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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🌈🐾
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.
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. 😊
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.