Sunday 12 January 2020

Be Free Where You Are

THE feet know it best.

They will be the first to detect signs of restraint and the lack of freedom when cooped up within closed in shoes, e
specially when they comes with bunions like mine. A bunion is a bony bump formed on the part of the foot where the big toe is. In my case, I was born with them. Feet with bunions long to be free. So out goes those elegant tight, narrow shoes and heels. Not even a comfortable pair of closed in shoes made of stretchable materials does the trick. Just a few hours in them and THE feet will make their protests heard. You hear their calls to get out of their confined state into the embrace of freedom.

In a parallel universe, I would want to wear my Vibram Five-fingers running shoes wherever I go. Where my toes on each foot can return to my ancestors' days, with every muscle strongly stretching out and feeling the ground solidly. I would 
pair them even with formal work-wear! 

But before I come to possess that unshackled-by-societal-norms type of bravery, I have to contend with running to my socially-accepted open-toed sandals during the weekend. 

I shuddered to think what would have become of me had I existed in the time of foot-binding in Tang dynasty China where small feet were a hallmark of elegance. Freedom is no less important for THE feet.

So too is that for the 20 month-old-nephew. The day he learnt to walk marked his first taste of mobility; the appetizer freedom which came alongside indeed whets his appetite further. Any efforts to restrain him using the baby carrier only serves to provide fertile training ground for developing a wily mind as he thinks of various ways to get out of his confined state.

"Want to go into the pram?" His grandma asked lovingly, noticing his wriggling uncomfortably inside the baby carrier that held him to her. He nodded, not yet grasping speech but understanding very well the ways of the world -- and the sympathy of adults around him. 

Once he is released from his cloistered state, he wriggles out of grandma's feeble attempts to place him into the pram and out he goes onto the ground. Sprinting away along the shopping mall's corridor stretch like an Olympian sprinter, albeit a less steadier one, he leaves Grandma panting to catch up with him. 

Freedom, once tasted, will forever be cherished. 

Space on a page, or white space, as the world of educational therapy likes to call it, is important too for individuals with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or visual processing difficulties. They often experience something called visual crowding when letters and words crowd on a page, making the act of reading laborious. To help them overcome this problem, ensuring there is sufficient space between letters, between words and between lines and having bigger margins help greatly. 

The page too needs to breathe. 

Space hence, from time immemorial, is the cherished small prize which leads up to the ultimate gigantic grand trophy called freedom which when embraced in one's arms, reaches beyond the height of the average Joe. 

The sense of unshackled space often provides that awe-struck element which silences me as I sit in a train during my travels. 
The sight of vast horizons of grasslands interspersed with shimmering rivers and the generous dosage of blue sky outside the window is often surreal. After all, where I come from, I am more accustomed to seeing sandwiches of storeys generously stacked up over the years. 

I used to think that a generous
dosage of physical space is the necessary corollary for a vast enough headspace to think, and to imagine. Yet it seems that is not necessarily so. 

At my last stop at Tokushima Prefecture in Japan, my Japanese air bnb host, Sachi, lamented about the crammed Japanese education system which leaves children with little time to play and explore the wonders of nature that abound all around them. Located on the eastern side of the island of Shikoku, Tokushima Prefecture has beautiful natural scenery in abundance. It seems blasphemous not to have the time to play in such a grandiose space. Looking at how Sachi consciously carves out space and time for her 3 children to grow to be the creative beings they are capable of, it seems physical space is not enough to guarantee headspace. Freeing up space in one's head takes effort.  

The antidote to a lack of (mental) space could jolly well be a generous amount of time. With the luxury of time, many things seem possible.

You discover thoughtfulness and kindness at all the little corners when time can afford to take a slow walk. The cashier at the convenience store noticed the drizzle outside and asked if I would need the plastic tag attached to the umbrella I just bought removed so that I could use it immediately.

On my first day of arrival at Tokushima Prefecture, I brought my luggage to Sachi for her help to hack away the lock to my luggage, for I have performed an impressively clever feat of locking up the only key I brought for the lock in the luggage. Her attention focused on just the rock and hammer in her hands, and the lock on my luggage -- even when her well-stacked unwashed plates were beckoning to her at the sink and 3 children were waiting for dinner. 

We often discover what we can do when we give ourselves enough time.

Mohammad Abdillah, 25, a former graduate of Northlight School (for students who failed their PSLE) where I currently teach, and now a motion graphics artist at a local advertising agency sums it up well. He once said that what liberates him and allows him to gain hope and confidence in life was when he realizes he was capable of learning -- he just takes more time. He said, "One thing I've realise from life is that it's ok to take your time, as long as you don't give up."

I came too to discover over the years that solo travelling is possible even for someone like me who possesses limited visual spatial skills (I can get lost even within a shopping mall or a HDB estate). As long as I am willing to give myself sufficient time. Time to get lost and forgive myself even when I missed that bend. Time to think and consider the next best course of action when I took the wrong bus. Time to gather myself and find my centre when feeling overwhelmed in a crowded train station where the sight of the city folks rushing and their harried footsteps could have the effect of immediately jolting up one's heartbeat rate. 

In Swedish physicist and author Bodil Jonsson's book "Ten Thoughts about Time: A Philosophical Enquiry", she distinguishes between the concepts of clock-time and lived-time. Clock-time is the objective timekeeping we all live by and lived-time is one's perceived sense of time. She writes of how when we become more conscious of our lived-time, and realizes that the clock-time is not all-important, we will start to discover how to make use of our limited timespan in this world meaningfully. In other words, when you believe you have time, you get more out of life. 

Indeed w
hen you give yourself the luxury of time, you find that even though you can't really read a map perfectly,  you can still figure out the general direction to a destination by using common sense and chatting up strangers along the way.

When you choose to believe you have time, you stop to make conversations -- one using google translate, the other using an electronic translation dictionary. You find time to be immersed in a sing-song journey with one another as hand gestures are indulged in and efforts are made to correct words lost in translation. 

And then, you discover stories of passions and bravery. Of how a middle-aged chap switched from being an engineer of trains to an engineer of wagasa, or Japanese oil-paper umbrellas because he wants to play a part in keeping this age-old Japanese tradition alive. You listen to the honest sharings of a young married couple in their early 20s, whose desire to set up a cafĂ© at a well-chosen zone with high tourist traffic stems not so much from entrepreneurial passion but from the need to eke out a living.  

These days, I smelt the faint scent of jasmine flowers in my neighbourhood which I never do before, this time of the year. I'd like to see that as a small victory, that I managed to slow down my lived-time and create a headspace that is uncloistered and freer at the start of a new decade. 

Let's hope it sustains. 


  1. What a beautiful sentiment in regard to time. I'm glad that you took the time to smell the flowers.

    1. Thank you Eva! It takes effort to slow down to smell the flowers because our habitual reaction is not that. I guess joy is that great by-product of effort.