Our Black Dogs

22 Dec 2020

This month last year there was a delay on our return flight from Nepal. SilkAir put us up at Crowne Plaza Sofitel for the night.

Amongst the clusters of travellers, climbers and pilgrims waiting for our boarding passes to be processed before we could leave the airport, there was this man by himself.

He was in his early 50s. Like most trekkers and climbers, his clothes, boots and backpack were in shades of earthy Khakis.

A couple of times we made brief eye contact, like strangers in a lift or small spaces do. Once he attempted to address me. As I was tired and didn’t have enough coffee in me to say anything worthwhile, I looked away.

But a while later I could sense that he was being contemplative, and not trying to be chatty or seeking company.

“You’re travelling alone,” I stated the obvious as our eyes met again.

“Yes, thought I’ll come to see the mountains before old age sets in,” he replied smilingly.

Over the years, he had been to the Himalayas several times with friends and loved ones. This time he had come to spend time alone with the mountains he loved so much.

“I took my son here when he was a boy. We met a black dog which started following us on our trek,” the man began.

“But at the higher pass, we had to let the dog go. It was too dangerous for him. My son cried for days when we couldn’t bring the dog with us,” he continued.

“I still have lots of pictures of them together,” he ended on a wistful note.

I didn’t add anything to what the man had said.

Perhaps this man had come to the mountains to seek pieces of himself that he had to let go in the course of preserving life.

And I wonder how many black dogs we have loved and left behind in our attempts to survive?

Margo & Mikhail of Jurong Lake Gardens.

20 Dec 2020

Thanks to Seow Hwee & Edna, this is my first walk through the Jurong Lake Gardens since 2004. (13 Dec 2020)

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.

The newly developed Jurong Lake Gardens has built footpaths that allow us to get close to the water and vegetation. Across the lake and behind me stood the apartment blocks where I now live. (13 Dec 2020)

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.

Banyan Tree, Margo. (13 Dec 2020)

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.

Ballet legend, Margo Fonteyn. Pic source: liveabout.com

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.

Ballet legend, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Pic source: ikindance.com.au

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.

One of the mature banyan trees that Margo and Mikhail would have played under in their youth.

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.

With banyan tree, Mikhail. (13 Dec 2020)

Joy, Love & Laugh

8 Dec 2020

Shoya’s necklace sparkled in the morning light.
This morning I placed your picture and your urn by the window and lighted a butter lamp and incense to mark the 6th year of your passing.
The Sun shone bright. The necklace you last wore caught the light. And the beads on them say, “Joy,” “Love” & “Laugh.”

You have given me 15 years worth of all that & more.

May you continue to carry your auspicious presence wherever you are and in whatever form you have taken, my dear Shoya.

And I shall remember to send out joy, love and laughter in your name.

Shoya and I in our younger days. His name Shoya 寿雅 means to age graciously.

World Animal Day 2020 Prayer Flag Blessings

5 Oct 2020

Handprinted Boudha Stupa on handcrafted lokta paper.

Yesterday 4 Oct was World Animal Day. In the morning I dedicated prayers for more kindness and care to animals. I offered flower & light to St Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Ecology & Animals.

In the afternoon I had the good fortune of presenting a set of new prayer flags to a friend who loves his adopted cats dearly.

Shortly after he got home, my friend unrolled the prayer flags. His cat, Sage, showed great interest in them.

After my friend had raised the prayer flags, Sage continued to show her fascination with the carriers of blessings.

Years ago, I took a picture of my dog contemplating the inscription bearing squares of blue, white, red, green and yellow, like this lovely ginger girl did on yesterday evening

This morning, much to my amazement, the same picture I was hoping to locate popped up on my FB memories.

My dog, Shoya, contemplating the prayer flags 6 years ago.

Sage Leaves & Prayer Flags

29 Sep 2020 (2 days to Full Moon)

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.

Boudha Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. I took this shot in Dec 2019 on our last day there.

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.

The stupa at the shelter.

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.

Newly raised prayer flags for the shelter.

Andy, my Wounded Healer.

24 Sep 2020

Andy with the bandages that show what it takes for him to move around.

I first met Andy, the cream coloured paraplegic canine at Street Dog Care in the Boudha neighborhood on a full moon day in Dec 2016.

I remember how he let out nary a whimper as Junu applied medicines on his leg sores that had been rubbed raw by the abrasive contact between his skin and the metallic part of his wheels.

Andy on the full moon of Dec 2016 at the former centre.

His wounds reminded me of the ones I got on the back of my leg from scrapping the metallic caliper that I wore in my childhood.

Much to my delight, we saw Andy again in 2017 and 2018 when we visited Nepal.

Back in Singapore, I would look out for my hero in wheels whenever the centre uploaded videos of their in-house residents.

The last time I touched Andy in Dec 2018.

When we visited their newly located centre in 2018, I remembered Andy making a bee line for hugs. He was very determined to monopolise all the cuddles. El assured me that nobody would dare bully my dear Andy because he was fully capable of defending himself on two legs.

Last night I received news of Andy’s passing. I knew that day might come sooner for him than for his healthier companions, but still.

While searching for a favourite photo of me and Andy to light a butter lamp, I chanced upon another photo that had been missing for so long that I thought I would never find it. It was a photo of a student and I in my younger days on a happy occasion.

Long lost photo found through Andy.

Even in his passing, the little dog had helped me locate a long lost picture to remind me to keep smiling. ♥️🙏

May all the affection & care that precious Andy boy received from Street Dog Care in this lifetime facilitate his passage onto an auspicious realm. 🌈🐾

What We Carry

17 August 2020

On my 40th birthday celebration in 2004.

I used to carry pretty handbags. Now I carry dogs and cats, and some kibbles.

These days with the knowledge that anyone can carry virus, we’re also obliged to carry hand sanitizers and face masks whether we like to or not.

In fashion magazines there’s a frequent quote that goes, “Women can never have enough handbags, or shoes,” to justify constant buying and spending.

At 47 in the Winter of 2011 in Kathmandu.

But perhaps this insatiable appetite for bags and shoes is a hidden quest to find out what we really want to carry, and where we would like to be headed during this lifetime.

I recall Ms Jane Goodall having only a small trolley bag and a backpack to hold everything she needs on her cross continental lecture trips to speak for primates. And yet at every event, she manages to look so polished and new. 😊

The Most Important Bag for me now carries relief supplies for street and community animals.

Bit by bit when I learn to carry what really matters, the old baggage of self doubt and “what would people think of me,” steadily dissolves.

I still like beautiful things, as people born under the zodiac sign of the Hare are known for. My heart still burst with affection at the primary school girls holding their glittery magic pony bags.

But the compulsion to own pretty things is losing its grip on me as my understanding of what I’m meant to carry in this lifetime gains clarity.

In my 50s at home in Singapore. (Aug 2020)

A Parcel of Light

5 June 2020

In mid April 2020, in the midst of lockdowns and stockpiling frenzy, a friend’s beloved dog passed away in the Middle East.

In her grief, my friend found lighting tealights, butter lamps and candles deeply comforting. She was also a little concerned that her supply was running low. Travel restrictions and curfews also made it hard for her to make purchases.

On 23 April I mailed her a box of butter lamps. My intention was for them to lift her spirit from the darkness of loss and to light a path for her departed Nepalese dog child.

It took a long time for the parcel of light to reach her. It had to first leave Singapore to go to the USA, and from there, it then made its way to the Middle East.

Two days ago, more than a month later, the butter lamps finally arrived at my friend’s home in the desert.

When she opened the parcel, it was also Day 49 of her dog’s passing.

Today on full moon eve and on the Tibetan holy day of Saka Dawa, my friend in the Middle East raises one butter lamp from Singapore for her Nepalese dog son. She puts it in a holder that has followed them from his country of birth.

I like to think that the butter lamps that I sent out on account of a humble dog must have blessed many postal workers and handlers as they passed oceans and deserts in time for his 49th day observation.

And I couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious timing for my friend’s gloom to be lifted as she celebrates her beloved companion’s entry into the full moon and into Saka Dawa.

May we continue to be Bearers of Light for one another, regardless of what forms we take and what kind of crossings we make.

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha. 🌈🙏🐾

Hand on Heart

10 May 2020

“Ms Ong, is that Mother Mary?” a young voice rang out during zoom tuition.

The kids on zoom saw the painting of the Madonna behind me as I adjusted my notebook.

“Yes, she’s the Perfect Mother. She knows when to hold on and when to let go,” I explained.

When I assured the kids that Mother is always watching our zoom meetings, the girls smiled and one of the boys started singing, “Let it Be.”

To soothe a fearful child or animal, we often hold them close to our chest. And babies and animals often place their hands or paws on the heart area of those who are cuddling them.

It’s an honour to have one’s heart physically touched like this, and perhaps even healed.

So hand on heart, on this Mothers’ Day, may I wish that all male & female hearts be touched and healed of all imbalances, for our own benefit, and for the benefit of all sentient beings. 🙏🌈🐾

Life Affirming Ways

12 March 2020

Last week, after a dinner of porridge, we stopped by a neighbourhood housing estate to buy some fruits.

An elderly lady came by with her happy little Jack Russell on leash. I smiled at her & greeted her dog to show that I had no issue with her dog brushing against me as we crossed path.

As they walked ahead, I heard shrieks. They were from 3 young children who seemed to suddenly appear from nowhere.

In unbridled delight, the Little Humans huddled around the Jack Russell as the owner stopped in her track to let her dog meet his/her fans. Parents followed to supervise their offspring’s canine interaction .

While the adults chatted, the kids looked adoringly at the dog, each seeking for a cuddle with the Jack Russell.

After the Jack Russell, we chanced upon a Red Poodle sitting pretty like a toy in traditional wedding shop. Her tiny yelps alerted her owner, who was mending a quilt, to our presence. Not to be outdone, Red Poodle’s little sister, Snowy, joined in the barking.

We laughed in amusement at the cuddly burglar alarms taking their guarding duty so earnestly.

Seeing that we were not afraid of her dogs, the proprietress of the wedding shop, Ms Clara Pay, invited us in.

The Red Poodle took an immediate liking to El and had eyes only for him throughout our time there.

Snowy was a bit more selective and hesitated before leaving her basket to check us out.

Meanwhile, our eyes feasted on the splashes of red & gold of the traditional bridal paraphernalia in the shop. They had an energising effect on the viewers, and facilitated the flow of conversation between us and the shop owner.

In between asking her dogs to stop barking, Clara shared her interest in handicrafts with us and spoke candidly about her overseas travels. She visited traditional craft fairs where she learnt new skills and came home inspired.

A Malay couple passing by paused outside the shop to smile at the poodle sisters. They waved back when we waved at them.

El asked about the lacquered baskets on the top shelves and learnt that they were antique wedding baskets. Some of these black, red & gold pieces painted with auspicious symbols had found their way to Clara after their original owners who had lived a long & rich life passed on.

She restores the baskets if needed, displays them and safe keeps them till these heralds of joy find new owners who can appreciate them all over again.

On the surface, Clara may seem like an ordinary Singaporean woman running a traditional bridal shop in an ordinary housing board estate in the west.

Clara & I happened to share similar sounding Chinese names. She is 素珍 (su zhen) while I’m 淑贞 (shu xhen).

But to me she’s an important custodian of heirlooms of people unrelated to her. Her shop holds pieces of someone else’s personal histories & memories, much like how she mends and stitches together the tears on the old quilt on her glass counter top.

So even as life can be fragile and uncertain, there are people not necessarily medically trained, such as little children who gush over a Jack Russell, and Clara, who runs a bridal shop, affirming life in their own exuberant and quiet ways all the time.