Adrift

Day 31, 500 words, 31 days

I confess, I may have romanticized this writer’s life.

I imagined entire days spent reading classic literature and taking breaks jotting down passages that inspired me, and maybe writing some of my own. I would start off with my morning cup of coffee, perhaps go for a run if I felt the need to clear my mind, and then get to work at a reasonable morning hour – 10, or 10:30. By noon, I would pour a second or third cup if I felt the afternoon hours baiting me into submission, and sleep. Chances are, I’d end up napping anyway, with a book resting neatly over the bridge of my nose or with its pages spread over my chest. I’d be in some Zen-like state, unconsciously generating original ideas to write about – the kind I’d punch into a blank Evernote page to park for later. And late in the evening, if I couldn’t quiet the restless thoughts running in my head, I’d sneak out of bed and write a little more – perhaps along with a little nightcap, and if I took it at the right time, I’d knock myself out for good after I typed up my final words.

This is, however, not the usual day.

The version I actually live usually revolves around running morning errands like stress-inducing trips to the market, or remembering to hang out the laundry at a reasonable hour – like 10 or 10:30. By noon, I’ve missed lunch and debate whether it’s worth putting on some pants to go to get Char Hor Fun on the corner, or if I’m better off fixing myself the driest sandwich imaginable. Somehow, I fight off the spell that is sleep and manage to be alert enough to Tweet something tweet-worthy or skim over Facebook for something other than a Buzzfeed list. (I click on the Buzzfeed list anyway). By nightfall I’m wondering where my day went, and realize I hadn’t written a single thing worth posting. So I hit my hardest stride before 10 in the evening, pushing through a post around midnight just so I can earn the satisfaction of uninterrupted sleep.

I may have seen one too many movies of writer-types – the sort of miserly, unkempt professor of Wonder Boys or the manic-depressive one in Adaptation. There’s, of course, the feel good bunch too – the outcasted, but hopeful young writer in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or the diamond-in-the-rough discovered in Finding Forrester.

Reality is, I’m absolutely like none of those characters at all. I’m too fastidious about fixing the hair that I have left and I still actually put together outfits that don’t make me look like a child rummaging through his parent’s closet for “dress-up”. I didn’t fancy myself a writer when I was a kid, and I have a hard time believing I’ll be fortuitously discovered as one, as an adult.

The “writing life” and the “writer” itself remain such odd, though appealing, caricatures to me, but I find it hard to relate.

The truth about writing is that it’s just going to take a lot of work. It already has. The daily grind of it that brings about both magical epiphany and mind-bashing frustration. The practice and discipline of it make it more of a craft to be honed than a mere hobby to be dabbled with. The sheer effort it requires reminds me all the more that, like time itself, it’s never going to be free.

I’m already feeling the cost creep into my ideal, daily routine. I’m experiencing the quick loss of fresh ideas and concepts the longer my day goes without writing anything, because I’m too busy filling it with other responsibilities – like doing my own dishes or cleaning up after my cats or checking Facebook…for work.

All I know now, is that it will only get harder.

I don’t have the energy or patience to look back (yet!) at everything I’ve written. Measuring the amount of work (or words) I’ve amassed in the past month feels both daunting in task and in number. The “achievement” of which, doesn’t incite pride, so much as it does, genuine relief.

I stayed the course. I “ran the race.” I persevered through the really bad days and I capitalized, as best as I could, on the good ones.

I haven’t even begun to weigh what worked and what didn’t. But I suppose that sort of deliberation is for after-the-fact. Much after.

For now, I only feel the strong, unrelenting desire, to rest. Just for a while. Just long enough to get my bearings again – on the real day-to-day I’m about to experience once more, without this writing project tethering me to the anchors that were my tablet, keyboard, and desk.

After all, they have kept me afloat long enough. Now, it’s time to drift along.

Advertisements

On the Brink

Day 30, 500 words, 31 days.

It’s almost over.

What began as an exercise in commitment and discipline has since evolved into a daily battle of attrition. I feel mentally fatigued, pressured more than inspired, and a little too eager to begin other pursuits when this one remains unfinished.

Today was the most ordinary of days for me – the typical sort of easy-going routine that begins as I wake myself slowly out of my morning lull, hits a sudden and desperate halt for lunch, crescendoes with a short stint of productivity in the early hours of the afternoon, and resolves itself into smug satisfaction as I prepare to pick up my wife at school.

At different points of the day, I scoured for every day encounters to write about. Today, for instance, perhaps the friendly postman that assured me my wife’s postcard will make it to the U.S. on a ringgit stamp would have made for a decent story. Or the Muslim woman who sells me doughy ‘bao’ for a quick lunch. Earlier on in the process, I even dedicated an entire entry to my cats, though I haven’t mentioned them much since. I figured if they were the main characters of any given day of writing, it was probably a pretty uneventful day.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for Miles and Madu. Especially Madu, who, inexplicably, never really tires of me.)

This has been the most persistent challenge with this project – the task of making the most mundane things more than ordinary, knowing that every day doesn’t bring forth a riveting, raucous adventure. I’m lucky to have had some notable travels this month – to the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands during my wife’s winter break, passing through the historic (and culinarily famous) town of Ipoh, and of course, my own personal passage to India’s Kolkata, a remarkably dense city of unforgettable vividness and adrenaline-inducing energy.

But in between such excursions are reasonable – and necessary – breaks. January was an especially full month, which worked in my favor, as far as writing was concerned. Now that it has officially passed, I’m looking forward to not feeling a moral obligation to post daily, and hopefully, I’ll be exercising a keener, more judicious eye to scoop out the story when there doesn’t appear to be one. I’d hate having to resort to manufacturing some out of the blue…

Though, that isn’t a bad idea, entirely. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing short fiction, and maybe that’s a reasonable next project. Or compiling different lists. People like lists. Or launching an actual travel blog that only involves my jet-setting ways. Who knows?

Is it possible to be approaching the end with both eager in anticipation and cringing with dread? Does that sound, to you, a lot like graduating from a prestigious program, or for others, their wedding day (and others still, their wedding night?) I’m having trouble pinning down what exactly it is I’m feeling now that this whole ordeal is winding down.

Maybe it’s like a glass of whiskey…

(No, no I’ve made that analogy before, and this time, I wouldn’t have any idea where to go with it)

Perhaps it’s more like the relief you feel after stopping a wound from bleeding with a band aid. At that moment, you couldn’t be more grateful for a way to plug the thing from gushing out the life source inside you. That is until you you pull off the band aid a little too early and see the scab as it’s still forming. And yet, you’re just glad you aren’t staining your shirt anymore with your own blood.

Yes, a little like that.

When it’s all said and done (and soon, at that), I dread having to re-read all of these entries as if I’m being forced to flip through my middle school yearbook. But a lot like middle school, I’m just glad I survived it at all.

On Grace

Day 29, 500 words, 31 days.

We began our final day of Lunar New Year weekend at church.

As expected, the service at Georgetown Baptist Church was far less attended than the first time we had gone. I assume everyone was either out of town or stayed in with visiting family. We strolled in about 15 minutes after service had started. Turns out worship wouldn’t end until an hour later, so we didn’t miss much.

I haven’t written much about faith during this entire project, and I don’t really know the reason. That’s a part of my life that I don’t intentionally hide from anyone, not even in a Muslim country like this one. I don’t ever get preachy anyway, so I don’t fear ever getting “found out”.

So, it’s a curious thing that it’s never come up. But better late than never, I suppose. This project reads like an open book anyway.

The preaching today had to do with the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from the Book of Matthew. In sum, Jesus tells his disciples a story about a landowner who agrees to pay his workers a ‘denarius’ for their labor on his vineyard. As the story goes on, we’re introduced to more workers without work that the landowner chooses to employ as the day progresses. At nine in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon, he adds on more workers to his vineyard. By the end of the day, the landowner decides to pay the last batch of workers the same amount as he promised his first set of workers – a ‘denarius’. In the story, the earliest group of workers complained at the injustice of the landowner’s decision, wondering why those who worked far less still earned the same, and yet, they didn’t receive more. The landlord then tells the disgruntled laborers that he paid them as they agreed, that he wanted to pay the rest of the workers as he wished, and that it was his right to do so.

Jesus ends the story with a familiar sentiment He repeats elsewhere in the gospels: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This isn’t going to be a theological exposition on the true meaning behind this parable. But I want to note something in the very beginning that changes how I receive the story dramatically.

Jesus begins the parable by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.”

The metaphor here is between the kingdom of heaven, and the landowner, or more specifically, what the landowner does. I presume, the landowner is God, we, the workers, and the vineyard, this world.

The pastor today preached about how this story in Matthew teaches us about undeserved blessing by God’s grace. He urged us to be grateful, regardless of what we’ve been given, and not to envy others of what we do not have.

He talked about fairness, and how God operates differently than us – how He gives as he chooses, regardless of what we believe we’ve earned.

I agree, wholeheartedly, with all of this.

But I take exception to one thing – and really, it has more to do with what the pastor didn’t say, than what he did.

I was left wondering, “What about the workers?” I wanted to relate to the characters of the story, and of course – the plight of the workers felt most relevant. What about what they deserved?

I started to think about day laborers who often avail of themselves to do the sort of jobs no one else would voluntarily take, for pay that’s far less the value of their toiling. I thought about women who agree to leave their countries to serve as domestic workers elsewhere, only to be tricked into working more hours for less pay. Or even the cart-pusher selling food on the street, charging a measly three ringgit for a full plate of noodles or Nasi Lemak. Is that all they’re really getting for their work? There doesn’t seem to be anything fair about their situations at all.

It wouldn’t have hurt to spend a little more time examining the “us” and “them” that make up the collective “worker”. To recognize the reality of their plight, the hardship of their toiling, and the injustice many experience when all they desired was what they deserved.

Because wherever the Kingdom of God “isn’t” – suffering, exploitation, and pain, will be. Can we realistically expect that those who experience injustice from their labor remain grateful anyway for the little they are given? Is it reasonable for us to discourage envy when they aren’t even given what they humbly deserve?

This was my knee-jerk reaction to a sermon that felt a little too simple and good-feeling (though probably appropriate for the “new year”) and a service that ran a little too long for my hunger to handle.

What I missed, and perhaps what the pastor failed to emphasize – was what this story was really about. Or rather, whom.

For all the emphasis I wanted on the workers, I realize after examining the beginning of the story, that it isn’t really about them.

It’s about the landowner – about God. I relate far more with the workers than I do the landowner, of course, and perhaps this is why I missed the point.

I forgot about the analogy Jesus was actually making. The story was explaining what the Kingdom of God was like. Not what we were like, what we earned, or what we did or didn’t deserve.

The injustice of this world, the world we know – the unfair one with all the broken, rigged systems in place – persists. It shouldn’t, and yet, it does, and for many, this is the most discouraging thing. It is enough reason to lose faith in ourselves – the whole lot of us with our own twisted agendas and perverse versions of what’s fair and what isn’t.

The hope, however, is in this other reality, this promise of a better “world” that God introduces, in which He is king, and His justice rules. And it’ll make very little sense to us, most of the time. Probably similar to the way things were with the disciples.

But the hope continues – because the promise isn’t just this strange sense of justice we experience, but this immediate inheritance of abundance, of grace. And these, too, often times, will make little sense. I doubt we can truly ever fathom what God’s abundance feels like for it is probably beyond measure, and certainly not His grace, which is beyond what we can ever earn.

Maybe this sounds a bit dissatisfying – how, as characters in a the story of life, human beings play the part of toiling laborers, subject only to whatever we are given, regardless of whether it’s fair. But we hope for more, so we work more, to get what we feel we deserve. This is a very basic principle that seems to stir a very natural motor within us to want to earn our keep, and then some.

I understand so little, of God’s ways. I can barely even grasp how my little life is unfolding before me. I only know, to toil on.

And yet, this peculiar story seems to point to an even bigger, better thing worth putting our hope in, something beyond all that I can ever earn, should I even try to. This grace promised to us, this thing that only the “Landowner” can give – might be the most undeserved thing I want most. The thing none of us, good workers and bad ones, could ever attain on our own accord. It will always be more than everything we’ve given, and never too little for those who have given none.

That is a profound mystery to me, still – the “justice” of that gift. And the only consolation I can find, dissatisfying as it might be, is that to us, it’s always free.

New

Day 28, 500 words, 31 days.

Lunar New Year in Penang was pretty quiet, after all. Sure, we heard some fireworks in the distance, but they didn’t keep us up anymore than the instigating bird that pesters the entire neighborhood with its awful crowing.

Granted, we kept things pretty local and stayed in our area – Tanjung Bungah – for most of the weekend thus far. I’m bracing myself for a sudden spurt of liveliness that would change my mind, but until then, things have been pretty tame where we are, and it’s just the way I like it.

I’m not sure it’s a Lunar New Year tradition to make any resolutions the way we Westerners like to ring in January 1st. I know there are many other established traditions in place – the wearing of red, the giving of red envelopes or ‘ang pao’, the big family gathering for a meal.

For our modest, little celebration, there was just one ‘ang pao’ given, I wore a button-up shirt that Shuli insists is pink, and I didn’t even get everyone we had in one photo together – and there were only five of us.

Still, in our own, fairly non-traditional way, I’d say it was a nice evening – especially for the Chinese among our small group – my wife, and  two friends. For them, I can imagine doing something, anything, on this particular day, mattered a lot.

Considering how much of a family-centric celebration this is, and how none of us were around any, we made the most of what we had – each other. But we prepared a meal as if there were far more people coming over than there really were. Shuli provided all the ingredients for Vietnamese spring rolls, Chris prepared dumplings, and our hosts Roby and Erica, cooked an entire fish and roasted a chicken.

Meanwhile, I de-shelled shrimps for an hour. That was my proud contribution to this elaborate meal.

Ever so often, I walked out on the balcony and the occasional set of fireworks went off (I’d find out later that these are actually illegal in Malaysia, which might explain how infrequently they flew).  Something about watching the spectacle of lights burst brightly into the night sky gets me to be still.

Something about that compels me to take a moment to breathe, and be grateful. But I’m not drafting mental checklists of all that I have to do. I’m letting myself feel my own soul well up with a fresh hopefulness for whatever else is in store.

I’m not a naturally hopeful person. Most days I forget what it’s like to desire what I don’t have, and trust that one day, it will be given. Most days, I can only trust that which I feel I’ve earned.

“New Years” – in whatever form they come – the traditional ones, the Lunar ones, the birth-related ones, are a different kind of day, though. To me, they signal the dawn of a new beginning, and I suppose the explosion of lights have something to do with this.

My new beginnings always start from within. My secret hopes, deeply buried like ancient treasures, rise to the surface for some, shall we say, “dusting off”. And all the hopes I already had, the resolutions I made from a month ago that have already fallen to the way side, get a second chance at getting back on the grind.

I doubt our sleep tonight will be getting interrupted by any fireworks. But even if it were, then I hope to be shaken out of any cynicism, and remember to see the lights go boom.

Granted

Day 27, 500 words, 31 days.

“One of the things that happens when you give yourself permission to start writing is that you start thinking like a writer. You start seeing everything as material.” – Anne Lamott

This morning I had a cup of coffee at the nearby Starbucks with a new friend, a writer, though he is many other things as well. In short, he practices a far healthier diet than I do, and he also has a lot to say about grace.

We probably could have talked for many hours. I think it takes a writer to ask another what it is that he likes to write, or what it is she enjoys reading for the conversation to sound natural and not like a blind date. So we exchanged resources – people who we’ve read recently, people who we should give a try, writing we consider interesting, and so forth.

It was refreshing, to say the least, to chum it up with someone about books, over a decent Americano.

I asked him who else he had known who writes, and he mentioned one other fellow, another parent at my wife’s school, who’s written several books. Unsurprisingly, they, too, are friends. That’s two other people who fancy themselves writerly and have even managed to publish their own work.

The third who I know – me – well, he’s working on it.

The quote I included above, is another inconspicuous gem of a line from Bird by Bird. I don’t consider it her most quotable of quotes, but it belongs in the second paragraph of the first page whose corner I actually leafed. I promised myself I’d never do that again and rely instead on free bookmarks I collect at coffee shops, but this one deserved a leafing. A permanent crease on the corner, the kind made when the intention is to return to it, over and over.

The first word that popped out to me is “permission”.

I had never considered it that way before – as if the venture of writing deserved a formal granting of passage. I just always thought some people did it because they couldn’t see themselves doing anything else.

To be fair, that’s actually an incredibly romantic idea, though perhaps a bit, limiting. It flies in the face of believing “one can do all things”, and yet, it is the very foundation of the mantra many hold, in which they believe they are pursuing what they are “destined to do”.

If it’s possible to subscribe to both ways of thinking – I would. But regardless of reasons behind why writers write, I’m fast approaching that part where I start to ask how to begin.

Frankly, I haven’t even fully sorted the “why” part. I was telling my friend today, and then, another friend later (and perhaps too many friends, with whom I am now divulging my little dream), that I just love stories, and I have a natural way of putting together words. Now, before that sounds absolutely pompous, let me just say, I didn’t mean it as a declaration of inherent greatness. I only mean to say, I’ve always found comfort in expressing myself this way, the written way, and that, I just can’t explain.

So for me, maybe it’s a little bit about doing one of the few things I feel I can do, and it’s also a little bit about doing something that I love.

I read something recently on that as well – and the writer gave a fairly nuanced summation of why people ought, not, to bash the idea of pursuing what one loves. The way I gathered it, as long as the lover tempered her expectations for her muse, she ought to pursue her muse with purest fervor and most dedicated resilience.

The mystery of this whole endeavor is the quality about it that feels like the closest thing I’ve ever felt to “calling” – as if it was one of the few options that actually made sense, amidst the myriad of options that make so little of it.

It’s not like I “chose” to like writing. I suppose I just always have.

It’s not like running, which I’m hoping to like, choosing to do, and feeling vehemently opposed to, most the time.

There aren’t many other things I enjoy doing, purely for it’s own sake. This is the case, so far, before it ever becomes something more than an everyday hobby. I pray the moment, if I’m ever so fortunate, that this ever resembled the makings of a career – I do hope to God, I enjoy it just as much then. Despite the many, many torn up drafts, bad reviews, and clever critics ready to rip me apart.

Despite all the good and bad that has yet to come, I hope only to give myself permission – that free, undeserved pass – just to continue.

Fish Paste

Day 26, 500 words, 31 days.

It was a short list of things to get at the Lebuh Campbell wet market this morning – prawns, ‘Nian Gao’ – a chewy, glutinous rice cake, and fish paste. Shuli is preparing a meal to celebrate Chinese New Year, and chances are, getting these ingredients is going to be the bulk of my responsibility. I’m just going to take up precious real estate in the kitchen, so I took my job this morning quite seriously.

The first thing I realized upon arriving was that I had gotten there a little too late. It is after all a “morning market”, and 11:00 am is pushing it. I’ve never been to the market before so I wouldn’t really know what it looked like when it is actually busy. But when the market is half-empty and people are taking a nap inside, it’s not looking very promising.

I approached the man selling what looked like the closest thing to fish paste. He had these containers of different sauce-like ingredients. In my defense, they had a paste-y, spread-y sort of quality to them and it looked like my best bet, considering all the other options, which were none. I asked if he had fish paste and he pointed toward the street. I misread and thought he was pointing at his friend right behind him. I asked her, and as I should have known, she pointed toward the street.

Things weren’t looking good. I went over the shrimp guy, the only one still working in the market, and I didn’t even know how to order prawns. I couldn’t remember what measurement for weight they used here in Penang, and even if I did, I didn’t know how much I needed to get. He made things easy for me though, and said he was out of prawns.

Which threw me off, because I was looking at the prawns as I was standing there.

He must have meant that they were no good. Or that they were done selling – which maybe meant the ones before me didn’t make the cut. The reject pile of prawns. If so, then he was doing me a favor. He offered me a box of frozen prawns instead, but I politely declined.

I went out on the street, looking for whatever vendors were still selling. First vendor at the corner had some shrimp. 30 ringgit for a kilo, which looked a little too much for what Shuli needed them for (spring rolls), so I went for half the amount at half the price. One down.

Two stalls down, I found the “Nian Gao”. Three-fifty ringgit for one; they were quite large, so I got six. Two down.

The fish paste was another story. I went up and down the street looking for a little container with some grey, mushy-looking material inside. That’s all I had to go on. Unfortunately for me, however, no one on the street had any idea what I was asking for.

“Fish paste?”, I kept repeating, desperately. “Do you know if anyone has ‘fish paste’?”, like it was the end of the world and to survive, I needed some extra Omega-3 to go with a sandwich.

I got creative. “‘Ikan’…spread…? You know…” followed by the most ambiguous hand motions I could’ve come up with. My hand looked like I was in the middle of an impassioned speech, imploring these vendors for a most precious paste of fish.

No luck. I found a glimmer of hope at one stall that looked similar to the one inside the market, with the funky sauces. I asked again for fish paste, hoping they had a secret stash in the van, or something. To my delight, they said they did, and the vendor lady asked if I wanted it sour or Indian-style. Hoping not to be offensive, I asked for “sour” and the guy with her proceeded to scoop out a little bit of everything from each container. It dawned upon me quickly, that this wasn’t at all what I was looking for. Then she asked me if I knew how to cook it – though she smiled in a way to say she already knew the answer. She told me I needed to fry it, with oil.

That cost me 1 ringgit.

I felt defeated, so I spent another ringgit. On my favorite grass jelly drink some guy up the street was selling out of his cart. He served it to me in a glass – and I felt like a weary cowboy, seeking some shade from the hot sun and a cold drink at a bar. I figured it didn’t hurt to ask one more person if he knew where I could get fish paste, so I asked the grass jelly guy after I chugged the glass.

Of course, he hardly had any idea what I was asking, and naturally, I too, could barely make out what he was telling me. But I appreciated the effort, and I couldn’t blame him for at least trying.

But hey, two out of three ain’t bad. Shuli will just have to improvise, and I trust her more with that, than I do, myself getting fish paste.

Restless Rambling

Day 25, 500 words, 31 days.

I’m precisely in one of those ruts that I hate being in when I’m about to write.

The kind of hole that got a little too comfortable to climb out of – so I just peak out above and assess whether I’m missing all that much.

This week I’ve managed to schedule a few meetings with a nice variety of people – today I met up again with my friend that owns a cafe, Jason. Prior to that I had a video chat with someone all the way out in New York regarding the magazine I help out with. Tomorrow I check in with my colleagues at On Field Media – the photo/video professionals of our little outfit. Thursday I meet up with a former minister turned writer turned web design specialist, but I might be wrong about that order.

Those are the most interesting parts of my days I tend to look forward to.

The most restful are when I’m with my wife, and my cats. Unless my wife is in a cleaning mood, then it isn’t quite relaxing for either of us. But the cats keep things light. Especially the boy. Miles is his own unique kind of cat.

The most stressful are when I’m alone, working.

When I’m actually in a productive groove and I’ve filled the hours of my day by going on a multi-tasking spree and multiple tabs open on several windows, and multiple users, on the same computer – that’s when I stress myself out.

Granted, it isn’t all bad. I get things done, and despite my blood curdling beneath my skin, there’s this tangible sort of reward I feel inside which tends to follow the whole “blood, sweat, and tears” part associated with actual, hard work.

The most restless are when I’m alone, and not working. When I’m thinking about all the things I have yet to do and haven’t done. The things I have failed to do and should have done. And the things I want to do, and have little idea how to go about doing.

I’m sure that’s some sort of twisted version of that famous St. Francis quote, but that’s really how I feel, despite his, likely, sore disapproval from the heavens.

That’s the rut that I’m in.

When my day isn’t inspired by people I respect or care about, or when my day isn’t the constant churning out of decently acceptable work, I often find myself having this last sort of a day – the unbelievably restless kind when I’m up later than I should be, and re-regretting things I stopped regretting when I first figured out that I probably shouldn’t have.

Case in point, a little earlier I started thinking about the first “media”-type position I ever held, back in New York City, when I was an intern for a non-profit think tank on race and politics. My job, literally, was to copy and paste URL links and sum them up into two or three sentence news bits (bites?). On good days, I actually worked outside of the office, shooting pictures. Actually capturing my own stories. I felt I was on the right track.

Fast forward to a year and a half later, as I was moving across the country to the Bay Area, on the verge of taking on a different sort of non-profit gig serving homeless youth. Absolutely noble cause – and also a clear departure from what it was I had first set out to do. It was the right choice at the time, perhaps, as was working for free in New York (OK, maybe not the latter).

And yet, I catch myself some days still wondering what if I had stayed on? What if I just took the same media job, pro bono, but did it in California? It’s not like the opportunity wasn’t there. I just decided at that time, that I no longer wanted it.

That decision kills me. Especially these late evenings. Enough that I feel a slow twisting of a blade lodged deep into my self-esteem.

And yet – minus being with my wife, I’m not sure anything after would have panned out quite the same way. I wouldn’t have learned about my own misgivings regarding the non-profit world, if I didn’t do the non-profit world. I may not have ever decided to jump ship towards social entrepreneurship if I felt perfectly content making no money and telling stories. Had I never done that, I may not have ever figured out that I’m not the most naturally business savvy person after all, though I still wish I were…

Which leads me to believe that, had I never decided to stop doing what I was doing, I would have never learned what I shouldn’t be doing.

And then, two things, now come to mind.

First, maybe I would have arrived at some of these conclusions anyway – that spreadsheets are personally painful to me, that even the most well-meaning people end up doing terrible, inconsiderate things, and that working for free, for a long time, really stinks. Maybe I didn’t need to have to try shooting for the moon with so many things to learn that. Maybe if I just stuck to that one thing…

Second, maybe none of it was in vain.

Maybe I had to experience all of that, the immense heartache, the throbbing mental confusion, the cheap bag lunches and barely-there dinners.

But alas, I’m on the fence. Confounded by two different lenses trying to focus on the same thing – the past. It’s late and I get this way when it’s late. I also get this way when something new introduced itself. The unexpected throws me all out of whack. I could be in for a big change in my routine soon, and frankly, even if I weren’t, I’m probably due for one, anyway.

Because it’s time I stopped letting myself get so damn restless. It is, quite possibly, the worst thing I could do.

On Grit

Day 24, 500 words, 31 days.

On my wife’s Facebook wall today, I came across an interesting article that unpacked the importance of a particular quality in becoming successful at what you do.

Grit.

The article couldn’t have been more timely. There are just several days left until this writing project officially comes to a close and while my restlessness makes for numerous ideas floating about in the mysterious space between my ears, it doesn’t always translate into actual material.

I mean, good, worthwhile, storytelling material.

Some days are like, today.

Nothing particularly eventful or interesting, just a day in which I let myself languish for the sake of “recuperating” after a draining week. I got my coffee at the usual spot, had a nice, long conversation with my friend, the owner, came home and putzed around for half the day, looked up airline flights I can’t afford, picked up my wife at school, and then we got groceries, fries, and some porridge. That about sums it up.

For several days, I had more than enough to work with – the rapid pace of traveling and unfortunate twists and turns that made our trip far more an adventure than it was projecting to be – that made for some decently compelling stuff. I could barely keep my eyes open to write, but I had more than enough to get down on paper before my body shut down for good.

Today, I’m struggling. I’ll admit it right now.

I suppose like any story, this project, too, has a beginning, middle and end. And within that trajectory there are rising things and falling things. There’s excitement, and then, there isn’t. There’s suspense, and then there’s the pending resolution. It’s, for moments, mostly interesting, and then, clearly, not at all.

Right now is one of those dips in the plot arc that the reader, you, might be trying to avoid before you sink into a quicksand called boredom.

It’s one of those days when the only thing that motivates me is what I said I’d do from the very beginning – to stay the course, and finish.

There are moments, long, arduous, baking-under-the-sun sort of moments, when the well runs empty, and the well was the only thing I dreamed about reaching so I could stop panting.

That article I read described “grit” as

“the ability to sustain interest and effort to complete long-term goals”

. I wasn’t completely satisfied with that description so I turned to the dictionary, and it gave me something a little more uplifting.

Grit, noun. Firmness of character; indomitable spirit; pluck.

My favorite of those is “pluck”. That’s the sort of word that wins you games in Scrabble. But the first definition was probably the most heartening.

I needed to hear that grit referred to character. It is the quality you could equate to tenacity. Mettle. Internal fortitude.

In my particular case, it’s precisely the sort of steadfastness I was praying for when I decided I’d start writing – everyday.

To be fair, there are far more things for which this quality of grit could serve an even greater use. Life and death sort of matters, like, well, life and death. Like war. Or championship matches. Or a most riveting game of Scrabble.

To consider how much grit I need to stay the course on a daily writing project that’s about to end might sound a tad overdramatic. And it is. But if I didn’t attribute to this cause so much importance, if I didn’t feel the weight of not finishing bear down on my shoulders like a biblical yoke – well, then I wouldn’t bother finishing at all. In fact, I’d have stopped a long time ago, long before things ever got mildly interesting.

I’d have stopped on a day like today, and I have many of them, believe me.

But I haven’t. I’m proud of that. I’m also foolish and naive and scared everything I’ve written here is the most self-absorbed rambling I’ve ever coughed up in my life.

But I’m glad I have a little bit of that grit. Just enough to last a few more days maybe. So long as I finish, I’ll know there’s more than just wandering thoughts stirring the little engine inside.

Refreshed

Day 23, 500 words, 31 days.

Yesterday was my first full day back in Penang. I was absolutely exhausted from the long work days and the brutal red-eye flights to and from India. Not to mention the whole fiasco about our luggage, which sapped whatever remaining energy I might have had in reserve. Needless to say, it was an absolute joy to crash on my own bed and have a legitimate excuse not to get up.

I had a few hours to re-charge before my next booking – and thank God it wasn’t for work at all. This was purely because I genuinely love storytelling, and not merely because I love teaching how to tell them.

Despite still feeling drained, my wife and I made it over to the Tropfest Film Festival, which boasts itself as the largest short film festival in the world. To our absolute delight, the entire event was free, which, like the Georgetown Literary Festival we attended a month earlier, made it precisely up our alley.

I knew things were off to a terrific start when a funky, pop-jazz fusion band from Indonesia (that’s the best way I could describe it) took the stage before the film screenings. The band also had a terrific name – White Shoes and the Couples Company. They had a look and sound that harkened back to the 50s and 60s, falling somewhere in between swinging jazz and surfer rock, and somehow it worked.

Shuli and I had lain out our straw mat on the open field like most in attendance. It had a bit of a Woodstock-feel to it, on a much, much smaller scale. It was such a relaxing way to return to Malaysia, striking that fine balance of seeking out that which was both familiar – which for us, was venturing to this part of town – and unknown – which was camping out for an outdoor film screening, without having any expectations as to how good the films actually were.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not that I had such low expectations – the 12 films they selected were all the finalists, after all. I won’t go into describing the films here. They were all unique stories, weaving in both universal themes like love, loss, and family, while involving hyper-local elements to their stories – the dialects spoken, ethnicities represented, and of course, the food. In their case – rice, especially. “Rice” had anchored the overarching theme for the film itself, and submitting filmmakers were tasked to incorporate rice, however loosely, into their story.

Fittingly, the film actually entitled “Rice”, by a first-time director named Sothea Ines from Cambodia took home the grand prize. She was completely shocked and overwhelmed. It was so refreshing watching her look so stunned at winning, almost as though she had completely written off her own chances until proven otherwise. She couldn’t help but share again and again how it was her first time doing a project like the one she submitted, not to reinforce how incredible her work was for a beginner, but with the sort of humility that comes with someone not yet ready for praise.

That was one of the lasting impressions I had from the festival – seeing Ms. Ines win. And “Rice” really was a terrific short, shot as a black and white, silent film featuring local, non-professional actors. The backdrop of the film was the era of the Khmer Rouge, but the story actually revolved around some village boys and stolen rice.

The other thing I felt incredibly proud about was that out of the 12 films submitted, three of them were either shot in the Philippines or directed by Filipino filmmakers. A little disclaimer here, I didn’t care much for whether any of the three won the entire festival. I was just glad they even made the cut. The three films were all dramatically different from one another, too – one explored the hilarious dynamic between a niece and and auntie, one was a glorified music video using rice as an instrument, and another, which I thought could have won, revolved around an old lady preparing for her own death.

I wanted the best storyteller to win, yes – but I’m excited to see Filipino filmmakers that are creative enough and brave enough to try and leave their mark in international cinema.

Especially in a country like Malaysia, wherein the stereotypical idea about Filipinos has everything to do with us being servants. There’s no shame in that life, and yet, it isn’t the only life Filipinos yearn for, either. We are a proud people, and intimately aware of adversity. The endurance of such hardship produces a multitude of stories that Filipinos the world over can attest to, and tell themselves. These are the stories that define us, far better than what the average employers might have been bargaining for. So I’m glad there was a platform like Tropfest for some of those to be seen and heard.

Finally, I left the festival as though my own creative energy had been replenished. After the week I had working in India, I was noticing that my own writing was beginning to suffer – not just in the regularity with which I was doing it, but in the quality and freshness of what I had to say. I could only muster up so much material from traveling to and from the airport.

I needed the reminder that the journey is really the reward for creative people. It’s well worth getting started, and just staying on. Many of the filmmakers were just, genuinely, happy to be there. After it was all said and done, all the filmmakers gathered around in the center of the stage, flanked the three prize winners, and started jumping up and down like they had all equally won.

Just seeing how singularly-focused and committed they were to their stories, and then flying in from different parts of the world and having their little films projected on a big screen in front of thousands of people, it’s safe to assume, that they all, in fact, were winners.

Parts, Still Unknown

Day 22, 500 words, 31 days.
Kolkata terminal

I’m beat.

I still don’t understand how sitting around all day can feel so exhausting, and yet, I feel absolutely drained after doing so. Granted, I’ve commuted to and from the airport, three times in five days and I haven’t had a regular night’s sleep for an entire week, thanks in part to a jolly bunch of young folks next door whose idea of a good time was precisely the opposite of mine. (Screaming at the top of your lungs at three in the morning to American top 40 hits doesn’t particularly cater well to my liking, but they thought surely otherwise)

Maybe in large part, due to those things, on top of staring at a screen the entire day, I have legitimate reason to feel as tired as I do.

We’re on a red-eye flight to Kuala Lumpur and I’m looking forward to some serious shut-eye on the plane, provided I’m not seated next to a sick baby or a prolific snorer. This signals the end of our time here in India, and while we’ve endured our share of unforeseen, “surprises”, this week, I’m grateful to have even been here at all. To finally be able to say I’ve set foot in this remarkably unique country and share stories with its people makes it fully worth the time spent, and wasted, here.

Truth be told, I’ve only scratched the surface of what I could have possibly experienced here. I was here to work, after all, and like most work-trips, I make the assumption that I’m spending most of my trip at the hotel.

Yesterday, however, was the exception.

After making over a dozen calls to reach anybody that had information about our lost luggage, I finally got through to an agent in KL, who nonchalantly explained to me that our bags had actually been sent on the next flight after ours, on the 21st.

We could have had our stuff, the entire week.

But since we couldn’t get a hold of them by phone and we weren’t informed when and where we should pick up our luggage, or that it was in Kolkata at all, it took having to concertedly track them down and take an entire day off from our actual work to get our things back.

After lunch, one of our workshop participants was gracious enough to accompany me all the way to the airport. Had he not, I probably would have never made it out there.

Negotiating a reasonable cab fare felt a lot like pulling teeth. The cab driver appeared fully determined to squeeze us dry of whatever rupees we were carrying. Meanwhile, we had to convince him it was worth his time to take us all the way to the airport in the middle of the day, without having him completely succeed in taking all our money. My friend managed to get him to settle on a price a little less than standard fare – whatever standard fare actually is here. So, we were on our way.

Upon arriving at the airport, I immediately witnessed the sort of uncompromising bureaucracy people who move here like to mention when sharing their plentiful experiences in getting simple things done. In our case, I already knew our bags were here. It was just a matter of finding the right person to get it to us.

First, we had to pay a visit to the “airport manager” – a man of emotion as varied as that of a tree trunk. He barely even bothered to look at us. It felt a little bit like confession, without the screen in between parishioner and priest. My friend and I pleaded my case, hoping he had the authority to override whatever system there was in place that prevented people from getting their own bags once they arrive at the airport, because clearly there was one. His explanation was more of a command really, “Come back at 9:30.” Again, and again, it was “Come back at 9:30.”.

We got a little creative. This fast-thinking buddy of mine politely (and how he managed to stay relatively polite is incredible) asked that we get connected to the Air Asia customer service centre in Kolkata, which wasn’t actually located at the airport.

Man of Few Words gave us the phone number and from that one call, we found out that the Air Asia staff wouldn’t be getting in until 6:30, but he’d request that they arrive an hour earlier than that.

It was around 3pm. Waiting around at the airport was better than fighting with a cabbie to go back, and then hopping on a taxi again a few hours later.

Since the security guards wouldn’t let anyone in without any boarding passes (at the gate, mind you), we ended up at a cafe across the arrival hall on the other side of the street. My friend had a Sprite, I had an overpriced Chai, and we had the longest conversation either of us were expecting to have with one another – two natural introverts thrust into this debacle together and trying to stay calm by having more caffeine.

In fairness to my friend – he was actually, completely calm.

Me, I couldn’t help but wonder the worst, over and over again, which was, that the security guards would never let us in, wouldn’t find someone to help us, and would send us on our way, or keep telling us to come back at 9:30, because it was the meanest thing they could possibly do.

After sitting in the same seats for three hours, we had picked up some fun facts about one another. He, an engineer by trade, was happy to explain how the face masks his business distribute reduce one’s exposure to dangerous toxicity levels in the air. Me, whose trade is the farthest thing from that of an engineer’s, happily nodded in complete agreement.

Time passed a lot faster than I had anticipated, and when we finally decided to make another call to check if the right Air Asia guy was around to get us our luggage, the right guy did come along soon after, bags in hand, an apology offered, and an excuse ready – when I had to ask what in the world happened.

——————————————

That evening, we walked from our hotel to the new mall that was erected nearby. It took us about 20 minutes to get there, though we could have cut the time in half had we not taken strolled slowly. For all the hustle Kolkata is ready to rub in your face, it was a nice change to actually be on foot and witness how the locals unravel in the evening.

I watched old men gather around with chai tea in tiny clay cups, while young boys hugged and fought and zipped around the narrowest of alleys and busiest of streets. There were large, boiling vats of green and yellow curries I couldn’t muster up the courage to try, and skewered, charred sticks of Tandoori chicken that I wish I had.

Meanwhile, the traffic could not have been more congested, and it felt like a game I would eventually lose, sneaking around and in between cars swerving and careening around pedestrians and stray dogs. It’s one thing to be in a cab that is wildly zooming from point A to point B. It’s a whole other experience to avoid such cabs, going both directions, while on foot. Suffice it to say, wherever I could make out a sidewalk, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Of course, traveling with two Caucasian colleagues will inevitably draw attention that I almost never have to deal with to the same extent, anywhere I go. Mine is a face far too ambiguous to place, in a place where there are a million other brown faces vying for attention. Neighborhood kids would flank around Matt and Nate with curious stares and honest, albeit at times, odd, questions. They handle that all with a fair amount of grace.

Walking through a neighborhood in Kolkata brought about, in equal parts, the true grit and chaos I’ve come to expect, along with a surprising vivacity and warmth that I fail to acknowledge whenever my thoughts get warped by my own suspicion.

Chances are, they are equally as suspicious of us.

For really long stretches, we looked to be the only “Americans” around, and by that, I only mean two of us who actually looked the part. I can only imagine it appearing a little strange, our trio of Westerners stealthily snapping mobile photos of their neighborhood.

But in spite of that, those stolen moments of smiles we exchanged between strangers would leave a deeper impression upon me than the gruff, curt kind of response we would receive from those just trying to get by, here, while we were at the mercy of their service.

I can’t speak for my colleagues on how they perceived such contradicting responses from the locals – at times an over-the-top hospitality, and at others, an uncompromising commitment to keeping to the bureaucracy of rules, despite the inconvenience it does to their visitors.

For myself, the least I can do is embrace the ambiguity that comes with being a foreigner. For everything I was told about Kolkata, and Indian society as a whole, beforehand and during this trip, all I can truly trust was what I had experienced myself.

And frankly, it was still very little. There is so much about Kolkata, about India, that I won’t, can’t, begin to cover. Not yet anyway.

I just know that if there were a next time, I’d take it – with a securely covered nose and mouth, and eyes wide open to see everything, for all that is beautiful and broken about this place.

(This entry took an entire day to write, as I’ve been in transit and finally reached Penang a little over an hour ago. It’s been a long trip, and I just needed to get this out there, before I forget.)