In 3 days’ time 12-year-old primary school children across Singapore will be sitting for their Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE).
Yesterday was my final English practice with the exam candidates. A few of them had worked with me since last year.
Towards the end of the session, I told them I had prepared a well wishing gift for each of them.
“I still have the friendship band you gave me last year,” the boy who tied the handwoven fabric to his key chain said proudly on ZOOM. Another told me that the gift from Nepal that had travelled 3000 KM is always in his pencil case.
I had given them the friendship band from Nepal at the beginning of last year when they were in Primary 5. I had wished for these children to be hardy and resourceful like the people and land where their gifts came from.
This time I selected decorative paper clips as part of the farewell gift for my tutees. Enclosed with a card in a handstamped envelope I wish the children peace & joy, and the ability to hold their knowledge with ease for their own benefit, and to benefit others.
Of all the lanterns that were bought for me in my childhood, I remember the rabbit lantern best for the following reasons:
Firstly, my dad bought it. Secondly I was born in the year of the hare. Thirdly, its frame was wrapped in shredded white crepe paper to simulate fur. Fourthly, and most importantly, the whole lantern was set ablaze as soon as the candle that was meant to light it from within tilted, causing fire to meet paper.
Did the wire holding the candle in place not do its job? Or was my dad too clumsy in the lighting ceremony?
You can imagine the shock & pain of a 5 year old seeing her beloved rabbit lantern which she had been hugging all afternoon going up in flames and turning into ashes in seconds.
I was inconsolable. My young dad was traumatised.
In the mid-autumn festivals that followed, he would buy only battery operated lanterns for my brother and I. And no more crepe paper rabbits!
This evening I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lantern design that I loved half a century ago still exists!
The current model now has wheels, presumably for greater stability to minimise accidents like mine.
Come tomorrow night, I’m sure somewhere in some homes celebrating mid-autumn, paper lanterns will still catch fire and go up in flames.
There will be tears over the destruction & loss of a much loved and perhaps even irreplaceable design, but that shall not keep us from seeking solutions to continue the celebration.
Some years back when I was feeding homeless cats, I noticed that neighbourhood bullies who harassed cat feeders were cautious with me.
And it wasn’t my handicap that made them decide to be kind to me. In fact my limp had on some occasions prompted people to have a go at me.
What made the bullies think twice about harassing me in my cat feeding rounds was the way I dressed.
In my teaching days I wore dresses and *qipao. And I was often still in my teaching clothes when I stopped to feed cats.
A couple of times, a person on the verge of passing some nasty remarks about animals would appraise my clothes and asked if I worked for the government. Of course I said yes with great authority since all teachers come under the jurisdiction of the MOE.
I think that was where my understanding of power dressing without brands started.
Gradually, dressing carefully so that people would back off and let a lone woman feed cats in peace evolved from a necessity to a habit.
A couple of years ago, I taught English at a centre for troubled teens.
They were an energetic bunch plagued by anger management & learning issues.
Once in the midst of an expletive storm, one of them shouted, “M’am! You look nice!” when I was spotted sitting in the garden next to their gym.
Subsequently, “M’am, you look nice,” became a regular greeting whenever they saw me.
I think each time these young men stopped to pay me a compliment, or hear their friend make one, they experienced a momentary release from the rage & vitrol that had dominated their speech.
The old belief that it’s not what you eat, but what comes out of your mouth that kills you was evident in the way one of the boys beamed when I thanked him for his gracious words.
Perhaps getting dressed could be a way of promoting peace. And perhaps dressing up to save the world may not be as far fetched an idea as it seems. 😄
*qipao – dress with mandarin collar and slits at the side modified from clothes of manchurian people.
I just learnt that today is the start of *Ganesh Chaturthi.
My first eye to eye contact with the elephant headed deity was in Nepal in 2011.
Now, 10 years later, the symbol of resourcefulness and wisdom continues to inspire me to take things as they come without fear or resentment so that I may see clearly and dance lightly through all obstacles.
And while wondering how I could mark the occasion without leaving home, a dancing Ganesh pendant from my brother given a year ago and a recent hand drawn sunflower from a student combined to fulfil my intention.
Here’s wishing all friends, family & strangers the blessings of Wisdom & Resourcefulness to meet challenges with ease like my favourite Hindu deity.
Om Gam Ganapateya Namaha! 🙏
*Ganesh Chaturthi marks the anniversary of his arrival from Mount Kailash.
Markers pointing to roads, exits & entrances, ramp, lift lobby and carpark pick ups are very important for someone with limited energy like me because getting lost has very serious consequences
For most people, mixing up Lobby A with Lobby B in the mall or hospital is a small matter. For me it can mean how many turns and rest stops I need to take before I find my destination.
The frustrations & exhaustion of losing one’s way is real for an ageing person even without dementia or mobility issues.
I seldom accept rides or lifts from well intentioned people because dictating where they should me pick me up, drop me off or where they should park would make me sound like an ungrateful and demanding old woman. 😄
Pre-covid days at the airport check-in counter, any departure gate from letter E onwards on my boarding pass would fill me with unease even before the flight took off. On occasions when I needed wheelchair service, I made sure to tip my airport escort handsomely.
As such I have little desire to go on pilgrimages to make peace and to learn acceptance.
Each step out of my flat, presents enormous potential to make peace with obstacles.
When I walk, there are detours needed to avoid a wet corridor or curb too high for me. When I take public transport, there’s the anxiety of whether I can find a seat before the bus or train moves and the worry of whether there’s a hand grab for support at my exit stop. Little steps which the able-bodied make almost mindlessly require the focus of a zen master for me.
Over the years, I’ve turned down invitations to meet not because the company is less worthy, but because of what it takes for me to show up.
Singapore may have good medical amenities but its population density, building configurations and fast paced living make it a challenging place for those in advancing years.
Active Aging is a good aspiration provided you have the right set ups, physical conditions and national mindset.
Even in supposedly easy to navigate places with escalators and non-slip flooring I’m either constantly dogding people who are in a hurry, or keeping a distance from those whose eyes are glued to their phone screens. The latter have the tendency to brake suddenly or back into people behind them.
That said, it is also not reasonable to expect human traffic in public places to slow down for the old.
Thus I understand why elderly folks cling to familiar places and are reluctant to move to new neighbourhoods. They would have to learn the terrain of their physical environment all over again. A ramp in their new housing estate may not have the same gradient like the one their legs have been used to in the past 40 years.
“With a click of a button,” as the catchphrase goes, we’re told that digitization has made the world more accessible to many. But precisely when everyone seems so well connected and mobile, the isolation for some feels even starker & more incomprehensible.
And thus I cherish every trip I can make to the grocery store, every step to my tuition class and on special days, a visit to the animal shelter, or a live performance venue while my body and senses do not have too many adjustments to make.
Finally for those of us who harbour thoughts that people who can’t keep up with changes are just being too stubborn, we can try giving up some of the things we’re used to, and see how that affects our sense of calm before we earn the right to call someone too rigid to keep up with time.
Recently, a child who loves her late cat dearly drew this sunflower. Mrs Ghosh of Harmony Gems gave me the tourmaline, clear quartz & selenite to bring to the shelter cats & dogs on my next visit. A friend taught me to make delicious millet porridge like hers. The plate that holds all these gifts together belonged to my late dog who loved EVERY single meal of his life till the end.
May the new moon tonight refresh our mind and heart, to see clearly & love deeply, regardless of how fleeting our experiences may be.
This morning for the first time the two warring cats in my home stood very close to each other to receive pats without erupting into a fight. Normally I have to stroke them separately if I don’t want to lose my eyes.
For a few minutes I had one jealous cat purring on each side of my face within striking distance, while I calmly reminded them what good boys they were when they were kittens.
Against his territorial instincts and to my surprise, Oliver even gave a stunned Emmanuel a couple of licks on the forehead! And Emmanuel returned the favour by sniffing him briefly.
Perhaps they remember what it feels like not to be constantly on guard. And maybe they recall the peace that comes with trusting another.
“Try to remember the kind of September When life was slow and oh, so mellow Try to remember the kind of September When grass was green and grain was yellow…” goes the song by Harvey Schmidt & Tom Jones.
This song and “Bavarian Gentians” by DH Lawrence made September my favourite month of the year.
As September begins, may we try to remember all the good that we’ve received, so that we can be promoters of peace even as we’re often enticed to be agents of hostility. 🙏
My Kinmen grandmother loved jasmines, wore black jacquard brocade satin pants on special occasions, and appreciated beautiful things.
She would buy me little trinkets of real gold but told me not to wear pearls because they were made by making oysters cry.
In my adult years, I would always stop by Mikimoto’s pearls whenever I was in Centrepoint but did not buy any. Even without the tears, I found introducing a foreign matter into an oyster on purpose to cultivate a pearl somewhat disrespectful.
Still, I’ve always loved pearls for their milky shimmer, and their association with the Moon. That was how pearl costume jewellery came into my life.
Over the years, these fake pearls of mine have regularly stopped strangers in their track to smile at me and comment how shiny and bright they look.
Some of my pearls are nearly 20 years old, and peeling. Despite their humble origin, I keep them properly as if they belong to the Queen.
When told that the object of their admiration was not the real deal, the pearl admirers’ enthusiasm did not fade.
Perhaps the faces of men & women light up at the the strands around my neck because they can tell that even though my pearls are fake, the love is real.
And I’m reminded of the conversation between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse in Margery Williams’ book for children:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”