Some thoughts on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

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It is impossible to not cry towards the end of the book. When I finally realised how much Oskar’s mom and grandmother loved him, how Oskar was carrying this huge burden on himself (not picking up the phone when his dad called on 9/11), how the grandmother loved the grandfather but he chose to leave, how the grandfather couldn’t speak, how he kept remembering the past and the woman he loved, how, if only, we could make each other’s burdens lighter.

I wrote, “they are letters to my son. I wasn’t able to send them to him while he was alive. Now he’s dead. I don’t speak, I am sorry.” The guard looked at the other guard and they shared a smile. I don’t mind if smiles come at my expense, I’m a small price to pay, they let me through, not because they believed me but because they didn’t want to try to understand me (…)”

And on the legacies we leave behind when we die. The weight of unfulfilled expectations. This quote is about how a father had died and he wrote letters to all the people he could before his death. But to his own son, he wrote a business-like letter. His son went around asking to look at all the letters of others. Some refused to show them to him, others complied. And through all the letters, he got to know his father better.

Some of his letters were funny. I mean, really, really funny. I didn’t know he could be so funny. And some were philosophical. He wrote about how happy he was, and how sad he was, and all the things he wanted to do but never did, and all the things he did but didn’t want to do.

When I understood Oskar, and what he was going through, from his point of view.

Mom was still on the sofa. She wasn’t reading, or listening to music, or doing anything.

She said, “You’re awake.”

I started crying.

She opened her arms and said, “What is it?”

I ran to her and said, “I don’t want to be hospitalized.”

She pulled me into her so my head was against the soft part of her shoulder, and she squeezed me. “You’re not going to be hospitalized.”

I told her, “I promise I’m going to be better soon.”

She said, “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“I’ll be happy and normal.”

She put her fingers around the back of my neck.

I told her, “I tried incredibly hard. I don’t know how I could have tried harder.”

She said, “Dad would have been very proud of you.”

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And war. It was a recording that Oskar played for his class. He was bullied in school.

TOMOYASU: I apologized to her. I told her, “I came as fast as I could.”

It was just the two of us. I didn’t know what to do. I was not a nurse. There were maggots in her wounds and a sticky yellow liquid. I tried to clean her up. But her skin was peeling off. The maggots were coming out all over. I couldn’t wipe them off, or I would wipe off her skin and muscle. I had to pick them out. She asked me what I was doing. I told her, “Oh, Masako. It’s nothing.” She nodded. Nine hours later, she died.

INTERVIEWER: You were holding her in your arms all that time?

TOMOYASU: Yes, I held her in my arms. She said, “I don’t want to die.” I told her, “You’re not going to die.” She said, “I promise I won’t die before we get home.” But she was in pain and she kept crying, “Mother.”

INTERVIEWER: It must be hard to talk about these things.

TOMOYASU: When I heard that your organization was recording testimonies, I knew I had to come. She died in my arms, saying “I don’t want to die.” That’s what death is like. It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing. It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are. I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.

Death is the final stage that we all pass through. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, well-educated or not. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what are your fears, how unfinished or fulfilled you felt before that second arrived. It just comes, and we cannot control it. Death and suffering means incredible vulnerability. We have no idea what will happen next, and we can’t predict anything. The more we try to hold on, the more difficult it is for us to be at ease. And yet what has thinking and controlling ever brought me, but the delaying of happiness?

During the sermon earlier, Pastor E. was talking about death. He spoke about how we should not turn away from the word that gave us our being. How we are bereft of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of being a true human being, because we are self-reliant and weak at resisting temptation. Not humans as we know ourselves now, people preoccupied with power and money and worries, but humans in the sense of Christ- his compassion, his grace, his beauty. How he was brought to be a little lower than angels, and how he trusted God in all his sufferings. And then the crowning with glory and honour, while calling us brothers and sisters in Christ.

I’d have said nothing backward.

He’d had said ‘Yeah, buddy?’ backward.

I’d have said “Dad?” backward, which would have sounded the same as “Dad” forward.

He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from “I love you” to “Once upon a time…”

We would have been safe.

“The mistakes I’ve made are dead to me. But I can’t take back the things I never did.”

“Every day. Without hope, without despair.”

I am really tired from all the running around this week. However, I got to meet more new friends (CY, Eug, Christa, Sean etc), old friends, and I went for (serious) dragon boating yesterday! It’s in brackets because I am a beginner who started on the same day as their competition training and everyone on both boats were both 1. Good looking and 2. Intense. Now I have muscle aches everywhere and a blister on my butt, even though the guy in front of me offered me his seat pad. I do like team sports, plus the guys are seriously cute (which is a huge plus, my motivation for modules in school used to be proportional to number of eye candies in class), but with my schedule right now I don’t think I can join at this point. Maybe after the competition 😊

I wanted to do a short-recap of my week, and then start on all the thoughts floating around in my head. The first being that I really like all the people at work, they are so nice and friendly and young! It’s a change from SB where everyone was rushing to finish things, or kept to their own departments. And it’s a change from the civil service internship where the age range was in the early thirties. Here, everyone is pretty much mostly mid to late twenties at the most, and only the partner is in her early thirties. Work-wise, I have to start on some frameworks when I get back from sermon later because I got called away to do other projects and couldn’t complete my original one. I have a backlog of what my friends sent me/recommended me to read/watch/listen to, and I hope to clear it slowly over the next few months. Hamilton the musical seems really popular!

For training, we had presentation skills training. The thing about training is that we have to use it right after training, or else we will lose what we have learned. While I have had a lot of training, practically only 5% was used. All my other time was spent doing work that isn’t related. Maybe a bit of excel skills, but that is about it. I am looking forward to Monday morning updates though, it will be my first meeting in the partners room. There’s a limit on space in the CBD, so everyone doesn’t have a fixed desk and even the partners’ room is super small.

With regards to people, had lunch and dinners with different people this week. I really like sincere and humble people. There is human aliveness and dignity even when screw-ups happen, as long as one is willing to show true feelings and not hide everything. I think after being in church for so long I am learning to re-evaluate what I see as beauty in other people. I have always liked sincere people but still looks played a part, but now I am learning to see past that and concentrate on a person’s personality and beliefs. Mostly on how kind they are 😊 I don’t actively support Pink Dot because it is against the teachings of my church, but I guess in the past I was still considering a bisexual sexual orientation, or just a female relationship, but now I suppose I am no longer that attracted to females. Or their bodies, to be more specific. Maybe I was just looking at what I don’t have.

I really like the interaction between colleagues too. I think I am the only one who came from straight-up “elite” schools, and I have spoken to a lot of friends who have fond memories of their neighbourhood secondary school or junior college. While they might not be nationally ranked in terms of grades, they made friends there too- the elements of social support and humanity are still valuable. There was a guy making his oral presentation about how people in his JC didn’t study and were basically headed for nothing, and I really admired his endurance to complete his studies and then end up in a Big 4. People in mixed environments actually have better social skills, unlike me, I can’t even code switch my English.

But I do wish there wasn’t this element of wasted human potential. In HC, you just need to get a certain set of grades and be left alone to do all your other hobbies. In other JCs where the focus is really on grades, it feels as if you have no extra time to get your life in order and find your passion or pursue things like faith because so much of the emphasis is on memorising things. Perhaps the irony would be that being in better schools actually gives you a more well-rounded education, simply because we take less time to absorb what needs to be absorbed. And regurgitated. And then we have all the free time to focus on arts or sports, plus most of us didn’t need to worry about things like finances or whether or not we could make it to university. There is the flip side to it, which is that we spend most of our time in a gold fish tank. And fail to make friends with normal, regular, human beings, with their quirks and struggles in life.

Fraternizing with bosses wise, I really like all my bosses at work! They are hardworking, super helpful, straightforward. Each one has his/her own quirks and since my only desire for the first few months is to get to know their style of working and giving instructions, I think I have managed to do so by helping out with projects and through each revision or quick catch up, establish what is the preferred way to work.

Hobbies wise, I think I lost all my endurance for running and swimming after the nasty bout of flu for a week. The good thing is that no one else in the office is sniffling because I am no longer sneezing and infecting everyone. I re-read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on the train this week- love it. I love his writing style, I love the way the story is structured, and I love Oskar. Sensitive, intelligent and caring boy who is bullied because he doesn’t fit in like the other kids. And I love the way he tries to remember his dad. I really didn’t have time to do art related things, but hopefully I will learn to manage my time better next week.

I felt suddenly shy. I was not used to shy. I was used to shame. Shyness is when you turn your head away from something you want. Shame is when you turn your head away from something you do not want.
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Good things this week: being told that I’m people oriented and friendly! Which is really good, because I got so tired from all the people that mid-week I asked a friend to go off with me alone to eat at Chinatown. He was kind, and didn’t tell me how far it was for us to walk, and basically it was damn hot. Plus we bumped into his team mates on the way and I hope no one thinks it’s weird for me to eat with just one another person ): I am not tired of people, I am tired from people. And then another colleague- he sent me a link to a dog cone to help with my hermit-ing in the office. I replied, “did you just call me a dog?” “no, it is the concept!” I can’t take him seriously already haha. I think naturally I want to be alone, and stretching myself every day, including weekends, might not be a very good idea. Getting fat from all the cai fan LOLOL.

Off to sermon now. I am finally not late! I used to uber everywhere but with my sad fresh graduate salary I can’t afford anything more than cai fan that costs, on average, $6 a day. The irony is that while my take-home pay went up three times, my disposable income went down because I have a hell lot of bills of pay by myself now. I told my mom my plans to start contributing to the family because while my dad paid for my tuition fees, theoretically they don’t need to and therefore it’s a loan- she then asked me how much I was going to save if I have to pay them back and pay for insurance etc. My answer was in the very, very low three digits, sigh. Might as well not save anything, it’s really a negligible sum given my bills. TCM can cost ~400 a month -.-

Byeee. Looking forward to carrying toddlers, hopefully Eliel is in a good mood today. The teacher had to mimic a fruit grinding machine using two stacked containers and a plastic yellow banana in the middle to stop his crying LOL cause his mom wanted to go for sermon but Eliel doesn’t like being left behind.

I love this quote. I was reading ELIC on the train, and I started tearing up. The indian lady standing next to me turned away and faced the other door instead.

But Oskar, intelligent people write to me all the time. In your fifth letter you asked, “What if I never stop inventing?” That question has stuck with me.

I wish I were a poet. I’ve never confessed that to anyone, and I am confessing it to you, because you’ve given me reason to feel that I can trust you. I’ve spent my life observing the universe, mostly in my mind’s eye. It’s been a tremendously rewarding life, a wonderful life. I’ve been able to explore the origins of time and space with some of the great living thinkers. But I wish I were a poet.

Albert Einstein, a hero of mine, once wrote, “Our situation is the following. We are standing in front of a closed boxed which we cannot open.”

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the vast majority of the universe is composed of dark matter. The fragile balance depends on things we’ll never be able to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Life itself depends on them. What’s real? What isn’t real? Maybe those aren’t the right questions to be asking. What does life depend on?

I wish I had made things for life to depend on.

-Jonathan Safran Foer, a letter from Stephen Hawking to Oskar Schell, ELIC.

Mastery by Robert Greene/ “The problem is that we humans are deep conformists.”

Think of it this way: There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.

 

In our culture we tend to equate thinking and intellectual powers with success and achievement. In many ways, however, it is an emotional quality that separates those who master a field from the many who simply work at a job. Our levels of desire, patience, persistence, and confidence end up playing a much larger role in success than sheer reasoning powers. Feeling motivated and energized, we can overcome almost anything. Feeling bored and restless, our minds shut off and we become increasingly passive.

 

The human mind is naturally creative, constantly looking to make associations and connections between things and ideas. It wants to explore, to discover new aspects of the world, and to invent. To express this creative force is our greatest desire, and the stifling of it the source of our misery. What kills the creative force is not age or a lack of talent, but our own spirit, our own attitude. We become too comfortable with the knowledge we have gained in our apprenticeships. We grow afraid of entertaining new ideas and the effort that this requires. to think more flexibly entails a risk-we could fail and be ridiculed. We prefer to live with familiar ideas and habits of thinking, but we pay a steep price for this: our minds go dead from the lack of challenge and novelty; we reach a limit in our field and lose control over our fate because we become replaceable.

Part Three of my thoughts on The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

This is the grand finale, because it is also the last few chapters of The Opposite of Fate, which means that I can then move on to her other novels. Reading this non-fiction piece about her intentions as a writer was interesting because I usually read fiction as a standalone piece. I don’t know anything about the writer’s socioeconomic background or why she writes, I don’t know the inner struggles or how much hard work it took to produce a novel. The below paragraphs are about the responsibility as a writer that Tan takes on, which is that she remains loyal to her private worlds, and as readers, we have to shoulder the mantle of responsibility to think and digest works for ourselves. We cannot rely on authors to spoon-feed us their opinions and their experiences because that would be propaganda, that would not be fiction.

The assumption is that the writer- any writer- by virtue of being published, has a responsibility to the reader. According to this ethic, the writer’s musing, his or her imagination and delight in the world of make-believe, must be tamed and shaped by a higher consciousness of how the work will be interpreted – or rather, misinterpreted- by its readers.

When his turn came, he swaggered up to me, took two steps back, and said in a loud voice: “Don’t you think you have the responsibility to write about Chinese men as positive role models?”

I told him, “I think you have the responsibility as a reader to think for yourself.

 I never thought about it that way. I always thought that the reporters and bloggers and novelists had to produce wholesome content, or at least content that is real and not completely biased and skewed towards their private worlds. Because a lot of people don’t think when they read, they are impressionable (okay I’m talking about myself ah) and their emotions can be controlled by one or two sentences.

The phrase that stuck with me ever since I read Pandora’s Curse by Jack Du Brul is “Never again.” It refers to the period of the Holocaust and how the horrors will never be repeated again. When I read it I had to pause for a bit to recollect all that I know about the extermination of Jews, and the after-effects of the concentration camps. I wanted very badly for justice to be carried out against those who did not feel remorse, even though I am not affected in any way by that period. I was reminded of propaganda and how a country could turn against its people, in modern terms it would be ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Emotions, hidden motives of the author, the influence spread across all the readers, but yet the author has no responsibility to make the book more wholesome. The onus is on the reader to read widely, and to do more factual research. Because there is no standard that says that Amy Tan has to portray China as a more progressive country than it actually is, and actually in The Opposite of Fate there was a part about cannibalism and in-breeding in rural villages.

Ladies and gentlemen, please. Stop asking, “What am I supposed to feel?” Why would an adult look to me or any other writer to tell him or her what to feel? You’re not supposed to feel anything. You feel what you feel. Where you go with it is your responsibility. If a writer chooses to aggressively let you know what he or she feels, where you go with it is still your responsibility.  

I can only suppose that if writers were responsible for people’s thoughts and for creating positive role models, we would then be in the business of writing propaganda, not art as fiction. Fiction makes you think; propaganda tells you how to think.

Pastor L was the preacher for the sermon today. The title was “The Diary of a Wimpy Pastor”. He spoke about how it was difficult for him to preach to his father (in the last legs of his life) because as children we depended on the approval and validation from our parents since we were young, and evangelising to a non-believer often results in both rejection of the message and also the messenger. He also spoke about how all his friends are now successful career men, and he is the only one who is doing God’s work and not drawing a very huge salary from his job.

It is a fearful thing to have nothing to show in your life, that you have come so far but have no title, no business, no grand scheme that you are leading. For non-believers, where do they go to find love and respect, or basic human recognition, if not for their careers? What the world recognizes is usually money, power, youth, or good looks. Doing good and being a philanthropist is usually in addition to manning a thriving business, that portion of ‘corporate social responsibility’ that is mandatory for all large corporations. But being called to be a missionary or to do God’s work by being a pastor, to love one another, means risking looking insignificant in the eyes of the world.

What you do with your careers will only be one part of the whole of your lives. Your thoughts, your evolving answers to the important questions, are what will give you interesting lives, make you interesting people capable of changing the world.

Pastor L also said something that reminded me of my mother. “Doing Christian ministry to gain importance”. I thought to myself- why do I participate in DG and serve in children’s church. It is 8 hours a week, including travel time. Why do I bother? Is it to be important, to have something to say “oh sorry I have to serve I can’t make it for lunch.” Or do I genuinely want to serve? I think with my limited experience of serving so far, I can’t say that I understand where CC is going. Because I have only seen a few lesson plans and a few arts and crafts, how can I say that my work is important in the larger scheme of life and humanity and Christianity? But I do know that they are shorthanded (if you can imagine 15 toddlers and not a ratio of 1 toddler: 1 helper in the room lol), and if there is a calling, there I will go.

It doesn’t matter that I am not the world’s greatest singer, I can still do the hand actions. I can give out cheerios, I can wipe the hands of kids with wet wipes, I know where the stickers are located, when to keep the toys. I know the names of kids and when to pass them the water bottle. That’s enough, for now. The recognition I get from kids is a bonus! Hannah hugged me today before she left! And it was her first day there too 😊 I don’t need to prove to anyone that I am worthy of love or respect just because I work in a certain industry or have certain skills.

My “career”, a few years down the road, will make me instantly recognizable. Like hey, which company do you work for? What’s your line of work? My side hobbies too- it’s instant friendship- oh you go for 9am service? Me too! Or just the background, the English, whatever. But what I really pray for (when I pray, I often forget lol) is to be in sync with God’s will. Because I only have another 60 odd years on earth, I really do not want to waste my time on things which are not important. By the way art is important to me, I’m going to spend more time doodling and investigating the types of watercolour paints haha.

You will have that dream in which you have to take the test, but you will not feel at all unprepared. You will be able to see the questions and say, “I’ve been thinking about the answers for a very long time, and here they are.

Success is not how many people I bring to church. After all, as long as someone understands the message, it doesn’t matter how they react because we cannot control other people’s reactions. I would say that success is me putting in my best foot forward when I choose to commit to things. Following God to places when I am scared, and wishing that I am a better person with less flaws. By the way I am fucking scared to be an adult, I really don’t think I have enough brains or stamina to work continuously without school holidays. I don’t use vulgarities very often now, so if you see an f word in this blog it means that it is a big concern. A vehement statement from a sloth.

Love,

Me.

Part Two of my thoughts on The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

I want to start writing fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever tried, unless you count PSLE essays as fiction. “Alan saw a spider and it was big and scary.” But I’m also scared of the responsibility of fiction. That I can’t write about taboo topics, even though I don’t think there should be a limit on what one writes, because I am not allowed to write about sex or lust or anything that is non-Christian. The pastor once explicitly said that none of us should be reading or watching Fifty Shades of Grey and I thought, “ok that means I definitely cannot contribute to literotica.com. What a shame.” Fiction to me is a way to expressing everything in my head. All the thoughts that people don’t speak aloud, the anxiety of waiting for a pregnancy test result, the ambivalence when I really want to murder someone but I also want to keep him alive because I want to torture him slowly. Cutting off bits and pieces of his skin. I guess those aren’t normal thoughts.

There seems to be an expectation that as a Singaporean writer who writes fiction, it has to be Singapore fiction. About laksa and chicken rice and living in a HDB flat. Things that are very local. And if you are a Chinese writer, you cannot portray your culture as being backwards, but you still need to stay within stereotypes or else you won’t be authentic. To me, humans and animals are not restricted to certain geographic regions or cultures. If there is a character in my head who is a heavy smoker but also a conjoined twin and Russian, even though I know nothing about Russia, but just saying, then I would have a difficult time imagining what the character does. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t write things that are true. There are universal emotions- regret, anger, annoyance, shyness. I know these feelings.

So, yes, I was aware that Hollywood might look at The Joy Luck Club as a proving ground.

That’s a terrible burden, especially when you’re just trying to create your own vision and not necessarily right past wrongs, or set the record straight on the history of China, or break down cultural barriers, or open film job markets for other Asian-Americans, or put every single stereotype to rest once and for all. If we had set out to do all those things, we would have been looking over our shoulders all the time, running scared, and would have been unable to make a movie that was personal and intimate, that had more to do with universal emotions than specific cultural concerns.

Universal emotions, and not specific cultural concerns. Perhaps I should write something to do with boredom. “Constantly empty-headed, browsing Youtube to look at pretty girls, and then panicking whenever deadlines are due, that empty feeling in her chest when A does not reply her text messages.” Would that be very relatable? I can imagine writing things which are honest and true- a story about how “S has a friend whom she’s jealous of because the friend is prettier, richer, more well-mannered, and everything that she’s not, but she would rather be with the friend than without, because at least she can be with a popular person. It also is in line with the saying, keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

The second time I saw it, I told Wayne: “I want you to remember this day. We’re going to get a lot of different reactions to this film later. But I want us to remember that on this day, you, Ron, and I were proud of what we’d accomplished. We made our vision.”

“We made our vision.” This applies to entrepreneurs and writers, painters, musicians, rain-makers. Whatever your vision is, go and do it. You will never know what will happen. I tell myself this often, but that doesn’t help in creating my ‘vision’. But can you imagine the joy and sense of fulfilment to finally say, “fuck, we did it. We made it. Look at how far we have come! Despite everything.” And then you take the life lessons to make a second movie, a third, a fourth. Going further than anyone else you know. I want to know the journey, the uphill process, the late night crying sessions, and the creating.

I chose an unnamed goddess while writing my then untitled second book. I didn’t think it was good manners to ask her for anything as crass as good reviews and placement on bestseller lists. And anyway, if she was anything like my mother, my goddess had never even heard of The New York Times. In the end, I asked only that I be able to write the best book I could, and that no matter what happened to it, I would have no regrets, no sorrows. I called my statue Lady Sorrowfree and titled the last chapter after her. I titled the book The Kitchen God’s Wife, which was how she was known, as the wronged spouse of a wandering husband. I gave her offerings of airline mini-bottles of Jack Daniel’s.

I don’t worship any statue or have any ritual for expressing my thoughts, because I am not supposed to worship any heathen idols or use images which are not Christ-like. But whatever works, works. I am glad that Lady Sorrowfree answered her prayers. Because if The Joy Luck Club remained as her only (good) novel, it would have been extremely painful for her. I can’t imagine the fear and doubt and self-reproach, that cat in my head telling me “knew you weren’t good enough, now the whole world knows it, why did you even have to try?” And year after year of writing, “told you that you can’t make it even after fifty years, just relax, go and do something else, like playing the piano.” The silent reinforcement when magazines stop calling for interviews and for the rest of the author’s life there is just this drought of publicity and muses. Better to be talked about than ignored, because at least there’s something to discuss.

I asked him what it would take to prove that his life meant something- a medical discovery, charitable work, children? It’s not too late, I said. You can still choose to do things differently. Eric underscored the false simplicity of my words: “It’s not that simple,” he said.

I thought about Eric’s spiritual malaise, a common unease that plagues many from time to time, the longing to be special, the fear that one is not. I’ve had the sense that what I do is ultimately meaningless in the larger context of humanity and its pain and suffering.

I don’t understand the part about how it is not that simple. Eric is an anaesthesiologist who works for plastic surgeons, which means he has a lot of money. Is it possible that when you reach a certain age (he was hitting 40), you forget everything that you wanted to do as a child? Or that you find meaning in your work and you like it very much, but you still know that it doesn’t matter in the larger context. If a doctor dies, another one will take his place.

There’s always someone waiting in the wings, and that is how it is with 99% of occupations. Unless you are a creative (photographer, writer, dancer), or there are many ways to deliver your work (teaching, volunteering), your work will not be unique. What happens then, what else can you do? And if one is 40, that’s half a life gone. The question is- when I am financially independent, will I continue to do what I have done? What have I learned, who did I love? Or will I regret. I think I won’t know the answer until I am 30 or 40, it is too early to know what I love when I am 23.

And I remembered also how I didn’t want to hope too much, knowing that those hopes might turn into almost unendurable pain. In spite of what I didn’t hope, the pain was still unbearable, a void so empty, so completely without meaning that it made me hope our existence did not end with the last breath and heartbeat.

Remember my previous post about Pastor C and his sister? If there is no resurrection after death, then all we have is the last goodbye. I don’t think I can bear that. I want my work to mean something.

What are ghosts if not the hope that love continues beyond our ordinary senses?

This paragraph taught me how to see my mother as a whole person. I think my love for my parents is genuine, but the adolescent years might have gone by much more smoothly if we were able to communicate well.

I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother’s “limited” English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. that is, because she expressed them imperfectly, her thoughts were imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and in restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.

My parents grew up in Chinese-speaking families, and they are also familiar with dialects. My dad can also speak Malay and a little bit of Tamil, depending on who he is around. But my mother started being a housewife when I was born, which meant that her social circle was limited to the parents of my friends in primary school, and a lot of them are also Chinese-speaking (I have been in Chinese speaking schools my whole life, lol). She only started responding in English to me when I was in my late teens, and only at the start of my university education did she become confident enough to serve as a volunteer in English sermons and hospice visits. Did I feel that she was a second-class citizen because she could not speak English? I don’t think I did, because the majority of people in Singapore can understand Chinese. Communication with other people was okay, but communication with her own children was poor, because her two kids are lazy ass millennials who can only understand, but can’t speak it well.

The irony is that both my parents speak without the Singaporean accent because they listen to mostly American/Chinese priests, and when I am presenting my projects etc, if I am nervous, I was told that I sound a bit ang moh. It’s not fake, it’s just my nervousness pushing through. I literally sound like my mother.

Ask the important questions. What makes a story worthwhile is the question or questions it poses. The questions might be: What is love? What is loss? What is hope? Those three could take a lifetime to answer. My story is one answer. Your story is another.

At the end of my life, I want to say that I have known love, loss, and hope. I have known what it is like to struggle, to really struggle, for what I want to accomplish. And I might not have succeeded at all, maybe even disgraced myself because I don’t have the ability. I can’t control words or bring the people in my head out and watch them come alive on paper. I might lose the ability to trust myself, to move forwards, I might not care for humans at all. But at the very end, I hope that there will still be hope.

Part One of my thoughts on The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

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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.

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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, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

 

Love,

Slothy

Updates on my May/June holidays, i.e. slacking, slacking, so much slacking to do heheheh.

I feel like I am living in a steamer right now. The weather this week has been horrible. It is not just hot, it is ridiculously humid. Got a new BB cream that claims to be 24-hours long-lasting and all the good and moisturizing properties, but lasts roughly ten minutes in the current climate.  Before I sweat it all off. In my attempt to get to the bus stop in one aesthetic piece. Sigh.

Book wise, I am loving Infinite Jest so far, although it’s getting a bit incomprehensible because the weather makes me want to sleep (air conditioned room or not, both states are sleep-inducing) and the language is very tight. I don’t quite know how to describe it. Wallace doesn’t waste a single word, even when he only appears to be describing the layout of the place. But the style of layering description after description, in this weather, makes me want to kick something. My heart feels like I am shut up in a 2cm by 2cm space and I really need to expand my territory or my mind will shut down. That sort of feels. It is tyrannical.

Other books that I have devoured in the past week:

Half a serving of ‘The Elegance of The Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery, because it is so good I do not want to read the whole thing at once. I am saving it for the bus ride up to KL so that I can appear intelligent to my travelling companions, or maybe I just don’t want to talk to people. I underlined various sentences already, will do a post about how sad I am that I am neither bourgeoise nor do I live in France.

One serving of ‘Freedom is Blogging in Your Underwear’ by Hugh MacLeod. He is the artist who doodles on the back of business cards. I didn’t understand the lure of his art a few years ago. But now I do. It is like english literature. Sometimes the reader is just not at the right age to understand the meaning of what she reads. But wait a few years, and give the book another chance. The book I couldn’t get through (Midnight’s Children, till this very day!) might be my favourite book fifty years from now. Ew. solis-002-830x652
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When you’re talking to people on the Internet, are you really talking to them? Or is the “conversation” just an excuse to not make meaningful contact. To not get something truly interesting done?

Just because there’s interaction going on doesn’t mean there’s any interaction going on.

Think about it.

-Hugh MacLeod, The Internet is a Time Suck, Freedom is Blogging in Your Underwear.

Three servings of Agatha Christie, ‘Postern of Fate’, Lord Edgeware Dies’ and ‘The Witness for the Prosecution and other stories’. I don’t know what a postern is, it sounds like some sort of post box that is exceptionally straight and wooden? Or am I just describing a wood dildo.

A postern is a secondary door or gate in a fortification such as a city wall or castle curtain wall. Posterns were often located in a concealed location which allowed the occupants to come and go inconspicuously.

(Doesn’t make sense. The objects of interest were not hidden behind a door. Yah I am very unenlightened on literary devices.)

I loved this quote from Postern of Fate.

“It could be dangerous if you went out to buy half a pound of butter,” said Tommy.

“Oh,” said Tuppence, “don’t be an idiot.”

“I’m not being an idiot,” Tommy had said. “I am just being a wise and careful husband, looking after something which is one of my favourite possessions. I don’t know why it is-”

“Because,” said Tuppence, “I am so charming, so good-looking, such a good companion and because I take so much care of you.”

Contrasted with something that I read from dailymail.uk, which quoted a thread on reddit if the redditors regretted getting married.

“Got married too young and for the wrong reasons,” one wrote. ‘She was not the love of my life, but we got along well, and all of our friends seemed to be marrying.”

It’s like what Panda told me. His best friend dated a girl for 2-3 years, even though he did not want to marry her, it was “more like she wanted to date him”. And then 8 months after breaking up he married someone else. It is a thought that bugs me a lot because I don’t want to date someone I have no intention of marrying, and I don’t want anyone to date me just because I am an overzealous cow about liking him. In other words, very likely to remain unmarried.

Also- church camp details have been confirmed. With any luck, my roommate (and also senior from junior college) will not snore and will not sleep with the light on and will not have any issues with me snoring and sleeping with the lights off HAHAH. The camp shirt is cute! It looks like four handprints with eyes drawn on them, I don’t know what it is supposed to be mean but I think everything will be explained in the camp booklet. I am serving in the primary school section for camp, I hope everything goes well.

So far, I am thoroughly enjoying my holidays. Apart from travelling overseas and domestically, I have been painting and re-painting my finger nails in various shades of 3CE’s uh…nude range. Reading, waking up late, eating chicken bites, getting rashes from the heat, volunteering at Willing Hearts (tomorrow! I wanted to go last week but fell sick after too many prawn-related meals), watching the imaginary paint dry on my wall. I also went for potluck (a rare occasion that I will willingly attend a potluck, but anyway it wasn’t very willing so what is my point lol) and served in children’s church for the first time today. First impressions: toddlers are fragile, crying, speed-eating Cheerios cutie pies.

And I also planned what furniture I would buy with my first paycheck. Answers: A rattan chair, so that I can sit and read without falling asleep. A full-length mirror, because I can’t always rely on my mom to tell me that the back of my shirt is untucked. Also, an acrylic makeup organizer because right now I just dump everything into an IKEA box. The opaque material makes it difficult to hunt for mascaras because I can’t see where the tubes are, without standing up and peering directly into the container. And dust and various bits of leftover insects also gather at the bottom, which is quite unsanitary.

I watched Amy Tan too. Have been watching a lot of School of Life videos and also tedtalks. I love this particular phrase- “why do we take on the assumptions that other people give us?” She was talking about how if she went into Burma, it would appear that she approves of the military regime, even if she doesn’t say anything about her intentions. I wish we could separate what people actually do with all the different perspectives surrounding them, and not sense make their actions on their behalf. It’s like my cell group friend, she might be doing a second degree at SMU law, but it doesn’t mean that she wants to be a lawyer. Until something happens in the affirmative, no one can say what the person’s intentions actually are.

Next post is about updates on church!