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.

 

How Was Your Summer?

If I had the time the time to go around asking people what their summers were like I totally would have done that. But of course, I didn’t have the time, nor was I going to meet someone just to ask how their summer was. People have lives to live.

Instead I imagine alternative summers and make mental notes of them. And here they are. (One of them is actually me) 


“Summer was intense. It came and went pretty fast because I was always on the move, always doing something. It was somewhere in the middle of May when I was flown off on an internship in Mumbai, India. It had to do with telemarketing, and I thought I would be fine with it when I signed up. But that was back then, in my foolish past. I remember packing the night before and frantically texting my friends, practically panicking, worried that I wouldn’t be okay out there. There are a lot of bad things that could happen to one when they are overseas, and I didn’t want to be one of those foolish enough to try and get hurt. But of course, here I am now, safe and back home. None of what I imagined happened. I must admit, India was exactly how I thought it would be, except there was no Holi festival at that time (Laughs). But no, seriously, I went to work everyday feeling more and more confident, though I knew I had a lot to catch up on. The streets were dirty compared to back home, but everything functioned spectacularly. The locals are way more hardworking than I ever could be. Granted, they don’t have the same reliable resources that I did back home, but something about them spoke of limitless desire. I still can’t place it till today, and since I’m already back maybe I never will. Also, remember to eat only cooked food in India. Not that it’s spectacularly unhygienic, but it’s quite a leap for our immune systems to go about eating fresh vegetables there. I suffered the consequences, but I’m okay now.”

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“There was a one month period during my summer that some may say was sort of wasted. I don’t know, it doesn’t look like I did much, but it felt like little steps towards growth for me. During the whole month I would wake up every day at about eight, cook breakfast for myself (usually scrambled eggs on toast with cherry tomatoes), then read a few chapters of a book in the mid morning. Then I would visit the local supermarket, buy some groceries, then cook pasta for lunch (always pasta, nothing else). Afternoon will see me either writing something personal, reading more, or going for a long run. What I’d do without those long runs. At night I may meet my friends who have gotten off work, or spend time with my family. It seems like a total waste of time but in those months I learnt something important; to give time to myself and slow down to an almost halt. I felt a lightness that I’d never known before, and it was great. Also, I mastered 6 different pasta recipes (Carbonara, Aglio Olio, Bolognaise, seafood Marinara, prawn basil cream and Vongole) and got myself back to consistently running again. There’s no other way I would have spent that portion of summer; cooking, reading, running.”

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“Summer was terrible. I spent my three months in an internship that I didn’t like at all, with people I am certain I will never see again in my life. Worst of all, I mixed up the submissions and got allocated an internship in Woodlands when I lived in Bukit Timah. I wake up at seven every day just to get to work by eight thirty, squeezing onto that sardine can of a bus. I flounder about pretending to get myself a hot beverage at the pantry before work finally reaches me. It’s not that I’m paid a whole lot too, only about nine-hundred a month. My friends are earning much more, and tell me that this isn’t worth it. But exposure is important, everyone says. I mean, to be fair, I still don’t know what I really want, but I all I know is that this doesn’t feel like it. But yet I have to do it, because who knows? Maybe life is going to be like this for the next thirty years, just me cooped up in an office job that I don’t like, with a group of bitchy people that I can hardly talk to about anything other than the weather and traffic. It sucks, but this may very well be the rest of our lives. Passion can only bring you so far, and summer has shown me that.”

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“I spent my summer largely travelling. I saved up quite a lot from a bunch of odd jobs I did over the semester and so I had some to spare. My parents even offered to sponsor some cash for the trips, but I politely declined. Anyhow, I travelled with a few friends at first, and then myself. We did a little round trip first around Europe, starting in Germany then hooking east to Austria, Czech republic, Hungary, Poland, France then London. Most memorable was the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial, where some of the most horrific events in human history occurred. In World War Two Jews were treated like cattle, herded efficiently into large gas chambers where they were tricked into thinking were large showers. The entire ground looked like an army camp, sanitised and inconspicuous. It showed me that evil can exist in any form, and called for tremendous reflection. I was humbled by how small I was in the grand scheme of things, just one life that was lucky enough to have an opportunity to thrive. We walked around for hours, none of us uttering a word to each other.

What’s good about travelling with friends is that you end up knowing almost everything about them, even things you haven’t before. I have known this bunch since secondary school but somehow one night we had a discussion and we talked about the things we wanted to achieve by thirty and most of the answers came as pretty unexpected. It makes me wonder if we know anything important about each other at all. Travelling (and maybe summer) grants us this opportunity for reunion with the people we choose to be around. The rug is swept from under our feet and only we remain, just people floating in some weird space.

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Writing the above made me feel strangely self-centred, because like it or not, my attempts at fiction somehow or rather always revolve around me. It’s as if I can’t escape from my own humanness and truly step into someone else’s shoes. I wear my identity like a second skin. To be fair, a lot of us try. We say that we can imagine how it feels, or how someone feels but this couldn’t be further from the truth. We can only approach understanding, but never ever understand anything in its fullest. To fully understand is to attain perfection, and if this summer has taught me anything, it is that no one’s narrative is perfect. We just find our own peace with how we choose to manage our time and our relationships, and live it out. 

School starts in eight days, and the show must go on.

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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.

The Hardest Thing to Give is Yourself

I had a good first week of University after the long awaited recess week. Now that that’s over, here we are again, in the depths of week 8, where assignments have been pouring in like sweets into a halloween basket. Stress is what I need at this point, to really function at a 100% and force myself to do some useful work. Other than that all has been good. Sometimes it’s better if life is boring.

I was at a gathering for my school newsletter on Friday. We were just lounging around, having some drinks and snacks and talking about random things regarding ourselves, when the topic of relationships came up. It all started when one of the sophomores leaped into the room wearing a t-shirt with a pie chart labelled “things I look for in my lover” or something along those lines. It was colourful and had silly expectations like “will watch my favourite movies with me” and other trivial comforts. We took this as a prompt, and went around asking each other what we each desired from our hypothetical significant others. A lot of matters concerning love for the outdoors, compassion, admirability, insane intelligence and “good taste” came up. Basically, we listed the attributes that 99% of us covet but 99% of us fall short of possessing. Ideals can be a bitch.

The sophomore with the t-shirt (that particular t-shirt, to be clear), the one who started the entire conversation then came up with her own rendition of her ideal significant other. “I just feel like…a lot of people out there have so much talent, and they invest so much in themselves to become the perfect person, so much so that they don’t have a piece of themselves to give anyone. You know what I mean?”

I knew what she meant. I guess what she said really hit the spot because for many years now I’ve been feeling like this is what has become of me. I’ve become hyper obsessed with being a good version of myself. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the best version of myself but a lot of what I’ve been doing has been very focused on me. It’s very easy to defend this way of life. As a young person finding himself it’s incredibly easy to feel lonely in a world so deceptively interconnected. The more you seem to be comfortable with being on your own, the more you seem to have it together. Taking long walks by myself, finding time to sit down and write, sit down and read, lie down and listen to music, jog around campus, sit down and write again; almost everything I’ve done that has made me feel incredible, I’ve done on my own. And I’ve never really questioned why this was the case. If you’re feeling good, you’re not supposed to question it, you’re just supposed to feel good. It’s just so hard to admit to yourself that maybe, just maybe, you might need something more, someone more in your life.

Otherwise, to know if you’re really shut off from letting anyone in is a tall order; the whole notion of emotional aloofness can be made up by being more open to possibilities, giving yourself chances. But of course, I know to be careful, there is a fine line between openness and sheer desperation. And then who’s to say that someone who is closed off to possibilities will always be that way? Perhaps they just haven’t found someone that they have been truly interested in or who they feel is finally “worth it”. Maybe a lot of us don’t allow our hearts to bleed unless it’s for an extremely important occasion. Maybe extremely important occasions only come by once in a long while. It’s all so cringe worthy, but like it or not a lot of us do think that way. We wait tirelessly for the right moment to the point where we question whether the right moment even noticed us whilst we were standing so still, camouflaged amongst the leaves.

So I’ve been thinking lately, heading into 2016: what do I really want for myself? Do I want to always be this way, or do I want to take some chances? I might have reflected upon this before and I feel like this is a recurring desire in my life; one that prods at me and continues to challenge me like a teacher seeing his student get complacent. What should I do from here? I really have no idea.

The hardest thing to give someone is yourself, but hey, it may very well be the best gift.

February

“February came along, steadily eroding the staunch resolutions we had swore to uphold during the New Year. These resolutions were merely fuelled by novelty rather than any innate desire to be better people. The idealistic notions of being better friends, siblings, parents, children, lovers and ultimately, people; these resolutions could never be marked down and constrained to a date on a calendar. We tend towards these ideals out of our own volition, out of our own willingness. A date is merely an impetus, an empty shell wrapped about unmotivated souls, living each day unappreciative, careless, hurting those around us anyway. Resolutions are for the disillusioned. We become better people because we want to, not when a date tells us to. That was the message February held for me.”

 

I am writing a lot this year. That is the one resolution I could keep. I hope something comes out of it, I really do.

If You’re Going to Do Something, You Might as Well Do It Properly

Always good to start the year with a vulnerable sounding post. The internal voice really needs an outlet. And of course, this is an attempt to disassociate myself from my thoughts with a heading but this is very much me. 

I have to admit; I don’t care for many things. Aeroplanes, Tissue paper brands, the dust on my fan and the German language. I don’t care for these things. I don’t care for throwing a dirty plastic cup into the recycle bin. I don’t care to reply all my emails, don’t care enough to close my windows before going home on the weekends. Didn’t care to order my books until the first day of school (today).

I realise I’m not the most caring person. I conceded that a long time ago. I cannot multi-task, things slip my mind and I cannot hold it together as well as I’d hoped. I’m very easily distracted, I lack drive in a lot of things. I read two out of three chapters of my readings and am typing this as if it were graded. Story of my life? Perhaps.

Maybe that’s why it scares me so much when I suddenly care for something. You know that feeling? When you’re usually not like this but this thing makes you so. And you’re feeling like it shouldn’t.

And most of the time care gets redirected. I always find better things to do with this leftover propensity for care. A lot of it goes into my writing. So much so that writing has become one of the only things I’ve actually cared about lately. It’s scary when you invest so much into one thing for some period of time and you realise one day that this could be the rest of your life. As of now I can see myself years down the road still sitting in front of the computer (maybe they’d still be called computers) and typing out something, anything. But in that vision of future me sitting in front of future typewriter, I am a happy man. A fulfilled man who knows exactly what he wants from this life. That’s always very comforting to know. It’s the sort of vision that keeps me typing. I see a clear future.

I used to think the same about running. I was 100% committed, running 5 times a week, ten kilometres at a time. I ate really healthy, picking only the stir-fried vegetables, steamed fish and rice when we went out for dinner at Chinese restaurants. I could see that my future self as well, me running well into my forties, having the time of my life. This whole injury really put things into perspective. You commit to something and then suddenly when you can’t do it you feel so cheated. It really stings when you need something to cheer you up and then honestly it just isn’t there.

And if something as personal as running can go so wrong, what more can be said about people? Do you people stay the same, will you stay the same? will people come into your life and pledge never to leave and actually not leave? Improbable, at best. Because the fact is that with most precious things in life there may never be the vision of a clear future.

I’ve tried, as far as possible then, to not care so much about people if I could help it. I just wasn’t certain. Ever. It’s probably a defence mechanism, for I believe if I did bring myself to care too deeply it would get really ugly. I’d be thrown in hard and I don’t think I could ever get out alive. I’m not sure if I’m making sense. It doesn’t matter if I am. Only I need to understand this. Someone once told me that I had the emotional capacity of a teaspoon. And I believe that I do. There’s no hiding it.

I tell myself constantly that once I go about doing something, you can bet that I’m going to do it properly, that I’m going to invest everything I’ve got to making sure it works. I’ve thought of this for a while and I realise that “chill” isn’t something I am once I start caring. I pursue what I want fiercely and consistently. I put all my effort behind it, and put all distractions aside, get into some sort of routine and I stick by it. I’ve seen this only a few times in my life; once for running and the other for my travel writing. I would get up at five before school, leave early for gatherings and sacrifice a bunch of things to facilitate what I’d really wanted. It sounds very noble of me, doesn’t it?

This brings us back to my emotional capacity being that of a teaspoon. Essentially what this means is me always taking one step back  at the first sight of trouble, telling myself time and again that it’s never worth it. And when you tell yourself repeatedly that something or someone isn’t worth it then before long it becomes a fact. You reduce your capacity for mistakes, uncertainty, loss and fear to that of well, a teaspoon. You can tell yourself all day that oh if the conditions were such and such that I’d give it everything, that I’ll do it all. But the fact is you didn’t. The fact is, in your inaction, they were no longer worth it. You start to look down on the situation, lose faith in the other before the worst thing happens: you lose faith in yourself. Maybe that’s why I like writing so much. I can put into words the things I was always too afraid to do.

This struggle has been a central one for the last few years. The entire fear of getting my feet wet, where to “see how” has never been an option, where excuses abound and the option of flight an all too popular one.

Good things can come out of this, sure. I’m still writing, writing everyday in fact. I’m even embarking on a new project, attempting to get my writing out there, published onto different journals come 2016. I know that the very desire to do this has been half the battle won. I know that if I really want something I will get my hands dirty. I will do it. It may be words, but when you generate enough words the very act of writing becomes an independent action in itself.

But I digress. Overall I have to reallocate some things in my life. I have to reallocate and care more for things that I haven’t been, care more and ease up on my fears, and just go out there. Go out there. I realise I’m just repeating myself at this point because I don’t actually know how to go about this. I mean, I can give my all towards things that are certain but the fact is that most things in life will never be certain. I have to admit to my cowardice, and just feel more for the unknown instead of act all recluse and stick to the things I know.

All this pent up feeling does make good literature, but it would make for a poor life. It would make for poor emotional capacities, too.

So face your fears and just go do shit. You have this.