The most memorable assignment during my undergrad studies was for the English Literature course. It was a group task where we had to rewrite a Shakespeare play of our choice and then performed it in front of our lecturer and our classmates. Our group's version of The Merchant of Venice required Antonio (a part that I had to play) to perform a soliloquy. I wrote a sonnet for him - just for fun.
For Each Passing Season
Shall I compare life to changing seasons
And man to the plants that conquer the earth?
For each passing season there are reasons
And the reasons define mere mortals worth.
In summer time, the reasons are budding
In spring they blossom, in autumn they fall
Then cold winter leads to reasons fading
Bitter snow buries the reasons and all.
Mere mortal I am, and my winter is
Fast approaching and fast coming to end
My reasons and my seasons and my bliss
My joy and my pain and the whole life I spend.
Final farewell my fellow friends for now
I'll bow to my vow, if you would allow.
Here's a recording on SoundCloud
Antonio recited this in prison when he learned that he was unable to pay moneylender Shylock the amount he had borrowed on behalf of his friend Bassanio because his merchant's ship was lost at sea. Shylock demanded to be compensated with "a pound of flesh," or in other words, he wanted to physically hurt Antonio - perhaps to kill him. So the sonnet was some sort of a farewell message. The way I interpreted it, Antonio was quite ready to die for the sake of his friend. He saw his imminent death as a "season," - it was sad, even tragic, but it was also certain and inevitable. Through his soliloquy, Antonio expressed a sincere desire to "bow to his vow," - to answer the call to honour life's natural precepts in the most respectable manner.
Writing the script and performing with my group members were fun, enjoyable times. English Lit was without a doubt one of my favourite courses. But not long after, something shocking and devastating happened which changed the way I wanted to look back at this memory. Just a few months before our graduation, we received news that JC Ng, the beloved lecturer whom we did the Shakespeare assignment for, had perished in a plane crash. She was 33. From being a piece created playfully to remind myself of the good old days, Antonio's sonnet suddenly transformed into something that reminds me of her tragic end, of the fragility of life, and of how brief our candles are - as Shakespeare himself would put it.
Flip sides of the same coin
The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult was the first fiction I read this year. The story's main theme is death, though it also deals with questions about life and what-ifs, about love and forgiveness, and about human desires and the pursuit of dreams told through the subjects of Egyptology, quantum physics, multiverse, Irish superstitions, and the job of a death doula. It starts with the main character's brush with death when the plane she was on crashed unexpectedly.
A plane crash. Of all things.
Reading the book brings me back to my memory of the late Ms JC, to my Antonio's soliloquy, to my fear of flying, and also perhaps to my thoughts about death and dying which I've been entertaining since last year. I don't think I'm alone in this, though. I guess pandemic-ridden 2020 had forced a lot of people to think about life and death in ways they never did before.
One of the questions I find myself asking is this: Am I afraid to die? Dawn, the book's main character, said that fear of death is a common thing - indeed all fear is a fear of death. Fear of flying is definitely a fear of dying in a plane crash. Fear of snakes is a fear of being bitten to death. Fear of height is a fear of falling to death.
Maybe I do fear my own death - but I guess I fear experiencing the death of my loved ones even more. I guess I'm not alone in this. A lot of married couples I know seem to prefer dying before their spouses do - it's easier to be the one who leaves than to be the one being left behind. I found an echo of this in the book, when it mentions how "every story is a love story," i.e. "love of a person, a country, a way of life." Hence, "all tragedies are about losing what you love" (p. 67). Picoult also writes:
On the last day of 2020, my social media feeds were lined from top to bottom with people reflecting on their 2020 highlights and biggest achievements of the year.
A friend urged me to share what I would consider my biggest achievement. She thought it necessary to celebrate every single achievement, no matter how small, to make 2020 (which undoubtedly had been the hardest year for many) worthy of celebration. I racked my brain, but I couldn't find anything worth sharing. I didn't think I had achieved anything - I had been spending too much of my 2020 on finding healing and trying to survive.
But I posted this on Facebook, nevertheless:
I guess my friend wasn't too impressed with that - but I honestly believed that that was my biggest achievement of the year. I had procrastinated doing that for too long, so to be able to enter the new year with an organised closet was a magical feeling.
But skimming through my friends' posts on my feed got me thinking. Is this what a brand new year is supposed to be about? Collecting trophies and achievements? Well, there's nothing wrong with that of course; it's never a bad thing to have goals and ambitions. But what if I don't want to have any achievement to brag about at the end of the year? What does "achievement" really mean?
I asked a dear friend of mine what she thought was her biggest achievement of the year. This was her reply:
"My biggest achievement is remaining a Christian till the end of 2020. And not running away from God when things became hard."
She also wrote:
"This was God's grace in an ultimate sense, but it also felt like a major achievement somehow."
But aren't all achievements God's grace? I don't think I would ever be able to lift my lazy bones to clean that poor closet of mine if it wasn't for God's grace.
I'm just a book
In addition to overwhelming posts about successes and achievements (which I enjoyed reading - they were like refreshing oasis in the midst of what seemed to be a parched year), I was also bombarded with newsletters about books that had impacted the world in 2020. I love books, and I always welcome these newsletters as they give me ideas on what to put in my reading list for the following year. The books that shaped 2020 from Penguin is one of my favourites, as well as the Best Books 2020 from Goodreads and Most Anticipated Books of 2021 from Times.
As I tried to decide which books to include in my list, I did more than just reading the reviews and synopsis. I also tried to learn as much as I could about the authors. The authors, to me, are always as important as (if not more important than) the books.
I pondered upon it this morning, and this thought came to me:
People can't enjoy a book without appreciating the author.
People can't celebrate a person without glorifying the Creator.
I was reminded then that I'm just a book. Without my Author, I'm nothing.
In the Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote:
"Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. "Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created." We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest "well pleased." "
When I celebrate my achievements and blessings, I should be giving Him glory. He's the Creator who made this book. He's the Author who writes my story.
Have a blessed 2021.
~ccj, Duvanson, 9.54am
In this post, I like to write about something I learned from my 4-year-old niece Jodi, on the connection between the act of giving and making sacrifices for others.
So, my mum bought a new red dress for Jodi, which she hoped Jodi would wear on Christmas day. For some reasons, Jodi didn't like the dress. She said, "It's too big." But it's not. It's just the right size for her. She also said, "I don't think it's me" - which is very odd for a 4-year old to say. Hmm. I have a precocious niece.
So, to cut a long story short - Jodi did finally wear that dress. It happened after a long conversation with me in my room. It began with me desperately trying to persuade her - by pointing out how beautiful the dress is, how gorgeous the colour, how it would suit the theme of Christmas. "See, Creamer is wearing a red dress, too," I said, referring to myself. Jodi shrugged, told me that's great, and continued to bang mindlessly on my Yamaha keyboard on full volume.
It seemed like it was going to be a miserably unsuccessful attempt, till I felt moved to pray about it in my heart. I asked God if this can be an opportunity for Jodi to learn something about the true meaning of Christmas. I had absolutely no idea what I was praying for at that time, and hadn't a single clue why I said what I said. But right after saying Amen, I felt inspired to tell Jodi about how Moing (that's what Jodi calls her grandma) went to the mall to get that dress for her, despite her difficulty to walk. I told her that Moing paid for that dress with money (Jodi was just learning about how money works). That got Jodi's attention. She stopped playing on the keyboard and asked, "So, Moing has no more money?" I replied, "Well, she still has a little bit." Then I said, "You received lots of presents for Christmas, didn't you?" Jodi nodded. "Did you give anyone a present?" Jodi said no. "How about wearing this dress as a present for Moing?" Jodi said Yes. It wasn't an easy Yes, I could see it on her face. She had tears in her eyes when she uttered that Yes. But it was a most sincere, heartfelt Yes. Jodi really meant that Yes, and she followed it up with her actions. She allowed me to take off the old shabby green dress she had on (it was her favourite dress), and to help her put on the new red dress that Moing had spent her money on, because she loves Jodi so much.
I could still see Jodi's face as I put the dress on her - how she struggled to fight back tears. She didn't even want to look at her reflection in the mirror when I told her how great she looked. It wasn't easy for her, I know. I hugged her and told her she has the most beautiful heart ever, and that I'm very, very proud of her. Then we headed to the living room to see Moing.
How Moing's face brightened at the sight of Jodi in that red dress! Jodi gave Moing a hug and wished her a Merry Christmas. Then she skipped towards the middle of the living room, and - in typical Jodi's fashion - started to twirl around and around and pretended that she's a ballerina.
I think Jodi has decided that the red dress isn't so bad after all.
Sometimes it's okay to wear a dress that I think is too big, or that's just "not me," or that I don't want to wear because I like my old one better. Especially if it makes other people happy. And especially when it's Christmas.
And getting someone a present doesn't always have to involve giving something away. Lovingly accepting a gift - no matter how I feel about it - is akin to giving the giver a present, too.
~ccj, Duvanson, 9.57am