Soul and spirit of living

He calmly replied, “Being human is hard enough.” He was 6, and it was a response to my (I’m now embarrassed to admit) innocuous question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” More so, I was ashamed of not seeing the truly beautiful human being that he is and the innate wisdom not borne of institutionalised education nor life experience.

It was the voice of his soul. Our ensuing conversation was no less profound and demonstrated, at least to me, his intimate sense of human existence and a pre-cognition of what life could entail. It is our soul’s knowing. And as Heraclitus said, “the soul is its own source of unfolding.”

What reminded me of him today was her –the vivacious young being of 9 who explained her anger as such. With her arms outstretched towards the wall, she raised her left to a spot on said wall. “This” she nodded to her left, “is my anger, and then after a little while, I get over it and I am here”, she looked to the right as her right hand touched a spot higher and above her head. Before I could say a word, she continued, “but…” her right hand lowering and moving into her left fist still planted on the left spot on the wall, “I have to go through it and out!” as she swished her right arm upwards for dramatic effect. She went on to inform me that she knew why she’s angry and thus able to get over it.

And there is encapsulated the simplicity of the human spirit. That there lies within us, the yearning to overcome, to take flight, to reach for the stars. And what beauty there is in this place, no matter the human experience of struggle, pain and sorrow as we relish the passion, the triumph and the ecstasy on the journey.

Soul and spirit – two balancing forces in our human experience. The soul lives in the realm of imagination and dwells in the earthiness of life – with its imperfections; ‘it has an appreciation for human limitations and folly’ to quote Thomas Moore. Meanwhile, the spirit compels us to transcend this messiness called life, to pursue meaning and bliss.

My children have taught me many lessons throughout their young lives – one such is to honour the soul’s impulses to get down and dirty with life – be it rolling on the grass – who cares about grass stains ;), or taking risks with equanimity; and at the same time to revel in power and strength derived from the industriousness of the spirit – to see myself reflected in their eyes, to aptly situate the intellect and art in my life.

I digress a little to say this – children are not empty vessels to be filled, if we only but see, they are perfect ‘soul and spirit’ creatures that our world would then proceed to diminish, until they are, like I am, left here longing to return home. Somehow many of us have forgotten our awesome-ness (‘stole’ this word from the children 🙂 ), we have lost faith in our unique and common existence. We no longer see our true potential.

So, are my children my treasure? No, they are not. Oh, they are precious to me but they are not mine. They are their own persons. As Khalil Gibran said, “

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

My prized treasures are my memory of them, the lessons I have learned from them, and the love they have inspired.

Day 19 Confusion

Tears streaming down my face as I struggle with what to say, how to express the confusion in my mind, the clarity in my heart. How does one say ’I love you’ while unable to commit, how does one say ‘you mean the world to me’ when we’re in separate worlds, how does one say ‘you’ve taken my life from bearable to meaningful’ when I have yet to decipher its meaning?

How do I embrace these tumultuous feelings, knowing full well their potential to hurt, to harm? How could I not? Why would I deny myself the exhilaration of love found and a deeper connection, just as I have vowed never to put myself in a place of ‘making do’, of ‘good enough’. How could I stop expecting any more for fear of being disappointed, of being hurt…again? What is worse than being ambivalent? For therein lies the absence of passion, of hope and dreams – there I will begin to die.

So do I meet this unknown with arms wide open, no safety net – trusting that life will take care of itself? To accept ‘come what may’? That no matter happens, I would be happy knowing I have tried. That like Maya Angelou said, “to have enough courage to trust love one more time, always one more time”. Can I sit with the uncertainty? Am I brave enough?

Good ole reliable conventional me, playing by the rules – rules enforced to maintain the power of the powerful. They are not for me… for they had left me powerless, ashamed, guilty, doubting, scared. Never again! Yet how do I maintain my identity, my sense of self this time? Is this what faith is all about? And have I loved myself enough to truly love another? To stand next to another, to walk beside another… without giving away parts of myself to comfort, to lift up. For this I do not believe I could endure…losing myself again.

So in this state of flux I stand still, gathering myself for the inevitable…my holding pattern I call it as rational me assesses the damage most material, the logistics of loving. I have survived life’s betrayals and have grown. I have known that dark place and choose not to return. How does one be faithless yet trustworthy? How does one be true of oneself without disappointing another? How does one avoid being in this state of waiting forever? What does it take to realise my heart’s longing?

Dare I stand tall in the centre of the fire, unflinching? If given a chance, will I dance?

Day 17 Fear and my personality

Fear…I am not sure I have one that can be categorized as such. In my mind, ‘fear’ is something that would keep me awake all night, unable to leave the house, unwilling to speak, and the like. Born into a middle-class family at a time of peace, I never knew what it meant to live in a war zone, to go without food and shelter, etc. so what I do not know, I cannot fear. I can imagine, but my mind cannot access it fully. Yes I know, there is irrational fear – hope this exercise is not referring to them.

So I guess my worst fear-like ‘thing’ would be to leave this world unnoticed, no footprint.

Let me explain. I do not seek fame and fortune nor validation from the world at large. What I fear is that I have failed to create a positive change that benefits other people. It does not necessarily need be earth-shattering – again Nobel Prize isn’t what I had in mind. It need not be global, just a positive difference to perhaps one person’s life in the short time that I am in her life. This brought to mind Mitch Albom’s book “Five People You Meet in Heaven”. In the book, the protagonist, Eddie, discovered the impact and meaning of his life on others – people whom he hardly knows.

So perhaps my anxiety is existential in that I’d probably not find out if I have made a positive impact …till I’m dead and gone. Perhaps I might look down (yes, going to heaven 😉 ) as the eulogy progresses. So the tension is to sit with this fear and desire, and not-knowing and hope; and the knowledge that I can only be who I am and what will be, will be.

And perhaps it is so with children that, should we get it right, they will take a part of us with them, be our footprint in the world.

Day 14 Letter to my father

Dan Wakefield (ed.) ‘Kurt Vonnegut Letters’, 2012, Ex Libris Vintage Books, London
On page 29 – the word ‘father’

To my father,

I do not know what you think of me and the life I lead, whether I have lived up to your expectations. Do I disappoint you? Those expectations I know of old, have they changed? For you do not speak of them. Yet, discontent is written on your face, for what is is rarely good enough. And that is how you have lived your life. I respect your tenacity, your refusal to let life get the better of you, your belief that though a mere mortal, you could make a difference to the lives of those for whom you were responsible.

You made your way to the top and what a view, even for your child, me. I have had the best you could offer, and it was pretty amazing. I had not wanted for material things, for your constant encouragement to succeed.

So I guess it feels like betrayal for me to say, that what you so highly valued, spent your life amassing and chose to impart to me had lost their shine. Perhaps it is not about values, but rather of perspectives. Ours don’t accord.

We have not spoken for years of things that matter. For once I no longer function in your world, one where you had the influence and control of me through your well-intentioned advise, you could no longer understand and see the person that I have become. And I, I bear the responsibility for failing to engage you in my world, for that required me to justify myself, over and over again. So we speak of the mundane, as if that is enough to maintain our relationship.

But this is all in my head. Perhaps you see me, I hope you do, and merely choose to make no comment. How loudly that silence speaks! Perhaps you are finally letting me live my life.

I know you love me greatly, but is your love unconditional? That is one question I have not had the answer to.

Waiting patiently,
Your daughter

Day 12 Only human

The first time I heard it, I took an instant dislike for its message. The weakness demonstrated by the plea, the passive acceptance of her situation. Yet I could not get away from it…it stayed on my mind. So I wondered about its visceral effect.

Then I kept encountering it, the words intruding. Coincidence? Perhaps.

The last time I ‘chanced’ upon ‘Human’ by Christina Perry, I discovered the hypnotic quality of the music. The crystal clear voice of a woman in pain, the unadulterated call for understanding. And the message?

But I’m only human
And I bleed when I fall down
I’m only human
And I crash and I break down
Your words in my head, knives in my heart
You build me up and then I fall apart
‘Cause I’m only human
 I’m only human
I’m only human
Just a little human
 I can take so much
‘Til I’ve had enough

It became one of strength and courage to be vulnerable and determination to be seen and heard.

Now, as I listen to this song…I realise it is no coincidence – this movement from passive denial to active acceptance. Perhaps I have always known.

So, here it is:-

Day 11 Home

When I was twelve, home was a safe haven. It was a place where I was protected, cared for and my safety ensured. Within this 3-bedroom brick home of modest proportions, home was a relatively calm place of doing the usual stuff – education and learning for the children. Functional routine and discipline were in place so a minute was not wasted on the frivolity of life. A holding place for lives striving for perfection, or at least maximising opportunities. Crowded into this single-storey was a space where music prevailed – with a yellow feature wall the subject of much ridicule and humour. Much time spent on playing the piano and singing. Television was the ultimate evil. The combined kitchen and dining room was the heart of the house – meals cooked and shared, conversations unending it would seem, stories and laughter shared. Framed picture of various sizes lined the beige walls, capturing the moments of our lives.

The house was located within a lower middle class town. It had enough unsavoury elements to ensure we children were not allowed out after dark. Neither were we encouraged to hang out with other children in the neighbourhood, for the neighbourhood was a little scary even for my parents. So, our friends were few but those we had were steadfast.

I remember time spent in the garden – cavorting and rumbling on the lawn – with great fondness. A space where family congregated and interacted. This was the place where family gatherings occurred – potted plants moved to make way for tables and chairs, and the barbeque. Picnic rugs made their appearances where the children assembled for boards games. The cacophony of noise – pleasant though they might have been – was a little overwhelming at times for a 12-year old.

It was nevertheless an idyllic time. Perhaps it was as Willa Cather said,

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”

Day 10 Happy Occasion & 火锅

You know, the meal reminds me of family, the good and the bad, and connection. I’m a bit of an introvert, you know that, so these family gatherings were a pain in the butt… especially as a child and was expected to be seen but not heard. The expectation to behave, hah! But the shared stories, the laughter round the table, the philosophical discussions, us kids trying so hard to be good but failing abysmally. They are what I still long for sometimes, to know where I fully belong, to have no miscommunication due to cultural factors, to be accepted for who I am – despite the inevitable well-meaning advice of the elders at the time. I like family. That’s what steamboat symbolizes to me.

It’s basically fondue except with broth.  Imagine this – the soup is bubbling in a large pot which is placed at the centre of the round table. By the way, part of the gathering also was the opportunity for me to hear the stories of old, the myths influencing our culture – I loved those stories and still do. But I digress – back to the meal. A selection of seafood, meat and vegetables were prepared – cut up in chunks or thinly sliced like carpaccio. Raw, there were placed on the table. Each person was then able to make their selection of foods, and to cook them in the boiling broth in the pot. We have it here though not common, actually I think it’s called hotpot here.

There was always an air of excitement about the process – from preparation to cooking to even clean-up. A buzz as everyone chips in. The men arranging the table and chairs, the kids helping with utensils and setting the table, the women preparing the food… That togetherness was, and is still important to me – now, I love seeing my kids and their cousins interacting, having fun… The round table meant community to me. Sometimes there were so many of us we had to take turns at the table, did not bother us at all. We were otherwise occupied with chatting, discussing and philosophizing, playing card or board games…

So I guess whenever I have steamboat now – and it’s often, I do so in the spirit of family, community, connection, belonging and fun.

Day 9 Point of view

The man

It is over. I will miss him but life goes on. Janine… I don’t know what I can do. Her hands are so cold, but the sun’s out. We’ve been walking for 20 minutes and she had not said one word. When will she be better? I just want things to be back to normal… oh God, normal, what the hell, Jeff! It will never be normal again, or the same. There is no God, so take that word out of your damn vocabulary. Fuck, Jeff get a grip, Janine needs you.. me.. I have to be sane. Janine, look at me, c’mon just look at me and tell me it’s ok… that we will be ok… It’s not my fault, Janine.

What is she doing knitting a sweater like that, she’s too old to be a mother… oh maybe she’s a grandmother. Red, could be a boy… or a girl. It’s not fair. Why? Why us? Josh has a red sweater like that, we bought it for him last Easter. He loves it, stroking the wool. Oh my son, oh…

The woman

I am so cold… I hope the sun will warm me up soon… he is so cold. He’s angry, I know it, but it’s not my fault. How was I to know? He’s my first, I know I am supposed to care for him, I do, I did, I love him so much. I … he can’t be gone, my baby cannot be …and now he hates me… the way he’s gripping my hand now, he doesn’t want to hold it, I can tell… another lie, how many will he tell me… God, I am so tired, I just want to lay here, right here on the grass and sleep…

What a lovely sweater, red … that’s Josh’s favourite colour. I wonder if it is for her granddaughter or grandson… she’s so lucky. I would never have a grandchild because he is gone… no, that’s ok, I will be fine. His memories will stay and I will grow stronger because of this. I will not be beaten by this, I can’t. What will Josh think if he knew I am so weak…

The old woman

Waiting, always waiting… at least I have my knitting. Imagine not having this, I’d probably go mad. I don’t think he’ll come… why would he? After all that I’ve done, he won’t ever want to see me. It’s just that I miss him, miss them so much. Just to finish off here and a button up here, and it’s ready. I hope Jimmy likes it. He’s always such a boy but he would look so good in red.

Mmm, that couple looks so angry. I don’t think he wants to be here… neither does she by the looks of it. They had a fight… no quite, she looks so sad, I guess it’s those relationship things. Oh love, you’ll be over him in no time, like me but I stayed on for another 11 years… stupid really. Feels good to take a stand, but … guess I’ll just wait.

They do make a good-looking couple really… Oh dear, why is he crying?

Day 8 No adverbs

Hues of black and grey flash by as people race pass me in their rush to work. Heads bow, eyes not making contact, bodies pushing by. Legs clad in designer trousers, sheer stockings clumping by; feet in leather boots both male and female navigate their way through the puddles.

The rain had been incessant, creating dirty puddles of uninspiring reflection in the dim light of day. The grey pavement seems never ending, running by skyscrapers and more grey stone buildings. The occasional mutterings of pedestrians as they seek to avoid the umbrellas held too high, too low, just not right; the drips of water from the roof and awnings.

The drone of the traffic punctuated by horns blaring add to the cacophony of noise – from the traffic lights, people speaking and yelling into their mobile phones, the splish-splash of tyres on the road and the shrieks of people getting splashed.

It is grey. Then I see her – a woman of uncertain age strolling unaffected by the weather and her surroundings. An array of colours accompanying her – from her auburn hair, pale face with lips painted deep chocolate, swathed in a deep electric blue mackintosh from under which a satin rose dress hem peaks. Around her neck a lime green scarf sits, without a care. And her shoes, sturdy tan heeled boots made elegant by her regal bearing.

Perhaps on any other woman, these colours may clash but not on her. People turn to stare, and she smiles – a confident knowing smile filled with grace and dare I say, wisdom. Perhaps it is an illusion, yet in this moment, an illusion worth aspiring to.

Day 7 A short dialogue


“Romantic love is a myth,” Sarah exclaimed, staring at her friends as if challenging them to contradict her.

“Oh, you and your ideas!” James said, rolling his eyes. “What?” Sarah shrugged her shoulders.

“That’s ridiculous, what you just said,” James firmly stated.

“No, it’s not, shall I tell you how romantic love first came to be?” Sarah turned to face James, looking intensely at him.

“Are you saying what we have is a myth?” James said as he raised his voice a little, pointing his right index finger first at Sarah then himself. Sarah shifted in her seat, “no, that’s not it…we may feel love for each other but…”

James shakes his head, “Oh, here goes…”

Taking a deep breath, Sarah dismissed James’ snide remark, continuing, “BUT…it could be an expectation, the idea of how love should be more than the feeling”.   “Oh, Sarah, like we will know… truly”. James retorted.

“That’s the point, we don’t, so how could you be sure what romantic love is or isn’t?” Sarah asked.

“So, what we have is not real then?” James persisted as he leans back on his chair, crossing his arms.

Sarah runs her delicate hands through her auburn hair, “it’s real but it is socially constructed…we are…”

Uncrossing his arms, James raises his hand, trying to get the waiter’s attention, “look I’m not over-thinking this, I love you and that’s all I need to know. Don’t care where it came from or what…”

“That’s simple, a cop-out” Sarah muttered.

Turning his head back to face Sarah, while still gesturing for table service, James drawled, “fantastic, calling me simple now.”

“Look, let’s not discuss this…not here. We’re obviously not going to agree. But has it ever occurred to you that perhaps we have love but not romantic love? Sarah said, as she turned back to her friends. “More wine, anyone?”