My darling

Today is the sweet spot. The day between my birthday which was yesterday and my wife’s, which is tomorrow. It being a Friday normally would mean that we would be knee deep in a satisfying meal tonight but as it stands we are not.

Instead we’ve been spending time shuffling between hospital departments, paying for stuff, waking up incrementally throughout the night because of the need to feed, paying for more stuff, out the car, in the car, alarm rings after alarm rings. as Netflix drones on in the background of our confinement centre room, mostly unwatched. This is the new normal, at least for us, at least for now. Why?

Because our baby girl was born last Sunday.

I’ve always been a little detached about celebrating my birthday. Yes, you were born on that day. But is it something really worth celebrating by anyone other than yourself? The answer felt like a no before Sunday, but since then, I would say a big yes. Witnessing the process that led to our girl being born made me feel like for someone to have been birthed into this world, it would’ve taken a Herculean effort and force to will it into being.

Mainly because there is a plethora of things that could go wrong within the course of the months or years leading up to the pregnancy, the nine months of pregnancy and the hours leading up to the delivery. It’s a journey with many complicated and moving parts and shifts that requires various people of diverse skillsets making the right decisions at all times just to facilitate the birth of this life.

In many ways, I can now see why there is a special heartbreak that parents endure when they see their child wasting or throwing their life away meaninglessly – It was not easy to produce their life. That labour of love creates a special bond between parents and child. It is important for parents to not foolishly throw that bond away in the name of college majors, career paths and life partner choices. It has to be protected as sacred. This is something I will remind myself of everyday. To work hard to maintain that bond.

Our journey had a few bumps along the road, namely the scare we had in September. But ‘worrying’ is the main product one procures as soon as one decides to become a parent. Our last scare just before her birth was the worrying underdevelopment of her femur. The only comfort the doctor could offer us initially was, ‘Oh, looking at you guys, I wouldn’t be too concerned.’ Thanks doc. So we plunged ourselves into worry and concern. My wife analysing each printed report after a visit with a fine comb, studying trends and graphical movement. As it turns out, we had nothing much to worry about because her femur is fine. I mean, I don’t know if I can guarantee she will have a future on a fashion runway but we can always pray and hope. I am adding this along to my recent prayers to God about blessing her with the ability to walk to the toilet on her own (zero diaper change goal baby, come on!), sleep when we want her to (notably when mummy and daddy wants to watch Netflix) and being a David Bowie fan.

Okay jokes aside (not joking about Bowie), God has really fulfilled his end of the bargain throughout these months. We would pray to Him for something different for her every night. ranging from her having good hearing to her having a compassionate heart. Although programming for the last few weeks leading to her birth was a rerun of ‘femur length’ constantly. If prayers were cumulative, we should be expecting some Miranda Kerr legs on her right God? Just kidding (also not kidding).

We’ve had a relatively easy pregnancy. My wife was still out and about doing morning walks and yoga days before her first contractions came. We’ve had scares certainly but God allayed each of them in spectacular fashion. He’s blessed us with good doctors, nurses and friends, gosh what friends we have. Constantly supporting us, encouraging us, checking up on us and giving us stuff. We have enough breast pumps that I probably can be subbed in as well. I did warn our baby as she was crying yesterday that if she continued crying I may have to offer her my boobs. She stopped for a moment.

And yes, just like that she’s out into the world now and in my arms.

39 weeks suspended in a flurry of animation within my wife’s womb, hearing every conversation we’ve had with each other (understanding probably very little of it), bouncing to the steps of our weekend walks, sampling a tasting menu of the food we’ve consumed and just like that, the last page of pregnancy was turned and a new life steps into this world last Sunday at 8.00am.

I’ve written and processed a lot about being a father. In the grand scheme of roles that we assign to ourselves in this life such as ‘son’, ‘husband’ or ‘friend’; ‘father’ was never one I was particularly wedded to, mostly brought about by fear of being a lousy one and also never being with a partner who could awaken that collective desire until I met my wife. Yes, it is a collective desire. At least it should be.

In the course of trying to lull her to sleep last night by singing to her and having a conversation with her, I referred to myself as ‘daddy’. It still felt a little surreal. I’m a father now. Yes, I am a father now. And there is no turning back.

In my bid to grow into the role, I fashioned a daily project to talk and interact with her while she was in the womb. I would sing her a song I loved every night and give her one fun fact about the world she would soon be born into. Since September, I’ve sang a total of 165 songs to her and delivered 160 daily cool facts to her, every night. I was going to say without fail but there were fails, a day or two where I was ill and probably one where I was too sleepy. Daddy is not perfect.

I mostly sang to her in our bedroom but I did croak her a possibly painful version of ‘Across the Universe’ in a hotel in Taiping, a strategically selected ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ up in the cool heights of Cameron Highlands and delivered a thankful version of Wilco’s ‘My Darling’ to her in the hospital delivery room, 7-hours before she made her life-changing entrance into our lives. I sang her a total of 104 Beatles songs and 61 songs by a range of artistes that were important to me from Cure to Springsteen to The Flaming Lips.

Throughout the days I also gave her really cool facts about the world, like how dogs sniff good smells with their left nostril, that turkeys can blush and that the tiny pocket in jeans was originally designed to store pocket watches (I especially loved this one).

These sessions were my favorite moments of those days. I’ve really had the time of my life these past 6-months doing them. But nothing could prepare me for the 14-minutes that led up to her birth into this loud and disorientating world. To say those 14-minutes represented the most beautiful and jaw-dropping thing I’ve ever witnessed and experienced in my life is to put it very, very conservatively.

I went into this process as I always do with anything that’s important – numbskully optimistic but also blockheadly clueless. To be fair, the data I was given to crunch so I could form an idea of what a delivery experience would be like was so wide and diverse, I might as well been told that it’s like walking around a mall with a bag of doughnuts in my hand while being chased by a pink unicorn.

There are mentions of the mother being able to walk around. She will be able to eat whatever she likes. That she will be on drips. That she will be hooked to a machine that measures baby heart rate and contractions. That she will be able to watch TV. Bounce on a birthing ball. Shoot a machine gun. Swim in the ocean with sharks. Okay, just kidding. But only about the sharks. There are probably some parts of the world where the wife may empty a clip into the husband in the process of giving birth.

So yeah, I had no idea what it was going to be like.

Doesn’t help that Tinseltown has done a lot to gloss over the birthing process, so this Latchkey kid learned nothing from it. It’s often represented by a sudden belly ache experienced by the mother (they occasionally show the water bag bursting), a mad dash to the hospital and the inevitable coach/pep talk by husband or doctor leading to a single push which results in a baby that often looks like it’s been nursed and bathed for months and if given a chance, could probably walk to the nearest parlor and order herself an ice-cream.

What films don’t tell you is that the water bag doesn’t always break, contractions don’t come just before a birth but sometimes, days even a week before and that single push that results in the baby coming out is the open goal tap-in at the end of a 54-pass move. Oh sorry, football analogy. Let me try again, it’s basically the last kahuna push after many kahuna pushes that’s been happening possibly for the last 2-hours. We can see how that doesn’t exactly translate to a tangy watch.

My wife’s contractions came deep into Wednesday night, four days before the eventual delivery. In hindsight, I realised I was being very insensitive to her when I suggested if a contraction basically feels like a terrible diarrhea. “I guess, if you needed a reference point,” was her answer when the right one would be to boot my head through the nearest window. No, seeing what my wife went through for four days, I can concur it is not like a terrible diarrhea. A terrible diarrhea does not render you incapable to move or speak when it comes. This was something else.

Our family and friends suggested inducing the pregnancy after two days of contractions but my wife said no, “What if she’s not ready to come out yet?” I can only draw a parallel with me being asked to throw the thrash after I am showered and comfortably seated on our couch with the TV remote in my hand. “Okay, let’s wait for her.” But in 24-hours, the pain had gotten unbearable and my wife agreed to induce on Saturday night.

Civilization may have attempted to dress up the birthing process in clean air-conditioned rooms and plushy pillows but the truth is, it remains as primal an experience as it did thousands of years ago. There are strange-looking discharges, a lot of writhing in pain and well, blood. I was standing next to my wife comforting and encouraging her, two-feet away from the action and I still got blood on my shorts and hands. There was blood on the floor and on the sheets over the operating equipment.

I was standing there, like a man seeing a UFO, eyes and mouth gaped when the doctor suggested the use of forceps and proceeded to access these two things that looked like cricket bats (at least to me at the time) and within seconds, he pulled out our baby  girl and dropped her on to my wife’s chest, caked in blood. The next few seconds were a mingling of panic, relief and excitement as they stuffed a tube into our girl’s mouth to get the excesss liquid out all while she screamed and cried, like she was dragged rudely to a party she did not wanted to go to. Well, she was.

And now she’s here. An autonomous being with her own personality, wants and moods. She is now a part of the tapestry of the world. Her story will be embedded into the story of the world. Her life will now become intertwined with the lives of others. There is no reversing this process. She isn’t going to be climbing back up into the womb after a week. She isn’t going to dissolve into stardust after a year. There is no return policy.

It’s done and our lives will never be the same again.

And why would we want it to be what it was before after seeing her, hearing her and smelling her? She is the most beautiful thing we’ve laid our eyes on and the mere gurgle from her causes both our hearts to feel like it wants to explode with love, joy and contentment. We want this life, not the one before anymore.

A lot is often made about the sacrifices one would have to make to raise a child. There are tons. The sleep is the first to go. The TV binges. The lazy weekend afternoon on the couch. Korean BBQ (at least for a while). But all these things just shade into the background as me and my wife cheer on each successful latch by her like we’ve won the World Cup. It’s like your life gets re-orientated and refurbished into something new. It’s in the same space, but things do not feel nor look the same anymore. And that is really very okay.

I sang her Wilco’s ‘My Darling’ on the night before she was born and I sang it to her again two nights ago, trying to put her to sleep. I teared, with joy, at the meaning of it all and how life will be from now on.

I can’t wait for each day to happen.

Go back to sleep now, my darling
I’ll try to keep the bad dreams away
Breathe now, breathe easier
And I’ll think of all the right things to say

Because we made you, my darling
With the love in each of our hearts
We were a family, my darling
Right from the start

Grow up now
Please, don’t you grow up too fast
And be sure
To make all the good times last

Because we made you, my darling
With the love in each of our hearts
We were a family, my darling
Right from the start

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Whatever hurts you through the night

Warning: Some spoilers for ‘Scenes from a Marriage’

Occasionally, I watch something that moves me in an almost primal, instinctual way. Back in 2020, it was probably the three-part movie ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’. Yes, it was dismissed by most as pretentious drivel, but for me, it drew me into the tangled lives of its two protagonists, encouraged me to invest into both their narratives and have me dangled by my ends on the fate of their story.

At the start of 2022, it was ‘Scenes from a Marriage’.

Again I was drawn into the tangled lives of its two protagonists, encouraged to invest into both their narratives and was dangled by my ends on the fate of their story. I know how it looks. The common denominator of both being Jessica Chastain. Perhaps she is just drawn to playing characters in brooding relationship dramas that have just the perfect quotient between strength and vulnerability. The type of female protagonist that just lures me in like an idiot.

‘Scenes from Marriage’ revolves around the lives of Jonathan and Mira. Through the five-episode miniseries, we get impressions from Jonathan and Mira’s marriage taken from selected moments of their union and it paints a messy picture of betrayals, sexual attraction, and selfishness, ultimately coming to a place of queer peace by the end. It is the English-language remake of the 1973 Swedish television miniseries by Ingmar Bergman.

I found so many scenes from the show poignant and powerful from an emotional standpoint. The one that comes to mind immediately was the scene where Mira was feeling the full weight of her guilt after dumping the revelation that she had been unfaithful on Jonathan and is looking to leave immediately. She haphazardly pulls a luggage bag out of the closet and starts forcing clothes with the hangers on into the bag together with her shoes and the bag wouldn’t close. Jonathan tells her to stop, moves her aside, and proceeds to remove the pieces of clothing from their hangers and start folding the clothes and placing them neatly into the bag. The scene lingers on for longer than scenes of these sort normally does, with each passing second more excruciating than the last. With each piece of clothing folded and tucked neatly into the bag, I felt a sharp pang of pain. It’s a powerful scene that tells the story of Jonathan’s dutifulness towards the marriage and how he thought that by excelling in this, that would be his gift of love to his wife. Yet, it meant so little to her because she was hurting so much more because of other things he was doing. That after he was done tucking everything neatly into the bag, she still took it and left. I sometimes think we invest a lot into the idea that a marriage functions on a single narrative line and everything branches from that, when the truth is a lot more complex than that. What we see as a line is actually a whole world of intricate narratives pulling each other to and from each other, each with a story that is screaming to be heard.

The other, perhaps a little more controversial scene that I personally found poignant was the one in the fourth episode where in the midst of a house move and Jonathan trying to get Mira to sign the divorce papers, they have sex in the living room. As a scene on its own, it would not be very meaningful except you realise later on in the episode that Jonathan slept with Mira to confirm that she no longer had a primal hold on him and that Mira slept with him because she had already lost her job, her relationship with her boyfriend and just wants to ‘come home’ to what she had with Jonathan before by using the one thing she thought she had over him, her sexuality. More specifically, his sexual desire for her. Both parties turned to that primal corner of the relationship and manipulated that to their respective benefit.  It firstly shows that people are at their core incredibly selfish when it comes to self-preservation but it also speaks to a larger narrative – that for a marriage to work, like truly work, it requires two people to sacrifice so much and be constantly at the top of the game. That if we turn in 5.5 performance too often, it can all collapse from under you. Before you know it, your marriage is a walking carcass, shuffling around meaninglessly without any purpose other than the simple wish to die with some dignity.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make with this post. As much as popular media right down to the gossips of your social circles will try and have you believe that all marriages die by the force of a single blow, I’ve come to realise through my own experiences as well as the experiences of the people I know, to confidently propose the hypothesis that this notion is not true for most relationships or marriages. From the outside, observers and commentators prefer the cleanness that a ‘single blow’ provides. That the marriage died because of the infidelity of the wife, the financial tardiness of the husband or the meddling of their respective mothers, etc. It just makes for a snappier conversation, a soundbite that we send into the gossip ether and not have it return with more questions than we are prepared to negotiate.

Every scene was intense

That is blatantly irresponsible though. Not just because speaking of these ills should not be done even of your most mortal of enemies and is mostly in poor taste but also because such a superfluous closing paragraph to a complex and intricate entity such as a marriage does it a great disservice, given how important that union was for both parties at some point in their existence.

Instead, I’ve come to realise that a marriage almost never dies because of a single blow, but instead from a thousand cuts. An infidelity is admittedly a large, large cut and is often a fatal blow but is only so because of the hundreds of cuts that came before that.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not exonerating people who commit infidelity nor am I downplaying the act in itself. Marriage is a commitment between two people and no matter how crisply contemporary you want to spin your story, infidelity is a huge violation of that commitment. What I am saying that there are times where infidelity is merely the byproduct of a broader disease and in those cases, if there was a greater effort placed in avoiding cuts, things may have turned out rather differently.

Jonathan and Mira had many smaller cuts before Poli came along. There was Jonathan’s inherent judgment of Mira’s poor performance as a mom which he constantly hangs in front of her in the form of how good he is with Ava their daughter. There was Mira’s obvious misgivings about Jonathan’s religious upbringing and how that had affected him as a person which probably began as something cute and interesting about him but eventually grew into an ugly crutch that she despised. There was probably some judgment on Mira’s part on Jonathan’s career choices and how she enjoyed hanging that over him in the form of her meteoric career.

Some cuts in a marriage can be avoided and are at times, completely unnecessary. We just have to be a little more proactive in reading the signs and recognising the dangers. Do I have ‘cuts’ in my marriage? Of course. No marriage is without these cuts but I have placed more effort in recent years to being more concerted in my efforts to avoid them. Sometimes I find myself doubling back to assure my wife after I’ve said or done something, just to dispel any doubts that might linger because of an act or statement. The war in marriage is almost never fought and lost on an open battle field but in dark silent corridors. Be very wary of what is not said as much as what was said.

I also make more of an effort to ensure I don’t take my wife for granted on anything she does for this marriage and family by thanking and appreciating her for the most menial of tasks from washing the dishes to watering the plants (although she should do this cause she’s the one who brings them back always). Lately, I’ve been telling her how proud and appreciative I am of her for carrying our unborn daughter.

The way I’ve learned to look at it is that each cut I can prevent, is one less cut that can kill my marriage. And each passing day I have no additional cuts is another successful day for the happiness of my marriage in this life. Yes, it’s a little cynical but not all forms of cynicism is bad. I’ve found some to be quite handy in difficult times. In any case the institution of marriage, in regards to the collective human species, has gone past the ‘forever yours pretty cards’ phase a long time ago. It’s been under attack for a while now. A lot, if not most, seem to end either in bloody acrimony or aimlessly shuffling around as a living dead. So perhaps trying to adorn pretty veneers is no longer the best way forward. Perhaps it’s time to hunker down, keep your heads low and to finish this race well.

After all, we are only tasked with stewarding this marriage in this lifetime so every good day is a step towards a good end.

Pull over now

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.

And that is really just amazing. So amazing.

You fear the wrong thing baby

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.

Sleeps with butterflies

‘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.

At least, there has to be.

Can’t buy me love

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.

Sweetest kill

“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.

But a drug would. So don’t do drugs.

Wake up

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.”

The great unwanted

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.

My instincts are the enemy

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.