Of rain and a little boy's tears.
I was told that the heavens could open up at a moment’s notice, a deluge of water upon your head. It’s tropical, close to the equator, and it rains in Singapore most every day. Like the world of a little boy of one month or twenty four months, you can never predict when the waterworks will suddenly burst. A meltdown for lack of sleep, an unseen irritant under the diaper—parents become detectives to find the source of the wet and stormy fury. I witnessed both in the skies over this island nation and in the household of a young family, and both reminded me of the vital and communicative role of water for life as we know it.
In the entrance of St Ignatius—the Jesuit church in Singapore—there is a running fountain of baptismal water, with an ever-present trickling sound that is conducive to quiet reflection and prayer. I spent some time there yesterday on the third day of Lent. On my way in, I dipped my hand in the water that was flowing into a large pool, perfect for an immersive and refreshing baptismal experience. It was tropically hot out, and to be honest, for a brief moment I seriously considered throwing all caution to the wind, remove my shoes and socks and just go splashing in it like Gene Kelley in that scene from Singing in the Rain. That’s when I spotted the elderly woman praying piously in the corner of the room, and of course I reconsidered.
We’re planning to have little baby Arthur’s baptism there when I return at the end of the month --another reason to restrain my water fantasy.
I sat down in a pew and wondered if Jesus had much fun splish-splashing and getting dunked in the river Jordan. And what was the voice he heard over the trickling sound of those waters that gave him such an identity crisis and sent him on his own Lenten journey into the desert? Getting baptized should do that, I think---send you on a mission to uncover the reason for your existence. It’s not about becoming instantly defined, but about shocking you into a life-long search of your own truth.
On my way out of the church the skies looked threatening. There were some umbrellas sitting in a stand by the doorway. They looked un-owned—although I had no evidence to support that conclusion—and so I took one. That turned out to be a good idea because the deluge followed shortly thereafter. It was like a monsoon (maybe it WAS a monsoon….what do I know?), and the umbrella was not equal to the force of the rain that was attempting to drown me. I was a little afraid that it would destroy my stolen (I mean borrowed) device, and spotting a gas station up the road, I ran sans umbrella to its sheltering portico. I actually did feel a little Gene Kelley-esque, but I was missing the inspiration of a beautiful woman to completely abandon myself to the rain.
I watched the water come down unrelenting for a good 20 minutes, and others joined me under the protection of the roof. One guy on a Vespa came into the station through a gigantic puddle, and I was a little jealous of his fantastic and dramatic entrance.
Where does all this water go, I wondered. I assumed that Singapore must have no problems with their water supply, but when I returned to my friend’s wonderful apartment, I looked online and discovered the reality is quite the opposite. Although surrounded by water and despite the heavenly outbursts, this city-state has always been threatened by drought from insufficient water supplies. Some years ago the government created a survival plan to is remarkable for its foresight, its advanced technology and its success. Today its tap water is well within the World Health Organization’s drinking water guidelines and is suitable for drinking without further filtration. And here’s the surprise: 40% of that tap water comes from NEWater—reclaimed and treated waste water; 25% comes from de-salinized sea water; 30% from local water like my monsoon; and 5% comes from water imported from nearby Malaysia. Would that the US—especially in California---had such a far-reaching plan for our own water problems.
Two days ago I was walking in another part of the city and stumbled across a hidden gem that was revealed by a less violent downpour. It was like the invisible writing that I was fascinated by as a kid. The special ink of the pen promised it would “Amaze your friends” and give you the ability to “ leave secret messages to other agents”. On the sidewalks of Singapore, there are poems written into the pavement that are only visible when they are rained upon. “She needed to write about rain, and I was in her weather’s way.” “Perhaps love is a view of stars through the telescope.” Water revealing human yearnings written into stone.
Norman MacLean wrote a story entitled A River Runs Through It, later made into a movie by Robert Redford, whose voiceover at the end of the movie has always inspired me about life on our watery common home:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
Back in the apartment, two little boys were unleashing their own monsoons of tears. One probably had a dirty diaper. The other, deprived of a nap, was protesting something about the Play Doh he had on his work table. Apparently he wanted green Play Doh, not yellow, and that was enough to open the heavens. Despite the wailing and the tears, their wise mother understood. She took care of their needs and the sun came back out again for a little while.
We are in some ways ‘walking bags of water’, no matter if we live in Singapore or the Bronx, and that vital element surrounds and invades us from birth to death. It also hauntingly calls us to find the words underneath our own lives.
Here’s a lovely poem about this great city:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The driver, my friend, squints into the rain.
We took the wrong turn-off but Singapore
Is so small it doesn’t matter where you go.
She doesn’t know Change Alley. The new hotel
lies over Clifford Pier. I see the ghosts of red lights
at the harbour. I hear long-dead horses stamp and pull
at their tethers as wagons are loaded with sacks
swollen with rice, sugar and spices. At Tanjong Rhu
even the water’s edge has shifted. Yet a memory
of my great-grandmother’s benevolent, sepia face
swimming out from between jars at her shop remains.
I have her jade earrings now, deep green cabochons
gripped by gold teeth, mounted on stems that pass
through my flesh and hers at once. Tomorrow,
my grandmother turns eighty. For now, I wear the ring
I chose for her: a bezel-set sapphire surrounded
by diamonds. It’s not easy to find good jade
in Australia, much less old jade. The car stops
outside the botanical gardens: a fine cloud mists
the crown of trees. I watch the glossy streets and see
myself aged three, seven, twenty. It’s as though I can never leave.