The rain started last night and continues to this morning. I lit a light to thank Rain that cleanses, hydrates and heals. Then I thought of the animal shelters that flood during downpours. My mind went to the street animals having to brave the torrents on their own.
So I asked Fire to give them warmth and keep them dry.
Although I tended to incense and candles in the taoist temple of my childhood where my grandfather was caretaker, my friendship with Fire as an adult only began when I lit my first tea light in the Notre Dame Catheral in France.
After that, I lit my first tea light in Singapore at the grotto of the Church of St Peter & St Paul at Queen Street to support a friend who had to put down his dog, Socks.
Then I found out I could also meet Fire below the image of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus at the Church of St Mary’s of the Angels.
In my 40s, visits to Patan and Boudha in Nepal brought me closer to Fire. Aging has somehow given me a porosity that allows me to soak up the illuminating presence of Fire at the prayer rituals I withessed there.
And so certain am I of Fire’s loyalty that one of the first thoughts that comes to mind whenever loss or hardship befalls me or my friends is to raise a lamp to shine a path out of fear and confusion.
After all, my favourite catholic saint, Francis of Assisi addresses Fire as Brother Fire in “The Canticle of the Sun.”
So on a cold and wet day such as today, may we invoke the Fire within to keep ourselves and others warm and dry.
May this film on the significance of rituals which I’m happy to be part of energise you and enhance your equanimity.
In my experience, rituals are series of deliberate steps undertaken to invoke an internal order through external actions.
They can be personal & non-sectarian such as making tea or lighting a candle in the privacy of our home. They can also be public & religious, involving the community in specific locations.
When performed with focus & intention, a simple act can become a ritual.
In the absence of full participation with our senses, a ritual becomes a routine.
So central to all rituals I believe is the mindful enacting of gestures to invoke a sense of order & strength within to manage the turbulence without.
When a child has a chaotic day at school and coming home to the sight of a loving adult making tea and arranging biscuits on a plate for him for the thousandth time since he started kindergarten may have a calming effect on him. And maybe then he will have the courage to share his thoughts.
Unfortunately more and more of us are just too knackered to initiate any kind of ritual with our children. Some of us abdicate our role as ritual masters in our kids’ life to therapists, counsellors or even strangers.
The adult working world can be unforgiving& unpredictable. So having some place to be still or set the table even if it’s just to eat a simple meal of porridge, may provide a moment of peace to our battered being.
In short, rituals sustain us and lend us the motivation to give whatever we’re trying to accomplish another shot.
The pandemic has generated wave upon wave of unease & difficulties. Distrust among nations and between citizens and their governments prevail even with the availability of vaccines.
While pharmaceutical developments race to keep up with the virus, and authorities we count on are understandably none the wiser, we need to look within for that sense of balance.
And the cure that keeps us from the panic that causes harm to self and others, might just be invoked through the discovery of new healing gestures or the enacting of old restorative.
A couple of days back First Tutee turned 9 years old. I’ve known him since he was 6 and a half.
From being scared of cats, First Tutee now calls Ollie the Cat his best friend. He cried over Kitty’s passing last year & told me he would like to keep her ashes in his home when he buys his own place one day.
From struggling over differentiating “b” from “d”, he now learns his weekly spelling and dictation with ease. He composes his own stories by watching clouds and turns William Blake’s “A Poison Tree,” which he has memorised into a rap.
He listens to “War Horse” being read and learns to identify BBC accent from his favourite youtuber’s American accent. He likes Albert Narracourt a lot for his bravery and loyalty to Joey, his horse, and sketches out scenes from the book after his weekly reading aloud on ZOOM tuition.
On their morning rides to school, he’ll remind his uncle to slow down for pigeons, mynahs and sparrows feeding on the pavement.
I’ve always held the number 9 in high regard. In old Chinese culture, 9 is the number associated with the Emperor and longevity of all things positive. 9 in my minnan dialect shares the same pronunciation for “dog” which stands for faithfulness & abundance.
So on the morning of his birthday, I donated $99 to Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary in First Tutee’s name. I wished for him a healthy and happy long life, full of kingly attributes while staying humble and sharing his abundance with all sentient beings.
A while later, the shelter updated their list of sponsors on facebook and believe it or not, First Tutee was sponsor number 9!
In the evening I realised First Tutee’s full name contains 9 letters, and in his religion, God has 99 names. 🙏♥️
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. 🙏
“Would you like to hug him one last time?” the pet crematorium staff asked as I stood at the furnace.
China Black, the slipper-sized black kitten that I rescued from under the vending machine in Chinatown some 15 years ago had passed on in early dawn.
I took the white shrouded bundle from the crematorium staff & held it close to my heart, like I’ve done so each morning for the past years.
China Black loved cuddles. He began his day by hopping onto one of the shelves to make eye contact with me when I entered their room to feed and water them. Only after getting hugged would he leap out of my arms to join the rest for breakfast.
Of late he started sleeping more in his favourite corner on the floor, and eating & drinking soon became a chore.
Hospitalising a cat like China Black that had never left the security of his home since the day he came back from sterilisation was out of the question. He was as affectionate as he was nervous and he resented being caged or confined in any way.
So I tried to make his last days at home as comfortable as possible, and let him pick wherever he wanted to lie down.
A few hours before he passed on, the rain came, followed by thunder and lightning. I lit incense to give thanks for the cool breeze and deliverance from the suffocating humidity of the past few days.
Then I cleaned China Black in scented water with pomegranate leaves like I had been doing for the past few days.
Despite his weakened state, he purred loudly and his eyes glowed affectionately, as if he was trying to memorise my face.
As I massaged his limbs that used to be so nimble and quick, I told him not to be afraid of bodily deteriorations. We had to give up this old shell for something better.
Then I stroked his face, held his little paw that I had kissed so often and said, “You’ve given me so many things. You don’t have to struggle to hold onto this body anymore. Wherever you go, you’ll always be home. Go & rest now, Momma’s always here.”
After he had 3 sips of honey water I carried him back to his favourite corner on the floor. I had wished he would sleep in the cat cage where it was cosy and clean. But I respected his will. To shield his bony body from the cold ceramic floor, I put a cotton shirt on him.
Before I turned in for the night, I lit a butter lamp that would accompany China Black and all in the room.
As I passed the butter lamp over China Black’s head and body to bless him, he looked up at me in full awareness. I felt him receiving the blessings. I did the same for Hakim & Emmaneul, his cat brothers. They seemed to understand what I was doing and didn’t try to hide or run from the fire, but looked at me intently and calmly.
The next morning I woke up and did my morning prayers before I checked on the cats, which was my second act of the day. And as I faced the rising Sun to give thanks for Life, I was surprised to find myself giving thanks for Death as well, for the first time.
When I looked into the cat room, China Black was lying inside the cat cage. As I stood wondering how he could possibly have the strength to walk and climb onto the raised cage, the words, “Angels were here,” popped into my head.
China Black had passed on as if he was asleep.
It lifted my heart to know that my little cat’s soul has left in the cool of the night, where the air was crisp and the sky was sparkling with stars.
I’m no student of theology or devotee of any particular spiritual teachings, but I felt assisted when needed. In sharing this experience with China Black, I hope that all who deal with animals be given guidance and resources to honour the death of their animals as much as they have benefitted from their lives.
And for those who are struggling with the inevitable end of animals in their care, may they find the rituals most suited to them to help their animals and themselves to make this difficult but necessary crossing. 🙏🌈🐾
Each week day morning for the past 30 odd years, a single question filled me with dread. And that is, “Will I be able to get a taxi to school on time?”
And I cannot even describe the existential crisis that awaited me on rainy days.
Pre-Grab App mornings, my senses were attuned to only ONE thing. And that is, the automated response from the taxi company handling my booking.
I was all dead to morning birdsongs as my whole being was focused on listening for the robotic voice to tell me the car number of the taxi assigned to me.
With Grab App, my eyes were glued to the iphone screen, tracking the rush hour cab rates & availability, while trying not to hyperventilate. Some days I felt as if my heart would just stop and I might black out on my way to the cab.
With so much going on in my mornings, I never really noticed the Sun.
If I made it to school on time for the morning assembly, my thoughts would be on whether I could log onto the digital attendance marking platform, or whether a student had brought the letter of excuse or medical certificate after the umpteenth reminder. And if I still couldn’t log on by then, I needed to update the support staff asap about the attendance. Missing the cut-off time would raise questions about my efficiency or duty of care as a teacher.
The Sun’s warmth on those mornings felt like a thousand needles poking on my neck and back.
But eversince I stopped working full time, I started noticing how each morning, the Sun reveals his gentle presence in my home bit by bit, setting my flat aglow with gold while doing so.
A shaft of light against the wardrobe, a set of gold rectangles on the floor and speckled shimmers on a cat’s fur all announce the Sun’s arrival!
This morning, a friend gave me a ride to the temple on his way to work in town. The Lunar New Year festivities will be ending in a few days’ time. And while our lives and plans are affected negatively by the novel corona virus, I thought I should at least use some of my dearly bought time to dedicate prayers.
After I got off my friend’s car, I didn’t have to rush for my appointment with God. I was able to sit on one of the benches along NAFA Campus and steady my legs before making my way to a vegetarian breakfast and then for prayers across the street.
I think I’ve spent the best years of my youth not seeing the Sun because I was trying to hold down a job.
So with whatever years I still have, I hope to be able to keep my meetings with the Sun and other natural elements. And it’s great that for most of these appointments, there’s no need to take a cab.