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.

Being Busy is Ok if You’re Ok with Being Busy

I never thought I’d be one to say that I’ve been busy lately so haven’t been updating my site. But it has been as such. But no, I won’t say I’ve been busy but more like, I’ve had less energy. I’d attribute this loss of energy to the tremendous load of training I’ve been administered, but also from the energy that has been siphoned from me doing a myriad of meaningless things. Missing buses, running errands, scrolling from start to finish on my newsfeed. I’ve been preoccupying myself with the wrong things in all likeliness.

But if I have to be honest that this week has been the busiest of all. I’ve had to cover a lot of news in school, took over the chief role because the actual chief of newsletterland went overseas this week and passed most of the responsibilities to me. So it’s ironic that I’m writing this. I always write at the most inconvenient of times, like now when I’m supposed to plan out my 2500-word psychology essay.

Busy-ness isn’t just measured by work, but by the rate of change of effort from one week to the next. We can go for weeks at a time doing a fair amount of work and not feel busy, or exhaustingly so. But if you had an easy week before and suddenly had a fair amount of work slapped upon you then suddenly it feels tiring. That’s this week for me; things suddenly increased in intensity; two assignments chasing me and a presentation today that went horribly.

I’m the kind to set my own standards and chase them. No matter what the outcome, if I’m not satisfied then I’m not. Nothing can convince me of my worth but myself. And that’s the way it goes with most of the things I care about. I stumbled on the explanations, made a wrong interpretation of the experimental results and was rightfully corrected. It was to be a bad stain on the week, and no matter how small a stain it will still be called a stain. But what can I do but move on?

And move on I did, because following the blotched presentation there was some big news that hit my school. There was a change in leadership in the upper echelons, and my news organisation had to cover it and so I was newsletterland represent, and followed the media into a press conference area.

I clutched my laptop, got ushered into a room with my phone as a voice recorder and my heart fell in between my slippers when every reporter in the room was dressed in semi formal attire and I was dressed to greet Santa Claus in the middle of the night in my living room. And It wasn’t even christmas. And I found myself greeting the school’s Governing Board instead. Embarrassed but keeping up a strong front (power-play is all about confidence rather than actual ability, they say) I shook some hands, sat down, recorded the entire proceeding, took some notes, shook some hands again, and left. There were a bunch of straight up reporters in there, proper voice recorders that looked like Nokia phones, a pile of notes, serious voices asking a bunch of overlapping questions and frenzied scribbling. And there was me who was just impressed that I got a complimentary bottle of water for just being in the room. After I left, it was time to start on the article. I had a few hours and time was ticking.

I forgot to say that busy-ness isn’t just about doing more, but about learning more as well. If I gave you a bunch of things to do that you were already familiar with, you would be irritated but you wouldn’t be engaged. Which means to say, you’d do these things without thinking twice about them, a bit like what menial labour is all about. But give someone a list of unfamiliar tasks and a whole different realm of busy is unlocked. It’s not your compartmentalisable busyness where you can do one thing at a time because you know A should go before B and following that is C. This is a very frenzied, disorganised busyness, where the mind constantly works to make sense of the situation, of the different parts that go either here or there, the best way, the most efficient way, and most of all deal with the different combination of things that do and do not work and deal with it via trial and error and at the end of the day be ok with it. Many people do survive doing unfamiliar things, but whether they’re ok with is is a different story.

As the day draws to a close it feels very much like I’m ok with it. Sure, it was a hell of a day. I could have spent three hours on everything if I did everything to the best and most efficient of my abilities, but I spent 9 hours instead. But I’m okay with it. I’m ok with learning for now and letting new tasks dismantle my resolve and have me assemble myself again and again. I think that’s what choosing your struggles is about, to be unfamiliar with something but still say ok, I’ve got this.

Maybe I’m preparing myself for the future when I say such things. The way things usually play out, the chances of you winning every battle that comes your way is slim. You have to concede that you’re just not into some things in life. When I was 14 I went for flute lessons but I learned that I preferred running and so went with that. The busyness of flute-playing wasn’t one I could accept, the busyness of running in circles was and so I still continue to do the latter. Choice isn’t about the initial tick of the box but the hundreds and thousands of days that follow that you continue to tick that same box.

And this all follows nicely to the box that I ticked today after all the madness subsided. I declared my major today, and am strangely happy to say that I’ll be majoring in Arts and Humanities with the emphasis on creative writing. Maybe this was a box I already ticked back in army when I first wrote that short story. Maybe this was a box that I ticked again and again when I wrote article after article and updated this blog. But it feels real now, perhaps more real than ever, that this is a box that I will have to continue ticking, a busyness that I have to be ok with, over and over.

And so it is no wonder this choice didn’t feel like a groundbreaking one, not at all. This choice was already made, and in many ways I feel like I’m not in control here. As a friend said, it’s the inevitability of dreams. It’s just the way things will turn out, and the reason why I feel like there’s something to look forward to in the future. Busy it will be, but I’m ok with that.

 

 

A First date at Botanic Gardens

The sun beam hit the leaves that filtered shadows to the concrete path. Our feet waddled amongst the blurry shapes of leaves. I walked slowly with her and just talked. I talked about deep fears, my aversion to ice cream and even talked about the northern lights and how I really would like to witness it one day, just once in my life. I talked about wild dogs even, how I was sometimes really scared of them. I don’t remember ever having so much to talk about, even when I was alone and talking to myself.

The gardens didn’t seem like a good place for a first date, but the afternoon unraveled as such. I was sick of tradition; the nice clothes and fancy dinner so when I asked her three days ago it was simple. “Would you want to have lunch with me?”

“Just you and me?”

Oh fuck, what now. “Yes, just us. Would Tanglin be okay? The mall is small but I know this place that serves great french pastry” I had no idea what I was talking about.

“For lunch?”

And so the day began with French pastry for lunch. No kidding. There was really a place there that served just that. It was the kind of meal that would always leave you unsatisfied due to the puffiness of the bread and the small portions of carefully sautéed meat.

And then we took a walk around the Gardens.

“You need insect repellent?” I asked.

“I don’t think there are many mosquitoes in the afternoon.”

“Right.”

If awkwardness were a ball shaped object then I was probably the sun.

And so we sauntered along and for some strange reason I began talking. It’s hard to say why we talk. Sometimes it’s to fill the space, like when someone you don’t really know that well walks on by and you suddenly feel that, hey, I have to say something to appear like a decent human being. And then you do. At other times you really want to tell someone something about you. And sometimes, you talk just to prove to yourself (because as logical beings some of us need that proof) that you exist. Existence is rare, but to have someone who really wants to listen is arguably rarer, and so every chance you get to do that you should grab that chance and do that.

I was doing that, and it helped that she was listening. It wasn’t some one-sided exchange either. She picked up on the rhythm of my words, interjecting just when I had run out of things to say. It wasn’t like back at the french pastry store. Back there, we were tongue tied and trying too hard to impress. Now it was just us, the scenery, some halfhearted breeze and a partly cloudy 3pm. We had a world of things to talk about. The world with its chirpy birds, lush green and remarkable silence surrounded us and allowed us these things to talk about.

She told me about her grandparents. Most people don’t talk about their grandparents, I remarked. Well, but I am, she replied. Right, go along. And go along she did.

Her grandfather had stories, that of which he would tell her before she went to bed. Stories of past triumphs, hardships. Stories of death. Death? I asked. Yes, death. Do you know what’s Memento Mori?  Yes, I did. Ok so see, she replied, that when one got so old death was something that would always play around at the peripheries, like rats lurking around a dumpster. There was something unapologetic about the way my grandfather talked about death, talked about it so often. But it was never sad, don’t get me wrong. Death was one half about remembering to him. That was the first stage. But the other half was also about treasuring the now. I think he always told me these stories about the people in his life that were dead so I would eventually learn that lesson for myself.

What stories, I asked.

My uncle, she said, died while serving the nation. He was killed when a tank ran into the van he was sitting in. Him and the driver were crushed instantly. He also told me about his barber he visited for 25 years, being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer one day, and claiming him in three months. My grandfather let his hair grow out those three months, only cutting it again after paying his final respects at the funeral.

Weren’t these stories depressing in one way or another? I asked again. I was afraid I was prying.

It wasn’t so bad. I saw death from a distance, and always, always through his stories. I think that was his way of protecting me, you know. I was quite sensitive as a child because of this. My friends were always asking questions about death and the dark beyond but I seemed to know it all. It was my grandfather, ensuring that I didn’t have to learn about death the hard way.

At that moment there was a loud crash in the distance. A few birds flew off into the air from the nearby trees. There was a vehement sigh, like the sound of a thousand bags of autumn leaves being released into the ground all at once.

“What was that?” someone asked. It could have been either of us, or both. It didn’t matter.

There were screams in the distance.

We should go check it out, I suggested.

We walked slowly in the direction of the sound. I hope everyone’s okay, she said. There was silence again, the birds settled on different branches, whilst the wind continued to play with the leaves, shadows continued to play at our feet.

She told me about the day her grandfather died.

All the time he spent with me when I was younger could not prepare me for the day he died, she started. All there was to say was perhaps that guilt took over, and it held onto me quick and fast. Because for all the stories he told, and for all the times he told me to remember that death always awaited, I never thought it could ever be him. I believed that the man who knows death would be above it. But when that wasn’t the case, I realised that all along, I never listened to him. I never treasured the time with him while I could have. I listened and I nodded, but I was never there, with him.

Maybe that was all he wanted from you, I offered. To just, you know, be there.

Maybe. But what a thing to assume, don’t you think? That being there is enough. I mean, what would my presence be worth?

It’s worth a lot, I interjected.

It’s not enough, she replied. The kind of reply a teacher gives a class, telling them that no, there is only one answer to the comprehension question, anything else gets a zero. There were screams in the distance.

Maybe the conversation could have gone on after that. We could have talked about how presence is one thing, that trying is another. Then would trying to be more present be enough? Would it, in the grand scheme of things, be ok to say, I tried and so am absolved of all blame, no matter what? Or could she have tried, but still achieve nothing? After all, I found out eventually, that her grandfather had dementia. He probably couldn’t sense that she did anything more. But it’s not about that, I could imagine her reply. It’s selfish to think of the most practical way about things. Because maybe being human isn’t about that. Then what would it be about? I still don’t have the answers to that. Because that’s all we really said on our first date. It wasn’t much. Or at least, not enough.

For all the wisdom that her grandfather had passed to her, she stopped short of revealing the secrets of dealing with death.

We marched past some thick vegetation and bright light descended as we reached a clearing, where the symphony lake appeared in front of us. To the left, there was a large crowd of people, pushing, pulling, struggling. Branches, leaves, a little girl crying. There was a scream for help, a desperate one. The kind that of scream that leaves no doubt the magnitude of what had just happened.

I was not personally affected by this incident. The walk through the botanic gardens, along with the date, is almost entirely fictional. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t be Fooled by All This Reunion

Don’t be fooled by the facade of your grand-aunt’s house, spick and span as it is, not so much a blemish on the wall. It wasn’t like this just four days ago. It was quiet, stale, mundane and everything this bustling house full of relatives clad in red tries to dissociate itself from. It runs from its horrid past, a quick sprint that happens once every year.

Don’t be fooled by your uncle asking you for your Major in University and your path in life, or telling you about the seeming madness of the working world he warns you against. He doesn’t care about any of it. He just wants to tide over the time, to perform a formality he has performed for over 50 years of his life and that you will too, for the next 50 of yours.

Don’t be fooled by your cousin who looks so good in his button on, who checks his Panerai every few minutes to make sure it’s still there. He has his insecurities too, and hopes that no one asks him too many questions. There are some cracks you can see appear; his willingness to dissolve into thin air and materialise somewhere else.

Don’t be fooled by the fun of Black-Jack. With every hand that you reveal, the excitement mounts and we seem closer than ever before. But in the end, all that holds us together is vice.

Don’t be fooled by the red packet that is presented to you over and over. But then again, if it isn’t meaningful conversations that unite us then maybe all this money can act as a viable substitute.

Don’t be fooled by the pineapple tarts and Bakkwa and Love letters that you shove into your mouth. They’re not good for health. But they’re good for giving you a break from the stifling small-talk.

Don’t be fooled by the Instagram pictures of families closer than ever before, clad in their best and giving the flashiest of smiles. Familial bonds often fall short of the precision of that tailored shirt.

Don’t be fooled by the two oranges you hold in your hand. If you look closely, they are neither perfectly round, nor smooth on the surface. They are in fact the definition of an imperfect whole.

Don’t be fooled by all this reunion. If you wanted reunion you would have done something about it in the 350 days you had before and after. You wouldn’t have waited for this particular time of year to practice this mere formality, to partake in this excruciating performance.

 

 

 

Being Alive Keeps Me Running

Three months ago early in November 2016, I felt like I was in the form of my athletic life. Make no mistake, I still feel that way now, but back then the feeling was novel to me. It was as if my legs could suddenly go faster and bring me further than they’ve ever had before. It was great.

I was excited for most runs. I was excited to see new sights, to feel my legs go when I told them to go, to feel my lungs burn but still manage. I laced up my shoes that Saturday afternoon and went off on that long run. 15 kilometres starts at my house, goes down Balestier, to Lornie road past Thomson and MacRitchie Reservoir, back down Bukit Timah Road, past Novena and back home.

But fitness, as good an ideal to strive towards, never constitutes a perfect journey. The run started to get tiring. The kind of tired where you’re not breathless, nor are your legs in pain, but somehow you’re just exhausted and don’t quite want to go on. It was only 7 kilometres in, but I told myself that I could manage. I’d gone longer feeling worst before. And so I went down, past the Adam road stretch after Lornie road. The sky was grey as usual, there was a slight drizzle halfway through but it abated. The sun never threatened. It was humid as ever. I grit my teeth, and tried desperately to keep my breath in check.

And so down Bukit Timah Road is when I decided to try go a little faster. Only six kilometres left, it wouldn’t be too hard. The tiredness went away a little bit. I was confident enough to go stride for stride with my imagined pace, before the pavement thinned a little. Vehicles of every size passed from behind, some closer than others, but that’s the danger of running with the flow of traffic: your back is to the cars so you can’t see them coming at you. I keep up a good tempo, passing Botanic Gardens and CCAB soon after. Ok, good. The pace is good. I keep check of the time and the forecast is that I’ll be back home in 25 minutes.

And then the pavement got even bumpier and I went with it, paying careful attention to my knees. And then it happens. I lose my footing when one foot hits a bump on the pavement and I stumble. I try to retrieve my footsteps but it was too late, my steps were impossibly synchronised before that and suddenly the tempo was shattered and I just fell forward.

There are two ways to fall; you either go face flat and get both your knees ruined or you do this break fall thing where you turn to your side and land on your knee, hip then shoulder. It spreads out the impact so your knees don’t have to bear the brunt of the fall. I didn’t expect myself to choose the better option, but I did. I cushioned the fall almost instinctively by turning and rolling over, landing on my side then rolling over on my back, sprawled out on the main road and facing the sky. I might have scraped the side of my knee, and my shoulder was screaming slightly, but I was alive.

I stood up and just continued running. I didn’t think about the pain so much, but just went on. The shoulder started to sting a little, and as the air brushed past my knee the wound would liven up. Eventually I slowed down a little in case of any injury (my knee did still hit the ground regardless), and made the rest of the distance home. I was exhausted.

I write this because upon reaching back I realised how lucky I was. As I rolled over I may have cushioned the blow, but what happened in the meantime was that my entire body went onto the road, and I was left staring at the sky, helpless. It occurs to me now with frightening clarity that there was really nothing stopping me from being hit by oncoming traffic had oncoming traffic been there to greet me from my tumble. All that happened, as I recall now, was me being sprawled out, and a silver van in the distance slowing down a little until I got up and running again. Life went on as usual after that five second incident. There just so happened that the road was empty, and it just so happened that I am alive right now.

I could argue for hours about how running on pavements is dangerous, that running is dangerous. That Singapore has narrow roads and reckless drivers. The possibilities are endless. But the fact is that I’ve always been running on pavements, and running, whether dangerous or not, is not something I’d be giving up anytime soon. All I can say is when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. A hefty probability to swallow, but probability nonetheless. Earlier last year, there was a woman who fell off her bicycle on the pavement and onto the road near my house. A heavy vehicle failed to notice her and crushed her under large wheels. What separates me from her is essentially timing. Any other time of the day could have seen this post never being typed and published.

So what is there to say? Of all our time on this earth maybe 99% of it is spent not thinking about its end. And that one percent happens mostly at times like these. That if things happened slightly different that you wouldn’t quite be the same anymore. Or that you wouldn’t even be alive.

Normally when I run I think of its pleasures, I think of the cool air that hits my face while meandering down damp MacRitchie paths and the thrill of the final bell, but on occasion running places me on a road sprawled out onto incoming traffic. I am cast into the dark realm of could-have-beens but fortunately did-not-happens. I learn that the hand that gives can as easily take away everything, all at once. And that helps me treasure every opportunity I have out there, every last breath I take while I’m still alive.

And that’s the whole point: running reminds me of the things we take for granted, from the simple things like breathing and moving my feet, to the larger issues of life and death, along with the fragility of it all. And that maybe if we considered the things we took for granted and placed just some importance upon them, that we can begin to slowly unravel what the world wants to tell us. That it’s pretty amazing to be alive, let alone sustain this alive-ness in any good measure.

So when I look at myself now, three months from that day I fell down at Bukit Timah, I see someone who is just grateful to be out there. And no matter how painful or demanding or disappointing running may turn out to be, this underlying contentment should always stay. Because as good as personal bests and individual achievements are, they’re not what keeps me running. Being alive and well is what keeps me running. The latter is what I should always strive for.

She Captured a Feeling, Sky Without Ceiling

I thought about what to write for a long time, and this is not usual for me. I usually just go with whatever comes to mind and it works out. Well, most of the time it does. Maybe everything I write now comes out strange, because a big part of me thinks that this is also for myself, for the road I want to embark on may turn out to be pretty similar to yours. Maybe we aren’t that different at all. But I oversimplify. And besides, this is hardly about me.

You’re going to New York. Make no mistake about it.  Most don’t go as far as this, because most don’t dream the way you dream. You dreamed of a vision where you conquer and attain. I think I’m oversimplifying again, but somehow I have the notion that most dreams are like that. You are up against seemingly insurmountable forces and so have to overcome in order to attain a goal you really want. I think you can fill in the blanks. And once you fill in those blanks it’s good to observe that not many people have these blanks to fill in. In other words, not many people have such dreams. In fact many people go through life not knowing what they’re good at, or are supposed to be good at. Most don’t find that one thing in life they’re willing to take a plane halfway around the world and fight for. And this makes your situation a precious one. That you even have a dream to hold on to in the first place is remarkable.

You can’t waste something like this. You can’t sit at home and think of ways to ‘be realistic’ with your life because what is deemed as realistic has long since vanished when you stepped on that plane. And when I say you can’t waste this, I don’t just mean this one opportunity. I’m talking about talent. I’m talking about dreams. I’m talking about how all these elements converge at a precise point which just so happens to be you; a convergence that skips generations and doesn’t come back if you hesitate just once.

Perhaps it’s easy to think of all this as a happy coincidence, but I see this as fate, or at least some variation of it. Not fate in the sense that things will work out for sure. In fact, things are anything but certain. What I mean is fate, in the path that you have been pushed towards steadily, whether by your own doing or by forces greater than yourself. Either way, this path is to be respected, and pursuing it is going to take everything you’ve got, every last ounce of energy and verve.

Anything I say beyond this point is going to sound more cliché and vague than it already is. I hope you encounter the best and worst of New York, and make brilliant of both. In the end my wishes, though long winded as they usually are, can be mercifully summarised: be brave.

This is a letter for a friend who’s leaving on exchange to study film. In many ways I hope I get to do the same with writing. Only time will tell. 

On Being Present

It’s the start of the semester and I am already a playlist on shuffle, with my heart not exactly in my schoolwork but my feet still constantly running, running, running. I’ve also been hell bent on spending more time with people if I can, having lengthy conversations if possible and striving to know just one more fact about someone while there’s still time. As silly as it sounds, I want to hinge much of my energy this semester on being present.

After a ferocious semester of overloading, the dust hasnt quite settled yet and I’m still somewhat ruffled, with the notion that hard work isnt everything. That I need some slack too. Again, there is a season for fighting, a season for putting your weapons down. I need more time to think about what I really want to do, and though I know that I’m saying this from a privileged position, I can’t help but find a simpler way to tide over my current semester. And so I’m on the brink of making some decisions, whether I should soldier on with the same old tough combinations in the new year, or make a few changes and suscribe to a less demanding module, or at least modules that train different faculties of thought (the politically correct definition of things can always be found if you try hard enough).

Running, yes! I’m excited to say that I’m the captain for my college’s Road Relay team. This is an exercise in baton passing where six runners run a couple of kilometres each before passing on to the next and it goes on until the last person runs in. Whatever strategy you choose to have, one thing is for certain: you have to be fast. I’ve been training a few runners who I’m eternally grateful for because just how many people are willing to come down to run rounds around a track at 7 am in the morning? (The answer is in fact seven people.) I have the highest hopes and if there’s any lesson that I hope they learn in the coming months it’s that  individual performance is important, but group consistency, more so. The same goes with time. One great workout is awesome, but a hundred good workouts are all the better. With some (and by some I mean a lot of) patience, compounding your gains is what gets you there.

My own cross country training is something I cannot omit as I think about the semester. But I can only summarise my feelings towards it in three words: it’s going well. The team is synchronised in cadence, passion and I’m becoming more attuned to life in Cross. I like it here. Not the over obsessive desire that overtakes and consumes, but the quiet contentment that I’m getting better with every training. Knowing the difference between the two is the key to not burning out. I hope I’ve got this for the semesters to come, and I hope I continue running with the same people by my side.

Balancing my studies and running is all good, but being there for people is essential. And it’s not even that difficult, plus at the core this is what we want for ourselves anyway. I’ve asked quite a few people if a successful career is more crucial to them than human relationships, and so far only a small handful has said yes. The vast majority believe in meaningful friendships over career success. And no wonder; because there’s a vast distinction between feeling fulfilled alone, and feeling fulfilled with others. The latter is where you want to be; whilst being mighty but estranged from all things intimate and familiar is a truly scary prospect. So this leads back to my first point; I need some time to reshuffle my priorities, spend time with people, find more meaning in the things we say to each other, the way we say these things. Study hard, yes. It’s important. I learned just how important it was last semester. But live harder and inch forth eager to be there when you’re there, not in some faraway land concerned with plucking new evidence for your essay off imaginary apple trees.

Spend your money on the things money can buy, and spend your time on the things money can’t buy. 

You belong to the real world, where hearts flutter and muscles need to move and work. So live up to that.

The Girl at the Corner of the Bus

The girl at the corner of the bus — what is she thinking about? She has long wavy black hair that streams down the front of her face; that she pushes back occasionally as it blocks the view of her phone screen. She wears a black tank top that accentuates the swell of her chest. Black-framed spectacles. From where I sit, this is all I can observe; that all she wears is black, and I wonder if this is random. Did she just so happen to pick put all these items from her wardrobe, or was this intentional? Is black a message, or is black a deliberate covering up? Covering up unpleasant curves, turning everything formless, more desirable? Was that the plan, or is black simply a statement? I am wearing black because I am sad. I am wearing black because I appear sad but am anything but. I am wearing black because I am on a way to a funeral at 10 AM. It could be any of these things, or none of them.

She must be about my age, if not just slightly younger.

Her face looks strangely content, as if her life up to this point has been smooth sailing. Her eyebrows are probably threaded, her nose long and sharp, eyes not too big or too small. Her lips aren’t what one would consider small. But it doesn’t make her look unattractive. In fact, it might even look good on her. Her skin looks yellow from where I sit, maybe it’s the reflection of light off the red seats that illuminate her, maybe her skin colour leans closer to white or beige. But for now, I’ll stick to yellow. Yes, she seems strangely yellow.

She looks down at her phone for what must be the 53rd time. I can guess what she’s looking at even without walking over and kicking up a fuss. Instagram, Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp, then Instagram again. She may be swiping through Tinder. It’s the sort of covertness the corner of the bus affords. She looks impatient suddenly. Perhaps the ride is stretching on too long. Maybe I’m projecting my own impatience on her.

She must be thinking of something right now. She has stopped looking through her phone but out of the window instead, at the streets of Little India. The colours and sights stream past like a blur shot in a Wong Kar Wai film. The people stand in the sun waiting; for traffic lights, for buses, for each other, but waiting. She sees it all and she must be thinking about how mundane it all is. That we get to see the same things over and over and still we look on.

Or maybe she’s thinking of how to escape it all, and that looking back down through her phone might just be the only way for now. Ok, now I’m definitely projecting.

But there she is. And she must be thinking, that out of all the streets that hold all their secrets, that sprawl outwards from where I sit, that of all the things in the world I could explore or be or feel or savour; that I am trapped in this bus, scrolling through my phone on my way to some forlorn destination. And a skinny boy is glancing at me once every few minutes, typing vigorously on his phone. He sits diagonal to me, sunlight splashing across the side of his body. Maybe she wonders what I’m typing away on my phone.

She’ll probably never guess.