Separation Blues

Being the first kid in the family, I had been used to being the one who left. The one who is being dropped off, sent off, or called in from miles away.

My first departure from home took place way back when I was barely 14—it was my first night at the boarding school. I cried myself to sleep; wanting the separation to be over the next morning. I remembered feeling devastated. The darkness made it impossible to think about anything else than the comfortable place where everyone I loved were, where I could sleep with the lights on.

I remembered missing the familiar texture of my bed. I didn’t know then, but I know now that I cried for selfish reasons.

Good for me, I figured out soon that the distance between Tangerang Selatan and Bogor was less than two hours. I figured I could took an angkot every other week. I stopped crying the day after.

When I started out college three years later, I had been smarter. I skipped the crying part right into the conclusion that Depok, too, was only an hour away from Bogor. Going home was a piece of cake.

Fast forward to the time I had to live in Singapore for a while. This occasion, I spent a good hour crying the night before my flight—probably because apparently I was still smart. I knew what living abroad entails: being on your own, making friends with strangers, but worst of all, being away from your family and closest friends—this time by a distance that is much further than mere two-hour angkot ride or one-hour commuter line trip.

My first night at the dormitory, I cried again. Facing the side wall, trying to keep my voice close to non-existent because I didn’t want my new roommate to think I was a freak.

It was not so bad because it turned out my scholarship can cover a round-trip at least every two months. That aside, I’m pretty sure I also cried for selfish reasons.

Yesterday, though—yesterday was different.

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Before anything else, it’s probably relevant to highlight that Boston/Cambridge is not exactly close from Jakarta. You either have enough cash to afford a 24-hour flight, or you’re just stuck being away from each other for the rest of your program (20 months, that is).

Knowing how my hormones usually react to separations, I expected myself to wail either several days before, or at the airport scene.

And yet, there were no tears. Wikan and my entire nuclear family members and a couple of our best friends were present—which would’ve been the perfect let-go/crying scene for yours truly—but to my own surprise, we left very calmly. There were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.

We waved for the last time, didn’t bother to take a final look, and off we went through the immigration desk to the boarding gate.

Before the airport, there were also farewell dinners. Ones you spent with your work colleagues, best friends, good friends, and intellectual friends. At each one’s end, there were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.

It felt unnatural.

Was it because my subconscious perceives Harvard as such a significant deal, separations seem like a sensible price? One that isn’t even worth a short, good cry? Was it because I have Wikan—my very definition of home—coming along, it doesn’t really feel like being away?

While I do consider the latter as truth, it still feels wrong not to at the very least feel sad about leaving everything behind. The familiar faces, roads, foods, scents, and rains. But there was nothing.

The answer arrived five hours later, when I broke down at the airplane.

It was midnight when the flight attendants switched the lights off. I put on my eye mask, and leaned to sleep on Wikan’s shoulderif anything, feeling a bit giddy because of the show I just watched.

In complete darkness however, without a cue, my mind floated itself home—playing a scene where my frail father struggled to pick up his mug because his muscles had now began rebelling, my kind mother juggling through responsibilities when she should’ve just stayed home and spoil herself, my grandmother stuck to her bed probably wondering how quiet our house would be when my youngest brother goes to college in a year. There was also my aunt and uncle whose only daughter just got into college—who else would they be taking care of? And just like that, I wailed.

I wailed, this time weirdly not because my family wouldn’t be there for me, but because I wouldn’t be there for them, probably in the period when they need me the most.

It suddenly hit me that without me or my cousin and younger brothers, they would be five old parents, getting even older, while taking care of one another. As much as it would make a beautiful movie story, the thought of it makes me sad.

Banda Neira’s Di Beranda triggered this realization a while back (sent it to my mother when she told me she’d been crying for how empty the house was after my wedding), but tonight it hit me much harder. Maybe because it lacks anticipation. Like a Katrina on a summer day.

Prior to writing this down (which was Wikan’s idea), I finally had the good cry. Partly because I felt sorry, but mostly because I felt sorry about not telling my parents about how sorry I felt, how I do wish I could spend more time with them, how I regret not making enough time for them when I still could.

I know for a fact that I would feel twice as devastated had Wikan not come along with me. But I wonder if that would be another selfish kind of sadness—of wanting to have him around, of not having to be apart, of never having to feel lonely again.

I wonder, if you can only start thinking about someone else when you stop being selfish—or can you do both? Do I start shifting to the other kind of separation blues because I finally have everything I need? Is this part of growing up?

If you’re reading this, Mom, please know that I love you. And tell Pap and Eyang and Papah and Mamah that I love them, too. Please be good and take care. Your daughter will be home before you know it.

On Marrying Your Black Swan

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[Captured by Ben Laksana, July 23rd, 2016.]

Nobody thought I would’ve tied the knot at age 24—yours truly didn’t either. It seemed too early, rather rushed, and surprising. But as Nassim Taleb points out in The Black Swan, regardless how much we’d like to suppress it, unlikely events take place all the time and almost always, they are the ones that yield in massive consequences. It also observes that, upon discovering an outlying phenomenon, humans would tend to frantically search for a simpler explanation—a rationalization that would ease their anxiety about what weird thing just happened. Love, fate, momentum? And yet when you look closely, it really is just a random occurrence. Our wedding was, in itself, a personal-scaled black swan.

Translation: I did not see it coming.

The universal formula had always been that girls with ambition wouldn’t—shouldn’t—settle down so early. The less universal formula is that there’s a laundry list that has to be ticked and unless a perfect match is found, one shall never stop looking. Being in our early 20s, we still had a long time to go, and Wikan hardly fit in my then set of criteria, but here we are, married—for 20 good days.

The truth is: we figured out early on, that we’re not huge fans of being away from each other. Especially when it involves a distance of over 23 hours of cross-oceanic flights and 12-hour difference, which was what would’ve happened had I started my master’s program next month alone. We’ve heard the opposing arguments: temporary separations could make hearts grow fonder, and if anything, it would’ve been a legit test to how strong our feelings were.

Nonetheless, we’re also aware that it would result in humongous, unnecessary pain and loneliness. Some can work out long distance relationships, but why do we have to go through the same agonizing drill for two solar cycles when there’s an obvious remedy in front of us?

Not to mention the imminent the risk of growing apart—had we led separate lives, every day we would’ve met different people, exposed to potentially conflicting values, and constantly develop new understandings that might not be as easily synchronized the way we are able to do it today. Sure, Skype calls could help, but there are obvious limitations.What if your other half is facing a hard time and you couldn’t be there for them? What if you stop caring? Naturally, if there’s a way to mitigate that, we just had to take it. Now we’re legally bound to live together, to move across continents, time zones, and languages—nobody could forbid us to.

For any two people who just want to be there for each other in any possible circumstances, who dream of not only growing old but also growing up side by side: getting married feels like being granted the ultimate visa. You simply win more by obtaining it sooner, not the other way around.

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As for the checkboxes, Alain de Botton writes this eye-opening essay about why we will keep marrying the wrong person, which basically sums up the story of how Wikan has drastically changed the way I looked at relationships and, well, marriages. That it is more about making the effort to meet halfway than hunting for the person who is already sitting on the right spot from the beginning:

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

Lastly, there is also a good chance that both of us slightly see this whole marriage thing as, the way Ben Laksana put it, a ‘rite of passage to freedom’. That signing three times on the sacred pages of ‘marriage book’ would disarm our parents and family from the kinds of justifications that they could use to govern our lives, or force their values onto ours. Don’t take it the wrong way, however; we love both our parents and they are great, but being able to decide for ourselves and gaining more independence to do so is one of the things we look forward to. Please go read the entire piece for more on that topic.

[In case this is not what you’re looking for, the also-honest-but-more-romantic reason is parked on another lot. Hahaha.]

To be continued to Part II for more thoughts on the procedures and weddings themselves.

 

Not Displaced, Just A Nomad

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[Photographed by Wikan Anantabrata, April 2016.]

The first time  Unmasked Open Mic invited me to take their stage as a reader, they asked if I could provide a short bio. Part-nervous and part-attention-seeking, I was determined to point out that using words to express feelings—or embracing emotions at allisn’t exactly what I get to practice on a daily basis, just so the audience would go easy on me. If anything, spoken word is the opposite of what I do as a research analyst.

This is what I came up with: Andhyta is a closeted romantic who makes love with numbers during the day and dances with words at night when nobody’s looking.

(Probably an overkill with the metaphors, but somewhat still the truth.)

Indeed, both involve writing—a lot of it—but the creative process behind this and this is so starkly different a layman wouldn’t think they were written by the same person. While the former (a poetry about Tendean Road) relies on exploiting a single event with humane analogies and potential relatebility,  the latter (an analysis on Indonesia’s climate action) requires careful data crunching and paper reading.

More often than not, excelling at one also means plummeting at the other. (Probably why yours truly is so mediocre at both. Hahaha.)

Just a fortnight ago, a colleague of mine—upon reading this sentimental post—asked if I wasn’t embarrassed sharing such personal details on a public domain. Furthermore, he commented on how it sounded so far removed from what he perceived as my reality and therefore it couldn’t be anything but pure fiction. Either that, or I’ve been faking my ‘office self’ the whole time.

It took me some time to form an answer that would make sense to him.

I started with explaining that I live in two worlds, each containing a half of what would make me whole. Ben in this brilliant essay divides his life into three areas (arts, intellectualism, and spirituality); I am trying to make the same case.

Because in all candor, there is a part of me that yearns to hike to the top of the mountain, save the world, contribute to a body of knowledge on environmental issues, become a policy maker, etc.—and another that wishes I could dive deep into the ocean floor, hone my sensitivity to learn better about just myself and my surrounding, and simply share these bits of life to those who need it.

Now as much as I cherish being an amphibian, one of these days the mammals living on the land would prefer one of their kind—fish who’d been friends with depth, apparently, could be seen as a freak (note that I’m only suggesting a possibility based on one trivial event).

This is probably why I try to keep my fish community away from my mammal fellows. As long as they do not meet each other, they would not identify me as the weird one. You who are reading this might not know me during the day, and for a good reason. The mind that came up with each of the sentences here, however, is the same one that happens to love writing and presenting about global emissions and reduction potentials.

Don’t think that I’m not familiar with the logic: one cannot be rational and emotional at the same time. Indeed, it is possible that sometimes my sensible self puts my sentiments in doubt and the other way around—but we used to accept that nomads have to move places, and maybe this is just what I am.

On Making Peace with Constant Sadness

I am sad. I’ve been sad many times before: when I couldn’t find a copy of this great book, when the people I considered close talked about me behind my back, or when I had to say good bye to a baby turtle I accidentally killed. All this time, I knew sadness as an uninvited stranger who just had to spend the night—a couple days at most—but eventually left. I did anticipate it to come back, but never once I wished that sadness would move in permanently.

Growing up, however, I learned that there would be things I couldn’t change—not even mend—and have to live with. Like the fact that your own parents are not as open minded and tolerant as you would wish they are. Like how the people you look up to actually subscribe to completely different values from yours. Like anticipating having to be thousands of miles and twelve-hour time zone away from the people you love the most for two good years. Like being left by one of the few best friends you have left. Like how the nation you’re supposed to be proud of, are the same humans who happen to doubt you. Like the reality that love isn’t served on a silver platter, but a grand prize you need to sacrifice for. Like how sometimes you’re just not good enough, and that you can’t always have what you really want.

Each of these opened up a bigger space in me for sadness to finally settle in.

At first, I tried to deny its lingering existence—I looked the other way and distracted myself with the familiar things that made me think I was happy. It was only later, that I would wail for hours and feel confused for not finding the reason why.

Stoicism never failed me before—I wasn’t a fan of expectations and I feel comfortable sliding into my indifferent skin—but some sadnesses are so fundamental not even a stoic can shield away from. Fed with a force so strong, sadness transformed from a visiting stranger into an indefinite tenant.

After a while, I understood that something needs to change—and that it had to be me. Now am still at the stage of figuring the ‘how’ out, but I hope that self-awareness is quite a decent first step.

XXIV

Last week, I turned 24. Instead of surprises, my family, closest friends, awesome coworkers, and other half decided to gift me the best unwrapped present they could ever give: their presence.

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(And several cakes, too, but mostly presence.)

It went exactly the way I wanted it: quietly, like my favorite song playing at 20% volume. Embraced the music’s familiarity and hummed along its chorus by heart. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

First with Eyang’s most sincere prayers (cue: all adulthood-related), then Wikan’s delightful home-cooked pasta, Diku and Kiki who stopped by near midnight with a hug, a lunch full of laughters with WRI Indonesia team, and finally, nine of my most favorite humans on earth (Rocky, Johan, Sirly, Ikhsan, Iman, Tama, Aswin, Diku—again, and Jessica) with a nine-flavored martabak and a bag of hilariousness at my doorstep.

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Some others was also kind enough to shower me with their words and thoughts. Beyond materials, these are the things that you will remember when you get old. That actually have a pretty good shot at shielding you away from loneliness. That made me feel loved, and therefore warm.

My soul is forever grateful to have each and every one of them, which is really the only few who actually matter.

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After all, what can be more humbling than realizing you have too many of birthdays already its quietness becomes so precious and is, at its core, what you cherish about it. Here’s to being wiser in the next 12 months.