on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

60 months of love and pictures

How do I begin writing words about a relationship that has spanned across 60 months? Every month on this date I’d write my reflections on the relationship and publish them somewhere on social media. Once in a while I’ll publish a long-form post here. I am glad to have this practice, because I am not delusional enough to believe I can remember everything, and once in a while when I look back at them it brings me back to moment I’d written them.

Since personally I think five years is a major milestone – I had this silly idea of making a powerpoint presentation of some photos we’ve taken over the past five years like those you would see at a wedding, but since it is actually a hassle to publish a slideshow I’ll try to do something here.

The first photo of us we’ve ever taken was already one month into our relationship:

We don’t have photos prior to that, because it just felt like something that wouldn’t last. If you had known us separately it would come as a huge surprise if you knew we were dating, our worlds didn’t seem like they would intersect.

Shortly after she had to go overseas for a work trip. The time apart so early in our relationship was significant in many ways. It cemented something profound me in that lasted even till today. Her trip triggered my anxiety about abandonment, yet instead of dismissing them like many people would, she showed up. We barely knew each other, but she showed up.

late night skype calls

Getting used to a new person is really challenging, and sometimes the romance makes it harder because it obscures so much. In fleeting moments we got to see each other for who we really are instead of who we imagined each other to be. We fought a lot and hard, but somehow still managed to like each other very much. From this relationship I learned it isn’t romantic love that makes a relationship last, it is genuine liking that will tide us through.

always taking pictures of each other

Six months into our relationship we got really tired of staying out late and all the late night skyping, so we decided to rent a place so we could move in together. Even then it wasn’t like ‘let’s move in together so we can stay together for the rest of our lives’, but ‘hey let’s move in together before we break up’. LOL. We’re both commitment phobic, which turned out to work out in terms of compatibility.

barebones furniture because of commitment phobia

Play is an important theme in our relationship. I grew up too fast so I don’t know how to play, yet I knew it would be important for me as I tried to recover from burnout. She’s game to play whatever I want to play. She never once discouraged me, or faulted me for my short attention span. She’s really good at playing, and it makes me aware how awkward and clumsy I feel whenever it comes to something that requires a playful spirit.

she wins me even at lego

She started making art, and often makes hilarious comics about our relationship:

A year later we made another leap. We would “buy” (double quotation marks because it is legally a remaining 94-year lease) a public flat together. Our relationship was roughly 1.5 years old back then, so it was still a risk, but we had contingency plans in case we couldn’t last.

putting together furniture

I’d moved out since I was 19, and have been moving residences and across oceans. I’d always wanted to be a nomad, until age and burn out caught up with me. Living out of a suitcase is very liberating, but having physical books on a bookshelf without having to pack them in boxes every year is a different kind of liberation.

Co-owning a home felt like a quantum leap for both of us.

art by @launshae

One of the best parts of being with her is to continually and consistently witness the evolution in her art.

her first art sale!
she’s constantly recording

The intimacy of our relationship is sometimes reflected more accurately in her art. After all there is only so much words can say.

Living with an artist means getting to see art pop up in unexpected places too…

Seeing stuff like those around our home just enriches and deepens my life. It is not just the bright and colourful, but the dark and unseen truth too.

I can write a million words to describe how I feel, but that pales in comparison to a picture accurately capturing the sentiment.

That is how I know she sees me like no other.

It is kind of surreal going through five years of photos. We’ve both changed so much and yet so much still feels like the same. I think being able to age together is a blessing.

I’m always writing…
…and she’s always making art
her interpretation of our coworking after watching too many kdramas
celebrating 3 years in 2019
delivering food together
4 years in 2020
love in times of covid
surprise for this year’s birthday
another surprise for today!

In Singapore it is still illegal to be gay, much less be married. We often wonder if we would register our marriage if it was ever legal. Sometimes we talk about doing it in New Zealand. For me it is not so much that marriage is a romantic dream, but rather I just want legal recognition. How can someone go through so much of life with me, give me unending support throughout difficult times, and simply be a “friend”? It feels grossly unfair and offensive to me. I want her name to appear first on my obituary, no questions asked.

But for now perhaps it would be enough to be more married in spirit than some would ever be, that because we are not legally bound there is only love to bind us, the sort of love that is the outcome of being profoundly intertwined for such a significant part of our lives.

After five years, we still like each other very much.

changing the way I write and publish

Lately I’ve been noticing an internal reluctance to write and publish. I don’t think if it is a sign of ageing – that my cognitive performance is getting slower, or that the topics I wish to write are getting more complex. Maybe a bit of both.

I used to designate a specific day to sit down, write and publish in a short intense burst. It has been getting more difficult to do that as my writing ambitions become greater. I spent the last two days writing a review for one of my favourite books “A general theory of love“, and I became so mentally exhausted within an hour that I stopped writing for the rest of the day.

I realised this is partly because I am used to working in short intense bursts (which worked when I was young and sprightly). Sometimes these short intense bursts become long-drawn, and before I know it I’ve been sitting at the computer for like eight hours. It is of no wonder I burn out frequently. That is why the updates to the site and to the site’s library is so sporadic. I work on it in multiple intense bursts and then I am done for weeks, if not months.

As I age I think this is unsustainable, so I am going to try a new experiment. Though I frequently claim on this site that a leopard can truly change its spots, I am not confident in this case because this has been a chronic work pattern I simply cannot seem to break out of. But I am still going to try.

I will simply schedule an hour or two each day to work on my writing instead of trying to publish them at one burst. I may take longer to publish each piece, though in between I may publish casual, stream of consciousness pieces like this one.

Hopefully this will enable me to share more of what I’ve learned throughout the past few years. Meanwhile I am still relatively active on Instagram stories, and also occasionally I cannot help but tweet long threads:

I wanted to turn the above tweet thread into an essay, but this is an example of something that requires more detailed thought and nuance if it exists in long-form.

One of the more frustrating things in expressing my views is that it is difficult to communicate the relationships within an interconnected system:

…in a linear form like writing, but maybe this is something I can solve with time if I can manage to figure out how to work sustainably.

on my (lack of) emotional maturity

I told a close friend recently that I see myself as an emotionally immature person. She was surprised, saying that I tend to have a harsh assessment of myself. I am not sure if it is harsh, but for me it is an inner truth. It took me a long time to get to a point when I can actually see it in the various ways it manifests, and not be in denial about it.

When I was in my early 20s (like 20 years ago) I dated someone who accused me of being immature. I flipped. As a child I was constantly told I was mature beyond my years, so that became my identity. What I didn’t know then was that there is a difference between intellectual and emotional maturity, and there is also a difference between expressing maturity as a persona versus how we truly feel and react behind closed doors.

In many ways and for many reasons I grew up too fast for my own good as a child. It is only upon reading some child psychology books recently that acting like an adult as a child is not psychologically healthy. As a consequence I feel like I did not fully develop into an adult. It was like a leap between child and adult, and there was a void in between where normally kids would mature in developmental stages, whereas I simply started acting like an adult. A personality is complex, so one can display a maturity beyond one’s years in select situations, and yet still act like a child in others. An example I would apply for myself is that as a child I could carry out conversations with people double my age, but when my security is being threatened I would have a meltdown, especially with people close to me.

It may seem weird because it is so common, but a truly mature adult would not frequently go into meltdowns. I should not have to explain this, but I think many of us are so lacking in psychological knowledge. Losing one’s temper easily, raising voices, being unable to take criticisms and taking them very personally, issuing threats when threatened – behaviour that is actually really common even in really old people (physical age does not equate to emotional age), are symptoms of emotional dysregulation. A well-developed person would calmly assess the situation, take some time to weigh their options – not reacting instantly.

For a very long time I thought I was just an emotional person when seemingly minor triggers would cause extreme reactions. I was a timid person so I would not react outwardly much, but internally it would cause me a lot of turmoil and I would probably cry a lot privately. This affected my relationships, because I could not process people’s interactions with me objectively, I over-read everything, interpreted everything negatively, couldn’t communicate properly, didn’t have a sense of self to fall back upon.

This affected my personal relationships mostly as I over-compensated for my professional relationships by being as high functioning as possible. Yet the stress and disconnect between who I expressed versus who I really was made me burn out multiple times in my career. I took everything too seriously, worshipped my bosses, was over-eager to prove myself beyond my professional responsibilities, had zero boundaries, etc. I attributed my burnout to working too much, but only in recent times that I realised it is our internal narratives/scripts which are the root causes of perpetuating that behaviour.

My extreme personality brought me many opportunities because I tried and did many things many people wouldn’t, it also contributed a lot to any conventional success in my career. But I was like a quick-burning rocket: fast and furious before plunging deep into the ocean. Sometimes I wonder if I could have gone further in a more sustainable, meaningful manner if I had a more balanced personality with proper boundaries.

I was also a terrible partner in many previous relationships though I was mostly unaware of it at those points in time. I deeply regret them. It is difficult to be a good partner when one is always insecure. By the time I met my current partner I was single for half a decade, read enough to know why so I worked really hard on myself but probably wasn’t enough. Thankfully I was able to work together with my partner on improving our relationship, and she is very different from people I was attracted to before, probably because after reading a book I consciously stopped seeking out the previous dynamic that was playing out (once I was aware of the nature of that dynamic).

So, why am I airing my dirty laundry in public (again)? Because I think we don’t talk about what it means to be a work-in-progress, and the existential and environmental factors that contribute to shaping one’s personality. Unlike common belief that a leopard does not change its spots, it is entirely possible to change one’s personality. It is called growth and maturity. We believe one’s character is set in stone, and there are many of us who fault ourselves (and others) for being the way we are. This is a huge contributor to human suffering, I personally believe.

I know I personally emotionally and mentally suffered because I deeply hated myself for who I was – there was a huge disconnect between who I thought I was, who I wanted to be, and who I was truly capable of being. Just in case you think I making a molehill out of nothing because suffering only exists in war-torn zones and people who suffered terrible physical abuse – if that is the case, why is the mental health of the general population declining? Why are there still suicides in economically wealthy and safe countries? Why do people who seem to have everything choose to kill themselves? Why do kids think of jumping off buildings?

Unfortunately, the way we are capable of seeing ourselves affect the way we see others and how we interact in our close relationships. There are disconnects between how we want other people to be versus what they are truly capable of being. To understand why people are the way they are, we have to go deep into evolutionary history, history itself, neuroscience, human psychology, etc. But we judge people solely on their individual outcomes.

I digress. I wanted to write something about my emotional immaturity, and it became almost a full-blown commentary on why society is f*cked up. I guess what I really wanted to write was: once I had a more accurate understanding of who I truly was, where my maturity levels truly were, why they were stunted – the quality of my life improved by leaps and bounds. I stopped expecting myself to be a person I couldn’t be, I stopped expecting other people to be who I wanted them to be, I stopped expecting the world to be a place I thought it should be. I could engage with myself authentically, and I was better at meeting people where they are. I stopped having unreasonable demands or wishful thinking.

A person cannot direct his emotional life in the way he bids his motor system to reach for a cup. He cannot will himself to want the right thing, or to love the right person, or to be happy after a disappointment, or even to be happy in happy times. People lack this capacity not through a deficiency of discipline but because the jurisdiction of will is limited to the latest brain and to those functions within its purview. Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.

Source: A General Theory of Love | link

I am not saying we simply accept who we are and where things are. Rather, I am arguing that it is necessary to understand the true reality before we can know what are the tools we can actually use and what is the sort of change we can expect. We can’t expect a person who is born blind to see colours, but that’s what we’re expecting when we want people to be saint-like, rational, and faultless, when neuroscientifically it is virtually impossible.

I am still an emotionally immature person with plenty of flaws. This is not an excuse to behave badly, but I do keep my circle of interaction small so I do not unintentionally hurt people unconsciously. I know I am emotionally immature and have the potential to hurt, so I would rather not. I do try to be more compassionate with myself when I fumble, especially when I struggle with my own behaviour towards myself, such as unkind thoughts or unfair criticisms. My partner has become a great sounding board, though we do run the risk of becoming each other’s echo chamber. I do try to learn widely to expand my worldview and challenge my internal mirror.

I hope this could be clear by now, but I am not writing this post to intentionally praise or criticise myself, but rather – if I failed in my intended communication – to encourage all of us to be gentler in our interactions with ourselves and each other, because it takes a village to raise a child, and unfortunately the village that exists now is deficient, or perhaps a better way to look at it is that we are all – ancestors included –works in progress.


I guess 40 is the age when I should not be offended when people call me, “auntie”. It seems like many people are uncomfortable with ageing, but in general I like to age. It is ageing that has made me understand that I can have agency, it is also ageing that has given me perspective. I can now see why people mellow with age – so many things that used to make me boil with rage or shake with shame are now insignificant in the grand scheme.

If I could turn back time and make my younger self believe me I would tell her not to bother with the education system and instead take my self-directed learning journey more seriously. Yes, I am 40 and I still feel traumatised by my school days. Many experiences from that time still cripple me in many ways. I have spent my entire 30s trying to overcome the profound sadness I have felt in the first twenty years of my life.

I am 40 today, and I still feel profoundly sad. You know what they call an earworm? It is like a song that get stuck in your head. I think my sadness is something like that. It is a feeling stuck in the depths of my body and my psyche. But reading plenty of buddhism and psychology books had taught me that my feelings are not me, that the brain is designed to protect us and be efficient so remembering what used to threaten us will keep us safe by making us avoid those threats. I know all of that intellectually, so most days I try to make the best out of my time by somewhat co-existing with that sadness. It used to paralyse me.

Along the way I developed more compassion for myself. I used to get really upset with myself because I can’t function as well as other people, but now I understand it is just how my brain is wired due to previous experiences so there is very little I can do to rearrange those neurons in the short-term. There are things that we can do in the long-term like meditation or therapy, but I think what changed in the last year or so is my capacity to be more accepting when I regress or when progress is slow. The whole lockdown situation probably helped as I could no longer find distractions so I had to exist closely with my dysfunctional psyche. It was really unpleasant but only on hindsight – necessary. I became a lot more honest with myself. I mean, I always had the belief I was honest with myself but there are always deeper layers to unravel.

I am a lot more okay with being lacking as a person. To be irrelevant, behind, unseen. For me, that is one of the greatest sources of stability and peace. Because of society conditioning we are always trying to signal something whether consciously or unconsciously, so just plain giving up is really freeing. Sometimes I wonder if this is all something I could have done much earlier in my life, but maybe I had to experience the conventional life to truly know that is something I do not want. I am just thankful to know this early enough.

I am excited to start my 40s. When I became 30 I made it a personal goal to live my next ten years such that I can become an awesome 40 year old. My definition of “awesome” has dramatically changed. I think at 30 I imagined myself being some thought leader (hahahaha) somewhere doing world-changing things. Ten years are enough to know that it is tremendously difficult to change the world without harming it, because most of us cannot see the systemic effects of our actions. My ex-colleague used to tell me that she is skeptical of the word, “scale”, and I used to debate her strongly on that citing her of all the examples of how scale had changed the world for the better. It turns out now I think she was right, and “for the better” may only seem better in the short-term (see: my favourite fable on this).

Now, I just want to stop harming myself and the people around me (No I don’t go slashing people but psychological harm is a lot more insidious and long-lasting). My only wish if I may have one is to be healthier and that my loved ones stay healthy. 40 is the age when we start experiencing more death around us, and I am not prepared for it at all. It gives me terrible anxiety whenever I think about it (everyday). Tibetan buddhists spend a lot of their lives preparing for death, though it is in a different context because they believe in reincarnation, in my personal context I do hope I can develop the capacity to accept the inevitable with more grace. More importantly, I want to always be mindful of the time I have left with other people.

For the past few years, whether for new years or my birthdays I have probably wanted nothing more than inner peace. That’s probably because I had known nothing apart from inner turmoil. I cannot say I have attained inner peace – I don’t think even monastics lay claim to that, but I think I am feeling a lot more comfortable co-existing with my self and the world. I hope this is an upward trend as I age. I feel like I am only starting to discover my self because she was so deeply buried under all that societal conditioning. Who is the person when those layers are gone? Can they truly be gone?

In the right conditions (right conditions because inequality sucks), to be able to age, to be able to uncover ourselves as we become, is a blessing. I acknowledge this even as I am agnostic about the value of life. At every decade I am a vastly different person. I am unrecognisable from the person I was at 30 – my scifi mind cannot help but wonder if she would really dislike the person I am now if we’d met across time. She was narrow in both her worldview and her values. Maybe it is a good thing if I can say this about my current self if I get to 50, but maybe at 50 I can finally stop all this judgment.

I write one of these every year. Additional thanks to my partner for playing such an important role in my becoming.

falling petals

I missed a week of writing because I ate some champagne foam in a dessert and my body reacted so adversely to it I was sick for a week. In the middle of it all I had both gastric pain and migraine. I broke down and cried for a while because this happened just when I felt like I was gaining some momentum.

There’s some silver lining: I was too sick to visit my regular TCM physician so I had to visit one near my place, and she specialises in female hormonal issues so I’m going to give it a go. Again. She asked if I was frequently tired because my pulse seemed really thin, reaffirming what I already knew from my regular physician. These little things matter to me because my symptoms are mostly invisible to other people and it feels incredibly validating when someone can pick up on them. It has been a lonely journey: having a chronic illness makes you live on a different timeline and rhythm from the rest of the world. Everyone else seems to keep moving, whereas I’m just stopping and starting.

I am beginning – after six long years – to see the benefits of all that stopping and starting. I mean, what is beneficial is also subjective. I’ve been cycling really slowly recently because of my precarious health, and the enjoyment that arises has a sense of dispersive depth. Just today, I got to see otters rolling in the sand, one squirrel, human beings of all sorts of shapes and sizes, even pink flower petals falling onto the pathway as though it is autumn. I stood there with my bicycle for a long while just to see those petals fall.

I remember reading someone’s account of how everything felt so fresh and sharp when his stimuli was severely limited because of a ten-day silent meditation retreat. The feelings I have been feeling lately is obviously nowhere near that, but I have a sense that my body has been developing a different range of sensitivities ever since I left the hustle and bustle of a full-time tech job. I was a person who would never have had the mind space to cycle, much less stand there and admire falling petals.

I guess this is a new phase of my life? Where from time to time I still cry helplessly because of chronic pain and yet in between those times I am somehow growing the capacity to notice and appreciate the small. It took me six years to get to this point, and I think I spent most of it grieving over the loss of my past self, no matter how much her life was dysfunctional and unsustainable. I feel breathless when I see a tech person’s website now – all the projects listed, all the past jobs, all the achievements – things that would make me envious previously, they now make me a little nauseous. I don’t mean nausea in a negative way, but rather as a consequence of being overwhelmed. I definitely do not miss it.

One of the brighter spots last week was that I had finally decided to sign up for a bicycle mechanic course (scheduled in mid-july) after thinking about it for more than a year. I am a little nervous on how I’m going to withstand six full days of training with my body, but it is split into two weeks so I’m crossing my fingers. I have this strange dream of being a volunteer bike mechanic but things always sound romantic and ideal until we actually do it, so we’ll see. I do look forward to working on my own bikes, and some time ago I came across a woman who restores old bikes for a living. That made me envious.

It has been a difficult journey: to truly let go of a previous life and identity. It is still ongoing of course – how does one become immune to an achievement-oriented life after being conditioned to believe in it for multiple decades? But I feel a lot more comfortable with my current self, probably more comfortable than I ever was with my previous self. I feel like the old me was someone who was socially engineered into being, whereas I have let the current me develop somewhat organically. It is difficult to not want to twist myself into a certain way, after all I have been doing this twisting and shaping for so long.

faint embers

There are people who have a natural zest for life. If given the time they would live voraciously and they would wish to live forever if the option was available. Then there are people who okay with whatever status quo they are in, and they don’t feel terribly wrong going through their rinse-and-repeat routines everyday. Many others are simply too busy surviving to even think about how they actually want to live their lives – their options are limited by their societies and systems.

I don’t belong to any of these groups. Earlier in my life chronic stress made me feel life was rather meaningless, now I have removed most of my external stressors only to discover that my capacity to live well is low. If you put a dog in a cage and subject it to chronic stress for most of its life it will take a long time to be rehabilitated, if it was even possible at all. Like if you over-stretch a rubberband it will never return to its original shape again. I guess I can go on with the metaphors.

I think that is what modern societies are doing to a lot of people. We either thrive with the system by becoming a person good at chasing the designated milestones or we develop learned helplessness. We spend such a long time of our lives in a system that rewards us when we’re do what we’re told. Some of us would like to change, but it is difficult to develop boundaries and make decisions for ourselves when we are so used to being compliant and making decisions the supposed benefit of the group.

My partner loves making art. Whenever she has free time, she goes straight for her art, and doesn’t stop until she has to. Whenever I have free time, I doomscroll. There are things I would intellectually like to do, like work on this website. But somehow I am weighed down by a sense of chronic mental fatigue. I don’t know if this fatigue is the outcome of surviving chronic migraines or the outcome of fighting against the system my entire life, or both.

Sometimes I imagine myself being struck by a terminal illness or suddenly dying in an accident. I would be so upset with myself for all the time I had wasted doomscrolling. Other times I have this awareness that I lack compassion for myself – I am unable to empathise with the person who is in a long, drawn-out battle with her body and brain.

This has been a recurring theme in my recent posts: I think it takes energy to live consciously, to want to do wholesome things and actually do it. It is like eating. We could just buy an average takeout and be satisfied, or actually take the time and effort to cook something delicious for ourselves. Many of us would choose the average takeout, because we’re just too mentally tired to go through the work of cooking. I deeply envy the ones who really enjoy cooking and don’t relate to it as a chore.

A lot of things in life can be perceived as chores. Again, I think this is an outcome of being forced to do things from a very young age. Logically speaking, everyone should feel incentivised to eat healthily, exercise and lead a meaningful life right? Why do we constantly choose to distract ourselves with alcohol, shopping, relationships, etc instead?

Doing meaningful things require a sort of psychological stamina because they often require effort and they may not be instantly gratifying. Writing posts like this every week is definitely not instantly gratifying. Many a time there is no gratification at all. Scrolling reddit to look at cute animal videos seem more worthwhile to my dopamine starved brain.

I think I’ve exhausted my psychological stamina earlier in my life and now the consequence is my brain associates most activities as energy-draining. I do have two and a half faint embers flickering: bicycling and this weekly writing. Bicycles may be the only thing I claim to moderately love now. Writing is more of a spiritual commitment, a spiritual commitment to my self since I am not religious.

To write and publish, is a very conscious decision. There is no two ways about it. It is honestly easier not to write, and why should I publish my skeletons for everyone to see? Perhaps it is one of the few if not only connection to the outer world. As long as I continue to write, I can still see that I still care somewhat.

I call reading a half ember because there are long periods when I just don’t pick up a book. Everything needs momentum and to start reading requires a person to consciously drop everything else and enter a quiet mental space. Sometimes there’s just no such space available, other times the fatigued brain prefers bite sized social media just like a sugar addiction.

I often wonder what my life would be if I don’t suffer from migraines anymore. I wonder if that would finally give me the psychological stamina and momentum to work on my creative projects, or if I would end up taking my health for granted and burn myself out again. I wonder if I have learnt and fully digested all the lessons I needed to learn. I wonder if my migraines would fade if one day I find the elusive balance of regulating myself. So many ifs.

In the meantime I guess learning to lead a quiet life with the awareness to live small meaningful moments and knowing what to truly cherish while learning to regulate my self is my ongoing goal. I feel like there are times when I just give up and everything becomes trash, until a recovery period when I consciously decide to try again. If I’m lucky it takes days to complete one cycle. If I’m unlucky and lose myself it could take years.

My partner observes my spiralling periods have become shorter. There is usually a setback, then a spiralling, then a period of recovery, and then the slow acquisition of a well-being that is enough to start living meaningfully and being creative. I think my spiralling and recovery periods have become shorter, but the time to rebuild my spiritual and creative well is still long drawn.

Life is essentially a practice, a skill to be honed. I can only hope I have enough time, and enough moments of insight and awareness. Wanting more time is a strange twist for a person with chronic suicidal tendencies. That is a faint ember in itself I suppose.

returning to one’s core

In chinese there’s a phrase 初心, which is loosely translated as “original heart”, and it means one’s original intentions, the core of who we are. I do believe we are constantly evolving as people so there’s no permanent core but there is shifting baseline, a sort of driving force of how we make choices in our lives.

My brain/mind is like a broken radio station that broadcasts its own programmes, sometimes multiple ones at the same time. I constantly find myself being bogged down by day to day worries, getting lost in them, often forgetting what is the actual meaning I want to express in my life. Plenty of things seem worth worrying about until we juxtapose it with mortality. Is this something worth worrying about if I were to be seriously ill or die tomorrow?

I came across this beautiful quote on reddit that sums up my sentiment at this point in time:

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
– Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Source: What quote from a book actually made you think hard and sit back and go “Well, damn.” | link

Life can seem really long, but paradoxically it can also be very short, I don’t really want to spend so much of my life thinking and worrying about things that don’t mean much in the longer run.

Sometimes I think about my younger self, and I just feel like I had wasted so much of my life obsessing about things that didn’t really matter. I just lacked the perspective to understand reality and the true magnitude of societal concerns. I spent so much time in so much angst and sadness. How many tears did I shed and how much fear did I feel just because I didn’t do well academically in school? How much sadness did I go through because I was made to feel like a failure and a disappointment? On hindsight, did the education system make me a better person? I feel like on the contrary I had wasted so much of my life simply trying to survive and thrive in spite of the system. Everything of value I had learnt was learnt out of the system. I’m very lucky it did not kill me and my love of learning. (I semi-apologise for the rant, this post was not meant to be a criticism of industrialised learning but I couldn’t help myself.)

At the end, our lives are our own. We are the ones who have to live it, to live with the choices that we make. People love to be armchair critics of other people’s lives, but they are not the ones who have to deal with any fallout when things do not go according to plan. We are the ones that have to live with the horror of betraying ourselves when we make choices that go against our personal needs and values.

Unfortunately, we evolved to be social creatures, to be part of a tribe so we don’t die alone. So we are susceptible to feeling pressure from our social circles. I am somewhat of a hermit so I don’t feel much pressure from people these days. However, I do feel pressure from the social conditioning I have had all my life – it manifests as an inner critic or wet blanket. It also manifests in behavioural patterns that I find challenging to break. For example, it took me years if not decades to finally enjoy exercising, because I had associated it with negative experiences.

I associate so many things with negative experiences that I live in perpetual anxiety even though I intellectually recognise them as harmless. I still hate the phone ringing, still dread having to talk on the phone, still dread dealing with any bureaucracy, still get severely uncomfortable with any conflict of any sort, still feel like my world is going to collapse at any moment, still get stressed for things that should not bother me anymore.

I have a newish emerging voice that tells me my stress and anxiety is ridiculous, but my body does not listen. It shrivels and tenses.

So, I often find myself swimming in a pool of anxiety in paralysis even though objectively there is nothing wrong with my life right now. I spend a lot of time anxious, anxious about how much my anxiety is affecting me, and tired from feeling this anxiety.

The other day while stuck in a doomscrolling loop, I happened to look at some of my recent tweets on my twitter profile. They were made just weeks, months ago. Yet they were enough to surprise me, because I forgot the person who made those tweets. In recent months I am only on twitter when I feel well enough, I guess that is why she feels like a different person to me now.

Once again I am realising how important it is for me to put my thoughts and memories down in record, and also designing mechanisms in place to review them periodically. Like the above quote on the impermanence of life, I cannot take for granted that my mind will always remain lucid, that I will always remember who I am. I am not even talking about conditions like dementia. I think it is part of the human condition that we often get lost in the minutiae of life, and sometimes we get so lost that we may not return.

It takes strength to want to find our way back. It is easier to live in auto-pilot mode instead of harnessing all our energy and focus to create what we want in our lives with a conscious, lucid awareness.

The ability to access the thoughts that belonged to my past selves are important to me, because they remind me of who I was when I manage to grasp a firm hold on my life and thrive. I don’t mean the selves who were successful in the conventional sense, but the selves who loved to read, create things and be sensibly thoughtful.

If I didn’t know they exist, it is possible to believe I have always been this lost person walking in circles. I may have been lost forever.

Perhaps it is easy for some people to do the things they set out to do. It is incredibly difficult for me, because I have to deal with my uncooperative mind and body, a self who used to get so overwhelmed that contemplating suicide was the norm, my sensitivity to triggers that could send me spiralling into a deep, dark, hole, my unconscious self-sabotaging tendencies, a self who is really tired from all the surviving she had to do.

Yet I find myself returning to my 初心. There is a call to return to doing whatever I set out to do, no matter how inaudible it can become, but sometimes all it takes is to get a glimpse of my past selves to snap me right back, to attempt to restart my journey again.

getting lost in circles

Round and round I go in wider circles almost getting lost, until something returns me to my core again, but perhaps one day I can find myself walking in circles within my expanded core instead.

my refuge

In Zen/Buddhism there is a concept of taking refuge in the Self, that throughout chaos and impermanence there is a part of our interior world that is timeless and at peace – a quality that we can find deep within ourselves if we meditate deeply enough.

Today at our 58-month anniversary I found myself thinking of this concept when I think about my partner. That my life has been full of changes, upheavals, anxiety and insecurity, but I could somewhat find myself resting in her presence, like a refuge. It has been that way right from the start, even when we were just hanging out as friends. It was as though I entered a bubble, away from the world. My typically busy mind seems to slow down when I am spending time with her.

I met her at a very chaotic and distressing time of my life, at a time when I had nothing left in me or with me. I showed her my terrible hand of cards at the very beginning and she chose to keep on holding my hand anyway. We now joke that she was too deluded by the romance to think clearly, but I know my situation wasn’t something most people would have been comfortable with.

I am a very light sleeper, and I tend to be unable to fall asleep when there is someone else in the same room. The first night we spent together I fell asleep like a baby in her arms. These surprising events kept happening throughout our relationship, as I kept finding previously unknown pieces of myself emerging as I relate to her. I was initially very uncomfortable with the playful side of her (because I am a grinch), but as the years go by I started being playful myself.

All the parts of me I lost a long long time ago, they started to emerge in the safety of her presence.

I have made controversial choices all my life so I am used to feeling unsupported. It is difficult to understand my choices in the context of mainstream society. When we had met it wasn’t clear which direction my life was going to take yet, and as I navigated further and further away from the mainstream she supported me through them all. I think I would have made the same decisions anyway without her, but she made them a lot easier.

When I wanted to try doing delivery jobs she tried them with me. When I started intermittent fasting she ate at the same times with me. Because I have chronic insomnia I have to sleep before 10pm she changed her sleeping patterns to fit mine. She gradually understood the sensitivity of my health and witnessed the toll it has taken on me. No one can tell whether a person is living with an invisible illness except the person who has to live with them. It is not easy to be with someone who has a chronic illness but she dynamically adjusts to the ebb and flow.

We have our fair share of fights but we have learnt to communicate better together. We have both changed so much as individuals in the past almost five years, and a lot of it is due to the space we give each other in the relationship to become and emerge. Since we are both quite volatile in some ways we have no idea if the person we love today is the same person we would love tomorrow. Somehow we managed to endure the volatility till now.

I don’t take all of these for granted, and that’s why it still means so much to me to be able to write these monthly posts, whether on here or Instagram. The opportunity to reflect each month indicates another month survived.

It can be difficult to understand the meaning of a refuge or a home, to be able to rest fully in an intangible quality that is almost spiritual. But because I am able to experience it in another person I now see the possibility of finding it within myself.

I can’t express the gratitude towards my partner enough. This is the first time in my life I’m experiencing a prolonged period of relative stability and safety, first time in my life I feel like I really have a cheerleader, a person who really knows who I am warts and all, not just a projection of who they think I should be.

It is not easy to live life out of the mainstream and to find a partner who thrives on that. We are like co-hermits, contented in our small life with not much of an ambition or special desires except the freedom to creative in the ways we want to. I feel tremendously lucky to find someone who sees the beauty in the small.

Thank you, for not letting go of my grinchy hand for the past fifty eight months, and for letting me experience what it means to have a refuge.


The world is in a weird state now, where some of us are lucky enough to go on about life as though nothing is different, while others are facing unimaginable suffering. I struggle a lot with survivor’s guilt and all other sorts of guilt. On a day to day basis I try not to let it overwhelm me, but the subjects of mortality, luck, inequality and impermanence weights heavily on my mind.

I feel like I lucked out in many ways, except perhaps in terms of health. But in a really weird way I am actually grateful for my fragile body, because it has taught me early enough in life not to take my time and health for granted. I can imagine a parallel universe version of me who is healthy, probably still stuck in the hedonistic cycle of pursuing approval and success, deprived of a mechanism that will give me some cause for pause. I guess I can thank my fragile body for marie kondo-ing my life, that it forced me to have a laser sharp focus on what truly matters to me.

I fell chronically sick a few months after my grandmother passed away in late 2014. Till today I have no idea whether it was due to unprocessed grief, or that her death ruthlessly swept away the illusion I was trying to live in, or both. Yesterday while having a bedtime conversation with my partner I told her how deeply I regret the person I was when she passed. I can still vividly remember the last time I saw my grandmother, that I didn’t say a proper goodbye because she was taking a nap, and also because I was rushing to leave. I was never present, always trying to escape to the future or somewhere else. I wish I knew how to be a better person back then, I wish I spent more time talking to her, taking her out for meals, to try to truly know and connect to her.

I spend a lot of energy these days trying not to be that person. I spent a long time of my life harbouring a lot of anger and hurt so I was defensive and resentful all the time, not realising I was becoming like the people who had hurt me in the first place. To consciously choose to go the other way: to try to care and tend instead of resent and retaliate takes a lot of work. To say that I wanted to become a better person for altruistic purposes would be a misunderstanding. I just didn’t want to turn into a monster and be stuck in a personal hell.

I think a forgetful person is a happier person. I wish I can be forgetful sometimes instead of being a broken record player playing the same few tunes every time. Is it better to live with the anxiety that comes with the awareness of mortality, or is it better to be forgetful so one can lighter and more cavalier but risk getting blindsided by the shock of loss?

I go back to paraphrasing one of my all-time favourite quotes, that love is a preemptive form of grief. To experience grief is to truly know that one has loved. But here as I type this I realise there is a difference between the grief that comes from the regret of having not loved enough, and the grief that comes from having loved with no holds.

I have always thought that love is an emotion but it is actually a capacity that takes skill to build. I hope to become a person capable of the kind of love that would gift me the sort of deep but regret-less grief, and also to be able to bear the unending streams of grief that will come with the rest of my life. I hope time is on my side.

I am a lot better at being present now, though it is a long work in progress. I am almost 40, but I still feel like a child learning to navigate the negative effects the external world has left on my interior world. Presence requires the capacity to tolerate all the feelings that a moment can bring, and to discern actual reality versus the projection of a deeply ingrained memory. Each time I descend into an almost bottomless depth due to the most trivial of triggers I feel like history is just repeating itself endlessly and I seem to never be capable of transcending my past selves, yet my partner reminds me that though I still plunge deep I seem to surface quicker.

Sometimes I am surprised by the velocity of my tears, it is almost ironic but I feel like now I am much older I can now give myself the permission and safety I lacked as a child to cry with all my might.

The capacity to truly love comes from emotional maturity, and emotional maturity is tied to the ability to tolerate difficult feelings. Society frowns upon difficult feelings and crying, so some of us learnt to repress them, some of us learnt to escape from them. We’re told that grown ups shouldn’t cry, and I believe that has ironically made many of us into emotionally stunted adults.

I am aware how much of child I am still emotionally. My grandmother’s passing was the catalyst for me to learn how much my emotions prevent me from truly living.

Her death gave me an opportunity at life. I wish it wasn’t so, that she could still be alive and I could introduce her to drinking lattes and eating egg benedicts, but unfortunately I know I would still have been the person trying to escape from life.

a bit of silence within the noise

The other day while just sitting around in my living room, I had this sudden awareness of my newly developed capacity to feel subtler emotions – instead of just high and low notes, there was a spectrum of emotions there were barely discernible in the middle.

I guess if I think about it, emotions are somewhat only noticeable when they are at the extremes. Many people probably go about their daily routines without noticing their emotions. Then again, there is a difference between being conditioned to ignore our emotions versus truly operating from a healthy neutral zone.

I had a profound realisation that the intense emotions I almost always had were preventing me from truly living. They were all I felt – it is like only being able to taste extremely salty or sweet foods, missing out on the finer subtler, more dimensional notes. One can go through an entire life believing food was either tasteless or heavily flavoured, without ever knowing what natural flavours taste like.

Intense emotions are like a perpetually loud ringing noise that follows me wherever I go. It is a constant distraction, distracting me from noticing the present because my emotions were so overwhelming and they would trigger unpleasant memories and those memories would trigger more intense emotions, forming a very unhealthy feedback loop. Interestingly the latest medical research is proving that psychedelics may play a role in breaking those loops. The theory is that they force a reorganisation of the brain. Unfortunately these treatments would probably not be available in where I live at least for the considerable future, but one can break neurological loops with something like meditation, except it would probably take a lot of effort, discipline and time.

I believe the point is to learn to see and experience life and the world in new dimensions that would break us out of old patterned thinking. Old pattern thinking is not just mere thoughts, they are engrained deeply in us precisely because that’s how our brains work – designed to conserve energy by storing what we learn so well that it becomes an automatic response. Our brains are not moral agents, so it cannot differentiate learning useful things like cycling or playing an instrument versus replaying a traumatic memory over and over again.

Travel was one way that would consistently break me out of my old patterns, such as visiting San Francisco for the first time radically altered my mind. The other important factors were books and relationships, including the one with my self.

I still experience being profoundly affected by my emotions. I could experience a day when I felt everything was complete, and the next day I would question the point of my life. But if I could run a sentiment analysis on both my public and private journal entries, I will wager that my sentiments are trending more neutral as time goes by. I would take neutral and middle over highs and lows.

It is just that it is so freeing to notice some silence when one is so used to a chronic, loud, ringing noise.