2016: Love more, love better

I greatly believe in the transformative power of stories and words, which should come as no surprise seeing as I write them for a living (ha).

As far as tales go, my 2016 should qualify as a good one. There’s been a heck a lot of suspense and tension, a lot of tears and some milestones worth celebrating.

In a year full of surprises, I’m glad to be closing it with contemplation instead of melodrama. Here’s a collection of stories that have emerged from the past 365 days. Some hilarious, some cringeworthy. They all shaped my year.

Lights are so bright / but they never blind me

nyc-2

The day was June 8, the beginning of summer. The train I was on rolled into Grand Central Station and I had the widest grin on my face.

Welcome to New York – it’s been waiting for you
Welcome to New York
Welcome to New York

My Yale classmates laughed as I sang Taylor Swift’s hit out loud. We don’t know you, they chided, while enveloping me into a huge group hug.

WELCOME TO THE BIG APPLE! They screamed. The other passengers gave us dirty looks.

I grabbed my bags, struggled up the steps, and took a deep breath.

In many ways, I feel like I’ve waited for 2016 with bated breath. Waited for the messes of my life to make sense, waited for permission for life to begin, waited for a brand new adventure. After the events of the last two years, I’d become risk-averse, almost scared. I turned up to work terrified, went around hoping to be unnoticed, and that was the easiest way to cope.

This year’s been all about forcing myself out of the comfortable. Getting my ass kicked. Having my world crumble all around. Hitting a wall.

And knowing at the end of it all that it’s going to be okay.

New York has always been a city of contention, after I gave up a coveted internship with a multi-national firm in 2012. It remained so near yet so far, out of reach except in movies, postcards and wall art from Typo’s bargain bin.

I was browsing online one April night after an editor had given me some feedback when I stumbled upon the page for Thread at Yale, a journalism/storytelling conference at the Ivy League university. Thinking it was a long shot for me to get in, I applied and didn’t think I’d ever hear back.

On the day I turned 26, I got my acceptance letter and another email informing me that I’d been granted a partial scholarship.

My first instinct was to turn them down.

I was then lambasted with text messages all day with varying degrees of: ARE YOU CRAZY TO GIVE THIS UP? 

Truth is, yes. I probably was. But there were a thousand reasons to not accept: I was content to be home, it was less than a month away, I didn’t have enough money, and my classmates would be crazy talented whereas I would be this noob. I did not want to admit that I was terrified.

usa
Left a piece of my heart in Boston, too.

And yet, and yet. Dad offered to pay for my airticket. The hostel I wanted to put up in in Boston miraculously had beds available. Things just… fell into place miraculously.

Luggage in hand, I flew halfway around the world to learn from ex-NYT executive editor Jill Abramson, award-winning journalist Jake Halpern, and a faculty of crazy talented lecturers. My equally talented classmates hold bylines with NPR, Huffington Post, Time Out and Buzzfeed, among others.

And this all weighed on me when I arrived at New Haven’s Union Station. I nearly had a panic attack.

I felt incredibly small. People asked if English was my first language. I was the only girl from Singapore.

But after three days of lectures and intense workshopping (oh God), for the first time in a long time, I realised I could hold my own. I wasn’t just pretending anymore; faking it till you make it has some truth in it.

jill-abramson
Jill Abramson called on me to ask a question and I nearly died.

In all, I spent three days in Boston before Yale, and then four days in New York City. It was my second-ever solo trip, and friends jokingly said I should look for a husband while visiting Harvard (ha ha ha). I had countless cups of bad American coffee (Starbucks is golden) and spent an inordinate amount of time eating salads in parks.

But my favourite memories didn’t involve standing in the middle of Times Square, getting cheap tickets to Matilda (which was amazing, btw), or snapping semi-artistic shots of Brooklyn Bridge.

The moments that stood out: Overlooking the Charles River, wind in my hair, knowing that some things needed to be resolved in order to have resolve for the days ahead. Standing at the Top of the Rock, looking down at NYC thinking – none of this means anything if we aren’t pregnant with purpose. Having a lobster salad (I could afford lobster!) at Central Park, watching little kids play in the pond instead of their iPhones. Sitting at Boston’s Christopher Columbus Park, eating apple cider donuts and wondering why on earth God would bring me halfway around the world – there had to be some reason.

charles-river
Wind in my hair, I took a deep breath and let it go.

In the end, I understood that in this life, we need to have the right regrets. We may walk away from certain people, positions or places with a sinking feeling in our guts, yet if I believe we are indeed at the right place and at the right time, then the regrets are just that – they don’t have to weigh down on our hearts for the rest of our lives.

Saying goodbye to NYC back then never meant that I could never visit it, ever. It just meant pressing “pause” on a dream, and watching life unfold. It meant trusting that there is indeed a better plan.

On my very last day in the US of A, I stood in line outside Hillsong NYC waiting to attend church. We sang Chris Tomlin’s Good Good Father and I dissolved into tears.

Just months prior I was in Sydney for Colour Conference when that song came on, and I couldn’t open my mouth. I just couldn’t. The tears flowed, I crumpled, but I couldn’t sing them and mean it.

But on that summer day in New York City, in the Hammerstein Ballroom, among strangers, I once again teared as the opening chords to that song sounded. Arms held high I confidently sang:

Oh, I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like
But I’ve heard the tender whispers of love in the dead of night
And you tell me that you’re pleased
And that I’m never alone

You’re a Good, Good Father
It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am

Oh, and I’ve seen many searching for answers far and wide
But I know we’re all searching
For answers only you provide
‘Cause you know just what we need
Before we say a word

You’re a Good, Good Father
It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am
You are perfect in all of your ways

I returned home exhausted and sans a MacBook (which was stolen – another story altogether), but a few knots had been undone.

Thank you, Yale, for your incredible generosity. Thank you, Jake and Jill, for your encouragement. Thank you, fellow Threaders, for all your kind words.

yale-2
Fellow Threaders. You guys are the best.

That trip halfway around the world changed me more than you know.

A new life has begun

We landed in Tullamarine Airport on a dreary Melbourne summer day, typical of my favourite city in the entire world. It was pissing down rain, but I had a dinner appointment that I did not want to miss.

The fog was strangely apropos for the night, I thought. There was little clarity about what the night held, yet that wasn’t about to stop either of us.

After warm smiles and hollow laughs we ordered oysters kilpatrick, subpar pasta, and opened a gorgeous bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. I marveled at how some things really don’t change (for better or worse). We stayed out till too late, bought groceries for a homeless man, had an argument about said groceries, ate gelato drizzled with hot Nutella (Pidapipo’s still the best, by the way), asked some difficult questions and avoided some difficult ones too.

oysters-kilpatrick
“Some things don’t change,” you said. They don’t indeed.

This was my second visit back to my second home since I left for good in September 2014. It’s also the trip that gave me answers to questions I never dared ask, especially when I stubbornly held on to unfinished stories and the possibility of a sister life there.

I got to return to Melbourne twice in six weeks, a privilege not many have. The first was for the wedding of the year (#jkoneandonly!), and the second a girls’ trip after Colour Conference. Both times I got to experience snippets of life in Straya had I heeded an earnest request to stay all those years ago – pilates classes, crab noodle dinners, impromptu lunch dates and even popiah parties. My kids at church still remembered who I was. At times it felt like I never left.

brekkie-of-champignons
My very first meal in Melbourne after more than a year away: A glorious brunch from Jack B. Nimble.

But I did leave, and for all intents and purposes I was no longer a legitimate Melburnian. Where I once knew Carlton like the back of my hand, I got lost trying to find my way to Seven Seeds; I had to figure out which trams led where; I strolled past Lygon Street and couldn’t recognise half the shops.

Much as I’ve talked about life after Australia/a significant season, anyone who knows me knows I left a piece of my heart in Melbourne. I’m not sure I ever got it back.

And so it’s no surprise that on my final day in Australia this time around, I found myself not wanting to leave. The trip had a tone of finality to it; I knew in my gut that I would not be back for a long time, and even if I did, nothing would be the same.

I sat on the balcony of the Athenaeum Theatre the night before I was due to fly home, a place filled with so many memories, and silently bid the world’s most liveable city goodbye.

A part of me died that day, but as I’d soon learn, a death of this kind can only mean resurrection later on, simply because the life that God has given us will always make all things new – if only we allow it.

Maybe my heart had to break to learn a few things: Perhaps the past is really meant to be a place of reference, not residence. Perhaps it’s beneficial sometimes to walk away, and acknowledge it’s okay to become strangers again.

more-and-better
If only we dare to believe it’s true.

Where my dreams wait for me

singapore skyline 2

When I first moved back to Singapore on Sep 13, 2014, a dear friend told me it would take two years before I could wholeheartedly call it home.

She turned out to be right.

I was waiting for a moment that I’d feel Singaporean – not that I’d ever felt a kinship with this country – but it never came.

Instead, cliche as it sounds, it was about the little things: A S$6 bowl of Michelin-starred bak chor mee, sipping on cold-pressed guarapo with lots of lemon (sugarcane la, what guarapo), a subway system that almost always works (emphasis on almost), precious time spent with loved ones.

bcm
Tai Hwa bak chor mee. Worth the 1-hour wait.

It was about making conscious decisions to be present, rather than pine for a perfect life that does not exist. This was painful at times, to acknowledge where I am and where I am called to in this season. I’ve cried myself to sleep, missing Melbourne or Boston or some other city, fully knowing that I can’t live there no matter how much I wish I could.

But then I wake up and I see the country that was built on the heart, sweat and tears of our forefathers. The paths they carved out of necessity and love, even if they looked different back then. I also realise it is now up to us, to not leave our compassion behind in fighting the good fight. That this city is not infallible, it is balanced upon very delicate narratives that are tightly woven for very good reasons.

I may not agree with everything but I choose to see beyond. I guess that in itself is love of some kind.

I can look around now and wholeheartedly call this place home, this frustratingly beautiful city-state with all its modern conveniences and penchant for destroying history.
And I’m thankful.

Where feet may fail

July, August and September were hellish for me, for a variety of reasons. August was one of the craziest months in the news cycle, but on top of that, I made a bunch of missteps in both my personal and professional life that in hindsight, I wish I could take back. Needless to say, I disappointed a whole bunch of people along the way, none more so than myself.

Some days I felt like I was drowning. Other days, I was just dead inside. I cried until there were no more tears left; I talked myself hoarse when I wasn’t dead silent.

But even when everything was crumbling all around me, something else flourished – truth, covered by grace, friendship, and most important of all – growth. I learned  to answer the foundational call to love God, and if not Him, then to love myself in the best and worst of ways.

Walking in truth is never easy. I’ve always been someone who loves lying to herself – who prefers the pretty version of the story, who refuses to admit that there’s something wrong. I like to think that this is a form of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that if only I tell myself X enough, or post enough meaningful quotes in pretty calligraphy, then maybe – just maybe – I’ll be able to turn darkness into light.

autumn
Sometimes, we do touch the sky when our knees hit the ground.

But life doesn’t work that way, I think. The sugarcoating, no matter how much we try, gives way to bitterness when things come to a head. Why live at extremes when sometimes the best thing is to savour everything that’s bittersweet? (Dark chocolate and well-made cups of coffee happen to fall under that category, so yay)

So maybe the lesson of the season was this, to walk with my head high even when the world has fallen out from under me. To walk in the light, even when I don’t like myself very much. To trust the journey, but most of all, to trust that God is still good, that prayer is still the centre of life, that sunsets are still beautiful and that life is far from over.

And at the end of the day, to quote Richard Rohr: “My life is not about me; it is about God, and God is about love.”

Which then begs the question: This love that I speak of (and believe in), what is it? How can it be multiplied?

The passion that tore through hell like a rose

And so this shocker of a year finally ends. Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States. Britain is no longer part of the EU. Countries still fight for rights in the South China Sea. The global economy ain’t doing so great.

We all have had to deal with personal tragedies, and at times thirst for a different life.

This year, I’ve learned to pick up my sword and fight for the things I believe in. To fight for myself, even when I am drowning. To go back to my first loves: God, the local church, the Bible, as cliche as that combination may sound.

passion-x-purpose
Found in the most unexpected of places: A salad store in Boston’s Back Bay.

To time with friends, wine and cheese, and mochas on the weekends. To singing for youth church and hunting down a denim jacket (as that’s the band’s unofficial uniform).

Much as I’ve asked – many times – why life feels so damn long, I’ve come to realise that so long as I wake up to see another day, I’ll always be #onmission. On mission to better this world in ways both big and small, on mission to share good news (which could be a story about an ostrich running down Kuala Lumpur’s Federal Highway), on mission to live life with intention and purpose.

Before this year came to a close, I’ve had to contend with these questions:

Who am I?
What do I believe in?
Who do I allow to speak into my life?
What are some things I need to get rid of?

And the answers to those questions in itself are important, but more so because it gave me the chance to face my demons headfirst and come into my own. To believe that everything I ever dreamed of could be true. To admit that I have a long way to go, and see how far I have come.

And as 2017 rolls around, what do I want to carry?

Love.

I hope the shadows of this year will not be brought into the next, and as 2017 dawns, it is my prayer to love more, and love better.

Happy New Year, everyone. May the year ahead bring you joy, peace, and hope. May you walk into the next year with your head held high, ready to create a little bit of courage and wonder, to help soothe a world that desperately needs it.

may-love

Come 2017, may love be the last great act to shock the world.

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One Reply to “2016: Love more, love better”

  1. Dear D,

    So much has happened this year, and I deeply resonate with what you went through in 2016, only that you can express it better and more beautifully in words. God has given you the gift of writing, and you have definitely put it to great use particularly through your blog posts (I’m really encouraged and inspired by them). I pray that 2017 will be a year where God continues using you to bless others and to love, love others and Him, as He loves you.

    Love,
    Alicia

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