THE TIMES, THE MORALS
(After Ee Tiang Hong)
Tempers flake, bruise
Blood swells veins
As memories burn.
When reason prevailed
And men talked --
Now it’s tit for tat
Know no restraint.
We pray n plead
For sanity’s return
As pall bearers
Carry another dead.
Kirpal Singh is a poet and a literary critic from Singapore. An internationally recognised scholar, Singh has won research awards and grants from local and foreign universities. He was one of the founding members of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, Australia in 1977; the first Asian director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and chairman of the Singapore Writers’ Festival in the 1990s. He retired the Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre.
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Keith Lyons introduces us to Kenny Peavy, an author, adventurer, educator and wilderness first-aider who has travelled far and wide and wishes everyone could connect with the natural world right outside their door.
American Kenny Peavy has spent three decades getting people outdoors. He believes that by playing in and exploring the natural world, we can discover or re-kindle a deep connection with Nature and learn to respect and take care of the planet we all share.
For the last twenty one years, he’s been based in Asia, working in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. He’s currently at possibly the coolest school in the world, made of bamboo and nestled in lush jungle, the Green School Bali. Kenny is an advocate for education and learning outside the classroom.
In this conversation, we are going to learn about growing up in the South of the US, how his environmental awareness was instilled, what brought him to Asia, and some of the biggest cultural differences (including breakfast). In addition to his questioning memoir Young Homeless Professional, in 2007 Kenny co-authored the pioneering environmental education handbook, As if the Earth Matters, and recently, an illustrated book, The Box People , was re-released digitally to enable children, young people and their parents and educators anywhere in the world to use the book. He also created Waffle House Prophets: Poems Inspired by Sacred People and Places.
In efforts to raise awareness about conservation and sustainability in Southeast Asia, he’s paddled around the island of Phuket in Thailand, and ridden a bamboo-frame bike from Thailand through Malaysia to Singapore and Bali. As well as being a nature guide, project fundraiser and science teacher, Kenny is also a qualified wilderness first responder and first aid trainer. In Bali, he had to flee with his family when an erupting volcano threatened their village.
Kenny has some advice for city-dwellers afraid of the ‘sometimes scary’ world away from concrete and mobile phones.
Tell me about growing up in Georgia, as I only know it being famous for peanuts, and being the birthplace of Julia Roberts, Kanye West, Martin Luther King Jr, Ray Charles, and Hulk Hogan?
I was born in 1969 so, essentially, I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s. Since the ’80s were my high school years, I consider myself a child of the ’80s in all its hair metal, boom box, Pac Man and Donkey Kong glory!
It was very rural. A lot different then. We weren’t as aware of the outside world and didn’t have access to a lot of things like we do now.
I distinctly remember going to my first ‘real mall’ in about 1984 or maybe 1985. It was Gwinnett Place Mall. A huge commercial shopping centre. Up until then, we only really had local mom-n-pop shops. So, it was astounding. One of my friends could drive and he had a car.
None of us had much money so we all pitched in a couple of dollars for gas. The parking lot was dizzying and the mall was an amazing place to watch people. We tried this new thing none of us had ever heard of called a Gyro wrap and it was absolutely delicious and strange. Then afterwards I had an Oreo ice cream. Something I had never experienced before since we only had vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream at the local shop. It was all brand new.
Growing up in the countryside we didn’t have that sort of food or flavours so even those simple things we take for granted today were fascinating novelties back then!
Aside from that, as I said, it was very rural. Most folks had land and cows or chickens. A lot of pine trees which means pulp mills to make paper. Plenty of dirt roads. Atlanta was the BIG CITY and most of us were kind of afraid to go there because we never heard anything but bad news about city folks.
What was the environment you grew up in like?
Most folks were into fishing, hunting and other similar recreations. I went to a public school and took the free bus to school. We definitely had jocks, hicks, geeks and other ‘distinctive’ social groups. Me and all my friends were into hard rock and heavy metal and we saved our money so we could see all the shows from AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and White Snake when they came to Atlanta (even though we were scared of the Big City and fast talking city folks).
Our big entertainment was cruising the strip mall where they had a McDonalds and a hardware store. We’d all just drive in circles wasting time and gas while blasting The Scorpions so we could wave at people we’d seen at school the very same day.
I think most families were basically Blue Collar with jobs in construction, factories or some kind of farming. We all grew up working and my first job at age fifteen was washing dishes at a steak house in town. Other jobs we had as teens were cutting grass, painting curbs, running cashier in a gas station and other similar tasks.
How did you get into writing, was it something you developed a talent for early on, or did you have some inspiration and guidance from others?
I always wanted to be a poet and swoon the girls with poems and fancy quotes from far-flung novels. It never worked.
I also wanted to be that professor with the patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket and a pipe dangling from my mouth as I pontificated wise philosophical diatribes to impress the masses. I’m still working on that one!
Your interest in Nature, the environment and science, where did that come from?
Essentially, from growing up and playing outdoors. We were always outside and not allowed in the house during the day. So, we’d get bored and flip over logs, explore the creeks, go fishing and ride our bikes all over the trails in the woods.
This lead me to get curious about the critters we found under the logs and hiding out in the rocks in the stream. Combine that with a love for hunting and fishing and I eventually studied biology at university.
I basically wanted to know how Nature worked. What made it tick? How did all the pieces fit together? That also lead to jobs at the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia where I learned a heap about aquatic macro-invertebrates, ichthyology (fish) and ecology — and had a private lunch with the Father of Modern Ecology and author of the very first ecology textbook, Professor Emiritus Eugene Odum.
That’s why I firmly believe that a childhood spent outdoors playing and exploring will later lead to an insatiable curiosity for Nature and an ethic for conservation and stewardship.
You document in your book Young Homeless Professional about a time in your life when you immersed yourself in the natural world, and were searching for answers. What did you learn from that time about the world and yourself?
I essentially have many of the same questions today. I think I understand the inner workings of Nature and life’s mysteries a bit better now. With a modicum more insight and quite a few more experiences under my belt than 20+ years ago, I think what’s most important is the process of questioning. The ability to stay open to life’s possibilities is key. We most likely will never fully comprehend or understand life, our roles in the cosmos and Nature’s mysteries, but if we stay curious, keep exploring, stay open to the possibilities and keep questioning then I think that’s the key to finding a place in this world we all share.
How did you end up moving from the US to teaching in Asia?
On a whim. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see and experience new cultures, try weird foods, learn about different religions and philosophies. Speak strange languages. So with US$ 8,000 in the bank, a teaching degree and a hankering to see the world I set out for Kuala Lumpur in the year 2000: I’ve never looked back!
What are the biggest differences between life in the US and your current life and environment in Bali?
The biggest difference has to be that it’s a majority Muslim country. My wife is Muslim and I’ve grown quite comfortable being married into a different culture and religion. And here in Bali, it’s mostly Hindu which is vastly different from Islam. Growing up in the Southern US, I was only ever exposed to Methodist and Baptist forms of Christianity. All of this was new to me 20 years ago when I moved here.
I think the tropical climate and easy-going beach lifestyle are also very different from growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Another HUGE difference is having rice for breakfast! I was always a hash browns and eggs or better yet, grits, kind of guy. We don’t really have either one of those here. But instead, they eat rice with a spicy sauce and crispy chicken or fish for a typical Indonesian Breakfast!
As well as being a teacher, you’ve done a lot of activities, organising events, initiating projects and raising funds. What’s your motivation for doing these?
I feel like we should give back. Whatever we have to share, to teach, to give to others is valuable. Being part of something bigger than ourselves, whether it is a project, a group, a movement or an ideology is fundamental to achieving a sense of fulfilment and belonging. When we give, we receive back way more joy and happiness than we originally gave. It gets multiplied! Through giving of ourselves and sharing what we have, we receive a sense of being part of a larger cause and a sense of contentment which is multiplied many times over.
One of your most notable achievements, in addition to your writing and educational work, is riding a bamboo bicycle across Southeast Asia from Thailand to Bali to raise awareness on sustainability. What was the hardest part of that adventure?
It was all fun with plenty of excitement and adventure. There were actually very few hiccups and hardships. But I would have to say that cycling some of the monotonous palm oil plantations through peninsular Malaysia from the Thai border to Singapore was hot, boring and so sad. It was heartbreaking to see what was once a beautiful rainforest converted into endless palm oil plantations and a never-ending paved highway.
You also kayaked around the island of Phuket to raise awareness about marine conservation. How important is tangible action to bringing about change?
Taking action is paramount. We can say anything we want. We can project an image of being eco-friendly and sustainable. We can GreenWash anything. But if you want to see what someone truly believes, watch what they do. Pay attention to their actions. Tangible action, hands-on, in the field, is where it’s at! Especially, if we truly want to bring about change and make a difference we have TO DO, not just SAY or BELIEVE.
Environmental education seems to be at the heart of your mission, how do you encourage students, teachers and adults to re-connect with Nature?
Ironically, I spent 2 years researching this question as part of my MS degree and what I discovered and concluded after hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, conferences, surveys and questionnaires is that the best way to connect to Nature is simple… get outside and play!
Free time, exploring and playing in Nature are way more effective than any curriculum or lesson plan. When we take time to just wander and wonder we connect in ways that can’t be facilitated through constructed lessons or planning. It happens naturally and spontaneously when we get lost in play, discovery and exploration.
What are people’s (particularly city-dwellers) biggest fears about the natural world?
I think the main thing people are afraid of is boredom. They don’t know how to wallow in boredom until the sense of wonder kicks in. We’re so used to instantaneous entertainment that we’ve become afraid to just sit, observe and take things as they come.
Another big one is mosquitos! And leeches. People are terrified of leeches!
It’s basically a teacher training manual and activity guide. We wrote it back before there were any resources to train teachers in Southeast Asia. So, the activities are meant to get kids connected to nature through exploration and engaging the senses. We put an emphasis on showing Southeast Asian flora and fauna as well as locals in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as instructors and participants to make sure it would have a multi-cultural approach to environmental education.
I am hoping to take some of the activities in the book and update them and create a much smaller activity packet. I think it’s now more important and relevant than ever that we try to connect kids and adults to Nature.
As well as working as a nature guide, trek leader, science teacher, you are also a wilderness first aid instructor. What inspires you to be so active?
I think the main driver and inspiration comes from a sense of curiosity. I always wanted to be a National Geographic explorer, or some kind of adventurer!
When I was young, I was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies, David Attenborough and TV shows that featured people exploring exotic places, getting lost in mysterious jungles, landing in the middle of some kind of misadventure or a quest.
Those images stuck with me and keep me excited and curious to this day! There is always something new to learn, a new place to see, a new style of music to hear, and new flavours to be tasted.
You’ve also done some personal service projects, such as in Bali helping those affected by the volcano eruption. How challenging is it to initiate projects, particularly in a foreign country?
It’s easy to do a project but it’s incredibly difficult to do it right.
The key seems to be relationships. If you have a relationship with someone in the village or even someone that knows someone in the village then things tend to go well.
The main issue I see is that many foreigners want to help in some way but they simply don’t know how. During the Mount Agung crisis, we were at a refugee camp and saw a car pull up and start tossing food into the crowd. The local villagers were then forced to run around and grab the donations up off the ground. It was very demeaning. I vowed to never approach any type of service project that way.
Essentially, you just need to ask the village what they truly need. This is the crucial step and it’s often overlooked. What I mostly see are people with good intentions making assumptions about what a village needs and then donating completely irrelevant or unwanted and unneeded stuff. Whether this is inappropriate food items that won’t be used, hot thick blankets in the tropics or painting a wall at a school when the funds and volunteer time could be used much wiser the missing ingredient is always communication with the locals to find out their true needs.
In the case of Mount Agung, what we discovered after meeting the heads of the villages is that they wanted fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, spices, electric fans and N95 masks. They said everyone had donated rice and instant noodles and that they needed something they could cook to go with it! In the end, we delivered those items based on their needs and wants not on assumptions.
So, if and when folks want to help out and do service projects it’s most helpful to find a trustworthy local that can help facilitate communications to ensure that the project is effective and truly wanted and needed.
How much do you feel you are an American in Asia, or a global citizen of the planet?
I don’t feel very American anymore. Aside from my mom, dad and sister, I don’t have many connections to my country of birth these days.
I’ve been overseas for more than 20 years now. I’ve changed quite a bit personally and the USA has also changed a great deal in that time.
I would say nowadays I definitely feel more like a global citizen and can be comfortable in almost any situation. These days I’m used to being surrounded by, working with and keeping company with locals of whatever country I am working in.
Being surrounded by people of diverse cultures, exploring and learning about different peoples, traditions, foods and ecosystems are what keep me happy!
When it comes to communicating and writing, what’s your process?
Ideas always come to me at the strangest times. The best ideas seem to come when I am not thinking about writing but instead, when I am on the motorbike, bicycle, drifting off to sleep or distracted or focused on something entirely different. To catch those ideas, I always keep a pad of paper and pen next to the bed, my phone has a note-taking app and I have a zillion sticky notes. I even e-mail ideas to myself sometimes! So that’s step one. Catch the idea and record it.
Then I tend to forget about it until I come across a similar thought or idea through reading, listening to a podcast or hearing something or someone that triggers more thought. That’s when I tend to gather up those ideas from the emails, sticky notes and note-taking app and start to map them out and write an outline. Then I forget about it again for a while.
Finally, when I revisit those ideas, I try to develop them into an essay, poem or even a book!
For the writing, I try to use my Southern American voice and interject colloquialisms. I normally write it. Edit it. Re-write. Edit again.
I find the editing is ongoing and every time you ‘rest’ in between versions and then look at your writing with fresh eyes you catch phrases that could be written better, sentences that can be shortened and different ways to say and express things that make them more interesting. Lastly, the thesaurus is my best friend!
What advice do you have some someone reading this, who wants to find their purpose, and also make a difference in the world?
Stay curious. Stay open. Seek out adventure. Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep learning new skills and spend long periods of time reflecting on who you are and what you have to contribute to the world.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on early morning slow-lane swimming, the perfect cup of masala chai tea, and after-dark tabs of dark chocolate. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com). .
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Recently I happened to be in Hong Kong for a cognitive education conference, and at day’s end, like many people, I took the spectacular funicular Tram and click-clacked up to the top of Victoria’s Peak to have dinner. The charming restaurant staff nicely seated me at a small table where I could gaze out over Victoria Harbour, which was slowly descending into indigo blue, as the multicolored lights of Hong Kong and Kowloon gently transformed the city into fields of jewels, linked by the diamond tracks of the much-loved ferries cruising back and forth across the dark water.
As I sipped my cold San Miguel beer in the warm evening, the restaurant began to fill up, and a pleasant looking gentleman was seated at the table next to me. He also soon was gazing out at what must be one of the most stunning views in the world, Victoria Harbour from Victoria Peak. “Beautiful”, he remarked. “Yes”, I replied. And so began my conversation with Dr. Bo Stamford, one of the chief architects of what might be called the “Singapore System”, the principles underlying the globe’s most successful city-state.
Bo appears to be a clone of Buddha. Warm, unpretentious, calm, respectful, broadly well-informed, shrewd and quick, and quietly amused. Dressed de rigueur for the territory in pale yellow cotton polo shirt, pale blue cotton trousers, and Tod’s suede driving loafers. His doctorate is in economics from a prestigious London university. As we dined on shrimp dim sum, I had a chance to interview him about the amazing, numerous successes of his home, Singapore.
I: Would anyone ever have predicted that a small British coaling station at the foot of the Malay Peninsula would morph into one of the world’s stellar communities, a model city-state? How did it happen?
Dr. S: Naturally, there are the obvious sources. An ideal location for international trade. A convenient intersection of magnificent cultures—India, Britain, and China. Vigorous, ambitious citizenry from Malaysia and Indonesia. Water from river and rain, fields for planting, and copious sunshine.
I: But those elements are true for numerous neighbors of yours. And many of those neighbors are struggling to build roads, schools, and hospitals, make money, and keep the peace. How are you different?
Dr. S: (Bo looked at me with a gentle gleam in his eye, then looked about, as if checking to make sure no one were listening from Hello! Magazine, or the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, and finally whispered his answer.) Causality . . .
Dr. S: Not so loud!
I: Okay, okay. So, what is this—thing?
Dr. S: Academia . . . slides . . . over the concept of causality. It’s there, but it isn’t. It’s critical, but it’s neglected. It’s a necessity, but it’s inconvenient. It’s the holy grail of knowledge, then it’s Wednesday’s child.
I: Singapore, I take it, took a different tack.
Dr. S: The very thing. In every area of endeavour you can name, causality is the key.
I: I’d like to tell you that I completely agree with you, and that your insight is doubtless excellent. However, a couple of examples, would . . . you know . . . clarify a little bit.
Dr. S: Naturally. Regard, for a moment, these topics:
Leadership. Leaders are supposed to control events in a desired direction. That’s causality.
Government. Administrations are supposed to manage society so that civic conduct falls within a highly admired range, so that all have jobs, medical care, housing, food and water in a beautiful, safe setting. That’s causality.
Financiers. Accountants and bankers are supposed to carefully analyze monetary systems, then invest in the ones likeliest to bring prosperous returns to the citizenry. That’s causality.
Civic Designers. Creative engineers are supposed to plan and build roads, buildings, parks, and breakwaters so the city continues to be dry, efficient, convenient, and attractive decade after decade. That’s causality.
Students. Members of the educational community are supposed to acquire world class knowledge and skills, so they can provide world class service, resulting in world class incomes. That’s causality.
I: Yes . . . that’s what I thought you meant . . .
However, how do you know if something is causal? Isn’t there a lot of controversy around that issue?
Dr. S: There’s confusion and, if I dare say, ignorance, about causality, but perhaps not so much true controversy. The importance of causality is radically grasped all across Singaporean society, top to bottom.
I: How did that occur? Why so?
Dr. S: Nothing bearing such value was left to chance!
I: No, that doesn’t sound like that would be very Singaporean. But, what did you do?
Dr. S: First, our scientists provided us with a clear model of causality. Then, that model was adopted by our educational establishment and taught to students from a young age, as well as continuously publicized by our media.
I: Am I going to get confused here?
Dr. S: Not necessarily. It is, as a magician might say, tricky but simple.
I: I’m listening. I think.
Dr. S: The key concept is comparison.
I: I knew I was going to get lost.
Dr. S: Look down below. Ferries shuttle back and forth, from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula. It costs money to buy the fuel to keep the engines running. Hong Kong is in the tropics, where sunshine is copious. It occurs to someone that if ferries were equipped with solar collectors the sun might provide enough power to run the ferries.
I: Ah, I possibly see where this is heading.
Dr. S: Yes, yes. Good. Take ten average ferries. Spit them in half. Equip one half, five ferries, with solar collectors. Leave the other five, the “control” half, just as it was. At the end of a year, compare the fuel costs. If the ferries with the solar collectors cost much less to run, that’s probably because of the solar collectors.
I: You know that because the solar collectors were the only difference between the two groups of ferries.
Dr. S: Right. That’s a controlled comparison. A test group compared to a control group. That’s how you test for causality.
Not exactly obvious, but once you get it, you’ve got it.
I: Okay, maybe I am starting to. So, when Singapore has an idea, it puts the idea into a controlled comparison to find out if it works or not. If it works, it becomes a part of the Singapore System. If not, it’s put aside.
That’s why everything in Singapore works so well. It’s been causally tested!
Dr. S: There it is. We pilot ideas—test them out. If they work, then we implement across our city-state of Singapore.
For example, we’re piloting a new leadership training program in the financial sector. We chose ten matched banks, and broke them into two groups of five each, five in the test group, and five in the control group. We taught the new leadership style to the managers in the five test groups, and said nothing to the managers in the five control groups. In one year, we’ll compare the two sets of banks, and see which is making more money. If our idea works, the five banks in the test group should be doing better than the five banks in the control group. If so, then we can think about implementing the new leadership style across the whole financial sector.
There’s some guesswork involved in all that, here and there, naturally. But that’s our basic approach, our basic causal schema.
His espresso coffee all gone, Bo checked his Patek Philippe watch and announced, “I have a meeting scheduled this evening at the Peninsula Hotel, in Kowloon, therefore, unfortunately, I must depart. It has been a pleasure speaking with you. Please enjoy the conference.”
As we exited the restaurant to all the splendor of nighttime Hong Kong viewed from high above, a green Rolls Royce, piloted by a strikingly attractive woman, switched on its lights and rolled silently forward, stopping in front of Dr. Stamford. As the car door opened, he turned and made a final comment.
“Plutarch told the stories of numerous men who made Athens, and similar city-states, eternally eminent. We draw those stories into our hearts, into our minds, into our culture. If Athens can . . . make it happen, then, Singapore can . . . make it happen. It’s all a process of . . . causality!” Then he smiled, bowed, slipped onto the beige leather seats, the door quietly closed, and the good doctor ghosted, in his shiny green Wraith, away down the dark hill.
Steve Davidson is a psychologist from California, the author of the clinical textbook “An Introduction to Human Operations Psychotherapy”.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.
Malaysia is said to have been inhabited 40,000 years ago by the same tribes who populated the Andamans. Situated on the trade route between China and India, they assimilated varied cultures into their lore, including that of the Arabs. Phases of colonial occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch and British wracked their history from 1511. They suffered from Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The Federation of Malaya achieved independence after a struggle on 31st August 1957. In 1963, the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo were combined with Malaya and the country was rechristened Malaysia.
In 1965, Singapore was voted out due to ideological reasons, some of it being racial and political. This Partition was free of political bloodshed or violence between the two countries, unlike the earlier Partitions within Asia which led to much violence and bigotry — India, Pakistan and North Korea and South Korea (where the split along the 38th parallel was initiated by the West post-Second World War to settle matters between the ideological blocks of communism and capitalism).
Malaysia continues a federal constitutional monarchy with a Sultan and an elected Prime Minister at the helm and has a mixed population of Malays (Bumiputera), Chinese, Indians, Portuguese and other ethnicities. We present a selection of writing from this country, put together on the occasion of their 64th independence day, also known as Hari Merdeka or National day.
Singapore is a tiny country connected to the bigger land mass of Malaysia with two causeways. It started out as a small island inhabited by pirates and legends. Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), a British East Indian administrator, thought it strategic and relocated some of the trade routes through the island. Migrants from many countries merged here — some looked for a better life and some served as coolies and prisoners of the colonials. When Malaya threw off the colonial yoke in 1963, Singapore continued part of the country till it gained sovereignty in 1965.
Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister envisioned a multicultural society where people of different cultures lived as one people. He said in one of his moving speeches in 1965: ” We will prosper, and a multi-racial society will take roots here. And it will do so because when you don’t allow people to play communalism, or racial bigotry, or religious bigotry, you breed an atmosphere of tolerance.”
Fifty-six years later, Prime Minister Brigadier Lee in his National Day speech clearly took the bull by the horns and said, while social media highlights the negative altercations of race and religion, it fails to highlight the positive ones. “Many more happy interactions happen every day but these seldom go viral.” He added these were values that needed to be reinforced with every passing generation. Read to find out what some Singapore residents feel about the outcome of Lee Kuan Yew’s vision, not just of race and religion but of living in a city state which hopes to continue as ” one united people“.
A recent immigrant, Aysha Baqir takes us through the flavours of life here on the tiny island during the lockdown. Click here to read.
The island state continues a home for many immigrants — some came early and some late. As a first generation immigrant, to me the little red dot is Asia’s gateway to the rest of the world. I enjoy its sand and seas very much. We conclude our ensemble with a little poem to the green islet that nestles between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea rippling with notes of harmony…
Anointing with Love
By Mitali Chakravarty
Listen to the swish of the waves.
Feel the breeze whisper caresses.
See the mangroves stretch
their roots above the ground,
in a siesta during lazy sunrises
and sunsets. Murmurs from the
ocean come wafting as
coconut fronds sing in the
fringes where the sand
welcomes the surf. It is a
party at the beach with
differences woven to
harmonise into a melody
sung in tune. A crescendo
that anoints with love.
First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh
“Walking is a pastime rather than an avocation.” Rebecca Solnit
In the weeks since social distancing measures were imposed and circuit breaker measures implemented in Singapore, despite having more time on my hands, my writing output has decreased. Have I been afflicted by the dreaded writer’s block?
By working from home, I save almost two hours of commute time every day. Instead of writing more, I find myself in a slump. Is my well of inspiration drying up?
Topics to write (mostly Covid-19 related) still buzz around in my head but I am surprised to discover just how much I depended on the world outside my home to stimulate not just my senses, but also to rouse my muse.
Unexpected encounters on the train, surprising conversations with colleagues at work, casual lunches with friends, all served as triggers for ideas, inspirations, and epiphanies. Without these avenues to spur creativity, I fret about wasting these precious extra hours that have landed into my packed schedule like a much-needed gift.
All that is left of my pre-pandemic life is the ability to step out of my home for a walk, as long as I wear a mask, walk alone, and avoid crowding. Not a bad idea, since walking is my favorite ‘sport’.
Walking has been my savior for as long as I can remember. Walking has rescued me, given me a respite from life, and a reason to continue with it. It has served as an exercise to maintain physical health, a mindful pause to collect myself emotionally, and as a conduit to receive guidance in turbulent times.
The wonder years
As lanky teenage girls, my friend and I walked hand in hand, two pairs of braids swinging around our shoulders, wearing similar if not identical clothes through busy Bombay streets. Some evenings we walked to the temple, on others we did some errands, or stopped for spicy street food when we had money.
Traffic fumes engulfed us as we navigated streets crowded with vendors pushing cartloads of bananas, people queuing up at bus stops, and beggars lining the pavements. We talked as we walked, trying to make sense of growing up, and understand the world of adults while we contemplated our future. We didn’t know then that she would get married young but remain childless, a lingering regret that she is yet to come to terms with. Neither could we have predicted the marital troubles that would plague me for several years before I took action.
As a young working woman, I resumed walking in California during my lunch hour. Stuck in a laboratory all day, mothering a baby in the evenings, and catching up on housework on weekends left few options for exercise. I strolled around the one-mile periphery of the triangular campus in the mild sunshine. A gentle breeze blew around my face as I walked in my comfy Easy Spirit pumps, taking in the pleasant greenery of the beautiful site. Walking helped my body lose some of the pregnancy weight and enabled me to make peace with my decision to be a working mother without letting debilitating mommy guilt weigh me down.
It was an era before cell phones became appendages. Getting away from your desk meant truly stepping away from co-workers, computers, and chores. I made a new friend one afternoon, a young woman who had arrived from China. She seemed excited but bewildered by the world around her. Her lack of fluency in English was no barrier to our connection. We spoke about important things, matters that were hard to articulate to others but easier to say aloud to a relative stranger albeit one you met regularly.
An unexpected life trajectory
The terrace of the duplex house in Hyderabad that I moved into when my child was eight served as my walking track for several years. The large L-shaped structure overlooked a frangipani tree in the front yard. Although too big for just the two of us, the spacious house with a private gate shielded me from inquisitive neighbors and well-intentioned strangers curious about my life.
The moon would hang low on some nights, yellow and heavy with promises of better days. On dark moonless nights that reflected my somber mood, I wondered about the string of circumstances that had now made me a single parent. Managing a full-time job and holding complete responsibility for a growing child were clearly not compatible. Nightly walks along the edges of the small terrace gave me clarity and confidence that I could leave my job and still maintain financial independence. It would mean reconfiguring the career path I had planned, but in the long run, it would enable me to create a more balanced work life.
These days, instead of a nightly walk after dinner, I sometimes take another one after lunch, especially if the sky is overcast, or if it has just rained. The gently sloping street is lined with condos, many among them bearing some variation of the word ‘hill’ in its name. Not surprising, since I have a clear view of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve from my balcony.
Each condo has a personality that is not as evident at night. Used to the seasonal lights that adorn the entryways, each condo trying to outdo the other for every major festival, I now observe subtle differences that I had not previously noticed.
One has an impressive two-level waterfall at the entrance that pours into a pool where koi fish and small turtles swim. A newly-constructed condo has terraced spaces in its outer walls where flowering plants bloom. From the opposite side of the road, they look like tulips, reminding me of a missed opportunity for a trip to Keukenhof, Netherlands for the spring tulip season.
The cemented court, a short distance from the community center that served as a gathering point for the gardening club as well as the tai chi class, is taped off. A lone collared kingfisher sits atop a light pole. Mynas chirp loudly and assemble on a small flowering tree and gobble all the seeds that are yet to flower before rushing off to their next halt.
Joys of walking
As we navigate these unprecedented days of the pandemic, I am grateful that I have the freedom to walk. Much more than mere exercise, walking is my moving meditation. Now walking is my catalyst for creativity.
Through walking, I have once again learnt to zoom in on the things closest to me, the ones with the most significance. I am hyper-aware that time, like breath, simply slips away if we don’t give it our attention.
Even though the days seem interminable, sooner or later, life will return to normal. Before that happens, I want to make sure I observe and imprint the beauty of these ordinary days, and savor the pleasure found in simple activities like walking,
In the words of John Burroughs –
“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”
Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Check out her writing at her website www.ranjanirao.com and receive a free ebook. Connect with her at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog