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. 🙏

Consecrating a TV Set

7 Sept 2020

7 days ago, a new TV set arrived to replace the one that had been broken since 2017.

It had taken me nearly 3 years to get a new a TV set. The hesitation was due to a character flaw that I noticed about myself.

About 3 years ago, when the old TV was still working, I found myself being overly critical of whatever I watched. I judged the actors for their looks and acting skills, the journalists for their pronunciations and so on. One day a voice in my head told me to stop committing speech sins.

So when the 14-year-old Toshiba TV broke down in 2017, I made a vow not to get a replacement till I could control my mouth.

Without a TV, I got used to watching less and listening more on my iphone. I would have mantras playing all morning. I would watch talks and interviews instead of shows etc.

In fact I got so used to not watching TV that I even toyed with the idea of putting a tanka or a spiritual painting in the space that was customised for a wall mounted TV. But the renovation cost of repurposing that space would cost more.

7 days ago when the technician asked me to test the new LG TV he had set up & programmed for me, a voice in my head said,”Play Tara mantra.” So I did just that.

So now I not only have a new TV but changing digital tankas and sacred arts to look at each time I tune to listen to mantras.

Flowers from Children Happy Teachers’ Day!

4 Sept 2020

Flowers not only beautify our life, but remind us to always bloom our best.

The first bouquet in my adult life was from a bunch of kids who accepted me as their teacher when I was just 23. What did I know about learning then?

Today, a bouquet of sunflowers from one of the students in the group that gave me my first bouquet arrived. ♥️🙏

A while later, a sunflower in the form of a dessert also came.

And my 76 year old mom got to enjoy the sunflower konyaku jelly with me.

I’ve like sunflowers since I was a young woman. And I’m very honoured that in my greying years, the kids have sent them to remind me to keep shining.

So here’s wishing all my friends, all the light and sweetness of life as embodied in these gifts from lovely adults who were once kids. ♥️🙏

Different Boats, Same Journey

19 Aug 2020 (New Moon)

These days the safe entry requirements make me think twice about going anywhere.

Two days back I was running through my mind the logistics of getting flower offerings to celebrate this new moon, and Ganesha Charthurti this Saturday. Would the florists be operating? Would the familiar short cuts I know be blocked?

I was on the verge of saying to Ganesha, “Sorry, there’ll be no flowers for your charthurti celebration this year because going to the florists is getting a bit complicated for me,” when a Muslim friend offered to drop me off at the florists in Little India.

He would settle his errands at Mustaffa Centre and come back to pick me up and send me home when I was done with my jasmine garlands and marigold shopping.

Some time back when mosques were closed because of circuit breaker measures, I was very honoured that he and his nephew conducted their prayers in my home. He also blessed my home and thanked me for facilitating their spiritual obligations.

As we seek to connect with the Divine in our different ways according to our race, culture, history and geography, may we be secure enough in our own beliefs & practices to facilitate the spiritual journeys of others.

Happy New Moon to All Sentient Beings!

May every gesture to harmonise and facilitate for the benefit of all be blessed.

Salem. Namaste. Tashi Delek. 🙏😊

What We Carry

17 August 2020

On my 40th birthday celebration in 2004.

I used to carry pretty handbags. Now I carry dogs and cats, and some kibbles.

These days with the knowledge that anyone can carry virus, we’re also obliged to carry hand sanitizers and face masks whether we like to or not.

In fashion magazines there’s a frequent quote that goes, “Women can never have enough handbags, or shoes,” to justify constant buying and spending.

At 47 in the Winter of 2011 in Kathmandu.

But perhaps this insatiable appetite for bags and shoes is a hidden quest to find out what we really want to carry, and where we would like to be headed during this lifetime.

I recall Ms Jane Goodall having only a small trolley bag and a backpack to hold everything she needs on her cross continental lecture trips to speak for primates. And yet at every event, she manages to look so polished and new. 😊

The Most Important Bag for me now carries relief supplies for street and community animals.

Bit by bit when I learn to carry what really matters, the old baggage of self doubt and “what would people think of me,” steadily dissolves.

I still like beautiful things, as people born under the zodiac sign of the Hare are known for. My heart still burst with affection at the primary school girls holding their glittery magic pony bags.

But the compulsion to own pretty things is losing its grip on me as my understanding of what I’m meant to carry in this lifetime gains clarity.

In my 50s at home in Singapore. (Aug 2020)

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.