Stranger in the woods

My list of undone and unfinished tasks continues to grow as I recently added a new title¬†to my list of unread books ūüďö ~ The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel.

It wouldn’t be difficult to identify the common threads that run through my reading list: nature, exploration, wilderness, walking, solitude.

Stranger in the city

I was born in a small country surrounded by city skyscrapers and man-made landscape. Our family activities and weekends were spent mostly in malls and cinemas. The only nature I knew was the botanic garden, the tree-lined avenues¬†and the weather. The highest hill stands at 163.63 metres (537 ft.) tall and I would hardly call that wilderness. My closest encounter with nature and outdoor activity was to get myself deliberately drenched in rain. It is a fast-paced, cosmopolitan city. There was hardly any rural life to speak of. The rural¬†was considered undesirable and outdated by modern standards, people would have scoff at the idea of living or working in the rural. In short, the city is the only way of life I knew and the default way of life I was encouraged to strive for.¬†And thus, I imagined myself grew up to be a¬†successful woman living in the city and working in a large corporate firm, confident, sociable and popular. This is far from reality and yes, I pictured myself sociable, even though I had difficulty making friends. This was why I chose a university in London to pursue my undergraduate degree without hesitation. If I was going to further my studies abroad, it had to be a city and preferably, the capital city. I did end up in¬†London eventually but I can hardly say I’ve experienced the city life for I was already quite a hermit back then and my reason? I was focused on my studies. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t get to explore much of London in my 3 years of study in the city. Nevertheless, I still harboured the thought that one day, I’m going to turn out successful and sociable. I¬†honestly thought that the social aspect¬†would come naturally after I graduated and embarked on my career. Not that I was unhappy to be alone, in fact, I’ve always been comfortable on my own but on the other hand, being alone doesn’t sit well with the society image of a high-flyer.¬†I didn’t know much about autism then. In hindsight, I’d say I was trying to¬†fit myself into society’s mold. When I moved to Hong Kong at the age of 24, I still believed that I was destined for the bustling city life and was determined to make the most of¬†the city for I regretted not making good use of my time in London to explore the city and the rest of the country.¬†Still, I¬†was adamant that I’d make plenty of new friends and lead an active social life. I started hiking.

Hiking provides a great opportunity for me to get up close and personal to nature and the wild side and the experience has changed me in subtle and profound ways. It invigorates my soul and senses like no man can. Funnily¬†enough, the more I hike, the more solitude I crave. Nature has the ability to reflect and bring out your true self whether you are aware or not. My diagnosis and understanding of autism later on put things into further perspective. It’s time to admit that I’m never going to become the sociable person I imagined myself to be. For nearly three decades, I tried to blend into the city and lived under the false sense of belonging but all along, I am a mere stranger in the city.

“I¬†took a walk in the woods and came up taller than the trees.” Henry David Thoreau

Stranger in the woods

In my¬†reading and armchair travelling, I often wondered what are the chances of encountering a deadly snake or spider in Australia or dingoes or leeches and ticks? What are the chances of encountering a bear if I’m hiking in the US? To be honest, it scares me although most books would point out that the chances of being killed by a wild animal are slim and advice people to exercise their common sense and leave wild animals alone. If anyone asks if I’m afraid to hike alone in the dark, to certain extent, I’m. But it’s a question of probability (depending on the location and circumstances etc) and a question of relative (I’m scared but my desire to hike alone is¬†even stronger). I guess it’d be akin¬†to asking whether¬†surfers are afraid of sharks in the ocean?

I was out on a night hike and¬†expected the trail to be quiet as it was after 9:30pm and especially after a day of rain. As I walked up to the Pinewood Battery historic site¬†(link opens in new tab), I stopped as I heard movements immediately¬†followed by the sight of an animal moving swiftly across the trail and towards the direction I was going. Despite my headlamp, I couldn’t make up what it was that just moved across my vision. It was the size of a big dog, could have been a feral dog or a lost dog but I didn’t hear it bark. Also, I thought the animal looked stout and¬†‘thicker’ than a dog, could have been a wild boar. I immediately thought what are the chances of running into a wild boar on Hong Kong Island? Wild boars are common in Hong Kong but mostly found¬†in the New Territories region although they have been sighted on Hong Kong Island too. Whether it was a dog or a wild boar, I was certain that the animal was scared and wanted to avoid me as much as I was scared and wanted to avoid it too. At this point, I could either press on ahead without any idea where the animal went or retraced my steps back. Common sense and a cowardly mind told me that I should retrace my steps back. While it presented no immediate danger, I didn’t want to provoke it or made it felt threatened. In addition, my intent was merely to spend time alone, it didn’t matter whether or not I got up to the peak. Tracing my steps back down, I was amused that since I’ve started night hiking, no two nights were the same, each hike was¬†a new different experience. But then, I haven’t started night hiking for long. On my way down towards a pavilion, I was once again alerted to movements in the bush. It was a much smaller animal compared to the one I just saw, about the size of a duck or goose and feathery, moving¬†into the bush. If they were birds,¬†it must be quite a¬†big (medium sized) bird. It was a strange interesting night, mysterious, even creepy! The woods is very much alive in the dark and I wondered if the rain earlier had anything to do with my unusual encounter.

Even though I was by myself, I was aware that I’m sharing the trail with numerous living beings at the same time. When I think about how I felt when someone intrudes my solitude, I¬†felt a sense of guilt¬†for intruding their habitat. I was the intruder and the stranger, thankful to nature¬†for tolerating my presence.

“I love nature, I love the landscape, because it is so sincere. It never cheats me. It never jests. It is cheerfully, musically earnest.” Henry David Thoreau

In the¬†British tv series, New Lives in the Wild,¬†presenter Ben Fogle travels around the world to meet people who have given up the rat race to start a new life in some of the wildest and most remote places on earth. I watched the series with interest and admiration for these people. I also know that my¬†notion of wilderness will never match up to their living off the grid raw wilderness lifestyle. I simply lack the skills to do so. But I am content to leave the city behind for a more rural lifestyle, just as the¬†Walden woods wasn’t that remote from civilisation.

There is a saying that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. I sometimes feel like a fish that has learned how to climb a tree poorly but doesn’t know¬†how to swim.

How much time do I have left before it’s game over?

This is a¬†game I’ve been playing for a while. The aim of the game is simple enough: in order to survive, I must avoid stressors that might trigger¬†a sensory overload. If I fail to avoid the stressors, I put my life at risk of a sensory overload. Oh yes, it is potentially lethal. I haven’t thought of a name but F Off seems apt.

Rules of the game¬†(current version is HK-17): To stay alive, I must avoid stressors that trigger a sensory overload.¬†For each stressor I come into contact with, my lifespan is shortened by a day. Examples of stressors and things to watch out for include: loud and noisy environments; long line up; physical contact with people; people not looking where they’re going; people who stand or sit too close; getting poked by people’s umbrellas; people obstructing the way with their luggage; people blocking the way generally; people using selfie sticks or pointing their fingers without paying attention to where they’re pointing; kids yelling and running about; people who smell like they’ve just smoked a whole pack of cigarette or haven’t showered for a week; people breaking into laughter; commute at peak hours; construction works; vehicles honking; the loud passenger in a bus or train carriage; pedestrians talking enthusiastically behind me I can’t wave away their voices; stuck in a packed elevator especially a packed elevator in the campus full of¬†noisy students babbling¬†across my face etc. The list is not meant to be exhaustive. In any event, each time I’m out and with all the stress, anxiety and mental effort, I feel as though my lifespan has been shortened by a year. Going out for a hike is considered a risk event¬†which brings no more than a momentarily psychological relief. I can earn lives by going on a holiday or getting a tattoo. I don’t rule out that most of the stressors that might trigger a sensory overload are also manifestations of my misanthropic tendencies or hypersensitivities to the human species. Yes, the rules are arbitrary, so is life.

If the human average life expectancy is 80 years, how many days or even years have been taken away from me and how much time do I have left?

Featured image: Thomas Hawk via Flickr creative commons


The curse of the Maneki Neko: Haunted spirits in the dark

This is part two of a two-part post on my autistic dilemma, describing two separate events (mundane details of my boring life) that took place on the same day, 28th of March 2017. 

My heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude undisturbed. It is just another way of saying my heart longs for a place where I can enjoy the company of people. 

I used to hike every weekends in a¬†hiking group for 1-2 years.¬†When I first joined, there were around 10-20 people in each hike. Gradually, the group expanded (working my magic again) and the number of hikers grew. When I left, it wasn’t uncommon to see more than 40 hikers in a hike, it was getting too big for my liking. I was known then for being a fast hiker and I thought so too but after leaving the group, I realised that was an illusion. I appeared fast because I didn’t stop to engage in small talk, I pushed myself to go fast so I didn’t have to be stuck in between hikers where I’d be forced to listen, if not participate,¬†in their¬†conversation. Moreover,¬†with a big group like this, there was bound to be politics and as the group continues to grow, the (moral) pressure to socialise increased. It wasn’t about hiking anymore. We all¬†wanted to¬†have fun hiking but my idea of fun does not include socialising. Eventually, I removed myself from the group because our objectives no longer matched, I wasn’t enjoying myself¬†and¬†people were starting to wear me out.

After that, I hiked on and off. There was a period for about a year or so where I’d hike with a friend every Saturday until there came a point I felt the trail was getting more crowded by each week. The feeling was mutual, it wasn’t my hallucination. During one of those hikes, the human traffic was exceptionally heavy. I was going uphill¬†and short¬†of breath which meant I was stuck in the middle of the traffic and couldn’t go any faster myself. When I finally hit flat ground, I sprinted my way down, playing repeatedly¬†in my mind the chorus to Helen Reddy’s Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) ~ “Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone…” After that traumatised experience (nope, no exaggerate, I was traumatised), I stopped regular hiking again. It takes too much effort to head outside (for any reason), it feels like entering a war zone, my mood fluctuates so much being constantly in a fight or flight mode, I’m wreaking havoc on my mind and body, I decide my priority is to avoid the trigger. Even if I can’t avoid people¬†completely, the best I could do is to reduce as much stress as possible associated with leaving the house. I became a hermit. And to certain extent, I did feel better, my mood became more stable (although subject to the ‘cooperation’ and considerateness of neighbours) and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not going out. I enjoy the comfort of an indoor lifestyle as much as I enjoy walking in nature. I hold¬†a record of not leaving the flat for 15 days and I’m secretly¬†proud of it.ūüėĀ

More recently, I have a new found hobby, or more accurately, I’ve found a way to engage in and enjoy hiking again, or so I thought.¬†I discovered the joy of night hiking. On a ‘good’ night, I could climb up to the top of the peak and find myself alone, smiling and thinking this is true bliss. The night is quieter and louder at the same time. It is louder because without human distraction, I’m paying more attention to nature, the frogs croaking, the squeaking bamboos, the ever changing clouds, the colour of the sky etc, sounds and sights I’m still discovering which I have overlooked in the past because I was always either too busy trying to get away from people or in a haste to get back home before the rush hour. The night not only brings a new perspective but also brings me closer to nature.* And each time I write about nature, I’m putting my writing skills, vocabulary and knowledge to test and shame, my words (and pictures) can never do justice to her beauty.

The week I came back from Singapore, I was looking forward to be back on the night trails. I was disappointed when I saw someone else¬†at the hill top¬†but¬†the beauty of the night was so alluring, I wasn’t ready¬†to give up my new found hobby just yet simply because I saw one individual on the top. On the evening of March, 28th and after my grocery trip, I went back up the trails, starting at an even later time, hoping the later the lesser people. Weather was good, even though there were clouds, I could still see a few stars. I reached a spot where I saw joss paper lying around on the ground. Then I remembered that the Ching Ming Festival is just around the corner (a Chinese tradition paying respects to¬†their ancestors). I let my imaginations run wild, thinking of the dark spirits that must be following¬†me. I’d soon realise¬†that I’ve jinxed myself.

Before climbing up the¬†peak, I stopped to take some photos. Being a novice inexperienced photographer, I spent a considerable amount of time, trial and error, to take a decent photo. About 10 minutes later, I saw bright lights and heard noises approaching. It was happening again. They have found me¬†and were coming after me. Soon after, they appeared and my fears were confirmed, not just one or two of them, they were in a group, there must be at least 10 or more. I wanted to scream.¬†They just won’t leave me alone, won’t they! I thought I found the solution to avoiding the day crowd. I was wrong again.

I wasn’t going to climb the peak in that condition so I escaped and¬†returned to the site with the joss paper where I could be on my own and hopefully, remained undisturbed. The thought of¬†spending time with spirits might even sound more¬†appealing. There and further down the trail heading towards home, I was finally on my own, as I watched in amaze the night sky, the moving clouds and the intermittent stars. It was a beautiful night. But at the same time, I’m starting to appreciate bad weather¬†~ those cold wintry windy evenings and rainy misty days which might deter some hikers. It reminded me of those days in school, I’d talk to the rain like I’d sit and admire the sky now. I was known amongst my classmates for walking in the rain. People leave me alone when I walked in the rain. Walking back home, I started humming, not because I was scared, my mood turned for the better, I was actually happy. I’m measuring happiness by the amount of time I got to spend on my own undisturbed by the sound, view and sight of people.¬†I’m not sure if there is such a thing as an overdose of dopamine but when I was back home, I was hyper and elated.

29th March 2017 – Is this alexithymia?
I woke up the next day confused because I wasn’t sure what kind of a day it was and how I felt about the day before. I can describe the events and how they made me feel separately (angry, annoyed, anxious, stressed, happy etc) but as a whole, I’m confused. I can’t forget the panic at the supermarket and I can’t forget the annoyance at the bottom of the peak but there was also the elation towards the end. It was a day of extreme mood swing, I’ve lose my equilibrium.

Autistic Dilemma
I feel torn between two lovers ~ the comforts of staying in¬†and the healing power of nature. Time and again, my interest and solitude is interrupted¬†by people who get in the way.¬†My heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude, undisturbed by people. No doubt¬†I love my solitude but I didn’t become a recluse because I love my solitude so much I want to remove myself away completely from people. I become a recluse because the world outside is too loud and populated for me to enjoy.

When I say my heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude undisturbed, it is just another way of saying my heart longs for a place where I can enjoy the company of people. 

*Postscript: After posting this, I read a news article about Henry Thoreau. It brought a smile to my face when I read the following, which is exactly what I was trying to describe:

‚ÄúThoreau‚Äôs idea of walking was to be totally immersed in a place, really paying attention, getting to know it well,‚ÄĚ says historian Jayne Gordon. ‚ÄúHe wasn‚Äôt out to make speed records or to exercise as we know it. He often walked the same routes and felt you can always find new things to fill you with wonder if you allow yourself to slow down, be awake, present, and alive.‚Ä̬†

Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress), Helen Reddy (chorus begins at 0:40)

Related posts:
The curse of the Maneki Neko (March 30, 2017)
First a wishy-washy then a pantywaist (November 13, 2016)
Supporting a sensory and solitude friendly environment (October 31, 2016)
Walking in the rain (March, 7 2016)

Related news report:
Upturn in hiking has a downside, as solitude becomes increasingly hard to find

The curse of the Maneki Neko

This is part one of a two-part post on my autistic dilemma, describing two separate events (mundane details of my boring life) that took place on the same day, 28th of March 2017. 

For a long time, I suspect myself to¬†have some kind of superpower. I seem to possess¬†the ability to draw crowd to places I frequented, attracting people like magnet. I could be the Maneki Neko in human form, the beckoning cat commonly found in shops in Japan and parts of Asia, which is meant to bring good fortune and business. Either that or it’s a conspiracy theory, I’m paranoid about people following me wherever I go (I imagine people talking behind my back,¬†“She loves this place/She loves going there, let’s start doing the same to annoy her!”)¬†“I knew it, the world is out to get me!!”¬†Superpower or conspiracy, it seems I’m haunted and¬†cursed! (If only I have the power of the Hulk, there is so much anger in me I could turn that rage into something useful.)

If you are autistic or have a family member who is autistic, chances are you’ll appreciate that shopping (in malls) is hardly therapeutic at all. To avoid the stress and sensory overload, you’d have devised a set of guidelines covering details such as where and when to shop to help plan¬†and make your trip as stress-free as possible. When is the best time to frequent the malls and grocery stores? What are the means of transportation? How long does it take to get there? How much time do you have? etc. Some hours and days are to be avoided at all cost. Some places are to be avoided at all hours. In essence, “to go out or not” is a decision that warrants thoughtful consideration, a¬†cost-benefit analysis. These are planned carefully and purposefully.

I’m fortunate my present¬†job¬†doesn’t require me to be confined in an office from 9am to 6pm. Most days, I can arrange my own time. I tend to make use of this flexibility to run errands during office hours on weekdays. I rarely go out on weekends anymore. I do my grocery shopping on weekdays and there are certain times I’ll avoid such as the morning hours when it’d be populated with housewives and domestic helpers preparing¬†for the day (I’m not even a morning person to begin with), the lunch time hours and the after work hours. I tend to visit between 2pm to 5pm. Occasionally, it turned out to be busier than I expected but was still tolerable. While there are several supermarkets near¬†my place, the one I preferred and¬†most frequented¬†is the largest one and the only one that provides self-service checkout counters, which would come in¬†useful in the event there is a long queue for the manned tills. I notice that most customers here prefer and would rather queue for the manned tills, hence the self-service counters tend to be empty (which provides a quick escape).

I was out during the day to pick up something from the campus and to mail a letter, and I might as well make use of the day to do my grocery shopping. On my way to the campus and in my anxiety to overtake the cigarette smoke of the pedestrian in front of me, I forgot about the letter I was going to mail and missed the posting box but no big deal, I will walk past again on my way back.

Leaving the campus to the supermarket, it was around 4:30pm. The first thing I noticed was the exceptionally long queue at the manned tills. My initial reaction was bewilderment and my first thoughts were, “Is it a public holiday? Easter? No it can’t be. Is it a school holiday?¬†What’s the special occasion?” I haven’t been to this particular supermarket for about a month but I’ve been here countless times in the past at around the same time¬†during the weekday and it has never been that crowded. Even the self-service checkouts¬†which tended to be empty were in use (although there was no queue for that).¬†The moment I saw the line, my heart sank, my day was ruined and panic started to set in. I have a habit of calculating the¬†expenses in my head as I shop¬†but at that moment, my mind started¬†to shut down and all I could think of was an escape plan (Grab, Pay, Go). I quickly grabbed¬†whatever I saw and needed, pay¬†at the self-service checkouts and dashed off¬†go.

JUST A REGULAR WEEKDAY? Sorry for the quality of images, they were taken with my cheap phone

Leaving the supermarket, I can’t wait to get back home. When¬†I reached home and opened my backpack, I saw the letter that I was supposed to mail still tucked in my bag. Anxiety and stress can make someone forgetful ūüėā

Autistic Dilemma
After this incidence, I’m starting to contemplate online grocery shopping although I have the following concerns with online shopping and delivery. First, quality concerns especially fresh food. Second, I would have to buy in large quantities if I want to save delivery costs. Third, if I have a large quantity of food in my flat, I will be¬†tempted to indulge myself in binge eating or comfort eating. Fourth, I hate not knowing the exact time my goods will be delivered. If I’m told that my goods will be delivered between a certain time period (say between¬†2-6pm), my fidgety mind would be pre-occupied from the morning of the scheduled delivery date, anticipating the time it’d arrive and looking out for any missed calls. The lack of control with online delivery is another¬†kind of anxiety. Shopping doesn’t come easy when you are on the spectrum!¬†To be continued…