2014 in Retrospect

 

Bali, Indonesia, 2014.

Bali, Indonesia, 2014.

 

As 2014 draws to a close, I am filled with an awkward nostalgia, an almost wistful longing for something, or someone, that one has become fond of, and about to fall in love with, and yet, must now bid farewell to.

Standing now at the platform with my hand raised in mid-air, with the past year already snugly seated in the train carriage ready to be transported to the faraway archives of personal history that I would indubitably visit again someday, the images of our brief time together surface in my mind like an unravelling reel of film, captured as imperceptibly and as unassumingly as it had slipped into my life amid the lingering darkness of the year before.

If 2013 had been for me a year of endless questioning and trudging along long tunnels of obscurity, 2014 has emerged as the light illuminating the shadowy interiors, an unwavering companion as I transitioned from a precarious place to one of passion, pursuit, and luminescence.

Fuelling Fernweh: On Travelling

2014 has been a year in which travel – the act and art of which – had featured frequently and prominently. In a bid to assuage my desire for elsewhere, I embarked on nine trips across eight countries with friends old and new as well as my family and grandparents too, increasing the total number of countries to which I have travelled to a total of 47, spanning five continents. Simultaneously, it has also been a year in which many different groups of my friends from abroad visited Singapore, thereby allowing me to repeatedly become a traveller of my own country as well.

The Act of Travel

Each trip embarked on had been a journey in itself, enabling me to discover aspects of myself that I never knew existed, and also to fall deeper in love with the wondrous world in which we live. For one, experiencing for the first time the beauty of bioluminescence as we dipped our oars gently in the waters of the otherwise inky dark cave in the islands of Phuket was a stirring reminder of the vast array of secrets and immense splendour that continue to remain hidden in the rest of the universe waiting to be uncovered.

Perhaps, travel is indeed akin to an intense love affair that never finds an end. Why else would we experience the increased propensity to take risks with the charm of abandon especially as we travel, or feel such heightened sensitivity, moved by the ordinary things that make up the quotidian life of another? In 2014, I surrendered my being in the pursuit of new, virgin experiences – parasailing in Bali, river tracing in Taiwan, camel riding through the Sahara at sunset, and stone fruit picking while wandering through the expanse of farmland in Hokkaido. Batam as well as Paris and London were also revisited, for work and for travel respectively, and it was refreshing to observe how they added to, enhanced, and modified my first impressions and effusions.

Of the few sunrises and sunsets I have seen in 2014, the most beautiful sunrise had been in Siam Reap, Cambodia, as I stood within a mass of strangers huddled along the banks of the emancipated stream that wrapped around the Ang Kor Wat, watching as varying swathes of dark violet gradually gave way to the clear brightness of day; humanity bowing to nature, mind bowing to the susurrations of the heart. Two months on, I found my heart stolen while wandering about the quaint little medieval town of Mont Saint-Michel, as it enveloped me in its enchanting allure after a possibly magical sunset.

Yet, it is ironic how we seldom, if ever, witness the sunrises and sunsets in the places where we reside, but relentlessly pursue them in places that are foreign to us. Could this be fuelled by an invented notion of relative scarcity, as we reassure ourselves that the sunrises and sunsets in our home countries would always be there, unfailingly, whenever we wanted to view them? What if they were, but we no longer were?

The multiple plane tragedies in 2014 serve as a staggering and heart-wrenching reminder of the brevity of life, and the humbling state of our mortality. Earlier in May this year, I experienced my first real brush with death on a flight from Paris en route to Marrakesh. On a plummeting plane caught in the midst of a savage storm, I had contemplated my quarter century of existence and asked myself two questions:

  1. What would I have done differently in my life had I known I was going to die today?
  2. What would I do with my life henceforth if I miraculously managed to survive?

The answers came to me with a speed and lucidity that surprised me. It is strange how easily we forget the validity of our mortality in our everyday lives until it is, one day, shoved right in our faces. In the face of death, one then questions: why had I not known better all this while?

Our mortality thus serves as a sobering reminder that we should endeavour to live a life that is true to ourselves each and every single day, and never to leave to the backseat our fundamental need to wholeheartedly pursue our passions and dreams, to utter the words that are oftentimes kept so securely in our hearts, and to fully love the people that mean the world to us. If not now, there might never be a then.

 The Art of Travel

2014 has also been an introspective year in which I had the opportunity to explore several given assumptions in my life. From winning a travel writing competition in 2013 that allowed me to fly to multiple destinations without having to worry about flight costs, 2014 saw me having made it to the top 10 finalists in a travel competition whose prize entailed travelling around the world across six continents. While I did not eventually manage to travel around the world this year, the experience has been an insightful and exciting one.

Not only did I experience the overwhelming support from my loved ones (with friends rooting for me and helping me to canvass for votes even from Vienna which left me slightly teary eyed), the process of creating my entry video and attending the interview also allowed me to review, articulate, and reinforce the reasons as to why I travel.

Beyond asking the question of why, 2014 has been the year in which I began to truly explore the question of what – what makes a traveller? While my travels thus far have served to convince me of the incurability of my wanderlust, I have been intrigued by the romantic notion of Fernweh, a German word that literally translates to “far-sickness”, which encapsulates the condition where one feels a deep, intense longing for places faraway. Yet, could one only be conferred the title of a traveller only when one has traversed soil deemed as exotic? Displaced from foreign lands, could one not also be a traveller in one’s own home, within the same, familiar place in which one resides, each and every ordinary day?

 The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

– Marcel Proust

Two months ago, I was presented with the perfect opportunity to test that very hypothesis. As part of the programme for a writers’ residency, I went on a guided walking trail of the Kampong Glam district in Singapore. Despite having gone on several walking trails in various parts of Europe, this has been the first in my home country as an adult. Within a span of three hours, I had learnt more stories and histories behind seemingly ordinary objects and places within the district than I have had the entire year travelling along the blood vessels of my city-state.

Each unassuming space and article in our urban landscape holds within itself poignant narratives of time and people past, awaiting our discovery, if we only paused and ventured to uncover them. In my longing for elsewhere, the district posed me an incisive question that evening which left me ruminating on for days after: have you ever fully felt the beating pulse of the city in which you now live?

I came away from that evening with a stronger conviction than ever that the mark of a true traveller lies not in the places he has been, but rather, in one’s ability to travel with the imagination – to be able to continually employ new lenses through which to perceive the world around you, to find beauty and charm in the things of the quotidian, and most of all, to render the familiar unfamiliar, and to transform what was once pedestrian into that which is scintillating, stirring, and capable of intoxication.

Waltzing Words: On Writing

 A Celebratory Milestone

Besides travelling, I am immensely thankful to have had various opportunities this year to further pursue my writing in unprecedented ways. Among the highlights of 2014, one of the most significant was getting accepted into the Singapore National Arts Council’s Mentor Access Project 2014, the most established writing programme locally, and being the sole representative in the genre of creative non-fiction.

I am currently a quarter into the yearlong programme thus far, and the experience hitherto has been nothing short of incredible. From meeting with the other writers all brimming with such passion and energy at the first welcome tea session where we were each asked to do a short reading of our own works, be it poetry, prose, or a dialogue from a play, in all four languages, to the writers’ residency where a stimulating programme of targeted workshops, literary talks and activities were organised for us, I began to develop a deeper appreciation for the art of writing and the challenges of being a writer especially in the local context, and simultaneously, began to increasingly develop a sense of affinity and connectedness to the literary community.

Of these, my most memorable experience to date has to be my very first writing workshop where we each read aloud excerpts of our manuscript for critique, which turned out to be an extremely rewarding session that was conducted by Miguel Syjuco, an inspiring and sincere writer whose debut novel, Ilustrado, won the Man Asian Literary Prize. It was lovely to have also developed friendships with likeminded writers, with whom I have enjoyed many a thought-provoking conversation, attended literary events such as the Singapore Writers Festival, and simply hanging out and checking out our favourite book stores and cafes in town.

Ultimately, the best part of the programme thus far was, really, the way through which its suite of inspiring events and writing seminars offered me a glimpse into the permutations of my life that currently exist only in the alternate universe where I chose to pursue a degree in the liberal arts, or literature, or creative writing, and simultaneously transformed these permutations into possibilities.

 A First Year Anniversary

In July 2013, a year into entering the corporate world where the bulk of my work then entailed quantitative analysis and number crunching, I made the decision to consciously pursue and rediscover my passion for writing. With that goal, I began sharing my words across various platforms and with each piece penned, the voice within me grew stronger, louder, and more compelling.

In July 2014, I celebrated the first year anniversary of loveundwanderlust’s inception. On hindsight, my writing journey has been an immensely gratifying one that I had not expected to flourish so. It has been a year of much productive writing and a bonus was getting published on a variety of platforms including Elite Daily, StackStreetThe Culture-istThought Catalog, and Live Learn Evolve. 2014 also marked my foray into writing poetry, having completed my first online course with the IOWA International Writing Program on poetry writing.

Seeing my writing spark discussions, generate new ideas, and inspire others in different corners of the world greatly reaffirm the reasons as to why I write. I had also never imagined that I would one day receive personal letters from once strangers sharing with me the way in which my words deeply resonated with them, or form friendships through my writing, or receive invitations to write for various publications – but I did, and the joy from reading such words is ineffable.

In retrospect, one of the best decisions I had made in 2013 was definitely to begin writing again, as it has since opened so many new worlds and universes that now lie before me, whose existence I had been oblivious to before. My writing journey has been, and will continue to be, a live manifestation of the critical need to take deliberate pauses amid the frenzy of our everyday lives to contemplate the grander scheme of things, and to continuously evaluate and recaliberate our progress and direction towards our priorities and goals in life.

 Initiating Impact: On Working

It feels surreal to acknowledge that it has been 2.5 years since I first stepped into the corporate world as a young, idealistic, and starry-eyed individual, eager to make a positive difference and change the world for the betterment of humanity. I strongly believed then that work should be a meaningful pursuit – to create and effect change for what one is passionate for while employing and developing one’s strengths and competencies.

At this stage of my career, I am glad to know that I still hold strongly to this belief, and I hope, and shall do my best to ensure, that this is something that would never change – to strive to continually contribute to a community and society larger than myself, as well as to initiate impact in the ways that I am able to, such that one day in the near future, I am able to look back on my journey and witness the real impact of the accumulated changes that have been effected gradually but surely over the years.

While 2013 had been a tumultuous journey fraught with much challenges and uncertainties, I am mindful and greatly appreciative of the fact that it has, too, taught me many invaluable lessons that have well equipped me to become much more antifragile to new stressors and volatilities in my ever evolving environment in the past year, and I believe that continuously practising the art of successful suffering would only serve me well as I strive on in my journey ahead.

With the glorious gift of hindsight, I am indescribably glad to have persevered on through the seemingly interminable, dark tunnels of the year before, and am immeasurably thankful for the support of all my loved ones, especially my friends at work, who have always been there for me, giving me the courage and encouragement to carry on in times of fragility and vulnerability, and sharing my happiness and accomplishments with me this year as I step into the light at the end of the tunnel, and embark on an exciting, new journey ahead.

Embracing Luminescence: On Language, Love, and All Else

In all, 2014 has been a year filled with much light and luminescence, barring the sporadic yet necessary bouts of pitch darkness for good measure. Where the first part of the year saw my weekends mostly filled with flute lessons, reading, and learning Spanish in the hopes of reading and understanding Neruda’s poetry in its original language someday, in the last quarter, I am glad to have resumed my German lessons after a three year hiatus since returning from Vienna.

My reunion with the language is akin to meeting a long-lost lover with whom I am now creating new memories and special moments, while simultaneously reigniting the old, and who is now gradually uncovering to me the alluring secrets of a vast, new world that had been blanketed by an opaque veil before. It has also been a particularly special experience learning the language this time, due to a collection of varying reasons. More notably, the year has also seen me foraying into the foreign realm of deutsche Gedichte schrieben (German poetry writing), which was both a surprise and delight for me and some.

Most of all, in a series of serendipitous moments, 2014 has surprised me with a most wonderful gift for which I am ever so thankful, and shall henceforth hold dear in my heart. In a nutshell, I have absolutely no words to adequately express my gratitude and joy for all the people, opportunities, and wonders that I have been blessed with in 2014, and can only hope that each of you can feel it, through these words or otherwise.

2015 and Beyond

Contemplating the year past, I once again marvel at the speed at which the past 365 days have flown by. Simultaneously, it also makes one wonder if the years ahead would only pass us by with such alarming acceleration. The American philosopher William James once remarked on the increasing monotony of life as we age, declaring that “the same space of time seems shorter as we grow older, [for] each passing year converts some of our experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all.”

Yet, regardless of how quickly time may pass us by, I hope – and strive – for the childlike alacrity and wonder within our beings to never subside nor dissipate as the days gradually accumulate in our lifetimes, and as we continue to pursue our dreams and passions well into 2015 and beyond. May each coming year bring with it new adventures, new discoveries, and new pursuits, and may we learn to perceive each experience with fresh lenses and newfound novelty, never allowing them to be relegated to the realms of prosaic routine.

I shall now end off once again with my favourite lines from Neil Gaiman – because they remain a timeless truth – and wish for us all to step into the unknown that is 2015 with bravery, happiness, and a heart full of love.

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously. Don’t forget to make some art – write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself. 

 

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

– Agnes Chew

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