My earliest memory of my journey with spirituality started when I was about six. We lived in Singapore and on some Sundays my Dad would drop my little sister and I off at the Sunday School. I suspect that my mum and dad were after a little free time to themselves. My little sister is four years younger than me but I have a vague memory that she and I stayed together.
I remember that we would have these little books in which we got to stick stamps of Jesus in. I really liked the pictures. They were usually related to the stories that they taught us like the Good Samaritan. This was my favourite part of the Sunday School Class. That is probably why it is the only part that I remember.
When I was in the second year infants in Singapore, I was selected to be one of the narrators in the school nativity play. I loved, loved doing this! In those days, I had a incredible memory and I memorized not only my part but also everyone else’s. We have a tape that my dad made that Christmas when my maternal grandparents came out to visit us in Singapore and a lot of the tape has me reciting all of the narration. I still remember a lot of that narration. It feels as familiar as a glove.
I can still remember the wonderful feeling that I used to get every time we rehearsed and when we gave the performance. It wasn’t just the feeling of accomplishment that you get as you put on a play for parents, it was something else that I felt. It felt warm and safe.
In October 1968, we went back to England and after living with my grandparents in Southampton, we moved into our house in Fareham in January 1969. Whilst living with my paternal grandparents, my grandfather taught me how to pray. I used to say this prayer every night before I went to sleep for years.
On my 8th birthday – May 1969 – my friend and I went down Fareham Park Road to a little church down on Gudgeheath Lane. I have just looked this Church up on the internet and it is the Hill Park Baptist Church. I have often wondered which religion it was and suspected that it was either a branch of the Baptist Church or some sort of Pentecostal Church.
I really enjoyed going to this church. I loved to sing the songs about Jesus and to hear the stories from the Bible. I went regularly and even took my little sister along. When I think how old I was and how little my sister was, I marvel at how my mum and dad would let me look after her and walk down Fareham Park Road and take her to church! Not something that I would let my children do when they were small. The world was a much safer place in those days.
I remember the Church giving me and my sister a Christmas present one year. Mine was a circular pink plastic box with a clear lid. Inside were lots of tiny beads of all sorts of different colors for threading. The lid swiveled and a little vent would open up to access the beads. I loved this gift and cherished it for a few years.
After a few months, I was invited to go to their Tuesday night meetings in downtown Fareham. We were always picked up on a coach at Fareham Park Road just outside Coppice Way which drove us down to the hall. I went alone or with my friends. My little sister was too young for this adventure. I went for a little while although I didn’t feel as comfortable in this church service as I did at the Sunday School. I didn’t like the feeling that I had when people ‘spoke in tongues’.
What added to that uncomfortable feeling was the man with one arm. It wasn’t his one arm that frightened me, it was the way that he paid too much attention to me and got into my personal space. After awhile, I told my mum that I didn’t want to go to the Tuesdays meetings anymore and soon after, I stopped going to the church on Sundays. The man was very creepy and I didn’t want to be around him.
Being christened in the Church of England, I took myself off to the Sunday Services at St. Columbia Church at the corner of Hillson Drive and Highlands Road when I was about fourteen. I wish that I could say that it was my spiritual interest that took me there, but it was a good looking boy from school that was in the choir. Just to get a glimpse at this young man entering the church and then singing was enough to get me there each Sunday. Sometimes a friend came with me. She was interested in taking confirmation classes, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. I didn’t want that type of commitment. I was familiar with the church service, but I had my own ideas. I didn’t feel that what they taught made sense to me. I didn’t necessarily think it was bad, it just seemed too mysterious and unclear. Spiritually, I felt at an impasse. After about eight months, I stopped attending the services at St. Columbia.
As life got more complicated in my teens and I grew very unhappy and depressed, I prayed often and even branched out from the set prayer that my Grandfather had taught me. I cried out to God to help me, to give me strength and to help me understand the chaos that surrounded me.
Then one day, He found me and I began receiving the answers that I had needed. It was the day that the lady that I babysat for asked my friend and I to keep two young men company at her house …..
From the age of five to seven and a half, we lived in Singapore. My father was in the British Navy and had been assigned to Singapore for two and a half years. These few years were my childhood – almost carefree years!
I found the cultural adjustment very easy – children are very adaptable. I soon started school at the Navy school which was twelve miles away. At five years old, in a strange country, I was put on the naval school bus which took us to school a long way from home. As long as my mum put me on the bus to go to school and the teachers put us on the bus to go home, I was happy.
Singapore is subject to the monsoon seasons. When the rains start it is like the floodgates open up. To cater for the deluge in water, six foot deep monsoon drains are built. The ones near our house were made of concrete. They lined the paths alongside the roads. Even though these cement ditches were six feet deep, they would fill up quickly and the roads would flood within hours.
Despite the flooding, the school buses would run and we would have to catch them. The most difficult thing about walking the flooded roads to the bus stop was trying to keep your flip flops on! Unaware of the potential dangers of falling over and drowning; or slipping into the now invisible monsoon drains and drowning; it was an adventure going to and fro from the bus stop. For my mother, it was a nightmare. As she carried my little sister in her arms and grasped hold of my hand, her anxiety of me falling into the monsoon drain with the fast flowing water was near panic level. One time, as the regular bus pulled up, it didn’t get the stopping position correct. One young woman got off the
bus and stepped right into the monsoon drain. Several men on the bus managed to jump out without going down the monsoon drain and were able to rescue the soaking wet young woman who spent many minutes coughing up dirty water. Besides the worry of us children drowning, my mother also was wary of millipedes. One time, walking down to the bus, she got bitten by a millipede. I remember that it was very painful for her.
When the monsoon season was not upon us, we would see the now empty monsoon drains along side the path, that we would walk to and fro from the bus stop. My mother’s new anxiety was that I would fall down into the concrete ditch and break my arm or leg. Constantly she would tell me to walk away from the monsoon drains. I have a vague recollection of sliding into one once and of my mum being really angry at me. Luckily, I didn’t break anything unlike the boy who lived across the road. I came home from school one day and found out that he had broken his leg by falling into the monsoon drain. He was off school for many weeks.
One day, my mum took us shopping. We didn’t go to the market this time although we frequently did. I loved going to the market with its unique smells of Chinese cooking which made my mouth water, the unusual sounds of animals squealing and people speaking frantically in Chinese, and seeing all the local native crafts. This time, we must have gone to a department store. I vaguely remember the coolness of the store, the spaciousness and order. Inside the department store, my sister and I spotted these ornamental kangaroos with heads that bobbed up and down. We were totally fascinated with them and spent a long time watching them. We were absolutely delighted when mum said that we could get them for being such good girls that day.
We came home in the car. I was so excited to play with my kangaroo when we got home – at least have it on our table or window sill and touch its head so that it would go up and down. As we turned into the road that lead to our road of Jalan Belibus where our house was, my mum made a gasp.
“I forgot to get a present for the boy across the road!” She exclaimed. She paused momentarily and then said “Penelope, would you give your kangaroo to the boy for a gift?”
I gulped. My stomach lurched. I didn’t really want to give my kangaroo away. I hadn’t even had time to play with it yet.
‘Penelope?’ Mum probed.
Even at five or six years old, I already knew that it was the right thing to do. The young boy across the road must be awfully bored and uncomfortable from his broken leg, I reasoned. My kangaroo would make him happy and help him to pass the time. The nice feelings I had inside when I thought of giving up my new kangaroo with the bobbly head were slightly stronger than my desire and excitement to play with the kangaroo. When we arrived at our house and got out of the car, I handed the bag with the wrapped kangaroo over to my mum. After she had left us with our Ahma, she popped over to the boy’s house to give him the present. When my mum returned, she told me how thrilled the boy was with the kangaroo. This not only appeased the pain that I was feeling with it’s loss, but made me feel very good about the sacrifice that I had made.
Making sacrifices became a lot easier after this first one. Today, the sacrifices involve time and resources, sometimes pride and inconvenience. However, as is the nature of making a sacrifice, there is always that strong pull between doing what the self wants to do and doing the right thing. As Neal A. Maxwell said: “Real, personal sacrifice never was placing an animal on the altar. Instead, it is a willingness to put the animal in us upon the altar and letting it be consumed!”