Saturday, December 17, 2011

Twelve years

It seems a lifetime ago that the whole house stood still. So many changes since then: lines on faces, hairs turned grey, a grandson born, all the familiar feline forms that my mother knew gone the way of all cats.

Work and life alike throw me plenty of opportunities to talk about grief, to help others unpack theirs. That's the thing about grief, it really is a package. Its contents are mixed. Some days you reach in and pull out comfort, warm from the sun and smelling of cosy cuddles and laughs, whispered secrets and giggles and Saturday-morning shopping excursions.

At other times you feel bitten, as by a shark rather than by a mosquito: a large chunk of you, the part of you that this person shaped, is gone and you wonder how you go on. They don't make prostheses for that, but the human spirit is a wonderful regenerative thing. What grows back will never be what you had before, but it isn't completely foreign. I see others' experiences of grief, some much older than mine, and count myself blessed for the peace that I have.

I think I would have been a very different person if my mother were still alive. I don't know how much I'd have liked being that person. I only know and love the one I am now. I hope she does, too. From the nineteen years I had with her I've taken a lot, good and bad. A public blog is no place to tell about the bad. The good, no book on earth could hold.

I didn't feel any great pressure to post this today and only today, on the anniversary date. It worked out well that it fell on a Saturday this year, giving me time to blog. But truly, most days are the same. There's rarely, or never, a day when I don't think of her and miss her. It's really hard not to think of a person you strongly resemble in face and voice. But I've had a dozen years to find a way to live without the pillar of my earlier life. So far, by the grace of God, the way has been a good one to travel.

If you're one of those who knew and loved her too, raise a glass (okay, coffee mug -- containing a brew as strong as the mug can handle; we can always have a group tremour-and-tic session after) with me in honour and memory of the beautiful, tenacious, long-suffering, glad-hearted, cat-loving woman who was my (and my brother's) Mummy. Sally Saw Leng Geok, 1948-1999.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday, December 02, 2011

Short short story: Wave

I completed a "short" story recently. It was nearly 5,000 words long. So I decided to create more of a distinction between short and short. I think flash fiction is traditionally capped at the 100-word mark. If you know me at all, you'll laugh at the thought of me keeping my thoughts so succinct.

Anyway: tell me what you think. It's been too long since I posted fiction here.

It was too hot to care about anything as she walked home from school that first day of summer, not even that her skirt was riding up and her old gym shorts were probably showing. At first she thought the bird was waving for help; it looked so like a greeting, a plea. Hi there. I am small and weak and hurt. Can you help? She looked both ways and hurried to the middle of the road. Immediately she saw the crushed head, the tiny still chest. Calmly, she picked up the body and walked back to the shaded kerb, laying it by a tree. She knew it was well past any pain but it seemed wrong to leave this defenceless one to be smashed and spattered by traffic. Later she would remember the warm, soft feathers, the closed eyes and slightly open beak, and she would weep. Later she would realise that was the first time in years that she had touched another living thing. Later she would wonder why, when softness had finally returned, it had come so sad and still. Now, she simply picked up her backpack and walked on home, gym shorts exposed.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sketchbook Project Limited Edition 2012

Should I do it? I've been spending so much of my time surrounded by text, words, all these linear arrangements of meaning. I think it would do me good to have an outlet in the wide open, even if it's a small, portable, recycled paper wide open.

People like this inspire me:

Want to join me? Anyone? Email/comment by December 11 if you're interested. Fees and FAQs here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sweet, green, crunchy

My prior experience of asparagus has tended a little too far to the side of "like miniature tree trunks, a little greener but just as fibrous". Chewing like a beaver when you don't have the teeth for it gets old very fast. For this reason, I hadn't bought asparagus for over a year.

But these seem to be an entirely different creature: slender young stalks, making up nearly twice as many in a bundle of the same thickness. Just right for tossing quickly in a hot pan before adding cooked pasta and then, immediately after the heat is switched off, tearing in pieces of smoked salmon and a quick shake of freshly ground black pepper. Grated Parmesan over the top if you like, but the fish and pepper are all the flavour that most would need.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A brown study

The vegetable world has its version of beauty queens: those showy, shiny ones proudly presented by their growers at agricultural fairs, those winners of ribbons and medals, those much-photographed models admired by the masses.

Then, I think, it also has its version of the mousy bank teller, the janitor with the smile nobody notices, the bus driver. Quiet beauties who do their work and pass their days unnoticed by most, yet treasured by the ones who do see them.

These two were waiting for me at the Wanneroo Markets. A shapely squash, and the shiniest, smoothest onion I have ever seen.

It just seems to me, we're surrounded by so many of these -- vegetable and human alike. They aren't loudly acclaimed but we'd notice their absence. Each one is unique, yet we allow our stereotypes and preconceptions to take away their individuality. Seems such a waste to me, that we'd so let the beauty pass us by.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The return of Christmas

Decade-old aversion to Christmas trees broken.

Donkey unintentionally made to resemble Dame Edna.

What a full Sunday, and what a good weekend. Thank you, Perth northern suburbs friends and family.

*I don't think Christmas is Christmas unless it makes direct reference to Christ, which means I don't think 'When Christmas Comes To Town' is a Christmas song in spite of its title. But it is nice.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Vegetable lasagne

Unlike other meat-free dishes I've tried, this one has enough flavour and texture not to have me missing the meat. It's something that frequently confounds me, that in spite of my animal-loving, compassion-for-all-living creatures ways, I enjoy the taste of meat. They are uncomfortable roommates in my consciousness, these two characteristics.

The first time I tried this, I thought, "Sure, it tastes good, and sure, you don't long for the filling wholesomeness of meat. But is it worth all that time?"

The 15 minutes or so of slicing?

The nearly two hours of pre-roasting the slices? And then nearly half an hour arranging everything in careful layers? And then another 45 minutes of baking?

The second time I made it was after I decided that yes, it's worth the time, but I'd feel the pinch much less if I paid in instalments.

Hence, on the Sunday, the slicing and roasting, the transport of the frozen mushroom-and-potato puree from freezer to fridge. The recipe calls for white sauce, which is made of butter and white flour. I pooh-pooh your refined carbs, your empty calories, Recipe People. (Save them for the pasta sheets.) A few weeks ago I had tried and failed to make a mushroom soup thickened with potato rather than flour. The failure turned out to be quite a success in making a respectable white-sauce substitute for lasagne.

Then on Tuesday, after a hairy day at work that made me think those hard-nosed Temperance types with their wholesale shunning of alcohol consumption do have a point yes they do oh someone please get me a nice dim room with no stimulation and also hmm only about a kilo of chocolate yes milk is fine but at least 50% cocoa please, I came home needing to bake and voila! For once, something was already all set to be baked. Well, layered first, but after a day like that it was nice to have something so tactile and structured and real to turn my hands to.

And again I did that thing where I forget to photograph a cross-section before storage, when these vegetables with their watery cells tend to lose their shape and photogenic attributes. But before I took a knife to it, there it was. Inviting me to partake of the stretchy and the gooey and the crunchy and the mushy and all that is around and in between, to remember that what had happened that day at work and what sat before me in a baking dish had equal place in my life. That "life to the full" doesn't always mean what I imagine to be "life to the perfect", but it is good anyway.

So worth the time.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Buckwheat granola

I followed Andy Bellatti's recipe for Oil-Free Autumn Buckwheat Granola, using the sweetener-free option. I can't call mine "oil-free", because I incorporated a tiny knob of butter during the last stirring. Neither is it Autumn over here in the southern hemisphere.

Nonetheless, it's a recipe I'm glad I tried, and will probably keep using. Conditions are much less rumbly and churny after eating this, compared with oat-based mixes.

While the mix was still warm, I filled my silicone teddy bears with it and stored them in the fridge (something that Mr Bellatti doesn't mention, but maybe his apples were completely dried and maybe he doesn't live in a place so humid that kiwi fruits sweat).

I have finally discovered a delicious breakfast that will not have me weak with hunger one hour later:

The bear and rye bread go in the toaster oven together, for 4 minutes. Warm, re-toasted granola as a chaser to a soft-boiled egg just done, interspersed with mouthfuls of nutty rye: it's a nice way to see 6.30am in, if you possess a brain that for some reason won't register that you live very close to work and really don't have to wake up at the crack of dawn every day.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I hope she enjoyed her birthday as much as I did

Because I moved west just short of missing one Queen's Birthday holiday, and then stubbornly stuck it out here when all human instincts were telling me to just throw in the towel already and return to the ol' birthplace, I got to experience the holiday twice this year. And the irony is: neither one made a difference to my usual routine. The first, dreary, soaking wet one out East, I was unemployed. The second took place at the end of my first week (a very happy, satisfied, fulfilled week) at work... on the one day a week that I wouldn't ordinarily be working anyway.
Nonetheless, it was a great day. I hope the birthday girl enjoyed all that my home city of the moment held out to her. (Going by the news, that would be more bouquets than even the most crowded English parlour could hold, and a chance to slum it with the sizzled-sausage-clutching masses.)

I kept it low-key, with crochet overlooking the Indian Ocean.

I'd carefully packed all the supplies needed to continue with the current work in progress, because I knew that the path back from my morning meeting at Hillarys would include many enticing places to stop and listen to the waves.

It was a productive time, with not too many incidences of my starting with a foundation ring too large, neglecting to change colours, or forgetting how many rows I'd gone. And I haven't sworn out loud for years, but that day I didn't even think it, that's how well the crocheting went.

And then, while I was busy figuring out which angle to photograph from and quietly savouring the song of the waves... I felt something.

What was this sensation? Hair on my brow? Couldn't be, it was too... active.

Horrific memories came flooding back.

I had a brief flash of hairy legs before they darted back on top of my sunglasses, which I happened to be wearing as sunglasses are meant to be worn. I quickly pieced together that there was an unidentified arachnid with discernibly hairy appendages scurrying back and forth not two centimetres from my left eye.

Thanking God all the while (all the 0.5-second while that this was happening) for my unflappable demeanour, I calmly whipped them off and placed them on the table, avoiding sudden movements in case I'd got a specimen of the biting sort.

There were no bites, but all the same, I would be perfectly fine never to see another spider again.

Especially here:

There appears to be something wrong with my camera. I'm very sure that creature was at least five times as big in real life. Silly machine must be messing up its perspective.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Running With Scissors

I've read a handful of child abuse accounts, but that didn't make Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors (2003, Atlantic Books, 304 pages) any more palatable. It's the sort of book that I hope will never become palatable to me -- yet that I go on reading anyway, because I don't want to be someone who assumes that bad things go away the moment I stop seeing them.

For a number of reasons, everything I read and watch gets pushed through a detailed assessment of how appropriate it would be for various audiences, mostly broken down by age. Between these pages lie stories that make me think, "This is no book for a child." A moment later, I'm jarred anew by the realisation that this is no life for a child, yet there it is: it happened, and here the grown Burroughs is to tell the tale. Given away at age 12 to a psychiatrist who appears -- pardon the expression -- loonier than anyone he's treating. Left to cope alone with the most frightening manifestations of his mother's severe mental illness. Allowed, while still legally a child, to be in a physical relationship with a man nearly 20 years older. What are they thinking? a voice yells with every chest-aching turn of the page. Don't they know that's statutory rape? Why doesn't she get help from someone who will help her get better? I know she's ill and that's not her fault, but how can she do this to her own child?

This one gets louder and louder with each passing chapter: Is there anybody -- just one person -- in this story who looks out for this boy? Who will give to him without expecting return? For whom he is priority number one?

I made it to the end and found that said person never turned up. It colours the world grey and powdery, bitter like dust in your mouth from walking around a construction site, to know that this evil happens constantly in the lives of too many small, vulnerable people. Yet, even with mouth dry, eyes streaming and heart wrenched, I knew this wasn't the last such book I'd read.

Reading helps me to understand, and that helps me to help. I have no illusions of myself as some magical healer, toting an all-purpose bandage for emotional wounds of all shapes and sizes. In fact, the more I see of just how much ugly this world is capable of, the poorer-equipped I feel to fight it. It isn't fun feeling helpless, but I think that's the key to being of any help at all. My colleagues who've been in helping professions for way longer tell me this is true. Clients come to us broken. We so crudely insult them if we give them the false promise that we, or anyone, will fix it. On the other side of that, though, is this great honour: that we get to walk alongside them while they discover the beauty that can radiate through the cracks. That, if we allow it, we are shown in the process the brokenness that is inherent in us, every one. And there, at our weakest, we find strength from beyond these broken selves.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Heigh ho, heigh ho

It's off to work we go! The donkey too? You bet your stripey socks. We don't stock pickaxes in this house (or in most counselling offices) but a well-loved Muji pen does the trick.

I'm glad I woke up early enough to post this before I set off. It would have been that much harder to rhyme "ho" with "went".

Friday, October 14, 2011

These days

It's nice to sit by the river with a book or two now, when the wind rolling off the water carries neither the biting chill of winter nor the fan-forced-oven blast of summer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A borrowed welcome

Dear newest little nephew,

This past Saturday, which I would later discover was to be your birthday, I went to the local library. As usual, I entered with the purpose of unburdening myself of borrowed reading and watching material; I left more heavily laden than I had come in.

For some reason, one of the things I picked up that day was a paperback copy of The Complete Nonsense & Other Verse of Edward Lear. Not that there's anything nonsensical about you, of course.

Today I was thumbing through the pages of "nonsense" (it's terribly insightful, more so than many of the "sensible" writings lying around) and came across a letter Mr Lear wrote to a newborn niece. It's quite long and I imagine your parents are busy feeding, burping, bathing, changing, dressing and altogether adoring you, so I won't require them to read you the whole thing. Only these lines:

"... I congratulate you heartily on coming into a world where if we look for it there is far more good & pleasure than we can use up -- even in the longest life... I therefore advise you to live & laugh as long as you can for your own pleasure, & that of all your belongings."

I look forward to seeing pictures of you that, doubtless, your parents will be sending along ANY MOMENT NOW (no pressure!). I look forward even more to meeting you in person. In the meantime, I give thanks, as I have done constantly from the moment I was told of your existence, for all that you are and were made to become.

One of your Kor-kors

1: One

I thought it was fitting to end this last of my 31 series with "One". Not only because it's what comes after 2 when you're counting backwards; I do try to avoid redundancy in my language. "One" signifies a few things for me:

It signifies the idea of beginning; round number counting always begins with one. In order to have arrived at whatever age I am at the present moment, I first got to one. The seconds and days and years added themselves on -- but always one at a time, despite the seeming quickness or slowness of some seasons.

It signifies unity; within a person as well as with others. You don't have to be diagnosed with DID to be prone to disagreement with yourself. If you don't believe me, see what happens in your head the next time you reach for salty high-carb snacks that don't go with your diet; or when you need to decide whether to get out of bed for your daily run on a particularly drizzly day when your quilt is being very affectionate. For me, "one" is a reminder that I no longer fight myself over whether to go to work, whether to eat, whether I am bookish and analytical or creative and unstructured. I have found that it's absolutely possible, absolutely livable, to be bookish and creative and analytical and unstructured. Once I ceased to see the elements of my life as mutually exclusive, it became possible to live with them all, and that's such a relief because it doesn't feel nice to be rejected -- if only by yourself.

Finally, "one" signifies my Creator, the one without whom I wouldn't have made it through these nearly 31 years, let alone written 31 daily posts about them. I wouldn't say that faith is a huge part of my life; it is my life. It's a faith that has grown quite separate of my earlier experiences, mostly for the better; a faith that I have sought and asked for and wrestled with in order that it could become every bit my own. And what is faith without an object? Mine is utterly in God, who is one. Not "one of" a pantheon of guardian deities; just one. Not "one among" equals. One. Only. So massive that I can never coax my mind into understanding Him; so good that I can never stop wanting to.

When I began on Day 1, I wasn't sure I'd make it over these 31 days without skipping a day here and there -- there was this one particularly close shave that only barely scrapes through as an excuse for writing, but still... I did it! In case you missed any of them, here's 31. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

2: Deep

I was 75% of the way through my Master's before I realised I was achieving more than I was learning.

I was 23 before I saw that the Bible I'd been shown all of my life -- a confusing tangle of chapter and verse numbers, colons, names of people and races long dead -- was really a narrative, rich in meaning and experience, that continues to present day with a core message that never loses relevance.

I read so many books, essays, speeches out of context, never understanding until I saw the situations and backgrounds from which they'd arisen.

I met a great deal of people of people who were eager to know, "What do you do?", and from whom I was eager to hear the answer, before I realised that I would much rather know the answer to this one: Who are you?

More than ever before, now I want to know what's truest of any human, animal, idea, object or belief that crosses my path. I find that's usually not lying around on the surface for just anyone to see. I'm sick of taking things only at face value, of the laziness that leaves us ignorant and uncomprehending of the depths.

I'm far from the first to feel this way. There must be more of us around than I'm prone to think, or how would Leunig have thought to write the following prayer?

"God be with those who explore in the cause of understanding, whose search takes them far from what is familiar and comfortable and leads them into danger or terrifying loneliness. Let us try to understand their sometimes strange or difficult ways; their confronting or unusual language; the uncommon life of their emotions, for they have been affected and shaped and changed by their struggle at the frontiers of a wild darkness, just as we may be affected, shaped and changed by the insights they bring back to us. Bless them with strength and peace." (From When I Talk To You: A Cartoonist Talks To God)

Saturday, October 08, 2011

3: Sky

I enjoy looking up at what encircles our little planet. These are only samples; I think the best views are the ones that have me too enraptured to bother getting out the camera.

Clouds over Penang, Malaysia

Twilight in Macdonaldtown, Sydney

Overcast sunrise in Tamarama, Sydney

Morning in Wentworth Falls, NSW

On the road southward, NSW

Summer blue, Haberfield, Sydney

First light, Mosman, Sydney

Friday, October 07, 2011

4: Body

Eleven: A male schoolmate zips past the badminton court where we're having rhythmic gymnastics practice after school. "Hey you, I never noticed before that you have FAT LEGS!" For the rest of primary school -- a year and a bit -- this is what he calls me whenever he sees me. Up close, from a distance, anytime, loudly if nobody else is around to hear it, hissed under his breath when he doesn't want nearby classmates and teachers to detect his one-person verbal assault. FAT LEGS. Always I see it in block caps, stout and round as I must surely be, to have so caught the attention of a peer.

Fourteen: My aunt, sitting at the dining table with me and her daughter, demands of her, "Why is Sharon's face so nice and long? Yours is so round. Sharon, you don't eat a lot, do you? She [elbows my cousin] should learn from you."

Twenty-five: Walking to the basement car park after church, I rise on tiptoe to squeeze through the narrow gap between two bollards. Boyfriend-at-the-time drops his jaw in mock amazement, exclaiming altogether too loudly for an echo-filled basement, "Wow, you made it through! Guess you're not built like a house after all."

Six: Friends of my father who meet his family for the first time comment on his hefty son and slight daughter. "Of course, that's the way it should be. Girls shouldn't be too big. I wouldn't worry about her not eating much, that's how they stay thin."

Seven: "Is this your daughter? The one I met last year? She's bigger now, so cute! What happened, does she eat a lot now?"

Sixteen: "You've lost so much weight since I last saw you! Must be the stress from your dad's heart attack and all that. ['All that' = his nearly dying from the heart attack; a two-month recuperation before a quintuple bypass before a long recovery; helping my mum to deal with the strain of a husband and father who would not take responsibility for his health and never seemed to realise he was capering about on death's door.] But it looks good on you. Better than being on a diet!" Again I hear this at 18, 19, while being run off my feet with the combination of tertiary study in KL and accompanying a terminally ill mother to treatment in Singapore. Stress keeps you from eating. Stress makes you thin. Thin looks good. Stress makes you look good.

Twenty-three: My first ballet class since I was 11. Leotards and tights, hair in buns, the whole form-fitting outfit again to make it easier to note alignment and form. But I no longer have the uniformly pudgy, curve-less body of a child. I am almost at my thinnest ever, but I cannot bear to look directly at my reflection. My rented room in Sydney is a compact, tidy space of which one wall comprises floor-to-ceiling mirrored wardrobe doors. I am constantly in my own view, even when I don't want to be. That would be always.

Twenty-eight: I can look at myself now. I haven't made a hobby of it, but I don't cringe at the sight of myself or wonder if I'm taking up more of the mirror's width than I used to. I started eating at least three solid, nutritious meals a day only a year or two ago. I exercise regularly; because I want to stay flexible and healthy, not to keep myself from growing fat. I don't own a car anymore, so I'm forced to get up and walk to public transport if I want to get anywhere. People tell me I look good. I meet a good friend from KL when his ship sails into Botany. "Boy, you've gained weight!" are the first words I hear from him, yes, even before "Good to see you and thanks for travelling an hour and a half to meet me." They will continue to prick at me for a couple of years, the freely given comments on increase and decrease alike. But there comes a day, sometime in my 31st year, when they cease to bother me.

Nearly 31: Weight is only a number. Health can't be quantified, however much we try to take safety in "good" lipid counts and blood glucose. Food is no longer synonymous with control, nor size with power. As a child I never knew what it felt like to be enough, exactly as I was, to not be made much of just because I was thin and delicate or chubby and cute. As an adult I struggled to erase the memories of male taunts while trying to squeeze into a size and shape that would protect me from further attack. No more. I eat well now, with less concern for how much than how good it is for me. I move as much as I can. And I delight in every inch of the way I look, because I know that it's all a good idea to the one who made me this way. Nobody else's opinion matters.

Writing this post brought to mind this forgotten one from March 2006. Hope it also gives you something to chew on.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

5: No

Poor misunderstood No. It's associated with selfishness, with disobedience and disrespect, with impatient inflexible uncooperative people and difficult toddlers. It's assumed to be on the Dark Side of a duality on which Yes resides with sunshine, popsicles and all other Nice Things. So, Yes is good because when someone says Yes they're saying "I will do this", "I will make room for that", "I will give this to you". No is bad because of all the things we see people not doing, not making room for, not giving. It's harder to see that the No we hear is simply the other side of a Yes said to something else, something that might very well be far more deserving of that person than we are. That if we really want to nod to the important things in our lives, it's going to have to be a sideways shake to everything else.

I've found that most of us have a severely maladjusted sense of who/what deserves which answer, especially if we grew up with parents whose lives regularly said Yes to more work and No to spending time with their families. Or Yes to anything that would take us closer to being the Perfect All-Singing All-Dancing Plate-Spinning Excellent In All Areas Child and No to allowing us space to occupy this earth as our unadorned little selves. But childhood is far behind my generation now and life constantly lays a fresh multiple-choice question before us, with only two options. It could be time we learnt to decide for ourselves, instead of letting our families and pasts pencil in the answer on our behalf.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

6: Language

Yes, "Sharon" is my name. Yes of course I mean my official legal name. Well, it is the name my parents gave me -- um, there are lots of non-white parents the world over who give their children "Western" names at birth but, if you want to split hairs that way, mine's actually Hebrew. Oh, and my parents approved it but it was really my brother who chose my name when I was born. I know, not bad work for a four-year-old boy. I do realise I'm fortunate not to have had to go through life as Millennium Falcon Toh.

Thanks, you speak English really well, too. Oh, it's your first language so I shouldn't be surprised? Well, it's my first language as well, so where's your surprise coming from? Yes, really. It is perfectly possible for people born outside Australia (or England, Canada, the US, wherever else your Zone of English Language Exclusion extends) to speak English as a first language. It's not the only language I speak but it is the one that I use the most and therefore am most fluent in. I do wish I spoke my other languages better, especially the ones my ancestors spoke, but seeing that that ball got dropped at least two generations back it's been a lot less accessible to us than English.

I might have accumulated a tiny bit of angst after several years of introducing myself to ignorant people. It's only in the past few years that I've stopped trying to explain myself, and still more recently that I've given up the overcompensating streak that I subconsciously applied to make up for any handicaps that others might have assumed I needed on the sole basis of where I was born.

By the way, it works both ways: there are elderly members of my family who, despite our best efforts to explain the diversity of the world's geography, cannot be persuaded that there indeed exist "red hairs" (direct translation from the Hokkien term for Caucasian) who don't speak a word of English. It's easy to assume things based on your narrow experience of people of a certain skin colour or birthplace. I just hope this awareness has adequately transferred into all areas of my life, not only language. I want to experience people and places at their best and truest, not through the distortions of my preconceptions.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

7: Stationery

Town Hall Square Library Link, Sydney

This is what I'm likely to have with me on any given day: donkey, blank book, pens -- alongside the things more typically found in a handbag. (Keys, sunglasses, phone, camera, yes; five colours of lipstick, no. Maybe "typically" wasn't the best choice of words.) It isn't great for the shoulder, but at least I'm never caught without a place to write down a sudden observation/story idea.

I have a special place in my heart for inexpensive writing implements that write reliably and maintain their nib integrity up to the last drop of ink. I like even more that this Pilot G-1 (my favourite inexpensive reliable model of pen, most vexatiously not sold in Australia) in the picture has an old-fashioned price tag on it, and it's even reinforced with sellotape to prevent customers' itchy fingers from peeling it off. On that price tag is the logo of the stationery shop a few roads behind my family home in PJ, a shop that has been there since my childhood. My brother, youngest ketchup sister and I used to walk over as a special after-lunch treat on some days. The dim, dusty aisles topped with tidy rows of decorated pencils, arranged by design and lead colour, were fascinating to pre-formal schooling me.

It's no longer dim and dusty; some years ago the owner put in air conditioning and rearranged things a bit, probably wiping things along the way. But whenever I'm back it's still my go-to place -- to stockpile pen refills, of course, but also to browse other Malaysian stationery shop ephemera: badminton racquets, harmonicas, ping-pong nets, carrom men, ledgers, fishing rods, hula hoops. Things that can't be labelled stationery by any stretch of the imagination. So maybe it's not only stationery that I have a weakness for; it's the idea that it is possible to endure without conforming to a label.

Monday, October 03, 2011

8: Age

I chatted online with a former teacher almost exactly a year ago.

"Hurry up and get married lah! You're nearly 30 already!" she urged.

I hear that sort of thing all the time, so that one event wasn't noteworthy. What made it memorable was the fact that this was the same woman who had said the following four years before, as part of a text message:

"[Husband] impossible n driving me nuts. Advice -- remain single til 30. Freedom priceless. Take care. Ms X"

So, if I'd taken Ms X's advice both times, I should have spent the remaining four years of my 20s in determined pursuit of being single. And then, it seems, shortly before the stroke of midnight on my 30th birthday, I ought to have found someone to marry and then made sure that everything was signed, stamped and toasted by 500 raucous Chinese* before carriage turned to pumpkin, horses to mice, and humongous glass slippers to humongous everyday flats (let's be realistic, even in a fairy tale I'd still have outsize flippers for feet). Because seemingly, 30 is a magical age when a woman's value expires unless validated by the institution of marriage.

More on marriage another day, but for now let's look at age. So it seems I've already failed one of the criteria that I'm supposed to have been able to tick off by 30. Not to mention that I am still, at time of publishing this post, jobless; have yet to recover the majority of my savings that I plunged into further study and the necessary relocation that ensued; do not own real estate or have a significant investment portfolio.

But I'll tell you what I do have, much of which I didn't have when I was 16, 21, 25, all those ages of which people like Ms X wistfully mourn the passing: I have joy. My mind, after 23 years in the gloom of depression, is at peace. I wake every morning with a sense of purpose and direction. Every task, big or small -- from making coffee and mixing cake batter to emailing people with Big Important Titles at international organisations engaged in helping-people-type things -- is informed by the knowledge that I am enjoying this moment in this place with these resources and these people because this is exactly where I'm meant to be.

Baking for other people gives me an excuse to make frosting.
Cupcakes for the New Year's Eve picnic of 2009.

Maybe one reason for so many to lament their age and the increasing distance from childhood is that they miss that time. On my part, I never had a carefree childhood so there isn't much to miss; or whatever I do miss -- such as people and pastimes -- most of them are easy enough to connect with here and now. Those that I can't, such as people who've stopped breathing and playgrounds that have been torn down: well, no amount of mourning for them will bring them back, so I do as I've learnt. I remember them fondly, and I find ways for my present life to reflect the riches they brought to my past.

A lot of my female friends a year or two younger than me have told me they're petrified of celebrating their 30th birthdays with no man in sight. For their sake I'll put it out here: I've spent the past five and a half years not in a significant relationship, and my 30th birthday was wonderful. I spent the day at the beach. Then I met friends for dinner, new friends who'd lived in the same apartment building for half a year without my knowing until I ran into them at my new church. She baked me a cake; he sang to me in Spanish. Later that week, I flew to Perth courtesy of nice cousins for a five-day celebration that included cake, a road trip, bad 80s rock, more of the ocean, and way too much food for five people with 30- and nearly-30-year-old metabolisms. The day I flew back to Sydney, another cousin invited me to a Moroccan dinner to celebrate two birthdays: mine and her daughter's, seven days after mine. The metabolism was unchanged. That was the beginning of a good year for me, one that has surprised me at every possible point.

The birthday cake Erin baked for me last October, which revealed
that we share similar principles in cake decorating. Picture by Erin.

When I started keeping a regular journal, one thing I resolved to see between its pages was growth. I wanted to honestly say with each passing year that it's the best I've ever had. So far, I've kept that resolution. Life has continued to be rocky. My family is as it has been and might never change. Still, I've given up worrying about elements beyond my control and instead invested all I had into improving the quality of my life where I can: the work that will take up the bulk of my time and, in return, give me some of that stuff that we use to pay rent and buy food and look after our neighbour; the relationships that have been entrusted to me; the body I'm left with for the rest of my time on Earth; whichever place I call "home" for the time being. Maybe the reason I don't work up a good sweat approaching every birthday, why 31 doesn't scare me and, I hope, neither will 84, is that I don't wait for birthdays before I contemplate where my life is headed and whether I'm doing it well.

So, in reply to Ms X and everyone who's hovered anxiously around me telling me that I need to get married/look for a house to buy/think about voluntarily increasing my superannuation rather than giving more money away... thank you for caring enough to say these things. (And by the way, the 3 of you to whom I owe money: don't worry, it isn't your money I'll be giving away. I won't resume my former habits of giving to causes until you've got back everything you kindly lent me when I needed food money and a roof over my head.)

Thanks for telling me, in your own ways, to go after the things that you feel go best with my life at this age. But I'm really OK. I'm more than OK. I'm 30 years and 357 days old, and passionately enjoying every moment of the passing time. Because it isn't being married at 31, successful at 31, wealthy at 31, or even healthy at 31 that will make me happy. These things are all great and I believe I'll have every good thing I'm meant to have, when I'm meant to have it. But if I'm not able to find joy now without these things, I doubt I'll be any good with them.

Great timing, by the way, that as I started writing this post I saw this link on a friend's Facebook page. Wouldn't there be a lot less stigma attached to ageing if more of us approached it the way Hedda Bolgar does?

*This statement is no indication of disrespect towards the Chinese. I'm Chinese (at least on paper, and I'm positive that genetically my family is predominantly Han, but there must be some Benetton-advertising sensibility weaving through our lineage or surely my brother and I wouldn't look the way we do). I'm glad to be Chinese. But I'm not blind to the fact that apart from being the world's most populous ethnic group, we might also be its loudest. Especially at weddings.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

9: Driving

I'm not huge on cars; to me, they're nice to have if your life requires you to move around a lot. They're very nice to have in bad weather when you're cooking a recipe that calls for half a dozen eggplants and two pineapples. When I own one (or have charge of one), I do my best to keep the car happy. But I am not one of those people who's got a dream car all plotted out, down to the model and engine capacity and colour and detailing. If I had to choose, I'd probably go with something sedate and timeless in a neutral colour that doesn't show its dirt too easily, because car-washing isn't high on my priority list.

Which, I suppose, is what amused everybody in my life when I bought the very first car that was all my very own, and it turned out to be


I named it shortly after bringing it home, a steal at more than 20% off the market price. After years of driving my family's much-loved but increasingly erratic '79 Corolla, I had been wishing I could have a brand-new car for once. Whoda thunk I'd get my wish, well within the reach of even poorly-paid musical production assistant me? Granted, I had no say over the colour, or the fact that it had been a lucky draw prize for an equestrian event whose organisers saw fit to cover each door with a stylised horse. But it was still under manufacturer's warranty, had barely 200km on the clock, and the plastic still on the seats, and you could still see the original colour of the dipstick handle. And it had been released as some fancy-pants "Special Edition" with additional sports features, like a brushed-steel gearshift. Ah, the number of times I blistered my left palm getting Spunky into gear after a couple of hours parked under the Malaysian sun.

But I never minded, because it was clean and new and it didn't overheat, stall or leak. It was a safe vessel to give people lifts in, to get around with as work and leisure demanded without worrying about whether my outfit was waterproof enough. I could park it without straining my triceps sore. I could lock the doors when I was driving alone, confident that the locks wouldn't jam and require me to climb out a window. And it was mine, all mine.

Spunky is only one example of the way I rarely get exactly what I expect -- the way I usually get way more than I would have known how to ask for.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

10: Ocean

For an inland family, we spent a lot of time by the ocean when I was younger. My parents had membership at a club in Port Dickson and there was a time, hard as it is to believe now, when everyone was not too busy/distracted/angry for the two-hour southward drive to be made frequently.

Another big source of childhood memories is spending school holidays in Pangkor with my mother's family. Other than Thailand, this small island served well as an annual holiday destination. It was conveniently located almost exactly halfway between Penang and PJ, making it not too far a drive for any of us.

This is my memory of Pangkor, a place I've never visited since our last family holiday there in either 1992 or 1994:

The long drive up to Lumut (remember, there was once a time when Malaysia didn't have an expressway along its whole length? When all journeys were long and fraught with unhappiness for those drivers who cannot stand to be stuck behind a smoky, clattering lorry on a single-lane trunk road, and for passengers of said drivers?). A happy reunion with my aunts, uncles, cousins and sometimes grandmother. Parking the cars in the open-air lot near the petrol station. Gathering luggage and children, beach toys and inflatable dinghy, and walking to the jetty to wait for the ferry. I have no idea what the ferry service looks like now, not having taken that trip since I was 14 or younger, but I remember it to be an oligopoly of mostly family-owned firms. Each had a small number of vessels painted in a signature colour. That palette seems to speak for an entire era of limited paint colours, especially waterproof paint colours. There was green, the pale green of enamel drinking cups, and yellow-beige, and a lurid blue that kind of made you want to sing the Smurf song all the way over to the island, all together, as loud as your little lungs could manage. I won't say this actually happened. (I am surprised at how youthful our parents remained, in spite of us.)

Once on Pangkor, we'd check in to our accommodation: the old government-owned guest house when that still existed; a no-star beach motel once the guest house was decommissioned. That I say the motel had no stars is no indication of its quality. I'm just trying to introduce you to the island as I remember it before the developers for international hospitality chains swooped in and started building brand-name hotels. The Pangkor we knew as children was a place where accommodation was fancy if you could lock the door -- or, actually, if it had a door to begin with. The room might come with mosquito netting, sometimes for a price, but insisting on air-conditioning was what officially set you apart as a gringo. The rooms were clean and had attached bathrooms, and the showers even had hot water. There were showers; you didn't even have to take splash baths with a dipper from a built-in open-topped tank. What else could you ask for?

There would be fresh seafood at every meal, as befits an island holiday. Whole days were spent on the beach building and renovating sand castles. Often we'd be building the same sand castle for a week, because even though the beach was public and popular nobody went out of their way to wreck someone else's work. Rain didn't deter us so long as there was no lightning; we were going to be wet anyway. My father would use the rough weather to teach me how to dodge and dive into waves, a skill he learnt well in his athletic youth in the choppy waters surrounding Penang. Of course, he couldn't have known his daughter would grow up into someone who rarely spends any amount of time in water that isn't chlorinated and tidily contained in a lane-divided indoor pool.

At night, in those days when open burning was not illegal and the air was pristine enough for us not to mind polluting it a little, my uncle the Scout master would supervise the building of a campfire. We'd sit around it and have a singalong, listening to stories from these great big grown-ups who can't possibly have been children like us once, and what outrageous children too. It seemed just a little unfair that these sometime hellions, now respectably settled in the middle class, expected their offspring to be buttoned-up good kids. Just metres away, the waves would roll and recede, their voice remaining for all my life as a sound of safety and identity, good times and warm relationship.

Sorrento Beach, Western Australia

This was the answer that came to me as I drove along the coast the other day, windows down so that I could hear the surf even when the road dipped too low for me to see it. I wondered, why does the ocean mean so much to someone who was born and bred inland? What is it that draws me there time and again when I need comfort or perspective, and why does the sound of waves make me want to sing? Then the memories tumbled in with the waves, and for a moment I was home.

Friday, September 30, 2011

11: Music

I started hearing voices in my head when I was a small child.

Eight of them, to be exact.

"Wheeeeennnnn yooooooouuuu knooooowwww theeee noooootessss tooooooo siiiiiiiiing..."

Yessir, repeated viewings of The Sound Of Music have been known to cause the von Trapps to come and reside in your head.

"Yooooouuuu caaaaan siiiiiing moooost aaaaaaanyyyythiiiiing!"

Maria was right. It's really easy to harmonise to any tune when you can picture a scale in front of you; the chords are plain as sight and you just pick which note you'll sing in each chord.

Or something. I would explain more clearly, because I do get asked a lot how I make harmony seem easy. Only I can't explain it now, because I am very, very sleepy, but I can't miss a daily post this late in the game. So I'll leave you with this, which expresses a lot of how I feel about music. And behaviour. And interpersonal relationships.

Did I mention that I love music and am so very grateful to have been soaked in it all of my life?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

12: Depression

I spent a lot of my life feeling as though I were living underwater, or behind several layers of invisible foam. It began when I was around 7. In my mid-20s a friend pointed me towards some literature on depression and the lights began to come on, but I still didn't want to think I was depressed because, well, there seems to be this unwritten rule in most Asian cultures that we don't accept or admit illness. Especially illness that you can't see. I quickly lost count of how many people told me to "just get over it", to "pull myself together" because my life wasn't "anything to be depressed about".

It wasn't until I was 28 and in a Master's elective on mood disorders that I read the diagnostic criteria for depression and thought "Hey, that's me. It's true what that one friend said. And those other people with their 'get over its'... they were wrong." I didn't waste much energy in retrospective anger towards people I'd long decided weren't worth keeping close as long as they remained unwilling to help me on terms I could live with. And this was 2008, the year I had quite a bit to be angry about in the present, and I was learning for the first time that anger can be dealt with in healthy and productive ways. I hadn't the time or energy to waste on conflicts long gone.

I'm only writing this, and beginning to slowly reveal more of my insights on mental health, because I've had enough of the Ostrich Approach to it that practically all Asians have been using. It is a real threat to your quality of life, your relationships and your career -- I hope you won't wait passively until it becomes a threat to life itself, but that is the logical end of all depression if left untreated -- but burying your head in the sand/work/drink/social network/gaming console/DVD box set/designer bag isn't going to bring you to safety.

To begin with, if you think you have even the mildest tinge of depression, please do a self-test. I think this one from the Mayo Clinic quite trustworthy, provided you answer honestly. Consider your results, then decide if you want to get better. I have found that we usually get what we want, but we have to agree with ourselves that we do want it. Take it from someone who wandered some 23 years in the wilderness of unwellness: it can be really hard to admit that you want something good for yourself. We Asians, self-deprecating and humble and ever mindful of keeping face. Now that's something to "just get over".

On my part, I got better on a combination of the following:
  • respite from the career hamster wheel that I'd been running feverishly on since I was 20;
  • prayer and meditation*;
  • counselling**;
  • adaptogen herbs, which come in standardised tablet form these days so there was no pounding of roots and reducing of dark bubbling liquids to be done. (I won't recommend specific plants to you because each person's brain and body chemistry is unique. What worked very well for me might only cause you to bloat and grow poorer. See a naturopath or one of those versatile, open-minded GPs like I had in Sydney if you'd like to go herbal.);
  • restored sleep patterns;
  • fresh air and sunshine (neither of which I had a great deal of when I was working, because I'd usually go from my stuffy sealed-up room at home straight to my air-conditioned office, where I'd remain until after dark);
  • spending more time with what I love: dance, music, movies, writing, friends.
*"Prayer and meditation" is such a floaty, ambiguous phrase. In my case, "prayer" refers to "conversing [largely informally] with God, with whom I have a real and personal relationship through my acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour". "Meditation" to me is little more than "being still and reflecting on the indescribable goodness of God". Where, when and how, whether there are candles or music is played or flags are waved around, all those are just accessories. And no mountain cave retreats are involved. (Not yet, anyway.) As I learnt from Brother Lawrence, the 17th-century French monk filed in my brain as "the happiest kitchenhand I know of": If you can't be still and close to God in the middle of a noisy, full workday, you'll have trouble doing so anywhere else.

**By "counselling", I mean structured, usually 50-minute sessions with someone qualified to hold the title of counsellor/therapist. I had attended "counselling" before with a church leader who eventually, through her entirely unhelpful approach, become one of those people I was glad to leave at the periphery of my life. Later, when I was training to become a counsellor myself under strict supervision, I realised that the type of "advice" she'd given in our "sessions" would be grounds for disciplinary action by any counselling body and if my depression had been more severe, this woman could have been the final push I needed to go run in front of traffic or drive fast into a wall.

I tell you this not to haul up old dirt but because I know counselling is still largely unregulated in Malaysia and there's a strong chance that if you do try to get help, my near-disastrous experience could very well happen to you, too. I don't want it to. If you need help, get it, but only from someone trained and qualified to help you. Pastors and other religious leaders of any faith are not, by default, counsellors. Neither are friends. In my experience, as much as friends may love you and want you to be better, they usually won't know how best to help you. Here's one place where there are people who will: Calvary Life Ministries in Damansara Perdana has a team of professional, ethical counsellors. Don't be intimidated by its name; they're open to clients of all faiths and backgrounds. I know there's a growing number of private practitioners around the country, too.

I'm happy to write these daily posts even if nobody reads, because they are fulfilling their main objectives: to help me enjoy writing again, and to bring focus to what I am most thankful for approaching my 31st birthday. But if even one of my friends reads this and thinks, "Life could be better. I'm going to get help," it'll give me a tiny twinge of satisfaction that I helped chip a flake off the huge boulder of mental health stigma in our culture.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

13: Journal

The first diary I ever had was a pocket-sized page-per-day with pastel-coloured bunny illustrations on every page, purchased on one of my family's annual trips to Thailand.

I didn't know what a diary was then but my parents had told us it was a good habit to keep one, right after they saw the huge selection of cute year-specific paper goods in one of the many stationery shops we frequented in those years. I don't know if making up a good habit to justify buying something cute always works, but it worked that time.

So began a short-lived daily "diary time" for my brother and me. The first day went like this:

INT Dining room. Seven-year-old Ren opens diary to January 1, 1988.

"I don't know what to write."

"You can start with 'Dear Diary'. How about 'Dear Diary, Happy New Year'?"

Somewhere at home, because I come from a long line of pack rats who never throw things away, I am sure there must be a pastel-bunny-filled 1988 page-a-day diary, unused but for one page. On it, a childish pencil scrawl: "Dear Diary, Happy New Year!". The end.

It's funny to bring up that memory now, because I've turned into a compulsive journal keeper.

It all began with wanting to document details of an overseas trip in 2002. But then I discovered something alluring about big pages of unruled paper, so inviting to someone holding a gel ink pen between itchy fingers. I started to doodle. The doodling led to my writing about what inspired the doodle. Which led to further thoughts that led to further doodles.

And now, 38 books later...

April 2008 to January 2010

My family and others close to me know that I'm seldom far from the book of the moment. It isn't because I'm caught up in a Hemingway complex, or because I'm trying to impress anyone. I simply enjoy having a record of my life at my fingertips. It shows me the person I used to be, reminds me what mistakes I never want to repeat, and keeps me in touch with good things that have happened or that I've been told will happen. I don't always have the infallible memory of my childhood (a childhood where I frequently heard "Ren, remember this for me and tell me later... What? Of course you should, you're younger so your head has fewer things in it than mine") these days, and the journals are a reliable repository of events, emotions, lessons and affirmations. A work in progress, like me, documenting my relationships with people, with things I do, with my Creator.

I hope that I'll reach the end of my life with all my brain and memory function intact but, just in case they lose their sharpness someday and I need these books for a refresher, it's the good stuff that I want to remember. I don't want to grow old feeding myself on bitter recollections of all the wrongs life has inflicted on me. That isn't to say that when you open one of my journals, you're blinded by beams of coloured light populated by smiley-faced daisies and assorted woodland creatures. There are still ugly bits in the books, ugly enough to warrant placing the book in a freezer if that's what you do. But I am finding that by aiming for a journal with fewer ugly bits, I've been aiming for a life with fewer ugly bits. I think it's working. The ugly still happens to me, and comes out of me. But as I work on having the sort of life that would make a potentially vague, doddering 90-year-old me smile, I'm finding that leads to a more smile-worthy, trouble-free life in the here and now.

Still warm from purchase at the MOTL market in July this year, completed last week

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

14: Choice

One of the non-academic high points of my 2009 was getting to meet some interesting public figures. One of those was Baroness Caroline Cox, one of today's prominent anti-slavery and social justice figures. At many points during the interview I felt as though I was living in one of those documentaries where they edit all of this one person's best quotes into a seamless voice-over, because every word that she said was interesting and profound and thought-provoking. To me, at least.

One comment that has stayed loud in my mind since then was on giving aid recipients "the dignity of choice, letting them know their voice matters". She gave some examples, concrete items that communities had said they'd needed that were very different from what would otherwise have been given. Picture, for instance, a village asking for supplies and help to raise food crops. Picture also the outcome of their receiving what they'd asked for, instead of a huge delivery of writing chalk for an already well-supplied school.

I remember that this is how the Baroness and her organisation choose to work, by getting to know the people they're helping and finding out what they most want to receive. I think that we could learn from them in our routine interactions with others.

How many times have we been approached by a friend who wanted no more than an hour's worth of concentrated listening, then disregarded that wish only to bombard them with unwanted and irrelevant advice?

What do we offer the senior citizens in society who don't have the resources to choose their own pastimes: line dancing and bus excursions? The company of other elderly folk with whom they share only two things: being poor and old? Would you want to hang out with someone just because she was born in the same decade as you and earned the same salary?

How often do we try to buy out our guilt with a coin or two for the smelly man sleeping on the street corner, when what he really wants from us is eye contact and an affirmation that he is also human, also deserving of food, shelter, companionship, all the creature comforts we assume to be our birthright?

I detest this about myself, that by default I would give what's easy and convenient. The advice, the contribution to bus rental, the coin. But that isn't my only option. In understanding that even society's lowest have (or should be given) choices, I'm shown that I, too, have a choice. I can see this as the way things have always been and always will be. I can view myself as too small to push against the well-worn convention that society has walked down for centuries. Or I can choose the messier option of seeing the human beings behind the labels, of breaking down demographics until I meet with faces. By fighting my complacency in order to bring choice to those who otherwise had none, I'm choosing to live as more than a complex atomic structure out to gain the best for myself and my own. And I hope that means I'm choosing, truly, to live.

Monday, September 26, 2011

15: Friends

For company on long, aimless drives when I needed to get out of the home-work-home-work-home rut.

For writing and phoning often and letting me know I'm still a part of your life even though I've moved an ocean away.

For emails that go deeper than "Hey" and Facebook contact beyond sheep-throwing. (Does anyone even do that, still?)

For not being pai seh.

For knowing the worst of me and yet not judging me.

For driving me around the hometown where I no longer have a car.

For lending me your mother when I needed one and my own was too far away.

For hearing me say I'd found the books I'd been dreaming of since childhood, and then giving me the box set before I had the chance to buy it for myself.

For getting me to take the risks that have led to a richer life.

For telling me off when I say or do something bad.

For staying on the phone all night if I needed you to, back in the confused days of our early 20s, and then picking me up en route to uni because I was too tired to drive safely.

For helping to keep my Hokkien skills in shape.

For not being shy to burst into song in public, in three-part harmony.

For getting your family to let me stay in your home for over a month.

For keeping silly childhood languages alive.

For talking me down from my overcompensating Chinese ways.

For knowing when I need to bake, and willingly eating the result even if it's on the far side of edible.

For making me feel I'm not so alone, after all.

For being a one-person online cheer team.

For praying for someone you've never met in person.

For sending me your songs.

For proving that real friends don't have ages.

For showing me good food in far-flung places.

For knowing how to be silent without being awkward.

For baking a birthday cake for a friend you'd just made two weeks previous.

For being someone I am comfortable to laugh and cry with.

For keeping the best of me when I think she's lost for good.

For being someone I can trust.

For the many more that can't be listed because this girl's got to get on with Monday, but we know what they are.

Thank you.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

16: Family

A talent for tangential conversation. An unwillingness to accept status quo without question. The ability to improvise in four-part harmony. (It only happened once, but at least it happened.) Literacy. Compassion towards outcasts, two-legged or four -- or less or more, as this cruel world can cause to happen. An appreciation of high-quality baked goods. The capacity to confound bystanders by speaking in shorthand Hokkien. Facial features that, according to natives of several countries across the continents, seem to be right at home in all of those countries. Mad creativity. Unbending tenacity.

(My very favourite things about the one I was born into, in 100 words or less. I think that's 89? Please spend your Sunday in more worthwhile pursuits than verifying that word count. Have a good one!)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A few words on burnout

It's dangerous.

It's not fun, even to the masochist.

If you're in the Malaysian workforce as I know it from my own and my peers' experiences, you're probably somewhere along the path to it.

Please learn about it and tell yourself honestly if you're at risk. If you are, please get help. Do not wait for it to "just get better". Not by itself, it won't.

17: Sewing

I came home from work late one night in 2006, tired and hungry and grumpy. My brother and sister-in-law called to me from upstairs, where they'd been clearing out some long-held childhood clutter from the built-in cabinets. "We have a surprise for you!" my usually not so chirpy brother chirped. I mumbled something about laterafterIfindsomethingtoeat or justcomedownstairsandshowmeI'mexhausted. You don't always have the strength to enunciate clearly, especially one storey upwards, when you've just spent thirteen hours staring at pages of work by writers who have an anarchic view towards punctuation.

"No, come up now. We're hungry, too, so you can rest for a while in your room while we make something to eat."

no said tired then sofa down here call when...

You also don't always have the energy for complete sentences at such times.

"You really have to come up now."

All right, but you can't stop me being grumpy while I do it. I stomped upstairs and past two dusty, sweaty but inexplicably cheerful people, threw open my room door not looking forward to the messy sight of a bed I knew I hadn't had time to make before rushing for work in the morning, and saw...

"Surprise! Remember them?"

I don't know if I answered audibly, absorbed as I immediately was in being three again. It was Lowly Worm and his... lady worm friend whose name I can't recall. But I did remember. They were among the many stuffed toys in our childhood, distinctive for one very special reason. These were no store-bought, mass-manufactured worms.

They were hand-stitched by my grandmother, or mother, or both. In those early days when craft felt first came to our tropical home, and Richard Scarry was a hero in my household, someone had mentioned to someone wouldn't it be nice if the children had a stuffed worm, a three-dimensional, fully detailed stuffed worm, to play with? Not long after, we had worms. If only every child's early encounter with worms were so fuzzy and friendly and non-parasitic.

Image from here, but who knows where this person got it

In that moment I remembered something that used to be a major part of my life, but which I'd pushed aside except for one or two isolated incidents in the six years since my mother's death while I tried to be a responsible grown-up with no time for fun. I used to sew. I'm part of this family of women (and some men) who Sew. We enjoy this. We have huge stashes of sewing and knitting needles, crochet hooks, frames, patterns, threads, flosses, yarns, transfers... earlier that year I'd made a small concession to that part of my life when I made an E. coli, but I'd gone from that job into an even more hectic one and sewing was shelved again.

By the time the food was ready, I wasn't very hungry. Or grumpy or, magically, tired. I just wanted to play again, with the worms and some other long-forgotten toys that my brother had arranged on my window bench... and as I examined the tiny, even stitches holding Lowly together, the precisely copied Tyrolean caps, Ms Worm's string of pearls, the impossibly detailed red sneaker on each worm's... end? Well, I can't possibly call it a foot because worms don't have... anyway, not to split hairs, but that's the way Scarry drew 'em so we'll leave it at that... I realised how much I missed sewing.

I have tried since then, though life has continued to be just as busy and full of external stressors like you wouldn't believe, to keep sewing and related skills close by even if the projects are small and simple. Because if ever I lose touch with sewing again, I'll have again lost a huge chunk of me.

Friday, September 23, 2011

18: Work

I little knew in 2004, when I was part of the team writing Drunk Before Dawn, that four little lines I wrote for the womenfolk in the opening ensemble scene would be so frequently quoted (usually as Facebook statuses or desperate chat messages) by overworked friends.

Work all day, toil all day
Not a moment can we waste
Dawn to dusk and beyond
Turn our backs and life is gone
Is this all life is, can there be more?

I've often wondered that myself, while sitting at the many desks I've occupied in paid employment. It's worth noting, too, that I wrote those lyrics in the earlier half of my 20s demonstrating my awareness of that restless questioning... and, for nearly all that remained of that decade, stayed in that lifestyle without even attempting to find a better way. I knew there probably was one, but I was too busy and tired to look for it on top of everything else I had to do. I knew I didn't like clocking 25 hours' unpaid overtime (not that there was such a thing as paid overtime) in a single week, checking work email on weekends, and rushing from a late night at work to another late night at rehearsal and fighting all the while this nagging feeling that it was all, to a point, meaningless. I hated frequently falling sick from the stress, which meant either that my equally overtaxed colleagues had to pick up the slack or I'd come back to work to be greeted by a corpulent In tray. And I did not enjoy holding a nebuliser mask over my mouth and nose with one hand and texting my boss with the other to say that I'd be in as soon as I could breathe. But like the characters into whose mouths I put those words, I asked without much expecting to hear an answer: Can there be more? Even if there was, I couldn't afford to go off in search of it. If I was meant to have this "more", it would have to find me.

Oops. You know what they say about being careful what you wish for...?

I realised with shock last week that it's nearly a year now since I was in a regular, paid job. This year I've had the very infrequent client hour and that's it. My family is not one of those with a deep-pocketed patriarch who keeps grown children afloat indefinitely while they figure out what to do with life. On the contrary, actually, "parentification" is a term my brother and I learnt by living it. It isn't something I'm proud or pleased about, but it's true and I'm learning to make the best of it. So, that I've got this far without becoming good friends with pavement and a hand-lettered cardboard sign, I can only say is through the grace of a loving God. Which isn't to say it rains legal tender whenever I step outside hungry. That grace has mostly appeared in the form of relatives and friends. You know who you are, and I thank you for loving me. Well, I knew you loved me before you fed and sheltered me but now I know it... more?

Being unemployed at 30, for a year at that, was never in my plan. I'd been working to support myself since my second undergraduate year, when I was 20. While I can't say I've loved every inch of my jobs, I have plunged into them with everything I had because that's the way I was brought up. But, as should have been apparent when I was writing this, this, this, this, this, this and especially this, I was all out of balance and as we know from watching accidents in acrobatics, road use and building construction, balance is the only way to long-term endurance. In all that time I hadn't had a single holiday -- my definition of holiday being a dedicated time, preferably spent physically apart from all the usual distractions, of not being needed or summoned by anyone for any reason. Collapse was bound to happen sooner or, as it was in my case, later.

I feel -- I hope -- I'm approaching the end of this unforeseen, yet very necessary, fallow year. As recently as a month ago, I couldn't bear the thought of any work, anywhere, of any sort and duration and commitment level. The very mention of it produced instant nausea and worse. Let's not even mention work; most days it was an achievement if I managed to do the most basic things: get dressed, prepare meals, clean up, do laundry, clean house. It was a bonus if I made it to the mailbox; an extra bonus if I could walk to the shops for groceries instead of driving. After years of letting rest be an incidental, often disposable part of my life, I've had to make it my focus for this season.

One day about three weeks back, I woke up early in the morning, instantly aware that I wanted to work. I wanted to work! I looked forward to getting out of bed! And doing something worthwhile that would help other people to live and, at the same time, give me some of what I need to stay alive. I wanted to work! And, I knew, that meant that something had changed: I can work again.

I can't wait.
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