When we were children, my Kinmen grandma had the practice of waving smokes from burning sandal wood towards us.
My brother and I in our clean pyjamas would stand obediently facing her as the comforting aromas filled the space. We did not choke nor feel suffocated.
As a result, juniper incense makes me feel at home in Nepal.
The caregiver of the animal shelter gives me the chance to make a burning sage offering for the resident cats and dogs whenever I’m there.
As I move about the shelter systematically & wave the sage smokes towards each refugee animal and offer words of blessings and aspirations of finding good homes, a number of them will start gathering around me.
At such a moment I sometimes feel I’m my grandma and the animals are my brothers and me. 😊
At a recent visit, one elderly dog perked up when I passed the sage smoke over her head. Alexi is 16 and feeling disorientated. She used to be the first animal to toddle towards me and place her head below my palm to take in the sage blessings. After that she and one of her cat sidekicks would follow me around as I moved from enclosure to enclosure, as if to assure everyone of my benevolent intentions.
That day after the blessing, HK helped Alexi put on her wheels and took her to walk the shelter grounds like in the old days.
Perhaps despite Alexi’s aging form and neurological issues, the sage smoke reminds her that all is not lost.
However, olfactory memories can hurt too.
Adeline Yen Mah of “Chinese Cinderalla,” couldn’t bear the fragrance of magnolia flowers. In her childhood she had to bury her only pet chick whom she had named PLT ( Precious Little Treasure) under the Magnolia Tree after it was killed by her father’s german shepherd.
It is my wish that no children or anyone will ever have to hold such tragic olfactory associations. And for those who do, may they be guided to transform traumas to peace.
And may all cherished olfactory memories heal & comfort us when time renders all other senses unreliable.
20 years ago on this day, I removed a puppy that had been kept in a junkyard along a defunct railway track and took him home.
That puppy lived for 15 years, gave me the courage to live alone and opened my eyes to the plight of street animals.
I named him Shoya 壽雅 meaning to live long & be gracious.
He gained his angel wings 7 years ago, but not a day goes by without his happy face crossing my mind. ❤️😊
Because of him I dared to venture into abandoned places to feed homeless dogs, walk in dim alleys to locate lost or injured cats and intervene in potentially abusive behaviour towards animals and people.
“Do one thing every day that scares you,” or versions of it has appeared on self improvement books, speeches & songs etc. I think taking Shoya home was the beginning of that for me.
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.
Divina, the aging shelter cat always perks up when visitor approaches her enclosure.
It doesn’t matter that her fur is unkempt and her whiskers are snotty.
She’ll make an effort to totter from her sleeping space towards anyone that stops by her enclosure without any idea if you’ll still be there by the time she makes the distance to say “hello.”
The life force emanating from this cat’s shrunken frame is unmistakable. It has so far attracted a regular visitor who has a Phd to give her special attention even as he’s charmed and surrounded by many cuter and fatter kitties.
Yesterday Divina’s love for life attracted a professional groomer to drop by.
Moved by her gentle spirit, and encouraged by the glorious morning sunlight, the groomer felt that it was the right time to give the old cat her well deserved spa. Permission from her caregiver was sought and given.
Deftly & decisively, matted knots and dead skins were removed, and dirt filled nails threatening to maim were trimmed.
Shampoo and warm shower followed to wash off all offending residues that had weighed her down. At the sink, I found myself giving thanks to Mother Water.
Back to her enclosure, the ancient cat purred and closed her eyes in dreamy bliss as she was being fluffed & towelled dried.
Yesterday was the Groomer’s day off. And she had chosen to spend a part of her rest & play to serve someone who cannot pay.
I believe with or without the cleaning, Divina’s spirit is pure and loving.
But in the grooming of Divina, I felt we’re in some ways grooming ourselves to be free from impediments & judgements. 🙏
Be it material or spiritual attainments, it’s natural for us to seek the best. And when it comes to viewing highly elusive creatures such as birds, we earthlings strive for the closest distance to catch a glimpse of them.
At the “King of The Skies,” show at Jurong Bird Park yesterday, we had been assigned seats that would bring us up close and personal with raptors, vultures, eagles and kites.
But noting my walking cane, the young usher kindly suggested that my friends and I took the upper tier of the spectator stand. The “good” seats would require us to descend a number of steps.
I took the usher’s advice and my friends gamely gave up their choice seats to join me.
And this was how we came to settle under a beautiful tree whose emerald branches laced the sky of azure blue.
I remember thanking the tree silently as I took pictures of my friends smiling against his verdant backdrop.
When the show started, one by one, the Brahminy Kite, which was one of my friends’ favourite birds, flew from their handlers and came to perch on the branches right above us!
Raising my face, I saw the underbelly of the Brahminy Kite. Holding my breath, my eyes drank in the distinct markings of warm browns, black linings and pristine white torso of the creature.
We couldn’t have gotten better seats than these, I screamed inwardly.
Over the years, my weakened leg has taught me to see clearly and not to feel bitter or shortchanged by the limitations that come along with it. Speed is important, but it’s not the only thing or everything to worthwhile living.
As the ancient poet Rumi says, “What you seek is seeking you,” and in my case, regardless of physical barriers, has happened to me many times before, and yesterday at the Jurong Bird Park again.
And because I’ve experienced the grace of this particular Rumi wisdom, extremes such as the fastest, and the latest or even the best cannot make me feel unseated easily.
Last week we visited Jurong Lake Gardens where parts of it were still being landscaped.
The lake joins the Jurong River (Sungei Jurong) which passes my flat on its way to the sea.
16 years back, this park had few footpaths. Its relative inaccessibility & mosquito presence was ironically an ideal gathering place for former farmers or elderly labourers who had much time and some money on their hand, but not many places to go.
Under the banyan trees that skirted the water, these old men sat on roots and decaying trunks to play chess, chat quietly about their kampong childhood or just smoked in silence.
But most of all, they showed kindness to Margo & Mikhail, two stray dogs that had sought refuge in the relative wildness of the undeveloped park. Like these old men who had been forgotten by progress, these dogs also had no place to go.
The female stray dog had a delicate frame and would prance gazelle-like to her food when I whistled for her. Sometimes I could see her stretch out in the moonlight when my taxi passed by. So I named her Margo, after the british ballerina, Margo Fonteyn.
The male stray was more cautious and would only come to eat after I had walked away. I named him Mikhail, after Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Russian ballet dancer who defected to the West.
When Margo’s life was under threat from complaints lodged against her by joggers and cyclists who felt threatened by her barking, one of her elderly protectors who loved her the most asked me to find her a real home.
And my friend and her husband gave Margo a home, and doted on her till she passed on at a ripe old age.
For a week after Margo left the park, Mikhail still turned up for his meals. Then he was never seen again.
Today both old men and dogs are gone. But the banyan trees that listened to happy chatters and bore witness to kindness to two homeless dogs are still there.
So on this recent visit, I thought I would name two old banyan trees, Margo and Mikhail, in honour of the blessed encounters between Man & Nature, long before the Jurong Lake Gardens was accessible as a place of leisure.
Today we visited an animal shelter for cats & dogs.
I’m beginning to see life as a series of crossings all sentient beings have to make. Some crossings are very hard. Besides providing food and care for animals, we might help them cross from sickness and fear to more auspicious states through our prayers and personal rituals.
So I brought sage leaves and prayer flags with me to the shelter in hope that they might be of service.
After wiping down the cats, I came to the end of the shelter corridor where a stupa stood on a metal trolley.
A stupa is sanskrit for a dome structure used for buddhist meditation or for holding sacred texts and relics. Stupas vary in size. Some are small enough to be placed on dashboards.
I think the stupa at Boudha in Kathmandu, Nepal, is probably the largest on the planet. Walking around it can cultivate wisdom and compassion. The stupa that needed cleaning today was about half my height.
As I was removing dust from the stupa with a wet cloth, a large orange cat suddenly hopped onto the trolley top. He began weaving around the stupa as if he was making a circumambulation with his body!
When I managed to peel him off the stupa, he wrapped his paws around my neck and started purring and rubbing his face against mine affectionately.
I lit a sprig of sage leaves and passed their white plumes of aromatic smoke over and around the stupa after the cleaning was done.
Then holding the burning sage, I walked down the length of the corridor and paused at each animal enclosure.
The cats were fascinated. Many came towards me and lingered at the wire mesh to be closer to the smoke blessings.
Even their 17 year old dog snoozing at the doorway got up and joined us.
At the section that housed the dogs, we were barked at. Then as their eyes followed the smoke and their ears picked up the prayers, many calmed down.
A girl dog with gentle eyes wagged her tail merrily at us and wouldn’t let us out of her sight.
As I prayed for the animals to be healthy and happy, and to be released from all causes of difficulties in life, I realised I was essentially praying for myself.
Towards late afternoon, my friend raised the prayer flags over the entrance to bless everyone.
We learnt that the shelter caregiver’s late mom had been wanting to get a set of prayer flags for their shelter since they moved here. But the daily upkeep of the place and looking after animals left them with little time or energy to go looking for prayer flags.
My friend initiated this shelter visit about 2 weeks ago. The sage leaves were given to me recently. The prayer flags were gifts from years ago. I learnt that today is the feast day of the archangels.
All these seemingly random occurrences have come together to facilitate my intentions to support animals and their caregivers. And it brings me comfort to know that the prayer flags put up today will be fluttering under the light of the mid-autumn full moon in a day’s time.