Mostly Void, Partially Stars

“Past performance is not a predictor of future results.”

I am 90 episodes deep into the wonderfully weird podcast that is Welcome to Nightvale, which tells the tale of an American desert town that is home to a Faceless Old Woman who secretly lives in your home, a five-headed dragon, beings we cannot legally acknowledge to be Angels, and black-hooded figures that patrol the forbidden (to both people and dogs) Dog Park.

To call Nightvale weird would be an understatement, but beneath all its creepy and ominous tales, there is a sense of comedy, absurdist at times, but often strangely raw and… real. Since the strange is so normal in Nightvale, the normal as we know it is often made fun of or put in such blatant terms that we realize how weird our ‘normal’ lives actually are—and how scary in its uncertainty.

Which brings me to scariest thing in Nightvale. Not evil Glow Clouds, or soul-sucking Strangers, but “Past performance is not an indicator of future results.” If you Google the phrase, you’ll see it floating around business articles about the risks of investments. It certainly feels like a jab against the repeated use of it and how corporate they made it sound, for something that is pretty much common sense. We like to believe that our previous successes are going to translate into our future endeavors, and while it might help your chances, there are no guarantees. It’s almost become a running joke in the show, the repeated use of this saying, often in out of place ways.

Out of curiosity, I went through the transcripts of all the episodes (there’s 111 as of this writing) and a quick search shows that it’s only said in a handful of episodes. Considering that the show posts episodes only twice a month, for regular listeners it would be months, maybe even a year before the phrase pops up again. But for me, every time Cecil says “Past performance is not a predictor of future results” is like a slap in the face.

For some reason, it sticks out to me.

Often, Cecil says it after a new unexplainable thing is revealed or something horrible and foreboding just happened, in an effort to be optimistic. Just because things ended up badly before, doesn’t mean that the future is certain to turn out poorly. Past performance is not a predictor of future results.

However, I internalized the phrase differently. I even misremembered it as “Past performance is not an indicator of future success,” which I think says a lot about me, the emphasis on success. Another way you could interpret the phrase is that, how you performed or succeeded before has no bearing on what is going to happen in the future. Which, of course to me, is terrifying, because it seems like everything I do is ultimately futile and everything is really a haphazard roll of the dice. Any success I do have is a fluke that can be chalked up to mere chance.

There’s a lot to be said about being prepared. You are more likely to succeed, if you make sure you are ready to seize any opportunities that do happen to come your way (more in another post, perhaps?). But the fact remains, that there are so many external factors that are outside of your control. There will be times where you give and give and give, every ounce of effort and prepare for every minute detail—only to fail. Not for a lack of trying, but for a lack of fortune.

Which sucks, of course. But it’s also inevitable.

This has been a very long segue into me talking about how out of control I feel like in my life right now. I’ve been in San Diego living with my brother for two months now, and while I do have an internship that involves getting paid to write, it’s been not very exciting. I’ve essentially been suspended in a state of limbo, being in a place where I know I’m not going to stay in for the long run, excited about the next step but also wondering what it is, because it all depends on a certain chain of events happening just the way I want it to. And, of course, reality is not so accommodating.

So, I am very much going with the flow (which right now, seems to be pointing the rivers back home to Indonesia). Which is fine, honestly. There was the slight fear of oh no I’m back where I started before I went on my gap year, this whole thing has been a waste and I have nothing to show for it, which quickly went away once I took a few moments to get over myself.

Past performance is not an indicator of future results, after all.

Not everything has to be a goddamn metaphor, and me going home doesn’t have to mean starting back at square one. In fact, I’ve talked myself into being excited to go home. We moved into a pretty nice house a while back, and I never got to spend much time in it. Staying there for a bit long term means, I’ll have my own bed, my own room, a yoga mat to get back to doing yoga/pilates again, a piano I can practice on to my heart’s content, a spacious kitchen I can take advantage of to learn how to cook/bake. Possibilities are endless!

Slight frustration though: I’ve been thinking about what it means to “settle down” and set up roots. Not necessarily in a get-married-and-have-kids sort of way. My life has been built around moving from place to place, and there’s a certain comfort to staying in one place for a long time that I will never really have.

Building a foundation takes time. By being in one place indefinitely and being surrounded by the same people who get to see you change and grow, it makes past performance is not an indicator of future results become a more sentimental… sentiment. It’s the people who have you seen your past that have more to say about your future, usually along the lines of I know you and I know what you can do. I’ve seen itAnd I know you have what it takes to do it again. If you don’t have those people in your life, it’s hard to feel like you’ve really grown, because no one is there to really remind you of how much you’ve changed.

In terms of friends, it’s complicated. For me to have to put myself out there all over again every time I find myself somewhere new and be a different person with every batch of friends that I make. Not that I’m playacting, or pretending to be someone that I’m not. I’m an amalgamation of my experiences, a product of the things that have happened to me. When you meet me for the first time, you’re meeting a specific version of me who at that point in time is an updated version of the person I was—older, wiser, and (on good days) a better human being.

Not everyone sees how I got to that point, and of course, with time, I could let you in on the messier parts of me and my journey. But that rapport-building is nearly impossible, or becomes simply incomplete when we’re not interacting long enough for it to happen. It’s hard to believe that people are accepting of who you are, when the picture they have of you is served piece-meal. It would be nice to have someone who has seen it all—and after all this time, chooses to stick around anyway.

It’s the same thing with jobs or trying to perform. Taking a new job means essentially starting from zero—you have to navigate a new space, new people, new dynamics. You have to prove yourself all over again, build that rapport so that people have an actual past performance that they can witness and use to make predictions of your future. Things are just easier when people give the benefit of the doubt because you’ve already proven your capabilities and worth. Seniority has its perks.

TL:DR: My life has no consistency. It’s like nothing carries over, and the past is, well, past and it doesn’t matter as much any more. Every next step is a vicious cycle of starting over, putting in effort for the time being that will essentially mean nothing once you reach the next step. And without a past performance to base my present, or the future on, what foundation do I have to make sense of myself?

The answer, to that, can also be found in the weird and wonderful podcast that prompted the question in the first place. In the words of Nightvale Community Radio host, Cecil Palmer:

We understand the lights. We understand the lights above the Arby’s. We understand so much.

But the sky behind those lights—mostly void, partially starsThat sky reminds us we don’t understand even more.

—Welcome to Nightvale, ep. 25, “One Year Later”

Life is full of uncertainty. No matter which way you slice it, there will always be things that are out of your control. And while you can take past performance is not a predictor of future results to mean that all your efforts are an endlessly futile struggle, there are moments, rare moments, in between the massive void, that just… make sense. And they make you think that maybe, just maybe, the effort is worth it after all.

I mean, isn’t the void exactly why stars look so breathtaking in the first place?

—Karin Novelia, Stargazing into the Void

The Lives That We Lead (Reprise)

tumblr_l0m6ra49QV1qb1nceo1_500

Before I took up my scholarship to Singapore, me and my fellow scholarship recipients, went on this retreat to the countryside of Bogor, a town up by the mountains, an hour drive South from Jakarta.

The purpose of the trip was to mainly bond us as a group—we were about to spend at least 2 years together in the same hostel dorm; 4 years in the same country. But the retreat was also designed for reflection and using that introspection to then visualize where we wanted to go from here. (I wrote a blogpost years ago on it which you can read for some deep 15-year-old angst wisdom here)

And when I was asked about what I wanted to do with my life, I ended up filling a tiny square of origami paper with a huge list of things that I wanted to be—photographer, author, journalist, filmmaker, designer, musician, etc. Of course, I realize now that what that list really was, was simply a list of things I wanted to try—photography, writing, music, videography, travel, etc.

“My Mom says that when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my typical response was princess-ballerina-astronaut. What she doesn’t understand is that I wasn’t trying to invent some combined super profession, I was listing things I thought I was gonna get to be.” — Sarah Kay from her TED talk “How many lives can you live?”

Once I got in front of the group, I felt a horrible fear grip me. I can’t read everything on this list, it’s ridiculous. While this was a safe space, I didn’t allow myself to dream. At least, not in front of this group of people I had just gotten to know. So I answered with a cop-out, fell into that repetitive answer of oh I want to be a writer. Maybe be a journalist for a magazine or newspaper. Write novels on the side. You know, just write. 

How did I come default to journalist and/or writer? There’s this pressure to answer the question “What are you gonna do with your life?” with something, anythingeven when it’s an answer you don’t fully believe in yourself.

I don’t know, doesn’t fly.

So I say I want to write because heck, it was the thing I was most good at, at the time, and I even enjoyed it. And if I’m being honest, it was probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a passion.

Instagram post dated January 19, 2017:

I hate writing.” actually saying those words aloud came as a surprise. it wasn’t surprising that I meant them but more that I could say them aloud without feeling bad about it. it’s merely a statement of fact at this point. there’s nothing glamorous about writing. my first exposure to the idea of writers were of quiet recluses and tortured introspective souls who live on after some great epiphany, mental breakdown or commit suicide… yeah not the best image for a preteen to look up to.[…] writing is solitary and isolating, it’s just you and your thoughts, giving your all to make something out of nothing. why do I write? maybe I started out liking it. maybe at some point I even loved it, because I was good at it, because it was the one thing I could certainly say was mine. now? it’s a means to an end. I write out of habit more than anything. I hate writingI say out loud. yet somehow my hands still put words onto the page. funny how that works, huh?

Passion is the narrative we are constantly being fed; the one sure-fire way we’ve been told will make us successful and/or happy. Follow your passion, the world screams at you. If you don’t you’re doing yourself and your life a disservice.

I hate how boxed in being passionate makes me feel. Because my “current” passion is to write, that that is all I’ll ever get to be a writer. We’re often forced to choose to focus on one thing. You can’t be a dancer and an expert theoretical physicist, right? But the choice that passion demands is a false predicament. There are people who do a combination of highly-skilled things. I’ve heard of them. Maybe as kids, we simply don’t hear enough of them.

Being labelled as a writer also comes with the connotation of being “artistic” and while that doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite of intellectual it refers to a specific type of intellect, the humanities-based kind. I spent so much time, having to navigate through other people’s limited perception of me. Like the instances when people are so surprised that I’m into the sciences and get good grades in maths and physics or chemistry.

I didn’t think that’d be the type of thing you’d be good at, they’d say. And I started getting a bit of a thrill from proving people wrong.

If the world was telling me that you can’t do all these things, you can’t be all these people at once, I wanted to be the one to ask, Why the hell not? This has made me stubborn and ambitious and arguably very impatient. If I’m going to do all the things I set out to do, if I’m going to leave a legacy, I better get started. So I rush, I live like I’m running out of time.

“She told him, ‘You know you’re never gonna leave a legacy when you die, right? Because to leave a legacy you need to focus on one thing and you just haven’t had that kind of focus in your life.'” — Elizabeth Gilbert from her talk, “The Flight of the Hummingbird: The Curiosity-Driven Life”

So I want things. I can’t believe how hard it has become to allow myself to admit that, even to myself. Perhaps wanting things and being entitled is a luxury I deny myself purely out of a nagging belief that I haven’t done anything to deserve what I want.

And goddamnit I want things. I want so many things, I want too many things. I want them so bad that it hurts.

But there was no reason for it to hurt in the first place.

In her talk for Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sessions, Elizabeth Gilbert “speaks against passion” and calls instead for us to follow our curiosity.

Curiosity is a gentler, kinder, more humane instinct than passion. And it’s so much more accessible.”

My life thus far has not been the straight, narrow path that passion often carves out for us. It started out not out of choice, but by circumstance. I didn’t ask to be born in the Philippines, in the same way I had no choice in the decision to move to Indonesia (if I did, I never would’ve left). From then on though, I threw my life into chaos of my own accord. Moved from country to country, city to city. Eventually, chaos became something I was accustomed to. And yes, while those changes were partly fuelled by panic (ohmygosh I don’t like where I am and I don’t want to be stuck here so let’s leave like right now) it was also driven by curiosity (I wonder what the grass is like on the other side?)

When I was younger, I used to hate how complicated my life seemed. How the mere question of “Where are you from?” sent me into a momentary panic and identity crisis. I would’ve given anything to turn back time and just had a “normal” and “stable” childhood. But then I realized how much perspective that instability has granted me. I look at the world through a more nuanced lens.

“The world is divided into two kinds of people; there are the jackhammers and the hummingbirds. Jackhammers are people like me, you put a passion in our hands and we don’t look up, we don’t veer, we’re focused on that until the end of time. And it’s efficient, you get a lot done. But we tend to be obsessive and fundamentalist and sometimes a little difficult and loud.”

So now that I’ve had a taste of how much the world has to offer, I do want more. And while my itchy feet want to take me as far as they can go, I’m also being asked to consider a future which, for some reason, comes with the implication of settling down. Be an adult, think about getting a job.

Part of me does want that. Wants to get her own place in a bustling city. Wants the comfort of a routine, of coming home to the same room, sleeping in the same bed. Wants the luxury of being able to fully unpack her bags without worrying about accumulating things she will eventually have to give away. Wants to find something, one thing, to hold on to and never let go. Wants the now and what I have to feel like enough.

But most of me, wants novelty. Wants to follow her “whims” and “impulses” and see where that takes her. Wants to indulge in that list of a million different things I can do, and check things off that list simply because I want to be able to say Well, I tried that. What’s next? Wants to believe in the endless potential of the individual so much—my endless potential—that I want to come alive and be brimming with the life force of a thousand suns. Wants things to never feel like it’s enough.

“Hummingbirds spend their lives doing it very differently. They move from tree to tree, from flower to flower, from field to field, trying this, trying that. And two things happen. They create incredibly rich, complex lives for themselves. And they also end up cross-pollinating the world. That is the service you do if you are a hummingbird person. You bring an idea from here to over here where you learn something else and you weave it in, and you take it to next thing you do. Your perspective keeps the entire culture aerated and mixed up and open to the new and fresh.”

There is a singularity to our lives. This idea that each person has a unique life, a distinct combination of outer and inner worlds. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a boy growing up in Finland or a girl living through The French Revolution. While there is a certain to beauty to that, it does mean that my life has limitations too. And as much as I want experience everything the world has to offer, not everything is possible.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying to lead a life that makes the most of it.

—Karin Novelia, “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.” [Sylvia Plath]

Links to cool things:

  1. My original post The Lives That We LeadI wrote this when I was 15 or so and while that post explored how we can live multiple lives through words, connections and stories, this post is a focused exploration on how one person can do multiple things with their one life hence the (Reprise) part of the title. Just seeing the way I write as compared to back then is mind-blowing. We’ve come a long way, folks.
  2. Sarah Kay’s TED talk, How many lives can you live? Her other talk, If I should have a daughter… though not exactly relevant, is beautifully delivered and touches upon the power of words and connections. It was the talk that introduced me to spoken word poetry and inspired me try my own hand at it as well.
  3. Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk The Flight of the Hummingbird: The Curiosity-Driven Life. Recommend watching the full talk, especially if the word passion make you anxious and you have yet to make peace with the convolutedness of life.
  4. Emilie Wapnick’s TED talk, Why some of us don’t have one true calling. It’s one of the less anecdotal talks where Emilie, who is a life coach, essential boils down the concept by giving non-passion driven people a name, “multipotentialites” (mouthful, I know), and explaining our capabilities in 3 superpowers.

 

 

 

Memoir and Melodrama

It took a Personal Essay class to make me realize how much I work through my life in writing. I transferred down to a private liberal arts school in the small city of St. Petersburg, Florida in an effort to “sober up” and hone my academic skills and expand my knowledge base. While the public university I attended in Boston was welcoming and endearing, a ripe open playground fit for destructive self-sabotage, freedom and teenage debauchery, I soon had my fair share of fun and became bored.

I needed a challenge and moving to Florida provided just that.

No longer required to take General Ed classes that—although interesting—were already concepts that I had covered in Singapore, I took the plunge and signed up for classes purely out of my intellectual interest in them: Literature and Creative Writing. I had decided to double major (sticking to my original Communications with Lit as a second) and chose my classes to fulfill the needed requirements. Creative Writing seemed like a natural progression, but being a transfer student, I had been slightly late for registration and while I had my eyes set on an introductory class for Fictional Short Story or Poetry Writing, they were booked up or conflicted with other classes I needed to take, so in the end I settled on a genre that didn’t seem like my kind of thing: the Personal Essay.

Excited as I was to finally take a class on writing, something I could never have done back home in Indonesia or even in Singapore, I was also nervous. Most of the positive feedback I’d receive up until that point came from people who (although well-intentioned) spoke English as a second language. They were all too quickly impressed by my perfect grammar—which of course as a native speaker came naturally to me—to scrutinize my flair, substance or tone. Worse, this class was also a Workshop, which meant we would have to submit pieces to be dissected and criticized by the entire class.

It was time for my (non-existent) ego to be shot down, for me to enter the big leagues and finally realize how much of a crap writer I am among those who actually practice the tricks of the trade.

While I was prepared for all of that, the moment never really came. Personal Essay as a genre, is a type of writing that incorporates the writer’s perspective on things, usually drawing on personal experience as a catalyst for exposition. (While Memoir does fall under Personal Essay, the Personal Essay can be about anything, while the Memoir focuses more on the writer’s past and their interpretations of it.) I’ve unknowingly dabbled in this art through blogging—I write about myself and my life constantly, forging meaning out of it, making sense of it.

In the end, for my second workshop submission, I turned in a 34-double-spaced-page long essay entitled Liminal Spaces. It was my pièce de résistance, my magnum opus, my life looked at as a whole, broken down into key moments and unified by an overarching theme of identity, transitions and liminality.

It was in my final consultation with Professor Wolfe that lightning struck.

“You’re obviously grappling with a lot of things here and while this does work as stand-alone piece—a testament to your abilities as a writer—I feel like there’s more to work with here,” Prof. Wolfe says. “You should consider writing a book.

Consider it, I did. It took getting to San Francisco to finally have the time to sit down and work on it. And by work on it, I really mean revisiting all the assignments I did for Wolfe’s class and rewriting them, reworking them. The final rendition of Liminal Spaces really was a culmination of my life so far at that point in time.  It ended in Florida, and so much has changed since I left, so much has happened. And I find myself unable to write anything new. I travelled to Korea and Bali. I volunteered abroad in Tanzania. Now, with San Francisco also under my belt, life seems to be moving too fast of me to sit down and write about it.

Or worse, the things I felt like needed to be write about—certain things about Tanzania, for instance—were painfully nostalgic. Tanzania was still too soon, too fresh. And due to recent developments, part of me even wishes not to think about certain parts ever again.

It was in an effort to get myself out of this “writer’s block” that I turned to The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.

the-art-of-memoir-by-mary-karr.png
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Mary Karr, who has not one, not two but three best-selling memoirs under her belt, also teaches the art of memoir at Syracuse University. Her book is a perfect combination of practical writing tips (bring the carnality of a scene to life! use sensory details!) and navigating the potential legal pitfalls (warn those you write about well in advance. let your friends choose their own code names.) to the more deeper guided introspection of what memoir does and an author’s purpose in writing and publishing their life story.

This book has made me think I’m not cut out to write a memoir, yet at the same time, has made me more determined to do so.

Chapter 3 of the book is “Why Not to Write a Memoir” and includes a checklist (in reverse order of importance to the point I’m leading up to):

“4. Also if you’re young, you might want to wait. Most of us are still soft as clay before thirty-five.”

Ah, the dreaded “I’m too young to do this.” It was a small fear of mine when I set out on this venture, and while I was momentarily dissuaded by this, I stubbornly strengthened my resolve. Being young didn’t mean I didn’t have enough experience or anything worth saying. And no offense to Mrs. Karr, but I trust Prof. Wolfe’s judgement more. (Though the soft as clay metaphor makes me wonder, if I have perhaps already been hardened by my past.)

“3. If the events you’re writing about are less than seven or eight years past, you might find it harder than you think. Distance frees us of our former ego’s vanities and lets us see deeper into events. “

Read previous paragraphs about Tanzania. All I can say is, some memories make me cringe. Badly.

“2. If you have a bad memory, give it up. Many people ask me how to recall the past, and I say if they don’t, they’re lucky—get a real job.”

Bad memory. It’s a concept that has terrified me for a few years now. It’s not like I have bad memory as some kind of personality quirk, like most people do. It’s the deterioration of my “good” memory that frightens me. I used to be able to recall memories with such clarity, retain information at a staggering rate. It’s what helped me ace all those tests and become a straight A student.

Yet somewhere along the line, my memory blurred and turned hazy. I first became aware of it during my second year in Singapore. All that cramming for tests the night before, proved to be a poor way to store information long-term. I remembered everything I needed to know long enough to answer the tests and once tomorrow rolled around, I could barely recall any of it. Though this sounds like the typical plight of an average test-taking student, it made me question my memory in a way that helped me stumble across an important truth.

I don’t remember much about my childhood. There is a blanket sensation of me being generally happy—genuinely happy, I’d argue, for the last time (until perhaps very recently)—but I’m unable to focus on any details. In conversations with other people, I find myself envying those who are able to retell childhood tales so vividly. The best I can do is relay the information—the year I was born, the names of the schools I went to, the city I lived in. Semantics, not episodes.

If episodic memory is the backbone of memoir, I’m as spineless as they come.

It is almost superhuman to me, the way Karr describes the sensation of remembering. Sometimes all she has is a small fragment, a rough idea of what is happening, a single image, a smell. Then she starts digging, chiseling away at the edges of the memory until the floodgates burst open and she is filled with clarity. She describes it as suddenly being transported back in time, sitting in the body and looking through the eyes of her younger self.

Yet despite this disadvantage to the form, I find myself writing memoir precisely because I can’t remember much about my past, and though writing may not ever fully bring those memories into the light, writing about it—writing through it—is the only way I sort through the mental mess I make for myself.

“No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self—your neat analyses and tidy excuses… Your small pieties and impenetrable, mostly unconscious poses invariably trip you up.” 

I’ve been tearing myself apart over how my brain is letting things—letting my memories—go far too easily. My coach, ever the voice of reason, reminded me that the brain is mysterious and magical thing and while “your brain doesn’t process everything, your heart does.” Karr echoes a similar sentiment: “Neurologist Jonathan Mink, M.D., explained to me that,… we often record the emotion alone, all detail blurred into unreadable smear.”

And while yes, I agree, the emotions are still there and palpable enough to recall vividly (and even elicit a few residual tears from me), the details matter too, because without the details I have no idea what the feelings are in response to. I have no idea what the story is anymore, lose sight of what it’s supposed to mean.

You think you know the story so well. It’s a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I’ve ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it’s like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.”

Of course, for all my certainty that my memory has become “damaged,” even if that weren’t the case, memory is already a malleable and slippery thing.  What’s worse is that we can purposely, and perhaps even selfishly, mar the veracity of our memories in order to for them to fit the story we set out to write in our heads.

Everything becomes magnified in a way, sensationalized. While memoir strives for veracity and truth, it is, in some ways, melodrama. And often that melodrama focuses on the bad and ignores the good in order to appeal to emotions, or rather justify our own, the ones we feel have affected and shaped us on a deep and profound level.

In sorting through that melodrama, a writer may find that their deepest wounds are self-inflicted. Mary Karr talks about reversals, a sort of real-life plot twist in which a memoirist’s quest for the truth proves their long-held notions about certain events to be false. In talking about the reversal in Cherry, her second memoir, Karr writes:

All my life, I’d relied on the premise that Daddy had abandoned me a decade before I took off But could find no scene to exemplify his abandonment. I’d be at work, and he’d bring me a supper plate wrapped in foil. He’d offer to make me breakfast in the morning or to take me squirrel hunting or fishing; I’d say no. I was the one who shrugged his hand off my shoulder.” (emphasis mine)

The fact that Karr’s father was, especially towards the end, a heavy alcoholic who did little to shield Karr and her sister from the dangerous tendencies of their mother growing up, gives Karr every right to internalize his presence as something that negatively affected her psyche. But it also stands that while he was an alcoholic, Karr’s father cared for her and was there for her in his own way. She simply refused to see it at the time, and for years afterwards, until the benefit of hindsight afforded her the chance to correct her misconceptions.

It is amazing how easily we can forget how complex people can be. Instead, we tend to see them in extremes.

What is my reversal, you ask? Everything seems to always come back to Singapore, somehow. It was a turning point, perhaps even a breaking point, where the worse of my neuroses came to pass.

Now, I’m beginning to suspect that it wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be.

One point of contention: the panic attack. I’m not sure if what happened to me can rightly be referred to as one. Sure, I was stressed out and unhappy, and it all came out in a burst of emotion, but physically, I don’t think I was actually in any panic-inducing-can’t control-my-body danger.

Another point of contention: the way I left Singapore. I seem to have fed myself this story of how I was essentially shaken up so much by the ‘panic attack’ that I became this broken, withdrawn girl who decided to leave out of desperation. But the act of leaving was less driven by emotion or impulse—it was calculated and meticulously planned. If it was impulsive, I would’ve left in the middle of the night and hopped on a plane home.

“Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there is suffering involved.”

About a week after the panic attack, I somehow convinced myself to see the school counselor. I was actually taken out of my morning history class—which was very conspicuous when you go to a newly established school with a cohort of only 80 people—and soon found myself trying to articulate what had happened to me and what I was feeling. There were tears involved, real tears, and as I hastily wiped my eyes out in shame, my counselor told me that I was bottling up my feelings. As if pointing out the blatantly obvious wasn’t enough, she took out a piece of paper and drew me a fucking bottle and labeled it feelings.

While I realized she was just trying to help, something inside of me hardened. Maybe it was her sense of pity and misunderstanding, chalking up my woes to mere stress. Maybe it was her unintentionally talking down to me, talking to me as if I was some lost kid who needed a diagram to sort through her feelings. I decided then and there, that I was going to leave. Worse, I chalked everything up to everyone being idiots, morons who were too comfortable in their ignorance to see what I saw.  That I was unsatisfied with how ‘things worked’ in the education system. And it’s not that I was struggling, I was bored.

So horribly bored that I pulled a Sherlock, metaphorically cocked the gun and fired holes into the wall of the house I found myself in. Each shot was precisely aimed for and hit its mark, designed to get a kick out of me.

The counselor asked that I wait a month to see if things got better. I felt perfectly fine the minute I left her office, but I kept the charade up, kept pretending like I was struggling and trying to make things better then feigned that it wasn’t working. It could’ve worked, me staying in Singapore. I just didn’t care enough to try.

My Dad asked me to come up with a plan. I did have one in mind—lie to everyone convincingly enough then once I was home and the ruse was exposed, ignore their admonishments and do my own thing—but I didn’t tell him any of that. I told him what he wanted to hear: that I wasn’t giving up my education and applied to Universities in the States.

(I didn’t do this when I said I would. I said that I would apply and see if I got accepted. If I did then I’d leave Singapore, having a safety net and all. I did apply to Boston but that was much later, after came home. To think that I dropped out of school without any certainty that I could continue, boggles me. To think that my Dad, in some ways, let me.)

My friends would hear news of my departure and be taken aback, question me, my motives. What’s been going on with you? What led you to make this decision? The fact that we were so caught up in our own lives, made it easier to lie. Made it easier to paint myself as the courageous adventurer who is leaving the nest even farther to brave new uncharted waters. In a way, I liked the way people sounded impressed. I took their legitimate concerns and twisted everything into a narcissistic production of look at how cool I am.

To top it all off, the lies came easily to me. Not surprisingly, as I have a checkered history of compulsive lying. (By history, I refer to just one incident, one huge lie that went on for months. The details of which, perhaps, belong in another post.)

Who would ever want to admit that they dropped out of school because they thought they were above it and threw a hissy fit?

Not me, apparently.

Then again, I do have a tendency to be unnecessarily harsh on myself. Maybe my “reversal” is an artificial one, a reversal in itself. That I want to see myself as a sociopathic asshole is somehow a better story to me than the alternative.

Or maybe, there was a schism inside Singapore Karin that cannot be resolved. Maybe both sides existed at once. At times, when I let myself fall apart, I am withdrawn and broken. And other times, perhaps out of self-preservation I detached myself, so much so that I became hardened and callous and gave little fucks about the opinions and feelings of everyone else involved. “Saving myself” was both an act of courage and cowardice, cruelty and compassion.

Such is the loop I find myself in. It’s dizzying, this internal shadowboxing match against what I think and what actually was. ‘Round and ’round we go.

self-condemnation-brave-enough.jpeg
On Narratives and Self-Condemnation. Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed.

In a similar vein to maybe things weren’t as bad as I made them out to be, digging into my childhood has unearthed another reversal.” As I said before, I don’t remember much about my childhood, the happy times I experienced growing up in the Philippines. But I’ve realized the way I sectioned off my childhood—pre-The Big Move™, only in the Philippines—was actually odd. I was nine when I moved to Indonesia, yet everything after the move was never a part of my childhood to me, even though I was still technically a child.

I came to this breakthrough in therapy. Talking about my past, I stumbled upon those gaps in my memory and eventually it became apparent that when it came to those early years in Indonesia, those gaps were self-inflicted. I repressed some things out of self-preservation, but though the memories of the events were ‘forgotten,’ they were still there to affect my psyche.

And while some of these things were in fact, harrowing and not good for my developing-child mind (I have flashbacks of entering a darkened bedroom and a shaking figure in the shadows, wrapped underneath blankets, being unresponsive as I call out to them, then turn limp. My au pair calling someone in a panic, the sirens of an ambulance. Bits and pieces), most of them were, objectively, minor (my parents fighting, being chastised for crying when I cannot help it, my brother ignoring my existence in the school hallways).

It was me reliving in retrospect that pinpointed those moments as “causes” that shaped me to be who I am today. They where embedded in my mind almost subconsciously, festered in my mind for years until I recognized them as an automatic thought process brought out by habit.

But if I were to actually crawl into the skin of my younger self and look at the world through her eyes, I would be greeted with an unbounding sense of innocence and optimism. I bounced back quickly, I realized, perhaps as only a child can. I’d bawl my eyes out, scared shitless as I was too young to comprehend what the ‘bad thing’ that I was witnessing actually was one day, to bouncing off the walls of my tiny house and playing pretend with my imagination the next.

I still find it hard to wrap my head around the idea, that there was a time where I was young, carefree, innocent and practically invincible. Immune to all hardship and heartache the “real world” had to offer. That despite my family falling apart around me, I’d still pose and smile for silly photos, hold up a fencing sword and pretend to duel with my brother in the middle of a shoe store.

It hurts in a way. Sometimes, when I’ve fallen into a vortex of nostalgia, I scroll way back into the archives of this blog, and re-read the posts I wrote back when I was 14/15. There’s so much… optimism in the words I set down. So much hope and fearless expression with every “LOL” and “xD.” If you read them in chronological order, you can practically chart out how my writing turns more cynical and cold. It takes a dip around the time I was in Singapore, but it shoots up sometimes, me fighting the bitterness, trying to hold on to some of that early naiveté. The contrast of then and now is so stark, I can’t help but ask what happened? Who hurt me? How did I fall so far?

If I am to write about my past, I need to acknowledge that there were moments like that, in between all the Big Bads. Moments of naiveté and happiness and fun and good. It might make me cringe (look at how young and stupid I was), especially with the hindsight I have now, knowing how badly things often ended, but it was there and it was true. Trying to play it cool does not undo any of that. It shouldn’t, anyway.

“Dumb hope is what it hurts most to write, occupying the foolish schemes we pursued for decades, the blind alleys, the cliffs we stepped off. If you find yourself blocked for a period, maybe goad yourself in the direction of how you hoped at the time. Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”

Though I often joke about how emotionally stunted I am, I like to think that I’m an emotionally intelligent person. I’ve dealt with enough of my own emotions and thought processes to see the value in being honest about my emotions and expressing them in healthy ways. Going to therapy, initiating difficult conversations and all that. I’ve struggled and dealt with it for so long, that being open about my feelings has become almost second-nature to me.

And I realized not everyone deals with emotions the way that I do, pushes through the icky-ness of vulnerability because they see it as vital and necessary. It baffled me how some people could keep such important feelings to themselves, feelings that ought to have been shared sooner, feelings that they only felt comfortable finally saying aloud under certain (arguably forced) circumstances.

“Sometimes people just need permission,” my coach observed. “And I think that’s what makes you so good at writing, it’s your permission.”

I like the idea of that. That my working through my life in writing—on this blog, on this soon-to-be memoir—is me giving myself permission to feel things and feel vulnerable, say what I feel needs to be said. To get that damn monster out of my chest.

The crux of my writer’s block then is simply that I forgot to give myself that permission. Forgot to not only let myself think and rethink, feel and revise what I think and/or feel, but to see the reconciliation of those two sides as valid, no matter what conclusion I come to. That conclusion is mine alone to forge.

Here’s to giving myself permission to write through things, and hopefully, coming out the other side feeling better.

“To watch someone scrutinize a painful history in depth—which I’ve done as teacher and editor and while working with former drunks trying to clear up ancient crimes—is to witness not inconsiderable pain. You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off. Yet all the scrupulous self examination over time I’ve been witness to—whether on the page or off—always ended with acceptance and relief. For the more haunted among us, only looking back at the past can permit it finally to become past.”

–Karin Novelia, “Publishing the book was a way to reclaim ‘what was left of me.'”

Moving Forward, Moving On

One of the main things I’ve learned during my time in San Francisco to let go. To let go comes with an acceptance that there is perhaps a certain way for things to be, certain things that we cannot change or have any control over.

I’ve spent these past couple of days crying myself to sleep because I fear that I am letting go of things too easily.

Instagram post dated June 17, 2017:

• dissociation • my brain is playing tricks on me, making it hard to feel the sun on my skin or hot water running down my back as I shower. time passed in a blink of an eye. everything is one big blur. I want to move forward with my pockets full of the places that I have been, but my brain is letting go of things I do not want it to. I can’t remember the words said to me by people whose words and validations mean the most to me. without the words I have no idea what else to hold onto. and no matter how much I feel like I am finally ‘here’ and glad to be here, im still fading away and there seems to be nothing I can do to stop it. fuck this. idk. im tired.

One of my coaches one said that once you take a photo of something, your brain automatically decides to let it go and refrains from filing it into memory. But when you have depersonalization/derealization disorder and start dissociating, your brain is always letting things go. It stops making an effort to process the things happening around you. Maybe that is why I’m so into photography—it is a way of preserving moments and turning them into concrete and tangible visual memories that no longer have the chance to slip through my fingers.

They are an odd thing, these tears. I used to associate them solely with sadness and weakness, but now they have become signs of other things. There are tears for every occasion; they can be happy, bittersweet, and even simply empty and full of regret. Once I realized the biggest moments of these last days in San Francisco—grand and heart-wrenching and full of validation—were gone, I did what I always do. I panicked.

Because it wasn’t as if the moments were beginning to slip away. I sometimes recognize this is happening and try my best to fight it, try my best to preserve those feelings into something tangible I can use to help me recall it—take pictures, write it out. But in this case, they were simply gone; they disappeared under my nose without me even noticing and by the time I looked up and felt their absence, my memory was too far gone to retrieve them.

I would’ve put a fight if I had to. Heaven knows I can put up a fight. But the choice to even do that was snatched violently away from me. I felt like I was fading away, and worse, I felt that it would be easier to let it happen and disappear.

As much as it pains me to say it, perhaps my brain choosing to fade away against my will is something I need to accept as inevitable. That though I will fight it while I can, there are days when the fight is not mine to win. But accepting that, accepting that loss, is perhaps a way to forgive myself so as to better move on.

File_001

Despite all my crying, I did not feel at all sad to leave San Francisco. I didn’t even feel sad to leave the people I had grown closest to. I am no stranger to this grand act, leaving. I have done it so many times, grappled with the idea of reasons to stay versus reasons to leave. The reasons to leave always win out in the end.

I write a bit about leaving as a process in my yet-to-be-fully-written memoir (consider this an exclusive sneak-peek): “The moment you actually leave, ironically, isn’t when you think about the reasons you decided to leave in the first place. Instead you start looking for reasons to stay.”

I think (and write) a lot about the circumstances that led me to leave Singapore. Leaving felt a lot like running and while I framed it as me running towards something better, on the inside I was running away from the things that scared me. Even when, in the final moments of me boarding a plane and flying off to safety, I realized there were plenty of reasons for me to stay that the haze in my mind had prevented me from seeing, it was too late. Too late to struggle, too late to throw my hands up in the air and yell, Wait, I change my mind! because even if I did physically, get off that plane and plant my feet back onto Singaporean soil, it would be an empty gesture. I had, in spirit, already left.

Were there any reasons for me to stay in San Francisco? It would have been easier to stay, to not have to pack up and move, no matter how small-scale and temporary. It would be easier, not to leave behind the routine and momentum I had found while living here. But those thoughts, I realized, were all logistics, things for me to look at with a detached and discerning eye. I wasn’t actually attached to San Francisco. Even if I ever was, I still felt like it was time for me to move on.

Perpetual motion, again. Couple that with inertia, perhaps I’ve left places one too many times that it has become too easy, too second nature. All I know how to do is to leave and so I do so, mechanically, without thinking.

“It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the goddamn easiest thing in the world.” — “Paper Towns” by John Green

I guess I have to talk about it now, huh? Friday Review. Our last Friday Review. And man, did this one fuck me up (in the best possible way).

We were asked to form two lines, facing each other. Then one of our coaches blindfolded one of us and sent us down this aisle of people to receive whispered and heartfelt validations from everyone else. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it a Validation Walk™.

I’ve been searching for something these past couple of years, something I was unable to name until that Friday—validation. I’ve been looking for a way to fight off that underlying urge to give in and disappear and to have my existence be validated by other people, to not only be sure in my own declaration of yes, I’m here but to be seen by other people and have other people see me, acknowledge me, it solidified my existence in a way I’ve haven’t been able to experience recently. It was a good realization to have.

Then comes the caveat.

Some people’s words carry more weight than others. And for months now, there was one person who was slowly fading away from my life. I thought that this was only natural, an inevitable progression of our relationship. Physically around but not actually there, not actually a part of each others’ lives. To cope, I had—unintentionally at first then purposefully—blocked him out. Cut out a hole in the shape of him and filled it void. It was easier that way, I convinced myself.

But deep down, I was still hoping, waiting. And it wasn’t until I was walking down that aisle of people being validated that realized how much I’ve been yearning to be seen by him. And see me he did.

He embraced me; being blindfolded and unsure of who the person was at first, the gesture alone was enough to catch me off guard. Then came the words, told in a breathy, labored whisper. It sounded as if he was trying not to let himself get too emotional. That was also unexpected—the amount of emotion in his voice. Oh and the words themselves. I hate the fact that I fail to recall them, but I do remember how they made me feel. Like I wasn’t crazy to think that we shared something special, that we on a deeper level cared for one another even though we were equally terrible at admitting it and showing it. It made me feel relieved and grateful, to feel the walls between us come down and for us to connect in a way that I thought would never happen again.

When he has finished saying his piece, he hugs me again, oh so tightly. And I can’t help but think how familiar this feels. How being in his arms feels safe, feels like coming home.

Then the moment passes and in the wake of its leave I am left once again yearning, wondering if it will happen again. Left trying to convince myself that it probably won’t and I need to let this person go, left in hopeful denial and a begrudging acceptance that he was never meant to stay in my life.

File_000.png
advice from a best friend.

I will miss you.

You have no idea how often that phrase destroys me. When I left Singapore it was said too late. I didn’t believe that I had left an impact significant enough in other people’s lives for them to miss my presence, but even when I realized that they meant it, meant their “I will miss you“s, I had let go of them so soon that I would never have missed them in return.

When he said it, not just at the end of validations, but also at the end of one final hug the night before I left San Francisco, it broke my heart. Not because I think he doesn’t mean it. Because I know he means it, and I believe him. It suddenly made it seem like everything he had put me through was worth it. And while it was cathartic and healing, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to fully make up for all the moments when he could’ve acknowledged me but didn’t.

I guess I just wanted more time. More time to give us the opportunity to maybe end up being a part of each other’s lives again.

That’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. To think that he felt this way the entire time, but did nothing about it. It would’ve helped me in a lot of ways to hear this sooner. But perhaps this was the only moment for it to come out, for the words to come from the heart. Perhaps it means more this way. Perhaps this is better than nothing.

But knowing that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

File_000.jpeg

I’m… not sure where I’m at right now. It was a huge fear of mine that coming out of Launch and leaving San Francisco would throw me off balance so much that I’d revert to old habits. Crying myself to sleep and waking up feeling like shit isn’t helping either. I’ve tried to distract myself. Lied in bed with no motivation to move except to reach for the remote and put on Korean variety shows. No one is calling me out on this either.

I tell myself I need this, need a break.

I also tell myself this is a lie.

So this post is an attempt to snap myself out of this. It is me calling myself out on my bullshit, because while yes my feelings are valid and it sucks and i’m allowed to be sad about stuff, it doesn’t mean that I’m allowed to stop taking care of myself. I will definitely not ignore the progress I have made, because I have come too far to set myself back now.

I need to let go, accept things and move on.

Here’s to moving forward with the intent that I will not let myself crumble.

File_004

—Karin Novelia,

File_003

[Images are from the book “Brave Enough” by Cheryl Strayed. It was given to me on my last day of Launch in San Francisco. I may have lost some of the words given to me, but it is a nice reassurance that I can always turn to the words of others for some solace and guidance. Thanks for the gift, Jon.]

Attachments, Unrequited

Fridays have now become synonymous with breaking down into tears for me. I used to believe in things like talk therapy, but instead of giving me a cathartic release, baring my soul has left me feeling drained and without closure. Thinking back on it now, the floodgates were opened about 2 weeks ago and I thought that my tears would eventually run dry, but they seem to keep on going.

Friday Review. The room grows solemn as we sit around each other in a circle of chairs. One of our coaches asks us to stand up if the sentence he reads out loud applies to us. It was light-hearted enough at first, but as always, things started to get real.

Stand up if you’ve lost sleep because you were concerned about the safety or well-being of somebody you loved.

I feel my eyes well up with tears as I stand. I think of a terrifying late night phone call and things that are not mine to hold.

But I managed to keep myself together, and for most of the activity, I do feel fine. I’ve gone back to my habit of staring at the floor but it more out of respect for what we were doing, baring our souls just a tiny bit as we stood up or sat each round. I was surrounded by people I had spent 10 weeks in San Francisco with, and perhaps we were brought together by mere circumstance, but it was also a choice for us to open up to each other the way that we have.

Then comes the sentence that really throws me off balance.

I want you think about this next one for a little bit, because it’s a little tricky. Stand up if you feel like you’ve ever been a child.

My brows furrowed as I tried to discern the meaning behind the vague sentence. Of course, I’ve been a child, I thought in the more literal sense. The understanding dawned on me, but even then I tried to rationalize my feelings away. I reminded myself that I was never beaten or abused. They weren’t perfect, but I grew up with a loving family in a nice household. I was one of the last people to remain seated, but in the end I stood up, less out of certainty and more out of denial and perhaps a sense of optimism.

I’m going to say a few things to clarify, and if you feel like you need to change your position, feel free to sit down or stand up. For some people in this room, they already know what I mean. When you were a child, you didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy being a child because you had to worry about other things, take care of other people when you should have been taken care of.

I’m struggling to recall what was said last Friday, maybe out of an attempt to preserve myself from the saddening thought. But something inside me broke. It is amazing how long I have gone without realizing it, but I never really had a childhood.

I sat down, less out of choice and more out of my legs collapsing underneath me as the realization hits too close to home. The tears, a familiar companion now, escape from deep within me and I started shaking my head. I did this, not necessarily out of denial, but out of… disappointment? Out of no, this is not okay, this has never been and should never be okayWhy hasn’t this come up sooner?

To the five of you sitting down, I am sorry. But I also want to say, that it’s never too late.

I have mixed feelings about that last sentiment. That it is never too late to have a childhood. While I do think that everyone has the opportunity at any age to act like a child—it makes sense now why I am so excited by the thought of milkshakes and swings—my childhood is forever lost to the passage of time, they are years of my life that I will never get back.

My childhood is something that I never fully got to have, and now it’s gone. And like any death, I should be allowed to mourn the loss of my childhood. It comes and it goes, the grief. But with the grief comes acceptance, comes healing.

“Whatever you are feeling right now

There is a mathematical certainty that

someone else is feeling that exact thing.

This isn’t not to say you aren’t special,

this is to say thank God you aren’t special.” — Neil Hilborn

It is easy, too, to feel alone in your experiences. What this exercise was, was a reminder that you are never alone. There were four other people who sat down with me. We all have different stories, but we can empathize with each more than we think because we have similar experiences.

Not to undo the “progress” I have made, but I still find that idea hard to swallow. I find it difficult for me not to be trapped in my own head and what goes on inside it. I find it hard to believe, not that people can’t empathize with my struggles, but that they have the capacity to. They simply cannot fully experience things the way that I have.

Instagram post dated January 11, 2017:

my new year’s resolution (life resolutions really) were to be more honest and kinder to myself. honesty is good and all but sometimes maybe it really isn’t the best policy. idk. how do you let people in on stuff you don’t even understand yourself? how do you not just dump all your emotional baggage on other people who might not even be able to carry the load? I need to find other ways of catharsis besides shouting into the void, but sometimes the void is safer.

Void. The idea of there being an empty nothingness is one that I find intriguing. And that one could perhaps put things inside this void and cause them to cease existing. It is a form of isolation, this shouting into the void. I came to realize that my existence cannot depend on me seeking solace from other people. That to connect with them gives them power over me, gives them the opportunity to disappoint me. So I insist that I can manage to stand on my own, and when there are things that I need to get off my chest, I send them into the void where they cease to exist and no longer ‘bother’ me whilst being no burden to anyone else.

Alone is what I have. Alone protects me.

This is, of course, a misguided belief; a defense mechanism, a self-constructed truth designed to make me feel better about the fact that I do often feel horribly trapped in my loneliness.

“But isolation is not safety, it’s death

If no one knows you’re alive, you aren’t

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it,

it does make a sound, but then that sound is gone

I’m not saying you’ll find the meaning of life in other people,

I’m saying that other people are the life to which you provide the meaning.”

— Neil Hilborn

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I relate to other people, how I attempt to connect and perhaps find meaning in those connections. A lot of it, the devotion and self-martyring qualities that come with that sense of care, is rooted in this underlying belief that I think I do not matter. There is a desperation there, a tendency to cling on to someone because I perhaps see something, see meaning in them that they themselves refuse to see.

Most of my relationships, are unrequited in a sense, and it’s taken multiple cases of me fading away from other people’s lives to realize this pattern.

When you move around as much as I do, it is hard to build any sort of relationship when physical proximity plays a huge part in how they are maintained. People say keep in touch, but it is easier to say that and mean it than it is to put it into practice. For me, it is a matter of choice and effort. And heaven knows, I am stubbornly persistent in clinging onto what few close relationships I have.

There was someone who used to be a huge part of my life, that I don’t talk to anymore. Any conversations we had after I had moved away from where we had met, hinged upon the fact that I was always the one to reach out and initiate contact. At first, I thought I was doing him a service, by accommodating his schedule and needs. But eventually, I grew tired of him always ‘apologizing’ for being so bad at keeping in touch, promising that he’ll hit me up next time and waiting by the phone for a call that never came.

But even after all that, even when he really doesn’t deserve it, I catch myself still thinking from time to time, I wonder how he’s doing. I hope he’s doing well.

It is a thought that is full of care and affection, but like the tree in the forest that falls with no one around, that thought is just gone. It disappears into the ether without having reached the other person. Because my feelings are unrequited, they simply go unheard.

It’s kind of sad really. To think that I have all this love to give but it just disappears into the void.

“I know how easy it can be to think and keep

thinking until you are the last person left on Earth

until the entire world becomes to larger than the space

between your bed and the light switch

but I hear that the world’s ending soon

When we go and we’re all gonna go

I will be part of it.” — Neil Hilborn

It’s funny, how I’ve seemed to come up with my own strange brand of bittersweet optimism. I’ve had friends argue about whether I have become more of an optimist or a pessimist. In the end, they compromised and decided to call me a ‘realistic optimist.’ I guess that’s one way I have grown. I realized that I will never stop worrying about things and thinking about the worst possible outcomes. But being prepared for the worst in a way, also allows me to hope for the best. Things could go horribly wrong, but they also have the opportunity to go incredibly well. In a sense, it’s my way of saving myself, saving myself from the thoughts that go on inside my head that trap me and drive me into a corner.

File_000 (1).jpeg

—Karin Novelia, “I have thought and thought myself into corners made of words and nightmares, and what has that gotten me but more thoughts?”

[Words inside quote marks are from Neil Hilborn’s poem “This is Not the End of the World” which you can watch here]

Breakthroughs and Burnout

Work Sprints are a good metaphor for the constant influx of urgency and work. Before you can manage to even recover from the last one, the next one is looming on the horizon, begging for your forethought and attention and then it begins. You are tired—just physically you’d like to convince yourself— and all you ever want is to sleep but you can’t rest now. The world doesn’t wait. Do you really want to get left behind as the world continues to spin beneath you?

My answer to that question, I discovered last Friday, is a resounding no.

Last Friday, we had another Friday Review, and while check-ins were less emotional and more of an attempt to be optimistic, a yes i’m really tired but i’m also excited about what I’m doing and what’s to come, our activity that day proved to be more harrowing than I’d expected it to be.

We were handed these wooden boards and were asked to write down our fears on one side and goals on the other. I did this easily enough. I even rolled my eyes over how cheesy this activity was. The fears were the easy part as I wrote whatever came to mind. At this point, I was writing them down almost mechanically, not feeling anything from these thoughts and it was more like taking inventory that these thoughts were there. The goals were harder for some reason—one of my fears is I don’t deserve good things— and so instead of writing down anything tangible and concrete, I came up with a sort of life motto/philosophy.

To live whole-heartedly, find peace with myself and do/make things that make the world a better place.

We then headed down to the basement to break these boards, karate-style. One of our coaches showed us how to do it. He read aloud his fears and then his goals. Then he placed the board between two chairs and we counted off as he broke the board in half with his palm.

More people went up and most of them—more than I expected—broke their board on the first try. What started out as reluctance in doing a cheesy metaphorical activity turned into an overwhelming sense of anxiety.

I’m still not sure what triggered it. I was fine at the beginning of Friday Review. Perhaps it was the fact that I was really tired and sleep-deprived. I was slightly dissociating, and the intensity of the sound as the boards broke literally made me jump and put my senses on edge.

The idea of reading out what I had written had also freaked me out a little. While writing out my thoughts made them more tangible, they were still private and mine alone. If other people were going to be privy to my deepest, darkest thoughts then I’d have to read through them, filter and edit them to make sure that they are presentable. And as I looked through the fears that I put down, the more I was forced to acknowledge them and this time they made me feel something—the panic I so often fear.

Of course, I realized that I didn’t have to read out my fears if I didn’t want to. I didn’t even have to go up there and break the board. But the thought of being the only one out of the cohort to not do it, to be the odd one out, made me sick to my stomach and reminded me of a sentiment, a rather deep-seated belief that I wish I did not hold with such conviction.

You are not ‘broken.’ You do not need to be fixed.

When I was first told this a few weeks back, I knew it was well-intended but my first instinct was to think that’s bullshit.

Everyone has their own struggles, their own demons. I get that. Maybe more than anybody else. But our struggles are also unique. We are each dealt different hands. All these things that go on in my head—they’re not normal, at least in the sense that not everyone has them. If breaking those boards is simply an issue of mind over matter, then my broken mind was a handicap.

I blink my eyes in surprise as I feel them well up with tears. I’m just tired and the sounds are overwhelming me, I told myself. I wasn’t convincing.

Every time someone finished breaking their board, a silence filled the room as the next person was called upon to come up. In these pauses, I could see expectant looks as I was one of the few people who had yet to step forward.

Don’t look at me like that, I said, and while my tone was more joking, I could feel the strings inside me become pulled taut and to release the tension I was afraid I would begin to lash out.

The tears started to have a mind of their own. They rolled down my cheek, oblivious to the extraordinary amount of energy I was exerting to keep them in. I felt warm and feverish, my throat felt dry and my nose snotty. My eyes started to nervously dart around. Then I started having trouble breathing and realized the control I have over my body began to slip away from me.

Fuck. No, not now. Not here.

Flight-or-fight. I was too tired to fight the panic so I fled. I placed my board down on the table and walked out the room. Once I was in the hall, I started running and sought refuge in the bathroom.

Fuck. Someone’s gonna follow me in here.

I lock myself in a bathroom stall and proceed to let myself fall apart. Ugly sobs clawed their way up and out my throat. The hyperventilating got worse, and normally that would’ve scared me, but I really was too tired to fight it. If I was going to have a panic attack, I might as well have it in ‘peace.’

Eventually, the panic subsides only to be replaced with another sense of dread—dread at what I’ve done and having to do “damage control.”

Oh god, I’ve made such a scene. Ran out the room like some dramatic teen.

The fatigue was still there. As I sat down to have a conversation with my coach, I cannot help but feel the weariness come from deep within my bones. He asks me to try to put what I’m feeling into words.

“I’m a writer so metaphors are a big deal for me. And I’m just so tired. If I don’t manage to break that board on my first try, the metaphor of it all will absolutely kill me.

It was foolish of me to think that perpetual motion could be accomplished without bringing about perpetual fatigue. Or that because the nature of the motion is perpetual, it also means it is self-sustainable, somehow able to produce the energy it runs on and feed itself with it to then make more. And endless loop of exertion and replenishment.

The only way out of this loop that I tied for myself is to “chill out” and stop caring, stop trying so hard to fulfill my ambitions. It is tempting to say the least, to decide not to care—in the way that other people seem to be able to do.

Maybe I was simply born with electricity running through my veins, maybe the panic is something I am hard wired for, something I could never avoid simply by being the way that I am. Because as much as I would like to, I cannot stop caring.

“You like to act as if you care about nothing and if you carry one like that then you’re going to drown in the abyss you have imagined for yourself.” — Alice Oseman, Solitaire

Desperation. Calling everything I’m doing right now as being propelled by ambition and drive is just a way to mask the desperation, disguise it as something grand and respectable. But the underlying need to leave some sort of legacy before I am gone, is an existential grab for substance in a world that goes on spinning regardless of whether I’m in it or not.

I am repulsed by how desperate I am to make something of myself.

My instinct then is to withdraw, tune out and convince myself that I do not care.  Yet here I am, running myself into the ground in the hopes that it’ll be worth it someday. I can either drown in my own indifference or drown in my own desperate ambition.

Either way, I’ve gotten very good at holding my breath.

—Karin Novelia, head underwater and you tell me to breathe easy for a while // the breathing gets harder, even I know that

Not Yours to Hold

“Last week was a week spent in denial. I feel like I haven’t had a moment to myself to not only catch a break, but to catch up with my thoughts and process how I feel.”

I can’t remember the last time I felt this perpetually tired. If I had to hazard a guess, it must’ve been 2 years ago, when I was still in Singapore. I was recently reminded that the workload I’ve had to deal with during Launch (a workload imposed by none other than myself) is unsustainable. I knew that to be true, but deep down this incessant feeling of fatigue and panic, felt normal. Worse, it doesn’t even come close to how hard I worked myself during my busiest times as a student in Singapore. I’m actually sleeping and eating regularly, exercising too. Yet for all my efforts, I feel like what I’m doing will never be enough.

The busy-ness seemed to come to an all-time high this week, as everything I’ve set up the past couple of weeks finally came together. I had signed up for multiple volunteer opportunities, a pilates class, 2 piano lessons, and even an evening venture to Oakland to see a movie and take photos and footage. All of this happened on top of my already extensive UnCollege commitments such as showing up for workshops, internship prep and even taking over the UnCollege Snapchat account for the week.

My coach, who has a tendency to mess around, starts climbing up on the banister of the conference room. When he turns to me and asks if I want to try climbing up there, I internally shrug and think why not. Maybe getting off the ground will help me put things in perspective.

Whenever I fall into an endless rush of things to do, my work ethic kicks in, my autopilot mode falls into place. And while being in autopilot does give me an almost superhuman ability to Get Shit Done, it comes at the cost of ignoring valuable, introspective me time which results in me repressing any and all emotions.

I must admit, in an almost masochistic way, I love being so busy that I nearly run myself into the ground. It means I’m on a roll, on my way to finally being productive enough that my dreams start to take concrete shape. I simply have to keep this precarious balancing act stable just enough to keep it all from collapsing. If I do burn out and end up passed out from the fatigue, I’d wear a hospital visit like a badge of honor, a sign that it makes me one of them, the truly successful, and not some cautionary tale of ambition gone too far.

“Pretend that I’m not here and this is the break you’ve been wanting to get. What are you thinking about?”

One simple question from my coach while I’m a few feet off the ground leaves me dumb-founded. I panic at first, because I realize I’m not really thinking about anything. I’m spacing out. But I pull my head out of the clouds and force myself to confront the tiny little voice I’ve been ignoring.

“Um, I think about what’s happened since I got to San Francisco, all the things I’ve done. And I’ve done a lot. I think about how much time I have left and how much I want to make the most out of it. I think about *** and how much I worry about him, even when he probably doesn’t deserve it. I think about Tina and Sidney, and how close we’ve become as friends in the span of 6 weeks, which is kind of a big deal for me. I think about how I have no idea what’s going to happen after Launch, and that scares the hell out of me.” I pause as I choke up and feel the tears roll down my cheek.

I had a lot of breakthroughs up on that banister. I voiced out deep-seated fears that I probably would’ve keep on ignoring by focusing on work.

“I’m scared that once all of this is over, I’ll undo all the progress I’ve made. I’ll go back to being the person I was before Tanzania, before UnCollege. I’m scared that once I do let myself have a break, I won’t be able to start again. That the break will be so comfortable, I won’t want to do anything else. What scares me the most, is that I kind of want to. Want to take a permanent break, because it’s easier that way. I’m just so tired. I want this all to stop.”

I am barely keeping myself together. And odd thing is, it’s not the work that is driving me onto the brink of insanity. The work is my one saving grace, the one thing forcing me to get my shit together long enough to keep on going. To stop now—not even stop but to pause now—would mean giving myself a chance to unravel.

And I can’t afford to do that right now. Not even for myself. I have other people depending on me, depending on me to keep myself together. Falling apart, even momentarily, would only mean letting them down—and that could have dire consequences.

“I have a best friend, he’s bipolar. He used to be a lot worse before I urged him to see someone. Now he’s on medication and doing a lot better. But he depends on me a lot, I’m really the only person he talks to about his issues. After the panic attack, I just felt so fragile, I wasn’t sure if I could handle his issues on top of my own. So one time I remember getting a phone call from him, picking up at 4am. He’s out of it and not making any sense. He’s crying his eyes out and he’s hallucinating too. Keeps on saying he’s hearing voices. Then he hangs up. And I’m terrified. I’m half-way across the world so I can’t even go and see if he’s okay. I call up everyone I know. They had to break down his door and he… And I know I can’t be responsible, if something did happen while his brain was… off. But I still think about it. Think about what if something did happen, worse, what if it happened because I wasn’t there, wasn’t willing to pick up the phone and be there for him. I just can’t…”

I cried in a way that I felt like I’ve never cried before. I suddenly felt this deep ache in my chest as the floodgates opened and for a moment, I feared they would never stop. Because how are you supposed to respond to this constant fear that letting someone down could mean leaving them to die by their own hand?

“It is not yours to hold.”

My coach repeats this to me several times, and each time it only elicits a new burst of tears from me. I still wonder why exactly did those words made me cry. Did I feel comforted and relieved to hear something I know to be true be confirmed by someone else? To have that sense of responsibility and guilt be absolved? Or did the confirmation ring hollow? Did hearing exactly what I wanted to hear make me realize that words, in the end, provide very little comfort, do nothing to get rid of the fear I cannot help but feel?

If I’ve learned anything these past couple of weeks, it’s that I have a very low opinion of myself. I hold no significance in my own eyes, and perhaps, in an act of desperation, I cling onto the notion that by devoting myself to the need of others, I can erase myself in a way that has purpose, in a way that at least saves someone, gives them life in my place.

It is not yours to hold.

I know it isn’t. But I don’t know what else to call mine.

—Karin Novelia, waiting for the sadness to stop but it just keeps on going