An icy draught picks up inexplicably, threatening to rip the page from my hands. I draw my cloak tighter around me.
Friday nights are wild. Parks teem with an eclectic mix of rappers, skateboarders, break dancers… you name it. And then, alone in the middle of it all, there’s me. I’m not sure where I belong, or if there are even enough of others like me to make a group. For a moment there, the thumping music trailed off as one track ended and another began. The only sound was the idle scratching of my nib on a jagged piece of scrap paper. How do you write about what eludes you? “Dear diary” wasn’t working. Too literal.
Growing up is a journey of self-discovery. Somewhere along the way on that journey, we change profoundly. For better or for worse, I changed — not just physically, but also psychologically. I started finding it difficult to make new friends. I drifted away from friends who cared about me. Lunch breaks were an ordeal to get through, sandwiched between strangers in the crowded cafeteria with my head down, oblivious to the buzz of conversations going on around me. I often disappeared from the cafeteria as quietly as I had arrived, making a quick escape to the library to bury my head in books. Yet I refused to admit these personality changes. When the few remaining friends I had left asked after me, I brushed them off as well. Eventually they, too, grew distant. All these worrying signs should have sent warning bells ringing, but they didn’t. I wanted others to believe in my façade of cool indifference so badly that eventually the line between reality and make-believe blurred, even for me. I was no longer just acting indifferent — I was indifferent.
No one put it quite as eloquently as Maya Angelou in her book Letter to My Daughter. “I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honour our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old.”
Indeed, societal norms are a tempting bandwagon that beckon to us. Without searching for our own answers, we eagerly accept the common milestones in life bequeathed to us by our parents or even peers as the definition of growing up.
Think about it. At 18, did you not gape in awe at that rare friend who could drive? Did you not feel a rush of exhilaration at getting your first credit card? These are milestones we achieve simply by virtue of our two decades of existence on this Earth. But growing up is something more than just the accumulation of years! Growing up is a journey of self-discovery.
A few months ago, I was given the opportunity to go back to my high school to teach seventh graders. Something about teaching makes me feel more alive. Maybe it’s because I’m around younger boys in whom I see a little of a younger and more playful me. They remind me so much of my childhood — I can almost see myself sitting behind one of the desks, furtively passing mischievous notes to my friends while the teacher’s back is turned. Except that I can only see the silhouette of my seat buddy. No matter how hard I try to remember, he remains a faceless silhouette. I spent hours roaming the school in the evenings, just soaking in the last light and the reassuring feeling of familiarity. Just staring out at the field where I spent countless hours playing softball. Or at the Raja Block classroom that was once my refuge. Or at the Hullet Memorial Library that still has the same collection of books and movies I remember from my days.
It’s odd how we don’t realise what we treasure until we lose it. Then we remember that warm feeling which once blossomed and spend the rest of our lives searching so desperately for it. Searching in vain for the ghost of a memory. Despairing when we finally realise that it’ll never be the same again. Family, friends, places… we make the same mistake over and over again.
It was during one of those moments of sobriety, lost in reverie, that I found the time to reflect and chronicle the disconcerting sense of déjà vu in a blog I’d abandoned for years. A blog from back in the day when I was still a child with an overeager mind and too many questions. I wrote about my frustration at the gaps in my memories. “Most of my memories feel like snippets from a book I can barely recall. And they come to me as and when they please, as if I’d unburdened myself of pages of my memories, attached them to a kite and accidentally set it free… Those torn pages are fluttering down all around me. Snippets of memories. I snatch at what I can. Faces. Laughter. Tears. Overwhelming emotions.” It was a frightening mess of raw emotions that I had kept hidden away in the dark recesses of my heart, sacrificed at the altar of productivity. I wanted to chase my dreams, not dwell on my past. Sadly, as with many of my peers, I lived for the future but not in the present.
Baring my soul on this blog was the first time in 21 years that I consciously paused to think about what my childhood meant for me. Nothing coherent, apparently. “A new year. A new class. A new school. Then came army. And work. Now it’s time for university. Too many new friends, too little time spent together.” It was almost unsettling that all I could conjure up were a jumble of confusing faces alongside disjointed bits of memory and pangs of regret.
So at the end of my blog post, I turned to poetry to sum up my abstract confusion.
Whirlwinds of changin’ faces;
They come, they go — anything but stay
Alone in the tempest,
Struggling to keep from being swept away
I know not what to feel,
To miss the old or embrace the new
Whirlwinds characterized the better part of my childhood. Every year brought with it new faces at school and took away an equal pound of flesh close to my heart, separated from friends with whom I had grown fond of. In an age without social media, that often sounded the death knell for our budding friendships. Growing up, I found myself trapped in a whirlwind of faces that spun themselves into a frenzy. In Souls on Ice, Mark Doty said of writing poetry, “Our metaphors go on ahead of us, they know before we do.” How true. Metaphors “serve as a container for emotion and idea, a vessel [to] hold what’s too slippery… to touch”. For Doty, finding an apt metaphor was the zenith of poetry writing. They race ahead of thoughts that sluggishly coalesce in our minds; anticipate words that we exasperatedly search for. Metaphors are so much more than mere embellishments. In that single powerful image of a howling tempest, I could see everyone who mattered to me getting swept away, leaving me battered and more alone than ever.
Why had I become withdrawn? I was afraid. This was the reason I had become withdrawn and aloof. As a child, friends were the sum total of my world. Being ripped away from my friends over and over again had left me too emotionally battered. So I subconsciously chose the easy way out. I built a wall around myself to avoid getting hurt again.
My poem had one last surprise in store for me. Only by stopping to reflect did I realise this: poetry is such an apt metaphor for our journey of self-discovery. What I have written thus far are merely the opening stanzas of a poem of epic proportions. At 21 years of age and in my freshman year halfway across the globe at New York University, I am on the cusp of something big. Of what, I don’t know yet.
Epiphany. Yet again.
I did not know at that time, but the very act of writing those verses represented the crux of growing up because writing demands a certain clarity in our thoughts. Words are metaphorical mirrors, a reflection of our innermost thoughts and feelings. Doty’s metaphor is but an approach to penning down our thoughts, nothing more than a key to unlock the power of words. Writing is a slow, thoughtful process that insists we pause and crystallize our thoughts. The actual self-discovery we do when we put pen to paper and compose a poem “full of repetitions, weak lines, unfinished phrases and extra descriptions” as we relive our joys and sorrows.
There are all too many of these unfinished lines. When I write about my first crush, whom every time I laid eyes on, gave me the tingles; or when I recall the heartrending loss of my grandparents when I was little that still reduces me to sobs; or when I am tossing under the sheets in the dark at 1 a.m. trying to fend off that growing homesickness, struggling to come to terms with the reality of being truly alone in a foreign land — these are powerful emotions that we ourselves don’t fully comprehend. They refuse to be constrained by the dullness of mere words.
Over the years we try our best to trim these messy stanzas into something vaguely coherent as we struggle to make sense of our jumbled memories and emotions. No one really succeeds in this endeavour though. How can we, without even knowing the closing verses?
I don’t know if I will ever be able to finish writing this poem. Do we ever stop growing up? Is there a certain age beyond which we suddenly turn wise and sagely? It seems introspection has only left me with more questions than answers. Perhaps when we scratch out the last stanzas with trembling hands in our last moments, we may yet realise Maya Angelou was right all along: we never really grow up. “We carry the accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” There is an overlooked beauty in the innocence that we retain throughout our lives. Perhaps our questions and poems were always meant to be left open ended.
As Doty mused towards the close of his essay, “Even after [our] work of inquiry, [our] metaphors may still know more than [we] do.” Regardless of what happens in my life, my poem will always have space for one more messy stanza. Our inner selves may be too complex put in words, but words are all we have.
Growing up is a journey of self-discovery. Reflection — and writing — may not always yield the answers we want, but it always insists we question our assumptions. After all, isn’t that the quintessence of growing up?