Every once in a while, what you come across in life leaves a profound impact. You might not realise it at first, but it plagues you, creeps up on your consciousness and refuses to loosen grip until you have confronted its glare. You may not know what I am talking about. I did not know what I am talking about. Until 13 Reasons Why came along.
Now this is not a film / book review of any kind. There are plenty of reviews out there on this breakout Netflix phenomenon depicting the life (and death) of a suicidal teenager and the 13 people whom she attributed to her demise.
Before I go any further, perhaps I ought to preface this post by clarifying that I am in no way suicidal. I do not walk on eggshells; and this post is not about a juicy exposé of my own “13 Reasons”. You may also find it unfathomable what a 30-something with a good education, a (somewhat) enviable job and semblance of family happiness would see in such a gruesome display of teenage angst. Please don’t hit the “Back” button just yet though, because as I said, every once in a while an unexpected catalyst would emerge and chip away at your consciousness. Because whatever your moral persuasions on the matter, 13 Reasons Why begs a journey of introspection. And here is mine. Raw, unpolished, just – introspection. So stick with me, will you?
1. Mother’s Daughter
I grew up with my mother, a woman whose easy, gregarious spirit I neither inherited nor mastered. If you met her for the first time, you’d leave with the impression of having known her for life. Looking back, uprooting our lives to reunite with my father in Australia must have been just as tortuous for her. In an instant, the human chatterbox must content herself with the art of gesticulation in an environment as foreign to her as the colour of the sky.
Uprooting our lives also came with another unintended consequence: the birth of the “tiger mum”. She shadowed me everywhere. Under her watchful eyes, I grew up to be an emblem of everything she’d forgone, a mannequin upon which to hang her hopes and dreams. In turn, I was forever the docile daughter. The malleable mannequin.
2. Inner Child
My love affair with Lego began as a child, as a child whom would stare longingly through the window of animated shop displays adorned by colourful bricks and trinkets. I was a precocious child though. I knew we weren’t the type of family to have such impractical adornments in our display cabinets. I wasn’t the type of child to make such farfetched demands (so when a yellow Lego House landed in my lap one day, I cherished it as national treasure).
My love affair with Lego truly blossomed as an adult. When the price tags no longer put me off owning them. It was then that I allowed myself the simple pleasures of reliving and relishing my childhood desires in those moments of serenity. And certainly, they make a permanent fixture in my display cabinets now.
3. The Reader
I have always had an insatiable appetite for learning. As far back as I could remember, I wanted to run before I could walk; I wanted to be 18 before I was eight (if only I could be eight again)… Perhaps it’s a Gemini trait for all things new. Perhaps it’s just a Jolene trait.
So punishing was my English studying schedule that it was just as well I took a liking to reading. Everything and anything I could get my hands on I devoured with delight. In between the lines, I lived out my fantasies of Jane and Mr Rochester; Scarlett and Rhett Butler and Edmund Dante’s revenge on those who wronged him. As an impressionable teenager, I lived out those tales as if they were my own; I walked with emotion and the weight of literary legends in my bulky backpack.
4. Film Crybaby
When my mother taught me to dream, she would take me to the movies. With quiet anticipation, we’d sit in total darkness waiting for dreams to descend. And they did. I lapped up episodes of the good trouncing evil, rags to riches, as well as personal struggles and triumphs.
It was as if watching someone else’s dreams come true could make up for all the dreams that did not come true, the dreams that are long dead and buried. As if only someone else’s stories could offer the perfect pretext to shedding our own tears.
5. Voyeuristic Daydreamer
Read into it as you will, but I like being a voyeur. Not the seedy kind, of course, but the curious kind. On a sunny afternoon, I would often sit in a park and people watch to the revolving tunes of Chris Martin. I took particular enjoyment in pondering the minutiae of their lives. How admirable, the old couple strolling arm and arm must have been through so much together. How lovely, the young toddler with an easy laugh must be the pride and joy of his family.
In those voyeuristic escapades, I reflected on my own life too. I dreamt what it would be like in a matters of years, or decades. What it could be like.
6. Soul Sister
I met her in junior high. Many remarked on how alike we were, not so much in looks but in mannerisms. It didn’t take long for us to form a bond that has lasted to the present day. Our friendship is one rooted in empathy, empathy for the other’s individual circumstances and the difficulties and prejudices we both endured as first generation migrants.
She would know exactly how to take my mind off things, to put things in perspective, as it were. I constantly strive to be a better person because of her, to somehow rationalise the blind faith that she continues to vest in a character as flawed as mine. I speak so frankly not because she will read this, but precisely because she won’t.
7. Aspiring Schoolkid
I harbour fond memories of school. It was a time when life seemed conquerable, and I was all but ready to conquer it. They were also the days of self-fulfilment and self-belief, where giving chase to hard work was the only option available, the only option that would pave the way for a lifetime of assured happiness ahead. How could I have known then that Happiness was not a product of homogeneity, and that any sort of compromise in our pursuit was never a reflection of our own cowardice?
8. Glorified Slave
The transition from campus to corporation has undoubtedly been one of the most jarring experiences. Were all those years of midnight toil, countless exams and numbed fingers somehow all coming down to this? To say that I was ill-prepared would have been a belated lesson in understatement.
I nonetheless gave it everything I had, with a misplaced sense of naivety that it would give something of value back, something remotely akin to self-worth. At long last, I came to the realisation that I was no better than a glorified dog; perhaps I ought to start barking in order to be heard above the din of corporate conceit.
9. Helping Hand
I’ve written before of my views on compassion and volunteering, in which I once said that there is a secret reservoir of compassion in all of us, which we switch on and off as befitting the circumstances. For me, compassion may well be my Achilles’ heel.
I enjoy ploughing myself into the plight of others. It gives me great pleasure and makes me feel needed, if only for a while. And the sad truth is, the solution always seems much closer at hand when it is someone else’s life you are trying to untangle.
10. Wayward Wife
You fell for my mercurial playfulness, and I for your unwavering loyalty. You have stood by me, through all the initial misgivings about my recklessness and all the reckless demands that did eventually follow. I have written almost next to nothing about you, but if there is one thing you ought to know it is this. In a narrative of twists and turns you are my forever story.
11. Accidental Adventurer
In all of my escapades, it is travelling which acts as the panacea. It is travelling which continues to remind me of what life could be like. Carefree. Transient. Foreign. All pre-determined notions of time, place and distance are capable of being recalibrated, giving way to unadulterated carpe diem living.
And did I mention identity, too? After all, isn’t there something wonderfully liberating in being able to leave for the day, stepping out to greet a world in which no one knew you, and in which you could be anyone (even yourself)?
12. Alter Ego
Jolene. She has lived in me for a while now. Or perhaps I have lived in her for much longer than I care to admit. Through her eyes I could perceive the world a little differently, with a little less intensity, and always a little more romance.
Growing up, I wearied of hearing nonsensical wisdom such as “just come out of your shell”, or “you’ll be alright as long as you tell us what is bothering you”. As if words are the magic bullet (they are not, by the way, actions are). Many times I have felt like asking, “I have spoken, but haven’t you heard”? In this regard, Jolene’s words are real; as real a reflection of my feelings and thoughts as I will ever reveal.
13. Hey, But It’s Just Me
I have been living the lives of others, in any way I can in order to avoid living my own. Is this an omen for a-third life crisis? Am I already waist-deep in one? I am plagued by questions to which no answers are immediately forthcoming… It’s getting late now, and tomorrow is another day. And another me. Waiting and hoping.