Path Seekers

26 May 2019

Last week at the National Museum we met a bunch of cosplay enthusiasts. I asked the girl in costume if I could hold her trident. Without skipping a beat her photographer interjected, “Don’t! You’ll be disappointed.” 😆

The girl then went on to show us gamely that her trident which looked so solid and metallic was in reality made of a plastic mop handle and bits of plastic that had been painstakingly painted.

We all had a good laugh after that revelation and a sense of kinship was formed on the spot.

The spontaneity and liveliness of these people in the creative fields was so refreshing that I wanted to hug each of them.

Their passion to share their work & interests had me remembering a former student in my English class.

This student of mine was lanky and fair. Her cropped hair was jet black and her eyes were deep and dark, very much like a Manga character in that sense. She also spoke with a lisp, which she tried to hide by either speaking quickly or not at all.

Manga Girl was also a very good writer and often augmented her written work with amazing sketches of fantasy creatures that she imagined or copied from the manga comics she followed.

Her parents headed important agencies under which medical workers, researchers and scientists worked.

They worried constantly for their dreamy child whom they felt were the least promising of their brood.

At each parent-teacher meeting my observations on Manga Girl’s superb language mastery, rich imagination and sketching skills were diplomatically ignored. Instead, increasingly elaborate study plans & remediation follow up to help her focus on her science subjects were created.

After a while I learnt to keep quiet about my student’s natural gifts to avoid getting her into further trouble with her parents and teachers for dwelling too much on English and all that airy fairy stuff.

But no matter how hard or how long Manga Girl studied, her science grades remained disappointingly low.

Around that time she also seemed progressively more withdrawn.

One day I tried to comfort her by saying that her parents had meant well and their expectations were within their life experiences. I also asked her to keep writing & sketching because they gave her so much joy.

Manga Girl appreciated my mediative attempts. She assured me that she knew her parents loved her but also quietly added, “When my parents refuse to recognise my real abilities, it’s as if I don’t exist.”

At this point I had no platitudes left to make her feel better but just encouraged her to consider compiling all her creative pieces she did in class and in private into a portfolio of some sort, just in case.

For what purpose I didn’t dare tell her yet for fear of boosting her hope only to be disappointed. I knew that if they wanted, her parents had the means to get Manga Girl onto the path which THEY felt was good for her.

The following year she moved onto another class. We spoke now & then, mostly to show me things she wrote or drew.

When it was time to choose post secondary pathways, I suggested that she looked up polytechnic courses that offered animation studies or other creative but no less demanding options such as media studies etc.

She did and was shortlisted for an interview for animation studies.

She was smiling and rambling on as she shared the news with me in the school assembly square.

“What did your mom say?” I asked cautiously.

“She said she’ll take leave from work and drive me to the interview,” Manga Girl replied brightly, as joy overflowed and neutralised whatever awkwardness her lisp was causing her.

Finally the parents were able to see the path that their daughter was seeking and supporting her. Manga Girl had come into existence at last!

The Rabbit Rescuer

18 May 2019

9 years ago a boy came to ask if he could borrow a cat carrier from me.

He had found an abandoned rabbit outside our school. It was weekend & he had just checked out of hostel, carrying some of his personal items.

The journey from school to his home was a long one and he wanted to ensure the rabbit’s safety by putting him in a carrier.

As I was preparing the cat carrier for the rabbit, he explained to his mom on the phone why he was taking the rabbit home.

Over the weekend, news of the rabbit rescue spread among the students. It turned out that the discarded pet had been huddling among vegetation outside the school for a couple of days.

In class I spoke of the boy who had stopped for a rabbit. A student swiftly remarked, “Of course he can help. He’s rich.”

Yes, the Rabbit Rescuer did come from a well-to-do family. And maybe he hadn’t always been nice to his peers. But the reflex response that he was able to help because of his wealthy family got me thinking.

Did coming from a better financial background obligate the boy to rescue the rabbit?

And if so, was his rescue effort any less commendable because it was easy for him?

Those were some of the questions I asked.

Although Rabbit Rescuer was materially well off, choosing to be kind still required a certain amount of inconvenience & sacrifices.

I highlighted to the class that because the foundling was a living being, there were lots of follow up work to do.

First he had to walk back to school with the rabbit without any guarantee of whether a cat carrier was available.

Then when he got home, he had to confine the rabbit in his bathroom for observation before integrating the new comer to the rest of the household.

There were also the vet checks and rabbit food, beddings, cage etc to deal with.

I’ve not met many teenage boys who would go that length for a rabbit, regardless of family background.

After that episode, I became more conscious of whether I have in my thoughts or remarks also undermined the good deeds of those whom I perceived to have more advantages than the rest of us.

When someone quits her job to be a stay-at-home mom, do I say, “Of course she can. Her husband’s rich.”?

When a young person decides to pursue a lesser known path, do I say, “Of course he can. His parents can afford it.”?

When a primary school kid gets full marks in a test, do I say, “Of course she can. She has tuition.”?

And perhaps my compulsion to find reasons when something positive happens stems more from envy & cynicism, than from a genuine desire to learn or compliment.

Rabbit Rescuer taught me that when good happens, just rejoice. Don’t spoil it by asking why.

Fixing My Mouth to Fix My Life

12 May 2019

I love my dentist.

He’s about my age or maybe younger or older. We don’t interact long enough to know personal details.

He’ll explain what’s going on with my fillings, my wisdom teeth and gum health for someone of my vintage. He has no fancy products to recommend me but just good old cleaning and scaling, to be followed by diligent brushing and flossing at home.

He likes to tell every thing as it is. And before any panic sets in, he’ll say, “This is age. There’s nothing much you can do about it.”

“It’s happening to me too,” he’ll add with a beam, as if he’s just shared the secret to longevity with me.

However, if a patient insists on further treatment he’ll comply, but not before reminding her that all corrective improvements done at this point of our lives should have a larger purpose beyond the aesthetic.

Besides, there’s also our genetic predispositions to contend with. What works for others may not necessarily work for us.

The constant public exhortations on active aging with accompanying graphics of elderly folks attempting dramatic feats while inspiring, may also convey the idea that we have complete control over how we age. On top of that, the reality of degenerative issues brought on by aging are quickly glossed over with yet more promises of cures with anti-aging supplements, foods and lifestyle choices.

Everyone has a different path. Advice needs to be dispensed and taken responsibly.

I used to be easily intimidated by pharmacy ladies charging at me with offers of cream to remove my pigmentation spots. Against their uniformed complexion I became self conscious of my rather uneven facial colouring. I felt like a peasant woman surrounded by noble ladies even though I knew at the end of the work day most of us would be returning home to our HDB flats.

But when I realised that those spots on my face are indicators of my advancing years, exposure to the elements and health history, I started to see myself more clearly and more kindly. I became more interested in how hard my liver must be working instead of how flawless my skin should look.

So these days I wear my aging face like a badge of courage and smile appreciatively at the pharmacy staff ambushing in the aisles with their pots of promises.

In tracking my dental health, my dentist has shown me that being pain free and enjoying food is as important as looking good. And aging with all its ensuing uncertainties is actually very natural. What becomes unnatural is when we believe that we can remain youthful if we eat or apply the right things, hang out with the right folks and keep up with technology and other trends.

While we’re quick to praise the elderly for knowing how to scan & pay, we don’t give old folks enough credit for the wisdom & resourcefulness they may have accumulated from years of having survived sweeping changes to support our present success.

So next time when I meet an older person, I would try to ask what he or she knows & thinks, instead of what he or she can do.

Eight-Treasures Mandala Dedication for the New Moon on the Start of the Fasting Month.

5 May 2019

Seeing corn and various grains on altars as gestures of thanksgiving to the divine always comforts me deeply for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. (Maybe I’m quietly pleased that birds and other small animals might have something to eat when the ceremony’s over 😉)

The 8 auspicious grains in this new moon mandala offering are pearl rice, glutinous rice, oats, corn, red beans, black rice, red peanuts and red kidney beans. They make a good porridge that has health benefits too.

Likewise, as we care for our body & soul, may our heart be nourished by the new moon’s faithful light.

And may treasuring our own lives awaken us to treasure the lives of others.

To Labour For An Open Mind and A Kind Heart

1st May 2019 Labour Day

We’re 47 years apart but connected by learning for our own benefit and for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Spelling Practice in Botanics Gardens (28/4/2019)

To First Tutee these days, exposure to “Charlotte’s Web,” has moved his knowledge beyond dietary laws. His world view now includes seeing the pig as a living creature that has needs for friendship and a fear of death.

He also knows that dogs have names, ancestry and personality. Meeting one on his path these days is filled less with anxiety but more with curiosity.

The default question of “Will he bite?” has morphed into “What dog is this?” Words such as corgi, poodle, labrador and homeless dogs are taking up space in his head.

As the boy learns, trees are more than potential chairs or dangerous conductors during lightning storms. They are also homes to animals, perches where angels sit and sign posts for the wandering and the lost.

He tries to resist the impulse to turn every tree branch within his reach into monkey bars. Instead, he has learnt to pause and pat the trunk reverently. Last Sunday he made art with a tree’s fallen fruits.

Earlier on when we arrived at the Botanic Gardens for our English Language work, he didn’t run head on to play. Instead the first thing he did was to point out the corner table where he planned to practice spelling later.

The silent trees seemed to have a calming effect on him and collaborated to help an easily excitable boy set his academic intentions.

And the hive of activities – jazz concert, kids playing, adults dancing, dogs running and his own trekking up and down the slopes did not distract him but centered him.

He asked for the use of the cell phone to set the timer to revise his spelling, and later on chuckled with glee that he had cleared his revision sooner than he thought.

His spelling outcome the next day.

When the day ended, even though First Tutee claimed that he was very tired as we walked to the carpark, his eyes sparkled with amazement at the sight of a athletic looking dog whose gentle eyes were the same shade of deep brown colour like his fur.

The dog’s humans acknowledged the boy’s wide-eyed wonder with steady knowing smiles.

Words are not needed in meetings like this because the mind and the heart are open.

Niq’s thank you note to the Botanic Gardens. (28/4/2019)

“The Word became flesh …” John 1:14

25 April 2019

Handwriting reveals a lot about a person. In the same way they can hide pain, words can also become real and bring relief.

Back in the 90s, there was a boy in my class who repeatedly handed in work that showed very messy handwriting. My initial reaction was to get angry. I was angry with him for being untidy. I was angry with him for being inconsiderate. But mostly I was angry with him for not respecting me enough to show me some nice handwriting.

One day I received another dreaded handwritten composition full of ugly words from the same boy. But before I could fly into a rage, his image popped into my head.

He had his fringe to hide his pimply forehead while his oversized spectacles resembling laboratory goggles perched precariously on his nose. Even though he wasn’t particularly witty, he was always attentive and looked like he enjoyed my lessons.

He was keen when I introduced the use of fountain pen to his class, and even showed me the one which his grandfather lent him to bring to school.

So I couldn’t understand where this insane handwriting and incoherent babbling came from.

By this time, instead of getting upset, and hating him, I decided to put away that red pen for the time being and just run my fingers over his mangled words.

This must be one of those “the Heart knows reasons that Reason does not know” moments. Till this day I couldn’t explain fully what made me do that.

And something interesting did happen when I touched his tortured letters. I felt the boy’s frustrations, as if he was carving or maybe even stabbing the words onto paper. At the back of the page, I felt the eerie graininess of the indentations as if some creatures were trapped underneath & struggling to break free.

My annoyance abated further when I saw him in my mind, hunching over his work, all alone in class, because he was always the one to finish last.

In our following lesson, I got him to stay back after class had ended.

I placed the train wreck of his composition between us. He registered all the comments in red with his eyes but held back his emotions.

Then I asked if there was something wrong with my instructions that had confused him and caused him to write like this. Was I unclear? Did I speak too fast? Was the deadline too tight?

He answered all my questions bravely and adjusted his specs that were sliding down his nose. Then he looked down, as if about to cry.

“You said you like English. Then why do you keep on writing like this?” I prompted, fighting the irritation that was threatening to crawl right back into my heart. (Bad handwriting kills me)

“Yes, I enjoy the lessons. It’s just that I’m under A LOT of pressure,” he explained and avoided my eyes.

He then disclosed that his parents had high expectations of him and his older brother. They were not pleased that their older son did not make it to junior college. My student thus lived in constant anxiety of disappointing his parents.

“My parents are always telling me that they’ll be happy with anything I do as long as I can do better than them,” he said sadly.

“But isn’t it natural for parents to wish for their children to do better than them?” I asked, trying to sound as objective as I could.

“But Miss Ong, my dad is a neurosurgeon and my mom runs her own pharmaceutical company. How can I possibly do better than them?” he asked, barely able to conceal his sense of defeat even as he tried to force a smile.

“And even if I were given 3 life times to try, I won’t be able to do better than them,” he emphasised.

His choice of illustration stunned and saddened me deeply.

When he was done explaining, we looked at each other and started to laugh. Perhaps we laughed out of relief and at the absurdity of the challenge before him.

There was something very sad but strangely uplifting in our shared humour that day, even though we were still clueless on how to deal with his work quality.

However after we spoke, his handwriting and expressions started to improve. He became less moody and less awkward. It was as if a secret spell that had kept him frozen had been broken.

At the parent-teacher meeting I mustered enough courage to let his parents know that their well meaning intentions were chipping away at their son’s confidence and hindering his attempts to learn.

I pushed my luck a bit by saying I understand that it wouldn’t be easy for high achievers like them to accept that their son might have a different path from theirs.

The father was a cultivated man with a gentle presence although he looked at me sternly when I spoke. The well groomed mother listened on quietly. (Perhaps they were going to complain to the school that I was encouraging their son to be a loser)

Back then I knew I was only a teacher drawing a fixed salary, single and without kids of my own. How was I qualified to advise married people who were way more financially capable and more academically successful than me on educating their son?

But back then I also knew that my student was too young, too inarticulate and loved his parents way too much to tell them that their dreams were killing him. And if I didn’t at least speak up for him then, how was I qualified to be his teacher?

A few years later while in town, I passed by the dad on his way to lunch.

He called out to me and seemed really delighted to see me. He shook my hand warmly and smiled as he gave me updates of my student, his son.

His older boy had graduated from polytechnic. My student was also enjoying his poly studies and moving on to new things.

As we parted ways, I could sense that the surgeon was genuinely happy because his boys were happy. No further conditions were needed.

And that was it. Words do become flesh.

Mandala of Gold for Good Friday Full Moon

19 April 2019

May the full moon fill our little lives with her golden light, so that we may live large, and bring forth branches of benefits to others. Vespa bikes with attached carriages lent a special retro touch to our roadside breakfast experience.

We took our breakfast by the roadside under the coolness of this beautiful old tree.

My father rode a Vespa bike well into his 60s. He used to take me to school on his bike. So I have a special affinity with Vespa.