“How are you doing, Rui?”
As a good friend I’ve known for a few years now, Issy seems to know how to ask the simplest and the most penetrating questions. She also seems to ask me this once every semester, just as I need to contemplate and take stock the most. So this is in part a short entry dedicated to her.
The other part is dedicated to you, every time you have been left “?!!?!” in the wake of an angmoh asking you that very same question, and then ambling off good-naturedly before you can formulate an adequate answer.
How are you doing?
Whilst on exchange in Europe, I was told by some angmoh friends that the question was merely a salutation, a kind of formless, meaningless word-sound you make to signal a greeting; a bit like the NIHAOs and the KONNICHIWAs and the ANNYEONGHASEYOs the touts swarming every tourist attraction in the world are so wont to yell out these days so long as you are slit-eyed. HOWARUDOIN isn’t heard as much around the tourist attractions I have been to.
For the first few weeks in Europe, I went “ooooohhh…errrr…ahhhhh…” until I finally figured out that no one was actually looking for an answer. Somehow “I’m good” just didn’t seem to do my life justice, although going into full-on, frothing rant mode didn’t really seem appropriate either – much as I could probably have explained it away with “cultural differences” to my frightened angmoh friends.
How are you doing?
The Relentless Minute
It’s an important question to ask yourself once in awhile. Have you noticed? How we just dash from place to place, moment to moment, person to person, thing to thing ceaselessly. Even the much-vaunted “me-time” is often whittled away reading inane, meaningless articles, listicles, or instagram pictures that you don’t really remember minutes later, like this very entry you are reading. Recently, as part of a class assignment, I sat at a hawker centre near my house for a grand total of one hour, doing nothing but taking down notes, and then later pouring these observations into a report. There are many things you realise. First – that one does not really sit down for so long at a hawker centre, even on a normal day. You get restless and itchy and cagey within fifteen minutes. Next – that no one else in the damn hawker centre does either. People are locked in a perpetual dance that seems ceaseless. So many boys complain about how they are forced in the Army to “wait to rush, and rush to wait”. It’s a famous lament steeped in resignation and exasperation. And yet how many of us realise so much of our lives end up like that? We wait and wait in line for the Famous Michelin Chicken Rice at lunch – surfing some pointless article if clever; staring into space if cleverer – and then, having secured said plate of Deliciousness, scour the sweltering hawker centre for a seat; and then, having secured the seat, wolf down plate frantically, slurp down drink, and then it’s back to the office we go; and let’s go, let’s go time’s a-rushing a-running. Have you watched yourself rush and rush?
Sometimes, I’m un/lucky enough to catch a glimpse, a glimmer of myself like that. We seem to be a nation of headless chickens sometimes, too afraid to stop running for fear our bloods will congeal and run cold.
A question like “How are you doing?” is the kind of question that stops me cold in my tracks – and needfully so. Have you ever asked yourself that? I tried, and i found myself struggling overlong for an answer. Here is my answer, after some thought; a more congealed, condensed, but no less arbitrary one.
“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad”
Says Bassanio, opening Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. My literature teacher in secondary two said Bassanio was homosexual and was feeling melancholy about Antonio leaving. I don’t know man, I’ve always thought ascribing modern agendas to older texts was rather problematic. But like Bassanio, I know not why: “what stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn”. There’s a creeping melancholy and restlessness to these few days, a bone-ache that’s been eating at me. I think it’s a cyclical, Recess Week thing, incited by the onset of assignment deadlines lurking in the horizon, and the rising panic of Not Knowing What to Do. This is mixed in with good ol’ existential ennui and dread, that perennial base ingredient in any gumbo of weariness you want to cook up. That’s foremost in my brain today.
But wait: that’s not all. Sadness and melancholy exist, of course. They’re always there, like the featureless shadows in every tutorial class, the ones that don’t say anything and only stare at the floor, but help to curve your grades upwards at the end of every semester.
There’s happiness to each day too. Quiet, sudden happinesses, the ones that don’t sneak up so much as burst upon you, unexpected and unbidden. Like a great cumulonimbus in the dawn sky, promising rain later in the day, but for the moment wreathed in the glowy halo of the dripping morning sun. Or an old friend you meet after ages, who tells you they really liked the thing you posted on Facebook earlier, or some nonsense you said online which made her day. Or that astonishingly, breathtakingly pretty movie you watched the other day only because your friend insisted you should watch it [In case you are wondering, I am talking about KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, which I highly recommend, even (or especially) if you are the type that watches one movie every year. Alone]. Happiness can creep up on you like that creepy big-eyed kid in Ju-On, except in a nicer way. How can there be a day in your life without a splash of happiness, Mary Oliver asks; challenges. It’s just how we go about finding these little creepy kids in the little niches of the luxuriant folds of our every 24hours. I mean these little moments of happiness.
And really, that’s if you take the quick, immediate view. If you don’t pan out and think a little further and bigger. If we think a bit, however: It isn’t even too much of a stretch to say that people our generation all over the world won’t have the privilege to be sitting in an air-conditioned room now, reading this on an extremely high-tech smartphone, which is probably almost “outdated”. The technology that sits comfortably in the palm of your hand and allows you to surf for cute kittens, or type angsty Facebook rants, could have launched the Apollo space missions several decades ago.
Knowledge can empower. It should also humble, both at how small, and also how lucky we are. Statistics lie, but I think a large proportion of the world does not even have the luxury of wasting drinking water on thirty-minute showers. Or three-dollar chicken rice: every grain so plump and wet, every piece of chicken so tasty and succulent…I’m not saying we don’t have a right to whine, bitch and complain. Given the chance, i think anyone who could live in a “First-World” (i use that term ironically) country with first-world amenities would also love to whine, bitch and complain too. Singaporeans do love to complain – so what? Gratefulness, too, is a skill that takes practice. There’s a lot to appreciate, but appreciation needs perspective; perspective comes only if we bother to find out more about how good we have it going for us.
So how am i doing?
So How Now?
I always give this answer to Issy whenever she asks me this annoying question. I don’t think the answer has changed so much. Like any Worthy Singaporean, I do love to whine and bitch and complain too. But that’s before I sit awhile to not just think, but also feel my answer out, after I am still and wait here in the silence.
There are many things in the darkness, eating at my attention, nibbling away, wearing me away continually. Always worrying, always worrying. Always whispering and sneering away.
But there are also things in the soft light, the nimbus murmurs of the dawn. There are also powerful stirrings in the midnight velvet, continental in their certainty and their peace, booming, “Things will be Alright. All is Well. All is Well. Things will balance out.” There are trinkets to be thankful for, in the everyday everythings we use and say and pass through without comment and without thought. There are precious comforts we (literally) breathe and drink and bathe in daily unremarked.
I am content.
Postscript: I wanted to include only a quote from Ehrmann’s Desiderata here. But the more I read the more I realised how applicable it was. Forgive my lack of restraint. Here is one of the poems which have carried me through many of the darkest, and also the most wistful, and also the most hopeful weeks and days of my little life. I woke this morning to a friend who had tagged me in an artistic adaptation of this poem, on Facebook. This post is also for Lisabelly, who drops in once in awhile with this gorgeous poem, to remind me that we are all children of the universe; we have a right to here:
[by Max Ehrmann]
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.