X marks the spot where we fell apart

So, they tell you life is better with two.

It’s something you start to believe. In fact, you live your life around this concept. Two or thirty, you believe this.

On the train, you see the bland faces in a row — all using their devices, and you wonder: are these a substitute for real human interaction?

The couple in the corner, not using their devices, laughing with each other — more fulfilled?

Even the hipsters, high pants, high socks and jammin’ shoes, needing their devices to feel in place.

In Singapore, you can’t buy public housing unless you’re married or 35 (and single).

Are we so caught up in this concept that we can’t see beyond anything else?

The empty train — now — feels like a breath of fresh air.

No expectations, no one, peace.

What they don’t tell you about great love, and the end of it

At the end of any great love, you expect the big — the heart-wrenching grief, the burning anger, the feeling of utter hopelessness, the momentous point you find you’ve forgiven, and that bittersweet moment you’re finally able to wish the other well — but here’s what they don’t tell you: it’s the small things that trip you up, long after the scar has healed.

And you know, it really was a small thing. The other day, I had to update a personal particulars form. It still reflected my status as “married”, and recorded my old address. As I sought to get those details changed, two things hit me. First, a society is incredibly narrow-minded if they have labels like this to classify people (by such a big and painful life event, no less) in the 21st century. Second, I would now have live with this new label, and the societal stigma that comes with it. But beyond just this stigma, the divorce has gone on to define me in relationships, in ways I am only just beginning to fathom.

The largest cut the divorce has administered is this: It has left me with an inordinate amount of fear (of heartbreak). And it is in this fear that I rather run, than stay. I rather cut my losses, than see if there could be a pay-off down the road. It has made sure I don’t give of myself, not fully and not without immense, conscious effort on my part. Loving someone else becomes a risk even I am not willing to take.

It is also because of this fear that I become rigid and inflexible — always emphasizing compromise, or meeting in the middle, or asking to be loved the way I need — because I am afraid that if I give too much, and too often, I will become the same hollow shell I was with him, and the same weak person I was with my mother, and have to deal with heartbreak I know I won’t be able to live through the second, or third, or fourth, time. So I erect walls. Wall after wall after wall, until even I can no longer reach the recesses of my heart. Walls that are too tiring to keep up; and far too thick to tear down.

The second is this: You suddenly know that are absolutely no guarantees in life. And when I say “know”, I mean you feel it — in your head, heart, and deep within your bones. The inertia that comes with this realization is stupefying; something I cannot express with words. Tears, maybe, but I don’t have enough of those. Some days, I feel paralyzed. It’s as if I will never be able to make a concrete decision when it comes to matters of the heart. Because deep within, I know that I know better now — if I think I’m making the best possible decision, I will always, always, be wrong, because there are too many unknown variables to ever be able to correctly predict the outcome. It’s as if I will forever float in this trajectory, unable to settle, to grow roots, ever again. So I put it off, day after day after day, until even I give up hope waiting on myself. Indecision that is too tiring to keep up, too gripping to let go of.

The other day, a friend said to me, “This divorce doesn’t define you.” But she is wrong. It does. It does more than define me — it has even shaped me, in more ways than I know, or am aware of.

And all it took was a personal particulars form, and a few bad days, and one song on repeat, to reopen the scars I wasn’t fully cognizant of.

Now, I’m all tripped up. Limbs all askew, feet barely touching the ground, mind barely keeping up with my breath.

And always, always in my mind; just a whisper, barely there: “Who would put up with these scars that you wear? You surely wouldn’t.”

But that’s the fear and inertia talking. Right?

Compatibility is not the starting point of a successful relationship

“Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

Some time ago, I wrote about compatibility, and how I felt I had abandoned it in my relationships.

Today, I’m beginning to understand compatibility differently, after listening to Alain de Botton explain why people felt they had married the wrong person. His views are also available in prose for The New York Times.

A few points in his spiel that struck me:

“To love is to have the willingness to interpret someone’s on-the-surface not-very-appealing behavior, in order to find more benevolent reasons why it may be unfolding. In other words, to love someone, is to apply charity and generosity in interpretation.

“We tend to believe that the more a lover is right for us, the less we will have to explain about who we are, how we feel, what upsets us, what we want… We believe a true lover will guess what is in our minds… The root to a good marriage and good love is the ability to become a good teacher… Teaching is merely the word to the skill of getting an idea from one head into another in a way that is likely to be accepted… You need a culture between a couple where two people are going to need to teach each other and also learn from one another.”

“And this brings me to the next reason why you are going to have a very unhappy relationship: You probably believe that when somebody tries to tell you something about yourself that is a little ticklish; a little uncomfortable, they are attacking you. They’re not. They’re trying to make you into a better person. We tend to believe that true love means accepting the whole of us. It doesn’t. No one should accept the whole of us. We’re appalling. What we need to do is to accept that the other person is going to want to educate us.”

“Incompatibility — We are all incompatible. But it is the work of love to make us graciously accommodate each other and ourselves to each other’s incompatibilities.

You know, I’ve always admired the values of humility, empathy and compassion in a relationship, because I believe someone who truly understands how flawed they are, likely finds it easier to relate to the feelings and flaws of another. I believe this leads to all sorts of wonderful behaviors in a relationship, including being able to receive your partner’s words well (what he refers to as “charity and generosity in interpretation”).

But I’ve never thought of the equation as such: humility, empathy and compassion + willingness to teach + not treating your partner as the enemy = compatibility. I’ve always thought it the other way around.

Now, I’ll be honest, this equation is a problem for my state of happiness with someone else. First, I’m famous for running away when I feel most vulnerable (see point 3 below), which then, of course, negatively impacts my ability to teach my partner how I feel and what I need. Second, in a tense or angry situation, it’s hard for me to view my partner as anything but my enemy. After all, I grew up in a war zone — my parents were at each other’s throats all the time — so it’s difficult for me to understand that it is acceptable to be vulnerable and malleable with the person you love, even when you’re blind with rage that’s directed at them.

Of course, this also means that now that I am aware of my many challenges in a relationship, the reasons for them stop being so much of an excuse.

Perhaps it’s time I abandoned my fascination with compatibility, and started to focus on other parts of the equation.

On another note, once you realize that compatibility is not the starting point of a successful relationship, you then have to ask yourself: what makes us fall in love someone? Is it completely chemical? Or is it only about familiarity? Or is this entire process arbitrary?

But that’s something else to think about another day.

And before I sign off, here are some other valuable points I found that he made in his spiel:

  1. We progress through the world with a very low sense of what is actually wrong with us. Our parents, friends and ex-lovers don’t tell us for various reasons — they love us too much, they just want to spend a good night out, or they want to leave us without having uncomfortable conversations.
  2. We don’t spend enough time getting to know ourselves. Until you know yourself, you can’t properly relate to another person.
  3. We find it hard to tell someone that we need them. When we are put in this “undesirable” situation, we fall into certain patterns — we get anxiously attached, or, in my case, avoidant. (This means when you need someone, you pretend you don’t, which then sets the other wondering whether you can be trusted. And this results in a low-trust relationship cycle.)
  4. Love is a skill that needs to be learnt. There is a distinction between “to love” and “being loved”. 
  5. Everyone we love is going to disappoint us. We usually start off with idealization and end up with denigration. Maturity is the ability to see that there are no heroes or sinners among human beings. Good love is tolerance for weakness.
  6. The way we love as adults sits on top of our early childhood experiences. As a result, we seek out partners who are familiar, even though familiarity may be bound up with various kinds of torture.
  7. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about compromise. Compromise is noble. It is a massive achievement in love.

An inclusive love

“You know, your father and I have agreed to work on our differences. But each time you do something like this, he gets fed up with trying.” My mother is referring to our most recent disagreement, which she blames entirely on me.

And with that one remark, 20 years fade away, and I am 11 again.

I am feeling the worst kind of loneliness and exclusion, because:

I am being told that this is her home, not mine, and therefore, I have to be “polite” to her. I am being told that my parents are at odds — and have been, for the past 3 years (and so too for the next 20 years, but I didn’t know it then) — because of my interference. I am being told that they are a unit, and their relationship is more important than my relationship with either parent.

It is damaging, for a child to feel relegated to the sidelines on a parent’s whim, looking in on what is supposed to be a normal, well-adjusted family. I used to think it was preferable to have no family at all. At least then, I wouldn’t have fleeting glimpses of what I was missing, and wishing with all my heart, to be included in the fold.

10 years of therapy later and I am in a position to write this, not to relive the hurt of the past, but to solidify a lesson for the future.

My mother cannot love me the way I need, because she’s never been taught how, and perhaps you can say — even along the way, she’s never taught herself how. She has never learnt to love inclusively, and she never will, because she comes from a place of deep lack, or gripping insecurity, a place that she’s never confronted head on. She is unable to see past her own sadness, hurt, unhappiness, anger — anything she’s feeling strongly at that point — through to someone else, and feel the love she’s supposed to have for that individual.

Who’s fault is this? I wish I could say hers, but I know now life is never as straightforward as we wish it to be; and we are too human to ever expect more from each other.

My mother may not have taught me how to love, but she’s certainly taught me how to forgive.

Because you know, when you can’t change someone, all that’s really left to do is to forgive. And I won’t lie, there are days where I am scraping the bottom of that barrel of compassion; frantically pawing through the sediment with hands that are raw and bleeding.

Hours after those words fell like arrows, I stood there looking out into the rain, its comforting scent filling my nostrils, and I thought:

When I breathe my last, I want to know I did everything I could to build a loving, inclusive relationship — against my humanity, against all my flaws, against my insecurities and fears, emotions, and scars; that I had helped to build a family where love was bountiful and unconditional, regardless of the pain and sorrow that came with it; that I put others first, and myself aside, for the sake of peace.

You know, I have failed many times in my 31 years, and I will continue to fail — myself, and those around me.

But I can only hope that if I keep fighting that darkened part of me — the one that whispers terrible things when I am at my weakest, and makes the light feel less than it is — I may yet succeed. That, and quite possibly a healthy dose of self awareness, faith, and God’s grace.

Wish me luck, because 2017 is the year I leap.

Dear Compatibility,

I don’t actually know who you are.

I’ve met you, of course, in one form or another, but if we’re being honest, I don’t know you. I do not know what the complete shape of you looks or feels like. I don’t even know if you truly exist, or if you’re a fairytale we’ve made up.

But I’m writing anyway, because in the worse case scenario, I believe in fairytales.

Reading Love, Eventually, it was this quote about you that resonated the most.

Out of hopefulness, impatience, insecurity or for a thousand other reasons, we too often rush into relationships that are poor fits for us, robbing our partners and ourselves of more promising connections.”

The truth is this: we are all damaged in some way. We bear hope only we can see; hope that goes against all odds, that distorts reality and colours every decision we make. We bear the fears only we see; fears we cannot explain, or stop feeling, despite our best efforts. We bear the scars only we see; scars others have inflicted, scars we do not understand, or do but perhaps have never dealt with for a myriad of reasons.

All this, our thousand other reasons, will shape our relationship with you.

Sometimes, we ignore your existence completely. Not on purpose, but simply because we’ve never really learnt how to shoulder our scars alone. For some of us, the cost of overlooking you is great. We run towards the next, and the next, and the next, from whoever we receive attention and affection, to whomever will help to ease the weight we carry. They fall, almost accidentally, into our laps; and then, almost gratefully, we fall onto theirs in return. When we finally realise you are nowhere in sight, we find ourselves deciding to stay anyway — out of love or a bond that has now formed, because of the children, or the guilt, fear, grief, et al., we feel.

Other times, we believe you are quintessential in a union. We feel for your presence by measuring our partner’s baggage against our own, taking issue with any variation, until finally, we finally walk away. We cite the hole where you should have stood. We are still waiting — still holding out, even now — for you to show up, in entirety, with someone we could fall in love with.

At times, we think it is a choice between love, or you. So we choose. Some make lifelong happiness with their choice; others find it is not enough.

Sometimes, we are blessed enough to be one of two people who falls in love at exactly the same time, only to find you standing there in the middle. And yet, a year later (or two, or ten), you’ve vanished, because our relationship with you is a shifting goal post, changing whenever we do.

There are so many forms our relationship with you takes, Compatibility, in the face of our thousand other reasons. But whichever we choose, there is no promise of a happy outcome. For as there are a number of us who have experienced tragedies in your absence, there are many others who have made their own happiness. And then there are those who’ve had both, and yet.

For this reason, I cannot agree in absolute terms that we end up “robbing our partners and ourselves of more promising connections”, wherever you are absent.

More experiences with — and without — your presence only helps us to see you a little clearer; to understand the balance we are willing to live with in any relationship. And we do this with an acceptance that there are no formulas and no guarantees.

As for me, I have been guilty of abandoning you. You see, I let myself crumble under the weight of my bags. I was not determined enough to work through my emotional discomfort; I was not patient enough wait for the light that would eventually come. I did not face what I had to, when I had to, and by the time I realised, you had come and gone. Because I was not my priority, you weren’t either.

But I look forward with hope, that this was meant to be all along.

“Still, had the possibility of this loving bi-disability marriage presented itself to us years earlier, I don’t think either of us would have been ready. We needed the right combination of fallacies, wrong turns and formative relationships to lead each of us exactly here.”


My relationship with you is far from over. I will make other mistakes where you are concerned, I’m sure.

But only time will tell what the next one is, and whether this time, finally, there will be a happy ending.

Ode to a father

I have loved him for 31 years. Perhaps longer; if you believe in that sort of thing.

He has been with me at every step, at every turn, allowing for failure and celebrating my success.

And as I walked with him all these years, I inherited many lessons. Some came easy, others were painful and hard-earned.

From him, I learnt compassion. At five, I saw it in his geniality to all manner of strangers. It did not matter if you were a CEO or a cleaner — my father would speak to you in exactly the same warm way. At 31, I understand it isn’t only in the manner you relate to others. Instead, compassion is a deep understanding of human condition; a knowledge that we are all flawed, and no status or amount of gold makes us any better than the other. And from compassion stems a great many other things: forgiveness, love, bravery, and so forth.

From him, I learnt how to forgive. At five, I knew this only as a big hug after punishment. Growing up, I realized the ease at which he forgave came from unconditional love (of a parent), which transcended all the ways I had hurt him. And I knew, even then when I knew nothing else as a child, that it would go on for the rest of our lives. At 31, I know he is only capable of unconditional love and forgiveness because he has the source of it — God — in his heart. For he is loved, so too he loves.

From him, I learnt generosity. At five, I knew it as time spent together — and he never, ever, ran out of it, especially when I was concerned. Growing up, I saw him share the knowledge he had accumulated over the years with everyone who was willing to listen and learn — never, ever fearful that he would become obsolete or irrelevant. I admired this trait, because I’ve met very few individuals who are as secure in themselves. At 31, I understand that generosity doesn’t only come in the form of time or knowledge. I see it in the selfless way my father gives to the less fortunate. He is never too tired, too old, too poor or too busy to love anyone else.

From him, I learnt to love the ocean. At five, I knew it as playtime, where only endless joy existed. The world spun in technicolor, and nothing seemed impossible. At 31, I know it is really a need for wide open spaces. It is the need to feel granular in a much larger world, because sometimes, what feels impossible is oppressive.

From him, I learnt to love sunshine. At five, it usually accompanied playtime. It was the feel of warmth of the sun on the skin; a soft reminder that you lived and breathed. At 31, it has become about relishing the beauty life hands you even it if is only for a fleeting moment. It is the lack of resentment even when it passes, and doesn’t emerge again for some time.

From him, I learnt the value of hard work. At five, I only knew it meant he worked different hours: shift work, they called it. On weekends, his hands were always busy — sawing, sanding and lacquering, over and over — and appreciated his dedication to home building. He never, not for a moment, not once, stood still. At 31, I know it isn’t just about the act of labor — it is the practice of patience and perseverance through difficulty. It is the resulting pride from a job well done — a gift no one was able to take away.

From him, I learnt a sense of justice. At five, I knew it as his raised voice or a disapproving look. I saw the difference between what was considered “right” and “wrong”. I memorized these, as if from a textbook, until they worked their way into my gut, and over the years, cemented there. At 31, I understand it is not only about just action, but also bravery — to be able to admit my own faults, and to speak up in the face of wrongdoing.

From him, I learnt my worth. At five, I knew I was precious to him. How could I not? As I grew older, I continued to believe my value to family was a birthright. At 31, I realize that we are never owed our value; it is something we have to earn. Not through money or power — for these fade — but by being a light onto others.

I’ve inherited so much from my father. But beyond these values, he has taught me the greatest thing my heart will ever know, more than I can express with mere words — love. More than that, how to love.

This I will keep within the depths of my heart, to store for always.

To: Moments

I am, unfortunately, unable to deal with uncertainty.

I prefer life to be neat and compartmentalized. This way, when it comes apart, as it so often does, it can easily be pieced back together.

But sometimes, life throws you a curve ball, just for the heck of it. I find myself inept among the pieces; all my preferences now meaningless.

It was time to build anew. 2017 would be the year of transformation, I promised. I’d seen my friends — who’d been through worse — do the same. They said the journey ahead will be rough, and fraught with doubt and insecurity, but you underestimate the depth of those feelings, until you find yourself in the fray.

In this process, I find I have more questions than I do answers. What do I stand for? What do I love? Is living for one’s self at all possible? What if the choices we make today aren’t enough 10 years down the road? 

I find life is more haphazard than it is tidy. A rug, suddenly removed and shaken after 10 years. A billion dust particles fill the space, barely moving, slowly drifting in a downward settle. It is in that suspended state that I find myself seeking.

And it is infuriating.

“Transformation requires discipline,” she says to me, over our third glass of wine, and after I’ve asked her the umpteenth question that night. What she is asking me to do, really, is to be kinder to myself. “Are you not tired?” she asks, sounding very tired for me. She’s right, I am exhausted.

But perhaps that’s it — if I am to be kind to myself, I need to discipline the mind.

If 2017 is going to truly be a journey of self-discovery:

I need to make an ally of uncertainty. Knowing, that the chips will fall where they will, despite my intentions and preferences.

I have to be at peace in the midst of chaos and all the pieces. Trusting, that they will fall into a new shape that I will come to love and accept.

I need to surrender to moments as they occur, and seek reminders that there are no deadlines and expectations in the journey.

So here’s to a year of savoring the moments, instead of mourning how they’ve occurred or even their passing.