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.
Today being a high holiday, I thought it’s good to raise a new set of windhorse prayer flags. They are called lungta in Tibetan & originated in the shamanic cultures of east asia.
Each coloured flag representing each of the 5 elements has a horse and prayer inscriptions printed on it.
Blue for the sky, white for air, red for fire, yellow for earth and green for water.
One of the beliefs regarding the purpose of windhorse flags agrees with my practice. And it is that as the prayer flags flutter in the wind, all the auspicious words printed on them are carried by the windhorse energy towards all sentient beings in all directions.
I started raising these prayer flags in hope of blessing & protecting homeless dogs & cats living in the industrial areas near my home.
Later on I started dedicating prayers of safety to their human feeders as well.
On the recent reunion dinner evening, an elderly feeder was busily cooking for “her” factory dogs when I dropped by her home to hand her a small donation.
Her home was beautifully decorated to welcome the Year of the Rat. This dog feeder has a husband, grown up kids and grandkids. She thinks cooking to feed the factory dogs is as important as cooking the reunion dinner for her family.
Her dedication renewed my interest in prayer flags.
There are also slaughter houses near my home. It is my intention that the consciousness of each duck, each chicken, each pig, each goat, each lamb each cow and each animal being that is killed be free from terror as the windhorse guides it towards an auspicious beginning.
And may the windhorse prayers also lead us to act kindly, wisely and calmly as we learn to placate the flu elements without causing further harm to ourselves and to all sentient beings.
I first learnt of Barry Lopez maybe 10-15 years ago while reading up on issues related to animals & conservation. At that time I was trying to read “Of Wolves and Men” by him but somehow his language eluded me.
But still, each time I visit a bookshop, his name would catch my eye and I would find myself saying an inward hello.
The day after this new moon, an interview of Barry Lopez by Vincent J Miller popped up on my FB feed. So I read it, counting on the fact that words from an interview might be more accessible to me.
It was a long interview called “The Literary Landscape of Barry Lopez.” And every word from him felt like God speaking to me!
After I recovered from the near spiritual experience, I felt compelled to share Lopez’s interview with two friends. One is still on his pilgrimage at La Verna where St Francis of Assisi received his Stigmata and the other will be taking a retreat in a Cistercian Monastery two days after I leave for Nepal.
The La Verna pilgrim texted back to say he would be drawing on Lopez’s interview to close his journey.
The Cistercian pilgrim thanked me for the share and he’ll be reading the interview as part of his preparation for the retreat.
Their responses rekindled my courage to read Lopez, especially now that his new book “Horizon” was available at the Jurong East Regional Library.
I was completing some errands at Clementi Mall when the thought of borrowing “Horizon” came. I resisted the urge to make a reservation and told myself if I was meant to read it, it would still be there by the time I took the train and walked to the library.
When I got to the library, I looked up “Horizon” on their online catalogue & noted its call number on paper.
As I was walking to the lift and trying to visualise where the shelf that held “Horizon” might be, I asked a library staff for direction.
“You just take a seat & wait here, I’ll bring you the book,” the young lady offered enthusiastically!
In no time time she was back. She smiled triumphantly as she placed a beautiful blue book in my hands.
When I opened the book, the first thing that greeted my eyes was a painting with the Himalayan Mountains as its backdrop. The painting, known as “Remember,” was by Nicholas Roerich, who spent time among the Himalayas.
I’m heading for Nepal in a weeks’ time and I couldn’t have hoped for a more suitable book to begin this trip.
And this whole experience feels that forces beyond my understanding were collaborating to assist my learning.
So I wish for everyone the grace to remember past aspirations & the faith & patience to wait for the alignment of causes & conditions to bring their aspirations to fruition.
“I want to draw the devil!” the lanky boy replied as he studied my reaction. I had asked him if he would like to do art since he wasn’t in a mood to do English work.
He had been having one altercation after another since morning.
During English class a casual request from his fellow classmate to fill up his drinking bottle had easily spiralled downwards into a shouting match of vulgarities.
It’s difficult to imagine this doe-eyed individual capable of setting fire to public property. But then again there’s also an African saying that goes, “An unloved child will set fire to the whole village to feel its warmth.”
“Why don’t we give the devil a rest today and do some mandala colouring for a change?” I asked him calmly.
His defiance dropped a little. Perhaps he was puzzled by my suggestion.
I quickly produced Susanne Fincher’s book of mandala templates and a box of Derwent colouring pencils.
The sullen boy was mildly intrigued by the display of colours before him. But the residual anger from the storm that had broken held him back.
“Yes, you should try the mandala colouring! It took me damn long but it’s nice,” one of he boys who had an earlier confrontation with him quipped. This boy had completed two mandalas to date and was very proud of his ability to start & finish well.
The boy moved closer to my desk to have a better look at the mandalas completed by other students.
“Wow! This is nice! Who did this?” Hatred gave way to fascination as he ran his fingers over the beautiful circles.
It took him a while to choose his mandala template. When he finally did, he retreated to the corner of our study room and faced the wall to get started.
I desperately wanted him to face the large window to receive the healing light of the morning sun. His battered soul needed it.
But I knew that his brittle nerves would not tolerate being told where to sit. It was good as it was that he agreed not to draw the devil but colour a mandala instead.
So I watched him quietly from my desk.
Suddenly he stopped colouring and asked, “Miss Ong, how come these two colours on my mandala look the same even though I’m using different colour pencils?”
He was referring to chrome yellow and lemon yellow. He had used them side by side in his mandala.
I looked at what he had put on his mandala and said, “Your first colour is blue representing water. And your second colour is green representing earth. And you have used two kinds of yellow to represent the Sun. The Sun must be very important to you!” I said.
He beamed at my interpretation and like a primary school child, asked me to repeat every thing I just said.
The way he smiled and breathed as I repeated what his colours might mean looked like he was listening to some beautiful secret language that his soul understood.
I then went on to explain that the reason why he couldn’t tell the 2 yellows apart was because where he sat didn’t allow enough light to see clearly. Had he faced the window where the Sun was coming from he would have been able to differentiate the colours easily.
Without a word, he gathered all his materials and turned his chair towards the Sun.
And for the rest of the lesson there was peace as the boy concentrated on making his mandala beautiful. Whenever he looked up, there was the Sun smiling back at him.
So I wish for myself and all sentient beings the grace to look towards light for healing when disappointments in life make darkness feel good and inviting.