On the practice of gratitude

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald

( The quote isn’t for you. It’s for me. This article is also for me, but you are free to come along for the ride. )

One of the things that I’m learning to practice is gratitude. For me, I’ve always been made acutely aware of my privilege in life. At school, and in my early teen years, most of the people I was friends with came from a background that was significantly different than mine, and this distinction is an aspect of my experiences with other people that have shaped the way I feel about day to day life. I think this knowledge of my own privilege has a tendency to make me feel guilt/shame, and in my daily interactions with service people, I tend to feel bad that I rarely feel gratitude for my life in general. It’s also made me a bit wary of talking about my “problems”, as with certain company, it just feels that it’s going to come across in a certain way, from their perspective. I’ve certainly felt shameful and a certain contemptuous envy on occasion, for the comforts of my life, and when it happens I certainly feel a deep sense of shame. I’m aware that envy is a small price to pay for having comforts in life. But while my life isn’t based on a need to live from hand to mouth, the abstraction of the so called “problems” of my life tends to make the experience of my life very lonely.

it isn’t really that healthy to feel shame about the way I am, and I’ve been learning to practice gratitude for two reasons. One, as a better reflex to the same I feel, and two, to have better mental health. I’ve been perusing through some articles on gratitude, and it does seem to help in this regard.

It’s definitely a challenge for myself, to try and reverse the momentum of unhappiness by trying to think of things to be grateful for- it seems eerily close to the perversity of hollow advice such as “Think Positive!” etc etc, that makes me want to kick the teeth of whoever’s dispensing of such a pithy and thoughtless set of words, and I think the reflex is to think of gratitude and it’s practice as something that’s simply not going to work.

I’ve been trying to explore, on my own, the concept of gratitude, and the reason why, on a very basal level, it doesn’t feel instinctually right to use as a coping tool for me to use. Perhaps it’s because the concept of gratitude can imply a sense of feeling that I “should” feel gratitude. i.e, that gratitude is something that I should feel, and if I don’t feel gratitude, then something is wrong with me. At this current point in time, I’m trying to think of gratitude as the aspects of my circumstances that I can interpret as positive- eg. “spending time with my family, watching a good movie, having a good conversation” and simply take stock of these things, regardless of how I might feel for those things at the present time. I think it’s very similar to the concept of “equanimity”, which is both a philosophical concept and the title of an awesome special by Dave Chappelle. I’ll rather not get into tiresome semantics, so I’ll just say that if its a tool that I can use to bring me a better peace of mind, it is worth exploring.

I often spend a great deal of time within myself, and I become more aware of the fact that I do this when I’m around other people- it’s incredibly easy for me to feel disengaged, for me to want to carry on a conversation in my head instead of with the people around me. Ironically enough, a great deal of thinking has to be done for me to figure out whether or not this is a good/bad thing, or the reason why this has a tendency to happen, but I think the practice of gratitude, while requiring a certain distance and internal examination, might actually help me be able to make a conscious choice to spend less time inside my head, when I’m around other people.

That’s really all for now. As for what goes on inside my head, the very idea of disclosure brings about its own set of entangled emotions. That’s an interesting conversation, one that I hope to have with someone in the future. ( Probably with my therapist )

Stray Thoughts on human loneliness

Non sequitur, but it’s fun to look at the profile of a stranger from the back, and wait for them to turn around to compare their appearance to my expectations.
I often have had difficulties throughout the years of being disappointed with the behaviour of others towards me. I think there’s a struggle between learning to be more forgiving of behaviour that’s deemed unacceptable from my perspective, and accepting that sometimes it’s better to keep a certain distance from that person.
What I yearn for is often within 
What is within my control
Expectations and frustrations of adult relationships- part of that frustration is that certain things I feel that I have control over might possibly be out of my control, and the doubt over which is which is the thing that keeps me awake at night. Fear- that either my model of human interaction is wrong or people ( at least the once I’ve encountered ) have the propensity to be unacceptable to me. 
Adult interaction: Smiling and nodding, while thinking, “I want to go home.”
Adult relationships- I think work-life balance is a key factor in whether we can afford to present ourselves as gracious or not. When I get annoyed by a sour faced waiter that I am polite to, perhaps I should examine ( or be grateful for ) the fact that I have the energy to present myself to be grateful. It’s much harder for the possibly overworked waiter to practice politeness, than it is for me. But then again, he might just be a shitty human being regardless, but even if that was the case, that’s a whole new vista of things to mull over. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s easier to tell people to go fuck themselves.
And lastly, thanks for reading!
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Anxiety

 

Siedlung Nachts II, Markus Matthias Krüger

Only much later, when I moved out west and became what is known in sociological convention as a working adult, would I realise the actual trauma of my interactions with my then neighbour, Mr. Johnson. He was what I would describe as an older man who lived two doors down from my childhood home, which was one of many sui-generis single family detached houses which were targeted at the lower to middle income groups of middle aged people working in the city.It was not at all clear what Mr.Johnson did for a living, if he did anything at all. On reflection, it was this mystery which compounded my fears of him, which was not at all a fear of him as a person, but rather more a fear of encountering scenarios where I had to interact with my neighbours, socially speaking. There wasn’t anything particularly frightening about Mr.Johnson, who was in retrospective, about as benign as the rest of our neighbours such as Mrs.Lenora Weston, who would kiss me on the cheeks when I attended the Sunday Morning Mass every weekend with my parents. The problem was that Mr.Johnson was particularly adept at remaining completely still at the peripheral end of my vision when I walked westwards past his driveway on the way to my school each morning, every day, even when the appropriate customary greetings of waving hello were exchanged and acknowledged, as is the default greeting at these sort of distances in small town neighbourhoods. I would wave and he would acknowledge me by raising his left arm upwards, in a manner which I can only describe as very deliberately. After which I refused to look at him directly further. It was usually at this point in which I would see Mr.Johnson proceeding to stand in a manner which appeared to be complete stillness in the periphery of my vision, which even in the corner of my left eye appeared to be a complete and eerie preoccupation with my action of walking past his driveway in the early morning. The street was usually quiet at this time of day, given that I lived in an area well known for hosting the suburban demographics of families who would leave early for work until the late afternoon of the day, but even then his preoccupation with my walking seemed to be unexplainable. It seemed unthinkable back then to even approach Mr.Johnson with the question of his preoccupation, even if I was armed with the appropriately innocuous interrogatives that we learn in conflict management in the social minefields of the, colloquially speaking, adult word. My strategy, that I had developed back then and turned out to be unsustainable, was to avoid Mr.Johnson’s house entirely by going to school via the opposite end of the driveway, in which I would cross diagonally past the houses on the opposite end of my home, and then cut across the rows of houses and then crossing back diagonally again to the corresponding end of the street. The problem with this strategy was that it would cause me to be consistently late for school, forcing me to further encounter adults that would behave with the classically moralistic behaviour of false anger, with the intentions of teach children the puritanical idea of punctuality but ended up, for me, anyway, to further entrench the notion of social anxiety of ur-authorial figures that would take an entire summer of therapy on the second floor of a barbershop in the consulting room of Dr. Jennifer P. Marcuse’s office, which was complete with the appropriately dim lighting of therapeutic offices and furnished with the classic two position recliner that was the custom back then of therapists offices in the midwest.

If that’s the way it is

this article is slated to appear on the website, https://thetapestryproject.sg

The Japanese word, “Sayonara”, translates literally into the phrase, “If that’s the way it is”. The phrase, for me, evokes a sense of something both unsettling and final. Perhaps it’s a sad sense of acceptance that some things that were, will never be again.

I’ve been thinking of people who I am unlikely to see again, for various different reasons. Some I haven’t seen since as far back as 15 years. In the Summer of 2003, I had a weeklong stay in camp organised by a drama school, that took place at the YWCA near Fort Canning. I pass by that building on occasion, and I can still remember the dread and anxiety that I felt on the first day in the hotel’s lobby. I was very socially anxious as a child, and my schooling years were very lonely. ( My memories of my schooling years posses that lonely quality that’s present in dreams involving other people ) By the end of that week, however, I surprised myself by experiencing a rare sense of belonging, of not feeling alienated. On the last day, we each sat in a circle and wrote each other messages on paper plates that we passed around. After everyone had written down nice things on each other’s plates, I got back my plate, and for the first time ever, got written confirmation that there were indeed some very nice things about me that other people noticed. I still get chills thinking about it, and I still have that plate, of course. It’s probably the oldest thing I own. ( Besides my namesake )

At the end, we said our farewells, and I never saw any of them again. I probably never will, and even if I passed them on the street or sat down next to any of them on the train, we would probably not recognise each other. I still do think of them. I think of what they might look like now, 15 years older, and I think of how their lives must be, and what their hopes and dreams must look like. Then, that familiar sadness and yearning comes back, and I begin to think of other people I haven’t seen in a long while.

It’s all too human to yearn for things. We’ve all had to say goodbye, and sometimes not amicably. Sometimes, a bad quarrel might end a friendship. Sometimes, people quietly drift away without a hint of a reason. And arguably, sometimes that quiet drifting can hurt much more than a loud quarrel. With friends that say “I’m busy”, far too often, we ( or at least I ), feel hurt by that uncertainty- we have the added weight of being unsure whether or not to be bitter, and we feel let down, sometimes by people we thought we could count on.
Reading this, you are probably thinking of your own experiences with people, and how difficult some of these experiences and friendships can be. All kinds of relationships have the capacity to hurt us, with all its complications- and sometimes people we care about deeply can unexpectedly hurt us.

It might be a friend you’ve thinking of, who suddenly becomes emotionally unavailable, or perhaps someone you’ve had a misunderstanding with, and thinking of these people probably brings about pain and uncertainty- perhaps, questions too. Questions such as, “Where did I go wrong with you?” or Why are you doing this to me? I didn’t expect you to.”

If these thoughts and questions sound familiar to you, I believe it’s difficult for us not to become jaded in the face of these disappointments. When we start to care and get to know someone, it’s likely that we begin to develop a set of expectations for how that person behaves. Do note that expectations are different from demands- in this instance, I am talking about patterns of behaviour, rather than what we believe about how someone should behave. Sometimes these expectations can leave us to become jaded- perhaps someone we thought we could rely on becomes emotionally unavailable, or it might feel that there is a disproportionate amount of effort on your end to keep up the friendship.

Personally, it’s easy for me to get caught up with the insecurity that I don’t really matter to any of my friends. I’ve gone through periods of my life where I felt like no one would have ever talked to me again if I didn’t reach out first. You can expect that these thoughts can make one unhappy, and also alone, alienated from the rest of the world.

I began to wonder ( and still do ) if my expectations for others were causing me to feel disappointed. Was I asking for too much, to get a phone call or a text once in a while? In discussing human expectations with others, some people I’ve spoken to have similar expectations, and others believe that it’s not a good idea to have any expectations at all.
I’ve come to the temporary conclusion that while it is difficult not to have any expectations at all, but I believe that all of us deserve at least a chance to be understood. For that to happen, we have to become vulnerable in some capacity to other people, whether they are family, friends or people we seek out in support groups or elsewhere. This is incredibly daunting, and especially so, if you have a jaded view of people already, and this brings us back to what I believe is a truth that’s difficult to accept.

The truth is that people can be difficult and selfish and flawed- but it doesn’t exclude them from caring, and while we can experience a perceived neglect, my hope, for all of us, is for us not to be bitter in the face of uncertainty. We shouldn’t automatically assume that what’s making them selfish is easy for them to overcome. Perhaps they too are going through things that we are not privy too.

Some self disclosure here- I never liked “Chin up” style advice from people who’ve never known worse- because it’s precisely the kind of counterproductive advice to give someone that’s vulnerable . I know that you’ve probably tried hard at maintaining your relationships, and I certainly don’t wish to present what I’ve learnt in the manner of a very moralistic, preachy kind of lecture. I do agree emphatically that certain people can be, frankly speaking, toxic and unhealthy for others. I’ve experienced disappointments that shake my convictions about the value of friendship, and also healed through those very disappointments to again be hurt, and so on and so forth. My hope is that my disclosure provides some weight behind what I’m trying to say, and that it doesn’t cause you to roll your eyes. Because it isn’t easy believing in human goodness, and I don’t expect you too. But I am hoping that you’ll try.

Trombone

Usually I like to store odd or notable things I see in daily life in the back of my head for stories- but there’s just this one thing that I saw that’s too cute for me to invent around. There’s an open air parking lot that I use when I eat at MacDonalds, and I often hear the sound of a lone trombone echoing across the parking lot. This happens usually around midnight. After a few times encountering this trombone on different nights, it occured to me how odd it was, and that I should investigate. Turns out, right next to the carpark at the old bus interchange, there’s a lone trombone player, a young girl, sitting on a chair. She likes to practice late at night. It’s so surreal.

Announcing Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Three

My work is featured in this new collection by Epigram!

Jason Erik Lundberg

The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories V3

Cover design by Yong Wen Yeu


I am very proud to announce the contents and cover design for the third volume of the Best New Singaporean Short Stories anthology series, guest edited by Cyril Wong, to be published in October 2017 by Epigram Books, and launched at Kinokuniya later that month.

The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Three gathers the finest Singaporean stories published in 2015 and 2016, selected from hundreds published in journals, magazines, anthologies and single-author collections. Accompanying the stories are the editor’s preface and an extensive list of honourable mentions for further reading.

Here is the table of contents:

  1. Cyril Wong | Preface
  2. Jason Erik Lundberg | Introduction
  3. Yeo Wei Wei | These Foolish Things
  4. Yeoh Jo-Ann | The Thing
  5. Jennifer Anne Champion | See It Coming
  6. Jon Gresham | Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hill
  7. Ovidia Yu | Salvation Solution

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Fiction: My Problem

I like to think that I would be best friends with the woman at the balcony. I often see her thin silhouette, framed by the warm light of her second floor bedroom. She stands silently at the balcony as I pass by on the street below.

I like to think that she sees me as I see her, as a comrade in arms, in battle against a common enemy. We have the same problem, after all.

The streets are dark and a lit orange.

I see a great many things on my late night strolls. I once saw a man stumble out of a KTV joint, falling on the floor on his way out. Another man helped him up and led him to the driver’s seat of his car, telling him un-ironically to drive safely. I couldn’t decide which man I was more disgusted with. Perhaps if he had said it ironically, that would have been a tiebreaker for me. As if that would have redeemed him for me, somehow. I once stood outside a house, hearing a couple screaming in a language I didn’t understand. I stood there a long time, wondering if I should call the police.

What else do I see? The lazy stare of the late night shift worker at the 24 hour Seven Eleven. The headlights of a lone diesel powered van, the rattle hum of its engine trailing outwards, forever lonely. My shadow, under orange streetlights.

I see the bare feet of the shirtless man, sticking out the driver’s side window of his truck. I certainly don’t have his problems, and as I hear him snore loudly, I know he doesn’t have mine either. The curtains of the woman on the balcony are drawn as I stroll back home. The Sun’s coming up soon.
Time for bed.

An Untitled Poem

I enjoy walking into places in which
No one knows my name.
Workshops, Women’s bathrooms, the city of Paris
I’m just kidding! (I’ve never been to Paris.)
If heaven is a place on Earth,
Its the Place where I could hit the ground running
Ready to fail with false bravado
“I was in the Military”, I’ll say.
And she’ll say wow, brushing her hair back,
and I’ll smile, knowing full well
that this never meant anything back home.

Despite the excitement of being airborne,
Its only a trick of light, of rising up and touching down,
So Fasten your seatbelts
for the sudden rush of Landscape,
The print preview of the burning city.
But one gets the nagging feeling,
that its the same unthrilling thing everywhere.

I’m Out of the dark and crying in the cold
Wondering with these things
Of What would happen if I just didn’t stop
Talking, how Long would it take
For any one of you to stop me,
Because it’s true, isn’t it?

You can’t love the spotlight without also biding your time in the dark, and life’s all about being the biggest narcissist in the world . Then breaking him down. Telling him, it’s not about you. It’s not about you.
But it is about me.

Isnt it?

It’s a modern kind of anxiety, this strange, nagging need for things to be
Just- the-way- you- want- it.
Boiling down to it,
I’m forever an amateur

Which is why, of all the confrontations I’ve had,
With the plain faces and all the god damned Beauties,
It’s the one that avoids my gaze in the mirror,
more mirage than perfect image,
which is the strangest face of all

First draft life: Notes on Mental Health

It is 11.30 AM and already I feel the weight of standing up while lying down.

Every non-well-adjusted person knows this feeling. The unseizable day.

Everything on a bad day feels like a first draft of something else. There’s a sense of being unwoken, though my eyes are open, I am numb. If you understand, you’ve probably have days like that too.

I was supposed to be in therapy today, but I decided to lie in bed instead, watching old clips of Mad Men on Youtube. It wasn’t that I did not have the energy to go, it was that I didn’t want to. Ironically, I find therapy least effective when I am most unhappy. When I am most unhappy, I often find myself not wanting to talk to anyone at all. For the afflicted, you probably identify with this too.

Therapy is a hell of a lot like speed dating. I’ve sat on a great many sofas, couches, waiting rooms with certificates and answered many, many leading questions. I’ve been on a carousel of medication, from Ritalin to Xanax to Wellbutrin etc…

So far, everything has worked half heartedly. Therapy is very abstract, with its countless acronyms and structures and worksheets. On some days, to be asked leading questions for a good period of an hour and to feel that the therapist does not “get it” is frustrating.

There are days where my heart is inscrutable, like a still and vast ocean. Other days it feels as though my will is balanced on something infinitely small and precarious. It makes me angry.

There are, thankfully, good days too. On those days I might feel fascination with an article, a tv show or a good book. I enjoy a good conversation, or the company of my friends.

I was very impressed with Bruce Springsteen’s quotes on depression, which he has suffered from. Article Here. He wrote that “you don’t know the illness parameters.”

Its very true. Depression has many angles of attack. Some days it feels like a stifling boredom, other days an existential despair. In its harshest form it becomes a self imposed exile on Life via suicide.

Therapy, I feel, is very often a conflict between the values of the therapist and the client. There really are no “silver bullets” to things, whether you look at philosophy, psychology or psychiatry. In fact, the many interconnecting and sometimes conflicting views provide great anxiety.

Sometimes all we need is for someone to tell us, ” You aren’t okay. And that’s okay.”

 

Depressionland: Notes on Mental Health

Memory is the great denominator of experience. It’s what we use to construct the narratives about ourselves- who we were, who we are and how we got here.

My best memories are those in which I am in good company, and it is those memories that have the most nostalgia to them. People come and go, drift for many reasons, and those memories bring the sense of life as something constantly fleeting. A sense that brings about within me some pain and yearning.

The newest memories are the least abstract- it is always the old ones that are the oddest, the ones from childhood that come sepia toned, that come from the lens of a different, younger self.

It is hard to identify with this younger self- the one that would have been content to come home from school and plug in the Guitar Hero set and play fake guitar for a couple of hours.

I remember being happy at meeting new people in Poly, and being extra happy when someone noticed by presence in one way or another.

The older self is afraid that he will spend the rest of his days lacking human meaning. ( Which would look like? Self fulfilment? Which would look like? Who knows? Not Me.)

It’s a bit fuzzy now how many years I’ve struggled with depression. It feels like 4, which is quite a scary number to say. I was never particularly happy. I struggle with finding meaning and purpose, and I struggle with it every single day. The day to day banalities of human life has a difficult weight to it. It’s a difficult thing to talk about even with trained professionals, and that difficulty makes existence on occasion, very lonely.

Early in 2015, I dropped out of school. I did not feel good about myself. I would cross the overhead bridge from school and visualise throwing myself off it. I would go to class and fantasize just throwing myself full force into the windowpane and falling into the street below.

I eventually returned to pursue my studies elsewhere, but in that long period of downtime I struggled to fill my time. I have been fortunate to have supportive parents and a privileged background, and I kept my mouth shut about my existential boredom. It’s a strange and somewhat lucky problem to have- the problem of having too much time and having nothing to do. I wouldn’t have dared to communicate it to many people I know.

I like to think that in that time of struggle, I learnt to do many things. I finally picked up writing, and I wrote many short stories in that period. I had taken part in a poetry writing event, interestingly done on typewriters, and managed to get my coverage of the event published online. I met someone interesting at the event “portraits after dark”, and we had some very interesting conversations.

Although I’ve been back in school, I still struggle with long periods of down time, which often triggers my existential crisis. After dropping out in 2015, time has just felt like one very long weekend. In the absence of an anchor, I keep track of the relation of time via the passing of Game of Thrones seasons. Jon Snow has fallen and then risen, in my time of struggle. That fact alone is enough to give me a panic attack.

And so my story continues. I still struggle every day.