Alone, but not lonely

Most of us are constantly surrounded by people – be it friends, family or clients and colleagues – so much so that we have lost the ability to be alone.

AS a mother-of-three, it feels very strange to be alone with just my two sons – as Maya is away on holiday in Germany with Dirk.

The last few days, I’ve been sending the boys home earlier after school so I can hang around the shop alone, or go eat a nice bowl of laksa or something, by myself. I know some women feel awkward eating or doing anything in public on their own, but I’m quite happy with it.

I think most of us are constantly surrounded by people – be it friends, family or clients and colleagues – so much so that we have lost the ability to be alone. And yet it is so important to have some quiet down time to clear the mind, and either think nothing (which I find very hard), or just think about all the things that are going on in our lives and try to prioritise those that are truly important.

In the thick of “doing”, we are often on auto mode, operating without considering whether what we are doing is really all that important.

While this quiet time I’m having now does feel “empty”, it is a nice kind of emptiness, which I haven’t experienced for a while. It’s hard to explain the feeling exactly, but it is not one of loneliness. I wonder if this is how parents feel when the kids are all grown up and start doing their own thing, having their own family and lives.

A friend once told me I should try going away alone without the children and husband, with no mobile phone. To be honest, it sounds quite nice – a kind of retreat to refresh the soul. I would really like to be able to do that to allow my head to enjoy some quiet time instead of having millions of ideas flitting in and out constantly, juggling my many roles as a designer, mother, wife and friend.

Among the places I have been wanting to go to are Tibet, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Mexico, Peru – all of which strike me as being mysterious and mystical, places that are spiritual, strong in colours and culture. So far, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit any of these places on my dream list. I always believe, when the time is right, I will be there. I have faith in that. I believe that when I do finally go to one of these places, I will spend a long time there to study and be inspired by their culture. It would not be a quick hi-and-bye kind of trip that I have been taking.

I will make sure I capture the people, streets, cultures and everything that inspires me through plenty of photos. It takes time to discover and appreciate real treasures – something the quick-fix, instant-gratification generation may not quite understand.

While being without Maya and Dirk has something to do with the “empty” feeling I’ve been experiencing, it could also be related to the fact that it is the anniversary of my Grandma’s death today.

She left us five years ago. I truly loved and admired my grandmother, who was very special. She would call me almost every day to fill me in on the latest gossip on Hong Kong movie stars (from her TV programmes), ask me about my business and work, check on the kids, or just to ask what I was doing.

I felt guilty when she passed away because I thought I had not spent enough time with her. I wanted to take her travelling, but she refused as she said she looked ugly in a wheelchair and that she would have been a burden to us. I would like to do what I could not with Grandma, with my parents, before I regret not spending enough time with them, too.

The thing is, my mother still runs her business and is always very busy. It’s my dad who is more relaxed and adventurous. I did plan a trip with both of them more than a year ago, and I could tell they loved it, even if it wasn’t to any place far or fancy. I really should plan our second trip together. It would be a good break for all of us.

My uncle usually organises the prayers and lunch to mark Grandma’s anniversary. My aunt will come with her usual prayer group to do one hour of prayers, after which we will enjoy some delicious home-cooked vegetarian food. My uncle is a great cook, so we will all be happily stuffed, but I like to contribute to these lunches and this year I have decided to make a vegetarian assam laksa, which I once had in a vegan restaurant in Sri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur.

It was so fantastic that I searched for a recipe online. What I found was a basic recipe, which I thought would be a little bland, so I modified it by adding seaweed for a stronger fish taste. This is the “big secret” of my assam laksa, which I’m now letting out into the open!

Ah, food … I’ve been so busy with work that I’ve not even had time to think about what to eat, let alone cook. In Malaysia, though, we’re so lucky as good food is easily available everywhere, and I have never had to worry about not having enough food. Right now, it’s even better – with Ramadan, almost every hotel and restaurant has a special set meal or buka puasa dishes.

I’m sure I’m not the only one enjoying Ramadan. To all my friends, Muslim and otherwise, let’s eat, pray, celebrate and, most importantly, GIVE. But while we do all of that, let us also try and find some quiet time to think and reflect, and remind ourselves the things that are truly important.

Mel’s Place is a fortnightly column by Melinda Looi for The Star newspaper.

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