Stitching Connections

3 June 2020

I found a tear in one of the pajamas bottoms and decided to sew it shut with a bit of thread instead of discarding it.

My grandpa in dark pants with a friend at the temple he cared for all his life. Behind them are the painted door guardians of the temple.

And in that instance of stitching up the hole, I felt the knobby hands of my grandparents from across the years.

Vivid memories of my grandpa’s stitches on the edges of his pockets and sides of cloth carriers appeared in my mind.

My grandpa was always mending and repairing things. He was always short on money, but never short tempered. He had this gift of approaching chores with an almost meditative attitude which made me want to potter around him more.

Whether it was sweeping the temple compound, arranging grand offerings for the gods or preparing leftovers to feed stray cats, my grandpa did them all carefully & methodically. No work was above or beneath him.

Those wordless afternoons with him would later shape my learning with male teachers and male mentors when I entered school.

The temple door guardian was witness to many of my wordless afternoons with my grandpa. He is now my gateway to my grandpa and my childhood.

Journey to Jasmines

22 May 2020

Tomorrow is new moon observation.

With the nation wide restrictions on human movements and activities, I wasn’t sure if flowers would still be available at the supermarket near my home.

Medical safety aside, getting dressed and donning a mask to make that walk in our humid weather did threaten my flower offering practice.

But I finally made the flower trip while being fully aware that it might turn out to be a “wasted” one.

Outside the supermarket, the styrofoam box that was used to contain the jasmines was empty except for the crushed ice that was meant to keep the flowers fresh.

The bouquets on sale were too large for the vases at home and it looked like I was going home “empty handed.”

Oh well…at least I got to buy new sponges for the sink and some bread, dried fruits and nuts, I thought to myself as I reluctantly accepted the reality of my unproductive trip.

As I made my way home, I turned to take one last look at the bouquets, hoping I could perhaps find a smaller one.

It was then I spotted a burly man showing great interest in the empty styrofoam box, much like what I did earlier on.

Burly Man wore dark clothes and had industrial shoes on. He looked like one of those container truck drivers, not someone you would associate with flowers, especially jasmines.

He gesticulated at the cashier with great familiarity to ask where the jasmines were. The latter made a quick dash to someone inside the supermarket.

Before long, a young male staff appeared, cradling a large bag of packed with little packets of jasmines & showed them to Burly Man. Both men smiled widely at the treasured florals & exchanged pleasantries.

By then, Burly Man knew I was also looking to buy jasmines and garlands, if they were available.

As the packets of jasmines rained down into the styrofoam box, Burly Man helped me sort out the garlands which were in limited supply from the unstrung ones, while picking a few packets for himself.

I paid for the garlands for Ganesha, for Avaloki and for St Francis, and thanked Burly Man for getting the jasmines out of cold storage for me.

Burly Man will never know he had played such an important role in a stranger life’s yesterday.

His timely appearance assured me that making “inconvenient journeys” without the certainty of their outcomes, except that they be a gesture of commitment, must be done even when things don’t pan out the way I hope or want.

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.

Sweet Potato Porridge

20-02-20

The ritual dish that binds me to my ancestors – sweet potato porridge.

Today I cooked sweet potato porridge in memory of my Kinmenese grandmother.

Where she came from, the soil was not conducive to rice farming, but good for growing sweet potato, yam(taro) and groundnut.

Adding sweet potato to rice porridge created bulk that filled the tummy. It also sweetened the plain porridge, and augmented the aroma of cooked rice.But most of all, it kept big families with little money from going hungry.

The only picture we have with our Kinmenese grandmother. This was in our first HDB flat in the 70s, where the refrigerator occupied pride of place in the living room. 😊

Each day after school, we would come home to my grandmother’s sweet potato porridge. Whatever meat side dishes were reserved for the evening meal when everyone was home. For lunch, my brother and I were happy with fried eggs and fermented bean curds or braised groundnuts to go with our porridge.

I can still see my brother in my mind – crew cut and bare torsoed in his primary school maroon shorts fanning his piping hot porridge with his exercise book impatiently.

Braised groundnuts and fermented bean curd.

Sometimes on a hot day, a watery bowl of rice porridge with sweet potato bits in it was all the nourishment I needed.

Over the years I’ve seen the humble sweet potato porridge listed in restaurants and hotel eateries. Many people who have the means to order far more superior staples on the menu gush over the sweet potato porridge.

Like some ritual food that binds a people to their cultural origins, the sweet potato porridge is more than a comfort food to me.

It reminds me of the generosity & ingenuity of Providence, and the faith of our forefathers that life would improve despite being confronted with evidence of scarcity & uncertainties everywhere.

If people before us could survive on such humble food and open up so many opportunities for others, our generation will definitely do better.

Flowers from Red Radish 2 (Numen) blessing Sweet Potato Porridge.

Goodbye, Styrofoam

17 Feb 2020

Lunch of rice porridge and its accompanying condiments on clay/ ceramic crockery.

For years I had been eating my lunch, and sometimes dinner, out of styrofoam boxes.

I would be shoveling food absent-mindedly into my mouth with a flimsy plastic spoon that threatened to snap at any moment, while staring at the school computer screen, and trying to process the flood of emails worded by equally stressed out co-workers.

Meanwhile, I was also tracking time on the bottom of the screen and waiting for the dreaded bell that signalled the end of my meal break and the start of lesson, to ring.

Is this what being a full time school teacher has made me?

Meal times are sacred. It honours earth’s bounty and the hands that prepare food, not to mention my salary that goes to pay for them.

Yet most of the time, I was too anxious to even finish my styrofoam box packed lunch of 1 meat and 2 vegetables combo, much less to savour the flavours.

The table cloth is a humble old world feature that seems to have disappeared.

When I stopped working full time, one of the things I was very determined to do was to prepare my own meals in the most fuss free manner possible, and serve them on REAL crockery. The crockery could be clay, metal, or glass, because the time of eating from receptacles made of petroleum by-products had to end.

My misgivings of disposable food containers did not originate from health concerns or from the love of the environment. It was a lot more self-centred.

Using disposable food containers on a near daily basis makes me feel cheap. It tells me that I’m not worthy of real plates & real spoons or real chopsticks. Like the disposables, I can be carelessly thrown away too.

I’m fine with eating food wrapped in paper because paper is flat. Paper doesn’t try to look like a container & mock me.

As the anxieties of holding a full time job and courting approvals decrease, my satisfaction with the simplest of meals taken without hurry or without people talking over my head increases.

My cats eat from stainless steel plates from Thailand (yes, Zebra Brand) and Ollie drinks from a clay bowl made in Japan.

As a human being I delight in cakes served on paper doily and food on washable ceramic wares or banana leaves. A well seasoned but clean table cloth made from real cotton adds a special charm of its own during meal times.

“吃饭皇帝大” meaning “every person is emperor at meal time,” is a Chinese folk saying. It shows respect accorded to someone who is having his meal (eating rice). And by this gesture to honour Rice, a gift from Mother Earth.

These days I get to eat my rice porridge where plants by my window quietly grow.

I think of people eating from styrofoam boxes while being harassed by all kinds of demands & deadlines. And I remind myself to always try to be considerate and respect people when they are taking their meals, especially if they’re eating out of styrofoam containers.

Of Turquoise & Rainbow

12 Feb 2020

The turquoise stone necklace from Nepal. Turquoise is cherished among Tibetans, First Nation Peoples, Egyptians and many old cultures for its many healing & spiritual purposes.

Today I wore my necklace of turquoise stones from Nepal to an animal shelter in Singapore. My friend had invited me to join her for some volunteering work there.

Turquoise is called the Sky Stone by Tibetans. It has many healing properties. By having turquoise on me, I wanted to remind myself to constantly project vibes of health & vitality, and not pity on the animals that I saw or touched. And of course I also wanted to look good and dress up for the cats and dogs.

Like most animal shelters, this one is located in a fairly remote part of Sg. Volunteering is a commitment that requires planning, time and travelling.

Not one to take such an opportunity lightly, we decided to dedicate today’s work at the shelter to my friend’s late brother. He had set an example of kindness to animals for his younger sister during their growing up years.

When he was studying in JC (Junior College), he rescued a kitten. He was the first in her family to persuade their parents to adopt a dog. And because of him, their home has become a refuge for a number of animals over the years.

Upon our arrival at the shelter we met a young man who was there on his own. Daryl had just completed JC and wanted to spend his time helping animals.

When my friend’s brother rescued his first kitten years ago, he was around the same age as this volunteer, Daryl. ♥️

So the morning went by with us unwrapping metal frames, hooking them to each enclosure to increase vertical space for the cats, and slipping pillow cases over the frames to form beddings for the feline occupants to sleep comfortably above ground.

“Hurry up, housekeeper! Make my bed!” Miss Tortoiseshell urged.
Our labour gave the shelter operator who is on 24/7 a bit of rest, and freed up time for the more experienced volunteers to tend to the cats’ feeding & cleaning needs.

A few were trying to climb onto their midair contraptions even as their “housekeepers” were still making their beds.

When the beddings were secured, the cats took to their mini airmocks with gratitude.

A very talented dessert chef also came to make the beds for animals! She brought SWEETNESS to the shelter.

Meanwhile, the rain came, followed by the glorious sun.

This little calico girl demanded cuddles from everyone.

Towards tea time, every single cat that was visible to us was acknowledged. Eye contact, smiles, head rubs, cuddles and wishes of healing were given & received.

This shy one came closer and put her face against the wire netting for some contact after hearing the steady intonation of the prayer of compassion.
This ginger baby and his mom were rescued from culling at a resort. May business owners be kind and wise to all sentient beings, not just to the ones that can talk and pay.
Even the more nervous kitties stood their ground, calmly facing us as we spoke softly to them.

And the kitties in hiding would have felt our goodwill, for the whole shelter was bathed in a golden afternoon light when our mission was completed.

After the shelter, we stopped by a cafe for some needed hydration & reflection. The cafe was located in a garden nursery with very strong balinese landscape features.

We took pictures with the balinese stone carvings of dancers and frangipani, and the Rainbow showed up to join us. Of course there are scientific and technical explanation for its appearance in the photos. But we were thrilled with the unexpectedness of it all, as if we had been bestowed some divine blessings even as we were simply having fun.

The Rainbow is a much loved symbol in many cultures. It is ever present even if we’re not consciously seeking it.

When I got home later in the evening I checked a text that was sent from Nepal during our time at the shelter.

The text came with a picture.

“Lisa, what’s this?” Reena texted. I lost this turquoise earring in the hills of Hatibaan. We searched outside and inside of Reena’s car. Her driver nearly took the car seats apart. But the earring refused to show. Now months later, it appeared.

It showed my Nepali host, Reena, holding on her palm, one half of the turquoise earrings that matched the necklace I wore today. I had lost that earring last December in Nepal.

And just this morning I was wondering if I would ever see the missing half of my earrings again.

The surprise emergence of a little turquoise after being lost for months seemed to be showing me that what is spoken or thought of with love can never be completely lost.

And this thought encourages me to dedicate whatever remaining time and energy I have to seemingly “lost” causes.

It also strengthens my habit of performing deeds of relief in the name of people and animals that have left this earthly realm.

Like the Rainbow that arches over us, we are constantly held and supported by the sacred presence of those we love.

“Run to the Rescue with Love, and Peace will follow.” – River Phoenix, the late brother of Joachim Phoenix.

The Cat’s Potato-sized Hope

6 Feb 2020 (Day 13 of Lunar New Year)

Ollie inspects the newly bought red radishes from Sheng Shiong Supermarket. He hopes the sunlight by the living room windows will be enough for them to continue sprouting the few leaves they have.
He puts one in a snail shape pot containing soil and water it.
The leaves are looking good, but the red radish root appears to be shriveling. So Ollie prays over it.
Red Radish Two grows slowly but steadily.
Ollie is pleased to see the lush green leaves thriving even if there’s no sign of flowers.
“Just take your time. I know we cannot hurry Mother Nature,” Ollie says to his Red Radishes 1,2 and 3.
Ollie’s puppy friend, Nicki Ning-en sniffs at Red Radish Two.
Ollie tries to make sure his Red Radishes get to meet the morning sun.
Red Radish One is flowering while Red Radish Two needs more time.
Ollie is happy to see his plants thriving under the sun & windhorse prayers flags everyday. A cat loves his garden even if it’s made up of a few pots of plants.
Ollie is greeted by the new blooms of Radish Two on the 13th Day of the Lunar New Year celebration.
The first flower is pink.

Ollie learns to see hope in the size of a potato, like the small red radish. And even if it cannot grow as fast as he likes, or may not even flower after all the troubles, being kind and showing care is definitely an act of hope.

A Five Flower Celebration (人日)

31 Jan 2020 (Day 7 of Chinese New Year)

Yesterday around sunset, Ollie sat by the window and gave thanks for the Windhorses and his little garden of 2 small pots of radish leaves and 1 flower.

This morning when he woke up, there were 5 flowers!

“Ma, we have 5 flowers!” – Ollie the old cat

[五福临门] means the Arrival of Five Blessings. It is an old Chinese greeting which sounds nice but I never really felt its meaning till today.

The Five Blessings are longevity, prosperity, good health, magnanimity and an auspicious end when a full life has been lived.

In Chinese folklores, humans were born on the 7th day of the lunar new year. This day is called “ren ri” [人日].

Ollie and I would like to take this auspicious morning of 5 flowers blooming in our home to wish all friends and all human beings the Five Blessings, for our benefit and the benefit of all sentient beings.

【人日安康 众生得益】

(May our blessings extend to all beings)

Day of the Horse (马日)

30 January 2020 (Day 6 of CNY)

According to chinese folklores, horses were born on the 6th day of the lunar new year celebration.

My Kimenese grandma was very mindful of animals, flowers and trees even when she was observing mainly human-centric rituals.

For example we were not allowed to sew anything on the first day of the lunar new year lest we sewed shut the eyes of baby animals born around this time.

It seemed like a load of superstitious nonsense in my youth, but my exposure to animals over the years taught me that my grandma’s belief & practice was her way of not causing harm to others in whatever ways she could.

The Chinese characters on the red paper, [敬土爱人] which came from her birthplace of Kinmen Island can be translated into “Respecting Earth, Loving Humans.” It is an exhortation to love the soil that we walk on and to love people as well.

This pair of handsewn donkeys represents all equine animals, including horses. I got them from a craft fair years and years ago.

So on this Day of the Horse, may we respect Earth and all her inhabitants, animals included, and become loving people.

First Bloom in My Home

29 Jan 2020 (5th Day of CNY)

Yesterday I hosted my first ever canine guest in the Year of the Rat at my home.

Overnight a little pink flower bloomed.

With the heavy rain all day today, I’m not sure if the flower can take the cold.

And yet amidst news of contagions & quarantines this lil’ wisp of a flower has chosen to unfold.

As tiny as she is, this delicate messenger has petals which she unrolls bit by bit, without haste and almost unnoticeable, giving me hope that the simplest prayers that we make for healing and reconciliation with Nature will be heard & answered. 🙏