When I think about how my life has progressed from exactly one year ago today, I am immediately in awe of how a year can change so much and put you in an entirely different lithosphere. On this very date last year, or to be exact, on the 12th October 2016, I found myself in the middle of a Malaysian jungle doing one of the things I love most – geology outdoors under the sunshine surrounded by beautiful, virgin greens. When I was a child I would watch National Geographic and daydream about becoming a research scientist (or a bug scientist, to be exact. What a nerd.) exploring the wild. Now, in a way, I was doing exactly that.
But the thing that you couldn’t see through all my exciting pictures in four-wheel drives and adventurous mud-scraped knees was that about a few days before that, on the 3rd October 2016, somebody that was extremely dear to me, and I, had decided to part ways. And so it was a strange paradox, as I found myself standing in a elephant's footprint in the middle of nowhere with the sounds of the wild wailing through the forest, literally living a childhood fantasy, while also experiencing what was easily my saddest point that year.
Today, on the 12th October 2017.
I had finally had some time to process the whirlwind of the past month. Last week, today, one of the most important events in my life (only second after discovering the banana-peanut butter combo) happened. I had a book published. I had always loved writing. I wrote when I was a child because it allowed me to live a bigger life in my own mind. I was just a normal kampung girl from the North, but when I wrote I was the girl who joined the circus or did magic or travelled while eating cheese (cheese seems to be a lifelong obsession as you can see). I wrote as an adult because it helped me cope with my anxiety – when I struggled with some things in life or felt overwhelmed by my own mind, writing is one of the only few things that can calm me down.
Today I saw my book on a bookshelf near Aziz Ansari's book (that hilarious guy from Parks and Recreation).
Again, it was a strange paradox. Aside from the fact that the past month had been supremely stressful both personally and professionally, I was also experiencing one of my most intense bout of anxiety. You see, the book I wrote wasn’t just a book for me. It was two years of literary therapy, and like any therapy it was also excruciating as it is a relief. The idea of sharing a story I am so emotionally attached to, free for anyone to consume and judge, was terrifying. I had trouble sleeping just thinking about if it was all a big mistake or the work was even good enough, or if it was going to be misinterpreted into something it's not, etc etc.
But when we launched the book I was surrounded by family and friends, those who had seen me through awful moments and good ones such as this. It reminded me how lucky I am to have them. I have had them all my life but sometimes, when things get hard, I forget how lucky I am to have an amazing support system.
The book launch wasn’t amazing to me because I published a book. The book launch was amazing to me because it woke me up to realise that all my life, I had never been alone and I was always loved and supported.
Notice that there is a pattern to both of the stories from today, and that story from exactly a year ago.
Sometimes, when life throws its occasional curve ball and cause us hardships, it is easy to be consumed by it. It’s human nature after all. Sadness or negativity is always a lot more intense and stubborn compared to happiness. But if you scrutinise your situation of upset closely, you will realise that there is always, always, always something to still be grateful for. There is rarely a time when there is absolutely nothing to be thankful of.
It’s one of those things that make life such an amazing experience. In every kind of hardship there is always some kind of ease attached if you find it. I think it is deliberately designed that way so that we will always have a choice on how we view things, whether to be absorbed by the challenges or to find something positive in all of them.
Life. It’s a rather well thought out little mystery, isn’t it?
PS: And not to forget some avid readers I met at the launch. So nice to meet interesting people!
A deer's footprint inside an elephant's footprint, probably during their joint feeding frenzy. Picture taken this time last year.
Well of course we all want to make a good first impression with everyone. Everyone. Including our gynaecologist. I know I do. That’s why people put on clean shirts to work and pretend they like their boss’ cats. Say what you will, but even beneath the very statement of a person’s “I don’t care what people think” lies a certain level of consciousness, however small, to want to be impressionable. This perhaps roots from the human’s genetic need to belong to a society, a unit, or even a family.
Sometimes we get a little too desperate to nail an impression that we begin saying things that are not necessarily true. One day when trying to make new female friends at the office, I noticed that most of them were mothers who liked talking about children and I began lying that I adored children just to get myself in the group. As a result I ended up being forced to view so many phone snapshots of babies in one sitting that it was like a witness interrogation program. Similarly, I went out for lunch with a boss once due to saying I would like his thoughts on the economy and almost snoozed and drowned in my bowl of soup as he went on and on for a good hour about the US oil sanction.
Similarly, I have also made up versions of myself to try and impress boys. This happened mostly when I was younger and I was a lot more insecure about myself. I said I liked metal music (I don’t. It’s horrendous). I pretended to enjoy an RM17 plate of banana fritters (not really. The pisang goreng stall near my parents’ house for RM2 per plastic bag is still the bomb). I said I believed in things I didn't. I admitted that I was a night bug to appear fun, got dragged to do things in the city into the early a.m. and ended up spending the next day with a headache at work. I piled on so much makeup that I looked like a Cher reincarnation. I even claimed that I am not at all concerned about money, which for some reason invited really cheap guys into my life (and honey, I know the difference between ‘careful’ and just plain old stingy).
By the age of 25 I began to realise that making up things just for the sake of impression is a sure fire way to create destructive, pretentious relationships with people around me. I mean, how long can you pretend that you enjoy exchanging thoughts on collagen youth drinks during lunch hour? One week. One week until you realise that it is just not worth spending all that time talking about seaweed that can make your skin fairer. On a bigger scale, appearing that you share the same aspirations, interests, passion and opinions just to seem agreeable to other people is exhausting and frankly, pointless. There is absolutely no way you could please everyone. Not even Oprah can pull that off.
So these days I go down the road less taken. I think we all do as we get a little older, as Meryl Streep once said, “I find that I care a lot less about a lot more stuff with age”. By no means at all implying that I am as old as Meryl, I think we all get more and more comfortable being ourselves with time. There is less and less personal need to exhibit ourselves as something we’re not whether it is in the workplace, with friends or with dates.
That being said, it is no question that first impressions are crucial. It’s what gets us a job. It’s what latches people’s interest to further probe. It’s how we make new connections. But at least by understanding where the line is drawn between portraying our best self and pretending someone we are not, we inch a step closer to build sincere, substantial and meaningful relationships with people around us.
Did you realize that these days you have fewer friends than you used to? Think about it. I’m not talking about acquaintances or the number of people you know – obviously these will only logically increase with your number of years. I’m talking about real friends, those whom you deem close to you and who you are emotionally attached to. And while we’re on that subject, did you also notice that you seem to care less about a lot of things you used to give a hoot about?
I used to find myself in events and social gathering that I would dread having to go to now. Thank God people gather less these days. I used to totter around with heels so uncomfortable my toes went numb. It was fun then but now I wear sensible work girl shoes. I used to enjoy having friends with questionable ethics doing borderline illegal stuff, but these days I'm a concerned citizen with a pepper spray. I used to worry a lot about family members/friends who struggle with issues, but now I have learned to be selective about them - some are worth everything and some are worth very little.
Whether we notice it or not, as we move past our phases in life we also drop and leave behind things and people that we no longer require. We don’t announce the end of friendships, but most will just fizzle away with the tide of an old lifestyle, as we start growing towards different personal directions. We don't publicly declare a 'type', but we slowly find ourselves attracted to only a group of certain people now. Subconsciously our minds are also built with a certain emotional threshold. Suddenly a lifelong family or relationship issue that seem to bog us all these while will come to a screeching halt and we find ourselves not slaving our energies to it any longer.
Sometimes, the actions are deliberate. We soberly and consciously make the decision to quit a relationship, a lifestyle or an ambition simply because it doesn’t fit us anymore. These are the hardest ones to do. To say goodbye to something familiar, to bid farewell to someone because he/she is no longer contributing to our happiness and to leave a life we knew so well because it is no longer making us contempt is a difficult feat. When I decided to stop taking sugared drinks seven years ago, it was sad because I really loved Coke. But it was necessary and I had to do it, and these days I don’t even like sweet beverages at all. Okay, maybe my example is not that profound, but you get the idea.
Over the years I had gone through many goodbyes. Some were unnoticed until they were gone, some were forced on me and some were choices I had to make to ensure I am better off, hopefully. I had to leave some parts of my lifestyle that I felt was not doing much for me anymore, and some relationships with friends and relatives fizzle off due to, well, life. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in cutting ties. I think it’s unhealthy to pretend that some things doesn’t exist when it does, or not acknowledging knowing someone whom you were obviously destined to have met in life. Rather, I believe in letting go. Letting go means you appreciate what has happened but are parking it in a slot in your mind where it will remain static – you will no longer progress to spend much time on it for now.
Letting go of something also means that you’re allowed to visit its memories once in a while. There is comfort in realizing that if you hadn’t known somebody or lived a certain life in the past, you would’ve never had these set of circumstances that ended you where you are today, with the things that you do have and the lessons you have learned. Some things are not good for you now but were so good back then while it lasted. It is not wrong to reminisce or even miss them a little. Sometimes I think about those days I went out all night and swam in the ocean at 4 am and I am filled with jealousy of the old me. But then the clock strikes 11 pm and I get a headache and I’m so glad I’m in my warm bed with iFlix instead because honey, this is my idea of a good night these days and there ain’t nothing wrong with that either.
I once sat at a dinner table with a group of friends – old and new. It was a huge group, and as huge groups go, the conversations would split in different ways. The quieter guys will have a quiet conversation on serious business, like work and the news. The more flamboyant group will make loud jokes and laugh, and occasionally attract the attention of the rest of the table. Then there are the observers, the ones that do not join the conversation, but contributes laughs and applause. At this busy table I looked around and overheard an old friend telling a new friend a description of me. I listened to this. And then I realize that less than half of the description is actually true facts about me. The rest of them are, well, ideas about me.
This brought me think about how I convey my message to others. I immediately recognize that I do the same exact thing. If I wanted to describe a person to someone else, instead of telling the facts about that person, I end up telling my impression about that person. For example, a guy who plays video games is now 'the guy who doesn't leave his room ever and lives in the dark with zero social skills', and a girl with a specific taste would be 'the girl who is a downright diva, has no adaptable qualities and a hassle to travel with'. This would eventually explain why secondary information is never correct. Instead of getting facts, we get the impression on how the person looks like to another. Which isn’t right. Everybody deserves a chance to portray themselves to another person all on their own.
It’s toxic, this thing we’re doing. We talk about people based on how we feel about them, and not only is it demeaning, it’s downright unfair. As a person who’s on the listening side of things, we too are obligated to understand that there are a few sides to every story, and to only mostly believe it when we see it. But like everything else in life, lessons are best learned when the joke’s on you. I suppose listening to that conversation about me was sort of a wake up call to what I might’ve done to others, and how affected people would feel if these people had heard it themselves. I might try not to do that too much now.
I’ve always found myself attracted to people and things that I feel understood me. I like certain kinds of music and certain kinds of books, and I like talking to certain people who sees the world in a certain kind of way. I guess I am doing what everyone else is doing too – we strive to be understood.
Essentially this is what everybody wants for themselves. A black sheep of a family is called a black sheep because nobody else understands what it is like to be him or her. You find soul mates because you have ‘chemistry’, and ‘chemistry’ is for me, just a fancy word for two people who get each other despite the differences. We value friends who we feel have the ‘same wavelength’ with us. Musicians write music and thinkers write books, all for this very same reason.
The older I get, the harder it is for me to feel like I am understood. In school we all wear the same uniform, in college we all want to graduate. But once real life begins, everybody disperses in a million different directions, with our own goals and outlooks in life. Some of us want to achieve a certain career goal and off they go, with their weekend work ethics and million-dollar aim. Some of us just want to get married as quickly possible and off they go, having ten kids before they’re thirty five. Some of us just want to leave home and travel the world, and off they go with their postcard-perfect pictures. Some of us find the life questions a bit too baffling and we take our own sweet time to figure them out, until we’re ready to get to the next phase, whenever that may be.
Unfortunately we live in a community where instead of being understood, we are forced to understand and comply with a set of rules, set by the common community. If you dream too big your feet won’t touch the ground. If you’re bad at maths, you’re probably stupid as a whole. If you don’t have it all figured out by a certain age, then you’re wasting your life away. If you see the world and life differently, then you’re wrong. We keep listening to these sentiments all the time, and yet it never occurred to us that if we’re all meant to think and feel and want the same, wouldn’t we be made as robots instead of people with independent thoughts?
I used to panic whenever I find myself not quite on everyone else’s timeline, or not really understanding things that other people seem to have already figured out. I felt like in my position, predicament and troubles, nobody understood me. Then I realized that if I wanted a solution, I would have to be a part of it. So instead of demanding people to understand me, I tried to understand other people first (it’s not easy though. People are complicated, I’ve come to realize). Their problems. Their life goals. They way they look at life. If I understood people, maybe, I’ll get the favor returned.
Cards I've kept, some dating as far back as the late 90s.
One day, my Mother asked me to clear up some space in my bedroom. I am a hoarder. I keep everything from old school books to empty perfume bottles, weird teenage-phase accessories (like a belly button ring. Why the hell did I have a belly button ring?) to worn out posters of Justin Timberlake. I came across a bag filled with greeting cards.
There were not only greeting cards. There were love letters, small notes scribbled on a piece of torn paper, postcards from friends and even apology notes from girlfriends. I sat on the floor of my room and read through them one by one. Some are hilarious, some are so grammatically incoherent I had no idea what they were saying, and some are downright touching that I immediately remembered exactly how I felt at that moment when I got these notes and writings.
As I went through them each I realized that there are three groups of people who wrote all these – people that have remained in my life up to this day, people I used to be close to but not anymore, and people whom I no longer talk to at all and have no idea what happened to them.
Why do we meet certain people in our lives? I have long ago succumbed to the fact that there is absolutely no such thing as a coincidence. That being said, there is absolutely no such thing as meeting someone by coincidence. It’s all part of the plan, how you fall into a situation where you’ll end up meeting somebody, whether it is a friend at a gathering, an acquaintance introduced by someone else, or a stranger in the bus who you’ll probably never see again, ever. Everyone you meet in this life, you meet for a reason.
Sometimes this leaves me baffled. Why do I always end up sitting next to a weirdo in the plane? Why do I meet friends who drift away eventually? Why do I meet guys who would proceed to hurt me? I spent a lot of time analyzing this as I grew up.
As I made my peace with the fact that no meeting is a chance meeting, I realized that people exists in your life to teach you things you cannot teach yourself. It is part of the Big Plan that you would meet these people, so that you can take away something that you’ve learned about your relationships with them. It doesn’t have to be a prominent lesson or anything, but these are the small things that would eventually build you up to become who you are right now.
The more I settled with this idealism, the happier I became. A friend who turned up to be unreliable? Well at least I now know that relying too much on other people is stupid. An annoying guy you sat next to all through your flight who kept talking about Canada? Well now I know one about one other place in the world. A guy who broke your heart? Well thanks to him I now know a few different bands with great music from his iPod selection.
Knowing many people throughout our lives is a great way to upgrade ourselves. After so many of it we would eventually understand what is and isn’t acceptable in a relationship with other friends. We would understand what really matters when it comes to meeting a guy. We would learn how to be pleasant to everyone, even strangers. We would see that being constantly angry does no good to anyone. One could only hope, that as we grow older, all these ‘upgrading’ processes will eventually leave us with only great, happy relationships with people that matter, in this world that doesn’t.