In keeping up with tradition, I am again dedicating a post to mark the beginning of this year and remember the year that had passed.
There are numerous things that come back to me as I remember last year.
I went somewhere late January to pursue adventure, and either of the two – love or closure. I never was able to determine which exactly was it. But by the end of that trip, I definitely secured the former, and as for the latter two, it felt for a good while that I got neither. There is difficulty in explaining it out of context, but if you can imagine an experience where you both fall in love with a person even more while simultaneously realizing how impossible that love is – that was what it felt like. I left that place in tears. I cried a full day, which conveniently equated to the entire journey back, if you don’t consider the fact that it meant I cried in the bus, in the airport, in the plane, and in the cab. The strange thing was that it mostly wasn’t for the failed love story, but for the profound confusion that it left me with.
I tried to write about it over the entire course of the year, to salvage the adventure I had there which was truly remarkable and worth writing about. I even tried to write about it now, but ended up deleting it. In any case, as a result of that experience, my positivity when that year began had to be set aside because I felt I had given away too much of myself. If I didn’t find those pieces again, at least I had to replace them. Only then would I have anything to give.
On one hand, this left me slightly callous, more cautious, less feeling, a little bit jaded – in a lot of ways too independent. On the other hand, my deliberate creation of space around me allowed me to rediscover and pay more attention to the relationships that mattered. I made time consciously for people I wanted to be with (including myself), and things I wanted to accomplish. There weren’t any big goals achieved last year, but there were numerous small goals that I wish to celebrate – rekindled friendships, strengthened relationships, newfound friends, new hobbies, new places, consistent exercising, a good year at work. In less abstract words, everyday phone calls to my dad, spending more time on relationships I had previously neglected, forging new friendships, getting into sports climbing, my first trip to Europe and the Middle East, traveling with good friends, sticking to a 7am swimming habit, working on both my strengths and weaknesses at work, and everything else in between. In truth I wasn’t able to do everything that I had set out to do when the year entered, nonetheless it was a year worth celebrating.
In spite of this, there are numerous shortcomings I became more aware of. My lack of long-term plans, how I’ve left my faith obscurely defined, shutting people out of my life as a defense mechanism, and being more self-centered rather than selfless. I am thankful that somehow despite all of this, I managed to overcome what I thought was the slow disappearance of my belief in love. I was in fact still able to love my friends, my family, other people. Imperfect love, but love nevertheless.
Yesterday, as I stood in the room of a person who I could call “lolo” (grandfather) yet truly wasn’t quite anyone to me – a distant relative, we’ve had limited past interactions perhaps less than a handful of smiles exchanged in this lifetime, I was gripped by the sight of him. He was my father’s distant uncle, his daughter requested for a visit in my dad’s capacity as a nephew and a doctor. He’s been confined in bed for 6 months, protein wasting is evident with his lack of muscles, missing dentures, and weakened strength. He was in good hands with his family, he had everything he needed. It was simply a consequence of old age. Yet the sight painfully reminded me of life wasting away, of my mother during her last few months, of the fact that my parents – our parents – are approaching the end of their lives as well. In a decade, maybe more, perhaps just a few months even. I thought I knew death better already after writing the book about grieving my mother, but it surprisingly still made me physically uneasy. I saw in his eyes the pure happiness from a simple visit. It made me realize that only company could console you in your dying days, yet perhaps it was also company that mattered the most in your living days. It made my first few days of the year spent in the company of my family feel more precious.
This year, I want to feel more again. To be softer, but still a little bit reckless in the spirit of adventure. To be more resolute, and to acknowledge my dependence. I want to buy those tickets to follow my heart, and those tickets to come back home. I want to continue the cycle of this life’s ups and downs – losing and rediscovering myself again and again.
I apologize to anyone I’ve hurt or offended. To relationships I’ve allowed to fade or fall apart, perhaps there’s a chance of reconnecting in the future, or perhaps just wishing you well is for the better. Most importantly, my wholehearted gratitude goes to the people who have filled my year with great memories, life lessons, opportunities of growth, and genuine affection. I will leave you all unnamed, but know that every small thing matters to me.
In turn, I hope you’ll also be able to recognize and appreciate the small things that I will try to do for you.
Negros Oriental, Philippines
This is what it looks like.
I sat comfortably at Soup Kitchen downing the last few spoons of my Tangy Tomato and Basil. It was at a busy mall basement and the after-office crowd crawled all over the place. As I stared ahead into nothing in particular, a man caught my eye. A frail, old man who tightly clutched a worn-out shoulder bag. He looked agitated – disturbed in fact. He constantly looked left and right with a purpose I couldn’t quite discern. I wondered if he was trying to ask for money, but he never did make any suggestive gesture to anyone. I followed him with my eyes, trying hard not to blink lest I miss an act of begging. He shifted his position to a few meters away every now and then, and soon enough he had walked to somewhere out of my view. I finished up my plate and took out from my wallet all the cash that I had left to place it somewhere I could easily reach. As I walked towards the direction he went, I observed that he continued to do the same. I wanted to ask him if he had a problem, but I was scared he might not understand English. I lingered around somewhere near, casually observing and just waiting for the tiniest sign that he was there to ask for help – still he never gave one. Something told me he needed it, but I needed a sign that he welcomed that help. I felt frustrated at why he didn’t make it easier – people usually held signs if they wanted to ask for money. But then again I thought to myself, I don’t always give those people money. It seemed futile so I walked away to buy something that I had intended to buy after eating. The thought of him didn’t leave me, so I tried to look for the old man again after my purchase. After searching a few places, I found him. It was strange to keep walking around so I decided to stand a few meters away from him. I watched him as he stood near some kids with their mom. He smiled at the children and I wished that perhaps the mother would give him something so that I could follow suit. But after they bought what they were in line for, they simply walked away. I stood there paralyzed by my irrational fears. I was afraid to insult him if he didn’t need money. I was afraid he might be crazy and make a scene if I handed him the money. I was afraid I’d be embarrassed if he didn’t take the money. After a few minutes, he started walking towards me. That was my chance – I looked at him, ready to fish out the cash and hand it quickly. As he walked towards me from the crowd, we held each other’s gaze for a few seconds. But he ended up simply walking past me. I gave up after a few more minutes of hanging around and walked away. But a sense of failure haunted me as I retreated from the situation with my newly purchased hundred dollar eyeshadow palette, my thousand dollar phone, and what not. It wasn’t the same feeling as failing an exam. It wasn’t the same feeling of making a mistake at work. It wasn’t the same feeling as offending someone. It was the feeling of failing as a human.
And I’m not writing it to get any kind of sympathy which I clearly don’t deserve. I’m writing it because it’s one of those failures which are better not learned through experience. May this serve as a cautionary tale of what this kind of failure looks like.
Vergelle sent me a song today, supposedly for someone you used to love. I’d usually, admittedly, have someone in mind when I listen to sad love songs. My placeholders can either be brought about by nostalgia, recent experiences or lingering feelings. I always wonder if it’s a coping mechanism or some form of masochism. But my running playlist is in fact a perfect reflection of my emotional transitions. As I listened to the song she sent, I had the sudden realization that I in fact thought of no one. I felt nothing, not empty. And right at that moment of discovering that I had again reached this elusive state of neutrality, I honestly felt pleased. It does check out, my playlist has been mostly wordless as of late. As I look back to how I dealt with this last one, I also realized that I didn’t use writing to deal with my emotions. I have a lot of unfinished drafts that I could have published, but for some reason they never reached completion. Definitely a first, because writing has always been what I use to process difficult feelings. Ironically, it was what he told me to do that I used to cope.
When in this state, there’s only two possibilities. It’s either to stay, or go for a new ride. Let’s see how it goes. But for now, I’m celebrating this full recovery.
(Although it does disturb me that I seem to be getting good at this.)
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.
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…”
Meesapulimala, Munnar, Kerala, India
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
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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. 🙂