Bless

My คุณย่า (Khun Ya or "grandmother" in Thai) likes to send us things. We saw her every Sunday for dinner, but she reminded us of herself every other day in the week when a glazed ham or a basket of mangoes knocked at the door. Sometimes we received handbags or skirts, once a quartet of coloured wigs. One day, a bronze Buddha, calm and cross-legged, was waiting patiently behind the peephole. K.Ya had sent her gardener to deliver the statue and he recited the strict instructions that it would only bless us if we prayed to it every single day. K.Ya must have sensed our scoffs from across the soi because she came over later to emphasize this fact, gravely adding that if the Buddha goes without its prayers for even one day, “bad things will happen to you.” She echoed this omen to me when I neglected to wai to our spirit house, but I did pretty well in my maths exam and looked good for the school dance, so I don’t believe that Buddha statues control the imaginary fate scale. K.Ya settled the Buddha at the top of the stairs it humbly smirked as my siblings and I had to gather Von Trapp style to pay our respects in exchange for “good things.” The moment K.Ya left, we jolted up from our staged prayers and silently agreed that the Buddha would have to survive on something other than our “blessings” for the time being. Months passed, doorbells rung, and the top of the stairs formed a monastery with the ever-growing clan of Buddhas and firm instructions. I began to wonder why my family needed such cleansing or whether K.Ya had predicted the end of the world and wanted us to be saved first. At a dinner party, I pondered these hypotheses with my father’s friend, and, intrigued, he insisted on a group tour of the Buddhas at the top of the stairs. As we’d already climbed up, I threw in a measly wai, just for the hell of it, but as soon as I had clasped my palms together, daddy’s friend slipped, flailing like a marionette and crashed down the entire flight of stairs. We rushed him to the hospital, fingers crossed that this incident would never make its way to K.Ya, keeper of the blessing tally. Until we get a better sense of whether his broken rib resulted from slippery socks on polished wood or the lack of our heartfelt blessings to the Buddhas at the top of the stairs, we cast a watchful eye over the statues and grip tightly onto the stair railing instead. No one gets my blessings unless absolutely necessary.

 

Bless. Synonyms include Sanctify, Consecrate, Exalt, Hallow, Extol. Frankly, words I don’t think you’d know unless you joined a church or were part of an exorcism. Or had a Buddha at the top of your stairs. The trusty OED says it is “to protect or guard oneself.” To invoke divine favor upon. To hail the all mighty God and ask for his kindness. You can bless yourself by doing the sign of the cross across your chest or get a priest to bless you, though there are rules about who conducts the blessings if a Bishop or the Pope is present. Bless originated from the Old English blod or bloedsian, describing Pagan rituals involving marking items in blood to rid them of demons. When the Angles, and the Saxons, and the Jutes (oh my!) were being converted from Paganism to Christianity in the sixth century, blod became bless and they decided to use sacramental wine instead of the gory stuff. Both still stain. According to Reverend Margaret Minnicks, ordained Bible teacher on LetterPile.com, the word bless is overused and in casual conversations, we should be using more appropriate language that does not weaken the sanctity of bless. The word doesn't have to be religious. Sometimes, we express our gratitude to others by feeling blessed, retrieving this meaning from the Latin benedicere or the Greek ελογεν to “speak well of or to praise.” In the eleventh century, bless became confused with bliss. Although the two words are not etymologically related, the semantic similarities make it that we associate blessings with blissful moments. Very plosive, indeed.

On a day off school, after spending the better part of an hour visiting my friend Alice and her broken arm in the hospital, Lucy and I dragged our mum through the lift, ordering her to get our socks ready and interrogating her on how many hours we would be able to stay in the land of soft play. Oh, yes, you guessed it. Little Gym. I grew up a slothful child, loafing on the settee to watch TV with my sisters, dictating which channel we got to watch and when to pop another grape in my mouth, but once I was set free on the Little Gym fluorescent mats, I couldn’t help but persuade the other children to run around in circles and jump on the blocks like interpretive dancers. Today was technically the session for five-year-olds, but they made an exception for seven-year-old devoted Little Gymnasts like me. Also, Lucy was five and mum didn’t want to bring us to separate sessions. Through the parent-reserved windows, mum sent me the “behave!” eyes, but I shimmied past the babies in the obstacle course line and settled on the monkey bars. I gathered speed, swinging my body forward and windmilling my legs, which received some serious gasps of admiration from the crowd that began to gather. I swung at a speed my fans could only dream of and got ready to land a perfect jump right in front of the window. 1…2… on 3, my hand lost its grip and I crashed, elbow first to the ground, hard bone cracked on the soft mat. I tried screaming, “HELP,” but the crowd of babies that congregated around my frail body wailed for me and the Little Gym instructor mowed through them to retrieve me and rush us to the hospital. After the operation, I received flower baskets and countless visits from the Little Gym staff to beg for my forgiveness in the hopes that it would speed up the spiritual recovery of their business. A lawsuit was the last thing on their minds. It turned out that Alice also belonged to the same soft play club and two broken arms in one-week signified that evil spirits had infiltrated this Little Gym. Deep in my heart, I knew that my Icarus pride and loose grip were to blame, but I agreed that we needed to evict the arm-breaking spirits as soon as possible. On the day of the re-blessing gym ceremony, as the guests of honor with bright pink casts in tow, Alice and I humbly accepted the protection offered by the twenty monks, chanting in unison on the red and blue mats of Little Gym. Now, when I look at the scar on my elbow, it’s a reminder of a community, formed absolutely on faith, that did absolutely everything to make sure I was guarded, from an evil spirit or otherwise. 

Bless you. Thank you! (It would, in fact, be rude not to thank them at all). Sneezes, hearts, cotton socks. You can apparently bless them all, though I am uncertain if the blessing would go to the cotton sock wearer or just those lucky socks. In the plague of CE 590, Pope Gregory I ordered that anyone sneezing must be blessed immediately, since it was the first sign of sickness and the sneezer likely needed all the divine help they could get (100 million people did end up dying, but perhaps they were the ones not blessed after sneezing). Now, it is thought that sneezes mark the moment your soul tries to escape from your body, but a good ol’ “Bless You” will trap it back inside. Or, that your heart stops beating with every sneeze and “God Bless You” stimulates it back into regular rhythm. Around the world, sneezing and God go hand-in-hand, though instead of blessings, Muslims thank Allah. Germans, Italians, and Spaniards wish for good health. Buddhists declare a longer life (but as the legend goes, proclaiming a longer life after every sneeze was simply too disruptive, so blessings became optional and quieter). Blessings takes forms other than a stand-in tissue. Thai people bless the elderly by washing their hands in scented water and, trust me when I tell you I have bizarre stories around this practice. Hawaiian Kahunas bless new buildings in a public ceremony. Hindus bless elders by kneeling down to touch their feet. There are many ways that Christians bless people or objects or moments in history, but they’ve settled on holy water to do that bidding.

Barry’s funeral was held at Wat That Thong, our local Buddhist temple, on a sweltering day in May. I could tell who was a farang and who was a local from their funeral attire. Armed with lotus-sized fans and portable misters, Thais paid their respects in chic silk outfits, while the Brits exchanged sweaty hugs in their skintight suits. The groups segregated on either side of the carpet, but my siblings and I (in the chic getup, of course) hovered in the corner and decided to act as the funeral commentators, hypothesizing which guest would faint from the heat first. Quiet commentators, we decided, after our father threatened to hide the Gameboy unless we calmed down. My grandparents met Barry many moons ago, but when my sisters and I inspected the portrait of him erected on a podium of flowers and Buddhas, we hadn’t the slightest idea who he was. Funeral protocols in the West seem to follow a particular pattern of solemnity, where guests whisper their goodbyes at the coffin, a priest delivers a speech, and casserole dishes are sent to the house of mourning family (I’ve actually only seen these funerals on television, but I suspect they’re accurate). Despite Barry’s British citizenship and belief system, his funeral was a very Thai occasion. The ceremony commenced when the coffin was mounted precariously atop a wheelbarrow. Like soldiers, the Thais followed the wheelbarrowers as they circled three times around the stupa, in an anticlockwise direction in order to collect Barry’s blessings before he could begin his journey into the afterlife. Unfortunately, it only dawned on the Brits that they were expected to follow after the second circuit, and the wheelbarrowers lapped around the distressed farangs as if they were competing in a lawn-mowing competition. We then transitioned to the money bestowing ritual by tossing coins around the temple. This distracts the evil spirits away from the deceased family member, so they can peacefully move on to the next world without a ghoul latching itself onto the casket. Barry’s thirty-something daughters led the ritual, but the westernized women flung the coins into bushes instead of far and wide, attracting street children to forage for 5- and 10-baht coins from this green money piñata. Never mind, we had to get on with the show. The wheelbarrowers transitioned into coffin-carriers and heaved Barry’s body up to the cremation platform. The Brits had gotten the memo and began the ascent first, giving them a front-row view of the metal door sealing tight, sending Barry into the furnace, cemented into the temple. My sisters and I were crouched in the shade and our embellished commentary, predicting what the afterlife must be like— very warm, like a never-ending ocean mirage— was wrapping up just as the chimney released Barry’s cremated remains into the sky. But the wind suddenly changed, and a huge gust of chalky ash showered the guests at the front, coating their open-mouthed faces in grey. K.Ya couldn’t help but chuckle to Barry’s wife, insisting that this was Barry’s way of saying goodbye and blessing each and every one of us. From starting at Barry’s portrait, I suspected that he was kind man who let his wife decorate the house in Buddhas and book family holidays to temple sites. Berry did not believe in the blessing whimsies that all Thais practice and might not have agreed with this interpretation of how his ashes were scattered, but would have chuckled, regardless. He knew how much his wife missed him.

I once helped K.Bu (my grandfather) sort through his collection of books from the 30s. Upon discovering a Bible in the pile, he halted, wide-eyed and frantic, like a horse spooked. He panted nervously, “That is not mine, please believe me,” ashamed that I could even think that he owned a Bible at home. “Somebody must have given it to John and Julie,” he later texted me. Blame the children, why don’t you! K.Bu doesn’t hate religion. To be married to one of the most devout Buddhists in the world, it truly is impossible for him to be anti-religious. He’s attended weddings in churches and even invited monks to bless his own house. Yet, he lives by Richard Dawkins’ philosophies and sends his grandchildren Instagram messages from @athiestreupblic (I do enjoy the occasional update). You would think that growing up in a country where ninety-five percent of its citizens are Buddhist, I, too, would become a spiritual agent. Not even the fear of broken ribs from a Buddha statue has convinced me that I’m on the wrong path. Perhaps I’m reading too much into blessings and Buddhas and religious practices… it’s somewhat existential, is it not? What does it mean to live a blessed life? Where do I go next? Perhaps I should take a page out from the OED and start soaking items in blood as the Pagans did. I wonder how K.Ya would feel if she saw us wai-ing at the top of the stairs one day to scarlet Buddhas, pentagrams scratched across the walls (officially called the Sigil of Baphomet), chanting verses that screech fire while we sacrifice a bleating lamb as a blessing to the one and only Satan. Oh, fiery one in all your hatred and murderous rage, we stand together, your bumptious servants and bless you.

Translations

Soi - street

Wai - greeting, praying