Annual Thoughts

It’s not fair that we’d only spend the last hours each year reflecting on the past 52 weeks. If only we could introspect as much as we breathed, then we would be spared from mistakes that arose from blurred judgment, tears from unnecessary heartaches, and found depth in the everyday words that hung from our conversations.

One year ago, I spent my New Year’s eve sitting quietly at a cafe in San Diego, sipping a cuppa while watching the last hours of 2011 roll slowly but surely by. For several hours, I sat there with my thoughts, recollecting moments and trying to make sense of the 364 days that had already gone by. That day, I was just about halfway through my three-week solo backpacking trip. While people were gathering for countdown parties and celebratory drinks that evening, I decided to spectate from afar. I wanted to know how it would feel like to feel joyous and renewed without participating. I wanted to experience the simple, intrinsic happiness from just thinking about people I know and love greeting the new year with even greater resolve. I wanted to feel what people were feeling, without feeling anything myself – if you know what I mean.

It was a nice exercise. It made me feel like I was part of a larger meshwork of beings. Although I was traveling on my own through six cities that winter, I hardly felt alone.

That was how I started 2012.

If there was such a thing as a year being too eventful, then 2012 would fit perfectly into the ‘too eventful’ bucket.

San Diego, Las Vegas, Austin, Charlotte. Dublin, Northern Ireland, Manchester, Liverpool, New York City, Boston, Chicago. London, Edinburgh, Bath, Windsor, Stonehenge off Salisbury. And more recently, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang.

Old Trafford, Anfield, Emirates, Wembley. England versus Ukraine, Arsenal versus Coventry. Even though I never understood football and never remembered what’s an offside. But I liked the grandeur of stadiums and feeling the adrenaline of spectators.

2012 was plentifully spent in solitude. Probably a third of the cities I traveled to during the year was without companionship. I came to realize that solo traveling is addictive, and I also came to realize that I enjoyed the silence of being alone. Countless hours spent at coffee hideouts and cafes with a hot latte and a good read. Running off to the seaside before sunrise to watch silhouettes becoming illuminated figures. Spontaneous explorations on foot with my camera. Sitting at my window for hours staring at the snow falling flake by flake…

For as long as I can remember, I have always classified myself as an extrovert. But perhaps we change, even the most core of ourselves might change overtime. Perhaps as we grow up we discover some parts of our inner self that we never knew existed. Either way, the person I am now displays so much introversion that I wonder if I have ever been an extrovert at all. Sometimes, I prefer to turn away from the crowd and dissociate myself from the majority. Sometimes, I put on my earphones to intentionally cut myself off from the world so that I can watch it without sound. Sometimes, I wish I could spectate my life from afar as a third party.

Solitude gave me thought space to find answers to hard questions. Quite often, solitude was like a war ranging between me and myself. Because of the silence, your inner thoughts become so much louder. And you start to listen to them more. I don’t know if that is necessarily always a good thing, because there were times when my thoughts got a bit too loud and I didn’t know how to silence them when I needed to.

2012 was a hard year. I don’t know how else to describe it because I really don’t think that you can generalize 365 days of your life into a single word. I wouldn’t be doing justice to my history, but I will attempt to explain why it was a hard year.

There were many transitions. Non-trivial transitions. I graduated from school, twice, within the year (within two consecutive months actually). Once for my bachelors degree in Singapore, and another for my masters degree in the states. I moved back to Singapore after living in the US for almost two years. And one week after I officially graduated from university and ended 19 years of education, I was on a plane to London for work training in attempt to mould me (along with many of my peers) into someone ready to contribute to the workforce.

On hindsight, I wasn’t ready. My body was protesting from months of sleep debt prior to graduation and from jet lagging across three time zones. My mental profile was still that of a university student, not a working adult. I was missing Pittsburgh’s sunsets and the smell of spring. I was thinking about home. I had many loose ends that were left hanging due to my sudden and inevitable departure. I left my heart in so many places that I didn’t know how to find it back.

To be honest, I felt tired trying to live. I was dragging my feet and my life along with it.

I thought I would be cheering from the huge list of personal, academic and career milestones in a single year. I had imagined myself basking in my own glory and patting my own shoulder for a job well done. But I realized that we are human beings. We have the ability to adapt to changes but we need time. I can’t be pitching a school project one evening and find a steady footing in the workplace the next morning. I can’t simply stop missing people and places by flying off on a jet plane. And most importantly, I needed time to reconcile hanging thoughts and inconclusive decisions. I felt like my life had gone well ahead of me and I was struggling to chase after it. I found myself trying too hard to be happy just because I was in London and I was supposed to be enjoying myself. I was desperate to be happy because I wasn’t. I was tired, and I wanted very much to slow things down a bit so that I could catch my breath.

The working world also presented a whole set of challenges that I didn’t expect. The subtle pressure to conform, yet stand out. People are always watching you, people are always judging you. Every hand you shake and every connection you build could possibly open a new door of opportunities. Every bridge you burn could also potentially return to bite you in your next work life. Expectations are so complex. Learning to conquer your inner fears of inadequacy and incompetence is tough, but letting them eat you alive ain’t an option either.

They say that we are so sheltered while in school – now I understand what they mean, and how the reality of adulthood feels like. Responsibilities are obligations, non-negotiable. Being a working adult also means that you now have a stake in keeping the household alive and kicking. You’re no longer a child that can get away from doing the chores by throwing tantrums. Health cannot be taken for granted and people grow old, including our parents. Longevity isn’t a given, it must be earned. People enter and leave our lives. Procrastination is a losing battle.

Some of these made 2012 really hard.

But I tried telling myself that when things are bad they can only get better. And I realized, too, that sometimes we cannot leave it to chance to make things better.

Coffee shop breakfasts. Morning walks and slow jogs. Cooking dinner during the weekends. Paying the bills. Family time. Acoustic guitar. Finding back health that has been carelessly lost. Reading on the way to work and on the way home. Embracing introversion. Being honest, and being realistic. Remembering humility. Taking every piece of work seriously, no matter how trivial. Listening to own thoughts. Letting go what cannot be held on to.

I could go on for another 3000 words about 2012, there’s too much to say. For better or worse, 365 days of events occurred. There were jobs well done and regretful mistakes made. Letting bygones be bygones will not be easy and I can’t say for sure that I won’t look back. But I will give myself ample time I need to find the steadiness within, and stay true to things and people that matter to me most.

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Adagio

In many parts of the world, 2012 has begun. Over here I’m still lagging behind, but nevertheless, what’s the hurry.

Decided to go slow on the last day of the year. Get a cup of pike place brew by the seaside and watch the last 12 hours of 2011 go by. Need to give my ACL a breather too; I guess it must be starting to protest after all the hiking and biking in SF. Age is evidently catching up huh, or maybe some things just don’t heal no matter how much time you give it.

2011 has been quite a milestone. I think coming to the US has changed me a lot, and made me grow a lot. You’d figure how much you take the little things in life for granted, and how much of this world you have yet to see and experience. You start fighting with yourself over decisions you have to make at the crossroads. And you learn the pain of compromising because you can’t always have everything you want. Life isn’t a happily ever after fairytale ending; it’s the chapters that come after. Reality can be cruel and merciless. You can take it in your stride, but it isn’t always easy to swallow.

But life isn’t always a doomsday scene from Hollywood. I’m pretty sure we will still be here after 2012, so there’s really no need to get all depressed (or happy — well that’s severe depression actually) that the world is going to end within the next 365 days.

I think my biggest takeaway from this year is finding (or sometimes self-creating) happy spots.

Many of us are already experts in manufacturing grief. Open your photo library from way way back, reminisce the old times, play that nostalgic tune, read those old diary entries. Tear your heart out over those times you wished you could return to, replay those old emotions that you consciously preserved somewhere in the depths of your heart. I do that sometimes, and I’d feel terrible. Objectively speaking, it’s pretty morbid isn’t it? It’s no difference from self-torture, yet we seem to like to do that to ourselves. It’s the biggest irony in human psychology, I think, to compete in feeling the most miserable. I’m sure you’ve witnessed an episode like that.

And so I figured that perhaps it might be better for a change and not be such a psycho and indulge in self-torture. Also known as emoing in today’s lingo. We are have such fantastic cognitive abilities that we are capable of creating our own illusions that’s real enough to fool ourselves. So if we can put ourselves into grief-mode, I guess it shouldn’t be that hard to create happy vibes. And it really isn’t that hard, if you stop craning your neck and squinting your eyes to find that happiness you thought resided in the distant future.

For an extrovert, I find it ironic that I find happiness in solitude. (Hear me out before you lay judgment that I’m crazy.)

Solitude is actually very hard to deal with. Extroverts get an extremely hard time, because we are naturally engineered to talk, socialize and interact. We struggle being alone because not reaching our daily yakking quota drives us up the wall.

But talking in excess isn’t always good. They say moderation is key, and I guess that applies to extroversion. In the right circumstances, I talk lot. Always had and I predict I always will. But sometimes when you keep talking you don’t listen. And you miss out a lot when you don’t listen. You tell people your side of the story but you stop hearing others’. You are used to flooding your mind with words and thoughts that you don’t know how to control them when you lack a channel to output. And when that happens you feel the urge to find someone or some way to let out your thoughts before they drown your soul.

It takes time and I guess a tad of determination to quieten your mind and let it rest. Like how our bodies get tired after physical strain, our minds need a break too from mental processing. When you can finally stare into nothingness and let your mind empty out, it’s really a nice feeling.

I think solitude helps you empty out all those old crappy lingering thoughts more easily. It’s hard at first when your mind keeps filling up and its contents have no where to go except swirl round and round in your thought space. But once in a while those thoughts find their own escape routes and clear out from your mind, and you’d feel like there’s suddenly a lot more room up there. When there’s less clutter and more space, you welcome happy feelings a little more easily. Or at least that’s what I get. It’s nice to let those burdens go once in a while and make room for happy feelings. The truth is that those burdens will always come back sooner or later, and reality will always come knocking on your door no matter how much you’d try to ignore. But that doesn’t mean you have to torture yourself by carrying all that heavy thoughts with you 24/7. To put it in a crude and sarcastic way this is nothing more than escapism. Then again, who cares? Escapism beats the gravity of reality, so I’ll gladly opt for the former.

My new year resolution is to be more honest with myself and not to live with a heavy heart. Life sucks sometimes, but there is always a happy tomorrow after a good night’s sleep.

Happy new year people.