Unmasking

22 April 2020

The mask painting unleashed the girls’ flamboyant energies.

All our lives, we wear masks to gain acceptance, to show compliance and to hide what we dare not see, or don’t want others to see.

So why is it that when it comes to wearing a mask to protect ourselves from the pandemic, so many of us fight against it?

For one, our facial bone structures, skin sensitivity, breathing capacity and tolerance for having our face blocked for an extensive period of time differ from one another.

Some people can go into a minor panic attack during beauty treatment when a facial mask even with gaps at the nostrils and mouth to accommodate breathing is put on them.

A present from a boy who was in Venice for a break from his studies in Cambridge.

I know of a friend who couldn’t complete his scuba diving certification despite his love for undersea adventures because somewhere along his training, he also developed a phobia of having his face completely covered.

These days when it comes to wearing disposable masks as required of us, bespectacled folks like me have to adjust our masks periodically to prevent our breaths from fogging up the lens and compromising our vision. And believe it or not, the fogging always seems to happen at times that puts us at potentially risky situations – midway on a moving escalator, facing incoming/ outgoing lift passengers, dodging the cleaners’ trolley etc. 😄

Health workers who can be masked up for hours on end and still perform their duties calmly must have a physiology very different from the rest of us.

An unexpected gift from Venice from a boy who didn’t seem to care about Shakespeare.

And for elderly folks who already don’t see so well or can’t balance properly, wearing a mask is an added challenge because the top of the covering can interfere with their line of vision, especially when they try peering down into their bags to fish for coins or ezlink cards etc.

Coupled with their stiff joints which limit their neck and finger mobility, the mask is really a hindrance. And yes, even if their lives depend on it, masking takes some practice.

It is very necessary & very good if we could comply with the guidelines so that we can survive this pandemic. But it is even better not to feel morally superior or more enlightened just because we are capable of following all the rules.

A hand painted mask from Venice, given by a lovely girl who has the bearing of a young queen.

Consider the masked grandma, huffing and puffing from the walk and the weight of her groceries, which could very well be just a bottle of soya sauce and a can of baked beans, and looking resignedly at the rows of cordoned off benches as she tried to catch her breath and cope with her aching back.

If we could see what others have to overcome in order to stay united with us, maybe we’ll be less inclined to get annoyed with those who cannot seem to toe the line.

The feeling that we’ve got it all together is very delicious. And it is very tempting for those who can, to stew in self righteous anger underneath their collective masking, against those who can’t, while unmasking their barely containable pent up feelings as they pounce on the next mask-less person whom they perceive to be not doing his part to fight the pandemic.

Apology as Medicine

20 April 2020

Twenty years ago, I taught English & Literature to a Science Class whose students were mostly aspiring to be engineers, doctors, accountants and businessmen, and maybe lawyers.

Looking back now I can see the glaring mismatch between my subject offering and the boys’ subject combination & career trajectory.

When their literature exam scores didn’t measure up to their science and math scores, Literature was the blight that marred their otherwise pristine achievements of straight “A”s.

For every difficult student there is an unusually mature one like this Asean Scholar who made sure his Literature teacher doesn’t die under the pile of admint paper work.

A couple of students who understood the relevance of Literature fought the school admint tooth & nails when they were asked to “drop Lit so that they could better focus on other subjects.” They got to keep Lit and did well in it.

However, I would learn later about a boy who questioned my teaching abilities and actively sought to humiliate me at every opportunity.

He contradicted me during lessons or asked me questions he had read elsewhere about the texts which he thought I wouldn’t be able to handle.

He even included plagiarised materials in his essays and showed off to his classmates that I wouldn’t be able to spot.

In hindsight, it was an act of grace that I didn’t know about his acts of mischief.

Had I known of his stealth, I might have become nervous, and started to channel all my productive energy to prove him wrong, and ended up neglecting my teaching, and thus becoming exactly the lousy teacher he believed I was.

Hence blissfully ignorant of the childish traps he had set for me, I continued to entertain his questions to the best of my knowledge and complimented him for his essay writing.

Years later, this boy got to study in one of the Ivy League universities in USA.

My intelligent and wonderfully compassionate girls.

By then I had moved on to teach English and Literature in a girls’ school. That year I was teaching Amy Tan’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” when the boy who had become a young man dropped by my school during his vacation.

Right on the bench outside the staff room, this young man surprised me by holding both my hands in his, and asked if I could ever forgive him for all that he had done to make life difficult for me during his school days.

He revealed that we had met in a period when he was facing some unresolved personal issues and I had unfortunately become the target of his bitterness.

Over the years he matured and became reflective. The turning point came when his sister became a teacher, and was treated like the way he used to treat me.

I thanked him for the courage to confess and even though there were some awkward times between us, I didn’t take his defiance to heart.

School teachers have thick skins or else it’s a one way ticket to the asylum.

Looking back now I see that in a weird twist of fate, a brother’s pranks on his school teacher not only did not achieve the intended results, but had been eerily stashed away for his own sister who at that time was not even a teacher yet.

By seeking me out to make peace he had offered me a valuable lesson on never to use personal problems as an excuse to hurt others. And in apologising, he had also released his own sister from the torment of her students.

“Feed others as you are fed.”

15 April 2020 (三月二十三)

Today is the birthday of a deity in the female form called 妈祖, pronounced as Ma Zu.

Ma Zu is the Mother Goddess that watches over oceans & seas, and is highly revered by fishermen and all who make their living by water. In Taiwan and Kinmen Island, shrines and temples are dedicated to her as she grants seafaring safety and plentiful harvest.

Last year we visited a Ma Zu shrine on Kinmen Island that was about 600 year old.

This morning I brought clean water and cat kibbles downstairs for the block cat, Aquarius. I dedicated that feeding to the Mother Goddess Ma Zu since it is her birthday.

As Aquarius was slurping up her water and eating her kibbles, a voice in my head repeated, “Feed others as you are fed.”

I didn’t think too much of it as I was more concerned with the cat getting her sustenance and me not seen by anyone to be lingering longer than necessary. I had my mask on and identity card with me in the event that my presence raised question during this semi-lockdown.

A short while after I got back from feeding the cat I would receive food gifts of biscuits, bananas, mango and even a coconut!

Gifts from Ma Zu, courtesy of a friend who dropped them off today.

For that one meal I gave to a cat, I was given more than enough to last me a few meals.

Unsought mercies like this helps me to give, while fighting off the urge to hold & grab.

I also read that Ma Zu was the deification of a young girl who protected her village with her life.

And perhaps during difficult times as we learn to protect and care, instead of destroy & blame, each one of us is potentially a goddess or a god in the making. 🙏♥️

Invoking Grace

13 April 2020

This is Day 7 of the semi-lockdown in Singapore in response to Covid-19 and the 6th day of my cat, Grace’s passing.

This morning on a piece of blue bandana I assembled some of the items that have supported Grace in the past few months as her health deteriorated.

Nebulizer kit for breathing, syringe for hydration and flower essences to comfort.

The nebuliser kit that helped to unblock her nasal congestion so that she could breathe, the eye drops that moisturized her eyes so that she could blink comfortably and the syringe that delivered liquid to her mouth to quench her thirst were duly thanked as I visualised the Medicine Buddha through the fire of a blue butter lamp.

Her little turtle neck of blue & white argyle that protected her from chills and cushioned her as she lay in her cat condo on days she needed to rest was also blessed.

There were other important containers such as her stainless steel water bowl that had to be of a certain weight and depth so that it wouldn’t topple over when she accidentally walked into it and the carrier that served as a nebuliser chamber.

Then there were the flower essences and comforting oils that calmed both of us down as her end drew near.

Every birth has an end. And every end is an invitation to practise grace.

My cat has given me 13 years’ worth of lesson on grace, the quality from which all good springs from.

On the night of her passing, when it was evident that all the external tools were no longer required, I recited “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Soha,” to help her to cross to the other shore.

And today, by looking at the tools that facilitated her exit with gratitude and affection instead of dread and fear, I hope this little ritual will invoke grace to come & stabilise the hearts of all healthcare professionals and we who are now learning to walk in the shadow of Covid-19.

May ALL be well. 🙏🌈🐾

Holy Week

10 April 2020

This week little pink buds in clusters of fours are appearing quietly on the palm sized plant that I received during the lunar new year this January.

“Clusters” has taken on an ominous tone these days, so I hope seeing clusters of flowers helps to provide some balance.

3 days ago the super pink moon graced the night sky even as residents in Singapore retreated indoors to avoid Covid-19.

And on that full moon night among the pink buds and under the pink moon, I sat up with Grace, my 13-year-old cat.

She had suffered rat glue trapping in her kittenhood while living on the streets of Little India and endured spaying and dental surgeries after her rescue. Now in her old age she had to battle blindness and ill-health.

Her life hadn’t been great in the normal sense, but she was loved, treated for her discomforts and had outlived the vet’s projection of her life span by 11 years.

After a final drink of honey water to quench her thirst and in anticipation of a sweet rebirth, eye drops on her eyes to regain her sight in the life to come, and a brief cuddle, Grace left her body without struggle.

The stars were sparkling that night as I lit a butter lamp to give thanks for her easy passing and to guide her home. 善终 meaning a peaceful death is one of the 5 blessings (五福)

Yesterday on Maundy Thursday, Grace’s ashes came back to me in a small porcelain urn.

Amidst the restrictions of physical movements, sufferings of loss and shortages of tangible goods, I hope that acceptance of whatever we’re facing will also allow compassion to flow, so that our heart can expand a little & we can breathe a bit easier, even as our body retreats temporarily from the outside world.

Tools of Compassion

6 April 2020 (Holy Week)

When the old cat draws her breath, after her blocked nose is cleaned with a freshly wrung warm towel;

When her thirst is quenched with honeyed water syringe fed via the side of her mouth without bruising her gum;

When her blind eyes shone with eye drops carefully applied without shocking her;

And when she finally settles down to rest;

I know why I have hands.

Refuge in Reading

3 April 2020

As covid-19 brings the world to a standstill, First Tutee is developing an interest in books because he spends more time at home these days.

Having zero access to television, limited exposure to social media, and supervised play, print media seems to appeal to him.

The other day he asked me why I gave away my collection of books by Roald Dahl and didn’t save any for him. I told him he wasn’t even born when I did that.

He was quiet for a while. Then he asked if I could let him know first before giving away any books from now on.

I pointed out that he hadn’t even started reading the book I got him from Nepal. It was called “Namastay.”

In “The Zoo Keeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman, there was a very disturbing account of nazi soldiers coming into a small zoo and shooting the animals one by one in their cages.

The zoo keeper’s wife, fearful for her own life as well, couldn’t do much to save the animals that she and her husband had lovingly tended to over the years.

As gun shots rang painfully outside their living quarters, the zoo keeper’s wife could only hold her young son close, and read to him to prevent him from asking questions about his animal friends being used for target practice.

This contrast of unspeakable violence by uniformed youth of supposedly superior stock against a mother reading to her child to protect him from life’s incomprehensible heartbreaks remains for me a very potent symbol of how at our most vulnerable moments, we seek refuge in words.

Perhaps First Tutee, and many children the world over will find life’s many unexplained questions in books as they wisely stay home to let the virus passover, while adults outside continue to bicker and blame like tempestuous toddlers.