For Kat

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I bought this book before a flight last January. It stood there among the bestsellers and the accolades on the cover spoke of it well. It looked like one of those books you should be able to finish within a day if you kept at it. When I started reading it however, it was not as engaging as I initially thought. I would read a few pages at night and just feel the drag of the story’s slow plot. I’d put it down, only to pick it up a week later – sometimes even longer. At times I thought it was because I had just finished an epic novel of a man who lived life on the edge. This novel, on the other hand, was about a grumpy old man who wanted to stick to a strict routine of a life. It felt like a bad choice after Shantaram. By the end of the year’s first quarter, I was still halfway and tempted to leave it unfinished. I had already finished two other novels in between. But I don’t like leaving things undone.

As I ploughed slowly into Ove’s life – the story unraveled that he was a widower. I thought to myself that at least it was another reason to finish this book – to maybe understand something that my father is going through and to be able to give this to him after I finish it. I love giving books as gifts. While a handwritten letter from me is the penultimate way I say that my gesture is deliberate, giving a book I’ve personally read and loved is the ultimate. Because when an author writes a life lesson beautifully, there is no better way to share it but to give it whole. And lessons are best given indirectly for someone to discover themselves. A book is perhaps a step less from an actual experience, but it still requires patience and an open mind. There are of course people who are not fond of reading at all – and in those cases I’d always have a headache figuring out what to buy.

The power of a book is almost completely passive. If you choose not to pick it up and read it, it can lie in its pages undiscovered for ages. That was what I realized yet again as I closed in to this book’s ending. While I never laughed to it out loud, it had brought me to tears on several occasions. The fact that it has made me write is a stronger testament to how much it proved itself worth the time. But I will not elaborate on Ove’s story for the same reason I give books as gifts.

Now why are there two copies of this book in this photo? -Just one of those serendipitous things about me and Kat – reading the same book at the same time by chance. And because between the two of us, nothing much is left to chance (we can be serial planners like that), it wasn’t by chance that we decided to finally finish this book together on this trip. Like me, she struggled through the slow pace of the story (which speaks volumes about our personalities haha). But for all the plans we’ve made and executed together, it’s the unplanned chances we got on this friendship that I’m most thankful for. Because it would have been a shame to have left things undone.

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walk home

I moved into my new place the first weekend into my current job. It hasn’t been that long ago – roughly 9 months. I chose this particular location because it was near the office, and practically at the center of everything. It was a tad more expensive than I would have liked, but I paid for the cost of proximity and convenience. My current landlord is beyond nice, my previous crazy landlady pales so much in comparison. There’s a narrow but good enough lap pool and it allowed me to let go of my gym membership in favor of swimming. I was getting bored of doing weights in the gym anyway. My room is just as big as I need – spacious enough for my things and storage, and small enough not to feel desolate. Another important but not so important point was that it’s near the haven for Indian food in Singapore.

Ever since I moved, I’ve been walking home from the office. The walk takes half an hour. I get off usually a little before the sun sets on good days and I walk through just enough crowd to remind me that I live in a city, but still providing enough breathing space for me to get lost in my thoughts. Although I prefer taking the train in the mornings to avoid breaking into a sweat, I hate taking it back home. It’s cold, it’s cramped, and the physical enclosure somehow makes me feel constricted. When I walk home, the streets have no end and the breeze touches my skin. It’s the only duration in my weekdays that I truly feel free. In addition, not everyone I encounter is in a rush. My favorite sight is a group of elderly men who sit in front of an old shopping mall. They take it upon themselves to feed the pigeons with bread every late afternoon. I’ve been wanting to take their photo for some time now but at the same time I don’t want to intrude in their little ritual. It might be to them what my walk home was to me. I always miss them when I get off late – I wonder if their freedom stops then.

This isn’t supposed to be my next post since the last. It should have been my trip to India more than a month ago. But I had such a cathartic experience there that I couldn’t even write about the entire trip. It’s quite uncharacteristic of me, when in fact the entire trip was incredible. I used to be able to have the urge to write the most when I was sad. This time around, I was so confused and distraught at the mixture of emotions that I couldn’t even bring myself to write. Writing would force me to relive the moment at a whole different intensity compared to just reliving it in my head. So in writing this entry today, I know I’m one step closer to healing again. I look forward to writing about that trip soon. As an abbreviation of Murakami’s wise words go, “time…what time can’t…, you…”

P1160057Meesapulimala, Munnar, Kerala, India

Shantaram

Halfway through 2018, one of my friends introduced me to Shantaram. He insisted it was “the best book ever”, a statement I casually shrugged off. Luckily, Kart was so obsessed at it that he actually insisted on me borrowing the book. It was more than 900 pages long and as I looked at it for the first time, I wondered if I’d ever even take on the challenge. Maybe I’ll keep it for awhile, that would rightfully be courteous.

Six months later, I am a completely changed person. Shantaram was indeed one of the best books I’ve ever read! I only took to reading it in bed, usually before I slept. It was engaging from the moment I opened til the moment I closed it – a feat rarely achieved by lengthy novels. Even my dad, who I had prodded to read the book as well, relented that it was indeed good – “no wonder you want to go to India”. And this comes from the leading person who is disagreeable with my impending trip back to India. As with most books I read, I usually note down the lines that strike me the most. I have a lot more from Shantaram, but I handpicked a few of my favorites that I’d like to remember at different points of my life:

During times of hopelessness

I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them…freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

When I start seeing people only for what I can gain

The little victories haggled from him by foreign tourists costs Anand his daily bread, and cost them the chance to know him as a friend.

When I hide behind wisdom as an excuse for inaction

That’s not wise, Lin. I think wisdom is very overrated. Wisdom is just cleverness, with all the guts kicked out of it.

When I wonder whether I truly want something and all the suffering that comes with it

Hungry, for anything, means suffering. Not hungry for something means not suffering.

When I crave for words yet actions speak for themselves

His handshake was the kind that good friends sometimes use in place of a whole conversation.

When I think hardening my heart is the only key to survival

If you make your heart into a weapon, you always end up using it on yourself.

When I’m sad and I don’t think I can make anything out of that sadness

There are many animals that can express their happiness, but only the human animal has the genius to express a magnificent sadness.

When I doubt the good in people

One of the worst of many failings, in those exile years, was my blindness to the good in people. I never knew how much goodness there was in a man or a woman until I owed them more than I could repay.

Shantaram was written by Gregory David Roberts

second

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A week after the new year isn’t that late for resolutions, I hope. But first, allow me to look back to the year that was.

January. I started this new blog, and this was what I wrote on my first post:

I’m 29, currently unemployed, single and at the throes of figuring out a career path after an unremarkable PhD.  There is no resolution yet in sight, but for some reason I am not petrified.  Yes I’m scared, but there’s a difference.  This point in my life is yet another beginning of so much possibilities.  It’s the end of all possible formal schooling and the start of more selective and conscious learning.  I’ve lost many, I’ve kept what matters.  But perhaps the weight is an exception, I welcome more loss.  And more of what matters.  In starting this new blog, I will try to keep to my plan to be brave enough to write about pain, failure, and uncertainty as I feel it.  To be unashamed of these lesson-bearers.  And in the same way, I will try to stick to my plan to see through clouds of happiness, because it’s not always sad girls who write.  Happiness deserves to be an inspiration, because we are not undeserving of it.

Right now there’s 21 posts so far, not bad. I think I did somehow cover all that. A little into this month last year, I formally became a postdoc when I said I never wanted to be that.  I took that job because I would otherwise be jobless indefinitely. It was a choice between being practical and demanding to get what I want – I let go of my ego. And in letting go, I found an even deeper appreciation for research and for all the stakeholders in the academe. But I was finally sure that wasn’t how I wanted to live my life.

March. I started a project with my friend, Yeshi. We opened a photo-sketch travel website (Tamago Walks) and this had kept me busy almost every weekend. Taking photos, editing videos, drawing, editing, writing blogs. Unconsciously, it helped me channel all the pain I had from 2017 into something else. It made me forget I cared about finding love. I was finally out of the heartbroken trench I fell into. Things felt like they were looking up, I thought I could feel that way forever.

May. My most memorable trip to date – I went to Ladakh alone. I realize now why I loved that solo trip – because it was an area of my life I both had and did not have control. It allowed me to be what I truly wanted to be in that moment because nobody held me against who they thought I was. It was exciting discomfort. This was also the month I fell in love after more than a year of guarding and nursing myself back. I knew he’d break my heart the moment I did, but I fell anyway.

June. All the hardwork looking for a job outside research finally paid off. I was ecstatic for this milestone. Although I was sad for leaving my NUS family and I was nervous of what laid ahead (would I ace it like how I imagined, or would I not?), I was excited. It was a new beginning, and an incredibly lucky one at that – I got exactly the job description I was looking for. But the new environment reminded me how it was to start all over. It took me months to become comfortable at my new workplace, but when I was, I was again reminded that things fall into place always eventually. For all the anxiety and self-consciousness I felt, my manager gave me a good review at the end of my 6 month probation this December.

July. I formally graduated from PhD. Ironically, while I’ve been planning my entire PhD to write an exposé of the horrible truths of being a PhD student, beyond what everyone outside the academe thinks of us, all I wrote about was gratitude. The silver linings I found at the end of it all outshined all the darkness. It was a chapter closed and I’m glad I finished. How I wish my mom was there, but it was great to have my dad and my brother at my side. We were at the age wherein we were both family and friends.

August. I broke my heart. But I didn’t hate him like how I was angry at my previous heartbreak. I simply recognized the connection for what it was and that it was time to let go. I was sad, but I didn’t go back to the trenches.

October. I turned 30. No flashy celebration, just a simple acceptance of age.

November. I published my first book, ‘Inay’. I got over my self-doubt if it would get positive feedback or not. And for every kind word I got for this book, I was reminded of the person who wrote that book. And how I need reminding to be that person still. I was thankful to get reminded by my brother that money is there for our dreams, and this was a dream I gladly paid for, if only to share about my relationship with my mother. More importantly, I was reminded of how fortunate I was with friends. My friends who wholeheartedly supported my book, bought it, read it, and told me how much they loved it. It was incredibly humbling.

December. My dad retired at 60. It felt like the dawn of a new era – of thinking better how long more I plan to be abroad, and how I want to define my life. And so in moving forward, these are the goals I want to live out this year

  1. Love. Although my feng shui says it’s my lucky year for love, I will not try to fall in love with every other guy I make a strong connection with. Instead, I will fall in love with people more. I will trust rather than doubt. I will slow down and take the time to smile, or at least to acknowledge. I will listen and I will be humble. In that way, there’s no way I’ll end this year loveless.
  2. Live. I will own myself. I will not apologize for who I am. I will stand up for myself rather than choosing to always be the one shortchanged. I will embrace my passions and not be embarrassed of the simplicity of my dreams, of my excesses and my inadequacies, of the vulnerability of my soul.
  3. Learn. I will actively learn and teach again. PhD burned me out, it made me feel like school was a hot coal in my hands I wanted to get rid of the moment I could. But I love them both and giving up pursuing the standard life after PhD doesn’t mean I’m giving up what I love.
  4. Build. I will live simply. I will build my wealth actively – not just to be rich, but to be able to share what I have and to live out my dreams. I will see money for what it is, a medium for trade, not a purpose.
  5. Give. Because it’s my end goal for all the points previous to this. Because my life is not just for myself, and all my decisions should have this in mind.

first book

After a year of looking for a publisher in vain, I finally just decided to go through the self-publishing route of uploading a pdf on Amazon. No complaints though, it was a perfect way to realize one of my small dreams to write/publish a book. It may be my last book, but one still counts. I’m uploading the pdf version here as well for anyone interested. But if you’d like to support my paperback version, that would be awesome and so here’s the Amazon link. They print pretty to be fair. It’s also available in an electronic version (readable in any phone/tablet), yay for Amazon and boo for the delivery rates to Asia.

front cover

And finally but not at all the least, thank you Vergelle for being the prime motivation for me to actually decide on doing this project. Because when I wrote most of these entries in my blog back then, I never did really think anyone else would appreciate it. Thank you for being such a positive energy and reinforcement to your friends, luckily including me. You have no idea how much that makes a difference in other people’s lives – you should know, if you don’t. Consider this book one of the products of you being you. 🙂

 

cemetery

I saw a cemetery from the bus this morning. It was along the way somewhere I’ve also never been to, but decided to go to this morning on a whim. The cemetery was a few meters from a military air base. If it had been a luckier day, I might have seen a plane fly by. It was on a rolling green terrain and sat in the midst of a plain that was blanketed with just the view of the sky. I almost wanted to go down.

There wasn’t any sun as the bus ploughed the empty road – and I was far out from places I’m familiar with. Honne’s Warm on a Cold Night album played over and over my headphones. Finally, I was going out for my soul.

30

It’s been a long while since I last made a conventional blog post, so I thought something for my birthday this year would be apt. I turned 30 exactly a week ago. Work was extremely busy that it feels like it’s been two weeks since my birthday. It was tiring, but in a good way. On the day itself, I had dinner with April and her boyfriend and didn’t even blow any candles. Lost my phone after dinner for awhile, but this is Singapore and nobody would bother on a Sony Xperia (as Ray said when I recounted it to him). Needless to say, I found it after.

I’m not really one for grand celebrations, and I was truthfully pleased with how my birthday went. I decided to celebrate this year by sponsoring a medical mission in the Philippines. It isn’t as noble as it sounds, I sent the money and that was all from my part. My dad and brother generously made time to make it special. When my dad sent me the photos, I was shocked, but amused, that the external organization my dad usually volunteers with for his medical missions, had printed a huge photo of me with a “happy birthday”. It looked like a mediocre political campaign. But there was nothing mediocre about it. Aside from the free medicines, my dad made sure to buy a lot of food for the local community, a cake complete with a family joke dedication, and even provided ice cream for all the kids in the area. As he recounted to me how the mission went, it made me happy that he was doing something that made him happy on my birthday – volunteering. As for me, I asked Swati to come and help at a local soup kitchen in Singapore a day before my birthday. We were dressed in the most unglamorous way and had breakfast together in an unplanned cafe. Quite different from how we usually celebrate each other’s birthdays – dressed up with a lunch or dinner booking at some fancy restaurant. We ended that day with me randomly bringing her for plant shopping, and we both went home with several pots of happiness. I had other little celebrations with a couple more friends, and was extremely humbled and happy to receive two paintings of myself. It flattered me that Mabel and Yeshi knew exactly how I wanted to be captured – looking away.  The other messages I got from my genuine friends across time and miles were what made my heart even fuller. That was all that mattered, it was a good birthday. Nothing monumental, neither forgettable, just a collection of the little joys in life that make me grateful. Oh, and about those life goals on my new year post, I didn’t say it there but one of my goals for this year was to find a job I’m passionate about. That’s what I’ve been busy with for the past 4 months. On the other hand, going down to 50 kg has still been rather elusive.

Despite all the joy, I was also reminded of how our life is but an interim of existence. Two people I knew passed away a few days shy from my birthday. As much as I’m thankful for the things that make me happy, I’m glad life still sends me reminders of how important it is to stay true to what matters whenever I forget.

And of course, I can’t skip on recounting that on my birthday, a butterfly flew right into me. If that was you trying to surprise me Inay, you certainly gave me a jolt. How could I ever forget you? I didn’t. Thank you for visiting me too. 🙂