My Oldest Childhood Friends

25 January 2020

(First Day of the Year of the Rat)

Each lunar new year for as long as I can remember, I have to go & see two friends.

With a trusted childhood friend whose fierce appearance dispels all impurities.

When I was young, these friends didn’t ask about my school results.

When my lack of mobility kept me from childhood games, I often leant on one of them or sat at their foot while others in the courtyard played.

When I entered my 20s, they didn’t care if I had a boyfriend.

When I got older, they were not bothered that I was unmarried and living with cats.

The silent support of my childhood. I often sat at the foot of this temple guardian diety or lean on him. (25 January 2020)

Over the years as my hair turns grey, their magnificence gains significance even while the panels they were painted on are splintering at the bottom.

This morning as I gushed about this pair of painted temple door gods to my cousin’s lovely wife as she indulged me and graciously took our pictures, a temple visitor’s interest was piqued.

The man took out his cell phone and started photographing my ancient childhood friends. I smiled gratefully.

My childhood exposure to temple door deities has caused me to feel immediately at home in any temple anywhere in the world as soon as I meet their temple guardians at their door.

Running my fingers over the patterns on their robes and the outlines of their accessories, I felt their total acceptance of me.

My relatives are often amused and slightly puzzled by my almost compulsive need to take pictures with these silent sentinels of an old temple, year after year.

Besides honouring the pair that had watched me grow up and now growing old, these yearly pictures with them is perhaps my response to impermanence.

For how could I assume that this temple will always be here, or even if I will get to visit it next lunar new year?

And because temple drawings are usually too massive and too complex to be easily replicated or casually replaced, the temple guardians have also become visual markers of my private journeys, just like two trusty childhood friends who are there for you, regardless of what you have become.

For the first time as the youngsters gathered around me to pose with my oldest childhood friend, I wished that they may also find the silent support and grounding they need in their life’s journeys.

With my oldest childhood companion and the younger generation for the first time. (25 Jan 2020)

Every boy is our nephew, and every girl our niece.

17 Jan 2020

This afternoon, the pet supplies arrived. There were kibbles, canned food and pee pads for the feline mob I share my home with.

If I’m not home, the goods will be discreetly stacked outside my door till I return.

Today I was home. So I gave the delivery boy a small tip by placing some money in a red packet that has 4 gold characters 一帆顺风 on it. They wish the recipient great ease in all undertakings .

As I handed the non-Chinese boy the red packet I took care to explain to him what the characters on it meant. Then I wished him smooth travel and safe driving wherever he goes in the course of his job.

He was very touched by the gesture. Delivery staff often brave crazy traffic, & tight deadlines, not to mention bearing the brunt of clients’ anger when the delivery goes wrong.

My nephews and their mom at the temple on Chinese New Year in 2018.

I have 2 nephews. In a few years’ time they’ll enter the workforce.

I make it a point to address service staff respectfully and look them in the eye. Xiao Wang (小汪)of Pan Pacific taught me how to book ferry tickets to Kinmen. (June 2019)

I believe when I’m kind to other people’s sons and daughters, my nephews will meet kind people too. So I needn’t worry about who they will meet, because everyone has the potential to be kind.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in 2018 with a group of daughters.

Staying Sweet for 2020

6 Jan 2020

First Parcel in 2020 for a friend whom I hardly see but is always supportive of my animal work since 2007.

School & work started on the 2nd day of 2020 for most in Singapore.

Since primary school days the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new one carry great significance for me.

As I age, I find myself more selective and making more efforts in the simplest of activities that I partake in around this season. (This would be the main reason why I need to operate alone. 😄)

Ollie poses with a Street Dog Care calendar from Nepal. This was the first gift I mailed out in 2020.

So on the 2nd day of 2020, I decided that leaving my house to make a trip to the post office to mail a calendar to a friend was top priority.

Now the taxi fare to & fro would easily cost me at least $14, and if I were pragmatic, I should have waited a few more days to gather up more errands and mail her the calendar while I was running them. But this friend definitely deserves more, and shall not be part of my errands.

My sore throat was also healing. Although I didn’t think it auspicious to begin the new year with one, it had the benefit of making me stay home to write OM and drink honey water.

After the Westgate Post Office, I stopped by a costume jewelry counter on my way to the supermarket.

The counter was just on the walkway of the mall so it wasn’t even in a proper shop.

Ollie, like Planet Jupiter, wears my choker of 12 moons.

But the salesgirl on duty that day was dressed as if she was working for Cartier.

She showed the low priced trinkets respectfully to customers who were mostly in carefree and casual clothes.

I was immediately impressed by her regal air even though her retail space was tiny & cluttered, and even though she only had a plastic stool to sit on, despite looking like a million dollars.

When she saw me, she was very interested in the rudraksha beads on my wrist and tried to recall their Mandarin name.

“Boudhi Seeds (菩提子),” I offered.

The young Queen smiled.

After she realised I understood Mandarin, she started telling me how she liked the way my choker looked against black.

This 12-moon choker of buffalo horn reminds me of Jupiter and has accompanied to many places. Its bovine presence often allows total strangers to relax and smile at me.

I returned the Queen’s kindness by complimenting her on her youth and dress sense, and she replied, “我只是年轻罢了。而你的时尚是打从骨子里来的.” (Rough Transl: I’m just young, but your style is bone deep).

As I watched Her Grace greeting customers who didn’t even bother to look at her, I felt I needed to give her something to remind her of her sweetness.

So before I left the mall, I bought an extra bottle of honey from GNC and went back to the costume jewellery counter to give it to her.

“May your life be sweet no matter who you meet.”

At first she looked a little puzzled. Then she held up the bottle of honey and revealed excitedly that this was her first gift from Singapore! She had only been working here for a month plus. And for her to receive honey at the start of the new year was auspicious, she gushed.

And standing tall on her fine stockinged legs, the Queen bent low to ask if I could give her a hug!

As I did, I wished her a happy and youthful 2020 and may the honey gift remind her of her own sweetness, and to remain sweet no matter what kind of customers she meets.

A Himalayan Christmas Blessing

29 Dec 2019

I was all set to leave my flat for a post-christmas gathering at a friend’s place when a clear voice rose in my head and went, “Bring something from Nepal.”

I tried to ignore the voice because I had already wrapped up a present for gift exchange and saw no reason to bring another.

But reluctantly I went back to my room and selected a notebook made of Lokta paper from among the gifts from Nepal to take with me.

I’m fond of buying handmade gifts, compelled by a vague logic to honour the makers and the belief that they will bring blessings to the recipients.

As I didn’t know who I would be meeting at the gathering except “a few close friends and family members,” I wasn’t sure if the Lokta notebook would be appreciated.

When I arrived at her home, my friend had the Nepali greeting, “Namaste,” on her door.

So my first word upon my arrival was a “Namaste!” to the guests who were already inside the flat.

A tall and lanky netball player with gorgeous curly hair came to hug me. She knew me from sports school days.

A quick sweep across the living room confirmed that I was The Oldest person in a meet up of supple youth from the sports and art fraternity.

After the gift exchange and a couple of group shots, a young man came to sit with me and asked if I was a teacher in SJI before. He had been a student there and recognised me the moment he saw me at the door even though I didn’t teach him.

Our conversation drifted to school days and the convergence of circumstances that set him on a path in film & animation.

Young Man laughed at my attempts during teaching days to interest his SJI mates in “Dreams” by Akira Kurosawa when all they mostly cared about was having a lesson in the air-conditioned comfort of the AVA studio!

But years later, one of those boys would become a partner in a law firm and write to say that whenever the sun shines on a rainy day, he would remember the foxes’ wedding in “Dreams,” and think of me.

I mused that perhaps Kurosawa’s films were too stark and too abstract for teenage boys. They might have responded better to “Totoro,” or “Spirited Away,” although Hayao Miyazaki’s animations are as profound, if not more, than Kurosawa’s films.

Young Man’s eyes lit up at the mere mention of Hayao Miyazaki, the 70plus year old Japanese animation guru. This creator of fantasies is renown for his meticulous hand drawn details and his ability to convey difficult themes such as death, abandonment and loss through his tales.

Young Man then shared that even though these days lots of animation work has gone digital, he is still very “old school” at heart. He really enjoys drawing every detail by hand and still does so with his projects.

I knew by then for whom I had been told to “bring something from Nepal.”

I showed him the last minute gift that I had brought from home.

He was stunned and told me he didn’t know what to say.

And thus it was in the living room of a flat by the Kallang River in Singapore, that a young animation artist came into contact with handmade paper made from trees growing at 3000m in the Himalayas.

I invited him to use the notebook to incubate his ideas for films and animation so that the many blessings from Nepal on survival, gratitude and beauty will bring him assignments that not only pay the bills but also be of great benefit & service to others too.

Young Man accepted the Himalayan blessings reverently. I was very grateful to have obeyed the prompting to bring a gift even when I thought it wasn’t necessary.

Singleminded

21 November 2019

A couple of days back I was in the Lavender Street area after attending the wake of a pioneer street animal rescuer.

She had served the needs of homeless and dying animals faithfully even as she knew her life was ending. It’s now time for her to rest and let someone continue The Work.

At the traffic light junction outside the funeral parlour I asked a young lady in her late twenties if the way I was headed led to an MRT station.

She cheerfully offered to walk with me as she was also going in the same direction.

It turned out that she was learning to travel alone for the first time in her life. She had picked Singapore to be the first country for her solo practice and appreciated the predictability and order of our little island.

In her 4 days’ stay here she had memorised the MRT map and even knew I was living on the west of Singapore when I mentioned Jurong East. 😊

Solo Girl’s family has 7 dogs and care for a number of street cats. Her eyes opened wide in a mixture of horror and relief when I gave her the real reasons why unlike in her home country, she didn’t see any stray dogs or cats roaming Singapore streets.

I was to alight at Chinatown Point and she at Bugis Junction. Before we parted, Solo Girl asked me if I had any children. And when I told her I never married and never had any kids, she smiled warmly while her eyes lit up in amazement.

I believe this had to be the first time in my life that the mention of my unmarried and child free status solicited such looks of admiration! 😄

Solo Girl revealed that she felt very pressured to get married by her family and community. People told her that happiness could only come from being married and having children. She was getting a little stressed as she neared 30 and all her friends were settling down.

“Your family wants you to be happy and to them getting married and having kids is happiness. And because you’re such a pleasant girl, they cannot imagine you being alone. But it’s precisely because you’re such a lovely girl, you shouldn’t just marry anybody out of pressure,” I said, and we both laughed heartily at my touch of theatrics as I shared my opinion.

The tourist couple seated opposite us smiled. They could be wondering what kind of joke these two women from different races and generations were sharing.

Solo Girl was still laughing when I wished her a life of happiness on her own terms as I alighted the train.

In hindsight, Solo Girl’s short stay in Singapore might not be about sightseeing or shopping. It could have been a brief respite to recalibrate her emotions and clear her thoughts from gossips back home.

Maybe our meet up outside a funeral parlour of all places is a reminder for me to take responsibility for the choices I make, even if I have to make them alone.

Deepavali Delights

27 Oct 2019

During the Festival of Lights season, a school cat that had been injured and warded for medical boarding finally made a full recovery. His homecoming was much anticipated by staff & students.

On Deepavali morning, a former student dropped by my home to hand deliver her wedding invitation card.

Hand delivered wedding invitation card from Habibah who is now a primary school teacher and bride to be this Nov.

Habibah Najihahbi Ahmad, the bride-to-be was 15 when she studied English with me.

In these days where relationships are often hurried & transient, not to mention contractual, Habibah’s visit on Deepavali morning has brought such warmth & light.

Habibah and her mountain guide above 5000m in the Himalayas in 2018.

Now in her 20s, she’s completed her academic & professional training, driven & camped solo around Iceland, trekked the Himalayas, become teacher to primary school children and is going to be married this November.

Habibah wrote this in 2010 as a response to a question on childhood memories. In 2018, she would go on to trek the Himalayas. I think what childhood exposures & activities have power over adult behaviour later on.

The young lady who used to scale walls & sit inches from the ceiling in her childhood, wrote articulately in English, and faithfully fed the school cats till she graduated from secondary school, will be someone’s precious life partner soon.

Removing cat fur off visitors is the last ritual whenever people visit me.

Through the years, I’ve seen Habibah in polo t-shirt and school skort, sports training gear, concert attire, baju gurung, trekking jacket and I’m now looking forward to see this lovely lady in her bridal finery. ♥️

Universal Light

25 Oct 2019

It was the second last lesson at the old campus. The students had been checking their marked exam scripts and tallying marks.

As much as we like to believe that marks are just marks, we also know marks determine GPA scores and have the power to call up all kinds of intense emotions.

We’re usually good at celebrating success but awkward at handling disappointments. Sometimes in our eagerness to help someone see the bright side of things, we ply them with glib platitudes & unsolicited solutions.

On that day I had prepared a lesson inspired by the Deepavali (Festival of Light) season and brought a small tea light in a decorative clay holder to represent a traditional oil lamp to class.

We explored the literal & figurative meaning of light, and the various symbolism of fire & light across cultures and in our everyday language.

The students cheered softly and their eyes lit up when the youngest in class struck a match to light the lamp.

A hush came upon the room as each child carefully passed the light from hand to hand, taking a moment to still their hearts to give thanks for the mental faculties to sit for exams and for whatever scores their efforts have brought them.

Slowly the heaviness of discontent lifted as the light burned brightly.

“I feel that there are a lot of things that I can look forward to in the future, and I feel motivated to work hard for the things that will happen next,” a student responded when asked how did holding a light in her hand feel like.

By contemplating on light, the students experienced how their minds could rise above the temporary disappointments that had threatened to lock them in a permanent state of fear and self-doubt.

When the lesson ended, I gave thanks to light and bless the room that had hosted us all these months.

That lesson turned out to be the last time I would be using that room as the following week, I would receive notice that the campus would close permanently.

As a result of the campus closure, we had the chance to conduct our final lesson of the year with a field trip to Little India where the students became part of the Festival of Light celebration.

My wish of having our final lesson at Little India had been fulfilled by factors beyond my understanding.

So I like to take this chance to wish all my friends the blessings of Fire and Light, especially when we face situations & outcomes that are beyond our control.

Namaste.