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.

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.

The incredible wholeness of being

“How do you want to feel with your future partner?” a friend asked me last night. The premise was: from this, I would know what to look for.

It was a very simple question, yet one that took me by surprise. Even more surprising — I had absolutely no idea. I hadn’t thought about it.

Sure, I had a list of traits I wanted. That’s the easy part: funny, smart, generous and kind. But her question involved emotions, and these were slightly murkier. I did not even know if I had a good answer (beyond the superficial “happy” or “trusted” bullshit). But we all have to start somewhere. So, I decided to start by examining what I had looked for in past relationships, and why. Then I asked myself: why was this never enough?

Security. That was the first thing that popped into my mind, after a minute of silence. Upon further reflection, I realised that would be the adjective I chose first, because I grew up in an emotionally tumultuous household. My mother was verbally and emotionally abusive towards me all through to young adulthood. My parents were consistently fighting. Of course, my father tried to compensate for all of it, but over time, nothing he could have done would have halted, or erased the damage. Raised voices, slamming doors, guttural cries, threats of divorce, greater threats of death and suicide — these were background tracks that played as my life ran on in technicolor. Worse, I was the only child. I had no one to turn to save for inanimate stuffed objects and the family pets. There is something preferable to being trapped in an oppressive and unhappy family — having absolutely no family at all.

Loved, unconditionally, was another. And of course, this is because I was never loved unconditionally. I was loved when I obeyed; did her bidding. I was loved when I was polite. I was loved when I sided her, over my father. And I was told to obey because she was the source of my lunch money. I was told to obey because I lived in her house; under her roof. I was told to obey because Christian children are supposed to “honor thy father and mother” (of course, she never learnt the continuation of that verse; Ephesians 6:4). If I did not obey, I would lose all these privileges and face the wrath of God. I married young and wrong, in part, to escape her and that unhappy house. Now that I am divorced, older, and arguably wiser, I know God was only used as a tool for her emotional manipulation, and instead of running, I needed to learn to love in defense.

Dependent. This, I am more ashamed to admit, but it must be done. After all, the only way to fight demons of the heart is with bravery, foolish or otherwise. The reason for this is simple: if my partner is dependent on me, then the likelihood I would get hurt, that the person would walk away from me, abandon me, is smaller. My partner would never be able to do to me what my mother had done.

All this; this is who I am. These are all gnarled parts shaped by my past. That’s why I’ve always wanted to feel emotionally secure, loved unconditionally, and like I have the upper hand. And it seems I have sought what I’ve never had throughout my life. That’s typical, isn’t it? We either seek out the familiar, or we seek out the complete opposite.

And the coward in me; she could continue to seek this out in future. But it has never been enough, and it is folly to believe it ever will be. Why?

I suspect it is because I know if I seek for others (and vice versa) from a place of lack, I will always emerge with a lack. I am more than what my past has shaped me to be. There is a part of me who knows she must strive for more, to be better, to do better.

For one, I’d like to be the source of my own emotional security. I want to draw from my own never-ending well of love and forgiveness that exists somewhere inside; in a place that has not be scourged by my past. I want to draw from it, and find the strength to wash my own wounds each time they weep.

I would try to love unconditionally. No matter how many times people fail us throughout our lives, we still have expectations of them. And when they let us down, we find it hard to forgive, and find ourselves trapped in a cycle of resentment and unforgiveness. But there is something greater to be learnt from being let down — acceptance of and compassion for the human condition, in the spirit of unconditional love. With this, forgiveness and the process of moving on (whether together or separately) becomes easier. With my mother, this involves loving her from a distance, in spite of what she has done, and without obligation.

I don’t want to be the center of someone’s world. I don’t want to beat anyone into submission. I want a strong individual, I want a challenge, I want a cause for pause of thought, I want a differing viewpoint. I want all this, because improvement and growth is far more important to me than the pain and suffering that may ensue if it did not work out.

I want to be self-sustainable. I don’t say this from a place of self pride. I say this from a place of self-worth.

There’s so much more I want to be. There’s so much more I want to give.

And now, I realise that my choice of future partner cannot start with how I want to feel with someone else, because that is where it ends. It starts with how I feel about myself and how the other person feels about themself. Both separate, yet whole entities. The rest, I am hoping, will come naturally. (Also because I still do not have a good answer to her question.)

So, at this point, while I continue work on myself, I will say to the future instead: I want someone who feels emotionally secure. I want someone who feels whole alone. I want someone who feels love in spite of human imperfections. I want someone who feels compassion for the human condition. I want someone who feels like I am an equal — someone to learn and grow with. I want someone who feels as I do, and has come to the same conclusions I have.

Someone else said to me recently, “We were not made to be alone.” For the first time in my life, I think he may be right. But first, two people need to cherish being just that: alone.

Instagram, great expectations and a lesson in frugality

So here are some terrible truths I hate to admit. Every morning, I open Instagram and spend a few minutes perusing my feed before starting my day. And when I’m bored, Instagram and Facebook are almost instinctive.

I could not tell you why.

The most disturbing part is not only don’t I have a good reason, I’m also aware that it doesn’t make sense. I mean, I know I’d only be confronted by other lives which look far more fulfilling than mine actually feels.

On social media, we’re caught in a race against each other to eat more, travel more, see more, and love more. We’ve become exhibitionists with a compulsive need to showcase anything fun, exciting or glamorous that we do, see or taste. The reward? The better the life, the higher the follower count, the greater the validation.

Is this truly why do we do it? (Don’t tell me an “archive of memories” or “keep friends updated” because you can just as easily do that offline, without having to show the world.) And if not, why then?

Does this need for validation — at any level or intensity — stem from a lack of self-worth? Every post that shows us to be cultured, well-travelled, well-liked, well-loved, well-fed, is one more notch on the bedpost that proves we’re so much more than what we really feel about ourselves — dissatisfied and discontent.

It’s really a vicious cycle. If it’s dissatisfaction and discontentment that leads us to exhibitionism, looking at others’ social media lives continues to feed it. In the long run, we forget that we’re only seeing with outsider eyes, without insight into the less positive occurrences. So we make one more post, one more entry, one more upload — because we’re just as fulfilled as them.

Brands, of course, know this, and take advantage of it. This is consumerism at its best — subtly hidden in the everyday lives of our Instagram gods and goddesses, so we have to have that latest bag, or buy that outfit.

Some Instagram celebrities who are more aware of this vicious cycle make it a point to also post on their bad days. I find that these are more the yogi, earth-loving types.

Of course, for some, social media has its plus points.

Watching others can be motivation — to get fit or take up new hobbies — which is great, as long as we don’t forget that struggles are real for everyone, when we hit the roadblocks. More importantly, if we’re doing it right, I feel that external motivation will gradually shift internally over time. Sometimes, all we need is a little nudge in the beginning.

And of course, I still think it’s amazing that I am able to behold breathtaking sites halfway around the world from under my sheets. That’s good enough motivation to head to work everyday, if you ask me.

But these reasons neither discount nor excuse my personal bad habits when it comes to social media.

So, I shall do a tiny experiment and see how that translates to one of the things I set out to do this year: adopt frugality. I shall delete Instagram for two weeks. We’ll see if anything has changed at the end of it. Who knows? The outcome may yet surprise me.

Turns out, I like hikes. And classical music. At the same time.

When I was a tot, my dad threw me in the ocean in an attempt to teach me how to swim. I was weird, even then: instead of being severely traumatised, I fell in love. With the water.

Then, six years ago, on a whim, I signed up for an open water course while on holiday in Khao Lak, Thailand. I did it simply to see if I could conquer my fear of enclosed spaces. (In case you’re wondering, when you descend for the first time, it feels like the ocean is closing in on you.) Turns out, I could. It also turns out, with prolonged and consistent exposure to boats, one can also overcome severe seasickness.

And sometime between then and today, I fell even more in love with the ocean than I had believed was possible.

I love skimming the ocean’s waves as much as I love being under them, exploring new worlds. I love staring out into an expanse of ocean, feeling like the smallest, most insignificant being that’s ever breathed. There is something very liberating in being inconsequential.

So hiking’s never been on my list of to-dos. I mean, I don’t even like to walk. Why walk when you can swim, right?

Until The List.

For the first time in my 30 years, I visited MacRitchie Reservoir Park. I feel ridiculous admitting it in the public sphere, but I take comfort in the fact that this blog is anonymous.

So, I had a plan. I had a goal (the Jelutong Tower, in case you were wondering). I printed a map. I packed a bag. I slathered on sunblock and drowned my clothes in mosquito repellent. Tightened my ankle guard. Plugged in to some random Spotify Classical music playlist. I set off.

(If you’ve not come to this conclusion yourself yet, there’s a large part of my personality that is Type A.)

But I was not expecting what came next.

As I entered the silent forest and the deserted trail, I felt the most unbelievable sense of peace. It almost felt like how I do underwater — the surroundings closing in, and you’re completely alone; just you and your breathing, rising and falling, over and over again. I loved it.

I loved the monotonous and constant thak thak thak my shoes made on the soggy soil. I loved looking up at the green canopy of leaves, seeing the sunlight come through. I loved the smell of the damp soil and trees. I loved the sounds the forest was making: the light chatter of the insects, rustle of the leaves and the random bird calls. I loved how calm it all was.

After an hour of brisk walking, I arrived at a fork in the road, and discovered that the trail that would’ve led to my goal was closed. Type A in me screamed, “Just walk back around the reservoir and hike the other way! Or go past the barricade — what could possibly happen? For a good fifteen minutes after, I walked back and forth, up and down different paths, and out someways at the exits that were available, trying to find another way to the the tower.

Then, it hit me what they mean when they say: happiness is in the journey, not the destination.

You see, goals are all well and good, but I tend to develop an almost unhealthy focus on them, as a means to happiness. And when I don’t achieve what I set out to do, I stop counting the blessings that are apparent. I mean, I was standing in the midst of magnificent nature, and all I could think of was this tower?

So I took a deep breath, stopped listening to my personality, and found a comfortable spot by the river. After spending some time listening to fish cartwheeling in the water, and watching kingfishers circle overhead, I trekked back the way I came, enjoying the same path I had tread on so joyously before. I allowed myself to be delighted all over again.

Perhaps, the next time I visit the park, I will turn right instead, and find my tower. Or not.

The List

  1. Solo diving trip
  2. Charity trip
  3. Frugality
  4. More volunteering
  5. Hike
  6. Walk
  7. Different kinds of music
  8. Attend workshops, like calligraphy, painting, lamp-making, fountain-making
  9. One day a month with dad
  10. 100 days of alone-ness
  11. Write, then write some more