On Choice

I read last week that a prominent leader had bemoaned to her audience: “I have no choice.”

How untrue! I thought. It made me strangely angry.

We always have a choice. 

J was often paralysed by his choices. He couldn’t decide because none of the options would be perfect. Yes, there’s no such thing as even impulse shopping with J! He was afraid of the imperfect choice, of getting the shorter end of the stick, of having to live the consequence of a poor choice. And sometimes, when you are being paralyzed by choices and the pressures of possible regrets and an imperfect reality, it will appear as if you have no choice at all.

But no, we can always choose. And choosing allows us to take responsibility. Our choices reveal us, even make us. By choosing we become vulnerable but we also gain the momentum to move forward. And hopefully, in choosing we confront our fears and learn that we are made of sterner stuff - or that in our weakness we are surrounded by friends and family who are our firm foundation.

There are many mornings I don’t feel like getting out of bed (oh did I already say my spirit animal is a sloth?). As we all do sometimes. In a way, I have the privilege of a job that “doesn’t give me a choice” but to get up and just do it! But I know, that slight motion to lift the body up and sit facing that window, that movement is a choice. Volition. 

So friends, even if you are in a place that feels devoid of light, you still have choice. You can choose to stay in the darkness - for a while - or choose, even if you stay still, to listen to your breathing or feel the texture of the sheets or couch you are on. You can choose to remember a moment of light or lightness. You can choose to call a friend. 

Whatever it is, if you are reading this and your mind is actually still able to process words, then please choose to hang on, because you can. If you are conscious and you have your sense of self with you - however distraught and dim that sense of self is - you definitely can still choose to hang on, feed, rest, build, move, live and be loved.


On Nakedness

No photo description available.
Image by a stranger, drawn for J's friend who was thinking of him

J shared with me that during one of his stretches of anxiety, he would suddenly feel the need to speak to someone - anyone. He would try to extend the exchange with a hawker or an unsuspecting neighbour. J had also said to a friend WW that in his depression, he often felt like he needed to be hugged. The confession stunned her. Admittedly, what he said surprised me too. It seemed a desperate act itself: to confess such desperation, such vulnerability. Even for an incredibly empathetic person, these feelings were new to him. He worried that he was turning into “one of those people who hang around at the Toa Payoh central terminal”.

I understand his fears this way -that mental illness can strip you bare, take away the inhibitions that kept one’s feelings typically clothed, made you vulnerable in ways you don’t fully understand. 

Dealing with nakedness is one of our earliest lessons. As a child we learn that we shouldn’t lift up our clothes to expose our bare bodies in play. And as with our bodies, we learn that it is not ok to expose and act on our emotions in public - no public tantrums, no public meltdowns. And we learn, as we go to the playground and to school, that people are not what they seem. Our words and actions clothe our intentions, sometimes protectively, sometimes out of consideration for others, sometimes deceitfully. All this is what “normal” human society would require of its members. 

Their state of nakedness is what Adam and Eve immediately realise after they eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Suddenly understanding what nakedness is, they must hide their bare bodies from one another. And having broken faith with their maker, they also must hide from him in their shame. 

Shakespeare’s mad king, Lear, tears away his clothes in the howling wind when he comes across Edgar (disguised as a mad man) and also realises - having lost everything and feeling betrayed by all closest to him - that man is indeed a “bare, fork’d animal”. Nakedness doesn’t matter any more in his case because it is the only reality. There is no shame when you have nothing left to lose, and there is no point hiding when you know that you stand condemned, you have been found out. Despair is real.

Friends, some of you may have experienced this - the loss of someone or something that was your everything; or an accident or illness that brought you next to death. You may also have felt that you have been stripped bare, “naked”. 

For me, when God allowed - in his wisdom, his sovereignty - for James to be taken away, I lost my everyday, however wrong I may have been to place everything on J. But my God wants for me to see him, his love and all he provides. If I see God more clearly even in or because of this situation, then I must count myself blessed, however “perverse” this may sound to some of you. This is the “nakedness” I somewhat feel instead: when you have very little left to lose or to hide, shame has no place; and though you have been found out, despair has no place, because you have also been found. 

Put it another way. Why and how can I share openly these seemingly personal posts, as some of you are wondering. On J, his suicide, I am not ashamed nor do I despair. I regret it and miss him endlessly, but I am not ashamed of this wonderful man in his living or dying. And if my God had bothered to assure me (the hit-on-the-head kind of obvious) that J is safe in him, I must speak in hope. Plus we need to allow our fellows who suffer from mental illnesses to also not feel shame and guilt. If sharing openly helps erode a bit of that stigma among friends, then so be it. In your nakedness, do not be ashamed. Do not despair. Cling on.


On Feeling

Friends you often ask how I am feeling, whether the pain/numbness has gone away after the surgeries. The simple answer is no. Or optimistically, not yet. In fact, the feeling of numbness on my head (“you numbskull!”) and the left half of my body sometimes feel worse on crazy days.

I realize this is an oxymoron: “the feeling of numbness”. 

How does one feel numbness?

Numbness for me is experienced as a sensation of heat and cold simultaneously. The way the touch of ice can seem to burn. It is also experienced, as “pins and needles” or a constant electric buzzing, especially from my head down to the fingers on my left. This too is a meeting of opposites, as this “pins and needles” is an intensity of feeling yet a loss of more complex sensations. Often, the numbness is an aching, tiring stiffness, and on bad days, a heaviness and weakness in the muscles.

During his depression, J would tell me that he could not feel anything - a numbness too. Of course he was not referring to physical sensation. He told me he did not feel like himself and feared he had “lost himself” forever. He also could not feel any joy even with things he usually enjoyed. By that he was also telling me even my company could not cheer him, and that ate into him. But there were brief respites God allowed: when we were able to enjoy a song, a dance, or a silliness together. In these moments J would be assured that he still was himself, and I would think, yes, we can pull through. If you are suffering from depression, I can appreciate because of J that to live each day not feeling “anything”, yet feeling the pain of losing your sense of self, is most difficult. To have an illness others cannot see is a lonely thing. But as with any other illness, depression can happen to the best of us. It does not define you, the complete you. And like any illness, there can be a path to healing and recovery.

My neurosurgeon (he’s a great guy) cautioned me that nerves take a very long time to heal, if they do. When I grew anxious about the sometimes intensifying numbness I felt on bad days, he grounded me with these questions - besides the loss of sensation, have I actually lost my sense of balance? dexterity and real strength? Or worse, function? When I answered in the negative, he assured me that my condition had not worsened, and to trust the healing to God - and time.

God probably knows that all the parallels between “feeling” as physical sensation and as emotional life, won’t be lost on a literature student like me. And so this numbness in the left half of my body is akin to the loss of my better half (as if J wasn’t my more-than-half, or that cliche, my everything). This constant buzzing of the nerves, akin to this intensity of feeling so alive, only because one is too aware of what/who is dead. There is a healing for sure, as promised in Jesus, but the healing will be for a lifetime.

Friends, of all these, there is one parallel that I find most real and hopefully, encouraging. When the numbness is very intense, besides aches, a feeling of weakness sets in. Yet when I force the muscles to work against this feeling of weakness (Go pick up the pace, straighten the body, relax the shoulder, take deep breaths and march up those stairs without aid, woman!), most of the time, I can!

Sensations can fool you with an incomplete truth, as with emotions. Feeling weak is not the same as having no strength. Our feelings are real, intense, and sometimes so urgent and confounding, they overwhelm us. But we are - in all the richness and complexity of life - more than what we feel. More than what we don’t or can no longer feel


On Moths and Meaning

Moths have been appearing in the house these past few weeks. They are small, maybe 2-3cm in wing span, and of the grey, furry variety.

Probably startled each time I switch on the light in the bedroom or study - J’s studio where he worked - there would be a moment of frenzied flying, sometimes around or at me, before the moth would settle in a corner, on the floor or simply fly out of the window. Early this week, a moth with a broken wing emerged from its hiding place behind some books and lay basking under the light on the study’s floor. It stayed there with me till I went to bed.

The Chinese believe that moths are spirits of dead loved ones visiting. Don’t ever kill a moth - it could be your great grandpa! The month of QingMing in April especially. Or on significant dates of mourning - the 1st day of a wake, the 7th day of a person’s passing. My rational mind postulates that the wet QingMing season, like now, must be when moths are most drawn to light and perhaps the warmth it promises.

When J’s mom died, the family got all excited one evening when a large atlas moth visited her flat. It spent considerable time resting on the house phone, which pleased everyone terribly. And even more when it entered the bedroom. J’s mom loved chatting with relatives on the phone. She also loved J’s dad much. I realize I don’t remember how J was like that evening, if he was similarly excited and comforted by the moth-mother. We never spoke much about her passing. He was relieved she was no longer suffering. But I know she loved him much as the youngest and it upset him very much to see his strong, outgoing mom become a completely different person after the stroke. Perhaps he never dealt fully with his grief. We should have spoken more about it together.

I greeted the moths at home with some relief, but mostly nervousness. Relief that they were not flying cockroaches escaping from a recently fumigated rubbish chute! Nervous that this sentimental Chinese superstition would bring up a host of emotions I didn’t need any more triggers for. The right thing to do with such nervousness, of course, was to run to God in prayer. But I found myself each time with some variation of these statements instead, my own sorcery - Com’on lah, this is not what I mean when I asked you to come back. I know it is not your spirit. Don’t do this to me. I will not care. So what if your wing is broken - sweet J, baby.

We all seek meaning. Regardless of our religious leanings. A rainbow. Cloud formations. A sudden downpour. Moths visiting. Our attempts to accord an object or event with significance is mostly futile and false. But this is not to say we do not need and want, sometimes desperately, the things and events around us to reflect our faith and desires, to explain us to ourselves.

Last night, surrounded by friends, a tiny black spotted moth flew into the house as we went into the study to retrieve a cactus one of the friends was adopting. Just for a second, I thought - please J, not now. But the warmth and blessing of friends quickly took over. I looked around at our friends and realised: isn’t this the goodness and reality - the meaning - of God’s love, demonstrated in the living out of his commandment to love one another?

On Living

When J asked if I knew how to look after his plants, I quickly said “No”, followed by a paranoid (and rightly so) “what do you mean? Why do you ask me that? What are you thinking?” This exchange took place in that final week when he seemed strangely calm but also worryingly prone to sudden attacks. He laughed it off and said he was only curious, that I was over-reacting. I should have listened to my intuition instead.

Plants were J’s thing. I liked them, drew them and was the bookish one about them, but his was a “real world” interest - collecting and caring for, at one stage, more than 100 big and small pots of cacti and succulents, bromeliads, cycads, ferns, agaves and such in every room. He would take some out to sun by the window everyday. He rescued and propagated them. He scoured the internet to find them. He went to the corners of our tiny island to see them. He learnt their scientific names. He even subscribed to a year’s membership at the disneylandish Gardens by the Bay! 

The thought of looking after his plants was at first stressful. And having some of his plants die was especially so. I was not home the whole day like J was. And getting their watering right was tricky. In my clumsiness, I even toppled a few pots. It felt that I had failed him. And their death, of course irrationally, echoed his. A couple of friends lightened this load by adopting a few of his plants, but each time I gave one away, I felt also that I was failing, or worse, betraying him.

But now, the plants and me, we are finally, I think, getting the sense of how the other works. When I get home, I start by surveying their state and opening the windows to give those indoors the fresh air they deserve. They get their once a week soak, the ferns and leafy ones twice or thrice. His beloved bromeliads are brought to sun during the weekend. To those that look like they are ailing, I give their leaves or branches a gentle pat or two each day, and a word of encouragement. Well, more of a plea actually - don’t die, please live please live, you can do it. A couple of the bromeliads now have “pups” - young offshoots. I even bought a new plant - a Stephania to replace a special one that had died - something I never imagined I would do. 

This week, we had a breakthrough. A plant that had been dormant since J bought it finally showed signs of life! 

The Dioscorea Mexicana was a plant J always wanted for the tortoise-shell-like pattern of its caudex. He held back because he wanted only a perfect one. One day, maybe in June last year, he came home with a pretty large specimen. It was lovely: its caudex bore a unique shape, just like a heart! But it was dormant. Two completely dried up stems stood on the caudex, like straws, nothing more. J had re-potted and tried to root it. Still it stayed dormant. 

Monday evening, I came home and noticed a fresh, dark red stem sprouting! I was surprised and - no, happy or joyful would be too strong - comforted. It was as if I have received a gift, grace to my desperate pats on the caudex to coax it awake. Thank you God! And if it’s not too much to ask, perhaps this seemingly dried up heart-shaped caudex would soon be bearing the deep green heart-shaped leaves it had always promised.


On Inheritance

I have more things than I ever need. In fact I now have double everything I ever need. J was not a connoisseur of fine wines, fancy cars, flashy watches...well they are out of our reach anyway but he never desired them. He did, however, enjoy things that were thoughtfully made and had a knack for searching out some pretty obscure brands and makers. For example, J had nice clothes (more cupboard space of it than me) - some of which I have started to wear, boyfriend-style! He liked his technical gear, because they epitomized the marriage of form and function. So for someone who is supposed to avoid extreme outdoor activity, I now have 2 well made backpacks and a set of amazing collapsible camping chairs.

This is what I learn when you lose someone - the abundance of things they leave you with. These treasures they have no need of anymore in their new heavenly home. 

Your gifts have comforted me because they speak of your love. His things, they comfort the way an inherited debt would, as a sense of responsibility; as something you want to shed but cannot, not completely; and as a perverse indulgence. I know that sounds harsh - it is not. They are things you have to, can make your own. And so for friends who have come to adopt his plants, thank you for sharing this comforting burden.


On Coincidences

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity."

Those were Didion’s opening lines in The Year of Magical Thinking and the first words she wrote after the death of her husband John. 

Friends, one thing I’ve learnt since my surgeries and J’s passing is that there are no coincidences in God’s universe. 

Last afternoon I received a call at work from s deliveryman that a package from Amazon had arrived at my home. The call gave me nothing but dread - did J order a book last month, what was it....and why J, why. But it was such a busy day I forgot all about the parcel when I got home late that night. I hadn’t also realised it was actually my first night home alone (my lovely sister had been staying over), so I didn’t have any expectations. But I did think to myself just before bedtime that i would go dig up and reread Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It would be comforting and I do enjoy her writing. Of course this prompted me to open the Amazon parcel and when I did, it was there — a brand new copy of the book! 

Thank you M for sending me this book as a gift - and thank you God.


J for Jampulets

Dear friends, my beloved J died 20 February 2019. He struggled in the past month with anxiety and depression. While he received help from doctors and therapists, and so many of us spent time with him making sure he never felt alone, in the deep fog of his illness he left us.

He was loved by God and he knew he needed Jesus. Even as he struggled, he clung to God. Please be comforted, as I am comforted and confident, that in God’s goodness, grace and mercy, J is rescued and redeemed, and is now safe in God’s heavenly arms!

(*My apologies and an important note*: An important note if you are a relative or somehow connected to his family: please do not let the news get to J’s aged father or any of his elderly relatives. Please be considerate to his siblings and leave them to handle this tough news. Thank you.)

An ampulets celebration!
I would like to share some thoughts about J to celebrate this wonderful person who is my bestest and favouritest everything, every single day we have been together the past 18 years. We enjoyed a strong and I think special bond. I am so blessed to have shared the moniker of “ampulets 安普樂” with him, and will endeavour to keep this special something we made and will continue to make.

One thing everyone who knows J well will say is that J was very well loved. Whenever he asked me to describe him, as couples often do in their irritatingly self-indulgent way, i would always say first, that he is funny and furry; then, that I am amazed by the many good friends he has and how he is so loved.

Why was J so loved? Mostly because he has a big heart.

He received and gave love generously. I first got to know J almost 20 years ago at a difficult time in his life. His then-wife had wanted to leave him for another man, and I was shocked by how he forgave her so freely even though he was so deeply hurt. I wouldn’t have been so generous! Few of us would have been.

If you went out anywhere with J, you would have experienced bumping into someone else who knows him - at the traffic light, at the market, along the jogging path, at the MRT station, the most random places. Old aunties, uncles, very young people, arty people, designer-type people and very Singaporean-type people. When he saw someone in the distance whom he might know, an old army friend or a secondary school mate, instead of turning away to avoid contact (which is what many of us would do), he would go up and connect with that person. He didn’t see the need to be shy about this. In fact, he welcomed such connections and whatever these encounters brought to him and others.

He kept his friends close to him and always made time to ask how are you and ask to meet. He wasn’t one of those friends you don’t hear from for months. He did not take the people around him for granted and was constantly thoughtful about others. For example, he always made it a point to tell my mom how much he enjoyed her food, not because he wanted to “sa-ka” his mother-in-law, but because he saw how much love she put into it and how much she needed and deserved that encouragement when most of us would take the food for granted. So if he met you and he saw you wearing something nice, he would say it. If he came across a talented young person, he would want to support their work. I think he lived with no regrets when it came to expressing his encouragement and love, and I should know - every day, he did not hold back from showing his love to me in the most practical, silly or fantastic ways. And I, him. He was that easy to love.

J did not just have a big heart, he had a good heart, a kind heart.

If we ever saw a blind or old person needing help, and believe me there are lots of old people in Toa Payoh, I would just say “J, go help” and he would, without thinking. In fact, he would often notice someone in need first, and required very little prompting for any small kind act - whether it is to offer to carry someone’s bag up the stairs or down the bus, or stay with someone looking unwell until all was good. He was more than an hour late once meeting me because he was helping a supposedly blind man who was seemingly lost in Orchard Road find his way around, make contact with his friends and even repair his glasses! Ended up that was a con-man who managed to swindle $50 from J. Whatever little acts of kindness he gave to strangers, he was more than ready to extend that help to friends and family. If he said “no” to any of you, please know that he would have struggled for a long time before he gave that reply.

He could empathise and help others, because he not only had a big, good heart, but because he had a broken heart.

He held many worries and a deep desire for perfection and beauty. He held himself but also others close to him to high standards. He wanted always to do the right thing, and he wanted always to love me perfectly. When I underwent the surgeries late 2018, the fear of losing me and the strains of caregiving broke something in him. He saw his own brokenness, sometimes too clearly. With friends, as with some of you, he never hid his vulnerabilities. And because he was always honest and real, many opened themselves up to him as well. In his troubles or plain ol’ grumpiness, many of you have been a source of great comfort, understanding and joy to him. He appreciated your goodness and held them close, next to the worries and up there with his ideas of perfection.

And because he had a broken heart, he knew he needed Christ, who was God’s perfect son. Particularly during the last months of 2018 when I was in hospital, he experienced personally and very deeply how God loved and provided for us. I was happy that there was this one good thing that came out of that stressful time for him - J clung to God daily.

There is so much goodness to remember of J’s life. I wish there were more years of his life for me to experience. But that would be greedy and now, an impossible ask. Us amps praise God for all the goodness there has been!

A request
I would much prefer that you do not send me messages or leave comments although I appreciate your thoughts and prayers. I only ask that if you know anyone who is suffering from anxiety, depression or even a very bumpy patch in life, please be kind. I know that while such emotional turmoil and mental illness are invisible afflictions, they are far harder than anything I can imagine.

If you have ever lost someone to depression or anxiety, do not stand accused. Instead, know that you have done whatever you can in love.

If you ever have had such dark thoughts, please reach out early to people around you, counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, SOS ... Do not hesitate. However impossible it feels in our foggiest darkest moments, it is not. We can be and are often helpless, any and all of us, but we need not be without hope.


Taiwan Number 8

At J's fave cafe in Taipei

Perhaps it has nothing to do with any intrinsic qualities of the city, the land, the people or the culture that we keep returning to this place. Maybe it has to do instead with the time we lavish walking through its streets and alleys, the quiet we give to ourselves in its hills and valleys, the curiosity we award to its conversations, and our willingness to receive.

And so our 8th trip together to Taiwan (a 9th trip was with me/Y with my mom in 2010) yields little in terms of new discoveries. Our typical itinerary is to spend a week in wider Taipei, day trips and all, and another 2-3 days in another part of the island.

Part 1: Hualien: the Pacific, the gorge and the ferns
Image by J: on the road to the gorge 

It was a 3 day/2 night trip with our base in Hualien city (the Hualien county is on the East Coast of Taiwan, between Yilan and Taitung), chiefly to check out the famed Taroko Gorge. We opted for a private tour so there isn't much advice we can give on being adventurous! But with permits and a guide you could do overnight treks; or if you can ride a scooter or moped, you could explore less popular trails.

Image by YL - bike path on the way to Qixing, encountering concrete breakwater structures and dark clouds

Our first day at Hualien city we attempted to cycle on rented bikes from the city's Nanbin coast to 七星潭 (Seven stars bay), a black pebble beach. There is a well-marked bike trail that will take some 2-4 hours to and from the city, depending on how many stops you take to wow at the scenery along the way! [We didn't get there in the end as it was threatening to storm and our bikes didn't have any lights.]

The trail is broken at one point by an unpleasant stretch of construction and a massive cement factory that mines rocks from the taroko mountains. The landscape changes from the beautiful ocean views to this apocalyptic monster of pipes, towers, dust and rust.

Cafe that looks like it's closed down, Hualien City 

We understand from the guide that it was long promised by the government that the factory would go, but this year, the factory's lease was extended again, leading to protests. I don't understand much of Taiwanese politics, but there is always a suggestion of corruption. Walking around the city, many of shops were shut. While it could be because this is not quite peak tourist season for the gorge, but beyond tourism, there was also a sense that the standoff with China was affecting the rest of the Taiwanese economy. Of course, as a tourist, I do not miss the hordes of Chinese tourists we experienced during our 2010 and 2013 trips.

The Taroko tribe still owns much of the land in and around the gorge. We were reminded of this by a sign at the start of a popular tourist trail that it was in fact the road into the aboriginal 部落 (village). At one point, an aboriginal auntie zipped past us on the scooter, with a white puppy chasing.

The gorge is lovely. Its sights are made accessible by multiple tunnels carved into the rocky sides. Our guide took us on foot through one of the tunnels still in use and showed us another abandoned path or road, far narrower and snaking along the cliff. That used to be the only road that came through  the gorge. Either cars were a whole lot smaller then or people were more foolhardy.

Because we did not take the path less travelled, the best part of our Hualien trip was our morning drive that finally brought us to 七星潭 (Seven stars bay). It's not the kind of beach you swim in. It is the sort of beach that gives meaning to "roar" and "crash'. Yet it is immensely peaceful standing before an undisturbed stretch of coast with the Pacific Ocean before you. There are barely any ships in sight and definitely to hint of land in the horizon. Instead, the waves are magnetic to the gaze; their percussion is both fierce and meditative.

Image by the Guide, but "art directed" by J from a distance!   

P/S We didn't hunt down any food, but one thing we will recommend eating at hualien is... bird's nest fern! It is supposedly an aboriginal dish. They cook only the very young leaves of the fern. We had it fried and flavoured with salted black bean and garlic. I think it's called 山蔬. The leaves are sweet and crunchy. At the hotel's breakfast, another fern was served. But this is a more common vegetable fern that you'll also come across as the 山菜 that is eaten with Japanese soba .

Part 2: Revisiting mountain friends
Image by J: Waiting for ZhuMaMa's rice balls...

Back in Taipei, we were warned that Yangmingshan will be covered in a thick mist that day, so we decided on a fuss free trek up the Elephant Mountain. Armed with giant rice balls from street vendor ZhuMaMa (imagine: fish floss, salted radish, braised egg and crunchy dough fritters wrapped in red rice!), we trooped up Elephant Mountain.  It's not our first time up Elephant Mountain (click here for our past trip & more practical tips), so we got up to the top pretty quick.  Much of Taipei from the top was cloud country as well. At that point, we thought we'll venture to the next peak - 姆指山 (Thumb Mountain), and figure what next from there.

Image by J: A glimpse of Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

The older we get the less adventurous we are. Because we didn't plan for this extension of the walk, we were tentative in our steps all the way, even though the trails are all very well marked out with maps, signs, and stone paths. We would have chickened out and headed back if not for our trusty mountain friends again.

This time, it was Mr. Singapore-is-boring and Ms. Are-you-going-there-too.

He made it clear from the start of our conversation that he didn't think too much of our tropical island. He belonged to a section of the Taiwanese people who disdain the order and predictability of our island state (some say they are just jealous). But it wasn't an uncomfortable conversation as he was pretty matter-a-fact. More importantly, he encouraged us along the way! And he got us to venture even further up to the 九五峰 (9-5 Peak)where the air was even more crisp and the peak was more exposed.

Joining us intermittently along the way was a middle aged lady walking alone. As it was a cold drizzly day, the trail was mostly deserted along the way. Like us, she was hesitant where the trail forked or seemed to take an unexpected upward trajectory. Seemingly unprepared in her pale pink jacket, blue jeans, Skechers shoes and foldable umbrella, I wonder what made her take this walk alone that day.

As we went along, she felt comfortable enough to eventually ask - "Are you going up there?" - pointing to a large boulder outcrop whose top was covered in a thick mist, and along the edge was what I would certainly call "a treacherous path". We said no, she eyed the path, we said "too dangerous", she eyed the path again, "I was thinking whether to go, and if you'll go..", we said no. And that was that. Singapore is boring that way.

Once past the this peak, we joined the 虎山Tiger Mountain trail. From there, it was another 30-40 min down to the start of the trail. Along the way, we walked by a shed where an old lady and uncle offered massage services, and another shed before a small grassy field with a sign that announced its status as the Taichi Association.  Tiger Mountain must be where the martial arts pugilists of old go to get a massage before they go attack their enemies, or to learn some secret Taichi moves from the invisible Master in that nondescript rundown hut.

Images by J. The sign reads: "Everybody together practise Taichi"

Altogether the walk was a fairly leisurely 3 hours.
[For other mountain friends at YangMingShan, click here, and for the Seven Stars trail at YangMingShan, click here.]

Part 3: Taipei Stories
Image by J - in search of supper

Just when it felt like we could spend most of our days in Taipei revisiting cafes, bookstores and spots already known to us, we found two stores whose shopkeepers seem to be both displaying yet hiding their stories. Their charm is in creating these seemingly personal libraries or museums that can never be completely consumed, if at all.

溫事 (Zhongshan North Road, Lane 33) is a corner two-storey shop with ceramic works mostly from Japan and a second storey or loft-like space displaying the owner's collection of Japanese chawans set within a tea ceremony space. The very modest and soft-spoken owner set behind his counter most of the time reading most of the time we were there, although he offered to take us up to see his collection after a while.  Time stood very still in that space. It was exactly as the owner wrote: 期待一期一會  (awaiting each moment of meeting).

How did this middle-aged man in an outdoor vest and bedroom slippers come to fall in love with tea? How did he create this space, this shell and armour into which he slips and waits? Why?

Of course the Singaporean in me also wonders - how on earth does he survive - can make money like this meh? He must have been some crazy stockbroker in his past life who smoked 2 packs a day, and while that lifestyle is over, he still relishes wearing a vest. Maybe?

Then there is a second storey bar in a small alley 茴香. I had hesitated to share its name, because it feels like it cherishes  anonymity - or else I am just being selfish. The owner Mei is a woman who looks like she had just walked out of an Amano comic, and the space sits up to a maximum 15 people. There is nothing that exceptional about the space except that every painting and piece of furniture seems to be at home there. It was unpretentious, comfortable and, even when almost packed, quiet.

Among the regulars (we were there 3 nights in a row) were an artist, another looked like an engineer who seemed to fancy the owner, an old man was some TV academic or businessman or minor celebrity who has a lot of opinions and money, and a good looking couple brought their suppers there. We were the odd tourist who had stumbled in and decided to sit in a corner with our funny accents.

Did she always own this bar? What was she doing travelling this much to Japan? Was she ever bored with the folks who sat at the counter - are they her old classmates, devoted admirers, neighbours upstairs? How on earth did she keep such nice skin staying up late every day?!?

So friends, when you ask "Aren't you guys bored of Taiwan yet??", you can re-read this post for the answer.

For past itineraries and recommendations > click here or the "Taiwan" label on the left bar.


Mid-life reflections on the MacRitchie trail

All images in this post by J.

It's like learning how to cycle when you all grown up. All you can think about is the falling down.

The last time J and I ran along a trail at the MacRitchie nature reserve was definitely more than a year ago. Maybe even two. Since then, I haven't even gone running much, having grown lazy with "the demands of work".

So when I stupidly suggested going for a run in MacRitchie, J's eyes lit up - mostly with disbelief.

Actually even I didn't believe it will happen. I was super dreading the painful, breathless trudge up the uphill sections (and there are many). Aiyoh, there would be the heavy 4pm air that clogged up the lungs. Oh and the humiliation of these retirees whizzing by, plus the distraction of aggressive monkeys...what about the potential cramps and headache...

After hours of such silent protest and whining in my head, we took a cab to MacRitchie. I survived to share these reflections, which are kind of like my mid-life (does 42 going on 43 still count as midlife?) reflections, if you will indulge the metaphors.

1. It is ok to walk when the uphill-going gets too tough...
It feels like you've given up - failed - lost it. It's not. As long as you keep moving, just keep moving - however slowly.  The uncle or two uncles will run by you in the meantime. Heck, even the auntie doing her briskier walk will outpace you - and that hyper 5 year-old will skip by. Some things are difficult. Be humble. Some things are gonna leave you breathless. But most times it's worthwhile to still keep at it, however slow.

2. Cos, hey, if you don't at least reach the top of the trail, you can't enjoy the downhill sprints.
The downhill sprints are worth it. Especially for lazy people like me. Little effort. Much reward! Even if the bare-chested sinewy runners who aren't breaking a sweat running in the opposite direction  uphill are taking even larger strides than you are, it's your moment of freedom.

3. Running downhill (ok, that sounds too ominous) - running downslope is better when it's fast.
And you've got to run like you are free. There is no time to think of falling. Trust your body and the momentum. I'm not smart enough to get behind the science of this. But running downslope actually feels more dangerous when you are slow and your landings are hesitant and heavy.

4. Feeling the hard, rocky ground is safer than being completely cushioned from the sharp edges.
There are some crazy rocky bits on the trail. Protecting your feet is important. But I've found myself more sure-footed when I can feel more of the ground on a minimal, flexible sole. Some friction keeps you grounded.

5. Listen.
Maybe it's because having more information helps your body to process, balance, and adjust against the terrain. And in the same way, if your body is saying slow down, slow down. Listen to your body.

Listen to the ones you love and trust. So when J said not to have any more excuses and just run - I'm glad I did that afternoon.

But even your body and loved ones are not always wise or right. For J & I, it's always a reminder to listen to God. No metaphors here.

copyright ampulets 2005-2019