Promises

I was reading the book titled “Rules for my Daughter” by Walker Lamond and came across this quote:

“Keep promises. Especially the ones to yourself.”

And then it struck me – that one of the best expressions of self-love is to keep the promises you have made to yourself! It could be something simple, like promising to drink more water, exercise more regularly, it could be something more elaborate, like planning for a holiday you promised to go for a long time ago, etc.

So I thought, let me start simple – I’ll make three promises to myself this year, and I’ll try to keep them. Here they are:

1. I promise to live healthily. 💪🏼

– drink water regularly (2.7 litres a day; 11 cups x 250ml)

– exercise regularly (at least once every two days)

– eat healthily (on most days, fast food once every 2 weeks)

2. I promise to love myself. ❤️

– acknowledge and prioritise my needs (for love, belonging, food, shelter, rest)

– love my body, no matter which stage of life I’m in.

– do things that are good for me in the long run / future (before deciding on something, ask yourself: “will this be good for me in future? In the next year, or 2-3 years ahead?”)

– love and accept myself as I am (no more “if only I were xx and yy”, why can’t I be more like zz”)

3. I promise to be happy. 😊

– forgive myself for the mistakes / foolish decisions I’ve made.

– use life-giving words (eg “I will keep trying”, “I can do better”, “I will not give up” etc) and not life-sucking words (eg “I’m dying”, “I hate myself”, “I’m disappointed in myself” etc).

– Do more of the things that bring me life.

I’ll try this out this year, and let’s see what happens!:)

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Well of Sadness

There is a well of sadness within me

that never seems to dry.

Even though nightly I empty it

with petitions of tears,

the next morning it fills

back to the brim again.

Like the everlasting stream of water,

it seems, except

I wish it were not so.

When will the well close?

When will it finally sleep? I know

not the answer, but I hope –

May the stream of living water come

and flush the sorrow out of the well,

one day. I hope.

That day, I look

with eyes of faith, and

a heart of expectancy.

Meanwhile, I pray, I weep,

I wait.

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

Finished my second Amy Tan book for the year, and similar to the first, this one left me in tears on more than one occasion. While The Hundred Secret Senses was about the relationship between two sisters, this story was about a mother-daughter relationship, or maybe if I should be more specific, a mother reminiscing her early life, marriage, hardships, and friendships with her daughter, and her daughter sharing her own secrets with her mother. Mother-daughter stories almost always make me cry, and this was no exception! I think my biggest takeaways from the story were these – that almost nothing is greater than a mother’s love, and that it is better to be happily single than unhappily married.

Yes, so many times I wished I were married by now. But the story, which so vividly depicts the horrors of an evil, selfish and sex-crazed husband, and the disappointment of a loveless marriage, reminds me to cherish my present state – that where I am right now, free to pursue my dreams and fancies, surrounded by my loving parents, siblings and friends, holding a stable and meaningful career, working with dedicated colleagues, this is where I’m meant to be, at least in this period of my life, and that I should cherish and enjoy the moments 🙂

I pray one day I’ll meet a man as patient, kind and compassionate as Jimmy Louie, but regardless, I hope I’ll develop the tenacity and strength of character as Winnie to withstand all difficulties in life, and to grab hold of life with undying optimism and the relentless hope that no matter what happens, things can be fixed, and things will turn out well.

And here I leave a short quote I grabbed from the book:

“So I bought that mistake. I fixed it.”

Which basically, to me, means: I owned that circumstance. I made the best of it. I turned things around. I made things better.

Onward to the next story!

Family.

Saw this picture on Instagram recently and it struck a chord within me. The quote reminded me of the mistakes I made in my twenties, and the (rather foolish) priorities I had then while trying to chase those idealistic notions of making a difference to the world, to the kingdom, to my community, blah blah blah. It reminded me of how I spent most of my time, energy and finances in church, and not anything for my family, under the foolish impression that only service in church was considered ministry and service to God. On hindsight, those times were probably a form of escapism from the messiness of home life, but now I realise the only way to bring reconciliation and harmony is to be with my family and spend time with them, not hide from them.

Learning to make wiser decisions and priorities this year. Family is important, remember that. When everyone else deserts you, your family will be the only ones left standing by your side.

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses certainly lives true to its title – its narratives, cultural mix of languages and melting pot of characters, both past and present elicited in me such a rich explosion of senses and emotions I never realised could exist at the same time before. It is a curious feeling to both chuckle and weep in the same moment, to feel the flash of irritation as quickly as the warmth of sympathy, to be puzzled and yet enchanted by the confusing web of storytelling weaved into the narrative. This book may have been written from a young American Chinese girl’s (Olivia) perspective, but what brought the story life was really her Chinese American older sister’s (Kwan) recounts of her earlier life in China, and a past life before their current ones. Read it, and allow your senses to be enthralled.

As a teaser, let me leave you with some of my favourite quotes:

On culture:

“Maybe too many opinions is an American custom. I think Chinese people don’t like to have different opinions at the same time. We believe one thing, we stick to it for one hundred years, five hundred years. Less confusion that way. Of course I’m not saying that Chinese people never change their minds, not so. We can change if there’s a good reason. I’m just saying we don’t change back and forth, right and left, whenever we like, just to be interesting.

“Actually, maybe today, Chinese people are changing too much, whichever way the money is blowing, that’s the direction they’ll chase.

” … In China today people grow more capitalist ideas than pigs. They don’t remember when capitalism was the number one enemy. Short memory, big profits.

“… Americans have short memory too, I think. No respect for history, only what’s popular.”

On faith and hope and dreams:

“I prayed to God to save my brothers. I prayed for him to spare my mother. I prayed that my father would come back to me. Religion teaches you that faith takes care of hope. All my hopes are gone, so why do I need faith anymore?”

“Everyone must dream. We dream to give ourselves hope. To stop dreaming – well, that’s like saying you can never change your fate. Isn’t that true?”

“You can’t stop people from wishing. They can’t help trying. As long as they can see the sky, they’ll always want to go as high as they can.”

On happiness:

“I remember an argument we once had, in which I said you couldn’t compare your happiness with someone else’s unhappiness… Now as I watch these people waving at us to stop, I feel lucky I’m not in earwax removal. Yet I’m also afraid that the core of my being, stripped of its mail-order trappings, is no different from that of the tenth person who stands on the road wishing for someone to stop and single her out.”

On love:

“Sweet love didn’t last, and it was too hard to find. But rotten love! – there was plenty to fill the hollow. So that’s what she grew accustomed to, and that’s what she took as soon as it came back.”

“With Simon, I laughed harder, thought more deeply, felt more passionately about life beyond my own cubbyhole. We could volley ideas back and forth like tennis pros. We wrestled with each others’ minds. We unearthed each others’ past with psychoanalytic gusto. I thought it was eerie how much we had in common.”

“…the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us towards knowing what is true. I once thought love was supposed to be nothing but bliss. I now know it is also worry and grief, hope and trust. And believing… that love never dies. If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them anytime with our Hundred secret senses. “

My greatest aim in life is to “____________”

How would you fill in the blank to this question, I wonder? To…. be rich? Be famous? Be successful? To be a doctor, lawyer, dentist, or accountant? Make a difference in someone’s life? Become a president of a country some day? Be a billionaire? Get married and have kids? Have a successful career? Lead a meaningful / fulfilling life? Achieve work-life balance? Stay healthy?

The possibilities are endless. I can think of so many things I want to accomplish in life! But how about The Accomplishment of all accomplishments?

This question first appeared in one of the early bible study materials I covered as a young Christian in church. Brimming with extreme hope and idealism then, I had written something especially ambitious like “My greatest aim in life is to ­make a difference in the world!” I took a peek at my friend’s booklet, where she had written “My greatest aim in life is to be happy”, and winced inwardly at such an apparent lack of ambition. To me then, happiness and joy were merely a by-product of leading a rich, meaningful, and successful life, rather than an end goal in itself.

A few years later while struggling in the throes of my depression, I remembered my friend’s answer and suddenly the goal of being happy didn’t seem too frivolous or unimportant anymore. I realised first-hand how difficult it was to get anything done when you were feeling just so unhappy. There were so many days when I simply wanted to feel happy, because without even a minutest sense of happiness or contentment in my heart, I couldn’t be motivated to do anything else. In fact during that period of time, work seemed like an almost pleasant distraction for me – the deadlines at work kept me purposeful and gave me a mild sense of accomplishment, work matters distracted me from otherwise sinking deeper into ruminative and hopeless thoughts that would eventually lead me down a vicious cycle of negativity.

Even then, my work hours were frequently interrupted with brief episodes of tearing or crying. Halfway through work, some naughty tears would escape through the rims of my eyelids and trickle down my cheeks, sometimes almost without warning. My mind would be invaded with negative thought after negative thought. I had to resolve to make time to cry every day (say, by giving myself 5 minutes of solace in the bathroom), just so that I could concentrate on work the rest of the day.

I realised then, that I shouldn’t take something seemingly simple like JOY for granted at all. The bible calls joy a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), in other words something I need to cultivate deliberately.

Our outward circumstances are unpredictable and often uncontrollable – the family I’m born into, how people behave towards me, who my bosses and colleagues are, sometimes the kind of work I’m given and the deadlines I have to deal with (or heck, whether I have a job or not), whether I stay safe when crossing the road or driving a car, and on a more personal note, whether I meet someone I can fall in love with and marry in future, etc. But my inward world can be cultivated carefully, to become a garden of joy and happiness, to be a safe haven to keep me anchored to the Solid Rock, even as I journey through the storms of life.

So… my answer to the question in the title? I believe at this point in time, to take joy in every circumstance, every day, wherever I am, in whatever I do.

Year-end Musings

My priorities are clear: God first, Family second, Ministry third.

Sometime between last and this year, it came to be that I had to choose between my family and church, failing which I’d be in a prolonged state of tension and misery between both. I chose my family.

Sometimes the separation between God and church membership/ministry can be a tricky thing. Will one’s devotion to God be put into question when one gives up his/her ministry? To this day I do not know if I made the right choice. Everywhere I go, I seem to hear something (good or bad) about CHC. I still miss the people, the preaching, the ministry in CHC. But I’m also mindful that God is bigger than one church; it is the combination of local churches that make up the body of Christ, and I can serve God equally in another part of the body of Christ, if anything stops me from doing so in the part I was originally planted in.

The uprooting process was rough, I felt lost, forgotten and neglected. I questioned myself multiple times about whether I made the right decision; because had I stayed, I’d still be a part of a cell group, I’d likely be dating someone P_ was going to introduce me to… but whether I could feel a sense of belonging in the cell group; whether I could get along with the guy P_ would introduce me to… that is another question. I know that I had been feeling jaded in the church over the past few years, crushed by the ever-growing list of responsibilities and the lack of genuine relationship / connection with the people there.

My decision to leave was a slow and gradual process, made possible by gradually extricating myself from different ministry responsibilities – first bookstore, then children’s church, and finally, cell group. This separation was a painful process; as I removed myself from those roles, I also lost the relationships I had built up with the people in those settings. That’s when I came to the painful realisation of how transactional and transient many of the relationships I had with church members were – they were more like professional working relationships and not genuine friendship relationships. Most of the time, people were more interested in what I could do, how I could serve and how I could be useful to them, rather than how I was doing, feeling and coping with life.

By the time it was appropriate for me to leave church (given I had hardly any responsibilities left), nobody looked out for me. No one asked how I was. Probably nobody remembered me. I had managed to turn into a piece of background furniture, and it didn’t matter anymore whether I was there or not. On the other hand, there was also a sense of relief, possibly because I was able to slip out in such an anonymous fashion. I didn’t have to explain to people where I was, why I was no longer attending, whether I was backsliding, etc etc, simply because nobody asked / noticed my absence.

The only ones who really asked after me were the children I follow up on in children’s church, bless them. Two years on they are still texting me to tell me about little nuggets happening in their lives. One kid messaged me one day and asked, “Teacher Anne, will you be my godmother? I was thinking of finding one and I thought of you.” The same kid sent me a video of himself beaming into the camera, and asked for one in return. “Teacher Anne, I just want to say hi. I don’t remember how you look like anymore, can you send me a video of yourself so I won’t forget?” Another kid texted me almost 2 years after I stopped visiting her, because she only just got a cell phone after her PSLE. “Teacher Anne how are you!” She texted excitedly. “Why haven’t you come in such a long time!” These texts never fail to bring me to tears. Tears of joy because they still remember me after these years, tears of sadness because attachments once formed are not easily broken, and to these children (many of whom come from broken families), such attachments are all the more precious in their lives. Leaving them was almost tantamount to rejection and withdrawal of love.

I think the most heart wrenching moments were the teary conversations I had with God during my quiet times in the still of the night. I questioned why it had to come to this, why my family continued to be so hostile towards my religion and my church affiliation after over a decade of serving God and sowing into the church. I sacrificed my time, money, energy, youth, basically almost all I could offer to the church and to God, and in return I received taunts, criticisms and hostility from my family (extended family included), but minimal or no earthly source of comfort; my leaders and members didn’t seem to fully comprehend or be concerned with my struggles. I felt fatigued, financially insecure, and lonely without genuine companionship and relationship.

I suppose these desperate moments allowed me to turn to God completely, in the absence of meaningful earthly companionship. For a prolonged period of time, God’s silence was deafening; and I felt as if I was knocking and pleading against a brick wall. I agonized over my decision and wondered if I had made the wrong choice, since God had been so silent over my questions and ponderings. It’s easy to think of silence as punishment, and allow guilt to consume you. I felt intense guilt over the un-Christian-like things I did (or did not do), like church hopping, not giving tithe, not serving actively in ministry, not following up on the remaining of my members, etc. I wondered if I had lost the approval of God since I had stopped doing all these things. But through it all, I experienced an amazing revelation too – that continual feeling of God’s presence and love for me in spite of the silence. It was as if God’s love pierced through the dark fog of silence and enveloped my entire being. It was as if He was trying to assure me that this silence was not a punishment of abandonment, but a lesson He was taking me lovingly through. The startling realisation that God loves me simply for who I am, and not because of what I do, leapt off the pages of the bible and into my heart. It was a great sense of liberation; I mean, I still cry often, and I continue to grieve over my imperfections, but I’ve learnt to depend on Him, to trust Him, and to recognise His sufficiency in all things. I’m still learning.

Today I feel much more joyful, at peace and contented than I had been for a long time. I’m still healing, from past hurts, rejections, disappointments. But I’m taking small steps at a time. I’m thankful for my Christian friends – (one or two) existing CHC members I still keep in touch with, alienated CHC members or ex-members, other Christian friends I met at work, school etc. They have been my lifeline between my earthly carnal emotional self and Jesus, especially during the dark and lonely days. Without them I don’t think my Christian faith would have sustained so well.

I can only say, our Christian walk is a series of peaks and valleys, and the only unchanging factor in this journey is God Himself. Not ourselves, our friends, our family, or even our spouse (if I eventually have one). The only way to practise this “religion” is to have a personal relationship with our most high God – to talk to Him, sing, shout, cry, or project our deepest thoughts and emotions to Him in any way possible, to share our happy, sad, and boring moments with Him, to allow Him to gently guide us, direct us, and redefine our understanding and knowledge of Him time and again. He is truly the anchor, the rock, the everlasting hope of our salvation, and He is the only One we can depend on, through all seasons, in all terrains, through all life’s ebbs and flows. When Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses against the door of the church and proclaimed the five solas, he made a good point. Solus Christus. In Christ alone can I have my hope and salvation.

The Start of a Wet Christmas

So, I started populating entries in this blog at the beginning of the year, lasting a few weeks, and promptly stopped, before coming back again only now. Apologies! I grossly underestimate the amount of willpower, discipline, and creativity needed to sustain a blog, as well as all those book reviews (so far, I’ve only written four woeful reviews).

But anyway, December is here, and Orchard Road (the city centre shopping district in Singapore) is all decked up in colourful lights and Christmas decorations. The theme this year is gold and blue, complete with giant stars hanging off streetlamps and tree branches, which make up a rather cheerful and festive atmosphere. Every shopping mall lining the streets of Orchard Road is also resplendent with their individual sets of decorations, and I must say some of them are rather creative in putting up ambiguous décor that could pass off as both for Christmas and Chinese New Year (which is coming up in a month’s time after Christmas) – how creative and cost effective!

Alluding to the title of the post, it will be a Wet Christmas here, because it is Monsoon season during Dec-Jan in Southeast Asia, and the monsoon draught blows storm clouds all over this region, bringing with it windy and damp weather. Nice if you are staying home hiding under your covers, less nice if you are rushing for last minute Christmas shopping with the throngs of other shoppers and tourists.

I haven’t told you what I’ve been busy with in this gap of 10 months, and I assure you that many things have been going on. I’ve enrolled in and completed a 7-month long Bible School (a personal milestone I had set for myself years ago), took a short holiday in Bali, headed for a mission trip to Jakarta (more specifically, a city called Lippo Cikarang, about 2 hours’ drive from Jakarta), where I preached my first sermon in front of the Sunday crowd during Sunday morning service, completed the numerous assignments (mainly book reviews and sermon preparations), paper exams and practical tests for Bible School (such as mock cell group and preaching tests), bombed my last module for my Masters course (with a very miserable grade, sobs), and am currently working on my thesis which I hope to complete by the end of this year! In between all this, took my maiden trip to Sydney Australia to attend my brother’s wedding (my sister-in-law is Australian), and had a good time staying over at my aunt and uncle’s place, learning more about Australian wines, visiting the casino (well actually I only went in there to have meals, the food is really nice and comes with a discount!), hanging out with my Australian cousins who brought me around, playing with my nephew and nieces, and of course, enjoying the weather and scenery, something I will never get in sunny Singapore. My only cousin from Shanghai flew over to Singapore for the first time to attend my brother’s wedding (he had two, one in Australia and the other in Singapore), and we had a good time hosting him and bringing him around the different places of interest in Singapore (I had to rack my brains to think them up, in Singapore it almost seems as if the only places people frequent are air-conditioned shopping malls, which are in generous supply in urban Shanghai anyway). My little brother was back in Singapore for a full three months as well (he studies in the UK most of the year), and it was good to spend some quality time with him at home (bickering with imaginary people is a really tiresome activity, you know. I have to create all the conversation topics and arguments on my own. HAHA).

There have been other minor events during this time as well, such as the occasional trip across the causeway to Johor Bahru for a quick retreat, the church young adults’ conference we had in late October, friends’ weddings spread out across the year, frequent gatherings with my different groups of friends (from secondary school, university, church), occasional meetups with ex-colleagues with whom I’m still on rather good terms with, my weekly visits to the children’s homes, as part of serving with the Children’s service at my church, the weekly departmental brownbag sessions organised by my Psychology department (which takes me a dose of courage to attend each time, because I always go alone and never know what to expect), and so on.

Many of my activities this year revolve around things happening to other people, and I just happen to be a part of the audience, a spectator of events, a participant in these occasions. There are still things I’m hoping for, such as, to finish my Masters proper, to secure a new job (another pain in the neck), and of course, find a life partner. In Singapore, it’s kind of hard to make long term plans without a life partner – for instance, buying a new home would be virtually impossible for any young single working adult (unless you are loaded, or you have loaded parents who are willing to spare you the moolah), unless you are married / getting married, because government housing is usually reserved for couples rather than singles (until you reach the age of 35, and then you are only allowed to buy a resale flat, which will be more expensive than a brand new one, which comes with government subsidies). Renting is generally not a popular option, given the high cost of land, and thus, rent, when you have the option of staying in relative comfort with your parents in the home you grew up in. Besides, the country is so tiny there is hardly a need to move in order to live nearer to your workplace; public transport is generally efficient (with the occasional train breakdowns), and it only takes about 1.5 hours max to travel from one end of the country to the other (by public transport, might I add. It would be way faster by car). I’m thankful for my family and friends around me, who bring life and colour to my world. Still, sometimes I feel like I’m in a standstill, stuck in a vortex of spiralling wind, in the eye of a tornado, where things are moving, but to nowhere. Just revolving around in a circle. Heh, pardon these ponderous and pessimistic musings, I have these moments too.

Ok, scratch all those negative vibes! I am frequently comforted and assured by this verse in the Bible:

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11 (NKJV)

So I’m counting on the promises of God to bring me through both high and low! Yes, to many not in the faith, religion would be considered a crutch for those believers – but in a sense, I do admit it, because without my religion, or rather, without God, I don’t think I would be able to navigate this world.

Thanksgiving just passed, and I know while it is not an Asian tradition to celebrate Thanksgiving (really, it is only an American thing, it isn’t even a Jewish or Christian festival), and some would scorn at the ironic history of how this day came about, still it has evolved to something positive – i.e., a reminder for us to give thanks. Give thanks, for our circumstances, blessings, or, in spite of them, whatever the situation, it is still important to give thanks (because anyway, from a practical perspective, being grateful confers positive benefits for our physical and mental well-being as well!). So here are some things I am giving thanks to God for:

1. For giving me the courage to enrol in, and complete Bible School. It’s been such a huge sacrifice, and possibly shift of values for me. There were days in Bible School when I looked back and thought to myself, “What in the world am I doing here?!” when I once again felt the pain of leaving my job and plunging into the unknown. But it’s a dream You have given me so many years ago, and I’m so thankful it has finally come into fruition this year. 2 + 0 + 1 + 4 = 7, a divine year indeed.

2. For never being in financial lack. I haven’t earned a single cent this year (ok, I earned about $320 after the data analysis, which was finally credited into my bank account after 2 months), and yet each time I always had enough. Sure, I haven’t bought any new clothes, I bought two pairs of shoes this year (which are unfortunately worn out), and a bag for my brother’s wedding. And oh, I bought the dress for my brother’s wedding, which was a huge mistake (a $179 mistake, eeks). (will never spend that much on something again – constantly learning to be wise with my $$). I realise that while money isn’t everything, it is quite something, and a lack of it can be quite painful. But wise spending is a skill and habit that needs to be developed over time. I have been pretty loose with my money the previous years, and I really learnt to tighten my belt this year. No fancy accessories, clothes, etc. Thankful for my brother who wired $XX over, even though he spent so much on his honeymoon. I will make sure to pay him back once I start work again. Thankful for all the people who blessed me multiple ways, like Sophie over the lunches, Cel’s mum over the love offerings, and basically my friends who bought little things for me or gifted me with red packets. These I always remember – not so much the amount of the gift, but the thought behind the gift is what matters. Thankful.

3. For my mum’s slight change in attitude towards church. I wished I had brought my mum to church more, while my China students were still around. But I will continue trying. I am praying that my family will be saved eventually! Amen.

4. For the time in Bible School. The experiences, the people and friends I met, the knowledge I learned and gained, the experiences I encountered for the first time, like mock CG, preaching tests, Mission trip – there were times I thought I wouldn’t make it, but I got through them, and God surely has a way of bringing us through whatever we come face to face with. Same for my masters, I must tell myself this.

5. For a chance to complete my Masters. I know, it isn’t easy, and most days I’m inundated with severe doubts about my competence in academics at all (I can’t believe how someone like me, who seemed so academically promising in my younger years, can suffer so much in school as I grow older), and a sense of regret that I probably won’t pursue anything to do with this line (i.e., academia) once I’m out of  university. But being in school is a privilege, and I hope, I must, cherish the privilege, and try my best to complete what I have to do here.

6. For my family. No doubt, my parents probably definitely do not approve of many of the things I have done this year (e.g., resigning from a stable and promising job, enrolling in Bible school), but yet they quietly accommodate my actions, accept them as my growing pains and love me still the same. And this surely puts things into perspective. I may have grand dreams about doing something meaningful that will change the world, improve the lives of thousands of people, alleviate their suffering, etc, but at the end of the day, the simplest thing I can do to have made my mark is to make my parents proud of me. And this quote I read along the way is really apt:

” You don’t have to be famous. You just have to make your mother and father proud of you.” – Meryl Streep

7. For my relationship with God. It’s been times of ups and downs, I’ve confronted my weaknesses once and again. I’m so weak in faith, and yet each time God is there, and He understands, and He gives me room to grow and learn. I still have doubts, I have uncertainties about what work I will do – but I also seem to have an assurance that things will be OK, but I should focus on completing my thesis well first. Yes God, I will try.

So, 7 points! In the Bible, seven is the number of completion. So I shall stop here. Onward to a glorious end of the year, and a glorious Christmas at that! 🙂

“My Year with Eleanor” by Noelle Hancock

My Year with Eleanor

I’ve been reading rather prolifically (this is a relative term, compared to the number of books I’ve read [excluding those compulsory texts I had to complete in Bible school] over this past year) these few weeks as I’m gearing towards the middle-end part of my thesis writing (actually, still at data analysis), and becoming increasingly frustrated by the new things I have to learn about conducting analysis. So this was a book I picked up randomly from a shelf in my school library about a week ago, and from the cover, you would think it looks like a chick-lit sort of fictional account of a woman and her (mis)adventures (well except this is not a work of fiction, the word “memoir” is printed clearly at the centre of the cover page). And you know, I’m normally rather careful with chick lit, because reading a bad chick lit is akin to watching a bad chick flick (or any bad movie), it contaminates my mind, wastes my time, and leaves me disturbed for the next week or two. Thus, before embarking on the book, I went online to check on some reviews, and it turned out to be pretty positive! On Amazon.com it was probably a 4 out of 5, and on Goodreads the ratings were somewhat similar. I decided to give it a go, mainly because of two things: Eleanor in the title refers to Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the USA, and the book was written by the author when she was 29, which is around my age right now.

So basically, this book is about a 29-year old woman who, after being unexpectedly retrenched from her job as a celebrity blogger, became lost and confused about what to do with her future. Wondering along the streets, one day she happened to spot a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt written on the chalkboard of a cafe on the street, which said “Do one thing every day that scares you”. She immediately became inspired by the quote and endeavoured to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, and in the process, caught on the spirit behind Eleanor Roosevelt’s driving force in life, took a hiatus from job-hunting, and instead planned a year where she would conquer one fear a day, every day for the year.

Her plans gave her the opportunity to try out all sorts of things, like trapeze swinging (to overcome her fear of heights), shark hunting (to overcome her fear of diving in deep waters), volunteering in the cancer ward of a hospital (to overcome her fear of facing serious illnesses), helping out at a funeral home (to overcome her fear of death), taking part in a stand-up comedy event (to overcome her fear of public speaking), taking the courage to talk to her boyfriend about their future (something she had been avoiding for a while, for fear of the worst), attempting to wean off sleeping pills (she was dependent on them almost completely for sleep), running naked along her apartment corridor (when she had nothing better to do) and finally, climbing the Kilimanjaro mountain in Africa (to push herself beyond her limits and prove that nothing is impossible for someone unfit as her). So the culmination of her project was probably this book, which chronicled highlights of her adventures.

Actually I would say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. It was written in a lighthearted, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes contemplative way, perfect for a tea-time or after dinner read, to be finished while lying on your bed and dreaming of all the things you could be doing. Being a timid girl as I am, the book became an outlet through which I could vicariously experience all these fear-inducing activities, and I would do an inward cheer / imaginary cartwheel every time she managed to conquer these challenges. So many of these things are real challenges for me as well, and through her accounts it really did seem as if things are not as impossible as most would believe.

What I liked best about the book, though, was how she managed to weave snippets of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life stories into her personal accounts of her adventures, and in the process reveal the wisdom of E. Roosevelt for the particular situations she was in. I liked how every chapter started with a quote by E. Roosevelt, which neatly framed the main learning point/takeaway for that entire chapter; and by the end of the book my interest in E. Roosevelt was sufficiently piqued for me to want to read a few copies of her books instead. Which means, having read through 16 chapters in the book (15 chapters plus an Epilogue), I had at least 16 takeaways from the book. It really came through, from this memoir, that E. Roosevelt was an extraordinary woman, who overcame her personal limitations (e.g., lack of confidence in her physical appearance, an unhappy marriage, an over-controlling mother in law) to lead an extraordinary life.

Let me just prove it to you (heh OK, actually just for my own keepsake), some of the takeaways from the book (all quotations taken from E. Roosevelt!):

1. Life is a product of our choices and decisions. “Your life is your own. You mold it. You make it. All anyone can do is to point out ways and means which have been helpful to others. Perhaps they will serve as suggestions to stimulate your own thinking until you know what it is that will fulfill you, will help you find out what you want to do with your life.”

2. Change is the only constant – keep learning and growing! “Nothing alive can stand still, it goes forward or back. Life is interesting only as long as it is a process of growth; or, put it another way, we can only grow as long as we are interest.”

3. Facing your fears is an imperative, not a choice. “Looking back I see that I was always afraid of something: of the dark, of displeasing people, of failure. Anything I accomplished had to be done across a barrier of fear.”

4. Don’t be ashamed of pursuing your passions – and do so wholeheartedly, unabashedly, with complete abandon. “Do the things that interest you and do them with all your heart. Don’t be concerned about whether people are watching you or criticizing you. The chances are that they aren’t paying any attention to you.”

5. Keep loving, and keep learning to love better. “The giving of love is an education in itself.”

6. Don’t stop overcoming your fears. “The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before…. You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”

7. Find contentment in what you have. “My life can be so arranged that I can live on whatever I have. If I cannot live as I have lived in the past, I shall live differently, and living differently does not mean living with less attention to the things that make life gracious and pleasant or with less enjoyment of things of the mind.”

8. Cherish your family. “The greatest thing I have learned is how good it is to come home again.”

9. Pursue meaning and passion, not happiness. “Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product… For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.”

10. Carpe Diem. Seize the moment. “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.” (Ohh, so E. Roosevelt was the originator of this line!)

11. Be open to different experiences. “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear, for newer and richer experience.”

12. Maturity is about perspective-taking, humility, and compassion. “A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life.”

13. Conquer your fears – over and over again. Each little step counts. “Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

14. Knowledge dispels fear. Never fear the unknown – instead, keep learning. “A great deal of fear is a result of just “not knowing”. We do not know what is involved in a new situation. We do not know whether we can deal with it. The sooner we learn what it entails, the sooner we can dissolve our fear.”

15. Look forward to surprises and new experiences! “We are constantly advancing, like explorers, into the unknown, which makes life an adventure all the way. How interminable and dull that journey would be if it were on a straight road over a flat plain, if we could see ahead the whole distance, without surprises, without the salt of the unexpected, without challenge.”

And lastly…

16. Imperfect as we are, we can be an inspiration to others. “About the only value the story of my life may have is to show that one can, even without any particular gifts, overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable if one is willing to face the fact that they must be overcome; that, in spite of timidity and fear, in spite of a lack of special talents, one can find a way to live widely and fully.”

Some would fault this book as being narcissistic and self-indulgent, because the author’s situation about being jobless was not actually as grim as she initially believed. After all, she is pretty (as we can see from her picture on the back cover!), well educated (a graduate of Yale, imagine that!), has a supportive boyfriend and a close-knit group of friends, physically healthy (to be able to exert herself in all those physically demanding activities), and was probably sufficiently well-to-do to remain jobless for an entire year (most people wouldn’t have this luxury), so, what was there to complain about life? Just suck it up and quit whining! It is important to keep in mind, though, that everybody’s journey on this earth is unique, and what her book reminds us is that, it is OK to feel lost or aimless or directionless once in a while, but the most important thing is that we never lose our zest and thirst for trying out new things, being open to new experiences, seeking meaning in our lives, and most importantly, knowing that at the end of the day, it is really not about us – because personal happiness is merely a by-product of accomplishing something meaningful that is of service to others. I guess this book was apt for me, given that I’ve been jobless for about a year now (studying full time), and I’ve always been a timid and shy person by nature. So the book reminds me to have hope, never quit learning, always cherish the moment, and make the most of everything!

So if you’re feeling timid, fearful, afraid, or simply just wanting to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt through light reading, this book would be a good start for you. 🙂

I Watched “The Book Thief” Movie! (Warning: Spoilers below!)

No doubt, the scriptwriters changed much of the intricacies in the book, so that they could fit the plotline into 2 hours long. Some aspects of the story’s been changed quite a bit, and may be a reason for purist fans / supporters of the book to scorn the movie, but I thought there were some pretty refreshing things added in the movie that I didn’t notice (either not present, or I didn’t catch it) in the book.

The most memorable line in the movie was Max Vandenburg (the Jewish boy hidden in their basement) saying this line:
“In my religion, we are taught that every living thing (every leaf, every bird) is only alive because it contains the secret word for life – that’s the only difference between us and a lump of clay – a word. Words are life, Liesel. All those blank pages, they’re for you to fill.”

This was when he presented Liesel with a Christmas present – of a book with blank pages (He had taken Hitler’s Mein Kampf and painted the pages white – haha!) for Liesel to write her own stories in it.

How true, and how biblically reflective this line is – because God created everything, every living thing, by his Word.

Of course, this part of the movie was also different from what was portrayed in the book – but I thought it was a beautiful alternative, nonetheless.

It’s a beautiful, beautiful, story, of an incredibly lucky girl with a zest for life, and a big heart to love life, people, words, and love itself.

So… some more Spoilers below… (beware!)
 
The saddest scene in the movie: 
BookThiefMovie1

After the bombing at Himmel Street. Everyone living on the street perished, save Liesel, who by some providential coincidence had fallen asleep in the basement that evening (and hence was saved from the crumbling debris as the brick houses collapsed). Here, Liesel was kissing her best friend Rudy Steiner (& to be boyfriend, if he hadn’t died) in desperation and hope that he would wake up from his “sleep”. In earlier times, he had repeatedly challenged her for a kiss, but was rejected time and again. To think the only time he received a kiss from Liesel was at the point of his death. 
 
NB: Interestingly, “Himmel” is German for “Heaven”, and Liesel found heaven in a her home and neighbourhood, and those who perished in the bombing went from one heaven (their earthly home), to another (their eternal home).
 
The happiest scene in the movie:
BookThiefMovie2
 
Two years later, after the War had finally ended, Liesel is working as a shop assistant in Mr Steiner’s (Rudy’s father) shop. And in steps Max Vandenburg, the Jewish refugee who had subsequently left her home to prevent the family from coming into any danger (after an unfortunate incident when Liesel’s father, Hans Huberman, was labeled to be a Jew lover). Incredibly, he had survived the war (while the rest of the Germans on Himmel street sadly did not), and traveled back to find her (them, rather). 
 
The characters portrayed in the movie were splendid. I especially loved Rudy – the boy actor played Rudy magnificently (taking the words of the author)!
BookThiefMovie3 
 
 
Here are the two of them looking longingly at one another – not realizing the love that is between them. It’s a more morose moment in the movie, with Rudy expressing his longing to live – “I want to grow up, before I die” (sadly, he didn’t manage to) – and Liesel “confessing” her love for him (I don’t think she realised at this point how much she loved him) – “You are all I’ve got, Rudy”. And they subsequently broke into smiles and laughter as they cursed Hitler for the pain and suffering he was causing them and their loved ones. Aww, don’t you see, this boy’s such a looker! No wonder Liesel’s in love with him 😀
 
Oh well. Enough spoilers. Go read the book, and/or watch the movie, if you want to find out more. I’ve told you lots already, and those who hate spoilers, you will be mightily pissed with this post. Heh, sorry. I kind of love spoilers. And the pictures are so pretty. 
 
And so… My conclusion: The actors and actresses in the movie really made the story come to life. I loved almost every single actor’s portrayal of his/her character (Geoffrey Rush was brilliant as Hans Huberman, and no doubt the two teenagers who played Liesel and Rudy did so splendidly), with the exception of Rosa Huberman (Liesel’s foster mother), who seemed a lot milder, and more good looking than the book seemed to describe, and the Mayer’s wife, who seemed much more benevolent in the movie. However, the movie makes no mention of many other characters and events that took place in the book, and for me, watching the movie through “tainted” lens, I can’t help but wonder if others who have not read the book would be able to fully comprehend the significance of the story. After all, the story is more than just about Liesel, it’s also about the War, it’s about Hitler’s senseless regime, about the oppression and eradication of innocent lives, and it’s also about finding hope in times of hopelessness, and about striving on, and finding reasons to smile during hardships, and about the power of the word to save your lives (and thus, the title “The Book Thief”).
So.. go read the book. Then go watch the movie. 🙂 Enjoy 🙂