An Year Ender

I was intrigued to read about Mark Twain having his autobiography embargoed for 100 years after his death, and more intrigued that the embargo had sort of worked, so that his half a million words in 2,000 pages would only be published, or about to be published now. I find it even more interesting that he had hired a stenographer to follow him around and record what he said, and it seemed he talked and talked non stop all the time. I hope he paid his stenographers well and that he did what any honorable man with proper civil service training would do, which would be to hire four, with the first three each working an 8-hour shift and the fourth as the operational relief, for I am sure this “father of American literature” would have something to say round the clock, even in his sleep. The autobiographies of the stenographer(s) would have made even more interesting reading, I believe.

It happened that I was not well when I read the story, or I might have grabbed my laptop and typed something. I normally carry a laptop when I travel, but not the last time. I had been in Kota Kinabalu for the first time and by myself, so I could not blame it on Su for catching a bug or two, something she has been trying her utmost and within her powers to prevent. I spent the last week nursing the bug between a few big meals and unavoidable meetings, and I am now almost well.

It is customary to feel thankful at this time of the year and to start thanking left right and centre everyone under the sun and of course the divine being for having achieved what little one has achieved over the year and for having survived another year. So, let me do this now: I thank God for looking after Su and her loved ones so that she could in turn take care of me and take me wherever she went, well almost. I thank God for looking after my dear and near relatives and connections even though they may or may not be mindful that we are thus connected as such. And before I forget, I thank all my friends including all those kind men and women, boys and girls, whose faces I cannot always remember, and when I do, would assign them names that belong to other friends. Let me quickly underline that my gratitude to these friends are not uttered carelessly, unceremoniously or lacking in sincerity. On the contrary, I feel that I can never thank them enough. These are people who would smile at me when I look into their faces, feeling lost, who would show me the nearest MTR entrance or taxi rank when I have no idea where I am, who would offer me a lift up Western Street when there are no public transport in sight, who would volunteer their names and assure me that it is okay that I’d got their names wrong, who would let me take the last drink or canapé from a waiter, and who would let me use the toilet first. I can go on.

Many friends have somehow developed an impression that we have been traveling all the time. We did do some traveling shortly after we were married, but then we spent a lot of time in Hong Kong too. For the current year, for example, we were only away for Fiji, Tibet and part of the Silk Road, altogether in six to eight weeks, not including the odd days going to cities – from New Dehli to Beijing, and from Chongqing to Ningxia – for meetings or project work that were mainly Rotary related. We have tried to spend as much time together learning about and learning from each other, so that it really does not matter where we go. Besides, as we often say, we do not live to travel or go places. There are always things to do and so little time around.

It does suggest however that we might not have been keeping our friends as close as we should or would like to; but then how close should close be. I have touched on friends and friendship many times before in my letters. Some things in life never change: we need friends; we’d like to have more friends; and we’d like our friends to be around when we need them. An old friend once said to me when we were much younger that there were people he would not like to be friends with. Indeed, he would feel offended if they called him a friend. I quickly agreed with him at the time. Now, some forty years later, I wonder whether he would say something similar and I wonder what my response would be if he did. Maybe that was why Mark Twain had had his autobiography embargoed for 100 years, so that those people on whom he had made candid and gratuitous remarks or rude judgments would no longer be there to hear or see them.

My recent exposure to Buddhism and the world of impermanence have taught me a few things. I have often been asked what these few things are, but then any of these things cannot be expounded easily or in a few words if one is to do Buddhism the minimum justice. As a start, I have increasingly appreciated the inadequacy of languages, spoken or written. That could be the reason why few words are used in Chinese Chan Buddhism: you either get it or you don’t. That could be the reason why members of my Rotary club have all refrained from putting their thoughts or ideas in writing. That could be the cause of a lot of misunderstandings between nations, world leaders, families and friends. One only needs to look at the aftermath of WikiLeaks releasing all those words into the open to appreciate what words can do. Contrast this with what Richard Holbrooke was attributed to have said “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan,” as he was heading to his last surgery which he did not survive. Obama hailed him as “a public servant in the truest sense.” It is all about words which have the potential to mend or break relations, improve or worsen world peace and understanding. The test of whether any words should be said or printed could be whether their release would make the world a better or worse place in which to live. The answer to the question is never easy, as is the question my friends posed me regarding what I had learned through my Buddhist studies.

Still on words, one of the first acquisitions between Rosita and I was a plaque bought in a souvenir shop on one of our early trips. The plaque bears the title, “Rules for a Happy Marriage” and there must be ten or 12 rules on it. We had it plastered on a prominent place in the bedroom in the early days. Rule No. 9 reads, “Never go to bed with an argument unsettled.” Years after the plaque had been stored away in the many moves we had gone through; this particular rule always sticks in the mind. Every time one party became mute, either because the argument was losing or lost, or because the argument became too hot, the other party would claim “Rule No. 9” which in time became an alternative for, “I am sorry.” Even our children have learnt to play with words, asking us whether we had finished discussion on some perennial issues.

Back to the present, Su and I have known each other for almost two years now and are finding more about each other all the time. Su has now signed up formally a study course in law, but I have yet to resume my study on education. I keep telling her and myself that I need to do that soon. We are otherwise very happy together most of the time. Our maid fired us in the middle of the year, so that Su now does a lot of cooking, initially experimental, but getting more and more palate friendly and even approaching professional standards. She bought a high speed blender which can turn apples, pineapples, beetroot and other fruits together into liquid. Such juicy stuff has become my staple for breakfast, as are the cereals and other vegetables. Su’s dietary regime seeks to keep us healthy and trouble free; and I am supposed to be her living sample.

Lest you think I have turned vegetarian, I have not. We take meat in moderation, but less so with wine and whisky. Somehow, Su has taken to enjoy Johnnie Walker, particularly those with a blue label.

On the spiritual side, Su has been taking catechism classes for over a year now; and depending on the will of the Holy Spirit, she may be baptized next Easter. I try to keep up my morning sojourn to Ricci Hall for the 7:30a.m. Mass when I am in Hong Kong; and I believe I have been doing well. It is my way of ensuring that I would start each day early on something I totally enjoy doing. There are deep theological and religious aspects involved which I am not entirely competent to discuss, but to which I have grown accustomed. In over simplified terms, it can be likened to preparing oneself for a day in which to listen to and carry out God’s will, in like fashion that all Christians are urged to prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord during Advent. Suffice it to say that I find solace and peace in the daily exercise during which I try to pray for my children, my family and my friends, particularly those who are not well. I also try to pray for the dearly departed; and sadly, the list has been getting longer.

Talking of departed friends, I was sorry that I could not be at the funerals of two of my dear friends this year. One was my primary school classmate of over 50 years and I was in Tibet at the time. The other one was a fellow undergraduate, but then we lost contact until many years later. Some five years ago, she had made plans to meet me in Hong Kong and both of us were looking forward to that. She was a brilliant biochemist turned home-made jewelry designer. She died in Canada. Even as I was typing this letter, words came in that another classmate just passed away in Toronto. We were to meet last year in a reunion in Hong Kong. He had made plans very early to be here, but in the final hours, he had to do some blood tests. Apparently, he lost his battle to the disease. I am still trying to grapple with the latest devastating news,

Turning to my daily routine, I continue to be busy and active with the HKU Convocation, my voluntary work with Rotary mainly in relation to the immunization against Hepatitis B for children in the poorer part of China, freemasonry activities and other alumni bodies. Su has observed that I should be charging for some of the voluntary services that are consuming an inordinate amount of my time and energy. I said I would think about it.

And so I would, but before I go, let me leave you with an excerpt reportedly by Sarah Churchwell from the first volume of Twain’s autobiography. Twain had observed that man was OK in general, being loving and lovable, but was “otherwise the buzzing, busy, trivial enemy of his race – who tarries his little day, does his little dirt, commends himself to God, and then goes out into the darkness, to return no more, and send no message back – selfish even in death.”

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