Thursday, 30 July 2015

Try Praying.


This morning (12 June 2015) I went to Yorkshire and I took a stroll with my loved ones in the beautiful cathedral city. We had a good morning breakfast in the famous Bettys cafe and was serenaded by a street pianist playing nostalgic tunes...like moon river, killing me softly and phantom of the opera (see pic below).
Then, a sign at a nearby cathedral caught my attention. It reads "Try Praying". Try praying? The message is ironic. And what's more, from a grand ancient Cathedral. Is God optional? Is faith an alternative? Has prayer become experimental? Why "try" with the Creator of Heaven and Earth? Isn't the love of the Father a sure thing? Doesn't trying imply a certain cautionary hesitation, a pausing reluctance, a weary examination. Try praying...mm...

Nevertheless, here's why I find the sign compelling, even empowering. To me, try praying is a marriage of man and God in a dance of substance and form. It is man reaching out and God touching us. It is mortality subsumed in immortality, imperfection clothed in perfection, and both dissolving into one unalloyed, indivisible whole - lost and then found in the stream of His transcendence.
Trying is human effort. Praying is divine deference. It is limitation and infinity joined in one seamless flow to confront the evil (or numbness) of the day. That is the first and final definitive act of humanity.
Trying is what makes us alive. Show me a man who has stopped trying and I will show you the deadness of his existence. To live in the shadow of death is to live without trying. It is giving up disguised as mere existing. To live fully however is to never stop trying. It is ceaseless effort in transforming the unlikeliest of reality into a more congruous one.
Try praying is no different from try living. Or try succeeding. Try failing even. Try falling. Try hoping. Try searching. Try pursuing. Try discovering. Try persistence, patience, believing, love, forgiveness and kindness. Try trying. The message is to never give up. To never relent. To never blink. For death is an infinity of unbroken blinks and thus never being able to see the fruit of one's labor that lies beyond.
So, try praying is about vision, love and faith. It is about fighting for what you believe in even when hope is the bleakest. For isn't it always darkest just before dawn? Try praying is closing the gap between an invocation and its eventual realization. Trying is making it happen because fortune favors the most prepared and he or she is one who never stops trying. For in the end, I earnestly believe that a miracle lies at the intersection between our lay effort and our eternal hope. Cheerz.

Born Survivor


(Reader's discretion advised).
During my time in UK, three names inspired me deeply, Priska, Rachel and Anka. They were young women in their twenties who survived the Nazi death machine called Auschwitz. But that's not all. They were also pregnant when they were interned into the death camp (in mid-1944) and delivered their babies in the most inconceivable of places in April 1945. Their stories just had to be told and it was deftly narrated in the book "Born Survivor" by author Wendy Holden.
I was in London when I bought the book and I read it from cover to cover. When I finished the book, my first thought was that life's indeed a journey and for some people, the journey is to hell and back.
In Auschwitz, the three young pregnant women were completely dehumanized in assembly-line fashion. First they were stripped to their bare flesh for disinfection. Enduring the nudity in front of complete strangers, the women were made to shorn off all body hair. Most cried in disbelief as their beautiful locks and luxuriant curls came off. The locks and curls were used by the guards to make clothes, netting and watertight padding for the German war machines.
Next came the humiliating orifices checks. They were led into a small room and each were subjected to finger examination. The Jews hid everything from the guards for fear of losing them. They arranged with their dentists to hide diamonds in their teeth and even inserted jewels into their vaginas. But the checks were so demeaning that nothing was kept from sight. Everything was unraveled.
After that, the naked women had to cover themselves from the mismatched heap of clothes and shoes cast to one side. It was in fact a matter of life and death which clothes the prisoners were given because it would be theirs for the duration of their imprisonment (or enslavement). If the clothes were insufficient to cover their body or the shoes were too worn out, then the biting cold and killer wind would conspire to hasten their death.
For the three pregnant women, the greatest fear was the growing life in their womb. They knew they had to keep it from the guards. No death camp would tolerate another Jewish baby born into the world when their gas and incinerating chambers were already stretched to breaking point trying to exterminate them. The inspection of the women was carried out by the extremely cruel Dr Josef Mengele. He did the inspection with a cavalier squeeze of their breasts for secreted milk. That was one foolproof way of testing for pregnancy.
If any of them were found pregnant, the guards would conduct forced abortions. These abortions were carried out in the most ill equipped and unhygienic environment and the mothers and fetuses would often perish together. Those who dared to conceal their birth and were subsequently found out would be forced to hand over their babies to Mengele to be experimented on. Delivered to a special block called "The Zoo", Mengele would conduct unspeakable operation on twins, babies, dwarves and adults, most times without anesthetic.
Here is an account in the book of how a woman was treated when Mengele discovered her pregnancy. He said to her, "First you will deliver your baby, and then we'll see." After the baby was born, the "Angel of Death" sadistically told her that "he wanted to see how long a baby could survive without food." Mengele then ordered that "the mother's breast be tightly bandaged to stop her feeding her child. For eight days, feverish and with breasts swollen with milk, she and her baby lay helplessly together as Mengele visited daily. Only when the little girl was half-dead did her mother inject her with morphine given to her by a prisoner-doctor. Her child's death saved her life and she was sent to the other labor camp, eventually to survive."
Then came hunger and thirst. Thirst was the no. 1 killer. Even if they could beat dehydration, the women prisoners were perpetually hungry. There was hardly anything to eat in the camp. Not even a blade of grass. Many starved to death. At best, they lived on liquids that looked like "dishwater" made "from marsh water and burned wheat", which the Germans called coffee. There was also soup made from rotten vegetables and a "small square of black sawdust bread."
The condition of their barracks was dreadfully uninhabitable. Due to starvation, they often suffered from stomach spasms and diarrhea. Dysentery was widespread with inflammation of the intestines, abdominal pain and bleeding. However, they were not allowed to relieve themselves as and when they wanted to. So, most of them had to do it in one discreet corner. You can imagine the awful stench coming from the barracks.
Even when the prisoners were allowed to visit the toilet, not everyone had access to the limited "communal concrete holes". Those who could not wait would have to relieve themselves in public. This was where the Nazi guards often played a humiliating sport on them by "poking women in the backside as they defecated." One of the pregnant mothers complained, "Just for fun, not even letting you do your business in peace...a group of them said we will make fun of the Jews when they do whatever they do...it was so degrading." The women prisoners were treated like "circus animals" or pariah dogs, enduring unrelenting inhumane treatments. Forced into a meaningless and unbearable existence, many women either went mad or committed suicide.
Despite this, Priska, Rachel and Anka pressed on for their unborn child. They learned the ropes to survive in Auschwitz by blending in and remaining invisible, compliant and hopeful.
Sometime towards the end of 1944, they were assigned to a munitions factory in Freiberg, a town in Saxony. The train ride took two nights and three days and the only consolation as compared to Auschwitz was that they were made to work 14-hour shift instead of waiting to die.
The food was still unspeakable and the condition deplorable. They were given "bitter black water in the morning with a piece of bread, then some suspicious smelling soup made of beets, root vegetables or pumpkin." One of the pregnant women found a "moldy cabbage half-buried in wet mud" and she risked her life picking it up to eat. However, the cabbage stank and was so decomposed that it went straight through her fingers.
The work was not only mindless, but the long walk to the factory under the mercilessly cold wind of below zero degrees was especially torturous. One prisoner recounted, "It was a long walk through the town where they kept spitting at us and calling us God knows what. And we had to walk all that without coats...or stocking or something...it was awful."
The irony was that as they walked to the factory, they saw children making snowmen and could smell the aromatic dinner prepared by families. The community was completely oblivious to their hellish plight. One prisoner said, "It broke your heart to see families sitting around happily in the warmth of their homes, eating and laughing and leading normal lives...no one showed us any kindness. Not a soul. We were just ghosts."
However, the women kept the spirit up by inventing "imaginary feasts" and reciting new recipes amongst themselves. Each took turns to invite the rest to an elaborate meal and talked through the preparation of it. Another distraction was to share with each other what they would like to eat when the war ends. However, it was a "self-defeating torture" when the nostalgia only deepens the agony for the longing for their loved ones and their comfortable lives before the war. One prisoner said, "All of a sudden, we'd say, "Stop! We won't speak about it. Then half an hour later, we'd start again."
Priska gave birth in Freiberg. Her baby was born on 12 April 1945. She was laid on a wooden plank in the factory floor and she delivered her baby "without drugs or any remotely sterile equipment." In her agony, some of the spectators placed bets on the sex of the baby. If it was a girl, the war would be over and a boy meant that it would go on even longer. As the baby emerged, one of the guards cried out, "It's a devil!" Priska gave birth to a baby girl and she named her Hana. She was the most beautiful face Priska had set her eyes on.
As the Allied forces advanced into Germany, the factory in Freiberg was abandoned and all prisoners were quickly transported into the heart of Germany. Priska, with her newborn, Rachel and Anka were put on a train to Mauthausen. It was on the train ride that Rachel gave birth on 20 April 1945 (Hitler's birthday). Amidst the air raids and bombing, Rachel's water broke and she went into labor. She recalled, "Can you imagine lying in an open coal train giving birth with women all around?" Baby Mark weighed less than three pounds when he was born and one of the guards shouted, "Another Jew for the Fuhrer!"
Of all the births, Anka's was to be the most depressing - as if a comparison was ever a comfort. She went into labor when the train arrived at Mauthausen. A ghost of a figure, Anka endured the physical torment when she and others who survived were throw onto an open cart used to transport coals. It was beyond filthy. As she was carted off, she had to control her scream so as not to attract attention. In complete apathy, one guard pulling the cart said to her, "You can keep screaming". Anka never knew whether he was being compassionate or sarcastic. Eva was born on 29 April 1945 and Anka exclaimed, "I was the happiest person in the world."
About one week later on 7 May 1945, Germany under Hitler unconditionally surrendered. Before that, the Fuhrer cowardly took his own life by biting down a vial of cyanide and shooting himself in the right temple. Heinrich Himmler - the architect of the Final Solution and the gas chamber - was arrested but he went the way of his master by biting on a cyanide pill. And the evil Dr Mengele was arrested, mistakenly released, changed his name and remained on the run for all his life. His wife divorced him and his children denounced him. He died unrepentant by drowning in Brazil in 1979.
All mothers and their child survived the brutality. They lived to a ripe old age. Priska died peacefully in her sleep on 12 October 2006 in her eighties. Rachel died on 19 February 2003 also in her eighties. And Anka died at 95 on 17 July 2013 with Eva by her side.
After reading the book, and learning about the incredible struggles for their life and the life of their unborn in the worst of circumstances, I thought about my own life and family. I quietly counted my blessing.
But more importantly, I salute the triumph of the human spirit. Indeed, even in a world where evil reigned with impunity, three mothers (and countless others) never gave up. Completely stripped of their humanity and abandoned to die, they fought back and overcame all odds. And "if the human spirit is an open window through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit and human dignity," then I will always draw my strength and inspiration from the Light that never fails to shine through into the shadows of my own circumstances. Cheerz.

Chronicle of a Runner in London


In London, I had a running mate. We would run towards Tower Bridge at 6 am. It is a 12 km run to and back. And in one of the runs, he asked me a question: "Mike, what is the one thing that defines you? What is the most important thing in your life?"
While jogging, he got me on a mental treadmill. I was digging deep into my cerebral mess for an authentic answer. In a flash, these few words appeared: Purpose, Courage, Love, Faith and Character. I paused to sieve through it all and one word emerged: "Faithfulness". That was it and I replied: "Bro, I have no big words for that one thing. After living 45 years on earth, the one thing that matters to me is being faithful."
I then turned that question back to him (30 years old, single) and this was what he said, "A few years ago, I drew up a list of qualities I hope for in my future partner and I listed twenty of them. But on deeper reflection, the one thing for me is commitment." On that score, our minds met.
I guess as a married man, faithfulness is the cornerstone of my marriage. It sets it, builds it, moves it, grows it, protects it, improves it and defines it. It is of course not smooth sailing in the 15 years (of marriage) but faithfulness is the safe harbor we can always return to when the storm of life hits hard. And faithfulness is essentially mutual for it takes two hands to clap (and two wings to flap).
This brings me back to a couple I know who recently celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary. They are my in-laws and we celebrated their anniversary in London four days ago (1st June). While travelling on a train to Legoland at Winsor, my brother-in-law asked my father-in-law this question: "What is the one thing about mom that you find negative?" He thought for some time and replied, "There is nothing." I chimed in, "Nothing?" He said yes.
In my mind, I was nonplussed. How can there be nothing? Isn't a marriage about conflict management? Isn't marriage about give and take? How can there be no cause for complaint when you live with another for 41 long years with three grown up children (with children of their own)?
Then I came to the conclusion that maybe it is not about the complaints so much as it is about the heart to be faithful at all costs that truly matters. My father-in-law knew that you have to work on your marriage and it doesn't come to you in a pre-planned, well-executed wedding dish served on a silver platter.
If anything, two people living together is both the most difficult and the most rewarding endeavor a couple can ever take. And the key to keeping the passion alive over the years is faithfulness. It is faithfulness in the smallest thing, seemingly trivial, that really counts.
Forget about the grand wedding night of overflowing extravagance because a marriage is not so much about the flowing bridal train and expensive honeymoon as it is about taking out the trash, changing the diapers and sparing no hugs and kisses. It is being faithful with the little things that adds up to a lifetime of enduring commitment.
And I therefore see my own marriage not through the lens of idealism but through the eyes of my lover. In her eyes, I see the passion I once promised to keep sacred. In her eyes, I see the love that I don't deserve but it is still given unconditionally. And in her eyes, I see the hope of a future that is made robust by faithfulness.
This brings me to my last recent memory in my London trip before we set off for Manchester. Twenty years ago, I studied in the heart of London and I came to this beautiful city all by myself. At that time, Anna and I were in a courtship. We were still young and clueless. Whilst in London, I stayed in a hostel in the east side that is managed by the Methodist Church. I recalled then that we did not have Facetime, Facebook, Twitter, Whatapps or Skype.
All I had to keep the communication alive with Anna was the snail mail and a phone-booth outside the hostel. It took one week to sent a letter and a steel heart to brave the wintry winds to call her (and I only had three minutes to talk to her because it costs one pound per minute). But faithfully I did them. I wrote to her every week without fail and I called her every weekend whilst chattering in my teeth.
Coming back to London (20 years later), Anna and I hunted the hostel and the phone-booth down (we took two hours) and we took pictures of it (see below). The revisit was definitely nostalgic for me. But what is even more significant is that I had kept our passion alive by writing to her and sharing my thoughts over the phone.
It was faithfulness in the little things that made our relationship resilient. And although we still have a long journey ahead of us, it is still faithfulness in the little things that will lead us forward and bring us safely home to the anchorage of our wedding vows. Cheerz.

The ideology of Scatology


I recall one day when I came out of the toilet after releasing a major payload and my son barged into the quarantined zone, protesting, "Dad, stink!" I smirked at him and murmured, "Well, the only unpretentious thing about us is what comes out from there."
That was some time ago, and while visiting Scotland, Edinburgh Castle yesterday, a conversation between my mother-in-law and my wife triggered that memory. We were visiting one of the royal rooms of the birth of King James IV and Queen Mary where giant portraits of past royalties were hung. There is certainly a huge (quite irreconcilable) gap between how the privileged and the commoners lived during that time (and even today). In passing, my mother-in-law made this remark: "Wow, aren't they just like us? Normal people?" And my wife replied: "Yes, they also wear pants, eat and go toilet right?"
I thought about what she'd said and my earlier musing, that is, the toilet and that unpretentious bit and something within me started bubbling...
I guess what really makes us equal is that none of us is exempt from processing and discharging waste. You can't get any more democratic than that. No doubt I am talking about shit here and it is disgusting to say the least. However, I have a point and I ask for your forbearance.
Essentially, what I have to say is merely metaphorical of what we do everyday in the toilet. The MO has not changed since time immemorial. No one can thus claim ignorance or unfamiliarity about it. I am not writing here for effect. I have thought about it long enough and the thought of our toilet habit actually imparts a lesson (even if it is a squirming one).
If I can take you by the hand and lead you to this symbolic world of taking a dump, you will find that you are no different from me. The act remains the same whether you are a Chinese, an Indian, an American, a Rabbi, the President or the Queen of England.
The rich may do it in the comfort of their mansion but they do it the same way the homeless does it. Royalty may do it while reading a book and sipping a spot of tea but the act is neither different nor grander than a commoner squatting in the corner of a harvest field under God's watchful eye. And the dictator of an impoverished state may do it while ordering the extermination of rebels but the mode of discharging differs not from those at the receiving end of his tyranny. We all shit and it all comes out the same way from the same and only exit we have come to know since we were born.
I recall a famous conversation that goes like this:-
F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The rich are different from us."
Ernest Hemingway: "Yes, they have more money."
Truly. Other than that, we are all alike and the plainest and the most indispensable act of shitting equalizes us all. That's my point.
Although the payload may vary in size, form and color, it still bears repeating that there's no difference whether you are a military general or a foot soldier, a billionaire or a mine-worker, a Nobel Laureate or a student.
Even more to the point is that stripped of all wealth, power, fame, beauty, pomp, glory and credentials, when it comes to doing our toilet business, we cannot get any more unpretentious than that. That is where we all stand on common ground.
So, we need to remind ourselves more about it when we are tempted to discriminate against color, creed, race, language and religion. For the humility of our most compromised position ought to join us together and not shy/tease us apart. And if we stand tallest when we are on our knees, then we stand together - equal - when we are on the seat.
Let me end with this thought. I can imagine the wealthiest man in the world or the most beautiful face you have ever seen or the most elaborate royalty converging together in the most democratic of places and that is the unassuming toilet bowl. Every beauty, wealth and greatness will have to sit in earnest on the receiving end of their waste discharge.
And kings and queens may squirm about the indignity of associating with a commoner or bemoan the squalidness of a destitute’s home but he or she - notwithstanding the pomp and ornaments - will have to submit to that familiar pull in the stomach, that squeeze in the bowel, and that urge to visit the toilet.
For me, the call of nature is the call for us to always remember that we are human first, joined together in a shared bond, from a common origin, and advancing towards a certain end, and the accouterment of what society calls wealth, fame and status that we put on for public showcasing should never be that which define or divide us. That is what the philosophy of shit means to me. And by extension, that is also the most unpretentious (and authentic) part about us. Cheerz.