How to be Surprised: When You Get a Sign, Forget the Bucket List
Like any other traveller, I have a bucket list. Not physically written down up until recently, but I’ve had it since I was a teenager. All the awesome places are there, places of outstanding natural beauty, relics and ruins of past civilisations, stunningly beautiful landmarks.
The list ebbed and flowed through the years, as my interests changed, expanded, or contracted. But the bucket list was considered for major travel decisions.
The Universe ordered me to Barnsley. No, seriously.
Near the beginning of my Blue Period travelling, I did not exactly know what I was supposed to be doing with this new start. I just had a vague thought that perhaps I should simply travel more frequently. I guess the idea is that if I trained to do it, then it gets easier to deal with my swing between wanderlust and inertia.
So I assigned myself travel every long weekend I had, linking up public holidays when I had to. Short trips, one Malaysian state at a time. (By and by I will write stories from these destinations). Next up was Penang.
I was still working full time that year so my days off were precious. I intended to try out volunteering as well, and had applied for a program (I ended up going on two that year). This will eat up a chunk of leave days. While I looked forward to going to Penang early that year,
the universe one of my oldest friends brought up the subject of Barnsley.
Please come with me
A lot of my friends are doctors. Why? [Insert Asian stereotype]. Or watch 3 Idiots, it’s amazing. (Don’t worry, there are subtitles and you can follow it ok if you only know English.)
One of them had yet to pass some super-tough medical examination of some kind that qualifies her to become a specialist. Or something. It’s quite common to fail several times. She was gearing up for her next attempt, and the place where she could sit it next, was – of all places – Barnsley, England. She would not have her family with her. But she didn’t like going alone, since she does not travel very much.
But I do. So she asked me to keep her company for the two weeks she would be there. She planned to attend a short medical course at a Manchester hospital first, then move to Barnsley, have her study days, and take the exam.
But seriously, Barnsley?? That is so not on the bucket list! Neither is Manchester – and besides, I’ve been. I struggled between my loyalty to my friend, and having to spend vacation days on Barnsley. I told her I’d think about it, that I’m focused on my series of travels first. Focused on Penang.
The Universe followed me to Penang
In Penang I received news that the last chapter in my life, the one that began the dark period before the Blue Period, was formally closed. Travel in this period had a surreal feel, by the way. Like I was present and not present at the same time. Like my mind is fused somewhere else and it’s entangled. In superposition.
Anyway that day I ended up at a beach, at the far end of the Penang State Park. It looked like it was going to pour with rain, and I was contemplating the hike back through the forest. There was a good chance of being caught in the thunderstorm.
At this point a park ranger greeted me and asked if I might want a lift back to the entrance. He was off duty and needed to go home anyway. A buddy of his was bringing a boat round soon. Sometimes there would be boatmen to ferry tourists back. I quickly said yes.
When the boat arrived, a bunch of other tourists – British, by the accent – begged to come on the boat as well. So everyone piled in. On the ride, we got to talking.
And they were
the universe medical students. From the very Manchester hospital my friend intended to visit.
“It’s a sign!”
I thought it was serendipitous and told my friend. She insisted it was a sign from the universe that I should come with her.
Once upon a time, I would have an even chance of shrugging it off.
But by then I knew what it was to have signs in the darkness; I’d just come out from it that way. I knew something of how to recognise them.
We could transfer straight to Manchester International. I remembered that I could pop over to Bangor to visit my alma mater and catch up with diaspora Malaysian friends who were still working there, while my friend attends the course in Manchester. I could hire a car. There are bound to be things around Barnsley.
It was done. I was about to put down precious vacation time, on Barnsley. The bucket list is out the window.
My boss-dad goes ballistic
My boss at the time, an Englishman, considered me basically like his daughter. When I told him that I would be taking time off to go to Barnsley, he went absolutely nuts. It surprised me. I mean, I get away with almost anything.
It turned out his objection, was the destination. It turned out that the reason the destination was objectionable, was that it was in “the North”. I reminded him I was until recently married to a Northerner. He cited that as evidence in favour of his case. He was convinced that I would somehow return attached to another unfit Northerner.
I knew it had affected him, to see me go through my difficult period. Nonetheless, I did not think it plausible to ‘pick up’ a man as if I caught the flu. I conscripted a colleague to my aid, who tried to understand what exactly was meant by “North”. She loaded Google Maps.
The Turtle of Acceptability
With a fervour only achievable by an Englishman who identifies as southerner but whose family originally came from the north, my boss co-operated. We drew a loose line around the area of England he deemed acceptable. He would consent if I happened to return with some guy from within this zone.
My colleague looked at it. She said, ‘Huh, it looks like a turtle.’ And so we christened it the Turtle of Acceptability [Turtle map not enclosed for diplomatic reasons]. My boss did not find it amusing. Barnsley is not in the Turtle.
But he still approved my leave.
The friend from Derbyshire
Once the major preparations were made, I looked up the area for things to do while my friend was studying. I mean, aside from bringing her awesome Indian food.
I couldn’t decide.
Another colleague had suggested the bluejohn cave in the Peak District, which appealed to me because I remembered the blue theme from Australia. I thought maybe I would look for bluebells. Internet search led me to Chesterfield.
And I remembered a colleague who sort of felt like a friend because we worked on an incredibly high pressure project together. These things can bond you like gunfire. Especially if you happen to be on the same wavelength already. One of the first things he told me, was that he came from Derbyshire, smack in the centre of England. From Chesterfield, to be exact.
It was he who suggested I rent the car from the airport and drive the scenic route to Barnsley (through Uppermill, Greenfield, and then Holmfirth), skipping the train entirely. And he who suggested places in the Peak District. Through the run-up to the trip, he tailored a rough itinerary for me to try out.
How to recognise a sign
Reams can be written about this question, and fail to convey the feeling once you understood. It’s like finally working out how to solve a subtle riddle, and then you can’t unsee the answer separate from the riddle. But you can’t quite show to someone who doesn’t understand yet, who hasn’t navigated the riddle, why the answer is the answer.
Many people will insist, there are no such thing as signs. Just like there are no miracles.
But for those readers who are curious and open-minded, read on.
The thing is, it’s not just about what it is, nor even how unlikely it is. But the credulous and the sceptic both fixate on these and think that’s what makes something a ‘sign’. Yet the former will get excited over random shapes on toast and vegetables. The latter insist nothing is a miracle because how it happens is understood. Or will be, someday.
They are both actually very like each other, in missing the point. [This is very common in humanity. You will find that the two camps most bitterly opposed to each other, actually think and believe in more similar ways than with anyone else but they will die before admitting it.]
Anyway, since every physical thing that happens in this universe, will obviously have a chain of causes that emanate from this universe, therefore the mechanics of its occurrence is explicable.
But not everything that is explainable the same way, has the same meaning.
Are you talking to me?
I can in theory explain how my throat is making the sounds and my brain formulate the message I am speaking, when I speak to you. But how do you know I’m speaking to you? How do you know if a voice is background conversation, a waiter querying an order in the nearby restaurant, a mother cautioning a child as you pass them by? They’re all voices, aren’t they?
But the one that is speaking to you, replying to you, timed for you – that’s how you know you’re being spoken to. That is, assuming you were listening.
If you are lucky enough to finally understand this, then you will automatically understand why it is not replicable. And why there’s no point in talking about it to people who haven’t got it yet.
There are some things in my life that I’ve felt, and can’t explain.
It is the honest truth that I’ve never felt home – not in the warm, rooted way that is described in literature, that utter belonging to a place down to its very soil and landscape and winds and waters. Though I feel more like it along shorelines, overall I still feel as a stranger, just passing through. It is so even in all the places I ‘ought’ to belong to, all the places that have valid claim to being home. But I believed it was a real feeling, because of how vividly it is described and how frequently it drives culture and behaviour all around the world.
I’ve travelled quite a bit too. Some of the places I’ve been are incredibly beautiful, others incredibly hospitable. Some have been cozy and others interesting. A few made me feel I should like to stay. But still, none of those felt home either. I could make some of them home, but they weren’t already home, in that inherited, visceral sense.
I’ve even been to many parts of Britain. Not just London, the sacred pilgrimage destination for Malaysians (hah, you thought it was Mecca?). But its countryside and its villages and towns. If anything, it should be the hamlets and villages of the northeast that have claim to feel like home. But though I’m exceptionally fond of England, none of those places felt like home either.
But for some reason I’ve skipped out the middle.
The Universe has a better bucket list
Call it what you will – Deity, Universe, the unfolding of the equation emanating from the Big Bang, the weave that connects consciousness. I don’t really care.
But if ever the Universe steps in and firmly suggest somewhere to go, check your values, decide based on the noblest of those, and ditch your bucket list. I chose based on loyalty to my friend, and ended up in Barnsley and Derbyshire.
There is absolutely no reason for Derbyshire – of all places – to feel like home.
That it does, is among the profoundest, most inexplicable things in my life.
Tales from the non-home Derbyshire home:
Can English Bluebells Be Found in a Fading Season?
Hiking Monsal Dale: The Time When I Got Mobbed By Deadly Cows
Bakewell, and Getting Mugged By Vicious Swans
Chatsworth Treasures, and to Thine Own Self Be Blue
The Peculiarities of Derbyshire: Blue John and Well Dressing