Monday, June 4, 2012

40 is the new 18

So...the 'big 4-0'.

Over the past half a year, I've witnessed many of my peers arrive at this point in their timeline (mostly via Facebook) - some with trepidation, others with celebratory mirth, and most, with resigned humour.

As I post one birthday message after another, I often add a line saying that I would be eagerly joining the club soon.

That is not a lie. I have never felt better about myself - where I am in my life and where I am going to go - than I do now, as I approach the cusp of mid-life.

''40 is the new 18" - I've told everyone who was patient enough to listen that this is my new tagline for the way I live (and want to be living for the next 40 years).

In so many ways, I've been blessed with the opportunity to live as if I was 18 all over again, albeit with the hindsight of experience and insight of maturity that I did not have back then.

This time last year, I was making the most amazing, life-changing journey on a fellowship to study ethical issues in journalism through the Holocaust. I spent my birthday, at the end of that trip, across three cities - Krakow, Frankfurt and New York - with a group of people I would cherish for the rest of my life because of the spiritual, emotional and intellectual bonds we had forged.

Something shifted inside after that journey. I came to understand that it was the universe's way of preparing me for this next half of my life.

Now, I'm doing the work I love and had dreamed of as a child. Everyday, I feel connected to the principles that had first inspired me to choose this path.

Looking back at the anger and disappointment in my younger days when the work I was doing then did not match up to my ideals, and the subsequent quests to find something else that could, I understand now that those were all part of the lessons I had to learn to arrive at this point where conviction and action can meet and move on together.

Putting career on hold and quitting work when the kids came along meant paying the price of having to start all over again at mid-life when everyone else had ''arrived''. But because of those ''lost'' years, I'd gained the priceless gift of being there every moment of the early years of my babies' growth and the incomparable happiness I felt teaching yoga to kids, making and selling my own accessories and writing without fetters.

I had resisted moving back to Singapore late last year with a vehemence that led only to much wasted energy. But I realised that even those were not ill-spent. The process of resistance at all cost was necessary for me to understand what I didn't want - and what I did.

But more importantly, there were old chapters back here that needed to be closed, before I could begin the next book.

Being single again is probably the best thing I've done for myself, next to graduate school.

Most of the first half of my life had been marked with the fear of being alone and hence, the spate of one disastrous attachment after another. Yes, I know I didn't look it - I've always played the part of independence really well.

But now, singlehood at mid-life is feeling extremely free and refreshing. I had thought I would need some time to overcome the fear of going it alone - especially given the challenges of single parenting in a society that still harbours strong discrimination and prejudice under the veneer of progressive speak.

But no, there is no fear. Perhaps, it is precisely because I am now a single parent at mid-life that I feel no fear. Sure, there will be some frustration, annoyance, and occasionally, anger at roadblocks put in place by bureaucracy and prejudice. C'est la vie.

So, on D-day, I'm taking stock of how it feels like to have the next half of a wonderful life before me, with plenty to look forward to.

It's like having that same fire in the belly at 18, but also the magic power to not let those flames burn out of control and destroy the people and things around me that I hold dear - or, myself.

That wild, dangerous fire is now a silent, steady flame, which I have come to recognise as what strength, freedom and independence truly is.

It doesn't get much better than this - so much to see, do, and experience.

I have a very long bucket list. For a start, Im going to learn Korean, pick up boxing and take the kids to China and imbue them with a sense of culture and heritage. At some point I will run the Great Wall marathon (OK, maybe the half).

Last, but not least, when I'm approaching 80, I would like to write a blog post titled ''80 is the new 28''.

Journey - on track

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Funny Valentine 2

It is that time of the year again, and there is that ubiquitous woman standing by herself and staring at the shelves of pink hearts and chocolates in the supermarket.

Perhaps I shouldn't assume that she was a lonely heart, or that she was pondering how many Valentines she was going to receive this year (if any).

But it is hard to break out of the stereotypes and associations this one day in the year come laden with. The reminders are everywhere and in your face - from advertisements for couples' dinners to flowers and chocolates, and nowadays, more original, sassy and kinky stuff.

On the other hand, if you're Valentine-less, the magazines and papers are full of useless 'how-to' articles that don't really help at all: 'how to survive Valentine's Day alone' and 'how to get a date if you're single', etc. Just what exactly is wrong with people being alone (and - entertain this possibility - happy) on this day?

Now, I'm a girl who loves my dinners and flowers, but I'm also the least likely to crumble in a heap if I have to eat a takeout dinner in front of Facebook (and everyone's pictures of their dinner).

The truth is: most of us have years of wonderful, memorable Valentine's Day, and years of not so great ones. Some are lucky enough to have more good years than bad ones. A sobering reminder is that billions of people in the world do not even celebrate this day (at least not with expensive dinners and gifts), given that they live only on a few dollars a day.

A couple of years ago, I started taking my little man out as my 'funny Valentine' date (links to the first 'My Funny Valentine' blog post). This little guy, my 'number one baby' who is growing up much faster than I can keep up with, once said to me:

“Mum, one is a very lonely number.”

“Why is one a very lonely number?”

“Because it always has to go first.”

''Zero is also very lonely.''


''Because it means nothing.''

He was four when he said that - already aware of the number games that we go through in life. I told him much later on, that whether it was zero, one, twos, threes or many, loneliness and love all come from within each and everyone of us. You can have thousands of people loving you, but still be lonely because you do not love yourself. Or, you can be alone in the world, but happy, loved and loving.

I'm not sure he got that bit just yet, despite being the philosopher that he is. But, he will. Hopefully, it won't take him as long as it took me to understand that.

Last year, the little guy and his little lady sister surprised me with a huge Valentine's balloon I found in my room when I got back from a trip to New York. That sealed a new routine - me and my two funny Valentines.

This Valentine's Day, I would hardly see my babies. I see the little guy briefly before I put him on the bus to school early in the morning; and I see the little lady briefly after the school bus drops her off late in the evening.

As I left the supermarket, I saw the news on Twitter about Whitney Houston's death. She was only 48. (And yes, I check tweets even when I'm pushing a cart full of groceries.)

After loading the groceries in the car, I headed for the bakery. I picked a tiny, pink, heart-shaped cake and proceeded to fill it with icing messages and kitschy decor for the babies, including a yellow smiling face.

We celebrated Valentine's Day two days in advance, on a Sunday this year. My message to them every year will be one borrowed from one of my favourite Whitney Houston songs:

I decided long ago never to walk in anyone's shadow. If I fail, if I succeed, at least I'll live as I believe. No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity...because the greatest love of all is happening to me. Learning to love the greatest love of all.

Ironically, her struggles in life and untimely death showed that knowing this doesn't always mean it's easy to live it.

So, I hope I was wrong in my assumptions about the woman in the supermarket staring at the chocolates, thankful that I'm now positively living the greatest love of all, and hopeful that the people I love most of all - my funny Valentines - will live this love their whole lives.

Love yourself - at least, as much as you love the ones you love most.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Working at Auschwitz

When going to the office means following the barbed wire to the building next to a gas chamber....

When Jarek Mensfelt, 49, first came to work at Auschwitz, it was for pragmatic reasons. He had studied languages and besides Polish, he also speaks English, French and Spanish. He’s now been here for 16 years.
“It was only after I started working here that I think my life changed…not before,” he says.
He began working as a guide and then an interpreter at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial. But he never thought of it as a ‘mission,’ he adds. Although he was born in a town only 7 km away, it didn’t occur to him in his youth that he would build a career out of the history surrounding the former Nazi concentration camp where 1.1 million people – the majority of whom were Jews – were killed.
Today, he heads the press office, and while his day job involves maintaining the museum’s website and managing relations with journalists, he still conducts three-hour tours for visitors three to five times a week.
Working in his office, he sips green tea or his favorite sweetened boiled rhubarb drink. He usually starts his day by watering his plants and having a discussion with his three immediate colleagues. But reminders that his isn’t a regular office are never far away.
“Behind the window, you can see the barbed wire and just ten meters away is the former gas chamber where tens of thousands were brutally murdered,” he says.
His office on the grounds of Auschwitz I – the first of the satellite complex of camps – is in the former SS canteen, and next to the gas chamber. He recalls an incident that struck him when he first came to Auschwitz to apply for a job. He asked for directions at the reception and was told matter-of-factly: “go along the barbed wire and you’ll see the chimney and that is the crematorium and that is where the office is.” So while he tries not to think about that all the time, he also hopes never to forget where he works and what happened here, 70 years ago.
“Each time I’m going into the camp at Birkenau, I can still sense the emotions,” he says, referring to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest of the camps that held up to 90,000 prisoners and where 90 per cent of the victims here were killed.
To cope with the intensity of these emotions, he adds, he simply tries to “be mindful” – staying aware of who he is and where he is, not going into “a dreamlike mode” but yet not letting the emotions take control of his life.
Mensfelt is divorced and has a stepson, 28, who lives in Ireland, and a daughter, 23, who is studying cognitive sciences. He still lives in the village he grew up in, near his mother and sister. When he isn’t at work, he can be found walking his dog, riding his bicycle or swimming.
In his career at the museum, he has led more than 1,500 groups on tour around the museum and memorial. If you’re lucky enough to be guided by Mensfelt, he may take you to a spot not usually on the standard guided tour route – the swimming pool.

Even though it’s been more than 10 years, he has never been able to forget what happened on one of the tours he led.

One of the questions he is asked most often is about how people could live in the villages around the camps.
“This is sometimes hard to understand for foreigners, because they would think of Auschwitz as a black hole with no life, where everything was destroyed,” he explains.
Similarly, he adds, it is hard for most people he meets to understand how he and about 260 other employees at Auschwitz go to work every day at a site of great human tragedy. In hindsight, he recalls, he himself was depressed in the first two years of working here.
“It was really affecting me and I couldn’t simply switch off,” he said. “I became quiet internally and I changed my attitude to life.”
But now, he adds, his work in “conveying history” fulfills him and he feels gratified thinking that each day, the thousands of visitors passing through the Auschwitz gates, under the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign will leave having learned something.
“I became more optimistic after all,” he said. “I’m doing what I like doing. I’m a happy man.”

Unlike his colleague Mensfelt, press officer Pawel Sawicki has worked at Auschwitz for only three years, but he feels as if his life’s journey has led him here. The 30-year-old former journalist and soon-to-be father of twins talks about the mission of “working with memory and educating people.”
“I think many people think of us as very sad and terrified people because we have to deal with murder and with gas chambers and so on, but in fact, what I learned from the survivors is to be happy every day.” – Pawel Sawicki.

 As published on the FASPE Journalism website.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Shoe With No Lace - Reflections from Auschwitz

I made sure not to wear mascara the day we visited Poland’s State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was warned. But nothing I had heard from another person, or seen in books and films, could have prepared me for what I was about to experience.
In one of the brick military barracks that once housed over 1,000 human beings, I stood before a glass case of shoes, unable to move. My gut instinct told me to turn and run away. But I couldn’t. Instead, I kept looking at a particular shoe – a small black leather one turned dusty grey with age and wear. 
The shoe had lost its lace. I wasn’t sure if its owner – most probably a boy of about seven or eight years old then – had been responsible for that, or if the lace was ripped out of the sockets after the shoe had been taken from him.
The entire case before me was of children’s shoes. I scanned the display, looking for the shoe’s lost companion. It was as if finding the other would somehow comfort the one remaining. Yes, it was lost more than 65 years ago. But, perhaps, if I could find the partner to a pair (maybe even with lace intact) it would relieve this feeling inside me of having come undone.
My son wears shoes like that to school every day.
I couldn’t find the shoe’s twin. When the Auschwitz concentration camps were liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945, more than 80,000 shoes – both adults’ and children’s – were found, said Agnieshka, our guide. “I say 80,000 shoes, not pairs of shoes,” she emphasized, “because it was impossible to find them in pairs.”
She didn’t have to explain why. The Nazi killing machinery had been so efficient that every single item belonging to its victims, from clothes, shoes, and glasses to prosthetic limbs and gold teeth fillings, had been systematically striped, appropriated and in most cases, redistributed. But towards the end, there must have been many items left behind in the wake of hasty retreat. Many of the exhibits were found in one warehouse (called “Kanada” because Canada symbolized wealth then) that didn’t burn down when the SS evacuated the camps, marching the remaining prisoners west, 10 days before the Soviets arrived.
I walked away from the shoes to an open window for some air. I would like to think of myself as an analytical and thoughtful person. But my mind was unable to process any information at that point, although I was still listening to Agnieshka’s facts and statistics loaded narrative through the headset. As I turned my face out the window, away from the room, my only thought was that I was glad I didn’t wear mascara.  
The sun-soaked brick walls and dirt paths outside seemed eerily distant. I couldn’t feel the warmth and light streaming into the dark room. I didn’t need an explanation for why there was no lace on the shoe. Little boys lose their shoelaces, often without explanation, a lesson I learned on another bright, sunny, early summer day in the far away Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where my kids go to school.
It was 3:30 p.m. and the children were emerging from school dressed in their uniform red tops, navy blue bottoms and black shoes – Mary Janes for the girls and laced leather shoes for the boys. I saw my son coming towards me in the distance, in a strange combination of shuffle, hobble and waddle.
“What’s going on baby? Why are you walking funny?”
“Uh…mom…I lost my laces….”
“Huh? How?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked down at his feet to see a pair of black leather shoes turned dusty grey by the sticks-and-stones playground frolic of eight-year-old boys. The lace on one side was gone; on the other side, half the lace was left, with one ripped end dangling tentatively, barely holding the shoe together.
“What do you mean you don’t know? They’re your shoes and your laces…who else is responsible for them?”
“I don’t know!”
“You must know. Did you step on them? Did you trip and fall? Did they break?”
“I said I don’t know.”
In that moment, I could have told myself to be a cool mom. It was no big deal. Shoelaces could be replaced. Instead, in the split second I had to decide which way to go, I chose the path of the harried, over-scheduled parent trying to juggle graduate school, working an internship, three freelance writing assignments and raising two kids at the same time.
“This is not acceptable. I want to know how you lost the laces.”
“In the playground…maybe.”
“Fine. I will replace them. But you will clean the shoes when we get home.”
He shuffled, hobbled, waddled two feet behind me all the way to the car. It wasn’t too hard to replace the laces. The local CVS pharmacy sold black laces. I didn’t make him clean his shoes nor string the new laces through the sockets. But I gave him a hard time for being unable to explain in detail how he lost the laces.
We’re moving on, Agnieshka said over the headset. I moved away from the window to re-join the group in our tour of darkness. Why did I get all tied up in knots over shoelaces? I had no idea. But I knew that I wouldn’t be giving my son a hard time if he ever lost them again.
Six million Jewish lives were lost in the Holocaust, and an estimated 11 million in total. Here at Auschwitz, 1.1 million were killed, of which about 90 per cent were Jews, 75,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 25,000 people of other ethnicities. The belongings enshrined as exhibits when Auschwitz I, the first of the satellite complex of camps, became a state museum in 1947, were a grim testimony to the horror that was meted out – hair shorn from the heads and bodies of victims before being sent into the gas chambers; suitcases with names and addresses written on them, as if the owners still held on to the barest thread of hope that they were getting on the transports to be resettled in a land where they could start a new life.
I was warned. But nothing I had heard from another person, or seen in books and films could have prepared me for this.
On the bus after the visit ended that day, I sat by myself next to a window. The sun was scorching hot by now. It was 1:45 pm in Auschwitz, and 7:45 am back in the U.S. I called my son.
“Hello, mom.”
“Hi, you sound sleepy.”
“I just woke up…getting ready to go to school.”
“I just wanted to hear your voice and say that I love you.”
It was a two-minute phone call, cut short by IDD rates. But I would have gladly given all my worldly possessions to be able to hold him in my arms there and then. In my heart, I held him a little closer and tighter. In my mind, I couldn’t stop seeing the image of the shoe with no lace.
I made sure not to wear mascara as well the next day, when we visited Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
The camp, built over a sprawling 170-hectare site was said to have held up to 90,000 prisoners at one point. You could almost still smell the dead there, a friend who had come here in her high school years with the March of the Living program, had told me. In the tiny bunks shared by five to seven women, or the communal toilets that were basically long rows of circular holes in the ground, the stench of the dead and living dead had long dissipated. But if one stood very still and silent for a few moments, the air would grow heavy very quickly, despite the bright sunshine all around. And then, maybe, one would be able to smell the deaths that still haunted the grounds.
As I walked, I couldn’t stop thinking about the shoe with no lace. I wondered if its lost owner ever made it here to the living quarters. At the end of the journey, in the building known as the “Sauna” that used to serve as a processing center for new arrivals, I found my answer. Most of the children who came to Auschwitz were sent directly to their death. Of those allowed to live, many were used in cruel medical experiments.  
In a room near the exit of the “Sauna” building stood three walls of photographs, taken from the victims. Many of these were of children – from babies to toddlers, and young, pre-teen kids. I scanned the faces – cherubic, happy, and smiling – and each time I came across a young boy, I found myself wondering if it had been his foot that the shoe without lace fitted on.
I stood at the wall, unable to move. I didn’t care anymore if I was wearing mascara. In the middle of the wall, there was a plague. Reading the writing, I felt as if all that was soft and living inside me was being violently ripped out like the lost shoelace:

The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans,
The world’s best, the bleak earth’s brightest,
These children from the orphanages might have been our comfort.
From these sad, mute, bleak faces our new dawn might have risen.
In those words, I found the lost boy belonging to the shoe with no lace. 
A wall of faces - children, people, families. 
How does one tie up the pieces again after being torn apart by the horror and darkness that the human race had sunk to?
Somehow, the living always finds a way to release death. That evening, I was one of a few non-Jewish persons who joined our Jewish fellow travelers at the synagogue in the town of Oswiecim to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). What followed was an informal session with song, poetry and speech. It was spiritual and ritual, pious and therapeutic.
In the sharing and baring, I found a lace to thread my soul back together again. I wore mascara that night…and was relieved to let it run. 
 This piece was written as part of my trip to Germany and Poland on the inaugural FASPE Journalism Program. It was first published on Open Salon and it is also posted at the FASPE Journalism site

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Why do we study history, if not to make a better future?

The horror of the images in A Film Unfinished,
juxtaposed with the beauty of the sunset.

That was the thought that filled my mind as the documentary A Film Unfinished came to an end, and the shades over the windows rolled up along with the credits in the film, to reveal a magnificent sunset. The film, about a Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw that was never finished, was probably one of the most intense I've ever seen, along with The Conscience of Nhem En (about a photographer who documented the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia).

It was the end of the first day on the FASPE journalism program and we had spent the day in discussions and seminars on the role of the press during the Holocaust and covering conflict. We had also been taken on a tour of the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York  by a Holocaust survivor from Poland. We were warned that the film was hard to watch, but even then, there was a cloud of silence hanging over the room for a few minutes when it ended.

I'm hardly ever at a loss for words, but in that moment, I was only able to come to terms with the horrific images I had just seen, by capturing images myself. I grabbed my camera and shot the sunset through the window. Being behind the lens made me feel safe again, even as the questions and thoughts were racing through my head about the people who shot that film in the ghetto, of the dead and dying, and the one man who recounted the process in an interview years later.

Strangely, I felt like I could understand how he could have done it...just stayed behind the camera and shot the scenes, and fall back to the concerns of the craft (i.e. was there good lighting, etc.) instead of addressing the moral and ethical issues of being an apparatus to documenting atrocities. Of course it's morally wrong. I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying that for a split second, I felt like I could get into the mind of the person behind the camera. In a poetically ironic way, it was through an appreciation of beauty, that I could almost fathom the depths of horror the human soul is sometimes capable of.

I've always loved sunsets...because they signal to me that there will be another glorious sunrise the next day. Why study history, if it isn't to make a better future?