TL;DR: This book is a curated version of her life experiences from the past 30+ years of her writing. While I personally do not believe in ghosts, Chinese fengshui or coincidences, I do believe that Amy Tan’s experiences are real and they leave a mark on her writing. Also, I love her style of writing, her sense of humour, her quiet humility about being published late in life, her past with her family members and friends, her willingness to share how difficult it is for her to write. I love how she observes things and but does not force lessons on the reader about life as a minority race just because she is the author. Best of all, she is not a snotty person. She does not try to interpret the works and intentions of other authors, and more than once I found myself smiling because she has a ‘I protest, I am not dead yet’ attitude whenever people try to interpret her work. Because they always read too much into it 🙂
This is going to be a very long post, because I dog-earred a tonne of pages. I hope I drank enough coffee to get through this.
Starting with fate.
And later, I discovered that maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that somehow you’re in control. I found out the most I could have was hope, and with that I was not denying any possibility, good or bad. I was just saying, if there is a choice, Dear God or whatever you are, here’s where the odds should be placed.
I am an adult now, as near to adulthood as one can possibly get without actually having a salary. I was thinking to myself- am I really meant to record my life on here? Maybe I am just meant to live a faulty existence, with lots of sporadic and wild one night stands, a failing career as an administrative assistant, and lots of books piled up at home. Was it the guiding hand of fate that made me turn to reading and writing when I was miserable in JC, and then a terrible boss at the law firm that made me decide not to do law in Australia, and then miraculously, doing HR, meeting all sorts of human beings, which further contributed to the amount of thoughts in my head, which is proportionate to the amount of words I write. Was everything just to remove the years that I learned as a child- that money and prestige and power matters a lot more than how I felt about the work I did- and to push me towards creating slotherious, in the hopes that one day I will be good at creating content. If so, it was a very long journey.
I still have hope, and I have kind of learned to embrace possibility. That sometimes things will go very, very bad. For example, my skin sucks on alternate weeks, the wounds from TCM take at least a week to heal. But sometimes it is great, and the cycle of impermanence teaches me that it is always possible that things will change. I don’t have a lot of faith, but I am now a stoic that things will be okay in the end. When I am 80+ and toothless, I will understand my journey.
In the next instant, I was aloft once more, weightless. Relieved but still puzzled, I wondered again how I could be flying with wings that cost only a quarter- and abruptly, I was falling again. But I was flying a second ago, I said to myself. And immediately, I was aloft… At the instant I realised the meaning of the dream, Pete spoke: “And now you see, it’s your belief in yourself that enables you to do what you wish.” With that, the dream ended.
I have two main fears and self-doubts right now. The first is my health, both mentally and physically. I don’t think I can take a lot of strain, and I always try to push through the milestones like exams, presentations, interviews, projects, because I know that I will be able to take a long holiday afterwards. But in the adult world it is different, there are no two-day work weeks with a two week break afterwards. I am scared of being anxious, I am scared to be sick. And my fear adds on to my ill health, the way my stomach contracts and my heart beats faster, I recognize those symptoms and I think to myself- “ok this is it, but instead of a week of hard work, it will be a year”. How can one not fail to thrive under such self-prophesying circumstances?
Another self-doubt is with my social skills. I was a team leader for some math camp in secondary 2, and I sucked balls at it. Totally screwed up, my team was unhappy, and it was only a one day thing. Since then I have never participated in any camps, apart from the mandatory secondary school camps. But the thing is I am not a bad leader for group projects, it’s just that I tire easily and I have no interest in group bonding, the process it takes for the team to get to the end goal. I just want to reach that final goal immediately. If I want to be a better manager in the future, I have to learn to be a leader first. And with that, I have to learn to like humans.
But if I left the doctoral program, what could I do instead? What could I do that was worth anything to anyone, including myself? I could see nothing.
She struggled with self-worth issues too, and eventually chose to leave her doctoral program because it was ‘a worthless appendage’. I read it and thought to myself. What am I doing that is worth anything to anyone? Am I helping to heal the sick? Am I contributing time or energy to other people. What about myself, am I taking care of myself? There are some days where I feel like I am just doing and everything is urgent and important, but I cannot see the final goal. I don’t know why I am doing what I do, but I know that I have to continue.
I learned to play, to discover what made them laugh, what they could not resist watching or touching or reaching for. I found myself observing not deficits but the qualities of souls.
To be honest I used to wonder at why to-be moms decide to keep the pregnancy, especially when there is a high chance of a birth defect or autism. I thought to myself, why? You can have a much more stress-free life without that kid. You can have other kids. Other possibilities. You don’t need to spend the rest of your life worrying about the needs of your child and whether or not he is happy and cared for, you don’t need to plan your retirement around him. And then I grew up and I saw a clip of a blue-collared worker, a kindly looking uncle who takes his son out for a trip on the weekends. That kid has down’s syndrome and he is quite old, in his late twenties, but the uncle was so happy that his son was happy. Just wheeling him out of the facility and touring the parks.
I am not mature enough to understand life within limits, I still believe that I can do whatever I want. I can move overseas in the future, I can marry a Belgian chocolatier, I can have transsexual surgery. I don’t understand commitment or love. But when I look at parents with special-needs children, I feel like I can understand at least 10% of their love. That they chose their burden to carry. It is ‘my child’, and not ‘an autistic child’. Perhaps it puts things into perspectives, that your life has meaning because your child depends on you. And that you can find freedom and happiness within your limitations, maybe you are content with what you have, and you appreciate life more than those without the same burdens.
I imagined myself giving birth to a baby with congenital birth defects, maybe a crooked, blurred, waxy face. Cleft lip, very little hair, breathing issues, and maybe even autism. Pictured myself saying ‘I’ll stay with him’. Because he is mine, and I think I have space in my heart to love even the ugliest child, as long as he is mine. He didn’t choose to be that way. And even if he isn’t mine, I think I will love him still- because all babies are beautiful to me. I don’t get along with kids older than 3 though, can’t help that.
Over the next five years, I had opportunities to work with more than a thousand families, and from them I sense the limitlessness of hope within the limits of human beings. I learned to have compassion.
And on her dreams, which were life lessons in disguise.
I still puzzle over what Pete’s story presents: what I fear, what I dream, what I believe. I ask myself: What’s real? What’s important? What do I gain in believing one reality over another? What do I lose?
I went for the meditation retreat at the start of May because I believed that it would possible to find another world within myself. I thought I could be a loner and celebrate being alone, so completely alone that I would start hearing my heartbeat when I walk, because there is nothing else that I could notice. I believed that being a loner was unique to me and that I could create my own reality and ignore everyone else. I thought I could go deep into my heart and dig out all the old flaws and memories and experience a new me. Calmer, wiser, more independent. I did not find that world.
I think I have realised, since the 3rd of May, that I do not need to go within me, because what is inside of me has already been turfed around so many times it’s like a burnt roti prata. There is no point in rehashing old memories, there is nothing more to find. What I need, I already have in my present. I need to go without, to find out what is the happiness that comes from other people, to find out the joy of helping others, of forming lasting social circles. I believe that being alone is important, but learning to go outside of my loner comfort zone is also important. And with these beliefs, I will act differently. I am in fact acting differently, there’s children’s church again tomorrow!
On receiving offers of other people’s autobiographies-
Most of the offers are sincere. I know this. Most people don’t even want the fifty-fifty split. They just want me to tell their story, and they need a writer to put the words down in a way that others will understand. They want people to know what they have been through. They want witnesses, because it’s lonely to go through life with your heartaches. They are people who believe that they can find some sort of redemption, if only their story is told to the world, if only they can get it off their chest.
Redemption is an interesting word, because ‘finding it’ makes it seem like there is an external place that gives out redemption. According to google it is defined as “the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.” For Christians it is God’s grace, Christ coming to die for our sins so that we may be redeemed. For secular believers, it is other human beings. Or maybe just ourselves. Forgiving ourselves for being that sort of a loser in the past, and cringing whenever we remember small details of what other people said and how we acted. We were young, stupid, carefree. And aimless.
I see redemption as the last step before hell- any version of hell, our individual worst nightmares- when we have nowhere else to turn and would like to grasp at straws to save us, because any sort of salvation is better than nothing. It might be the thousands of dollars pilfered from safe, the lies we told, the third party sex. Or maybe nothing at all, and just redemption from being an existential blank space. To be told that ‘I’ matter, and just as much as other people. To believe that someone, somewhere out there, can love us, even though we have done horrible things. Sometimes confession is the best way to get things off our back, so that we can sleep better.
What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
― Cheryl Strayed,