I woke up on April the 13th, excited about what was going to be the second biggest event of the year thus far–I was going back to the gym. The first event had happened the previous day when I went swimming. I was so excited that 3 hours earlier than I was due to leave I put on the new pair of gym leggings I had bought especially for the occasion. When the time finally came I rushed to the gym. The staff members and I greeted each other like old friends you haven’t seen in years (at a distance of course). A quarter of an hour had passed before I made my way to the weight training section. The barbells and dumbbells were neatly stacked inviting me to put them to use. I stood in front of the squat rack and my brain started firing questions: “how much weight should I start with? How high should the barbell be again for me to lift it up safely? How do I adjust the height of the screw thingies? shouldn’t I warm up first? yeah I should but for how long?” I stood there waiting for my brain to come up with answers but it couldn’t.
I had thought that just like swimming came to me as soon as I stepped into the pool, I would know what to do as soon as I laid eyes on the barbells. I knew better than to just jump in and start lifting, this is how injuries happen. I remembered I have the Kindle app on my phone and could just quickly check my weight training book. I scrolled through the books I had downloaded onto my phone but the book wasn’t there.
A couple of weeks ago I woke up to find in my email inbox the good news that I have been waiting all year for! No, it isn’t the news that I can now get the Covid-19 vaccination. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased that I will have the opportunity to be vaccinated soon. The vaccination is a big injection of light into the tunnel. But you see, I’ve found that the only way to get out of any tunnel I’ve ended up in, however dark, is to swim my way out. So it was with jubilation that I read the news that my local swimming pools will be re-opening on April 19th.
In the past few months I’ve noticed that my level of cynicism has multiplied, as has my disappointment in us humans. How could we be playing politics with vaccination in a pandemic? Why is it that only the rich countries’ populations are getting vaccinated? Like Covid-19 knows borders or economic status? Why is it so hard for people to wear masks in public places? It’s not like we haven’t known forever that wearing masks prevents spreading disease, hence why healthcare workers wear them. You could say it is normal that I feel this way, we are in a pandemic after all. But here is the thing: the old me (ok, the younger me) would have focused on the positives, like how fortunate I am to have a job I can do from home, that my family and friends are well, that I have plenty of parks around me to visit daily and that I live in a country with universal healthcare. So why the gloom?
In last year’s March edition of my newsletter I mentioned I would explain at a later date why I read subtitles in Spanish but not in Mandarin when watching TV shows in languages that I don’t speak. As Chinese New Year is upon us I thought it would be a good time to share. It is also the anniversary of when I first started learning Chinese, and this new year I will be celebrating 14 years. I will also be lamenting a little as I’m often reminded of how after all these years of speaking Chinese my reading still hasn’t progressed beyond kindergarten level. That is, if a kindergarten kid can read and send text messages. Anyway, at this rate I feel I’m going to be learning Chinese forever!
I moved to Beijing, China in 2007 with the main purpose of learning Mandarin, and I enrolled on a language program at Beijing Language and Cultural University (BLCU). It was an intensive program of four hours of class daily, five days per week. On top of that, our main teacher (we had three) gave us three hours of homework every day because she said that was how much she had when she was studying English. I had no knowledge of Mandarin when I arrived but I was confident that I could easily learn it. After all, I was brought up bilingual and I had successfully learnt Spanish a decade earlier when I lived in Madrid.
I wrote in my last newsletter that I learnt what listening is from Tara Brach’s podcast on the sacred art of listening. It was a good lesson on listening to others but I think learning to be a good listener to oneself must come first. Why do I believe this? I believe we are far more similar to each other than we are different. The scientist Riccardo Sabatini, in a 2016 TED presentation showed that a human genome printed will consist of 3 billion DNA letters and will fill up 262,000 pages; Only 500 out of these pages makes each individual different from another, other than that we are identical. Thus, if I can listen to myself, I can listen to others. But how does one sort through all of the noise in one’s mind in order to really listen? We know that the mind is not easily amenable hence why so many of us go through life somewhat strangers to ourselves.
My early 30s was a very tough period of my life. I moved to China and was trying to navigate through what was then a very foreign society. At the same time I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life since I had abandoned my old life (gave up my job, partner, and home) in search of a new one. The uncertainties were overwhelming and I needed help. I sought the counsel and support of friends, I went to therapy, and I took up meditation. All these helped to some extent but didn’t give me the answers and solutions I craved. My therapist recommended I write down my thoughts in between our sessions to record how I was feeling. I thought it was a terrible idea, it was painful enough that I had to voice my feelings and thoughts out loud to her. Now she was suggesting I record them on paper or screen. I would have to see the mess going on in my mind immortalized in words that I could easily refer back to.
Usually when I’m walking to the park, a.k.a the gym, I’m accompanied by voices playing on my headphones. One day last month, I had the company of the renowned meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach. On this particular podcast episode she was talking about the sacred art of listening. The first exercise she asked listeners to do involved playing her favorite Tibetan bell and prompting “to follow the sound with interest, watch where it goes. You might discover deeply what you really are.” I’ve always wanted to know that so I carried out the exercise. Within seconds of when the sound of the bell stopped, I had an epiphany! I was none the wiser who I was, but for the first time in my life I knew what listening was.
Like most people I’m aware of the power of being a good listener therefore I strive to be one. To this end I’m always on the lookout for tools and tips to help get me there hence why I picked out the podcast. Prior to listening to that podcast, I thought listening was simply paying attention, remembering what was said, and responding appropriately and thoughtfully.
I’ve always thought the decent thing to do to minimize my negative impact on the environment is to recycle, avoid plastics as much as possible, buy green products, eat organic food, wear sweaters more instead of turning on the heating, buy fewer and higher quality items,… you know the typical. But I’ve been having some doubts that are causing me to seriously reassess some of these conventional practices.
It all started about a year and half a ago when a friend stayed at my place while I was away. She bought some conventional dishwasher tablets and left them behind. I was a bit upset that she would pollute my kitchen with non-eco-friendly products, but I used them reluctantly as it would be wasteful to throw them out. The first time I used one of her tablets, to my surprise every single item in the very full dishwasher came out completely clean. You see, it was normal for some of the items to need re-washing by hand or in another cycle. I had initially thought it was odd that I had to do this, but I accepted this as normal after the dishwasher’s manufacturer sent an engineer who couldn’t find anything wrong with the machine and just recommended that I clean the filters regularly. I did so to no avail. I considered replacing the dishwasher but thought that would be wasteful. Anyway, I thought the first time I used my friend’s dishwasher tablets was a fluke, so I waited till the next time to make a judgment. This time round, I added my stainless steel pots that I normally would have hand washed to get them properly cleaned. All the dishes once again came out clean including the pots. Every time, I used the tablets I got the same results and the filters didn’t need cleaning as often.
The month of August started with me attending a wedding. The most noteworthy point about this isn’t that it was the first wedding I had been to in over a decade, nor was it that it was my first socially distanced and masked wedding. The most interesting thing about it was that I heard the adjective ‘amazing’ used to describe the bride and the groom.
At the wedding while we were waiting for the bride to show up, I got to talking to her best friend. She gushed that she is really happy for her friend as she is marrying an amazing man. She was echoing how the bride had referred to him a couple of days earlier. In the bride’s case I put this down to temporary insanity, otherwise known as falling in love, combined with the excitement of their upcoming nuptials. That time I held my tongue, but I couldn’t help but wonder how can someone who voted for Boris Johnson be ammeezzzin? This time at the wedding, however, I couldn’t help but respond “let’s hope so.” She was insistent that “he is really an amazing guy”. I replied: “we shall see”. She looked horrified that I should express my opinion and doubt her judgment of the groom.
Change has been on my mind a lot more than usual lately. Not surprisingly considering this year has brought drastic changes to how we live. And then there has been an awful lot of talk about how we must change even more in response to the changes that have already occurred. Even though it sounds scary and hard, I tend to think of change as generally a good thing irrespective of whether it is forced on us or we seek it, as it can bring opportunities to learn and grow. However, in June when the protests over the killing of George Floyd broke out in many parts of the world, while many got excited that it would bring about big positive changes in the US justice system and the rest of society, I was highly skeptical.
Recline in bed, pick up a cookery book, read a few pages and viola!, you will sleep like a baby! Really? I kid you not! This has been my go-to sleeping pill this past couple of months. It has been so effective that I can no longer keep it to myself. Judging by the way this year is going I feel I must share it for the benefit of humanity.
I was reminiscing about the “good old” days when I could pop into a museum whenever I wanted. I would pop into the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, whenever I had a few minutes to spare in between running errands or appointments. I particularly liked portraits. I was always struck by how the people in those paintings, taking away their attire, look just like the people around me today. I would leave the Gallery thinking that we are exactly the same people as we’ve always been, and that our brains haven’t changed in thousands of years (as a friend loves to remind me). I ask myself, how can I expect our behavior to be different? Isn’t this why history always repeats itself? Isn’t this why we should pay more attention to history? We are all inundated with theories about what caused the current pandemic and what the future holds, so to make sense of it all I turn to history.