Dressing Up for World Peace

14 Sep 2021

This pink cotton *qipao that took me to the Great Wall of China was bought at a market in Beijing in the summer of 2002. The young chinese woman behind me kept telling me how “可爱” (ke ai) meaning endearing I looked in it. We made each other’s day.
The green watch on my wrist was bought by my second younger brother on his first trip to Moderna, Italy.

*qipao – dress with mandarin collar and slits at the side modified from clothes of manchurian people.

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 talented friend draw this portrait of me in green qipao surrounded by my dog, Shoya, and my 10 cats in 2007.

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.

Finding Our Way

10 Sep 2021

My brother guiding his son on the singing bowl.

Markers pointing to roads, exits & entrances, ramp, lift lobby and carpark pick ups are very important for someone with limited energy like me because getting lost has very serious consequences

For most people, mixing up Lobby A with Lobby B in the mall or hospital is a small matter. For me it can mean how many turns and rest stops I need to take before I find my destination.

The frustrations & exhaustion of losing one’s way is real for an ageing person even without dementia or mobility issues.

I seldom accept rides or lifts from well intentioned people because dictating where they should me pick me up, drop me off or where they should park would make me sound like an ungrateful and demanding old woman. 😄

Pre-covid days at the airport check-in counter, any departure gate from letter E onwards on my boarding pass would fill me with unease even before the flight took off. On occasions when I needed wheelchair service, I made sure to tip my airport escort handsomely.

As such I have little desire to go on pilgrimages to make peace and to learn acceptance.

Finding My Way

Each step out of my flat, presents enormous potential to make peace with obstacles.

Ganesha in dancing pose is thus my favourite posture of the deity for obvious reasons. 😄

When I walk, there are detours needed to avoid a wet corridor or curb too high for me. When I take public transport, there’s the anxiety of whether I can find a seat before the bus or train moves and the worry of whether there’s a hand grab for support at my exit stop. Little steps which the able-bodied make almost mindlessly require the focus of a zen master for me.

Over the years, I’ve turned down invitations to meet not because the company is less worthy, but because of what it takes for me to show up.

Singapore may have good medical amenities but its population density, building configurations and fast paced living make it a challenging place for those in advancing years.

Active Aging is a good aspiration provided you have the right set ups, physical conditions and national mindset.

Even in supposedly easy to navigate places with escalators and non-slip flooring I’m either constantly dogding people who are in a hurry, or keeping a distance from those whose eyes are glued to their phone screens. The latter have the tendency to brake suddenly or back into people behind them.

That said, it is also not reasonable to expect human traffic in public places to slow down for the old.

Thus I understand why elderly folks cling to familiar places and are reluctant to move to new neighbourhoods. They would have to learn the terrain of their physical environment all over again. A ramp in their new housing estate may not have the same gradient like the one their legs have been used to in the past 40 years.

“With a click of a button,” as the catchphrase goes, we’re told that digitization has made the world more accessible to many. But precisely when everyone seems so well connected and mobile, the isolation for some feels even starker & more incomprehensible.

And thus I cherish every trip I can make to the grocery store, every step to my tuition class and on special days, a visit to the animal shelter, or a live performance venue while my body and senses do not have too many adjustments to make.

Finally for those of us who harbour thoughts that people who can’t keep up with changes are just being too stubborn, we can try giving up some of the things we’re used to, and see how that affects our sense of calm before we earn the right to call someone too rigid to keep up with time.

Fake pearl; Real love

11 Aug 2021

My Kinmen grandmother loved jasmines, wore black jacquard brocade satin pants on special occasions, and appreciated beautiful things.

She would buy me little trinkets of real gold but told me not to wear pearls because they were made by making oysters cry.

Oliver the one-toothed cat modelling grey faux pearls.

In my adult years, I would always stop by Mikimoto’s pearls whenever I was in Centrepoint but did not buy any. Even without the tears, I found introducing a foreign matter into an oyster on purpose to cultivate a pearl somewhat disrespectful.

Still, I’ve always loved pearls for their milky shimmer, and their association with the Moon. That was how pearl costume jewellery came into my life.

Emmanuel hates collars but will tolerate pearls.

Over the years, these fake pearls of mine have regularly stopped strangers in their track to smile at me and comment how shiny and bright they look.

Some of my pearls are nearly 20 years old, and peeling. Despite their humble origin, I keep them properly as if they belong to the Queen.

When told that the object of their admiration was not the real deal, the pearl admirers’ enthusiasm did not fade.

Perhaps the faces of men & women light up at the the strands around my neck because they can tell that even though my pearls are fake, the love is real.

And I’m reminded of the conversation between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse in Margery Williams’ book for children:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Emmnuel wears pearls effortlessly.

December 2020 Musing

24 December

Since 2010, the month of December has taken on a strong mellow glow for me.

It was in December that I travelled along the coast of Atlantic Ocean in Rabat, Morocco to visit SPANA, and touched a donkey for the first time.

The lowly donkey holds a very prominent position in my understanding of the birth of Christ.

It was also in December that my dog child, Shoya, passed on.

This morning I decided to oil the coconut shells that made up a necklace bought years ago. I had washed the necklace last night and hung it out to dry.

Flamenco music was playing softly in the background as I prepared the oil mixture of Moroccan argan oil with a dash of French lavender and Indian Patchouli. When I swept the oil mixture over the cracks and roughness of the necklace with my fingers, aromas wafted in the air and filled up my senses.

Images of Bedouin farmers and the cats I fed at the villa and hotels floated up in my mind, as if summoned by the scents of the oils and the music being played.

Then I thought of the magi’s gifts to baby Jesus- gold symbolising kingship, frankincense symbolising spirituality & myrrh symbolising suffering & death.

And I thought of the oils I anointed my dog with and the silver chain I put on his neck before he was cremated.

If even the Son of God was not spared from separation, pain and death, then we need to stop promoting the illusion that if we do everything “right”, or have power or wealth, we’ll be able to escape suffering.

The “Uncle” at the Incense Shop

6 Dec 2020

Shopping alone gives me time to study things and sometimes learn life lessons from shop staff.

Whenever I’m at Fortune Centre I would make it a point to navigate the maze of escalators to visit an incense shop tucked away among the eateries on the 3rd floor.

The shop sells incense from Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, and other ritual and aesthetic items for spiritual and leisure purposes.

The shopkeeper, whom I addressed as “Uncle” out of respect, would be watching comedies on his phone while I browsed and asked all kinds of questions about his products.

“Uncle” was always patient and allowed me to touch the prayer flags, tangkas, dorjes, incense burners and inhale the incense samples without asking me to buy anything.

Having travelled to many places in his youth before retiring as a keeper of his sister’s shop, he had learnt to always be kind to strangers.

“Always be nice to strangers,” “Uncle” once told me. “Don’t think only of your own family. For example, when you fall down outside, it’s a stranger that calls the ambulance. The ambulance driver is a stranger. The nurse attending to you is a stranger. Lot’s of things are done for you by strangers even before your relatives arrive at the hospital.”

Yesterday I was at the shop but “Uncle” wasn’t there. His sister whom he spoke fondly of was standing in his place.

“Take your time to see what you need,” the sister extended the same hospitality to me.

“Uncle” had passed away last year (December 2019). He had lived well and went peacefully.

Seeing the incense was like seeing old friends again. Every thing I touched was imbued with the kindness of the old man who was no longer there.

Before I left the shop, the silver haired sister weaved a bracelet of sacred threads from a tibetan monastery and set a turquoise bead on it. It was a gift for my mother to protect her in all encounters.

“Here, you take these. They are made by the lamas,” she spoke softly, as she placed an auspicious symbol of infinite wisdom and the union of empathy and knowledge woven in yellow thread in my hand.

The Most Expensive Ingredient in a Meal

23 Nov 2020

A dab of olive butter scented by basil on crackers and a cup of 2-in-1 coffee taste precious when time is given to take them slowly.

The bitter sweet coffee warmed my throat, travelled down my neck and spread across my shoulder. Its aroma lingered at the back of my head and exited through my brow and crown.

Scent of basil on creamy olive augmented the crispy plainness of the crackers.

Perhaps that’s why simple & inexpensive foods might also enrich us.

A friend’s dad is contented with plain basmati rice mixed with a bit of water as long as no one disturbs him when he eats. And he is very fit.

On many late afternoons, my own dad would take his crackers soaked in coffee while reading at the kitchen table. This image always comes to mind whenever I need to connect with him.

Letting Light Through

13 November 2020 (Eve of Deepavali)

To be like these leaves, solid enough to withstand the elements, yet translucent at the same time to let Light through might be how glowing softly from within looks and feels like.

Emerald and jade jewellery have to be cut & polished before they can shine.

Likewise our pride needs to be broken before we can listen. Our thoughts need to be polished before they can be spoken. And maybe after all these, there may be space for Light to pass through, and we acquire the assuring glow of the leaves.

Biscuit to My Lineage

5 November 2020

When 84-year-old Granny Weng (翁奶奶)knew that we were coming to Kinmen Island the next day, she hopped on the bus to do some shopping in the city.

Among the gifts she bought us were little round biscuits called “Kao So,” (口酥) which means crispy in the local Kinmen dialect.

Granny Weng put on this dress called qipao for this picture taking.

Over tea by the doorway of her ancient courtyard she offered us the treats which my grandmother would have eaten during her childhood more than a 100 years ago.

El sharing a joke with Granny Weng at the ancient doorway of her home. We saw the full moon together the next day.

As she eagerly removed the packaging, the hardy grandmother explained in our dialect, “kao so si lin ah ma zou gin na eh si zun siang si kiah.” (Rough translation: This biscuit was popular during your grandma’s childhood).

Granny Weng (翁奶奶) went to town to buy us the biscuits the day before we arrived. She married at 17 and raised 10 children with her husband through the war. She is now a great-grandmother of 6. The next day we watched the full moon rise together, not knowing that in a few months’ time cross border traveling would become impossible because of the pandemic.

November is a month of harvesting, uprooting & stock taking. The biscuit episode happened last June, months before border closures because of the pandemic.

Some of us may not have pedigree lineage to speak of, nor scholars or high fliers among our forefathers. But as ordinary as some origins may be, they are worth remembering.

Biting on a “Kao So” biscuit that day felt like breaking bread to renew a shared heritage that had been quietly waiting for me all these years.

And I have an octogenarian’s affection and efforts to thank for this realisation.

Salam & Namaste

2 Nov 2020

On full moon morning just 2 days ago, I placed a gift of chrysanthemum tea to quench thirst and groundnuts to give energy, on a basket outside my kitchen window.

The workers painting the outer walls of our block were in the gondola on their way up to the 40th floor. From there they would descend & paint unit by unit till they reached the ground.

The items had to be packed compactly to occupy minimum space in their gondola and not to compromise their safety.

I wrote a note to express my intention and most importantly to prevent any misunderstandings with their supervisor/employer.

SALAM means “Peace be Upon You,” and NAMASTE means,”The Light in me greets the Light in you.”

And so it was on the morning of the full moon, an exchange of offerings and blessings took place 30 plus floors above ground outside a kitchen window.

When I recalled how I placed my palms together and bowed wordlessly to the two painters while their joyful Thank Yous filled the air, I felt God visiting me. 😄

Circumambulating the Big Box (of Compassion)

22 Sept 2020

Ollie gives the mooncakes a final QC before the send off.

I was sending a parcel of mooncakes that might cheer up a friend who hadn’t been home to Singapore for some time.

The courier company was located in the Big Box Mall which was now deserted as many businesses had closed and vacated.

The island wide safe entry requirements had closed off a number of exits and entrances in the cavernous building. Coupled with a lack of signages, and with the premises boarded all around, I couldn’t tell which was the correct drop off that would lead me to the courier office.

My Grab ride was only $ 7. And for that little sum, the Grab driver drove me around the circumference of Big Box compound 3 times, and once up into the multi-story car park, hoping to find someone who could direct us to the correct door so that I wouldn’t have to walk too much.

“No, no, no! We have to find the right entrance,” he insisted, his hands clutching the steering wheel firmly.

Boudha Stupa of Compassion & Wisdom in on 8 Dec 2018.

While we were circumambulating the expo-like compound in his car, he told me about the ridiculous lengths he had to cover during his recent medical visit because the usual access routes in the hospital were blocked off for safe entry/ exit purposes.

He didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.

When I pointed out a possible drop off, he kept asking incredulously,”Are you sure?”

Actually I wasn’t sure, but I felt it wasn’t fair of me to use up his time and energy like that.

I had to practically assure him that I would be alright, before he would let me alight. And for a brief moment, I thought I saw him calibrating in his mind if he could defy the rules and drive beyond the barricades just to ease my journey.

May my friend who asked for these mooncakes and gave me the chance to experience such uncommon compassion of a Grab driver be protected in all her journeys overseas.

And may the Grab driver be restored to good health. 🙏