Well into my twenties, I've found that the idea that we can go through life just doing what makes us happy is not the whole story. How anyone thought that happiness was the appropriate litmus test to determine a fulfilling career is beyond me. While pursuing my undergraduate degree, I'd been involved in a student organization that gave me satisfaction––I'd toiled blood sweat and tears for it, all the while happy, then had come out the other side wondering what it was all for. Happiness? On the flip side, going into medical school was one of the most ridiculously masochistic things I'd ever done in my life. I'd never worked for something so hard, never felt so hopeless, never felt like wanting to quit every single day of my life until going through medical school. Only to find myself nearing the end of my formal schooling quite relieved that I hadn't thrown in the towel. I was very rarely happy, but I'm glad I did it.
Even in medicine, my days are filled with routine. Yes, the work I do is dynamic, but all people fall into routines regardless of their career paths. We get up, go to work, come home, go to bed. Then, we go at it again. It's not wrong to do this. I grew up being fed a myth that growing up meant being able to live life with selfish hedonism. I now find that it's a ridiculous model. Still, with routine, there's a tendency to fall into a pattern of doing things for the sake of getting them done. Where do we end up? What do we achieve? Are we fated to become what Japanese call a salaryman?–a peon in the workforce, uninspired, unmotivated, unthinking, unfeeling. Maybe I'm thinking about this because the coronavirus threatens to end life abruptly. I'm thinking about what I have to show for living out nearly three decades of life.
I thought that the existentialist dread of having to make a life altering decision had been dealt with after I decided on what I wanted to do with my life. What personality did I have? What are my values? What career suited me best? What did I want to accomplish? Who did I want to become? What I didn't understand is that the answers to these questions may change at different points in life. (Living through a pandemic, for example, being a very definitive point in a person's existence.) The reason is quite clear: people change. I am no exception. I have lunch with friends who I haven't seen in nearly a decade, and am taken aback at how different they look. I'm surprised at people with whom the only common ground we now share is the fact that we had common ground in the past. So these life altering questions– What personality did I have? What are my values? What career suited me best? What did I want to accomplish? Who did I want to become? –are part of an ongoing process of my own change. These days, I find myself stepping back and wondering how I got here. Am I the problem or is my environment the problem? Is the work I do stimulating? Does my work allow me to grow professionally? What do I want?
Allowing ourselves the leeway to step back and ask difficult question–especially the ones that may derail us from our well laid out tracks is necessary if we want to continue living a fulfilling life. It's got nothing to do with routine, but the inability to confront the idea that the answers to your questions may well take you away from your current life and into an entirely new one. And maybe that's what's so dangerous about this idea of a salaryman–they are the type of people to accept that they must stay the course, and in no circumstance stray.
I suppose, we are all given the option to stray. But how much courage it takes to do so! Ah, but what is so terribly wrong with straying from the path especially when death may be knocking on my door tomorrow (thanks coronavirus)? Whoever said life was meant to be linear anyway?
P.S. I realize how privileged I am to be afforded the option of thinking this way–of having existentialist dilemmas in the middle of a pandemic. And maybe that's exactly the point–I'm so privileged. I find myself wondering more than ever: am I using my privilege properly?
I'm in my final months of medical school, and I spend my nights ramping up for the board exams. For the first time in five years, I'll be home for more than a month long stretch. You'd think I'd enjoy the experience more than I do.
After spending the day attending online classes, and reading textbooks, my dad and I have a drink in the kitchen. I've recently identified the fumes of his cigarettes as the scent of my childhood. Every time he smokes, I'm reminded that he's more likely to get infected with the coronavirus than if he didn't. As anyone who has a smoking Asian parent knows, telling them off doesn't do anything.
"If we get the virus," he says suddenly, "will the hospital you study in take us?"
I don't answer immediately. It's a trick question: the system in my country operates on money and power. We have neither. I say: "they will if there's room." Which is the official statement.
What my dad means to ask is: if any of us contract the virus, will the system you've gone through protect you?
He then shows me an article about advance directives. I shrink a couple of feet and feel like a child again. I want to say that we don't have to worry about that yet, but who am I kidding? Death is playing his own Russian roulette game throughout the city, and who knows which door he'll knock on next.
I don't mind dying. I've accepted it. It's a hazard of my profession. But I don't want to bury my dead. I didn't spend five years away from everyone I cared about just for their lives to end like that.
But who am I kidding? When did death ever listen to the living?
grasping each ladder
rung, climbing into
of making today go away.
In desperation, we
grope for it in
the dark: a branch,
a railing, a hand to hold.
Trip over these
go into each one of them
cold, then out of them
half a breathe's span, a
gasp of air (barely any),
then deep diving
thirty feet down again.
It's all real, you see? And
soon, it'll all be over.
Today, a friend shaved his head off. He's getting chemotherapy a month after his cancer diagnosis. It's like a very bad joke seeing his message flash across my screen after I sent a reply to his instagram story: "?????!!!" Suddenly, my worries feel frivolous and trivial. And everyday feels more precious.
A few years ago, an acquaintance passed away after spending years suffering from a heart condition. I hardly remember him–I wish I did. His mother probably thinks of him everyday, and still mourns.
I used to have a fear of being forgotten–I didn't care about being famous, but I wanted to be remembered for... something... So, I had thought up these grand schemes of what I'd do with my life. I'd be the best in my field. I'd be a prodigy. None of which happened, and I don't think I care about doing something grand anymore. What I do care about is having done everything there was to be done.
Having said everything that needs to be said. Maybe it's the product of a very short period of professional exposure I've had so far in medicine: death isn't something that is glamorous in any way. No matter what you've done in life or who you were, you will expire in a bed with (if you're lucky) people crying over you, and with barely any capacity to hold your head up. It's not pretty. No poetry can make it so.
At my deathbed, I'll likely be vegetative and unable to say anything cohesive. At the deathbeds of those I love, they will probably be the same–unable to comprehend what I mean when I tell them that I love them. So, while I am alive: have I said it enough? Have I meant it enough? Will I say as Henry Marsh's mother said as she went: "It's been a wonderful life. We have said everything there is to say."? Probably not. I should work on it.
CS Lewis wrote about how we ask Christ for our day to day instead of for some grandiose future–I understand more and more what he meant. "The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received."
Stuff two months livings worth
into one suitcase. This is what
you’ve always wanted, right?
Play it back until it runs right, and
the jitters shake themselves away.
Tomorrow, we’ll wake up on a paper
plane. Chase the sun to the other
hemisphere, and still fall behind.
I am cut up
to be stitched
The seams are golden now
but what was the point
And constant scars—reminders
of what it is like to know pain?
Maybe talk is our balm, or
our consolation. So, we repeat
to dull. Repeat
See, how (can)
reach into tomorrow
and (still) hurt me?
Why do we go and tell others?: Look! Here
is what our fellow creatures have done.
This is what we are capable of doing.
In half a year, I'll be done with medical school. Thinking back on the last five years overwhelms me. On one hand, so much good has happened: I've met wonderful, brilliant people; I've learned so much about the human body and how to approach a person with medical problems; I've been fortunate enough to watch a couple of friends get married, and have kids, and deal with everything in between.
On the other hand, I've forgotten how it feels like to get up in the morning without having a million things to do. I've envied friends who have been able to make plans on the fly. I've lost touch with all my old hobbies and all my old friends. I see my parents on free weekends, but fall asleep on the couch. I think about studying instead of church on Sundays.
When I mention that I've decided to take a break after medical school, the news is often met with shock and disbelief. Doing nothing and taking care of yourself is something we talk about as physicians, but it's difficult to do especially when you feel like you're at the tail end of the pack. My mentality was always: how do I fit everything I want to do within 24 hours? Maybe I'm not supposed to.
Arriving to this point has been a long journey of overwork and strained relationships. The best thing is being able to step back and confidently say that it's good for me to take a couple of months to rest.
of sirens—a short notice
call to brunch.
Know to be worried
because you know them enough
even when they know nothing
at all about the direction
the wind is blowing or the way
this car is going.
It's the distress
signal that matters.
The first aid response.
Then, going through the motions
of not speaking over eggs and Americanos:
we both know
there is no easy solution
but I'm here now so
maybe the caffeine helps
make the nerves feel better. Maybe
tomorrow will help your prospects look brighter.
and think: well, I’ve
done it this time.
Head down to the
pillow, maybe I don’t wake up
to an alien life tomorrow. Maybe
a gear clicks in place, and
these years feel mine.
Sinner, one of those
that’ll be excommunicated
if religion still did it: how can
God not bring you peace?
Maybe He gives
me an Atlas
piece of the world.
How else would a lover make you
see how much worry is worth?
And this idea of
plummeting into some other’s
here comes the fall
again, blame Eve
again, but this time she loses
everything: doesn’t get her
Adam and doesn’t get her
Eden. Just the naked shame.
If only it was that fundamental:
bite into all the ways I can
tell you I love you.
on my door and offer me a cocktail
sedative. Put me to sleep.
Heretics have more courage:
I still have everything to lose.
The main point of this entire entry: podcasts are the bomb and you cannot convince me otherwise. A couple of months ago, I forfeited my Spotify premium subscription for multiple reasons (mostly financial). I loathe listening to badly made advertisements, so my Spotify streaming has probably been reduced to 25% of its full capacity. In its place is a gaping void of background noise.
I love silence. the quiet lets me think. I wish I could live in a quiet world, but because of multiple circumstances I live in a city filled with white noise. The cars irk me when I take my morning commute. There's construction. People talk very loud. Elevators are the worst. So, I got back into podcasts.
Over the summer, I found out that Spotify lets you download podcasts without cajoling you to get premium subscription–great! The better part is how surprisingly extensive their podcast list is. I should note that this is not a Spotify advertisement. I'm just genuinely impressed by their podcast section.
There is something to say about listening to people talk in a society that's very keen on broadcasting yourself into the world (like what I'm doing right now with this blog entry). The art of listening to people and finding middle ground is something that needs some boosting. It's so easy to be angry in 120 characters, but to substantiate that anger takes a little more effort and a lot more eloquence. I think podcasts (even ones that are geared towards controversy like The Angry Asian Man) do that very well. These stories back up the front of anger with real conversation and context. I think it's so important to understand where a lot of anger in society is coming from.
Tangentially, podcasts are also a gateway of re-framing world views. Three podcasts that really help me grow as a person this past month are the following (get ready for rambling):
(1) Lea Thau's Strangers is a journalistic podcast. It's heavy on interviews, and getting people to talk about what they've done and not done in the name of some bigger idea. The podcast touches on a lot of themes bordering "existentialism." One episode can be about love, and the other about race, or faith. Ultimately, it's about how we connect with strangers and how those strangers become part of our journey as human beings. The real question is: how can I not enjoy this? and why did it take me so long to find it?
(2) The Gathering Place Valley's Practical Theology deals with modern questions I have had about Christianity, and deals with it quite well. I've had questions on divorce and feminism (just to name a few things) and think this is a great resource for people who do think about these things and want answers that make sense. (A side note: I think the most interesting thing in some pockets of any religious community is this unwillingness to talk about concerns and doubts.) The podcast assumes an intelligent audience, and is in the moderate side of the spectrum. I enjoy how it convicts me of my prejudices, and how it challenges me to become a more compassionate and reasonable Christian.
(3) Welcome to Night Vale is a cult favorite: anyone into podcasts must have heard of this at one point. It's set in this fantastic community with weather reports, and local announcements, and news. I don't use fantastic as a grand adjective. It's fantasy. That's it's genre. But it melds fantasy with a very real structure we have which is radio. I think this mix is why its take on socio-political commentary seems so casual, as if we were just talking about what we had for breakfast. The format is used so well that it comes across as effortless. It very much meets every hype I've encountered about it–it's dry, witty, fantastic humor really cuts through a dull day.
All this to say: podcasts are bomb. As much as I crave silence, I can't get that with my current set up. So, this is the next best thing.
Before immersing myself in my generation's pop culture icons, I grew up listening to James Taylor. And Madonna. Among other things. Anyway, I digress–my dad would put on these old albums and all us kids would get on the couch and dance.
I'm not a kid anymore, and I don't remember ever dancing like I did way back when, but the songs pop into my head from time to time. It's not just songs, it's memories–of grade school and Sunday school, of old friends who probably won't recognize my face, of what people have said to me when I was eight.
These things especially get to me when I get into my slumps. It's as if my brain tries to escape the present-tense by going anywhere else. It can't think about the future because that gets me worked up and I dig a deeper hole for myself, so it goes back. Surely, I have a skewed view of my own childhood: I've forgotten a lot, and maybe that's what makes hindsight so pleasant.
Today, Carole King is really getting to me. "When you're down and troubled..." ah! That song makes it so easy to wallow. Here I am feeling down for no reason whatsoever, and this song goes on validating me.
Before my youth pastor went on to get his seminary degree, he said (almost as words of parting) that I ought to preach to myself. Especially when I didn't want to. He said that God has told us everything we need to hear. Sometimes, life just gets a little loud. So, we have to actively repeat these promises to ourselves as a reminder of what we should already know–because we're a forgetful species.
I don't do it enough, but I really should follow my pastor's advice. So many times, I go through days and weeks and months in this fog that I almost resign myself to it. But a little preaching can go a long way. I mean, it's good to remind yourself that you've got hope, right?
but cut throat
words blurted out when
they think you're out
so, let the scars gleam
white–here, asshole, have some
history: all the ones who don't put out are
college prudes, shriveled up
spinsters are fuckable but
too emotionally unavailable so
looper repeat it
over and over–this
body is not broken.
finally, standing up
for yourself isn't
so take it and plunge
the dagger deep down the breastbone.
reek of injustice:
I am not the
sinner, but I'm still the
one who bleeds.
There's a thing that happened back when I was a young girl that I never really talk about. It was traumatic; it was dark; it was covered up for so long. And honestly, I don't remember it very well. I'm not going to dwell on it.
I was with dear friends today, and I touched on how this thing happened to me–and now, laying in bed, I'm realizing that I still have no idea how to talk about these very uncomfortable shadows. They exist. They're in the past. I'm over it, but they haunt me. Are they supposed to? Or am I just weak?
For the past two weeks, we've been working at a grade school clinic. I forget how small it is to be in grade school. They are so precious and so innocent. And maybe, the older I get, the more I understand how repulsive what happened to me was.
But I don't know how to talk about that. Maybe I never will.
There are people who are very much in touch with their emotions. They are able to gracefully navigate their feelings and express exactly what they felt and why they felt it. I applaud you, fantastic human, how do you do it?
I'm not one of you.
Instead of being a normal human being who understands what feelings are, a poem:
you’re breaking your heart again
the both of us. we know
how this ends: pick your poison—I know yours
is ethanol coursing down your hoarse throat, and
comfort in warm arms except the ones you long for.
to regroup, then
dive back in
to prickly cold water.
forget about them, these
red triangular sign posts.
they’re for fools and
we’re the exceptions
(or the illiterate).
the routes are
simple, but we
call it youth, or
not learning from
fumble through pockets, then
dial the phone number. sorry,
the line is busy, or dead
eight years in the making.
to resurrect Lazarus,
he isn’t coming back.
Or is it just because I’ve been
Breathing life into Galatea after the
Sun bows out and gives me my stage—here, I am
Loved the way I like:
I’m confident my lover likes me so
I don’t worry about the way my hair must seem:
Bird’s-nest soup, the memory of
A child again. I promise I’m not too far
Grown up yet.
We just exist
In negative space,
Absorbing the quiet.
Then, sun takes its turn and
Clocks in to run
His shift. We get along
Except in the moments before my
Eyelids pry open, and I wake
To a bed without my lover: it is all
Melted butter, running
Down the counter but let me
Watch it for a moment longer
Before swiping the remnants up,
Leaving no trace again.