One afternoon, before 2012, I was sitting by the window of my old flat just looking at the rain trees outside and the badminton court below. It was the June break so I had lots of time to be still.
Then I spotted a man with a backpack making his way to the cast iron bench at the periphery of the badminton court.
He had a dark complexion and was dressed like one of those hundreds of young foreign workers I saw at Mustaffa Centre.
It was a work day so it was unusual to see a worker sitting by himself.
My flat was on the 7th floor. By the time I really noticed the man, he had already sat down. And so I could see only the top of his head,his shoulder and his backpack.
Perhaps something about the way he sat told me he was troubled. And suddenly almost without realising it, I found myself addressing the top of his head with, “Whatever is bothering you, may you be well.”
I wasn’t feeling particularly kind when I made that prayer, if it could be considered a prayer at all. In fact it came out of my mouth almost mechanically.
And as if he had heard me, the man got up.
It was then I saw that one of his hands was newly bandaged.
He must have gotten injured and was taking a rest on the bench after returning from the clinic.
And as for me, I’m glad that I had been spared the shame of making unfair remarks of a man looking “so free,” when the opposite was more like it.
That episode always pops up in my mind during social gatherings when harmless chats can often spiral downwards into trading unkind remarks on others whose lives we know nothing of, in our attempts to sound “interesting.”
And over the years I have avoided meet ups that I feel can make me judgemental or worse still, condone irresponsible speech in my efforts to fit in.
Twenty years ago, I taught English & Literature to a Science Class whose students were mostly aspiring to be engineers, doctors, accountants and businessmen, and maybe lawyers.
Looking back now I can see the glaring mismatch between my subject offering and the boys’ subject combination & career trajectory.
When their literature exam scores didn’t measure up to their science and math scores, Literature was the blight that marred their otherwise pristine achievements of straight “A”s.
A couple of students who understood the relevance of Literature fought the school admint tooth & nails when they were asked to “drop Lit so that they could better focus on other subjects.” They got to keep Lit and did well in it.
However, I would learn later about a boy who questioned my teaching abilities and actively sought to humiliate me at every opportunity.
He contradicted me during lessons or asked me questions he had read elsewhere about the texts which he thought I wouldn’t be able to handle.
He even included plagiarised materials in his essays and showed off to his classmates that I wouldn’t be able to spot.
In hindsight, it was an act of grace that I didn’t know about his acts of mischief.
Had I known of his stealth, I might have become nervous, and started to channel all my productive energy to prove him wrong, and ended up neglecting my teaching, and thus becoming exactly the lousy teacher he believed I was.
Hence blissfully ignorant of the childish traps he had set for me, I continued to entertain his questions to the best of my knowledge and complimented him for his essay writing.
Years later, this boy got to study in one of the Ivy League universities in USA.
By then I had moved on to teach English and Literature in a girls’ school. That year I was teaching Amy Tan’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” when the boy who had become a young man dropped by my school during his vacation.
Right on the bench outside the staff room, this young man surprised me by holding both my hands in his, and asked if I could ever forgive him for all that he had done to make life difficult for me during his school days.
He revealed that we had met in a period when he was facing some unresolved personal issues and I had unfortunately become the target of his bitterness.
Over the years he matured and became reflective. The turning point came when his sister became a teacher, and was treated like the way he used to treat me.
I thanked him for the courage to confess and even though there were some awkward times between us, I didn’t take his defiance to heart.
School teachers have thick skins or else it’s a one way ticket to the asylum.
Looking back now I see that in a weird twist of fate, a brother’s pranks on his school teacher not only did not achieve the intended results, but had been eerily stashed away for his own sister who at that time was not even a teacher yet.
By seeking me out to make peace he had offered me a valuable lesson on never to use personal problems as an excuse to hurt others. And in apologising, he had also released his own sister from the torment of her students.
Today is the birthday of a deity in the female form called 妈祖, pronounced as Ma Zu.
Ma Zu is the Mother Goddess that watches over oceans & seas, and is highly revered by fishermen and all who make their living by water. In Taiwan and Kinmen Island, shrines and temples are dedicated to her as she grants seafaring safety and plentiful harvest.
Last year we visited a Ma Zu shrine on Kinmen Island that was about 600 year old.
This morning I brought clean water and cat kibbles downstairs for the block cat, Aquarius. I dedicated that feeding to the Mother Goddess Ma Zu since it is her birthday.
As Aquarius was slurping up her water and eating her kibbles, a voice in my head repeated, “Feed others as you are fed.”
I didn’t think too much of it as I was more concerned with the cat getting her sustenance and me not seen by anyone to be lingering longer than necessary. I had my mask on and identity card with me in the event that my presence raised question during this semi-lockdown.
A short while after I got back from feeding the cat I would receive food gifts of biscuits, bananas, mango and even a coconut!
For that one meal I gave to a cat, I was given more than enough to last me a few meals.
Unsought mercies like this helps me to give, while fighting off the urge to hold & grab.
I also read that Ma Zu was the deification of a young girl who protected her village with her life.
And perhaps during difficult times as we learn to protect and care, instead of destroy & blame, each one of us is potentially a goddess or a god in the making. 🙏♥️
This is Day 7 of the semi-lockdown in Singapore in response to Covid-19 and the 6th day of my cat, Grace’s passing.
This morning on a piece of blue bandana I assembled some of the items that have supported Grace in the past few months as her health deteriorated.
The nebuliser kit that helped to unblock her nasal congestion so that she could breathe, the eye drops that moisturized her eyes so that she could blink comfortably and the syringe that delivered liquid to her mouth to quench her thirst were duly thanked as I visualised the Medicine Buddha through the fire of a blue butter lamp.
Her little turtle neck of blue & white argyle that protected her from chills and cushioned her as she lay in her cat condo on days she needed to rest was also blessed.
There were other important containers such as her stainless steel water bowl that had to be of a certain weight and depth so that it wouldn’t topple over when she accidentally walked into it and the carrier that served as a nebuliser chamber.
Then there were the flower essences and comforting oils that calmed both of us down as her end drew near.
Every birth has an end. And every end is an invitation to practise grace.
My cat has given me 13 years’ worth of lesson on grace, the quality from which all good springs from.
On the night of her passing, when it was evident that all the external tools were no longer required, I recited “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Soha,” to help her to cross to the other shore.
And today, by looking at the tools that facilitated her exit with gratitude and affection instead of dread and fear, I hope this little ritual will invoke grace to come & stabilise the hearts of all healthcare professionals and we who are now learning to walk in the shadow of Covid-19.
As covid-19 brings the world to a standstill, First Tutee is developing an interest in books because he spends more time at home these days.
Having zero access to television, limited exposure to social media, and supervised play, print media seems to appeal to him.
The other day he asked me why I gave away my collection of books by Roald Dahl and didn’t save any for him. I told him he wasn’t even born when I did that.
He was quiet for a while. Then he asked if I could let him know first before giving away any books from now on.
I pointed out that he hadn’t even started reading the book I got him from Nepal. It was called “Namastay.”
In “The Zoo Keeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman, there was a very disturbing account of nazi soldiers coming into a small zoo and shooting the animals one by one in their cages.
The zoo keeper’s wife, fearful for her own life as well, couldn’t do much to save the animals that she and her husband had lovingly tended to over the years.
As gun shots rang painfully outside their living quarters, the zoo keeper’s wife could only hold her young son close, and read to him to prevent him from asking questions about his animal friends being used for target practice.
This contrast of unspeakable violence by uniformed youth of supposedly superior stock against a mother reading to her child to protect him from life’s incomprehensible heartbreaks remains for me a very potent symbol of how at our most vulnerable moments, we seek refuge in words.
Perhaps First Tutee, and many children the world over will find life’s many unexplained questions in books as they wisely stay home to let the virus passover, while adults outside continue to bicker and blame like tempestuous toddlers.
On the recent New Moon, Ron & I chatted outside the supermarket while El popped in to get my groceries.
We were exchanging news & thoughts about the covid-19 situation at home and abroad.
An old man who was seated near us became unusually interested in our conversation. At the mere mention of the word, “lockdown,” he sat straight up from his crumpled position and peered at us from behind spectacles too big for his wizened face. Just to be sure, I used the word a couple more times, and he did the same.
So he might have heard bits of our exchange that sounded like this, “Lockdown…blah blah blah…food supplies…blah blah blah…quarantine… infections…lockdown …blah blah blah.”
If I was even remotely right about what Goggled Grandpa was hearing, what a frightening world it must be for him!
His thick glasses coupled with his sunken cheeks and the birdlike way in which he titled his head to “eavesdrop” was both pitiful & endearing.
I decided to stop talking so as not to confuse or scare him.
Now & then at supermarkets elderly folks ask me to read out the small prints on the price tags of cling wrapped groceries for them. $3.25 & $32.5 are too challenging for old eyes.
Sometimes at the pharmacy I see the hesitation and even unease, in the eyes of older folks reading & comparing details on bottles of supplements they are thinking of buying. Most likely they are struggling with pre-existing medical issues and have come to the pharmacy because someone has told them such-and-such superfoods can help them or even cure them of their ailments.
I used to ask where are their children when I see old folks managing on their own. But getting on in years myself, I also realise this kind of isolation may not be for lack of physical companionship or care, but is brought on by the gradual & inevitable deterioration of one’s own 5 senses.
When our eye sight fails we don’t trust what we see. So what if there’s someone who loves me standing right next to me?
When our hearing wanes, we’re unable to participate fully in conversations or worst still, we listen selectively and mix up our own mangled narratives with that of others. So what if I’m guaranteed a place at gatherings?
When our gustatory and olfactory faculties weaken, we may need more than permissible doses of flavorings to entice us to eat. So what if a 10 course feast is placed before me?
Perhaps these are what make aging so frightening, because no amount of external support can compensate for the loss which is internal.
This morning I recalled my grandpa silently going about tidying the temple altars, folding up paper offerings with his arthritic fingers and making sure the temple cats had been fed before he locked up for the night.
I realised in the end no matter how popular or powerful we are, it’s just us and our personal memories, thoughts and practices that will keep us company and grant us some peace in the midst of all that fluidity.
Maybe the current situation of physical isolation through quarantine and stay home notices can help us to accept our own company first, and make peace with who we really are. Only then we can purify our fears of Covid-19 lockdown and rehearse for the ultimate lockdown that awaits every single living being when it happens.
Physical isolation was imposed on me at babyhood. Two months before I turned one year old, I contracted poliomyelitis. What followed was a 3 month hospitalization at the Centre for Communicable Diseases in Moulmein Road.
My young dad at 27 years old was devastated by the thought of his baby girl crying alone in a ward full of similarly afflicted older children under quarantine care.
During his era, hospital compound wasn’t so secure like it is these days. He was thus able to sneak in and watch me from a distance through a window. Everyday.
When I got better, visitors were still not allowed. But he somehow managed to drop by to feed me grapes by throwing them through the window like I was in a zoo! 😄
It was the only way a labourer knew how to comfort his 10month old child.
Of course he was duly chastised by the ward nurses each time for his illegal feeding acts. But my dad’s love was beyond logic and gave him the ability to tolerate all kinds of hardship & humiliation. He would often eat just a slice of fried sweet potato for lunch so that he could save up for the bus fare that would take him from our village in Zion Road to Moulmein Rd. Somedays he had to walk.
When he was finally allowed to visit me, he quickly found out who were the kids closest to my bed. Among the young recovering patients, there was a teenage caucasian girl who was very kind.
Despite the language barrier, my dad somehow was able to make her understand that if she could comfort me when I cried, he would get her gifts.
So my dad saved up even more and bought my Caucasian Angel snacks each time he visited.
My grandma used to tell me that my Caucasian Angel was on crutches, but she was very beautiful. And she worried who would marry her.
Towards my discharge from the CDC, my dad bought my protector a portable transistor radio which was an expensive gift in the 60s, and especially so for someone in my dad’s economic situation. But my dad knew he would never be able to pay her enough for those months of companionship she gave me.
So I recovered from poliomyelitis with a limp that would set me apart from others in physical appearance, impose further financial challenges & restrictions on my family in my growing years, and come to dominate all later decisions I would make in my adult life.
I will always be several steps behind others in movement. And this is nowhere more obvious than during fire drill or building lock down exercises. I can never gather in time like able-bodied people at reporting point to mark safe.
One time after the whole school building had been vacated during a fire drill practice, I found myself still struggling down 4 flights of stairs, as the classroom I was teaching in was on the 5th story.
It moved me so much when a young athlete who was training for her SEA Games in sports school at that time came running up the steps to hold my hands so that I needn’t have to walk alone.
Thus unable to alter my speed, I continue to plod on among panic shoppers with their trolleys filled to the brim to face covid-19, while carrying my one daiso shopping bag of groceries that my physical condition has permitted me.
But often in my solo marketing journeys, I meet supermarket staff and even perfect strangers asking if I need help.
Social distancing for now is necessary to break the spread of viral transmission, but my own childhood affliction that has set me permanently apart from others also assures me that being apart doesn’t mean being alone.
And so I wish for all my friends that whatever sets us apart, may we also recognise that with compassion & wisdom we are never truly alone.
May the loss of physical freedom that we face now facilitate the liberation of our spirit & mind, like the way having his little girl under quarantine builds in a young father the qualities of resilience, humility, ingenuity and trust. ♥️ 🙏