Friday, 17 July 2015

while we can, when we can

I couldn't help but pick up the latest edition of Kinfolk magazine the other day, after a quick peek at the contents caught my eye. Its theme was about Essentialism. That which we can't live without. What are the things that are at the core of our lives such that they emerge, glistening, when everything else coarse and unnecessary, has been polished away?

My dearest grandfather, Ahkong, passed away recently. He had suffered from a very bad stroke at the beginning of the year, just after the New Year (something which I'm always grateful for in terms of timing because at least he managed to have those few wonderful nights of festive celebration with all of us leading up to the New Year before the stroke hit). Since then, I've felt something inside shift. They always say that your priorities change when someone around you passes away or falls gravely ill. Because then you're confronted with your own vulnerability; a harsh reminder that that could be you one day...any day in fact. Living with the shadow of death hovering certainly has the potential to be overly depressing if we aren't careful, but at the same time, only then can we truly be aware of what it means to live.

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(The roses we scattered into the sea at his sea burial.) 

After he became bedridden, it felt almost like a wild goose chase. Trying to chase whatever time remained, all the while feeling panicked at what might happen next in the foreseeable future. In the end, he managed to pass on in a way that I'm sure he would have wanted - with loved ones by his side, in his room at home, in the house he'd lived in for more than 30 years. Not everyone has the opportunity to pass on safely in the company of loved ones at home and I'm just so grateful that he was able to do so.

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Sometimes I find myself tearing up at the most unexpected moments. Watching elderly patients interact with their grown children in the clinics... (especially the relatively healthy ones who remind me of my Ahkong before his stroke), listening to a talk about dementia and watching this local short film called Recipe 
(回味), directed at Eric Khoo starring Zoe Tay about coping with dementia (aghh it was a real tear-jerker because they kept playing the song, Mo Li Hua (茉莉花). I'm a real sucker for these maudlin soundtracks), even looking at my Ahpo and watching her talk or go about her activities. All of a sudden I'll feel as if something has gripped my heart inside and with a surge of emotion, the tears will come. So many people have to deal with or have dealt with loss in their lives. I know that this is a stage I have to go through and eventually it'll be better. 

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(The colorful paper flowers in the center were made by my Ahpo for my Ahkong.) 

That said, I digress. What I've been thinking about over the past few months is a more focused version of the thoughts that occasionally flit through my mind. What do I want to focus on in my life? What are my priorities? Is what I'm doing now in line with my priorities and values in life? It's something that we all need to work out way through, more so as we grow older. I think for most people it starts out initially with being more selective about friends. As a child don't we all just want to have a ton of friends to hang out with and have fun? But as we grow older and have less energy after work to use on others, we have to grow more selective with who we want to focus our attention and efforts on. It's the same with all other aspects of life.

I really enjoyed reading the interview in Kinfolk with the author Greg McKeown who wrote the book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, (definitely next on my reading list) because so much of it resonated with me. "The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference - learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential." It echoes with Marie Kondo's philosophy of selecting things that 'spark joy', keeping those and then discarding the others that don't mean enough to you.

I'm finding it harder and harder to stick it out there for things that don't mean enough to me now. Some people can say things like, "it's only two years of your life! Just continue on with it!", but to me, that's not how I want to live my life. In my mind, two years (or any amount of time, really) is a huge deal. Time is precious. How could we say, oh I'll just wait it out and in two years I'll move on to what I really want to do? Why would we want to do that to ourselves? Why should we shortchange ourselves in life?

Of course, it's never as simple as that. We can't all make such big changes in one fell swoop because it might not be feasible at this point in time. But I think taking a step back to evaluate where you are at in life and to remind yourself of what is important to you, will be helpful in getting you to wherever you want to go.

One thing that's hitting me hard now is the missed opportunities that I had over the past few years. With my Ahkong gone, now I'm trying my best to be there for my Ahpo and spend as much time with her as I can. Of course, I'm slowly building it into my schedule to make it a manageable, long-term habit of visiting and spending time with her, but I can't help but think about all those months and years that I could've spent with her on a more regular basis. It feels like in university I was pretty much in my own world; studying, university friends, junior college friends, exams, exams, exams, traveling whenever I could... I remember my mum telling me, Ahkong and Ahpo aren't getting any younger; you should really visit them more often. At the time, I distinctly remember myself making a conscious choice to not visit them so much. I was thinking to myself that it's time to take a step back. Who knows how much longer I will have with them? If I retreat now, I won't get so sad when I lose them eventually. Can you believe that? Sounds like a classic cheesy rom-com plotline in which the girl never manages to fall in love because she's always too afraid to get close to anyone. Can't believe I fell for that too. Not wanting to deepen my relationship with them was my way of shielding myself from the sadness that I would eventually experience at not having that relationship anymore. But with that sort of mindset, it's akin to saying, let's live a few years less, because the more we live, the more chances we have of experiencing such great happiness that when we die, it'll be an even greater shame to lose everything. Isn't that crazy? Might as well not live at all! Looking back, I just feel so much regret at that silly decision. All that time that I could have spent with both my grandparents...especially my Ahpo, who was so much sharper mentally then... It's something I will always regret. But then again, that's what it means to grow up doesn't it? We become a littler wiser (hopefully) and we do things better each day.

This was a slightly longer and more emotional post than usual, but it's something I thought I would want to share with you. Learn from my mistake, my young Padawan. There's no better time than now to think about your priorities in life; what's essential to your being. And once you come to a conclusion, time to think about what you can and need to do to in order to reach that stage.

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(My dearest Ahkong and Ahpo, in 1945. 
This was the first time I'd seen this little slide photo. Now it's just my Ahpo left. I love her so much.) 

Time is so precious. There is such a thing as too much work but no one on their deathbed ever regretted spending too much time with their loved ones. Love while we can, when we can.

My next step? Figuring out when to do a 'life-changing' bout of decluttering. ;p Marie Kondo's words have convinced me. It's very plausible, how the physical act of decluttering will translate to us streamlining our lives on so many levels, not just our physical spaces. (Do read her book,
, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising Just need to figure out when would be a good time to do it. ;p Maybe one of the public holidays soon. 

Have a great Hari Raya holiday everyone and a wonderful restful weekend ahead.


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