Eczema And My Right Hand

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My right hand, two days after my last SPM paper – November, 2019. Sometimes an outbreak can happen when you really need to use your hand and there’s nothing you could do about it but to trudge on.

Like the majority of people in the world, I am right-handed. This means that my right hand is my dominant hand, the hand that steadily pours water from a large jug, the hand that holds the broom when I sweep the floor, the hand that reaches out to turn the knob whenever I reach a closed door. I’ve trained my right hand to do so many tricks, big and small, ever since I was old enough to grip an item in my hand that I can now perform a variety of them without a conscious thought. I can write my name without pondering over the shape of an ‘A’ or cut vegetables without wondering how to hold a knife.

And because being right-handed is the norm, there had never been a need for me to learn otherwise. I wasn’t taught to write, use a saw or open jars with my left hand. And I would have been perfectly fine not knowing how to if I didn’t develop dyshidrotic eczema on my right hand.

Dyshidrotic eczema is a skin condition where itchy, and sometimes painful, blisters develop on your palms, fingers, and/ or the soles of your feet, usually for around two to four weeks. Often, the skin could swell or dry out and crust over which makes it vulnerable to cracking, even tearing the skin altogether into a cut. I would have to constantly keep my fingers slightly curled or I might accidentally stretch it too far and tear something. At times, the wound or the blisters could get infected and that could increase the duration of a flare up. Sometimes you could have a number of flare ups in a row and you end up having it for a few months straight.

I would consider mine to be comparatively less intrusive as mine is limited to the fingers of my right hand, and very rarely, the base of my palm. My left hand and feet are completely free of it and I don’t have to worry about not being able to walk or unable to hold anything at all. At the same time, whenever my dyshidrotic eczema flares up, I would rekindle my admiration towards ambidextrous people, those who, either by force or by choice, have developed the ability to do a wide range of actions on both hands.

One thing that I’ve never noticed until I had my first outbreak in my mid teens, was how much I completely relied on my right hand. It is only when I am forced to perform the simple everyday task with my left hand, would I realise how strong, dextrous and well coordinated my right hand is. I could sweep the floor of the whole house and the only complaint I’ll make is how much I dislike sweeping but when I have to do it with my left hand, the dining area is enough to make my wrist feels like I’ve just returned from a workout. Wiping the table takes twice as long or I’ll miss patches of splashed soup and dried rice. And I wouldn’t even think about which hand I’m using to twist a jar cover open until I’ve split another thick, hard and crusted skin.

When I was younger, I had a strange need to be (what I thought as) independent, flexible and versatile. I wanted to be able to fully function on my own even if I am limited by circumstances or if things were to change. I would train myself to do odd things like carrying heavy things to and fro, turning the door knob with my toes without spilling the filled mug in each hand or placing a number of objects precariously over my head as I walk around with my hands full. I wanted to be the epitome of a jack of all trades to the most extreme level I could take it for the sake of independence, should I be forced into such a position where I only had myself to rely on.

And yet, I thought of big things like not being able to use both hands or not having anyone stronger to help me lift things up. I didn’t think about the completely natural way I whip air into my eggs for a baking project, dig a large hole with a trowel in my garden or gently pouring compost tea out of a bucket and how utterly useless my left hand is in such tasks.

And the thought of my naïve worries and attempts is frustrating, amusing , humbling and illuminating all at the same time.

Because, really, no matter how hard we try to cover all of our weaknesses, we’ll always be limited in some way or fashion in some aspects of our life. It is simply our nature as humans to be limited. It doesn’t mean that we should just give up and say “I just can’t” but we also don’t have to scramble about higgledy-piggledy trying to do the impossible. We should just take a step back from all the messier parts of life and really consider what matters–how we should develop our strength to support it and work around our weakness as to not damage it. And then carefully and mindfully, try all we could to reach our end goal while appreciating the gifts we are blessed with, even we can’t really see them.

Some people say that there is no light without darkness. I don’t fully agree with that but as a once avid stargazer, I do know that it is only in darkness we could see the stars. When the sun’s blazing rays stretch from horizon to horizon, it is impossible to catch even a glimpse of the little diamonds in the sky. We know that they are still there like we know that gravity would pull us down when we jump but it’s only when night comes and the city lights dim that we pull back the curtains and gasp at the beauty of a star speckled sky.

As for me, I still truly admire anyone who has taken the time and effort to switch back and forth between two hands but I still am very, very grateful for the amazing things my right hand can pull of and the tiny amount of work my left hand could manage. And whenever another round of blisters start popping up, I’ll try to take it as a reminder and a prompt to discover all the wonders I’ve been blessed with and praise Allah with a heart full of gratefulness.

And just try not to be too upset when my finger burns and I have to sweep the floor again.

My Path Into Literary Nonfiction

Literary nonfiction, also called creative nonfiction, is a type of writing where one uses literary techniques to depict real life events. Basically, you’re writing something that really happened in the same way you would write a story.

If I am asked to state one writing exercise that has helped me the most in developing my writing, specifically narrative writing, ‘literary nonfiction’ would probably be my pick. While I had always had a knack for writing essays or articles as a kid, my teachers and dear mother were always advising me to stay away from anything fiction — an advice I have never listened to.

Stories are dear to me. The worlds and lives of the imaginary have been my companion even before I could read. As a child, I used to stay up late in bed, reading under my blankets past my bedtime. Like most young bookworms, one of my biggest dreams back then was to become a novelist and produce my own work of fiction someday. While my own classmates enjoyed reading my little story snippets, I did not get the recognition of being a writing prodigy from those whose opinions I value. It did frustrate me but I wasn’t about to simply turn back and give up.

With determination bordering on stubbornness, I continued to work on my stories, though never finishing any long form project of my own. When I had some time to spare, you might find me hidden behind doors or locked inside my room, just scribbling a few paragraphs down. Most of them are too short to be even considered a decent short story and reading back now, almost all of them were terrible literary work.

My poor mother tried to teach me how to write descriptive writing. She would tell me again and again the story of how her own English high school teacher, had asked her students to describe an ocean and the only adjective they could think of was ‘blue’. My mother then continued by explaining how vividly her teacher had described the ocean. Somehow, the lessons did not reach me as my idea of description only extended to the most basic of forms and I colour in the rest with pure imagination.

I had an overactive imagination as a child (I probably still do), and before I could dissect my own emotions and experience in depth, I never needed an abundance of words to truly experience something. Whatever the story doesn’t expressly say, I fill in with my own imagination and ideas.

It also did not help that I was a bit of a dreamy child, prone to daydreaming when an idea strikes and detaching myself from the real world around me. And whenever I look back to a memory of an event, I rarely have crystal clear images of what happened. Rather, I remember the ambience and my own feelings and thoughts as the events unfold; things that most books for children do not express in detail.

My first introduction to writing truths with literary techniques was through Awang Goneng’s book ‘Growing Up in Trengganu’. Having been trained by my mother in public speaking and the importance of using emphatic intonation, I was forced to really inspect the words I was repeating again and again to express them as authentically as possible. My favourite chapter was ‘Nasi On The Apor’ with its life-like imagery that did not simply recreate the sentiments of the moment, but awakened all of my senses — something quite new to me. Despite having to spend so much time repeating the same words, it became a joy instead of a chore to revisit Mak Som as her fingers danced among the many ingredients that constitutes a ‘nasi dagang’ with the fragrant steam curling around her.

The book itself was a collection of sights and memories from an age long gone, the era of my parents’ childhood back in their homestate ‘Trengganu’. Most of the passages would fit descriptive writing instead of a narrative one but now I understood the lesson my mother tried to teach. And being a story lover by heart, it did not take me long to take Little Women’s Jo’s advice to heart: “Write about what you know” — and what do I know more than the tales that of my own life?

So I began writing journal entries with a newbie’s idea of a literary flair but something interesting began to happen without me noticing. Being a dreamy, sentimental young teenager means that I had more than enough emotions bubbling within me especially in these situations I thought worthy enough to be forever locked in ink.

Instead of having to create unlikely scenarios and odd afterthoughts to add drama to a story that has no direction, I know deep within why the story matters to me. I know the exact direction towards which I wish to lead my readers and the message I wish to embed within the tale because they are the reason why the event matters so much to me.

I unconsciously began to hone the ability to pick the parts that serve the larger narrative and that had improved my stories tenfold. It may still appear and feel like a story written like a naïve kid, but it’s a kid who writes to make a statement instead of one who doesn’t really know why she’s saying anything.

So if you have a problem with creating appropriate dramatic tension in your writing despite having lots of potential within, try looking back into a recent but particularly poignant moment of your life and see what you could come up with. Don’t try to make it the best work ever written but a photograph in words that captures all of your dizzying highs and lows. Be open, be honest and be authentic.

It’s a long process that requires repetition as all exercises do but you’ll may be surprised at the words you pen down when you embark on your own journey into literary nonfiction.

Why Do Kids Put Beans Up Their Noses? A Thought on Impulse and Introspection

It is a widely known fact that if you tell a child not to put beans up their nose, almost without fail, they will come running back to you in pain because now they have a bean stuck inside their nose. It is something to lament about when discussing the frustrating trials of childrearing or to be laughed about when reflecting on how ridiculous we all once were when we were young. Despite how readily we accept it, we rarely take the mental effort to ride down their train of thought a little deeper and really ponder on why we do it.

I personally have never put beans or anything up my nose as far as I could recall and I was scared of quite a number of unfamiliar things. My mother often retell us the story of me wailing in fear when a distant cousin tried to give me sweets. However, my father did call me ‘Miss Opposite’ when he discovered that anything forbidden was an object of interest to me, and the way my father trained me not climb up ladders was to tell me to climb one.

I have a pretty clear memory of myself around the age of three or four and being solemnly told by my father not to go anywhere near the flame of a candle. The very moment I found myself out of my parent’s sight, I reached out for the nearest thing I could find and shoved it into the bright, dancing light. Within (what felt like) seconds, the side of the comb that touched the flame began turning black and the tip began to sag. That horrified me enough to immediately throw it out of a window and decided never to touch fire again.

Nevertheless, what interests me most about the memory now is that I remembered pretty well the line of thoughts that motivated me into doing what I did; and one thing they had in common was the thirst to know something that I clearly do not. Why was I told not to play with flames? What will happen if I do? Why are candles always put on high places? What does it feel like to touch a fire? And my curiousity was peaked when it was blended with the thrill and indignation of the forbidden.

However, at the same time, I was too young to be truly aware of why I do the things I do and if my parents were to find out (they somehow didn’t) and ask me why did I play with fire when I was told not to, I may honestly answer ‘I don’t know’. My mother’s reminder ‘think before you do something’ had been ringing in my ears ever since I could remember but I was a lot older before I truly understood what it even meant, and that was years before I understood the wisdom behind it and somewhat tried to act on it. I just acted on automatic and it just happened to be fuelled by wonder and a self-righteous belief that I could do anything.

Of course, it isn’t the same for all children. While an unquenchable thirst for information and experience is common in a lot of children, some children are quicker to break rules because they simply wanted a reaction from the people who told them not to. Other quieter kids may surprise you when they suddenly ignore an unbreakable law; simply because they feel like they understand the wisdom behind all forbidden acts except for this particular one, and see it unnecessary to obey. On the other hand, some children are just oblivious to clearly laid down rules, as they are to a lot of on-goings of the world around them, since they view things from a different perspective.

But what is true for the majority of them is that they were mostly unaware of the inner workings of their mind. Introspection is a skill that takes age and wisdom to cultivate and at the age when kids are at their wildest, they were focusing more on observing and experiencing than they are at understanding why they do the things they do.

And to be fair, as wise as we all claim to be, we are still in the mercy of our ‘automated’ self to various degrees. Those of us with a better ability to introspect, either by nature or by practicing mindfulness, may have stronger awareness of the purpose behind their actions but for the most of us, we rely on habits when running our regular everyday lives. We don’t think about why we decide to chew every morsel of meal we feed ourselves or the why we hold pens in the way we do. That’s why watching your step is as good an advice to a toddler as it is to an adult.

Even at times when we are fuelled by emotions, most of us are rarely aware by the state and cause of our emotions and we simply act without consciously making the decision to bend to our sentiments. We are often more aware of our conscious drive and purpose and use that as an excuse to validate what we do; as sitting down and reflecting upon it may cause that uncomfortable awareness of our cognitive dissonance.

When I myself feel frustrated about the little nuisance that goes on around me, more often than not, I recognise the fact that I feel frustrated but I would also say that I have things under control. For instance, it feels wrong to be angry at your friend who had to miss your monthly meet-up, which you had been looking forward to all week, due to an impromptu meeting.

However, when night comes and I have time to reflect, I realised that all of the misfortune I had throughout the day are simply daily occurrences that somehow takes more attention. It is just that today, I could not blame my friend for the cancellation as it wasn’t her fault. And without being aware of it, I had pinned my anger to everything else that I could just so I could release the pressure that I had bottled up inside.

Like the kid who didn’t know why she thrusted the comb into the flame, I wasn’t aware of the actual cause to why I was angry at the stranger who accidentally bumped into me as we were boarding the train. I simply was.

And unless we want to be like the kids who put beans up their noses, we have to try a little harder to really ask ourselves why we make the decisions we do and what do we really want to make out of our lives. If we don’t have control over our own ‘mature’ impulses, it’s going to be quite an ordeal to teach our own children the lesson that would last them a lifetime.

My Tinking Philosophy

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Every knitter tinks at least once in their life. Some people, like my sister, are more careful and conscious when knitting and they could finish a good number of tink-less projects. I, on the other hand, spend far too much time tinking that I would like to admit.

Tinking in terms of knitting is basically ‘un-knit-ting’, removing the stitches you have lovingly tucked onto your needle because of a mistake (it is knit written backwards). Sometimes you miscount your stitches and realise that you should have purled instead of knitted or maybe you’re repeating the pattern for a particular row when you should have move on to the next step.

The most frustrating thing about tinking for me is that I am not a fast knitter and having to tink means that I am negating those precious minutes I spent wrapping my needle with yarns. It’s especially dejecting when I’m in the middle of a cable stitch, which takes even longer as I slip stitches onto a different needle or when I did not realise my mistake until I’m already a number of rows down. In my previous project, I have already done a cast off before I realised that I dropped a few stitches a number of rows down and if I don’t fix it, the whole rose could unravel.

It is not a secret that I am a generally careless person. I’ve sent in Maths homework where I got all the answers wrong because I added instead of subtracted back in my primary school days. I have accidentally poured water from my double boiler into my butter when I was melting it to bake a cake (a feat my mother thought impossible). And although I try to count my stitches and check my work at every row, I still tink at least once in every project, often times more especially in larger work.

However, I also do a lot of pattern-free projects where I experiment and improvise as I go along. With those projects, tinking is pretty much unavoidable as I try different ratios of knits and increase to get a flat circle or where should I make a decrease that would give the finished work a cleaner look. And interestingly, tinking in those projects do not feel like a regretted mistake because for every row I have to tink, I am learning something new.

When following a pattern, all I do is making sure that I get my work done exactly as the instructions are written so I would end up with the same product. A mistake is a problem that I would have to fix, a delay that I would have to extend. So my mind is focused on perfection, on keeping count on the stitches and rows, on making sure that I do a slip slip knit and not a knit two together, and so on.

When I am starting fresh from the start, I have no guide to tell me what to do, no pictures to give me an expectation. Every single stitch I make is a trial run and there is no wrong step because everything I do would produce a particular effect that one day I may put into good use. I rarely find myself getting disappointed over a failure because there is absolutely nothing to fail. Every knit is an opportunity and every purl teaches a lesson.

This dichotomy exists in other interests in my life too. My love for some areas in Mathematics is often hampered by the need to answer questions accurately and quickly in a cold and uncompromising exam setting. I enjoy trying out Maths puzzles even though I couldn’t solve most of them because each one of them could open my mind to a new way of thought that I hadn’t even considered before. When someone explain to me the answer of a geometry question I got completely stumped on and pointed out the relationship of different angles that I haven’t noticed, it’s like learning a new word in a different language or learn something about a culture I never knew existed.

However life does demand a certain amount of ‘perfection’. We don’t pat a faulty traffic light and tell it ‘That’s okay, you tried your best”, when it caused a massive pile up that took away lives. We don’t pardon a surgeon who mistook an artery for a vein and say “You’ll get it right next time!”. We don’t give the engineer whose mismanagement caused a radioactive disaster another project to supervise because everyone makes mistakes. We don’t do all that because the consequences of such mistakes are catastrophic and must be avoided at all costs.

At the same time, that faulty traffic light might shed light on human psychology and how we place trust on certain cues even though we are otherwise capable of watching the traffic ourselves. The surgeon’s fumble could enlighten us on the particular weakness of medical machinery and the engineer’s oversight illuminated flaws on the current plant design that might have otherwise be used elsewhere throughout the world. And if all of these mistakes are hidden behind closed doors, these lessons could never be learnt.

Mistakes, like most things in life, comes with a bit of good and a bit of bad and the severity of either would depend on the particular situation. They should be avoided, of course, but when one does occur, it shouldn’t be treated like a complete loss. We’re always offered lessons wherever we go and whatever we do and at every turn the worst thing that you could do is say “That’s it,” and give up–because when you do, you will close your eyes and your mind to something new and beautiful that was crafted just for you.

And so whether it’s the thousandth time I drop my stitch or get a lumpy hexagon instead of a flat circle or deface the stockinette stitch with a big ugly purl, I’ll still tink my way back and try to see what the lesson might be before moving on and keep my fingers knitting.