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.