Intentions

This particular dispatch is like the rest of 2020 in the sense that it is nothing like what we thought it is supposed to be. It is still written by me, the urbanist who occasionally takes long walks and writes short essays, but this one has nothing about living urban and instead is all about being human.

In the past weeks, I’ve seen lots of reflections written on social media and newsletters ranging from what one has learnt, what to ‘break-up’ with in 2020, and what to bring along in 2021. I started writing this last dispatch of the year thinking that I do not want to write another variation of it, simply because I have no desire to reject all that has past nor solve my life in the coming year. After all, isn’t all that pain and joy life itself? 

But after staring at my blinking cursor, writing, deleting, and re-writing, I found myself circling back to the idea of setting intentions for what is to come. It appears that it is the only thing we can do for ourselves as we bumble forward in the dark.

While there is no guarantee that the planted intention will grow into a seedling, much less blossom into a flowering plant, it seems to be the thing that brings hope to a life of unknowns. Planting an intention gives a light to guide decisions and a reason to try. It is the foundation of our prayers to a higher power. It also seems to be the force that defines our connection to ourselves and others. But even before I can plant an intention within, I feel a need to dig. Deep. 

I am feeling this need to excavate the cumulative expectations of others that I have carried over the years. The debris of purposes that do not serve me anymore needs to be removed. The layers of armour that I have worn needs to be undone. I feel this need to dig till I reach the centre of my heart – a place that Rumi says life begins – to plant my seed of intention.

It is here dear reader that I was led to further meta thoughts. What if my intention for 2021 is to actually prepare the ground so that a future intention can be planted? What if in my excavation I find an intention that was there all along, waiting to be nurtured into something more? What if I have been blind all along and am actually uprooting a grand tree of good intentions? 

These are questions that I do not have answers for and do not intend to answer since life does not begin when one have all the answers. Instead, the wisdom of poet Eliza Cook seems enough for me at this point of my life, “Take care of the minutes, and the days will take care of themselves.”  Indeed if the purpose of 2020 was to teach us that happiness is in the small things, then perhaps caring for this small unit of life is the best that we can do. It may be all we need to do for today and the unknown tomorrows. It may be the most basic intention that I can plant while digging deep.

Before I end this dispatch, I want to say thank you to all of you who have been reading my words. This newsletter was rebooted this year in uncertain terms, and you being here is encouraging me to continue writing it in 2021. Thank you for your generous time and attention. If you like, do send me your thoughts, prompts, or even questions and it may just be the words I write for you the next time. This whole Dispatch thing may be my adventure but you are very much on it with me too. 


Till the next time, may the best of your intentions for 2021 grow to be the best of you. 

With warmth, Adib

From a new place

I am writing this from my new house which is still in the process of becoming a true home. My belongings are partially unpacked, some furnishings and carpentry still yet to arrive, but it is enough for me right now.


Just like my cat who is still coming to terms with the new house, I am adjusting to the neighbourhood and getting my bearings right. It isn’t a completely alien area for me as I spent some years living in the same town as a teenager, but the Singaporean pace of urban change requires a reorientation. As I take my walk through the town, I discover new developments being built on what I remember as vast open patches of grass. Buildings don’t look the same way as I last visited them, and it seems like the edges of the town has been pushed out further since I last lived in this town. I didn’t even move to another country and it is already taking me a while to adjust. I also find myself literally figuring out the neighbourhood, by which I mean drawing mental figures, maps and diagrams in my head to remember the new routes and facilities in the area.
 

○ ○ ○ ○ ○
 

Taking long walks through the city have started to become a thing for me over the last few months. Some of these walks are pre-planned with a route in mind but there are some that unfolds with fate as I step out of my front door.
 

Not too long ago, I put on my shoes and took one such walk where the roads to walk and turns to make were decided in the moment. It led me to landscaped paths, ten-lane road junctions, a ‘rural farmway’, wild dogs & otters, and beautiful water bodies. I am starting to wonder what I will discover as I walk on other routes across different parts of the island.

○ ○ ○ ○ ○
 

Late in October, I shared to a small group of people and briefly on my IG story that I was going to start working on a new project to support new talent and ideas for a better city. The impetus for this comes from a reflective moment from earlier this year where Mizah and I wondered about our contribution to the city beyond client work, beyond our companies, and beyond our own lives. We know that there are many other issues in our city that need community-powered solutions, and while Mizah and I never managed to shape this thought into reality together, it has become one of my personal goals to continue working on it.
 

For a start, this personal project of mine will focus on offering educational bursaries and mentorship to tertiary students who are pursuing their interests in community-driven solutions to our urban issues. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and I will be providing updates as they are available.
 

To read more about the project and find out how you can help, head over to adibjalal.com/bettercity/
 

○ ○ ○ ○ ○
 

That’s all for this month. You may notice that I’ve reshuffled some stuff on the website and a more coherent archive of recent Dispatches now sit within the site itself. There are still some weirdness in there but just I am figuring out this new physical place of mine, I will be getting to sorting that digital place in the next month as well.

Till the next time, be kind to yourself.

A place in between

The words you’re reading now has been dispatched from a strange place. It is a place of in-between. Not just a place between the innerworld and outerworld like the blurb I wrote for this newsletter that you signed up for, but it is a place between the now and the new. If you are starting to feel like this is not the place you want to be at, be careful as you follow the lights to the exit.

The last time I wrote, the changes were getting started and since then, it has been weeks of preparation of the new place and the packing up of the now place. Now, most of my belongings are packed away leaving me feeling detached from the current apartment while not yet connected with the future one. I feel unmoored. As though the things in the house were the weight that kept me grounded to this shell of an apartment.

Between a house which is a construction site and a house that has been packed away, nowhere feels right. In the day, I walk amongst the dust and debris while imagining in my head what the apartment might be in the future. At the end of the day, I rest my body amongst the towers of cardboard boxes and bubble wrap while considering the life in this apartment of the past. The placemaker (me) is displaced from his house for the moment, and home is just a place in his head.

Even so, the new awaits with possibilities. While I’ld rather the circumstances surrounding it was different, the light of hope that I have been tending to inside me is starting to glow just a flicker brighter lately. 

○ ○ ○ ○ ○


In a moment of serendipity or grand coincidence, the people behind ELEVEN magazine, a student-run publication produced by Nanyang Technological University Muslim Society (NTUMS), dropped me a DM a couple of weeks ago to ask if I had words about the theme of ‘Possibilities’ for them. I reached down inside and typed some that read something like this:

As you stand at the doorway of these two places (between now and new), you can’t help but wonder what lies behind it. Through the gap underneath the door, you get a glimpse of what lies beyond. It sounds like peace, and it smells like joy. It seems greener on that other side, like a vast expanse with an abundance of all that you have been seeking. You know that it has its own version of bullshit that is fertilising the land, but it still seems better than the now.  

I have no way of telling you what lies behind that door, but it is probably not what you are expecting. It is also probably going to warm your heart and break it at some point, but that’s okay because that is what being human is all about. All we can do is to be graceful and grateful in not knowing what is behind it.

At the threshold between these two places, you may have questions like I did. Am I stepping into a good thing, or am I stepping out of it? Am I coming back to myself or am I going away to discover a new part of myself? Is this starting over or is this the next chapter? As I discovered later, there are no wrong answers because there were always other doors in the new place for me. Doors that would lead me to places that I would never have seen if I didn’t walk through that first one. Doors that would lead me to the people I never knew I needed to meet. And doors that would lead me to lessons that I needed to unlock the next one.

Take it from this strange man with calluses and scars that you need to be careful with what and who you bring along on this journey. Be full, but be light. Know the difference between a weight that will keep you grounded and the weight that prevents you from soaring. Know what gives you strength or takes it away. Explore the contours between moving forward and leaving things behind. Decide what to keep and how to keep it.

You can read the full version here


○ ○ ○ ○ ○


Thank you for reading this far. You have been so generous with your time and attention to me and I really appreciate it. The next dispatch that I send will be written from an old desk in a new place and who knows what the words will be like then. Till that moment arrives, write back to me if you wish or don’t, but always be kind to yourself.
 

-A

Change is in the air

It’s the last Tuesday of the month, a time when I send these monthly email Dispatches that I’ve promised you’ll receive when you signed up for it. This is supposed to be words about our shared humanity in our shared cities but if you’ve been around this newsletter long enough, you’ll know that it is a very broad umbrella under which I put a lot of things.

There’s been a lot of movement and change on my side of these words since the last time I wrote. Following the life-changing events of many moons ago, I seem to have plunged myself deeper into this change, moved with it, and as Alan Watts would say, danced with it
 

Instead of my relative reclusivity in 2019 and earlier in the year, I have put myself on a run of ‘public appearances’ for work lately. Over the last month and the coming one, I have been and will be part of discussion panels as guestas a moderator, and also as a presenter at various webinars. These public musings and conversations about the future of communities and cities have gotten me back into the fold of my professional life and it all feels familiar and different at the same time. It is such a contrasting pace and I consider all of it part of finding my footing in this new world I live in.
 

Change is also happening on a tectonic scale as I am in the midst of relocating to a different part of the island so that I may start a new chapter. Faulkner writes: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore”, and I am indeed heading very far away from the shoreline. Moving house is part of my moving forward.
 

All this change is extremely uncomfortable and often a pain in the butt and in the heart, but I am discovering so many new things about myself as I go through this. I’ve encountered my demons and fears, aspirations and perspectives I never knew I had, and at times met parts of me that I didn’t recognise. I also find myself forced to engage with the sum of my life till this point, decide what and how to make them part of the future, and deal with all the complexities and decision-making that a move demands in entirely new ways. In these times of change, I take Maya Angelou’s words to heart: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

○ ○ ○ ○ ○

Some months ago, I was invited to contribute a piece of writing to an independent magazine with the theme of ‘Spaces’. The intention was to explore ways in which spaces are created, experienced and lived in both urban and rural areas, and reveal new dimensions to it.
 

My contribution titled ‘Morning Intervals’ takes the form of an observation journal, one where I observe and document the city around me in that space between the start of my day and the start of the work day.


I’ve published an excerpt of the piece at adibjalal.com/morning-intervals/, or if you would like to know more and purchase the entire publication, visit sali-sasaki.exposure.co/spaces. Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt of the excerpt.

5:30AM

Hushed. The call of the koel birds have not yet begun, and one can barely make out the polite rumble of vehicles. Considering the number of people living in close proximity with me, it seemed unnatural that I could not hear any conversations or crying children.  

A cool breeze was blowing and I walked over to widen the window and let some of it into the apartment. It was still dark outside, leaving the vibrant greens of the tree canopy in the neighbouring precinct reduced to an indeterminate bushy carpet with some blocks protruding out of it.  

Looking out, I saw that the sky was a scene of perfectly blended shades of black and deep blue. The lack of stars in the scene above the horizon contrasted with the glowing veins crawling across the ground below me. A constellation of light spots pepper the ground: red, amber, green, white, and the distinctive shade of orange-yellow. I wonder if people call it “street-light orange”.  

The arteries of the city were still unclogged and the few drivers on the road were enjoying the smooth and easy drive. That could change very quickly in the coming hours, beginning with the appearance of service vehicles that will be preparing the city for the day ahead. But for now, the late sleepers and early risers get to enjoy the abundance of time and space in their city.  

I consider the idea that some people enjoy a city that never sleeps. But I much prefer it when it does, and when it still is.

○ ○ ○ ○ ○

Before I end this dispatch, just a couple more website stuff.

1) The “link in bio” phenomenon of Instagram is an inconvenience and I’ve created a workaround where I now have a page on my website to list all the links that I would like to share. So instead of a linktree link, there exists a page that is literally called “Link in Bio”.

2) I am in the process of reshuffling the website and for now, have stripped it down to its bare bones. I expect some work to be done to it in the coming months and in that period, do not be alarmed if it looks weird when you try to visit it.

Thank you for reading this far and all the support. Till the next time my words reach you again, be kind. Onwards.

– A

The words for grief

Hello you. This is Adib and some time back, you subscribed to Dispatches, a monthly letter that I write about our shared humanity and life in cities. It’s a new-ish format that I introduced a month ago and I appreciate you being here. However, if you already immediately regret that decision, you can unsubscribe here.

○ ○ ○ ○ ○


“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach,” wrote Joan Didion.

If I had read these words last year, it wouldn’t have made much sense. Just like all the other words written by those who had to live with the loss of their loved ones. In fact, in a conversation with a friend who himself is carrying the weight of grief, we talked about how most of us simply do not have the language for it. Many of us struggle to find the right words to express it and to comfort it, and yet our encounter with grief is inevitable.

Many weeks ago, I wrote about how I’ve struggled to describe how I’m feeling to others. And so in my search of trying to put words to this human experience, I have been reading the words of others. Reading these words made me feel connected to a universal truth of our shared humanity: that of loss, that of grief, and that of trying to find a way forward. 
 

○ ○ ○ ○ ○
 

“Here is what I have learned about Grief, though.

I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule.

Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.

The only way that I can “handle” Grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.

When Grief comes to visit me, it’s like being visited by a tsunami. I am given just enough warning to say, “Oh my god, this is happening RIGHT NOW,” and then I drop to the floor on my knees and let it rock me. How do you survive the tsunami of Grief? By being willing to experience it, without resistance.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, IG post on Rayya


○ ○ ○ ○ ○

“Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

– Joan Didion, Year of Magical Thinking


○ ○ ○ ○ ○

“The pain of the grief, that’s also a gift,” he said. “When you stop grieving is when you start losing contact with the person. But as long as you can grieve for her, then she will always feel very close. And so for me, actually, I welcome it. … Because then I feel much closer to her.” 

Eddie Chang at Storycorps


○ ○ ○ ○ ○

“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”

– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed


○ ○ ○ ○ ○

“That is what I’ve felt like all of these months, like I am groping about in the darkness, waking up in a world I hadn’t expected to occupy. But there is no way through it except through it.”

– Nora McInerny, No Happy Endings: A Memoir


○ ○ ○ ○ ○



On the topic of words, about a week ago, I wrote a post titled “100 days. 7 years.” in commemoration of a 100 days of Mizah’s passing which coincided with what was to be our 7th wedding anniversary. I offered a glimpse into life in that 100 days which has evolved from not being able to do nothing, to being able to do some things, and eventually a few new things. In very general terms, I am ‘better’ and have a lot to be grateful for but once again, these words are inadequate to explain how I am feeling now. But thanks to the community of grieving people out there who have had better success at it, enter the “Ball in the Box” analogy of grief: 

 

Imagine a box. There is a ball in it, and a “pain” button.

In the beginning, the ball is huge and it just keeps hitting the pain button. There is no way to control it and sometimes, it gets stuck on the button to release relentless pain.

Over time, the ball gets smaller. It hits the button less and less but when it does, it hurts just as bad. However, the ball does randomly hit that button when you least expect it, and there you are in pain again. 

For most people, the ball never really goes away. It might hit less and less, and one would have more time to recover between hits. But sometimes, the ball may unexpectedly increase in size for a while before shrinking back. And that’s just the way life is from now on.

Paraphrased & adapted from @Lauren Herschel on Twitter; first discovered via a FB post that was shared with me


Right now, as I type these words, the ball has been gradually shrinking. I am glad that I have the words of others who have had to go through this to help me along the past months and also what is to come. I am also very thankful for you for reading these words of mine. The grief that I write about is mine, but I’ve had many of you reach out to tell me that you feel it too. Thank you.

Ending, Beginning, Outside, Inside.

Endings & Beginnings.

Hello you, it has been a full two years since I signed up for a mailchimp account and sent out my first newsletter titled ‘Prologue’. It was a way to get back to writing thanks to the urge of my favourite human, and aptly, I launched it on her birthday. Today would have been her 34th, but 33rd was to be her last, and so this edition of the newsletter must carry the weight of an ending and a beginning at the same time.
 

I’ve only had the strength to write eleven newsletters over that two years, and my words over that period barely concealed the tragedies I was living in then. I am aware that there has been a lot of sad in my words over the last few months. I also recognise that reading my dealing with the fragility of humanity may be too much for some. So if you feel like this newsletter is no longer for you, I understand.
 

While I konmari-ed through the cloud of grief, I am now trying to Kintsugi my way to a new chapter. Just like the Japanese art of pottery repair by using gold, I am also picking up the pieces, trying to piece it together, and embracing the broken-ness of it all. My long walks is giving me some space to think, and some momentum to move forward. The warmth of family & friends have kept my faith & connection to humanity. The guidance from my therapist is giving me some light and courage on the hazy path. I am still at the beginning of my ‘recovery’ but my faith keeps me believing that there is a kind of good that will come out of all this at the end.


Outside & inside.

In my last email to you, I mentioned that I will be pondering about the future of this newsletter. I reviewed it from all angles and kept myself open to a complete overhaul, eventually leading me to these:

 1. My newsletters have always been in longform writing. I enjoy writing in this manner and I feel like it keeps things personal, honest, and human. This is the kind of email/letter that I would like to receive and with that, I plan to keep it this way. Its flexibility also leaves the door open for the occasional ‘segments’ that I may indulge on a whim.

So all this reading that you have to do? It’s here to stay. Future versions of this newsletter will retain this flowy texty character, which I think some of you do enjoy.

 2. I also reflected on the books, articles, and podcasts that I devour every day in an attempt to sieve out recurring topics across them. I wanted to see if there was a big arc that tied it all together. I was searching for something that could be compressed into a one-liner for a bio. Something that I can use to explain to others what I write about.

I listed the topics: love, faith, community, authenticity, mindfulness, technology, creativity, literature, cities, environment, design, politics, ethics, economics. There were too many. But vaguely, it seemed to gravitate nebulously towards two cores: Human & Urban. 

As I thought deeper about it, I saw how these two ideas – on its own, at its intersections, and its fringes – have always been the underlying themes of my work and my life. As an urbanist, I think a lot about making it more human, and having us humans at the centre of the process. As a human, I ponder on what being & living in our modern cities should and could be. To reference Pico Iyer, one could say that I am always shuttling between my human innerworld and my urban outerworld. It is from this in-between space that my words seem to emerge.



 3) The direction for my blog and newsletter has been gently swaying in the wind over the last two years. In #000, I wrote that “there is no plan” for this newsletter. After bumbling through a few hundred words over a few editions, I added a section in #006 called Fascinations which are “short writeups surrounding recent explorations and discovery around topics of interest”. Then in #009, I wrote of my hope for the blog to be “my little place on the internet that will serve as a public record of my learning, un-learning, and re-learning” and for the newsletter to be a compliment to it. Of course all that got a jolt in May 2020 when a hard reset happened to my life, the blog and newsletter. It left things up in the air and begs the question: Where will Adib go from here?

○ ○ ○ ○ ○

Beginnings

I have arrived at the conclusion that forward for my blog and newsletter will look like a one-man labour of love exploring questions about our shared humanity & urbanity. It’s always been there but it is for once, packed into a compact blurb.
 

This newsletter will continue to be called “Dispatches” and will be sent out monthly on the last Tuesday of every month. It will continue to be longform writing and feature behind-the-scenes thought processes bouncing in my head (like what you’ve just read), links to essays or blog posts that I’ve written lately, offer glimpses into personal projects (and in some way my life), and other miscellanies – all of it related to the my inquiry of being human and living in a built environment.


Perhaps all this may seem like a convoluted way of saying that little is changing except a little more focus and refinement to it all. It probably is, but in a time where nothing appears certain, I felt that I needed to do this and hopefully, give you a clearer reason to read my words. There’s just too much of life to live in this short time we all have, and I plan to respect the time and attention that you’ve afforded me.
 

So let’s start again from the beginning:
 

Hi, I’m Adib Jalal. This is “Dispatches”, my monthly longform newsletter about our shared humanity and life in cities. It is sent on the last Tuesday of every month.