Lost. And Found.
A Memoir Chapter By Anthea Ong, 2016
“I lost my self and found the Self. And all was right with my world.” — Bulle Shah, Sufi poet
The sail of the Divine Steel flapped gently against the winds, humming a soothing rhythm against the deep silence of a night sky freckled with stars. The moon was shining on the Nile like a searchlight, its silver beams illuminating the ripples that spread outwards from the sides of the felucca. Perched on the edge of the felucca, my feet were drawn into the timeless waters of the longest river in the world — perhaps to connect with the thousands who had come before me through this ancient river since the days of the pharaohs.
I wondered how many of them were like me — a woman, single again — celebrating the beginning of the mend of a battered self. How the river of time had carried me from that moonless night nearly three years ago when the collapse of an existence as I knew it would begin in cruel intensity to this moon-speckled start of a new life waiting in quiet optimism.
That was a sweltering Saturday night in February 2006. The winds were muted against the blackness of a moonless sky. Heading home to Bayshore Park, lightness was not in my steps as I became encased by the humidity and the weight of the Italian dinner earlier. It wasn’t a night made for good news. Still, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come: the First Discovery of a broken promise.
“Hey babe, can I please use your laptop to print the stuff for Dad to sign tomorrow?” my sweaty fingers tapped out the innocuous SMS request, “❤ Too tired to wait for printer driver to download on my new Acer. :)”
The standing Pratt & Whitney fan was buzzing with that familiar tenacity in our study. I couldn’t wait to do what I needed to do for Dad, then step under the cold shower and head off for slumber land in air-conditioned comfort. Such a night need not be stretched out any longer.
He got careless that night when he hit “Okay, babe” on his phone, maybe because of the drunken stupor he was in with his good friend and our best man, Steve at their favourite bar — or, perhaps, he just didn’t care anymore.
As the email alerts popped up on screen, I closed each popup windows on reflex, focused on my daughterly duty with the documents to be formatted and printed as the allure of the shower heightened. The message on the last popup window, “Sam, I love you”, was like one of those blinding neon signs at Geylang, screaming for my attention and seducing me into two hours of sleuth work that unveiled an amorous affair which began two months after our sunset wedding in Bali in early 2004 — a mere sixty days after the promise of fidelity! I had jumped into a rabbit hole of a different kind. A Pandora’s box was opened.
The sounds that represented life for me shut out as I turned off his laptop. Time stood still for all the wrong reasons. Yet, like the pristine surface of a glass wall hit by a reckless rock, a million cracks were in a hurry to defy this stillness in order to complete this grand show of heartbreak — a hushed implosion. Drenched in sweat and tears, it suddenly hit me that I wasn’t breathing, I couldn’t breathe! Survival instinct got me stumbling out and down to my favourite pond in the estate, my left hand still clutching the part of my chest where the heart is said to be. The air was dense. I went on my knees in a slump as a new pain throbbed hard in my lower body. The softness of the familiar grass did little to soothe the hard punch I felt in my gut. I was being ripped apart, in merciless fervour from inside out.
What happened next remained a mystery to me. As a faint breeze brushed past unexpectedly, an unknown force lifted my chin towards the sky unblocking the muted windpipe but tentatively. “Please show me the way,” I murmured, “please.” I prayed for the first time in my life.
As if in a trance, I went back up for the car keys and purse, and was then unwittingly led to the nearest Mobil station to get my first pack of Marlboro Lights in eight years! (This unusual divine introduction-cum-intervention provided much comfort for my smoking friends for years to come!)
The world as I knew it came to an end on that unsuspecting moonless night. The heavenly way of the nicotine may have given me some relief then but the next twelve months took me to unfamiliar depths of depression and confusion.
The explosive showdown next morning was the first of many to come between the occasional semblances of nuptial normalcy. Those times of ‘routine’ calm were the most unbearable for me because they were just ‘play pretend’ days. They also reminded me of the life we used to have, and could have — one that began with sunset vows of unending love on the beach of The Legian Seminyak, of old-school romance and typical couple scuffles. One that could inspire a dance to the music of the winds at the balcony just before a dabao dinner of dosa and coconut chutney on the couch with tea lights or a random argument sparked by his paranoia of my lingering feelings for an ex-partner over a free-flow champagne brunch at Ritz Carlton. We were made for intensity, for and with each other, both in love and in living.
“We won’t be in this mess today if we have a daughter, the daughter you couldn’t have,” he would say. His words cut so deep into those millions cracks that I would oddly throw away the facts of his infidelity to blame the collapse of this marriage on my infertility. How could the man who worshipped me like a goddess be the same one to bludgeon me with such malevolence into the abyss of shame and inadequacy?
Then came the Second and Third Discoveries, women he met at bars and pubs. The world got darker. The toxicity of the relationship was asphyxiating us — he was projecting his guilt and suffering through frequent, uncontrollable outbursts of rage and abuse; I was drowning in a convoluted sense of self, mired in betrayal and humiliation.
Drowning is an interesting phenomenon. The involuntary resistance to the desperation of sinking calls up an opposing force of self-preservation. You frantically hold on to whatever you can grab, hoping that something will work and keep you afloat, for a while, to abate the emotional free fall. Intensified gym sessions, daily yoga and meditation, active volunteerism, long walks, tarot cards, energy healing, temples, churches, mosques, self-help books and workshops… were some of my buoys.
Then it happened. The sliver of equilibrium between these two opposing forces of descent and buoyancy announced its fragile presence on 15th June 2007.
Apparently, the sun shines the brightest every June 15th. The two mynahs were chirping in uncharacteristic harmony that morning. The long warm rays were pushing their way through every window in the apartment. The spectacle of clear blue skies and double-toned waters that welcomed me at the balcony augured well for what the day was to be.
“I am ready. This is the way,” I whispered my divine declaration to the winds, remembering that moonless night fifteen months ago.
My heart skipped a beat as I felt him behind me, wrapping both his arms around my waist in that achingly familiar embrace, and lightly kissing the back of my neck. His breath still carried a whiff of the Moet & Chandon rosé champagne we had the night before on our favourite couch which was moved to the balcony. We stood there in silence, immersed in the beauty before our eyes — as one, for the last time.
“Are you still sure?” he murmured into my left ear, squeezing me closer to him.
“Yes. I am,” I replied softly without moving, staring at the foreground of the tankers and small boats against the changing colours of the horizon. I could not turn around because the tears shed, together, barely eight hours before over numerous flutes of the Moet, and the finality of a decision made still so fresh.
“My heart’s broken. My bank account and business are breaking because of us… I can’t let you and us break me as a person, whatever little bit that’s still left. I have to protect me. I need to like myself again.” I had summoned every cell of strength to enunciate that sentence without pause in between tears and the hissing sounds of the bubbles in my glass.
The farewell ‘ceremony’ had been had. I did not want to waver.
I remained unable to explain the paradoxical emotions that morning. How could fear and courage be held in me at the same time? How was it possible to hold that heaviness on the heart of togetherness lost with the lightness on the chest of a new life waiting? Why doesn’t love just die when it had already hurt so much?
The intense love I had for him was fighting with the unquestioning one I had from my brother David and Dad who came just after we finished breakfast. David loaded the two boxes and two bags into his car. Dad took my car keys and waited in the passenger seat. What did we say to each other when we hugged and kissed before I turned and walked out the door of our apartment, of a forty-month marriage? I could not recall. Were the tears streaming down my cheeks, as I drove off, that of loss or relief? Perhaps both.
The airy room on the second floor of a rustic black and white house at Jalan Tembusu became my rented refuge for three months whilst my flat at Marine Crescent was being renovated (after a thankfully painless settlement with the tenant). Love eased me into this healing space — the all-level cleansing effort of the room with Dettol, Epsom salt, sea salt and the white sage smudging ritual by Saleemah before I arrived with Dad and David that morning, endless home-cooked comfort food from Ruqxana (my cooking teacher landlady, now bestie), daily yoga and meditation practice, and that special garden at the back of the house.
There was something magical about that Bali-inspired garden. The shadows formed by the artfully placed lights created a sense of enchantment, especially on a moonlit night. Even on evenings when the air was still, there was always some ruffling amongst the leaves and branches. I would imagine angels hovering above me, and nymphs and fairies peeping from behind the leaves on countless evenings as I ate, read, wrote and cried in the heart of this enchanted kingdom. I even took to talking to my mystic friends, including introducing the hae bi hiam and tauki in my Teochew porridge from Dunman Road as I ate!
There was no TV or WIFI in this shelter. Writing in the garden amongst the angels became my healing, my courage and my expansion — thanks to Sal’s ‘welcome’ gift of a purple velvety-covered journal. I wrote — in long hand, no less — with a religiosity that I never knew. The cracks in my heart were strangely letting light into its hidden chambers previously swathed in obscurity. Words found their way into these chambers and for the first time, I began to question life, my purpose and how the two work.
I did not stop loving, or seeing him. Not because he was still involved in a project with my business but because that familiar convolution of our relationship tiptoed in again. We would be discussing the divorce process one day and then dating like new loves on another. One night after dinner, he asked me to spend the night with him at Bayshore Park. Tough as it was, I said, “No, I didn’t move away for me to sleep overnight and leave in the same clothes the next morning!” I loathed myself for being cajoled the second time when he asked a few weeks later.
This pendulum of confusion was fast becoming a wrecking ball with our growing disagreements on the business project and the all too familiar battle of power on all fronts.
Then the universe conspired again when I went back to the apartment to retrieve something. He got careless or maybe he didn’t care, again. Carefully crafted love notes were sprinkled all over our bedroom, including his underwear drawer. The Fourth and Final Discovery, or more accurately, the First Discovery Version #2 was made that day — this time on cut paper instead of emails.
There was no more space for new cracks to be had in the tattered heart; each old crack had to assume a fresh hit of pain instead. My muffled scream of “I want out, now!” reverberated through every crack in a body trembling in agony and anger.
My lawyer served the divorce papers on him shortly after, unannounced. This unleashed a wrath of a pathological kind in him that ruptured every figment of my imagination. He would soon launch a crazed offensive of six legal suits — one after another — against my business with preposterous claims.
The education technology and consulting business that I founded and ran since 2003, was the closest I had left of my sense of identity and self at that time. This was the last frontier.
“Well, he’s American — being litigious is in his DNA.”
“Maybe he married you for your business, your money?”
These stereotype-laden words from well-meaning friends offered me no comfort at all. “What money?” I often retorted.
Lovers turned adversaries. I stopped seeing him. Yet I did not stop loving him because such a love didn’t just go away overnight, it simply got parked away. Still, who was this man whom I loved to the moon and back? What made love and how did I fall in? What was he coming at me for? Was I sleeping with the enemy all this time? The rug of life was pulled off from under me hurling me into mid-air with a broken heart, a broken bank account, a broken business and now, maybe also a broken self. What was left?
“Who am I?” I uttered this rhetoric repeatedly as a plea to the angels and fairies, much to their bewilderment, I was sure.
It was six months after the divorce papers were served. A slice of the moonlight spilled into the living room. The sea breeze was moving through the barren loft with ease. I had moved into my Marine Crescent flat two weeks before with $16 left in my bank account — so only two essential items found their way into the flat: a non-descript queen-sized bed and a fridge from Gain City on instalment.
Lying on the floor exhausted from another day of battling the crude existence of life (made cruder by the never-ending conversations with lawyers!), the stillness of this emptiness became strikingly deafening — beckoning me to its core and asking me to listen. And listened I did with every cell in my body as I existed only in that space of awareness at that very moment, there was nowhere else to go.
“You only lose what you cling to. You are not your marriage, you are not your bank balance, and you are not your business. You are all the love that you have given, and the love that you have received.” Did the angels from the enchanted garden finally answer my plea and whisper those words?
That night on the barren floor, the light of awakening shone through the million cracks, bright like the sun. When I had nothing more to lose, I was given everything. I saw me for who I truly was — the insecurities and fears, the strengths and courage, the wants and aversions — a woman who had loved so intensely yet so incompletely, and conditionally. The cracks were indispensable to bring down that wall of separation from myself, my true Self. Love did not walk away from me; love brought me back to me. The rejection was a re-direction. The undercurrents of this shift were imperceptible yet forthcoming; the buoys of the daily writing, the daily yoga and meditation practice were gradually transmuting into my sails for a new way of knowing, of living.
Life would, henceforth, take me onward and forward on a trajectory of rebuilding a broken self, of self-realisation, and of discovering a purpose to serve (that’s another story to share). I had gone downstream in order to go upstream in this river of life. And ten months later on another moonlit night in November 2008, I found myself on the Nile, a river that flows from the mountains in the South to the Mediterranean in the North. Was this another cosmic collusion or mere coincidence?
“We will dock here for the night so you can sleep. We’ll sail again with the sunrise.” The voice of Ahmed, captain of the Divine Steel broke my reminiscence and the gentle stillness of this starry night. The felucca came to a quiet stop the way an ancient wooden sailing boat defying mechanisation can do, by an island in the middle of the Nile. The dancing silhouette of the trees warmly welcomed us as they braced themselves for when nature called through the night.
The Family Courts had finally issued the divorce decree two months back. The winding up process for the business had started. I began my role as Managing Director for a consulting business with a UK-listed group on 8th September 2008. That same day that I strode back into the corporate system, a kindly yogi nun also initiated me into the next phase of my practice in meditation and yoga as Indira.
Sleep escaped me on this night of majesty and beauty. I looked up, once again, at the cloak of diamonds in the sky. Right then, I knew with conviction that the Force that guided the stars would guide me too in this new chapter of my life. I was free to choose my destiny.
“You have seen my descent. Now watch my rising,” I whispered the words of Rumi, the Persian Sufi poet, to the wandering spirits of this ancient river.
Ode to Self Inspired by/on the Nile, Egypt, 28th November 2008
O’Indira The stars dance for you The mountains move for you The deserts cry for you Rise from the deep recess of your fears
O’Indira Your heart cries with tears of joy Your body discards the baggage of limitations Your soul dances with the lightness of love Believe in the miracle of possibilities
O’Indira Drown in the consummation of love for your being Spread your arms to receive the messenger of love Release the eternity of your love to all who gives you love And flood this love to those whom you know deserve love
O’Indira You are Love. You are loved.
I am Love. I am loved.
[Image credit: Expansion by Paige Bradley, a piece of art that connects so deeply with me. The light that shines through the cracks that leads to an expansion of the Self resonates with my journey so far.]
[Author’s Note: An output of a by selection-only 6-week Memoir Writing Workshop with the National Library Board, this is a chapter of a full memoir (in progress) of an ordinary life made extraordinary by its gifts and lessons. I have been guided by the same invisible hands of the Force that guides the stars in her life and am deliberating between the prequel or sequel to this chapter to write next. ]