POSTCARD #87: Delhi/Chiang Mai (Skype call): The whisper of a felt-tip pen on paper: shashee shashee shoo shoo shoo… otherwise, silence in the room. M is drawing a picture, colouring in, and this is a Skype call to Thailand – the picture and sound quality so good, it’s almost real. Sadly, though, it’s not real and you’d expect more animated conversations from a 10-year-old girl, but that’s not how it is right now. She stops what she’s doing for a moment and asks me: When you come here Toong Ting? I tell her in about one month from now, mid-September, not long. But it has no meaning, social media is not real, the Skype call only proves I’m not there. M calls me Toong-Ting, she’s my Thai niece and English is a 2nd language for her so, understandably, conversation runs out sometimes. It’s hard to look for words all the time. Skype calls are a fun thing to do but there’s a limit to the novelty of it… looking at a talking head, a portrait of a person with lips moving – it’s not the same as actually being there.
So she’s drawing a picture. No talking now, she’ll show it to me later, just the sound of the artwork taking place, and all I can see is the parting in her hair, the top of her head moving slightly with the movement of the pen. I have nothing to contribute here, just be the recipient of this drawing, be the voice coming through the speakers. I am he who isn’t here now… third person singular (‘he/she/it’); I am ‘it’, the face in the video screen. I am ‘him’, the object pronoun – him over there in India somewhere, 2000 miles away from here, and not able to help with her English homework.
I’m starting to feel uncomfortable with this… what do uncles do? I don’t have much experience, no children of my own. What do I have to offer, a West/East migrant, living in somebody else’s world? Why am I here? M often asks me that, ‘WHY?’ It’s her favourite question. Toong-Ting, why you go away from Inkland (England)? Why you come to Thailand? I usually say something about travelling for a long, long time in different countries, then getting married to Jiab. She’s always interested in the bit about getting married and all kinds of very carefully structured questions follow on from there. Now it’s ended, everything has been asked already. ‘I’ have been placed forever in the third person singular; I am ‘he’ who married her Auntie.
I want to see the picture she’s making. Wait Toong-Ting, she says and takes the iPad off its stand, walks around the room with it. I’m disorientated and getting a kind of vertigo with all the blurred movement, and just about to say something about it, when she puts the iPad down somewhere and goes away. I see a bit of upholstery and a corner of the ceiling… this must be the sofa. I can hear a clatter/clunk sound and then scissors cutting paper. I call out, hoping she can hear me: what are you doing now? But she doesn’t answer… focused on the cutting – long, extended scissors work. What can it be? M comes back, looks in my screen, smiling a bit, secretive face, eyes wandering off-centre to the tiny window in the corner, watching herself, her posture, her hair – is this how it is to be… ‘seen’?
You want to look Toong Ting? Some more hesitation, then she holds up a heart shaped paper with the words: ‘Love You’, done in colours. There’s no ‘I’ pronoun, and a reversed ‘y’ – its tail going the wrong way. So much more than I’d thought, so much greater than how I feel about myself. The generosity of it takes my breath away. Later Jiab helps her to stick it on the bookshelf with scotch tape; they take a photo and send it to me in an email.
“The self has no form. You cannot grasp it, you cannot see it, you cannot really define it. You can never say, “Ah, there it is”, (because) you are the consciousness, the perceiving. You are ‘it’. You can never see it as an object, external to yourself. It’s the essence. You are not what is seeing, you are the seeing.” [Eckhart Tolle – source: My Inner Medium]
This moves me. Lucky Toong-Ting! 🙂
Thank you Miriam, I’m blessed…
How completely charming these words are; they evoked in me the feelings that come when one of my granddaughters makes an affectionate gesture towards me, or offers me a little gift – a seashell, a penny piece, a drawing, half a biscuit.
I am only 100 miles away from my grandchildren, and so contact is much easier than it is for you and your niece Tiramit; though I still feel the distance impacts upon emotions, both theirs and my own – not necessarily negatively though.
Ah, you know the feeling I see. This is how things are except that it’s possible for me to bear the distance and long intervals of time between meetings, because my language relationship with M is often tenuous, almost not there. Like an SMS message, or a summary of an event, every word carries meaning. Thanks for your comment Hariod, there are more posts about M if you click on the category title: the M posts…
Thank you Tiramit.
miriam louisa simons, it seems has written my intended comment for me.
Thanks Ben, right now it’s quite wonderful, an unexpected gift…
I am grateful for having been able to share it. Social media have their value as well as their drawbacks and limitations.
Thoroughly enjoyed your story. I’ve tried Skype communication a few times, both with dear ones and also as an opportunity to know someone better. I find there is something unyielding and disconcerting about a screen. Communication happens on so many other physical levels. By using Skype, I realized I need a person’s actual presence to have a sense of their physical language to round out their words. Your sweet niece seems to have intuitively understood this. Perhaps the next time I have the opportunity to Skype, I’ll also engage in an activity to add to the ‘sense’ of physical connection instead of staring at the screen.
Thanks and yes, you’re right. Children and young people just intuitively know the limitations of it – what can you do with a screen that really only allows a head+shoulders position. So eventually designers will create software that allows zoom-in and left/right panning movement of camera, but then we have to pay for the upgrade, I suppose. Long term technology will provide holograms? Will it be in my lifetime? Ah well, as it is right now, it’s better than nothing. Quite often I’m looking at M’s face and there’s no expression or indication she’s hearing me. This is because she’s watching something on youtube in a different window and forgetting to keep up the conversation. Doing two things at the same time because it’s kinda boring otherwise… this is why we need to think up an activity. Any suggestions welcome 🙂
I really connected with your description of yourself as ‘him’– as ” ‘he’ who married her Auntie.” After the questions have been completed, conclusions are drawn. You are known, conceived, conceptualized.
I think one reason your writing about M is so beautiful is the way the details you select somehow convey something essential about your niece and her awareness. We went with her while she carried her Toong-Ting around inside of her tablet, ignoring him for long stretches, letting his reproduced voice careen off into the distance, trusting that he will have no place to go or need to disappear– a YouTube can be paused, re-loaded, interrupted– yet offering evidence in the end that you are far more than an image on a screen. You are part of the context that makes her life whole and meaningful, as portable as an image for this is the world she has found herself in, but as relevant as the deepest places in her heart.
Really touching and sweet.
Thanks Michael, I’m so glad you found it meaningful. I am ‘him’ because in M’s way of thinking, I have to be made into something she’s able to find a place for in her world – like a large doll she puts in her improvised dolls’ house. This interests me, the natural tendency to stand back and see everything as separate objects we have control over. I am ‘Toong Ting’ and it’s fun for me to give up my own ‘self’ image and become what M thinks I am – maybe this is what ‘unclehood’ means 🙂 a learning process for me. Could be that the writing style that’s come about in this blog has acquired a kind of succinct text messaging quality I picked up through working with the limitations of our interaction in English. She selects the key points, builds the concept around that – minimalism is necessary. And I have to do the same thing of course, otherwise she’d not understand me. So, thanks again Michael, the developmental stages of M unfold like a story that goes on and on. I’m fascinated…
Love the post, the photo is beautiful… Interesting what you say about social media being a sort of delusion within a delusion. Particularly like the Eckhart Tolle quote; if Self cannot perceive Self, then what is this thing that we insist on calling “Self?” I’ve just returned from Thailand (my first time there), and I was particularly struck by the practice of dana, which is embedded in the Buddhist tradition there. My forthcoming blog post includes a reference to Bhikku Bodhi’s book on the topic, which I sourced from your “Texts.” Thank you for continually providing food for practice. Jeff
Thank you Jeff, yes it’s necessary to see social media for what it is; a basic tool, or a created image of self, or both – but anyway, what would we do without it?
And what is it that perceives Self? The question is the answer maybe? My feeling is it’s about opening up to the natural curiosity one has about this kind of question, cultivate the inclination to discover rather than getting caught in seeking the answer?
I know what you mean about the Anumodana aspect of Thai Buddhist practice there, for many people that’s all there is, the sila, samadhi, punya is internalised. There’s more to it than that, of course, but this creates the foundation…
Look forward to reading your next post and thanks for dropping in.
Really beautiful post. I connected with your joy. Lulls happen when you skype with children and it isn’t always to hold their attention. Somehow M seems to understand that you are not there physically but managed to find a way to reach out to you in her own way. Lovely.
Thanks for pointing this out, I didn’t see it before. We adults assume the skype call is the same as actually being there in the room, but children see it’s a different kind of situation and their attention wanders away. I’m thinking now of the illusion we fall into and how children know so much more about the experience of illusion. We learn all kinds of things from them – but this is something you must know so well, being the proud mother of six children! Thank you so much for this helpful observation…
Somehow this beautiful post never appeared in my email. I was wondering why you were quiet in the blogosphere so I went looking and found this piece. It created “water works.” Hard to know what goes on inside a child’s mind. I remember when I was young and understood my brother and sister better than my parents but with age have lost touch since we never had children either. You have such a beautiful relationship with M and you write about it capturing its essence. Here the reader thinks M has gone off distracted by something else during your phone call and she is making you a love note! I am afraid the not being the one who sees but the seeing is very hard for me to see with my concrete-thinking mind but I will ponder it and try to make some sense of it all. I continue to love your posts, the style, the voice, the content and, most especially, the posts on your relationship with M. You are the one who writes? Or are you the writing? Hard to grasp. xx ellen
Thank you Ellen, sorry it didn’t appear in your email, maybe it’s because I was using the new WordPress system for the first time and did it wrongly… For the most recent post I used the old system, I wonder if you received that email notification? Anyway, nice to have your valuable comments again. The thing about always being an uncle or an auntie is that the parental ‘intensity’ is not there – it has a freeing effect, possibly. Also, I’m a foreigner in M’s world, with a totally different way of thinking, less formal, more spontaneous. It’s related to this thing about being the seeing itself, not the one who operates the system, I’m not the driver of the bus… the whole thing goes on autopilot. I think children do this naturally.
Hey Tiramit, always find your posts interesting and inspirational. I look forward to them.. BYW, thanks for liking mine. 🙂
You are most welcome and I’m so glad I found openobserver while browsing through the nonduality blogs in WordPress. Thanks for the visit and please come again.