to your choice; that things were meant to be… which is true, of course. Books are always gifts, if done properly.

I am ashamed of my completely dwindled use of my local library at home; really we are spoiled, having them exist in the first place. Free books?! How mad and wonderful. But I think there is a personality clash and I am too possessive for them; I want to keep a book once I’ve read it (unless I hated it, and then I won’t have read it; a very successful rule). Books are objects as much as vehicles; even your mental image of a particular book’s cover will take you back in time, and their line-ups are visual reminders of where you once were and what you once allowed to pass through your head. I worry that if I lost all my books I would go partially blank over my history, and even now my story of reading is so shamefully blurred (or, less shamefully perhaps, absorbed?) that I amaze myself, always, when I can pluck out the name of an author or title at all. Ask me what I read last month and I cannot tell you, but luckily I do have an app for that (or, at least, a mobile record).

At the beginning of this year, one of plentiful NY resolutions was to read a book a week. I have a list on my phone, decorated liberally with a recently-found ‘tick’ symbol (pleasing), of my ‘reading list’, full of recommendations, frequently added to, with dates next to each title. I could read independently at the age of 3 and my love affair with the curation of words has remained strong, yet I so often felt poorly-read compared to many of the people I meet – the list keeps on growing and I keep shrinking under the weight of all that exists. The vastness of my non-read-yets perhaps contributes to one of the various ways in which I feel a bit of a fraudster or imposter, sometimes, in the world of writer-dom (something I feel firmly planted in practice and habit, but very behind on in showiness); I haven’t read any Steinbeck, Terry Pratchett, Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye, or Hilary Mantel, A Passage to India, To Kill a Mockinbird, Proust…………………………….. (long ellipsis to represent my paucity of conquests, here) and have managed to avoid completely so many big names that I marvel at being a life-long reader with an English degree and MA in Creative Writing yet failing to keep clear in my head and experience so many benchmarks of literary history. (OK, yes, I have read many classics, both old and new, if I’m kinder to myself and balance my woeful outburst here with some reality; just not all of them.)

Oh well. I’ll continue the wild weave of classics and oddities and classic oddities, and make my own path through the fertile mulch of pages and book leaves; through the strange ideas of others’ minds. (And maybe I’ll use the library here, practise the fine art of letting go at the end of a read.)

I’m in the midst of a story at the moment about a man who, incidentally, is terrible at goodbyes and, naturally, am borrowing from myself. My discomfort with goodbyes is probably the closest I get to morbidity (and I’m perfectly at ease with the notion of death, FYI; really doesn’t bother me; my own, that is). I absolutely hate goodbyes, which results in my blanket denial of them. I seem to always mutter, ‘but I’ll see you again, I’m sure’ into a person’s shoulder mid-hug, even in the most unlikely circumstances, and while they (perhaps someone I’ve met in an acute scenario; I’ve spent three intense days with them in Asia, or something) are embracing the actual, obvious reality of having to part ways with sadness but competence.

I’ve come to the conclusion over the last ten or so minutes that Bali is a place of beginnings and endings, actually. Sometimes subtle ones, sometimes exciting, chest-filling, brave, forward-knowing ones and sometimes heartbreaking, lonely ones. A few days ago, when a treasured friend seemed to completely let go of me, disappearing in a haze of (for me) confusion and sadness, I said a heartfelt hello to the beautiful Javanese artist I’d met last year in a nearby café, after searching for him online over the last couple of days and deciding to look, ultimately, in the exact place I’d originally met him (well, the first place in which we’d actually spoken, not counting the brief sighting of him watching me in a club while I danced with another man last year; though even then I knew something was going to happen; that we’d meet or something another time). He is a painter and a tattoo artist, booked up for months, and yesterday (me having caught him on his day off) helped me bring to reality an idea, but in his style I’d so loved, and which I’d subconsciously been waiting a year for.

He is the coolest looking person I have perhaps ever seen; he has an elfin face with deep eyes and long black hair, is covered in incredible art work (truly art work) that looks like body armour of the most beautiful kind, plays music while he doodles ideas on your skin, then smokes while he inks to the sound of latin american beats, cats running in and out of the little studio flat he flew us to on his vespa. He told me he only works if he ‘doesn’t argue’ with the person; this means they must respect his role as the artist, I think; he does everything free hand, only when everyone is relaxed and happy, and gets quickly bored if you try to control the outcome too much.

The first commission was to my strict criteria (part of my criteria being ‘but do this in your style’), while the second was a tweaking of my previous things (done elsewhere), which I had not gone in for but which he says ‘just being honest’ were not right (confirming my own feeling). In tune with his style, I decided to trust him and practised the fine art of surrendering to the moment (a strange thing to do in the context of a tattoo or indeed my personality, but I sometimes wonder if I am at my most spontaneous when it comes to tattoos. And although tattoos are permanent, we are not, and nothing is, and so they are not, and so – back to morbidity – everything is so silly in the first place it makes sense to just be playful, even with our skin.) As I rolled my eyes at the familiar buzzing sound and tried to call the nearest cat over to me for a chin rub, he asked me, raising the needle, if I was ready, and I said yes – he said he would be gentle, but that his needle may not. Yes, I said. OK.

And I woke up this morning with something new.


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