Finding profound silences on Oxford Street.

I woke up this morning with a gentle haze bearing down on me. Since it was my first day off from a long week at work, I was feeling the need for a quiet day of relaxation. It was raining the entire night, which really helped me sleep a lot. My dreams hung on to me for a while as I listened to the rain outside my window.

I decided to tread down Oxford Street and maybe check out Paddington. I was walking a few minutes away from my apartment in Surry Hills when I stopped to wait for the pedestrian traffic light. I stood there in my blue shirt with prints of thunderclouds, a black umbrella with a wooden handle in my hand, and a dark blue duffel bag in another. I was on the side of the Coco Cubano Cafe when I turned to look towards Oxford Street, and a tranquil vista of the city greets me. There I was in the middle of Taylor Square, basking in a quiet stillness, as thick clouds of rain washed the roofs of Sydney’s skyline, watering the bushy tops of the trees, and then in seemingly cheating gravity and my umbrella, touches my face and leaves tiny drops of water on my glasses. I breathe in the misty air that smelled like spring water, and wanted more of that cooling breeze.

I wanted to freeze that time in a photograph, but a different kind of force took hold of me, as it convinces the very same cold wind I am enjoying to turn against me. The shame of what people would think of me if they figured out that I was having a moment in public. How their eyes would look at me and fall into cruel assumptions, and how that thought diminished this profound feeling until it was nothing. I knew that this experience was not like that at all, but still I listened, and I was no longer silent by choice, I was being silenced. This was more than just the lack of courage, this was simply how criticism works. Once you’ve heard it before, you will hear it again even when no one else was saying it anymore.

The traffic light flashed green, and I surrendered to the lost opportunity of remembering that feeling, as I cross the street and kept myself from looking back. But I wasn’t going to accept defeat that easily. I stopped again on the pavements of Sacred Heart Catholic Church to gather my strength, took a quick sweep of all the faces around me, and snapped a photo of Darlinghurst Road.

SAM_3745.jpgDarlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst 2010, Australia

It wasn’t much of a scene, but the act of taking the picture was the unbolting of a tight screw I needed to loosen to begin my journey in search for confidence, and perhaps inner peace. I stopped for a while to have breakfast in Ampersand Cafe and Bookstore, my second time visiting this cozy place. I ordered english breakfast tea and french toast with maple syrup, weaved my way past elbows and shoulders before I plopped down on a stool at a communal table in the basement of the cafe.

I had forgotten that it was Saturday and that people in Sydney are usually out on weekends. It was more deliberate in my observation, as if the thought of doing nothing and staying home was an act of reclusiveness. The place was packed, and the humble book cafe I came to relish the first time I visited wore a different face today. This once again did not stop me from doing what I came to do. I settled into the table and started reading poetries by Lang Leav in a hard-bound copy of Memories. I took large helpings of french toast and quiet sips of tea in between pieces of great literature. It was a fusion of fluffy sweet indulgences, washed by a warm silken refreshment, and finished with reminiscent sentiments of the written word. I was determined to have my own little world in that crowded table, despite the hissing chatter of my immediate neighbors. So even in the chapel of Ampersand Cafe, I was not safe from criticism, at least on a busy Saturday. But defiant still, I owned my space and enjoyed the rest of the morning. When I felt ready, I surreptitiously took a photo of the cafe from outside, and went on my way.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESAmpersand Cafe and Bookstore, Paddington 2021, Australia

It was already noon, and my body felt invigorated after brunch, as I continued on with my journey down Oxford Street. At this point, I was confident enough to hang the camera around my neck and started snapping a few shots from every angle. People were looking of course, probably formulating their own perceptions of this weird man taking pictures of the streets in a weather I’ve heard associated many times with the word ‘miserable’. It was as if warm sunshine were rays of happiness, and rain was the condensation of despair.

In many ways, I truly disagree. The rain reminded me of my childhood back in the Philippines, when screams of laughter echoed in our neighborhood, as me and my playmates ran our bikes through puddles or raced our paper boats down the stream by the gutters. Clearly the people who thought rain is miserable has never bathed in the natural shower of nature and danced to the beat of the thunder in a heavy downpour. This memory entranced me, as I gazed down at the gazebo of the Paddington Reservoir Gardens.

SAM_3761.jpgPaddington Reservoir Gardens, Paddington 2021, Australia

After I had peeked at a few beautiful shops in Paddington, which stretched for another mile, the rain started to patter down harder on the stone-tiled sidewalks, as the wind blew vigorously, posing a different threat to my steadfast umbrella. That’s when I decided to start making my way back to the library, which I had passed on my way to the shopping district. The flag of Australia waved briskly, clinging to the pole atop Paddington Town Hall where the library was.

SAM_3755.jpgPaddington Town Hall, Paddington 2021, Australia

I greeted the librarian, then took a couple of laps around the place before setting up in an empty table at the far end of the library. It wasn’t much, but it was a safe place. A sanctuary compared to the mutterings of the busy cafe and the jeering eyes on the streets. No one would ever bother me here. I could strip down my robe of anonymity in this synagogue, and let my imagination run wild to worship at the altar of literature. I wrote for hours, mostly about what recently transpired. And in moments where I’d take a break to gaze beyond the arched windows of the library, I’d wistfully remember how I started the day, but fondly recollect the remnants of tranquillity as I stood under the mist on Taylor Square that morning. I wondered how I would face that trial again on my way back, as the sun shot rogue spears of light down from the clouds.

It finally dawned on me, that the truth about criticism is that it’s a blade with no handle. I have uttered the same criticisms about other people, and in learning how to say those words to them, I learned how to say them to myself.

In the end, the greatest enemy you will ever face is the one you cannot run away from. The one that lies in the deepest part of your subconscious. Self-criticism is a leech that hides underneath criticisms from other people. The only way to find it is to pay attention to that little noise that’s coming from within and silence that. For some of us, this is what inner peace looks like – having no criticisms about yourself.

The view was not the same as I marched fearlessly to take the photo on my way home. But I knew then that it wasn’t the view that made the moment, it was the loving silence within that I was lucky to find once again.

SAM_3770.jpgTaylor Square, Darlinghurst 2010, Australia