Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.
– George Eliot
Shang and I have been friends for 17 years.
When we were 11, we would cycle to the park near our houses everyday at 5.30PM, and we would play Blind Man’s Buff with our fellow GEP-classmates-neighbours. This group of us eventually called ourselves the Mushroomers, and it was from this group that I first learnt what it meant to feel safe with people. It was from this group that I learnt my first measure of friendship.
Later on, Shang’s (and Zwing’s) and my families would play badminton with each other. We would both also enter Raffles, but save for a year in Secondary 2 which I have little specific memories of other than a fond recollection of boyhood fun,1 we were in different classes. So in those formative teenage years, we never really became each others’ confidantes. But the embers of our friendship were fuelled by that knot of shared childhood, and over time, these embers glowed into a deep mutual respect for the individuals that we are today.2
So three weeks ago, when I saw him walk down the aisle with the one girl whom he could share both chaff and grain with, I was really, really happy for him. (It was also the first time I saw him cry.)
The day that Shang got married was also Catholic Youth Day (“CYD“). CYD was a huge event. Thousands of young people from parishes all over Singapore gathered at the Office of Young People (“OYP“) to celebrate the Christian life in Singapore. The event began at 4.00PM, flowed into an overnight vigil and Adoration, and ended at 8.00AM the next morning. Our usual Sunday sessions were cancelled in favour of attending CYD.
I did not attend CYD.
But after Shang’s wedding ended, I drove down to OYP for Adoration. I wanted to be at least present, even if I had missed the main event. And I thought that the crowd would have dissipated by then.
I thought wrong. When I reached at around 11.30PM, the queues for Confession were still stretching on, and there were still pockets of people hanging around everywhere. If this was the crowd at 11.30PM, boy, was I glad I had a reason to miss the sweltering masses earlier that afternoon.
I walked past the wave of CYD t-shirts, intensely self-conscious of how much of a misfit I was in my post-formal attire, and spent about half an hour in Adoration. After that, I briefly considered availing myself to potential HTHTs with the remaining loggers.
That night felt surreal. I had left the wedding with a heart full of joy, after witnessing a wonderful milestone in a good friend’s life. And I had wanted to share some of this joy with my community. But when I reached OYP, I realised that everyone else was full already. So there I stood, seeing their faces brimming with the experiences that I had not been privy to, as ready as me (if not more) to share their joy. I thought about how wholly different our day had been, and about the huge gap of empathy we would have to cross. And I decided to go home instead. Besides, it was well past my bedtime, and it had been a long day.
The next morning, instagramming a picture of Shang and RL amidst the deluge of #CYD2016 photos felt like an act of rebellion.
Recently, I have been thinking about how parochial I have become. All it takes is an experience beyond the confines of SFX, work, or family, for me to feel that there is no one I can share with. I could generalise this further. All my confidantes fall within the same narrow category: introverted, Christian-valued, intelligent, upper-middle class, critical, Chinese, vulnerable. The number of common adjectives we share bears testament to how insular I am.
In many ways, this echo chamber arises from my pursuit of Eliot’s “inexpressible comfort”. When I created my Facebook account in or around 2009, I listed Eliot’s quote as one of my Favourite Quotes. I chanced across this quote again recently in a blog. And just like that, the years of yearning all came rushing back: since I was 11, I have never stopped wishing on someone else’s star.
But there is a tension rising within me. More and more, safety feels stifling. More and more, I find myself drawn beyond my cliques and my community, drawn to unbelonging, to detachment, to having that “cup of coffee someday to talk about life” with people whom I have no shared history with.
I had such a Coffee Chat3 recently. N sparked my interest a year ago when I saw his insta-post of a stack of classics: The Remains of the Day, The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five, A Clockwork Orange, The Odyssey, Brave New World, etc. He was Secondary 5 then.4 So one day, I seized an opportunity and asked him to meet up for a chat. We talked about how he enjoyed dancing, how I wanted to be an international lawyer, how we were involved in ministry, how we perceived each other’s communities, how we both loved reading. It was awkward at first, it was really random, and it was absolutely life giving.
In some sense, my connection with the Shining Man arose from such a Coffee Chat as well.
Of course, social mores always present a problem. I remember a young girl I met three weeks ago. She was small and she was her own person; she also looked a bit like Joy. And I would have liked to have asked her how she became who she is today. But we were at a wake, and she was the only person who had a familial connection to the deceased (which was why I was even talking to her in the first place).
Perhaps Coffee Chats are a substitute drug to the inexpressible comfort I once searched for so intently but am now so passive about. Perhaps I am preparing myself to be wrenched away from safety and comfort, and am therefore finding other repositories of humanness.
Perhaps, also, in searching out stories of different lives, I am really searching for a Storyteller.
1. Read: epic Pepsi Cola matches in the morning. One of our batchmates broke his ankle because he kicked the wall too hard.
2. See also this post.
3. I don’t actually like coffee. So I usually end up eating cake, ice cream, or drinking tea.
4. When I wrote about N in this post, I had not spoken to him yet.