Tonight is Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the Jewish new year. We are celebrating 5781 journeys around the sun. These are 5781 journeys of love and loss, peace and war, fear and joy, hopelessness and solace.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve had such a strange six months that I’m not feeling the familiar ache to be with my family that I usually experience around the High Holy Days. I felt that ache acutely for weeks and weeks and perhaps I’m just accustomed to it now. I think the unprecedented life we’ve all been living is what has actually left me quite calm about my plans to welcome the new year quietly and with reflection rather than attending socially distant religious services in a normally communal environment.
Given everything, it seems fitting to begin a new year taking explicit action at making the world a better place – the world needs it. This is why I decided to go to the blood bank right after school. The queue both inside and at the door indicated that I was not the only one feeling the need to act and it was heartening to be in the company of so many strangers.
As I walked slowly home from the bus stop, I felt the strength of my heartbeat and I felt it working hard. The world needs us to work hard – it will not heal on its own.
As this year flows into the next my wish is, as always, for peace. Peace among friends, among strangers, with the earth, water, and air. And my commitment is to take actions to achieve it. I welcome all to join me.
This year, for the first time ever, I am not spending the summer with my family. In the past, much of this summertime has seen me with my mum playing together in the kitchen, but, unfortunately this cannot be. So for the moment, I’ve been sharing meals with friends and reflecting on times past.
I’ve written many times that if love is a verb, love requires action. This means behaving in ways that give love. We can show love in many ways, such as holding those who need holding, listening to those who are speaking, helping when help is needed, and giving of our time. Another way to show love, I deeply believe, is through cooking. A few years ago, my mum sewed me an apron embroidered with the words, “Love people. Cook them tasty food.” I think that sums it up.
In terms of cooking, there are two ways to show love: preparing food for others and preparing food with others.
In preparing food for others, the acts of chopping, slicing, dicing, washing, peeling, and whisking (to highlight just the tip of the iceberg) are not accidental – all are intentional. These acts require us to consider others and are the visible evidence of a desire to nourish, which is an act of care. Care in this context is a way to love.
Cooking for others may not involve the seeking of reciprocity. We prepare food that we think others will enjoy, and not with the purpose of raising ourselves in their eyes. So, when we sometimes cook for others in order to impress them, that is not an act of love. Preparing a meal for those in need, however, whether due to the demands that a joyous arrival of a newborn baby or the sorrow of a loss may bring, is something we do for those we care about – for those we love.
In such circumstances, when I cook for others out of love, my favorite meal to prepare is a hearty soup. (Admittedly, this is challenging in the tropics and I have modified my approach.) Soup is a meal that warms from the inside out and is filling, healthy, and tasty. It is simple to enjoy with no more than pepper and bread, and unpretentious with ingredients that are easy to find. There is love stirred into the soup pot.
In addition to showing love in the preparation of food for others, there is also cooking with others. When done with love, this can be analogous to an indoor version of running through the sprinkler on a hot day. It can be glorious or it can be a complete disaster (think thunderstorms and mud flung into eyes) but either way, if it is done with love, it ends in smiles and laughter.
Cooking with others is joyful and spirited. It is the creative interplay of working together, a fluid dynamic that involves trust and tolerance of another person. As my mum has said, “We dance the kitchen dance really well.” And yet, sometimes we get in each other’s way. This is when we take a step back and respect each other’s space, and this requires a significant degree of humility on our part, a willingness to simply let the other person be. We welcome their playfulness, their mistakes, and their laughter – because we do the same.
The kitchen dance, as I know it, is what I think walking hand in hand through the world might look like. It is beautiful and intricate in parts, yet it also requires the discipline to take on the responsibility that it brings. It is not simply preparing food but also caring for all parts of the journey; the sharpening and honing of knives, the clearing of counters, the washing of dishes, and the scrubbing of pots and pans, and finally, the clearing of the table. Together. Us. Rejoicing, frolicking.
A word of warning, however. It is important to recognise that there is a difference between two people working in a kitchen and combining food, and two people dancing in the kitchen and creating food. There is a synthesis of senses in the latter that may not exist in the former. There is a give-and-take between us as texture, taste, scent, and sight of the elements are explored. What I do now will influence the choices you make later. We bounce off and augment each other while incorporating individual creativity. Your taste and my taste guide the next element, the next move. We share as we explore, and in doing so laugh and love.
Playing in this way has led me to compose food that one would never find in recipe books. And in doing so I have found that not all of them merit repeating. But that isn’t what is important. What is meaningful, is that I have played with others in the kitchen and shared in the love that this brings. I will continue to cultivate and cherish those times and urge you and your loved ones to do the same.
I haven’t spent much time in Singapore during the start of the Southwest Monsoon season, which lasts from June to September. I’m used to the hour or two of afternoon rains that characterises the new school year in August, but half a morning of pouring rain is a new experience. So is half a morning of pouring rain followed by an evening of more rain.
While I won’t be climbing rocks outdoors any time soon and while the rain has put a literal damper on morning bike rides, there are some new features to life here that I’m quite enjoying. It feels cozy, for once, which is something we rarely experience in the tropics. It’s breezy and (comparatively) cool both indoors and out; I’ve made soups and curries for dinner and I’ve been glad for their warmth.
When I first moved to Malaysia six years ago I learned to enjoy the rain. Where I come from, rain is cold. Rain in the tropics is not. The water is warm, the air is cool, and it’s a welcome refresher for the day. Granted, getting soaked on the way home from work is inconvenient (although getting soaked on the way to work is more inconvenient) but it’s so much fun at those times to feel like a kid again. You’re wet. Very wet. So you might as well hop off the bike, settle it safely against a wall or building, and dance in the rain.
This is what I have tried to keep in mind now that we’re in the strangest period of summer school holidays that I have ever experienced. Normally, summer for me is spent travelling between family members, catching up with friends, enjoying early morning runs on the nearby canal, and taking a complete break from my normal environment. But this year, we can’t do that. And so we adapt.
Singapore started its reopening a week ago and I have been so glad to see people out and about, to reunite with friends, and to feel my body move at the climbing gym. It has given me time to reflect on the experience of living here and what this place has to offer. And I’m not talking about museums (still closed) or fancy bars (some still closed). I’m talking about hot pot for dinner at a friend’s house and going down the street for a local coffee at a hawker stall. I’m talking about my favorite place in town to watch the world go by and the renewed joy of gathering at home in small groups. Simple things. Things that I missed when they went away.
Experiencing the small joys of an open world, although a small one right now, is what this summer is about. It might not be what I’d planned or what I’d wanted, but I am glad to have this time for what it is.
It might be raining, and that’s all the more reason to dance.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place