“When things get back to normal…”

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard this phrase. It still hasn’t hit most of us that things are not going to get back to normal. It’s been a lot to cope with mentally, hasn’t it?

We’re all walking around half-faceless. I realised the other day that I have no idea what the folks in my office building actually look like. I’ve never seen their faces. And these are folks whom I greet and make small talk with everyday. All I see are their eyes and their hairdo.

We can’t hang out with our friends the way we used to. Our communication is largely digital and distanced. We’re losing that sense of connection we all crave as humans. But perhaps we were already losing it well-before COVID-19 spread across the world and multiplied like crazy.

We once lived as extended families in one household where several generations lived together under one roof. Then, we became nuclear families where mum and dad had the sole responsibility for raising us. If both our parents worked, we found ourselves alone–being raised by teachers and caretakers. And then, when we left home–if we left home, that is–we moved into a single-person household and spent most of our time at work, completely neglecting our homes. I personally experienced this three-wave transition during the course of my life. It was a transition from a clan-based mentality to an individualistic and insular mentality.

And then came COVID: the virus we incessantly and conveniently blame for all the maladies in our lives and in our world. The truth is, COVID only further magnified the trend that was already well on its way.

A lot of people don’t feel the need to study history or even their own heritage, and perhaps, past a certain point, it even has absolutely no relevance to our lives. I’ve heard stories of fortune-seekers of old who could receive a passport upon disembarkation at port cities. It doesn’t work that way anymore. There is a myriad of red tape and paperwork to get through before we can officially move anywhere. So why bother knowing how things were when it doesn’t apply to us anymore?

My answer is that it teaches us to contemplate the human experience as more than just a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ and ‘you-only-live-once’ experience. You realise how similar you are to the people who lived before you were born. Our deepest yearnings and needs haven’t changed at all.

I wrote my second novel The Merchant of Stories between 2018-2019. I travelled extensively in the years prior to the border closures and lockdowns. And even before that, I had spent over a decade globetrotting and gazing at the horizon as I dreamt of the next great adventure.

A colleague of mine always chides me whenever he sees me staring out at the ocean and wondering, “What’s next?”

Is it a habit of mine or a longing that won’t be quashed?

Since 2019, I’ve been having adventures in my home city of Singapore. A day trip here, a staycation there. With each footstep and each adventure, the city reroots itself into my soul as though I had never left.

Was I really that wide-eyed girl and that devil-may-care traveller?

Regardless of what a plant or tree looks like above the earth, if you look at the vast network beneath the earth–it all kind of looks the same. A mangled mess. A sunflower’s roots aren’t too different to a tree’s roots in terms of structural appearance. It looks like the veins and capillaries of a human body. A plant needs to have roots to draw nutrients from the soil where it is planted.

It is the same story with the places where we go and perhaps even immigrate to. In an age where most of us are grounded, we need to draw strength from our roots. We need to reconnect–perhaps with the Earth herself–before we can even begin connecting with anyone else.

At the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam, Singapore

Despite the border closures, the movement of people continue on and onwards. They are largely people returning to their homelands or expatriates that have left their host countries. Folk who thought they were venturing forth and further into the next great globetrotting adventure either found themselves suddenly settling down, returning to their roots or feeling the urge to plant new ones.

A lot of uprooting has taken place during this period. Businesses that have lasted for as long as you can remember have vanished. Businesses which once boasted lines that stretched out the door are nowhere to be seen. Some businesses have proved their ability to withstand and survive, even during challenging times such as this one. Other businesses that never would have seen the light of day have sprung up out of nowhere.

The truth is, a crisis–especially one on such a large scale–leaves no one untouched and no stone unturned. We have all been affected by it. And we will continue to be affected by it.

We can all forget about going back to normal. We can all forget about being who we were before the crisis came down. We are new people now. We are people who didn’t exist before COVID-19 came; and we are people who will be altered, changed and transformed forever by the time this crisis ends.

The only thing we can do, when all our best-laid plans go up in smoke, is to trust that Life has a plan for us. After all, it is Life who created us, and to whom we must all inevitably and eventually return.

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