Dew Drops

Aches and Pains

One day, my Tai Chi Master walked into the class and asked everybody in an agitated voice: “Do you know what is pain?”  The Master told us that a woman jumped from a sixth-floor balcony at an old age home where he taught classes, because she could no longer endure the lower back pain that she suffered for years despite all her visits to doctors and physiotherapists.  He then said: “Don’t give up without trying! Teresa had knee pains and could hardly walk when she started Tai Chi! Wei had a frozen shoulder when he showed up in this class! Look at them now!”  I realized he was in a kind of pain because he felt that if only that woman had joined his classes, he could have saved her life. And he was teaching a class including the husband of the victim at that senior home.

Which reminds me how I seem to have lived with aches and pains most of my life.  Frequent migraine headaches at the beginning of my career. I relied on pain medicine and a strong will to fight the pain so that it would not disrupt my work during the week. As soon as weekend arrived, the pain took its revenge and I toiled in bed and darkness.

After child-bearing, my knees started to ache.  At some point followed my hips; then menstrual pains in the womb. Nothing worrisome, doctors say; normal wear-and-tear that commonly happens to women after giving a few births.  They shrug off these common ills by saying: “If and when it gets too bad, you come in and we replace your hip (or your knee).”  It has to get worse before it can be fixed (if you can call that a fix). Meanwhile, take some pain killers when you need to (never mind the declining results and side effects of the pills).

However, I did get lucky during a visit to a Chinese doctor named Vickie who enlightened me about aches and pains. She listened to my complaints about the ailments with a knowing smile. She fed me a bitter sweet potion. She inserted acupuncture needles in places as far from my pain spots as possible, such as my feet or earlobes. Then, in her quiet voice, almost like a whisper, she imparted to me a nugget of wisdom: “You know, pain is your friend, not your enemy. It comes because it is taking care of your body. You don’t fight your friend; you open your door to a friend.”

I stopped fighting. I decided to be very economical with medication to save some dry powder for my old age. I started to receive pain in its full force and length without analgesic aid. I became an attentive audience for my friend.  I learned to accept and be patient. And even in the most painful moments, I don’t feel helpless or lonely, because my friend has come to help me; I am not alone in fighting my real enemies.

Dew Drops

Scenes in the Gym

“Seize every day & live a good life.” The advice of the gym’s founder is painted in big white letters across the black beam from wall to wall. The ground floor below the beam houses the muscle exercising and weigh lifting equipment.   Above the beam on the wrap-around open concept second floor stood all the cardio exercise beasts: elliptical machines, treadmills, stationary bikes and rowing machines.

On the ab crunch machine sits the young and fit Amy early in the morning, with her arms up holding on to the weights rocking back and forth.  Two strings of hair that were left out of her pony tail hanging in front of her red face. Her abdomen is so lean and flat; there doesn’t really seem to be anything to crunch.   Amy works long hours assisting in a legal firm. With salad packed in her bag, she starts her day fresh in the gym, long before sun rises, and get out of there even more fresh before the lawyers arrive at the office.

In the corner by the seated chest machine, old Mrs. Scape with her short white curly hair finds a little space in mid mornings where she half stretches her arms and moves her frail legs about. Using any of the equipment is beyond her capability, and she could do all these gentle movements at her old age home, but she would not give up the precious moment when she sits down at the bridge table in the evening, and her bridge partner Mrs. Noseley will invariably ask her: “So, what were you up to today, Rose?” And she will reply with a matter-of-fact expression: “Oh, I just went to work out in the gym.” She secretly savours the unspeakable pleasure of telling them that she got out of this death-in-the-air hole to be part of a sweat and youth site.

On the bench press Big John lies at the end of the day with a few hundred pounds of bells stacked on each end of the bar he holds above his chest. He puffs out a big breath while pushing up the monster weight, his tattooed chest and vain-popping arms looking ready to burst. The gap between his fifty-year old face and his thirty-year old body is bridged by a black baseball cap on his bald head. His shift at the nearby supermarket doesn’t spend him enough and he gifts his strength to the bell bars in the gym before he goes home, opens a beer and takes a bowl of chunky stew from his wife to nourish his much treasured muscles.

Then there is Nathan the trainer in his red jacket. His clients keep him there all day from 5:00am to 7:00pm on most days. He holds a notepad where he tracks the routines he assigns to them and the progresses they make. Today he is going to his mother’s place after the gym to let her pamper him with his favourite upside pineapple cake and celebrate his certification of level III personal trainer. Surely she will turn her head to Nathan’s younger brother, who is following Nathan’s suit to become a trainer after years of trying to figure out what to do but not quite ready to give up his sleep-in: “So, when are you going to get your certificate, George?” While George mumbles something, Nathan will take a big bite of his mother’s treat feeling really good.

Dew Drops

Back to Tai Chi

When I was on a maternity leave eighteen years ago, I signed up for Tai Chi classes at the neighbourhood community centre. Every Friday at 1:30pm sharp, Master Kwan, a volunteer in the community centre, walked into the recreational room with a kettle of freshly brewed tea and a tape player. As the quiet Chinese instrumental music started to flow out of the player, peace descended and filled up the room. The tables and chairs piled in the corners faded away and the modest room turned into a Zen temple. The teacher shared two hours with his five students in meditation and flow of movements. Master Kwan never talked much, but somehow words came through his small eyes behind his spectacles. I even sensed plenty of unspoken encouragement and pride for his students.

I dropped out of those classes when I went back to my office routine. Life went on with more kids at home and promotions at work. Over time, those Tai Chi classes became a distant and joyful memory.

Eighteen years later, as I began my sabbatical, I wondered whether those Tai Chi classes still existed. I showed up at the community centre on a Friday before 1:30pm and waited, excited but prepared for disappointment. Soon enough, four students appeared. Teresa must be in her late 70’s now, but looking same or younger than eighteen years ago. At 1:30pm sharp, Master Kwan came in. Same body, lean and light; same face, smooth with the black rimmed spectacles. He acknowledged me with his usual mild smile, as if I had never left. There was the same aluminum kettle with the long sprout that poured tea for all of us; the same black tape player that trickled the same ancient music; and of course, the same eighty-five Tai Chi movements that have been practiced for hundreds of years.

As my breathing got deeper and deeper with each movement, the weight of the past 18 years began to float and dissipate in the air, as if nothing had gone by all these years, not even time. Clock does not tick in this room.

Who says that one cannot stop time? My Tai Chi Master can.