Happy birthday, Rachel

Illustration by Luzia Bione, via Pinterest

Hi, I’m still here. Sorry that I went dark for awhile.

The truth is, I started drafting this post 2 (almost 3) months ago, but I was never really satisfied with it, feeling it somehow did not convey what I wanted to say. So I edited and re-edited, and eventually got bored and left things dormant. And the thing about writing is, if you don’t carve out a specific time to do it—or if you do, but don’t honor the commitment—other stuff comes up, and life just gets in the way. That’s basically what happened.

This post was supposed to be a birthday letter to myself. But the more I wrote on, the more I hated it. Everything was coming off as self-indulgent and disingenuous, and I was beginning to bore myself. I’d love to clap myself on the back and feel happy about how ‘far’ I’ve come, but those were yesterday’s battles; today has its own unique ones, so does tomorrow, and so forth. What’s today’s hindsight gonna be worth five or ten years down the road? No, I wouldn’t repeat the Hallmark-card-worthy spiel about not sweating the small stuff, savoring every tiny moment, and how everything works out in the end. Who doesn’t know that? Nobody. Who’s tired of hearing it? Everybody. There would no cheesy letter to my past or future self.

But still, I was fascinated with the idea of writing a plain, old-fashioned letter. If I only knew who to address it to.

Around this time, I was reading and quite enjoying Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons. In it, the protagonist, Gil Coleman, has a houseful of books stuffed randomly with letters from his wife, Ingrid, who disappeared mysteriously years ago. He’s ailing and dying of cancer, and his two daughters come home to take care of him after a mishap. Throughout the novel, the author intersperses what’s happening in the present with Gil and his daughters, with Ingrid’s letters. Readers get to read first-hand the contents of these beautifully written and wonderfully detailed letters, stuck in the most random of books ranging from classics to cooking instruction manuals—but never is it mentioned whether the intended recipient—Gil—ever discovers them. In particular, one of these letters is about Gil and Ingrid’s relationship, written in reverse chronology, from the broken-down state of their marriage all the way back to their giddy courtship days. I thought that whole idea was just amazing, and though I will never hope to pull off such a feat as masterfully as Claire Fuller does, it inspired me and got me thinking.

And so I wrote a letter. To nobody.

____________________________

Dear No One In Particular,

You don’t know me but maybe you do. It doesn’t really matter either way, because today I felt like writing you a letter, unshackled by any need for pleasantries or to make unnecessary trips down memory lane just to rehash a shared experience or two. Not today anyway. This isn’t what this letter’s about.

Lately I’ve been thinking about mortality quite a lot. It’s hard not to, being on the wrong side of thirty. About ten or fifteen years ago I used to wonder about people in their thirties and forties who were making a whole lot more money. In my opinion then, they were blowing their fatter paychecks on dull things like insurance policies, vitamins, expensive massages, organic food, and full-body checkups. It just seemed to me at the time to not be obvious ways to part with one’s money when there were more enticing options like fancy vacations, fine-dining, nice cars, and designer clothes.

Well, as it turns out, at the age of 37, as I sat down in the Hello Kitty Cafe to blow out the birthday candle on my complimentary dessert, surrounded by my husband of ten years, nine-year-old son, and (almost) four-year-old daughter, I could not think of what to wish for. I knew I wanted good health—because without it everything’s just meaningless—but I was also struggling to frame it all in the right context (since I have other desires, such as for a life with higher meaning and purpose)—and I must’ve paused at the candle a tad too long because Belle snuffed out the flame with one breath before I could form a coherent thought. What can I say, it’s hard to keep up with youngsters.

Brain fog is ever so real these days. There are so many things on my mind at one given moment that it just chooses to shut down without even an advance warning. Enough with your to-do lists, it seems to say, and the rest of me’s left stranded like a frustrated Parisian at the Metro station, unable to make her commute because the workers are en grève.

And then I start to think about whether there’s too much on my plate. Am I in over my head juggling two jobs, raising two children, worrying about elderly parents, and hoping to pursue writing more seriously? It’s not like I haven’t taken steps to drop what’s unnecessary and practise more self-care. I’ve stopped accepting freelance assignments, am taking a short hiatus from conducting book readings, and—when not busy at work or with the kids—I try to squeeze in long walks to clear my head and get some gentle exercise. I’ve also been pumping my system with a suite of vitamins and health supplements, been conscientiously going for follow-up medical appointments to address a few chronic conditions, and even given up chocolate and spicy food. And yet I can never go back to feeling like I’m 27. Who could? Perhaps when I’m 47, I would reminisce about being 37 and how wonderful that felt. And so on. The grass will always be greener a decade ago.

Of course I remember what it was like to be younger. In my twenties, I barely had hips, wore waist-size 24-inch jeans, and ate at Burger King once a week (at least). The only ‘exercise’ I got away with involved walking from store to store within the mall, and I got by on very little sleep. My body worked effortlessly like a well-oiled machine—there was no need to bother about nutrition, digestion, calories, or regularity. Migraines from hangovers were my chief complaint, and even then there was nothing an aspirin couldn’t fix. I clocked long hours at the office, and still had the energy to meet friends for a late dinner and drinks. I’d get home close to midnight, shower, and read a novel into the early hours before finally going to sleep, and still be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day at work, attending meetings, sending emails and churning out tasks with mechanical efficiency.

But inside, I wasn’t all that different from now. Worry is in my DNA, and the me then was constantly anxious and fretting about something. Mostly I agonized over my so-called ‘non-career,’ and not being who and what I thought I was ‘meant to be.’ I was envious of friends who effortlessly embarked on high-paying jobs upon graduation, and questioned my desire to pursue editorial work when it led from one low-paying job to another. Life as an inexperienced newbie was sobering: before graduation, I’d assumed that just because I got above-average grades, that I’d go on to conquer the working world in similar fashion. But the rules were different in this new reality, and my so-called ‘talents’ were worth only as much as the price people were willing to pay for them. Was I selling myself short? Didn’t I deserve better opportunities? Was I any less capable than any of my peers? Social media wasn’t even a thing then, but #FOMO was well and truly alive in me, and so I brooded. A LOT.

When both my parents were diagnosed with and battled cancer in their fifties, it was the beginnings of my preoccupation with mortality, and ‘the meaning of it all.’ My folks eventually recovered, but those dark thoughts never left me, and till today they trail behind me like a gray cloud.

Recently I felt that cold and familiar hand on my shoulder again—the reminder of mortality, and that stab of fear of ensuing grief and loss—when my father was hospitalized for pneumonia. Had the cancer returned, was he going to suffer like he did, and even more? Was this it? Thankfully the latest episode turned out to be a straightforward case of pneumonia that was fixed with a week’s stay in hospital and a cocktail of strong antibiotics, but as thoughts swirled madly inside my head, I realized that at 37, I had no better coping mechanism than I did at 19 when Dad was first diagnosed with the dreaded C. Worse still, I saw how my mother, now 70 and living with Parkinsons, tried but could not keep up with the energy required for taking care of him the way she did so many years ago. As we made the hospital visits together, she had to take frequent breaks to sit and rest her achy back and tired legs, and I sensed her frustration at her aging body and its limitations, which prevented her from assuming the task she knew so well and wanted to rise up valiantly to. Now it was her children’s turn to do what was necessary until Dad got better—and even then, with our own families and young children, it wasn’t easy. But we got through this hurdle together.

Enough about mortality. Let’s switch gears and talk about something else. Do you think ennui is real? Not serious Madame Bovary level ennui, but a general listlessness and dissatisfaction over the fact that you’re going in circles doing stuff but never really getting anywhere or achieving anything of significance?

I’ll always wonder how differently my life would’ve turned out had I taken up my Mom’s offer to sponsor my postgraduate studies in the US. After all, it had been a longheld pipe dream to earn a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature. What it might’ve been like to hurl myself into the expansive world of literature in the picturesque environs of a New England-ish campus, soaking up autumnal afternoons reading, writing, and extrapolating about it all. I would never find out, because I said no.

Up until then, I’d never lived away from home and maybe the prospect of packing up and leaving was overly daunting. I was also too lazy to contemplate getting back into the rigor and discipline of academic life, and Dad’s state of health at the time made me reluctant to be far from home. I remember conveniently convincing myself that going back to being a student was ‘back pedaling’ on my trajectory of adulthood.

Lately, though, being an adult has gotten so tiring. Writing Tea in Pajamas energized me and I am thrilled to work on its sequel, but more and more I find myself thinking—dreaming—of embarking on an overseas writing residency program. It’s hard to say if this desire is just born out of the ennui of my twenties, or if I only want to do these things now because I can’t—not with job responsibilities, school-going children, a mortgage, and bills to be paid. What if nothing were to hold me back, like so many years ago? Chances are, I might still find many excuses to say no.

Where am I going with this letter? I said I wasn’t gonna write a ‘trite’-and-tested, everything-worked-out-in-the-end kinda post, but instead I find myself going on insufferably on about mortality and ennui.

OK, I hope I’m not too late in making my birthday wish: I pray the fog lifts, and that I soon get my brain back.

[blows out imaginary candle]

Happy birthday to me.

Love,

Rachel

Everything Takes Forever: A Story of Waiting (Part 15)

Image via Pinterest

[Continued from Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, and Part 14]

Angels and demons, light and darkness, yin and yang, good and evil—whatever you choose to call it, the state of one’s interior life tends to be dominated by one or the other. In the interests of this blog, I’ll refer to them as the good spirit and the bad spirit, i.e. invisible forces that recognize our deeply held desires and subsequently attempt to influence/predispose us toward particular courses of action.

Through my ED and subsequent recovery process, I have come to identify the good spirit as the inner voice that is quiet, patient, gentle, at times insistent but never forceful or aggressive, and always compassionate and encouraging. The good spirit only seeks to lead one toward a place of greater peace and freedom, not unlike a trusted confidant who celebrates one’s victories in happier times, and during challenging moments gently but persistently nudges one back to a place of greater awareness and reason.

The bad spirit, on the contrary, can be likened to a cruel drill sergeant—brash, authoritative, pushy, inflexible, disparaging, dismissive, and fond of using imperatives such as ‘must/should/have to’ to drive home the message that there can be no other way. Its ultimate aim is to disrupt, cause chaos, confusion, and disquiet, so that as a result one is less able to make a rational decision and more likely to accept ‘quick-fix’ solutions that ultimately do more harm than good.

Being aware of the good and bad spirits’ respective qualities have been extremely helpful in guiding me in making well-discerned decisions. The only problem, however, is that things are rarely this straightforward. And things get particularly tricky when the bad spirit tries to pass off as the good spirit, otherwise known as the ‘false angel of light.’

The false angel of light is exactly that: false. It’s also a great actor, with great versatility and shape-shifting abilities befitting the scenario. Mostly it preys on a person’s overarching desire to do what is ‘right and good,’ and nudges one to act out one’s ‘noble’ and ‘beneficent’ intentions even if what follows is entirely irrational. It starts off gentle and persuasive, “Oh but wouldn’t be so much more loving/kind/[insert synonym] of you to do [X]?” though along the way the unmistakable “you must” tone emerges, along with threats such as “if you don’t do [X], you’ll have failed in being loving/kind/righteous, etc.” And then you understand why you’ve had such a bad gut feeling this whole time—that was hardly the good spirit at work. Time for a U-turn.

Lord knows the many occasions that I’d been fooled by the false angel of light, and unwittingly entered into a ‘dance with the devil.’ Here is my story of one of those times.

________________________

It’s an extraordinarily sunny morning but it feels like a thunderstorm in here. The other party is hurling threats and abuses in my face, while I stand rooted to the ground, only thinking about how my Sociology lecturer at University used to go on about virtually everything being a ‘social construction.’ Good people, bad people, aren’t these merely labels society conveniently slaps on groups of individuals in an attempt to make sense of or instil order?

This person in question, whom I’d been hitherto so reluctant to label, is now challenging my belief in giving even the most mean-spirited person I’ve come across the benefit of the doubt. Today, the litany of abuse is accompanied by clarity that had eluded me for the past eight months. Someone who once tried to pass off as a friend—dare I say, even a good one—is speaking in a language reserved for someone who might’ve murdered their family member. What gives? It’s plain that there is nothing I [or anyone in my position] could’ve done to merit such uncivilized behavior. The thing is, this sort of vitriol isn’t new to me.

Time and again, I have witnessed it being directed at someone other than myself and turned the other way, unwilling to acknowledge that is reason enough to withdraw my friendship. But now that it’s come my way, I can no longer resist my long-held desire to recoil from the other party’s odiousness. Until this very moment, I’d been flying under the radar, part-hoping to never bear the brunt of this person’s evil machinations and part-turning a blind eye to it. When anybody else would’ve felt indignance and reserved their sympathies for someone actually deserving of it, the false angel of light assured me that my meekness and unconditional friendship were exactly what the other party needed to be dissuaded from being, well, themselves. That made no sense, of course. You wouldn’t kindly pet a tiger unless you wanted to be mauled.

And mauled, I am. The other party has openly declared war on me, and proceeds to make the rest of my time in this shared space insufferable. As I’m predictably browbeaten into a hasty retreat, I feel strangely numb, even if not altogether surprised. That little inner voice I’d dismissed so often for being cynical and faithless was actually that of common sense. The truth is, I’d seen this day coming, albeit not this exact day, and somewhere deep down my long-neglected ‘voice of reason’ is popping the proverbial champagne to celebrate the fact that ‘at last I see the light.’

That day, I use my lunch break to go for a long walk, and eventually settle down behind a building overlooking the sea. As I gaze at ships and ocean liners, questions swirl in my head. You saw this coming, and yet you entered a suicide mission, why? I know I’m not a stupid person, and yet my actions speak of nothing but sheer idiocy.

The false angel of light’s jig is up. It has now removed its guise and is openly mocking me. See where trying to be good and kind got you? Why even bother next time?, it goes on taunting until I kick at a pile of pebbles to disrupt my thoughts. Burying my face in my hands, I feel rage and despair. Good spirit, where’ve you been?

The good spirit is silent that day, and for many months after the incident, giving me space and distance I need to slowly connect the dots until a clearer picture emerges. How did the false angel of light slip through the back door? I had been guarding my interior life so vigilantly.

Of course I didn’t understand it then, but today it’s plain to see.

At the time, fresh out of ED recovery, and aided by months and months of spiritual direction, I’d come to face and accept the truth of my very own humanity—its fallibility—and was especially empathic to the unique shortcomings of others. I saw myself in almost everyone, and—having unwittingly developed a Messianic complex—was eager to pay it forward. My ‘redemption’ had turned into a mission to free others around me from whatever was causing them to act out in unbecoming ways. But was I truly acting from a place of noble and altruistic intentions?

The troubling fact was, this delusional belief that my ‘gift’ of unconditional friendship was enough to convince someone to stop being a jerk came from a place of hubris.

My hubris.

[to be continued]

The universe of my swimming pool

Swimming girl [title unknown] by Eric Zener, via Pinterest.

Swimming girl [title unknown] by Eric Zener, via Pinterest.

It’s Monday and I’ve chosen to begin my week with a spot in the pool.

I’ve talked about how I swim every time the noise of my thoughts gets a little too deafening (here and here). The buzzing never completely quietens—there is never a minute of absolute silence—but what the water seems to do is numb me to it. Little by little, stroke by stroke, breath by breath, I recognize my longstanding battle with anxiety for what it is, and my prayers go from, “Lord, what the hell is happening? I want answers!” to “Just enough courage for today, Lord, and some leftover for tomorrow.”

What worries me? And are all my fears founded? My family and closest friends would probably say no, given my overwrought nature and hypochondriac tendencies, but we all know bad stuff happens to all, anxiety or no. The only difference is our coping mechanism; in my case, lack thereof.

Nothing feeds my overactive imagination like uncertainty—that murky space we all wade in before deciding if we want to find out if our worst case scenarios will play out, or if by pursuing a definitive answer, we’d buy some peace of mind—until the next maybe-crisis comes along.

Is there anything in life that’s certain, except that nothing is? And don’t we all struggle with that thought that lurks at the back of our minds—the one that goes, “It’s probably nothing, but what if it turns out to be something?” As we age, the many probably-nothing-but-maybe-somethings can only increase, but at no point will we ever know with any certainty when ignorance is bliss and when a little knowledge becomes a dangerous thing.

For me, the hardest part is managing my overarching need to know the status of and solution to everything happening to me, which proves to be an exercise in futility each and every time. Yet I can’t help myself. I desperately want to know what’s going on, but I am paralyzed with fear that it’s not the answer I hope for. I cannot begin to describe how much I dread the state of vulnerability, mostly due to its unique ability to stir up fear in my heart. To be governed by fear is a life sentence to an unfathomably miserable existence, and I wish that on nobody, least of all myself.

It’s a windy morning and the pool is unusually cold. As my head bobs above and underwater, I observe how different things look when separated by a mere surface. Coming up for air, I see swaying palm trees and empty lounge chairs; my neighbors are at work or inside their homes, domestic helpers are hanging the laundry or walking the dogs, and the maintenance staff are cutting grass or planting new hedges. But as I dip my head back in, there is only blue water and square tiles.

Pulling and gliding away in my solitary universe of water, I wonder if the seemingly disparate worlds above and beneath the surface are all that different. In or out of the pool, aren’t we all going through the motions and numbing ourselves with a daily routine to avoid having to think about how to answer the myriad probably-nothing-but-maybe-something questions that would flood our consciousness the second we stopped to be alone with our thoughts? Don’t we all do laps back and forth in our little lagoons of life, thinking we’re getting somewhere but really just bobbing between the respective realities above and underwater? Sometimes it’s bustling with life and activity, and other times, it’s just colder, blue-er and calmer.

It’s been 25 minutes and I decide that’s all the time I need for the day/week/however long until my next swim. I climb out and hurriedly pull on my bathrobe, shivering slightly from the drafty morning air. But as I remove my hair-tie to towel my hair dry, it slips from my grip and splashes back into the pool with a tiny ripple. I watch it sink to the bottom, wondering for a moment if I want to venture back in and retrieve it, but something catches my eye. The reflection of the sky and the feathery white clouds overhead.

In the end, I wade back in to grab my hair-tie, but this little ‘interruption’ has caused a thought to form at the back of my mind. There’s the world underwater, and the one immediately above, but there’s also the surface—and maybe that deserves more attention than we pay it.

Perhaps the water surface is holding up a mirror to life. Today’s gusty winds have allowed me to see in the pool’s reflection fragmented and faceted slivers of the sky. Its appearance is rippled and somewhat unclear, but by God, isn’t it beautiful?