Safe Space for Youth

16 May 2022

A young girl from a dysfunctional family cut out a picture of a boat she found in a magazine and put it on the wall. During episodes of domestic violence, she would cope by imagining herself taking her younger brother with her and getting on that boat.

When she went down on her knees to scrub the kitchen floor, she imagined herself wiping the deck of her boat & making it shine.

This vision sustained her for many years, and kept her from developing self-destructive behaviour.

She would grow up, make something of herself & eventually owned a real boat!

This story has helped me in my dealings with young children, especially those from desperate circumstances when immediate escape was not possible.

I once gave a friendless young boy in a foster care facility a palm sized cat plush toy. It had travelled a long way from Finland to Singapore and got tossed about before it reached me, I told him. So whenever he felt lonely, he must remember to look at the toy to remind himself that he too would survive the hardship because there were people caring for him even if he couldn’t see them.

Findus to journey with a primary 5 boy in foster care facility.

The next day when we met, the boy told me he had hidden the cat plush toy inside his pillow case so that it would be safe.

He drew a card to help me remember him too. ❤️

The one needing protection had become the protector!

As I was searching for pictures to accompany this post, a former student texted to say she has been accepted into a summer programme at a reputable university. She thanked me for writing her the letter of recommendation.

The girl who once needed a simple letter to help her get started will be studying & writing scores of far more complex materials to bring about a better world for herself and others.

So here’s wishing all adults to use whatever limited means we have to create safe spaces for our youth, and wish them well, so that unlimited and unexpected good may come through.

When I see the potentials in these youths, I’m motivated to do what I can within my limits to facilitate their paths. (Primary 5 2021)

Permission to Purchase Less

22-3-22

On the first full moon of the Year of the Tiger, a new supermarket opened one unit away from the tuition centre where I work.

Heritage Supermarket Opened on the first Full Moon of the Year of the Tiger.

Heritage, as the supermarket is named, is a paradise of instant massala tea of my favourite brand, spices that evoke memories of my first & only Indian neighbour from my childhood, and lentils of every colour and size.

But most of all, this little supermarket unlike its larger competitors, allows customers to buy their potatos, tomatoes, onions etc in small quantities.

The Heritage cashier plucked a sprig of curry leaves from a bunch of fresh ones to add to the items I bought.

Big grocery stores pre-pack perishable goods to prevent customers from damaging them. This practice also drives sale and gets rid of stocks fast. However, pre-packing of fixed quantities can also cause customers to buy more than they need and eat more than they should, while leading to food wastage when expiry dates dawn.

It is perhaps not enough to harp on food wastage while others starve, and expect our relationship with food to improve when packing & unit measurement practices to justify costs to consumers are not taken into account.

Also food wastage for me is a kind of disrespect shown to natural resources & the human labour behind their cultivation.

Whenever I’m required to buy 6 carrots instead of 2 at bigger supermarkets, the cash strapped person who can really only afford to pay for 2 comes to mind.

Thus I’m grateful to all the little supermarkets and provision shops that allow me to buy just what I need. In return, I will handle their produce with care and promise not to quibble over prices.

May Goddess Laskhmi bestow great prosperity on the proprietors of Heritage and small businesses, so that nobody goes hungry and nothing is wasted.

A small slow cooker I bought last year and the opening of Heritage this year have revive my interest in lentil soup making.

Lunar New Year Ease

02-02-2022

Over the years visiting the temple of my childhood on the first day of Lunar New Year has gained significance for me.

With the painted temple guardian since I was 5. (1-2-22)

The familiar aroma of incense, dancing flames from red candles, bold calligraphy in red or gold welcome me.

And despite their silence, the temple guardians painted on red doors tell me I’m home.

With the other painted temple guardian. (1-2-22)

Relating to things is easier than relating to people for me because the former encourages contemplation while the latter depends on listening skills of both parties.

Greeting the Tiger deities on the New Year of the Tiger. (1-2-22)

With people, I have to tread cautiously lest any comment or question on my part sow the seed of discord or open a floodgate of criticisms and complaints.

My brother took this picture of me standing under the Chiku Tree planted by our late dad. The tree is still going strong because it’s being cared for by many all these years. (1-2-22)

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why taking pictures to capture moments of affection whether it’s with a door, a tree or a human being mean so much to me.

My cousin Michelle and I took our first picture at this door when she was just 8 years old. For the past few years we had been doing this obligatory Chinese New Year pose. I hope we can keep taking pictures to capture this moment of affection between 2 cousins from different generations for as long as possible. (1-2-22)

Harbour Girl

19 Oct 2021 (Full Moon Eve)

Bare faced and spotting a short bob, the harbour staff assigned to assist me on wheelchair to the ferry boarding gate looked like a student.

It was June 2019, and I was crossing from Kinmen to Xiamen for my flight back to Singapore.

Harbour Girl addressed me as “Ah Yi,” meaning aunt in mandarin and asked kindly if I would like to use the washroom or buy souvenirs before she took me to the boarding gate.

When we passed the windlion display, I asked if she could take pictures of me with Kinmen’s Mythical Guardian.

Her unease at my request looked as if I had asked her to perform a brain surgery on me. I learnt that she had been told that she couldn’t take nice pictures.

“Don’t worry. I’m very beautiful. You simply cannot take a bad picture of me!” I assured her in my desperation to have my last shots with Kinmen’s ancient mascot.

Kinmen’s mythical windlion chortling merrily behind me. (June 2019)

Upon my very ridiculous claim, Harbour Girl burst out laughing. Her hesitation evaporated.

So she took my phone and started snapping non-stop. As she trained my phone camera on me, while moving around freely, I felt her gaiety.

By then it didn’t really matter how the pictures turned out.

Till now, I still keep the 22 shots she took. I have no intention of deleting them. They were the last pictures of me before I left Kinmen. But mostly because they remind me of a very lovely & happy Kinmen daughter.

Her parting words when she walked me up the ferry were,”Ah Yi, I’m very happy to be of service. When you visit again, I will look out for you. I will remember you.”

As a noun, the harbour is associated with safety and shelter. As a verb, it has a negative connotation of keeping a dark thought or feeling over a long period of time.

Harbour Girl guided me safely to my boat. May her enthusiasm to indulge an old lady’s wish to take pictures with the windlion free her from all doubts that she might be harbouring about her capabilities. 😊🙏

Full Moon Mandala of Lapis Lazuli, Sodalite & Mother of Pearl

20 Oct 2021

Abalone shells salvaged from kitchen trash become receptacles of light

Like the shell’s iridescence remains unaffected by its outward cragginess, may the full moon lend us her light so that the benefits of deeds performed in honesty and with wisdom will continue to shimmer long after the performers are gone. 🙏

Lapis Lazuli mala was gifted by a former student. I bought 2 sodalite hearts in Harmony Gems some time back. One has travelled to Jordan and then Zambia, and the other is in Singapore with me.
With love from Zambia. (11-10-21)
While thinking of whether I should use blue for this full moon mandala, my friend sent me a picture of her garden altar and the sodalite heart I gave her.
Then 7 days before the full moon, an invitation to a former student’s art studio confirmed my intention. (13-10-21)

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.