Monday, 4 July 2011


THE DAY'S WORK DONE, I drag my tired self to the balcony, my private haven for meditation and relaxation. As my eyes rest on the blue and misty hills in the far horizon, the words of Psalm 121 spring to mind:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

To my right a solitary coconut tree sways gracefully in the cool, gentle breeze. The setting sun looks like a luminous oversized yolk from a fresh and healthy egg. Night will soon be here; twilight quickly ends in the tropics.

The swallows hurrying home are flying in the direction of an abandoned mining pool whose calm and limpid waters conceal great treachery; already it has claimed at least half a dozen young lives. None but the foolish or the ignorant would venture to swim in that pool. Among the superstitious, it is said that the woeful spirits of the drowned are ever in search of new victims to take their place, for until they can produce a proxy, they will know no freedom, nor can they reincarnate.

I have tried many times to explain where the danger lies: the long waterweed that undulates with the undercurrents can entangle the legs of swimmers. The harder they struggle, the more entangled they get, and sometimes the uneven bed of the mining pool produces unexpected whirlpools...

My reverie is interrupted by the sharp bark of my dog, Ciro. I peer down into the garden and am just in time to see a green snake ringed with bright yellow slither into the bamboo clumps.

"Oh, those accursed bamboos, lair of snakes and iguanas!" I have so often uttered under my breath, but the old dame, our cook, simply refuses to have them cut down. "Where are we going to get poles for drying clothes; leaves for wrapping rice dumplings when the Fifth Moon comes around; or switch-brooms to springclean before Chinese New Year?" she will retort. And, as usual, she has her way. She has always had the final say as far as the back garden is concerned - and rightly so, since it was she who transformed the patch of unruly undergrowth into the fruiting and flowering miracle it now is.

Bananas, papayas, guava and sugarcane grow in such abundance that friends have facetiously suggested I export them. Start a factory, the price of sugar is going up! The Chinese view it as a crime to leave good land idle; hence every usable square foot of our garden is planted with fruits and beautiful flowers.

Ah, the flowers! They grow not only in the garden but also in the fields beyond, in a hundred glorious hues and patterns. God has indeed dressed the fields with greater finery than Solomon was ever able to adorn his mistresses. Chrysanthemums, roses, lilies, bougainvilleas, hydrangeas and cannas galore! At midday the scorching sun tried its best to subdue them, but now in the evening cool, their flowery spirits revived, they are lifting their fragrant faces towards heaven in praise and thanksgiving. And they will do the same tomorrow, and the day after that, and ever after...

The night fairies will soon be home! All Chinese girls are taught never to pick flowers after sunset.

I offer a silent prayer of pure joy and gratitude for the daily blessings the Lord showers upon us.

It is now more than three decades since I had to move from my home in Pesiaran Ampang, but the tranquil view from my balcony passes before my inner eye each time I find myself adrift in timeless reverie.


"HUNDRED AND THREE, hundred and four, hundred and five..."

Joey was determined to be the skipping rope champion in her school and was feeling elated at her progress. As she kept count under her breath, her attention momentarily fell on her grandpa sitting on the old stone bench in the garden.

"He's dreaming again, just like he always does when we're watching the ships on the horizon," she thought, careful not to lose her rhythm.

"Hundred and fifteen, hundred and sixteen, hundred and seventeen, hundred and eighteen..."

Joey loved looking at the distant ships with her grandpa whenever the two of them went on long strolls down the esplanade.

"Hundred and twenty-two, hundred and twenty-three, hundred and twenty-four, hundred and twenty-five! Now let's see Lucy try and beat that!" Satisfied with her achievement, Joey dropped the rope and ran over to the stone bench, planting her plump little buttocks down with a resounding plop and disturbing her grandpa from his reverie.

"Joey! How many times..." Grandpa spluttered and then, seeing the mock innocence on Joey's irresistible face, he smiled, though a little wearily.

"Why do you keep looking at that house, Grandpa?" Joey asked, in her sweetest voice.

This seemed to catch Grandpa off guard and, to give himself time to think of an appropriate answer, he cleared his throat with great seriousness. He put an arm around his inquisitive, eight-year-old, chubby and utterly adorable granddaughter. She was definitely the apple of his eye.

"See those beautiful roses? I was admiring them. I love roses," he said, pointing in the general direction of the rose bushes across the road.

Joey knew her grandpa was fibbing. He'd always been more interested in fruit trees than flowers. But something in his voice made her stop probing. Instead, she shrugged and ran off to try and break her own record on the rope. She remembered her mother's comment a few days ago that Grandpa was behaving oddly, giving up his comfortable rocking chair on the verandah for that cold, hard stone bench, and dreaming away for hours. He must be getting senile! Joey didn't know what "senile" meant, but she could guess that it had to do with extreme old age.

"Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three, forty-four..."

Grandpa's back was aching after so many hours on the stone bench. Suddenly his face lit up, like a child who has just been offered a bar of chocolate. He noticed that the roses were in bloom - red, yellow, pink and white - and the bushes had been recently pruned... because he could now see a slender figure in a white blouse and red floral sarong watering the plants, very lovingly, very gracefully.

Most elegant women had quah-chee faces - the shape of melon seeds - and if she was a nyonya (as she appeared to be by her manner of dressing), she must be using bedak sejuk*... good heavens, perhaps she was also a habitual betel-nut chewer - such a hideous indulgence, to discolour one's pearly teeth! Banish these unkind thoughts... ah, she's moving towards the gate!

Grandpa's heart began to palpitate. He must find a way to meet her, to have a good look at her at close quarters, but how? As the days passed, his thoughts grew feverish and sometimes he completely lost interest in his meals. He noticed the anxiety written all over the faces of his loved ones. "Are you all right, Grandpa?" everyone kept asking, to his utmost irritation. But he managed to keep a poker face, at the same time feeling quite guilty at finding himself in this ridiculous situation - to be in love like a forlorn puppy at his age!

Everything comes to one who waits. Grandpa remembered this from the scriptures. One afternoon, from his position on the stone bench, he saw his dream woman open the heavy front gate for the fishmonger and the butcher. She did this with such dignity and elegance! Then she beckoned them in. Grandpa's heart sank. How would it look if he went over on the pretext on wanting to buy some provisions? No, it wouldn't do: etiquette demanded that he call the vendors over and look over their wares in his own front yard...

A whole week went by. Grandpa was rewarded by the sight of his dream woman opening and closing the gate for various members of her household. She must be married! But the man could also be her brother; there was some resemblance... Oh, look, there's her fluffy Pekinese rushing out on the road, chasing after the car that has driven off!

Grandpa found himself out of the front gate in a trice, running after the dog. The woman had started in pursuit, but she was no match for the septuagenarian. He picked up the dog as it paused to urinate against the kerb, cooing reassuringly to it. As he turned to hand over his temporary charge, his gaze fell full on the woman's face. She was smiling, no doubt impressed by the old man's swiftness. She was the spitting image of Betty, his beloved late wife. In fact, she might have been Betty's twin, notwithstanding the forty-year difference, but Betty had never had any sisters...

"Beautiful dog," he said, quickly regaining his composure.

"Thank you, thank you very much... are you all right?" the vision said, expressing concern at Grandpa's laboured breathing.

"Of course! Never felt better - bit of exercise, you know!"

Grandpa walked slowly back to the old stone bench, feeling elated. A miracle had taken place! She was real... he had spoken with her... they could... anyway, they could now wave to one another across the road for a start.

*traditional skin-cooling rice powder used by some local women

Sunday, 3 July 2011


"I'M BORED TO DEATH! Every morning, crawling to work through the traffic, I ask myself why I shouldn't take optional retirement," Joy said with a long, drawn-out sigh.

I glanced at Joy. There was certainly little joy on her face. But that's life in the city for you! The city - how it seduces the young from the kampongs, with its bright lights, its tinsel and glitter, its fool's gold!

There had to be a way to cheer Joy up, get her feeling positive.

"Joy, look at that young man in the red car; he's enjoying his music so much he's actually dancing in his seat!"

Joy cast a disapproving look at him, but I could feel her tension easing a little. All around us were routine scenes of joylessness and negativity. Mothers yelling at their kids, couples quarrelling heatedly in their cars, their flushed, irritated faces betraying the boredom and stress of their lives. Just another traffic jam.

Fortunately, I have learned the art of amusing myself even under the most trying conditions. Pedestrians on both sides of the road, or passing in front of my car, are a rich source of entertainment, literally a moving picture, produced and directed by Life.

Wow! Here's a highly fashionable Sweet Young Thing, short locks waving pertly in the breeze, wearing a blouse twice her size and a skirt so tight it could split right open at any moment, and she's wobbling along atop a pair of four-inch heels... whoops! Now right behind her is a very voluptuous damsel wearing an almost identical outfit, what a coincidence! Coming up next is a skinny young man in a huge hurry whose hairstyle is absolutely cat-and-mouse - the front sticks up like a cat's whiskers and the back is braided into a long, ratty tail! And look at his pants, and those oversized shoes - he must have escaped from a circus!

The trick is to filter out and totally ignore those who are conservatively dressed.

Waiting for people to show up after they've phoned to announce their intention to visit ("I'm coming over soon!") can easily lead to acute boredom and stress. What I do is to pick up last month's issue of Reader's Digest. Or sweep the dust off the top of my piano. Or mentally select my wardrobe for the forthcoming Church Annual Dinner or So-and-So's birthday banquet or the next YWCA Fundraising Dinner. You'd be surprised how much idle time stuff like that consumes. And when the visitor finally turns up, gushing apologies for taking an hour-and-a-half to arrive, you can be the perfect host and say you didn't mind one bit - and actually mean it!

There's really no excuse for anyone to say, "I'm bored to tears." Not even if you happen to be a housewife. If you're tired of trying out new recipes or working on your garden, there are always good books you haven't read, parts of your mind you haven't stimulated - and no end of letters to write. It's definitely better exercise than gossiping on the phone half the day!

All the different types of stressful boredom are compounded when you find yourself visiting a friend or relative in hospital, and you have to keep him or her company for hours, without actually being the usual definition of "company." Boredom added to anxiety and fatigue intensifies the stress. You can pray - though not for hours on end. And you can reminisce, mentally reviewing the happy moments you've shared with the loved one now knocking on death's door, so that the value of your friendship is experienced fully once again. This certainly helps to make you feel very glad to be there, despite the small discomforts and inconvenience. In fact, these quiet moments spent watching over a sick friend or relative can be infinitely rewarding - at least you can experience what it's like to be a guardian angel!

So never, never be bored. If you are, you can be sure that it's entirely of your own making. Boredom is often the sign of a negatively charged mind. Reverse the polarity, transmute the situation into something positive - and you'll find yourself a much more resourceful person than you ever thought.