“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.
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. 😄
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.
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.
I was 10 month old learning to walk on my own by holding onto the wall for support when poliomyelitis found me.
3 months of hospitalization later, I got back my life in exchange for a permanent limp. Considering many afflicted peers with paralysis that bound them to wheel chairs for life and some even needing machines to help them breathe, my crippled leg was just a slight dent on the paintwork.
After surviving polio, maintaining balance became a lifelong preoccupation that took up a lot of my energy. It is a bit like someone training to be a world class gymnast, only in my case, this wasn’t the path I would have chosen if given a choice.
I grew up envying those who could walk effortlessly, dance and skip freely, while I had to and still do, think about every step that I make.
Are there things on the ground to trip me? Pine cones? Satay sticks?
Have I missed a spot of alage on the step of a world heritage site that might cause me to slip?
Will the curb after the zebra crossing be too high for me to get onto?
Will there be steps? If yes, how many? How deep are they? Will there be a railing for me to hold onto? Is the railing sturdy enough to bear my weight or is it there for aesthetics purposes only?
Over the years these questions for self-preservation have trained me not to jump to conclusions, and not to make light of other people’s difficulties. They have also prompted me to listen for the unspoken anxieties and to observe the invisible pain of others.
A couple of months back, I was at an outing to the Esplanade with overseas students studying at a private school in Singapore.
As we were walking towards the open stage facing the Singapore River, a 24 year old student from India asked me, “Ma’am would you like me to hold your hand? You’ll feel more balanced and it’s easier to walk.”
He went on to explain that he came from a village that hosts pilgrims two to three times a year. He’s very familiar with aches and pains. So for the rest of the evening India & Singapore held hands and walked all over Esplanade, exchanging looks of amusement with each other when passers by went all judgy over a handsome Indian man holding hands with a woman of his grandma’s age. 🤣
During our Nepal trip this December, whether it was for worldly reasons such as ascending the stairs of hotels & cafes, or to meet spiritual agendas such as circumambulating the Boudha Stupa and carrying medical supplies, El and Ron took turns to hold my hands and walk with me at my pace.
Boudha pilgrims stopped to look at us but usually to smile and make remarks in Tibetan or Nepali in encouraging tones.
For many of us, having a hand to hold onto in this pilgrimage called Life is a pragmatic necessity. It is beyond romantic as popular culture would have us believed.
So I like to wish for all my friends to study and respect your hands and the hands of others, so that at the right time, they may become gateways to the Divine.
Last Sunday towards evening it rained and thundered.
A community cat crouched at the entrance of a bank for shelter. The lashing rain and swaying branches must have been a fearful experience for the one-eyed black & white feline.
A few steps from her by the pillar was a cardboard box, a bowl of water and a bowl of kibbles. This cat has a feeder.
But for a frightened cat in the midst of a thunder storm, the short distance from where she was to her cardboard refuge might as well have been from Jurong to Changi Airport.
Any attempt on my part to comfort her by stroking her might stress her even more because I was a stranger.
So I dedicated a prayer for her well being before I walked on. I knew I wouldn’t be of much help hovering over her in the only spot that she felt safe in. And the last thing I wanted was for her to dash into the rain to avoid me.
After moving away from the cat, I paused at a shop by the cardboard box to look at their window display.
A while later, a man emerged from the shop. He went to the fearful feline who was still immobilized at the bank entrance.
With a few gentle words, he managed to coax her to get up and scurry to her cardboard shelter which happened to fit her snugly. It even had a flap to shield her from curious eyes.
I moved on, very grateful that my wish was granted even if it was a coincidence.
Buying new footwear is usually a happy experience because firstly it means you have legs to begin with, and secondly you have the money to spend.
But for me there’s always some anxiety because firstly the shoes I currently own must be falling apart, and secondly, the retailers may not stock the shoe types that meet the conditions of my feet. (Shoes don’t keep well in our humid climate so it’s pointless to purchase standby pieces)
As my left foot has no gripping ability, Mary Janes have become a necessity. As my left sole needs to be elevated to compensate my limp & reduce fatigue, Mary Janes with flat soles made of certain materials are non-negotiables.
The man who makes my shoe purchase a wearable reality is a cobbler who has been faithfully elevating my sole for years.
He’s the man I think about before I buy any new shoes. ♥️😊
We speak about 3-4 times once every 2 years. And it’s always about my shoes and when will they be ready for collection after he has done the sole elevation.
I used to think he was just a slow cobbler but through years of interaction with him, I realised he puts in a lot of thought & effort into the shoes that are entrusted to him for mending and alteration.
Whether you are bringing him a pair of Chanels, Ferragamos or Batas, this soft-spoken, bespectacled scholarly-looking cobbler treats all clients with cautious non-attachment.
And when my shoes are ready for collection, it’s never just a business transaction. With a child-like pride, he’ll point out to me the customisation that’s been done and his thought processes behind them.
From him I learnt that there’s no one-size -fits-all solution with foot issues. His wisdom and compassion in making the best fit for people who go to him cost him a lot of time and energy, and sometimes his reputation. His dedication just cannot be measured in dollars & cents.
My cobbler hasn’t increased his charges with my shoe work for years. When I insisted on paying him a bit more, he stuck to the old price & said, “It’s ok. I can still manage. The main thing here is you can walk more easily.”
Of all the depictions of Lord Ganesha, my favourite has always been the one in which he stands on one foot and dances the Universe into being.
My cobbler is operating his business all on his own now. His business partners have left because they felt that the return on investment was not promising.
So I wish for my cobbler the stamina to stand on one foot like Lord Ganesha, and receive the blessings of good clients & prosperity as he works alone to bring relief to all who need shoe repair and realignment in order to complete their own dance with life. 🙏
After a walkabout in Kinmen’s scorching summer sun we were grateful to enter the air-conditioned cocoon of Yuan’s taxi.
Still recovering from the glare, we asked our quiet driver to decide what he thought might be of meaning & interest to us. He knew we were there to listen & learn.
And he surprised us by taking us to the film set of “Paradise in Service,” (军中乐园). The film was shot in 2015 in Kinmen.
At its premier screening, soldiers who fought in their youth and now grandfathers were invited to watch the film with their loved ones. When the film ended, the whole theatre was filled with tears of old men and their grandkids.
We sat in reverential silence as our taxi cruised along the street flanked by flags on either side of the deserted film set, while Wang Jie’s (王杰), “An episode of game and an episode of dream,” (一场游戏，一场梦) played softly in the background.
Indeed whatever happens in our lives, and however intensely we might have felt our emotions, seen in the context of time, history and human affairs, they may well have been just games and dreams to others.
Many years ago, my grandmother needed to see a doctor. The doctor’s clinic was on the 2nd level of an old shop house. Climbing a steep flight of narrow stairs to seek relief was unavoidable.
Till this day it hurts to recall her efforts to go up and to come down, holding onto the wall for dear life as the stair way had no railing and was too narrow to accommodate my dad or me to be next to her to give some assurance.
These days my own mobility challenges have given me some understanding of the do’s and don’t’s when assisting people, including children, who need support when walking.
At lift lobby and on the road, I’ve seen old folks with walking cane having their free arm held by their caregivers and being dragged along as they try to keep pace with the caregivers’ walking speed which is about one or even only 1/2 a step ahead.
In the past I kept these observations & opinions to myself. Either the situation was too far away from where I was to intervene or I wanted to “mind my own business.”
But yesterday it happened again.
An old lady in her 80s was using a 4 point walking cane while a family member took her to the taxi stand at the JEM shopping mall.
Bent and small, the old one in matching floral blouse and pants struggled to lift her walking cane with one hand, while her other hand was being held by her caregiver.
The caregiver, a cheerful woman in her mid-40s obviously loved the grandmother, but was not conscious of how her pace might be adversely affecting the person she was helping.
The old lady was nearly keeling over as she was being dragged along, presumably to beat the taxi queue.
When they passed me I blurted out to the caregiver: “It’s very painful and tiring for her to be pulled along like this. You have to follow her pace, not the other way round.”
We just have to imagine what’s like having our arm pulled while we try to keep our balance and put up with the discomfort in the armpit area due to overextension of the arm.
People receiving help either cannot or dare not articulate their pain lest they be perceived as being demanding or ungrateful.
A moment of recognition came on. She must have realised that if her grandmother could follow her pace, she wouldn’t need a walking aid or be held.
She thanked me & started to slow down.
“And whoever is waiting for you. Let them wait. They will understand,” I found myself saying this without knowing why.
But now I know. Each of us who are quick to glorify speed and dismiss slowness, will one day have to face the inevitable slowing down and to wait for others to show grace to us.
So the old person who needs help to move, the fearful child who needs more thinking time, and the sick animal that can only take small bites are not burdens to be tolerated. They are providing precious opportunities to practise slowing down, so that those blessed enough to help, may truly offer Love and experience Love in return.
I was advised from a very young age not to run lest it called attention to my deformed leg. Yet whenever someone paid me a compliment whether it was for being clever, or pretty, some of the female folks in my family would rush in to respond with a sigh, “What’s the point? She has a bad leg.” I resented their speaking on my behalf. But most of all I resented them for robbing me of the joy of receiving a praise, however transient, and for using my leg to negate all the other possible positives that I could be experiencing.
In trying to prepare me for the “real” world, they could have thought that by highlighting my handicap earlier on in life each time I got complimented, they were training me to be realistic so that I wouldn’t be easily hurt by remarks pertaining to my leg later on when I grew up.
But protective measures that are motivated by guilt and fear have a way of increasing the burden of the very person or animal we claim to be helping.
Long after my folks had stopped reminding me of my leg, I carried their collective responses in my head like a favourite chorus from a childhood song.
“What’s the point?” was there when a handsome boy asked me to dance at Chatsworth Drive. “What’s the point?” was there when Mr Lee said my manuscript writing was nice. “What’s the point?” would show up to sneer and jeer each time something good happened to me.
It took me a long time to exorcise “What’s the point?” from my system.
By then my leg had taught me to recognise students and people who had been similarly hurt by the good intentions of the adults in their life.
The girl who smiles while pursing her lips, the boy who dares not sing in a group setting, the lady who refuses to wear certain garments etc. They all carry voices in their head tactlessly commenting on their dental structure during childhood photo shoots, their singing ability during primary school choir lessons and their body shape during secondary school P.E lessons.
So when I see handicapped people or disabled animals, I try to rein in my own fears and see them for who they are – not quitting even when it hurts, and not letting their defects or lack of symmetry prevent them from trying.
In my visit to Street Dog Care last December, one disabled dog called Andy fought his way with other clean limbed dogs to get a cuddle from me. Andy’s legs were damaged by motor vehicle when he was living on the streets.
I thought that being paraplegic, he would retreat to a corner & wait for his turn. But not so with Andy!
On & on, Andy circled us in his pair of shrivelled legs like a relentless little shark, trying to find a gap to come closer while another dog called Old Man was leaning smugly on me & barking at him. Old Man was equally determined not to let Andy into our circle of embrace.
It was very comical watching wormlike Andy on the ground challenging Old Man safely seated above on the bench with me. El commented that even without functioning legs Andy is still a formidable threat. Imagine if he could run!
Finally vet tech, Junu, had to intervene. She peeled Old Man away from me to allow Andy to come closer, so that he could show me how much he had grown in strength & confidence since we met in 2016.
Up close, I saw that Andy’s “useless” legs & bruises from contact with roughness did not harden his facial features one bit. His hazel brown gaze were soft and liquid, while his signature caramel coloured nose stood out against the creamy beige of his smooth fur. I hugged him for being so brave, so beautiful & so buttery!
It is fairly safe to say that every one struggles with some imperfections. And we are defective in manners of form & severity in one way or another. But becoming complete is not about hiding or killing the parts that we are less proud of. Becoming whole is about accepting all parts, so that even the so called unfavourable bits can be harnessed to work in our favour.
My “bad” leg has given me some restrictions but it has also trained me to be observant and shown me the goodness of people, even complete strangers.
Andy’s “bad” legs have inspired a community beset with all kinds of unthinkable challenges to secure a set of wheels for him to improve his mobility, instead of euthanizing him.
So when the bad happens in our life, it could be a portal to the good, if we don’t get stuck on judgement, guilt & blame.
At the Boudha Stupa last year, I gave thanks for my family for trying their best to raise me. But it was when I sought forgiveness for the trauma & hardship my handicap had caused them, that I realised, “What’s the point?” is finally & completely exorcised.
This morning I was reading “Dolpo, the world behind the Himalayas,” by Karna Sakya, when I received a call from Ron. The thangka which he had bought in Nepal and sent for framing in Singapore was ready for collection.
Ron had found his thangka among the shops in Patan when we were there last December.
That day on the terrace, I could feel and see the joy he radiated as he held up his choice.
So when he asked me this morning if I would like to have lunch before dropping by the frame maker’s, I jumped in.
For lunch we came upon this little eatery called Prince Coffee House in Beach Road. It wasn’t our first choice for a lunch location but the Blanco Court Prawn Noodle Shop (my favourite) next door was full.
We decided to give Prince a chance. I’ve always wondered about their homemade yam cake anyway. Besides, the elderly proprietor was ever so hospitable, standing at the door and smiling at anyone that showed the slightest interest in his menu.
The lunch experience turned out to be worth more than the food we paid for.
The 80-year-old F&B sage regaled us with tales of his youth in the industry and the Taiwanese & Hong Kong movie stars that had eaten at his coffee house. In fact the pyrex plates that we were dining on were 45 years old! He bought each set at $10, his eyes glowing with affection as he said so.
He also charmed us with his childlike joy when talking about his yam cakes, chicken pies and apple pies. Each day at 3pm he would go to the kitchen and assist his bakers to make them.
We felt so honoured when he brought us each a glass of water so that we could “eat slowly” because it was a hot day. He also gave all his patrons free dessert of fruits or grass jelly.
When we finished our meal, the octogenarian personally cleared our table and amazed us by arranging the crockery on each of his arm before walking nimbly back to the kitchen! It was Cirque de Soleil to me!
The thangka is a Nepalese art form that depicts Tibetan buddhist iconography. It has many spiritual and practical functions. For me, the variety and depth of colours in thangkas and the emphasis on harmony & proportion inspire me to seek inner & outer balance.
Looking at the owner of Prince Coffee House, his outer balance must have come from an inner peace cultivated from 80 years’ worth of managing the ups and downs in his life.
And it is so apt that today on the eve of the new moon we would collect a thangka that features a long ago Prince who spent his life showing us a way to peace.
So in whichever era we’re born, and regardless of social status, may we cultivate peace within so that we may radiate it to all sentient beings, like the Prince Siddharta depicted in this thangka painting and like the old proprietor of the Prince Coffee House we met today.