After A Ray Of Hope, After Rai

Today is Boxing Day. As a frustrated shopkeeper, I used to think Boxing Day is the day to box up unwanted gifts and return them to the shops. Why was I frustrated? Ok, pitiful then. That’s right. After unaccountable hours serving customers in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the pitiful shopkeeper had only the one day to rest and relax with his loved ones on Christmas Day. Did he not wish to take a short holiday somewhere with his young family? Of course, he did. Did he not wish to follow The Boxing Day cricket, especially against the Poms? Of course, he did. Did he not wish to spend precious time with his ageing parents? Of course, he did. Did he not secretly wish to pick up a book to read, or pick up his dusty violin? Of course, he did. Yet, he didn’t do all that. Not when his kids were still young. Not when his Mrs still welcomed his playful flirtations. Not when his loving Pa was still alive. No. Instead, he was obliged to return to the shopping centre to man his shop. The frightful memory in his mind was the queue already forming in front of his store even before he had a chance to unlock the door and turn on the shop lights. Can you imagine the poor shopkeeper being accosted by impatient customers? Unreasonable customers? Abusive rednecks? They weren’t as scary as angry housewives though. “You sold me a dud!” screams one obese woman. In that suburb, almost everyone was obese. It’s the demographics of the population in that area, I suppose. Lower income, lower level of education, broken family structure, bad health and terrible hygiene, and dare I say, some racism. “I don’t want your Made-in-China crap! Just gimme my money back!!” another yelled. “What mint condition? The model car was broken before we opened the box,” another young mother exclaimed. Young mother, therefore young child. You do not give an expensive collectible car model to a young child! “I JUST WANT A REFUND.” “NO, I DO NOT WANT AN EXCHANGE!” “GIMME BACK MY MONEY, OR ELSE!” “My child is autistic, please give him back his money,” a more persuasive mother used her charm on the shopkeeper. “Just you wait, I’ll bring Today Tonight here!” The shopkeeper didn’t appease his customer when he suggested she called 60 Minutes. There are so many miserable people around. This is Christmas!

Today, the shopkeeper no longer runs a shop. He is finally relieved of the bullying tactics used by shopping centres. He used to run shops in all the Westfield centres in Adelaide. They taught him the true meaning of ‘professional’. They sold him the concept of shopping malls being professionally managed. Being professional meant they did not have any moral conscience. They didn’t have to be human, they were professionals. What they actually meant was their profession could hide behind their office door and use the law to subjugate the poor shopkeeper who was typically bereft of money to fight them in the courts for falsely claiming high foot traffic which justified their obscene rents. It would not be beneath some professional managers to pay trolley boys to continually use the doors where the counters are located. Anyway, this year’s Christmas was the quietest for me. The only tradition I kept was having a piece of panettone for breakfast and just with The Mrs and our eldest son. Oh, Murray attended too, although he told me panettone is not one of his favourite foods. The dog gave it a sniff and turned away. Body language even humans understand. There were no parties, no drinking till I was stupid, and therefore, no awkward moments. It is actually quite easy to avoid awkward moments anyway. Just refrain from topics concerning China, politics, religion and crypto assets. The State Premier, in his eagerness to reopen the economy, invited the coronavirus into South Australia. From zero cases in the community for almost all year, we now have rampant cases that have caused ambulances to be ‘ramped’ outside the Royal Adelaide Hospital. The bottle-neck is due in part to the poor design of the brand-new ‘world-class’ $2.8 billion hospital but the number of C-19 positive cases also exhausted capacity. So, it is no surprise to hear restaurants and holiday resorts complaining of mass cancellations. Given the explosion of cases, Christmas was cancelled. We only had a gathering of sorts in the metaverse with two sons who could not come home. Well, we could see one another, laugh, chat and even react to happenings in the background. They even commented about the beautiful roses behind me. They weren’t here in my ‘real world’, yet they were present in my life. Isn’t this the metaverse?

Boxing Day originated in the U.K. during a time when some wealthy folks used to box up presents for their workers who only returned to their families the day after Christmas Day chores were done. Today, of course, it is quite often about boxing up gifts to return to the shops. People have become more miserable, less thoughtful. The art of giving is as diminished as the art of receiving. A senior member of the management team of my online business decided not to show up at our Christmas-do on Christmas eve. He used C-19 as the pretext for not turning up, but that is as lame as saying he couldn’t come because a Typhoon may blow its way here from the Philippines. It’s a Christmas party for staff only, yet his excuse was that he didn’t want to risk catching Covid at the party. Bah humbug indeed! The truth was he was sore at the bonus I gave him. The art of receiving is surely lost when a guy complains and sulks at a bonus. True, it was half of what he got last year. If a bonus is an expectation, then he ought to have expected less. There have been many instances of performance reviews where he rated poorly. Established procedures and protocols were still missed on too many occasions, despite the many reminders. Why would he expect a big bonus when some mistakes he recently made were quite costly? He ‘Slacked’ me a message to complain that he felt he deserved more. I suppose that’s indicative of my ‘open door policy’ where anyone can come to me with any complaints, ideas or opinions. But, what happened to the Christmas spirit? It was still a nice bonus. After all, any bonus by definition, is a bonus! There are so many things wrong with the world, but receiving a bonus surely cannot be a reason to be unhappy about. Urghhlings. People close to me here are also often unhappy about this or that, or about him or her. They seem to think they have the power to change other people or at least change how other people should react to them. The simple answer of course, lies within ourselves. We only have the power to change ourselves or change how we react to other people or to the circumstances that challenge our peace. Life is long, if we use it properly. “We don’t receive a short life, we make it so,” Seneca said. We squander it by neglecting to do the right things and focusing on the wrong things. Negative thoughts, toxic comments, frivolous habits, unhealthy practices only destroy our peace and harm our mind and body. Are we committed to unnecessary things such as overblown mortgages and foolish obligations? Pernickety is, in my opinion, a waste of our time, therefore a waste of life. Those who engage in the painful habit of insisting on painstaking nit-picking chores are difficult to live with. Why do they focus on trivial matters, on irrelevance? I am reminded of the time when I was asked to nip off the tails of bean sprouts or clean birds-nests. The time I wasted to enjoy a ‘crunchy’ texture of bean sprouts and the time to pick fluff and feathers from swallows’ nests to enjoy ‘good health’ – were they well spent? No. So what if I have enjoyed the ‘Caviar of the East’? Do we occupy our minds with complaints and waste time arguing with people? Don’t we feel etiolated after an episode of verbal sparring with someone annoying? Do we tell our boss we are displeased with the Christmas bonus? What happened to the spirit of Christmas, the season of giving, good cheer, and goodwill towards all? For me, Christmas is a time to practise the art of giving and also to remember the art of receiving. There are so many who are so much worse off than us.

It is a disgrace in this life when the soul surrenders first whilst the body refuses to.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.29
After Rai, where is the ray of hope?

Four days ago, Gladys, my staff in the Philippines, asked me if she could have an early Christmas. It had not dawn on me that the typhoons that I briefly heard in the news had also affected her. By then, she had already reached the end of her tether. She had not heard from her family in Siargao for four days. FOUR DAYS! Can you imagine being in such a frantic state of mind? Not being able to contact your loved ones knowing a disaster had hit their town or village? The desperation of not knowing. The panic in your whole being that there is nothing you can do? The frantic search for news about her baby girl? Her mum and dad? The unsaid worry about their well-being? Are they even alive? Meanwhile, you prepare to find a way home. Pay the exorbitant last-minute air fares. Gladys lives in Cebu, but even there, they were not spared by the typhoon. The internet was down in many places – I did not ask if that was due to blackouts from fallen electric poles or broken cables. Cebu is about 11 hours by ferry to Siargao, but who would dare use the ferry in a typhoon season? You read about the millions displaced and homeless, that people were without water and bare necessities such as food, the disruption to law and order, and hospitals. You worry about your child, is she alive? Even if she did survive the carnage, can she cope with the diseases that will come? How about the hunger that will come? The exploitation that always come to further cripple their meagre existence? People with power will always exploit the weak and poor. Cops, mobs and politicians – these are the ones with power in a crisis. Thankfully, Gladys reported two days before Christmas, that everyone in her family has survived Typhoon Rai, a Category 5 storm. Millions of children have become homeless, hundreds dead but those alive remain vulnerable. There is always the risk of water-borne disease spreading. This time round, they have another more lethal disease lurking about – it is a debilitating thought to consider these poor sods have to cope with the pandemic during a time when the social system is broken. Food security and personal security are foremost in Gladys’ mind – her child’s disrupted education will be a worry for next year. Her family’s home is totally wrecked, her hometown a ghost town. At the same time, many friends in Malaysia were also sharing heart-wrenching images of the massive floods in Selangor and Pahang. There is so much misery everywhere that we have to wonder why God would take a holiday during this holiday season. Ok, don’t blame God, blame climate change – that’s man-made and only urghhlings should fix it. Besides, God can’t take a holiday, so many are attending Christmas mass to pray or ask for favours. Sorry, I have maundered again about people troubling God incessantly just because He is omnipresent. I still maintain there should be a rest and relaxation time for everybody and every soul. If we burn ourselves out, how do we expect to perform to a high standard? Can we produce an amazing breakthrough in our area of expertise? A scientific discovery? A technological advantage? A miracle? Since God rested on the seventh day, as the good book says, isn’t that telling us He needs to rest too?

Siargao after Rai. Where is the ray of hope?
No internet, no safety net after Rai hit.

Gladys’ family is OK, that’s the main thing. Their family house is totally destroyed. Her mother’s small business stall is blown away. They feel totally helpless, not knowing how to rebuild. “How do we start again,” she asked. Corrupt officials in the local government are diverting donations from other countries into their own pockets. Local businesses are price-gouging, necessities cost double, triple the prices. Every battler is struggling, yet they are being preyed on. On Christmas Eye, Gladys sounded more upbeat after I told her to let me know if she needed financial help. “There’s an old Chinese saying, when it’s freezing cold, do not disturb your blanket, just stay still inside the warmth,” I told her. “Keep calm, in times of crisis, do not make rash decisions,” I said. Gladys told me she has some savings, which will be used to support her family for their food and other necessities. She will need financial assistance to rebuild their house using recyclable materials and can they start their small business again? Her mama said that their barangay was gone – people there are desperate for rice, water, even canned goods, other essentials and shelter. The situation there is “like really back to zero and the government there is moving so slowly regarding relief operations, and a few people have died due of dehydration and diarrhoea.” It makes sense for her mama to quickly reopen her barangay and sari-sari store since the demand for rice, water and basic essentials is so high. “Yes, we only have each other as a community now. We can’t rely on the government, we have to help each other,” her mama said. That was awe-inspiring. For someone to be so utterly destroyed, yet is still finding ways to help others in her community is remarkably stoic and kind. After Rai, I found the ray of hope I was looking for.

They will rebuild from scratch, from the scrap.

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