What Happened on Saturday Morning 

The tiles have worms in them, a cavern of tunnels, little perforations for a network of bugs and critters to crawl through. That I was sure. I tumbled over old newspapers, rickety tables that weighed a hundred tonnes, said hi to the old uncle that lived in this one-room flat. A cockroach wriggled, desperate to catch one last breath. 

I step into a brightly lit house, faces greet me, ask me, just why was I so late. I sheepishly tell them I had come from somewhere, that I would explain later. I had to bathe first. It was already bad enough being late for a class reunion, let alone ask to shower. But that was just how it was. I flicked specks of paint off my forearm, scrubbed dirt from between my toes. Goat’s milk soap ran down my body. I felt clean for the first time in four hours.

There were bedbugs after all, in between the tiles, behind little pockets of uneven paint that decked the walls. There was a rusty bed frame that needed moving out. Then there was us, the four of us. Just standing there. 

Someone told me to try the Vietnamese spring rolls. That they were made specially for me. Someone told me to eat more chicken rice. The wine was waiting behind in the pantry. I was from this and that school doing this and that. That’s nice, nice to know you’re doing well. Why, thank you. I am quite happy where my life is headed. Life, ambitions, dreams. Silence. The sound of wine being poured. Cabernet Sauvignon. It has been four years.

Uncle has gone to McDonalds to sit so we don’t know what to throw away. We grabbed random items, pulled them aside, away from brown walls once white. A mahjong case thick with dust, a relic of money won and lost. Heaps of clothing unfolded. Tin cans amid leftover food. Cigarettes. More dead cockroaches. Small specks of black peppered walls and floor. Bedbug eggs? We didn’t want to know. We swept away the dust that crusted the spaces behind, the spaces no one was ever meant to see. Maybe that’s what history really means. 

Who wants more wine? And so more wine is passed around. The mood is convivial. Remember when we used to do this and that and that and this? The spring rolls were fantastic, vegetable fresh and prawn crunchy. We talk about stuffy classrooms and the stressful syllabus, about idiosyncrasies that didn’t seem to have changed. We talked about what used to be us, now in a distance but still looking bright. And we laughed even more. There were still paint flecks on my toenails.

We began by scrubbing the walls of their history of dirt, and painting them over with our own narratives. The paint gleamed white at first, but dulled to beige as it dried. I still wonder why. 

We go in a circle now asking each other what we’re doing. She’s about to work in public relations. He’s going to be a lawyer. I tell them I want to write a novel. It’s like an orientation activity but this was hardly orientation. This was in fact the exact opposite.

Before I knew it I had to leave. A class reunion, I told the other volunteers. Goodbye old house, goodbye the walls that we painted over. I didn’t get to say goodbye to the old uncle that left for Mcdonalds. I packed up to go. There was some sadness in the leaving. A self serving sadness that made me feel better; because what’s worst than leaving this place and feeling good? You had to feel bad for not helping more. Always. That’s what makes you a good person. No? 

We had our time back in the days and we laugh about them because nothing comforts people more than a shared history. Forget suffering, because suffering is okay if it’s shared. And in many ways it was shared between us, this group of people who were put together, by and large by random, and given these challenges. Fight for your academic future, they said. And so we did. We fought. And our laughter is the proof that we survived to tell the tale.

I walk down the side of the road. Construction on both sides, the sun is beaming down weakly through the haze. Cars pass by, none of them an available cab. Don’t complain, I tell myself. Your existence is the definition of privilege. You never had to fight it out. Being late for a class reunion would be the least of your worries. Having to bathe at your friends house is just the first luxury of a life inundated with them. You have nothing to complain about, this life is perfect as it is. 

I travel home with one of my former classmates. I tell her about what happened before I arrived. That volunteering was nice but it comes with its burdens. She told me some of her concerns. She told me about her grandparents who are hoarders. Who have a hard time letting go of things. And why was that so? We never truly try to understand before telling them to throw things away. I said that we should perhaps listen to their stories. But that’s just me and I’m all about stories and perhaps the world doesn’t work that way. The conversation veers to something else as the bus moves along.

 

You Don’t Just Tell Someone to Chill 

Coming off a fulfilling summer, I would say that life is looking up right now. Like most people, I am chill as they come when things go my way. A house over my head, friends that care, a school to attend. I count my blessings like a Shepard his sheep. I don’t sweat the small stuff when the horizon is flat. I live my life with optimism and I want the same for the people around me.

For many of us who live our lives like that it’s especially easy to want our friends to be happy. And when I mean happy, I mean always happy. We want for our friends to be well, and we equate wellness with happiness and will do anything to see them that way. Whenever our friends tell us about their problems we tell them to chill, saying this word with the finesse of a firefighter dousing flames.

And the logic seems to work out. Things happen in our lives, many of them bad. We try our best to change things but sometimes are not able to. And you know what they say; that the only thing you can control is your mind so if you tell your mind to chill then everything will be fine; you won’t be sad and when you’re not sad then you’re well.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that wanting your friends to be chill is selfish. Sure, being chill is nice and all. It is a state of being that we silently strive for in our everyday lives and go through extensive pains and spend exorbitant amounts of money to uphold. 

But very much like having supper or owning a hamster; there is a right time and place for chillness. Chillness is when you just finished two hours of research and are looking at traffic pass by above an overhead bridge on the way home. Chillness is listening to Bach alone when all your friends cannot get over One Direction. Chillness is for when you are ready for it, for when your mind needs to rest and the intensity of your soul needs to subside. 

Chillness is not about suddenly stemming the flow of tears just because your friend accuses you for having no chill. Chillness is not downing can after can of beer to get over that ex and laughing too hard with your friends, banging the table too loudly. Chillness is not about getting over something you are not yet ready to get over. Being chill is not the remedy for sadness. Going through sadness is. 

I often see sadness as a tunnel through a towering mountain. It offers a way across challenges, but a dark and lonely one as such. There is no chill in this tunnel. Often it is just you, alone, walking forward in the dark, desperately feeling for any semblance of yourself, any guidance that the jagged walls can bring. You really want to get out but alas sadness offers no shortcuts. The only way out of sadness is through it, where you will face yourself and make sense of how and why you feel this way. It is suffocating, terrible and some of us never quite make it out of that tunnel. Ultimately, it is a journey of constant self-acknowledgment. 

For anyone who is not in this tunnel of sadness with you, it is too easy to say “just chill, it’s going to be ok.” However, there is real danger in telling someone to chill. It makes them hyper-aware of their heightened emotional state, and worst of all, makes them feel other-ed because of it. They start thinking of why it is them that have been singled out to be the un-chill ones in a world that seems so abundantly chill.

We treat emotion like it is something that can be tempered with and controlled when that is hardly the case. It’s almost as absurd as telling a stab victim not to feel pain or a mourner not to cry at a funeral. Just because you can be chill, doesn’t mean that others should be chill or should even try to be. Chillness was never a given, but a privilege.

So next time you notice a friend trudging through their own tunnels of sadness I challenge you to gear up and go into that tunnel with them. Hold their hand, stay up with them till 3 am, bring them to a quiet spot where the lights are dim and the air is cool and listen to them, sit there quietly but always, always be there.

You don’t just tell someone to chill, but rather try to understand why they are not. Because chillness can only be experienced and not commanded. Because ultimately to listen carefully, not just with your ears but your presence is what it actually means to care.

Because that is what your friend really ever needed.

 

51 Things to be Grateful for Before School Starts

  1. I have a 1 litre water bottle that holds its own.
  2. I have a room to sleep in.
  3. The water pressure in the shower is perfect.
  4. So is the warmth of the water; just impeccable.
  5. Thirsty hippo is in abundance where I live.
  6. My suite mate got me a Filipino snack.
  7. There is a lift that goes up to my floor.
  8. I have fingernails.
  9. My watch is working (since 2013!).
  10. I have friends that judge me less than I judge myself.
  11. I got some articles published over the summer!
  12. I can run and jump.
  13. But most of all, I can run and that wasn’t the case one year ago.
  14. The morning and evening sun does not affect me due to the orientation of my room.
  15. I have parents that check on me.
  16. I have a brother who is probably smarter and more sociable than I am but doesn’t know it yet.
  17. The lights from the distant buildings look magical at night.
  18. Tap water is safe to drink.
  19. All my friends made it through summer okay.
  20. My family made it through summer okay.
  21. Sheng Siong is a 10-minute walk away.
  22. My bones are not broken.
  23. I have a female physics professor who tells us that anyone can do anything if they are willing to acknowledge the stereotypes and fight them.
  24. The air is cool in the morning.
  25. There are songs I can be sad with and songs I can be happy with.
  26. I have stories waiting to be written.
  27. I know what my passions are but also know never to settle.
  28. Working life looks dreadful, but I am still in school.
  29. My leg hair isn’t too long/curly.
  30. I have my own values (surprisingly) and I stick to them.
  31. I am not afraid during a thunderstorm.
  32. Long walks.
  33. Singing in the shower.
  34. I am happy to call Singapore home; not always proud, but always happy.
  35. I have friends that know what’s best for me, even if I am afraid to admit it.
  36. Pickles and strawberries! (Of course not at the same time)
  37. Supermarkets sell all sorts of things and you can walk through them for an hour just looking and thinking.
  38. I can hold chopsticks properly.
  39. I read slowly so I don’t miss a thing.
  40. I can stand up for myself when someone attacks my ideals.
  41. Plain food is fine, as long as it’s food. Basically, I am not a picky eater and it helps in many situations.
  42. I have friends with various food preferences, who, instead of limiting my diet, show me an array of alternative diets I would never have considered before.
  43. No one can force you to do anything you don’t want to. Consent still lies with you.
  44. I am eager to learn.
  45. Youth is on my side and I will not let it go to waste feeling lousy about myself.
  46. I am able to stand up for my friends if someone takes a piss on them.
  47. We have each other.
  48. I do not see a point in comparing, we are all different, and thankfully so.
  49. I always seek to improve myself because no one else will be there for you more than you.
  50. No matter that happens this semester, I know I will be okay.
  51. Also, I know we will be ok 🙂