Facing the Self: Let Us Count the Ways…

The quick trip back to Singapore between 2 and 14 November 2016 as well as the days following the return to Swansea have been wondrous and illuminating in different ways.

First, the wondrous. How fantastic to see my family, be back in my own room, sleep in my own bed and catch up with some friends! (Unfortunately, the time to enjoy these four elements was highly limited as I had many things to focus on during that short period.)

On the evening of 4 November, I watched the Third Year Diploma in Performance students from LASALLE College of the Arts perform five of my early plays (Mirror, Mirror; The Perfect Shoe; Good Girls Don’t Wait; Jiving on Java; Love, Food & Babies) through their  production, In the Company of Women (spinning off the title of my first published collection of plays). They did an incredible job under the direction of Marc Goldberg who tied everything together into a cohesive whole (in fact, one of the best interpretations of my plays that I’ve encountered). I was so happy to witness a new set of theatre practitioners plus audience members discover and revel in my various characters and scenes.

On the evening of 8 November, Math Paper Press finally launched the following four titles at the Singapore Writers Festival, culminating in years of work and waiting:
Spaces: People/Places (my second book of short stories)
Balik Kampung 3A: Northern Shores; Balik Kampung 3B: Some East, More West; Balik Kampung 3C: Central Corridor (the latest installments of the bestselling series of short stories that I curated and edited)

On the afternoon of 12 November, Singapore Love Stories (a project initiated by Raelee Chapman, edited by me, published by Monsoon Books, and featuring seventeen writers, including myself) was launched also at the Singapore Writers Festival.

Yes, an amazing twelve days of celebration that I am very grateful for. Now, may the books sell and may as many people read the various texts as possible…

At the same time, the trip back to Singapore was a time for me to take stock as I ended one phase of my life (the publication of the five books was the last of my artistic projects lined up for 2016) and seriously focus on the next phase comprising my Ph.D. studies at Swansea University. Yes, I agree, launching five different books at the Singapore Writers Festival does make me seem very prolific. However looking back, my overall creative output over the last five years has been immense.

Since In the Company of Heroes (my second book of plays) came out in 2011, I’ve published three volumes of plays, two short story collections and edited twelve anthologies (six for Math Paper Press, two for Monsoon Books, and four for the National Library Board). Not to mention, the conceptualization, rehearsal, production and performance of various major storytelling performances; participation in various festivals; conducting various creative writing, storytelling, voice and presentation skills workshops; teaching part-time at the National Institute of Education; starting and completing a part-time MFA in Creative Writing…

Now, you can see how much I need this sabbatical of a Ph.D. to slow things down, read and recharge. But being back in Singapore, surrounded by family, friends, familiar surroundings and celebrating my work, I began wondering if I had done the right thing to transplant myself to a completely new place like Swansea where I hardly know anyone and no one knows me plus spend the time, money and effort on yet another degree that has yet to progress in any way…

And then yet another major factor had to be taken into consideration… Over the last year or so, somehow my body has been reminding me time and time again that I am no longer a spring chicken with a series of new aches and pains. A pain in the knee that started in Jul (that suddenly materialized when I simply extended my leg to get off a bus) never resolved itself and the stress of moving to Swansea in Sep made things worse. I had begun seeing the osteopathic health clinic at Swansea University (that allows student osteopaths to gain practical experience) for some treatment.

At first, the knee seemed to be progressing. Then on Monday 24 October, my knee buckled just as I was returning to Beck House after a day spent on campus. [Three steps forward, six steps back — so to speak…] The pain was intense and I couldn’t walk properly. I got into my room as quickly as I could, and after calming myself down, I tried to do as much release work as possible on my leg. Next morning, I sought emergency treatment at the osteopathic clinic. Thank goodness, over three sessions scattered throughout the next week, my knee/leg recovered enough for me to make the journey back to Singapore without too much of a hassle.

Back in Singapore with the help of my sister (a general practitioner by profession and my family doctor) arranging various appointments, I had an MRI scan done on my right knee as well as had an orthopedic consultation. Now I’ve known for a long while that I do not have the healthiest of knees, but I’ve never had an official investigation done on my knees before and have managed their condition over the last few years with a lot of rehabilitative exercises done in a gym and at yoga sessions. Finally to have an official pronouncement on the state of my right knee — it is both good and bad as far as I am concerned.

Yes, I did tear my meniscus and I have a huge Baker’s cyst, but the orthopedic surgeon was not too concerned about those things. He was more worried about the amount of osteoarthritis behind my knee cap and told me to consider having surgery in due course (not a knee replacement, but a procedure that involves lifting up the knee cap, clearing up the mess behind and then gluing a synthetic lining behind the knee cap before replacing the knee cap back in its proper position — an expensive operation which still does not guarantee 100% success rate in solving the osteoarthritis).

So during those ten days in Singapore, not many people knew about the inner conflicts that I was facing. Regarding the Ph.D., I told myself that I just had to give the studies and myself a chance. One main reason why I had sought quiet and anonymity in a place far from Singapore: so that I could focus on getting that novel done and recharge my knowledge and creative batteries. Granted that Lionel Shriver has recently courted controversy, but there was one thing she said during her talk I attended at the Singapore Writers Festival that resonated with me. To paraphrase her words, sometimes one needs to show commitment to one’s work by actually paying to go away from the familiar in order to write and finish a project. Since I’ve started on this expensive path, I should continue on. After all, I’ve only been at it for a few weeks.

Regarding the knee, the decision was simple, at least in the short term. Since I could still walk, did not need such an operation immediately (like in an emergency life and death situation), was due to depart for Swansea within days and would not return to Singapore until April 2017, I would just have to live with the knee, manage its condition over the next few months, see by April next year what the state of the knee is like and then go from there.

In terms of managing the knee, I am not without resources. Thank you, Anjani Shah (my teacher in Iyengar Yoga) and Mattew Chan, Nelson Chong & Karen Goh of Functional Training Institute, for sharing with me your knowledge over the last few years on how to cope with my physical limitations. I just have to be very consistent in exercising every day to limber up the various muscles that will allow me to function as normally as possible, despite having a bum knee. Since returning to Swansea, first thing every morning I have spent at least an hour doing some form of exercise/stretching/release work — and I must say that the effort is paying off as both knees are doing not too badly, though I don’t feel my right knee is strong enough yet for me to enter the uni gym to do more hardcore stuff.

[An event happened on the morning of Wednesday 16 November that has helped put me in a more positive mood about my health. At 5 plus am while trying to execute a yoga cobra position, I looked up and out of my room window and saw the full moon emerging from behind clouds. I had heard of the supermoon occurring over the weekend, but did not expect that I would see this month’s full moon due to my travels plus the heavy cloud cover that has dominated the sky since my return to Swansea. When I saw the moon, I just had to take a break from my exercises and photograph the beautiful sight.]

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View from Beck House, Swansea, Wednesday 16 November 2016, circa 5.30 am

I also have to thank my sister for all her help and advice, plus procuring on my behalf, a ton of nutritional supplements that will hopefully rebuild bone and cartilage. So I must eat those pills steadily, lose weight (to take pressure off the knee), and wear knee guards when necessary. Since returning to Swansea, I’ve tried my best to control carbo intake to hopefully enable weight loss.

There is one more person to thank: my mother and her example. She is 92 years old, but does not appear so because of her attitude towards life and being very responsible for taking care of her own health. Since 2009 when I introduced her to FTI and my former trainer (and now friend) Mattew Chan, she has been going to the gym once a week, plus exercising at home almost every day by doing exercises learned at FTI that are tailored to her capacity. While she may not move like a young person, the work that she has done has helped her overall mobility and stability and even increased her bone density through the years, unlike many folks her age who are in far worse condition. So if my mother can overcome her problems of having both knees replaced and other issues, I can manage my arthritic knees.

***

The SQ Singapore-Heathrow flight on 14 November was almost a dream: I sat by the aisle and the middle seat between my seat and the window seat was vacant, reducing the sense of claustrophobia. Unfortunately, the most unexpleasant aspect of this entire Swansea-Singapore-Swansea trip was the National Express coach ride from Heathrow to Swansea. For some reason or another that was never explained, the bus coming into Heathrow was very late, which meant that the bus left Heathrow 55 minutes later than the scheduled time, delaying my return to Swansea.

Nevertheless, I finally reached my room at Beck House around 2.30 pm on Monday 14 November. When I tried to connect my laptop and phone to the uni wifi, I failed to do so and discovered a few hours later that the wifi at Beck House had gone down that very afternoon. Wifi was only restored by Wednesday 16 November.

The reason why I mentioned such trivia as the wifi service not working will become apparent in a few moments as I build up the context behind my last few epiphanies that I wish to reveal in this blog. But first some notes about the weather.

If you can recall,  I had described in my last two blogs how the September-October weather in Swansea as being generally dry, sunny and warmer than expected. The weather on 14 November was no longer sunny and dry — it was bleak, grey and rainy, but still warm, circa 13 degrees celcius, which was great for me as I did not bring my bigger coats along with me on the trip back to Singapore. By Wednesday however, the temperatures started to drop, going below 10 degrees celcius.

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Singleton Park, Swansea: walk to Singleton Campus, Swansea University, 17 November 2016, circa 8.30 am

Thursday 17 November was wierd weather-wise. Apparently in other parts of Wales and some parts of England, there were hurricanes or near hurricanes happening. In Swansea itself, we had a bit of this rough weather in terms of squally periods of heavy rain and even lightning and thunder. Then that night, I had an incredible adventure.

Although my laptop is just over a year old, it is rather temperamental. I had left my computer on so that my iPhone could get its IOS thingy updated as encouraged by iTunes and went to prepare and eat my dinner. When I returned to my desk, not only had my computer hung, it also hung my iPhone since the programme update was only partially completed. When I rebooted my laptop, I found out that I couldn’t connect to the wifi at all. Not knowing if the lack of wifi was due to my computer or because the Beck House wifi was faulty again, I freaked out, especially since I had spent the last two days so dependent on my iPhone for communication purposes because I hadn’t been able to use my laptop for email and what-have-you.

I looked at the time. It was about 5.45 pm, perhaps still possible for me to catch the last bus to Singleton campus so that I could access the wifi there and fix my iPhone. So I quickly packed my laptop etc, wore my coats etc. and rushed to the Bernard Street bus stop on Sketty Road.

5.55 pm. Please, please, please, let the No. 10 come. Of course, the bus never came. I was too late.

Then it started to rain. Heavily.

Not the demure, misty, drip-drip rain (i.e. xi xi de yu — yes, my Mandarin teachers, you will be glad to know that I did retain at least this one little bit of your lessons) that us Singaporeans tend to associate with rainy English weather.

More like a King Lear symphonic storm. Lightning cracks. Thunder crescendoes. Rain avalanches.

I huddled under the bus shelter for some relief (but making sure I wasn’t standing too close to the metal frame of the shelter in case it was zapped by lightning).

Fortunately, the squall petered itself out after about ten minutes to a far less frightening intensity. I debated: should I be sane and go back to Beck House and leave fixing of my iPhone to the next day, or should I brave the rain, the wet roads and the dark (with my tricky right knee) and walk to Singleton Campus and access the uni wifi there to fix my iPhone?

On hindsight, Silly Me chose to walk. Where there were dark spots on the road to campus, I would be okay since I had a torch with me. As I proceeded down Pantygwdyr Road, things seemed to be returning to normal. There were other pedestrians, e.g. man walking his small dog, students hurrying away from campus. You can’t get more normal than a man walking his dog in the rain, right? But only at the other end of Pantygwdyr Road and along Oakwood Road next to Brynmill Park did I discover how NOT normal things were.

As I was walking, I was wondering why was the ground so crunchy. Did someone throw sand or salt on the road/sidewalk already? Hmm… The weeds on the sidewalk seem a little frosty. Flashing my torchlight on the ground for closer inspection… Arrgghhh… That was not frost, that was tiny, tiny drops of hail/snow everywhere. Looking at the tops of parked cars, I saw the same stuff covering the vehicles.

OMG, I had been out in the middle of a hail storm (or maybe even a thunder snowstorm — yes, there is such a term as I discovered in a news app this evening).

It was still cold, but not cold enough for the hail/snow to remain and the stuff was already melting away. By the time I had reached the uni library, accessed the wifi on my laptop,  fixed my iPhone, packed my things and walked back to Beck House, most of the hail/snow had dissappeared from the ground and the tops of vehicles.

The full extent of what had happened and what I did only hit me when I reached my Beck House room. Yes, the whole episode was scary, like bungee-jumping. However, if I had stayed safe in Singapore and never stepped out of my comfort zone, I would never have experienced what I just did. More importantly, even with my bum knee, I had survived and things were okay. So if I could get over the storm, homesickness/second thoughts/ill health are nothing. In the end no matter what happens, everything will still turn out fine.

 

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