Dancing Through …

(31 Dec 2020 crossing into 1 Jan 2021)

“Flamenco at 5:15” Documentary

Susana Robledo shared the following words in “Flamenco at 5:15,” with her students:

On position:

“Stand still and feel the earth’s support coming through your legs even if you don’t dance.”

On finger work:

“Reach out as if to take something, and then give it back.”

On dancing solo:

“Have the courage to dance alone.”

Two words that sum up 2020 for me are “mutation” and “isolation,” courtesy of Covid-19.

The virus’ ability to mutate in order to thrive shows that to transform, to morph, to shape-shift and to change is really part of the circle of life.

As a planning species, we think we can dictate what to change and what to keep. But Nature doesn’t discriminate.

Covid-19’s medical protocols also change my understanding of isolation.

While fretting over the inconveniences, financial & time losses brought on by quarantine requirements & stay home notices, we’re also forced to confront the reality that in matters of life & death, we’re naturally on our own.

And that no matter how loved, how popular and how powerful we think we are, no one can take the swap test on our behalf.

Perhaps if we try to dance through change and isolation, instead of staying frozen by fear, we might be able to weave a path through obstacles that lie in wait for us, like the way gypsies & displaced people stamp and twirl off all that dust.

Susana Robledo demonstrates Spanish dance at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, February 1979. 

Incidentally as I was wrapping up this post, I learnt that Susan Robledo passed away at 93 years old on 1 January 2010.

May the wisdom of all who have gone before us and lessons learnt in 2020, guide our steps through 2021 and beyond.

Happy New Year! 🙏

To Be Quiet & Aromatic

30 Dec 2020

The mandala seal on the box holding a bottle of perfume.

Away from classroom teaching and having my commitment to impart knowledge reduced to just twice a week at a tuition centre, I find myself growing quieter over the months.

Unless it’s life threatening, I’m learning to resist the compulsion to explain, to justify or to convince. After all, when it comes to issues that truly matter, words are just not enough.

That said, I did wonder if aging has made me anti-social, indifferent or worse still, turned me into a subaltern?

Apart from the increased silence, I’ve also started wearing the pearl trinkets I bought during my 30s. I had forgotten how pearls brighten up against black.

With Marcus’ orange cat, Sage, on this winter solstice. (22/12/2020)

And each time someone smiles or says something nice at the sight of pearls around my neck, I’m reminded to heed the “Pearls of Wisdom.”

While growing silent and wearing faux pearls I also revisit my cache of oils, incense and perfumes.

Since my last trip to Nepal in 2019, I’ve been lighting palo santo wood to give thanks to the sun and to dedicate light to the living and the dead each morning.

Memories of my grandma dabbing scented oils on us surface regularly.

A few days ago I was rubbing Moroccan argan oil mixed with lavender & patchouli on a coconut shell necklace.

“It would be good to be a quiet old lady who also smells nice,” a voice in my head went.

Two days ago a former student and his wife took me out to lunch.

At Jinjio with Jonathan & Jeneen, on the eve of the final full moon of December 2020. (28/12/2020)

It was our first meet up in 2020. Unsure of how gathering rules might change in the coming new year, , they also took the opportunity to mark my birthday in 2021 in advance.

At that lunch I received a book gift from the husband, and a perfume gift from the wife.

The book was a copy of “Quiet” by Susan Cain.

Receiving “Quiet,” from my former student felt like I was given the permission to be quiet without the fear of withdrawing from life, or becoming forgotten.

From his wife, I received perfume from Korea that came in a bottle most exquisitely crafted.

As soon as Jeneen showed me the gift she got me, Goddess Tara came to mind.

Its hues, gold and crystal details immediately reminded me of Goddess Tara as envisioned by the artist who drew it for Street Dog Care in Nepal a few years back.

And I felt so honoured that the giver thought of me the moment she saw the lovely bottle that held the peony fragrance.

Peony Perfume and Goddess Tara.

And thus my aspiration to grow into a quiet old lady who speaks words of wisdom when necessary while smelling good was facilitated at the lunch hosted by a young couple on 28th December, the eve of the full moon.

May we trust that our aspirations to be the best that we can be as age catches up will be graciously provided for through those who are born after us.

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.

A Christmas Eve Upgrade

24 December 2020

“It’s Christmas Eve. We’ve been given a lounging upgrade from sofa to bed.” – Hakim (orange cat) and Emmanuel (in the background)

May upgrades received by the more fortunate cascade to the less fortunate & help them move from mangers to homes and from hunger to fulfillment.

Our Black Dogs

22 Dec 2020

This month last year there was a delay on our return flight from Nepal. SilkAir put us up at Crowne Plaza Sofitel for the night.

Amongst the clusters of travellers, climbers and pilgrims waiting for our boarding passes to be processed before we could leave the airport, there was this man by himself.

He was in his early 50s. Like most trekkers and climbers, his clothes, boots and backpack were in shades of earthy Khakis.

A couple of times we made brief eye contact, like strangers in a lift or small spaces do. Once he attempted to address me. As I was tired and didn’t have enough coffee in me to say anything worthwhile, I looked away.

But a while later I could sense that he was being contemplative, and not trying to be chatty or seeking company.

“You’re travelling alone,” I stated the obvious as our eyes met again.

“Yes, thought I’ll come to see the mountains before old age sets in,” he replied smilingly.

Over the years, he had been to the Himalayas several times with friends and loved ones. This time he had come to spend time alone with the mountains he loved so much.

“I took my son here when he was a boy. We met a black dog which started following us on our trek,” the man began.

“But at the higher pass, we had to let the dog go. It was too dangerous for him. My son cried for days when we couldn’t bring the dog with us,” he continued.

“I still have lots of pictures of them together,” he ended on a wistful note.

I didn’t add anything to what the man had said.

Perhaps this man had come to the mountains to seek pieces of himself that he had to let go in the course of preserving life.

And I wonder how many black dogs we have loved and left behind in our attempts to survive?

Margo & Mikhail of Jurong Lake Gardens.

20 Dec 2020

Thanks to Seow Hwee & Edna, this is my first walk through the Jurong Lake Gardens since 2004. (13 Dec 2020)

Last week we visited Jurong Lake Gardens where parts of it were still being landscaped.

The lake joins the Jurong River (Sungei Jurong) which passes my flat on its way to the sea.

The newly developed Jurong Lake Gardens has built footpaths that allow us to get close to the water and vegetation. Across the lake and behind me stood the apartment blocks where I now live. (13 Dec 2020)

16 years back, this park had few footpaths. Its relative inaccessibility & mosquito presence was ironically an ideal gathering place for former farmers or elderly labourers who had much time and some money on their hand, but not many places to go.

Banyan Tree, Margo. (13 Dec 2020)

Under the banyan trees that skirted the water, these old men sat on roots and decaying trunks to play chess, chat quietly about their kampong childhood or just smoked in silence.

But most of all, they showed kindness to Margo & Mikhail, two stray dogs that had sought refuge in the relative wildness of the undeveloped park. Like these old men who had been forgotten by progress, these dogs also had no place to go.

The female stray dog had a delicate frame and would prance gazelle-like to her food when I whistled for her. Sometimes I could see her stretch out in the moonlight when my taxi passed by. So I named her Margo, after the british ballerina, Margo Fonteyn.

Ballet legend, Margo Fonteyn. Pic source: liveabout.com

The male stray was more cautious and would only come to eat after I had walked away. I named him Mikhail, after Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Russian ballet dancer who defected to the West.

Ballet legend, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Pic source: ikindance.com.au

When Margo’s life was under threat from complaints lodged against her by joggers and cyclists who felt threatened by her barking, one of her elderly protectors who loved her the most asked me to find her a real home.

And my friend and her husband gave Margo a home, and doted on her till she passed on at a ripe old age.

For a week after Margo left the park, Mikhail still turned up for his meals. Then he was never seen again.

One of the mature banyan trees that Margo and Mikhail would have played under in their youth.

Today both old men and dogs are gone. But the banyan trees that listened to happy chatters and bore witness to kindness to two homeless dogs are still there.

So on this recent visit, I thought I would name two old banyan trees, Margo and Mikhail, in honour of the blessed encounters between Man & Nature, long before the Jurong Lake Gardens was accessible as a place of leisure.

With banyan tree, Mikhail. (13 Dec 2020)

Joy, Love & Laugh

8 Dec 2020

Shoya’s necklace sparkled in the morning light.

This morning I placed your picture and your urn by the window and lighted a butter lamp and incense to mark the 6th year of your passing.
The Sun shone bright. The necklace you last wore caught the light. And the beads on them say, “Joy,” “Love” & “Laugh.”

You have given me 15 years worth of all that & more.

May you continue to carry your auspicious presence wherever you are and in whatever form you have taken, my dear Shoya.

And I shall remember to send out joy, love and laughter in your name.

Shoya and I in our younger days. His name Shoya 寿雅 means to age graciously.

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.

Graciousness & Generosity

3 Dec 2020

With Lamu Tsering in 2011. She gave my brother and I khatas and I gave her my fleece jacket to whoever needed it that winter. Lamu feeds the little kitten each morning instead of shooing it away.

10 years ago, I met Lamu Tsering. She was the housekeeper of the inn that my brother and I stayed at in Kathmandu.

Even though she engaged in menial chores, she carried herself like a queen, or maybe even a goddess.

The morning before we left for the airport, she placed a khata over each of our necks, and said softly to my brother who was undergoing some work changes at that time, “Don’t be angry.”

I never met Lamu Tsering after that, despite my subsequent trips to Nepal.

But I started noticing women who keep their poise even if they are cleaning toilets at the malls. Those who make eye contact with me, I thank them.

With my former students in 2020. They have kept in touch long after our lessons ended.

I became conscious about how disappointments and unfulfilled dreams can harden the heart and justify unkindness to others.

Lamu Tsering taught me that people can take away your land and remove your titles by force, but they cannot take away your graciousness and generosity, without your permission.

Ollie hugging a print of Goddess Tara at Boudha overlooking all beings. Print Courtesy of Street Dog Care.