Friday, August 29, 2008

The Bliss that calls Me

The last few hours of my visit are here. What a visit it has been for as visitor and family, I have been touched with a warm tenderness and rich affection by all. I trust they have been touched in turn by the love and gratitude I have felt.

If it weren’t for the calendar and clock, I would not be so certain that an entire month (and a bit) have passed. While the focus of attention has mostly been on my darling brother, Joe, I have managed to attend to the needs and interests of one or two others. For that, I am truly grateful.

During this visit, I have been drawn into the ‘flowing mirror’ of my soul, as James Hillman describes it, aroused by its ever-shifting imagery, seduced by its haunting forever-ness.

Had it not been for the daily invitations so sensitively sent to my attention by the two people here who most need care i.e. by brother, Joe, and my mother, I could have easily been lost in the shifting sands of my soul.

Life is truly enchanting even when the thorns of its rose-bushes stab you unexpectedly and almost mercilessly at times. Keep your attention on the rose-bushes and you soon forget the pain. Instead, you soon remember the Garden of Eden you were born into and in which the divine that you are lives in bliss!

"You begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss and they open the doors for you. I say follow your bliss and don't be afraid and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."
- Joseph Campbell

I believe it is this bliss that calls me and bids me follow it and so I shall, physically to Brisbane for now and metaphysically into the wild, enchanting, sacred spaces of my soul’s longings! See you there…..

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Gentle Ironies

Mum relates an internal dialogue an older cousin has been having with God. That lady, now 88, is just three years older than Mum.

For some years now, Mum has lived with what I perceive to be an anxiety over her tenancy on earth! It stems from a belief that she should have been called to her true home by now. So many others of her generation have been called. Why hasn’t she?

Here's the test to whether your mission on earth is finished. If you're alive, it isn't. ~ Richard Bach at

She also believes, like so many others, old and young, that old age is fraught with illness, loss of physical and mental abilities and a purposelessness that is burdensome to others. I can’t help feeling that she feels compelled to fulfill her prophecies of poor health and an inevitable degradation of her lifestyle.

Fortunately, she retains an enviable sense of humor although these days, she calls upon it less frequently than she used to. Thus this somewhat rare recount of her cousin, Fidelis’, conversation with the supreme personage is one that I am keen to hear. It clearly has amused Mum intensely and continues to as it brings on a paroxysm of laughter.

“I asked him, “Why haven’t you taken me yet? How much longer am I supposed to live like this? I am getting tired and weary. You had better call me soon”.

But that man up there doesn’t seem too interested. In fact, I’ve observed his preference for younger people. The likes of you and I are too old for him.

(Mum is forced to pause as more laughter interrupts).

Anyway, I’ve pressed him for an answer and he has finally told me that he doesn’t want me yet. Well, I decided then that if that was his position, here was mine: “If you don’t call me now, when you eventually do, I shall refuse to go””.

Mum is in tears by now. I am enjoying this. I love to watch Mum having a good laugh. It was a forbidden thing when my father was alive. We, children, all nine of us and Mum weren’t allowed to sit in conversation with each other and we most certainly weren’t allowed to laugh. If, by some extreme misfortune, we did, we were pulled up, slapped across the cheek, told off in language we ourselves would not dare use in his presence, and sent to ‘exile’ i.e. some corner of the house away from everyone else. But today, Mum is able to laugh freely, even if sometimes feeling too frail to!

Ah, such ironies that life serves up. We enjoy the present as best we can as we nervously undo the shackles that keep us fettered to past fears…

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Sacred Space of Meaningful Conversation

I notice that people here tend to speak rather slowly, as if they are in no hurry at all and as if they are offering each word as a fresh utterance, a fresh composition. It is so charmingly different to the well-oiled, automated delivery of cliched scripts that I have become accustomed to in Brisbane - tired, old, uninspiring scripts that recycle stale energy, their originality used up a long, long time ago.

Worse yet, these lifeless, conversational detritus are frequently scattered in company to avoid silence, a state apparently so threatening and uncomfortable, it has to be filled with non-creative dialogue:

How are you?

Pretty good, thanks. Yourself.

Yeah, not too bad. Could be worse.

Hot enough for you?

Yeah, it's been shockin'

I had to shower twice this morning. Cold shower.

Me too. They say its gonna stay like this for the rest of the week...

And so it goes. Or does it? And if so, where?

Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
Oscar Wilde at

On the other hand, I was drawn into a different kind of conversation last night, just as we were about to tuck into our 'steam boat'*.

What is the difference between liturgy and ritual?

The five of us at the table remained silent as we pondered the question. After at least a minute, one offered an answer.

Rituals are like habits with certain connotations. Right? But liturgy is...

Someone else sought to fill in the blanks...but stopped.

I acknowledged the first response regarding rituals and waited to see who else might respond. Soon, however, the immediate demands of the steamboat 'ritual' distracted us, or should I say, drew us back to the purpose of our gathering.

I continued to ponder the difference between liturgy and ritual and felt almost ready to offer my answer. Sensing, however, that the timing was not quite right, I refrained and instead allowed my attention to be absorbed by the joyous process of 'trawling' (with a strainer-ladle) freshly cooked assortments of seafood from the cheerfully steaming 'boat' in the center of our table.

The conversation gradually meandered towards apparent paradoxes in the Bible and then onto local politics. No surprise at all as I have long been aware of Malaysians' fondness (or is it an addiction?) for two subjects - religion and politics.

And so our dining, interspersed with periods of silence, progressed to a happy, open-ended closure. Had you been there, you would not have complained of verbosity. You might have been intimidated by the silences though. But, if you were sensitive enough, you would have felt the unspoken respect and care that held us all in the sacred space of meaningful conversation.

Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.
Robert Benchley

*In case you're wondering what that is, it comprises a small gas-fueled wok in which a tasty soup is kept boiling and into which you drop all manner of tasty meat and vegetable bits to cook. As they do, you dish them out into your bowl and consume. Our steam boat last night was a seafood affair. Most delicious :-).

Friday, August 15, 2008

Life's Kaleidoscope

"Life is a train of moods like a string of beads; and as we pass through them they prove to be many colored lenses, which paint the world their own hue, and each shows us only what lies in its own focus"

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have been feeling somewhat dissatisfied over the fact that I have not been posting here everyday. Somehow the hours just slip away and from wake-up to shut-eye, I am in another world so different to the one I experience when I sit down to compose a post. Perhaps I am finding these two worlds impossible to straddle. Perhaps it is silly to even try!

Life here is unnervingly different to what I am used to. Crime, particularly robbery and theft, is rampant. At least three out of five people I meet have been robbed, most more than once and almost all in broad daylight in the midst of terrified onlookers.

On the weekend, my nephew, a strapping young man of nineteen, was hit on the head with a helmet by two young men not much older than him. They had lured him to assist an elderly man who had been dealt a similar blow earlier and who was lying on the ground groaning from pain and shock. All this to relieve him and my nephew of their mobile phones! My nephew was able to make a quick getaway despite his injury. The elderly gentleman, however, was not as fortunate. The last we heard, he was still recovering in hospital from shock. Two other teenage boys who had witnessed the entire event felt powerless to help.

It was this same nephew’s older sister who had been twice robbed a couple of years ago by a couple of motorcycle snatch thieves. In the second incident, my daughter, here on holiday, was with her and was threatened with a knife to part with her handbag. She did and so escaped physical harm. To think that the incident happened at the front gate of our house!

A few days ago, I was told of the recent murders of two people who are relatives of close friends and just the other day, my eighteen year old niece described the loss of five friends in road accidents last year. I am told this country, Malaysia, has one of the highest, if not the highest, road fatality rates in the world.

All of this happens against the backdrop of incessant rumbles – allegations of corruption within the government and its racially discriminatory practices. Prominent political figures seem to be prone to notoriety relating to crimes ranging from bribery to murder.

You can see why I feel this world is so vastly different to the comparatively peaceful and placid world I inhabit in Brisbane and frequently in front of the screen of my laptop. But to leave you with the impression that this is the sum total of life here would be unfair and untruthful. In the middle of this festering wound of Malaysian society, I have met so many caring souls, several of whom volunteer their services for the hidden faces of this same society – the poor and the marginalized.

Take, for instance, a family friend who dropped in to visit my mother and my brother, Joe, (who is very slowly recovering from a surgery that left him bedridden for several months). A retired teacher, she now volunteers at an orphanage. A significant part of her time is spent tracing or submitting applications for birth certificates for the abandoned children.

Or there’s the sister of an ex-classmate who works at a school for children with learning difficulties. And another family friend works as a volunteer fundraiser for the homeless. And so it goes on. These people and their services leave me with just as, if not more, powerful and empowering impressions than do the callous acts of others.

It is as if I am being offered a choice of views of heaven and hell. It only requires a slight adjustment of attention to bring heaven into view. And it takes an equally small adjustment to bring up the horrors of hell on the screen of my mind!

"Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world".

Albert Schopenhauer

These are but some of the images of life’s kaleidoscope. So vast and varied is its imagery, I could easily find myself lost in a sliver of it, convinced that it is all there is and that my entire world is ensconced within. So tantalizing and compelling are its local dramas, I could easily forget the infinite other dramas happening simultaneously and involving people and things so far removed from my current field of view! Yet, even the slightest turn of the kaleidoscope reconfigures the entire life-scape before me and for such magic I am abundantly grateful!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Helplessly Fascinated

I am helplessly fascinated by what I see and hear in this place that was once the only home I knew. Curiously, I find myself occasionally still calling it home even though I feel so much more like an onlooker rather than one who belongs!

There is, without doubt, a sense of my past, my ‘roots’, as it were. This is, after all, where I, the youngest of ten siblings, was born and where I lived for the first eighteeen years of my life and this is where I return time and again to be with my mother and my six brothers and two sisters, some resident, others visiting. So, this is home insofar as it is where we gather as family and where we recall memories, distant and recent.

This is also home because we plan for things that involve the entire family such as my sister, Michelle’s, recent birthday. Or at least, this is where such plans originate and are conveyed, where necessary, to family members no longer living here. And this is home because it is here where we meet, once again, friends from childhood and friends more recently acquired.

And all of this, against the backdrop of the brief and intense togetherness of family, punctuated by the much longer and more mundane cycles of separation, appears to create gaping holes of awareness from which fascination taunts me mercilessly!

For instance, as I am driven along local streets, now different to how I remember them, I hold in my mind, images of old, dilapidated shacks that were the dwelling places of families, some of which comprised at least three generations.

There is a bitter-sweetness about such images which I cannot explain nor adequately describe. I close my eyes and I hear sounds of evening chatter. For some reason, it is intense and not relaxed as one might expect at this time of the day. I hear the sound of a metal spatula striking the wok as the evening meal is prepared in a dim, yellow light and the distinctive smell of fish paste hits me as it used to so many years ago. In the dusk, I can still make out the shapes of stray dogs sniffing in vain for food.

I feel I am losing myself as my senses heighten and I wonder why I feel like I am teetering on the edge of pain, as if my next breath would cause me to free-fall into an interminable abyss? And yet, do I not also sense a tenderness waiting for me there - a tenderness I am finding so very hard to resist?

Or, for instance, I watch and listen as a family friend talks. His soft voice and local accent feel melodious and are achingly familiar. I am far less interested in what he is saying than in how he says it. It keeps me suspended in a place I feel I have been but never explored, so that there hangs over me the question, why?

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened

By T.S. Eliot taken from

As I reflect on it now, I think I know the answer. I was in a hurry to leave this place of family and familiarity for, as my discriminating mind would have me believe, my most significant experiences growing up here were painful ones. Even now, I cannot seem to shift the heavy curtains they have drawn across my past. Perhaps if I could open them just a little, I might catch a glimpse of one or two joyous events that must have surely claimed at least some of my childhood. But just now, such optimism escapes me.

So this is the aching from my fascination. I want to go back in there and remember the past, the familiar, without the pain. I want to explore those places I so hurriedly withdrew from or was never allowed to enter without the fear of being imprisoned forever in them. Pain and fear that were intensely real to me all those years ago. Pain and fear that a part of me still fears. And yet, it calls me, like a lost spirit longing to return home. I realize now that I am its home!