“People Give Advice; God Works His Advice Into Life”

About a week ago I wrote an entry painting a rosy picture of the end of the journey for the Literature students I teach. By God’s grace they made it; most of them at least, and that was good enough for me, and the school.

On Friday evening I received news of the possibility of continuing this arduous journey with the students in 2013. It threw me off balance because all along I had convinced myself that October 8 would be the day I put all of 4N Literature into a box, wrap it up with a black bow, and chuck it into a storeroom. I disallowed my heart and mind from entertaining the possibility of teaching Literature to upper secondary students in 2013.

The phone-call from my vice-principal destabilised me. I am sure I would be willing to do my part to see them through another year if I had to, but I would not be able to guarantee results at all, and the second year would end on a distasteful, defeated note. On top of that, I had other new commitments to take on in the coming year, and preparing a cohort of students for a major national examination with a lot more at stake, would not make it easy.

This unnerved and worried me so much, I finally decided to send an email to share some of my personal concerns about the workload I currently have to juggle with, under the advice from some well-meaning peers. Then to make up for the lost hours of mind-boggling, race-against-time late nights/early mornings preparing for the start of the school term, I took a nap.

About an hour after I woke up from my nap, I received an answer. God seemed to graciously intervene and work things out in His marvellous, mysterious way. My principal gave me a call personally to explain the situation, and gave me an answer in two ways. First, a promise that she would not hold the results against me should they open a class – she understands their limitations and that I would try my best. Second, that they were already prepared to relief me of certain periods if necessary. My huge mass of concerns were quelled because of these two threads. Thank God for His grace and mercy! Praise Him for His omniscience and sovereignty!

I will know the outcome by the end of the week. But I know everything is in the hands of God – for an entire year, this God I had neglected and forgotten, had never once forgotten nor abandoned me. He has always been faithful, we just need the faith to commit and the sight to understand.

 

 

 

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The Joy of Giving

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Imagine waking up one morning and opening the front door to pick up the day’s newspaper. You are dressed frumpily in your pyjamas, hair swept to one side and casually tied up with a random elastic band you picked up on the dressing table. In your mind you think about what time you need to leave the house, and mentally begin counting backwards to the time you have left to curl up on a couch and read the morning’s papers with a cup of coffee. Just as you bend down to pick up the paper, your eyes catch sight of this lovely parcel sitting obediently outside your doorstep, a pretty pink ribbon decked on, smiling at you.

There is no note, no little card or scribble on the parcel that says “From whom to whom”. And as unrealistic as it sounds for you to receive a surprise parcel from an unidentified giver, the thought of suspending reality and embracing the unexpected surprise brings about such exuberance and joy.

Why do we like receiving such sweet surprises?

For a start, I think no one expects to receive a surprise. The fact that it is unexpected means the leap of joy the recipient takes when he or she sees the surprise gift is wider and more thrilling than if he or she already expects something special. I learnt to only let on the surprise when it plays to your benefit – a little kid refused to go in for class, so I went up to her and whispered that there will be a huge surprise and she should come for class – we will be playing a game with candy canes as a reward! The rest of the children’s eyes lit up when we unravelled the present at the end of the pass-the-parcel game. You should have been there to see it.

It also doesn’t happen all the time and to everyone, so a surprise makes you feel special. In order for a surprise to happen, there needs to be some kind of planning, and sometimes this also means involving a wider circle of family or friends. And we know that when there is effort behind coordinating a surprise, the recipient of the gift will feel immensely valued. A few years back my family planned to have a simple birthday gathering with a family friend. It turned out that everyone had invited my circle of friends home for a surprise birthday gathering! They even hid the footwear at the door so I wouldn’t suspect anything when I came home from running an “errand”.

What about giving the surprise?

Apart from feeling the adrenaline and the thrill of successfully pulling off a surprise, I think the best part of being the giver behind any surprise is seeing the joy reflected in a loved one’s face. I love how the birthday girl always looks when we sneak in a birthday cake as a surprise. The most recent surprise was sneaking in a cake as part of a farewell celebration for a good friend and colleague at a k-box session one evening.

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Surprises are always sweet whether you are giving it or receiving it, and the look of genuine surprise is worth all the necessary trouble taken to prepare for the surprise, whether or not you are standing on the giving or receiving side. Do men experience the same kick giving and receiving surprises as women, you think?

My Lovely Monkeys

I found some pictures of those kids taken earlier in the year during their school level camp while transferring photographs from my SD card to my laptop.

Although I very much want to, I don’t think I can find the words to write about them. This journal is for remembering, very honestly, by a record of events and emotions and thoughts that matter. Which explains why I feel a certain obligation to write about my lovely monkeys and the beautiful year they have given me. Everything, and nothing, comes out when I rest my fingers on the keypad. There is so much worth saying, but it feels like the value of those memories changes when we write about it.

I can only thank my God for a wonderful year with these lovely monkeys.

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Untitled,
so no one will know – 
how the deer leaps, or
how the bells ring,  
how the birds chirp merry, or 
how the heart bursts rainbow coloured treats, 
like the coming of spring

so no one will know – 
how the stones rumble, or
how the springs boil, 
how the leaves rustle angsty, or 
how the branches shake in intense frustration, 
like the molten lava spouting from a volcano, 

so no one will know,  
how… ever,
with you. 

This Happy Moment

A few short months ago, sometime from September to October, I was a nervous wreck. Read the backdated entries Sending Off My First Group Of N Level Students and Can I Let Go? to get an honest glimpse of the tumultuous roller-coaster journey with the twenty students under my charge.

To be fair, it was not as painful and draining an experience as my exaggeration possibly makes it out to be – there were also periods of delight, sweet moments of (small) victories, and much joy and laughter. Teachers like Ms J concerned themselves with bearing the burden with me, and the students – some of them at least – also picked up their game towards the end.

I remember many teachers perceived these Literature students with scepticism, without the surety or promise of hope… A “mistake”,.. one that needed to be rectified. A particular teacher, higher in seniority, even advised me to encourage the less-able students to drop the subject as it will affect the overall performance % and may do myself in. I must admit I was – and perhaps still am – guilty of some of these thoughts. Literature is tough; these students were offered this subject as a result of an under-informed decision; Literature is not suitable for them. I started the year 2012 with them with some weird sort of pretend optimism. I told the class that I promised to give my best to them so that they pass their mid-years (7 out of 20 did), and in return I expected commitment from them (It was on hindsight, a mistake not to define “commitment”, by the way.). I was all ready to give an inspiring speech like Braveheart but my insides were crumbling day by day. So it was a deliberate balance between showering them with sweet somethings, encouragement and promise, and whipping them with the harsh realisms of consequence.

We fought so hard, so hard, to give them an education in English Literature that they deserved this year. I hope we did, eventually. I did not just want them to do reasonably well for it, I wanted them to experience what Literature was about – the sensitivity to language and words, the intensity of dialogue and literary opinion, the fascination with the imagination and its transpiration in writing across cultures, the wonder of life that we behold from the texts. Ha ha. In short, praise for the world through a bold fascination for words. I am not sure what they took out of the 9 months (or so) with me and the 4 years of Literature in school. But we did so much in 8 months and I am so proud of them for how far they have come since January.

So, was I expecting anything?

The results were released on the 17 December 2012. I did not dare to expect anything of them or of myself. In a huge way their performance was an affirmation (or not) of the heart, sweat and tears invested throughout the year. It could also be telling of whether what I did this year was wrong or right. I guess I was very worried that if they did not perform (whatever that means), I had failed them, the school, myself, and Literature – a subject, no, a way of life – which I have grown to love. YEAH. So paranoid, I know.

And?

95% of the students made it. They passed. Our efforts to do them and Literature justice paid off. The students were excited – many of them scored 3s and 4s which may have been unexpected for them – considering 50% failed their preliminary examinations. One boy who thought all hope was lost after he answered a wrong question, actually bounced back to life with a B. Two students scored distinctions.

Results is always a subjective affair, and the quantifiable figures only tell you that much. Many colleagues SMSed me their congratulations for the good results of the students. I wonder if I could have done anything more to push for more distinctions or a better grade for them. Nothing is perfect and in no need of improvement.

I believe that individually, most (if not all) of those students would have felt that sense of achievement and success. That is the moment all of us live for, don’t we? The moment when you taste that thrill of exuberance and surprise at having achieved something you know you may not have been able to, that moment when you feel your efforts have paid off, that joyful affirmation of your (probable, latent) talent. It may be short-lived, this happy moment, but it is definitely a speechless wonder.

And once again it is a beautiful testimony of God’s infinite grace. I know for sure, that none of this would be possible without the grace and mercy of God. Everything came together after all, despite a rather jerky and uncertain beginning.

The heart-ful journey, whatever that means, is worth it.

I hope no student will ever have to go through the darkish imprisonment of being chained to study a subject they have no interest for, and have little aptitude in. Those students – and no one else – deserve to shoved a subject without good reason or conviction on the school’s part to see them through with the best education possible. Now a grey area still exists in that these students will not need their books and material in 2013 when they come back for their O Level Examinations. It is a tough call on the school leaders’ part, and probably not a fair one for the students, but this time I choose to step to the side and see what good will come out of it.

And here’s a very apt song to end off the entire year! :)

The Turkey’s Getting Fat!

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Christmas is coming, the turkey’s getting fat!

When we were much younger, Christmas used to be a pretty big thing. We would always have those delectable Christmas dishes – stuffed turkey, apple-glazed ham, chicken nuggets and cocktail sausages with zucchinis on sticks, log cakes and fruit tarts on the dining table and family get-together meals although we were not Christians who necessarily celebrated the festivity. After mum became a Christian, Christmas took on a slightly different touch. We could invite our friends home for a Christmas party with games, goodie bags and mum would share a short bit of the Bible before we had our Christmas meal. Added a more meaningful thread to the season’s celebration.

But one thing that would always remain unchanged during our childhood was the presence of the Christmas tree. We would fix up the tree and then proceed to embellish it with lovely colourful ornaments. There would be this beautiful red and white Christmas rug that we would lay on the ground for the tree, and on some years generously put on some cotton wool at the bottom of the tree to fluff it up with snow. Of course, then we line up the bottom of the tree with presents! Of all shapes and sizes, some wrapped in glossy or sparkly wrapping paper, some with bows. After our dad left and we grew up, our fascination with the Christmas tree came to a halt. We stopped putting up and decorating the Christmas tree, there was always a delicious Christmas dinner with close family and/or friends, but the tree and the presents it brought were no longer featured in our home, perhaps because there was little reason for them to be.

So what kind of Christmas do we have today?

I have come to observe that we express our fascination and joy of the season in our own individual ways. My sis loves to bake, and she would bake up a storm in the kitchen to show her excitement and love for Christ during Christmas. So since December she has been hard at work kneading and mixing, cutting and baking trays and trays of cinnamon rolls, gingerbread sticks and jam cookies. Everyday when one of us walk through the door, we would take in a whiff and excitedly ask, “Wow! What did you make today?” Then moving on to a Christmas-cookie-tasting-spree.

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These were not baked by my sister, but they look pretty similar! So sis would bake these cookies filled with jam and lots of love, and this afternoon she tells me she is baking trays of these cookies for the nursing students at our church. I love food but the process of preparing it can sometimes be a tad too tedious for my patience and liking, but I am so (secretly) proud of my sis for wanting to extend her love and joy to people outside our home in this way. This was her way of showing God’s love to others, and I think it’s great.

I am a lover of words, and I take every greeting card I make or send out very seriously. In fact, most of the times I end up doing this:

writing and rewriting letters

writing and rewriting letters

 

I still believe words hold the most meaning and whether in speech or in writing, I hope I can use them to touch the hearts of people just like my sis bakes to share that bit of Christmas joy with others. What makes it really special is that none of us treat what we are doing leading up to this Christmas as routine or merely following tradition. Every tray of cookies baked and every card written for someone else is done with the purpose of sharing a little bit of shining light with someone else.

May this Christmas season be one where we bless and are blessed by one another!

The Melbourne City Story


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No one can stand before the sight of such glorious beauty and not feel awe-inspired despite the chilly winds that threaten to get under your skin in literally all directions. This was taken at The Nobbies, Philip Island, what is claimed to be Victoria’s “best kept secret”. The view was breathtaking from all angles of the boardwalk, and Isabel and I had a fantastically exciting time trying to snap decent photographs of ourselves without hair flying into our eyes, noses, and mouths.

My companion on the trip, Isabel.

My companion on the trip, Isabel.

The strong winds that drove our hair insane! Made the walk all the more exciting.

The strong winds that drove our hair insane! Made the walk all the more exciting.

 

The penguins aside, this is my favourite place of visit in Melbourne this time around. I remember thinking how blessed and people living in Melbourne must be to be able to drive down to Philip Island whenever they crave a short holiday trip to behold such natural spectacle. At one point, the heavens looked like they were opening up and huge shafts of light poured down towards us on the boardwalks as the sun began its descent as the evening went by. What a brilliant Artist and Creator God we serve.

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There are different things people take delight in when on vacation, and I have never been a city girl to begin with. Crowds and shopping malls can do little to please me with the exception of pretty colourful holiday lights and festive decor. (Food, on the other hand, can though, ha ha.) Golden beaches and suntanning habits with rubber balls and water sports don’t appeal to me either. But The Nobbies had me convinced that I love just being close to and within such natural beauties in the world. Take me to a national park or put me at the beginning of a nature trail and I will be skipping away to my heart’s content. The only way things could get any better would be to have a lovely companion to make the journey with.

Churchill Island Heritage Farm

Churchill Island Heritage Farm

 

One other stop we made before heading down to the Penguin Parade was to drive up to Churchill Island, where a gorgeous heritage farm remains running and open for tourists and visitors who would like to spend some time on an old farm with animals in barns and participate in cool activities like sheep shearing and boomerang throwing ecetera. It isn’t the first time being on a farm for me, but just being around those gentle creatures (ducks and chickens cackling around you and friendly sheep poking his head out to welcome you) with the beautiful scenery in the distance actually made me entertain the prospect of living on a farm for an extended period of time! There was even a wedding lunch reception going on in a lovely little room next to the cafeteria. (If only!)

The Penguin Parade was a fascinating sight to watch as those little cuties scrambled through the waves and waddled across the sandy shores to the rocks and grass to their personal burrows. I wasn’t fascinated by how adorable they are compared to how much their behaviors resembled that of a human being. The rangers explained that these fairy penguins always returned to one home burrow their entire life. That speaks a lot to me, about how faithful these creatures were made to be. According to the seasons in a year, they would build their nests, mate, give birth to chicks, feed their young, and repeat the cycle over and over. They would never lose their way home, the ranger said. Have we ever lost our way home? At certain moments these fairy penguins would stop their scramble back home and call out to their friends as they are social creatures. It’s almost similar to how we are designed to be social creatures – befriending others, being neighborly and showing acts of love towards others. Without the strong support and companionship of their friends, these fairy penguins will find it hard to make it back home at sundown – they need each other to build the fort against the predatory sea birds always on a keen lookout for them. It is unfortunate the Penguin Parade do not allow photography – but it’s a fair exchange for the lovely experience we received at the centre. The penguins need their privacy and the centre needs the support from its visitors – which is why the centre is a non-profit organisation. Made buying little Penguin Blue worth it. ;)

A second tour we went on while in Melbourne was on the Great Ocean Road Drive. This took up most of the day as our tour group made several brief photo-stops along the way and lunch at Apollo Bay.

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

 

The sight was amazing – the rocks, shore and sea altogether. Although I personally felt that it was ridiculous to spend so much time driving up just for the view like that when we have had more thrilling breathtaking views the day before. If given a second chance, we would have opted to drive up t o the places that interest us rather than follow the tour groups. The experience wasn’t as perfect here than the day before, also because of the immense number of tourist crowds.

Tourists tirelessly taking photographs of the scenery and themselves in it – got me thinking after a while. It was almost like a sterile zoo where all the beautiful creatures and sights we saw were enclosed behind glass walls which we could not touch or hear beyond it. It was almost as if we were looking at all the earth’s splendour but did not comprehend it. If those photographs we took were nothing more than beautiful pictures to look at, they would become vague and meaningless memories in the distant future. How could we behold something as beautiful as what we saw before us, and not connect with it, and the Author behind it? It scared me because seeing the many tourists push their way up to the observatory deck to take photos after photos of something as grand as those amazing rock formations without any recognition or praise for the artist mirrored my life in 2012 – unconnected to the Savior. Was some serious food for thought.

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Some more beautiful pictures as testament to the beauty of the place at Port Campbell National Park. We circled around this park during our tour to admire the natural beauty of Australia. Again, buzzing with tourists eager to snap photographs of what they saw.

We went to other cool places on this trip. The vineyards in the Yarra Valley was another, before we headed to Healsville Sanctuary to see the full range of Australian animals – wombats, koalas, kangaroos and wallabies, long-necked turtles, emus, echidnas. That was another one of my favourite places. We stopped by a winery for wine-tasting and lunch. Here was what appealed to our palates that lazy afternoon.

Lunch! Chicken Royale fettuccini with bacon and avocado, and potato and cheese gnocchi with lamb and mushroom ragout. yummy!

Lunch! Chicken Royale fettuccini with bacon and avocado, and potato and cheese gnocchi with lamb and mushroom ragout. yummy!

 

We spent the next one to two days walking around the streets of Melbourne City, trying to pick up and take in as many sights and sounds as we could. It was a strange pity our accommodation was not very near the heart of the city, so it took us awhile before we found ourselves within the city centre with the massive shops and decorations all that.

Isabel had a cousin studying in Melbourne and he took it upon himself to be our guide and companion for a day. I think we both enjoyed the change in dynamics with an additional companion, and anyway we were all rather amiable in nature. He was very nice because after patiently showing us the prime stops around the Queen Victoria Market to get our souvenirs and foodies back for relatives and friends, he showed us around the University of Melbourne before introducing us all the fabulous eating places in the city – which made us very very fat. and happy. This included a stop at some awesome gelato house – filled with people, the very first Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Melbourne to taste the cakes and chocolate beverages, and thereafter to the best steak I have ever tasted in a rustic little restaurant of the City Steakhouse. It is no wonder why we need to exercise and shed some huge pounds now that we are home! Anyway, his kind hospitality and generosity of time made it a very pleasant way to end the trip. It reminded me of the same warmth and kindness JY showed to us in London and the family who extended their love to us international studies in Loughborough. May God bless these people – and let us not stop doing the same towards others, seeking no reward.

Now that we are home in Singapore it is time to begin writing our Christmas cards and sealing them off in an envelope before the mad Christmas rush kicks in. It is also time to start sorting our thoughts and feelings and sweeping the excessive ones all away as we enter into the new year 2013. It seems faster than what we can imagine, honestly, given that Christmas is just about 1 week away. There have been many successes – some smaller than others, some more prominent – this year, and also many disappointments and confusions. May I have the wisdom and patience to slowly sit them out one by one and tie them up into pretty parcels with neat little ribbons before throwing them out.

This trip to Melbourne may not be a significant milestone in my life, but it was surely a nice break that I was looking forward to. I got to know my colleague and friend Isabel better along the way, and I think we realized each other’s little eccentricities and idiosyncracies more too. I don’t believe in making trips every year to “see the world” although it is able to broaden your experiences. Yet, if we do not actively look for meaning and value in these holiday trips, we will just be seeing the world and never understanding it. A poem written by an anonymous person was engraved onto a large rock on one of the trails in Lake District. I remember it distinctly because I found it most thoughtful and it clearly resounded in my heart.

Thou who has given one eyes to see

and love this sight so fair

Give one a heart to seek out Thee

and read Thee everywhere.

Happy holidays, everyone!