I spend a lot of time on my balcony. I spend a lot of time thinking. Thus it is not surprising that I spend a lot of time thinking on the balcony. If there is weather appropriate for a state of uncertainty, for a “what now?” considering-life sort of mood, it is a gray afternoon such as this one: breezy but not stormy, cool but not cold, bright but not sunny. The balcony doesn’t necessarily breed answers, but it does breed…calmness. I’ll take it.
It’s a space about as wide as a twin bed, and twice as long, with white tile floors and a green metal railing. The door leads out from my bedroom and windows that stretch almost the entire length are hung with heavy dark wooden shutters that fold back, flooding the bedroom with light and air in moments when the sunshine is an uplifting force, and filling it with darkness when protection from the world and it’s sound and light is what I need more than anything. Wicker chairs and a small table take up most of the space, but on nice days the windows are open and the broad windowsill becomes a bench of sorts, for the resting of books or cocktails or friends, depending. A little tree about a foot tall, with twisted roots, sits in a white ceramic pot on the table, one of the plants that moved with me from the last house, purchased on an afternoon when Andrew and I ventured to Hoang Hoa Tam (flower/plant street) and he indulged my love of things green and alive, letting me fill my arms and the hooks on our bike with plants and holding back the “do you really need another cactus” comment he was undoubtedly contemplating. The little tree had personality, it somehow made me happy, and in that moment of setting up our new flat it seemed integral to the concept of “home”. It wasn’t. Well placed green things, nice wine glasses, and framed photographs do not a healthy relationship make, but I’d come to learn that eventually…these things happen in their own time. Rusty metal lanterns holding a tea light in each are spaced evenly along that wide windowsill and are rarely used, more often than not they’re shoved to the side for more practical uses, for hopping back into the apartment, for food, for gin & tonics. They were purchased from an Ikea-esque store in a random suburban mall in that nesty phase that I now can hardly remember, but the rust that quickly accumulated over the past year makes them more and more appealing – if less and less functional.
This is one of my favorite spaces for puttering, a space i have come to appreciate more in the cool fall and early winter than I did in the months of oppressive summer heat. I water the flowering trees at each end and adjust the hanging orchids whose pots slide along their bamboo rod in the wind at night. I pick up the fluttery pink flowers dislodged by the breeze that congregate in corners like the snowdrifts starting to form back home. The music that has become synonymous with my apartment puttering – always in a language I don’t understand so as not to interrupt my thoughts with lyrics – mingles with the shouts of the boys playing soccer in the street four floors down. I pull dainty weeds from the potted succulents that line the windowsill – each purchased for around $1 from a lady with a motorbike loaded precariously with dozens of mismatched pots. Ethel sits in the same chair every time, doing one of two things: she either sits alert, ears perked, nose up in the air and twitching as she absorbs Hanoi sights and smells and sounds, or she is asleep in a ball, usually in direct sunlight, snoring and making muffled noises as she no doubt shakes some innocent dream animal to death. I love both.
In this space I watch the grandma who lives across the street, and who lives – much like my grandma did – perpetually in the kitchen. Her kitchen faces my house, just one floor lower. We smile at each other sometimes, before going back to whatever we were doing. Her kitchen is all windows, and so as she cuts up garlic and onions, stir-fries vegetables, debones fish and marinates spare-ribs I can see and hear her work. Things crackle, splatter, boil, steam…and she moves around the space with confidence and ease. Nothing is burned. Everything smells delicious. In between she sits at the table, feet on an opposite chair, reading the paper and fiddling with the string of pearls she wears every day with a different set of floral pajamas (the Vietnamese equivalent of a house dress). If I’m outside during lunchtime, sitting on the balcony with takeaway vegetarian food from the spot down the street or a delivery bagel sandwich from Joma, I get to be a fly on the wall of the quiet family lunch, husband and grandson eating absentmindedly while she fusses over them, adding extra bits to their bowl, getting more rice from the rice-cooker on the counter. I like her orderly sunlit kitchen, and I like her.
In this space I sit and think the clearest thoughts I have these days, accompanied by a mug of coffee or mug of tea or mug of wine, depending on the mood more than the time of day. In the afternoon I watch the old men sitting in chairs along the distant side of the lake, talking and playing chess. In the morning I listen to the announcements broadcast to the empty schoolyard (also on the other side), students already having made their way back to class. All day long I listen to the calls of bicycle vendors. At any and all of these times I think about life. No, no, not so much in an abstract, esoteric “what is life, really?” sort of way…more about the many changes that have happened in 2014.
I turn 29 in a few weeks. I have less of a life “plan” than I had this time last year, and this time last year I had less of a life plan than the year before. I’ve never felt as much like a work in progress as I do now, in ways that are simultaneously good and painful. Being a work in progress on all fronts is exhausting at times, but I’ll take it over the false sense of security I’ve previously found in clear but often hasty and poorly-informed decisions. There are more gray afternoons on the balcony in my future, more time with the dog, more heavy socks and cups of tea. Maybe my 29th year can be one of being comfortable in my uncertainty, in my work-in-progress-ness.