There a quality of lasting permanence about receiving them, and yet it is their maddening transience that strikes you. There is something captivatingly profound wrapped under their fresh sepals, and yet everything about them shouts frivolity and waste.

Flowers, that is. I like giving, and receiving them.

Some say it is a waste of money. Most would agree, and buy them anyway. For the language of flowers have transcended time, culture and race. It is a universal language. It declares love, subtly yet surely- love of the brave and daring kind, the kind that has overcome the fear of getting hurt, the fear of giving too much, too soon.

It is one thing to receive flowers, another thing to receive those that were thoughtfully chosen for you, stalk by stalk. The ones I received on my birthday were stunningly beautiful- I learnt you trekked all the way to the other part of the island just to get them for me, because you thought those flowers, fresh and tall and unbending, picked out amongst buckets and buckets of them stretching for miles, were beautiful, knew I’d think the same way too. I absolutely love them.

Yet, they all die. It is the most maddening and gut-wrenching fact of all. Still, we buy them. Still, we give them. Still, we receive these precociously transient gems graciously, with thanks, love and gratitude, because of the permanence of their memory, the memory we keep in our brown paper boxes, along with all the other ones.

They are like our friendships. Most last for seasons which end. Yet, nothing stops us from loving, from daring to love, from daring to invest, from daring to put ourselves on the line- and getting hurt. Just like the way nothing, nothing stops the quiet and bustling activity of life stirring beneath fast-asleep buds, nothing binds them from their eventual incandescent, luminent glory. We love, in the way flowers bloom- daringly, abandonedly.

Even though we know… the imminence of death.

We lose people along the way. Few friendships last for life. Flowers wilt, lives change, the people in photoframes too, and all we are left with, often, are brown-paper memories we cherish that provide no more than a lingering fragrance of what once used to stand proudly in a crystal vase, a stack of old photos taken with crazy poses and peals of laughter, holding no more than memories etched in our hearts.

That day, I was just thinking about things, the way I often do- thinking about what had happened, why we stopped being around each other, why it felt like I had lost an older brother who used to watch out for me constantly, why I missed you and the old times. And on the same day I saw you walk by me to someone else- yet, I noticed your slightest glance in my direction, and realised you missed that too- and then you walked by me in a little out-of-the-way fashion, not too obviously, to give me that cheeky, almost-lecherous smile as you walked by me, so that I would smile back- the way you used to.

I remember that smile.

It is a loss to lose the once-known familiar closeness. One often yearns for the good old times. Yet, it is only the bravest who dare venture out in faith and proclaim on higher ground that it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. I wonder constantly if I am that brave, that daring. It is easy to love Strangers, hard to love friends, harder still, to love family- only I know the coward who lurks beneath my skin.

It is a tragedy to watch flowers die, see them wilt away. Their edges crinkle, their petals brown, their leaves shrink and yellow like the fading dusk, and they stretch out their dying over an excruciating period of days- they never die all at once. Most people change the flowers in their vases at the first sign of death, at the closing ceremony after a glorious performance.

Yet, it is only the bravest who dare leave them in their vases and watch their dying glory, in vulgar candour. In the face of such fleeting transience, it takes a brave man or woman to love valiantly.

For do we stop buying, giving and receiving flowers, stop loving, daringly and unabashedly, because of the possibility of change, the possibility of death?

… No.

For when flowers die, it is not the end. We only enter into a different season, a different time. New seeds fall, new flowers bloom. We may miss old times, but we can revel in quiet joy for one another too, appreciating the exciting paths our feet have taken us, though we went different ways. Seasons, and not necessarily friendships, end. For I know even now, if someone came along and said an evil word against me behind my back, you would take him up and put him to the sword; if you saw someone break me into pieces, you would spear him without a thought- the way you would in the old times. Seasons, and not necessarily, friendships, change.

This taste left in our mouths is not what we call sour, but merely, bittersweet- like the lingering taste of black coffee sand, left like grit on our tongues at the end of a cloyingly sweet journey, sugared with condensed milk.

It takes a brave man or woman to love valiantly, in the face of the knowledge of such maddening transience. It takes a braver soul, still, to be able to mourn the wilting of flowers, embrace the end of seasons, and to look forward to new seasons ahead, to wish old friends well, and to look forward to new times ahead, though things may not be the same. Things seldom stay the same.

There is a splattering mess of paper-brown petals and sun-yellow pollen, withered petals and hunchback stalks at my window sill. The sight appalls and appeals to me at once. At once, the vulgar reality of death and transient life smacks me in the face, at the same time of the fond remembrance of a time that was beautiful, captivating and true.

And that is why I still buy, give and receive flowers with joy, why I always lap up their unrestrained, valiant blooming beauty like a good-old Kodak film moment, why I fight, tooth and nail, to resist the temptation, oh the cowardly temptation to stop running to keep pace of setting the distance from you and you and you, and why I never change them too soon but always, albeit between taking deep breaths to teach my heart the meaning of Courage, leave them long enough in their crystal vases-

– to watch them die.

With my knees on hard ground and my head in my pillow, I think of all the things you did for me, did to me, did behind my back for my sake and tears start to run down my cheeks. You have redefined love for me, shown me the sunshine I never saw in this dimension of our bond as Friends.

It is a day before my birthday, Saturday. She grapples with her heart, wrestles with time- God, is this how I turn Twenty-one? In This state? She cradles her heart to her chest so it won’t sink further.

A mysterious telephone call, a friend claiming to be my personal chauffeur for the day picking me up right from my doorstep, a very polite request for me to blindfold myself before being very roughly covered in a sack and lugged off by two inexperienced ‘thugs’ into a car, to a mysterious location… A mockingly fierce and gruff, “Woman, you’re not allowed to ask any questions.” Giggles, and laughter.

An interminably long car ride, grappling with a hidden depression still, and trying not to fight the Monster writhing within me- do I deserve this love and do they know how Ugly my Monster is? What are they up to? A gentlemanly invitation out of the car with my blindfold still on, the sound of birds, the smell of trees, and a question, “Wai Jia, do you like what you hear? Where do you think you’re at now?”

A hug, more hugs. Can I take off my blindfold now?

I open my eyes to see you all, standing proud like a neat choir, your voices rising to lift my cold heart, serenading me beautifully with a self-written song about my life-what I do and who I am, to the tune of the hit number Yellow by my favourite band Coldplay. Your voices resonate in the sunshine-filled glasshouse restaurant in the midst of an Eden-like garden, your faces filled with glee at my shocked expression. The lyrics capture my heart and I am too surprised to cry. I have never been in this place before. Your voices rise like rainbow-coloured balloons which burst into love, amidst the strumming of two guitars. The last line of the song goes- See how God sings to you, that you are beautiful…

You all envelope me in a hug.

I find ourselves in a classy restaurant, with snazzy menus and attentive service. “Are we eating here?” I ask in disbelief. Healthy, yummy salads, colorful fusion fruit juices in tall, tall glasses, thick gooey homemade soup, gourmet sandwiches and cold soba sitting elegantly on white plates. I realize this costs everyone a lot, and you had put in so much thought to find a place with food I’d be comfortable with. All this while, you’ve been keeping track of what I’ve been comfortable eating, what breakthroughs I’d made, and what I’m still trying to break through.

Sunshine pours in through the glass walls. The garden sings outside. You know how much I love nature, love the way gorgeous sunshine kisses skin. We all agree it feels like a piece of heaven.

I smile back, don’t know what to tell you, don’t know how to tell all fifteen of you how touched and loved I feel. I look at the menu and realize how much you all have paid to make this reality, the days of planning it must have taken in spite of exams in a few days, how well everything was thought through so that they were all my favourite things. “Go sit down Jia, don’t just stand there. Look at your presents!”

There’s more?

Wild, unpredictable flowers, so tall they strectch from my knees to my shoulders, picked and chosen for me fresh from the florist’s bucket. Violet hydrangeas, pearly white carnations with a tint of crimson and purple on the edges, and pure white lilies fast asleep in their buds. Wild, unpredicatable flowers, the way I like them- so free and unpretending. It makes me so happy every morning to see gorgeous flowers by my window sill soaking up morning sunshine. ” I hope you like them, dear. My pleasure picking them out for you.”

I absolutely love them. My room smells like a garden.

A book- Where is God when it hurts? You know what I’ve been going through because you’ve all been praying for me all this while. I realise it isn’t any book you pulled off the shelf- you bought it specifically with me in mind. Photos of my closest friends in a special frame, a beautiful sketchbook-the kind with blank pages that scream potential and smell like as good as the morning, a silly and obscene sketch of me which invites my skull-boring glare, more hugs and heartfelt notes-

-“ I’m so happy being your friend, so happy that youre such a strange mix of child and woman, of dreamer and radical, melancholy eyes and that incandescent smile… I love the way you have thought bubbles, the way you randomly tell me I am beautiful, the way you can hardly keep your new ideas from bubbling from you, the way you dream of wearing black stockings with white shoes! Everything!!…”

And another- “ You are beautiful just the way you are. As as you soar on heights with God, battle monsters that come your way, get headaches from pesky guys-whatever it is-I’ll be walking by your side all the way.” I know they are more than words- because you have always been there for me, your arms have held my teary face so many a time, almost every time. What do I do with Friends like you.

I take pictures with everyone. I think it must be over- “thank you all for coming” and then-

-another song! And cake… a huge beautiful breadcake (Weeks before today I remember you asking me very gently, “Jia, have you started eating cake again this year? Does it make you uncomfortable, still?” And you smile broadly when I reply, ” No dear, my church friends bought a birthday cake for me in advance- tis the first time I finished my portion by myself since It happened.”), the kind I like best- that is solid cake all the way through without cream in between, and a generous spread of strawberries and raspberries and blueberries. I finish my portion and I feel… normal. Happy.

Presents, more presents… do you guys ever stop?

More hugs.

“Jia, you look so beautiful today.”

“Do you see how loved you are? You’re so beautiful to us.”

I don’t know what to say. You all, separately, tell me in different ways. As usual, I take deep breaths to believe it from within and I hear a voice within me dying to ask, ” Really? Even though I’ve put on enough weight the equivalent of two sacks of rice in the past year during recovery, and I’ll still grow to put on more? You still think so? Even if it’s in all the wrong places?” But I never need to ask it because you all look at me and I know your answer would be yes, you still think so, you think I am more beautiful now than I ever was before when It happened, will become more so, because I am happier now, will be happier still when all this blows over. What do I do with friends like you.

Sunday morning, the actual day arrives, I receive a flood of emails and text messages, and struggle to reply every one. My 21st birthday in church is me in my white, white dress. An elderly missionary, blind from illness takes both my hands to pray for me, “Oh Wai Jia you’re such a blessing”, a surprise treat to a birthday lunch after my exams by a very, very kind woman, a bouquet of flowers bought spontaneously and given to me, a woman who’s been loving me for no reason other than “your beautiful spirit” (Really? I think to myself) stops me in my tracks and asks all in one breath in her beautiful Indian accent, “Young lady, so tell me- why do you have a ring on your finger? When I told my husband about taking you out for lunch with our family someday, he told me that you are married and I said no, you’re so young, she must be married to God- so what is it?”

I smile, I tell her I turn Twenty-one that very day, and yes, she, not her husband, is right about my ring. She hugs me and beams “I knew it!” Finally, someone understands.

A beautiful drawing of a photo of me and the children in Nepal, and a poem written for me makes my day. It is the kind of gift that unlocks locked doors in my head and gives me fresh insight and warmth each time I look at it.

I realise, in so many ways, you all have more faith in me than I do. And that keeps me so strong, keeps me going.

More cake, church friends, laughter. I remember the birthday celebration we had in advance a week ago when I opened up my place to my church friends for our weekly bible study and you all brought books, clothes, a painting painted specially for me, jewellery, a subscription to a Christian magazine for a year, expensive cake, hugs, more hugs… “You all brought presents?” I ask incredulously.

“Of course, silly girl- it’s your birthday!” Silly me. The last time I had a party was when I was six and I forgot what a birthday party is supposed to be like.

I receive all sorts of hugs. I love hugs.

That afternoon I deliver two large boxes of second-hand clothes collected from my classmates to the missionary from Nepal who’s back in Singapore for just a few days-“I can only meet you on Sunday afternoon. You can pass them to me, and I’ll bring them back to the children, thank you so much.”

In Daddy’s car, we drive up to his place.

“How are the children?” I ask, “How is the project coming along?”

” We’ve raised our target amount, and Kitesong has raised… $110’000 to date. That’s what I last heard. Biggest portion of the $250’000 in total raised to date from other things. But inflation makes things so uncertain. Details will be finalised by April… Ha, it’s your 21st birthday and here you are delivering second-hand clothes for the children in Nepal… It reflects you, doesn’t it, ha?”

I remember the children, and their smiles and the innocent way they used to tell me, “I don’t know when my birthday is.” I forget, they are orphans with dark stories, which begin with being left on a dingy roadside. I’m so sorry for asking, I say. “It’s okay, didi (big sister) Wai Jia.” They beam at me and giggle. Silly me.

Two years ago, on this very day, they told me, “Yes, I think your idea will work out. Please draw your book, please go ahead with this project.” It’s been exactly two years.

How time flies. How we’ve come full circle, and yet, not quite yet.

I miss you all, lovely.

Friends, flowers, cards and cake. Second-hand clothes, Kitesong, prayer and love.

Days and days of planning in spite of an onslaught of exams looming imminently ahead, remembering all my favourite things (you all even try to come in rainbow colours), and telling me over and over how much you love me, singing how beautiful I am that day, and every other day. You keep telling me the same thing over and over, in different ways.

Love travels far, leaps over bridges and sails over oceans, continents. Love, love can be close, can smell like flowers, feel like warm, fuzzy hugs, sound like self-written songs, look like hand-written cards, drawings too.

“We love you so much. Do you see how loved you are, Jia? The way you are, just the way you are.”

You remembered all my favourite things- from the type of food and place to the type of cake, from the choice of song to the choice of books, from the type of flowers bought to the choice of surprises that would move me… You know me so well-you make me wonder, am I the clown with stilts too far off the ground and a heart worn too close to both my sleeves? And you take it like you always do from me, pinning it on your chest like a lapel pin, my heart next to yours. What do I do with Friends like you.

I realize, you all have been praying for me, visiting this space, even. You all know.

With my knees on hard ground and my head in my pillow, I think of all the things you did for me, did to me, did behind my back for my sake and tears start to run down my cheeks. This underserved love from you all.

You have shown me sunshine in a dimension of Friendship I have never seen before, filled me to capacity again with love when I was emptied, burnt out, drained dry and crushed down. Your love has filled me to the brim-is this how God looks like, like all of you? Your love, your longsuffering, patient, forgiving love for me and my Monster has given me new strength, enlarged my heart to love even more widely, deeply. So this is what Friends do- I never knew it in this dimension before.

I look again at the present you all prepared for me and it reads on the side, “ Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”- John 15:13

All at once, the words flew off like golden butterflies, and rested onto the tree planted in my heart.

Thank you all so much. For all your well wishes, for remembering, for showing me what Love can be, what it looks and sounds and feels like, what it is. This has been the most memorable and beautiful of birthdays.

I love you.

With special thanks to J, TT, MR, JK, BH, SL and all my friends who helped out that day- I want to thank you specially for all your effort in making this day so special for me. Not just that day, but every other day- From helping me with schoolwork, to praying for me when I can’t sleep at night, to just being there for me and giving me a handsqueeze, I can’t believe you go to such distances for me.

Till today, J, you’re telling me how you’re going to pass me a CD of all the photos and video you took that day, and how I’ll receive the lyrics of that beautiful song on shiny paper. I just learnt you guys had to recce a few places to see which was suitable for me, and how things were stressing you out a bit the night before because of all the details, how you prayed that everything would be -just- perfect. You guys are crazy, you know that?

And for all it’s worth, I want to say how blessed and thankful I am to God for you. For showing me the distance that Friends can go for each other. Your love for me has taught me time and again what Love is, what it looks and sounds and feels like. When people joke that I’m like Mother Teresa, I often tell them it’s because… they haven’t met you.

Thank you.

“ Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

– John 15:13

“Daddy, one more time, please? Pleeease? Mommy, daddy says no, but please one more time? One more time, okay?”

Children never tire. Over and over, they can do the same things and yet, never tire of it. It is not to say they do not appreciate variety, but simply, that they exult in the rhythm of life, pattern, seasons and cycles. They exult in repetition, because each time offers a new heady experience, fresh windows into new worlds.

Up and down, round and round- I used to love riding on the carousel. Up and down, round and round on my favourite unicorn- every round was a new beginning. And at the end, the inevitable, “One more time? Please?”

But even children tire-they tire when they grow up, learn monotony, become Big people.

People say I seem older than I really am. The truth is, though I turn 21 tomorrow, I feel like I’m all but three. Three years old holding onto the golden pole through my white, white carousel unicorn, going up and down, round and round. For so long, I had grown up in the dark, going up and down, round and round in grown-up monotony, walking the same roads over and over, making the same mistakes, along the same cracks and faults, over and over in the darkness, up and down, round and round in the darkness. Blind- too afraid to get off a ride that I had outgrown, out-ridden.

Once, I asked the unicorn I was on, “Why do we keep going on in circles? Can’t you get out of here?”

And it replied, “Don’t you see, I’ve been trying to run away from here all my life. But the faster I run, the more I seem to go in circles. “

As most Big people often do. We run, we keep running, but we go in circles, committing the same seemingly unpardonable sins in the same faults, along the same lines. Over and over, up and down, round and round, in and out of therapy. We hold on so tightly to the golden pole in the darkness.

Twenty-one. But I feel like I’m three. Twenty-one, but just, three.

At one point, she didn’t even think she’d make it this far. Three years ago, she took the plunge like a suicide off a bridge… and then, she met God, and that made all the difference. Daddy says she grew up too fast in the past year, and Jie (elder sister) says she never thought she’d ever turn twenty-one-“You’ll always be the rascal-baby in my eyes,” she says. I hear the twinkle in her smile over the telephone cord stretching over miles of oceans.

One finds the time to contemplate the weight of this, of what Twenty-one means. Twenty-one means… you’re a Big person, a Woman now?

That we lived our lives smearing milk chocolate on our lips like lipstick, eating marie biscuits bitten into shapes of zoo animals, stuffing ourselves sick with candy floss with sticky hands with a balloon tied to our wrists, decadently, wildly, carelessly, and now… we eat with shiny cutlery with our backs straight and I have to learn what it means to eat well, not too-much, too-little, just enough to make your face shine for people and in a way that balances your exercise schedule but not too much, not too much- what is too much, too little?

That we lived our lives taking on new worlds, conquering new frontiers, re-discovering new lands, all in the confines of the playground, bravely, boldly, valiantly, and now we find ourselves unknowing, tentative, inadequate, asking- are we enough for this?

That we lived our lives running across sand, grit and gravel at the speed of the wind without ever looking back, with falls and scrapes and bruises that we wore like badges of honour and now… I run, keep on running, but with my head permanently fixated on where you are because I’m so afraid you’d run after me and catch me, offguard. And if you did, I’m so afraid it would knock me off my feet, and onto the tarmac, and I’m not so sure if the scar would heal as fast as it used to, back when we were children. I don’t want the other kids to stand round in a circle and laugh at me while I’m forced to do a forfeit-am I running too fast, too slow, leaving you too far, too close behind me?

For all my childish ways- this constant running, running from you with the wind in my hair and turning back ever so often to check the too-far, too-close distance between us, this longing, longing for a too-far, too-close tomorrow without today even being over, and this laughing, laughing like a child at the clown whose stilts leave him too far off the ground, and who wears his heart too close to his sleeve.

All my childish ways of running, longing and laughing- does Twenty-one mean I have to let them go? And all at once I realise, that all this time, I’ve been running in circles, and you never really moved from the point my eyes left you.

I cannot escape time. Tomorrow, I turn twenty-one. I am learning new things, seeing new lands on my white unicorn but I hear a voice telling me there is more to this, more to this surely. I lean my head against the golden pole and realize… it is my white unicorn who wants to leave, too. Who wants to run like a chariot ablaze into the horizon, in a straight line, finally.

He tells me he wants to be a Big Horse too, and learn to run in straight lines, move forwards, cover real distance, conquer new frontiers, and not in tiny, petty circles. I whisper to him- me too.

Me too.

Three and on the carousel, basking in the thrill of the newness of each new round, learning new things, seeing new stars in dark places I’d never seen before. So this is what happens when you meet God? Everything becomes new, fresh windows reappear in blue skies, and all at once, you are a child.

In God’s eyes, we will always be children.

Something tells me, there is more to these tiny circles we’ve been trapped in, more to this than we ever imagined. There is a circle beyond this, mirroring the circle of the sky, an arc of love from God to men, an arc going from end to end, a circle we were truly meant to be a part of, beyond our carousel, beyond our worlds and imaginings.

All we need is just one brave step to get off our unicorns, let go of our golden poles, and get onto the ground, into the real orbit of love and life. It’s when we are finally able to give up what seems good, that we can prepare ourselves for something better, something far better than we ever imagined before. Maybe all we need is just one brave step to see that that’s all it takes to stop this dizzying, petty circling, and start a life afresh on solid ground, enraptured in the Real circle of adventure.

It is not to say that we grow up immediately and become Big when we get onto solid ground. Far from it. For perhaps, perhaps we never really need to.

For in God’s eyes, we will always be children. Every stage in life presents new challenges, new beginnings, and when we look at the world with fresh, twinkling eyes, we see how, at every point of the arc really, we are all but little ones, learning, stumbling, falling, getting up. There is a circle mirroring the circle of the sky, an arc of love from God to men, an arc that goes from end to end, a circle so huge and so infinite we only get to travel but once.

At every point of the arc, we are at the same point, and yet, at inifinitely different points, too. Every day is the same new day, and yet, every day, different, leaving you in wide-eyed wonder, like a child. Over and over, children can do the same things and yet, never tire of it. They exult in repetition, because every point of the arc is the same point, and yet a new point, with new lessons, new perspectives, new adventures.

Maybe that’s what we need to allow ourselves to be- simply, children. Twenty-one or otherwise.
When we finally learn to let go, learn to get off the plastic unicorn onto solid ground, maybe that’s when we can finally find our Real horses and ride off into sunsets, and not in tiny, petty circles. For at every stage in life, at every point of the arc, all we need are a child’s new eyes, and a child’s brave heart.

Perhaps, that’s all we need- to be children again. Small, and hopelessly trusting in a Big God who holds our circle in the palm of His hand. We need just a deep breath to leap off our carousels in order to ride on the Real thing, the Real horse, go on the Real adventure on the rim of a golden arc on a never-ending bend back Home to the skies.

Perhaps that’s all we really need.

Twenty-one, or otherwise.

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

– Matthew 19:14

I remember being shocked, so shocked that I couldn’t even hide it. Grandpa Zhou had told me before that his house was “like a messy, dirty warehouse”, but it wasn’t until I saw it with my own eyes that I believed him.

I was at church the other day when my church leader called me into her office. “Here,” she said, “These two bags are for you. I remember you telling me about the old man you met at the train station- you can give these two bags to him as a Chinese New Year gift.”

She smiled, and I, too, beamed. Those two bags had been left over from a community service project carried out over Christmas, where our church members had packed and delivered goodie bags to the needy and elderly living in one-room flats. In each bag was a sack of rice, a can of sardines, coffee powder, condensed milk, biscuits and tissue paper, practical things which I knew he would enjoy.

“Yes, we had these two bags left over from our previous event and I remembered your story about the old man. I want you to have them. Oh, they’re very heavy- take them with you only when you get a lift back home.”

I smiled in return. There were many things she could have done with those two bags- give them to other church members, pass them on to someone else, maybe save it for a later event… but of all those things, she remembered… me, and my little five-minute story about Grandpa Zhou.

“Thank you for remembering,” I beamed.

I lifted the two heavy bags up. My arms felt like toothpicks. They probably weighed more than ten kilos in total. Two problems surfaced in my mind- one, getting a lift home and two, even if I did give the bags to Grandpa Zhou, how on earth would he be able to lug them home himself? He lived a long way away.

There was only one solution- to deliver them right to his doorstep.

My brain ticks and I realise I don’t have a car and I can’t drive anyway. I do the only thing I know- ask a favour from a friend. I recount my story to him, and he replies with a ready and willing “Sure, no problem. Crucial thing is to get his address and yup, I’ll get the car.” The ready reply is fast and certain, unhesitating, and comes even before investigating the details, asking where Grandpa Zhou lives, weighing out the cost to himself. Just an unhesitating, ready commital to offer, to help, to love.

One day late at night, (Grandpa Zhou says, “Please come as late as you can. Eleven is best- because I earn the most money at night.”) my friend and I pick the two bags and him up, and drive to his place, far away. We go to his housing estate- it is a nice place, with three-room flats.

“Please don’t follow me up,” he pleads. He describes his place as jian bu de ren (shameful to look at), but we insist on helping him upstairs. We reassure him and convince him we mean well. It is a nice housing estate. I remember him describing his place as a warehouse and imagine it being cluttered and perhaps dirty as well. But I am unable to hide my shock and horrified amusement when we reach his home. It is beyond my wildest imaginings.

He opens the door. “Oh dear, now you’ve seen for yourself. Oh my… … I’m so ashamed.”

There are stacks and stacks of plastic bags, filled with toys, trinkets, paper, thrown-away items, household goods, trash stacked from the ground to the ceiling. Stacks and stacks of them, immaculately packed such that they fill his entire living room. They are stacked on both sides, from the ground to the ceiling, leaving only a tiny, tiny walkway in the middle for him to walk to his room and kitchen. The tiny, tiny walkway that is left is so small that my friend and I have to edge sideways to get through. I look up, and all I see are more bags towering over me, spilling with power-ranger figurines, decorative ornaments and other knick-knacks.

“These are all very valuable… I just don’t have time to sell them. “

He points to every item and quotes a price for each one. “This one, five dollars. This one, three dollars… That one, I think I could sell for a few dollars too…”

My friend exclaims, “Grandpa Zhou, if you sold them all, you’d be a millionaire!” We all laugh.

It is a spacious, three-room house, but cluttered, packed, and filled literally to capacity by junk valued as treasures.

Today it came to me- those plastic bags are like my Monster, our Monsters. Through our lives, we collect, pack and store away millions of tiny items along our journey. We pick them up, store them into our emotional warehouses, thinking they would be of use to us someday. Our emotional defense system hoards them- hoards achievements, things of pride, memories of hurt, things we think could come in useful for us and our defense system someday.

But they never do, they never do.

The more we live, the more we store and before we know it, these tiny items become… Monsters. Monsters that take away our space, take away who we are, and leave us nothing but a tiny passageway to breathe and find our way around; Monsters that make us feel so ashamed of ourselves; Monsters that we never meant to allow our tiny collection to grow into. We hold to them because of the worth we attach to them, but fail to realise how… useless they all really are. How pointless it is to hold on to them, how much better off we’d really be, how perhaps, we really would become millionaires if we put in the time to exchange them for something of value, things of value like forgiveness, trust and love- if only we would let them go. Let them go.

On my way to send another friend home to the train station today, we bump into Grandpa Zhou. He smiles at me and says hello. “This is Grandpa Zhou,” I say to J. She is one of my best friends, so she knows about his story already. She smiles back. Later, she hands me a ten-dollar note and tells me to use it to buy dinner for Grandpa Zhou over the next few days.

Angels, though not in disguise.

A lady at church who remembered my five-minute story about Grandpa Zhou and who saved two bags of goodies for him; a friend who so willingly and gladly offered his effort, petrol and time to help, whose ready, unhesitating reply came even before weighing the cost to himself, planning everything so I wouldn’t have to feel awkward asking for a favour; another friend who gave me money, a smile and the trust to bless someone else with the ten-dollar note she had given me. I remembered all the other random Strangers and acquaintances who had stuffed money into my palm before. More than their money, each of them gave me their trust, their precious, weighted trust.

Each and every one of them, special in their own ways- just wanting to use what they had to bless someone else, share their love. I wanted to ask each of them the question-

-Why? But why.

And I know the answer would be the same. It would be the same simple, resounding answer to to why my friends gave up their time and effort to help, the same simple resounding answer to why they did so even though they was nothing they could get out of it, the same simple, resounding answer to my retortive question of why I, we, should love the Ugly, Ugly Monster inside myself, inside ourselves.

It would be the same answer. The same beautiful answer to the question people always ask me, the answer I always answer back, the same answer to why through all this time I’ve been through the darkness and light, up and down, thrown inside out, my closest friends- you’ve always been there for me, loving me and my Monster inside. The same answer I always give Grandpa Zhou every single time he asks me why I stop to chat, why I buy food for him.

The same profoundly simple answer-

– that we love, because God first loved us.

It’s as simple as that.

We love because God loved us first.

-1 John 4:19

We’re so obsessed with being good, so afraid to be found out that deep inside, perhaps we’re really not. So afraid to acknowledge the evil that lies within the crevices of our hearts, and so afraid to be exposed. But we forget, that besides God, everything in the world is both good and evil. Perhaps it is not the presence of evil that makes us loathe ourselves, but our loathing of that evil, our rejection and our denial of it.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the most beautiful of people are not those without an ounce of evil within them, not those who hate the evil within them, but those who accept, acknowledge, love and win the evil critter within them over, to be taught, tamed and transformed.

Perhaps, just perhaps, true beauty comes from embracing, and not rejecting ugliness and evil.

Today in Miss B’s* room, the quest to find the missing piece continued. It was so hard. The little girl with sunshine and rainbows in her hair cracked. There was a foul, foul odour, so foul that they both had incredulous looks on their faces. She was scared. It was absolutely horrifying.

There was a foul, foul odour, so foul it clung onto skin like a huge, messy cobweb you couldn’t get rid off. And oh, how it stank. She didn’t expect it would be like this, but when they opened her up to see where it was in her emotional system that had gone wrong, they got more than they bargained for.

Miss B had told her at the last session- “We’re going to take away everything you or any human being ever put worth in, and look at what’s left. It’s going to be very, very scary. “

It was. It really was. Suddenly, the girl with sunshine and rainbows no longer existed, and a huge, ugly, green-eyed monster morphed into horrifying reality. It was a hideous, heinous ogre, with multiple tentacles, writhing and heaving and seething in anger, stretching across the floor and reaching the ceiling, consuming all light, sucking away anything that even hinted of love. It was selfish and greedy and astounding Ugly. There was no girl with sunshine and rainbows. It was a monster, a full-bodied, writhing, life-sucking Ugly monster.

“I find it so hard to reconcile… Where did this come from? I don’t recognize this Wai Jia.” Miss B said.

She was so scared she couldn’t stop crying. Where did this come from- this evil, bloodthirsty, life-draining, power-hungry, self-seeking creature? This creature that bears her same name. This creature that is the cause of all her Insecurity.

So this was what it was, what clogged the system. It wasn’t a screw, or a missing piece. It was a Monster. A foul, Ugly Monster, hiding for years underneath a veneer of achievement and good deeds, sucking her up and draining her dry. Now that all the sunshine and rainbows had been stripped away, it finally resurrected itself in honesty, and put to shame everything that was ever lovely, or beautiful.

She crumbled at once. Oh, the weight of it all. The stark reality, and the stinging, smarting shame.

“Look at me. Look at me,” Miss B said over and over, more than ten times. And she couldn’t. There was panic and tears and fear and shame. This was so hard. This was so very hard- to strip away everything you ever thought you were to look at the inside bits, to find not a timid, confused little child waiting to be saved, but a nostril-flaring, fire-breathing, life-consuming monster that was unthinkably Ugly.

Her greatest fear uncovered. She was found out.

It was too much to bear.

Everything throbbed around her and the tears wouldn’t stop. There was fear and panic and tears and shock. Now that the monster had been exposed, she had been found out. It was the most horrifying question of all-What if deep down inside, there was no girl with pretty rainbows or kites or flowers in her hair, nobody who wants to become a missionary to help the poor and needy, no loving, giving, serving person who wants to love till it hurts, love God till eternity. That deep down inside, what if- all there was, was really just an evil Ugly monster just waiting, waiting, waiting to be found out and come alive and devour the little girl who really isn’t real at all.

To come to that place of complete honesty, to uncover a beast you never imagined existed, to even consider that beast might be… you and not what you thought yourself to be- can be a scary, scary thing.

“Look at me. Look at me,” Miss B said over and over, more than ten times. And I couldn’t. It was so hard. You think the world of yourself in so many ways, hold on to your strengths and qualities and finally have them challenged, put down, extinguished by a monster so real it even bears your same name.

Finally she said, ” This crying, this crying person here… This is the girl I know. And this is courage- to accept what you have just discovered. Breathe, just breathe.”

Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of all- that to come to the place of true acceptance, one has to embrace both the good and evil within oneself. For so long she hated herself because of the monster within her. It was so large and so real but she never could look at it in the eye. Little Anna is so small, so pure. She couldn’t stand up to it.

Perhaps that is why, in our deepest darkest moments, we loathe, hate and despise our very selves. We’re afraid of being found out, afraid of the monster inside, the monster that exists within each and every one of us.

And perhaps all we need to do is to embrace it. No, it is not to say we condone evil, and not to give up on the epic battle between darkness and light. But it is to come down, face-to-face, to acknowledge the monster within, to see it in all its full-bodied Ugly glory and to still… accept it. Accept it because it is a part of who we are, because it takes courage and humility to do so, and to forgive ourselves because the monster bears our same name.

It is not to say we have lost the epic battle. In fact, we win it. When we choose to accept the evil monster inside, we choose no longer to deny it, but to love, embrace and teach it. Evil monsters cannot look you in the eye because that is being polite, they cannot hug, cannot love. So when we choose to look at it in the eye, and embrace, love it, accept it, the ironic thing is, Evil does not win- it diminishes in size.

Evil monsters cannot survive in the presence of love.

It was so scary, made scarier by the fact that the monster grew so big because someone messed with the insides of her head. She didn’t mean to let it grow. She wanted to kill it. But she is all right now. She is learning to love the Evil, Ugly monster inside. Love it so much and so hard with the love of God that it will no longer be able to survive.

Perhaps sometimes, in order to hate evil, we really have to love it as much as we can, love it so much we can even forgive it, let it go.

She is learning what it means to love herself all over again. Not just the rainbows and kites and pretty bits, but to love, even the ten-foot tall, ugly, pimply, one-eyed ogre with bad breath and sticky tentacles, this Ugly ogre that is the cause of all her Insecurity, what drives her so crazy. Love it so much she can look at it in the eye and forgive what she sees, love it so much she can accept it and teach it patiently, love it so much that in time, it has no choice, no other choice but to become smaller, to diminish in size.

There is a long road ahead. The Monster will not go down without a fight. This makes her very tired, and she has had to cancel appointments except church because this process is so very tiring. She is still fighting it, still losing sleep searching for a spear big enough to bring it down when no one’s looking. She can hardly be in the same room with it, much less hug, love, forgive it. Knowing it lives right under her skin drives her absolutely crazy.

Perhaps this is what true courage really is. Loving, and not fighting our Monsters inside. Loving our Monsters and putting our weapons down, forgiving them because even God forgives them. He really does, He even loves us in spite of them.

Because perhaps, just perhaps, it is when we are able to accept, forgive and embrace the Ugly bits within ourselves, that we no longer loathe ourselves and become Beautiful. Perhaps it is when we are able to love the parts that we hate, that we are able to love and forgive others along the same cracks and same faults. Perhaps, just perhaps, all we need is to let go, stop fighting, wind down and see just how much even God loves us, in spite of our monsters.

And perhaps when we finally do, there will not be fear or tears or shame or shock anymore. There will not be the fear that the Monsters might be our true selves, not be the shame that we allowed them to grow, not be the shock at the terrifying realization.

Because when we finally do accept, forgive and embrace them, perhaps that’s when we’ll find the little girl with kites and rainbows and flowers-

– right there where she started. Beautiful and Secure again.


All posts under the link Therapy chronicle her journey to recovery from Anorexia and depression with professional help from the team at the Singapore General Hospital.

* Miss B is the principal psychologist who works with people suffering from eating disorders at the Singapore General Hospital.

It made me quite angry actually, the way they made a joke out of the whole affair.

Its supposed to a good occasion, and I’ve nothing against celebrating good occasions-but they’ve made a joke out of the whole affair. Oh, the travesty of it all.

A friend asked me today, “Would you celebrate Valentine’s Day?”

What with the commercialized packages- the glamourous advertising for jewellery, flowers with prices marked up to more than ten times their cost, and strange activities thought up by what must be the most desperate of minds for creativity. I only wonder how the experience of the couples who signed up for the candlelight dinner on the Gourmet Love Tram at the night safari must have been. Perhaps they thought $500 was a really good price to pay for novelty, in order to experience gastronomical discomfort and strange olfactory sensations. Im sure it was memorable.

There is so much advertising. Each idea trumping the next, trying to outdo one another.

The travesty of it all.

Flowers are found on bushes, on trees, and in wild, wild fields of nature. We pick them because of their beauty and allure, and give them to each other as gifts of affection, love and appreciation. Flowers must be chosen from the heart for the specific person in mind, and they must be exciting, wild and free. One cannot, should not, must not ever pre-package flowers. Flowers are free, always should be. In our attempt to express the unarticulated love we have, we can only do our best to try and capture that sense of freedom in a bouquet. A bouquet that stems from sincerity, and spontenity.

Bouquets make or break flowers. They have the power either to entrap flowers with their predictability, grotesquely outrageous prices or unthoughtfulness, or the power to set them absolutely free. Free. Bouquets are set free by sincerity, love and thoughtfulness.

Pre-packaged flowers, handpicked by a third party and chosen and wrapped by someone else with someone else in mind and chucked away in a freezer- are not Free. Behind glassy fridge doors, they really have become imprisoned, because they were not given to whom they were meant for.

The nerve of florists to pre-package them so that pubescent boys can come pick one up conveniently like an answer to a multiple choice question at marked up prices so they can impress a squealing girlfriend (is that what they call it?), and the audacity of grown men to buy them at exorbidant prices appall me.

The travesty of it all. It is an indictment of what we call love, what we call gifts.

It is the prices which sicken me most of all. They are marked up so much they buy us into believing it is the way to show our love. Some of the men who spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on frivolous bouquets with the intention to impress also happen to be ones who wave off perspiring secondary school students selling flags in the hot sun to raise money for worthy causes, only grudgingly finding a coin or two when they have their girlfriends’ arm around theirs.

Scumbags.

How anyone could find celebrating their love on a day where everyone is expecting everyone else to be doing the same thing romantic at all baffles me, to say the least.

But I restrain myself. For I’ve never celebrated it before. And I must apologise, and also add a disclaimer. Because there are always exceptions, and one must not be quick to judge others. Perhaps a couple had met at the zoo and a tram ride at the night safari perfectly encapsulated their feelings for each other; perhaps the knight had bumped into a dragon and had to slay it to save the maiden, and henceforth had no choice but to pick up a –gasp- pre-packaged bouquet before the clock turned twelve.

And if those expensive, expensive gifts were bought with sincerity and a lot of love, then who am I to judge anyone.

But if you ask me, I’d rather a gift of the monetary equivalent on a cheque instead addressed to children in Uganda, instead of some commercial package specially designed to rip unsuspecting couples off. Now, that would be hot.

Like I said, there are always exeptions. And I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot by ruining my own story for romance.

But surely we can agree, that there is a difference between spending on someone you love, and indulging in nauseating extravagance.

We come to realize at some point, that all the gifts that were most memorable really don’t cost much at all. A drawing, a card, a thoughtful act, quality time, or best of all, a free hug given out of the blue, not for any occassion, just spontaneously, randomly.

Because perhaps it really is true- that the best things in life come for free. And we needn’t try too hard to impress.

I had friends from church come over to my place yesterday. It was a very simple affair, with simple presents and simple things. It was most delightful.

After everyone had left, there was a lot food leftover, still. I packed up a box and delivered it to Grandpa Zhou.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Don’t go, say grace for me first.” I did, after which he dug into his smelly, old green bag and handed me a red packet, from the same red packet envelope I had given to him for Chinese new year. For Chinese people, it is a tradition for married couples to give red packets to single youth, as a symbol of sending their blessings and wellwishes.

“You have done a lot for me. I don’t know how to express my gratitude, but I hope you will accept my little gift of thanks. It really is nothing, but thank you for all you’ve been doing for me. I hope you don’t mind my poor Chinese writing behind.”

He had written the Chinese characters of my name and his well-wishes: Wishing you a Happy Chinese New Year, may your medical skills shine like Hua Tuo’s. From Grandpa Zhou. Hua Tuo was an ancient doctor from China who established himself as one of the forefather’s of medicine.

I laughed. There was money inside. “You’re giving me money?” I laughed and smiled at him, and thanked him in return. For worse than receiving the wrong type of presents, is returning them to someone who gave it to you. I accepted it.

It contained 6 dollars.

Simple presents, simple people. Thoughtfulness, spontaneity and sincerity. The beauty of randomness.

Because perhaps, just perhaps, the best things in life really don’t cost much at all.

Raggedy-Anna’s Papa is a Big Teddy Bear. They loved each other so much, talked about everything and anything in the world. How she loved and adored Big Papa- she gave him a Big part of her heart. After all, he was Big Papa, wasn’t he? He promised he would keep it and guard it forever and ever with his life, like a Big Teddy Bear would. Big Papa. Strong and secure and trustworthy, like Big Teddy Bears are supposed to be.

One day, however, Big Papa took the Big part of her heart, put it in an envelope and mailed it away in a brown envelope. He told her he forgot the address, said he didn’t know why he did it, but anyway he couldn’t find it anymore so Raggedy-Anna must find a new one and move on.

Raggedy-Anna has been very afraid of all sorts of Teddy Bears ever since. They look all the same to her. She has many Teddy Bear friends but none have access to whatever part of her heart that’s left. She keeps a Safe distance from them because she is so Very afraid. Afraid they might promise her what Big Papa promised, and then smash it into bits and mail it away and tell her to get along now and good-bye and see you again.

So she keeps a Safe distance.

Even though some of them might be, maybe, perhaps be- angels in disguise. Her maker’s still finding the missing piece. Meanwhile, she’s seeing some doctors, and they’re trying to help her by looking for that brown envelope at the post office. That envelope with a Big part of her heart. It is such a tiny envelope.

Big Papa, why did you do that? I know you do love her so very much. But why.

She’s still waiting to for her missing piece. She’s trying very hard to search for it too.

Meanwhile, she keeps a Safe distance from all sorts of Teddy Bears.

“… You need to constantly remind yourself that there is no stigma attached to taking medication at all for what you have is an illness. It’s not a condition, nor is it an affliction, and certainly it’s not a sign of weakness nor is it a sin or a punishment. It is an illness treatable by medication. And if anyone tells you otherwise, it’s because they don’t understand…”

Why do I feel a weight lift from my chest when I read this letter. I read it over and over so I believe it more each time. I read it over and over.

And if anyone tells you otherwise, it’s because they don’t understand…

If only people understood.

Most don’t and will not-it’s the way things are. It only makes things harder, but we press on anyway.

Onward and upward.

To those of you who have tried to, chosen to, and are trying to understand, thank you.

I read it over and over.

” The meds will take effect only in 3 weeks to a month’s time… People take it for at least 6 months. We’ll see how things go, and if we need to readjust the dosage. “

“It takes a month? A whole month for it to work? And I take it for 6 months?”

“Yes, a month for it to work. Side effects include headaches, nausea, stomach discomfort, slight sedation… “

“Uh-huh. And that’s supposed to help me feel better?”

Nervous laughter.

“Well, not everyone gets side effects. But yes, it takes a month.”