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?

SWF Afterthoughts: I fell, and then I flew


Once upon a time, there was a girl who went to bed and had the same dream every single night. In it, she sat on a swing in the sky. She had no idea what held the swing aloft, nor what lay beneath her feet and the layers of fluffy white cloud that stood between her and the great unknown. With each swing, she felt an increasing urge to let go of the ropes and take the plunge to find out. But each time her fingers loosened their grip, fear would seize her. What if the world under the clouds was a terrible place, and she could never return to the sky? She’d be ‘safe’ as long as she held on, she reckoned, albeit forever wondering.

One day as she sat swinging and wondering about the world beneath the clouds, she heard a creaking sound. The seat of her swing was giving way and its rope handles were unraveling. Before she knew it, she was diving headfirst into the clouds, and about to find out, once and for all, about that place she’d longed to but never dared visit. The fall was terrifying, and she feared the extreme pain she’d feel from a hard—possibly deadly—landing. All the way down, she kept her eyes tightly shut.

However, she had a sudden thought. Since she was about to die, she might as well catch her first (and last) glimpse of this mysterious new world she’d been so curious about. Better that her final moments be filled with awe and wonder than terror and dread.

But as she began to open her eyes, the girl would be jolted awake from her dream.


During yesterday’s session at Singapore Writers Festival, I finally found out how that dream ends.

The girl didn’t die. In fact, she’d been flying all along—with wings she never knew she had. No longer did she need rope handles to grasp on to, nor whatever it was that kept the swing suspended, and her safe.

As for the world beneath the clouds? It was more beautiful than she could imagine. She’d landed safely, and with her feet planted firmly on the ground, she realized how much prettier the clouds looked from where she stood.

So there she decided to remain. On earth.


Thank you to everyone who came for my storytelling and/or sharing, and those who supported me in your own unique way.

With all my love and gratitude,



This was taken after yesterday’s sharing. I’m here with author and friend, Melanie Lee, and the session moderator Pamela Ho. Both beautiful souls. This is a day I’ll never forget.

The black hole

"Our endings are beginnings" via ParadisiacPicture on

“Our endings are beginnings” via ParadisiacPicture on

When I was young, I was in a such a hurry to grow up. I remember an earnest prayer by the window one afternoon when I was seven, maybe eight. Looking out into the hibiscus hedge growing over my backyard fence, my fingers closed firmly around the window grilles, I said, “God, please make growing up faster. I don’t want to be a kid anymore. Make me a grown up.”

There was definitely some magical thinking behind me focussing so hard at the hibiscus hedge and holding on so tightly to the window grilles, as if by sheer determination I could will anything to happen. Well, maybe something did happen, because from that moment, it seems time went by in ten-year chunks, and little milestones along the way were forgotten, or passed over quickly from memory.

I remember very little of my teen years, and sometimes I don’t want to. I simply went through the motions, never really understanding why I was where I was or doing the things I was doing, except that I had to. There was a distinct sense of disconnect with all that was going on around me, and no real anchor by way of hobbies or pastimes that fulfilled me on a meaningful level.

Then, when my uncle and grandfather passed away in quick succession and I saw my erstwhile strong grandmother lock herself in a perpetual state of grief and basically become inconsolable for the rest of her life, I swear, that was the point where I lost track of time. This period I call the “black hole”, because aside from finishing secondary school, going to junior college, and then entering university, my knowledge of everything else during this time is sketchy. Maybe my closer friends can tell me the sort of person I was then and what I liked doing, but I can’t always connect the dots.

However, what frustrates me the most about the “black hole” is that those memories associated with my grandma around this time are the dimmest. Did we still visit her on weekends? Would she make dinner for us? How was she spending her days? What are some things we talked about? I haven’t the foggiest idea. And why? What was I even doing?

When my grandmother died, she was but shadow of her former self, her body ravaged by old age and her spirit dimmed by years of grief. The demise of this version of grandma I hardly knew was like losing her all over again, but this time permanently. At her funeral, I was asked to deliver an impromptu eulogy, and oddly enough, I found a way to speak with eloquence about an extraordinary woman and her life, of whom a large chunk I’d lost to the “black hole”. I still don’t know how I pulled it off.

Another thing about the year she died. It was 2012, a dramatic year on many counts for me. That February, after a two-year battle with an ED, I resolved to get better; in April, I started writing Tea in Pajamas; three months later, I successfully conceived my second child, only to miscarry six weeks later; and by November, in the midst of shifting into a new apartment, I received the news that grandma was gone.

When the year drew to close, I was understandably relieved and looking forward to a quieter, calmer 2013. But in true dramatic fashion, on grandma’s first death anniversary, Belle was born. Say what you will about life, but there’s no denying (at least in my experience) that it’s equal parts weird and wonderful. Now with each birthday that I celebrate with my daughter, grandma’s memory will live on as an indelible part of our lives.

Now almost three decades since that prayer by the windohw overlooking the hibiscus hedge, I’m more inclined to utter a different sort of prayer. Dear God, please hit the “pause” button so I won’t grow old so fast, I want to say. But that window and hibiscus hedge are long gone (my parents had the old house rebuilt in the late 90s, shortly before the start of the “black hole”), and these days I do most of my praying in the swimming pool anyway (strange but true).

One particular morning, submerged in my little blue cocoon, I thought about the “black hole” again, and something clicked. Up until that point, the subject would typically bring up feelings of frustration and guilt at my inability to recall more about myself or grandma during the time. But that morning, the more I swam,  the quieter the head noises became—and a tiny voice popped to mind: “What does it matter if you can’t remember everything? Maybe love isn’t quantified by the number of memories.”

That morning in the pool, I decided it was time to swim my way out of the black hole.

And so I did.