Monday, January 27, 2014

Thoughts on 40

I turned 40 last week.

It's all a game of numbers, my friends told me. Mind games. You're only as young as you feel, and age is just that - a number.

Easy enough to say, even for myself. Not so easy to re-tune the mental track that's been saying, for over a year, 'You're 40, you're old, and you're destined to be alone and never doing anything significant for the rest of your useless life.'

I don't look 40, or so I've been told. I can still pass for a student when I'm up at university teaching, especially when there's a group photo, and if I don't smile too close to the camera. Too many crows' feet at the side of the eyes. Too many smile lines on the face. I'm in better shape than I was in my 20s, or at least I try to be, and I think that my judgement's improved over time. Oh, and my disposition - at least I have a modicum of patience now where I used to have absolutely None At All.

40, Asian, single. Weddings are difficult things at any time, Asian weddings can be a bit harrowing but thank God for relatives who've learned not to ask me the million dollar question about When I'm Getting Married Next, especially during my brother's wedding last year.

I can't honestly say I was expecting my fortieth decade to feel any different from the day before, or that I was looking forward to it, because I really wasn't. On both counts.

And then my friends happened. Took the entire day, blew it out of the water with so many wishes and thoughtful gestures. My choir mates armed with cheesecake and mille crepe cake and the happiest 4-part Happy Birthday in the world, surprising me and another choir mate who happens to have the same birthday. For about an hour after rehearsals, there was crazy and food and photo-taking, and lots and lots of laughter.

Love happened, and my entire world changed because of it. My friends, my family, the people I care about most in my life, gave me the best birthday I've ever had. My students wrote me such beautiful messages, some whom I never even thought would remember, and slowly it's beginning to sink in - it's true, age really IS just a number. Where there's love, where there's purpose, you are never old. I have amazing friends, and I have amazing students who come out into the world to become equally amazing people. That counts for something. It's a start.

A few days ago someone asked me, How does the big 40 feel?

I told them, It feels fantastic. Because it does.

This year I've stopped thinking about what I want to achieve in life, now that I'm into my 40s. Instead, this is the year I think about what I want to leave behind - the legacies to my friends, family, students. Because I can achieve everything I want to, but if none of that impacts any lives for the better, then what's the point?

I had the privilege of meeting up with two former students, who are now in university. I taught them in high school five years ago. Five years! Where does the time go? They are both beautiful young women who are doing so well in their studies, and still making time for their musical passion, and I am so proud of them. What gave me pause was that during the conversation, both of them talked about old times, and what they remembered wasn't the big things like winning competitions, or the lack of. They talked about the little things - me staying behind to give feedback to one of them and teaching them how to breathe properly when singing. How I'd stand at the back of the classroom to try and get them to use vocal support to sing louder. How I'd use crazy illustrations like the cicak on the conductor's forehead to help them focus sound.

I came away from the conversation humbled beyond belief. What matters isn't the big things, although those do have their place - it's the small details that you think are throwaway, that people remember. These girls remembered random acts of kindness, things so mundane I take them for granted as part of my work. But to them, right then, it was everything and more.

Legacy. From now on, it's all about legacy. Because life is short, and what you leave behind is often far more important than all the biggest projects you've achieved.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


Iron railings around the Da Nang river docks

I have been silent for a long time, and now that it is finally 2014, perhaps it is time to break that self-imposed silence.

It has been a year of progress in many respects - many firsts, like travelling with one of my choirs to Thailand and taking a group of children to Vietnam. Recording my first single in a proper studio for a compilation of local indie singer-songwriters. Completing my Kodaly teaching certification for primary level.

It has also been the hardest year I have known. For ten months, I was on the verge of letting everything go. Planning my will, meticulously mapping out who to leave my library to, what to discard, the people I would need to see before I ended it all. Nights spent, thinking of how to die without causing too much trouble to everyone else, deciding that the end of March 2014 would be when all my obligations were finally discharged, and I would be free.

People cling to life with a will; I wanted to die with that same will, a fierce determination that it was time to let go of life and let other people get on with theirs.

I had it all planned so well.

Then Mayerling and Edward Watson happened. A chance research encounter on Youtube with the Royal Ballet's rehearsal clips of an extraordinary dancer named Edward Watson going through a pas de deux with the amazing Mara Galeazzi in the ballet Mayerling, and something...changed. I don't know what happened, and I still don't. I only know that that night, dance had a voice, and that voice spoke to something inside, and long-dry bones began to stir.

I watched more dance clips. Lost myself in the shape of bodies carving their mark in the air, stamping their presence on space as surely as an official seal. For the first time in many, many months, I thought that perhaps I could do it too - dance as I used to do before the injuries and the mental blocks.

So I tried. It was awkward, clumsy movement, but it was movement. I started taking an interest in dance, started working out again slowly. Started thinking about things other than dark shadows and death.

Little by little, mornings were no longer things to be feared despite health problems and acute physical pain. Then one morning, I woke up, and I no longer wanted to die. A pinprick of light at the end of a very dark tunnel - tiny, so very tiny, but it was enough.

Woman on terrace in the Old Quarter, Hanoi, doing late night laundry

And so I went to Vietnam. A solo journey, as much to escape for a short time, as it was to find myself again. I went to Da Nang, and learned once again the meaning of kindness of strangers. Women at the waterfront, line dancing and pulling me to join them, trying to match make me despite language barriers, laughing and smiling. A history teacher I have never met before and whom I may never meet again, pulling me with her and taking me around the town at night, stopping at the ocean front to walk in comfortable silence before taking me back to my hotel.

I went to Hanoi to find memories, and find them I did - places I had visited before, 8 degrees of misty winter cold that brought me straight back to university in Virginia, the forgotten academic within that blazed up again at the prospect of an intellectual historical challenge at the National Vietnam Museum of History.

I returned home to a new year and a new set of challenges, and for the first time in a long while, the fear was not overwhelming, and death did not enter into it. The healing had begun, small but sure.

I don't write this for sympathy or anything other than to document a descent, a journey, and to bring it closure. This is where I have been. This is where I am starting from, all over again. A new year, a new road, and sparks of life in long-dead dreams.

May 2014 be a year of discovery, and a celebration of life for everyone I know.