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

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The Lives That We Lead (Reprise)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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—Karin Novelia,

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[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.]

The Lives That We Lead (Off The Grid: Day 5)

If I should have a daughter
Instead of “Mom”
She’s gonna call me “Point B”
Because that way, she knows
That no matter what happens
At least she can always find her way to me

The first opening lines of this TED talk leave me somewhat transfixed. Clever. And poetic, very poetic.
I stumbled through the archives of TED talks one morning, looking for something to inspire me. Not so much to change my life entirely, but one that at least helps me get through the day. I’m drawn to the talk done by Sarah Kay. The still that serves as the video’s thumbnail is stunning. You can see that she’s in the middle of a spirited performance. There’s this sparkle in her eyes, this radiance from her face.
And the term “spoken word poet” piqued my interest.

Spoken word poetry, as Sarah describes it, is the love child between poetry and theatre. It’s about writing poetry that cannot sit still on paper. It demands to be read aloud, performed. And unlike written poetry where the people who reads it feels something amazing in a private and personal level, spoken word creates connections in the moment it is spoken and heard and seen, bridging the performer and the audience.

When I meet you, in that moment
I’m no longer a part of your future
I start quickly becoming part of your past
But in that instant, I get to share your present
And you, you get to share mine.
And that is the greatest present of all

It becomes apparent that stories and words are a huge part of Sarah’s life. I am amazed by how much I can relate to her. How we share such similar sentiments, share a love of words and stories. We see the world as one giant playground, one endless stage. In another talk entitled “How many lives can you live?” Sarah explores what you can do in a lifetime. Like me, she believed that she would get to do amazing things. Things that depended not on terms of ‘if’ but simply ‘when’.

“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 on her childhood dreams

Feeling like you have all the time in the world makes the horrible realization that you don’t all the more jarring. It’s scary to think that you only get one shot, only get to do a fraction of the things you want to experience. Because dammit I’ve just discovered how wonderful life can be and I want to spent every single moment feeling that way. 

I want her to look at the world

Through the underside of a glass-bottom boat

To look through a microscope at the galaxies

That exists on the pinpoint of a human mind

Sarah imparts a few words of wisdom, something that I guess I knew a long time ago but didn’t fully accept or understand until now. There is a way we can live multiple lives. Perhaps not personally, not through our own eyes but through the eyes of other people. And there is a tool that can help achieve that: stories. That’s why I open a book and read. I want to experience those stories — other people’s stories and catch a glimpse of what life is like from the other side.
That’s why connections are so important. That’s why story-telling is so important. It’s this sharing of experience and knowledge that can shape you as a person, and perhaps to an extent, shape the world. I’m not so good with interacting with people. Not because I don’t like them. As much as I like spending time on my own, I do like spending time with other people too and I have never purposefully tried to avoid that. Maybe I shy away from it — hey, that’s just my awkwardness shining through.
As much as I enjoy talking about things like TV, movies, music, I can’t shake the feeling that everyone has their guard up. I have trouble getting into what’s real. Not that I expect it to be easy, I just didn’t think it’d be this hard, to hear and be heard. It almost sounds impossible.

But I see the impossible every day
Impossible is trying to connect in this world
Trying to hold onto others while things are blowing up around you
Knowing that while you’re speaking
They aren’t just waiting for their turn to talk – they hear you.
They feel exactly what you feel, at the same time you feel it
It’s what I strive for every time I open my mouth —
That impossible connection

There are two kinds of stories: stories that we experience second-hand, stories that we hear from other people. And then there are stories that we write. Stories that only we can tell because we’re the only one in this universe who sees the world the way we do. And that’s something I keep in mind, every time I pick up a pen or sit in front of a keyboard, fingers poised ready to write.
I may not be sure that I’m saying what I want to say with the best words possible but I do feel that I have something worth saying. Something that comes from me — from my mind, my heart. That’s why being a journalist sounded like the perfect dream. Not only could I go out and enjoy the world, I could write it all down too. Not only did I get to tell my own stories, I could go out and listen, go looking for other people’s. And hopefully, with enough patience and skill, I could help them share their stories.
I may not get it right the first time. I might find pain and sorrow and heartache and find myself unable to find the right words to say. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try.

There’ll be days like this my momma said…
… When your boots will fill with rain
And you’ll be up to your knees in disappointment
And those are the days you have all the more reason to say thank you
Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way
The ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline
No matter how many times it’s sent away

If at this point in this essay, I’ve sounded a bit too pretentious for you to hear me out, then watch the videos and listen to Sarah Kay. She is a much more talented story-teller than I am and I can only hope to come close to what she’s doing with her life.
This world can seem big and so, so scary. And things tend to go in a way that you never planned and never expected to happen. But never give into that nagging feeling that you’re too small to matter. You might see someone, someone who’s famous and talented and brilliant and although you admire them, you feel yourself shrink away, feel insecure just by comparison.
There’s really nothing to compare in the first place. Sure, someone else may look like they’re living the perfect life, but that’s their life, their story. And you have one of your own, one that’s just waiting to unfold.
Don’t give up. Just keep on trying, keep on striving to be someone better, someone like those people you looked up to in the first place. Someone you know you can be.

You will put the wind in win some, lose some
You will put the star in starting over and over.
And no matter how many land mines erupt in a minute
Be sure your mind lands on the beauty of this funny place called life

It may not seem like we can do much in one lifetime. But think about what we can do together through the lives that we lead. Lives that intersect and feed of one another’s energies, hopes and dreams. Lives that demand to be lived, listened to, appreciated and shared.
The life I’m leading has been a pretty confusing one so far. It’s a life that’s been revolving around words, stories and connections. And even as I write this imperfect essay, struggling to find the words I realize how much those words have given me, how much they’ve taught me.
A few closing words taken from Sarah:

This isn’t my first time here. This isn’t my last time here.
These aren’t the last words I’ll share.
But just in case, I’m trying my hardest
To get it right this time around.

Thanks for reading.
–Karin Novelia. And yes, on a scale of one to over trusting, I am pretty damn naïve.

*The quotes above may not be taken from the same poem/video
1). The lines in blue are from Sarah Kay’s poem “Point B” and red is “Hiroshima” which can be heard here
2). The quote in green is from her talk “How many lives can you live?” posted here

The Beauty and Brutality of the World

As I’ve been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane.

As the words float off the page and resonate deep within my heart, I can’t help but feel a certain connection with the writer.
Then I satirically realize that I share a similar mind-frame with Death.
Still with me? Then in the same being’s words, I write to you, dear reader: Come with me and I’ll tell you a story.
A story of opposites, put simply. Life and Death. Losing and finding. Giving, and most paramount of all, thieving.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a well-written masterpiece with such poetic prose that toys with the emotions and etches itself into memory. It tells of the dark inkling of time that imbues human history — Nazi Germany and World War II, the years that fell under Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical rule.
I must admit that I’m not an expert in the historical aspect of the subject. All I’ve ever heard about of Hitler, in passing, is that he is a horrible, horrible man, and a mass murderer with a strong sense of discrimination.
The characters are unique and individual, described by Zusak in a way that shows off their trademark. We are given a look into their lives and see just how steadfast they all are in a time that calls for strength, amidst war and depression.
The centerpiece of the tale is a girl named Liesel Meminger who, for a girl still young, draws in Death and tragedy in her wake. She’s not to blame, of course, concerning her circumstances. Who would ever ask for their brother to suddenly drop dead on a train ride to their new foster home? She experiences such terrible loss, is separated from her family and becomes a first-hand witness to the destructive force of World War II.
After burying her brother and pilfering her first book from a mound of snow (fittingly entitled, The Grave Digger’s Handbook), she arrives at Himmel Street in a town called Molching. Ironically, especially in the heart-breaking final scenes of the book, the meaning of Himmel to be translated to Heaven could not be farther from reality. She meets her new foster parents: Rosa Hubermann who, underneath the constant string of profanities, houses a heart of gold; and Hans Hubermann, an accordion-playing painter who soon teaches Liesel how to read.
Liesel’s first encounter with the written words may seem like a solemn one, but The Grave Digger’s Handbook was the first book she ever held in her hands and only a prelude to the more enticing ones that color her new life. She finds a new joy in reading them, even resorts to stealing them when she can, because then money for her family was scarce and they were even a luxury she could not continuously indulge herself in.
Her fixation with books and reading reminds us how words can transport us. We can get lost in the pages and get swept up in the stories they tell, leaving behind our reality to enter the fictitious ones between the lines.
I’ve always been a believer in the power of words. But this book also shows me that they are a double-edged sword. Words can have the power to change things. Dramatic as it sounds, they are even capable of changing the world. It can save lives. Move nations.
They can be twisted and edited, used to lie and manipulate. As was the custom then during Nazi Germany, the Fuhrer’s words became gospel. He brain-washed the people under his rule with propaganda, and as the story unfolds we see the harsh consequences of such abuse. They follow his every word like robots, like zombies. He has the Germans thinking that they are a superior race, superior enough to risk their lives in a bid of war. A war that led to so many deaths.
So many people had placed their faith blindly upon him, to the point that if you weren’t a Hitler supporter, the repercussions would be dire. Liesel’s new Papa was among that small percentage that weren’t Nazi believers and that paradigm hinged on the fact that he owed his life to a Jew. The very people Adolf Hitler discriminatingly despised.
Hans Hubermann was one of the few people who didn’t believe that Jews had to be exterminated. But he never could act upon those beliefs, even speak them, all because he was afraid that once those words leaked from his lips, he could not take them back and anyone who heard them would punish him for standing up against what is obviously immoral. Maybe most of the Nazis who claimed their support were the ones who were most against it.
We’re given a look at what it is like to be a Jew during that time, looking through the eyes of Max Vandenburg. He’s on the run, to the point of dehydration and starvation and for what reason? Because he was born a Jew. Because a man in a fuzzy mustache says that every fiber of his being is wrong, simply because. What in the world could justify such thoughts? How deep could a racial hatred grow to make someone go through such suffering? He is coincidentally the son of the man who saved Hans Hubermann’s life, and now without a home or a family, he turn to him and asks him to do something that could risk his life more than anything: to hide a Jew in his home. Implicitly, he is also asking: How far will you go to uphold your beliefs? How much of a human being are you truly are?
I momentarily tend to forget the story is fictitious and my heart aches for the poor souls, in another place, another time. Out of my reach. The realistic scenarios aptly depict the harsh times and I can’t help but wonder what kind of suffering people in the real world had to face. Perhaps there were Liesels and Hubermanns and Maxes facing all sorts of dilemmas. Or perhaps it was far worse that Markus Zusak could ever try to depict.
What binds all these characters, places, and stories within stories is the omniscient narrator who comes off a bit too… human for my liking. The most uplifting story-telling of The Book Thief is the use of Death as its voice. As the war rages on, he becomes quite busy, as you can imagine, reaping souls and dropping them off to only he knows where. Zusak defies common perception that Death is a cold-blooded, empty soul in a black cloak who wields a scythe, and instead gives him a heart. We read that he is burdened with his task, he finds no joy in it, no satisfaction. He distracts himself with all the deceased souls he sees everyday by vacationing in increments. In colors.
It’s not that he needs to distract himself from the souls he need to collect — it is after all his job, and no matter how much he chooses not to, he will not stop seeing them. He needs a distraction from us. From humans. From the survivors that stand in the wake of Death, humans who can kill and save lives, who are capable of nearly anything good, even bad. He is obsessed with them, with their stories, even though he knows he should not.
This novel tackles quite a few issues and themes, like discrimination and duality, but the one that sums everything pretty well is this: human nature. It puzzles Death to no end. The way humans can be so complicated. How they can bring upon their lives such beauty and brutality, such order and chaos, as if one could not exist without the other.
We wish for peace yet continue to war with one another. We fight for life but then kill. Through the darkest days we still manage to see the silver lining. We are afraid of Death yet… we continue running towards him.
A small excerpt from his “Diary” might help to clarify:
It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, Goddamn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.

* * * A SMALL PIECE OF TRUTH * * *
I do not carry a sickle or a scythe.
I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold.
And I don’t have those skull-like
facial features you seem to enjoy
pinning on me from a distance. You
want to know what I truly look like?
I’ll help you out. Find yourself
a mirror while I continue. 
I also find it incredibly fitting that in the end, Liesel uses the words to tell her story by writing it down. No one could ever had guessed that the story, written in a small bounded notebook, would fall into the hands of Death. In his introduction he tells us his reasons for keeping stories of survivors: It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt — an immense leap of an attempt — to prove to me that you, and your human existence are worth it.
In the end he’s even at a loss for words to describe what he has seen.

All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I know. I said it to the book thief and I say it to you now.

* * * A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR * * *
I am haunted by humans.
So ask yourselves this reader: Is our existence truly worth it? Can we even call ourselves ‘human’ beings?
It has been a long while since I wrote a book review (again, my use of the word ‘review’ is a loose one), but I do enjoy writing them, analyzing what they have to offer, entertainment or education-wise. I know it is long, but if you’ve taken the time to read this, then thank you. I hope that you can take what I’ve written as some food for thought, and might even decide to pick up this book for yourselves and fall in love with it like I did, from the very first page. As I writer, I recently realized that I suck at words. I could associate my lack of inspiration to a thing called writer’s block, but it is nothing but a blatant excuse. So, like Liesel Meminger said at the end of her book, The Book Thief:
I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

— Haunted by the Words, Karin Novelia

So Much To Look Forward To

New Year’s Eve has always been celebratory. You go out, have a nice time, milking the last few hours in the year for what it’s worth. You can’t help but be a little nostalgic and reflect back on the year. Can you believe it? Another year has just gone by, poof, just like that.
And honestly, my year has definitely been one hell of a ride.
Keeping a blog was one thing I always was determined to keep. It’s like this diary of mine, a record of what’s happened, something I’ll want to read back on in the future, something that will show me, and others, what has happened in my life, what I’ve gone through and what progress I’ve made.
I spent the last few days re-reading my old blog posts, and honestly I’m just about close to tears. So in this 2011 recap post, I’ll be attaching links of related posts throughout. I’m not sure how to recap this year, since I’ve really already written most of what happened into those individual posts.
When I first wrote this blog, I was in 7th grade. I had just begun to adjust my self from Elementary School life to Junior High, and it was a bigger leap than I thought.
The thing is about 6th grade, it’s that I finally found my niche. Having moved here to Indonesia, from the Phillipines during 3rd Grade, it was like starting all over again. New school, new friends, new country, new life…
Back in the Philippines, I had what you called a sheltered life. I didn’t get out of the house that often, my parents have always been protective of me. That perhaps affected my socializing abilities. I wasn’t exactly shy, but I wasn’t really inclined to put myself out there either. Since I went to a sort of ‘International school’ the foreigners were put together in the same classes, so my social cirlce only circulated between those 2 foreigner classes. I already had made a best friend, one that goes back to my very first day of school, and I grew attached to her, and our small group of friends. We weren’t outcasts, but we weren’t ‘popular’ either. We were just us, original and special in our own way, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
So the move to Indonesia was sudden, and slightly painful for me. People thought I was quiet simply because of a languange barrier. I had yet to be fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. By 6th Grade, that did change. I was comfortable now speaking Bahasa Indonesia, and it seemed that I had slipped into a leadership role in the class of 6B, even though I wasn’t class president or something like that. I felt my efforts were appreciated, and that I was given the chance to be my best.
7th Grade shifted the game completely. Things just change. People become slightly more superficial, social status comes into play as we enter teen-hood. The people I once hung out with in 6th grade, started to become people who were out to take me down. I just didn’t like it. The whole popular groups beginning to surface, I was prepared to be an individual. I didn’t have a problem spending time on my own, I’ve always been like that. I was a self-proclaimed nerd, and looking at my blog posts a bit ‘alay’ with all the laughter, LOLs and slight craziness. Hahaha.
But I was hopeful, naive, innocent and still giving my best in the things I did, even things that many didn’t believe in or thought was ‘uncool’. My naivety seems to have faded over all the crap happened, but my child-like hopefullness is sometimes what keeps me going.
8th Grade, things started to become better. AYC has helped me find myself in such profound ways, it was the experience that made me a better person. I didn’t feel restrained, I was given the chance to try my best, though it wasn’t easy thing to do with my confidence level so low after 7th Grade.
Making friends was starting to become a challenge, with people starting to conform  to what’s ‘socially accepted’ and pretend and divert from keeping it real. I had a slight betrayal pop up in the 7th Grade, but it taught me to forgive and forget, learn from the past and all that. This was just a crazy year for me. I found myself in my first relationship, making a new group of friends, and experiencing what was arguably one of the best classes I’ve been in, perhaps even better than my days in 6B. Of course, drama had to pop up too, once the 2nd semester started in 2011. The whole ‘Whispers of the Crowd’ twitter fiasco thing just… ugh. I’m still cringing when I remember it.
It’s kinda tough rereading through my 2010 New Year’s Resolutions, and seeing not many of them accomplished or improve by much. Meh.
My family problems are not things I display publicly, but let’s just say, 2011 has been challenging in that prospect. The restraints seem to have gotten tighter, and though I love my parents to death, there starting to misunderstand me and my intentions even more. But I have had one of the most memorable family vacations, that made me realize that no matter what, I wouldn’t stop loving my family.
Friends? Like I said, friendships have become hard to maintain. I don’t like it when a friendship ends, but if it isn’t really working out, or stays the same as before does anything really need to be forced? Of course, though some things have fallen out, it’s nice to know who my real friends are. SHOUTOUT TO MY ONE AND ONLY SMOOCHIE: CINDY WIJAYA! 😀 You’re awesome, girl, and have always been there for me, even if it’s been like forever since we hungout. You’re the one who knows all my secrets, the one person I can vent to without being judged. Love you for life :*
School: Well, entering the ninth grade, I didn’t expect things to be easy, but I didn’t expect them to be so hard either. I was being super optimistic, like this post points out. I was looking forward to a busy year, helping the new generation of AYC, and keeping the action plan going. I had very well ‘taken the pledge‘.
Turns out, 9B is an eclectic mix, just a little bit of everything and of course things are kept interesting with the friction that’s bound to spark from such big, conflicting personalities. Sir Darma has been an awesome teacher. I know not many students like him, due to his tendency to be a perfectionist, but I can see past that and admire him as teacher who’s just trying to do his job. He constantly reminds me that he’s looking for a ‘leader’ in the class, but I don’t know why that person has to be me. I’m not in the mood for it, especially in those dark days at the beginning of 9th Grade (partly to due to the breakup). I guess this year, I just wanted to shove everyone’s expectations down the drain, stop being so hard on myself, stop trying to impress other so much and do thing’s for me. I’ve paid attention to other people’s needs for so long, maybe I just wanted to be a bit selfish this year. Though I guess that didn’t last long. Haha. Like I’ve said, I’m too nice for my own good.
The highlights though were of course, LUMOS MAXIMA and then Teacher’s Day.
Oh, and we can’t forget the Love Story now, can we? 2011 was the first year I entered being in a (at the time) very hopeful and established relationship. Of course, drama followed in the last days of 8th Grade and over summer break, I had well… broken up. First heartaches, first break-ups are inevitably messy, and though I handled things well, I just kinda wished I handled things better. Like I said before, I’m an individual. I’m not a stranger to time spent alone. But suddenly losing (in a really jerk-ish way, I might add) a boyfriend — a friend — and all the feelings of consistency, and having someone to rely on, that of course wasn’t easy.
And then entering 9th Grade, with work that I welcomed as a distraction, I was just feeling a little lost. There was the whole retreat thing, and me almost catching a ‘rebound’ guy but realizing that was simply horrible, and wrong. Last night, I also realized these deep feelings, for a friend that was a strong and close friend at first, but is now coming close to an ex-friend. I’ve written a letter to ‘him’ which was a good way to vent, but I’m still not sure where we stand.
Culturally and knowledge-wise, I’ve learned alot in 2011. I’ve been caught in some awesome range of TV shows from the dramatic-thiller Pretty Little Liars to the kiss-ass Sherlock on BBC. I’ve gone beyond just watching things to analyzing them, getting more and more curious about the behind-the-scenes process not just in TV shows but in block-buster movies as well. I’m an official movie-junkie now, just beginning to scratch the surface of cinematography.
My taste in music has also quickly expanded. I’ve been downloading tracks like crazy, clogging my hard-drive so fast it’s basically killing the processing speed of my laptop. Noel Gallagher, The Wanted and Coldplay are a few of my most-played. I’ve also taken an interest into classical music, tried a bit of Tchaikovsky pieces, being drawn to the ballet-performance aspect of their uses combining the ear-pleasing compositions with visual impact. I’m thinking of trying some Chopin next, since it reminds of that PS3/Xbox360 game ‘Eternal Sonata’ which revolves around a fantasy world loosely based on ‘Frederic Chopin’. I’m strongly attracted to playing the violin now, though it’s a bit of a long shot to start taking up lessons.
Reading has sort taken a backseat to all my busy-bee days, but I’m starting to make sure that will change. I’ve been spending most of my holidays reading novels, the most recently finished was ‘The Power of Six’ the sequel to ‘I Am Number Four’ and next on my list is the “Peter Pan and the Starcatchers” series 🙂 I’m also planning to spend more time reading and analyzing classics, starting of course, with the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I love how the Sherlock Holmes series is so quotable.
Besides the fictional fluff, I’ve been hitting a few informational books as well. Forensics science has always been an interest of mine (blame all those CSI shows, detective games and most recently Sherlock) and I’m simply sifting through articles, building up on the terminology which is of course advancely complicated. I’ve also started studying up on horticulture and classification of plant-life (my homeroom teacher does major in Biology).
And then there’s writing, this old passion of mine. I have been keeping the pen sharp, joining my school’s Skill Development Class for English Creative writing and picking up on a few of my short stories. I’ve also been studying the art of script-writing for well, let’s just say slightly confidential purposes. For now 😉
2011, has been a tough, yet fun year. Lots of mall escapades, and ‘productive hangouts’ (as a friend put it) to remember on with a laugh. A lot of time spent driving away cases of boredom, having a lot of emotional feelings, and quiet nights on holidays. All of which is fine, since I’m discovering more about myself everyday.
Many people think of 2011 as one of the worst years. Maybe it’s because 2012, ‘the end of the world’ is coming, and expectations are being set too high. The optimist inside me wants to disagree and say ‘2011 has been a wonderful year!’ but the realist inside me solemnly agrees. Yes, 2011 has definitely been a crappy year, all in all.
There were many days spent with me keeping my head down, not feeling myself. But that gave way to feeling of optimism and days where I started looking up.
But when you’ve hit rock bottom, where is there to go but up?
In a nutshell, that’s been my 2011. I’ve gone through a lot, emerging through the end of the year a much more stronger person than before.
It’s okay to look back, have flashbacks and remember all the memories you’ve had. But don’t you ever, ever let that stop you. As the inspirational Chris Colfer said, “Despite such a current challenging time, there is so much to look forward to.”
“I promise, it gets so much better.”
–Karin Novelia, Looking Forward To A Better Year 🙂