Two days ago on the eve of Hari Raya Haji, I managed to locate the contact number of my chinese calligraphy teacher and expressed my gratitude for his teaching some 17 years ago.
Mr Khoo speaks Hokkien (Minan dialect) in the same way my grandma did. When I first heard him pronounce the name of my ancestral city during a lesson at the Singapore Buddhist Culture Centre at Upper Dickson Road, I felt a keen sense of familiarity with him.
The author of many books and teacher of local & foreign dignitaries treated me with respect despite my lack of Chinese cultural & literary knowledge.
My inability to master brush strokes and lack of commitment to practice did not deter him from checking my homework. He pointed out that I was drawing lines and not writing. But I did not feel slighted because Mr Khoo spoke truthfully & kindly.
His other students were way ahead. They wrote out line upon line of ancient poems from memory as their paper unrolled and sometimes drapped over the edge of their tables. They made room for him respectfully as he weaved among them to inspect their work. His comments were received with reverence. 😊
Even though I couldn’t really follow the intellectual exchanges between him and his more mature & advanced students who had been with him for a long time, Mr Khoo often explained short chinese sayings to me so that I would feel included. His students took after him in his graciousness and were always welcoming towards me.
One unforgettable ancient saying that he taught me was this: the elegance of a room does not depend on size, just as the fragrance of flowers does not depend on numbers. In Chinese it reads “室雅何须大，花香不在多”. How compact! ❤️
When I apologised for my lack of progress in my writing, I remember Mr Khoo saying something like, “这是我们华人的字，你再写不好，也要写下去.” (Transl: This is our Chinese writing. Even if you’re not good at it, you must carry on.)
How refreshing it is to know that there are other more intangible reasons for doing something other than being good at it! Because of Mr Khoo’s approach to learning, I’ve become mindful of using marks as the only measurement of a student’s suitability & aptitude to continue with a subject.
“Guru” in Sanskrit means “Dispeller of Darkness,” and “Bringer of Light.” In Hindu and Tibetan practices, gurus are essential to one’s path to self cultivation & liberation.
Mr Khoo taught me not because I showed any promise in calligraphy nor was I a deserving student. In the ways he generously shares his knowledge and patiently deals with my ignorance, he is in every sense of the word, my guru.
I wish my teacher and his wife peace & health as they lovingly support each other through the years and I hope to be able to pay them a visit one day.
One day 20 years ago I was on the platform of Bishan MRT Station looking out for the train.
A young woman brushed past me. She had the blackest black hair cascading from her head to below her shoulders in rich glorious waves that danced and rippled.
“Wow! What amazing hair you have!” The words had flown out of my mouth even before I knew I was saying them.
“Thank you! No one has told me this before!” said Girl with Raven Hair.
“But I’m overweight,” she added, pointing at her stout form as if I should take back the compliment.
She was indeed on the chubby side, but that wasn’t the first thing I noticed about her. She beamed when I told her that her hair, was the showpiece, and not her hips.
Girl with Raven Hair had been thinking of wearing black clothes to look trimmer although pastels were her favourite colours.
I asked her to rethink her new colour choice. Black clothing can also make a person look heavier than she really is because of its opacity.
She then realised focussing on hiding her curves had caused her to lose sight of the obsidian tresses that had gathered about her like a comforting cloak of lush velvet.
Whether it’s a lisp, or a limp, or not being trim enough, imperfections are not the sum of us. Investing our energy to hide them ironically amplifies their hold on our psyche and keep us from seeing fully.
One day the subject of half-siblings and step-siblings came up towards the end of English lesson.
As I wrote down the words’ definitions and the circumstances that gave rise to them on the white board, some students looked really interested.
Even when the bell had sounded for the 14-year-olds to leave my class, a handful took their time to pack their bags and lingered on.
“Teacher, I have a half-sister,” “I have step brothers,” “My father remarried,” “My mom don’t allow me to see my dad,” and so on came tumbling out of the kids’ mouths as they gathered at my desk in the morning hush.
I was momentarily stunned. For right there in the safety of my homeroom, it felt like some dead weights were being lifted off young shoulders as each kid revealed what they were not supposed to talk about in public.
One boy whose mom left their family when he was in primary school looked almost teary when I taught him the words to say without having to lie about his mom’s absence at school functions. I could tell lying was destroying his young soul.
Words create realities.
I think the kids that day left the room with new words and new found camaraderie to face the new normal brought about by changes in family dynamics.
We do children a great disservice when we project our adult disappointments with life on them, and by denying them a voice we trap them further in our web of lies.
May we have the courage to face our truth so that others can live freely.
May this film on the significance of rituals which I’m happy to be part of energise you and enhance your equanimity.
In my experience, rituals are series of deliberate steps undertaken to invoke an internal order through external actions.
They can be personal & non-sectarian such as making tea or lighting a candle in the privacy of our home. They can also be public & religious, involving the community in specific locations.
When performed with focus & intention, a simple act can become a ritual.
In the absence of full participation with our senses, a ritual becomes a routine.
So central to all rituals I believe is the mindful enacting of gestures to invoke a sense of order & strength within to manage the turbulence without.
When a child has a chaotic day at school and coming home to the sight of a loving adult making tea and arranging biscuits on a plate for him for the thousandth time since he started kindergarten may have a calming effect on him. And maybe then he will have the courage to share his thoughts.
Unfortunately more and more of us are just too knackered to initiate any kind of ritual with our children. Some of us abdicate our role as ritual masters in our kids’ life to therapists, counsellors or even strangers.
The adult working world can be unforgiving& unpredictable. So having some place to be still or set the table even if it’s just to eat a simple meal of porridge, may provide a moment of peace to our battered being.
In short, rituals sustain us and lend us the motivation to give whatever we’re trying to accomplish another shot.
The pandemic has generated wave upon wave of unease & difficulties. Distrust among nations and between citizens and their governments prevail even with the availability of vaccines.
While pharmaceutical developments race to keep up with the virus, and authorities we count on are understandably none the wiser, we need to look within for that sense of balance.
And the cure that keeps us from the panic that causes harm to self and others, might just be invoked through the discovery of new healing gestures or the enacting of old restorative.
Of all birthday observations, a sibling’s birthday is unique. Our brother or sister has been with us long before any BFFs, BFs, GFs, partners or spouses appear.
When I was younger, I saw my siblings through my parents’ eyes. Their disappointments or happiness in my brothers became mine.
Aging helps me to individuate, separate and differentiate, so that these days if I have any opinions or views on anyone, they are strictly mine. And as they’re ONLY my views from a limited mind, there’s no need to hold on to them so tightly.
Because my brother was not academically inclined, his childhood fascination with cars and all things mechanical & electronic were seen as purposeless and a waste of time.
Fortunately, cars have always been his first true love, so his dream of caring for cars in a workshop which he can be proud of didn’t die.
About 10 years ago, I bought a Ganesha figurine made of resin from the Tribuhavan Airport in Nepal.
It was love at first sight for my car mechanic brother when I placed the pot bellied elephant deity in his palm.
6 months after that, my brother would accompany me to carry medicines to street animals in Nepal. He also brought along his resin Ganesha on our trip to give thanks.
We stayed at Hotel Harati in Kathmandu where he met Ganesha in bronze, and Park Village in Budanilkhanta where we stopped to say hello to Ganesha in clay each morning.
Today this little brother who needed me to take him to Jurong Bird Park for a primary school art contest is now in his late 40s.
And on his birthday today, I wish him good health and peace to keep cars safe on the road.
May his reverence for Ganesha also make him wise and keep him grounded, even as he deals with speed & energy everyday. 🙏🌈🐾
In my teaching days working with male students, I regularly got complaints from mothers that their sons often kept them in the dark about issues that they were facing.
Whether it was about learning challenges or relationships, these boys seem unable to share their burdens with those who loved them most.
Some parents wondered if there were special communication or questioning techniques they could use to help their sons share with ease.
But the reality for me was, boys probably told me stuff more easily because I did not have emotional attachment to them. This emotional distance allowed me to let them talk without offering solutions, or feeling the urge to “set things right,” for them.
See, if you are a boy or a girl, and, having a tough time in school, the last thing you need after telling someone at home about your trouble is having to manage their upset reactions. And even worse than a parent going to school to “solve your problem,” is being told that you should have done this or that, or that the problem you speak about is all in your head.
I’ve learnt not to offer unsolicited advice when a young person speaks to me.
Often times, like birds needing a temporary perch to stand and rest their tired wings, people just need a safe space to bring up what’s hurting them. That space enable them to call up all the hidden demons and laid them out in the light to rest. And we know Light brings clarity and healing.
So as our offspring, nieces and nephews enter Term 2 of the school year, and the older ones take on internships and industrial attachments or even a first job, may we have the wisdom and discipline to hold safe spaces at home for them to articulate the difficulties they meet outside, so that all the aspirations of benefits for themselves and others may take flight.
I love taking pictures with doors and gates. They are symbols of invitation and transition.
Many years ago in a cab turning into Clementi Ave 6 on my way to work, I spotted a homeless dog lingering at the back gate of Park West Condominium.
I saw much longing in the way the animal tilted his/her head at the slip gate, as if hoping for someone to open it to let him/her in. I might be projecting my own need to belong on the dog. But till this day I continue to send prayers of comfort to the dog whenever my cab exits at Ave 6.
For as long as I remember, I rarely enter or exit a doorway mindlessly. In my childhood, like many kids, I could sense energy at doorways. I was a fairly sociable kid, but there were instances I felt great unease & reluctance to enter the homes of perfectly fine people.
The only doorways I could enter with ease then were the ones leading into temples. I took and still take great delight in lifting one leg after another to cross over the raised temple threshold （门槛）that separates the secular world from the spiritual world.
Perhaps in sacred spaces of worship at some temples, churches and mosques, I feel complete as I am.
To be able to stand at the temple doors of my childhood year after year for 50 plus years, and feel its centering energy calling back all the fragments of my life is a blessing I’ve never taken for granted.
So may I take this chance to wish all friends and sentient beings, their very own special doors to wholeness & healing. 🙏
Each year on the 9th Day of the Chinese New Year, old folks turn up at the temple to observe the birthday of the Heavenly Deity.
They come from the neighbouring housing estates. Like members of a spent army which has braved too many wars, these silver haired devotees trudge on unsteadily and sometimes painfully, to celebrate and to give thanks.
Their uncompromising grit inspires younger devotees to rush to their aid. Someone offers to steady a tottering grandpa, and another helps a granny too shrunken to reach the urn to place her incense sticks.
We are familiar with the adage that children are our future. However, it has to be the enduring presence of older folks who have lived through life’s every imaginable challenge and still remain thankful, that gives the younger generation guts to flourish in the future.