I watched a documentary called ‘After So Many Days’ yesterday about a little-known husband and wife musical duo called Jim and Sam who embarked on an adventure to play a show a day for a year and how that tested their resolve as a band and as a couple.
I found many aspects of this film moving and affecting at quite a fundamental level. The scene where Jim declared them the ‘Unluckiest Band in the World’ after their highly anticipated but failed SXSW show and started reading out a list of imaginary emails from publications and shows that they wished had invited them for interviews and meetings was painful to watch. Only because I absolutely know what that feels like. I’ve been at that end of that barrel before. Anyone that has every tried to bring their art into a public space knows what that feels like.
Jim and Sam’s adventure, while looking like magnificent copy on paper, was of course, anything but. There were shows that were cancelled cause of weather, shows where they had to just pitch up and play literally anywhere (pizza parlors, salons, barber shops, liquor stores, etc) cause there were no official shows on those days and shows where they had so much hope for which crashed and burned.
Yet, I can’t but feel that at the end of such an arduous year that most people would call pointless (they may have gathered a few new fans along the way but their Instagram followers numbers suggests that they may not have blown up the way they were hoping to) , that the most valuable thing that they have are the memories of that adventure together and that is something that will remain special when the lights are dimmed and the curtains are slowly drawn on their lives.
Sure, experiences like in the Northeast in that mussels restaurant on day 55 was probably painful to endure. No musician enjoys seeing their art being ignored on the account of shellfish. But there was also that wonderful experience of singing at that convenience store on day 110 to a bunch of people who appreciated their music. That show on day 224 in the UK where because Sam was bedridden from stomach flu, they invited some neighbors over and sang a song to them while she was in bed. That spontaneous song they played on day 258 in a bakery in honor of Jim’s aunt who passed away that day. That show in Poland on day 332 where they played to an appreciative crowd and the owner made them fish after the show. That song they sang to two appreciative Starbucks drive-thru staff in the States. Or that show on day 204 playing to a herd of cows in Sweden. Yes, even that half a song they played to that delivery guy in Iceland. The shows in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, etc.
I watch a film like this and it just makes me consider so many things. So many deep feelings about so many things. The life I’ve led. The chances I’ve not taken. The things I could have experienced. I do not envy people who have more things than me in life. People who pursue wealth so they can afford richer food, nicer cars and larger houses. If they are happy with that then it’s great for them. I feel mostly apathy towards people who have more stuff than me.
But I watch an experience like what Jim and Sam just went through in the film and I am seething with envy. Seriously seething. Envy for the fact that they found someone that was equally willing to leave their conventional lives behind momentarily in pursuit of something insane. Envy for how they had the lack of self-consciousness to even attempt an experience as nerve-wrecking as this one. Envy for the fact that for now until the end of their lives, they will always have this amazing adventure that no one will ever be able to take away from them.
There’s been a storm brewing in Christian circles recently, with the recent allegations and unearthing of credible evidence of sexual misconduct by reputable late evangelist/apologist Ravi Zacharias. It’s evidently sad when something like this happens, not the least because of how this would affect his family and the people close to him. Relational redemption is difficult to be sought given he passed away in May last year of cancer.
What is left is probably a lot of questions, anger, emptiness and the remnants of the moral bloodbath that was left behind for everyone to pick up. There are a lot of people I know who have been shaken to the core from these developments. People who have spent countless hours pouring over every word he wrote and spoke.
I have always been wary of ‘hero-worshipping’ Christian personalities and leaders. This is not by any grand design of mine or even a momentary spot of revelation but because of my personal experiences. I’ve seen first-hand the dark rabbit hole that one can spin into if this notion is left unchecked. The church I attended in my youth was led by someone who took advantage of the fact that people looked up to him. He revered in it and manipulated it for his own purposes. The fallout from that was a church divided between people who wanted right to be done and people who refused to see their hero fall. In the ensuing madness, there were voices and hands raised, bibles were thrown and lives that have probably never been the same since.
I mostly wish that I had not gone through those things. They have caused some long-term damage to my perspective on the institution of the church and it’s no fun battling these things while trying to honor God’s word about being a part of his house. A house that if I am honest, I am still sometimes wary of.
Except on days like these. Days like these, I am thankful for that wariness.
Why? Because it keeps me on my feet when a lot of people around me are wobbling. I don’t say this feeling superior. I am just trying to end this life on the right side and there are enough things out there that will cause me not to. I hardly want to start looking for things in my own home.
The moral component is crucial in Christian leadership and it is because of this that I find the concept of hero-worshiping within Christian circles so detrimental. Why? I have come to realise that none of us would pass the test when held to the light. No matter if you are Ravi Zacharias, the pastor of my church or you and me. If you think otherwise then you need to read your Bible again. You may argue that there is a societal difference between caught telling a white lie and being caught with your pants down, but that’s just a bi-product of humans making layers of concessions for things they find increasingly acceptable. God has always been rather simple with these things.
My personal alarm rings when people celebrate that incredible Christian writer, that new talented and charismatic worship leader or that pastor who is leading that dynamic church. This is no fault of these personalities, they are doing what they can and in many cases are called to do.
If there is any fault to apportion, then it would be on you and me who ‘worship’ them.
A ‘god’ is after all given power by the people who worship them. Bad things usually happens when they start believing in that power we’ve given them. It’s the main reason why I am frankly quite uninterested to know who wrote that song we sing in church, who is that new pastor for that exciting church in Australia or who is that new incredible Christian author that all us should read. It’s my tiny bid to try and keep that power away from people who can’t handle it. Yes, most people can’t.
I’ve learned to keep my relationship with God pretty simple. I hear from him through his Word and I speak to him when I pray, and I try to do that every day if I can. All the cultural and fashionable stuff within Christian circles is just not necessary for me. I mostly treat it as being detrimental to me, so I stay far away from them. It’s probably why I try and keep myself low in the food chain in church. I find that it is easier and more meaningful for me to be accountable to people I work with everyday in my cell, people who are entrenched in my life. There is that girl who helped coordinate our wedding and that boy who I journeyed with through a horrible relationship. None of them are faceless. There is a danger, at least for me, when they become faceless.
While I am generally happy to sing the songs that are presented to me in church, when I really want to hear a good songwriter, I pick up a Bruce Springsteen record instead. Why? Well, he’s a better songwriter than most and it hardly registers for me when he is caught doing something improper like that DWI recently. Mainly because he never said he was beyond these things and moral integrity is not exactly part of his job description. Now, endorsing a line of rugged luxury cars in that silly Superbowl ad when he constantly sang about being a working class man, that I took issue with. But I’ve since forgiven him, cause he wrote ‘Thunder Road’.
And yes, I do respect the office of leadership in Christian circles. I have not reduced it to a tadpole. But I have worked hard to separate between the office and the man. I always revere the office and what it does and stands for, but I am quite uninterested in the man in most cases. Just as long as he walks the talk, he has my vote. And if he/she was someone who was truly doing everything they do because of God, then they should be happy to have someone like me on their side. At least, they would be in an ideal world.
I was asked recently how I feel about what has happened and how it has affected me. It would be untrue if I said I didn’t feel anything at all but it would be the same feeling I have if someone told me that a pastor of a small church in Klang has been caught with sexual misconduct. I hardly bat an eyelid when Christian personalities ‘fall’, not because I expect them to, but because I always reserve some subconscious notion that everyone, and I mean everyone, has the possibility to. At the same time, I do feel sad for anyone close to him who was caught by the wayside because of what has happened. The same way me and family were when it happened to us.
These things shouldn’t happen, but they unfortunately do.
I was asked by my wife last night what my hope was for 2021.
I gave the usual answer with a side of ‘peace on earth, mercy mild and God and sinners reconcile’. Rather telling was that nowhere in my succinct list was there a hope for things to go back to what they were.
Buried deep in my heart, I’ve not been very eager for things to go back to what they were.
Of course I say this without any prejudice towards people who have struggled financially through this pandemic or people who have had loved ones taken by it. I have nothing but respect for you who have soldiered through 2020 under those circumstances.
It’s unfortunate that it took a ravaging pandemic for humanity to take stock of its decisions and to just stop where it was heading. My deep wish was that it was a white paper by a very smart person, a rallying call by the leaders of the world or heck, a song by Bruce Springsteen. Instead it took a pandemic.
As I sit here typing this, I just witnessed a well-dressed man trying to enter a building, without a mask, confidently walking in and gesturing to the guard that he’s just heading up a floor and he should be allowed an exception. He was subsequently pulled back and told that he needed to check-in, get his temperature taken and was asked to put on his mask just like everyone else behind him. Turns out he did not have a mask with him. He was denied entry and was told to head to a store across the road to buy one. He stepped out and just stood there for a few minutes. Occasionally shuffling around his pockets, looked back at the door, wrestled with his ego a little before walking across the road to get himself a mask.
It felt a fitting analogy to the minute good that the pandemic has had on society. For too long the agenda of humanity has been organised not by severity, but by class. And while inequality continues to exist in any civilised society driven by capitalism, there is a slight warmth that comes from having the entitled among us reined in a little. It seems almost poetic justice that it should come in the form of the one thing that levels the playing field for all of us – our impending mortality. I guess it has to be that for everyone to take notice of it. This was not a ‘poor person’s problem’. It was a disease that crept into the highest halls of society and government.
For too long we’ve been a society that ignores the plights of the marginalised, underappreciated the ones who worked unseen to keep the pillars of our lifestyles in place and rewarded the people who continue to sink us deeper into our mire. Something desperately needed to change.
Again, I stress that I am saddened that it took the lives of millions.
I guess we had gone so far into self-destruction, it required something equally devastating to stop us.
‘There was no party, there were no songs ‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started No one has left here that knows his first name And life barrels on like a runaway train Where the passengers change They don’t change anything You get off; someone else can get on …’ – Ben Folds
I’ve been thinking a lot about death.
I know, it’s hardly the appropriate tidings for the season but it is what it is. Don’t get me wrong, I also in equal measure enjoy staring at our lovely Christmas tree and recently, watching ‘Love Actually’ as the token yuletide movie of the year. So it’s not like I am growing moldy sitting alone at home on a wing chair in the dark. But at the same time I have also been thinking about death, a lot. I see it even in songs that are really not about death (The Ben Folds song above is about someone being laid off).
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the precise moment when it happens and how that would feel like.
As a Christian, I’ve been conditioned since young to focus on what happens after that moment. The bright light, the rejoicing, the yellow brick road and Oz. Just kidding. Jokes aside, I do fundamentally believe in the moment after of course. You can’t exactly subscribe to only a portion of what you consider the truth. But it won’t stop me considering the flip-side to that which is just a big well, nothing. No big party. No bright lights. Just, nothing. The cliché often employed is that it’s like going to sleep but not waking up.
I must confess at certain points of my existence that has sounded somewhat, comforting. Lately it hasn’t been though. I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘nothing’ feels like. Yes, it feels like nothing, of course. But that just seems so stark, so brutal. That the amount of energy and force-of-will that it takes for us to go through life is just snuffed out in an instant and there is just, nothing.
If I am being honest it feels a little lonely. Not that you would be conscious of that when it happens because you are just in that big nothing, but that’s my sentiment on how the nothing would feel like.
In this age of almost unmitigated popular culture saturation, one can become a little desensitised about death and to be fair, for a long time, I was. But lately, I’ve been processing every death I read about or even see on screen. I consider what it would’ve felt like for them at the point of death and how it would’ve felt like if they had indeed stepped into the huge nothing. Even reading about people who have long gone sparks bouts of rumination. Like how I recently read about the making of Bowie’s 1971 record ‘Hunky Dory’ and I started thinking about how it’s been already four-years since he’s died and how he would never been experiencing new things anymore, new sounds and new words and everything with him has just come to a grinding halt. And this is a man who literally rewrote the rules of rock music. What more me, some random guy living in Kuchai Lama?
“Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” – from TV show The Good Place.
I write all this in the expectation that weeks from now, I won’t remember that I wrote a single one of these words. That like most existential crises, it just fades away to the background because something else just becomes louder. That quote from The Good Place sums it up nicely. That the very concept that our expiry clock starts on the day we are born should be enough to render us unwilling to do anything and just give up altogether. But humans are resilient and we just get on with it, by minimising this dark inevitability into the background of our lives and to just kick this bucket decades down the road and occupy ourselves with things that gives us meaning and happiness today. If you think about it, life is just a series of distraction tactics.
I am also cognisant of the fact that I appear to be writing all this rather atheistically. Like I personally believe there is just a huge nothing after we die. But that’s not what I believe. I believe there is something more awaiting us at the other side.
I was having a conversation recently with a friend and she raised a point about whether she was doing enough with her life, given many people have earned millions by the time they were her age. It’s a logical thread of thought. The human disposition, and in many ways, its sickness is often that it feels it doesn’t have enough and as such, should pursuit more. We quickly concluded that we are just people that don’t love money and success enough to give up just about anything in pursuit of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the little comforts that money brings. Like having a stable roof over my head with air-conditioning (my wife still doesn’t believe I was born in Iceland and dragged forcefully into a tropical hell but the truth will always remain the truth), having a spacious couch and a TV in front of it, taking my wife out to a dinner she deserves on occasion, having the ability to buy a vinyl I really want on some months, rewarding myself with a decent cup of coffee when I feel like it and buying a slightly more expensive book that I really want to read, off BBW season. I do enjoy these things.
Except personally, I really don’t need much more beyond these things.
I still drive my 11-year old Toyota even though we can probably afford a nicer car. The day I change it would be because it can no longer practically fulfill its function for me, and not because I want to drive a newer, sexier car. I have no desire to buy more expensive music equipment. I still play my trusty Peavey because I’ve always managed to make it sound right to me. I could upgrade my sound setup at home to something slicker but the hand-me-downs I have now works just fine so why change it? The clincher of it all is that lately, the chorus of ‘let’s change our TV to something nicer’ has been coming more from my wife’s end than mine, the supposed ‘TV addict’.
We did spend on traveling. We did it because we agreed very early on that if we were going to spend on anything, it would be on experiences. Things that enrich our lives in a way shinier possessions could not. For the rest of our lives, me and her will always have that drive we took on the Northcoast 500 in the highlands of Scotland with Mazzy Star playing on the car stereo back in 2018. No one can ever take that away from us and it most certainly won’t end up in a landfill.
I’ve always seen traveling as a privilege anyway, and not a right. I am grateful for everything I experienced but if I experience nothing else for the rest of my life, it’s fine. A person with an upbringing like mine was not supposed to be able to walk the beaches of Paros. At some point, I might’ve accessed a cheat code and honestly, I am just glad I managed to get away with it.
I’ve always felt like this – that money has no hold on me beyond the basic comforts I require. Except for the longest time, I had not enough of it. I was labelled by someone once close to me that I was calculative when it comes to money. It’s quite hard not to be when you are splitting pennies. I wasn’t doing it because I loved it so much that I was not willing to part with it. I was doing it because I was trying to ensure I have enough.
These days, I am firstly thankful that I have enough. This is important to me and I take not a day of it for granted. Which is why I tell my wife that I hate it when we waste food unnecessarily because I don’t want to forget the days when my family had not enough of it. How I almost never buy clothes that are above a certain price, no matter how much I like or can afford it. How I almost always eat at the same ‘Yong Tau Foo’ place near my home when I am having dinner on my own. And I actually do still get the tingles at the prospect of eating baked beans and luncheon meat with rice (it’s the best). Some of these things I do instinctively, some of it I do intentionally; to remind myself that while I am thankful for where I’ve ended up, I am also grateful for where I came from. I don’t ever want to turn soft from comfort and become ungrateful and entitled.
Yes, on most days, I am thankful I have enough. And on some days, I am thankful that because I do, I can confidently say now that money really has little hold on me.
There is a deep comfort that comes from knowing that.
“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to. You need to settle down a little.” – Alma, Phantom Thread (2017)
The line above rounded off a gorgeously-affecting movie with a drop of cough mixture, leaving us with taste, perhaps a little too bitter in the mouth. It was a cunning sleigh of hand, a slap from your blind side. For the length of film, you were working on the pretense that what we would see unfold is love eventually warming the oddest of hearts, and you would be forgiven in thinking that was what you got in the end, but what we got was really not a tale about love.
It was a tale about addiction.
That Alma was willing to accept Reynolds in whatever shape, form or posture, just as long he was present and that Reynolds was essentially willing to subject himself to whatever contortion just to have her continue to be around, reeks of something a lot more nefarious than love should be. I consider myself to be fairly open to rather leftist iterations of what love could look like but this really does not look like love. It looks more like addiction.
Which then set me off on a lengthy thought process about how it would look like to be addicted to someone. I mean it’s certainly plausible, since Robert Palmer had a hit about it back in 1985. Then again he sang about being addicted to love, which may be slightly different from being addicted to someone. Okay, overthinking again. In any case, it’s irrelevant (the plausibility of the Robert Palmer song’s contents), given that I am someone who recovered from being addicted to someone. So it does happen.
It’s ironic because having someone be ‘addicted’ to you may be a prose that can be celebrated by selected public as an acceptable expression of love. To some it is the promise land – to have someone be helplessly fawning over you.
But yet the dysfunctionality presents itself in its byproduct. You would be hard pressed to defend the idea that an addict is simply someone who loves his drugs too much. It’s a little more sinister than that. So to equate that to love seems a little too radical even for someone who is more fluid with these things.
So if you are someone who enjoys the idea of someone potentially being addicted to you, then you are not behaving like a lover, but like a drug. You put yourself out there and hope that someone gets hooked-in, line and sinker. You may think what you’ve reeled in is a lover, but what you’ve caught is really an addict.
The dysfunctional relationships and friendships I’ve had in my life have always looked a lot like addiction. I may have tried to label them as a severely sacrificial form of love but in hindsight, they actually looked a lot more like an addiction – the drug being the person you are addicted to.
I’ve since considered the symptoms I was showing at the time when I was in those dysfunctional relationships; the abandonment of logic and principle, alienating friends and loved ones; a constant need for the person to be around; severe anxiety when there are signs that I can no longer be with the person; mounting financial problems driven by the need to service the addiction; severe rationalization of situation no matter how obvious that things were not going well, etc. I could go on.
Like an addict, you are quite powerless to stop yourself from being addicted. People have asked me why I subjected myself to those relationships and friendships? Why couldn’t I see how destructive they were? Why did I allow myself to be hung so far out to dry? Why did I behave with so little dignity?
To be honest, the answer is I don’t know.
It does look really cloudy on the inside. There is some awareness that things are not well but you fear even entertaining the thought of not having your drug anymore. So you hold on with all your might and hope the drug doesn’t destroy you too much and that people around you do not notice how it is changing you, killing you.
I have at times described this addiction as a kind of imbalance. I can see it quite clearly in some relationships and friendships, even today. I suppose an ex-addict will always be able to spot another addict. What does it look like? To put it simply, it looks a lot like one party having a lot more dependency on the other. Like how an addict is completely vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the drug they are addicted to and is willing to do just about anything to ensure they don’t ever lose it. I see it in their body language as a couple, I see it in the words they use, I see it in the decisions that are made.
And it still scares the daylights out of me when I see it today, even in others.
I sometimes do worry if that addiction has damaged me irreparably. But then, I am also comforted by the realisation that this worry keeps me on the edge, so I can ensure that I never fall into it ever again. The important thing I’ve realised from my addiction is that the drug is merely just a manifestation of what I desired. If it’s not that person, it would’ve been someone else. They became the drug because I desired to be an addict. I desired to be an addict because I was broken inside.
Contrary to what the hits tell you, love is not blind, love doesn’t have to bite, love doesn’t make you lost and love doesn’t make you lose yourself.
You can never get enough of what you don’t really want
from Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
Me and the wife sat down and watched a good documentary film yesterday about, well, ‘the important things’, according to its title. The film is essentially a statement of how uncontrolled consumerism has been ruining our lives. It doesn’t really say anything we have not already considered but it managed to say it in a way that compelled. And tuck between the many quotable statement by the many people who were featured in it was the quote above, and it has sufficiently lodged itself into my head since.
Throughout this pandemic, I have started and ended many days, glued to the screen, consuming the news on what is happening around the world. One of the rhetoric that keeps recurring in discussions between world leaders and experts in their various fields is the concern on when people can start ‘resuming’ their lives.
Everyone is so preoccupied in wanting to ‘resume’ their lives that no one has bothered asking if we should. And I am not talking about a longer MCO. Perhaps if there is anything we should be learning from this crisis or should learn at its eventual conclusion is that life most certainly should not resume as it was before this happened. That we should take this as a harsh, harsh lesson on how we should rethink the way we’ve lived our lives. If we have taken some moment to look beyond the just fact that this crisis has severely interrupted the routines of our existence and beyond to what its larger implications have been, we would have started asking ourselves some very difficult self-admonishing questions about the way we’ve gone about things as a species before all this happened. This pandemic has in one or two deadly swoops, essentially decimated our way of living, one we’ve spent hundreds of years constructing. This disease respects no one you respect, and loves no one you love. It takes who it wants to, no matter if you are the most powerful man in your company and home, or if you’re living on the fringes of poverty. And in just a matter of months it has in essence managed to make humanity do something it probably hasn’t in thousands of years. To stop. To halt progress.
It’s tragic to think that it has taken an awful virus that squeezes your lungs and literally chokes the last breaths out of you, to get us to stop. Yet what have we been preoccupied by in this moment of halt? Resumption, to continue the journey we were on before. Instead perhaps what we should be doing is to ‘reflect’. To start asking ourselves questions progress has distracted us from asking. Was the journey we were on really that great? Was the journey we were on making us happy? Or have we at some point in the last few hundred years, completely and utterly lost the plot?
In the learning and development industry, there is a concept of how we should chunk out our development time called ’70-20-10′. It refers to the percentage of time we should spend on different areas of development. Have we similiarly started asking ourselves how we’ve chunked out what and where we spend our time on in the routines of our lives?
Have we started asking ourselves what and who we should value in our lives? That we sometimes prefer to spend more time with people who really wouldn’t matter after we submit a resignation letter, over the people who will be there beside you at your deathbed at the end of our existence. That the only reason why this happens is because we have a new car to pay for or an ego that needs servicing through stature in society?
Have churches and institutions of worship started asking itself how things should be different in the future? That churches should perhaps look different than how it did before? Less foundations and mascara and more ‘the bits in between the teeth’ because that is where the people are truly suffering. I love seeing the church going back community work as being its main agenda. It’s not that the church has stopped doing it before, but we can argue that it has not been its main agenda for a while now. One only needs to take a look at where it spends most of its time to truly know what matters to it.
That when there are no sharp suits for cameras to trail on or no fancy imagery to dazzle our senses that perhaps that is when one can properly question themselves what truly is their relationship with God all about? That when the routines of worship are taken apart, reconstituted and smashed that it is an opportunity for people to truly ask themselves the sobering questions they’ve been distracted from asking themselves all this while?
Have we as a society asked ourselves what we truly value? Because talks is cheap. I have read hundreds of tributes from people towards those of us who are working in the front lines – the nurses and caregivers, the people sorting out the fresh produces you buy, the cashier at your grocery store, the people who deliver your lunch to your doorstep. That in this time of crisis, these are our heroes, the people who are keeping society from collapsing altogether. Matthew 6:1 in the Bible says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Have we started taking a long and hard look at how, in the future, we can appreciate the important roles these front liners play for our society more by not having them be constantly struggling at the fringes of society but to put our ‘treasure’ towards where all our hearts are at the moment, which is alongside wherever they are, risking their lives for us. Let’s not forget that when life ‘resumes’.
Actually, instead of striving to ‘resume’ our life, we should instead be striving to ‘restart’ it, from zero. Or perhaps to ‘reboot’ it. Anything but just simply resuming it to what it was before, because that would be the tragedy that follows the first, that despite paying for it with the lives of people we loved that we did nothing with the time and instead went back to exactly what we had before. And that we learned nothing from it all.
The truth is, whether we like it or not, life won’t be the same anymore for a lot of us for some time. We will be forced to rethink the constituents of our existence and how we go about it no matter what. We can spend that time kicking against that notion or we can use it as an opportunity to reflect on how it can be different.
Perhaps we should start thinking about what we don’t want anymore in our existence, in our society and to not chase those things anymore. To be different from here onward.
I’ll end my thoughts here with a quote from a book (‘Everything that Remains’ by The Minimalists) that was featured in the film.
“I’d been running in one direction as fast as I could, chasing this abstract thing called happiness, but I’d been running the wrong way. I was sprinting east looking for a sunset, when all I really had to do was turn around and walk—not run, just walk—in the other direction.”
I find myself growing more apathetic by the mechanisms of a large church.
There is a certain force and will that is required to move machination that is that large and complex no doubt and I would dare not suggest inadequate salutations for people who see it as their role in the tapestry of humanity to do it.
But I care quite little for it.
As I say this I am also keenly aware that those same people probably care very little what I have to say about the matter and that is not something I begrudge. In fact I quite welcome it. I have always found it ‘warmer’ (that would be the sentiment) to find a corner in any mechanism and try to grow something from there. Away from looming, interested eyes. Whether that growth is noticed or not by the commanders of the ship is not something I concern myself with, just as long as they allow me that corner without bother.
The concept of a ‘congregation’ has at its worst, frightened me, and at the very least, produced a kind of apathy. It’s like being invited to a stag party where the only person you know is the groom. There is a reason why you are there, but it’s never any fun to be honest.
I’ve always seen my faith as a relationship, and as far as I know, a meaningful relationship is always between two people. To suggest that the meaning of this relationship is somehow interlinked with the concept of congregating with a group of people I know mostly in degrees between ‘acquaintance’ to ‘stranger’ has always produced more questions than answers.
I have always asked God that is it absolutely necessary for me to be at church to be a ‘Christian’? He has never answered that question in a complete sentence to me. I do see his answer in patches. The most clear being the cell group I am a part of that has grown in a far corner of this mechanism. That this group of people would not have existed without the machinations of a large church is what keeps me coming back to its hulking cogs.
I have mostly welcomed this season of isolation. I am not unmoved nor undisturbed by the horror that continues to envelop the world but I have found some solace in the midst of the chaos. One being that I can have the programs I am required to be a part of without most of the people whom, if I have to be honest, I care very little for and they care very little for me as well. I am able to distill it mostly down to the people I care about, namely my wife, some friends and my cell members. It’s like I am suddenly able to bespoke the whole machinery into just the parts that I love.
I would be a little deluded if I did not admit that it’s something I’ve loved.
I once scoffed when a friend told me that the reason why her brother broke up with his girlfriend was because, ‘she felt too good for him’.
I scoffed for two reasons. The obvious being that it sounded like a blatant cop-out. The kiss before the punch. ‘No longer attracted to you anymore’ or ‘I’ve fallen for another person’ not cutting the mustard for his nice-guy image perhaps? It’s like the choice between shooting someone cleanly in the head and ending their misery in a split-second or elaborately trying to hang them on a noose and watching the life drain slowly from their eyes. Assuming you really needed to end someone’s life, I don’t think I need to point out to you which is the better option.
The second reason I scoffed was that it felt like he was pissing on my meal. A large portion of society are trying to get to a point where they are happy. Or at the very least, happier than where they are at the moment. Some of these people do not know the first thing about where to start getting there. And here comes my friend’s brother who found the door, but decided to slam it shut cause it looked too inviting.
Sure, in longer hindsight I can recognise that my prejudice grossly oversimplifies the idea of happiness and just how difficult it can sometimes be to allow yourself to be happy when it finally arrives at your doorstep.
I am at a place where a decade ago, I would define as being ‘where I wanted to go’. I got the girl, I got a home and I have a job that I do not hate. I have enough time to catch up on my TV to unwind on some weekdays and to serve the community at my church on most Wednesdays and some weekends. I am no longer the Arthur Fleck-type character that can’t seem to pull his life together no matter how hard he tried. After 42-years of existing, I may be finally be coming to something resembling equilibrium in my life. Took a while, but I finally got here.
But yet, I have this almost subconscious compulsion to find something to be unhappy about even when things are going splendid. Perhaps there are those of us that are built with a little more complex parts. Parts that are too intricate so there are more opportunities for the machinery to break down. At least, that is what I say to console myself.
‘You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.’
Jin Lee, Columbus (2017)
I’ve been thinking about this quote that zipped almost pass me in the gorgeous sleeper drama Columbus that I watched recently. It’s one of those films that appears to be about nothing, but is really about everything.
I love films like that sometimes, beyond the smash-grab kaiju films that mostly fill me with glee. Films that can draw you into their solitude somehow by draining all excesses of entertainment, until all that is left is just an emptiness that almost reflects the pockets within the major events of our lives, films like that intrigue and attract me. I almost always feel the same after the credits roll on them. I would like to know more about what happened to the characters. Did they get to where they needed to go? You almost always don’t. And from that minor feeling of frustration and cluelessness, births a kind of fictional loneliness in the heart that I am somehow attracted to.
I sometimes think I have a sordid love affair with loneliness. I know it is wrong, but I can’t help it. I keep retreating back to that place of despair, like a dog that voluntarily walks back into a small cage, even though they’ve been set free from it, I’ve been conditioned by a kind of loneliness throughout my life and I feel the need to sometimes retreat back there when the lights are the brightest, to hold its hand occasionally just to be sure that it’s cold, unloving comfort is still there if I need it.
Perhaps my unconscious need to feel this loneliness occasionally mirrors my choice of films. That for every loud, banging blockbuster I watch, I seem to need to dial it all down back into a tiny little arty movie about two unrelated people who meet in a gorgeous charming town and find some solidarity in their respective solitude. Perhaps it is a bid to balance out the diet, with films as is with life. That only in constantly reminding ourselves of unhappiness that we can truly appreciate happiness. Again, this sounds like something I would say to make myself feel better about not feeling better. There is a special kind of insanity that I feel sometimes, being in this body, straddled with this mind.
You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.
Perhaps the trick is to think of this nothing, as something.
Actually, I probably think a lot more about my
travels after it’s done compared to when I am actually on it. Which
probably makes sense given I am generally more reflective in nature.
That’s not to say I am an imbecile during my travels.
The obvious subtexts can still scream out at me, but for the most part I
try and enjoy thing as they unfold. It’s only when I gird myself for a
flight home, suffer banal airplane food, drag my luggage to a waiting
car, endure a car ride that’s usually more
frantic than I want it to be, unlock the doors to my home, turn on the
air-conditioner, have my first local meal sometime in the next couple of
hours, and look at the pictures many times over the next few days, that
things start to sink in and I start to think
about the trip.
A lot of what I’ve been thinking about this trip
concerns a specific occurrence that happened during my time in the
mountainous town of Heiligenblut, more or less in the middle of our
trip. I had made my way up to higher ground with my
father-in-law (FIL) to grab a picture of The Church of St Vincent at
dusk, which is really the centerpiece of this otherwise quiet
mountaintop town. We were on the way back to the town center to
rendezvous with our respective wives when I saw the thing that
has stuck in my mind so vividly since. No, it wasn’t a portly man
crossing the street, naked, except for a pair of boots, in freezing
weather, although that would be pretty hard to scald out of your mind as
well. It was an aged gentleman, with a bottle of
milk in hand, coming out of the only supermarket in town, walking up an
open staircase just next to it, opening the door to his home, which is
stacked rustically on top of the market against a hill, and going in.
What? No nudity? Hamsters spontaneously combusting?
A dog peeing while doing cartwheels? Just a man with a bottle of milk
heading back to his home? You’re out of your mind joe. No I am not. Hear
me out. I can’t profess to have travelled
extensively so whatever I say in regards to this, you’ve got to adjust
it a little against the ‘talking out of your butt’ scale. So yeah, I’ve
not travelled a lot, but I have travelled quite a bit in the last
two-three years. At no point in any of our travels,
did I look at the life the people had in those countries and wished
that I had it too. Not even when we were high up in the quite magical
town of Kilmuir, surrounded by sea with the clouds just slightly above
us, did I feel this. Not even when we were walking
along the almost-unimaginably beautiful beaches of Paros did I feel
this too. I definitely did not feel it in the cosmopolitan cities of
London, Edinburgh and Athens as well. Don’t even get me started about
Australia. There was an itch in Bangkok, but it did
not amount to much.
But up there, looking at him, I was boiling green
with envy. Why? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just the combination
of the very pleasant weather, the small town infrastructures of
Heiligenblut (The town center was basically just
a single street with one market, and one bank), the view that was right
there in front of his home, how completely stress-free he looked. I
tried to reserve a small percentage that the man I saw was just a
tourist renting the place for the night or maybe a
terribly unhappy man inside but it was no use. Someone had to live,
somewhere in this town right? Jealousy justified then.
I wanted what he had. Being born here (Taking
massive liberties now), in this gorgeous town that just purrs in autumn
but looks like Santa’s holiday home during Christmas from the snow and
the simple but beautiful life that he was given
no choice on. Yes, perhaps we always want what we don’t have and
secretly inside he may be wishing that he has made it a corporate banker
somewhere in warm and stressful Southeast Asia and we could just trade
roles but I am going to fashion a guess and say,
no. He doesn’t envy my life, but I envied his terribly.
Nature has a way of righting the wrongs of men. If our exposure to Austrian civilization thus far (Salzburg) had left us cold (literally) in regards to the people in this country, then this seem to become better the further we venture into the wilderness. Thematically it felt like a similar point to the one I made about Greek towns and how they look more beautiful the closer they are to the sea, almost like they are nourished by it. It’s the same thing with Austrian people and the woods – they seem happier and friendlier the further we ventured away from a city. It’s almost as if men become less pre-occupied with oneself when they retreat to basics. Okay that’s stating the obvious. I guess removing oneself from the usual tropes, expectations and stress that come from trying to live and succeed in a dusty, loud and obnoxious city can allow someone to focus on other things, like being a decent human being. Heiligenblut represented the furthest into the Austrian woods we ventured into but before we got there we managed to spend two days exploring the region of Tirol, namely Hall and Innsbruck.
In the list of ‘places we could do without if we
ever came back to Austria’ (basically a useless list), Innsbruck hangs
pretty high up there. It has neither the cultural richness nor medieval
vibe of Salzburg and not enough of pizzazz to
be Vienna. The selling point that it is a ‘city surrounded by
mountains’ becomes moot when part of your program involves driving and
hiking up said mountains and generally being surrounded by them a lot.
Innsbruck felt a little like an Australian city to me.
Yes I am aware I was in Central Europe and not somewhere in between the
Indian and Pacific Oceans despite their similar names. It was a
pleasant city, with wide roads, brisk wind and pretty architecture.
Shops were arranged neatly in designated blocks that
were obviously calculatedly-painted in various colors. But it lacked
character and it ranked really low in the possibilities scale (For more
info on what that is, go here), with buildings neatly arranged in grids
so you can see the block you’re walking on
is clearly going to be boring. The chances of you being pleasantly
surprised by a store felt rather unlikely when you can see that the next
large block consists of basically just a Spar.
Hall on the other hand, cares little for trying to
be anything but itself. The town center in Hall feels like a place out
of time. In a tribute to the randomness of my mind, I find myself
thinking about that scene in that kitschy
Master of the Universe movie in the 80s starring Dolph Lundgren
where a portion of the city was transported back to Eternia because of
some cosmic key. Wasn’t Courtney Cox in it? She looked really fetching.
Wasn’t Skeletor basically just a man behind
a skull mask? There was also being that looked a little like a Troll.
Yeah, the ones on a keychain. What, the movie has a RT rating of 17%?
Come on, that’s harsh. Oh thank God it just about shaves it against that
awful Gerard Butler romantic comedy. Man, Gerard
Butler has been in some seriously awful films, except 300 that
is. That I enjoyed. Hey wait, that scene where he kicked the emissary
into the large hole, who actually has to go down there to clean the hole
of bodies? Are there steps to go down? I don’t
remember seeing any. Maybe they are lowered down.
Oh sorry, got seriously distracted there. Hall yes a city that was out of synch with time. Yes it was like that scene in that He-Man movie because its town center felt so old and medieval, which is quite displaced from the more modern surroundings you have to pass through to get into it. But it’s precisely this jagged edge to its geographical existence that makes Hall endearing. It’s akin to that friendly uncle you have that has become so unfashionable that he doesn’t even try anymore. Hall felt like that. It seems neither interested to be gradually more modern like its outer fringes, or to fully embrace its medieval-ness enough to make it relevant to modern times. Instead it sits somewhere in between – generally unbothered with what everyone else has to offer, comfortable in what it is. Flower shops stood beside pizza parlors and bookstores in a un-curated manner, all geared towards serving the locals rather than tourists. I do generally prefer towns that appear more concerned with serving its locals rather than pandering to tourists. I’ve always preferred a more immersive travel experience and I am not able to do that if the town/city I am visiting insists on treating me like a vacationer.
I had put off eating a Wiener Schnitzel up till
this point. Seeing it as the closing cut at the end of an encore, the
epic orchestral finale to a concept album. I need it to be perfect. My
resilience wore at Hall. Why? No idea. Probably
a combination of early morning driving, hunger and the friendly
waitress in a milkmaid dress at the restaurant in Hotel Goldener Engl.
Actually it may be because they had a veal one on the menu. It’s
normally pork. It was nice. Fluffy, breaded flattened veal
deep fried and served with potatoes and elderberry jam. It was nice,
but hardly world-altering. My mind drifts back to something my wife said
while we were on a short break in Bangkok earlier in the year, in
reference to a stir fried cabbage dish in the restaurant
Supanigga (I know, a rather unfortunate name), ‘How nice can a cabbage
dish be?’ Nevertheless we went with the majority, given that everyone in
the restaurant had that dish on their table. It was seriously awesome.
So I would transplant that same thought here,
‘How nice can a piece of deep-fried breaded veal’ be?’ Or to weave in a
more Malaysian-centric version of the same thought, “How nice can a
veal version of a Chicken Maryland’ be? The answer is nice, but far from
awesome. It was no Thai-style cabbage. That
saying it was decent enough for me to eat it a few times more for the
remainder of the trip. But what I thought would be the epic finale to a
widescreen concept album turned out to just be a catchier pop cut in the
middle of an unlistenable album. Appreciated,
but was never going to make the album good.
The thematic and literal high-point of the trip was
our drive up to the summit of Edelweißspitze. Well not exactly the
drive-per se because I was the driver so all I was focused on was for
our Jeep not to be a large orange dot falling from
a height to people at a distance. I have spoken before about how the
Caldera view in Santorini at times appeared so large that it feels
impossible for our eyes to take it all in at a glance. The feeling is
the same at many points during our summit up the High
Alpine Road. The trees looked more imposing here, threatening to reach
towards the heavens, the mountains standing tall like a threatening
monolith designed to suffocate your point of view and the river valleys
seemed so far away down that it feels no longer
real nor tangible. Nature of this sort heals the soul in a way.
Suddenly, you no longer feel like the most important thing in the world.
All self-centeredness recedes because you discover that there things
out there that are put in this world to make your
life’s narrative feel so insignificant. All the pressures of modern
life, the intoxication we feed ourselves to survive it, the arguments we
start and end to endure the people in it – it all just fades away in
one fell swoop and you’re for a moment, rewound
back to a vanilla state and you start gaining some perspective on your
existence again. I love that feeling. It doesn’t last of course. But to
feel it even for a moment, once in a while, is rather nice.
If Edelweißspitze brought us up to the clouds, then our next destination Hallstatt ensured that we fell back down to earth with a loud thud. In my recent travels, I have quite often encountered nature of staggering beauty in loggerheads with the tourism industry around it that aims to earn a buck out of it. And in most of those encounters, while the industry is mostly off-putting, in all instances it has largely failed to diminish the sheen of nature at its finest. Not quite so in Hallstatt.
The charm of Hallstatt is probably still somewhere in there, buried under caked layers of side-street peddlers, touch-and-go travelers and touristy restaurants but not quite enough of it peeks through to remind me of it. Instead the experience I get is a town that’s chiseled and constructed out of a holiday brochure. It has betrayed the spirit and soul of its history to serve its new master – tourism. I find towns and cities like that unappealing. The mental image is likened to to a sound stage for a movie studio. Construct a historical town out of nothing? Sure. Which is tragic because Hallstatt is a town steeped in history. But all that has been defaced by a glossy exterior that leaves a plastic taste to the mouth.
That’s not to say Hallstatt isn’t still beautiful. It clearly is. The sight of swans and sucks waddling in the lake, framed against the mountains and a seducing sunset remains one of the most enduring images of the trip for me. In some strange way, I am glad I experienced it, even more glad that it was only for a night but a place I am certain I would never want to return to again.
I had made it a habit on the trip to rise early to read my book in the morning, mostly outdoors, wherever I was and my most favorite experience doing that was at our accommodation near Hallstatt. The house had a nice backyard garden with a view of the distant mountains. I sat there, some sun radiating the ends of my toes, in relatively freezing temperatures, snuggled under a blanket, reading my book. It was very nice. I have the twinklies now just thinking about it. Many people may remember Mozart’s house or Mirabell Palace but I will always remember these little intimate moments more than the big tourist attractions. I basically travel for them.
People have asked me what I thought of Austria. The
truth is, every time I do, I largely think about the time we spent away
from the city and in the outback regions of the country. I think about
the wonderful hike we had up to Lake Sandersee
in Großglockner. Our scenic walk through the Margaritzen reservoir to
get there. The spicy goulash we had at Panoramarestaurant at Kaiser
Franz-Josefs-Höhe after our hike. All the places we stopped at along the
High Alpine Road to try and take the view in.
A moment at the summit of Untersberg, when I was alone with my camera
with a view of the entire valley in front of me. Trying to take a
picture without gloves at 3 degrees C and watching my hand turn red from
the biting cold (it was fun, really). The night
walk we made from our accommodation in Heiligenblut to our dinner place
15-mins away, through streets lined with homes, dwarfed by the
mountains around them. The wonderful staff together with the two lovely
Bernese Mountain Dogs Ella and Lucy at our accommodation
at Tirol, Gasthof Badl, who gave us the first and probably only proper
warm hospitality we would receive in Austria. In a sense, our trip joy
curve was bell-shaped. It summited at the mid-point of it all before
spiking up again when we hit Budapest.