33

This time ten years ago, I was in Philadelphia, starting a semester of exchange. It was late summer, the days were still long and the briskness of fall only just creeping in at the edge of evenings.

In retrospect, that year, when I was 23, was probably the most attractive I ever was, and will be. Mostly because those were the young, unlined days; but also because I was on the cusp of a deep shift within myself. Everything was heavy and light and messy and magical all at once — perhaps that added a sort of glimmer that never came back once I settled properly into myself.

One evening on the way home in a taxi, the driver blurted, you’re very beautiful, which had me startled. But then he went on to say, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean anything by it, i just had to say it. And then we were at my little rear apartment in a townhouse, I paid, he drove off, and I never saw him again. It still ranks among one of the most earnest compliment I’ve ever received — but of course compliments on looks have since become few and far in between.

But also, looking back a decade, it’s been fun. An adventure. A ride.

Now that I’m a whole decade older, I have come to realise that I have not achieved very much at all, not in the world of accolades and awards and accomplishments. I have come to realise that I probably will not achieve that much in the decades to come.

And, I have come to realise that that is perfectly fine.

There were years in between, when I wanted to be a better version of myself, and relentlessly drove myself to things I did not particularly care for. I was busy, and busy-ness was a badge of honour. I wanted to be so much — and all of them were good things to be — but so much of what I wanted to be was not truly who I am.

These days, I am still busy — living a slow life. I sleep eight hours every night. I have my little morning routines of nothing very much — stretching to Bach, contemplating God, a bit of meditation. I leave work on time and don’t work after hours unless I absolutely have to. I have time to read large novels slowly over evenings. It’s absolutely the antithesis of how one should live if you want to get anywhere in life.

Except, this is already the life I had always wanted.

So this year, I am very grateful that life has come a full circle in this decade. I am boring and unremarkable — but my family is close by, happy and healthy. We’re never going to be supremely wealthy but we are well-off enough, and Ning is capable enough for me to be able to choose how I want to live. Isaac is healthy as a horse, and such a burst of joy in our lives. I am writing regularly, and improving slowly — alas, I will never be a great poet or write an award-winning novel, but I have time for what I enjoy and that counts. We get to travel. And faith is still a small, resilient seed in my heart — that is another journey that will unfold in its own time, but I see grace and beauty everywhere and know in my heart that I believe.

It’s been a wonderful decade, even with all the hills and troughs. I am grateful. So my wish for the year, the ten years ahead is for life to always unfold with its own surprises, and that we may always rise to meet it =)

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Language Development @ 16 Months

The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.” (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)”Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Isaac has been fairly slow at language development — he was slow to vocalise, slow to point (in fact he doesn’t, yet!) and has yet to learn to speak a single word (although he understands a few). We were quite worried, and have been bringing him to a speech therapist — who then commented that while he was a little behind in speech, he was actually advanced in his play, imagination, and understanding of cause and effect. But um, I’ve always been a language person and believe that language underpins cognitive development, so I continued worrying for a bit.

Until the past week, when I really begun to pay attention to Isaac, how he plays and his personality. He’s extraordinarily curious. He is fascinated by how things work — he can spend ages and ages tossing a ball or a lid or any interesting object from different angles and watch the way they move, the sounds they make. He plays with his own shadow and understands that his shadow moves with him. He observes intently, and gets us to repeat certain actions over and over again, buttoning and unbuttoning, closing and opening snaps, switching things on and off. He’s learnt how to switch on the aircon and television with the remote. He remembers things — one morning, my parents came and instead of running to them as usual, he popped out a bit, then ran to get a toy fan of his to pass to my dad. We were all wondering why he did that, until we realised that the day before, my dad had said that the fan was out of battery and he would replace the battery the next day! I’m not sure that he understood all of that down to the nuances of course, but he seems to understand that my dad had to follow up in some way with the fan.

And recalling these, it struck me that it’s not too bad that he’s not particularly interested in naming things. Because learning the name of something, just tells you what other humans call it — important for communication and socialisation of course, but it doesn’t tell you all of what the thing is. Richard Feynman is one of the scientists I admired most, and I recall how when reading his collection of essays “The Pleasures of Finding Things Out”, how his father had led him to find out how things work, beyond their names, stuck with me. Isaac is interested in how things work, he observes and is hypothesising all the time. Of course all babies do this, and Isaac may not be any more advanced than other babies in this and it’s ok. I’m just glad he is curious and open.

I also recall when reading the book, I told myself that it’s not pressure or all sorts of enrichment classes that would help Isaac develop cognitively — it’s about us encouraging him to be curious, to observe, to think, to try. And with this, I end with the second part of the essay on Feynman’s father. How have we taught our little ones today?

“My father taught me to notice things. One day, I was playing with an “express wagon,” a little wagon with a railing around it. It had a ball in it, and when I pulled the wagon, I noticed something about the way the ball moved. I went to my father and said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?” “That, nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things which are moving tend to keep on moving, and things which are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push them hard. This tendency is called ‘inertia,’ but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now, that’s a deep understanding. He didn’t just give me the name. He went on to say, “If you look from the side, you’ll see that it’s the back of the wagon that you’re pulling against the ball, and the ball stands still. As a matter of fact, from the friction it starts to move forward a little bit in relation to the ground. It doesn’t move back.” I ran back to the little wagon and set the ball up again and pulled the wagon. Looking sideways, I saw that indeed he was right. Relative to the sidewalk, it moved forward a little bit. That’s the way I was educated by my father, with those kinds of examples and discussions: no pressure—just lovely, interesting discussions.”