A few days ago, a writer friend and I were chatting about writing and publishing, as we writing folk tend to do. She said something that stuck with me because it is what I’ve often wondered about: why do we not remember how small and insignificant we are, that we began as dust and will turn into dust one day? That way, most squabbles would seem petty, no one would care if a writer was published or not, or how many copies a writer sold or who gave a story a good or bad review.
You’d be so grateful and happy to be alive and able to write, that the rest of it would fade into insignificance. Achievements would bring joys but no higher than the delight of being alive in that moment. Failures would still cause sorrow but that would be as nothing when you remember you are alive and healthy and writing and what a perfect, every day miracle that is.
Having spoken to my writer friend from the other end of the world (who went to bed as I began my day), I took off for a seaside walk.
I thought about our conversation by the sea, stood near the waves, imagined the millennia of back and forth that had ground rocks and sea creatures into sand; breathed in the air carried in from who knew which country. Gazed at the Singapore port in the distance and the ships quiescent on the pale waters, marking the horizon between the sky and sea which hung the same shade of gray on that cloudy morning.
All of it so random, no two waves the same.
The swish and crash of water, determinedly heading for land, and equally swift in retreat, the rhythm almost an indistinguishable background noise at the seaside park where people walked their dogs and chattered about their plans and programs. Women in hijab breathed through jumping jacks. An entire Malay family, from grandparents to gand-daughters, fished at the pier, tossing their hand-sized, flopping catches into colorful plastic boxes. Hip, corporate middle-aged men with their bluetooth speakers hollered instructions to their office hives. A few children dug in the sand under the watchful eyes of nannies. A man licked on ice-cream, sweat soaking through his t-shirt that covered the jiggling rolls of his belly. Young, muscular men and women casually chatted with each other and laughed as they jogged at a vigorous pace, side by side, as though old age and ill health were a myth invented by malicious villains. Two elderly Chinese women in colorful costumes went through the slow-dance-like movements of tai-chi, their faces serene, their postures erect, their swords pointed high, their fans not fluttering, stiff. A couple sat on a flat rock by the sea, facing away from each other, their relaxed faces upturned in the air, eyes closed.
The writer in me on auto-pilot, storing away sense impressions, ever alert to the possibility of a story, creating narratives on the fly while wondering at the importance of writing stories down when they unfolded everywhere all the time, in their complex, random yet purposeful, self-emergent glory. Thinking that though stories tell us how to experience the world, or at least the experience of characters real or imaginary– thus helping us navigate our truths– in some ways, they are just as transient, impermanent, as we are.
Today, when I’m at home in self-imposed isolation due to the recent covid surge in Singapore, I find myself straying in my mind to that seaside, the clouded, pleasant interlude and realizing that even though I was grateful that day for my stroll in the open, maybe I had still taken it for granted in some ways. I’d thought I’d be there again this week, but I’m not. I’d said ‘If this isn’t good, I don’t know what is,’ but I’d expected it to happen again, soon, without obstacles.
It is tricky to remember the lesson of being in the present, fully, and then letting it go without regret or judgment, in order to embrace another moment, always the oncoming one.
Today, when the news is filled with memories of 9/11, which hit the USA but echoed around the world, transience takes on an even greater significance.
Be it in writing, publishing or in life, the useful but elusive method to keep going and find peace is to remove ourselves from the auto-pilot in which our body-mind puts us. To actually try and see each moment for what it is, accept it and surf its waves, to not interpret it when possible.
Granted, it could become impractical to remove judgment from a situation, because our very survival could depend on making that call. If I’m standing on the road and a car speeds towards me, I must react.
That same instinct for reaction makes me want to respond to situations where my body perceives a threat, but in fact, there is none. It could be a rude comment on social media, an adverse situation far away from me that I’m powerless to address. Or it could be a stinging review. Engaging the auto-pilot reaction leads to strife. Strife is occasionally useful, to speak up against injustice, for instance, but most times, like my wise friend pointed out, we need to remember we are stardust, and that all things will pass.
We are fragile, as are the moments in which we live, both incredibly precious and unspeakably mundane, depending on our perspective.
As an author, the writing and publishing activities seem big and important, but seen in context, they are just one aspect of human life. Trapped at my desk, a seaside walk seems so much more glorious today.
Like I said, perspective.
How has life been for you this past week? If you’re a writer, have you ever wondered about the future or importance of your writing? Whether you’re a writer or a reader, what do stories mean to you? What is your recipe for staying in a space of mental peace and freedom?
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