All posts by Rebecca Michelle

Educator, traveler, reader, blogger. Loves learning, black coffee, and friendly people.

Back When We Had Souls

I’m not sure if souls exist. I used to know for sure, I know I did, but now I don’t think I believe in souls anymore. As we all do, I’ve drifted from the pretty imagery of childhood stories into a world in which souls do not make rational sense.

And yet.

And yet.

I met a person who, if souls do exist, I would have to say has a soul. The word came into my head one day, suddenly and unbidden, but I knew it was right. I looked at this person across the room and sensed a soul. I knew this in the way that we know it’s going to rain when the sky grows dark and the wind changes. It was immediate and obvious and it frightened me. 

As adults, we live by routines and patterns, by socially accepted and endorsed ways of interacting with one another. We go to work, to meetings, out for drinks, out for meals. We entertain ourselves and each other. We pass the time. We have ‘responsibilities’.

But once upon a time, before all of that, we were children. We laughed and played and made up stories. We turned sticks into airplanes and we flew. We put on wigs and became witches. The sandbox became quicksand and the neighbor’s dog was a predatory dinosaur. In our fantasies, our younger siblings were the pets and our parents came from a different planet. We threw balls of fire and some of us got burned, but still we kept throwing. We claimed the swings as our boundaries and let our friends claim the tree line as theirs. Jumping from the roof with an umbrella was faith that, just like Mary Poppins, we could fly.

As children, we believed in magic. We believed that what we wished for could be, and we dared to make it so. In the eyes of a child, the child that I was, souls were possible because everything was possible.

It is in adulthood that we forget about magic. Instead we have practical, everyday worries. We laugh less often and we forget how to play. We’re too important and busy for that. We’re too concerned with the things we have learned that ‘matter’. We make sure to meet all our basic needs, to pursue and court relationships that allow us to belong to different groups, and to elevate our status to the levels that we believe we are entitled to.

We know that we have to get promoted before we can afford the mortgage on the house, and we have to do it soon because there are already three wedding invitations and one birth announcement on the fridge. Everyone else is ‘moving forward’, so what are we waiting for?

And so, magic is left behind. We forget the spells and potions, we forget the carefully delineated safe zones of tag, and we forget the glee of tearing barefoot across the grass yelling as loudly as we can. We increasingly channel our time to the pursuit of ‘personal progress’ and leave behind that was once so pure and central to who we were. We stop playing, and we stop being.

It is here, I think, that we lose the idea of souls.

As adults, we stop pretending and stop believing in things we cannot see. Looking beyond our adult boundaries into the joyfully cultivated worlds of children is a chore. And so souls, which are intangible, cease to exist.

Such a transformation, one which takes the imagination and supplants it with the material goals brought to us by ‘logic’ and ‘reason’, robs us not only of the existence of souls but of all those other beliefs that children are made of. Words which carried hopes and dreams are now said out of habit, if at all.

And so the progression through life’s journey continues and the price is the loss of the soul that made us who we were.

But such is the way of tacit acceptance of change. We do not recognise that this is what we are doing. We don’t notice the gradual shifts and how these lead us away from one world and into another.  

Once, we were pirates searching for buried treasure that we knew we would never find. The joy then was in the adventure of solving the clues. 

But as time passed, we imperceptibly became preoccupied with the treasure; the joy of adventure got lost and our souls vanished.

But what if?  

What if souls do not disappear, but are simply masked by the habits we develop, by the actions we mimic, by the words we pull together to intellectualise our actions? What if we suspend who we have become, if only for a little while, and simply look? And what if another was to do the same?

I looked across that room and without warning, without reason, I remembered. 

Once upon a time I was a child and I believed in magic. Back when we played pretend. Back when we trusted in our newest inventions. Back when finding all the pieces to build the perfect snowman was as much fun as playing in the snow.

Once upon a time I was a child and I knew we each had a soul. 

And it frightened me that I had forgotten.

Milford Sound, New Zealand – January 2019

Dancing in the Rain

I haven’t spent much time in Singapore during the start of the Southwest Monsoon season, which lasts from June to September. I’m used to the hour or two of afternoon rains that characterises the new school year in August, but half a morning of pouring rain is a new experience. So is half a morning of pouring rain followed by an evening of more rain.

While I won’t be climbing rocks outdoors any time soon and while the rain has put a literal damper on morning bike rides, there are some new features to life here that I’m quite enjoying. It feels cozy, for once, which is something we rarely experience in the tropics. It’s breezy and (comparatively) cool both indoors and out; I’ve made soups and curries for dinner and I’ve been glad for their warmth.

Geylang in the rain – September 2017

When I first moved to Malaysia six years ago I learned to enjoy the rain. Where I come from, rain is cold. Rain in the tropics is not. The water is warm, the air is cool, and it’s a welcome refresher for the day. Granted, getting soaked on the way home from work is inconvenient (although getting soaked on the way to work is more inconvenient) but it’s so much fun at those times to feel like a kid again. You’re wet. Very wet. So you might as well hop off the bike, settle it safely against a wall or building, and dance in the rain.

This is what I have tried to keep in mind now that we’re in the strangest period of summer school holidays that I have ever experienced. Normally, summer for me is spent travelling between family members, catching up with friends, enjoying early morning runs on the nearby canal, and taking a complete break from my normal environment. But this year, we can’t do that. And so we adapt.

Singapore started its reopening a week ago and I have been so glad to see people out and about, to reunite with friends, and to feel my body move at the climbing gym. It has given me time to reflect on the experience of living here and what this place has to offer. And I’m not talking about museums (still closed) or fancy bars (some still closed). I’m talking about hot pot for dinner at a friend’s house and going down the street for a local coffee at a hawker stall. I’m talking about my favorite place in town to watch the world go by and the renewed joy of gathering at home in small groups. Simple things. Things that I missed when they went away.

Experiencing the small joys of an open world, although a small one right now, is what this summer is about. It might not be what I’d planned or what I’d wanted, but I am glad to have this time for what it is.

It might be raining, and that’s all the more reason to dance.

Potong Pasir in the rain – June 2018

The Story is Not the Experience

My eyes are not working as they should be right now. The words are blurry, so I’m typing with eyes closed. I suspect it’s some sort of migraine; I’ve been there before. A headache slammed into my head shortly after I returned from my run and I’ve taken painkillers and drunk a whole lot of water, and I’m almost done with my first cup of coffee. My head is far less sore than it was half an hour ago, but my eyes haven’t caught up.

And yet, I could be wrong. Perhaps the blur is because the lenses of my glasses are simply dirty. That’s easy to test, so I take them off, give them a good wipe, and aha! Problem solved.

Yes, sometimes it’s really easy to tell when something’s wrong. Physical pain, someone we love “forgetting” to return calls, a colleague crying in the office, a teenager’s choice to adopt a dramatic new hairstyle are all obvious calls that something is up. We can see it, or feel it or hear it.

But these are symptoms, and all we know is the symptom but not the cause, so we make assumptions and our assumptions might be mistaken.

If we can be wrong when something is tangible and immediate, consider how much more wrong we can be when it’s not. I have written before about the importance of listening and building relationships and, more recently, of the challenges of communication in a digital era. That piece focused on the difficulty of sharing meaning in the absence of visual cues, but did not explicitly address the challenges of communication across time, place, and space. And it is crucial to do so.

I am speaking from the lens of one living half a world away from my family. We speak daily and message almost as often, yet we still experience breakdowns in communication. Why?

As we know, the purpose and method of communication changes out of necessity when crossing time zones. We often need to wait to contact others and there is precious little real time immediacy in our conversations. Instead, we lag. I could send a message to my mum about my blurry eyes right now, but it’s the middle of the night where she is and I can’t expect her to respond, so I turn to friends nearby or other sources for help.

I would rather have spoken with my mum, but by the hour our time windows align, my eyes have returned to normal. There are far more interesting things to discuss, and really there is no point in worrying her unnecessarily. So she will never know.

Now imagine this in a much more serious context. Imagine your partner is on a business trip and has just been robbed. Wallet gone, identification gone. When you finally speak six hours later when it’s morning for you, your partner has already gone to the police, recovered the wallet, and attended the late afternoon meeting. “I was robbed” is now a very different story. Your partner might have been terrified at the time and never mention it. Perhaps the fear itself has become a memory or perhaps he was robbed at a strip club. Either way, you’ll never know.

Let’s go further. Covid-19 is a phenomenon that has spread across the globe and it has caught us in very different places. Our experiences in the last few months differ based on location, age, employment status, living situation, health, and through what we choose to read. But we do not recognize that we see things differently, even as we compare across countries. Even though we should know better, we expect that others are experiencing largely the same things as we are.

Those sharing real time and place with a person who has contracted Covid-19 have a different experience of the illness than those who are not there, and the lived experience might not be communicated faithfully. Those present who experience scary moments, for example, might for a number of reasons omit the memory of these moments from any later conversation. This can happen either intentionally much in the same way as the examples above – why worry someone who is far away and can do nothing anyway? – or unintentionally – those moments have passed and there are other things to talk about

And yet, they may well expect others to know how they were feeling or what was happening. They may be upset that the listener does not respond with as much concern as they had expected. The speaker assumes shared context, which might be mistaken. In this case, the listener misses the fact that just because we are talking about the same thing does not mean we experienced the same thing. Similarly, it is also understandable that the speaker may leave things out. But omission means that the listener does not have the same story. 

I do not think this is anything new. We know and largely accept the above when reading the news. We know that the way we respond to nationally, globally, and culturally significant events such as war, famine, festivals, and Super Bowls varies widely depending on our experiences with these events. But we often do not consider that the same might be true of personally relevant events. We might not consider the power of time, place, and space when it hits much closer to home. 

And we might therefore make the mistake of expecting others to see, understand, and behave just like us.