On Turning 23: a Three-part Study in Vomit

I

The first day of my 24th year started off pretty much like it ended: in vomit.

Of course, no one means for things to end in a pool of dinner-remains and bile. Vomiting is nature’s wild card, happening with the regularity of, say, bumping into an old acquaintance on the bus. Once a year if you’re lucky, never at all would be best. It’s an uncanny comparison, and I can’t decide which scenario is worst. At least you’re likely to feel better after vomiting.

23 started in vomit. It happened quickly. It was half past one on the Uber, I was in the front passenger seat watching street lights streak across the dashboard. A dude no older than me gets on at Holland Village, having, like me, had the presence of mind to use Uber-pool in an attempt to save a few. But things go wrong as the Uber turns into the main road where my house is. “I need to vomit,” he begs. The desire to find the sidewalk when you are on the verge of barfing is as instinctive as wanting love and affection in a cold lonely world. Your body will search for an excuse, any at all, to release the contents of the night.

He did not find the curbside. Instead, his vomit found the side of the car door, and some of my left arm when I tried to open the door for him. I remember vividly. It was a white chuck of something on my arm. It looked almost like a piece of ground chicken. All this, from a person who had the presence of mind to save $3 by Uber-pooling.

And so, 23 started with vomit. Make what you want of that.

Eighteen hours later, I was at a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I used to hide alcohol from my parents during my army days, but nowadays I’m old enough for my grandfather to look at me with intense sadness every time I reject a drink. It’s disappointment of the highest degree, the kind that can land you in jail of you abet in its continuation. The classic beer-whisky-wine combo is what we always have at such occasions, and once you start on one, you’ll have to go through all of them. A lot of families know that it isn’t good to mix different kinds of liquors, and for all I know only drink one kind of liquor in one sitting. My family is not one of them. Our conversations got louder and louder as the dishes came and went. This restaurant  was peculiar, serving the assortment platter as a third dish, and soup as the second last dish. If you’re of Chinese heritage or have been to enough of these dinners, then you’d know what I mean. It was a strange order, a perfect segue to the even stranger night ahead.

I was poured a glass of whisky that was intensely personal: and by personal I mean that the cup was full enough to change your night. The glass was filled three quarters up with pure whisky; a conservative estimate would equate it to five shots. I reached out to take it, but my grandfather interjected. “I’ll drink this for you because it’s your birthday.” He said this with a smile on his face that was a mixture of confidence and kindness. It was a peculiar smile, the kind that doesn’t ask for anything in return. And so he did. I don’t know how, but he finished the entire glass over the course of the night. This was on top of wine, and beer, and another glass of whisky before that. His level of inebriation gave him the authority to talk about World War Two, and his passage from China to Singapore. Come to think of it, he always had that authority. The alcohol just gave him a reason to use it.

Alcohol is the ultimate example of diminishing returns. By the end of the night my grandfather was hobbling out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk. My brother and I were holding him, one of us on each side, waiting for my father to come over with the car. We struggled to get him in without his head hitting the doorframe. He was muttering sweet nothings, holding onto me tightly as we guided him into the vehicle. From there we had to slowly get him out of the car. At this point he was still relying on his own energy to stand up and walk forward. We were just there to ensure that he didn’t fall forwards or back. He needed a firm hand to hold and there we were; his grandchildren. He said a bunch of thank yous as we guided him up the stairs to his bedroom, and more hugs were exchanged right before we left.

This is the same man that I hardly talk to in the course of normal conversation. Not that there was any one reason for this, but perhaps just my own lack of initiative that accreted over the years and led me to become the grandson I was, the kind that takes the presence of his grandparents for granted. A grandson I wouldn’t want my own grandchildren (if I ever see that day) to be but probably the grandchildren I deserve. My grandmother was peeling an orange for him in the kitchen, and my grandfather sat on his recliner in his room with a smile on his face. That smile. Given how my grandmother was excessively calm, I got the sense that this has definitely happened before. Sometimes I wish I knew more about my grandparents, and in some instances I have tried to. But it never seems enough, does it? Not enough time, not enough effort. But if a drunken episode is what it takes to get some sense of closeness, then I’d settle for that.

***

II

I was shuttled back home after that with surprising haste, where a bunch of my friends were already waiting for me in my room. With some alcohol swimming in my blood I was struck by a singular perverse thought; that everyone had to go down kicking and screaming as well. Cups in one hand and ice in the other, I poured them a bunch of drinks that were gentle at first, then got higher in alcohol content as the mixers started to run out. We played a bunch of party games that involved 1) careful attention to the environment 2) a good sense of circular direction 3) an ability to dissociate speech with action. Any penalty incurred would mean a sip. As you can imagine, these are all judgments that get increasingly harder to make as the alcohol massages your senses, and so if one were to draw a graph of how intoxicated you would be over the course of the game then it would be of an increasing rate. The more intoxicated you are, the more mistakes you make, and the more mistakes you make, the more intoxicated you become. I did two more potent mixes and stashed them in fruit juice boxes for good concealment. Some of us were already swimming by the time we left my house.

We got on the uber before 1.

By then my birthday was already over, but that’s not important. No, not at all.

The night involved 5 more potent drinks, and two of my friends leaving early to regurgitate their dinners outside. Alcohol is a study in diminishing returns, and we were all way past the peak.

As promised, my 23rd birthday ended in vomit. I reached home at about 3 am, and let everything out on a grass patch outside my house. I crouched over and allowed my body to save itself. There was a stinging sensation at the back of my throat, one that I had to rid myself of by guzzling on a stream of garden hose water. Surprisingly, I remembered everything.

23 was an age I thought I would never reach. This has nothing to do with life expectancy. I just thought that time would fold upon itself, halving again and again as I approached 23, but never quite reaching. I would forever be in the vague zone between 20 and 22 but never will I ever actually cross that boundary. Maybe I feel this way because my life was always a comfortable and privileged one. People always say that they grew up too fast but I never did feel that way. If anything I didn’t grow up as fast as I’d like. There was always a house to go back to and a school to call my own and parents who didn’t pressure me so much. It has helped me to pause and think about a bunch of stuff but sometimes I wonder just how far can thinking get you. I have some goals and I have chased after them but I don’t know how realistic they are. Now is an especially apt time to reconsider, but also to find ways to move on with my life. You can’t be trapped in the 20 – 22 year old buffer zone forever. It was fun while it lasted, yes, but it’s not where you want to be in, say, ten years from now. You have to force every notion of a coddled existence out of your life like your body rejects anything too toxic.

Maybe 23 started and ended in vomit to remind me of that sudden instinct to purge all the insecurity and laziness that has followed me around. But it’s a weak proposition. After all, there’s no final consolation and no final reflection for these things. Dealing with negativity will always be an ongoing process, and that’s not a bad thing because it gives us something to work towards. Keep your head in the game, be there for loved ones, don’t take things for granted, be brave enough to live and love. We live for these realisations. Sure, they sound like platitudes but these mantras keep our lives in check and remind us constantly that it’s not just about ourselves that we live, but for those around us. And then this links back to how alcohol helps us notice all these things; enhances the intimacy with the people we care about yet allowing us to appreciate the voids that we carry within ourselves.

***

III

I don’t have the answers but the closest thing to a resolution would be what someone told me on the night before my birthday: that it’s ok to not be there yet, but as long as you have the awareness that you’re not there then there’s some salvation. I think that’s a good as place as any to start, whether there’s vomit involved or not.

Book Reviews: Japanese Modern Literature

After being introduced to contemporary Japanese literature back when I was serving my national service, I’ve never tired of it, having read extensively into the different works of contemporary Japanese authors. From someone who likes to write, there is a lot to gain from reading these texts. I learnt that a simple style of writing need not occlude complex trains of thought, but complement the latter by granting clarity. I’ve also learnt that desire and emotion can be effectively shown in not only what characters do, but also in what they don’t do. The use of silence, for example, to show longing, or the constant evocation of hunger to show the effects of loss. There’s something special about holding back and keeping yourself restrained, especially in a world which encourages the active pursuit of your desires. In any case, here are four reviews of contemporary Japanese texts that I has shaped the way I think about writing.

 

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

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A home can mean family, but what happens after the death of a family member? A home becomes a reminder of what remains, but at the same time, what has been lost, a place of reunion but also intense loneliness. Set in late 20th Century suburban Japan, we find Mikage in her kitchen, her favourite place in the world, a place where she is able to stay hidden from the outside world. It is a time of grief and solitude for her, having lost her grandmother, the only family she had. And then almost graciously, Yuichi, a young man who was a friend of her Grandmother, invites her over to stay with his transgender mother.

It appears that salvation lies in such strange and seemingly random interactions. Theirs is a space tainted with loneliness, but is where Yuichi and Mikage mingle, cook, laugh, grieve and eventually, begin to love. We don’t quite know how their feelings emerge but Yoshimoto’s steady hand guides and moves us from one room of her creation to the next: through each carefully prepared meal, swig of sake and honest conversation late into the night. The ending captivates, a cup filled to the brim but neither boiling nor spilling over. It is full.

 

 

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

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This novel is a portrait of Tsukiko, a woman in her thirties who one night chances upon her high school teacher, whom she refers to as Sensei, at a Sake bar. From there an unlikely relationship blossoms, unravelling at a stroll that is as slow as it is enchanting. Unlike in most romance novels, sexual desire does not drive much of the plot. Tsukiko and Sensei move through the text, virtual strangers with a tinge of shared history. They never quite mean to meet each other but do so anyway, through a series of forced coincidences that culminates with unplanned desire. We feel for them even before we are aware, the plot reeling us in as stealthily as the characters are drawn to each other. And no wonder, for the story plays with the scales of fate and agency, where two characters mingle with their past; Sensei his dead wife and Tsukiko an ex lover, but in reminiscing about the past they never quite finding the same comfort as they do in the here and now, in the company of each other. The threat of the past is tame compared to that of the future; the mortality of Sensei is often called into question by the younger Tsukiko and we are left wondering if a relationship like theirs is even meant to exist. And yet, with the relationship’s very existence we are challenged to reevaluate what it really means to love. If you want a novel that holds your heart gently before giving it a tight squeeze at the last paragraph, then you have this to look forward to.

 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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The novel follows the life of Kathy, through a series of flashbacks that has led to the woman she is today. Set in a dystopian universe where people are raised to be organ donors, the mechanics of such a world is not just elaborately explained, but sometimes over-explained, laborious to read and heavy-handed. The style of writing is conversational, one feels like they are having tea with Kathy where she speaks at length about her experiences, some which are vastly interesting, others less so. The novel falls flat due to its step-by-step method in storytelling, where significance is always mentioned, where intentions are elaborated upon time and again as if Kathy never did trust our better judgment in the first place. It lacks the light, minimalist springiness of the other novels in this review, its sombre heaviness instantly scorching itchy fingers, rather than setting in slowly like a heater in a large room. All in all an the novel has an interesting plot with devastating implications, rueful losses and heartbreaking finalities. But that’s life as observed, not expressed. Good expression (and good literature), seems harder to find.

 

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

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A man who can talk to cats, another named Johnnie Walker who kills them, fish that rain down from the sky, a Japanese Colonel Sanders and a man who attempts to make a magical flute; these are just some of the things you’d struggle to accept and perhaps never come to terms with by the end of the novel.

But that’s just where the absurdities begin. We follow the life of fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura who runs away from home in fear of his father, or rather, in fear of the prophecy of him killing his own father. But fate is never too shy to act, and the further he runs the closer he is to the action. He seeks refuge in a neighbourhood library and meets a librarian whom he suspects is be his estranged mother. He is helped by a stranger along the way that could very well be sister, whom he has not seen since he was a child. Try as he might, there is a growing sense that Kafka is unable, to escape from the very thing he tries to run away from; that the experiences he hopes can help him start anew somehow lead back to him. His desires (sexual or otherwise) grow stronger as he navigates not just through the rural landscape or the intricacies of his fate, but also his own adolescence and emerging adulthood.

As the story unwinds we are left wondering if Kafka would make it out of the storm, and if so, whether he would ever be the same again. Woven together by Murakami’s entrancing prose, this story brings together a slew of elements that don’t quite make sense and don’t quite add up but form an imperfect basket that is not so much functional as it is beautiful. Unlike in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, Kafka on the Shore does not hold you gently, but grabs you roughly by the hand and pulls you along a twisted narrative. It tells you straight out that running away from yourself is a race that you cannot win, but urges you to try anyway. And what a run it turns out to be.

 

Crabs

“I have something very important to tell you,” she started.

I turned around because turning around was all I knew.

“I’m quite sure there aren’t anymore crabs on this beach,” she said.

“Crabs?”

“Yes, crabs.”

All around the waves tumbled, one on top of the next, spitting out shiny foam and lacklustre sprinkles. I was curious as to how this related to our walk.

“Tell me more about these crabs.”

“Well,” she started, “when I was younger mother and I would come down here. We would squat by the rocky pools and look for crabs. Sometimes I would get tired and just sit down. I didn’t mind the wet sand. Mother would always scream.”

“Scream at you to stand up?”

“Yes, of course. What else would she scream for?”

The sun hid behind white, innocuous clouds.

I was deep in thought as the waves continued to shuffle. What was it about crabs that bothered her? Was it to do with the way they moved about as her little hands tried to grab for them? Was it, perhaps, an instinctive reaction to all that had changed in her life? That even the simplest of things; crabs, for goodness sake. Even the crabs had ran somewhere, further away.

Later as we were having lunch I watched her pick apart a mussel. They were the freshest in town. The beach flowed endlessly along the solid shoreline. Part of her face was in the sun but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Have I ever told you that I really enjoy these walks?”

I looked up from my platter and smiled in acknowledgement.

“Too bad there aren’t any crabs,” I mentioned.

“No, too bad there aren’t. I think they’ve all moved somewhere else.”

I stared hard at the beach. The breeze played with the trees.

“Something bad must have happened. And they had to leave.”

“Maybe a disease or something,” she added.

“Yes. Maybe.”

We finished our meal in silence.

***

Later we were walking again, her in front of me. The sun was lower in the horizon this time. The breeze still played with the trees. She turned back at me, then looked forward again. She was trying to balance on the ever moving shoreline as the waves came and went. I watched her stumble over this impossible tightrope.

I stepped on something hard, depressing it into the sand.

It was a shell. But no. It was moving.

A crab.

A tiny one too. It looked up at me with eyes that spoke of countless miseries. They were glossy and black, and incredibly small. In its entirety it was no larger than a packet of chilli sauce.

I bent over to pick it up. It looked at me with a mixture of fear and gratefulness. Its eyes went in and out of their sockets. Maybe that’s how they blink. I looked up and saw that she was further ahead now.

The shell was grey, both claws evenly sized. It hardly struggled as I held it between forefinger and thumb. That in the years she spent walking the beach and finding none I should step on a crab on my first visit.

I walked to her, slow steps traipsing between waves. The sun slapped the side of my face as she urged me to hurry up.

I waved at her and her silhouette waved back. In my hand was her childhood. It was struggling now, and started clawing at my palm.

“I found it!” I shouted.

She turned to look, the waves shimmered.

The crab adjusted its pincer and at the precise angle clamped down on my little finger. I let out a sharp cry and released the creature, watching as a precisely timed wave took it away.

Everything happened very quickly. All that was left was the sound of the breeze.

Perhaps I could have jumped, maybe lunged forward to grab the poor thing. But until today I don’t know why I didn’t. I just watched the damn thing fall out of my hands. Disappear into foamy waves that turned water opaque then transparent, opaque then transparent.

Later she would ask me what I found, and I would tell her a well rehearsed line.

“It was nothing.”

She laughed and continued walking.

And naturally part of me would think that something did happen, something very special, something potentially groundbreaking. It was so close, so close to being a moment we could share and relish and ruminate about in wonder.

And then part of me would think that perhaps what I told her was true. Between salted mussels and the bothered palms, nothing special happened on the beach that day.

 

 

Stuck on the Puzzle

Having lugged a lacklustre attitude around for the entire semester, it’s almost laughable that I’m typing this as the plane inches across the sky, leaving bits of blue and white flashing past the window.

As the opportunity for rest comes around I find myself springing to action and typing all this out. This is probably foolish. Strangely, I never had that motivation as the semester drew to a close. I left all my assignments to the last minute and started studying the entire syllabus a couple of days before some of my exams. Sometimes I have the right motivations, but never the right timing.

I compartmentalised all my thoughts this semester and kept them largely to myself, failing to write much at the side. Maybe my fiction class was responsible for this; I had to churn out two 5000-word stories and with that very focused avenue to write and imagine I left it all on those foreign pages, sunk in the commitment to academia. I wrote with intensity for 2 days at a time, and there they were, two stories I could call my own. I’m never a fan of writing slowly and steadily, only quickly and furiously, like ripping off a band-aid along with leg hair and dead skin and all that. I received comments for these stories, some good; others less so. I learned. I edited. And I have to admit, though writing is a joy, editing isn’t. It’s almost painful, like disciplining your child. You want to assume your child is perfect but that probably isn’t the case, so sometimes you hit your child. You do it out of love, but it hurts you to do it nevertheless. This metaphor is not a 1:1 fit but I hope you get the gist. In any case, all that focused writing must have come at a cost. My mind was exhausted and there was less writing I could accomplish at the side. Strange, isn’t it? I got what I most wanted, only to tire of it.

Or maybe the sluggishness came from an over-investment of energy into cross-country trainings, that graduated in intensity and peaked somewhere in the middle of March. As fun as running can be, it teaches you to go with the flow, the flow, the flow. And after months of running you sometimes wonder where all that time went. You’re sometimes tired in classes, sometimes nodding off in meetings. In that way I think writing and running are often in fierce competition for the raw physical energy that my body can generate. It probably doesn’t help that I write better after 1 am, where I’m fighting to keep awake and clawing at the walls of my mind to keep my thoughts together. Maybe that’s because I write the best when I frame the ‘writing experience’ as a struggle. I try to constrain myself in some way to give myself a firm direction to run towards (or away). When I find a comfortable time and space, nothing flows. It’s a highly metaphysical concept. Again, there’s something paradoxical about all this. But in any case, when two or more tiring experiences compete, something has to give.

That being said, I don’t think I ever stopped imagining. I only grew more suspicious of my ability to harness all that imagination. By no means was this a top-down degeneration. I thought it might have been a subtle changing of ideals, a shift in the clouds. That had me feeling panicked for a while. But now that I look back, it was definitely borne out of circumstance, and tiredness, maybe laziness, of things that happened over the semester that made me doubt if good writing was possible even if I wasn’t a good person. That sort of silly insecurity.

But I figured that even if I’ll never be a good person, I want to at least be a decent writer. Reflecting on this over the past week of travelling, I know for sure that the desire to continue on this path is still there (thankfully) and I don’t have any evidence to show except for what the summer will bring. Like I said, the way I frame the experience of writing is that of a struggle. And within any struggle there exists stages of self-doubt and existential questioning. This is how we make the leap between what we think we love and what we actually love. Rarely is a life lived without buts, but being stuck on the puzzle doesn’t mean you give up on it.

Again, I don’t have the answers. I wish I did, and I wish after I write these words I will straighten my life with a shot of adrenaline in the backside. I wish that my writing will show some sense of order but as you can see from this post, order is still far down the road. Maybe summer will be fulfilling, maybe it won’t. I don’t know. Most of it is up to me, though maybe some of it is not. In any case, it’s time to labour and learn, and forgive myself for the past semester of neglect.

My Grandfather, the Activist

“Done with the printing?” Came this obnoxious voice down the hall.

No, I wasn’t done.

“Yup, I’m sending it over!” I hollered.

I went into overdrive, searching out the documents, pulling out files, converting word documents into PDFs. The walls of the office were closing in on me. There wasn’t much else to do but work.

I pressed print and stood up. Turned to rush for the printer. My arm hit something warm, and there was the sound of porcelain on plastic. The smell of coffee rose from my desk.

On the bus home is when I consolidate my day, which often turns into a pity session where I analyse the shortcomings in my life. As a child I had great dreams, great ambitions. I looked to my grandfather as a role model. My parents were never home, and he brought me up since young. He opened a photo developing shop at Johor Bahru near the Border. He spent his time taking photographs in the morning and tending to his shop in the afternoon. He was an enthusiast, a family man. But above all he was an activist.

Why activist, you may ask? Well, in my books an activist would be someone who inspires another to fight a similar cause. I sat for many years during hot stuffy afternoons watching him develop photos, place them in albums. Some of his clients would smile and wave at me, telling me how “guai” I was. What I admired about him wasn’t the shop, or the photographs. It might have been at first, but after so long I realise it was always that glint of happiness that he couldn’t quite hold back in the pursuit of his craft. He smiled when a customer came in, took deep excited breaths when framing photographs and packaging them. He inspired me to fight for a life I could be proud of. Well, at first.

Standing in a skirt full of coffee stains and covering the deed with a half crumpled newspaper, I felt that in many ways I had let him down. I had let myself down.

We live in Singapore now. A land of better opportunities, as my parents put it. And besides, Grandpa was getting old.

“How was your day?” I asked him in Chinese. He sat on the couch, flipping through television channels. Baggy white shirt, head full of ivory hair, he looked up at me. The house smelled damp.

“Who are you?” He replied.

“Your granddaughter. I’m your granddaughter.” I took a deep breath. “Anyway, I got you some stuff to eat.”

We sat around the dinner table after some moving about. The television was still turned on. I opened the packets of warm food, and I watched as his eyes lit and he immediately reached out with his bare hands.

“No, I’ll get you fork and spoon!” I strode to the kitchen with the set of utensils for him and a pair of chopsticks for myself.

He was already stuffing food into his mouth. I placed the utensils in his hands and he grudgingly obliged.

“You know during the war we didn’t even have bowls.” He reminisced.

“This isn’t the war, grandpa. This is 2016.”

“Who said anything about war?”

I continued eating as my grandfather went on about wartime rations for the sixtieth time this month. He took large swallows, and spat bones out with huge chunks of food. Soon I would have to remove these bones for him.

“How was your day?” I ventured.

“Who are you? Everyday I am here I feel more trapped.”

“How was your day?”

“It is a life of suffering.” It’s funny how phrases sound normal in Chinese but when translated sound pretentiously philosophical.

As I was washing the dishes I noticed again the coffee stains on my skirt. I noticed that it had faded away and was in gradually lighter shades of brown as time went by. I noticed that this was my life. I had to take care of the same man who cradled me when I was a senseless child. It only made sense that I did. I had to work a dead end job every day to make sure we made ends meet, serving coffee and printing meaningless documents. It only made sense that I did. And most of all, it only made sense that I came home to a man who didn’t recognise me, whose look of betrayal stung me every time. It was almost as if he was truly disappointed in what had become of me. That he, a young man struggling in the seventies could have found a job that he truly loved whilst me, a prosperous millennial, could only settle for second best.

And when you settle for second best that’s exactly what you get.

Rooftops

My father told me when I was younger that if you went on a rooftop in the dead of night and made a wish, that in the morning the wish would come true. Now that I think about it, I wasn’t so sure why he said that. Feeding a naive child such a notion must not have been the wisest thing to do.

Sure enough, on the day grandpa passed away I attempted just that. I snuck out of my room in the dead of night and climbed the railing of my house’s balcony. Reaching out for the edge of the roof, my foot slipped on the railing and I fell 2 stories. I broke both my legs that night, and passed out immediately. Right before I fainted, however, I heard grandpa calling my name from above. I swore I did. It was so clear, the way his voice cut through the air as I passed out. I was so sure I could have saved him had I just made it onto the roof and made a wish.

My father was visibly shaken after the incident, and implored my mother not to scold me. “I fed him tales before he slept, I will take responsibility for what happened,” he said. My mother had just lost her own father, and could not endure the possibility of losing her son as well. She did not talk to any of us until after Grandpa was cremated. I sat in the hospital and thought of what would have happened had I successfully climbed up the roof. Grandpa would be back, I was sure of that, and I would not be in the state I was in. It took me a few years before I snapped out of it and stopped blaming myself for my family’s grief. I must have imagined the voice of my grandfather that night.

Many years later, my own father died. After I put my own kids to bed, I found myself climbing to a rooftop again. Of course, I had no hopes of reviving my father, but just knew that this was something I had to do. I made sure not to slip this time, though. Thankfully, modern housing made the task of climbing to the roof safer. There was a thin ladder that led up to the top, and unlike the slanted apex roof of my old home, this was a flat roof.

When I was finally at the top I sat down on the cleanest patch of ground I could find, and just took some time to breathe. It was the peculiar time that one knew not whether to call morning or night. I realised then that I hadn’t had time for myself the past week with relatives coming to offer their condolences, and my children needing attention of their own as well. I sat there, the moon casting its faint glow all over me, shrouding me in pallor. I thought of why, in our quietest moments, we tend to think the most coherent thoughts. It was as if my mind became suddenly active, an arrow flying straight to the bullseye. I quickly conjured up a small list of things I wish I could have told my father.

I was startled by a rustling below, and crawled over to the edge, carefully. It was my neighbours son, coming home late into the night. I spied on him from above, as he made his way to the front door. It was probably a raunchy night of drinks, I thought.

And then came my wildest realisation. It was my father all this time. He had been on the rooftop all those years ago, the same way I was on the rooftop now. That was the only way I was noticed and brought to the hospital in the dead of night. That was the only way I could have heard my name being called out from above as I passed out. It wasn’t grandpa after all. And if not for him I would have been left unconscious until the morning. Nobody would have noticed me there, except that he did. And so we sat there, on different rooftops, 20 years apart. But we were sharing something special, I was sure of that. I could very much feel him there, beside me. Just silently hoping.

Later that night, I opened the door to my son’s bedroom, and watched him as he slept. There he was, my son. Then I finally understood why my father told me those bedtime stories. Because he wanted me to imagine a world where people didn’t die and we had no regrets about the things we didn’t say. I knew then, what I had to do.

I closed the door, and went off to bed. I thought of just the story to tell him, a story about rooftops. But it would have to wait for tomorrow night.

Running has to be a Labour of Love

I don’t know why, but writing about running makes more sense when I’m injured and can’t run. But that’s what it has come down to, at least for the coming week. I did a few too many speed workouts and the area around my hip flexor feels slightly off. I can’t really walk a few steps without feeling a slight pain inch up my upper thigh. This was probably bound to happen given that I was training five times a week at one juncture.

As I was hobbling along today I realised just how tough running actually is. Not that I thought a lot about it as I was training. There’s no point questioning so much. When people ask me why I like to run I always have my answers on a template and it looks something like this:

I like to run because I can explore the area. I like to run because it feels good to feel fast. I like to run because the improvement I make is often very tangible, and I like challenging myself in that way. I like to run because there’s nothing like feeling the wind play with your hair. 

All these reasons are good reasons, but they often fall flat the moment I’m injured. When I had my stress fracture two years ago I hardly talked about running, mainly because I was ashamed that I couldn’t run, but also because all the above reasons felt more and more like a distant memory to me. And besides, different things began to take over my life when I was injured that in one way or another filled the void left by running. I found out that I could write when I was sad, and there were other more dubious means to get high without running.

In those moments without running it was as if I never ran and that conjuring these thoughts of running would only serve as an unnecessary torture. Like the reminder of a past love.

And maybe that was it, we don’t want to be reminded of past glory in all its various forms, because more than just showing that we’re no longer as good as we used to be, it also shows us the transient, passing nature of greatness itself, and that it can be a  very scary thing to possess in the first place.

I would say that right now I’m faster than I’ve ever been before, but with all that ability comes the nagging fear that this can be all taken away from me, as it has for this week. In a sense I’m lucky to have had past experience with injury to be wise enough to not push the limits. And so I rest for now. But as hopeful as I am for progress, I am often cynical and remind myself that this might just be it; the height of running glory might be here and now. I can do everything to prevent myself from injury and stagnation and it might still go awry. I might look back not long from now lugging a satchel of memories of my glorious past. I’m all too familiar with that sinking feeling.

Injuries bring forth all these insecurities. I am the adopted child afraid of being sent back to the orphanage should I misbehave. I try very hard to prevent all these problems from happening, and as I do I start to slowly discover why it is that I truly like to run.

A friend once told me that he doesn’t run because running was too easy, and anyone could be fast. You just run all day, and that’s it. He would rather play a ball sport that depended on something more interesting like team dynamics and agility.

My coach would agree with my friend on the first part of his claim: that running was easy. My coach told me on our first training that every athlete comes to him with passion, but the mark of a true runner is someone who does everything else right outside of their passion. “Running is the easiest thing to do, anyone can run. It’s your (and he would pause here for dramatic effect) lifestyle that I’m more interested in.” And by lifestyle he meant everything from the hours of sleep to the temperature of the water you drink (no cold drinks is the order I’d been given). And so from there you see what it really means to be a runner: not about being fast or feeling fast, but about the ability to protect and nurture that passion. Running is like the hole in the donut. It’s everything else around it that really matters, but yet it is the hole that defines the donut.

I’m still learning that lesson. There are days when I make mistakes, and let my guard down. I sleep a little late and drink with my friends on occasion. I sometimes fail to plan my meals properly. Little things like that tend to go wrong, but I’m learning. I’m also learning to love the entire process of nurturing. You can’t love your performance whilst dread rehearsals and say that theatre is your life. And maybe it’s the same for running, and everything else. I may be wrong, but I think true passion probably doesn’t work around a bunch of concessions. You either love everything about the process, or end up convincing yourself to.

So my friend was right, it was easy to run. Anyone can run. But to be a runner? It takes a whole lot of dedication, a whole different way of life. True passion isn’t just about love, but loving the labour of love.

And as for the satchel of memories that I’ll carry into the future? I think future me would be proud if I did everything with love right now. I have my shot at some degree of greatness. And if I do everything I can to protect it, I can look back and have no regrets.

So why do I like to run?

I like to run because I loved everything else that came with it as well, and that has slowly become the way I live. 

You know what, I’ll just stick to the first answer if anybody asks.