What’s in the News?

At the beginning of December, a student gave a presentation in which he noted that the headlines of every major news source referenced Covid-19. He’d had to click through a website to find an article on a shooting at Kabul University that left 22 students dead. Why, he wondered, was this not headline news everywhere? He went on to talk about bias in the way that knowledge is presented and his presentation was compelling enough that I am still thinking about it over a month later.

I stopped listening to NPR for several weeks back in March and April when it seemed like the US had just woken up to Covid-19 and everything that had happened in the rest of the world was completely irrelevant. The myopia was stunning and it was exhausting to continuously come up against individuals’ seeming inability to look outside of themselves. It didn’t matter that Covid-19 had been in Asia and Europe for months by then. All of a sudden, it was not only headline news but the only news.

I wish I had been able to experience a world in which news was not all-consuming. I wonder what it would be like to read about events like Covid-19, or democracy protests in Hong Kong and Belarus, or the insurrection on the US Capitol as they became relevant and not as part of communal obsession. I wonder why we can’t let go and why we refresh webpages by the minute hoping for an update. I do not know a world in which we have patiently waited.

What would it be like if global events were not immediate fodder for anyone with a smart phone? What is the psychological impact of the constant barrage of breaking news, memes, and opinions from people who may or may not be qualified to give them? Would we become more deliberate, more thoughtful, more willing to listen if information flow slowed down? And would we be more humble and less partisan as a result?

In order to make the world a more peaceful, more just place, we need to be informed. We need to know what is happening and why, and we need to talk with or listen to those who know more than we do. Many people speak of the importance of different perspectives, but are also unwilling to engage with those who offer them.

Learning is not a zero-sum game. Entering a conversation with one idea and leaving with another does not mean you have “lost” and they have “won”. Rather, it means that your perspectives have broadened, ideas have become more nuanced, and you are able to appreciate complexity. After all, if global problem solving were easy, we wouldn’t have global problems.

When information sharing becomes a battle of who can yell the loudest, we have moved away from the process that builds democratic society. We cannot live in a world that has abandoned dialogue.

I had a conversation with an administrator recently in which he lamented that students are not willing to talk about their concerns or about issues they have raised. They want not just a solution but their solution, and they refuse invitations to sit down and actually have a conversation. This is not a surprise, for dialogue is not modelled for young people today. It is not part of politics, it is not part of the media, it does not appear in formal debate. The other side is vilified when it is presented at all, and experts sneered at. Again, this is not a surprise in an age where anyone can present an opinion and start a campaign on the basis of how many people they can convince to join them.

Yesterday I read an article from the US that mentioned increased interest in civics education, but my thoughts immediately went to the political divisions that will only deepen in written curricula. I would argue further that a lack of civics education is not at the root of the problem of political polarisation. Rather, there is an unwillingness to take a step back and listen. Perhaps there is even a real fear of what we might learn or come to understand. This is preventing us from doing the difficult work of coming together.

And until we are ready to feel uncomfortable, to honestly say, “Thank you for explaining that. I hadn’t thought of it that way”, we are going to remain exactly as we are.

If They Saw: A Story

She’s not one to drink straight liquor during the day, and certainly not when she’s alone. She’s been a lot of places and that’s a place she doesn’t like. But late in the afternoon, sipping rum, putting black silky pen to the creamy paper of an artist’s sketchbook . . . well. Sometimes we get here, don’t we.

If they could see what I see. This is where we begin.

If they could see what I see, they’d see the child playing behind your eyes. They’d see the sand, the beach. Grasses. They’d listen when you wax poetic about scent, about fragrances we all know and about the raw living in a world that forces one to look and call it by name.

We are crumpled behind walls, preserving the vestiges of who we think we are, torn out and disentangled from who we thought we ought to be, folding into ourselves to protect . . . what?

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track.

If they could see what I see there’d be no end to the hands running across your face, your hair, along your back. No end to skin on skin.

Electricity.

There’s no waking from this dream but she doesn’t know she’s in one. Sometimes it happens like that. She’s lived a long time.

I can still see the hardness that shows itself around your jaw when you’re upset, a tightness that silently screams out to be heard. My stomach drops, just as it always did. And there’s the relief of a laughter that’s real, that comes from deep down where children chase fireflies. I could cry if I did that sort of thing.

The child behind your eyes looks uncertain, afraid. Disappears, runs back. A game of hide-and-seek but we don’t know who’s playing. Sometimes I can reach out and catch you but sometimes you’re gone to places I can’t follow. And so I wait, exhausted with tension, darkness closing in, for you to decide it’s time to return, sometimes with a vengeance and sometimes keening. I flip a coin.

I know when you’re hiding from me. I know when I’d like to do the same, and I know why I won’t. Why I never will. But there are days when you’ve already decided: There will be no smiling today.

When we float through the cobalt sky there’s magic and I have no doubt. But it’s never been about doubt.

A lifetime it has taken me to know you. A lifetime in a few short months, unnoticed. And in just as much time, you’ve pleaded, cajoled, and gone. There’s no place for me out there and I do not look for one.

She looks at the empty glass. The papers crumpled on the floor. The time. Her eyes widen. Memories of moments have taken hours. Too late for dinner and now the internal prohibition against liquor before sundown has no place. Glass is refilled.

If they saw what I saw they’d ask all the questions that were never mine to ask. They’d travel with you the world over and they’d hold your hand without letting go, the hand that was never mine to hold. If they saw what I saw they’d join you when you sang, they’d drink in the timbre of a voice that glides. I am reminded of skis over fresh powder. Do you know that sound? You, who speaks of the sea, do you know the sound of an open mountain with no marked trails? If they saw what I saw, they’d take you there.

But I swear I can hear you. I don’t always know where you’ve gone, in fact I only know the pictures I’ve painted on my heart, but I can hear you. Sometimes I busy myself to shut you out, to remember who it is that I am now that you’re a memory.

You’d vanish, wouldn’t you, if they saw what I saw. You’d breathe, settle, find the light that you used to tell me about, late, when you were supposed to be sleeping. You’d float gently away, so softly that I wouldn’t notice until you were gone. Or at least that’s what you say about me.

She doesn’t remember tearing the sketches but she has. At least they don’t bleed.

But can I blame them? Can I blame them for failing to see when seeing would require that of which we are most afraid? For if we see, we are responsible for the soul that has mirrored ours. I know what the ancients say about this. So can I blame them?

Rather than blame, and I think you’d like this, I’d like to teach them. To hold them while they cried and to encourage their tightly closed eyes to let in some of the colours we read about in stories. To hold them when it became too bright and take one step, together, one step at a time. I’d like to guide them to see through the tears and to hear, to hear that child singing. I’d be there the whole time, you know I would.

If they saw what I saw I never would have known you. You would have been beyond my reach before I even knew you existed. It is because, and it is always this way with me, it is because they did not see that I found in you something you’d forgotten.

Do you remember when I first made you laugh?

In the morning, she is surprised at the mess on the desk. She has fallen asleep fully dressed, a first since . . . a first. There are blank pages shredded all over the floor, faint markings erased. Drawings. Of what? She reads the neat words on creamy paper. These are not her words and not from her hand. But these are words she knows. These are words she believed a long time ago. These are words she fought until they disappeared.

These words are mine and I hear you laughing.

Nature Walking

A friend once said that Singapore is small enough that one should be able to look through a guidebook and say, “I’ve done that.” Covid19 has done a lot to my sense of self and the way I understand the world, both large and small, but it has also forced me to live as much as I can here in Singapore. With 2021 mere hours away, the clock ticking is more obviously than usual.

It took almost two hours and multiple forms of transportation to reach Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, located so far north in Singapore that there are views of the skyline of Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

Sungei Buloh contains extensive mangroves, mudflats, forests, and ponds, and is important for migratory birds. There are only a few walking trails and we covered the entire reserve in just a couple of hours. The protected nature of the area means that we saw plants, birds, fish, and animals in abundance. Some of these are normal Singapore creatures but other I’d never seen before.

Before we have a closer look, this is what Sungei Buloh looks like:

As a child, I remember mangroves mentioned in books but I don’t think I knew what that meant until moving to Singapore. We learned that 13% of Singapore used to be mangrove forests, and less than 0.5% of that remains today. (Source)

As always, I really enjoyed the flowers. I will miss tropical flowers when I leave this part of the world.

Mudflats were also relatively new to me and I’d never seen a mudskipper before! There were plenty of these little guys around, as well as mud snails. He/she/it is roughly in the centre of the frame.

We also saw mud crabs, another animal I’d never heard of. You might have to zoom in on the individual images to see them and I recommend doing so – they’re pretty cool.

The insects were not to be missed and the spider webs were amazing, large constructions. There’s only one photo here but I tried (and failed) to take others.

Watching the herons and egrets fishing reminded me of growing up on the Erie Canal and Genesee River in Rochester, New York.

Additionally, we saw an otter (not pictured but also pretty common in Singapore),bats, tree snake, a few monkeys, and a number of monitor lizards, including one in a tree. Again, you might have to zoom in on individual images if you’d like a closer look.

Finally, we searched in great anticipation for crocodiles but the water was quite high and we didn’t have much hope in finding one. As it turned out, though, we did! We weren’t sure if it was a crocodile or a log but I managed a photo before it disappeared beneath the surface of the water. The park rangers and other visitors nearby assured us is was indeed a crocodile. Can you spot it?

A quick climb up an observation tower gave us really impressive views. It’s a wonder, in ways both good and bad, that this island, that the world, used to be so wild. And I wonder at the costs, both known and unknown, of taming it.

Since we had already come all the way out to Kranji to visit the wetlands, my friend suggested going a little further south to Kranji Marshes. Unlike Sungei Buloh, most of the marshes are conservation areas not accessible to visitors, though there are ongoing plans to expand the walking paths. Kranji Marshes is part of Sungei Buloh Nature Park Network and it turns out there’s a shuttle bus that connects multiple locations of this park network, but we didn’t know that until the shuttle bus pulled up just as we were leaving. We took a bus and a taxi to get there but were glad for the shuttle on the way back. (Note to self: Read the transportation signs at each visitor centre.)

The plants were different there, which was interesting because it really did feel like a different place, which I wasn’t expecting. While we didn’t see too many birds, I know this is a popular spot at dawn for birdwatchers.

I especially liked the plants growing in and around all the little ponds. It reminded me of the summer camp I attended as a child, which had a pond for fishing and a swamp for canoeing and kayaking.

The marshes are known for upwards of fifty species of dragonfly and while we didn’t see fifty, they were everywhere and in so many bright colours. The same can be said for the butterflies.

We also saw different flowers than we had earlier, and what was possibly some kind of fruit.

And as before, the view from observation areas were stunning and thought provoking, especially in contrast to the obvious signs of human presence.

While it was quite the journey to get there, I recommend a visit. Everything that is part of the Sungei Buloh Nature Park Network is free and there’s that handy shuttle bus to take you around because it’s too large to walk. Pack a camera, sunscreen, bug spray, apples, almonds, bottles of water, and you’re good to go.

If nothing else, Covid19 has been a reminder to get out and play in my own backyard. While I hope for a better, more peaceful year ahead, I cannot forget that I have now gone places that I perhaps never would have seen. This is a reminder to live in the world, rather than letting the world pass us by, because we never really know what the world will be like tomorrow.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place