Here, in a vegetable patch, lies happiness.

The routine of a housewife is that once a week, she goes to the market. I consider myself a lucky housewife in that my husband will usually join me for breakfast on my market day. Whether it’s because of my company, or the food, has yet to be seen.

A few years ago, I was introduced to the wonders of Tekka Market in Little India. It’s relatively clean, and its offerings would make any home cook salivate in anticipation of new culinary experiments. But that’s not why I’m gushing about Tekka Market today.

You see, Tekka Market is also a slice of Singapore, and perhaps, all humanity. There is an old Ah Pek, who runs a stall called “Ah Pek”, who is probably in his 80s and ploughing himself across the market every day in his wheelchair to sell soybean products and noodles. His stall is very small, tucked away behind more aggressive sellers, but I often go out of my way to visit him. His wife, slightly younger than him, used to be the strong one. These days, she too is on a wheelchair.

The little bits they’ve shared with me – they have daughters who are now married and have their own families to care for. My first reaction is often sympathy for Ah Pek and his wife, who should be resting in their old age. These days, I find myself being amazed at their strength, to come to work every day to do something a lot of people would look down on, even though it’s an honest, hard day’s work. It must be doing wonders for their soul – their aging bodies are lean and they smile easily, not like many octogenarians who scowl and prod their canes at the world.

I might have written about another stall owner, the handsome seafood guy who has 7 children. He once chided me for only having two, saying that rich people who have few or no children are actually poor, because in their old age, they’ll have no one to eat with. A few of his sons work with him, and one rarely sees them fighting. As their hands pass various fresh fish to be cleaned and weighed, one can’t help but to notice their quiet cooperation – movements that seem mechanical yet intuitive, like a series of processes on an assembly line, but better. I often wonder what they’re like at home, the superficial observations of a stranger are often wrong, but I’d like to think that if there’s no screaming at work, there shouldn’t be screaming at home.

Today, I ended my errands at the vegetable stall. Visitors to Tekka Market are often surprised by the music blaring from this stall, located near the side entrance to the market. Today, a Latin American crooner was filling the air with sad tales of lost love and service was a bit slow today as the Tai Tais with their iPhones and maids slowly went through their shopping list for the weekend dinner parties. I patiently sifted through their offerings my herbs, the usual bunch of kailan and various leaves for Saturday’s lunch. I caught a whiff of mint just as the crooner was wailing something I couldn’t understand (it’s nice to listen to music in a foreign language – love lost sounds pretty much the same…) and I realized, in this little patch of green in this cold, and what people call uncaring, metropolis called Singapore, I found a little wrinkle in time – where all it took was some greens to soothe my eyes, the scent of mint and coriander to tickle my nose, the sound of heartbreak to fill my ears, for this symphony of simplicity to fill my soul.

Life is a Stage. Who’s watching you?

As a child, one of the first lessons I learned in Sunday school (we Muslims have Sunday school too you know…), is that life is a test. A great big test, which will yield either a pass or fail mark. Later on in my studies, I learned that there are 7 levels of pass, and 7 levels of fail and only but a few major transgressions would result in a non-negotiable fail, i.e. a fail that can never be converted into a pass, even after several eons of punishment.

Then later on in my education, I learned that life is a stage and all of us, mere players. I never really delved into what this meant, especially when I had bigger fish to fry – like puberty. But yet, for much of my life, Shakespeare was right. Life played out like a series of Greek tragedies, in my mind at least, and I was merely performing.

The thing with education is that if you keep your mind open, it just continues, no matter how long you’ve left those cold hard walls of The System. And so it comes a full circle, life is a test again. One of the tests is to let go of the idea that life is a stage and that we are performing for the amusement (or expectations) of others. To accept the consequences of our actions. To stand by merits of our decisions. To realign our lives to our ultimate goals. To be free of the wants and desires of the herd. To learn to be contented. And happy. To move in this world consciously. And for me, to submit to a Higher Power.

So perhaps, Shakespeare was right. Life is a stage. We just have to remind ourselves, who is really watching us.

36 years old and still…

I need my mother. Or rather, I need to know what my mother was thinking.

Just last weekend, as I was taking an afternoon nap in my childhood home, the familiar breeze and scents must have triggered some of my deepest insecurities about parenting. A lucid dream in the form of my mother’s diary, long destroyed by her sisters on the premise that her private thoughts should always remain private, appeared and taunted me. I could see whole sentences, with key words blurred and smudged to make the whole composition incomprehensible. The frustration I felt was overwhelming and I went about the rest of my day pretty much lost and frustrated.

What did she have in mind for us, I wondered. All parents have high hopes and dreams for their children, but some may have been more conscious of their parenting decisions than others. I wondered if my mother was that sort of mother. So in the absence of the instant answers that a conversation with the dead would have provided me (oh how I wish my aunts didn’t destroy her diaries!), I decided to retrace the minutiae of my childhood.

An old picture of me and some Montessori materials. Memories of celebratory lunches at Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, just the two of us, sans the half a soccer team of siblings. The early nights, the very interesting food we ate. The projects – tomato plants in the summer, raising kittens, making little rivers out of rocks in the backyard, board games, programming on the Commodore 64, and lots and lots of puzzles.

These are just some of the patchy memories I have, I’m sure I’ll recall more. But they all point to things I could find myself doing almost on auto-pilot with my own kids, even more so as I’m writing this and Hannan is next to me working on a puzzle. It made sense, all the afternoons one-to-one, to get to know each child as an individual. The projects we had made sense too, and some of the most ‘prestigious’ childcare centers around charge an arm and a leg for these sort of activities.

The interim answer to my question of “What was she thinking?” was that she WAS thinking. She must have, a lot, because I remember seeing a worn copy of Dr Spock’s book all over the house. At the time, I just thought that my parents were Star Trek fans and found it odd that Spock the TV character wrote a book that was so profound, it won a place on the side of the sofa, on the TV, in the bedroom and in the kitchen. It took a few decades and 2 kids for me to realize who Dr Spock was, and how ahead of her time my mother was, considering how mothers who actually read childcare/child psychology are still in the minority even today. All this makes me pine even more for our loss. I had 15 years with her, my siblings had less. As much as it’s not good to regret and wonder what could have been, I still wonder – and pray that my own kids never have to.

A Post

It’s been a while, I know. I haven’t been in much of a writing/talking mood. In my mid-30s, I’ve found that it’s more fruitful to share my thoughts and dreams with a handful of trusted companions than to throw it into the void that is the Internet. That’s how insular I’ve become. But I have found that the experience was much more rewarding and less annoying.

A good friend of mine never got into blogging, or these days, social networks. He barely operates an email account but I look forward to his now-quarterly ‘nota benes’ because they are almost always written in the style of those letters of an almost-forgotten era. A beginning, a middle and an ending. With all with polite niceties to remind the reader of their relationship.

What inspired me to post today, eventhough I know my readership has dwindled to possibly 2 who still keep me on some form of alert mechanism, is lunch. I received an invite yesterday to accompany a good friend for a lunch meeting with a celebrity, which I reluctantly accepted. I don’t really watch TV, let alone local TV, and being almost wholly immersed in my little family now, I hardly get (make) time for the local arts scene. Then there’s the insecurity of whether I’ll be able to hold my own in the company of two great women. After a bit of to-and-fro-ing (no lah, yes lah, no lah, ok ok) over WhatsApp!, I decided to be there, if only to be a buffer for a good friend (I promised her I’d nod and agree at all the right places). So there I was, at our little neighbourhood French cafe, trying something scary.

What I’ve found is that scary things almost always turn out great. No, I didn’t exactly hit it off with the local celeb, but I didn’t put my foot in my mouth either. I was quiet but only because I was intently watching this 48-year old woman – amazingly youthful in her zest for life and what she does. She’s amazingly smart, amazingly efficient and in tune with the fact that I felt totally out of place in the meeting. But that wasn’t really the lesson I took away from the encounter.

Paraphrasing what she said, if she wanted big budgets and big money, she’d stay in the corporate world and do what she was doing for more than a decade. Instead, she decided to do what was fun and challenging to her. Yup, that was the lesson I got.

My life today isn’t a big life. I’m the first to admit how small my life has become. My sphere of influence is limited to my kids and at times, my husband. But I’m stretching aspects of myself that I’ve neglected for a large portion of my life. My spirituality, my femininity, my emotional growth, were all on the back-burner while I chased the idea of what being a modern woman meant to me then. Not that I don’t agree with the idea at all, just that these days, those aren’t the parts of me that I want to focus on. It’s like someone who’s starting out on a fitness regiment – she tackles nutrition, stamina, cardio, core strength, all in varying degrees depending on what she’s training for and what her own sets of challenges are.

While I may have a vague idea of what I’m training for, I’ve started to shush my secondary outer voice (which often tells me that what I find challenging is no big deal to a lot of people) and to listen to my primary inner voice (which tells me to just do it!). There’s a lesson in every encounter on how to live your life. You don’t have to do it big, because people with big lives at the end of the day did it by focusing on what makes them happy. Or in the case of my big encounter of the day – by doing what is challenging and most importantly, fun!

A Matter of Vocabulary

When I was about 10, I entered a Vocabulary Bee. It’s a competition where words are given by a panel and you are asked what it means. I went quite far in the school district and at the finals, I lost because I couldn’t distinguish between “distinguish” and “extinguish”. A voice in my head told me the right answer, but the spotlight pushed me to go against my better judgement. And so it began, a string of events that pushed me to go against that little voice. Ha ha.

But back to vocabulary. Since then, I haven’t witnessed any vocabulary bees. All I’ve seen so far are spelling bees. Poor ones at that.

Vocabulary, as I have recently discovered during my 1-month stint as Adam’s reading drill sargeant last December, is very important in helping a child learn how to read. My earlier conventional assumption was that reading leads to vocabulary, when, like all things you learn when you take the time to remove your assumptions and start from scratch, it was the other way around. Sort of.

Adam read better when I equipped him with new words. He had the confidence to guess longer words within the right context and hence, wasn’t so stumped when the phonics method took a bit longer to figure out.

So it delighted me to no end to discover how well Idris has been doing with his vocabulary. Just the other day, when I asked him what he was doing, he replied that he was ‘looking for something unusual’. Revisiting old movies (old by a 4 year-old’s standards) led me to discover other words that he knew the meaning of – like when he narrated the starting bit of Transformers 1: “Look Ibu, the cube has just become a meteor” – as the cube entered the earth’s atmosphere.

At 3, Fische took him to an aquarium in Langkawi. He pointed out the anemone and the various fish moving about around it. He has pointed out the names of a few dinosaurs and am watching out to see if he uses the word ‘evaporate’ in the right context some time soon.

As parents, the natural reaction (I think it’s natural because so many parents do it), is to dumb down what we say to kids. I say, don’t dumb down the vocabulary, just make your explanations simpler. When Idris doesn’t understand a what a word means, he just asks what it is. And that increases his vocabulary, even before he learns how to read.

Reference for younger children: A Language Boosting Game for Hannan