The first time it happened, I didn’t even realize what I had done.
“You just KILLED a SNAIL,” Sonia declared, raising her eyebrows in reprimand.
It slowly dawned on me that the crunch under my right foot was not, in fact, a giant dry leaf. I cringed in horror as I realized that I’d stepped – no, stomped (being lightfooted is not one of my strengths) – on a large meandering snail that was minding its own business.
A snail shell acts to protect the snail’s body, including its heart and organs; it helps to retain the snail’s moisture. While the shell, which can be compared to a human’s nail, can still serve its purpose despite small cracks and holes, when it is crushed completely…the snail can dry out and die.
So when I realized that I had killed a snail, not just that first night, but a few more sickening, unexpected, dreadful “crunch” sounds after that, I vowed to become more careful. I began looking at the ground more as I went out on my nighttime runs, scanning the shadows on the sidewalk and attempting to navigate what felt like a snail landmine.
Frankly speaking, I feel like I’ve become quite the expert navigator over these past few months. I’ve been constantly navigating around my work, my relationships, my thoughts, cognizant of the fragility of it all. It feels exactly like stepping on a snail shell: if I don’t pay attention, I move so quickly through each day, and before I know it, I’ve broken a shell that I didn’t even see in front of me. And sometimes when the shell is broken, what’s underneath gets exposed: a heart that’s fighting hard as hell to make it through this objectively challenging time, refusing to become drained, daring to find purpose, striving to survive.
In fact, it feels like there have been so many so-called snails on this recent path, each with a shell more delicate than the next. It started, of course, when the rising COVID cases finally triggered the circuit breaker (read: lockdown) in Singapore. Week after week, we made the best of Zoom classes; some of us by sleeping, others of us by chatting more on Telegram, all of us – at the time – daring to hope that an end was in sight. I navigated this the best way I knew how: by deep-diving into relationships, engaging in endless walks and Zoom catchups and Telegram messages. To me, the value of my MBA experience was teetering on this fine line between tragically wasted and necessarily redesigned. I chose the latter because it empowered me; in creating my own joy and carefully selecting my surroundings, I softened the blow of this less-than-ideal year – although I acknowledged that, at any moment, this thin shield might be broken, and the crushing weight of a broken year might come crashing down.
Every day of these past three months, I have understood this fact: if I don’t navigate this time carefully, intentionally, gently, it is too easy for something fragile to be broken, and these days, everything feels pretty freaking fragile. The spirits of my classmates, as we repeat grim conversations about this seemingly endless circuit breaker and its impact on our MBA. The relationships we’ve developed, as people make decisions about staying or going, truncating friendships that perhaps might’ve blossomed in a different time. And even – especially? – the impressions we’ve built of each other, to each other: with limited physical interaction and heightened emotional tensions, impressions have become particularly fragile as it is harder to give generous assumptions and easier to just judge. Finally, the farewells: delicately crafting each goodbye to adequately honor the friendship, enough so that the goodbye is meaningful, but not so much that it is too painful.
The fragility is apparent in the plans of my friends, who smile through the disappointment as they postpone weddings to next year and move baby showers online. It manifests in how quickly my eyes well up when I start missing the people I should miss, and also missing the people I shouldn’t. It’s present in conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement, as I find myself tiptoeing and wordsmithing despite knowing that it’s not about me. It shows in our reactions to the movement itself: the tears we’ve shed from oceans away, frustrated that no amount of donations or discussions will bring change about quickly enough, pained that we can’t be back home to march alongside people we love.
I have been so focused on navigating these matters of the heart, recognizing that this is precisely what makes all of this so fragile: when you care about something deeply, you open your heart up to become particularly vulnerable, and tender, and exposed. It’s not about avoiding sadness, but about keeping the heart healthy so that it can continue to feel sadness, and joy, and disappointment, and hope, and most importantly of all, so that it can continue to care. So I continue to navigate through the landmine: whether it’s a snail’s shell or a delicate shield over my spirit, I’ll do what I can to keep it safe from being crushed. Because it’s worth the extra emotional labor to look out for what’s ahead, to be conscious of where I tread, ensuring that I can keep trudging along…even if it’s as slow as a snail.
Yesterday, I got off the phone with my grandparents and burst into tears, for no other reason than that I simply miss them so much and am desperate for China to open its borders so I can visit. “We miss you so much,” my grandfather said, “We keep counting how many more times we’ll get to see you. Maybe once, maybe a few more times. Who knows how long we’ll live.” For the first time in a long while, I was sent over the edge; no amount of careful navigation can save you from the heartbreak of loss, even if it’s hypothetical. And yet – even though I’m exhausted from all the emotions that have come with these past few months, I also feel stronger than ever, confident that I’ve kept my heart safe for the matters that matter, and that I will keep inching on until the end of this time.
Photo Credit: I spent an hour and a half outside looking for a snail to take a photo of, and I couldn’t find one on the one day that I needed one (of course). A quick Google search taught me that they are actually nocturnal, so thanks Miao for having this photo at the ready!