Two months into Phase Two, things are not what they had seemed to be…
For starters, it’s now clear that the virus is not going away any time soon, and the “new normal” that is emerging is one that is drastically different from anything we’ve been used to.
I had hoped, while during the Circuit Breaker (a.k.a. lockdown) in Singapore, that travel would resume by September.
Now it looks like any sort of travel will not be possible at least till next year, and the kind of mass travel and tourism the world had seen pre-pandemic would probably not resume till 2023 or beyond.
Granted, multiple parties across the world are now working on a vaccine for the virus, but that vaccine is not going to be widely available anytime soon. And so, in the meantime, all of us are staying put where we are, geographically.
My daily Grand Tour of Asia Instagram series was both an escape and a wishful countdown to next when we all may travel again.
It ends soon, with no sign of travel restrictions lifting. 🙁
On the work front, things have also been less than rosy.
Emerging from the lockdown, I was initially excited at being able to return to my office at the museum.
But since only essential staff – operations, estates, security, etc – are allowed to be at the museum every day; and everyone else can only be present once or twice a week, I often return to an empty office, and an almost-empty museum.
And there is nothing worse than working alone, in a large, dark, empty office.
Work these days has become a combination of toiling at home alone, staring at and having endless, virtual Zoom meetings with my computer; and going into an almost-empty office and museum once or twice a week to entertain the occasional patron or VIP guest that remembers to visit us.
It’s been a disorienting and alienating experience.
On the personal front, Phase Two, and the possibility of physical contact with others, has also unveiled stark realities.
What had seemed initially to me to be love was not that at all, but rather, a sort of netting of the butterfly (that I was) and placing it in a glass terrarium, to be kept but not seen nor heard, and definitely not touched.
There had been a misguided notion that butterflies had no emotions nor needs; but instead existed merely to be beautiful, and to provide an endless supply of validation and adoration, feeding elusive visions and empty promises.
But this butterfly doesn’t take well to a glass terrarium.
So two months into Phase Two, I’m once again single and on my own. 💪🏻
* * *
For some years now, there has been a word game floating around Facebook, involving a large grid of alphabets that conceal, within them, a variety of hidden words describing specific states of being.
The player of the game would be asked to observe the grid carefully, and pick out the first three words that he or she sees within the mix of letters. These words would describe his or her “reality”.
Last week, I succumbed and finally played the game.
As it turned out, my three words were CHANGE, CONNECTION and SELF-CARE, in that precise order.
And while I don’t generally hold much in store by way of such games that reveal supposed cosmic truths about one’s self, I thought the three words really rather pointedly described where I am at present.
And so here I am, using them as the basis for a blogpost.
* * *
Change is due.
For almost four years now, I have been living in a veritable house of memories – an apartment that had initially been chosen and lived in by me, my Ex and our cat.
The latter two have long since gone, but I have lingered on for far too long, in a place filled with tangible relics of the past – those symbol-laden pieces of furniture, electronics, clothes, each and every one a reminder of how I continue to live in somebody else’s shadow, unable to forge my own path ahead.
My recent flight from the butterfly terrarium has revealed, more than ever, how Change is necessary; and that NOW is the time for Change.
As such, I have recently started looking to buy my own place. Because a place is not just a place – it is the possibility of creating a space, an identity and a future that is entirely my own, and nobody else’s.
I’ve decided it’s time to take the leap.
In a similar fashion, I’ve also shifted my attitudes towards work.
I would be lying if I said that my last four years at the helm of the Museum wasn’t driven by insecurity and a deep need to prove myself worthy as a Museum Director.
As of early this year, I’ve done all of that and more.
I’ve successfully helmed the completion of the museum’s multi-year refresh. We made record physical and digital footfall numbers last year, and we won a major international award. We have frequently been at the centre of public debate and discourse. We are financially secure till at least 2023 – thanks to the Government and our donors! (Yay!), and we continue to garner respect and affection from the general public.
So there’s no longer a need for me to prove anything at all. I can finally relax and focus on matters of strategy, growth and development for myself and my team at the museum.
In the last two weeks, I’ve been taking tangible steps towards establishing firmer boundaries between work and personal time, as well as between myself and our major stakeholders.
I’ve made an effort to listen more and to encourage creative dialogue amongst my senior management team, before reacting. I’ve also committed to being much clearer and more transparent in my direction.
Most importantly, I’ve established a plan for succession. I’m taking a small step back from my public-facing role, and encouraging my senior management team and our curators to front press, public and patron engagement more.
The jury is yet out as to how the shift in my working mindset and approach will yet impact the museum and my own well-being.
But I am hopeful that CHANGE will be rewarding.
* * *
Connection becomes all the more important, now that I am once again single and on my own, and work is increasingly alienating.
In a bid to combat the increasing sense of alienation on the day-to-day, I’ve taken to spending more evenings out, re-connecting with old friends and family over drinks and dinner.
It’s been immensely pleasurable and rewarding catching up, in person, with these most important people in my life; finding out where they are in their own personal, professional and romantic journeys; sharing old and new jokes and observations about the people around us; ruing the uncertainty of the world in general; and building new memories together.
Growing up in a home and family environment defined by uncertainty and trauma, what I crave most of all is a sense of security and stability – something that comes by way of a deep connection with someone, or with a whole lot of some-ones.
Being bathed unconditionally in warmth, love, friendship and good cheer these past few weeks has done wonders to my well-being, particularly in the aftermath of the terrarium.
I’ve sorely missed being here, being present, and being happy around familiar faces and good souls.
I have also, inevitably, reconnected with my parents.
This is perhaps the most important development thus far, this year.
In the spirit of positive learning, the terrarium incident provided me with the perfect excuse to confront one parent, and to achieve a breakthrough in terms of establishing new boundaries and frames of engagement between me and said parent.
My parent, in return, said, under no uncertain terms, that affection had not been, nor was it ever going to be, the language of love framing our engagement. Instead, love would be offered in terms of advice on finances, career and other practical aspects of life; and in the form of financial support towards my new Home and future (and thus, my emotional and physical well-being).
In years past, I would have refused help because of the strings “help” always entailed. But in the past year, I have learnt that I need to accept love in all its forms.
And so I accepted.
My other parent has been rather more fragile in the recent weeks on account of health.
That said, a random, tender moment of concern for my well-being resulted in my sharing minute details of life as a butterfly in the glass tank; and in said parent offering to be my emotional support and listening ear anytime.
I was also gently advised to “take a look at how I take a look” – this would be one of the most profound pieces of advice anyone has given me, and I’ve already applied it to decision-making with regards to my search for a new Home.
I haven’t yet had time to share more and to allow myself to be more vulnerable with my parent. But I am considering the offer, and I know I shall open my heart.
Both parents, in any case, separately and individually advised me not to be so hard on myself; to lean in but then move on, and focus on myself.
* * *
Self-care is thus the immediate priority for the months to come.
I’ve been working hard even when I wasn’t working… re-creating epic tours on Instagram; scheduling, planning, drafting and writing monthly blogposts; scheming another epic project for when the Grand Tour finally, truly ends….
While these have been instrumental in fortifying my sense of self, the strict, self-imposed scheduling is starting to grate.
It’s time to let go and just BE.
Yes, I think I’m not gonna plan any other grand project on the personal front for the remainder of the year. I’m gonna just relax and enjoy myself.
I want to sleep better and sleep more. I need to get a new bed, mattress and pillows for my new Home.
I also want to eat better – the Circuit Breaker inculcated some new habits I’d like to drop. This means I have to start cooking again, but only for myself and close friends, and only special stuff I want to eat and want to cook.
I shall go unplugged from all electronics for at least a day each week. Instead, I shall read and not feel guilty or restless just reading something silly and enjoyable. I recently bought the entire box-set of Tintin comics. 😜
I’m dying to be out in the open more – I want to revisit a gorgeous beach I recently visited. A day spent on my own just reading a good book, lazing under the sun and splashing about in the sea sounds like Paradise.
I also need to process what I’ve learnt whilst in the terrarium – because there are always positive takeaways.
I shall continue to deepen my Mandarin language abilities and knowledge of Chinese culture by reading more contemporary Chinese literature and exploring contemporary Chinese popular music. I recently discovered San Mao 三毛 and I love her writing!
I shall plan less and be more spontaneous; allow the day, or the week – and this year!! – to unfurl and surprise me. I shall lean into serendipity, understanding that uncertainty could also be a good thing, because a little bit of chaos engenders creativity.
I shall slow down tremendously and savour each minute… This means walking, eating and speaking more slowly and deliberately. This means luxuriating, indulging, revelling, laughing.
I shall embody who I am professionally as well as creatively/intellectually, adopting a physicality that communicates just how proud I am of what I’ve achieved, and that I deserve what I achieve because I work damn hard.
Above all, I shall be more careful and considered when I meet anyone new – establishing and maintaining boundaries early on, trusting my instincts and prioritising my own interests.
Not that I haven’t been doing that before. I just want to be more vigilant in the future; to take a look at how I take a look, as it were.
All in all, the experience these last two months have convinced me, beyond a doubt, that I am ready to say goodbye to the child at the foot of the stairs in my childhood home, and to welcome the child-like adult who will take his place from thenceforth.
This butterfly is ready to spread its wings.
Hmmm…. Wait a minute…
This butterfly has already flown, y’all.