33rd Birthday — 2nd Pandemic Birthday

I turn 33 today. It’s strange how birthdays are these amazing, special days when you’re a kid but become somewhat of a sad occasion as you grow older. I was thinking the other day about “adulting” — how you don’t just wake up one day and suddenly, BAM! You’re an Adult!, rather it really happens in pieces — you graduate college, you get your first job, you figure out how to file taxes on your own, you figure out what people look for when they buy a house, you buy a car, you get married, you have kids, etc etc (in whatever order you so choose). As an adult, growing older is bittersweet — you realize, after seeing a good share of loved ones pass away around you, that growing older is a blessing that many do not get the chance to enjoy. But growing older also brings with it with ailments and what my 6-year old calls “big people problems”— your wrists start hurting, can’t eat as much as you want to, can’t exert yourself physically in some ways anymore, you’re forever worried about losing your loved ones, the list goes on. So that’s kind of where I am today.

I’m also just generally glum about the pandemic. Malaysia’s pandemic situation is escalating, predictably, and vaccinations have been slow. I could go on for ages about this, about policies, politics, and incompetence, but let’s not. One should try and be as least-glum as possible on one’s birthday! I’ve also been reading a lot of books on cognitive behavioral therapy and you’re supposed to channel your thoughts to positive things when they turn negative — so I spent some time today doing that.

This morning, I was able to spend some time alone in the garden after I dropped both of my (young) kids to school. My garden isn’t big — it’s more like a sliver of land — but it’s enough for me, and I grow a lot of things in pots. Stepping out into that little piece of yard makes me so happy. I recently purchased these lavender (?) scented incense sticks that my mother recommended and they really do help quite a bit with the mosquito situation, so I was able to actually read in the garden, too. I chose poetry, because 1) easy and 2) embracing old lady life wholeheartedly.

These are the two books that I read — one in detail, and one by skimming. The first that I read was an anthology of poems called by Sikit Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit by Singaporean authors on Singapore — each piece was in both Malay and English. What struck me the most about this collection was how beautiful it was — the cover, the typesetting, the binding, the print inside the cover. Just gorgeous. It’s printed by a small independent press called Math Paper Press by BooksActually — go check them out!

What really struck me about this anthology was how melancholic everything was, imparting this really deep sense of sadness — about a history lost in the midst of progress. The back cover of this book has this really nice paragraph that I thought summed up the general gist of them poems in a nice way: “When physical spaces make way for development, we risk historical amnesia. A place evokes a sense of belonging. It sustains our memory of who we are and where we are in the ebb and flow of humanity. Once lost, it can never be recovered. A person emptied of memory is one floating in an open sea without an anchor.”

Just a gorgeous book — now I want to check more of them out!

The second poetry anthology that I skimmed (because it was too long!) was called Poetry by Heart: A Treasury of Poems to Read Aloud. Apparently it’s a collection of poems that have won the Poetry By Heart competition in the UK — so fascinating! Wish we had something similar like that here.

The poem above by E. Nesbit really hit a nerve for me this morning — about aging, learning, and dying.

Somebody told me once that breathing exercises really help with anxiety and to calm down — I tried this for weeks, but couldn’t really achieve the sense of “peace” that I was supposedly meant to experience. She said something that kind of made me pause a little bit, which was: your body has to learn to slow down, because it’s not used to slowing down. Your basic instinct is to just go,go,go when breathing exercises are really meant to do the opposite. So like anything, relaxation and peace take time and practice to achieve. I never thought of relaxation as something you had to train yourself to do, both mind and body, but that kind of made things make more sense to me. So I’ve been trying to do that more, and today, on my birthday, I spent some lovely time just tending to my plants, which was really very nice. Some of the blooms are below!

Blooms and plants

Plants are really resilient little things, though some of them are fussier than others — much like humans, I suppose. But the nice thing about Malaysia is that things grow almost effortlessly — though they die effortlessly in too much sun and too much rain, too! Finding out what works for a specific potted plant has been a puzzle that I enjoy. Sometimes, it’s really frustrating because you don’t know what’s wrong — too little fertilizer? too much water? too little water? But once you find out exactly what the optimum is, it’s so satisfying to see these little things thrive!

I only spent about two hours with myself and my plants and some good poetry, but it made a whole lot of difference. I’ve been working more on “self-regulation” of stress, and this really did help. Usually we’d try and go explore some new restaurants for birthdays, but that’s not really going to happen with the pandemic raging here. BUT, of course — not much I can personally do about this, so I’m trying to set my “big feelings” aside and focus more on my “small feelings”.

For my birthday, I would like to wish for my life to continue being blessed in the many ways I’ve been privileged to enjoy, for my children to grow up healthy, kind, and strong, for an endless supply of books to read and new things to learn, and for my parents to get vaccinated ASAP. I’ve not done anything to deserve the wonderful life that I’ve been given, and I’m so, so incredibly grateful (though I know I do my fair bit of complaining as well — but I’m working on that!!!).

Stay safe and well, wherever you are.



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Melati Nungsari

Melati Nungsari


Economist and mother of two. Currently based in Kuala Lumpur. I write about labor economics, migration issues, industrial organization, and life.