Three simple words. But, they stopped me in my tracks. My son sends the message from London. Live first, then we learn from life. A concept worth revisiting. Quite the opposite of what I was taught from birth. Learn, then live.
“Crawl before you can walk. Only then you can run.”
“Don’t play with match sticks. Fire will burn.”
“Don’t touch that pot! The soup will scald you.”
“ Study hard in school unless you want a hard life.”
“Don’t take drugs in Australia. You’ll ruin your life!”
“Work hard. Work smart. Don’t fail in business.”
“一山還有一山高。Climb that peak or you won’t see what’s below.”
We learn about taking safety precautions before we venture out from our safe house. If stones are thrown at us, we build bridges with them, not walls. I learned from Pa that our credibility is one of our most important assets, if not the most important. His generation did not need lawyers, their word sealed with a handshake was worth much more than the small print and vague clauses in a legal document. It was a universal accepted truth that children should attend school, and then hope that preferential policies in favour of bumiputras will not close our path to a tertiary education. Mine was the first generation when education was becoming universally available to all children. It was unusual actually, in the long history of urghhlings. Before my generation, it was usually the brutality of wars and agony of poverty that rendered education as an impossible dream to achieve. They had to live first. Learning was a luxury. What they failed to learn will teach them life’s lessons. They did not agonise over petty worries. Survival was usually the top priority. Avoid dying in a war. Avoid dying from hunger. Avoid common diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera. They lived. The more life they experienced, the more they learned. Longevity was out of their consideration, and so they lived for the now, and not for the future. For them, tomorrow may never come. Today, we try so hard to avoid failure to the extent that we miss out on grabbing opportunities that come our way. But, they knew failure was only a small price to pay to gather knowledge. Failure is part of the learning process, it is actually a very good teacher. They knew to live and experience life in order to learn the lessons. They knew to learn from others too; the village elders, tribal leaders, through stories, legends, music and dance.
Three years ago, I helped design and plan the next door’s house and garden. It was my second opportunity in a lifetime to design and plan a house and garden from scratch. The first opportunity, I spurned. I had not lived enough, I thought. That was in late 1994. I was 36 years old. The house design was left to my brother. Being eleven years older and an engineer, his credentials were superior to mine. Besides, I liked the Federation-style house plan he presented to me and made only one minor change. I had no inkling then but it was a very good change to the design of the family room. It opened up the views of the rear garden such that not only can one see its lush green and striking red roses from the front hallway, one can also appreciate the little waterfall and pond on the side garden from the living room. It was like a secret garden that was revealed spectacularly. But, generally speaking, the house plan was his, and the garden design was by The Mrs. I took no further part in the design and construct except to meet the progress payments. Three years ago, my in-laws bought the house adjacent to ours and knocked it down. It became my second opportunity to design a house and garden. I do not know why my in-laws trusted me with such a huge responsibility. I was ill-equipped to accept such a heavy task. Experience in design and construct, zilch. Training in landscaping, zilch. Tertiary qualifications in architecture or engineering, zilch. Skilled in the arts, zilch. Interest in interior decor, practically zilch. Yet, they appointed me. My fees, zilch. But, I have lived long enough; three years ago, I was 58. I had developed a keen interest in looking at house designs. I was secretly proud of my ability to not only pick at the design faults of homes I inspected, but to offer quick solutions to improve on them. But, being untrained and a novice in the field of design and architecture, my affinity for architectural design and landscape design remained a secret. But, the couple came with an open mind and later, with an open cheque book, well, not really. They heard me out, they listened intently to my ideas. They must have liked what I said because when they returned, they asked me to manage the project. Fees? still zilch.
Looking back, it was a fantastic experience. A rewarding one too, albeit not monetarily. I was always led to believe that I belong to the non-creative side of society. Trained as an accountant, I fit the mould of those who are deemed boring and colourless. Staid. Serious. Predictable. But, I have lived. I have loved. I have learned. I know what is classy, what is beautiful, what is interesting. I know what is aesthetically pleasing. I know about balance, contrast, harmony, textures, the efficient use of space, even basic feng shui. I know about creating beautiful views for every room, and how to bring the outside into the house. Maybe that was why they liked my ideas, or maybe it was merely my ability to put in words what I could visualise in my mind.
Today is the second day of November, it is still spring. It rained lightly all night, and then the sun rises and smiles gently in the early morning. The ideal time to take a few snapshots of the garden is now! The garden is awash with colour, with many shades of green overlapping the pinks, whites and reds of the rose garden. I share some photos with my family, to show them these are the living things that make me feel alive.
Second Son in London said, “The fragrance must be amazing!”.
“No! I too have to imagine the fragrance! Only the Mr Lincoln’s have a nice perfume. The others only look good. Beautiful but not scented.” “Should I rip them out and start again? Select ones that are beautiful and fragrant?”
“Yes. Live, then learn.” Second Son said.
I selected two more photos, to share with my friends; a risky thing that. Someone may accuse me of showing off. At what point does sharing what makes us happy become showing off? I cannot be bothered with such pettiness. I know I am not bragging about it. Many may not be garden lovers, they will be annoyed at the unsolicited photos. But, one important thing I have learned in life is to appreciate and value my friends. Friendships need to be nurtured, like a beautiful garden. Keep in touch with them. Share our likes and dislikes. Do not lose contact. I remember a report that came out in 2012 about the top regrets voiced by people in palliative care.
- The courage to live a life true to oneself, not the life expected of you.
- Worked too hard – missed out on loved one’s important moments.
- The courage to express one’s true feelings – they never became who they were capable of becoming.
- A wish to have stayed in touch with their old friends.
- A wish to have allowed themselves to be happier. They did not realise that happiness is a choice.
“Live, then learn.” Second Son said. He is so wise.
Live to learn, learn to live, then teach others. Douglas Horton