on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

my favourite things in hanoi

I thought I’ll document my favourite things in hanoi in case some internet stranger finds it useful, else I’ll just drown in nostalgia some time later when I look back upon this post again. These may or may not be in order of preference:

sua chua (yoghurt)

It seems like yoghurt is a relatively popular dessert in hanoi, and the yoghurt seems slightly different from the typical yoghurt. I’d seen a couple of youtubers having local yoghurt while in hanoi, so I tried to find something on google maps. It led me to Sữa chua thạch lá nếp — the stall owners didn’t speak english so I had to awkwardly point to a bowl someone else was eating. Hence I had no idea what I’d ordered, but I fell in love with it. It has some yoghurt, a caramel pudding, a variety of fruits, and some jellies. I liked it so much I went back for it another 3-4 times. We ate it sitting on mini stools by the roadside.

google maps

photo of vietnamese local yoghurt

kem bo (avocado cream dessert)

There are avocadoes everywhere in hanoi, even on maternity nutrition posters printed decades ago. Again, I sought this out because I saw a youtuber (thanks youtube!) eating it. The particular stall we went to had a multitude of flavours, so I tried avocado cream with caramel pudding, and also avocado cream with cheese (cubes, sprinkles, ice cream). We tried another stall, but still preferred this one — the avocado cream was surprisingly not that sweet. This was another place we went back multiple times.

google maps

photo of vietnamese avocado cream dessert

salt coffee

Hanoi is known for egg coffee (which you should also try), but we fell in love with salt coffee instead, which is a hue specialty. Most non-black local coffee in hanoi is actually sweetened with condensed milk, which in my opinion enhances the overall flavour and layers, and reduces the harshness of vietnamese coffee. We tried salt coffee from a variety of cafes but our favourite one is called “salt mate”. It has salt coffee, and another version that is “cream coffee” on the menu, but it is actually delicious salt coffee with a ton of decadent cream.

google maps

photo of cream coffee at salt mate
cream coffee at salt mate

hoan kiem lake on weekends

Hanoi is famous for its very chaotic traffic but every weekend roads around hoan kiem lake will be closed to traffic. You could see people just strolling around, kids playing, people exercising, etc. It is a wondrous sight. I took the opportunity to jog around the lake, and it just felt so pleasurable to jog with a tremendous amount of space around without the typical constraints of a foot path. It is very thought-provoking: what a city can do to enliven its people, and how that will in turn impact the richness of the city.

photo of hoan kiem lake during weekends

pizza 4p

I normally don’t get to eat pizzas because I’m perpetually on a low carb diet, but since it was my birthday weekend I decided to give myself some leeway. I thought it was strange that one of the most highly recommended dining places on youtube was actually japanese-fusion pizza, so I thought I had to try it to see what was the fuss. Their service was impeccable, we asked if we could sit on the rooftop since we don’t dine indoors (due to avoiding covid), and though their rooftop was not open they kindly opened the window next to our table for us. I can’t imagine a restaurant in Singapore doing the same…

Anyway, we tried a half-half pizza, the 5 cheese portion of it was great, I wouldn’t bother with the fusion sliced beef part, would probably pair it with another more pizza-like flavour. We couldn’t resist the 4-cheese dessert, which was also really good.

google maps

photo of pizza at pizza 4p
photo of pizza 4p's dessert

bun cha

Bun cha is made internationally famous by Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama – I wonder if this is slightly offensive to people in hanoi since it is a much-loved dish before all the media spotlight. The restaurant that served them doesn’t mind all that publicity though. We liked it so much we went back 3 times to eat it, and it is a pretty low carb meal if I skip the vermicelli (hope this is not sacrilegious to the vietnamese).

It is difficult to describe the savouriness of bun cha: sour, sweet, a little burnt, a little refreshing. It is unlike many asian dishes, though I could imagine it as satay drenched in a light sweet broth. I like lettuce wraps, I wish we can have more lettuce wraps everywhere.

google maps

photo of bun cha

making a personal stamp

We saw this on youtube (it is actually useful to watch a few vlogs on the destination) prior to the trip as well. My partner is an artist and thought it would be nice get something to stamp on her artwork. You could get a premade stamp with your name carved on it, for us we drew a sketch for them to carve. It can be collected the same day or the next.

google maps

photo of phuc loi stamp hang quat
photo of hand carved stamps

banh mi

For some reason the baguette in hanoi seems a lot more crispy than the ones we can get back home. Not that I eat a lot of baguettes due to my carb restriction. The way they do banh mis in vietnam is just different – probably due to the ingredients and seasonings available and their local tastebuds. I guess banh mis available out of vietnam is catered to the locals in that specific location.

We tried two of the most highly recommended ones: Banh Mi 25 and Bami Bread, but our favourite is Banhmi LongHoi, which we found highly rated on google.

google maps

photo of banh mi

exploring cafes

Hanoi has like 5 cafes on every street and I am not even exaggerating. We loved both the local sidewalk cafes and the hipster-looking ones. It was inspiring for me to see how different cafe owners express their creativity.

photo of cafe in hanoi
photo of cafe in hanoi
photo of cafe in hanoi

sitting on the streets

One of my favourite things to do is just to sit on the streets on these little short stools, have a coffee and people watch. We just don’t have these sidewalk cafes in singapore.

photo of people sitting on small chairs on the streets of hanoi

For a chronically ill perpetually existentially depressed person like me, there aren’t a lot of things in life that gives me a sense of aliveness. Travelling is one of those few things, because it is mind-opening to experience a world different from mine. Everything seems peculiar and wondrous in a foreign city.

I don’t always take the effort to document my travel experiences, but for me I tend to dwell on the misfortunes I have had, so I need constant reminders that there were parts of my life that were good. Hence, my obsession with documenting my life. I wish to remember all my selves who have lived.

restarting from scratch

I’d finally tested negative on may 2nd the 13th day of my infection, in time to have a mini celebration with my partner. I am not sure if I overdid it, but a super faint line that is not very visible under normal lighting conditions turned up on the 15th and 16th day – I continued to test because I was hoping to have 2 negative tests within 48 hours.

There are differing views on the internet regarding the viability of the virus. The conventional view is that most people are not contagious on day 10 onwards because they could not culture a live virus in the lab even if the rapid test was positive. There is also a view that since the rapid tests test for nucleocapsid protein which is only produced by the active virus, and the rapid tests are not that sensitive to begin with, so one should assume the worst if even the faintest of lines continue to show up. I also found a couple of articles that said that the rapid tests could pick up inactivated virus bound by our antibodies.

It doesn’t seem very clear cut to me and the research I’ve found still seems murky. I’ll continue to test until there is no doubt with the results. Right now it does make me feel a little anxious because I don’t want to have a persistent viral load in my body, no matter how low it is. I definitely do not want to be chronically inflammed. But I’m actually testing negative on the government-issued tests (sd biosensor and flowflex) and only abbott panbio tests seem to be picking up something. I’m not sure whether to be glad that it is capable of picking up such low loads – at the very least it makes me want to continue to be cautious. I definitely wouldn’t be visiting any elderly soon.

My heart rate is still elevated while standing or walking, especially in the morning. I have a daily routine of using a polar h10 chest strap to take my morning hrv using elite hrv, followed by using hrv4training with the apple watch breathe app. Prior to covid I consistently had a morning heart rate (measured while sitting straight) of 60s, 70s when I am stressed, and now I am measuring late 80s. My hrv in the morning has tanked from 30ms-50ms to 10-20+ms. Well it has only been 2 weeks out and I can’t expect my body to make a miraculous recovery, but I am not really seeing much improvements over the days and it is worrying.

But at the very least my walking heart rate does adjust downwards to 90+bpm after spiking a while. I couldn’t get it below 100bpm for almost two weeks.

I feel like I have lost all the cardio fitness I have built over the past few months if not years. I have to restart from scratch again, all the way from learning to walk. I can only console myself with the knowledge that I have extensive experience in healing and recovery.

Physical fitness aside I am also taking the opportunity to think about how I want to live. I’ve never really stopped thinking about it, but having a viral infection that has the potential to cause permanent systemic damage makes me think deeply about how I want to spend the rest of my time if my life is going to be shortened, or if my health is going to be compromised from now on.

It is difficult: prior to covid I’ve already expended most of my energy into recovery, so much that I have not much left to be creative. Now I have to get myself back into my previous baseline, which I am not even sure if it is even possible.

I haven’t felt creative in years. I feel like I’ve lost such a big part of myself to my chronic migraines already. Going to hanoi re-sparked some of that creativity back into me…I was truly in my best health prior to and during the trip. Will I be able to cope with the grief if I can never feel like that again? Or will I learn to cope as usual? What is left for a chronically sick person? Are there still doors I can open, little things I can do that will make me come alive in spirit again?

At this point, I am just glad writing is still here for me.

While writing this post I cannot help but think most people would not relate or be interested in the fine nuances of rapid tests and contagiousness, or the details of my cardio biometrics – I guess things like heart-rate variability must sound esoteric to most people. But all of that is me: my obsession with finding answers through data, the tools I rely upon to gauge my health. They are a large part of my life, and I must continue to commit to writing as myself.

testing positive

Today is the 9th day of my covid infection. I wanted to write something much earlier, but couldn’t find it in me to do so. I guess after writing several times here that I cannot escape this generational fate unless I am willing to become a true hermit, I am finally meeting this fate.

I have no idea how I got infected, except it was either somewhere in Hanoi or at the public library that has just opened near our place. The thing is, everywhere has unmasked, sniffing and coughing people, so it is hard to tell. Do I regret going to Hanoi? No, because the probability of getting infected in Singapore is also pretty high, especially since they removed the mask mandate for public transport.

I am surprised that I didn’t spiral into despair after testing positive. Maybe I was too sick and shocked to actually spiral. There are too many things in life that is out of my control, even without covid danger is always lurking in the dark corners.

I don’t know why people call this “just a flu” or worse, “a cold”. I had “mild” symptoms – I have seen people describe the worst cough and sore throat ever – and I had neither of those. My throat was mostly uncomfortable, and I barely coughed. One of the symptoms I was very afraid of was insomnia, but apart from the first night when I woke up every hour I slept okay. My fever didn’t spike more than 38 degree celsius. But for a few days I could barely eat, and I could barely sit up, and till now my heart rate spikes to 100+bpm if I stand and walk. My standard symptoms are “mild”, but internally I feel like I’m slowly being emptied out.

I’m doing everything I can to avoid the fate of long covid, including being on a zero carb diet, applying nasal and throat sprays, and ingesting a dozen supplements proven to help. And of course, lying horizontal most of the time. I am not sure if all of these would be enough. I am not even confident of walking, much less the running I used to do. I may possibly be out for months, depending how and if I recover.

It is a strange and saddening time in the world. The government keeps telling people it is mild, research keeps popping out to say it is not. There is a large dissonance. There is increased risk of all the medical conditions we can think of post-covid. The body can only function so much with damaged vessels, cells and immune system. Yet I still see everybody going around unmasked, and letting their kids go unmasked on planes and indoor places. Some people have popped up to tell me that they are still dealing with some lingering effects many months later. The situation seems hopeless. We’ll never coordinate enough effort to do something about this, so the virus will simply keep on mutating. One day, everything is bound to catch up. We can only go on for so long ignoring the increasing numbers of people getting disabled by the virus? I think governments are keeping their fingers crossed that it will “only” disable 10-20% of the population.

I – for my own sake – am hoping that vaccinations do work to keep the damage low enough. The hope is in a true neutralising vaccine, I guess? And continual improvements in the treatments available for long covid. There is a lot of unknown and we may only know decades later, like it took decades for science to link EBV and multiple sclerosis, or flu and parkinsons.

Again, I console myself by thinking I can only do things that are within my control. Reality has happened, and all I can do is to cherish the time remaining before some other shit hits the fan. Will I suffer a stroke, or go into cardiac arrest if I resume running again, or develop heart disease? I will do what I can to try to avoid these fates, but if I don’t I am just one of the millions of people being let down by this systemic failure.

Day 9, I miss my partner. I’ve stopped feeling so disappointed that I am still testing positive. Some people have kindly shared with me that it took them 11-14 days to test negative. I’ve decided to stop wallowing and see if I can do some little creative things, like write this post. I’m not sure how my existence will unfold or if it would be shortened, but as long as I am still alive I’ll be trying to leave some imprints.

some brief thoughts about hanoi

Every year during the time of my birthday I would try to travel out of Singapore, even if it is just to somewhere an hour’s flight away. When I was much younger it was because I didn’t like being in my own country, in the last decade or so it is because being in a foreign place automatically provokes me to be more mindful. We become blind to our surroundings when we’re too familiar with our environment, and that blindness can deaden us to life if we’re not careful.

We didn’t travel for 3 years or so because of the pandemic, but end last year we decided to take a calculated risk to travel to bangkok. We survived that trip, so it gave us courage to attempt to travel again for my birthday. Perhaps we wouldn’t be so lucky every time to avoid getting infected, but the risk is possibly similar in Singapore anyway now that we’ve removed our mask mandate on public transport and indoor settings, unless we’re both willing to become true hermits. But we’re taking every precaution we can by wearing n95 masks on the plane and bringing a personal hepa filter to dodgy places. We also wear kf94 masks at every indoor place and avoid dining indoors especially in air-conditioned places unless there is adequate ventilation like we can sit next to an open window. All of these is not foolproof, but I think it is the best we can do apart from staying forever at home.

This year I chose to travel to hanoi, though I made sure my partner is on board too. We both don’t feel comfortable in chaos, but I asked the James Hollis question – will this enlarge or diminish me – and some inner place within me felt like hanoi is a place that would enlarge me.

It was still a shock to our senses though. But we acclimatised gradually within the next couple of days. I started feeling inspired by all the contrasts we could experience in the city. The traffic is famously insane but they also close the most central part of their city every weekend to traffic for people to walk about and kids to have fun. I feel like this is extremely progressive?

the center of hanoi’s old quarter is closed to traffic during weekends

I love travelling because of how provocative it is to my worldview. I could have the worst beliefs about humanity because I spend too much time within a narrow section of the internet, but travelling opens me up to new worlds: new ways of living and seeing. I could watch a thousand youtube videos on people’s experiences in hanoi or listen to a hundred people about how they felt, but nothing would have prepared me for the actual experience. We have different personalities, different ways of perceiving, and we seek out different types of experiences. I didn’t enjoy ho chi minh when I travelled there in 2012, but that was a different self trapped in a different mind space.

Hanoi is a city full of surprises. The same street can be home to a traditional pho street side stall, a modern cafe, a touristy souvenir shop, and an expensive-looking boutique. We enjoyed going into hidden alleys, going up some dodgy stairway and discovering there is a really cool cafe at the end.

photo of a cafe named hidden alley
a cafe named hidden alley

I think in life it is really important to be surprised, enlivened and inspired. Hanoi is such an experience for me. Every day I see something that makes me go wow, this exists. I guess there would be some people who may come to Singapore and have these feelings too.

I have a lot more photos and thoughts to share, but it will take some time to organise and sieve through them properly, so I thought I’ll just share some brief thoughts first. I’m trying to tell myself not every post has to be this longwinded excursion into the depths of my psyche. Old habits die hard.


Last year, I wrote I wanted to learn how to cope. I don’t think I have learnt to cope well yet, but I do think I have made some progress compared to last year. It is difficult to notice inner changes in ourselves, but because I keep a daily journal I am able to look at entries I’ve written a year ago and notice a shift in tone, choice of words and the surfaced content. I hope I’ll be able to say the same this time next year.

Psychological progress is not linear though, and cannot be taken for granted. It is like climbing a rock: it takes considerable effort to hoist myself up. It is also not something that can be achieved with intention and effort. It has its own life. Sometimes I think I’m over a psychological hurdle, only for it to raise its ugly head with a vengeance. Other times I am surprised to discover that an issue that caused me considerable distress previously is no longer at the forefront of my consciousness. Who knows? I have no idea who I am going to become.

It is quite interesting though, to get to know my self as I age. I would have never expected myself to be who I am today as a 21 year old. I say this with neutrality, I don’t mean that I have become someone who has exceeded my expectations. But I am utterly different from who I thought I was going to become. It is amazing how much one’s personality can change and yet some part of it is still the same, like you can plant the same seeds and have them sprout in different ways. I wonder who I’ll be in another 21 years, assuming I am still alive? I guess I can’t even assume I’ll be alive next year, much less in 21 years.

I really enjoy ageing (except the part where people around me are also ageing), because if we do it right it can be freeing and thus confer us more creativity and agency in the way we choose to live and exist. I like how the older I become, the less I give a shit about the impression I give to people. People’s opinions are such a great source of suffering in this world. I wish there comes a point in everyone’s life where all of us will realise that opinions are merely made up content, and the quality of that content is very much limited by what the individual encounters in life. And most people’s encounters are limited by the structures of their environment. Most environments are badly designed without the consideration of what makes a human, human. So basically opinions are like rubbish, because most of us grow up being shaped by rubbish. It takes work to find our selves and our true values when we are all layers of rubbish. Hence there are very little opinions in this world that are truly valuable, because it is difficult to find opinions that actually originate from a quality source – it is profoundly lonely to walk out of that pile of rubbish, so most people just don’t even if they are aware of it.

I think that is a huge part of my work this past year. To have the capacity to maintain my own equilibrium and inner temperature while living in piles of rubbish. The other part is an ongoing journey of letting go and acceptance: that decay is simply part of life no matter how cruel it is. I can rage at it and think it is massively unfair, but I cannot change the physics of living. All I can do is to prepare myself for grief and loss, even though I know all that preparation will not cushion me for what is to come. Grief is horrendous, but it is worse being paralysed by the fear of it. Avoidance causes me to shrink. I feel like a fragile teacup, but I hope by knowing I am going to break some day will lessen the suffering a little bit when it comes. Or maybe it is wishful thinking to think that this suffering can be lessened, but I would like to believe I can somehow coexist with it. One can hope.

The pandemic has taught me shit will happen regardless and we have very little control over it. I am coming to accept that I live in such an era, an era when our previous life expectancy will no longer apply, and the temporary stability of the previous decades are over. I think people believe the pandemic is over and we’re going to return to what was there before. But as much as I need to live in a bubble sometimes for my own mental health, intellectually I am mentally preparing myself for more instability and suffering to come. When I look at the objective data, it is right there staring at our face no matter what angle I try to spin. The earth is warming up, we’re hopeless at looking at the long term, some political leaders have the emotional maturity of children, everyone is just too overwhelmed coping with the trauma of their own lives to be capable of making a sustained effort to overcome the existential threats we are facing.

I guess all of this is pretty heavy for a birthday reflection post, but it is what that is at the forefront of my mind as I turn 42. I am depressing company, I know.

But as the world burns and everything decays, I am also learning to live a lighter existence. The heaviness is there and I cannot escape it, but there is nothing in the rulebook that says we cannot have fun while things fall apart.

birthday card illustrated by my partner: she drew pixel icons of all the food I love – she teaches me to have fun

So this is what I hope for my self in the oncoming year, should I survive it. That I’ll be more capable of having fun, be less stuck in my own psychological prisons, and be more creative and flexible in the way I live.

I write one of these every year.

surprising myself with my self

I have always thought of myself as an open-minded person, but in recent years due to increasing self awareness I realised I can be very set in some patterns of my thinking, especially when it comes to my self. I have pretty strong ideas of what I like and dislike, or what I enjoy or dread doing. I tend to not retry something I’ve already tried before. I have spent a huge part of my former (pre-2015) life doing plenty of things I didn’t like because I had no boundaries and was always seeking approval, so this makes me more allergic to doing things I think I dislike doing.

When I finally got sick of my old self I went all the other way and started saying no to most things. There were times I thought I kept my mind open but that led me back into old unhealthy patterns so I became more resolute about saying no. It is difficult to know what are boundaries or where are them when I never had them before. I didn’t even know what I truly liked or enjoyed because everything seemed like a response to societal, environmental or familial conditioning. 

All of this contributed to me being very unwilling because I felt like I spent my life being too willing. It took years thereafter to heal from all that compression — I felt like I was being compressed into a tiny box. I couldn’t differentiate whether I am being my self or being the box. I am still healing: I can see that from how I respond to certain triggers. But I feel like there has been more space opening up to feel where are the edges of myself or to grow new parts of myself.

illustration of my boxed self vs my spacious self

As part of my healing process I did consciously try to do things I had disliked because they were necessary. Exercising was a huge part of that. It may seem trivial now because I ended up enjoying it so much that I now cannot stop even when I am supposed to, but when I first started out it took me a lot of effort, willpower and failures. I also had to restrict my diet and sleep religiously before 10pm – in my mind I was already willing myself to do so many things for my health, I felt like I had no capacity to try new things.

So for years my partner has been asking me to try yoga and I was like nope. I disliked the slowness of it: it felt dreadful each and every time I tried. But I have been so obsessed with running that I had to find ways to recover from my fatigued legs. That made me want to try yoga again. And this time, I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it either or that it made me feel good like the way so many people talk about yoga, but I didn’t dislike it enough to stop trying it again.

Then the other day my partner wanted to visit a crafts sale. I joked that maybe I could try cross stitch. She laughed. I decided to buy a kit almost as though I was trying to spite her. In truth I was curious to see how I would respond to working on it, because again I dislike anything that requires slowness and I have some resistance towards needlecraft in general.

So far I’ve only made 3 rows of stitches, but I was surprised to learn that I don’t hate it and I am looking forward to continue on it again.

photo of my first adulthood cross stitch

That’s the thing about the self. I am sure I am not the only person experiencing this rigidity of the self – it forms the premise of Buddhist philosophy. We seem to have fixed ideas about who we are, what we welcome as a person and what we would reject. We also have illusions of who we are, stunting us from discovering our potentialities. If I kept believing I was an open-minded person I would not be able to see where I was being close-minded. This leads to a form of semi-conscious suffering because of the incongruence between reality and my deeply-held beliefs of my self. It could manifest as me behaving defensively without knowing exactly why I had to be so defensive. The human psyche fascinates me sometimes, because of all the ways we sort of know who we are and yet we would do everything to avoid acknowledging it.

We are constantly changing as a person. We are being fed with new information, experiences, stimuli all the time. When the inputs change the output inevitable changes too. But I think some of us react to this by sticking even closer to the old fixed beliefs of our selves. Maybe sometimes we call them “values”. Or integrity, I don’t know. Or it draws us to rules like Confucius. Because it is scary to have no stable ground to stand on.

I am like that in many ways. I think I am not a needlecraft person so I avoided it. But today I am not the same person as yesterday. My old self disliked needlecraft because I could not stand the feelings that come with the stillness of time, but my current self is growing to appreciate that. I may end up still not enjoying it much but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.

I have a similar trajectory in my photography journey. I set out to take street photography because that’s what I’m instinctively drawn to, but I quickly realised that the environment can often be uninspiring. If I choose to only take photos when I am inspired, then it would greatly limit my photo-taking opportunities. I think photography is a great tool to open our minds and the way we see. How can we find a photo when nothing seems obviously calling out to us?

“I’ve been trying to achieve a breakthrough by taking photos that don’t involve people — I guess I believe it is possible to see beauty in the most mundane of environments, but can my eyes see it? this is the ground floor of our public flats, some of them have interesting feature walls like this. I find it fascinating that there is an attempt to be creative even if the apartments were built for a very practical purpose.”

– original caption of the photo above, originally published on instagram

I have quite a few things I had aspired to learn for a long while now. One of them is learning how to play the keyboard, and the other is learning how to draw. I don’t aspire to be good at them, I just want to be capable of enjoying them. I have a keyboard I have gotten in 2016, and my partner is amused I keep buying these drawing books but I don’t actually draw (apart from the ugly drawings I make sometimes for these blog posts). Or will they have a similar fate like my running shoes?

The by-product of all of these mini-experiments and experiences is surprise. I am surprised by my self, which is enriching. As artists we often start out with an idea and a blank canvas, many a time we have been surprised by both the process and the outcome because the actual journey and eventual outcome is different from what we’ve imagined in the first place. This is similar to how I feel about my self if I take myself as an instrument for creativity. I don’t necessarily mean creativity in a traditional artistic sense, but think of the infinite ways we can create new layers of ourselves, as long as we believe we can. Don’t associate myself with needlework? Pick up a kit and bam, I can now associate myself with needlework, an association that did not exist in my entire life before. The surprise does not only come from the feeling of wow I didn’t know I could do this, but also the journey itself teaches me new things, and I also get to know newly formed layers of myself. There are many dimensions of surprise that can be evoked when we try doing something new.

Sometimes I think of life like how Sisyphus is rolling up the same rock up a hill over and over again. It can be repetitive, dreadful and monotonous, like being caught in a trap. But perhaps even Sisyphus may become a different person each time he rolls the same rock up the same hill. Each repetitive journey is never the same journey because experiences are accumulative transforming our psyches in the process, and the conditions are never totally the same.

The part of my self writing this essay is elusive. I am seldom like this, whatever this is. I guess that’s why I write whenever I can, to remember the parts of me who can be like this. Maybe this is an ongoing practice too, to become a person capable of surprising myself with my self so frequently and with so much ease that I no longer feel like I am both trapped in the box and I am the box.

running 10km, and making life’s calculations

I completed my only 2023 resolution this last week by finally running my first 10km in my life.

It had seemed like an unattainable goal: I was struggling even to finish 5km, much less 10. I learnt by experimentation that it made a considerable difference if I started slowly to warm up during the first km or so, and if I deliberately kept my heart rate around 120+bpm instead of instinctively picking up the pace. I could go on for a very long while at this slow pace, and if I tired it was my legs, not my cardiovascular system. I used to be so unfit that even brisk walking for more than 10 minutes would tire me out, so to be able to sustain a slow jog at longer distances is a huge deal to me. I gauged my fitness by how much I struggle to complete my targeted distance. When I first began running this round, I was struggling all the way from the beginning till the end for the entire 5km. Now I could probably run up till 7 easily before my feet starts to fatigue.

I slowly went from 5 to 5.5 to 6 to 6.5 to 7 to 7.7 to 8.5 to 9, then to 10. I was stuck at 5-6 for the first couple of months but I reached this threshold where my aerobic fitness seemed to make a quantum leap, so at 6.5 I started adding around 10% mileage each week. I started running around October 2022, so it took me roughly 6 months to go from 5km to 10. People train for full marathons in half the time, so my progress is considered relatively slow. 

But for most of my life I avoided walking for even for 10 minutes, as a child I hated physical fitness lessons, climbing stairs used to be such a nightmare because it would always render me breathless. So yes it feels good to be fitter in my 40s compared to all of my youth.

I would probably not be on this journey if I wasn’t attempting to improve my mitochondrial health in order to heal from my migraines. This started off as purely utilitarian – I thought I would just do it like a chore just like how eating low carb feels like a chore to me: a chore being something I have to do instead of what I truly want to do. But unexpectedly I fell in love. Now I probably have an unhealthy relationship with running, because I get disappointed when I am not running, and I am always trying to run even when my body is exhibiting dodgy signals. 

I now understand why people say they run for mental health. Is it the endorphins, the increased oxygen, the sense of completion? Or do I like giving myself utterly into an experience? 

I know this is probably the nth time I am writing about running. But I think this is a precious slice of my life to capture. I don’t really know when this will be taken away from me. I’m afraid that a bout of covid could annihilate my aerobic capacity. Or who knows what sort of strange illnesses I may develop? I don’t have a good history with my health. Every day feels precarious to me. 

We cannot help but be coloured by our life experiences. I am never at peace because I am always expecting something terrible to happen. And yet this attitude brings me a different kind of peace because I am always trying to live my life to the fullest, as much as my capacity can allow. 

I now realise that attempting to live life to the fullest is actually a lot more challenging than it sounds. It takes a certain courage, to be capable of always weighing the present against the future, to be able to discern what is reckless versus choosing the present, should I have empathy for my future self versus my present self, am I being hedonistic or am I taking care of my inner needs? It is a constant calculation at any given moment. That is if I even remember to make that calculation, because it is just so easy to go into a drone-like existence based out of a regular fixed routine. I try to circumvent this by journalling every morning – it makes me think about how I want to spend my day. I don’t always succeed in trying to live with more awareness, but it is still nice to at least give some thought to it.

It is a similar calculation I make for running. Each day when I make the choice to run, I ask myself if I am harming or improving my body? I would like to run everyday but I am still not there yet. I just ran 3 days in a row this last week and I fell a little bit ill. It is still difficult for me to know when I truly need a break.

At the end of the day, it is all about building that relationship with my self and my body. To manage all the different tensions and desires I have. I am terrible at this. Yet to feel that conflict and challenge I realise, is a sign that I am in the process of learning. I have always wondered why I never seem to take the easy way out, or why does life consistently feel so uncomfortable? It is an ongoing paradox because I am ambivalent about the value of my life and yet there is this invisible desire to explore the depths of my self. Who am I, and who will I become?

Because of my chronic illness I had to rely a lot on having a stable predictable routine. It was really helpful earlier on, because my younger self did not know how to live in a routine or build consistent habits. But it has somewhat built an internal prison for me. I could have continued to walk the same amount of distance every day just for the sake of maintaining my health, to incorporate an exercise that has a high potential of triggering my illness was a risk. Now I am glad I took it.

I did probably have more migraines, but I also discovered that it was possible to push my limits. Previously just going out for a few days in a row would be enough to trigger a serious migraine, now I am able to run around 30km a week. I have fallen sick during times when my body wasn’t in a very good state to run, which I am still have trouble recognising the signs.

I know I need more flexibility in my exercise routines. So last week I did a photowalk on one of my rest days and yoga on another. It is not easy to decide to take a break. Even in exercise I am having trouble pursuing wholeness. I am feeling the conflict, which means I sense that I could do better and I am attempting to break out of my self-made mould.

It would probably be better for my runs if I work on other forms of training. I am not training for a marathon or any form of race, so there is not much point in accumulating too much mileage. If health and fitness is my goal then I have to learn how to work out my entire body instead of just my legs and cardiovascular fitness. I just forget to see the whole picture.

I guess if I could decide to start running one day, I could potentially start on anything. Maybe knowing how to overcome inertia and start something is a muscle I can train too.

where i can take off my mask

Recently I’ve been getting some feedback from multiple sources that they appreciate I am able to write it as it is. In parallel I’ve also been thinking about why I share so much of my life online. It is not just the writing here, but I publish a ton of statuses (mostly on mastodon now) and photos on the things I eat, the sights I see, the relationship I have with my partner and sometimes with myself, etc. 

There are people who think this sort of behaviour is narcissistic: it is like look at mesee what I am doing, me, me, me. I will not bother to defend myself, but I would like to provide another perspective, something I’ve only recently probably re-realised after some contemplation. 

I share my life online because I don’t hang out with people offline. I was already on that trajectory before the pandemic, but it made it more extreme. The only person I hang out with is my partner. Still, there are emotions and thoughts I can’t express verbally even with her, so I write them down. 

The average person has a bunch of friends, so they share their ups and downs with them. There are probably multiple outlets for their expression. I do have a few close friends, but due to the pandemic our friendship now only exist on texts. Even when we were able to meet in person, it is difficult for me to communicate as my self regardless of the intimacy of the relationship. 

This is mostly because I wear a mask – something that neurodivergent or queer people can probably relate to. I’m so afraid of making people feel uncomfortable that I automatically adjust my behaviour. I can’t seem to take that mask of even though now I no longer wish to wear that mask. When I am with people I laugh and cannot stop making jokes. I do that even with my partner. I did try telling the truth of my reality to some people and that made them visibly upset. I cannot stand bringing sadness to people I care about, so I stopped trying to let them know the self behind the mask. 

So where does my sadness go? Here, on this page. There is nowhere else it can exist, except in my words. Sometimes I suspect I don’t even allow it to concretely exist in my self. Alone with my self, I still wear a mask.

There it is. I have to write it as it is, because without doing so I’ll practically die. There wouldn’t be much of me left within me, and I’ll be slowly eaten away by my own mask. I may still be biologically alive, but what then would be the difference between me and a programmed robot? A programmed robot comedian. 

adding layers to my partner’s original art

My online life, is my way of surviving. There is so much I am unable to say. I don’t know if recent readers of this blog know this, but for many years I was unable to verbally talk to people I don’t know well. My social anxiety was so intense that I would only accept clients who are willing to work with me through email or chat. I slowly grew out of that fear, but it was probably then my mask became even more complex and layered. I have to compensate for my social awkwardness and sense of inferiority. 

I am no longer that socially awkward. I don’t necessarily feel a sense of inferiority these days, but I do feel a sense of alienation – like I don’t belong to this world. I don’t even feel comfortable in my own body, and my mind feels oppressive sometimes. But so much of my life revolves around managing my chronic illness, and this is something that people are not comfortable talking about. Maybe I don’t even know how to talk about it myself. So I write about it, because during a writing session I am able to slowly contemplate what it means to bear all of this, and try to distill my feelings into words. Such sessions bring my sadness to the forefront, like how I am feeling now while writing this post. But this sadness is very much part of me, and it is vital that I give it a proper space to exist. It feels like at the very least, I am able to be truthful in these writing moments. 

I can no longer interact with people normally. So I interact with the world through broadcasting online. Once in a while I experience a deep resonance with an internet stranger, and that makes all that vulnerability and brazen sharing worthwhile. I have learnt that I can’t expect resonance and connection with my very specific type of experiences within my geographical proximity.

Chronic illness aside, there is something very deeply rewarding about being able to share our inner world. There is just so much that does not get expressed in everyday conversations. Many emotions are just unable to be translated into words verbally, or they just cannot exist in a two-way verbal conversation. Maybe some experiences can only exist in a rambling monologue where no one else can interrupt you. Some parts of our inner worlds can only be shared through art.

I’ve slowly come to accept the strange way I prefer to communicate. Asynchronously I guess. I no longer expect myself to conform to social norms. I post stuff online when I feel inspired to, and I am okay being offline living in a co-created bubble with my partner. I am not bored most of the time, and have no desire to socialise.

There is a belief that we must be social as human beings but I think that only applies people who are happier when they are socially connected. I feel more alienation with people, most of the time. It is also often too much stimuli for me, to be in a live conversation. Sometimes I develop headaches even during video calls because it takes too much out of me – I feel like I have an auditory processing disorder.

I have exchanged my anonymity and privacy in favour of catching some resonance every once in a while. Considering the person I am and my circumstances, I think it is a worthwhile exchange.

This is why I write as it is, because there is nowhere else where I can be as I am. There are fragments of me all over the internet, but they are disseminated as my attempts to be whole. My physical person is just a tiny fraction of who I truly am. So despite all my misgivings and frustration with the internet and social media, I am glad to have a place where I can take off my mask. At least transiently. It allows me to unfold, in a world where I feel extremely constricted.

more of the same

Pretty late into my run yesterday I went into a meditative-like zone where my breathing was slow and even, my legs were going at a consistent rhythm, and I found myself thinking: I could do more of the same for a very long time. Repetition tends to be boring, boredom itself is boring, until it becomes somewhat transcendent. It is like an immersive emptiness: my typically noisy mind quietens, I stop needing to make an effort to run, and I simply lean into the sensorial experience of running. There is nothing else but me, the ease of my body, and time becoming weightless.

I did not understand what people mean when they say they run for mental health. How can something so self-torturing make you feel better? I thought they meant the physiological benefits that come from running: the hormones. But once I truly got into running I started to understand that it is very soothing and uplifting to experience a seemingly indefatigable body. Outside of running I walk around as though there is a ton of weight on my shoulders. Everything is dark and heavy, my mind and body both feel like a drag. It can be very transformational to experience the opposite of our usual experiences. At a place where I least expect it, I have discovered how it feels like to be tireless.

I ran 8.5km yesterday, outdoing my previous record of 7.7km last week. That run made me fall quite ill, so I thought it would take me a long while to make another distance record attempt. I don’t deal well with my illness episodes and would tend to avoid that particular trigger because of all that associated fear. Once I had an episode triggered by drinking soup from a hot pot, and I stopped eating hot pot – one of my favourite foods ever – for months. 

But my love for running has made me defiant. Perhaps I just want an hour a day when I can feel like a normal person with a normal body. Or a body that can carry me to places instead of breaking down at every tiny thing I do. Once my biometrics returned to typical values after my illness I ran a slow 5km to test waters. And another. Then I decided to make an attempt to stretch my distance to see if I would break again.

That’s the interesting thing experimenting with my health. There are so many factors behind the body’s capacity to achieve homeostasis. Something that was a trigger on a bad day may be okay for another. I lived in fear for a long time avoiding all my triggers and treaded so gingerly I was not actually living. I have to choose between the potential of having more relapses and living lifelessly. I think there are people who can thrive on a muted life and be thankful that there is at least a spectrum of living that can be available to them. Sometimes this is all they/we can get, having to cope with chronic disabling illnesses. Being muted is definitely better than living with pain every moment. Maybe I am not psychologically mature enough yet to thrive on a muted life. I am greedy and I still want more.

I was more mindful of my recovery yesterday. I tried to eat more carefully, and after meals I did some walking in place to aid circulation instead of letting blood pool at unwanted places. It seems counter-intuitive that more walking is better than total rest, but that’s what I’ve discovered after some experimentation (partially inspired by this youtuber who ran the day after his ultra marathon to recover). I did feel a bit dodgy in the evening but somehow some active deep breathing seemed to circumvent it?

I thought it would be interesting to compare oura metrics of the day after: last week my body temp was high and respiratory rate was out of the norm compared to today’s metrics, which is within my typical range.

last week: increased body temp, RHR and respiratory rate
last week
today: everything within typical range

Today my HRV was high enough and stable, whereas last week it went a little berserk dipping really low and going very high. I would interpret it as my parasympathetic nervous system going into overdrive to try to recover.

last week: extreme hrv swings
high hrv is not always a good thing
today: stable hrv
steady hrv

The biggest factor was that last week I ran on day 6 of my cycle, and I was already experiencing some mild symptoms that morning. My bad, I know. But I wonder if it would have made a difference had I tried to be mindful of my recovery? Or is it just impossible to expect my body to manage both the stress of my cycle and running? I guess I would have to wait for my next cycle to find out.

Longer distance running teaches me equanimity. I know 8.5km is puny for seasoned runners but I have never ventured out of 5 in my entire running life until this year, and I was already struggling with 5. So it feels like a profound improvement to be able to simply take one step after another until I hit my targeted distance.

I could keep doing this – more of the same – I found myself thinking repeatedly while I ran. And it wasn’t dreadful to anticipate more of this same, I felt neutral bordering on joyous. How can something so boring become so stabilising, so enlivening?

I wondered how I could translate this to day to day life. I think about the myth of Sisyphus, that Camus implored us to imagine Sisyphus being happy. I think being happy is a huge stretch, but it would be enough to be equanimous: to remain centered and calm regardless of what life throws at us. More of the same, more of the same – whether it is sadness, weight, loss – we go on.

I find life difficult to endure. I guess that is why paradoxically I like things that require endurance. I don’t have endurance, so I aspire towards it. These days when something bad happens I try to invoke the spirit that comes from running, the centeredness that allows me to take step after step regardless of the underlying mental or physical discomfort. 

It is entirely justifiable to have these so-called negative feelings in response to negative events, it is the dwelling that causes extra suffering. I also think it is entirely valid to dwell after profound loss and suffering, but I dwell at everything. And I dwell in the anticipation of potential suffering. 

Life is heavy. But I’m pre-bracing myself for more and more weight. In sports it is important to know when to relax and recover before taking huge amounts of stress. Being tense all the time is detrimental. I can’t live every day fretting and fearful. 

How do I incorporate the mental attitude I have towards running in the rest of my day? I find it very amusing that I have such incongruent attitudes. I would expect the drudgery of my life to influence my running but somehow it turned out opposite. There is an openness and willingness that exists in my running that exists almost nowhere else. Maybe it is the beginner mindset, that the cynicism has not had time to set in and solidify yet. I have not encountered enough disappointments or setbacks to make me feel jaded about running. Everything seems to tire me out, but that one thing that is supposed to tire me out is that one thing that is reinvigorating. 

Can I let life pass through me the way I let the distance under my legs unfold? More of the same, without dread and with subtle anticipation? That the passing of time will become less of a weight but more of a peaceful stillness? That all the narrative will dissipate from my mind and all that is left is a full emptiness?

I don’t really know what exactly it is about the repetitive enduring nature of running that makes going into that zone possible. I seem to be close to grasping it, but it eludes me. It is probably the same element behind the practice of meditation. A secret door that opens up if I’m willing to endure the monotony. 

Maybe to run or meditate requires some conscious control of both the mind and the body and yet paradoxically letting go. There is a conscious attempt to reach some form of harmony and rhythm. But I’m always out of sorts and out of sync in my day to day activities. Always fretting, always frustrated, always impatient, always sad, always dissatisfied. My soul is fragmented all over the place, but during a run I am fully embodied. At every stride I am collecting myself all over again, rinse and repeat. Running accumulates power for me, but the act of living drains it out of me. 

illustration of living draining me vs running enlivening me

How can I live in such a way whereby the act of living itself accumulates life force within me instead of dissipating it? I don’t have answers yet again. These days I feel like I’m a beginner at life, to learn how to live a life that is not conditioned and ingrained into me by the effects of society, a life that is not heavy with the baggage of my past but rather light with the freshness of tomorrow mixed in with the solidity of today. Is this even possible?

to be willing to search

I broke a personal distance record yesterday while running very slowly, though my current “slow” speed would spike my heart rate at least by 10bpm just a few weeks ago. I accomplished 7.7km from last week’s 7km, attempting to add 10% distance every week as advised by experienced runners on the internet. 

I was having a remnant headache from the day before but I ran anyway thinking it could fade along the way. It did fade along the way and I felt pretty good during the run, or I wouldn’t have attempted that distance. To celebrate my small milestone I ordered some pulled pork on a croffle for breakfast – I usually eat low carb but I thought it could replenish some glycogen lost during that run.

My headache imploded into a migraine a couple of hours after my breakfast. I went from enjoying a rare croffle to having nausea so bad that I couldn’t even stomach a few spoonfuls of soup. I really love to eat, so my partner knows I am really sick when I start rejecting food. I spent the day slumped, interspersed with trips to the bathroom wondering if my stomach would choose to empty its contents.

Of course the self-blaming started. I should not have run or eaten that croffle. My traditional chinese physician told me not to run until day 7 of my cycle but it is impossible tell any aspiring runner to take an entire week off running. I started an easy run on day 3 and ran a zone 2 run on day 5, and I thought my body felt well enough to run on day 6 again. 

It is actually impossible to tell what would have happened if I didn’t run. I spent months, years avoiding streneous exercise until my fitness suffered. I have had period cycles when I did nothing and I had still have gotten migraines. They also happened when I did light walking instead. They happened when I went too low carb or ate too much. They happened so much that I blamed myself for all the choices I have made.

I knew this is bound to happen if I wanted to push the limits of my body, even in a reasonable way. Muscle will only grow when they breakdown, mitochondria will only generate if you push them to a certain threshold. In short, there is no aspiring for improved health without some level of discomfort. I don’t want my body to gingerly exist, I want to feel like my body is thriving. I have been weak and sick for my entire life. For once, I want to know what it is like to be strong.

I am typing this as some remnants of my migraine lurks in the shadows. I have no way of telling if it will develop later. But I have had bouts when it just progressively grows worse for days, even disrupting my sleep with extreme pain. I slept reasonably well last night. 

I write about the second arrow buddhist parable often. The first arrow pierces our skin and causes real physical suffering, the second arrow is the suffering generated by the response to the first. I am actually pretty skeptical of buddhist teachings (or any religious teachings) at times because I resent the insinuation that we are capable of choosing our responses when neuroscience seems to point otherwise. This places the entire responsibility on the individual (okay I am digressing into another essay) instead of empathising with the circumstances that shaped that nervous system in the first place. But based on my personal experience we are capable of small nudges…if the conditions are right, and a lot of those conditions do depend on external circumstances that can be out of our control. The key is to recognise where we are at the moment

Another key buddhist teaching (I am no scholar so this is my interpretation) is the acceptance of reality. I also resent this sometimes because can we really throw someone into a concentration camp and ask of them to accept their reality? My personal belief is that both responses are equally valid: it is valid to be unable to accept reality if that reality is unjust, but it is also valid to accept reality if that is what that provides another door that we seek. I think it is valid to hold both responses at the same time.

So, I do rage against my own reality that I am plagued with this never-ending condition, and yet I do have somewhere in me that accepts this reality. This acceptance does confer some inner freedom as even a tiny bit of acceptance alongside the rage will make a difference in how we navigate our inner world. If there is solely rage, only certain doors are open. But if there are other responses alongside that rage, perhaps there can be a wider or different spectrum of doors available.

illustration depicting a wider range of doors if we can encompass polarities of emotions

There is self-pity and self-blame as I suffered my migraine yesterday. But perhaps there is also a newish voice that is emerging: reminding myself that the suffering and the self that I was experiencing is different from before (also it helps to have a kind partner who consistently reminds me of the same). It is easy to believe we are caught in the same old trap – one of the outcomes of chronic trauma – replaying the same tape over and over again deepening the neural connections that reinforce the memory and the suffering. 

This time my symptoms are less severe, and it is possibly triggered by a 7.7km run, not by merely lifting my finger. I wanted to push my limits and my limits are broadened as I have wanted. It would be unrealistic for me to expect zero negative consequences.

have lost so much of myself, but in returned I gained new parts of me. I can be angry at my illness and yet grateful to it at the same time. I think my life would have been on an entirely different trajectory had I not fallen sick, but I still believe I would have been much narrower as a person, because I was a workaholic and nothing could fill me up except work. I think it is valid to grieve my old self, but also anticipate the new parts of me emerging over this process. 

I just wish I can remember all of this when the lights go out in my head and I succumb to the darkness – perhaps intellectually I know all of this during those times, but the darkness was just too overwhelming and paralysing to search for any tiny flickering of lights within me. Or maybe it is okay to allow myself to be fully immersed in my own darkness instead of unhealthy repression. Sometimes it feels almost cleansing in the aftermath. To feel all of it, to acknowledge its existence.

I am not pretending I have the right answers or any. But I am searching. To be willing to search, I think that makes all the difference.