journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

words I write

I try to publish something publicly every week. Some weeks the words rush out of me, other weeks they come to me when I make myself sit in front of a screen, rarely, like this week, they struggle to be written.

When I struggle, it is not because I have nothing to write about. Often, the opposite is true – my mind and heart are both so overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings that the linearity of words don’t seem to be sufficient for me to adequately express myself. All that comes out is are random fragments that pretend to be some representation of what that goes on in me. I wish I could write five paragraphs visually structured in a single row, all on disparate subjects but still somewhat intertwined together. I can understand why people use other mediums.

I still want to write though. Sometimes I wonder why I maintain two separate streams of writing at Medium and at my blog here, and days like this I remember why. Writing at Medium is like deliberately shouting something out to the world, writing here is like whispering to the wind, hoping that it will carry a piece of me somewhere out there. It doesn’t matter if it is nowhere, as long as it is out there.

I have realized that I write in different voices to different audiences. You would think my most authentic voice comes out in my private journal, but there is a deep, hidden part of me, so hidden that I barely knows that she exists, that comes out when I write privately to people I love. It is perhaps both ironic and telling that I reserve the innermost parts of me not to myself, but to the people I love, for I can be not forthcoming to myself yet I cannot help but be beautifully and painfully vulnerable to those I love.

Maybe one day, the strings of words I write will have a different dimension, if I could think of myself as someone I love.

on self-love and working hard

I spent the last five days working remotely, because I needed to be alone and near nature. In between sprints, I took time to be under the sun, doing nothing, except closing my eyes and allowing my thoughts to wash over me. 

This was not voluntary. I was forced to take lengthy breaks, because I have been nursing a chronic eye strain that wouldn’t go away. It was either I rest my eyes, or I will be in pain. If I was in perfect health, I would be either working my bones out, or trying to sponge myself in information. 

I ended up feeling like I accomplished more than I ever would if I had sat eight hours straight in the office, but I had this ambient sense that I didn’t work hard enough, precisely because I didn’t sit in front of a screen for eight hours straight. 

This is not logical, and it is ridiculous. Why am I measuring the quality of my work with the time I had spent on it? 

I think society has conditioned us to believe that we have to feel all drained, stressed and anxious to feel like we have really worked our asses off. It seems wrong to feel relaxed and centered after finishing a challenging task. Yet dealing with complexity requires mental clarity and focus. How do we solve problems when we keep feeling like we are about to break apart anytime?

I blame my lack of self-love. Really. If I loved myself enough, I would know that I am enough. I don’t have to feel like I have to wear myself out to deserve a seat at the table. If I trusted myself enough, I would have faith that I would be able to accomplish the work, regardless of how much time I have spent on it, or how hard I felt like I worked at it.

If I truly care about the work, I need to rise above my personal neuroses and see that the work itself is not asking me to over-work myself, it is asking of me to do it well.

It is an on-going journey, fraught with more challenges, to be more honest with myself. Am I working so hard because of the work, or because I need to be validated?

Sometimes, it becomes worse as I realize I am not seeking validation from other people, but from myself, because I just do not love myself, enough.

taking a break from myself

I remember on my first week at Medium, I was asked to introduce myself to the company, and one of the questions was, “What do you do for fun?”. I answered, almost embarrased, “I contemplate on life.”

20 months later, I was having a conversation with Joyce, and she was telling me how she feels, day after day, passing by cold and hungry people in front of our office.

I alluded to her that I was having similar feelings – except that I am having a chronic fatigue of having these feelings. It was in that moment that I realized once again, that I really don’t have a separation of work and life. At work, I think about how to make people care about financial inclusion, out of work, even before working at Stellar, I’ve been reading, writing, conversing on how to facilitate change. It is what I do out of work that defines me, it is just that I am really blessed to do the same at my day job.

I was tossing and turning in bed last night, and I had a sudden onslaught of panic, where I had another realization that I will never be able to get away from my thoughts, ever. I’m stuck in my own head – I have claustrophobia, and I can tell you right now that that moment wasn’t very pleasant for me. This is why people meditate, and also why people kill themselves.

The worst thing is, I can’t think of anything else I would rather do. It is not like I can give up being myself, or the work I care about, and go on a party binge or something. I would still be stuck with these feelings, these thoughts, wherever I go, whatever I do.

I don’t have any answers for myself, except I will probably need to work out how to transmute these feelings of weight and fatigue. I go through these phases where I feel like I’m growing into a new self, and I am like getting to know myself over again. This is where all my previous assumptions of myself will fail, and it is extremely uncomfortable.

I am in one of such phases right now, where I am trying to put pieces of myself back together again, in order to fit in new pieces, and throw away the ones which no longer fit.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it is easier if I simply accept that these pieces will never truly fit together, and the protruding edges are what that truly makes me, me.

pace

One of the hardest things I have to learn, is how to pace myself. The more I love something, the more energy I expend upon it, the faster I burn out. It is counter-intuitive that in order to sustain myself, I have to moderate the way I love.

It is not helping that I am constantly feeling like I am in a race against time. The more I understand morality, the more I accept transience, the more I wish to cherish the present, the more I try to squeeze what I can in these moments. I end up asking more of myself, I just want to do more of everything, deathly afraid that one day I will lose the privilege of doing the things I love. It is not just about me either, at the back of my head I am always aware that the planet is also in a race against time. I don’t feel good at all that San Francisco is experiencing twenty-something degree celcius weather in mid-february.

I feel like I either need to be either always working or have my head in a book, so I am not taking even a single second for granted. As a result, I have been having a chronic strain in my eyes, permeating the left side of my head since the turn of the year.

It upsets me. It upsets me that it is no longer about how much I wish to accomplish, but I am limited by the fragility of my body. I can probably stretch my mental or physical energy with diet and exercise, but I am not sure if I can do much about my eyes, apart from resting them. I am forced to read a lot less, even for pleasure. I set out the year wanting to both write and read much more than the last, but within a month I had to re-evaluate everything.

I am exhausted, and I am finding it more difficult to recover to a full charge. I am experiencing signs of burn out, and I am terrified. They say you don’t experience burn out if you love your work, I think I am experiencing burn out because I love my work too much. I just can’t stop thinking about all the things we should be doing or can be doing.

I feel like I am forced to take a step back because I know what happens if I continue down this path. I have experienced severe burn out before and it is not pretty. It upsets me that I seem to have a weaker constitution than average, or it could simply be that I am simply more prone to over-stimulation than the average. There is always a tradeoff, a price to pay.

This time I am learning that loving something sometimes means having the capacity to remove myself from it, take a few steps back and take a good hard look at the bigger picture.

Perhaps for someone like me, giving myself intensely in an all-consuming manner is the easy part, learning to pace myself so that I can sustain the longer journey, is a much harder lesson to learn.

keep on trying

I think I’ve mentioned a few times that I don’t really have much faith in humanity – there have been too many instances where we have collectively chosen the easy over the difficult, the short-term versus the long-term, the choice to perpetuate negativity over positivity.

It remains a disconnect, between my entire cynicism of humanity and my idealism for change. I think my idealism is sustained by the fact that history does not depend on the majority to change, and that time and time again, we have shown tremendous resilience despite the damage some of us have chosen to do. You do not need everyone to believe you in order to start a war, but you do not need to get buy-in from everyone to start building rockets too.

Sometimes I think we tend to over-focus on the current slice of time, forgetting the progress we have made over thousands of years. Similarly, we take for granted what has been handed to us on a plate precisely because of the work that has been done by the previous generations.

I find it difficult to take my privilege for granted, and I want to say that the concept of meritocracy is bullshit. It annoys me to no end when people say success will come when you work hard. There are people in this world, billions of them in fact, that will not see the light at the end of the tunnel no matter how hard they work. They are screwed over by their socio-economic factors, which are largely dependent about their geographic location. I resent it people tell me that I deserve my “success”, as opposed to other people not deserving theirs because they didn’t choose to work hard enough, however “success” is being defined. I cannot tell you how many times I had to depend on the random colliding of events to even be alive, much less anything else.

Yes, I worked hard, yes, I showed up too, and I took giant leaps of faith. But I recognize the fact that I was born at the right place, at the right time, and that made all the difference to my life. I am sorry, but it doesn’t take an economist to point out the fact that I could work my bones off but it wouldn’t have mattered if I was born in a place where even basic literacy is a challenge or if I was born at a time when gender-equality or technology was not in my favor. I also consider myself very lucky to have my skills recognized at a time when they are in demand, but I remember the early decade in my life when I had to fight really hard to work in design.

I could look back in time and said that I made the right bets, but who knew?

I think about all the people who have suffered in order for me to be comfortably typing this piece in my chair today. I think about people like Alan Turing, the activists who gave up their lives and security, I think about the countless people who lost their lives in wars, so that I can have a taste of peace.

So I won’t lie. I find it incredibly frustrating when I see us focusing our effort and energy into things that do not matter at this point in time. Yes, when we have achieved world peace, I don’t care if we want to make the next generation photo-sharing app, but right now, there are really more important problems to solve.

Yet, it is easy for me to not even try, because I genuinely do not see how we can dig ourselves out of the massive hole we’ve created, so I may as well sit back, or retire in the mountains. If I truly believe the end will be the same, why do I repeatedly put myself in uncomfortable situations just for the hope of a little change? I don’t enjoy putting myself out there all the time, I don’t enjoy facing so much demoralization because well, guess what? The people doing the work can’t help but be cynical too. Time and time again, we are being let down collectively, time and time again, we grab on to the tiny silver of hope we can have.

How many times can you have your heart broken? I ask myself this everyday. But I keep on trying anyway. I no longer even have time to feel like an impostor, because to be even in that position to ask that question is a luxury. The people in poverty do not wake up everyday to ask themselves if they are good enough for something, because every single decision they have to make will result in their families having enough to eat or not. I know that if I incessantly worry whether I am capable of doing the work, I am giving up precious energy to do the actual work instead.

I keep on trying, because I care deeply, and when you care this deeply, a lot of things cease to matter. It is like loving someone because you simply do, you do not love because it is tied to some condition tied to success. Maybe I don’t wish to admit this, but despite all the disappointment I have felt, the love I have for humanity is unconditional – because no amount of logic or rationality can explain why I keep on trying, despite being made to feel like having ideals is wrong in this world where we celebrate cannibalizing our own people economically, and yet holding that potentially misguided faith that one day, we could take that giant leap into a world where it is clearly evident that our survival is really dependent on each other, that doing well at the expense of others is not going to be sustainable.

finding balance

I’ve been unwell for the past two weekends. I’ve had one of my chronic migraines last weekend and this week, I’ve been having a headache with chills. Having chronic pain to me is worse than being outright sick like having a flu, because at least with a flu, you know it is going to go away eventually with the appropriate treatment. And it is not your fault that you are infected with a virus.

With chronic pain though, I start to wonder what went wrong and when. Was it my diet? Have I been thinking too much? Lack of exercise? Each time I try to do anything with my brain – think, read, write, all the favorite things I like to do, my pain and fatigue worsens.

I haven’t been sick for two weeks straight, in a very long while. It is making me ask myself some difficult questions. I have always been constitutionally weaker than the average person I would guess, in a different way. I don’t get colds or flus as much, but any shifts in my diet, sleep or environment will trigger something from a full spectrum of chronic issues.

I wonder if I have a finite unchangeable amount of energy I need to be careful of depleting, and if that means from now on I just have to be really picky about the things I choose to exert my energy on? I’ve just been reading a lot of research on chronic migraines, and apparently migraine sufferers have a different brain structure. It makes me wonder how much of it I can change, and how much of it is about learning how to cope.

It may mean that despite my obvious enjoyment and satisfaction from activities that require thinking, I may have to cut them down while I try to regain some balance to my health. It will take a lot of experimenting, and it may be possible that this can be something I cannot change, and therefore I need to decide where I want to focus my finite energy on.

I guess it is also a timely reminder that like everything else, life requires balance, and there’s perhaps no way I can get away with infinitely thinking without suffering any consequences. It is now time to incorporate less-thinking activities into my life – yoga, meditation, any suggestions?

an internal vacation

Everyone’s gone for the holidays. Last year I had a two week road trip, so this year I was wondering if I should be doing anything. I contemplated visiting San Diego, I haven’t been there, and traveling always brings me unexpected gifts.

But I’ve always had this fantasy of having all the time in the world to do all the things I never had time to do – read, learn, cook, code, write, whatever. The truth is I have a fear of missing out, but not the regular FOMO that people have, but rather, I fear missing out on some potential self that would exist if I don’t keep on searching. That is why I travel so much, it is a search for all the potential selves that exist.

I am exhausted from all the traveling I did this year, not just physically, but also mentally. The travels were catalysts to major life changes that resulted in several shifts in my life, both externally and internally. More about that in my upcoming end-of-year review posts.

So this year, I am going to take an internal vacation. I’m rediscovering the delight of consuming people’s work, and through that I get a peek into their hopes and imagination. That spurs my desire to create, because I want to participate in this beautiful collective consciousness we tend to take so much for granted. Yes, the world is ugly too, but we often don’t remember all the progress we’ve made, how far we’ve come along, how much work our ancestors have put in. I don’t have the answers to deal with the ugliness, for now I am choosing to consciously focus on the good – how can I be part of the good, how can I appreciate others for being good, how to make the world understand that being good is not “being nice”, it is the only sustainable way we can survive.

To have the time and space to freely consume and create, is a huge privilege I don’t want to ever take for granted. It is a theme that comes up a lot in my writing, because the seemingly mundane act of reading a book or trying to create anything requires us not to be in the constant threat of danger. We forget, how good clean water tastes, how great are hot showers, how magical it is to be reading a sequence of letters that conveys complex meaning.

I have spent too much of my life always trying to go somewhere, trying to do something, to find that elusive joy and meaning, only to realize the magic of life lies in having the capacity to notice the extraordinary in ordinary.


In other news, I’ve started a tinyletter. You would think I would have no words left in me after writing so frequently. I am not really sure what I am going to do with it yet, except there’s this desire to connect in a more personal manner with the people who have been with my writing and me for a while. I want to know who my people are, and I want to be your person too. It’ll probably be more of a dialogue, you could directly reply to me in my inbox, and perhaps we can wax lyrical about provocative socio-political theories.

the more I read

It is ironic how much I’ve evolved when it comes to goals, routines and habits. I remember so much of myself having an “artist temperament”, which loosely translates to “do anything I like at anytime”. If only they told me earlier that many of these artists had strict routines and practices.

I’ve written about some of my favorite habits, as well as the realization that I’ve to force myself to travel, all designed to overcome my lizard brain.

This year, I’ve set myself a goodreads reading challenge of 68 books, in an ambitious attempt to better my previous year’s goal of 50. Why? I know if I didn’t set myself a conscious goal, I’ll not prioritize reading among all the busyness in my life. I’m also trying to make up for all those years I’ve spent blindly living. Years I’ve hardly finished five books, much less 50. It also helps to realize that even if I tried really hard, there would still be a very finite number of books I can finish in my lifetime. Maybe not even 2000 books if I keep to a book a week for the rest of my life?

I’ve entered December with 22 books off my goal, so I did the next best thing. I picked books that were highly recommended but short. It was a great decision on hindsight, because I started reading books I might not have read otherwise.

Among them were “A room of one’s own”, “The awakening”, “Invisible cities”, “The lathe of heaven”, and “Too loud a solitude”. Books are like micro-worlds, like little travel experiences. The best ones not only bring you to another world, but they make your heart churn with their beautiful prose. They make you think, what sort of mind is capable of stringing words like they were never meant to exist otherwise?

The more I read, the more I yearn to read. For they remind me of all the other books I’m missing out on, the elasticity of the human mind, the worlds we could build, if only we give ourselves that time and space – to be, to create, to think. That books are evidence that we have a collective consciousness, that this consciousness will expand if everyone is free to share and access.

Imagine a world where we all hoard our knowledge, ideas and imagination?

death transforms

I flew back into San Francisco yesterday, and people have been asking me how I’m doing. I tell them I don’t know.

All I know is that death inevitably changes us. Sometimes it takes looking at a body in a casket to understand how final death is. That finality has made me re-examine my own assumptions on how I want to live.

I haven’t fully processed my thoughts or emotions yet, and I am not sure if I ever will. But I want to capture a snapshot of my mind at this point in time:

I think at every moment in life we have a conscious choice – do we experience regret over the previous moment, or do we endeavor to make the present or future moment count?

My grandfather left my grandmother, so she became a single parent in her early 20s with my mom as her only child (think about being a single mom in those days). I think about everything that my grandmother had lived through in order to enable the life my mother has led, I think about everything they had to overcome in order for me to have an opportunity to own my hopes and struggles.

I think about the stories they had to be part of, for me to tell mine.

I can spend the next few months in grief and guilt, for all the time I couldn’t spend with them. Or I can make my own life count. And hopefully, by trying to make my life count, I get to help others make theirs count as well.

I’ve always known that the promise of death makes many other things look trivial in the grand scheme of things. This time, it took death to make me start comprehending what it means for an entire life to be lived and lost, relative to mine. I have lived most of my life with tons of insecurities and fear – while this year has been transformative in terms of self-empowerment, experiencing my grandmother’s passing while I’m 8,000 miles away took that to a whole new dimension.

It would have been terribly dishonorable to let myself get in the way of my life’s work, not only because of the struggles the women in my life had to go through, but because I have traded off my grandmother’s missing of her grandchild, in exchange for my self to feel alive.

It is something I will have to live with, and I want to make it worthwhile.

endings

My maternal grandmother passed away yesterday, and in a couple of hours, I will be on a plane back to Singapore for the funeral. She was 82.

It is a strange time to be writing, but writing has always been the only way I know how to cope. There are a lot of complex thoughts and feelings, so perhaps for once, I would process most of them privately.

But it made me hyper-aware of the tradeoffs I have to make in order to be here. I knew this phone call would come sooner or later, I know it may not be the last I will receive in the time to come. I knew it would be inevitable that one day I would have to take a 20 hour plane flight before I am able to be there for the people I love, at a time when they need me the most.

I know that 20 hours could mean a huge difference between during and after.

The tradeoffs I have made so far have shaped me significantly, everyone of them has broken me and strengthened me in places I would never have imagined.

I don’t know who I’ll be when I return, I don’t know how much of a human being would be left of me each time this happens. Maybe it could make me more of one.

I know I will have to live with the conscious decisions I make and the regrets I would accumulate, but this I believe:

That love transcends time and space – whether it is to make myself feel better or to keep the faith for this world – I hope that the people I love, will know that I love them wherever I am or who I will become, that I am sorry to be so broken, that attempting to carry out my life’s work is the only way I know how to love them back.

Goodbye Grandma. I love you, no matter where you’ve gone, and no matter where I am. Till then.