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.

A Lesson From A Tree

I stood by my herb bed and looked up. The moringa tree that I’ve moved there two years ago was now more than twice my height, a testament to the length of time I had neglected my garden. What used to be a row of chili, eggplants, lemon grass and various smaller herbs was now a thick mass of ‘kadok’ and ‘belalai gajah’. Lemon grass leaves both dead and alive were tumbling everywhere like a wild mess of tangled hair. Amongst them were vines, which I do not recognise, climbing whatever they could grasp and pulling them down with their weight.

And of course, there was the moringa tree, towering over the whole place like a misplaced giant among dwarves. The thick and sturdy trunk stretched up into the sky to where I couldn’t reach if I wanted to fetch some of its leaves. Moringas are not hard to care for once they’ve gotten themselves securely rooted. They could withstand the lack of water when I forget to give them their drink so unlike many of the other plants that did not survive my absence, my moringas persevered.

In the past, I would trim down my trees at least once a year to allow for an easier harvest and to avoid having its roots digging in too deep so I could easily move them around. However, with my exams taking place last year and my months-long eczema breakout, my garden was slowly being transformed into a mini forest and as the number of days grow, so did the difficulty of the restoration project. And instead of taking the sensible and rational route of early intervention, I let the tides of sorrow crept onto me.

One of my biggest frustrations is how passionately I launch myself into things that I truly love and yet in the end, they somehow die away into nothingness. Some of them happen because of chances and circumstances but many, many more are lost by my own hands, either by neglect, fear, frustration or lethargy. Often times I find myself letting my own bitterness contaminate the sweet taste of pure fervor, and the satisfying scent that accompanies the exhaustion after a day’s work had soured into a musty odour of fatigue. Little by little, I lost sight of the sparkles that comes with tiny victories and saw only the mountains I have yet to climb–and I couldn’t find it within me to take another step.

However, every now and then my zeal would return and at a whim, I would pack my backpack and step back out into the blizzard with the intense wish to gain back all that I have lost. The medals in my trophy cabinet back at home assured me that I have done it before and I could do it again–but the assurance last only for a moment. Fixing a mistake is often harder than starting anew and while you may lose the height of your skills, the memories of them stay, mocking you in your face. It doesn’t take long for me to doubt everything that I do and sometimes everything that I am; because if this present me is nothing like the person I was–then who am I?

But for now, I pushed all of those thoughts from my head and I had one clear objective. This tree is too big for my herb bed and I am going to move it to a more suitable home,  some place where it would be given all the opportunity to grow and bring us the first of the much loved drumstick fruit. I sawed the tree down to a manageable height and kept the leaves for my mother. I pulled the mess of ‘kadok’ and ‘belalai gajah’ for our ‘ulam’ until there is nothing on the ground but the trunk of the tree and the roots beneath. And with a rusty trowel in one hand, I thrusted it into the Earth and started digging.

As it is my habit when I work in the garden, I began talking to the plant, apologising for my neglect and telling it that I am trying to get back into the swing. I told it about how the last time I felt I couldn’t do something turned out okay in the end and although I don’t really feel it, I think it’s a sign that I need to pick myself up and move on. I thanked it for waiting for me even though I don’t deserve it. The tree never said much but it lets me talk nevertheless.

The day was not hot. The sun hid behind clouds and our mango tree provided me a lovely shade from the dimmed sun rays. Nonetheless, my lack of physical activities in the recent months had started to make itself known. Although the moisture within the soil couldn’t be more perfect (not too dry and not too wet), I started to feel tired after going past half a foot down. It didn’t help that the deeper I go, the harder it was to navigate through the root and avoid the sharp edges of the sides of the bed which was covered in tiny stones. So I grasped the trunk tightly in my arms and gave it a gentle but strong tug. It didn’t give.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. I know that, I whispered, as I continued to dig. Say what I want about my own inner conflict, I made the decision to leave my garden and I have to make amends.

But, my dearest, my sweet, could you please help me out a bit?

I paused to look up at its leaves. The little green circles danced prettily as the wind blew, breaking its perfect mosaic for but a few moments. No, I gulped and pressed on. No, the tree had done more than I had done. It too had its struggle when the ground was dry and the moths fly by. I wasn’t the only lonely one. 

Relationships go both ways, do they not? But love, would you please, please lend me a bit of a hand?

The trunk did not answer.

Ah, you are just as stone hearted as I. Then so be it.

My hands are now red and a few of the cracks on my fingers which were about to heal had burst back open as they pressed on the hard edge of my trowel. The small bits of concrete jutting out from the inside of the bed are scratching me every other minute and the roots showed now signs of tapering off. My back was aching and I couldn’t find a comfortable position. I had forgotten how to whisper, or the fact that I have neighbours, and they could probably hear me having a full blown one-sided argument with a tree.

My child, the reason why I couldn’t go out was because of my eczema. Well, partly anyway. And if you don’t make way any time soon, I’m going to hurt it and that could cause another outbreak. Yes, patience, I know. I am trying to be patient but patience would not stop my hand from breaking. Do you want me to just saw your roots off?

The trunk stared me down.

Fine. Fine. Fine. You were patient, I will be patient too.

I groaned and went back in with the thinnest of patience. My hand was now shaking with a mix of exhaustion and frustration. I was covered in soil from head to toe and I no longer cared about keeping my hand safe. I stabbed the trowel into the ground again and again and again and the dirt that got into the cracks of my skin were now practically cemented with sweat and bits of blood. I was now a foot in from when I started. I placed my hand between the two main roots and tugged with all my might but I couldn’t move it even a bit. And I was starting to feel like a fool for even trying.

Please, I am trying to be better. I want to be better, I really do but it’s already so hard. Just the idea of it all seems so insurmountable. If I can’t even pull you out, my sweet, what can I do?

The trunk stayed quiet.

I was now desperate. I had done nothing today other than digging this hole and I have nothing to show for it. The sun would be setting soon and the roots showed no sign of thinning. I looked around at my garden in its horrendous state and asked myself if I have anything to show for all that I have done in my life. I just wanted to stop.

Then I paused and looked back at the tree. Something clicked at the back of my head and I eyed it tentatively.

Are you… are you trying to teach me a lesson on perseverance?

I waited for an answer which did not come. I turned to the pile of unearthed soil and back into the hole in the bed. The way I see it, I only have three choices. I could just leave the whole thing be and probably let the tree die now that I’ve upset it so much. I could push all the Earth back in but that would only get me back to where I started.

Or of course, I could keep going. I know that somehow, in the end, I would get to tip of the roots. Even if I have to use a stone as a makeshift shovel, I could theoretically get it done eventually. The tricky circumstances, the need for time and my own doubts are obstacles I need to overcome all my life, whatever the struggle. Whether the problem is restarting a garden, finishing a book draft or just pulling out a tree, I still have to face problems from within and without, and I have to learn to wait.

Okay. Well, I guess I’ll take it then.

With that I went back in, this time quietly, as I reflected on the things that I already know deep inside and even discussed about in my head but which are now being repeated to me. I thought of the many tiny knolls I succeeded to climb because I went on despite the obstacles. Silat routines, NaNoWriMo challenges, artworks, school achievements and public presentations. Even little things that I am proud to have done but never shared because they seem so insignificantly small. But I did them.

And so with the hole nearly two feet deep, I hugged the trunk of the tree, took a deep breath and gave it a sharp tug. Finally it gave way and I had in my hand another medal to add to my cabinet. I grinned at it and thought I could feel it grinning back.

Was my tree really teaching me a lesson on perseverance? You tell me.

 

Finding The Spark

There is a gas stove that is about my age sitting in our kitchen and it had been faithfully serving us for well over twenty years. As is expected with its age, the stove is hardly perfect. The flame on one of the hobs would simply die out if you try to lower the heat while I haven’t seen the spark of another kicking the gas alight for more than ten years.

The biggest hob is the most troublesome of the functioning three as there are days when the gas simply refuses the light and you need a match to get it started. And if you’re pressed for time or simply lacking on motivation, it’s just too much trouble to hunt for a matchbox or a candle to catch the fire from another hob just to get it started.

And like its peer, I have days when I wake up with a roaring spirit brimming on exuberance and I work on the chores or projects of the day with a singing heart. Ideas after ideas are lighting the bulbs in my head as I pick a few to be my passion projects and label the others as ‘to-be-considered’. Every step is rewarded with a sense of purpose and quiet satisfaction. Every thought is treated as a possibility and I turn the house upside-down with my “let’s do this NOW!”

But sometimes I wake up to a dark, bluish tint as the world is enshrouded in cumulonimbus clouds. Without the sun to light up the flowers in my garden, my eyes catch only the weeds that pop out of nooks and crevices. All around me, I can only see shadows of quenched dreams, failed expeditions and love lost. The knolls I skipped over everyday become imposing mountains that laugh in my face. And the fire, the fire that used to burn so brightly, now fizzles away in the rain.

But just because the knob on the gas stove wouldn’t work, it doesn’t mean that my only choice is to buy my meal. There is always the lighter or the matchstick. There are two more smaller hobs that I could use with a little tweak of the recipe. There’s also the oven and the rice cooker if I’m feeling more adventurous. All I need is a bit of determination.

And although it is harder when the raincloud filter is in my own eyes, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t do anything simply because it is too dark for me to see. Just because I am blinded to the light, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Even in the bleakest of nights, we are reminded of the bright sun by the gentle glow it lends to the moon. And with eyes so dark that I forget the images of my own sight, I can still find that spark to relight my fire as long as I have my faith to fuel my heart.

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My Grandfather, My Confidant

His ‘kain pelikat’ was soaked with my tears as I clung to his knees and wept. The hour had passed with me sharing with him all my woes. I told him about the silliest, insignificant word someone had called me that felt unjust. I talked about the people I love with all of my heart, yet couldn’t connect with. I cried for all that I yearn for, all just within my grasp but which were denied. I expressed my fear at the unknown, donning the mask of an examiner, eyes never leaving, ready to pounce at every mistake.

As I finally threw out all coherency and lost all sense of language but for the sobs that burst out of my chest, he placed his hand on my shoulder and gave it a soft squeeze.

“Don’t worry, you’ll find your cat again. She isn’t lost.”

And in spite of all of my anguish and anxiety, I laughed. I looked up and saw him smiling at me, pleased to see that he made me feel better.

He was my grandfather. A nonagenarian who didn’t remember that he had ever married or had children, most of the time. A man who woke up at a different time period each day, with a slightly different view on life. A man who would delightfully share with you tales of his youth, which he remembered in great detail, if you ask the right questions. A man who would listen to you empathically whenever you have a weight you need to lift off your chest; and even though he didn’t always understand all that you shared, he would try to cheer you up and give you words of advice and encouragement.

For a few years, my father had encouraged me to write about my experience caring for my grandfather, in hopes that it would help others who also have someone dear to care for. He wanted me to share how I felt and the struggles I had to face so others won’t feel like they were alone in this. And no matter how much I tried to convince him that this wasn’t a chore for me, he would insist on thanking me for my ‘sacrifice’.

I initially didn’t want to write about this, which is why it has taken me years to finally put this together. The days I spent with my grandfather and what I shared with him was something very close and personal to me, something I feel irrationally possessive about.

Because it had never been a sacrifice — it was one of the most fulfilling years of the latter half of my life. I felt loved, cherished and richer than I had been for so many years.

I cannot honestly say that every day was a walk in the park. There were days when he insisted that he wasn’t hungry and I had to wreck my brain in trying to find something which would coax his appetite. There were nights when I found him with the wardrobe door wide opened and all of his clothes piled high on his bed. He was fit for his age but he had accidents — he once fell asleep while having tea and fell to the floor — so I always had to keep a sharp eye. We even had days when he woke up and was only able to converse in Arabic (which my very rusty elementary Arabic couldn’t keep up with) and another in German. And I remember a day when he insisted that he had to leave the house because he needed to see a friend even though it was past midnight.

But at the same time, I enjoyed whipping up crazy ideas to make his food appealing to his eye. I was entertained when he suddenly went to my brother late at night and spent an hour teaching him the correct way to march. When we left the house, I liked to show him odd and fascinating things I could see that others may find silly. I shared the funny videos I found on the internet that I thought he would enjoy and we watched them together. I even spoke Trengganuspeak with him, something that I had been too anxious to try out with anyone else.

But the thing I never told my father was that, beyond all that, my grandfather was the one person I could share all of what I hid from the rest of the world without the fear of disappointment or prejudice. He was my source of comfort when the nights felt so dark and cold. He was my confidant and my friend; never expecting more of me than what I feel I could shoulder and always offering me his strength when I feel too tired to stand. Caring for someone like him had given me such a sense of purpose, acceptance, appreciation and validation that I hadn’t found elsewhere.

At no time had the days I spent with him felt like a sacrifice more than it was a gift.

I don’t know who I was to him, he only referred to me as ‘ganda-ganda kita’ (one of us), but to me, he had a life worthy to be painted in a series of books. He was a man who had walked on the Earth before me and tried his hands at something grand and amazing and was somewhat disappointed with the response he received. He was someone who had so much love in him that it had broke him several times over. He was one of the people I had to thank for the life I have and for being the person that I am.

He was the one person I spilled all of my heart to ever since my brother was old enough to understand the weight of the words I say. He was my sanctuary from scrutinising eyes and the solace that soothes my turbulence. He was the best of my friends and he was my dear, old grandfather.

Eclipsing Dreams

I was about seven years old when I made my first travel plan. I was looking at a map of total solar eclipses from 1998 to 2019 from the book, ‘Eclipse of The Sun’, in our little ‘play-room’. I saw that the path of the 9th of March, 2016 eclipse would traverse a few Indonesian islands and seeing that it was the one closest to Malaysia, I started calculating my age and my possible state of life then. I figured that at the age of 21, I should have completed school and my seven year old brain assumed that at that age, I would have all the money and freedom in the world to bring my siblings to Indonesia so we could watch the eclipse together. And every now and then in the next fourteen years, the thought would occasionally cross my mind and I would dream about it.

I was correct about one fact. I did watch the eclipse with my brother – and the others occasionally peeping in – but we only witnessed the partial eclipse on our balcony, equipped with my shoebox camera obscura (pinhole camera) that I had made specifically for eclipse viewing. I had one hand on a laptop which was showing the live coverage from Sumatera and virtually experienced totality with the excited observer crew across the straits.

My parents watched the eclipse downstairs in the garden with our kitten friend, Tris, who was just thrilled by all the excitement we’re all expressing. As we were approaching maximum obscurity, a team of roadworkers stopped in front of our house and asked my parents if we wanted our driveway resurfaced. Noticing their curiosity (how could they not when we’re all staring up into the sky), my father told him about the eclipse. For the next few minutes, they were all climbing up onto their lorry, exclaiming with delight and tried to convince other passer-by to witness this amazing phenomenon.

Had my map also gave a list of annular solar eclipse, I might have noticed that one would be making its way through the southern-most tip of my own country on the coming 26th of December. I might have also made plans to drive to Tanjung Piai and experience the eclipse on the jetty of the Tanjung Piai Resort. But I only found out about it when I looked up the list of solar eclipses of 2019 earlier this year and I’ve long abandoned conscious dreaming as nothing but a call for possible disappointment.

The way my father explained solar eclipse to me and my sister was by bringing two balls and a flashlight into our ‘play-room’ and had one of us to hold the ‘Earth’ ball, while he held the moon between the Earth and the Sun (the flashlight). He explained to us that the eclipse happened because the sun is behind the moon for a brief amount of time. The Sun was still there, you just couldn’t see it because it was hidden. Nevertheless, it had been revered, feared and even celebrated through many events across our history.

As I grew older, I think about how intertwined are my thoughts on eclipses and dreams. To witness an eclipse was one of my most long-held serious dreams; I was in my late teens when I began to admit that it was probably out of the realms of possibilities. And as much as I insist on not wishing to dream, for fear of being robbed of the belief in a deceitful imagined future, I still have unconscious and unsolicited dreams because it’s impossible to remove the Sun by hiding it behind a moon.

I am trying hard not to place even the slightest bit of excitement in my mind for this coming eclipse but I’ll be a fool to think that no part of me still dream of somehow finding a way of getting to Tanjung Piai’s jetty to watch the eclipse with the man who taught me all about the it. I can try to cast out all the dreams in my heart in the same way I’ve contemplated destroying past pains and yearning by burning old letters and diaries but just because I’ve made it impossible to physically see something does not mean that it no longer exists -it is only hidden like the eclipsed Sun.

Oral Exam Adventure

Oral Exam Adventure

This would be a light post, akin to what I used to write when I was younger (and to be honest, had missed writing them here) but I like to bring home funny stories of the things that happened to entertain my mother and my adventures, experiences where I go out with high hopes and no expectations, are often the best stories to tell. This is not an in depth writing on my experience but simply a break for myself and I hope for you as well.

Recently my sisters and I sat for our SPM Malay oral test (ULKCP BM or Ujian Lisan Khusus Calon Persendirian Bahasa Melayu) at a public secondary school. The only oral tests I remember sitting was for hafazan (memorising Quran and du’as) and qiraat (reading Quran) exams back at primary school so I have no idea of what was to come. I tumbled into cycles of panic and equanimity. The research I conducted was of little help as there was not much help available on the internet for someone who homeschool as I do and don’t even know the basic format of what to do.

And as always, this adventure is no less rich with unexpected experiences and lessons learned.

Mangga-steen/ Buoh smete

Mangosteen

I walked into the exam room expecting to find myself getting into trouble with some of the more specific words in my less developed Malay lexicon – and I did. I have gotten used to having a wide range of words to choose from when speaking in our mixed brew of Malay and English at home (with a sprinkle of random foreign words just for the fun of it), restricting myself to one language can leave me at lost for words from time to time and it is much more apparent in Malay than in English. And during the oral exam, I was restricted to a high register, Melayu Baku, and although I tried to think in Melayu Baku, I also had to filter everything that comes out of my brain, just in case.

But to our greatest surprise (and my mother’s mirth), the word that both my sister, Aeshah, and I got stuck with was mangosteen or ‘manggis’ as we call it in Malay. Never did I imagine that I would remember ‘buoh smete’ (mangosteen in the Terengganu dialect) over ‘manggis’. And we were taking the tests simultaneously in different rooms so there was a chance that we got stuck at the same time. However since we both have experiences with interviews and speaking on stage, we both discarded our attempts and looked for a different word instead.

Introduction

Introduction

So here’s a funny story: I spent my ten minutes of preparation constructing the backbone of my response, developing each of their content and sculpting my opening paragraph. The instruction was for me to describe the education I received. I was going to bring up how my education began informally the moment I was born, making a point on how education is not simply restricted to what is generally described as schooling.

I thought that my opening line would bring a good first impression but instead, I forgot to introduce myself and that was definitely the most difficult part of the exam for me. Being asked to introduce myself feels like being told to say something in a different language, there’s just so much that could be said and yet nothing feels relevant or appropriate. It is the one thing I really should have prepared before going in and it really threw me off. I left the entire informal education angle up until the end of my discussion as if it was a minor sub-topic.

Coffee Jitters

Coffee… my dearest friend and companion. Coffee was my wingman when I was nervous for the late night radio interview “When The Night Falls” several years back with DJ Nizal Mohamed. I was just there, in the moment, having this conversation with my father’s friend. It didn’t matter that there are people listening in or that we have bulky equipment all around us. I was an open book; I voiced out opinions, which were so close to my heart, even my parents had never heard of them.

I couldn’t sleep the night before my oral exam and when I did, I had nightmares of receiving odd questions which simply have no right or wrong answer. I woke up sleepy with my mind wandering in and out of my head and wondered if coffee would help wake me up a little. I was only worried about coffee making me say things that I wouldn’t feel comfortable otherwise – which was exactly the problem I had, just not in the way I expected.

My mother trained me for public speaking since my primary school days and she had drilled into my head that I should limit my fillers like the ‘err’s and ‘uhm’s. I am not perfect but I believe that I could limit them most of the time or use them in a way that doesn’t seem too off-putting.

However, with the introduction mishap and my constant worry of how formal my language was, I was pausing a lot and I peppered my ‘err’s all throughout the session. Even as I said them, I told myself not to… which distracted me from thinking of my response and made me pause with another ‘err’. In the end, I simply threw the whole effort out of the window so I could focus on saying things that actually mean something.

But despite all of these fun stuff, I think I did alright. I would have liked to do better and had I known what I was walking into, I would perhaps have done a little better.

I enjoyed our group test as well as all four of us have our own unique ideas and approaches to most of the questions given and it was just fun to pretend like we’re making a pitch of some sort. A lot of my nervousness seeped out of me as I listened to others’ views. Our planning wasn’t as in-depth as I would have liked it to be but we were only given ten minutes and I think all of us winged it pretty well. My sister, Anisah, was assigned to the same group as I was and when we gave our initial presentation, everyone had accidentally presented all of the points we discussed before Anisah had a chance to say. Without missing a beat, she summed up all that we had discussed into a neat conclusion with a note on what we should do moving forward and I was really impressed by that.

Whatever the results (though I dearly hope that all three of us passed), it was an experience I would treasure and the events that took place would probably stay with me for a long time. And I probably would never be able to eat a mangosteen in peace ever again.

NaPoWriMo Poem #5: The Dawn of a New Year

It is the dawn of a new year and the sun has yet to rise
But over the horison you can now see the sun’s deceiving disguise
The sky is catching the colours like a huge spherical prism
Painting the glorious display above, filling me with optimism

I see others just like me heading out towards the East
For a moment we forget our arguments and all quarrels cease
Crawling out from little cradles, hobbling down with canes,
From every corners of the globe, we rush out to the plain.

I clean my brush off the past year’s paint now all caked and dry
And with me I bring a new can of colours for me to fill the sky
I run the clouds with streaks of hope that speaks of my quest
And pray that the sky of dusk would shine the hues of my success

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Note: This poem is inspired by my journal entry ‘The Dawn of 2011’ where I wrote:

The sun is well below the horizon but it’s rays succeeded in painting the sky with superb colours. It is the time when you paint the sky with your wishes and resolutions and vow to reach your goal. It is the dawn of 2011.

You pick up your worn, old brush that you had been using every year and a new can of paint out to the field. You step on your tiptoes and brush your streak of paint, praising Allah’s name and beg Him to help you be one of the lucky ones; they who would come back before nightfall, painting again with dazzling colours of success into the dusk sky.

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