Something to Remember when Nothing Makes Sense

You have given everything you’ve got and nothing makes sense anymore. The only certainty amidst a sea of confusion is the absolute hopelessness of your situation.

This you know. And you are frustrated, and this is unfair. Yes. It is very unfair.

Maybe you fell of your bike and fractured your hip. Your entire summer is gone, confined to the hospital bed. Maybe you walked into your mother making love to another man, a man who is hardly your father. That too, presents its own set of challenges. Or maybe you just woke up one day and realised, hey, this life isn’t for me. Or maybe you didn’t even have to wake up to realise it, you knew from the start that this life wasn’t for you. It was for someone else out there who is maybe three centimetres taller, who eats less everyday and does a different occupation. This life may be for anyone else, but it certainly isn’t for you.

You feel trapped, and you want so badly to escape. There’s really nothing left for you to wonder, to rationalise. You are sick of positivity, of people pretending to be strong around you when the truth is that they too look at you with that tinge of pity in their eyes. Poor one, they must be thinking. Wanted this life but got that instead. Be strong now, be strong.

But the biggest mistake is pretending to be strong when all your body shows and knows is weakness. It is a mistake to feel like you must be strong just because the world looks at your suffering and predicts frailty but hopes for strength. When the world makes such a prediction it is very natural to tense up and put up a facade of strength.

The key here is, don’t. At least not at first. It is okay to crouch in a corner and cry, find a friend and complain for the whole night. Let your weakness spread from within you, let it infect those around you with its anti-strength. Only then will your suffering gain legitimacy, and only then will you finally know what it means to confront your emotions, to get close and personal with hardship.

It’s too easy to see someone suffering and say “he/she did so well” or “it was courageous of them.” We forget that a lot of times courage is a choice, and not an obligation. Many people who suffer did so unwillingly, did so without knowing of the pain that lay ahead. We often elevate the status of the sufferer to the point where it’s almost wrong to show weakness, that crying out in pain and just hating life for a while seems like a burden to everyone around. But it isn’t. It is merely an instinctive human reaction to hurt.

Only through your own questioning and deliberate grilling of your emotions and of the situation does the potential to grow arise. What does this potential for growth mean? To me it means making a choice. Perhaps suffering wasn’t up to you. Perhaps suffering closed off all your options and placed you at a spot that feels almost as cold as death. But even in times like that you have a choice, that is, the choice of what next. After all your wallowing and loud screams down dark alleys, life will go on. It certainly will, whether you’re rock bottom or Everest high.

So only when you’ve felt the full weight of the situation do you sit up and make that choice. This choice need not be a courageous undertaking after all. It may not even be selfless. You suffered and you owe it to yourself to call the shots, to consider your well being for once. You will tell yourself simple things like “what will make me happy” or “what can get me out of this mess?” It is the mistake of outsiders to look at someone suffering and expect them to make noble choices. We expect them to not only be cheerful, but be cheerful for us, be cheerful because those around have to be assured that everything is OK. Somehow the status of the sufferer gets elevated to the point where both the way they choose to suffer and the outcome of their trials have to have positive outcomes so their touching stories can be repeated.

I’m not saying that this shouldn’t be the case. I have the deepest admiration for people who go through hardship and emerge champions, who help others and in the process help themselves. Never once do they flinch. They are so selfless to the point where you feel like a bad person just observing them. I admire them to no end. What I’m saying is that not everyone possesses such strength. It is okay to put yourself in front, your happiness and your future ahead of those around you who will never understand the true extent of your suffering. It is okay to be ugly when it counts, to give your suffering respect. In no way are you expected to be strong because of an unspoken truce amongst sufferers to portray grace and strength. For crying out loud, you can complain all you want and I’ll listen to you. You’re suffering, and you deserve all the help in the world. It should not be us expecting to gain strength from you, but the other way around.

Always remember that.

47 hours, 5 minutes

“On this blank page lies a world of potential.” I finished off my essay and looked up at the glaring lights that inspected me like divers in a wreck of a sunken ship. Hello world, it’s good to be back.

The library was silent, so silent. Any noise would mean I got kicked out by a bunch of angry university students. I went to the toilet and looked at myself in the mirror. I splashed water onto my face and stared intently at my reflection. No outbreaks— a miracle considering the stressful week that had passed. My eyes were situated far apart, further than I last remembered. My skin was almost yellow in the warm light. I had no other explanation for this other than the fact that I had not slept for the last 47 hours. I was running on caffeine, three cups of coffee, two diet cokes and fifteen energy bars were expanded in my quest to finish my assignment.

I walked back to my seat, wiped my hands on my pants. Cradling my files in one hand, I picked up my laptop with the other, and closed it with my chest.

But wait.

I opened the screen again. There was a bright yellow post-it note stuck onto the screen.

Meet me in the computer lab. 5 minutes is all I have. 

I turned around. There was a light coming from the computer lab behind. It glimmered from the depths of the library like the hungry eye of a sea monster waiting in the hull of the sunken ship. Nobody used the computer labs, I thought to myself.

The glass was frosted, there was no way to look into the room. I sat down for a while, counting down the minutes. There was no reason to go. I could very well ignore the post-it. Three minutes past like the shifting sun. I felt moss grow up my ankles.

I was resolved to stay away from any of this drama, I decided. There was too much drama, too little energy. In fact all I wanted to do was go back to sleep. It was five in the afternoon, on a warm 35 degree celsius Saturday. I had been awake since 6pm on rainy Thursday. Not the healthiest of lifestyles, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do the same. I crushed the post it, and threw it into the bin. It bounced off the edge, and missed.

The furious collective typing of the students filled the library.

I picked up my laptop again, closing it and cradling the last two days in my tired arms. My phone vibrated.

It vibrated again. I had a call.

It was her.

I let the phone ring as I stared at the screen.

Who was this girl? That would be a long story. But it would be safe to say that she meant a lot to me. She meant a lot then, and she still meant a lot now.  In fact, I wouldn’t have hesitated to pick up the call had it been a month ago.

But some time had past, and our lives had shifted courses. She was no longer somebody I saw any future in. I believed that we had resolved our struggles, but I knew this not to be true. There was still a lot unanswered. The day she left was very much shrouded in the ocean mist, the thunder loud and waves roaring, high enough to sink hearts.

Why would she call? I hadn’t left anything with her, I made sure to take all my belongings, and return hers as well.

I remember how our last conversation went. We were at a street corner where a barbershop met a coffeehouse.

“So this is it?” She began by asking.

“You tell me,” I replied.

“This is it then.”

“What really went wrong?”

“What’s with you and finding out everything?”

“I just want to know so I can be better in the future.”

“You can’t live in the moment, dear. That’s what went wrong.”

At that moment I knew I had a lot to say about that statement. How it was unfair to keep me in the grey for so long, how there was nothing concrete to fall back on in our relationship. How we were being pushed about by the wind, unwilling to find an anchor. She flourished in stark uncertainty while I suffered. What was blissful to her was sheer torture for me.

But I didn’t say anything, and she just walked away. Perhaps she was right, I remembered thinking.

Five minutes was up.

The lights faded from the computer lab. I stood at the entrance of the library and noticed everything. The door opened, and a lady walked out. She turned the other way, walked a few steps and paused. The phone was probably on its last few rings. I don’t know why, but I panicked at that moment. Something told me that if I didn’t pick up that phone call that I would never see that girl again. And I was right. I found out later that she was leaving that night to study overseas. I should have known, but I didn’t. I only felt panic.

The lady that stepped out of the computer lab must have been a student. But I didn’t recognise her. She was lanky, like an antelope. There was something in her gait that made her look vulnerable in body but strong in spirit. She was as free as she wanted to be. I knew at once that it must have been her that wrote the post-it note.

Picking up the phone would mean a long conversation. I knew how things went with her, she would pour her feelings out. Real, genuine and thick. I would have to take a deep breath and swallow it all up. There was no other reason why she would have called. By the time the phone call was over antelope lady would have disappeared.

If I walked up to antelope lady I would have to miss the phone call. It was that simple. There was really no two ways about it. A student walked in and bumped into me. He dropped his copy of Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche onto the ground. He bent over to pick it up.

“I’m sorry,” he said, before shuffling away.

But antelope lady was almost at the end of the library now. The phone was ringing and the lady was walking away.

I had a choice to make, and I had to make it now.


This short story is almost entirely fictional. No such antelope lady exists in my school, or in my life.

 

What You Tell Yourself on Week 13

Week 13 is here! And honestly, I’m still not ready for it. I’m like a gymnast mid jump in between two poles and realizing mid air that I may not actually reach the second pole. But I have to reach out anyway, have to give it some sort of try, lend my voice some sort of honesty.

So yes, it’s halfway through the week. I still have two and a half assignments to go, one presentation and one group report. I also have rehearsals and three performances. A lot of things are on my plate and honestly I’m quite full as it is.

A big part of me wants to feel like I want this. I want to live in the now. I don’t want to miss the past, constantly ruminate on trivialities like free time spent in army, the guidance received from teachers in JC. It all seems better, sure. But it wasn’t. It isn’t better because we tend to isolate the pleasantries of the past, put them on a pedestal and think; hey, that’s where I want to be. The past constitutes so much more than those occasional glimmers of sanity. Humans forget pain like a goldfish forgets yesterday’s chores. Our past is misshaped, misconstrued as easily as we want it to be, it will always seem a place where things were easier. I know this to be untrue. In the past I had definitely been pushed harder, both physically and emotionally. I have grown to be someone who thinks highly of the now, because past me urged present me to treasure this time to truly challenge myself in (somewhat) the ways that I want to be challenged. I cannot throw these past promises away simply because some assignments pile up and I feel lousier for it.

There is no point in feeling like these challenges are bigger than they actually are because they’re not. These challenges are there because we signed up for them, we had concrete choices and we chose this path, to follow this particular course. I can’t say for sure that any other path will be easier or harder. I mean, every path we choose will have its challenges for sure. But we chose this so we owe it to ourselves to press on. Once you question these choices is when your resolution will unspool and you will be left a traveller without a passport, an athlete without his granola bar. You just can’t go on doing what you do. You’ll feel everyday that you should be somewhere else and there’s no worst feeling than that. So at many junctures, then, it’s not that the work is too tough that you’re overwhelmed by it, it’s just that the inane desire to function within a certain system has gone awry. Once you lose this core motivation you lose a lot of things. So make sure that once you’ve chosen a path that you stick by it, don’t ever feel your choice to be second best.

And once you’re done comparing with the past, once you’re done feeling like this isn’t where you belong, spend some time on your own. I believe in my own little world that stress comes from people. People hand you assignments, deadlines, people will mark your work. You will always be answering to a person, we live in these tight communities where it only makes sense that we do. When we talk to our friends we think it helps but it doesn’t always. A lot of times a group setting can be triggering, people remind you of your insecurities, frailties. People are so real, yet so abstract. You can’t ever fathom just how these connections pan out without any particular logic. People, though good intentioned, may not always make you feel better about yourself.

 

So I got away today, from all that. I took a long bus ride to Hougang to get my haircut, went back home to drop my stuff and went for a long intense swim. I did 20 laps, almost died from the heat, bought some groceries, went back home then went back to school. I did all this under the close supervision of no one. And no one, at many times in my life, was just the person I needed.

Of course, these bouts of alone time are all but temporal. You can’t solve your problems by ignoring them, by ignoring life. Life is the coming and going of people in your day, some just rushing past and some staying for longer. Your time spent alone is like the short recess where you can just sit at a corner and count the number of birds that pick on the leftover bowl of fish ball noodles. Where you can stare out of the window to your hearts content without fearing the teachers irritated yell, pulling you back into the banality of focused attention. My point here is to savour your time of rest, but gear up when you have to get back to the crunch. Let gravity do the work on the downslopes, but climb fiercely on the inclines. Something like that.

So that’s week 13 for you. Not the most pleasant week, but definitely not your toughest week by a long shot. If you’ve read so far then you’ve probably related to these struggles enough to know that the worst had already come and gone. The worst has been buried in your past, and will continue teaching you to be a stronger person. Week 13? What’s that going to be to us in a few weeks time when we’re basking in our Bermudan Sunsets? Look up and see yourself for all you’re worth and enjoy the challenge. Talk when you feel like it and hide away if you don’t. Drink lots of water and sleep enough to last the day. Eat hearty breakfasts and liquid suppers. Live and learn. Love and grow. And before you know it, it’ll be over.

The Nuts Continued Cracking

“I liked his smile. Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him.”

It was my mother, talking about her father-in-law. My grandfather.

Through the whole time the nuts were being popped into mouths. Packet drinks and water distributed, plastic straws poked into flimsy aluminium openings.

Our shirts were as plain as a blank page. What was there left to tell the world?

My grandmother played mahjong with a few close relatives. She looked at her tile and chucked it away with disgust. She took a new tile the next round, feeling it with her thumb. She chucked it away with disgust as well.

She was not the first to learn of his death.

“Eat some ngor hiang, we ordered specially from that stall in Serangoon.”

I liked his smile.

“Yes, Ah Yi. I tried already.”

“Offer your friends.” She pushed a plate of savoury rolls to my chest.

“They’re not here today.”

“Ok, fine. If you’re hungry please eat.”

Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him. Was this true?

Just yesterday, Grandmother found out about Ah Gong’s death as she was ladling soup at her stall at a school canteen.

“Don’t worry,” was her first response. “We finish selling all the fishball soup, then we go see him.”

What was there left to tell the world? He was already gone when the news reached her. Discharged from hospital, everyone thought he would at least persevere for the next few months. When all is said and done, the doctors in white coats can only give percentages. Death doesn’t need an excuse.

And so they sold the soup, her hawker assistant and her. She ladled carefully, served the soup with heart. It was her job. She was going to finish for the afternoon. Death was making its rounds, winding in and out of dark, spindly spaces, some lonely, many filled with immense outpourings of love and comfort. But one thing was for sure, death left her stall untouched that afternoon. Food was being served continuously, customers satisfied.

The nuts continued cracking. Popped into mouths.

“What are you working as?” Spoke a distant relative. I didn’t even know his name.

“I’m looking towards journalism.”

He smiled at me, a smile that reeked of the days to come. “Good luck. I hope you don’t drop out. I heard it’s tough.”

“I’ll be ok. I always find a way. I’m hopelessly lazy, but I find a way.”

“There’s only one way to find out is there?”

Funny that we talk about these things at a funeral, I thought.

But of course, funerals are the perfect time for this kind of talk.

My mother looked at my grandmother’s tiles and complimented them. She was on a way to a winning combination, a high scoring one too.

The fluorescent lights buzzed above.

My mother huddled alongside me. She looked on at grandma, as did I.

“That’s Ah Gong and Ah Ma. They weren’t the most agreeable couple. 51 years of marriage and they stuck together through it all.”

She smiled. I reached out to hold her hand.

“They were used to long silences, days at a time, living their lives, not exchanging a word.”

She squeezed my hand.

“But I’m afraid that this time, the silence will be too much.”

She looked on at the casket on our left. A moth flew past my line of vision, landing on the edge of the overhanging fluorescent lamp.

I observed the moth. The brown of its back was elegant and obviously furry, like little feathers. It hung on the edge, then inched closer, closer to the light. It was almost there.

“Ah boy, come here,” yelled my grandmother. Mother pushed me forward by placing her palm on the small of my back. I walked forth.

The fluorescent lights buzzed with maddening urgency.

“Which tile should I throw? I don’t want you to think, just pick.” I looked at the options: There was the north tile, and the three-bamboo tile, both being fresh on the board. This deep into the game, it was risky to discard either.

I paused to think. There was an increasing buzz from above. I placed my hand on her shoulder. It was frail, the bones almost hollow. She might have been meant for flight.

Eventually she discarded the three-bamboo tile. Nobody declared a win, and the game continued.

“You slow lah boy. Your grandfather sure scold me for thinking so long,” she chuckled. I let go of her shoulder.

Yesterday when Grandma finally saw his body her legs gave way. All of us had to hold her up. Time itself seemed to stand still. 51 years summarised in a moment of grief. Who would have expected anything less? Mother was right. The silence, when cast all at once, might just have been too great.

The peanuts were de-shelled, popped into mouths. “Who wants ngor hiang?” announced my aunt for the fourth time.

The moth crawled closer to the light.

The distant relative stepped up and piled some of the ngor hiang onto his plate. He doused them with copious amounts of sweet sauce, thoroughly lathering the rolls.

I stepped forward and took two rolls onto a plate, offering one to grandma. The distant relative was chomping luxuriantly, unapologetically, swallowing in quick succession, one roll followed by the next.
Grandma initially refused, but her trembling hand did eventually pick up a roll as the tiles were being shuffled.

She placed the ngor hiang in her mouth, absentmindedly, taking tentative chews. I watched her closely. The way she ate it gave the impression of tremendous strength, reluctance yet perseverance all at once. Where does one find such strength? Does time make one strong or does it just turn you numb?

There was a buzz from above, the wild crackling of sorts. I was the only one who noticed it.

The moth fell from the ceiling and landed softly on the ground, burnt and expired, motionless in its demise.

The nuts continued cracking, popped into mouths.


 

This is a fictional short story, inspired by real life events unrelated to my family.