“Remember, no matter what you see, the whole thing is just up to my knee!” the kindly museum guide assured me. I was trembling a bit in my walk on the glass surface of installation art piece by Mark Justiniani.
“Stardust: Soaring Through the Sky’s Embrace,” takes the form of a bridge lined with mirrors, creating the illusion of endless depth.
Half way through the short bridge, I felt a bit sick as I peered down at the abysmal blackness beneath my feet.
But the museum guide’s voice brought me back to the reality that the nauseating depth I was fixating on was in fact only knee deep!
How often have I allowed my flawed vision to dictate what I should think or feel? How do I differentiate reality from the utterances & projections of the ego?
When I finally cleared the “depth” open-eyed without falling down, I felt immensely grateful to the museum staff, my friends for walking beside me and my cane.
And one of the verses in Psalm 23 which I learnt in my teens came to me: “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.“
May we be guided by Benevolence as we scale the steps of Life.
Yesterday was the full moon. Some families that observe the lunar calendar, also made and ate dumplings to mark the passing of the first half of the year.
Yesterday was also the birthday of my late father. The man who taught me to sing to the moon would have been 82 years old this year.
In the morning I made a donation to abandoned and homeless animals in my father’s name. I hope my being able to do something for the needy would comfort the man who was always worried that his daughter would be at a disadvantage because of her limp.
In the afternoon I went to place a fern at my father’s niche in the columbarium.
In the evening I received a pendant of dancing Ganesha from one of my brothers. He had bought and kept it for two years. It was made in 2014. A couple of days back he decided I should have it.
Ganesha in dancing pose has been on my mind for some time, but I don’t recall telling anyone about this particular liking of mine. The details on this pendant carving from the floral patterns on Ganesha’s forehead & trunk, to the intricacies on his pants “sparked joy.” 😄
Seeing Ganesha so poised, despite balancing on one foot, fills me with grace & courage.
And all these coming together on full moon and on my late father’s birthday assure me that every thing that we do with love continues.
The plumber who came to fix the pipes today was enamored of my cats, Ollie and Hakim.
He spoke affectionately about his own cat and a community cat that he and his family had been feeding before it disappeared.
When his work was done, he showed me the missing cat’s picture on his phone. The man who handles metal parts all day long then muttered to himself in Mandarin, “他失终这么久了,可是我就是不舍得把他的照片给删掉.” (translation: the cat’s been gone for so long, but I can’t bear to delete his photo from my phone).
In that split second, I felt I was watching a very private moment in a man’s life.
The picture that accompanies this post was from a friend who visited the desert during the full moon of 5 July. It was very windy there but she managed to find a spot to light a butter lamp in honour of her dog that recently passed on and a community cat that had not shown up at her home for meals.
May the Heart that grieves and pines be comforted by Light.
A couple of days back First Tutee turned 9 years old. I’ve known him since he was 6 and a half.
From being scared of cats, First Tutee now calls Ollie the Cat his best friend. He cried over Kitty’s passing last year & told me he would like to keep her ashes in his home when he buys his own place one day.
From struggling over differentiating “b” from “d”, he now learns his weekly spelling and dictation with ease. He composes his own stories by watching clouds and turns William Blake’s “A Poison Tree,” which he has memorised into a rap.
He listens to “War Horse” being read and learns to identify BBC accent from his favourite youtuber’s American accent. He likes Albert Narracourt a lot for his bravery and loyalty to Joey, his horse, and sketches out scenes from the book after his weekly reading aloud on ZOOM tuition.
On their morning rides to school, he’ll remind his uncle to slow down for pigeons, mynahs and sparrows feeding on the pavement.
I’ve always held the number 9 in high regard. In old Chinese culture, 9 is the number associated with the Emperor and longevity of all things positive. 9 in my minnan dialect shares the same pronunciation for “dog” which stands for faithfulness & abundance.
So on the morning of his birthday, I donated $99 to Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary in First Tutee’s name. I wished for him a healthy and happy long life, full of kingly attributes while staying humble and sharing his abundance with all sentient beings.
A while later, the shelter updated their list of sponsors on facebook and believe it or not, First Tutee was sponsor number 9!
In the evening I realised First Tutee’s full name contains 9 letters, and in his religion, God has 99 names. 🙏♥️
I stood at the top of the steps outside Grantral Mall to wait for the rain to pass. On the last step sat a couple and a man. They too were sheltering from the rain. They were careful to occupy only the far left and far right of the steps so as not to obstruct the way.
A granny with a head of platinum silver hair approached the steps from below. She saw the couple and the man leaning on the hand rails. Then she studied the steps pensively to assess their depth.
Before she raised her foot to get on the first step, I called out to the couple, “Excuse me!”
When they turned to look up at me I explained, “Could you make way for the granny please? She needs to hold the handrail to get up.”
Immediately the man rose and led the granny to the handrail. The woman gave me an OK sign.
And I’m glad that I didn’t judge the couple, but just let them know that they were in the way of an elderly person even as they were careful enough not to block the way for others.
With the handrail for support, the granny got up the flight of steps safely. Her eyes beamed with gratitude as she showed me a thumbs up.
As she kept repeating, “You very good!” in a childlike voice, I felt Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, complimenting me. 😄
The “chuba” or “chupa” is a Tibetan word for an ankle length robe worn by Tibetans. Slight variations of it are worn by members of the Sherpa community and a number of cultural and language groups across the Himalayan regions.
Even though I had passed by many chuba shops during my visits to Nepal, I took my time about buying one. I didn’t want to treat someone’s actual clothing like a costume or a quaint souvenir.
Apart from its wearability for celebratory occasions in Singapore, I wanted a chuba as a visual reminder of my encounters in Nepal. From the Nepali friends of the Newari, Tamang, Rai, Gorkha and various culture/ language groups, I’ve learnt what it means to be generous and resourceful at ALL times.
So after thinking about it for about 8 years, I finally bought my first chuba from one of the shops at Boudha in December 2019.
Little did I know that a month after that purchase, Covid-19 would affect all human interactions & put a stop to trips abroad. In Singapore the Circuit Breaker measures kept people housebound, affected jobs, schools and gatherings of all sorts.
It looked like my chuba from Boudha wouldn’t be required for a while I figured. But I was wrong.
This May I received my first ZOOM birthday celebration invitation. The birthday celebrant is an avid traveller & photographer. Travel restrictions had affected her birthday plans.
So that night holed up in my little flat with my cats, I put on the chuba as it was purposed for.
And the birthday lady, being the good sport that she is, turned up on ZOOM in lapis lazuli blue and a strand of turquoise around her neck.
As the fireworks went off in her living room, while her parents looked on in amusement, her dogs in puzzlement, and ZOOM guests cheered, I felt that although we were physically “grounded,” our spirit was free.
The chuba from Boudha has also become a pleasant reminder that the darker the times are, the more brightly we can try to shine, and the less we have, the more deeply we may experience abundance.
That year we decided to give drama production a rest and stage a concert instead. Called “An Evening with Kindred Spirits,” the concert was a platform for boys and alumni members to express their talents in the arts.
There would be no Guest of Honour, no VIPs, no prizes for the best performances etc. Concert tickets would be sold at a token price so that everyone could be in the presence of good sounds and good words.
Among those who came for rehearsals was a secondary one Chicken Little of a boy. He was playing JS Bach’s Prelude in C Major on the school chapel piano during one lunch break when I “talented scouted” him.
Why him? Surely there were other more accomplished student pianists in the school.
That afternoon as I sat on the last pew watching him so dead serious playing Bach’s piece, I knew there & then in the “Sanctuary of the Holy Presence,” of SJI that I had found the opening act of “Kindred Spirits.” Piano Boy had to be in the concert, regardless of his musical competence.
A concert needs a host or a master of ceremony. A tall, and articulate secondary 4 student from one of the top classes auditioned for the role and became the Concert Host.
Piano Boy and Concert Host were not from the classes I taught. So our interactions happened mainly at rehearsals after school.
When I was “reminded” that Concert Host came from a prominent family, I took the chance to remind him that his driver or security officer would have to follow our rehearsal schedule and not the other way round. He agreed without hesitation.
As the concert date drew closer, the auditorium was charged with creative energies of budding deejays, singer song writers, pianists, flutist, drummers, poets, actors & production crew from different streams and old boys’ network.
With each rehearsal, Concert Host soaked up the limelight and flourished. Being the progeny of a public figure and having to be constantly on his best behaviour lest it brought disrepute to his father, Concert Host had finally found a legitimate outlet for his wit & candour.
Meanwhile the reverse was happening in Piano Boy.
His carefree days of playing the slightly out of tune piano in the quiet corner of the cosy chapel had now morphed into a waking nightmare of practices on the baby grand piano under the blinding stage lights of the school’s Performing Arts Centre.
Even though Bach’s prelude in C Major was less than 2 minute long, it might as well have been 2 hours for Piano Boy.
He started making more & more mistakes on the piano. He started looking grey and withdrawn. It was as if the black gleaming piano was sucking the life force out of him each time he sat next to it.
One specially challenging day, Concert Host and I stood by the stage curtain and watched Piano Boy struggle with Bach.
“Ms Ong I’ve heard better piano performances of Bach than this,” Concert Host shook his head in disappointment and disbelief.
The 16-year-old shining Master of Ceremony was getting impatient with the not so promising 13-year-old pianist.
I felt a tinge of hurt on Piano Boy’s behalf, but Concert Host was not wrong either.
“Of course you would have heard better than this,” I concurred with Concert Host.
“But don’t forget, not many boys come from background like yours where you have the best resources and exposures. Don’t you think given Piano Boy’s age and simple upbringing, it’s quite remarkable that he’s been faithfully coming for rehearsals with the big boys, and trying to play on a baby grand?” I added.
My words could have some impact on Concert Host as I could sense his body tensing even in the backstage shadows. Maybe I had offended him.
In the rehearsals that followed, I noticed Concert Host watching Piano Boy, and intervening at certain points to show him how he could play Bach’s prelude better. He no longer saw Piano Boy as the stumbling spoiler that messed up the flow of “his” show, but a younger and braver friend needing some encouragement.
One day he taught Piano Boy to remove his shoes so that he could connect with the pedals below better.
“If you could feel the pedals, you would feel more confident when you play. Your shoes are getting in the way,” Concert Host explained to Piano Boy in an almost fatherly tone. I felt this special moment was for my eyes only.
And so it was with each shoeless rehearsal that Piano Boy regained his footing and his smiles returned.
On the opening night, Piano Boy’s mom met me for the first time. The beaming mother introduced her family as people living in HDB (public housing). Then she thanked me in a mixture of English and Mandarin for the practice and exposure her son had gained in the past few months. She didn’t expect her shy boy to have such discipline & boldness.
The concert turned out well for everyone. The more flamboyant performers got the accolades they were looking for, while the more reticent ones were proud of overcoming shyness and stage fright.
And I will always remember the murmurs of surprise, followed by a velvety hush of appreciation that filled the auditorium of over 500 when Piano Boy gave his all to the 2 minute piano performance.
When the show ended, Concert Host came to check if I needed help with clearing rubbish in the dressing room.
He then went on to pick up things from the floor and took the trash bags out.
I was a little stunned when he literally snatched the trash bin from my hand even as he was still holding his blazer in the other.
“You better go now,” I urged him. “I can settle this easily. Your driver must be wondering.” He had stayed longer than he normally would and I didn’t want his driver to worry.
“Don’t worry about the driver, Miss Ong. I’ve told him to wait cos I’m helping my teacher,” the young man assured me as his eyes sparkled kindly.
Concert Host was born privileged. But his parents didn’t turn up for the concert like Piano Boy’s did. Also he never quite knew when people treated him well was it because they really liked him, or was it because of his father? And credit to him, he didn’t look away when his blinkers were pointed out.
Calling out people for being privileged, and showing sympathy for the underdog is not difficult. But consciously checking our attitude regardless of who we’re dealing with requires more effort. And two boys from two very different backgrounds have shown me how.
Whether it’s on the tiered silver platter of a high class tea place or in oily plastic wrapper tucked among other snacks in a a roadside coffee shop, the marble cake is irresistible to me.
My dad’s adoptive sister was newly married when she learnt to bake her first marble cake at her in-laws’.
When she brought the cake to my grandma’s home she was dressed in a batik sarong kebaya with orange flowers.
We may not be peranakans, but P.Ramlee’s movies must have had a big impact on my aunt’s sartorial elegance in the 60s.
She was gorgeous in her orange kebaya and dark bouffant hair as she served us her first baking achievement.
Being raised predominantly on a chinese diet, our family, especially my grandma and mom, found the buttery cake a little too rich for their stomach.
But it was heaven to me!
My aunt was so pleased with my response that henceforth she would bring a marble cake each time she visited.
For many years, during Chinese New Year and festive occasions, this cake with its trademark dramatic swirls was solely reserved just for her greatest fan, ME.
My aunt seldom bakes these days. The last time we met, she was recovering from a mild stroke. I mentioned “marble cake,” and a beautiful smile appeared on her face.
Nowadays with the emphasis on “healthy” options, few marble cakes that I’ve tasted come close to my aunt’s standard. But still I eat them, and think of the lovely young bride who introduced me to my first marble cake more than half a century ago. ♥️🙏