These past two weeks I’ve been hiding away in my own personal, private, solitary retreat in Bali, thinking through all that has happened in 2019 (and before).
To tell the truth, I needed to go away. The work had become just a bit too much, to say the least. I was becoming highly-strung, a little hysterical, yelling and arguing with colleagues; and the lunch-after-lunch, launch-after-launch, dinner-after-dinner and the constant, relentless, calculated need for me to ASK for something – $$$, gifts, gala tables; the fact that there was a never a “free lunch”, so to speak, was getting too much.
I barely survived the week before I scooted off.
The year has been hard because a major break-up laid bare something far deeper and more profound.
The break-up was long in coming; I expected that it would happen almost 3 years ago now. In fact, I sort of paved the way for it to happen. So no hard feelings at all – I’m happy my ex and I have gone our own separate ways. All the best to us both!
What the break-up precipitated was a process of self-confrontation; wherein I was forced to really examine myself as an individual, without anybody else to define myself against.
I was forced to dive deep into what Kennie means.
And there was a darkness that I had to grapple with, before I was finally able to emerge.
I’ll address the darkness first, and then the light.
* * *
In the process of retreating within myself, old scars were, naturally, re-opened.
In a few posts on the blog earlier this year, I hinted at how I’ve had to cope with a particularly toxic personality. I wish to clarify that this personality was not at all my ex, but actually, one of my parents. And that I’ve been dealing with a particularly noxious form of toxicity and (psychological) abuse ever since I was a child.
One of the things you do when you go on a “retreat” is you ask yourself probing questions, to find out more about who you are and who you wish to be, in order that you may craft a personal path and plan of action for the future. With the help of the internet, I’ve been asking myself loads of these questions.
One of these happened to be “what was your happiest memories as a child?”
And I realise that I didn’t have any. Not really.
I realised that all I remembered of my childhood was fear, and a constant struggle to please, to demonstrate to her that I was good enough. And I was never good enough, of course – because good enough meant 100%, literally, on everything that I did, including the smallest spelling tests at school. Yes, literally every single one of them had to 100%.
If I did not get 100%, there would be hell to pay. I would have things dearest to me taken away. As you can see, there was a lot of hell to pay, and a lot taken away from me, because who can be 100% all the time?
I needed to be perfect to be the favourite son. This was a relationship built to fail.
I now recognise that this relentless striving for perfection has, ironically, for better or for worse, gone a long way in aiding my professional career, LOL.
I jokingly tell my closest friends sometimes that NOTHING I could possibly face in the course of my work could faze me, because I had been trained well; because the fact is that nobody could possibly hurt me more than I’ve already been hurt by those who were supposedly meant to love me the most.
My core value of SHOWMANSHIP – that no matter what happens, the show must go on – is a manifestation of this stiffest of upper lips; that whatever I was feeling inside, even if I was crushed, broken and falling apart, I simply had to go on.
And of course, I strive for perfection in what I do – that’s what my core value of BEAUTY means: Perfection; always being The Very Best. I crave and demand beauty – partly because I was conditioned to do so or face the consequences; but also partly because I feel that there has to be beauty around me, for me to go on. And if there isn’t, I shall create beauty with a vengeance, damn it.
And so I strive to create, to instigate, Beauty around me – heartbreaking, gasp-inducing, earthy and ethereal, often subversive, beauty; that which inspires and uplifts all who come into contact with it, because I need to know there is beauty in this world, or if not, beauty that I myself can create, in order to keep going.
I demand Beauty and Perfection of myself, never from others around me. I can’t and don’t expect it of them.
But I expect so much, perhaps too much, of myself. And demanding perfection takes its toll.
I’m feeling it.
The first couple of days during these two weeks of solitude were difficult because I really made sure I had absolutely nothing to do but read and reflect, and no one to see but myself in the mirror.
There was no work – museum or monumental Grand Tour project – to bury myself in so as to forget or to avoid. There was no excuse – I had to engage with myself without feeling uncomfortable; enjoy time by myself without feeling guilty. Three days in, I was ready to pack it up and go home. But as it was an extremely expensive villa (LOL), I stayed on, and by the turn of the first week, it got much, much easier.
I read the books I’d been wanting to read but hadn’t time to. I guiltlessly binge-watched some episodes of my favourite TV series on Netflix, for no reason other than to please myself. I went to visit temples to find beauty and history. I spent some time at the beach, splashing about in the waves – because I love the water and I never – I realise – get anywhere near the sea.
I tried things I never had tried before. [But not in any bad or illegal way please. Don’t read too much into this.].
And I asked myself many, many questions and thought a lot about my life.
I discovered that I’ve had an all-too-enormous capacity to forgive. And that part of my problem all this time, is that I forgive too easily.
For example, in the course of my work, I have come up against manipulative, inappropriate, entitled behaviour – and I’ve simply decided to forgive all of that because I had a bigger goal to achieve, of ensuring that the Museum was doing OK. I felt that was my duty and obligation alone. I placed all the weight of that on my shoulders – where perhaps I shouldn’t have.
On the personal front, I’ve been constantly forgiving the parent in question, spending more time than was necessary together, blocking out the noise, smiling and letting go, always believing that perhaps people can change, when that’s the last thing they can do (so I’ve learnt from this year). The noxious toxicity had not stopped, in the least – it has perhaps mellowed somewhat. But toxin, however diluted, is still toxin.
The constant forgiving meant I was abetting bad behaviour, and taking the full weight of the negative impact of this bad behaviour – resentment, anger, frustration, helplessness – upon myself. The toll has manifested itself through my hair going almost grey now, within just 3 years of being on the job; and also in the fact that I have become somewhat hard, bitter and superficial at the workplace.
This is not me. This isn’t something I signed up for.
So although part of the goal for undertaking this personal retreat was to learn to let go, to learn to forgive; perhaps, in an ironic twist specific to my own circumstance, I end this year acknowledging that I am not prepared to forgive.
I am not willing to forgive. Not at all. I will not accept it.
And that perhaps will be the most powerful way for me to erect some personal boundaries, and to learn to care for myself first.
I have not seen or spoken to my parent in just about 3 months now, after I walked out of lunch in response to yet another noxious conversation that showed, more than ever, how people don’t change.
I thought I would forgive by year-end. But like I said, I am not ready to forgive. Not yet. I’m sure at some point I will forgive. I have to. One has to forgive one’s parents.
But I’m only human. I still hurt – it’s 40 years of hurting – and it hurts even more realising that I’ve been hurt all this time and just burying the hurt six feet under.
At some point I will forgive. But not now.
I don’t when. But not now.
And so I will keep my distance. Though I will not be rude. I will be polite and ‘filial”.
In the meantime, I will take 2020 to learn how to forgive not them, but myself, first of all. I will learn to forgive myself for not being perfect, for being ultimately flawed. Because perfection is actually rather exhausting, and as human beings, we are all allowed to be flawed.
Yes, I think I shall do just that.
2020 shall be a year of learning how to forgive myself first, how to allow myself to be vulnerable and to remember that I am only human… if only so I can be stronger.
* * *
If self-archaeology – this process of unearthing things about one’s self – was painful because of the pent-up emotions and fears that were dug up, it was also life-affirming because it allowed me to clarify who I am and what I want in life, at least at this moment in time.
Of course, being the true-blue, over-achieving, workaholic, damaged, perfectionist Singaporean that I am, I took the opportunity these two weeks to articulate a Personal Vision Statement and Action Plan for myself in powerpoint format, LOL.
Full disclosure: I actually rather perversely enjoyed putting the Powerpoint Deck together. I generally enjoy putting together powerpoint decks for corporate presentations, public lectures, funding pitches, etc.
I’m VERY GOOD at putting together persuasive, engaging, visually-stunning powerpoint decks. I’m VERY GOOD also at strategy, which involves copious pages of well-put together powerpoint decks.
I get a high from presenting, lecturing, public speaking, pitching, strategising – this I discovered about myself too, these two weeks. =)
And so it was a rather delightful change to do a “corporate strategy deck” for KENNIE TING, articulating what I stand for, where I’d like to be and how I’m going to get there. My Personal Vision, Mission, Values, Strengths, Likes/Dislikes, Dreams, and at least the immediate 2020 action plan.
I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say that there were certain aspects of myself that were validated, and certain aspects that I thought urgently needed to be worked upon.
[Yes, yes – in the earlier section I acknowledged that the pursuit of perfection is a flaw; but it’s so ingrained in me that the only sensible thing to do is for me to leverage it as a strength while acknowledging its more damaging bits. I’m only human.]
Professionally, of course, I’m exactly where I ought to be.
My personal mission – my purpose in life (at least professionally and creatively) – I’ve identified to be this: to pursue beauty, knowledge and innovation in the space of heritage and tradition, using my strengths of hope, curiosity, perspective and an appreciation for quality and excellence, to inspire, engage, educate and entertain.
Note that every word means something. I’ve thought through and distilled them all.
My personal values, which I’ve updated from an earlier set, I present in the ppt slide below – yes, I wasn’t kidding about the ppt slides, LOL. These I find to be completely aligned to my personal mission, and they also explain what I feel is important in the course of my job.
[You will note, once again, that I do not repudiate my ultimate core value, which is Beauty – for reasons I’ve expressed above. My eye for and emphasis on Beauty (and what it stands for) may have been precipitated by trauma, but it is a strength and a competitive advantage for me. It has kept me ahead of the game professionally all this time.]
The problem is, of course, that it’s all about the job, which is going rather well qualitatively, in that the museum is increasingly recognised as being an institution that does risk-taking, original, drop-dead gorgeous special exhibitions, permanent galleries and catalogues, while always contributing new, unexpected, non-pandering knowledge and curatorial perspectives through our exhibitions, catalogues and conferences, not just to Singapore, but to the world.
The job’s fine, all the entertaining and face-time that I have to put in, notwithstanding (or perhaps, because of that).
What’s missing is the personal life part of the picture – which I have attempted to articulate as well, though I will not share it here.
Suffice to say that one of the things I most overwhelmingly enjoy doing but haven’t done much of these past few years; something I’ve actually half-jokingly told my family and pre-ACM friends I enjoy, is cooking for my loved ones and family.
In fact, my dream – again somewhat tongue-in-cheek – had always been and continues to be to aspire towards being a “housewife”, insofar as I feel that the ultimate meaning of life for me, is to be able to cook dinner for the ones I love.
And that’s it, pure and simple.
My happiest moments in the last ten years were when I was just cooking dinner-for-two for my ex and I; or when we were hosting small, simple, intimate dinner parties with friends. I took great pleasure in ensuring a warm, welcoming, cosy, convivial environment. It wasn’t about how fabulously top-notch, Michelin-starred-home-chef-quality the food was.
Not at all. I’m not a foodie. Pas du tout,
It’s the process and the company that I enjoy; the therapeutic obsessiveness of the chopping, cutting, stewing and grilling; and the lack of necessity for there to be a deeper or more concrete outcome to dinner and dinner parties, other than everybody being sort of… well, happy.
Ultimately – so I have discovered these past two weeks – the reason why I love cooking dinner for others, is that it offers me, however fleeting, the semblance of having a normal family. Something I’ve never had.
When the museum job began, it was no longer possible for me to cook dinner regularly, or host dinner parties. In fact, I’ve hosted only 2 (sort-of) dinner parties so far, in 3 years.
Though I would have to say that I recognise I’ve instinctively taken this Freudian need to be the consummate host to the museum, and “adopted” the museum and everyone in it as my family.
I’ve put great effort into ensuring that our exhibition openings, while always formal and meaningful affairs, are also always warm, authentic, enjoyable, full of surprises – always a fabulous party! I also put great effort into ensuring that Hospitality – not just protocol – is a major priority and a value for the museum.
Gosh, for someone who always aspired to just (essentially) be a home-maker, my career has gone spectacularly off-track!!
Thankfully the desire to cook dinner and host simple dinner parties is NOT incompatible with the job of a Museum Director. I just need to make an effort to prioritise and find balance.
So in the spirit of positivity and looking ahead, the most immediate priority for me in the next year is to commit to cooking dinner for family and friends 10 times in the course of the year.
I’m not saying this to be self-indulgent. I think the point, in general, is that I’m going to spend more time with friends and family, than AT WORK. Part of this time will involve me cooking (I hope), while others will involve me just going wherever I’m invited to, to hang out sans outcome or ulterior motive please, thank you.
In order to achieve this, I will have to significantly cut down the time spent travelling for work on weekends, or working at the museum on weekends. Therefore, I seek understanding from my colleagues, some of whom will have to step up in terms of being the “face” of the museum.
Many Faces, One Museum – I would think should be the operating principle moving ahead.
And perhaps it is time for me to delegate better – it would be dangerous and irresponsible of me not to start thinking now about succession. Because I’m sure I won’t be at the museum forever.
I will also ask for indulgence from my friends and family, whose help I will need, to fulfil those dinner party urges and my “home-maker” cravings. I thank you so much in advance for making the trek to my hideout in the middle of the woods.
I promise, though, that we will always have hearty food and good cheer.
* * *
Of course, these disclosures are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Two weeks alone is a long time, and for sure I’ve made other personal discoveries and goals for the future. I’ve also processed what I’ve learnt about myself and about life in general.
But the bulk of these shall remain for my eyes only. =)
One learning point I shall share, however, is that sometimes things just happen out of the blue, out of nowhere, without you expecting it, despite your best-laid plans.
These could be good things, or bad things, or, more often than not, things the meaning of which is unclear at the point of their happening.
Yes, yes. Something happened to me these past two weeks that I did not expect in the least. =) I don’t know quite where it will go. But already, it has taught me something.
I’ve discovered that there’s no such thing as closure. But rather, there is dis-closure, in the literal sense of the word, which is the opposite of closure – an infinite opening up or revealing.
Every ending is a sort of node of endless possibility rather than a beginning per se. “Beginning” connotes a kind of linear progression, but in reality, life is like a complex, multi-dimensional network; the future is unpredictable.
One can end up going forwards yes, but also retreating, or going off on a tangent, or scooting in multiple directions, or hurtling along a curly-wurly or zig-zagged path. Some paths could lead somewhere; others could be dead ends. Yet others could lead to other nodes of further endless possibilities.
In short, things just happen and you don’t know what path(s) they’ll lead you down.
You just gotta take a leap and go with the flow; see where the water takes you.
Oh, and when the Universe sends you signals to do or not to do something, don’t ignore these signals.
And here’s to a 2020 that’s full of possibility!!
[Now that this post – my 440th post – is done, I shall be signing off Dream Of A City for awhile, as I rethink what the purpose of this blog shall be, or if there would be a blog at all.]