Monday, October 1, 2007

The magic is in the moment

30 Sep 2007, ST

I thrive in the fast lane but a recent trip to see my parents in Malaysia taught me the wisdom of simply slowing down

By Cheong Suk-Wai

THE question that always makes me cringe is also the one people who know me most frequently ask.

'How often do you visit your parents?' they go, whenever we meet for a drink.

Not often enough, my friends, not often enough, I think to myself, itching to change the subject.

With each passing year, leaving my folks back in Malaysia after every visit has become an agony. For me, family is where it is hardest to square what one should do with what one must do.

I realised only recently that my rising impatience with those who ask me that question was my way of dealing with the frustrations of not being able to be with my folks as often and as long as I want to, and should.

That is, perhaps, also why I am only too happy to hurtle along on the hamster wheel of work. It helps me be in the moment, an exercise in forgetting, if you like.

But life is about balance and constant change, and I believe the universe conspires to drum into me the lessons I must, or won't, learn.

So, back with my parents a fortnight ago to celebrate their birthdays, a series of uncommon events gradually won me over to the idea that the art of living is knowing how to slow down and the value of going slow. No mean feat for a speed and convenience junkie like me.

It began with my mother greeting me at the door with her hand clapped to her jaw. She had just come from minor surgery at the dentist's. Any pain my parents feel pains me too, so I was eager to ease hers as soon as possible.

Luckily, the local cable channel had just the ticket.

They aired the finals of the Japan Open and the relationship between my mother and badminton is such that she has been known to insist that I time my leave to coincide with the game's main championships, such as the Thomas Cup and the All-England. 'It's no fun cheering the players on alone,' she likes to say.

So there we were, on a Sunday morning, yelling and whooping at all the swift wrist action and darting footwork flashing on our goggle box. Playing 'the best badminton of his life', as the Aussie commentator put it, Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei stretched the game to a rubber and the excitement numbed my Mum's aching gums (Lee took home the title eventually.)

My father was with us, but not looking on. He had coached me in the game for most of my schooldays, but had never taken to armchair badminton. So, instead, he was rifling through his desk drawers. 'Where's my pack of cards?' he called to my Mum.

I groaned inwardly. He, the casino virgin, would be wanting to show me card tricks again.

Don't get me wrong. As a tyke, I used to be thrilled to bits whenever he got out his card deck. Thanks to his ministrations, I could wow my pals with a few party gambits that I have long since lost to time.

A particular favourite of ours had something to do with my laying out the 52 cards in four rows, facing the wall (for effect), asking my pals to eyeball one of the cards, turning around and then picking out the card they had chosen.

But now, he sat arranging and re-arranging the cards, rueing aloud the hide-and-seek his memory plays with him these days.

Time to be with him, I told my Mum, ambling over to my Dad, who was trying hard to recall his killer sleight of hand.

Not strong enough to let him let himself down, I began distracting him by dusting off my Cluedo set, a game he had somehow never played till now.

Its rules took some explaining, and I learnt to slow down my chatter to his current speed of thought. Once he got the hang of the game, he still very much had his wits about him, and pronounced the murderer 'Mrs Peacock in the billiards room with a dagger' within 10 minutes (with no concessions from me).

'Beginner's luck,' he said, grinning from ear to ear.

Over birthday cake later, we got to reminiscing about our happy days in Muar, Johor and how my sister and I would come home from school to the musty-sweet smell of black olive pits being toasted over charcoal till they split and cracked.

Pounded till they resembled coffee grounds, mixed in water and drunk, black olive pits have cured many a sufferer of piles, including my parents and most of their friends for whom my Mum would prepare the remedy, which she had learnt from a kindly widow.

I mentioned a friend of mine who might still be having the ailment and good old Mum volunteered to prepare it for her.

The next evening, I came downstairs to the sound of something heavy being dragged across the patio. It was my Mum, getting our big charcoal stove out to toast the olive pits.

She then nipped upstairs to check on my napping Dad, whom I hoped was having happy dreams of nailing card tricks.

Me, the one with two left thumbs, called out to her that I would get the fire going. How hard could it be, I thought with a shrug.

Half a box of matches, a rice bowl of oil and a stack of newspapers later, all I got was a taunting wisp of acrid heat. I fanned furiously at the flickers of flame, only to see them go out minutes later.

'You must wave it to and fro gently and constantly,' she said, re-appearing at the doorway and taking hold of the fan.

Watching her, I was her little girl again, observing her all those years ago as she showed me how to choose ikan bilis, peel vegetables and chop herbs.

'Now you try it,' she said, after showing me the ideal rhythm. 'You must learn to be more patient, not hurrying, hurrying all the time.'

Yes, Mum, I sighed, still convinced her technique would take us way past midnight around this insipid fire, with mozzies starting to swirl around us.

But ... voila! Tongues of fire licked the charcoal, which began to crackle and pulsate white-hot. Triumph coursed through me. Less is more. And so, lulled by the alchemy of air and spark, I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by a rare sense of peace. This was as close to magic as I will get.

It was too muggy an evening for deep talk, but as my Mum sat toasting the olive pits, she surprised me by musing: 'Maybe my purpose in life is to help people this way.'

Pulverising the pits with pestle and mortar, I thought about this. Then I thought about how her days were made up of dressing my Dad's bedsores, massaging his aching legs and going up and down the stairs with his meal tray.

Then I said, lightly: 'You have done much more than that.'

She gave my arm a squeeze. 'Firm flesh. You got it from me.'

It's a good thing to have, I thought to myself. It's a good thing to have.

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