Tag Archives: Connection

How to Tell When Someone is Smiling

The Covid-19 circuit breaker measures here in Singapore mean that we are unable to interact in person with anyone who is not a member of our household. Going to the grocery store for a little human interaction has been very real.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been really good about starting the day with some physical activity, usually going for a run but otherwise practicing yoga. It has been really important to me to create a transition into the working day. A couple days ago, however, my need for human interaction was greater than my need to feel my body move.

So I made a cup of coffee and called an old friend. I could hear the smile in her voice when she picked up the phone and I know she could hear the same in mine. We caught up while on my side of the world, the sun rose and the day began. My friend’s day was just beginning to wind down. Since moving overseas, I’ve rarely made a phone call to another timezone without first planning to do so. People are always rushing about and it’s more likely I’ll miss them than not.

But not right now. Many people I know are waiting with open arms for human interaction right now.

Let’s keep this part of our new world, shall we?


I had conversation over the phone with my mum not too many days later and we talked about how strange she finds it to interact with people wearing masks. I know that this is very unfamiliar in North America, but I’ve lived in Asia for some time now and masks aren’t all that unusual here. The fact that the stores ran out of masks as everyone began buying them indicates that stores stock masks as a normal product (and they were back in stock as quickly as toilet paper). Reusable masks have always been common among people who ride motorcycles and there were always some food service workers wearing masks. And then there were the people who wore masks just because it’s not a strange thing here.

Mum said that people where she is don’t look at each other and don’t interact. My sister, located in another North American city, has said that people regard one another almost suspiciously. People in Singapore aren’t as overtly friendly as people often are in North America, but I have not had the same experience. People still communicate and some wave to the people they see every day. People are smiling, even if you can’t see it.

I started to think about this when my mum mentioned that she’d smiled at someone in thanks and then realised he couldn’t see it. I know I’ve been doing the same thing (because I was raised in a society where that’s what you do) but I also know I’ve become much more aware of the expressions around people’s eyes and foreheads.

When you can’t see someone’s face, how do you know if they’re smiling?

I thought back to my phone call with my friend. I’m not fond of video calls because I make most of my calls to other time zones when I’m getting ready for work in the morning. A good old fashioned voice call suits me just fine. I have never questioned whether the person on the other end of the line is smiling. Probably like you, I just just know.

When you can’t see someone’s face, you still know when they’re smiling. If you’re face to face, look around their eyes. The corners might crinkle or the cheeks might lift. Eyebrows or foreheads might wrinkle. If you’re on the phone, or can’t see each other, or if a mask has thrown you off completely, just listen. People sound different when they’re smiling.


Covid-19 has meant that we need to adapt in ways that many of us never imagined. It has led me to ask questions about the ways in which humans have evolved and why we behave in the ways that we do.

It has also caused me to look at the world a little differently, a little more carefully, and a little more critically. There is not one way to live in the world, this I have learned, but there are some ways that are more pleasant than others. There are ways in which we can honour our social responsibility while still doing what makes us feel whole. We can look at the world openly or with suspicion, and this attitude affects not only our outlook but also the ways we interact with others.

Wearing a mask might be new or strange, but it’s a whole lot better to be out in the world with one than trapped alone at home without one.

Titanium: A Commentary

You shout it out
But I can’t hear a word you say
I’m talking loud not saying much
I’m criticized but all your bullets ricochet
You shoot me down, but I get up

We all know that words hurt. We all know that words can beat us down and tear us apart. We do children an injustice when we teach them,” Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We’re lying and we know it.

Communication can be difficult because it requires us to step outside of ourselves and listen to what someone else is saying. We should only reply once we’ve truly heard them, but many of us do not take the time to listen.

I’m bulletproof nothing to lose
Fire away, fire away
Ricochet, you take your aim
Fire away, fire away
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall
I am titanium, I am titanium, I am titanium, I am titanium

We are often the target of words that are not meant for us and have nothing to do with us. Words often say more about someone else than they do about us. These are the words that should not hurt, but we know that they do. We have a tendency to fixate on criticism, angry tones, words that have caused us pain. We remember them.

But we also bask in words of comfort. We save messages, notes, and letters that are meaningful to us and cause a smile, even (and perhaps especially) years later. We replay these words over and over in our minds, memorizing the most important things our loved ones have said. They give us courage when we lose our way.

If you’re made of titanium, can you feel those things?

Cut me down
But it’s you who has further to fall
Ghost town, haunted love
Raise your voice, sticks and stones may break my bones
I’m talking loud not saying much

Silence can be as deafening as painful words.(And there are indeed things we should not hear, things we should not be forced to listen to.) We fill silence by looking for things to do, things to say. We block others out when we turn their words to noise, when we cease to give them meaning.

Sometimes, we should also listen to silence. It has layers and textures. Sometimes it crackles. Sometimes it’s cruelly cold. But other times, it’s safe and warm. What does the silence between our words say to us? What does it say about us?

I’m bulletproof nothing to lose
Fire away, fire away
Ricochet, you take your aim
Fire away, fire away
You shoot me down but I won’t fall
I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall
I am titanium, I am titanium

I am not bulletproof. I have much to lose. If you shoot me, I’ll fall. I will hurt, I will break, I will mourn. I am human, only human.

I will fall but I will get up again. I’ll get up again because I have let myself feel, I have listened, and I have learned. I let you in knowing you might hurt me or that I might hurt you. I let you in knowing I might love you or you might love me.

Stone-hard, machine gun
Firing at the ones who run
Stone-hard, thus bulletproof glass

I no longer wrap myself in armour. I’d rather know and love than never know. Any authentic, meaningful connection with others requires vulnerability; we need to be and to feel.

You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
I am titanium

I might fall. I might be wounded. I might miss how we used to laugh or talk or spend time together.

But if I fall, I’ll stand up again. Because that’s living. It’s a journey through a landscape of hills, valleys, and mountains. We pass through wild forests and neat gardens. Sometimes we know what lies around the corner and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find ourselves lost or confused. We lose our way.

Armour can be tempting when we’re afraid but if we are unwilling to shed the armour, who are we, really? There’s life and there’s living. We might have a life protecting ourselves, but the adventure is in living.

Judaism Without Religion

The Most Current Version of You
Being in a new place provides incredible freedom to be the most current version of yourself. We are all constantly learning, changing, growing, and adapting, but sometimes it’s challenging to openly do that around people who have certain expectations of us, certain experiences with who we are and desires for who we should be.

In a new place, however, meeting people who have no experiences with, or expectations for, you and your behavior means that you enter with a clean slate. You present the newest version of yourself because that’s who you fundamentally are in the given moment. There’s no one telling you otherwise, surprised when you respond a certain way, or waiting for you to do A when you really want to do B.

While I’m not new to Singapore, I am meeting new people both at work and outside of work. This has given me an opportunity to present myself with the background of the past year, a year during which I learned a lot, experienced a lot, read a lot, and gained some clarity about the way that I understand the world and myself.

My Jewish Self
About two months ago, I had a conversation with a new friend in which I described myself as culturally Jewish and denied feeling a sense of traditionally “religious” connection to the group that I’ve affiliated with for my entire life. I talked about religious practice as a way of connecting with a community separate from having any sort of “belief” in anything supernatural. I also acknowledged that this understanding, the separation between culture and religion, had been an extended process, one that I was only beginning to feel comfortable articulating.

Recently, my friend reminded me of that conversation. “But,” he added, “I think you’re a lot more spiritual than you said. Maybe not quite religious, but you’re not just doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking in order to maintain a cultural connection with a group. It seems like there’s something else.”

I smiled. He wasn’t wrong. I had described myself as spiritual rather than religious for years and have only recently (in the current iteration of myself, in fact) stopped doing that, opting instead to speak more broadly of culture. So in that sense, my friend wasn’t right, either.

Reflecting on that conversation, and appreciating both my friend’s perceptivity and his willingness to highlight what he saw as incongruence between what I said about myself and what I did (specifically in reference to taking off work on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, so that I could go to synagogue and pray), has left me thinking about my trek from a belief in a higher entity to where I am now.

Religiosity
Being religious means following the letter of a specific text for no other reason than the text is called sacred. It means believing that there’s a higher being, likely omniscient and all-powerful, controlling the Earth and the skies, the world and its people. It’s the tradition of replying, “Blessed is God” when asked how you’re doing, of ceasing all work after sunset on the day of rest, of avoiding certain substances because of their uncleanliness or mind-altering properties.

Being religious means praying about real questions, like whether to go ahead with plans that seem dependent on the weather, and believing that you have been given (though not that you’ve found) a real answer. Often, being religious also means denying scientific explanations for phenomena that we see in nature and in ourselves. Instead of searching for the answers, being religious means trusting (having faith) that the answers will be revealed, all in good time.

Truly, I do not want to sound disparaging. I did not grow up in a religious household but I did attend a religious school. As a child, I was taught many of the views and practices described above and I clung to them because they helped me organize my world. They helped me find comfort in what I did not understand and could not otherwise handle. From that perspective, I appreciate the good that religion does for individuals. I have experienced its calming influence and sense of security.

But, as a student and teacher of history, I have also learned to be wary of religion. Countless wars. Death. Destruction. Avoidance of responsibility. Lack of political action. Barriers to scientific research. Discrimination. Hatred.

No one person’s belief should cause such anguish to others.

What I Used to Call Spirituality
It has been a long time since I’ve held any specific religious views and a very long time since I’ve sighed with resignation and performed (or not) an action because of a supernatural being. But I still find joy in community experiences that have religious origins. What stands out to me in these experiences, however, is not the religion but the collectivism, the understanding that we are all coming together because we value one another as individuals and have chosen to create a community.

An example to illustrate:

I was last in Israel with the grade 8 students at my school and we spent our first Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) together as a group in Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown (because, as scripture says, “It was evening and it was morning. The . . . day.”) and we walked up to a sort of promenade overlooking the Old City. It was dark and we could see some cars still out and about, but for the most part, it was quiet.

We sat in a circle for the Friday evening prayer service, which is full of singing to welcome Shabbat. At one point, a few of the kids stood up and starting dancing. Before the rest of us quite knew what was happening, we were all on our feet, singing and dancing, laughing in our circle overlooking ancient history, juxtaposed with modernity in the cars and neon lights just below us.

My heart caught in my throat and there were tears in my eyes. To feel so much a part of something, to be in this beautiful place with my friends and my students. There was a very real collective energy in the air, an understanding that each of us had a place in the community we had created.

So for me, it wasn’t the prayer. It wasn’t the religious aspect of ceasing work Friday night to sing songs welcoming the day of rest. It was the fact that we were all together as a group, that everyone was welcomed and valued as an integral part of the community. For many present, this was a religious experience. But for me, this was a moment of transcendence because of the community itself regardless of the religious elements around which the community coalesced.

And that means that none of this has anything to do with spirituality at all.

What is Actually Cultural . . . and Then Some
Talking this over, another friend reminded me that finding joy in shared experiences is a common element of humanity. As humans we strive to connect to others, to relate to them and find a sense of belonging with them. Humans are social, tribal animals and we develop groups to help us feel a sense of safety and security. We like to be together because we survive better in groups than we do on our own. We support others in order to feel a part of their lives and to let them in as a part of ours. Culturally, we seek out connection with those around us because it makes us happier.

Additionally, sharing this experience with students was a moment of pride for me as an educator. My students had set aside their differences for a time and come together out of the sheer joy of the experience, the release of inhibition that comes from total engagement singing and dancing in the open air.

Looking around at my colleagues, I saw my own happiness and love reflected on their faces. We’d been traveling with students for about three days at that point and we were anxious and tired (and getting tired of them) but in that moment, it didn’t matter. That was why we worked as hard as we did. That was why we put up with what we did. We had worked to build a community and we were watching it develop and grow.

What was significant, then, on that promenade overlooking Jerusalem, was the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group and the joy that stems from positive engagement with others. For me, then, this was a cultural experience.

A cultural experience . . . and then some. We can think about culture in terms of the anything that makes up the way of life of a group of people. This includes what we immediately see (food, clothing, celebrations) and also what we don’t immediately see but might be able to figure out given time (concepts of beauty, ideas of success, what constitutes a good life). Belonging, connection, relatedness, and shared experiences are all part of culture but exist on their own, too. So this experience was cultural, yes, but there’s more than culture that matters here. There’s an emphasis on shared humanity that transcends the culture of any one group.


As always, I’m glad for the dialogue that sparked these reflections. I’m glad to have a deeper understanding of myself from looking through the eyes of others and letting their ideas probe my own. I’m always willing to think, discuss, and clarify and it’s helpful to be around people who are responsive to that.