Tonight, I find peace being alone with the moon, in the comforting darkness of home. I watch the moon take its time to slip higher and higher into the sky, pulling and lifting away the weight of my worldly burdens. The moon shimmers and glows, beckoning to me across and over the world below. It is a direct connection, unfailing and pristine, unaffected by the imperfection it can surely see from so high up. It has nothing to say, but just by being there, being perfect and beautiful, it convinces me that this cannot be all…this slaving, this constant gulping and adjusting, this relentless draw to succumb to the entrapment of emotion, and the impermanence of all things…Is this what believing feels like?
I love watching and listening to raindrops fall on the car windscreen. It’s always amazed me how each drop would hurl itself so violently against the surface with the sound of a mini explosion…but end up in a round and perfectly tranquil little bejewelled ball. And then in another instant it’d be gone, swept into nothing by the mighty windscreen wiper. As a child I used to fix my eyes on the constellation of raindrops dotting the windows before me, shifting my focus from one drop to the next, trying the guess which drops would combine into little rivulets next. Rain-Ax and I had a love-hate relationship. I loved how round and perfect it’d make the raindrops, but I hated how they no longer merged into one another.
Isn’t heavy rain the most beautiful thing?
Cars, when watched from a great distance, appear to move much slower than the truth of it. Like slow-dancing fireflies, they trace out their paths in no great hurry, gliding past the glint and glimmer of street lamps through the hazy curtain.
Trees, when gazed upon closely, are more beautiful than when glimpsed in passing. Every loving bloom, every leaf, every twig and branch, growing from and into one another, make a living collage against the canvas made of blue sky.
Like how the forest has its dryads, if the city had spirits, they would be entangled streams of black, dazzling gold, rust; bright, translucent, restless like the flame of candlelight at the mercy of an erratic wind. They would leap and dance to the impatient beats of the indie music we listen to nowadays. They would sneak, weave their way around traffic jams, bouncing off the tops of cars, casting shadows over the mouldy surfaces of office buildings, blotting out the harsh red of car tail lamps as rainfall does. I would see them out of the corner of my eye as my car races along streetlamp-lit highways, beyond the windows, always there. But they would contort, constantly. And they would be always on the outside, out of reach, and I can only watch but never grasp. Like how I wake up to the honks and murmur of this city every day, how I sleep under the fluorescent gleam of the towering apartments outside my bedroom window every night, but still cannot understand or embrace or love it. The heart of this place eludes me.
Growing up, my parents used to regale us with stories about the time they were posted to teach in rural Pahang. The stories always stirred up fascinating imagery – dank run-down rooms, broken furniture, swatting at crickets, studying and perspiring under the light of gasoline lamps, bathing in muddy rivers. Fascinating because in my world of omnipresent lighting, comfortable bedding, and screaming as my sole but lethal weapon against large insects (help would always come flying in the form of paternal protectiveness and rolled-up newspapers) such living conditions seemed so heroic, so admirable.
As I grew up these stories became increasingly distant; the enchantment paled, because I myself, being a sullen, angry teenager, grew apart from my parents, and resisted all their moral platitudes. I know about life being hard, stop trying to teach and guilt-trip me! I also attended their math tuition classes, which cemented even more the instructive relationship I had with my parents, but chipped away at my personal interest in their teaching careers…especially when I got repeatedly admonished for talking in class. Oh, the humiliation! How my cheeks stung!
And then I grew even older.
My mother turns 60 and officially retires today; her celebration at the school where she has taught for 22 years was last week, because it was the school holidays this week. I realised as I listened to my mom’s retelling of her rural Pahang stories that it was the first time I’d ever seen my mother deliver a speech. She cried a lot. As various students, colleagues, friends, bosses each handed their personal gift to her, they cried a lot too. As she walked out of the school for the last time, in much pomp and circumstance, students fell all over themselves so they could salam or shake her hand. And then the goodbyes faded into the distance as we drove off, giving way to the sound of my mother’s quiet weeping, half with joy and half in pain.
It was so strange seeing my mother in this light. After the years of eagerly unwrapping all my mother’s and father’s Teachers’ Day presents, I finally saw what the colourful little gift tags with lovingly handwritten messages that I’d carelessly crumpled and tossed aside meant. The real gifts had never been the little trinkets I’d mercilessly appraised and judged – keeping them if I thought they were pretty, casting them aside if I thought they weren’t. They had always been the thought and intention that had been put into carefully selecting them, in honour of a teacher they respected and loved.
My father turned 60 last year. He has since returned to teaching in a private school. We were not there for his retirement, but after attending my mother’s, I realised too that my connection with my father’s teaching career had changed – now my favourite lunchtime stories at home are my father’s little anecdotes about school: The scamp who scratched another teacher’ car with a coin, but liked my father and told him so. The boy with eyesight problems for whom test papers had to be printed in large font in addition to his using a magnifying glass. The patrolling of the school grounds after recess. The occasional puzzlement over math problems. His own observations, about how teaching in public and private school compare.
My parents, having been teachers for almost 40 years, have steadily, uncomplainingly, unfailingly made a difference every single day of their working lives. And I’d nearly let the the noble significance of these 4 decades slip past me in my years as an angry, distant child. I once told my mother, a long time ago, that she should submit their story about teaching in Pahang to the Reader’s Digest. I was sure it would have been published. But I realise now that despite having heard it over and over, I was the one who really needed to hear it instead.
My mother’s speech after the jump below. I originally intended to translate it from Bahasa Malaysia to English, but I’ve decided that a lot of the nuances would be lost if I did. I wish I’d gotten my hands on my dad’s one too, but unsentimental men being unsentimental men – my father deleted his speech after he was done with it.