The Full Catastrophe

I stood alone in a corner waiting for my friends to arrive. I was wearing a new dress bought for this special occasion, my American friend’s wedding. It was black chiffon with dark pink flowers. It’s a cute dress and I hope to wear it again somebody. It was a fun, happy, quirky wedding. I felt grateful to have been able to experience it with my friends. We drove to the next venue, stopping on the way for tea in a new cafe/bar surrounded by traditional houses and fairy lights. People were drunk and laughing and there was a chaotic vibe in the air at the afterparty. I said goodbye to my friends, we said we would catch up soon, in a few weeks, maybe have dinner.

None of us knew that just one week later a mutual friend’s brother would jump off a bridge and die. We didn’t know then that we would gather in nine days time at a funeral home where we would pray in front of a coffin and offer a white flower to the deceased. We didn’t go just to support our friend. We also knew the dearly departed. We had trained capoeira together. We had partied together. We were all social media friends and followers. We couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Our young, handsome, charismatic, intelligent and talented friend had taken his own life under difficult, but not insurmountable, circumstances. An irrational and permanent response to an impermanent problem. I thought to myself how amazing that I have gone this long in life and never been to a funeral. It was my first and I held his mother tight as she sobbed into my arms.

Pepper the past few weeks with some job rejections, a lacklustre birthday and some lonely Saturday nights with only a needy existential crisis for company and I do believe I am living what is known as the full catastrophe. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that you have no control over, over when or if it will stop and if you’ll ever be able to get off. There’s little time to process thoughts and feelings, to read the emotional data, to regroup before the next wave comes and washes over you. It’s those cliches again, you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. Everyday there’s an opportunity for perspective taking, for saying a quick atheist prayer for my friend whose brother is gone far too soon and far too tragically. And least we forget the brother. Rest peacefully, HJ. You are forever in our thoughts, prayers and hearts.

Moments

There’s a saying: take care of the minutes and the years will take care of themselves. It is the little things we do often and everyday that help us achieve the greater things. What are these moments comprised of? This is a question that is often on my mind. They’re not the stuff of social media, these bricks of our lives. Rather, life is comprised of a series of mundane, often habitual actions. Which is not to say that they aren’t pleasurable or enjoyable – the daily shower, a few pieces of dark chocolate, walking in the sunshine, patting a cute dog.

In the past two days, I consider what I’ve done that’s been of value. Feeling tired from a long day and slightly under the weather and in a premenstrual stupor, I forced myself to go for an evening walk. I find flowers, watch the sun set, and rejuvenate. But it was chilly and I was still tired so I slunk under the warm, fluffy covers in the haven that is my bed and escaped into re-watching an episode of The L Word for the millionth time. Imagining I was in sexy, sunny L.A. felt good, though probably not very healthy. I scoffed chocolate and jalapeno nachos and an orange. There were crumbs in my bed but I didn’t care. Still, I forced myself to brush my teeth before I passed out.

The next morning, I woke up early as usual. I was happy to see the sunshine. I got ready to meet my friend for breakfast right in the center of the city. I felt grateful as I sat on the bus, looking out the window, a blue sky with a veneer of microdust. How lucky to have the time, energy and money to be able to meet a friend for breakfast on a Saturday morning. How lucky that it’s a quick bus ride into the center of this bustling global city of ten million people. How cool that my friend is a smart, beautiful and interesting woman from the other side of the world and although sharing very little in common, we are bonded by our adopted (temporary) home and our shared hobby. How wonderful to have a stimulating, wide-ranging discussion and then walk together to our training session.

We are in a studio for an hour jumping and kicking and dancing with a world-class teacher. There’s seven different nationalities undertaking this journey together on this day. We finish by lunch time and my friend and I head out and go to the swanky department store across the road where we have a choice of cuisine from around the world – Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Indian. We opt for the latter and then pop into the adjacent supermarket to buy some meat for a barbeque I’ll attend later. It’s good quality and I don’t care too much about the price. I’m fortunate not to have to care too much. We hug goodbye – she’ll fly to Moscow to see her family over the public holidays next week and I head home to clean my cozy space and get ready for my neighbor’s gathering.

I have an hour before I have to be literally next door, so I sweep and fold and put away then I get out the cockroach ammunition I bought a few days ago, on the day that I spent at the hospital, getting a criminal background check, grocery shopping, and place the pellets in all the dark, hidden corners. This is one battle I don’t want to lose, despite whether it’s ethical or not.

Next door, the barbeque is cranking on the patio. There’s a lot of meat, even sausages smuggled in from the north of Thailand. There’s cask wine and salad. The gathering is small yet we represent six countries. I learn about how to operate a drone, the clothing manufacturing sector in Vietnam, the New Atheist movement, the decline of the bourgeois in Paris and the Australian and American Green Parties. There’s some sloppy drunkenness and after a few hours, I’m happy to go home, a five second walk away, and collapse into silence. I take my thick book of crossword puzzles and try to solve a few more clues before I fall asleep. I cheat a little by using the Internet. But there’s a sense of accomplishment as my eyes close.

I wake up seven hours later and decide it’s a good day to eat chocolate for breakfast. Why not. And I listen to a podcast, an interview with an Irish singer who has become sober after a sordid past of alcohol, drugs and highly publicised toxic relationships. I decide to eat some real food – an egg on really good bread that I was lucky to find and once again, an orange. I need to work and I force myself to complete an onerous task that’s been hanging over me for a few days. I then decide to paint my toenails with some turquoise nail polish I bought on a careless shopping spree I undertook recently on payday when I needed a dopamine hit. As usual, I made a mess of it. My toes look like a three year old painted them. Soon I’ll throw on my favorite Lululemon sweat pants and walk for an hour to a nearby neighborhood to meet a friend for dinner. I’ll treat her for her recent birthday and try to hold space for my PMS – the low mood, the sore breasts, the cramps. I’ll breathe through each moment and feel grateful.

Good Enough

The notion of ‘good enough’ has, for some reason, been on my mind lately. Maybe it’s because as I think about the next phase of my life, my pathological fear of failure coupled with maladaptive perfectionism clouds my ability to make rational decisions in which good enough would be well, good enough.

I find myself fishing for the wisdom of Alain de Botton, that modern day philosopher with the posh British accent who speaks to the masses with his clear-eyed and rational analysis of the human condition.

And voila, the good man has written a brief but astute article on the topic here, concluding that:

‘It takes a good deal of bravery and skill to keep even a very ordinary life going. To persevere through the challenges of love, work and children is quietly heroic. We should perhaps more often sometimes step back in order to acknowledge in a non-starry-eyed but very real way that our lives are good enough – and that this is, in itself, already a very grand achievement.’

Indeed, it was Voltaire who once said, ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good.’ And now it’s me saying that ‘good enough’ is the ally of a well-lived, albeit flawed, life.

One day

This morning I woke up early, before 7am, and meditated. Just for fifteen minutes. It was gray outside and damp from last night’s downpour. I had some fruit for breakfast and went to yoga. The teacher is impossibly tall and thin. She’s like a fairy godmother beanstalk. I can’t even fathom how she gave birth to three children. She is kind, gentle, funny. She meets us where we are at. This morning, because of the humidity, my body felt tight. I heard creaking. My clumsiness and un-coordination felt more pronounced than usual. I felt weak. I blame the weather and my own laziness. I cycled back to my guesthouse. I was feeling a little cold, even wearing merino wool in twenty five degrees. I lay down on my giant bed that could easily fit four people. What should I do today? Where should I eat? What am I doing with my life? I was about to fall down the self-flagellation rabbit hole when I heard my friend Clea calling my name. She bounded up the stairs and knocked on my door. I opened it and there she was with a large block of opened chocolate.

“Here, this is for you, it’s from Norway. Sorry, but I already opened it and ate some,” she said with a mouth full of chocolate.

I didn’t mind at all, considering how expensive good chocolate is here. I ripped off a few pieces and stuffed them in my mouth. It tasted exactly like Cadbury’s chocolate. It did its job, giving me a sugar and dopamine rush. When then discussed our plans. It was raining. A lot. We were both hungry (as usual). Should we go to the restaurant nearby that we’ve been going to almost daily? We decided we would. We invited Akio, a retired Japanese scientist who is staying at the same guesthouse. Umbrellas in hand, we trudged down the road dodging puddles and potholes.

We talked over pizza and pasta. Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump, restaurants. Three countries, one language. I learnt that our Japanese companion is a Princeton-educated genius. It explains his ongoing interest in everything, his curiosity, his impeccable English. He’s here to study meditation. Like everyone in this town, he’s looking for something.

We return and I get back into a book I had picked up again after tossing it aside some months ago. I had written it off but this time, I became riveted by it. It’s a memoir written by a woman who lost her mother then her father, both to cancer. She was in her teens when her mother passed and just a few years later, her father was diagnosed and passed away while she was in her mid-twenties. This exploration of grief was harrowing. This woman, now a well-known writer, grief therapist, and divorced mother of two young girls living in Santa Monica, went to Hell and back. Her writing sucked me in – I was right there with her when she was holding her dying father’s hand, or drinking herself into oblivion, or having a sobbing fit, or just being alone and falling down the rabbit hole of shame and self-loathing.

I am tired now. I wanted to finish the book and it probably took about an hour, but I feel like I was with her in all those years, so vivid is her writing. I was drained by chaos and self-destruction. But ultimately I’m buoyed by her hard-won happiness. She learnt how to be alone, how to be happy, how to go through the grieving process, how to heal wounds so that they turn into scars. She finds self-love and acceptance through friendship and healthy relationships, work she loves serving others, writing, yoga, meditation, and most intriguingly, by taking long baths each evening. It’s here in the bathtub she realizes the wisdom of no escape. I was in awe of how much living she had done – all the jobs, moving, travel, study, and all the loved ones she had lost. She is only a year older than me. Holy crap! The book was published a few years ago. Cut to today and has had an affair, her marriage unravels. She is in a relationship with a man who lives on the other side of the country, she has published another book, also focusing on grief, and seems to be thriving. Due to her prominent, transparent social media presence, I know so much about her life now. What I love is that she is in a much better place – that depressed, lonely, anxious, grief-stricken mess of a young woman lives on in her but it is just a tiny part of her now. This gives me so much hope for humanity. We are more resilient than we think and things do get better.

It stirs up all kinds of feelings in me. I have never been to a funeral. I imagine her at her father’s funeral. I imagine myself at my father’s. It’s morbid. I think of a phrase I learnt the other day in relation to our thoughts and feelings: ‘Real but not true.’ I say it over and over again like a mantra. It’s not even 8pm yet.

 

 

Two Weeks

I have been in my beloved Ubud for two weeks now. The time here seems to evaporate, like rain. I don’t know where it goes. I can only remember a series of moments. Sitting on the bright, round cushions in front of my room furiously trying to finish the amazing The Undoing Project, being immersed in the lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and being amazed and questioning all my life choices (again). Then I’m just meters away listening to director Vikram Gandhi (who starred in this documentary that I wrote about a while ago) talk about his new film Barry, about the college years of one Barak Obama. He (Vikram, not Obama) spoke after we watched the film together. Of course I had to pinch myself that if I was in his presence. Some days later (how many, I really don’t remember) I saw another Obama film about his first date with Michelle. What an interesting, complex, high maintenance man I thought. Let it be known that I do crush on the former president, but just imagine living with someone with a law degree from Harvard who feels the need to question everything.

Since there’s not much to do at night, there have been more movies. And yoga. But not as much as last time. Yesterday while ‘practising’ under the guidance of a Jewish yoga goddess, I felt how my fitness level had decreased and how sad that made me. I struggled through, consciously trying not to let that second arrow (how could you get so unfit? why don’t you exercise more? you’ve become so lazy…). Another night, I found myself on a dark, rainy night slipping into a traditional health resort and ended up having an incredible massage, guided into a boiling hot sauna then gently urged into a freezing cold jacuzzi for ten minutes while listening to the music from a ceremony at a nearby temple and looking up at the blinking stars. I’ve been riding around on a bike, taking in all the green. I’ve been hanging out with my friend who has been kind enough to introduce me to her friends. We have been debriefing after her days of anthropological fieldwork, gossiping about the ridiculous fairies that wander around seeking enlightenment from raw food and dreadlocks. We’ve been walking in the mornings through rice fields, dodging stray dogs and eating breakfast together. In stark contrast to Cambodia where I spoke to maybe one person in five days, it feels really good to have a friend.

There are the characters from my previous visits – I know where to find them, they are so predictable in that way. At the same cafe, at the same studio, giving the same class at the same time, with the same people, in the same clothes. But, appearances can be deceiving, for they have come so far in the year since I’ve last seen them. New relationships, marriage, divorce, new businesses, new travels, new opportunities, life and death swirling around them as it should.

I ride my bike down the main road, past the locals dressed in their sarongs for their ceremonies. I bump over a dead snake and see a monkey sitting on a motorcycle. I dodge ugly mating toads. When it’s really hot, I crash the pool of the hotel next door and try to block out the obnoxious Australian accents. It’s hard to get annoyed here, though, amongst so much vitality. There’s literal jungle, blue skies, giant clouds, and an abundance of delicious flowers whose scent evokes the word paradise. Every afternoon it rains, but of course, even rain in Bali is beautiful – the way it falls over the temples, feeling of it on an overheated body is sensual. There’s not long to go now and there’s still a volcano to climb, yoga to learn, online study to be done, oh and a novel to write. Everyday is a battle between discipline and freedom. But this is a lifelong battle and I hope that I can at least, if not win, then make some progress.