I Had High Hopes But

Find yourself,
They say.
But you can’t. But
Yet they say
Find yourself.

And so you try. In
The darkness amidst flashing lights.
In the time you find between two paragraphs of an assignment
You dread
In the gaps between
Awkward conversation
In the spaces between your teeth where tongues cannot fit
Where decency tries to find a way but stops short
Of anything substantial. Of anything yet

nothing.
You find yourself
Desperate
You know you didn’t want this.
You know
You didn’t want any of this.
But yet you’re yearning
And your morals crunch against the gravel
The imaginary asphalt
The friendly stones
That are actually stares.
But they don’t seem so friendly to you.

And you yearn but you don’t ever get and
You fight but you don’t ever win
And
You behave but no one commends you.
And what does this tell you?

But that you are nothing more than
A little too insignificant for the world
To even notice,
To even take your feelings into account
When there’s nothing left inside
To express

And so you yearn but as it appears
Yearning is too insubstantial anyway
To feed the pain
That is your soul.

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Novena to Orchard and Everything in Between

I’m typing this as I walk; from Novena where I had been studying to Orchard where I will be having a family dinner. It’s my brothers birthday today, and so that seems to be the occasion for this dinner. We congregate for many reasons, birthdays being the excuse for a more elaborate scheme of reunion.

The weather is nice; I can see some leaves falling from the trees as the wind berates them, buses edging past me emitting warm air like giant hair dryers. I’m passing by the Hotel Royal, grey bricked and in severe need of a renovation. “Tenerife Sea” plays on my iPod and I’m reminded of when I’d lie down in bed and close my eyes with this song on repeat, thinking of nothing in particular. 

The trees are lined up to my right, looking bigger in the twilight, towering over the road and shading me from the already non-existent sun. A jogger flows past and I feel the silent rush of gentle wind generated. A man walks past with his miniature dog, which I believe fell through the evolutionary cracks thanks to our human charity. Sometimes I can’t help but feel that we care for these little dogs more than we do actual people. But who am I to dictate how people feel about the things they love?

When you’re walking by yourself and actually looking around you it starts becoming clear, that spending alone time is absolutely crucial. After four, five, six days of spending time non-stop with people around you, talking, laughing, exploring and building you don’t stop to think about how exhausted you are. People are exhausting. Trying to figure them out, more so.

I’ve reached Newton, circumvented a very dangerous roundabout and am halfway to Orchard.  I don’t feel so bad, and walking still feels like a good idea. I walk past Sheraton Towers, where I had my JC Prom, where we had finished our exams and were under the spell of newfound freedom. We thought we looked good spiking our hair up, applying copious amounts of Gatsby wax and dousing ourselves in a pungent Calvin Klein scent. We thought we dressed well but I don’t know if we actually did. It sure felt like we did, and I remembered that for all it was worth the best dressed award went to a guy wearing shorts. Hey, maybe being different did have its merits. I’m not sure if society encourages such a perception to make the stand outs feel better, if there’s actually any grounds to such a sentiment. I will be honest, though. I’d never wear shorts to an event like that. It’s just too risky and well, being different was never something I wanted to display physically anyway.

Another set of joggers steam past, a man and woman duo this time. I wonder if they’re together. When you see a guy and girl doing something together you tend to wonder about these kind of things, or maybe this is just me. I wonder if one of them is more enthusiastic about this run than the other, whether one dragged the other along. Whether one was trying to impress the other. I read somewhere that dates with a heightened physical element in it tend to be more effective because letting out sweat triggers our “happy senses” by releasing dopamine, and so the date will always persist as a positive memory. Maybe that was what they were trying to achieve. Who knows?

The lights of Orchard Road dance dimly in the distance and within a space of a few minutes have fallen gently, then aggressively onto my skin. The sound of cars and chatter increase manifold and there is an overhanging smell of cigarette smoke. These stick to the peripheries like mussels on a jetty pillar. I smell Abercrombie and Fitch, blue and yellow Christmas lights appear. There are green lights as well. The girl in front of me is wearing a dress that would never, in a million years, be approved by her parents. Not that she would care, I suppose, and not as if the men around her would necessarily mind. Take out a few key players and everyone can be happy. This is as such with short dresses and politics.

Outside Shaw house I decide to stand still and take a breather, facing the road, the noise of cars, people and the hum of the lights forming an uncomfortable cacophony of materialistic madness. “In Your Atmosphere” by John Mayer plays on my iPod, and I am reminded of how this was my favourite song back in the day. What day, I end up asking, and when does a favourite song change hands, when do you realise that this particular song stops being your favourite song? Is it like lost love? Lost feelings?  You either slowly forget, or you wake up one morning and realise, no, it was never to be! Perhaps it is a combination of both, perhaps it is none. The lights look down and don’t seem to have an answer, either.

I snap out of my trance, and realise that I have to stop writing soon. I am about to meet people again, family members, my brother. It is his birthday. Yes, I remember. I remember. I cannot forget, the turning of the gears, the moving of the clock hands and the rising and setting of the sun demand that moments pass and I cannot forget.

Perhaps I believed that by getting lost in this ramble, I could have escaped, but I will always be wrong. Time will move on, people will exchange their words, ideas, glances, feelings and fluids. I would love to stay still, believe me, but God forbid that I ever realise that.

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The Opposite of Success is Not Failure, it’s the Fear of It

It has been a long week. I’ve had rehearsals, assignments due, and assignments that I’ve fared badly in, coming in all at once. Responsibility doesn’t always get to you, but when it does, it happens all at once; multiple deadlines and test dates falling upon you simultaneously. The education system here has prepared us all for this, I am no stranger.

It has been a long day. I was scheduled to consult one of my professors after lessons, and I planned to talk to her about how my assignment went wrong. Though I sort of knew why it went wrong; I chose the creative option for the essay assignment, and attempted to rewrite some of my readings in a different voice. I thought it was ok, and it felt right as I was writing, but apparently it wasn’t what she was looking for. I scored abysmally, and to say the least I was discouraged. Perhaps I should have stuck with the conventional options.

I walked into her office and sat down to talk to her about this. I started off with the usual excuses; I may have read the question wrongly, didn’t understand what the question really wanted from me, was confused as to what I was supposed to do.

She listened to my concerns, patiently, and when I was done she said something along these lines:

If you’re only concerned about getting good grades all the time, you wouldn’t dare to try anything new. This is why I included the creative option in the first place. One of my teachers in the past would always tell me, that if you’re going to expect to do well all the time you wouldn’t be writing. Because this entire process of writing is about trying new things and learning from your mistakes. So I’m glad you didn’t score well, and in fact I’d rather you didn’t score well. Because it shows me that you tried, that you didn’t play it safe. I wouldn’t be so worried about this if I were you.

I remember these words clearly because I don’t think I’ve heard this from many teachers in my life, for it takes tremendous courage for a teacher to say something like this to a student. Most of my teachers I’ve had wouldn’t encourage too much creativity; there was always a safer option, a more straightforward, albeit more rigorous way of memorising, structuring and conceptualising everything that can make sentences look like math equations. It takes tremendous courage for a teacher to tell a student that it is ok to be creative, that it is ok to embrace failure and learn from it amidst a system that cruelly denies those that do.

In writing, as I believe is similar in the other arts, we all go through cycles of failure and discovery, where we explore our voices and fine tune the way we express ourselves. Sentence structures, rhetorical questions and management of emotions all go into the way our words turn out, and it is a nuanced act, not one that should be girdled by the fear of failure, or the imposition of structures. I think I’ve reiterated this before in another post.

More than that, it traps beauty. In math and science subjects, we are told that only a limited set of solutions exist for a single problem, and concepts exist within a fixed paradigm and this makes success or failure a straightforward affair. Arguably, math and science possesses beauty and is inextricably linked with philosophy as well, but our education system has made this point of compromise something very difficult and in fact almost impossible to see, solidifying these otherwise fluid ideas into concrete concepts. In a world where clear, concise curriculums have to be cooked up, this is not entirely surprising.

I believe that the arts is our last frontier for creative expression, and I hope more than being tolerant to failure, that teachers can actively encourage the chance of it. Encourage their students to attempt new styles, to delve out of their comfort zones and to find a true voice within cluttered minds pounded numb by a system only concerned with results.

Within government doctrines, “education” is but a passing down of knowledge from one generation to another, and whose effectiveness is fuelled by numbers and percentages. To me it means something much more. It is the interaction of one human and another, the passing down of essential values and our guide to finding our role in this world. A latent fear of failure should never be the backdrop in the way we approach this world.

And so I thank my professor for telling me it was ok to fare badly. I thank her for encouraging creativity, and I thank her for showing me that it was ok to keep trying in a world where trying seems so inconsequential. We need more teachers like that, for only then will education be a journey and not a destination.

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My #1 Fear

What am I
but a mere observer,
the channel that carries thought
a vessel that exists but does not participate,
that conveys but does not meddle,
that thinks but does not do.
What am I,
but a lowly coward
that will only realise that the things
that mean the most to me,
only do when it’s
too late?
That is
my number one fear,
and I’m getting closer to it
with every
dying
day.

Journey to the East and the Thought that Struck Me

Tonight is one of those nights where I flitted between two phases of my life, going back to my camp for a short while to check out the passing out parade of a junior batch. I followed a friend along on his journey to the east, down smooth train lines and colourful conversations.

The parade was great, I guess. Whatever I expected to happen, happened. But it hardly stirred me, or made me feel anything for who I was, or for my former self standing proudly on that same parade square two years ago. I felt nothing whatsoever; my heart somewhere very different, no longer confined by the (newly reconstructed) gates of a place I tried so hard to call home not so very long ago (but alas, failed).

A very strange thought developed on the way back, and not in the way film develops in slow progression shrouded in darkness. This thought developed instantaneously, like an instant bullseye on virgin dartboard. BAM, and it was there.

The thought went about like this; that religion and love are very similar ideas. (This is the first time I’m writing about religion on this space and I still don’t think I possess the maturity to do so but here is a shot at a larger picture).

Ok, so lets get some background. When you fall in love, two things are at play; the practical and the emotional aspect of this relationship you will embark on. Practical matters being that of compatibility, interests, age gap, potential future income, parents, beliefs, etc. We think about these things now and then, subconsciously or not. Then there’s the emotional aspect, where raw feelings are unearthed, and this, in a nutshell, is rather difficult to explain. I like to use verbal imagery to summarise this, and so yes, a lot of eye contact, heart rates, shifty feet and lightheadedness, tingling of the extremities and so on and so forth. If you can’t describe the wind, describe the slanted tree that it blows. But since we all want a more mature depiction, I’ll give it to you. So here we have an instance when a deeper love is being cast into question. A lot of time and energy must have been poured into this one, the poor miners getting covered in thick soot digging so deep. What we unearth will be feelings of assuredness, comfort, familiarity and every strange (sometimes negative) feeling that encompasses what we know as love. These are not so easy to imagine on a verbal plane, and are feelings we feel over time, rather than observe immediately.

And so we have religion, and to me religion and love share some parallels in the sense that there is also this element of practicality versus emotion. But from how I see it, the word “emotion” would have to be replaced by “faith”, for the latter encapsulates an aspect of blind allegiance. We simply cannot know of the entirety of the renewed paradigm religion casts us into, and so have to accept a few things through acts of faith. So here we go again. We have practical issues of family agreement, dining habits, institutional commitments and moral standards, a lot of it revolving around the utility to our lives.

Faith, on the other hand, deals with instances where we feel more than we know, and believe more than the physical evidence provides. Again, this is debatable. In a lot of testimonies I’ve sat through, a lot of what holds faith together does manifest physically; sometimes the sudden healing of an illness, or a recovered relationship with a loved one, or just stabilised sleeping habits. The result of overwhelming faith can be observed in numbed extremities, warm tears, unshakeable assuredness, a sense of direction and for many, a reinforcement of communal ties. However, physical manifestation or not, faith seems to revolve around interpretation, and in that sense, a single situation can be perceived in many ways, depending on individual faith, and the direction and extent it directs one. We have our own unique relationship with what we believe in, like it or not. Institutions can influence our beliefs, but each relationship is unique, and constitutes a huge part of us. In other words, I don’t have to worship an IKEA Scissors to be unique, my own reading of the holy bible constitutes a unique relationship with the religion.

The next thought that came was this: in the same way I didn’t want to get romantically involved with anyone whilst serving the nation, I didn’t want to go about defining my religious beliefs when times got tough. Think about it, it makes sense, and the whole army analogy must have come from the parade I watched.

The same way an army camp reduces prospects with the opposite sex (or any long-term involvement, at least), the trials in your life takes away any semblance of comfort and familiarity, one that religion promises to endow (or at least, do a better job of than your problem-ridden life).

So in the same way you feel a heightened desire for the opposite sex whilst in an army camp, you will feel a heightened desire to seek solace in religion during hardship. This, I always felt, turned notions of emotion and faith into something wholly illegitimate under the cloak of neediness and heightened dependency. It’s not too hard to imagine, is it? Or am I oversimplifying the matter?

I feel perfectly burdened because these assumptions don’t necessarily hold true. A choice made in your time of need isn’t necessarily a bad choice. Going down that line, your preferences during times of plenty won’t always have good outcomes, or be any more legitimate. An army boy can find love the same way a girl who has lost something dear to her can seek legitimate solace in religion, and do a good job of it as well. This is not so hard to imagine, and is well within the spectrum of possibilities.

So on my journey to the west, I made the realisation that we shouldn’t be burdened by our preconceptions. Possibilities abound and life awaits. Just because I’m busy with work doesn’t mean I cannot start writing a novel. Just because life feels empty doesn’t mean I cannot seek solace in religion. Just because I was never a “science kid” doesn’t mean I cannot pursue an elective in quantum mechanics. We don’t need common sense to feel happy, because happiness, as we know, is a complicated matter that pays little regard to logic. Hell, this entire post has been a complicated matter.

Finally, I take the lift up and sit in my room. What happens next? is the question that lingers on the peripheries. Unsurprisingly, the room is silent, as if telling me only you can answer that, so let’s get your act together. 

I sincerely hope I can.

1933 and the Sadness that Followed

Tonight I was supposed to meet this friend at the train station, and so took the bus from my campus, off onto the flyover and smack on the slippery roads freshly sprayed with light rain. It was a cooling day, and I felt less tired than I should have.

On the bus my friend messaged me, telling me that he would be fifteen minutes late, and so I decided to take a rest stop halfway.  After all, I didn’t like waiting around at stations. So I stepped off the bus, into the sort of weather that invites you with open arms to linger in its presence, the fleeting moment after rain and before sun. Perfect weather, really, where mist and cool air meld into each others presence.

I looked at my watch, and it read 19:33. I walked a bit down the hill and towards the stands of the NUS track, where a low hanging mist sat over the entire area, footballers and touch rugby players kicking and tossing about under this light blanket. I sat still and took out my book, reading the words of Milan Kundera. That was when I saw them, a bunch of runners, jogging slowly around the track, a spring in their step, invigorated by the inviting weather, a few of them turning around regularly talking to each other and caught up in each others presence.

I felt a stab of sadness all of a sudden, one that was bitter and resentful all the same. The runners kept on running, freshmen, sophomores, juniors and what not. So engrossed in their jog, nobody would have noticed if a green alien shot out from my chest. The coach looked on and talked to a few of the runners at a time, giving them advice on a higher kick, a more upright running form. The kind of thing a good coach would do.

If I had to narrow down this sadness to a specific source, I would blame it on memory. I think what running gave me wasn’t just an escape, but random memories of pain and triumph. Take my 1500 meter finals where my dad came down to support me in the rain, my quarter marathon in Thailand where I made friends with a Thai runner. Those failed runs where I would walk back, disgruntled but hopeful for the next run, heart beating in my chest, convinced that despite all these setbacks that I’d never give up . Where have those days gone?

Since my injury I had been asking myself if there was ever a substitute for running. I tried to swim, cycle, do some tabata workout. It all didn’t make me feel better, and even if it did it just never felt the same. I’ve lazed around a lot and although my environment has changed I still feel a gap inside. Without running, it just wasn’t the same. People always think that such gaps need to be filled by wholly significant things like lovers or religion but to me it had always just been two things; to write and run. We don’t need validation from another, but sometimes find answers within ourselves, to search deeper for something elusive. Even if you never find it, the journey itself should have been sufficiently rewarding and nostalgic. Again, I hope I’m making sense. I just want to be a better person and sometimes I try too hard and make no sense in the process.

The mist hangs over as I nurse this indescribable sadness. I could have been in there, running with these people, making new friends, and having people around me that shared the same passion. But I was denied, and cruelly so. What I had wanted so badly had finally materialised before my eyes, this elusive track and field team; one that physically exists and trains on Monday nights under brilliant floodlights.

The only difference was that I wasn’t part of it.

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Be Good, November

When people ask me how I am I’ll always tell them the obvious, that things are ok. Even when my close friends ask me what’s up I wouldn’t make too much of a fuss. I’m ok, im always ok. But to be honest, October was one hell of a month, and not in a good way. I felt like someone took a roll of cling wrap and wrapped it around me a few times and that all my actions were limited by screechy transparent film. Perhaps I’m the only one that feels this way.

I am confused as to why I feel like this, and by this I mean…what do I mean? I think how I feel is best characterised by a mixture of bad decisions (late nights, poor time management and that one shot too many) and a severe lack of motivation which I am finding trouble diagnosing. Besides, understanding yourself is one of the hardest things in the world, remember that.

A lot of what I write is very solution centred, I try to get to the bottom of things and find ways in which to combat sloppiness and inconsistency. I would love to do that for this case, but I feel like any answer I give would be trite and difficult to carry out under the watchful eye of reality. I spent the entire October feeling unwell, first from a raving diarrhoea I brought home from my overseas travels, then from a crippling throat infection that lasted for a week before evolving into a cough that lasted for three. I am grateful not for my perseverance, but for the people around me who not only put up with my lessened self but also offered care and concern in more ways than one. These little acts have salvaged my October more so than they’d imagine and I feel imensely grateful for everything they’ve done, from offering medicine and taking down notes. It was misery at worst, hopefulness at best. Everything in between was what made my October.

Now I’ve come to November. The desolte land of November. Like a golfer picking a golf club before a shot, I’d like to pick a lesson I’ve learnt from the past, that whatever good you’ve done would be rendered for naught if you mess up just once. I’d like to take that notion very seriously, heading into all the final papers, the final Octant issues and the final everything. The desire to not mess things up is great, and I feel like this last stretch should be run with heart, lest my legs are unable to get me there. Judging by all that I’ve been through, this should turn out to be a gross overdramatisation of how things really stand, but I’d be happy to let these absurd metaphors guide the way. I don’t think reality has anything left to motivate me anymore, so let these little analogies pave the way for something great.

Be good, November, and leave something for me to smile back on.

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