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.

The Birth of Clarity

6 Oct 2020

Incense offering to the Sunrise at Nagarkot (Dec 2017)

I took 2 hardboiled eggs from the breakfast buffet and slipped them into the pocket of my winter top.

We were travelling down the hills of Nargakot to stay one night at the Airport Hotel in Kathmandu. It was 2017 and Nepal’s election year. All roads would be close to vehicles on the day we were flying back to Singapore.

I kept the eggs in case I came across a hungry dog or cat, or even a child. It can be traumatic for some of us to meet a hungry animal and have nothing to give. But instead of feeling sorry and helpless, I decided to fortify myself with food. Eggs in their shells proved to be most hygienic and practical in a situation like this.

Down the valley, the hotel check-in went smoothly. Then I rested while my travel mates headed out to Patan for some last minute exploration.

We would meet for dinner.

Dinner was still some time away when I woke up from my nap in the Nepalese winter.

The eggs I brought with me in the morning had become my sustenance till dinner time.

As I sat by the window gazing out at Tribhuvan Airport in the setting sun, it became clear to me that “what we do unto others, we do unto ourselves.”

Thus have I experienced that the giver is also the receiver.

Changing Script

27 Aug 2020

Our mom turned 77 last week. I organised a dinner at a restaurant that served dishes of our dialect group.

She and I were the first to make it to the restaurant. While tea was being served, my mom asked if my brothers were coming. I told her yes and referred her to the dishes on the menu to pick her favourites.

Both my brothers were coming from work. Evening traffic could be an issue. When my mom asked me again to check if my brothers were on their way, I decided not to get annoyed with her or give her a chance to rant about them.

Instead I calmly asked her why she was so fixated on the ones who hadn’t arrived, when the one who remembered her birthday, booked the dinner, and got everyone to turn up for it was sitting right in front of her.

I’ve learnt not to take on the emotions of others, even if they’re valid or belong to my mother.

My brothers are now in their 40s and 50s. This is a childhood picture I cherish.

About 15 minutes later, my brothers appeared. I was very happy to see them. Our sibling bond has somehow survived years of negative narratives started by parental worries and disappointments, and perpetuated by constant retelling at the slightest provocation.

My mom performing a ritual bath on Ganesha, the Giver of Wisdom and the Breaker of Obstacles. We take on the attributes of whom we serve and pay attention to.

But that evening at our mother’s birthday celebration we were happily sharing a meal and chatting about more important, but non- emotional topics such as keeping our jobs and our masks on. Of course we also traded in superficial knowledge of more profound topics such as statesmanship and power play.

My mother looked very pleased with the red packets we gave her to wish her good health. She ate heartily all the dishes that would take her too much effort & time to cook at home.

Perhaps all gatherings are invitations to rewrite our scripts, and free us from the habitual hold of stunted stories that keep us from moving on and growing up.

Even as the passing years deplete us of our physical faculties, the power to select which narratives we wish to perpetuate can never be lost.

Will our stories be full of how others have wronged us and how we’ve also let others down? Or will our stories also celebrate every attempt to do our best in spite of everything?

Here’s wishing all good health, sound mind and generous heart to keep improving on our life’s script and live in joy regardless of the situation.

My mom and her sister on a kelong trip in 2019.

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)

My Psalm 23 Moment

10 Aug 2020

“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.

In My Father’s Name

5 Aug 2020

My father in the batik shirt I bought and his grandsons.

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.

The final birthday red packet I gave him in 2009.

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.

Visiting my brother in Batam.

A Dream of Mind & Knife

22 June 2020

A sword wielding Manjusri statue in lapis lazuli. Source: Rendition Artifacts.

On the eve of the Solar Eclipse I raised a small butter lamp for someone who had exited this world painfully just a week ago.

As a language teacher whose main work has been about redirecting the powers of the mind for the best answers and therefore the highest good, I care how the mind works.

I’ve always taken for granted that the mind can figure anything out. So the abrupt ending of a brilliant mind belonging to someone I admired greatly despite not knowing him personally, bothered me.

That night after lighting the butter lamp I had a dream that went like this:

Some goods from Tibet had arrived for me 6 months late.The whole consignment was dropped off by a helicopter onto the roof top of a commercial building in Chinatown.

I had to go and pick up the goods myself.

I stood at the traffic junction outside Chinatown Point and looked across the street and up the building where my challenge stood.

As I explored options on how to get access to the goods, I found myself being able to direct the consignment to move just by thinking about it.

The whole process felt like I was simply using a cursor to shift files around on my computer. I watched the bulk lift and swing down gently as if an invisible crane was doing all the work.

This newfound skill didn’t make me feel superior or anxious.On the contrary it felt very egoless & peaceful.

When the consignment from Tibet finally landed, I found sacks of rice, food items and a knife. I was delighted to know that I was to distribute all the edibles to others, but not so happy to learn that the knife was meant for me.

“What kind of an omen is this? Am I supposed to kill myself with it?” Questions rose in my fearful mind as I looked at the shining metallic blade in my hand.

“No, the knife is to help you cut through all the bullshit,” came the reply, strong and clear as daylight, and as if someone was talking directly into my ear as I opened my eyes.

In Buddhism iconography, Manjusri is an enlightened being of wisdom that transcends knowledge & concepts. He holds a sword in one hand and a lotus or sutra in the other. The sword cuts through the mind’s illusions and ignorance (aka bullshit). The lotus holds the Heart Sutra, the home of compassion.

I remember reading a few years back that Manjusri is the guardian of those born under the zodiac of the Hare. And my zodiac sign is the Hare.

Sharp and metallic objects especially knives and blades make me nervous. I don’t even like seeing a pair of scissors lying about.

But this dream of a knife gift has created a mind shift in me. While a knife can certainly cause injuries and even death, it is also absolutely essential for cutting loose a noose to save a life.

So I wish to dedicate this post to all who are troubled with issues that look and feel hopeless. May they be given Manjusri’s sword to cut through all attachments that are directing their mind towards harmful paths. And may the sword help to make a clearing in their mind, where they can feel safe & heal in their own time. 🙏

Lord Manjushri – Arya Nargajuna and the Naga Queen. Artist: Ben Christian

Wearable Peace

9 June 2020

In our village home at Covent Garden along one of the Singapore canals, there was a fallen tree trunk by the doorway. Depending on who was using it, it was sometimes a bench and sometimes a table.

The tree trunk of nearly black wood was often my grandma’s work bench.

On it my grandma could often be seen crafting her much sought after anklets and necklaces made from embroidery threads of 5 colours.

These “Five Coloured Threads,” or “ngoh sek sua,” as they are called in our minnan dialect, were meant for babies and toddlers, especially those who cried for no apparent reason at night.

Judging by the visits of parents to our home, grandma’s handiworks must have some positive outcomes.

My grandma had suffered unexplained losses in her life. Yet she could provide this support to her community willingly & cheerfully, as she rolled the 5 threads representing the 5 elements into one wearable work of Peace to soothe a restless baby and to calm an anxious parent.

Years later when I wear rudraskha beads on my wrist and pass them over the head or back of animals as I pat them, my grandma’s hands were on me.

And who have known that my grandma’s simple blending of the elements to make peace would prepare me for my affinity with prayers flags 40 plus years later in Nepal?