I stood at the top of the steps outside Grantral Mall to wait for the rain to pass. On the last step sat a couple and a man. They too were sheltering from the rain. They were careful to occupy only the far left and far right of the steps so as not to obstruct the way.
A granny with a head of platinum silver hair approached the steps from below. She saw the couple and the man leaning on the hand rails. Then she studied the steps pensively to assess their depth.
Before she raised her foot to get on the first step, I called out to the couple, “Excuse me!”
When they turned to look up at me I explained, “Could you make way for the granny please? She needs to hold the handrail to get up.”
Immediately the man rose and led the granny to the handrail. The woman gave me an OK sign.
And I’m glad that I didn’t judge the couple, but just let them know that they were in the way of an elderly person even as they were careful enough not to block the way for others.
With the handrail for support, the granny got up the flight of steps safely. Her eyes beamed with gratitude as she showed me a thumbs up.
As she kept repeating, “You very good!” in a childlike voice, I felt Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, complimenting me. 😄
The “chuba” or “chupa” is a Tibetan word for an ankle length robe worn by Tibetans. Slight variations of it are worn by members of the Sherpa community and a number of cultural and language groups across the Himalayan regions.
Even though I had passed by many chuba shops during my visits to Nepal, I took my time about buying one. I didn’t want to treat someone’s actual clothing like a costume or a quaint souvenir.
Apart from its wearability for celebratory occasions in Singapore, I wanted a chuba as a visual reminder of my encounters in Nepal. From the Nepali friends of the Newari, Tamang, Rai, Gorkha and various culture/ language groups, I’ve learnt what it means to be generous and resourceful at ALL times.
So after thinking about it for about 8 years, I finally bought my first chuba from one of the shops at Boudha in December 2019.
Little did I know that a month after that purchase, Covid-19 would affect all human interactions & put a stop to trips abroad. In Singapore the Circuit Breaker measures kept people housebound, affected jobs, schools and gatherings of all sorts.
It looked like my chuba from Boudha wouldn’t be required for a while I figured. But I was wrong.
This May I received my first ZOOM birthday celebration invitation. The birthday celebrant is an avid traveller & photographer. Travel restrictions had affected her birthday plans.
So that night holed up in my little flat with my cats, I put on the chuba as it was purposed for.
And the birthday lady, being the good sport that she is, turned up on ZOOM in lapis lazuli blue and a strand of turquoise around her neck.
As the fireworks went off in her living room, while her parents looked on in amusement, her dogs in puzzlement, and ZOOM guests cheered, I felt that although we were physically “grounded,” our spirit was free.
The chuba from Boudha has also become a pleasant reminder that the darker the times are, the more brightly we can try to shine, and the less we have, the more deeply we may experience abundance.
Powers come; powers go. None can match the Timelessness of Love’s quiet glow.
May all sentient beings be blessed by the faithfulness of the full moon light, and find their footing in the timelessness of compassion, wisdom and courage, during these uncertain times of health threats, societal differences and power struggles.
That year we decided to give drama production a rest and stage a concert instead. Called “An Evening with Kindred Spirits,” the concert was a platform for boys and alumni members to express their talents in the arts.
There would be no Guest of Honour, no VIPs, no prizes for the best performances etc. Concert tickets would be sold at a token price so that everyone could be in the presence of good sounds and good words.
Among those who came for rehearsals was a secondary one Chicken Little of a boy. He was playing JS Bach’s Prelude in C Major on the school chapel piano during one lunch break when I “talented scouted” him.
Why him? Surely there were other more accomplished student pianists in the school.
That afternoon as I sat on the last pew watching him so dead serious playing Bach’s piece, I knew there & then in the “Sanctuary of the Holy Presence,” of SJI that I had found the opening act of “Kindred Spirits.” Piano Boy had to be in the concert, regardless of his musical competence.
A concert needs a host or a master of ceremony. A tall, and articulate secondary 4 student from one of the top classes auditioned for the role and became the Concert Host.
Piano Boy and Concert Host were not from the classes I taught. So our interactions happened mainly at rehearsals after school.
When I was “reminded” that Concert Host came from a prominent family, I took the chance to remind him that his driver or security officer would have to follow our rehearsal schedule and not the other way round. He agreed without hesitation.
As the concert date drew closer, the auditorium was charged with creative energies of budding deejays, singer song writers, pianists, flutist, drummers, poets, actors & production crew from different streams and old boys’ network.
With each rehearsal, Concert Host soaked up the limelight and flourished. Being the progeny of a public figure and having to be constantly on his best behaviour lest it brought disrepute to his father, Concert Host had finally found a legitimate outlet for his wit & candour.
Meanwhile the reverse was happening in Piano Boy.
His carefree days of playing the slightly out of tune piano in the quiet corner of the cosy chapel had now morphed into a waking nightmare of practices on the baby grand piano under the blinding stage lights of the school’s Performing Arts Centre.
Even though Bach’s prelude in C Major was less than 2 minute long, it might as well have been 2 hours for Piano Boy.
He started making more & more mistakes on the piano. He started looking grey and withdrawn. It was as if the black gleaming piano was sucking the life force out of him each time he sat next to it.
One specially challenging day, Concert Host and I stood by the stage curtain and watched Piano Boy struggle with Bach.
“Ms Ong I’ve heard better piano performances of Bach than this,” Concert Host shook his head in disappointment and disbelief.
The 16-year-old shining Master of Ceremony was getting impatient with the not so promising 13-year-old pianist.
I felt a tinge of hurt on Piano Boy’s behalf, but Concert Host was not wrong either.
“Of course you would have heard better than this,” I concurred with Concert Host.
“But don’t forget, not many boys come from background like yours where you have the best resources and exposures. Don’t you think given Piano Boy’s age and simple upbringing, it’s quite remarkable that he’s been faithfully coming for rehearsals with the big boys, and trying to play on a baby grand?” I added.
My words could have some impact on Concert Host as I could sense his body tensing even in the backstage shadows. Maybe I had offended him.
In the rehearsals that followed, I noticed Concert Host watching Piano Boy, and intervening at certain points to show him how he could play Bach’s prelude better. He no longer saw Piano Boy as the stumbling spoiler that messed up the flow of “his” show, but a younger and braver friend needing some encouragement.
One day he taught Piano Boy to remove his shoes so that he could connect with the pedals below better.
“If you could feel the pedals, you would feel more confident when you play. Your shoes are getting in the way,” Concert Host explained to Piano Boy in an almost fatherly tone. I felt this special moment was for my eyes only.
And so it was with each shoeless rehearsal that Piano Boy regained his footing and his smiles returned.
On the opening night, Piano Boy’s mom met me for the first time. The beaming mother introduced her family as people living in HDB (public housing). Then she thanked me in a mixture of English and Mandarin for the practice and exposure her son had gained in the past few months. She didn’t expect her shy boy to have such discipline & boldness.
The concert turned out well for everyone. The more flamboyant performers got the accolades they were looking for, while the more reticent ones were proud of overcoming shyness and stage fright.
And I will always remember the murmurs of surprise, followed by a velvety hush of appreciation that filled the auditorium of over 500 when Piano Boy gave his all to the 2 minute piano performance.
When the show ended, Concert Host came to check if I needed help with clearing rubbish in the dressing room.
He then went on to pick up things from the floor and took the trash bags out.
I was a little stunned when he literally snatched the trash bin from my hand even as he was still holding his blazer in the other.
“You better go now,” I urged him. “I can settle this easily. Your driver must be wondering.” He had stayed longer than he normally would and I didn’t want his driver to worry.
“Don’t worry about the driver, Miss Ong. I’ve told him to wait cos I’m helping my teacher,” the young man assured me as his eyes sparkled kindly.
Concert Host was born privileged. But his parents didn’t turn up for the concert like Piano Boy’s did. Also he never quite knew when people treated him well was it because they really liked him, or was it because of his father? And credit to him, he didn’t look away when his blinkers were pointed out.
Calling out people for being privileged, and showing sympathy for the underdog is not difficult. But consciously checking our attitude regardless of who we’re dealing with requires more effort. And two boys from two very different backgrounds have shown me how.
On the eve of the Solar Eclipse I raised a small butter lamp for someone who had exited this world painfully just a week ago.
As a language teacher whose main work has been about redirecting the powers of the mind for the best answers and therefore the highest good, I care how the mind works.
I’ve always taken for granted that the mind can figure anything out. So the abrupt ending of a brilliant mind belonging to someone I admired greatly despite not knowing him personally, bothered me.
That night after lighting the butter lamp I had a dream that went like this:
Some goods from Tibet had arrived for me 6 months late.The whole consignment was dropped off by a helicopter onto the roof top of a commercial building in Chinatown.
I had to go and pick up the goods myself.
I stood at the traffic junction outside Chinatown Point and looked across the street and up the building where my challenge stood.
As I explored options on how to get access to the goods, I found myself being able to direct the consignment to move just by thinking about it.
The whole process felt like I was simply using a cursor to shift files around on my computer. I watched the bulk lift and swing down gently as if an invisible crane was doing all the work.
This newfound skill didn’t make me feel superior or anxious.On the contrary it felt very egoless & peaceful.
When the consignment from Tibet finally landed, I found sacks of rice, food items and a knife. I was delighted to know that I was to distribute all the edibles to others, but not so happy to learn that the knife was meant for me.
“What kind of an omen is this? Am I supposed to kill myself with it?” Questions rose in my fearful mind as I looked at the shining metallic blade in my hand.
“No, the knife is to help you cut through all the bullshit,” came the reply, strong and clear as daylight, and as if someone was talking directly into my ear as I opened my eyes.
In Buddhism iconography, Manjusri is an enlightened being of wisdom that transcends knowledge & concepts. He holds a sword in one hand and a lotus or sutra in the other. The sword cuts through the mind’s illusions and ignorance (aka bullshit). The lotus holds the Heart Sutra, the home of compassion.
I remember reading a few years back that Manjusri is the guardian of those born under the zodiac of the Hare. And my zodiac sign is the Hare.
Sharp and metallic objects especially knives and blades make me nervous. I don’t even like seeing a pair of scissors lying about.
But this dream of a knife gift has created a mind shift in me. While a knife can certainly cause injuries and even death, it is also absolutely essential for cutting loose a noose to save a life.
So I wish to dedicate this post to all who are troubled with issues that look and feel hopeless. May they be given Manjusri’s sword to cut through all attachments that are directing their mind towards harmful paths. And may the sword help to make a clearing in their mind, where they can feel safe & heal in their own time. 🙏
Whether it’s on the tiered silver platter of a high class tea place or in oily plastic wrapper tucked among other snacks in a a roadside coffee shop, the marble cake is irresistible to me.
My dad’s adoptive sister was newly married when she learnt to bake her first marble cake at her in-laws’.
When she brought the cake to my grandma’s home she was dressed in a batik sarong kebaya with orange flowers.
We may not be peranakans, but P.Ramlee’s movies must have had a big impact on my aunt’s sartorial elegance in the 60s.
She was gorgeous in her orange kebaya and dark bouffant hair as she served us her first baking achievement.
Being raised predominantly on a chinese diet, our family, especially my grandma and mom, found the buttery cake a little too rich for their stomach.
But it was heaven to me!
My aunt was so pleased with my response that henceforth she would bring a marble cake each time she visited.
For many years, during Chinese New Year and festive occasions, this cake with its trademark dramatic swirls was solely reserved just for her greatest fan, ME.
My aunt seldom bakes these days. The last time we met, she was recovering from a mild stroke. I mentioned “marble cake,” and a beautiful smile appeared on her face.
Nowadays with the emphasis on “healthy” options, few marble cakes that I’ve tasted come close to my aunt’s standard. But still I eat them, and think of the lovely young bride who introduced me to my first marble cake more than half a century ago. ♥️🙏
In our village home at Covent Garden along one of the Singapore canals, there was a fallen tree trunk by the doorway. Depending on who was using it, it was sometimes a bench and sometimes a table.
The tree trunk of nearly black wood was often my grandma’s work bench.
On it my grandma could often be seen crafting her much sought after anklets and necklaces made from embroidery threads of 5 colours.
These “Five Coloured Threads,” or “ngoh sek sua,” as they are called in our minnan dialect, were meant for babies and toddlers, especially those who cried for no apparent reason at night.
Judging by the visits of parents to our home, grandma’s handiworks must have some positive outcomes.
My grandma had suffered unexplained losses in her life. Yet she could provide this support to her community willingly & cheerfully, as she rolled the 5 threads representing the 5 elements into one wearable work of Peace to soothe a restless baby and to calm an anxious parent.
Years later when I wear rudraskha beads on my wrist and pass them over the head or back of animals as I pat them, my grandma’s hands were on me.
And who have known that my grandma’s simple blending of the elements to make peace would prepare me for my affinity with prayers flags 40 plus years later in Nepal?
Oliver came to sit on my lap during morning prayers.
Half way through my mala beads, the sky darkened, the wind rose and the rain fell. It was bright & sunny just a while ago!
I resisted the urge to get up and rush about to shut the windows in my home.
“What if the wind sends in more dust?”
“What if the rain wets my study table?”
The what ifs were threatening to unseat me.
Meanwhile, Oliver, the Grandmaster of Sleep, continued to nestle more comfortably on my lap, paying no heed as the sky darkened further and the wind swooshed about, sending hangers in the balcony clattering.
After I decided to let them be, I realised maybe Rain and Wind had come to assist me to scatter my prayers further to reach more sentient beings! It was a precious moment in my practice.
With that thought in mind, I stay put and completed the morning dedication.
By the time the prayer ended, the rain had also stopped and the sun appeared again. It was all so brief!
Oliver did not protest when I put the mala beads over his neck. He simply went onto another cane chair and continued his morning nap. 😄
I thought of the occasions when non-action was my only option.
For example, holding an umbrella while walking is not possible for me. And when a light drizzle suddenly becomes a downpour in the midst of a traffic light crossing, I cannot run. But I’ve had strangers offering to share their umbrellas with me.
Then there are times I cannot make the crossing from the steps of a bus to the kerb. One time a youth with tattoos from his arm to his neck gave me his hand.
We’re often told to take initiatives, to be proactive, to solve problems, to eat lunch or be lunch, but sometimes staying put or not having any option, IS the way out.
So my wish is, if anyone is feeling trapped or lost, may he or she not panic and seek unhealthy distractions, but to try & stay put with the situation, because a solution could be just round the corner. 🙏