From Sara: “It’s a delight to have the lovely Helena Hann-Basquiat at Right Ink On The Wall. Her stories have charmed me from the moment I met her and I’m honoured to host her as my first ever special guest. I’m so happy she’s found her way here to make a mark. Without more ado, I’ll let her conclude her journey…”
From Helena: “The honour and pleasure are mine, darling.”
I am very sorry for leaving you the way I did. I was a very selfish person – this is the repeated refrain of my life. I look back at the person I was with loathing, and consider her like vomit. I have spent the last few years doing my very best to kill that person, erase her from my memory, and some days I even feel like it has worked, but then I’ll remember someone like you, or my ex-husband, and know that I have left bodies in my wake, and the ghost of the old me laughs at me from the mirror.
I’m not here to make excuses, Helena, nor to make amends – it’s too late for that and I’ve learned that empty gestures usually end up being just that – empty. No, I’m just reaching out to you as a way to tell my story, and I thought you would be pleased to know that I’m not just flitting from place to place anymore, just taking anything I want and never giving back.
If you don’t ever read this, well, I suppose it is enough that I wrote it down. But I do hope this reaches you, and that some day I can wrap my arms around you and thank you and say good-bye properly. I owe you that, at least.
You may not have realized this, but I was ever so lonely, but I didn’t have the time for making real friends – well, of course I had the time, darling, but I just couldn’t be bothered. And so I collected… pets… like I collected shoes or cars or purses, and when I was bored with them, or they started getting too close, I tossed them away.
I’m afraid that is what happened to you, Helena, but believe me when I tell you that you are not even close to the worst. I have treated others far worse. Ask my ex-lovers or my ex-husband what it is like to live with someone, to wake up with someone, who is cold and dead and self-consumed.
Of course, you’re asking yourself what caused my transformation. Well, I didn’t have a near-death experience or join a cult, in case that cynical mind of yours is rolling its eyes right about now.
I can tell you that it wasn’t just one thing. I didn’t just wake up one day and see things as they really were and do an about face. No, my life was stripped away a bit at a time. What I didn’t realize was that while I was busy playing wife and mother and socialite, people around me were tiring of me. I was too self-absorbed to notice it.
I moved back to Malaysia and was actually trying to play at being settled and domestic – can you believe it? But my selfish excess remained, and I drove my friends and family insane with my whimsical choices and erratic behaviour. I had everything every girl ever dreams of – I had the big princess wedding, a handsome prince, a castle and eventually a family.
I almost lost it all. First, the prince got tired of being alternately abused or neglected by me, and left. But not quietly. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through a divorce, Helena, but they are a particularly ugly experience, especially if a child is involved. Mine was brutal, drawn out, and incredibly painful.
Then my grandmother died, and I shut down. I went inside my room and closed the door behind me, and it was there that I began to change.
Go ahead and make all the butterfly/cocoon jokes that you want, Helena, but it wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t emerge a better person. I didn’t suddenly come out with my mind enlightened and face shining like some sort of prophet or saint. I spent that year depressed and suicidal, and forced to face the real me. And I hated her. I began to plot her murder. I wanted to smash her head in and bury her under some daisies; put up a tombstone, reading HERE LIES A COLD, SELFISH BITCH – GOOD RIDDANCE TO BAD RUBBISH.
So no, I didn’t emerge a better person, just an empty, angry person, disappointed in myself – I can honestly say that I am probably the least accomplished person I know – I haven’t DONE anything. You were right about that. And so when I opened my door and stepped back into the world, it wasn’t as a butterfly, but as a prisoner set free. I had come to realize that I’d been living in a cage of my own making – that it was fear that kept me there. Fear of living. Actually living, and forming relationships, and trying to express myself – my actual thoughts and feelings – and having them be rejected. I was afraid that if anyone knew my desires, my dreams, that they would either laugh at me or hate me – a good Asian girl is not supposed to feel such things, not even supposed to THINK such things.
When I opened the door, the one thing I did have was a new credo – that I was going to be fearless.
What a joke, Helena! As if I could just declare something to be so and it would be so. It would appear that I had some growing up to do; some learning. I had some personal issues to work through, and no idea where to start. So yes, I did seek spiritual guidance. I spoke to a great many spiritual leaders, trying to understand myself, and eventually, discovered that I needed to look outside myself for the answers I was looking for.
Don’t get me wrong – a life of asceticism is not for me. I embrace my desires, not shun them – but I needed some sort of balance. I was not prepared, Helena. I fully admit that now, but at the time, I thought that I was ready for anything. I had years of practice showing fake confidence and bravado, and so I charged right in. I began working with non-profit organizations in Malaysia, caring for women and children rescued from the sex-trade. I have seen terrible things, Helena. Things that I can never un-see.
At first I just thought I could throw money at the problem, and that it would go away, thus easing my conscience. I thought I could feel good about myself. But it wasn’t enough to expunge my sense of guilt. I kept thinking how my priorities used to be getting my hands on the latest handbag or shoes, and it made me physically ill. I was in a position, or so I thought, to do something about the things I had seen, and not just by throwing money at it. Someone introduced me to an organization called Gawad Kalinga, and so I went to the Philippines to fight the good fight against poverty.
If you can sense the sarcasm and disillusionment dripping off my words, than my writing is not in vain.
I wasn’t going to change the world. In many ways, this was still my enormous ego acting up. Directed at a noble cause, to be sure, but still an exercise in vanity. It took me quite some time to come to that realization, though.
Don’t get me wrong — Gawad Kalinga is doing great work trying to rebuild a nation — you really can’t believe the poverty, Helena. This isn’t people without jobs, people with not enough to eat, people living in the streets, sleeping in bus shelters. This is people without clothes, people squatting in the mud, entire cities full of people living and dying in the street. Literally millions of people without regular food or shelter – entire generations living out their short, miserable lives without hope of anything close to what we take for granted.
I am no hero. I never was, and I never will be. But I have met heroes, and so I took it upon myself to try to document their work, going as far as helping start a film company to make a documentary about NGOs working to rebuild communities and eradicate poverty – specifically focusing on Gawad Kalinga. I thought that I could bring attention to the work that they were doing, and by doing so, add hands to the cause. It was a good idea, Helena. I swear it was. But again, it was unsuccessful. It seemed that the more I tried to do, the less I accomplished. I realize now that I was trying to wipe out the great debt that I felt I had amassed after years of selfish decadence with a single grand gesture.
In the end, the film industry brought out the worst in me – my vicious ego came forward to insist that things were done my way or not at all, and eventually I knew I had to walk away or again become consumed by that evil, dead thing that once I was.
So again, I went into self-imposed exile. I clearly still needed work. I needed to conquer my ego, face my fears, and battle my demons.
I know, right. Sounds trite, or cliché, but the fact of the matter is, the old Maya would never stoop to something as common as self-examination or self-improvement. I was my own, perfect, flawless goddess, and the world should change to suit me, not the other way around.
So what does that mean, anyway? Battling demons. Well, I cried. A lot. I stopped wearing make up, and tried to accept that I would never be movie star or model beautiful. I started writing. I’d always written poetry – sometimes depressing nonsense, sometimes, erotic fantasies – but I’d never taken it too seriously. I was proud of it, but it was just for me. But that year, I started writing, examining myself, taking a sharp blade to the deepest parts of me. I allowed myself to think about things I’d long buried, and to examine my role in the train wreck that my life had become. I came out of that with a renewed sense of purpose and understanding.
I expect that you’re waiting for the big Hollywood finish here. The story of how I opened an orphanage and saved the lives of hundreds of starving children, or how I became a motivational speaker, taking my story from stadium to stadium and changing the lives of millions.
Sadly, no. The truth is, neither of those things would be a good idea for me. I know how my ego works now, and how poisonous it is to me. No, I’m still just me. I’m still marginally involved with local relief organizations, and I’m still an avid supporter of Gawad Kalinga, but these days I focus on being a mom – my little girl is not so little anymore, and she needs me more than anyone else in the world. If I can instill better values in her, then maybe, through her, I can find my redemption.
Wow, did I really just write that? Sorry, darling, I fear sometimes my poetic nature gets the best of me.
So I’m taking it from day to day, trying to remain free of that cage I spent years creating. I’m writing a blog, and sharing my thoughts, my experiences, and even my poetry. I think you’d be glad that I am actually doing something for a change.
I once told you that I did whatever I wanted – went where I wanted, ate what I wanted, took what I wanted, spent time with who I wanted. That was my definition of freedom.
I know now that was just wild, unreliable and irresponsible. No wonder I found myself constantly alone, cut off from the people I said I cared about. The truth is, I didn’t know how to care for people. When we really care for people, and when we truly learn to care for ourselves, we can never be so wildly careless and casual about our presence and responsibility. To be there – to be really present – for the people we love, and to be reliable for ourselves and for the people that depend on us, we need to rise above our own issues. If I want to be someone who can achieve great things, I have to be able to let go of the pain, the anger, and the baggage of the past.
And how do I do that?
God, I don’t know, Helena. One day at a time? Isn’t that what the alcoholics say?
Anyway, I don’t know if you’re reading this, or if I’m just practicing for my writing portfolio. If this does reach you, and you care to get in contact, I’ve given you my current phone number and email address. I’m actually going to be in Los Angeles in a few weeks – are you still in the area? I really would love to see you, if you don’t think it would be too awkward.
I won’t hold my breath.
I wrote this as much for me as it was for you (see, I’m still a bit selfish) and so as I close this, I suppose I do feel a sense of accomplishment. I wanted to reach out to you and apologize, and tell you what I have tried to become, and now I have done that, and it will have to be enough.
I wish you true happiness, with the admonition to not look for it in fast cars, fancy clothes, and bright lights.
By the time I finished reading, I was mentally exhausted. Penny was putting postcards in chronological order on the table, sketching out a timeline out of some sense of obsessive compulsion or else just a natural tendency for finding the narrative in things. There were plenty of gaps – some lasting years. I was a bit flattered that I came to mind at all, to be honest. It seems like she was trying to convince me that she was changing.
Look, here I am in the dangerous slums of Mindanao interviewing ex-rebel leaders.
Here I am clothing children rescued from a brothel in Ampang.
This is me making a movie about relief workers in Tanauan.
Postcard portraits of attempts to prove to herself – and me, it seemed – that she could do something. There was an insecurity and desperate need for approval in it all that I immediately recognized and related to. I found myself hoping that she was further along the path to self-acceptance than I was, because I could echo the last few lines of her letter to the very word.
I don’t know how to let go and move forward.
I just keep trying. One day at a time, like the alcoholics say.
“You should call her,” Penny said, reading my mind.
“I know,” I agreed, but I wasn’t sure that I would.
This is the third and final part of a larger story, Postcards from California, by Helena Hann-Basquiat. It is part of what will become Volume Two of Memoirs of a Dilettante. Volume One was published April 1st, and is available in paperback HERE (if it’s not available in your region, try HERE) or for Kindle HERE
For more Helena, go to HelenaHB.com