At some point I’ll look off to the side, towards the exit leading out into the food court. I’ll see the dining families, the lovestruck couples, the school kids. Then I’ll turn back, remembering warm air and clear skies, and we’ll agree that it’s a beautiful day.
I’ve never been a believer in travel; I maintain that once a worldview has been formed, everywhere begins to look the same. But in my youth, dragged halfway around the world by overprotective parents, I saw the temples and shrines of many incomprehensible religions. We never set foot in those places ‒ weren’t allowed, or weren’t interested ‒ but the façade of each, or rather the general impression they made on me, remains to this day. Tall and imposing, places of sanctuary and sanity: but only if you belong.
Imagine it rising from the ground. Unique to human civilisation, a triumph of human ingenuity. It’s not just the structure itself, or the systems that fuel it, but the space it brings. It contains a life of its own.
Imagine it crumbling to dust. No matter how hard you try, the image refuses to form.
Everything can be expressed in economic terms. The life cycle of a relationship: introduction, growth, maturity, decline. We make choices based on financial circumstance. Cancer marches the same march as capitalism. Even a child ‒ and this is important ‒ can be seen as an investment, however obscured the fact becomes by way of less pragmatic emotions.
Those emotions, too, have a life cycle. At best, they plateau, and stay like that until other cycles supersede them.
So when you see the crowds and hear the music and breathe the air that smells neither like man nor nature, you come to accept it as a symbol of progress. You come to embrace it: the endless hubbub, the flood of voices, the outfits and outfitters, the cheap food and expensive restaurants, the elevators and escalators that always seem to be going up and not down, the general cleanness of the place that can’t be described as clinical or sterile or hollow, because deep down you know it’s as authentic and alive as a festival or a nightclub, and as willing to accept you if only you let it.
Progress is what it comes down to. Progress was my palliative. It’s funny what you can do when you set yourself targets and stick to them. Snowball effect. Day 1 becomes Day 2. The end of the week becomes the end of the month, and when you look back over the years you see evidence of what you’ve been building. Footprints in the snow: one pair big, one pair little.
Clock in, clock out: that’s how this corner of the world works. Wise parents make their kids stay in school. The rest of us convince ourselves that a job is a job. You bag designer goods for customers who, for the most part, are just like you. Big smiles and warm greetings. Good days interrupted by bad, at seemingly random intervals, when the sense is most pervasive that nobody really wants to be there. Throughout it all there’s a constant hum of activity, of life, inside, above and beyond.
A reason to support is a reason to act. In my youth, drugged to complacency by overprotective parents, I wasted years in front of screens and inside them, cultivating a perfection that could not exist outside my head. When, finally, I allowed myself to make a mistake, I caught a glimpse of progress. Freedom comes in many forms. My freedom was also my burden: my reason for getting out of bed, for not taking that morning cigarette, for doing the things I did to get by.
Choice is immaterial. In many people it’s dangerous. The worst thing is becoming a slave to yourself. That’s what I was, a long time ago: a slave, not to consumerism or the corporation, but to my own self and its many shortcomings. Later, I developed discipline, and self-respect, and something like empathy. I was forced to think for more than just one. And that’s what I mean. That’s what made it easier.
The aftermath was neither violent nor short-lived. Imagine a light shower. The change is noticeable immediately, yet it’s almost imperceptible at first. Only it keeps coming, more and more at a steady rate, until everything is drenched.
There is solace in routine. People come and people go. You become atomised, and for the better. Eventually you learn to fold what you know now into what you knew from before. It becomes part of your function: another cell, another cog, another colour. There is no absolute truth. You simply let what you believe work for you in the same way you work for it. Warm greetings and big smiles. And sometimes you look to the side and you think: you remember, but it passes. Then there’s nothing else to say but how beautiful the world is. You step on the escalator, nowhere in mind, and ascend.
Yifan Wu has been published in Chiaroscuro, Praxis and The Unwind. Her interests include the natural world, science and dreams.