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Thursday, 22 February 2018

Keep calm and climb on


Drops of tears trickled down my cheeks as I took my finger out of the bucket of ice water.

When I look back at the past 23 years of my life, I realise that I have never actually committed to a particular hobby. I sing in the shower, I dance in front of the mirror now and then, I used to doodle a lot, I won some trophies in the international chess tournaments in primary school, I did some cheerleading and played some netball in secondary school, I passed the Grade 7 piano exam, and I used to run a lot (until I joined the army and starting hating it). Yes, I did a lot of things; and I'm decent at most of it. But there wasn't anything that I felt could be a life-long hobby. There wasn't anything that made me earnestly want to get better and better (except for maybe chess; I genuinely loved the checkmates). I guess that made me a jack of all trades, master of none.

Two years ago, I started rock-climbing (bouldering). Initially, I did it to accompany Marcus since he had no one to climb with in Manchester. For a whole year, I would go to the climbing gym with the intention of 'keeping fit with my boyfriend in a rather fun way'. To put it another way, it was just another sport that I didn't mind spending 3 hours of my time on every week. To my pleasant surprise, I improved exponentially. And as my strength increased, so did my interest for the sport.

Climbing has made me do things that I never expected myself to do. I hate competitions, especially when I'm not utterly confident. Even though I'm still too apprehensive about competing in Singapore (where everything is just so much more competitive than elsewhere), I have climbed for my university in the UK. It was pretty dreadful, but it was a great experience. But that's not the most shocking. What marvels me, even till today, is the fact that I climb alone at least twice a week in Cambridge. Before I started climbing, I used to ask Marcus why on earth would he climb alone. I guess I've always seen climbing as a social sport. It seemed silly to climb alone. I was wrong. Yes, climbing is a social sport and the gym is always filled with groups of friends - laughing, chatting, and cheering each other on. But it is also a place for students and workers to go, by themselves, in the middle of their breaks or after work to rejuvenate. More than that, I've started to proselytise about how great the sport is; and the joy of bringing a friend who has never climbed to the gym is unspeakable.

All these must definitely attest to how much I've grown to love the sport. My Instagram explore page is littered with climbing videos. A quarter (probably even more) of my conversations with Marcus is about climbing (although we can probably attribute it more to him than me). We even talked about building a climbing wall in our home in the future! And I've started to do 'silly' #climber things like hanging on a board and chasing numbers on a wall. Until a month ago.

I've had this dull ache in my ring finger for a couple of weeks but my excitement to complete the next 6C+ route at the gym caused me to close an eye and 'allez' through it. It was a bad, very bad, decision. I hope someone could've warned me about my stubbornness. As I spanned across the wall to reach for the pinch on the right, I heard a loud 'POP' in my left hand and immediately let go of the crimp I was holding on to. I landed on the mat with a thud, staring at my left ring finger, as it went completely numb. I had pulled a tendon in the finger.

That was five weeks ago. I remember desperately Googling for answers (as I always do). 'How long does it take for a pulley injury to recover?' It depends on the severity of the injury, said Google, but typically for a small tear, it would take two weeks to a month before a climber can resume light climbing. I was relieved to know that.

I went to climb yesterday, expecting myself to be able to complete at least the 6As (and thinking that I've seriously lowered the bar). Oh boy I was wrong. I did a dyno to a jug and pain seared through my ring finger as soon as it touched the hold. Clearly, my injury was worse than I thought. If you're a climber and you're reading this right now, you're probably thinking I'm an idiot. I don't deny that but to be fair, I was very very hopeful. And hope makes you do stupid things.

Today, as I did my ice therapy, it struck me just how unfair this setback is. I don't know when my finger would fully recover. I don't even have the confidence to say that it would - that I would be able to crimp as hard as I used to when it hurts to even hold a jug right now! I was so discouraged that I told Marcus that maybe climbing isn't a thing for me anymore. I have been religiously doing my ice and heat therapy, and recovery stretches and exercises every damn day since I pulled my tendon but it seems to have had been to no avail. Every time I go to the gym thinking 'maybe I'll be able to climb a decent route today', I leave disappointed and frustrated.

But then I suddenly remembered one of the biggest setbacks in my life - my A Levels. I remembered how I shut myself in my room and sobbed for the entire day, as I reported my score to the scholarship board knowing that the overseas scholarship would be taken away from me. And I remembered how, despite of the huge setback, I managed to eventually get to where I have always aspired to be - here in Cambridge. I took the longer (and bumpier) road; but I am here.

So I will not stop climbing. I will probably be frustrated when I climb again this week, next week, and the week after. And more. But I won't stop climbing. I'm not an exceptional climber, and I don't aspire to be one. But the least I can do for myself is to not throw away this sport that I have grown to love just because of a tiny setback. I wiped away my tears and began my finger stretches.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Our own gods


The sound of the engines grows louder and louder as the train departs from the Cambridge train station. I peek outside the window and see a blonde-haired lady with a turquoise suitcase and grey fur coat chasing after the train. Of course, the train doesn’t stop for her. In fact, it picks up speed. I find it amusing how some people chase after trains when they have begun their departure. I get it for buses – I do that sometimes, too – but trains are different. They absolutely won’t stop for you. At least not here in the UK.

The train has reached a constant speed, as it swooshes through the vast expanse of greenery with sporadic sights of cottage-like houses. Ah, this is what serenity looks like. If only, the sun would emerge from these thick and gloomy clouds. A slightly plump man with a white bushy beard enters the cabin and exclaims in a low and husky voice, “Tickets, please!” I snap out of my reverie and start digging into my haversack for my ticket and railcard. Three passengers to go – I must find them before he approaches me! A commotion arises between the ticket inspector and the three passengers. Wonderful, more time for me!  

The commotion turns into a full blown argument. Everyone in the cabin has stopped whatever they are doing, giving full attention to these three passengers. I make sense of the situation and realise that the three passengers are probably friends. It seems that they have missed the previous train and hopped on to this train, in hope that there would not be a penalty. The ticket inspector decides to go by the books and charges them an extra ten pounds each, as this is a peak-hour train. Just as the ticket inspector turns away from them and approaches me, one of the three passengers, a white man in his late-twenties, makes a cutting remark, “You should go home tonight and reflect on what you did. You could have been nice about it but you didn’t.” The ticket inspector looks at me, and gives me a sad smile. I feel bad for him. He was just doing his job.

The journey continues as though nothing has happened. Everyone resumes whatever they were doing prior to the commotion. I put on my ear piece and shuffle-play the playlist that I have created just for long train rides like this. I watch the barren trees pass by me, as I think of my loved ones back at home. I think of my brother has just enlisted into the army. I think of my third sister who is stressing over her A level examination, going through the exact same thing as I did six years ago. I think of my forth sister who looks like a graceful doe when she dances but an angry water buffalo when she speaks. I think of my baby sister whom I skyped just yesterday and looks as though she has grown even bigger than I last remembered. Indeed, she is no baby anymore. And I think of my dad who tells me that I’ve put on weight every time we Skype (I would be obese by now if it’s true, dad) and my mum who is always, always, always asking about my health (which hasn’t been great lately). She is what makes home, home; she is my go-to when I have my period cramps, when I can’t sleep, and when I’m aching all over. I think about my loved one who is waiting for me upon arrival in Oxford in about two hours. I think about just how important they are to me and how much I love them – more than myself, indeed. I think about how love is so powerful, as to make a selfish person like myself selfless.

But then, I also realise that I am wrong. Love is not selfless. It is in every bit selfish. I protect and care for these people because if something were to happen to them, my heart would be wrecked. I love them; I love them with all my heart because it brings me joy, and satisfaction, and purpose. I think about them, and I miss them dearly, because they give me a place I can call home even when I am thousands of miles away.

And then I suddenly understand why that blonde-haired lady would chase after the train even though it wasn’t going to stop for her anyway. I also understand why the passenger in front of me condemned the ticket inspector for merely doing his job. It is this: regardless of how good or bad it is, the action or thought of every human being is ultimately driven by none other than him or herself. I do a quick Google search, as I always do when looking for answers, and find that there is, indeed, a philosophical term for it: psychological egoism. Whether you love or hate a person, whether you commit a theft or donate to a charity, you are ultimately motivated by self-interest. The blonde-haired lady chased after the train because, instinctively, she expected it to stop for her even though she knew it wouldn’t. The passenger in front of me faulted the ticket inspector for doing his job because in his perspective, it wasn’t fair. At the end of the day, we see things from our own perspective. In my eyes, the world and everything in it revolves around me. And in your eyes, they revolve around you.

But the funny thing is: even when you turn into ashes, the world continues to spin. Someone will probably shed a tear or two. Another, buckets. But eventually, you will become a faded memory, buried in the shadow of new acquaintances and experiences. And when the people who remember you turn into ashes, too, there will probably be barely any trace left of you in this world. And in spite of that, in spite of having a full knowledge of that, you would still continue to live this life as though the world revolves around you. As though the sun rises every morning, the stars sparkle in the night, the waves sing a never-ending lullaby just for you. And so will I. Why? Because that’s a human thing to do. Because at the end of the day, like it or not, we are all our own gods.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Six years, and closer than ever ♥

#throwback to when we were 17 and free cones day was the best date everrrr 

Six years. With each passing year, our anniversary celebration becomes less and less extravagant. Perhaps, it's because we are getting lazy. Or perhaps, it's because we are so certain of our future together that we no longer need to indulge in the idea that we have been together for (merely) another year. What is a year compared to a lifetime together? This year, we had to celebrate it a couple of days earlier, before I headed back to Cambridge for the new academic term. We deliberated over whether to spend the evening climbing or watching The Greatest Showman. We went for the latter, and had absolutely no regrets. We headed home after the movie, and decided to have a simple burger-and-shake meal at the pretty hipster shop just down the road. We shared our sides (as usual), played a gory version of would-you-rather (which included death by mincer or being gradually pulled apart by four horses on each limb - yucks. We both chose the quicker death, to be minced alive.), chatted about outdoor climbing, DC comic characters, and the table on our left. It was like any other date night. I loved it.

About two weeks ago, I was mad at you (but mostly at myself). Instead of telling you, I said I was tired and wanted to go to bed first. You knew that something wasn't right. About half an hour later, you came to check if I was still awake but I pretended to be asleep. I regretted the moment you left the room. I got up, went to find you, and asked for an iPhone charger. (Oh, what a poor excuse!) Nonetheless, it resulted in a two-hour long conversation that was extremely therapeutic. I shared with you what I had been struggling with (emotionally) for the past few weeks - possibly months - and coincidentally, it was something you had studied in your undergrad. I am not ashamed to share it with everyone now: it was rumination. You told me how to overcome it, and as I tried, I felt instantly better. We rejoiced for a good ten minutes, as you uttered a prayer over me, and we exchanged hugs. We were awestruck by the meaningful and timely conversation that we had! I don't know what that evening meant to you but to me, it brought our relationship to a whole new level (just when I thought we couldn't get any closer, after being together for almost six years). A friend once asked me if I could ever be fully known by another person, and my instantaneous answer was 'no'. I've always been resistant to reveal my vulnerabilities to others, including the people closest to me; but that evening, after sharing my struggle with you, it felt as though I was standing before you, for the first time, emotionally bare. And I guess, that has also given me the confidence to truthfully share, here, not only the pretty moments and peaks in our relationship (and in my life), but also the troughs. I'm proud to say that I've emerged from my trough, and have yet to engage in a full cycle of rumination since then - I've learned to stop myself in my tracks.

Today, as we turn six, I'm thankful for you, more than ever. While human relationships are largely characterised by pompous celebrations and superficial conversations, I'm glad that I have you. I'm glad that I have someone that I don't have to put up a fence with, someone who although may not fully understand me, chooses, every day, to accept me anyway, and someone whom I can depend on, with no fear of betrayal. I don't need fancy dinners and diamond rings, I just need you by my side, with no frills.

Happy sixth anniversary, my dear. I love you with all my heart, and more...

Monday, 8 January 2018

What is wrong with us?


I sat in the middle of the congregation, listening to the pastor preach on the Beatitudes (it was probably the third, fourth, or even fifth time that I've heard a sermon on the Beatitudes), as my mind drifted off to the future - to a week later, when Lent term would finally begin. I created a mental checklist of the things I wished to accomplish in the final week of Christmas break. But that wasn't it. I was still listening- blessed are the peacemakers... And also observing the people at my periphery. People watching; something that I've always been inclined to do when I'm in a sea of human beings. The girl on my left drew out her cell phone, casually strolling through her Instagram feed and 'liking' every photo (as though there was an auto clicker installed into her thumb) while listening, and nodding, to the pastor. She seemed to be about two or three years younger than me, give or take. The man on my right was sat upright, listening attentively to the preacher, with a bible open on his lap- Matthew 5. He caught me taking a glance at him. I gave him a sheepish smile, and he reciprocated with a tender grin. He was about thrice my age, or maybe slightly less.

At that moment, I paused, grabbed hold of that awry feeling within me, and pondered on what actually was wrong with the situation. And beyond that, what is wrong with us, young people.

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1. We need to be constantly multi-tasking. While the elderly man appeared to have no issue offering his full attention to the pastor, I found myself fidgeting in my seat, as multiple thoughts ran through my mind - some from the sermon, and some from i-don't-know-where. The same could be said for the girl to my left. She needed to be doing something else, on top of merely listening to the sermon. That's what's wrong with us. We seem to be unable to devote our full attention to doing one thing at a time. When I study, I need music. I also need my cup of tea and some snacks at arms length. And I need my phone to be by my side so that I can unlock it the moment I receive a notification. Perhaps it is because we have all become such social (media) beings that our attention has become habitually divided by the myriad of content that appears every second on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. We cannot focus. And this brings me to my next observation.

2. We want to be good at everything. I recall the to-do lists that my friends and I came up with in secondary and high school. They included things that we wanted to do or learn after completing our O and A Level examinations. I remember that among the many things we wanted to tick off the list, there were learning a new language, picking up self-defence, going for dance classes, running a marathon and mastering a couple of pop songs on the piano. Unsurprisingly, we left most of the boxes unchecked. I mean, yes, we did try a bit of everything but we didn't actually accomplish anything. That's the problem. We want to be good at everything but when we try to devote our limited attention to so many things, we end up being good at nothing. We are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. The same thing can be said about friendships. We prioritise quantity over quality. We invest in too many friendships that we end up having very few genuine friendships.

3. We care too much about what other people think. I'm not talking about our Instagram pages right now (although that is also a problem). I'm talking about our conversations. I'm talking about the tyranny of liberal views and how it has made our conversations, on the contrary, highly illiberal. In the past, we could talk freely (well, not completely freely but surely more than at present), debate, and sometimes even joke about 'taboo' topics such as religion, sexuality and feminism with people of diverse views. Today, it seems like society has as a whole come into conclusion about certain issues and there is no longer room for debate. Joking about them seems like a crime in this hypersensitive environment. As a result, we have become largely evasive to deep conversations with people who are different. For issues in which we empathise with society at large, we are very vocal. But in areas where we differ, we seem to prefer to hangout with those of the same views. I, too, am guilty of it and I don't exactly blame us. Society seems to be getting more and more polarised, and it makes it more intimidating to approach someone with a different view. But this has to stop! The more we encourage groupthink, the more intolerant our society will become. I'm not saying that we should be insensitive and not care about other people's feelings. What I'm saying is that, perhaps, we can combine the lessons that can be learnt from our predecessors and the modern times: to express what we truly think but in a respectful manner and with an open mind.

4. We are not willing to work hard for the small things. Perhaps because we have been told countless of times to 'dream big' and not settle for anything less, we have the tendency to dismiss many meaningful but seemingly trivial things in life. The first thing that comes to mind is cooking. In my three years of undergrad, I've met many students who complain that eating out is too expensive but cooking takes 'too much time and effort'. They have more important things to do like studying, and dinner becomes something that is just a call away.

I am currently living with a retired English couple and what makes them admirable, in my opinion, is the amount of time they devote to preparing dinner and reading. Every evening, they spend about an hour preparing dinner and another eating. After that, they would sit by the radiator with a glass of wine and a book in hand for about three hours before heading to bed. I enjoy reading. But I sometimes find myself getting frustrated when the novel I'm reading involves the use of way too many words to describe a situation. I always end up 'Googling' for spoilers. And I guess, the same can be said for acquiring information. With a vast network of information available to us at the click of a finger, we don't quite see the point in reading books that require hours of comprehension before gleaning its treasures of knowledge. And this is a huge pity. We miss out on the simple pleasures in life, which require patience and hard work.

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As I thought about these things, I gradually slipped into a state of despair. I knew that I was part of a generation that is plagued with problems that cannot be nipped in the bud, placed in circumstances beyond our control. But I also knew that while we cannot control the circumstances that we are in, as corny as it sounds, we can control how we react to them. We can, as I shared in my previous blog post, will against ourselves and choose to do what we would not naturally choose. 'And this is my final and most important point.' I looked up at the pastor and realised that I had missed a significant portion of the sermon. All I could do then was to wave off every other thought and give my full attention to the last bit of wisdom that she had to offer.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Not wilful but strong-willed


2018.

The first few days of the year are always so surreal. The four numbers seem so foreign, like a distant vision of the future. And yet, it is the present.

A year ago, just before 2016 came to a close, I wrote a letter to myself a year from then. As I read it today, it occured to me just how well I know myself. I knew that in spite of rallying myself again and again to go further and beyond my potential, I would still fall back to my default way of life. That is how my life has been in the past 23 years: oscillating between wanting to prove myself to be better than I really am and being comfortable with the status quo.

As with most people, I looked back at the past year with a tinge of regret, knowing that I could and should have lived it to the fullest but I didn't. Of course, there were significant milestones and achievements that are worth celebrating, rejoicing and recalling with pride. But at this moment in time, despite being placed in an environment of unceasing opportunities, I find myself merely floating. Unlike my logic-driven friends who are able to consistently go to bed at 12a.m. at night and get up at 8a.m. in the morning, I am someone who is driven by my natural impulse. I sleep when my bed calls out to me and I get up when I think I've gotten my due hours of rest (which typically include almost an hour of rolling in bed in the morning). Like every personality trait, there are pros and cons. A feelings-driven person like myself would spread his/her wings and soar when it comes to things that he/she is highly motivated to achieve. But at the same thing, without something that excites him/her, he/she would simply float along and live day by day feeling (almost) completely satisfied and comfortable achieving barely anything.

This is how a typical day at home looks like for (an unmotivated) me, when I'm not at college. I would get up when the sun is hanging high up in the sky. I would take my own sweet time to make breakfast lunch and then do my quiet time. And the rest of the day would be a random blur of coursework and tv series, before hitting the sack when my eyelids start getting heavier than I can bear. (Mind you, being feelings-driven does not mean I'm lazy. I get my coursework done but that's about it.)

To be honest, a typical day for a motivated me looks pretty much the same. In fact, it probably applies to most students. But there is something different. I feel different- ideas blossom in my head at random parts of the day, keeping me awake at night and giving me something to look forward to the next morning. There is this unquenchable fire within me that invariably manifests itself in every area of my life: my relationships with others, my conversations, my writing, my work, and my worship. It is no longer mere satisfaction and comfort. It is passion, zeal, and immense joy that I experience.

While this is fantastic, I've come to see that waiting for that moment of awakening is a tremendously unhealthy way of living my life. Those are times when the best of me is put on display for the world to see but those are also times that rarely come by. Out of ten essays that I write, probably only one would ignite that enthusiasm within me. Out of the multitude of things that I encounter each day, week, or even month, probably only one would inspire me to write. And when I return to work in seven months, I'm pretty sure that not every day would remind me of why I chose the job. I guess that's just how life is. If every day is a special day, there would be no special days at all.

I recently read that,

'the strong-willed one is not the wilful one. A wilful child wants only his own way. His will has never been exercised against himself. The strong-willed person wills against himself, chooses that which he does not naturally choose, refuses that which he would naturally choose.'

I guess that is my answer to how I should seek to live out 2018. I don't have any specific resolutions for the new year but I know that what I want to do this year is to make my dull days meaningful (not necessarily exciting, but meaningful). I don't want to waste these precious opportunities just because I am not in the groove. To do that, I have to exchange my wilfulness for a strong will; a will to make the most of even the dullest of days. To not give in to my natural impulse of seeking comfort and mere satisfaction in doing 'what I feel like doing today.' To stop dancing back and forth in a salsa of excitement and monotony.
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