Organic Dumingag: Transforming Communities through Sustainable Agriculture

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I donned all the relics and charms I had for a safe travel. I have never been to Zamboanga, the side of Mindanao close to a so-called red zone and so St. Christopher, sacred geometry and Lapiz Lazuli stones chaperoned me on that trip. I was to land in Ozamiz and then arrange for a 2-hour ride to Dumingag. I was one of 24 wide-eyed, green as grass, eager souls from Southeast Asia, braving a trip to a small landlocked town in Zamboanga so I could “acquire skill in leading the organic movement where I lived.”

IMG_5982Touchdown Ozamiz and my phone rings. A voice on the other line: “Paula?” “Yes, who’s this please?” I replied.

“It’s Mayor Jun. You can ride with me to Dumingag. I had to drop a friend at the airport too.” He tells me in Filipino.

I respond with a hurried “yes” and then promptly message our coordinator if this was a hoax, or if out here there really was a mayor who offers rides to strangers.

I seek out his car, looking around for a sleek SUV, an entourage of sorts, and a driver clothed in Barong. A car pulls up: “Paula, Mayor Jun.” I glanced inside, my eyes on the backseat. There was no one there. There was no sleek SUV, no entourage, and no driver in colored barong. There was a simple man in a white t-shirt driving his pick up truck. And this honorable man was driving me to his town. I then knew, this ride was the beginning of an extraordinary adventure.

IMG_5973I wonder why I have never heard of Dumingag. Here I was with little hope for my country, complaining on and off, often resigned and in apathy. And I am in the Organic Movement. How could I have overlooked this organic farming community of 50,000 people in Mindanao? Rice paddies are farmed organically. They have a seed bank, a school for farmers, and a political agenda anchored on sustainable agriculture. The crime rate is close to zero. No one’s spending the fruits of his labor on the numbers game or cockfighting. No one’s poisoning the air with cigarette smoke. It’s the stuff of legends, almost unreal, hidden by the mists. They even have their own King Arthur. Every day I saw him gather his men in a round table, holding court, in a t-shirt and tsinelas.I imagined it was a fairy tale, made-up to look good on paper. Sound bites, like those posters they put up on every waiting shed. But the car ride made it through the mists. And this Camelot was real.

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It wasn’t only because the paddy fields had ducks waddling or fishes swimming, or that the municipal hall was encircled with raised beds, or that they knew how to culture worms, make fermented fish waste and their own foliar sprays. Or even that during a morning walk most houses and huts had a patch of edible greens in bamboos and recycled tires.  What captivated me was a sense that something wonderful had been sown and taken root in this town, and that it has burst forth into fruit and blossom.

I have grown cynical, disenchanted, and distrustful of politics. Bit by bit, shame overtakes pride. And there’s nothing else to do but make fun of the Philippines.  And so I expected the customary welcome with a head-splitting ceremony. Be entertained by a parade of shrill voices, scantily clad gyrating women dancing to the latest craze. Offered a welcome drink of sugary Iced Tea or Tang, feast on: pancit, pig cooked 100 ways, fried chicken and a Red Ribbon cake. I had even stashed Arabica coffee from Manila, expecting to be served 3 in 1 Instant Coffee for breakfast.

IMG_6192I didn’t find it there. Coffee was made of corn or an original blend. Iced teas were homemade pandan, ginger, turmeric and avocado with muscovado sugar. I didn’t see a Coke bottle all week. Or a Red Ribbon cake. Instead we had squash, banana, sweet potato and cassava cakes. Chicken was never fried, always native. The eggs were brown. We had a banquet of just harvested vegetables, everyday. No iceberg lettuces or chemical-laden plum tomatoes. None of those. Locally grown, freshly picked from the garden. As closest from the farm to the table as you can get.

And every night, they serenaded us with traditional, folk and local love songs. There was no gyrating, no high-pitched hosts wowing the crowd with slapstick and obscenity, and when I asked, no rock and roll. Instead they tapped and clapped, swayed and jiggled their shoulders to the rhythm of drums, ethnic beats and folk songs. And they told us the story of their tribe and my country through song and dance.

55 Organice Rice Seed Varieties

55 Organice Rice Seed Varieties

This town took me by surprise. It was as though they revered tradition, and deeply felt the story of our ancestors running through their veins. A people transformed. And pride. You saw it everywhere. Pride in their rice paddies and that they have now banked 55 organic seeds. Empowerment. Empowered that they do not need rice imports, magic formulas to make their fields thrive or green bucks they have to pay twice over. Proud that they measure progress not in Jollibee outlets or malls, but that every one gets to sow and reap, and put food they grow on the table.

IMG_5993 Seven years ago, 90% of Dumingag’s residents lived below the poverty line. The rice farmers were destitute, in the red with lenders and traders, and barely able to make ends meet. There was hardly any food on the table. And you ask why when they have fertile soil where anything can grow. (Except, this is the story of our farmers everywhere.)

It is seven years after and the municipality has bested a hundred nominees worldwide to win the IFOAM* One World Award**.   The farms that cultivate with sustainable agriculture methods have increased tenfold. They have a seed bank, a transformative school, and clinics following integrative medicine.

“What they did in Dumingag serves as a lighthouse. I hope this experience inspires mayors worldwide,” said Bernward Geier, former IFOAM President.

It’s as though the town brought back fertility to its soil, and thus to its people. Allowing good things to take root, bud and blossom, thrive and grow. In this town of 44 villages, sustainable agriculture has broken ground. It was the bedrock from which rural development sprang. Mayor Jun, his knights of the roundtable, and his farmers, learned to save seeds, remembered the indigenous ways of their forefathers, and then worked on the land so it truly bore fruit. As Vandana Shiva declared: “Organic agriculture is not just a method of farming. It is a way of life.”

IMG_6093 I discarded my relics for a safe travel. There was no need for it anymore. This naive, city farmer thought she knew it all, and discovered there were acres and hectares to learn from the country farmers. Forty four villages, 50,000 people, and the landlocked town in the middle of Zamboanga, gave me a wealth of wisdom to take home.

Touch down Manila. It’s now time to put on my city farmer’s boots, break ground, and plant a seed where I live.

If you want to view paradise

Simply look around and view it

Anything you want to, do it

You want to change the world

There’s nothing to it.

-Pure Imagination

* IFOAM is the only international umbrella organization of the organic world. Since 1972, IFOAM unites, leads and assist the organic movement – all IFOAM Affiliates – in its full diversity, while providing a common voice on relevant organic issues. To date IFOAM represents close to 800 affiliates in 117 countries.

**The One World Award The OWA award that is endowed with a total prize money of 35,000 Euro honors people, projects and innovative ideas with ecologic, economic and social impact that make the world a better place and promote justice. The OWA was initiated in 2008 by organic food pioneer Joseph Wilhelm, founder and Managing Director of Rapunzel Naturkost.

A Sense of Humus

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We just capped a weekend workshop of backyard farming. There we were, mostly urban dwellers raised on store-bought vegetables and Chippy. We were out in the sun for practical work. I had warned them about hats and garden boots but the urban dwellers fancied sneakers or sandals, an umbrella and Rayban sunglasses. We gawked at the farmers with their shovels of earth. They layered the compost pit with dried-up leaves and horse poop like lasagna. A flabby milk-white worm wriggled out of the compost that was supposedly every farmer’s manna from heaven.

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Someone blurts out: “What’s that? Someone replies: “A snake?”

They were probably wondering how on earth they were going to build the same biodynamic compost in their backyard. It entails hours of stirring a pail of water to the infinity sign, months of watching the lasagna turn to mush, and keeping the pit moist until it smells like the earth after a rain. And that’s merely the compost.

IMG_5598A couple tried their hand at breaking and turning soil. “Use your left foot! Not too deep! Not there!” the spectators gave counsel, their arms defiantly folded over the chest. A volunteer protests: “But it looked so easy when you (the farmer) were doing it!”

When you grow up in the city, you tend to have an idealized notion of farming. It’s the man with a cowboy hat and, in our tropical world, wearing slippers. It’s a life of rolling plains, of sowing, of having nature take its course, and of one day harvesting a row of lettuce heads and rosemary. It is pastoral and slow paced. You read a book with a cup of coffee until your seeds germinate and the flowers wake up.

 

Now you have a weekend of theory and an hour or so under the sun and you see it is neither pastoral nor slow. You’re not just reading a book with coffee, you’re trying to grasp every plant and why peppers won’t thrive where you live. You’re sensing the woolly bug and keeping up with his life story. Farming is abuzz and fierce. You have a trillion things thriving, multiplying and dying: bacteria and microbes, bugs and earthworms, aphids and leaf miners, and in the midst all these- a tiny sprout that’s trying to break free. And then intensify that with the mighty elements, the phases of the moon, the unrelenting rain, and humus that you need to keep alive.  

IMG_5595You now understand why some farmers will snap up a magic pill. It gives them twice or thrice the yield with a flick of the wrist. They wouldn’t have to dig pits and layer it up to their waists. There’s no getting down on their knees to cover beds with mulch, or to line it with canals. They don’t have to wait for ladybugs to visit and eat aphids. They don’t have to lose sleep over holes or black spots, as they can pellet disease with pesticide spray. They don’t have to agonize over what to plant, where, or when. There’s no brewing of manure, worm castings or fish waste for tea compost. And without fail, they get shiny and plump vegetables that look (and taste) like plastic every time.

(Except that a year hence, the patch of ground that bequeathed the bumper crop is half-dead and needs a cocktail of chemicals to keep alive. And the bugs have borne bugs resistant to poison, which are back with a vengeance. The farm goes bald losing precious topsoil. The water is tainted. And, as the beds lose its hold on water and minerals, all manner of life- the microbes, the worm, the bugs, the birds, the bees, take exodus. The handful of dirt is no longer teeming with life. It’s just a handful of dirt.)

And so you begin to appreciate the drudgery and toil of growing food, and doing it without magical formulas and cure-all sprays. You catch sight of farming, and how, from compost to a first crop, it is a way of life. The devoted farmer is far more than a man with a cowboy hat. Farming seeks out those who delight in humus, the smell of dung or rotten peels, and invisible things that may one day poke their heads from down below. It seeks out those who can be intimate with the intangible, with the forces that sprout seeds and make flowers bloom. The select few who get down on their knees digging, weeding, picking grubs, praying for sun and fearing too much rain. The handful that choose backbreaking labor over a magic pill, just so they can keep the earth alive. Especially, you see how all these hours end at the farm gate dependent on a market that does not fully appreciate working with the land. On a market that insists on temperate crops in a tropical country. On consumers who pressure farmers to grow the most difficult vegetable, and then frown at its commensurate variable in price.

I do not know much about the work at our farm. I often just behold the fruits of the harvest, in crates, each tomato wrapped in banana leaves. Except that a weekend of backyard farming has given me a glimpse of how the crate gets to my farm store, and the toil needed so I could earn a living from working with the land.

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I see you now. And this girl who grew up buying vegetables at the supermarket will now pause and give grace before every meal. Especially because you opted for backbreaking labor over a magic pill, and still managed to keep your sense of humus.

In the Aftermath

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IMG_5017The storm has passed. You look at the ripped out papaya trees, the mass of leaves and branches that are now your garden, the mud spattered floor, the puddles and the rags you mopped them with, and already you feel uprooted out of your day-to-day.

I am grateful I only had to weather fallen trees and no power, and that the aftermath has given me ten things to write about in candlelight.

  1. You’re never prepared enough.  The roof leaks. You didn’t lop off overarching branches that are suddenly way too close.  You forgot about the dogs, the chicken coop, and if only you remembered to lay a sheet over the vegetable beds. The flashlights require 3A not 2!  The gas stove needs electricity to start. Except it’s the day after and a day too late.
  2. Nature is uprooted too.  We often think it’s us against nature. But the storm rages against its own kind too. The ancient trees that used to greet me are now lying by the roadside.  The ones that remain stand with lost limbs, their barks scrapped to naked flesh, their crowns half gone, and they stand bent and broken. I found a family of crows wandering about, displaced. They have lost their homes too.  There was a Shrike that perched on the branch of my Kalachuchi. The tree’s gone.  I run into a disoriented gecko in the middle of the road. She’s probably lost her bearings too.
  3. Suddenly everyone you meet is a fellow human being.  I find myself smiling at people on the road.  Nodding my head, raising a reluctant hand in greeting, as if to say: “Yes, us too. But we’re fine. And glad you are.” Suddenly, there’s a shared story and you’re bound by a common ordeal. Part of the same space the storm has passed.  (And because you have nothing else to do but brood, you realize every one on earth is sharing the same space, bound by the common experience of living here.  But I’m saving existential musings for another day. )
  4. You have friends and you look out for each other.  As the storm passes, and while it is huffing and puffing, someone will ask: “Are you guys ok? And you reply: “Yes we are. You?”
  5. Perspectives change. You don’t mind the stains on the wall and the puddles on the floor, that your house is now painted green, and that the garden is a heap of gnarled trees ornamented with a crooked swing. Perfection’s gone with the wind. You’re fine and there’s a roof over your head.  You learn patience. I asked our village engineer: “How are you going to restore all this?” He responds: “One day at a time. Today we clear the road, tomorrow, another task.”  And your otherwise impatient self replies with a nod: “Yes, just do it slowly.”  You’re not even distressed about another night of lighting candles or welcoming mosquitoes with open windows.  You’re fine and there’s a roof over your head.
  1. You’re truly mindful, careful about excesses. You care to turn off the tap, you draw only what you need, and you fix simple dishes to conserve gas. Suddenly you don’t need bright lights on your laptop, you just need one phone, and you’re not a mouse potato, checking the net only for news. Now when did that happen?  And you begin to see how prone you are to excess: to too much energy, too much water; too much of the World Wide Web, when you could walk this earth on much less.
  2. You spend time together. By candlelight. Singing rounds and doing shadow plays. Taking that old book on crafts off the shelf so you can make a matchbox doll together.
  3. You sense more. Absent the bright fluorescent or the glaring screen, you feel the rhythm of day and night. So you clock waking hours to the sun and wind-up at sundown. Then there’s a starrier night sky and more fireflies about.  It’s so quiet you hear everything.  Chattering birds, an axe swinging against a stump, the distant drone of a generator, and someone’s conversation a kilometer away. These sights and sounds are there all the time except you’ve been awash in light, drowned in sound and you didn’t notice.
  1. The world needs every one.  We just don’t need people high up, seated at round tables, making policy or money grow. We need the brute force of men who are now sawing off the trunks that block our path.  We need the skilled hands of the carpenter who’s going to patch up our roofs, the professional A licenses of men driving complex machines, the pluck of the Meralco guy atop a tiny box, plucking cables off trees just hoping it won’t explode.  We even need the girl at the check-out counter to report for work despite the storm. Suddenly you appreciate the invisible world that gives you tree-lined paths, electricity, and a 24/7 grocery.
  2. You pin your hopes on one day after Wednesday afternoon, I saw a dove soaring against the grey and remembered Noah.  The dove was looking for one dry leaf to tell us the storm had passed. Our boondocks have been stripped to the wilds. The proud trees that lined our paths are bowed down, torn in parts, without arms to reach up the sky. Except you know they will grow limbs again.  You can replant the Guava tree and if you tend to it, it will bear fruit anew.  The birds will find the branches to build new nests. Already, the impassable roads have been made clear. The school sandbox is being rebuilt. In a few hours (I hope) or maybe a day, the steady whir of my fan will assure me that my day-to-day is taking shape.  And while I had to say goodbye to the grandiose palms on my front yard, the house now looks brighter.  There’s more room for the light to come in.

DISCLAIMER: I am not trivialising the storm or its aftermath elsewhere.  These are just the musings of a girl who luckily only had to weather fallen trees and no power.  

Fly Away Home

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I escaped. Drove to the closest semblance of an adult world, desperate for coffee and solitude. School had already started except that the awaited quiet was revoked by Laguna Day and then a sore eye on a school day. Summer break was finally over. Yet I had no deliverance and I was going mad.

The phone rings. My daughter. Nth time.

“I didn’t have such a good day today Mama. Can you fix it?”

And I, coffee in hand without a dollop of solitude, go home. Just like that.

Her day had gone awry and she needed me to set things right. I should be there, in the world of my 6-year old. Where I magically mend things with a flick of a wrist. Where I can still coax her to portray me as a mermaid in a shell bikini, splashing in the sea. Where she pesters me to please allow her a glimpse of the stars that fly off my fingers.  photo

“What’s this, what’s that, mama?” Because I create her worlds by naming them.

And she’s there, waiting for me to straighten crooked days and sing things into being. How can I run away from that?

“Don’t leave.” my mom said. I had called her complaining about visions of sinking to an underwater cave. And settling there. “It bugs you that they’re there all the time but one day you’ll be looking over your shoulder, and they’re no longer there.”

And I can see it. I’ve been looking over my shoulder for my older child. She’s often there. But there are days when I glance up and she’s gone. Off to a nook where she’s reading a book, seized by another world I didn’t sing into being or name. Off to a bike adventure I didn’t lay out.

I can see it. One day, when this bugger discovers books, solitary adventures, and open spaces, there won’t be anyone to draw me in a fishtail by the sea.  Out of the castle, pushing boundaries, off to open spaces. (Hopefully not with a man on a white horse.) And I won’t be the good witch with cascading stars on her fingers. I might just be a witch with a broom. Or an old hag. And I will lose my powers that can do no wrong, even forget the songs that set everything right.

Except not yet. Not today. She’s still here. In the castle I built. Captive, captivated, needing to be where I am. In the world of my 6-year old, I am the sun and she whirls around my pivot. And she can’t have a sun that’s half here and half at a cafe or lonesome by the sea. My daughter needs to trust that my music and incantations don’t get jumbled together or that the stars don’t fall where they shouldn’t. Our castle cannot have a frazzled queen.

And so there’s no escaping today. I will quit whining about the scarcity of caffeine or peace. Why do I need perking up when I’m shooting stars off my fingers? I should dream up an underwater cave that serves coffee. And so, exhale this seeming exhaustion. Inhale the bugger, the endless “but why’s”, and the round-the-clock summon for my mending hand.

When your 6 year old calls a bad day and pronounces you to be the only mortal who can make it right, you don’t bug out. You go home.

Just like that.

The Joke’s on You

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That’s not funny. No one’s amused.

You know how it is when the show’s gone too far with obscenity and you walk out disgusted, requiring a barf bag, and irked at being thought such an imbecile that you’d fall for lewdness and find it amusing?

Idiotic, that’s how you perceive us. And so you put on fancy shows, expecting to pacify us with a circus (not even bread.) But perhaps that’s what we get for choosing actors and players for statesmen. Perhaps that’s what we get for allowing this farce to go on unheeded.

But shows end. There comes a time when the adoring public sees through the trickster and leaves the court. And there comes a time when the crowd realizes that they need a government and not a bunch of clowns. The curtains must be brought down. And we will unmask, uncloak, and see what’s behind the glittering show.

Priority Development Assistance Funds, incredible lists that grow, names that appear and disappear? Your tricks have been exposed. And we won’t be swayed by songs. Calling us “Kaibigan” does not make us so. We will no longer be played the fool.

And so tell us who financed the extravaganza with wads of money piled so high they had to hoard them in bathtubs. Recompense for the years you’ve kept us from books and medicine, from roads and bridges, from a living wage, from flood, from the “multi-purposes” you scribbled and that we paid for. Or if you were ignoramus, how you handed over millions of our money in a daze to a group you didn’t know. Duped? Every year? I have heard the tragic story of how gullible you are, how trusting, how much of a fool; and the fantastic story of your hand and signature turning up like magic. Spare me the drama and tell me something new.

And this time, when you’re on stage, we want the show to be swift. Without embellished productions or smoke screens like lists or a sex tape. We want the stark reality of time inside, not justice plodding through paper and procedure, or Latin words we don’t understand. And when you decide to play victim, the opposition, sick or too old, this show will go on. We know the plot but this ending will have to change.

If all ends well, we will assemble a proper set for you. And you will have to spend time in the dingy side of the world. Off the stage, the dais, and the honorable floor. Doing time.

It isn’t funny. You are not amused. Because this joke‘s on you.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 

-William Shakespeare, The Tempest


All Around Yaya

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The older one was learning how to ride the bike while carrying her sister in the back seat. They had worked out a routine. It required an afternoon of painstaking pushing by our “yaya” along the roundabout.
I snapped a photo. It was quite absurd. I should be ashamed of myself. Here was an adult, running in circles, trying to balance a bike with two brats. That afternoon, they advanced to including a puppy in the basket.
All Around YayaBut the ridiculous stunt seemed quite ordinary. Our nanny was laughing with the children. She was joyful to be in that loop, balancing machine, two brats, and a dog.
I had a yellow BMX bicycle. And I remember being on that same route with a driver and maid in tow. I thought I had trained myself to bike. Now I recall I had a maid waiting on foot. And breaking every fall.
The nanny. I remember her. She was a permanent fixture in every house we lived in.

Aw-aw, who every night, had to keep her assuring “I am here” hand on my backside.
Eva, whose 6-month-old baby I had thrown off the bed. Three years I was without and yearning for my mother. Eva must have lulled me to sleep.
Yolanda, who sang about heartache and forbidden love. We endured each other. I couldn’t sleep so I supped on her anguished lullabies. She was despairing and guilty and so found herself a confessor.
And then there’s Azucena. Perhaps my mom had an intimation of the role she was to play in our life, and so christened her Nanay Cena. Our mother was a gypsy and shuttled between places. But heaven sent us our version of Mary Poppins. She was the steady, dependable soldier in our lawless anarchy. She remembered to dress us up in clothes that matched, cook us the familiar birthday spaghetti, and play us old trusty movies. She took every blow, sword poke, spit ball, as my brothers braved through the chaos that happens when someone leaves. The day I blossomed into a woman, Nanay Cen taught me how things are worn and womanhood is endured. And she knew where everything was kept: finding again the things we needed as we lived out of boxes.


The nanny. They come into your life, or your child’s. And your lives get entangled. Entwined. And are forever changed.

The different world they come from becomes yours. You learn love songs and cuss words, take in a whiff of strong perfume, sample bright red lipstick, and develop a taste for salted fish with burnt crispy rice from the bottom of a pan. You hang out at their rooms, feasting your eyes on the half-naked women on their walls. You hear about the next-door neighbor and sex.
And the different world you are in becomes theirs. They endure the dirty diapers, the waiting at dinner tables till you swallow your food, and the constant patting you need on your back to sleep. They soak up every conversation, feigning disinterest except that your family stories end up on the next street. They are there at the park, the ballet, swimming, and your friends’ birthday parties. And they witness your every first. First smile, tooth, a step. The first time you memorized a song, won first prize, got on your bike. The first time a boy came to call. And you fell in love. Was crowned Prom Queen. Made it through college. They grow old with you, and your milestones become theirs. And every year, they are the first to greet you on your birthday.
The nanny. I crop her out of the family portrait. And my children forget to draw her. But then I look at old photographs and see her there: it’s her hand, her shoulder, and her lap. An unseen figure that rocked my cradle, sang me love songs, styled my hair, balanced me on the bike, and had my back until my mom came home. She is unnoticed, but when she’s captured, you see her half-smile and a look that says: “I shouldn’t be a part of this moment but I unwittingly am.”
And then you know. The nanny has raised you too. And deserves a place in your memoir. In that village that raised the child, the nanny was there. She played many roles: caregiver, protector, nurse, friend, cheerleader, man-at-arms, Nanay. We forget them and our photographs hide them from view. But in the moments and the shaping of our lives, they are unwittingly there. That cheesy love song, the filthy word, a craving for salted fish and sooty rice, or a memory of a yellow BMX cruising along a roundabout, these are moments they have unknowingly bequeathed. The keepsakes.
It is two days after and my daughter has mastered the “angkas.” I am glad I took that snapshot. Thirty or so years from now, my children will remember that ridiculous stunt and how a nanny was laughing with them, joyful to be in that loop of balancing two brats, their lives forever intertwined.

*I am quite fortunate I’ve had the grandest of unseen hands: Nanay Cen, Nana Rose, Yaya Eva, and Aw-aw. And guess what, they still find me, every year on my birthday.

When Crazy meets Reason

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You bump into them sometimes. The crazy ones. The ones that wear the Einstein hair and the wild eyes.

It was Thursday and I was sitting in a hut that stood on stilts. It belonged to an old man, his wife, 2 sons, and countless grandchildren. We had navigated our way inside a water jungle balancing on a tiny rowboat that fit three at a time. I noticed him as he came- eyes on fire and primed for war. A forceful handshake and he announced his name: “Camara.” We were expecting the typical Filipino welcome, the kind that sits you on the best chair and offers you rice. Instead, we were greeted with a booming: “Why are you here?” He then bamboozled us with the law on mangrove forests, deep ecology, and how the flooding of the plains affected their catch. And that we, the titled and privileged, were a threat to his peace. He pronounced it his life task to defend the law that defends the mangroves, and swore he’d gladly die for it. Months before that he had beaten a public servant with a frying pan. I was dumbstruck. Couldn’t put a single word in. Mr. Camara, had gone deep into himself and understood it his charge to safeguard the swamp. And so woe to anyone who gets in the way. The ambassador of the group appeased him. Judiciously told him we were there as fellow champions of the tropical haven. Peace offered him cigarette paper for his smokes and steel for his battles. We set sail in our tiny rowboat, amused but charmed by an old man who would die safeguarding the swamp.

Camara's Haven

On Wednesday I was sitting on cardboard, waiting in a garden for my husband. The garden belonged to a farmer, this one again, sporting the Einstein hair and the wild eyes. I was worried about the time. We were mere spectators and we were tired. The sun was going to bed and then there was dinner. Except that the farmers had withdrawn from our time and space. Caught up in a world where dirt begets life and humus turns to gold. I couldn’t get a word in either. We simply had to linger, watch and be amused by their eccentric devotion to the earth, to nubs and roots, and the germ of all things.

The Farmers

You bump into them sometimes. The crazy ones. The ones that that seem to you more alive than you have ever been on a frenzied day.  They know exactly what to do with their lives. Fired up with a love for something, someone, and they are tireless, and rich and full. As though propelled by life itself. And that thing that consumes them has taken root so deeply that they have built their lives around it.

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. -Henry David Thoreau

I do not think the meek will inherit the earth. I’m guessing the crazy ones are in it already. The fiery, the bold, the geek, the eccentric, I am amused by them. Fascinated. I mark them, wishing I knew exactly what to do with my life too.

My daughter was just asked: “What does your mama do?

“She’s a lawyer.” She replied.

“What kind?”

“Oh. She’s always writing stuff.”

I bet she’s just as bewildered as I am. Because while I may begin with Attorney and append Juris Doctor to the family name, my crazed self only wants to write. And perhaps that is it. The answer to the old man’s: “Why are you here?” And Rilke’s: “would you have to die if you’re forbidden to write?” That eccentric devotion to something; that thing that consumes you so you don’t notice the sun going to bed or wonder about dinner. Those moments that catch you outside time and space, where everything comes alive or turns into gold. I’m guessing that’s life telling you what to do with life.

 If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. -Henry David Thoreau

For the charmed few, the ones with the Einstein hair and the wild eyes, passion has already met purpose and they walk the earth intoxicated. But for many of us, the ones that need to begin and append their names with a title, who cannot yet die for a swamp, or find bliss in a kernel, we can be gratified by the pockets of crazy: when you fall into love; and the day doesn’t end;  and you’re spirit-filled to the brim; and when there are there no spaces, only genius.

I bump into her sometimes, the crazed self.

Sit down, drink, dish the dirt. Among friends.

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I was attending a talk by doctors. The hall was filled with experts in the same field, a number of them had been working together for years. The professors presented their slides. Questions were asked, discussions made. What followed was a pleasant discourse among colleagues.

However, there was one lecturer who couldn’t make it. And so he sent his slide presentation and asked another colleague to read it aloud.

Poor professor.  What followed next was a critique of his presentation.  One chastised him for being careless about maps. A few chided him for not providing a disclaimer about his findings.  Here was a roomful of academe, learned on the subject, dressing down a colleague who was not even there.

The very same thing happens to a friend who couldn’t make it to a get-together. We pass it off as a joke: that the absentee will be the evening’s “sumsuman,” the dish, subject matter, and most probably the night’s keynote address. But it happens all the time. We talk about you because you are not there, just as I am certain I have been made the juicy tidbit quite a few times.

I am not talking about gossiping about a stranger, the actress, the latest scandal, or someone we mutually detest. Let’s not even go there.

I am talking about the tittle-tattle among friends, about friends. A tight-knit circle where the rules of get-together require that time is spent bragging about kids and then dishing about the friends who are not there.

It sure makes for entertaining conversation. The gripe-session grips me.  You feel more important, because you’re figuring out someone else’s life, judging what’s wrong with it, and know exactly how to render it right. Except the friend will never hear of your breakthrough. The advice you want to grant her is right behind her back.

This obsession about a friend’s life, that we find amusement in another one’s blunder, and that we like dishing the dirt, especially, or perhaps, only when they are not around, what good does it do? Does the friend magically mend just because we’re whispering about her miserable life and discussing what she could have done better behind her back? Why spend time dressing down an absentee, when he’s not there?  Surely he cannot do better next time because no one will tell him so.  Even when we might be on to some truth. There’s a real story behind the version you tell that you will never know because you don’t ask. You just tell. Treachery. Like stabbing someone in the back, when she’s unarmed and defenseless.

Now how can I trust my circle of friends? And even, how do I expect them to trust me, when I could easily betray a friend as I dish about her life and indiscretion at the tittle-tattle?

And so what about tuning out for now, withdrawing from the gossip game, so I stop betraying myself and how bored I am. Next time we do our little shindig, I’ll talk to you about you and me, and not about the next-door neighbor or the BFF who’s unavailable.  And when you begin dishing out something juicy, I’m going to shush and simply eat. And it won’t be your story. And to the friends I’ve dished out on: sorry. Backstabbing among friends, it’s so not cool.

A Different Frame of Mind

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I took another class.  There was nothing to do that weekend and so I enrolled in another class. Six hours later I went home a few thousands poorer with nothing, save for doodles and prejudice.

A week later, I am browsing through a book and realize the misadventure was all mine. There was no wisdom gained, as I had gone with blinders, locked doors and rooms filled to capacity.

The trouble with a conviction that you have found your path is that you steer clear of detours or unexplained routes. You stick to your path, read the proper books, pay attention to the customary lectures, and hang on to your inner circle. Until one day you’re sort of rigid and unbending, without room for anything else.

Prejudice. That’s what I carried with me to class. A fixed notion about you, your world, and how different it is from mine. And because it is different, I leave you no door to enter, no space for us to meet.

It is as though I have searched and searched enough, climbed my Everest, and found an infallible truth. And so ward off everything else. There was neither viewpoint nor frame that could fit into mine. I knew so much, and then knew nothing else.

Now I wish I had abandoned the doodling, or the antagonistic thoughts in my head. Been a poet, open and thankful to grace, instead of a stubborn and resolute fool. I met a teacher and 12 others. I went to learn but I had gone cloistered.

Openness.   Being ready to learn from everything that meets you. Even as the teacher rattles on, telling you stories at odds with yours. You are attentive even while you fidget inside because you’re dying to tell her she’s wide of the mark.

I know I do it all the time: get caught up in my own thoughts as someone speaks.  In judgment or bias, or even in working out an intelligent retort. Except why do we listen on the offensive, or speak on the defensive? I should be confident about my chosen path, enough so that another’s route or journey won’t threaten mine.

And I think it is a tragedy when you grow sort of rigid, relentless about our own course. You die-hard. Or even when we become content with just one frame: the same vista all the time. How do you shoot a stunning photograph? You don’t keep to one frame, you venture into other spaces, examine other angles, take a panorama, a shot at wide or narrow, left or right, up or down. You tilt the frame just so you catch the perfect light. Just so you render the perfect picture.

Tomorrow I will take another class. And the day after. My school of life. I will meet teachers, and countless others. Perhaps this time, I will go to learn. Climb down my Everest and look at another’s vista, widen mine. Take detours despite the chosen path. Tilt my frame, find another angle, some contrast and color, and so perhaps, let more light in.

 Nothing can reveal itself to us which we do not love. And every revelation must fill us with thankfulness, for we ourselves are the richer for it. –Rudolf Steiner

To Everything There is a Season

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FD_FarmerEvery year for the last 20 years, we had sown seeds on December and then harvested a predictable volume on February.  It was perfectly orchestrated. The plants would shoot up, bud, and then burst forth in blossom for Valentine’s Day.  There was a season for everything: “a time to plant; a time to pluck up what is planted.”

Except this year. Up until February, our farmers were still waiting for the flowers to bloom.  By then, we had lost half of our harvest to the unusual cold.  The dependable season of wet and dry had gone awry. For the first time in 20 years, clouds blanketed the sun for days. And the cold lingered.  Before that, farms had to take on the epic winds of Pablo and Yolanda, or the torrential rains of Sendong.

The changing climate.  You hear about melting ice caps and rising sea levels and yet there’s very little said about agriculture.  You trust nature will find a way.  And perhaps, if there was a threat to agriculture, it wasn’t going to put farmers at risk soon.

Except that climate change doomsday for farmers is already here.

DTE.FarmersExtreme weather. And not only that, extreme AND unpredictable as well.  Mindanao, the country’s breadbasket, the fortunate south that used to be spared from storms, that is where our farm is. With the shifting weather patterns, we now have to bear the full brunt of storms.  You give all you’ve got for one planting cycle, extreme weather visits, and it’s pfft to 3 months of farming.  Toss in the changing rhythm of seasons and we could no longer foresee warmth or rain.  We previously timed sowing and harvesting to nature’s cycle of wet and dry. Except that the only predictable thing these last few years is that of torrential rains and violent winds. Everything is just up in the air!

What about small family farms everywhere?  The farmers plant for weeks. Wait for weeks. Weed, water, and reap. They are cash strapped and fall prey to usurious financiers who lend at high interest rates.  They enter into contracts with onerous traders who snatch up their crops at rock bottom prices.  They are beholden to landlords, financiers, and traders, working on land that’s quite often not theirs.  Except now they also have to weather the likes of Pablo, Yolanda and Sendong, and bank on a temperamental Mother Nature.  It is no wonder we have aging farmers.  Who wants serfdom, muscle and sweat, with almost nothing at the farm gate? They would rather go to the city and sit on a desk.

Drought and rain.  At the wrong time. Crops that wither or wash out. And famine or food prices that soar to record highs.

Perhaps it is none of your business.  The poor vulnerable farmer, at the mercy of an extremely erratic Mother Nature. Who cares? You can enjoy the unusual cold with a cup of cocoa, or the hot day with a summer salad.

Except. It is this poor vulnerable farmer who actually supplies you the cacao that makes your hot chocolate. It is the poor vulnerable farmer who tends to the lettuces and carrots that make your salad. And when your farmer is not secure, the food on your table is not secure too.  You can only reap what they sow.

Farm_LettuceFar removed from the seed, the sprout, the produce that magically settles on our plate, we take farming for granted. We cannot appreciate the daily grind of the farmer who works the land.  We cannot grasp the medley of earth, nature, seasons and the farmer that bestows us fruit, flower, vegetable and grain. And because we can buy the fruit, the salad, and the rice at ease, in neat packages at the supermarket, we forget that it takes at least three months of industry to get anything from seed to plant.

“This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; folks, this ain’t normal.” –Joel Salatin

What happens now, when farmers have lost the rhythm of the seasons?  When there is no longer a time for everything: to plant; and to pluck up what has been planted? What happens when farmers give up on the land? 

The doomsday scenario for agriculture and food security has arrived. The climate is already changing. Along with mitigation strategies that would take the edge off doomsday, farmers will now have adapt to the changing seasons and the shifting weather that is already here.

More than these, we have to recognize that the unusual cold and the impending hot summer means more than just buying a scarf or air conditioning.  Extreme and unpredictable weather will hit us at the dinner table. Aside from our annual saga of waist-water floods and relief packs, climate change will threaten the food on our table. We all have a responsibility towards the land, the people who grow our food, and what we consume. This vulnerable country, our poor farmers, and our insecure food system will be hit the hardest. It is hard hit already. And we are running out of time.

“The average person is still under the aberrant delusion that food should be somebody else’s responsibility until I’m ready to eat it.” –Joel Salatin

Keeping the Burglars Out

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They are playing witch today. Two cats are in the basket. My book of spells and healing magic is on the floor.  What is it with kids today and dark things? I only pretend-played princesses. But my children inaugurate witch schools, assemble spy outfits and concoct poison. They handed me a spray bottle of moldy green. “It’s to keep the burglars out,” they said.

I’m curious if I am the root of this obsession with witches and potions. Or if my unrestrained conversations with husband, the gardener, and the driver, on locks and bolts, and guard dogs, have formulated a poison bottle.

I keep forgetting to refine exchanges at the dinner table. My children have heard us talk about someone trying to break in. And that a doctor was hogtied just outside the village for a laptop.

Add to that the computer screen, and how I am transfixed half of the time in stories of life and death.  Do they see those too?  Magnify life and death with what you catch on the news today: there’s the saga of an anchorman, an alleged rape and how someone literally fired up his manhood.  This genre of stories land primetime, are deemed front-page worthy. And if you don’t deliberately shut off, these pollute your days with intrigue and scandal.

And aside from the stories of fear and sensationalism, what about the harmless tittle-tattle of friends while mommy’s entertaining? They overhear how I hate someone’s guts, how a certain crook should rot in jail, or how a favorite aunt now looks like Garfield (I take artistic license, any resemblance to anyone is clearly unintended.) Do my children carry our talk about someone’s wretched life to sleep?

I realize I have often let my guard down, chattering to children, as though they’ve had more than 30 years of life work too.  They make an excellent sounding board. Nonjudgmental.  Sympathetic too.

What about the things we don’t say? The tide of emotions, the hidden undertow that’s nevertheless there?  Months ago when the world was despairing for Yolanda, my cast of lighthearted was suddenly gloomy as well. Did they need to know about the thousands of dead, strewn all over the streets of Tacloban? Or that they needed to pack their clothes and toys, as children like them had lost theirs, some their mommies too?

“Children do not have the mental faculties to process a lot of information that way, especially information about issues and things far beyond their scope of reference.  Too much information does not prepare a child for a complicated world, it paralyzes them.

…Children need to know that theirs is a good world.  They need to feel that, sheltered by those they love, they are where they should be. They have a place, in a time and a world of hope and promise. Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting

Unknowingly, our children become privy to our fears, and the frightening, ugly, maddening adult world. You think you have shielded them from the dark by keeping media and screens out except that they feed off your conversations, tittle-tattle and the unseen.

“[We need to be] more conscious of the sanctity of these two worlds- the adult world and the world of kids- in conversation…When we let children in on too much information- adult verbal and emotional clutter- it rushes them along, pushing them ahead without a foundation…“ Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting

And while we cannot outfit them with blinders or rose-colored glasses, we are obliged to be on our guard.  Watch our conservations, filter what they hear, mind what they perceive when our actions speak louder than our words.  This frightening, ugly, maddening world is our adult world.  One day they will get here too. Not yet. Their world is a garden where they bunch up flowers and give to mommy, so everything is good again. Our adult world, they are to approach, get to know, schooled in, and understand- at a slow and steady pace.  Until then, it is for our eyes, and our ears only. More importantly, they need to witness how we are able to live quite confidently there. So that they learn from the masters (the good witches and not the warlocks) and hone their skills by age and adventure. So that in time, they can whip up potions to keep the burglars out.

“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

-W.B. Yeats

Read more about “Filtering Out the Adult World” from Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting and the Simplicity Parenting Blog.

Compassion and Shoes

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Compassion and boundaries.  A friend put the two words together the other day.  I always placed them separately, opposed, unable to hold the same space.  And then I thought, they were flip sides.

Compassion necessitates boundaries. Boundaries enable compassion.

Because I had imagined myself the poster girl for compassion. Putting oneself in another’s shoes. To suffer with another.

And so I set off, wide open, to let other people in. Filling someone’s shoes and wearing them. Saving the suffering and the miserable from themselves. Rescuing them out of the pit or the grave, even staying there with them.   And each time someone needed a hand somewhere, I would say yes. And so lend a hand, bail out, and clean up the mess.

Just the same, one day you are unable to get out of sufferable aching shoes or miserable pits. As though you’ve managed to dig yourself a grave too. The depended and the dependent are both huddled in the corner, empty and vulnerable. Help less. You’ve fed her addiction. She’s fed off your sympathy. And, having worn her shoes far too long, you have become her. The rescuer turned victim.

That, or you resent kindness and charity. Your self-styled selflessness has left a void and your welfare tank is empty.  And so you decide you’re quite finished with saving the world. Saving the self is your new mantra. To cocoon inside your corner of the world, where you can have joy and bliss, and live and let live. You can justify it with “equanimity” at the far-left. Let everyone be, they have their own myths to unfold, and you do not have to be in it. The solitary, separate, unique self, should be apart from everyone else. There’s no need to step into another’s shoes.  My shoes fit me just fine. Selfless becomes selfish (tempting, but I am not going to write Oxford Dictionary’s newest word.)

You grapple with these extremes and yearn for a middle ground. You can’t do callous and indifferent. You’re supposedly hard-wired for empathy and no amount of cocooning will keep your mirror neurons from firing to mirror another’s pain. Except your tank is empty and you’re afraid you can’t survive another pit wearing someone’s shoes.

“Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other. ” –Rainer Maria Rilke

Look at that. Two solitudes, not one. There’s no stepping into shoes. No merging of selves. You meet, protect and greet each other.

And the mistake I had was that my self-styled compassion meant putting myself in shoes and walking in them.  And so you drown alongside in tears. And so you feel the pain, bear it, and then lift it off them too.   Let them into your sacred spaces (and some will live comfortably there.)

But you see, you can suffer with another without getting into the pit yourself. Bear witness to someone else’s pain, without becoming pain. Because the moment you lose yourself in the other, a hostage in that pit, you can no longer help. And the best way to throw a lifeline is exactly when you are outside.

Compassion demands boundaries.  Boundaries allow compassion.

And while we can withdraw sometimes to be by our lonesome, we can’t stay huddled up in blissful cocoons forever. The world will beckon, and that world is filled with people with shoes to try.  We inhabit the same space. And our paths, seemingly divergent, will always, at one moment in time, traverse.

And so, make your way, gaping wide open, letting other people in. Except, keep to your solitude. You are there to meet, protect and greet each other. Bear witness to suffering, to a destiny that is theirs, and then be a witness yourself. You will only see the other when you are not the same. Understand the life story without having to rewrite it for them. Behold their well-trodden path, without having to pick up after them, clean out the mess, or have them invade yours. Put yourself in someone’s shoes and yet not walk in them. Perhaps that is the secret to surviving someone else’s well-used shoes. Perhaps that is the secret to never having your compassion tank run empty.

Long Forgotten Gold

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Our electric bill has surged to an additional P20,000. Meanwhile, a gang of robbers looted a jewelry store. As they were called The Martilyo Gang, our sharp-witted government came up with a solution: “henceforth, the sale of all hammers shall be prohibited in department stores.”  Rewind to 40 days ago, thousands were clamoring for bread, and no help came. Why? Government performed the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story’s Jets and Sharks. Feuding families and rivals do not help each other. Even if out in the streets, lovers are drinking to their death or killing one another. The country’s Executive Department paralyzed amidst thousands of unidentified dead. Oh wait, do not bungle the body count. We suppress that, sack the tattling Chief of Police instead. Backtrack a little and you find our Chief Executive inviting the country’s most wanted to the Palace for tea and surrender. And previously, dangling a million or two of his pork to maneuver statesmen to his side (oh wait, it’s not pork but the “Disbursement Acceleration Program.”) And statesmen! You’d probably recognize them squabbling over dole outs on reality TV and earning brownie points in aid of legislation.

You get the government you deserve.  Our Constitution states, we, the sovereign Filipino people, gave government authority to watch over us and protect us from ourselves. But what happens when those you have clothed with authority quite suddenly lose their heads?  Become non compos mentis.  Or get to be so intoxicated with the power you bequeathed, they turn against you. Yes, against you, the one who installed them up the high mountain and lent them the keys.  You, the chief, the boss, the sovereign Filipino people. And now they wear the crown, change the locks, and anoint a clever dragon to keep you from your treasure. In fact, there’s no desire to return the keys. Ever.  And so, a huge slab of your gold will be disbursed on the barrel to kinsmen, knights and vassals, so they fortify the name, be allied, and keep the gates closed.

By Sarah Hastelow - Smaug

By Sarah Hastelow – Smaug

In the meantime, the populace is clamoring for bread. And you have nothing else to do except be sorry and damned you picked the wrong man.

Under the law of agency, you could pull out the agent on the basis of mistrust, self-dealing or that he has gone mad.  But it’s not as easy renouncing an installed king, with his knights and a dragon at the gate. You need millions on the streets with nuns who carry rosary beads and flowers.  You need a long-winded impeachment trial where the king is tried by his knights. And even after placing them behind bars, you’ll have them seeking a reprieve, your hospitals looking after prisoners, or the next king granting a pardon.  And it’s a travesty of democracy all over again.

But that happens when you don’t mind the tremendous power of a sovereign. The electric bill surge, the imbecile security measure, the warring sides, the aloof Chief and our decrepit statesmen. That was your power, handed over, without limits and bounds, and creating madness. It was that lone vote you gave away, for bread, for the popular choice, for being swayed by the winnable candidate.

And I am venturing to turn this around.  A revolution. Except it’s not outside in the streets with rosaries and flowers.  And it is not within courtrooms and the halls of Congress either.

We have to be masters of our sovereignty. Learn to command the power we have in our hands. And we need to find the true king who can wield it too.  This turning around is a revolution of hearts and minds.  But we must begin now. Not in three years, not when the campaign begins and the circus comes to town, and not just when we are angry.

There’s a kink in the dragon’s armor.  We either embolden him with gold and fire, or find his vulnerability and tame him.  But we need to study his moves. Be sharp and discerning. Pluck up courage so plain folk could venture out of their holes. Train. We cannot crown another thief or a fool; position a dragon that keeps us from our gold; or even hand over our keys to the intoxicated and non-compos mentis. So begin now.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To claim our long-forgotten gold.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Resurrection

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The comet of the century is blazing across the sky. The sages say: it is either the harbinger of horrors or a herald for abundance, depending on the comet’s shape and color.  But a few days ago, scientists were taken by surprise, as the comet dramatically brightened. No one understands why but unexpectedly, the comet decided to glow brilliant.

I would like to believe we created the stellar show. The comet thought we’d blunder after the perfect storm, and primed to fire up with the colors of Mars, planet of war, anger and discord. Except. The comet hurled into space and saw something else.  In tiny specks surrounded by blue, there they were, the colors of the world’s flags, of service to the powerless and weak.  The white, the brown, the black, and the yellow races, all in one place at one time, with no reason or agenda, except to lend a hand.  This planet was not the survival of the fittest; it was every neighbor as oneself. And thus, the supposed bearer of tempests and plagues, beamed at this wondrous spectacle of humanity, and fired up so she could be a beacon in the sky.

Because while we haven’t had a mighty storm in hundreds of years, we also haven’t had such triumphant show of the human spirit in centuries.

The entire world is praying for islands and islets they can’t even pronounce.  Children everywhere are drawing hearts, giving up piggy banks and toys for another child. Selfies and food porn have been superseded by selfless and soup kitchens.  You proudly declare yourself Filipino, changing your profile to red, white, blue, and a radiant sun.  Suddenly, the tarnished Philippine flag has become a message of hope. Suddenly people are parting with tradition and Christmas parties. Suddenly compassion that moves you to tears or action is no longer cheesy. Suddenly, welfare and camps are full to bursting with packages and volunteers so you will have to wait your turn.

You behold images of war: soldiers; helicopters; jet planes; and enormous boxes being air dropped. Except. There’s no war.  There are no sides.  No one is fighting. The soldiers, those things flying in or falling from the sky, they are there for one agenda: an understanding that humanity is one. And that one man’s battle is everyone else’s.

It might have taken the storm of 300 years to wake us up but humanity is awake all right.  Because without this onslaught, without all of us being uprooted from the mundane everyday, and without the tempest, the destruction, and death, we might have remained content, stuck up and selfish, finding joy in selfies or food porn, and ignorant of the Grand Scheme.

This darkness didn’t just creep in, it stormed, and judged, and crucified us.  Our temples are in ruins, there was a great flood, and thousands are buried in mud.  And we could have given in to the savagery- stayed true to our supposed nature where only the fittest survive. But we are slowly rousing to empathy and compassion, and to a unified world that is choosing Good.

And so now there’s a blazing comet journeying towards the sun.  And I’d like to believe it is a herald for our rebirth, that beacon in the sky.

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned

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I reckon I am exactly at stage two among the stages of grief.  First was denial- “the numbers are exaggerated, we’re a tough bunch and we will pick up the pieces and rebuild.” I was just there. The second stage: anger.

I am counting the dollars as they stream in. We thank them for the outpouring of support and smile. Everyone’s favorite.  The nicest people on the planet.

We won’t lament our sorry lot. There’s no wrath. Just grief and suffering, and the acceptance that this is our fate: to be poor in a 3rd world country; circled by the ring of fire; and choked by the typhoon belt.

But winds don’t roar and rush at 300 kilometers per hour.  Seas don’t swallow entire cities.  The beach doesn’t swell to a watery grave.  God doesn’t make them like that. You coax and cajole, ask her to give absolutely, and then raise her temperature so she’s almost seething. Of course Nature is enraged.

And while I welcome the trifle, I am angry.  Like a woman scorned and pacified with a necklace. And I think it fit to remind them about their fascinating theories of the Butterfly effect, dominoes and ripples across the water.  Because the most powerful storm in human history? That same one that left a gaping hole right where I live? I can trace it back to them. And so they can send storm chasers and news networks, choppers or the military, even pour in millions in humanitarian aid. But this time, a peace offering won’t be enough.  It is climate change, stupid.  And that tragedy you behold, the breaking news that shows you the walking dead, the scavengers, and a man carrying his dead child, that’s the reality I can trace back to the pebble someone threw.

It happens like clockwork. Again, I am pouring cups of rice to plastic bags, rummaging for blankets, and my status calls out #ReliefPH. This grief and suffering and the acceptance that this is our fate: to be poor in a 3rd world country; compelled to live in makeshift structures; on the water’s edge; and in harm’s way.

Our storms have their own names.  People shouldn’t be sheltering inside houses that splinter with the wind under roofs that fly.  People shouldn’t make do with huts on stilts where the seas could devour them. When the sirens have sounded, people shouldn’t prefer the typhoon’s path for fear of looting. When the storm has passed, people shouldn’t be begging for attention, food and water, as government has not reached them.  And when our towns are ravaged, private citizens shouldn’t be at the front-line, scrambling for supplies, assembling missing persons lists, finding boats or organizing their own rescue because government has gone pfft.

You watch television and it’s a reality show depicting doomsday, war, and survival mingled with drama. It is surreal because 800 kilometers away, you are sipping Arabica with Christmas carols in the background. You don’t know whether you are desensitized to poverty and death, or if you’re slowly adapting to an abnormal that’s now a way of life.

Our people are so poor. Our country is so vulnerable. We are a sorry state. Come on, it’s not fun where we live! We may be tough and resilient, but we have bent over backwards too many times. We’ve recoiled and sprung back to shape. Except now we’re stretched to breaking.  It’s time to snap back. Be beside oneself. Ticked off. Enraged. And show them that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Beachcombing

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Pandan Island, Sablayan, Mindoro Oriental

It is so quiet here. I got up at dawn as I heard the rooster crow. Went back to sleep and woke up again at 6AM.  There was a rowdy bunch swimming a few kilometers from where our hut is, and they were already singing at daybreak. Now the sun is so high and I’m hoping the neighbor has not beaten me to the hammock.  I was planning to write there today.  But I haven’t budged.   And except for a dip in the ocean, nothing else beckons. There’s no phone that beeps or summons. I needed to switch that off.  Can’t waste the little battery I had and it is such a trek to the charging station.  There wouldn’t be any space for my phone anyway.  Every other modern invention was securing a surge of life there, beside oxygen tanks and the resort’s only WIFI.

Two days ago I wondered how we were going to pull it off. No air conditioning despite the damp air or sunburn. You bathe in briny water. They ration off a fresh water bucket, so you can take a final rinse and brush your teeth. The mosquitoes here are savvy. They find ingenuous ways to infiltrate your white net cocoon. There’s no ice cream or mango shakes. And you escape the midday heat byDSC_0692-001 napping under a Talisay tree.

I now remember how a beach feels like.  The last beach vacations were too pretty, embellished. Sun, sand and salt but with a well-managed 18-degree cocoon nearby and hot showers to rinse off the sand or brine. And everyday, someone sweeps the sand.

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But this is in the raw. You arise at first light because there are no block-out curtains or thick walls to muffle roosters or neighbors. Besides, your sheets are damp and your sunburned body wants to find solace in sea. You wander out and the beach isn’t perfect. There were no attendants to comb the shores or tidy up driftwood or dead leaves.  So you catch sight of stark naked nature. You notice what the waves brought in last night and how the wind mantled the white sand with debris. You wonder if there were bonfires and booze last night as the bottles are still there. There are no breakfast buffets, as gourmet calls for a motorized trip to town or that a freezer guzzles the little power on the island. So you rely on coffee, scrambled eggs and fried rice, and that there’s always the day’s catch for dinner. Your drinks are not chilled, and yet they remember to cap it with a cherry. You’re now convinced you could live like Robinson Crusoe, long as there is rum. You mumble thanks for the fully stocked bar and the sight of Don Papa.

DSC_0654This feels like 30 years ago, when the beach meant being marooned on an island (except that our aunt made the best scrambled eggs, adobo and fried rice.) We didn’t have beds, not even assigned cots so we would slumber like sardines in tents or under stars, and arise with half our tent at sea, or half our body burnt. There was nothing there except the ocean and a one-room bungalow that could magically fit 50 people, cot to cot. We occupied days with sand ball fights and water polo, scaling the Kissing Rock and discovering why it was named so, devising card games and kindling the biggest bonfire.

DSC_0681And so, just like 30 years ago, we beachcomb, chase waves and dream up games.  I now have a shell collection to rival your best. I am schooling my girls on card games and magic. They finally recognize the cobalt blue or the yellow striped fish, and will tell you how there’s a parrot that’s also a fish.

There are 10 turtles feeding off the seagrass here. One went up for air and my daughters pestered me because I didn’t capture it with a photo.

Nothing competes with the stars at night and so they are learning how to spot Orion and the Bear. Christmas comes early, as trees light up with fireflies at night.

I have finished two books and have capped it off with a poem. Just snorkeling, I have seen a school of barracudas and 2 turtles.

Soon we’ll be back home savoring 18-degree temperature rooms, hot showers and a 24-hour concierge.

DSC_0611But you forget about creature comforts here.

It is 10AM and my 8 year old has beaten me to the hammock. She’s on her 2nd book.  My 6-year old has just tagged 5 hermit crabs, certain that crabs have distinct personalities.

 

Now I’m going to comb the shore beside me.  Find myself a crude, rough and perfect one of a kind shell to bring home.

DSC_0656One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach.  One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few…Gradually one discards and keeps just the perfect specimen; not necessarily a rare shell, but a perfect one of its kind. One sets it apart by itself, ringed around by space- like the island… For it is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives but the important as well. We can have a surfeit of treasures—an excess of shells, where one or two would be significant. -Anne Morrow Lindbergh

In Memory of a Father and his Bar

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There was a room I loved and loathed growing up.  Red light, jazz, a bull with Raybans, horns, photographs of naked women, ashtrays and a poster of Moulin Rouge. It reeked of cigars and the hint of bliss. It was my father’s bar at our basement. The forbidden room of red lights and slates.

He would have been 66 today. I wanted to write his memoir and toast his 33-year sojourn.  Yet all I could think of was his bar.

I barely saw him. He taught me how to draw finger puppets and how to sing “La Cucaracha.” Every other memory is of him going down the stairs in his plaid buttoned down shirt. And that the forbidden room gobbled him up.  Nights and the early mornings were spent inside with the godfathers, uncles and aunts I made out as they were swallowed up too. I didn’t know then what they did.  I just knew it was something dark, and wicked, and completely wonderful.

Guernica

It was mid-morning when the doors were opened, and the hanky-panky, the enchantment, and the magic uncloaked.  Then I could enter through curtains made of shells that cascaded like rain. Then I could enter my father’s world.  Take a whiff of the smoke and oak, ogle at illicit pictures and my father’s self-portrait, listen to bebop, and tap the sharp teeth of the animal skulls that adorned tables. I would take in Picasso’s Guernica of bulls and horses in agony, an evil eye over it. The wall had my father’s painting of a man with one eye, his nose a woman’s boob drinking from a goblet. There were huge bottles of alcohol decorated with cone shell necklaces and a whiskey flask perched on a canon you can swing. I would plump myself on a patterned couch that embraced me like a father.

I barely knew him. They say he adored Hemingway. And jet planes.  They say they loved him and his signature drink, the Zayco Doble. And that he painted his magnum opus while stoned. But I didn’t know him that way.  The Zayco Dobles and La Cucaracha took him at 33. He lives in my memory of a bar with red lights and slates.

And so what began as a memoir for my father will end as an ode to that forbidden room I clandestinely entered. It could have been my door to him: to get a trace of him from cigars, whiskey and jazz; to toast him at my own drunken sojourns; to love him by loving dark things and secret places; and to wish for a day that I could pen my magnum opus whilst stoned.

And so, on your 66th birthday Pap, feliz cumpleanos. iSalut!

Afraid of Shadows

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You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
The darkness of each endless fall,
The shimmering light of each ascent.
-Rainer Marie Rilke, The Book of Hours

 

I am terrified of goodbyes. And cowered by conflict.

You see, growing up, I kept losing people. They disappeared promptly about the time I could draw them, as stick figures in homes with apple trees. I had to erase my mother, mindful to draw her sometimes, sitting with me by the swing at the school playground. Another day I had to blot out a father, and again and again the fathers after. Wipe off a sibling or two, cousins, childhood friends, and tweak the scenery about twenty times.  Keep sending off, that exact time you found the pluck to trace a heart around home.

And then there was the fighting.  Things broken. People too.  And you identify amplified voices, the banging of doors and the shattering of glass with someone leaving soon. That, or the fighting never ends and you’re helplessly unarmed but for a closed door and a muffled cry. Fighting back inflames them even more. Invites retribution that bounces off you but will strike at those you love. And you don’t want to stand up against rage, as one day you might not be there to lock the doors or get everyone to huddle inside.

So the shards of pain take shape. Into fearful shadows that you tuck away in a corner. And the shadowy self will teach you to be stoic. Never to have attachment to things, to places, or to people. Train you to swiftly run away from loving enough because it feels wretched when they run off. Teach you every trick so that no one walks out anymore, you cast them aside instead. Goad you into imagining you are unfazed by goodbyes.

And the years of dulling cries behind doors and huddling, numbs you to injustice. You can’t stand to be around piercing sounds.  So you keep the peace. You will not want to fight, even for yourself. Stay rather in the shadows of solitude. Let someone have the coveted prize, even when it’s yours. And it kills you to say no, afraid you’ll provoke someone’s ire. And every time your insides flare up, the anger won’t let out. So your heart races, your skin gets cold and clammy, your stomach churns, and all you can do is cry.

But you begin to live and understand you have to wrestle with demons.   Otherwise you will balk at attachments, and so never experience the brunt of joy and pain from loving someone enough. Otherwise you never get to unfold your own myth, unwittingly live off someone else’s.

And so you revisit the shadows you tucked away. Dare notice that if you feed them enough light, they are balked of their prey. That if you named them bit by bit, they answer to you.  And that the shards that once shaped your shadows could create the same cracks where light can enter.

I have yet to tame my shadows. But I reckon, courage means you fear something, and yet you attempt and be brave anyway.    Just like you learn to be bolder about love because you’ve risked abandonment here and there and people stayed on.  Or that you have confronted, opposed, said: “No” rather than maybe, and saw that nothing was broken. Believe that you’ve freed yourself up to daringly venture into things, places or people because you are unfazed by goodbyes. See how you can transmute your detachment into compassion because you can step into someone else’s shoes without being them. Consider that maybe you have a skill for conflict, because you can resolve them without amplified voices or shattering glass. And so you find your courage in these dark shadowy places. Ease your way into befriending the dark twin that enslaves you.  I’d like to own up to it all. “The darkness of each endless fall, the shimmering light of each ascent.”

How to Stop a Contagion

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I know Margaret Mead once said never to “doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world, [and that] it is the only thing that ever has.”  But how, when you are to change a country not only plagued by corruption but infected at its core.  A small group of thoughtful and committed citizens against a contagion of corruption?

Corruption has devoured institutions, and has gobbled up the vital organs of this state, infecting individuals.  Our best and brightest are tainted, making it widespread, propagating it even more. One look at endemic corruption and you already feel defeated. Why not learn to live with the plague? Perhaps we’ve had moments of remission. We have unseated Presidents, convicted one for plunder, and so soon after, the convicted is a mayor, and the infection has spread even more. We cannot seem to potently rid ourselves of the malady. It keeps recurring, mutated or with a more resistant strain. How do you stop a contagion?

I got stuck.  Couldn’t hand over the cure.  I had hoped to deliver a tough remedy, like antibiotics or radiation.  That we purge this country of corruption, by cutting off infected parts, containing the endemic and blasting everyone inside.  But I knew it wasn’t the antidote. There was a recurring answer I kept dismissing.  Because my antidote is exceedingly idealistic.  Bordering on airy-fairy. And as much as I needed to engage in chemical warfare, I don’t believe in antibiotics.  Thus, I was desperate to find a cure in nature.

(And so, if you hate quixotic projects, kindly stop reading this piece.  I am clearly an idealist.  And my antiserum calls for white armies, butterflies, the birds and the bees, even schools of fish.  Really.)

Here I go. First, white-blood cells, the anti-bodies.  How does our immune system attack an infection?  The body’s armies of defenders are white blood cells.  The white army attaches itself to corrupted strains to stop it from replicating. These cells will also tag the virus so other fellows in the white army, can track down the invaders and smother them.  What is most fascinating is that once the virus has been cleared, the white army will persist and retain a memory of the blasted virus. Subsequently, the entire system is primed to fend off another infection from the same virus.  It gains immunity.

Second, I tell you the story of metamorphosis.   How does a butt-ugly worm sprout multicolored wings?  A caterpillar consumes a hundred times its weight in a day.  When it is too bloated to continue, it hangs itself up in a cocoon. Deep inside the cocoon and the caterpillar’s body, tiny cells (called “imaginal discs”) begin to form.  The imaginal discs carry with them a genome, the image of the future butterfly. These imaginal discs are so divergent from the old cells that the caterpillar’s immune system will mark them as a threat and destroy them.  Except that, more and more imaginal discs appear and clump together. The clumps then resonate at the same frequency, passing on information.  Consequently, the clumps will form clusters, until the worm’s immune system fails, and the imaginal discs mold the tissues, the organs, and the systems that will birth the butterfly.

Now, let’s pretend we label ourselves deviants of a wormy system.  As the worthy bearers of a future reality, we are the imaginals who will overwhelm the rotten system.  Except. How do you progress from mere deviance and itty-bitty clumps, to become clusters that resonate across the state?  We’re adept at assembling pocket movements but the bands can’t come together. Let alone learn harmony

So finally, let me tell you about the birds and the bees.  And schools of fish.  How do hundreds of bees unanimously decide where to build their hive? Waggle dances and swarming! Or birds, how do they create perfect V formations as they wheel across the sky? Have you ever seen sardines underwater?  They dupe big fish predators with an orchestrated dance! There’s no one in charge and no one is commanding the others.  And yet they band and work together creating perfect colonies, flying V’s and tango!

Which is what I’d like to hand over. It’s easy to doubt feel-good quotes and metaphors.  Up against ghastly corruption, you would easily dismiss faith and a miracle cure. Especially when you’re a tiny cell battling an endemic disease.  The old system can easily devour you or else turn you into glob.

But you can sift through all the annals of history, scour apothecaries and the wisdom of books, and find there’s no antidote to a spread of evil except a salvo of good.   So despite the contagion, I will pin my hopes on the small groups of thoughtful and committed citizens that will change this country.  The white armies around the country, the deviants, mavericks, and misfits.  Movements are everywhere.  Forming in itty-bitty clumps.  Except we need to learn from swarm intelligence.  Pay close attention and listen to each other.  Follow simple rules, pass on the right information and coordinate our movements.   Light on the hidden connections and invisible patterns that will link us together. Discover a way to cluster.  We need to discover how to sprout wings despite already crawling on the ground, orchestrate a waggle dance and swarm so we can build a new hive, and protect ourselves from predators with a synchronized dance.

And so I end this Quixotic treatise with Miguel Cervantes: “For neither good nor evil can last for ever; and so it follows that as evil has lasted a long time, good must now be close at hand.

Inspired by a talk of Maria Ressa on Social Media, a gentleman who raised a question, and Nicanor Perlas’ “The Butterfly Effect and Societal Transformation”

Elitista ka kase.

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“Elitista ka kase” was the reply.  “What do you mean?” I said.  “Well, just don’t go. You won’t belong. You can’t even speak Tagalog.”

As though I live in a parallel world. Same patch of land, two different realities. Lineage has given you an entry pass to live amongst the elite.  Add a Catholic education, append a prefix to the name, and you’re somehow set for life among the upper echelons.  Now you can glance down and lord it over the lower station without having to live there. You can even refuse to look at all.

Idealism will make you ashamed of your place in the aristocracy.  And so you attempt fanciful projects and pipe dreams.  There are plenty in need of assistance, rotting in jails, waiting for redemption.  But you don’t know how that feels like.  No one spends a day in a dingy cell in your side of the world.  Like a phony trying to make a difference in a world you don’t understand.

There are several ways out of the “born into privilege” plight.

You can cast out idealism, accept your place in society and carry on like the rest. Stick to your high side of the fence.  Yield to the unwritten code. Drown out noise with classical music.  Find a comfortable position, climb higher and relish the benefits born out of privilege.

Or perhaps, slip away quietly. Live elsewhere, in places where you don’t see the disparity so you won’t have pangs of conscience biting you. Be invisible.

You can even decide to cross the great divide. Join the ranks below. Rebel against your own side. Start a revolution.

Then it dawns on you.  The word aristocrat is derived from the Greek word: aristokratia, the “rule of the best.”  In Ancient Greece, aristocrats were a council of the state’s best qualified and leading citizens.  And just maybe, there’s a reason for being born. 

You are up there.  Born and bred on higher ground.  Where you don’t have to worry about survival. Instead, you can ponder over ideals and beauty and create them.  You can dream big and make the big dream come true.

And so perhaps you can change the convoluted, degenerate, rotten system because you are inside.  You are one of them; able to understand and speak the language. Because you can’t blow up the house where you live. Do that and you implode.  So instead, you will master the structure. Learn the ropes and use them.  Know it inside out, and find the keys to locked doors. Slowly make changes inside nooks and crannies.  Unravel more and more of your idealism, make it live outside. There, in your upper echelons. And then, if there were others like you, you can begin changing the landscape.  Until you have carved a path that somehow reaches the masses. Until one day you have hopefully narrowed the gap, even bridged it.  Until you have covered enough ground, so that the your kind who makes the laws, will keep them.

And so this is a call.  To the landed gentry, the ones who speak the language of our laws, the ones born to privilege, the ones schooled by the clergy who memorized Ora et Labora and Ad Majorem dei Gloriam, the ones who lord it over the rest, yes YOU.  Redeem the idealism.  To the likes of me, recall the oaths you once took.  Where are you? What is it you do? How do you transform the vista from where you are? The making of laws; the charge of this country; the creation of wealth; the shaping of culture; and the weaving of the moral fabric of this state, has been bestowed on you as a birthright.  You were born among the exalted.  There’s another way to spend a legacy. And you don’t squander an inheritance. Especially when it’s a chance for redemption.  Elitista ka kase.

I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. Annie Dillard

Stop and smell the Roses

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I wake up the past few days and see red. Or darkness. And I want to lash out at everything.  Drown in despair. How can you not lose faith? On the home front, I behold treachery and double-dealing, years of being cheated, and the chilling thought of being too late. And last Wednesday in Syria, hundreds of people just like me, and children just like my own, were shelled with weapons so inhuman I shuddered watching a 2-minute footage.

But on the day the thief got caught; I went home to a bunch of flowers.  My children had picked zinnias, birds of paradise and weeds and had bunched them up for me.  I watched them play, assembling dolls out of petals. Stems made up for arms and legs, the zinnia became a head with pink spikes, and the dollies donned yellow bell tutus.

How can you despair at that?  Closer than the home front, there are things that are still pure, and perfect, and good. And despite the evil, your everyday is unfailingly filled with simple joys. And this untainted world is also real.  In front of you. Everyday.  You can blot out red as you wake up. Smell the flowers they bunch up for you.  Behold girls in white petal dresses.

I want to stop being so mad at the world.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” –Martin Luther King

In this darkness, there are lit-up moments: people in white and marching in unison; crying out for decency; lusting for truth, and finally watching with vigilance. Notice the twinkling lights. I’m seeing sparks everywhere.  And I ought to behold them like my bunch of flowers. Perhaps we are finally waking up. It could have been the thieves, but somebody has roused us from our sleep. We are no longer content loafing about in our comfort zones. And while we wake up to see raging red today, tomorrow we might just root out boldness and courage there.

There’s always a temptation to tarry in the dark, or carry on being mad. We need the dark to ponder and brood about what to do in the daylight. And lashing out is gratifying. It takes a load off of you and you’re finally able to say what you’ve wanted: the good, the bad and the ugly. And you can whip the ones who have wronged you, try to right an injustice. But we can’t stay there.  No one lasts long in the darkness. And you can’t stay enraged endlessly. We need to turn on the lights or find them. And we need to find another way of telling this otherwise despairing story.

What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.” Rumi

Loose Change

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Very well, so we are being the change.  No longer apathetic, we will advance with our pig banners on Monday. Scrap the portly barrel. Seek jail time for the transgressors, and a law that will parade us the money trails.

As I march on Monday with these big bold words: integrity; justice; and accountability, on my t-shirt, portly pig at the back, can I truthfully say, I live by them?

Because what about that time I applied wit and charm to get out of a traffic violation, a gullible policeman lets me go and I am quite pleased with myself for getting off, despite a real transgression? Or what about flaunting perfect scores in grade school when all I had to really do was memorize the exam papers my tutor had handed me a day before? Or that I would pad out my billable hours at the law firm, because surely it takes a lawyer hours to write a pleading? Or those days when I wanted to hurry back to normal everyday, dodge legal process, call “the connection” and just offer the officers merienda instead?  Not to mention how I often dip into the business coffers to buy myself a tshirt. To finish it off, I have wined and dined on dirty money, perched myself in their velvet couches, partaken in their caviar, guzzled on the champagne, and enjoyed it too.

It’s tragic to suddenly grasp we had a hand at making this government what it is.  We spend our days profiting from loopholes, breaking laws that we think don’t count, dishing out white lies and half-truths.  And we think it’s fine. It’s loose change, compared to the billions of money stolen from us right?

And yet. It’s the absence of disgust for lies that has put us where we are. It’s our belief that minor transgressions are acceptable, just don’t get caught.  The common impression that you can cover up things with a white lie.  I cannot say I have enough integrity to cast the first stone. Or even that I stand by justice and will bring family or friend to be hanged at the first opportunity.  Or that I am accountable to every little thing that has been entrusted to me.

Are we being the change? All these years living in sin city and the most corrupted in the world has given us a taste for pork.  And we need to develop an aversion for it. You cannot steal loose change. We should shudder when we get off easy, or feel disgusted about giving “merienda” under the table. Because just as we are going after the fattest, portliest, greasiest pork to date, we ought to trim our own fat as well. Otherwise, even if we let this pig out of the barrel, there would be plenty pigs to choose from next time. And it would be just as easy to build a barrel and call it another name.

Pork Barrel for Dummies

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PorkBarrelInNumbers

What is the Pork Barrel?

An appropriation in the budget that allows government to spend for the benefit of limited groups or constituents in return for their political support. In most cases, the beneficiaries are a representative’s district.  Thus, the legislator uses the appropriation, to earn votes from constituents.

In a nutshell: It’s a sum in the national budget that is given to a legislator, which sum allows him to fund projects for his constituents (i.e. infrastructure or social welfare services.)

Think of: bringing home the bacon.

What is the PDAF and VILP (Priority Development Assistance Fund and Locally Funded Projects- Various Infrastructure including Local Projects)?

A lump sum appropriation in the national budget to fund priority development programs and/or projects of the government.  For 2013, it is P27 billion.

The PDAF (and technically the VILP too) is the fancy name of what we know as pork barrel.

Why is it such a biggie?  From the P27 Billion:

  • Each Senator: entitled to P200 million a year
  • Each member of the House of Representatives: entitled P70 million a year.

What are hard projects or soft projects?

There are two types of projects to which lawmakers could spend their allocation:

1.  Soft projects- taken from the PDAF

“Soft” programs are social welfare programs. These include social services, pro-poor programs, education, health, livelihood, historical, arts and culture, peace and order, and small infrastructure.

The implementation of “soft” projects are obscure and leaves more room for corruption.

In other words, you can’t really see “soft” projects.  This is where Napoles’ projects were. 

2.  Hard projects- taken from the VILP

“Hard” projects are the building of roads and bridges, flood control measures, school buildings, hospitals, health facilities, public markets, multi-purpose buildings, and multi-purpose pavements.  The Department of Public Works and Highways is the implementing agency.

These are the projects that are tangible. You see them.

Each Senator should spend P100 million on “soft” and P100 million on “hard” projects. Each congressman should spend P30 million on “soft” and P40 million on “hard” projects.

porkbarreldummies

Who started it?

Lump-sum allocations started during the Aquino administration through the Mindanao Development Fund (MDF) and the Visayas Development Fund (VDF.) These were funds to help alleviate poverty in Mindanao and Visayas.  Each Congressman from these districts was entitled to implement projects totaling to 10 million pesos. Luzon legislators later requested that they be given equal shares.  The Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) was created for all electoral districts in the Philippines.  In 2000, CDF was renamed the “Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).”

What are implementing agencies*?

Once a lawmaker requests for the release of his/her appropriation, an implementing agency is named. The implementing agency will depend on where the program/project is in the Menu.

This agency is the entity tasked with disbursing, monitoring and evaluating the implementation of the program/project.  Implementing agencies can be government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Social Welfare and Development.  They can also be a government controlled and owned corporation such as the National Agribusiness Corporation (NABCOR) or a local government unit such as a city or municipality.

The DBM releases the money to the implementing agency. The implementing agency then releases the money to the NGO or supplier.

What is the Menu everyone is talking about?

The budget law provides a menu of services.  The legislator, when asking for a release of his/her PDAF should identify his program/project based on the menu.  The menu also sets out the implementing agencies that may implement the program/project.

For example, the menu includes Education as the service, and gives: (1) the purchase of IT equipment; and (2) scholarships, as the projects.  The implementing agencies for these projects may be: DepEd, TESDA, CHED and LGUs.

Where is the President in all these?

While the legislators try to get the funding for their districts, ultimately, it is the President who gives the requested funding.  The President has the final say on the actual release of public funds, through the DBM, once the budget is approved.  There are claims that a President will sometimes withhold fund releases in districts as an instrument for political control. This is done with the PDAF.

(Aside from these, there are so-called congressional insertions, which are subject to the President’s veto power. The President also has Special Fund subject to his discretion and control. Another big chunk is his P62.6 billion in cash doles under the conditional cash transfer program (CCT) in the national budget. He also has control over savings in several budget categories.  Legislators will usually lobby the President to get a grant from these other funds.)

Where does pigging out happen?

The rumor is that of PDAF allotments, less than 50% will go to the supplier or NGO implementing the project. The rest of the allotment is divided amongst the legislator, the head of the implementing agency, and the congressional aide, etc. Or in the case of hard projects, about 60% goes to the project, while the rest is divided in different proportions to the legislator, the provincial/city or municipal engineers, the mayors or barangay captains.  As we have seen from the COA audit, relatives or friends of the legislators usually implement the projects. This is because the legislator has a say on where the funds will go, the projects or programs, and the suppliers or NGOs.  Public bidding is not followed, as projects are already divided among NGOs or suppliers, even before funds are released.

This document is solely the opinion of the writer and should not be taken as expert opinion on pork barrel. 

Recommended read:  Politicization of Philippine Budget System: Institutional and Economic Analysis on Pork Barrel by Kohei Noda. 

 

Same Sh*t, Different Day

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Everyone’s on the lookout for the fugitive. It must be wretched to find yourself a country’s symbol for all things vile and corrupt.  And that you have erected 28 mansions and yet can’t take cover in them.

Once more, the populace is an enthusiastic spectator, staking out the country’s thief of the year. A million citizens armed with a “citizen’s arrest warrant” and eager to be the hero who snares the thief.

But what then? After she’s handcuffed and we commemorate our manhunt victory with a mug shot.  What then?

We’ve seized three presidents and have a paraffin wax casket or mug shots to prove it. And we were as adamant at them being the plunderers of our country’s coffers.  The biggest fish to catch. And we netted them. But what happened then?  We’ve thrown them back into the bountiful sea. And now they’re fatter and greasier. And they have spawned a larger brood of fish just like them.

And so here’s another big fish to catch. I can see the future. I can.  She and her brood of fish will be netted and the lucky catch paraded in public. There will be a mug shot. And she’s going to get sick. And then a hospital can add another star to its roster of Who’s who.  Months after, when it’s no longer popular to talk about that Napoles woman, she will slip unnoticed, set at liberty to the bountiful sea.  To swim into oblivion, or grow fatter, spawn a larger brood.

Because ours is  country of spectators.  We are fond of watching people fall down from up high on the pedestal. And we love a history that repeats itself.  Like the sought-after  telenovela. Same plot. Different cast. No one wants to break the Filipino tradition.  So we keep positioning someone up there again.   And especially, there’s no one with enough guts to clean the mess after the fall or hose down the filth.

Thus, after the hoopla, and an inquiry in aid of legislation, there will be pork. They will rename it, dress it up as a different breed of hog that is sorely needed in the country’s development. And our country of spectators will embrace without question the absurdity of awarding billions to legislators so they can build things that have nothing to do with making laws.  Never doubt why public servants spend billions at elections, for the honor of serving country, despite the toil and meager pay.  Glorify brilliant statesmen deft at loopholes that create non-government organizations out of thin air. And then, like always, gape at the mansions they build, accepting as a matter-of-fact that this country’s statesmen are rich.  Filthy rich.  And the spectators will like being around the stinking rich at sorties. Be proud to know them, share a relative, or be six degrees apart. Even have photos taken while they vacation alongside them, at the happening beach resort, rolling in the dough.

Hey countrymen. It is filth.  It stinks. We should be gagging already.  Our country’s drowning in a sea of muck.  We should learn to hook and gut the big fish, and most especially, clean up the bloody mess. We’re supping on the blood that spills from greed. And the longer we keep at this tradition, the more muddied this mess, the more we swallow and choke on the filth.

And so, once more, we are spectators eager for that citizen’s arrest and a countryman’s fifteen minutes of hero. But what then? After the country’s thief of the year is handcuffed and we commemorate our manhunt victory with a mug shot.  What then?

Creating Mount Olympus in a Day

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My 8 year old has taken a liking to Greek mythology. She fancies she is Athena.  “Can you buy me that thing you put on the skin so it shimmers?” she asks.  “Glitter powder” I answered.  They were going to play Goddess after school.  And I have an entire day to deliberate: indulge the whim and buy powder, or declare there’s enough shimmer in the house, so use her imagination?

But hours later I’m at the mall, asking for shimmers and buying it.  I had left my kids for the city and guilt had hijacked all good intentions to submission.  So I grab the shimmers, and capped it off with 2 lollipops and a bookmark.

Which brings me to the usual bind. I have studied enough child development literature to know that “less is more.”

Children need time to become themselves- through play and social interaction.  If you overwhelm a child with stuff- with choices and pseudochoices- before they are ready, they will only know one emotional gesture: “More!” (Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne.)

Except that it’s a constant battle with me and I often find myself tempted to follow the formula of my childhood.  We had a wealth of toys. If you could measure love in stuff, we had it overflowing.  I can’t blame the parents.  Things and the quantity of it had mutated into a measure of abundance.  Less of anything, and you failed in providing for the family. A deficit of toys meant less clapping of hands, more stomping of feet, and no hurrahs.  Some marketing genius discovered he could feed off the parental instinct of doing everything you can for the family’s well being. And ingeniously found a way to make us equate well-being with having this and that, and two each time.

It’s always a tug-of-war amongst the need to provide, childhood formula and genius marketing, and conscious-parenting that asks you to please pause and figure out the whys first. As parents, we aspire to be bearers and benefactors of unconditional love. We want to be generous with the stuff that ushers in smiles and whoops of joy. Add marketing genius to the equation, and you have people like me, with mothering impulses going completely wonky. Especially when it’s difficult to remain steadfast against nice kids that beg: “Please mama?”  Because this belief of needing to deliver what the children want, each time they want it, feeds especially on guilt. And it could be addicting: when you’re able to buy a kiss and a hug; and when you can be appeased believing you can bequeath creativity in a box.

“If toys are seen as universally beneficial, then we have an unlimited pass to buy, buy and buy one or two more.  What started as a generous desire to please and provide can assume its own life.  It can become addictive, feeding our own needs rather than our children’s.”

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Yet whoever said kids have to be taught imagination? Or that the bigger and better toys, the bigger and better you’re set out for life? I remember fondly only 2, 3 toys from childhood (a toy typewriter, a whittling set and my neighbor’s Fashion slates.)  Every other memory was of swings, on rooftops, of dancing, biking and getting burnt under the sun. And honestly, that shoe store game we played, atop and inside a smelly cabinet, throwing shoes does a hole? That game eclipsed any “It” toy of the moment.

“The toys that endure in reality and in our memory are often the simplest ones.”

Notice your children. There may be baskets of toys in the playroom. And yet, they will unfailingly play with just 1, 2 or 3 things. The same beloved toys, every time. We had a heap of gifts the other week when my immediate family came to visit.  Among these were the coveted Barbies, perks from being grandchildren.  But the Barbie lasted a day and maybe a quarter of the next. The next day and my children were back to ransacking the armoire of costumes and cloths, and muddying the clay.

“By simplifying the number and complexity of our children’s toys, we give them liberty to build their own imaginary worlds.”

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My kids have a weakness for empty bottles and paints. They morph into magic potions or raspberry grape juice, umbrella on top. It’s P100 a hit. They have also raided my closet a zillion times, and my gowns have metamorphosed from the goddess Aphrodite to their version of Frankenstein’s monster.  There’s also a preferred nook of colored pencils and paint, where paper and the spaces in your walls always run out. Every other play is at the swing, with the dogs, of dancing, or of shaping an elaborate wonderland. They’re better than me.  They’ve progressed from my bland shoe store to fancy ballet productions, remodeled my study into a French cafe and built Mount Olympus in a day.

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There will be whoops of joy, when you see that your pampered kids could be perfectly content with cloths, and even sticks and stones. The upside of it is a fatter wallet with less guilt. You can also stop running to the store for their (and your) fix. The toy store has never carried a love potion anyway, and its instruction manuals have overlooked imagination. Love and creativity, they have simply always been, do-it-yourself.  Years from now your children will remember how they wore your gowns and that despite the stain and the tear, you smiled to exclaim: “You look beautiful!” And one day, they will remember how to build Mount Olympus in a day, even without you buying them the shimmers.

Quotes taken from: Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne

Out of the Closet

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“Once you can accept the universe as being something expanding into an infinite nothing which is something, wearing stripes with plaid is easy.” –Albert Einstein

I keep having dreams of not finding the proper outfit to wear.  It’s someone else’s closet. It’s my mother’s, my dorm roommate, or everything’s too tight or too loose.  And in the meantime, there’s a mob waiting outside.

When you grow up in a small city where everyone measures you up based on the ensemble (and heritage or drinks consumed,) it’s quite difficult to like yourself.  So, you try to conform, measure up to everyone’s expectations and follow the crowd. Until one day, you’re gazing at the truth mirror and notice you’re wearing someone else’s clothes. Or that you’ve been closeted inside too long. The recurring dream tells you: you are not comfortable in your own skin.

“I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”  -Rita Mae Brown

I used to worry about how people would take in my writing.   Brood over how many would read, if they read to the finish, if I kindled fire, or even had enough for a flicker.  But I’ve outgrown the need for validation.  As though I am now able to simply wear my heart on my sleeve: writing for me and the one or two souls that read; hoping for 1 or 2 things that set them alight; or have at least enough for a spark.

And there was a time when I agonized over the banquets at home.  I would lose sleep over the nitty-gritty, including the quintessential spoon rest. But the friends (let them be true) you invite must know you enough so mismatched plates or tarnished silver won’t ruin the reputation. They (let them be true) wouldn’t censure you for your faux pas.  And I tell you, they will see through and beneath your perfect tapestry anyway.

It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being- Eleanor Roosevelt

Absent a respect for your own truth, you lock yourself inside.  Closeted. Under layers.  It may be tough to find the self underneath shapeless, tight-fitting garb.  And, as you follow the crowd, you on the flip side, get alienated from yourself. Or despise the rebels and the freedom fighters, the ones who bravely stand their ground apart from everyone else.

To belong to oneself. And not anyone else. 

It takes pluck and boldness to live out of oneself, at home in one’s truth. You risk being alienated. An anti-social. A snob. (My sister tags me a hipster, but that’s still a label and I want to be my own brand.) When you have enough self-respect to know your own worth; you can ignore catcalls and jeers. You have gone through the wardrobe and thrown out the ones that don’t fit.  People think you are indifferent to the rest of the world. But you are not. You’re just being different.  Authentic makes you a mis-fit, of a cast unlike society’s mold.

And while you expect it’s simpler to borrow, mimic a trend, or tag along the mob, it is not. There’s a great deal of effort altering someone’s clothes so it fits you well. And then you’ll need to handle it with care, worrying about tears, minding that it gets tattered or worn-out. It’s also quite exhausting to keep to a trend.  Imagine the hours spent on research and development.  Lastly, there’s no telling where the mob will lead you, probably to your own graveyard.

This above all: to thine own self be true.” 

With the clothes that are yours, who cares if they’re worn out?  I adore frayed and threadbare; they’re more comfortable that way. Grow into yourself.  Be your own brand- with your own standards, your values, what you see as right, as wrong, the essential, and the unimportant.  And then, when you have worked that out, be responsible for the ensemble, and the space it takes in your closet.

(In the meantime, there’s a mob waiting outside.)

Miss-carrying

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There are things that are difficult to write about.  This one took me more than a year.  But I thought it was time to call out grief and face up to it. And perhaps, another mother out there needs it too.

Miscarriages.  There were two. The first one I grieved. The second I kept secret.  And I’ve borne every thought, every feeling and every experience I’ve had of it, discreetly. Because no one wants to talk about the babies that don’t make it, or the moms who failed to carry through.

It’s about that time when I could have been celebrating a birth day. And I still feel that hallow, gaping hole inside me. I remember the doctor at the Ultrasound to whom I had asked: “what happens after?” callously reply: “oh, there are a few options, just as there are many ways to skin a cat.”  Who can forget the untold question, relentless inside your head: “Why didn’t I deserve that gift of a soul from heaven?; Why given and then taken back?; and “What did I do in between?”  No one tells you there will still be days when your body will think you are pregnant and so you have to endure the craving, the nausea, and still feel the fatigue.  Except that there’s no miracle to behold, and all you’re merely waiting for is death.

On top of that, there’s the stark contrast between what you go through inside and how the world just goes on outside.  You wonder whether your feelings are wrong.  Something is amiss. Because “it happens all the time.” One out of three pregnancies end in a miscarriage. (As though that you are a statistic should make it less painful.) Or that “it’s just as well, there was a reason you will see it in time.” Because “that wasn’t a baby yet anyway.”  And be glad, “you now have an angel in heaven.”

And thus, you persist with the heart-wrenching pain bottled up inside.  There’s no mourning. No three days when people come to talk about loss over coffee or tiny sandwiches. You don’t get flowers or mass cards. And there’s never a funeral to hold. Instead, there’s the day you’re talking loads of iron and folic, and not drinking red wine, and then a next day, when everything’s as it was. You’re just sort of sick in bed.  And you’re going to recover.

It’s not just among those who don’t know any better.  It’s the same secret among us, the one out of three who have failed to carry through.  A great deal of us are mourning in secret.  Trying to put on a brave face.  When we shouldn’t.  We should cry, fall apart, stay in bed for days and slowly learn to live again, because in the days after, it hurts just to even breathe.  We should welcome flowers, hugs, and the comfort of friends who ask us out for coffee to talk about it.  And we should have that funeral.  Light a candle, sob through a prayer, write a letter laden with tears, make up an absurd ceremony of having flowers float in the toilet bowl.

I sometimes feel as though I have to forget it too. Dismiss it as a blip in my life, the miracle was there, and it was gone. Nothing biggie about it.  Pretend I lost nothing. But I had weeks or months of waking up exuberant wondering about the child inside, looking up names, craving for gooey chocolate cake, taking long naps and daydreaming. Even stopped drinking coffee or wine in spite of tormenting headaches or parties.

We need everyone, ourselves included, to recognize there was a soul that came fleetingly into our lives, but had to leave again. It’s not normal, even when it happens once in three.  The grief swallows you whole.  And it’s perfectly fine not to be ok. Have moments of sad, when you see a new baby born, or a year after when you could be celebrating a birth day.  We need the world to appreciate the blip that was life and see the death. And we need to see it too.

The Irony of Being Green

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index“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” -Henry David Thoreau

Almost the end of the week. The budget envelope is empty. This week’s basket is overflowing with all things green. And still, I have a list of things to buy at the weekend market.

I’ve created a “green” eyed monster. The map towards simple and sustainable has now detoured towards a treasure filled with organic cotton, paraben-free shampoo, fair trade coffee, gluten-free flour, 100% beeswax candles, a pint of artisan dark chocolate ice cream, and a dream vacation at that fanciful eco-resort.

Having veered off the course of conspicuous consumption, I am now consciously consuming. The justification? With each mindful purchase, I vote for a sustainable future. The more I buy green, the more I tell big business to offer more environmentally friendly products. And so, I am saving the planet, one purchase at a time.

Yesterday, I asked friends what their notion of a “Waldorf mom” was. Disturbingly, a handful replied: rich, exclusive, and expensive. How tragic. Surely, this wasn’t the direction I set out for. Rich, exclusive and expensive were poles apart from the Henry David Thoreau quote that launched this odyssey.

But the paradox of green consumerism is that somehow, I have, with each mindful purchase, urged business to produce even more. Except that this time, the products have to be more natural, or efficient, or carry the green stamp of approval. And yet, that doesn’t lighten my footsteps on the planet. It just weighs it down even more. I suppose that’s why everyone has jumped on the green bandwagon. It is now profitable. Brand your product green, and there’s surely a conscientious consumer to buy it. We made a fuss against all the waste, and then find ourselves vying for an excess of products, awash in green with a dubious claim of reduced waste. Because green consumerism is an oxymoron. Green and consumption? Who ever thought of putting those two words together?

I aspire to be those want-not, waste-not advocates who could live in wilderness, wear camel hair and eat berries and wild honey. Except, I don’t even have enough restraint to make it through a “Buy Nothing Day.” It pains me to realize how I’ve steered off the course of living deliberately. A trip to the store, another to the market, pick up, schedule a day to the craft fair, and please don’t forget to buy unbleached white flour from Healthy Options. I fritter away hours filling up my basket. It’s ironic. I devote more time, energy and resources hunting and gathering green products than the average conspicuous consumer. Sustaining an expensive green lifestyle. What happened to the simple life?

I reckon we need to rethink what it means to be a committed environmentalist in this consumerist age. It’s no longer about being mindful of what we buy. Rather, it demands that we be mindful of consumption in itself. To detect, every time we buy, despite it being the greenie pick, that it is still one more item in our basket. To discern whether we need another organic cotton, fair trade shirt. To catch ourselves when we worry about running out of oil made from biodynamically-grown pomegranate.

And so what about growing and making things? Borrowing or bartering? Be pleased about finally making soap, a candle or ice cream. Savor baking instead of buying gluten-free muffins with coconut flour and honey every week? Get a kick out of fixing broken things, patching holes, or making things shiny anew? I have spent too much time on the detour. I desperately need to return to the path I set out for. And live with the Thoreau quote that launched this odyssey:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” -Henry David Thoreau

The Myth of Narcissus: Falling in Love and Lies (Online)

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I’m sort of gazing enraptured into the social network pool, hour after hour.  Now I’m curious, when am I going to transform into a Narcissus flower?

There’s a fixation over red numbered squares that hover over that tiny virtual world on my screen.  And there’s a little quiver you feel for every “like” pressed. That, or you’re kind of a wreck, anxious, because no one seems to like the post. Scary. I might be falling in love with my social network reflection.  Scientifically, they state you get a shot of dopamine each time someone likes your post, comments on or shares it. Still, it’s the same dope you get from falling in love. And so, this nonsensical drooling over the numbers I get on my screen, it’s got to be self-love.

NarcissusI read up on it.  There’s a correlation between people who score high on the Narcissistic Personality test and those who: have more friends, tag themselves endlessly and update constantly on Facebook.  “Facebook serves narcissistic adults as a mirror.” (University of Michigan, Computers in Human Behavior.) It makes sense.  Why put a show if you don’t think yourself interesting or the least bit important? Promote the self.  Reveal the beloved. Who gets to devour truffles in Turin? Ever sunbathed on miles of white sand with no tourists? Extra-ordinary. Outside the humdrum of everyone’s existence.  And you can’t help but share.

I trust I haven’t been swept off my feet. That this, is just, healthy self-love. I’m not (yet) staking out friends, jealously keeping tabs on whether they liked or shared someone else’s posts, not mine. I don’t (yet) have the narcissistic tendencies of exhibitionism (i.e. pucker up the lips + bathroom shots) or “superiority” (i.e.  Selfie just sitting here, because you really need to see me all the time.) And certainly, I know I am not “The One.”  Let’s not go there.

Except that you wonder whether you’re in the periphery of almost losing control. Do I post to share a love of life or because I want to show off how much I love mine? Do I measure clicks and likes like I measure myself?  Do I lap up the attention, or live off the numbers, starving for validation? Am I eternally grateful or do I feel entitled to the “good one!”, “love it!” and “haha!” all the time?

I also just listened to a talk on “Lies.” As he ratted on the kinds of lies, I suddenly realized how much lying we do online. It’s a Photoshopped, spelling and grammar-checked, quotable-quoted reality. And there’s no denying this avatar is quite fetching.  How vain, that somehow, the photos I’ve posted have been edited to a very flattering hue. Like wearing heavy make-up and Botox online. Do we ever post a true picture of ourselves? Look at the newsfeed. Isn’t my virtual life just a tad rosier than real life? And so we embellish a bit, overplay, sepia-tone our portraits, and untag ourselves out of unflattering pictures.  There’s no space for wrong lighting; wrong angle; wrong smile; and kindly delete that plastic cup on the table. Hacer la vista gorda. Turn a blind eye, pretend you don’t see anything. Because a lie is: (a) a falsehood; (b) made with intent to deceive; and (3) often, brought about by fear. All the elements are there.  You blot out things or paint them rosy. Stretch the truth. Without calling it a lie, the underlying intention is to make someone believe in your fib.  And somehow, fear is kept out of sight. It’s scary how in the extremes, self-love is self-deception.

Yet, everyone knows that this virtual world is almost made-up.  A sort of web of white-lies.  A taller tale than it should be. Perhaps it’s not a major transgression, like breaking a cardinal rule or committing a mortal sin. And I don’t know where or whether to place it among the Inferno’s circles of hell. All the same, it is a lie, even as you color it white.

I am exaggerating.  Truthfully. I believe everyone should have a healthy dose of narcissism.  An infatuation of the self. Without it, all these thoughts (and creations) stay locked up. And all the true, the beautiful and the good, don’t get posted or shared. Genius needs boldness. And boldness? Well, you get that from being enamored with the self. I also trust my God doesn’t expect me to write dull and drab.  I have artistic license to color the world in majestic hues.

Even so. It’s good to catch yourself sometimes. Right before you fall into a web of lies, and especially, right before you fall madly, wretchedly and recklessly in love.

Money Matters

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Here I go again, it’s a weekend and my wallet’s empty. I’d like to blame the stars, or the lines in my palm.  Money flows.  Like water.  In then out.  And I can’t grasp them. Don’t issue me a credit card. I’ll shred those.  That or I’ll drown myself in debt.  Ask me to balance my checkbook and I’d give you a blank stare. Actually, let me issue you a blank check instead.

I’m not into Birkins or Jimmy Choos and a diamond’s not my best friend.  I expect to be mindful of what I buy. Yet, parade around an Ikat pillow, a hand-woven basket, lapis lazuli on charm bracelet, and my wallet magically empties itself.  In spite of curbing purchases to the essential, my essential list is humongous.  I am still stuck in the consumer culture. These days though, I buy artisan, vintage or organic.

Only, it’s not just the spending.  I don’t know how to earn as well. I work almost completely pro bono.  I even feel guilty asking for money owed or inherited.  I have epitomized “starving artist,” guilt-ridden when putting value for the work I do. How do I ever expect to earn a living with my work?  Somehow, I am perfectly happy if someone else worried about putting food on the table.

Someone once posed a question: “How do you see money?” I answered with a blank stare. It was not polite to talk about money at home.   You don’t ask about prices or haggle. When you do, you can’t afford it.  You’re meant to think, feel and act like all is well in wealth.  And the second anyone brought money up, the illusion of it would shatter like glass.

I also grew up during the glory days of the Negros sugar barons.  Money flowed. Like water. In then out.  We could not grasp them.  Everyone was the son or daughter of a haciendero. Parents stayed at home.  You don’t see them toiling for hard cash.  There were generations of tenants who would do that instead.  Sometimes, our parents would look busy: once a year; during the milling season.  The rest of year was spent holding banquets, so they could show off wares.

Throw into that equation, the notion that money is the root of all evil, and thus, outside of sacred work.  You don’t want to taint your clean soul with dirty money. Thus, you’re in a constant tug between your purposeful path and the need for bread. And “starving artist” is what you will be.  That, or just give money away. Because enriching oneself is incompatible with the ideal of loving another as yourself.

It is among our marriage woes.  Tightwad and simple marries pampered, lover of fine things, but won’t work Ilonggo. You thought it would be simpler.  Walk down the aisle. Sweep money differences under the carpet. Love and the promise of ever after somehow eclipsed the glaring money differences. And besotted girl, with that ring on her finger, said a lifelong yes to, for better or for worse, merge debt, commingle property, and consolidate spending.  Your hands are tied. Together. I said yes to that?

“Money itself isn’t the problem.  Money itself isn’t bad or good.  Money itself doesn’t have power or not have the power.  It is our interpretation of money, our interaction with it, where the real mischief is and where we find the real opportunity for self-discovery and personal transformation.” –Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money 

There are subtle ways that money plays out in all of our relationships. It is confusing, conflicted and often destructive. And yet, it is astounding how little thought we give it.  Or that we don’t talk about it, especially in our most intimate relationships.  How we see money and the control it wields over us, are two sides of the same coin.

I have a complicated relationship with money than I let on. This seemingly flimsy piece of paper holds quite a grip on me.  And because I fear it so, I’ve swept it under the carpet.  So I stall balancing checkbooks or writing down expenses, afraid I’ve over expended. Hold off budgets, just because I don’t want to feel controlled.  And I still won’t talk about it.  Do I sell myself short? How do you take money in hand, in happy-ever-after? “We need to talk” should include the money talk.  Somehow, this is an inventory I have to make. Begin with simply tracking what I buy in a day.  Bring the questions swept under the carpet to light. Or even, just stop the crazed habit of writing out blank checks.

Inspired by: The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist

Inspired by: The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist

Money is a current, a carrier, a conduit for our intentions.  Money carries the imprimatur of our soul. – Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money

You Have to Take my Word for It

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Half my mind elsewhere, my eyes on the screen, and I utter: “ok, ok, we’ll do it tomorrow.” And there goes a promise I shouldn’t have made.

You really can’t go back on a word carelessly let out to hush your child. At that moment, days, months and years after, they will hold you liable for the words spoken in jest. Children still trust in the sacred word and that mommy never lies.

Now I wish I could say I have a genuine relationship with words. That I can give you my word and keep them. Because I am irked with people who screw up appointments or evade them. Have you agree to something then casually take it back, or worse, simply forget. Give their word and then just so easily break them. Without meaning to, they treat you and your time lightly. Break your faith. Diminish it, bit by bit.

But I am also guilty of going back on my word. Without the guts to say no, I will give half-hearted yes’s instead. And then delay the inevitable or belatedly back out. Or make promises to myself, declare I will begin writing that book and shelve it. Write words on a To-Do only to mark it as “X” again.

There’s always that temptation to utter words without thought. As though you can go back on your word later. Just like saying “yea” to the wicked witch who wants your future child, because currently your sick wife craves for Rapunzels. Even “roger that” to Rumpulstilkskin because there’s a roomful of straw to spin into gold.

imagesAnd yet there’s no escaping insignificant yeas and rogers you have made with your children. Or even seemingly trivial yes’s we make with life as it happens. My children will see how much value I give my word. Especially when I betray myself ignoring the commitments I make. Promises are broken the moment they are not fulfilled. You can’t simply carry them out another day. Because, the word you give, seemingly inconsequential or nonchalantly given, is a promise made. And we need to stop taking our words so lightly.

And so tomorrow, I’m going to honor the promise I made in jest. You’ll have to take my word for it.

“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” -Markus Zusak, the Book Thief

Drawing the Line

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A world without bounds.  That was my childhood.  My brother threw a tantrum and 2 television sets from our second floor.  He was met with “Ta (Ilonggo term of endearment) you want a bottle of Royal? And he’s chugging Royal Tru-Orange, his future prospects at hauling and throwing crystal clear.  We didn’t have rules or clocks at home. Schedules were according to your fancy. My brothers would chew their food to mash, roll and throw them up so they get stuck in the ceiling.  Yet our mom never responded with: “No, you can’t do that.” At 15, I even asked if I could sleep at my boyfriend’s house. She said: “Yes.”

Which is probably why I studied law.  There was no telling how I’d adjust to a world of boundaries, having had no experience inside it.  Quite honestly, I have a tough time with limitations. Or waiting. Even conflict.  Our world was filled with goodness and colored with rose. How do you articulate “No” or endure “Maybe later” when these were not your language?  What about consequences?  It was almost always, carpe diem. Never mind what happened the morning after.

Twenty years later I am granted the task of raising two girls in a seemingly boundless world.  This time and in this home, I attempted to delineate boundaries.  Then my mom pronounced:

“I didn’t do that to you, why do that to your children? Your poor kids, they are so deprived.”

And it’s not just mom.  It’s the aunt, the in-laws, and the friends who quietly scoff at you wondering what ever happened to the free spirited girl they grew up with.  Another mother said this to my daughter:

“What! You don’t have the [must have toy of the decade]? [Her daughter] has plenty plenty toys!”  and: “See that, [her lucky daughter] you should be thankful mommy lets you do [this and that.]”

(I could strangle her.)  And yet, every mother will have her way with kids. And I somehow, had to pick the road less traveled.

Perhaps my home is fenced-in. It’s a mad world and I want to keep the wolves out!  But children are in desperate need of clear-cut boundaries. They need to know you can’t throw television sets or sleep at the boyfriend’s house.  And the fences have to be set in stone. Because they will try you.  The other night, my little one threw a temper (enough to trigger that blast in the Makati.) She wanted to bake cupcakes except it was bedtime.  Began with Bambi eyes, moved to tears, appealed nicely, lashed out angrily and closed with kicking.  But the rule had been set. In stone. And understanding that all negotiations and cajoling were futile; she whimpered, sighed and climbed into bed. Asleep in ten minutes.

It could be that my childhood was every child’s fantasy.  Except it was chaotic.  There were attempts at fences, but they were built with sticks and straw, blown away with a huff-puff. Often, the oldies were the first ones to break the rules anyway.

And that’s another lesson about boundaries.  As you patrol your fences, you should never transgress them too. Your rules can only command obedience when you as rule-maker abide by them.  And it’s not just with the rules you create. It’s every commitment you make, whether with them, or with anyone else.  Imagine how perplexing it is for a child, when we as rule-maker, keeper of bounds, and mother who knows best, renegade on our contracts, the words we say, or say we would do.  As a friend says: Be consequent.  Your word should also be your bond.

One last lesson on boundaries.  Without bounds, there are limitless possibilities.  All things are possible, all the time.  Yet that made my childhood so unstable. I never knew what would happen next.  I had a brother who slept with his shoes.  We were constantly anxious about moving homes or losing people.  So he wore his shoes to bed, ready for what ever happens tomorrow.  As a child, you want to know that one thing follows another.  That good things that happen today, will happen tomorrow and the day after.  It’s as straightforward as knowing that after you wake up, you shower, and there’s breakfast at the table.  Or that when the sun sleeps, it’s time to prepare dinner, or that bed follows a story and a candle.  Boundaries will divide the day into schedules and sequences.  I had so little of it then.  Unbounded, we lived in moments. And they were different every time.

(Disclaimer: I am not regretful about childhood. I’m fond of every bit of it. It’s given me wacky memoirs to write. Except that I want a whole new story for my children.)

Some book recommendations:  Stress Free Parenting in 12 Steps by Christian Kutik, A Guide to Child Health by Michaela Glockler, You are Your Child’s First Teacher by Rahima Baldwin Dancy

Your Highness

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She has me all figured out.  She even advised my sister: “Mama says no. But ask and ask and ask.  She sometimes says yes!”  She’s five. You expect your first-born has prepared you to be a mother for life. The first-born is sugar and spice and everything nice. But somehow, the measurements were not as precise this time.  The second child has way too much spice, and not everything’s nice.

A book has landed on my lap.  It’s Stress Free Parenting in 12 Steps (by Christiane Kutik.)  The same principles of child rearing I have studied and pored over countless times.  Except this book makes it plain and easy.

First rule: Clarity of Roles. You are the parent. Your child is not your partner, your friend, or boss.  The simple rule is: Be her mother. Take the lead. Tell her what to do. You decide.

I might as well hammer that into my head.  Because this daughter will play you.  And play you well. She’s dazzling at playing queen. And with charm and a magic formula, you will one day find yourself bowing down. Curtsying to her every whim and fancy.  And this daughter wields her powers well. Often, you believe all is well because the little queen is pleased.

But the book’s certainly right.  My little queen, the younger mademoiselle, gets into fits and fusses about.  As though she’s crying for help. “I’m too young to queen.  Why do I make the rules when I haven’t yet played this game?  Someone please, tell me what to do?”

I see now how my young one craves for full attention. Not the kind that gives her free reign to do what she wants. But the kind where we take the reins and steer their course.  Or else, they yell and cry, fearful that those who ought to drive them don’t know the way.

Because the Queen of the castle is you. And while she can, your little one needs to spend all her time playing princess. You pick what she wears, what she eats, even what she is to do today.  The world is too grand, too good and too beautiful and she will want everything. You don’t want to torment her with choices at breakfast.

And I remember how the gift of childhood was having everything easy.  Child’s play. Everything was decided for you.  You didn’t have to agonize over choices.  Or live with them.  The responsibility was with someone else. Your mother knew best. Take that away from your children and the world becomes too complicated and demanding.

One last thing.  When you take the reins or play Queen, you need to do it well.  Directions should be precise.  Edicts should be clear-cut, including when, where and how. You even have to do it too. (i.e.  When learning how to steer a horse, you have to know exactly where to go.  The horse follows your gaze and will move depending on how steady your hands are on the reins. Or, a queen’s subjects will only feel secure when the queen bears herself well, and remains poised and calm.)

Most of all, being Queen asks you to be completely present and in control when the princess is before you.  You have to look at her, call her by name and tell her exactly what you want.  And the orders have to be carried out, no matter how sharp-witted or insistent the princess is, or despite what she does with her eyes.

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(While writing this, All Spice was under the table. She had covered it with pretty silk and I thought she was playing princess. Then I heard the sound of bells.  With sweet-talk her maid had lent her a phone, and was playing hooky under my table.  And now it’s time to hold the fort. The Queen will have to look her in the eye and say: “Domeka, we don’t play games.” Slowly remove the gadget. Turn underneath the table into a castle again. And this should work.)

 

The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker

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I saw a Tinkerbell movie.  She had just arrived in Pixieland and they had a charming rite to determine what kind of fairy worker she was.  She was asked to hold fire, water, air and earth.  Every element went poof.  Except that the hammer, symbol for earth, magically rose up and danced.  They crowned her Tinker Fairy. She was born to fiddle with things, make something new. “Ta-da!” and she knew exactly what to do for the rest of her life.

I wish it were as easy as that.  A little song and dance, and you’re told exactly what you came here for.  But it is a little different here.  The skills and talent show up bit by bit. Sometimes, all of fire, wind, air and earth will rise up and dance for you.  You’re often told what you should do.  Study for something you thought you fancied, take the job, and then realize halfway, every day is a chore. It isn’t your calling.  Or perhaps it is, but exactly what you are to do with the gift, you don’t know. I would have settled for Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat.  At the onset, you know whether you belong with the good or the bad, or the group no one remembers.

Except, I’ve seen the blessed few. Their job is their calling. They rush to work as though they’re off to rendezvous with the love of their lives.  My husband talks about farming with so much passion you’d imagine he’s fallen in love with his prized cow.  And it must be love, because he believes dung is manna from heaven.  And I just came from a Country Fair, with its awe-inspiring artisans: the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.  They were beaming, despite baking under the sun and explaining their wares all day. You see alchemy made real, as they make soaps and oils. And I must have spent all our profits, buying all things embroidered and hand-stitched. Then, there were tireless performers, beating drums or celebrating music. They danced and they were on fire.  The job was the calling.

I reckon, a country fair and Disney have these to say about meaningful work:

  • While we cannot have a Sorting Hat or hammers that rise and fall to crown us vocations, we will have some inkling of what to do.  When the job is the calling, it feels right. Every day is just a delight (think falling in love or beaming despite the hot sun and silly questions.) Follow your gut.  When it doesn’t feel right or when every day is a chore, it’s not yours. Forget the paycheck. Your heart and gut will show the way to real bonuses, even save you from misery.
  • The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker have something to show for. It’s definitely not the moola. It’s the outcome of what was thought, felt and fashioned out of their hands. Like breathing life into clay.  Add to that pride and fulfillment.  Like that doll maker who ecstatically took a picture of the threadbare, well-played doll I bought from her last year.  Or that exhausted chef who suddenly beamed when someone said they just had a bite of bliss.
  • Happy workers stand for something larger than themselves. They recognize they have been bestowed gifts, and so they give something back.  Reciprocate. Like the mother who felt it was her calling to sing and dance, so that children can find their own beat. Because imagine the pay-off for having some thing to give the world. Or having the world, despite its 7 billion unique individuals, needing something from you.

And so, for the rest of us: the ones who are not butchers, bakers or candlestick makers; who can’t drum, sing or dance with fire; who don’t have Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat or pixie dust, I hope this list helps.  Here’s hoping you can “Ta-da” yourself into knowing what you’re to do for the rest of your life. I’m still WORKING on it.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives- Annie Dillard

She sells Seashells by the Seashore

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You are surprised at how an expanse of shore and turquoise waters could have fended off the invasion of resorts, tour guides or even just a peddler selling Chippy.  But there it was. Less than 4 hours of bumpy winding road off Puerto Princesa and you find not just a patch, but and an infinite strip of immaculate white. And you can stroll the 14-kilometer stretch with your solitary footprints disturbing the sand.  There’s nothing else here but sea, sand and salt air.  I combed the beach and didn’t spot plastic. Jutting rocks didn’t flash the typical Jhon loves Jhen or reek of urine.  Every islet we hopped was untouched, with only fisherman huts and a 360 degree ocean view. And at dawn and dusk, I could delight in fishermen assembling their nets or bearing the day’s catch.

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I wish I could keep that immaculate white shoreline a secret. I chanced upon a similar beach in 1986.  Twenty years later, commerce had mutated its waters to a mucky green and they were peddling pearls, 3 for P100. This time, I don’t want to scare the bayawaks, clip the wild fern overgrowth or see more heads than sand. But they are constructing an international airport a few kilometers off best-kept-secret.  And already, forest fern and bayawaks are making way for roads.

Government will tout it as ecotourism: ecological conservation along with economic growth and the empowerment of local communities. But business and conservation are incompatible in my side of the world.  Our kind of eco-tourism brings the most number of paying tourists to the least patch of sand.  How will fragile and pristine fare after millions of meals eaten, toilets flushed, milkshakes blended, blinking lights till after hours, tricycle rides and air conditioners?  Everyone’s taking pictures AND leaving footprints the size of islands.

We build perfect havens that run 24/7 on non-renewable energy. They look exactly like the city, except that you see blue vistas with sand in between. In time, the locals learn the trade, throw away their nets and put up bangketas instead. They will offer their land to displace themselves outside beach paradise. Everything will have a price (even when you unknowingly have kids convey you in a tub so you won’t wade in filthy waters.) And no matter how sophisticated tourists are, there will be wrappers to dispose and poop will need to go someplace. Fragile and pristine will not survive too much development. You will have algae in your waters, plastic in your sand, and the stench of urine reeking in rocks.

Government and Environmental Protection

Our regulations and laws on environmental protection are vague.  They have conflicting provisions, overlap in jurisdiction and are difficult to implement.   Best-kept-secret will probably encompass two or more local governments and be under the administrative rule of two or more agencies.  There are conflicts in land use and tenure. And they never know who implements what. Enforcement is costly too.  Attempt to ask a government body for environmental protection and they will ask you for a budget.  I don’t blame them.  Why spend your allocation on things that no one would see?  Who gives a hoot about the ocean floor?  Or the future lives of unborn children? Politics will demand you build a Pasalubong Center instead. Lastly, there’s a wealth of benefit when a big investor decides to build a perfect haven on your beach.  And you earn brownie points when laws and regulations magically turn liberal for investment.

The Local Community

DSC_1043And while government and investors squabble or get pretty chummy, environmental and social losses swell.  The fish catch will dwindle. There will be algae in the shores.  The fisherman will pack up his hut to settle elsewhere. Sons and daughters will forget to fish, but peddle or master massage instead.  They will figure out that tourists dish out extra for the biggest catch and will pay premium for a coral necklace. Big investors will disremember their promises to reinvest profits in the community, choosing to reinvest in themselves instead. And your pristine blue and powder white ecosystem is degraded, your coastal community exploited.

Eco and Tourism

As we said goodbye to my best-kept-secret, a friend exclaimed: “I’m so happy we came.  I don’t think we can ever return to it again and have it the same way.”

We don’t get to keep our fragile pockets of paradise. Business is seemingly at odds with nature, this side of the world (where we are blessed with 7101 pockets of paradise).

But I know it’s been done. Humanity and nature, co-existing. Harmoniously. Stewardship is the tall order we get on the first chapter of the Bible. And we’re supposedly infected with biophilia, an innate bond between humans and nature.  I have seen three small resorts do it.  But they’ve kept their havens small.  Managed their numbers.  It’s a delicate balance between economics and ecology. Yet tourists pay a high premium to visit these fragile and unspoiled pockets of paradise. No lights at night. Mosquito nets. No escape to the sweat and the sand. But there’s a turtle hatching just outside your door.  And the water is perpetually crystal blue.

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I wish I could keep a secret. With no one there, there won’t be any footprint to a 14-kilometer sand strip.  But the reality is they are building a tarmac to paradise. And I only have my pen, a fair amount of griping and some faith.  I wish I could hang on to an expanse of shore and turquoise blue waters.  Or even just ensure they won’t be peddling Chippy.

We are the transformers of Earth. Our whole being, and the flights and falls of our love, enable us to undertake this task. Rainer Maria Rilke

What are we doing today Mama?

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It’s that time of the year when I panic. School’s out and along with it, the steadfast rhythm of a pleasant waking up, dropping kids off, having an entire day to myself, and then just-enough-time to engage them before dusk till I tuck them in at night. It’s just-enough-time so that everything’s wonderfully orchestrated, and there are no burned out mommies or bummed out children.

But it’s summer and the pleasant waking up has been succeeded by the challenge: “what are we doing today, mama?”  As though I had nothing else to do but keep them occupied. The dependable cadence of everyday has just gone off beat. And the mama is in a funk. I had evil thoughts of making a break for the city, dispatching them to any summer camp, or shipping them off to the grandparents. And then there was an hour devoted to inquiring about summer classes every day of the week.  Just so I could have my rhythm back and perhaps, yaya, camp counselor, teacher or grandma, can do the work for mama instead.

There are plenty of empty hours to suddenly fill. And my children are still young enough to mind me. I’ve been allowed an interlude of a school year, and conveniently forgot what days were like when children stay home all day. It would be much easier if I could pin up a poster:

Frazzled and panicking mother. Looking for a summer class/camp, play date, or neighbor. Willing to work the entire summer. Min requirement: A nurturing environment that will support a child’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development.

What am I expected to do when the book says: purposeful work in the morning? My purposeful work is not tidying up the house or preparing breakfast.  The maids do that. I’m on the screen and typing! Do I give them the screen too? That will entrance them into submission. Guarantee my dependable everyday because certainly, television will do mama’s work instead.  How do I keep them occupied so they don’t imitate mother glued to the screen all day?

Here’s my attempt at a Striving Mother’s Plan for the Summer (thank you books and fellow moms.)

  • Strike out the school-day rhythm. Ample time by myself, that won’t happen. Endeavor towards an on-vacation rhythm that can bear my everyday yet allow the kids a regular structure too.

My 5 year old goes to my bed every morning asking me what day it is. She’s memorized what days are like on Mondays, or Tuesdays, or her favorite, Saturdays.  I suppose when she knows what happens next, she’s less nervous. When I bring her to an everyday rhythm, I don’t hear the panicky voice or the whining (well, not as much.) And she goes about her day confident, more trusting about the world. And if you still don’t know, rhythm is the magic potion for discipline.

But I’m neither rigid about exact time nor dogmatic about having to do exactly this or that. Having regular activities that flow smoothly into each other (like inhaling and exhaling) is the key. Without some structure, everything just spills out: overflowing schedules and a flood of frustrated tears.

  • Allow myself time by sharing the parenting adventure with like-minded others.

I almost went all out with this rule. There was a sweet temptation to fill their days with summer classes. Ballet, cooking, swimming, art, equestrian, fencing, these were all ripe for the summer picking. But I couldn’t shake the feeling it was another cop out of conscious parenting. Overburden them with activities so I could salvage my time. And what happens when I fill up their days with people instructing them what to do? There’s a whole lot of pressure in perfecting a pose or doing the right stroke. And if I use up hours, I’d be taking them away from learning the lifelong skills of climbing rooftops or refining the talent of playing Rapunzel from our attic window.

My way out were friendly neighbors + 2 guided activities for the summer. Thank goodness for neighbors who share my same ideals (i.e. they would have answered my ad.) We trade in the adventures of parenting. So it doesn’t feel like full time (even when it is). And as you’re not overwhelmed, you cherish the precious hours when the kids are with you.  Especially when you know you can work out a trade, in case the adventure gets tough.

  • I’m not a playmate but they certainly need help fixing the fort.

I don’t have to play with them. But I also cannot have them loaf around my study, or have television enthrall them everyday for hours. They will unfailingly ask me: “what are we going to do today, mama?” And so every morning I’m bringing down baskets for the morning’s play. They might get sticks and stones, but somehow, they will know what to do with it. Or I would have to pause from work to mix paint with water and bring the paintbrushes out. I will have to do Filipino style for purposeful work. The cook will learn patience as my little ones chop carrots with her. The maid will learn to leisurely walk the dogs with two girls in tow. And the gardener will learn to work with two headstrong helpers who will mess up his perfect flowerbeds. (These will grant me time for my purposeful work of pressing keys.) After nap, the gates that lead outdoors would have to be unlocked. And then, before the sun sleeps, this mama will deliberately end screen sucking, so I could teach underwater somersaults, have my 7 year old learn to break on her bike, and so that summer memories would be of canoeing at the lake.

That’s the summer plan. Imperfect and certainly, with hits and misses. Still, I’m hoping there’s no need for perfectly orchestrated just because school is out. All a mother really needs is a confident and unruffled reply to everyday’s: “what are we doing today mama?”

Dearest Top Two Newspapers of the Philippines

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I wake up everyday for coffee and your newspaper. And just today, you had me almost choking on breakfast. What was going on in your HEADquarters that you chose to tell us stories of the politico turned Romeo and her enamored Juliet or that the President’s more-famous-sister is fleeing from overt sexual advances. For a front page? And, with the entire width of your newspaper wasted on a stunning picture of cooing lovebirds, skirt fluttering with the wind, misplaced in beach paradise. Or that the other prime newspaper also remembered to waste space on the warring couple in good times, and of course, with the backdrop of beach paradise. Come on! You had your pick among so many compelling, life-and-death, and pressing stories! There are over 3000 people fleeing Sabah! And isn’t it simply heartless (no pun intended) to position underneath picture perfect, in bold black, your headline that 8 Filipinos were charged and could die in Malaysia? Or pray tell me why I need to be apprised of more-famous sister’s domestic problems? If you were desperate for something a little more exciting, you could have opted for the Pope or Obama in Israel! Anything but “Total Eclipse of the Heart” or “Please Stay Away.” Yes, please stay away.

I wanted to laugh because really, I thought you were trying to play one (oh two) big jokes days before April Fools’. But I don’t want to just snicker, be smug and go about my day, especially since you already ruined breakfast. Because if these are the news of our times, there’s something gravely wrong with our country. Is that the image of this nation? That we hunger for stories of forbidden love or an ex husband’s sexual advances? Just because they are famous? You spell, in a big way, the cultural spirit of this nation: who we are as a people. You are a mirror for the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our times. What ever happened to pride and excellence in reporting? Do you reckon Filipinos so lacking in dignity that we would rather revel in stories about Romeo, the opportunist and poor Juliet, the victim of a political campaign, or lap up on a story that the President’s more-famous-sister, is so desirable she needs the law to protect her from her ex-husband! You are playing on the lowest of our instincts, on what is sensational and of course, what makes the most for commercial success. Perhaps it could make for a box-office and it’s especially a perfect plot for a telenovela. But I picked up the newspaper today not wanting to go straight to your entertainment page. Yet, you gave me entertainment on the first page! Maybe it makes you popular, that’s how you get to top two newspapers right? Just the same, please try a little caution. Top rankings carry top responsibilities. Temper it down. Not on the front page, and please not on half of your newspaper. Exercise restraint. You are playing with our minds, and you’re slowly shaping the nation’s culture. The reading public is not (yet) that disgraced and hopefully this nation’s culture is not all instinct and pleasure. We do fancy stories of the Filipino Romeo (just not in those shorts!) And would like to be apprised of what happens in the President’s more-famous-sister’s house. But, we definitely don’t want it with coffee for breakfast.

Suit Yourself

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A few weeks ago I had to explain myself at the dinner table.  Someone had exclaimed how I’ve managed to throw away potential and a promising career, to settle for housewife in the boondocks.  Imagine where I could be, had I held on at the country’s most prestigious law firm.  But having no propensity for hard work and billable hours, I’d thrown away the distinctive title of Partner and with it, the right connections.  “But I don’t want to be successful being someone else.” And, “that’s someone else’s calling” I told him. Because after the elation of being accepted to The Firm, it was so glaring I didn’t want to get up everyday to be that Partner or eat on that table hobnobbing with the right connections.  It just didn’t feel right.

But the appraisal made me miserable for a day and took me to the past. So now I’m looking at old photographs and journals, wondering whether I was someone else back then. Why I  had decided on and yet abandoned in my critic’s words, “so much potential?”

I was a carefree 20-year old law student living in a posh neighborhood without having to pay rent.  Quite a pampered existence, courtesy of parents who imagined they could bank on a lawyer 4 years hence.   But the signs were there: notes and diaries so unlike the legal doctrines I had to memorize in the shower. There were short stories about the ocean, poems on love and betrayal, and musings on God’s unquestionable existence. Cropped hair with an excuse to wear short skirts. And no need for suits except to hide a tan so the professors wouldn’t think I was a bum.  I fancied a Bohemian lifestyle and yet was studying to be a bourgeois lawyer.  Wanted beatnik and yet was devoting hours learning to be conformist.  How could I have been as mixed up as that?

Maybe I wanted a guise of conventional.  I had a father who was drunk by lunchtime and a mother who was the epitome of Beatnik in her generation. And everyone expected the love child to fail.  And so maybe, growing up in a Boho world, you want to prove conventional wrong using conventional standards.  And of course, there’s the idealism of wanting to save the world, in a fancy suit. And so a law degree it was. I had chosen to play by the rules.

The world gave me a yardstick for success and I tried measure up to it.   And one could get pretty good being someone else.  Still, it never felt right. And my own signposts were there. The only things worthwhile at work were free lunch and Friday clubs. Or that we were so close to Greenbelt. Weekdays were spent clocking for the weekend. And there’s also the feeling of indigestion every morning. All these, no matter how fancy you look in a suit, 15th month pays and the chance of winning a refrigerator at the Christmas raffle. And especially, despite assuring yourself: that the Partner looks dashing hobnobbing with the right connections. Who ignores telltale signs like so? You see yourself living a half-life waiting for weekends and breaks, and you hang around? Isn’t that selling yourself short?

So maybe that’s what I should assure him, that critic who certainly meant well and thought I desperately needed help.  “Please, stop fretting about me. I’m not a miserable housewife in the country.”  The prestigious suit doesn’t suit me. Denim shorts do.  And I fancy my everyday.  It’s got whoops of joy and a little purpose. And I’m not feeling indigestion every morning.

“But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” Albert Camus

When Nice Meets Her Dark Side

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I’m such a doormat.

But one day I just had it.  No­ more Ms. Agreeable. Someone had flipped the lid and I was tired. There were at least 10 things to do that day and there was only 1 thing for me.  Everything else was a favor, pure benevolence, a good deed, just so everybody (else) is happy.   I was over-extending myself and I was exhausted. And, I was resenting the very people I was supposedly making happy.

I don’t want to go there, do this, and yet and always, had already said yes, or maybe.  And I could never tell you “you just ruined my day,” or “my life.”  And especially: there were these never-ending requests for a letter, an affidavit, a legal opinion, anything that needed to be written, the ghostwriter was me.  And do I even get enough dinero to buy me coffee while I write?  Of course not. I’m doing everybody else’s work on just warmth and a smile. The Jesuits might have excessively hammered their mantra on me, as I was overtaxed being a woman for others.

So here I am today, exasperated, and writing with madness. Am I too damn nice? (Yahoo a cuss word!)  I’m saying No. No. No. And writing it a 100 times lest I forget.

  • To the relatives and friends that keep asking me to write or do things for them, I’m politely saying No next time.  I’m not a practicing lawyer. There’s “cut and paste” for your written work just don’t forget to quote. And those small favors are so small you can do them yourself, really. Or, will you please remunerate me enough for coffee and the loss of precious time while I’m at it? I’m not trying to ruin relationships or be rude; I’m just giving value to time. And, as much value to me as I give you myself.

 

  • If I don’t want to be there, I won’t be there. There will be no backing down.  I will not owe you my time when it’s for things I am not interested in. I’m not being harsh, I’m just standing up for me. Taking control of my time.

 

  • I won’t take on projects I don’t want to. I can’t be doing everyone else’s work anymore.  Those are your dreams, and I should start working on mine.

 

  • When you’re nasty, insensitive, or unkind, I won’t let it slide. Not anymore.  There should be no excuses for behavior that hurts. So I will (if I’m not holding back tears) tell you so. (You’re probably saying, “Yea right, you are.” But I’m writing this a 100 times lest I forget!)

 

  • Finally, I will stop feeling guilty, worried and anxious, for these scary No’s.  The chronic pleasing has to stop. And I’m drawing up boundaries for agreeable and nice.  (I should start a Niceaholics Anonymous.  That would be a project that’s all mine.)

 

And so here we go again. Take 2. I’m such a doormat…

Oh, the Places You’ll Go

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“Out there things can happen, and frequently do,
To people as brainy and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen, don’t worry, don’t stew.
Just go right along, you’ll start happening too!”  Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go

I had to walk for almost an hour. And my three words for the day: Equanimity, positivity and open-mindedness.

You see, I live in the boondocks and unless you have a car, nearby civilization is at least 4 kilometers (in my head).  It took me 50 minutes. And I never walk. Couldn’t even run 1km.

Picture an enraged wife, fuming over someone’s negligence, rambling on an endless road. Because just to prove a point, that I was quite inconvenienced and my entire day’s plan ruined, I huffed and puffed and walked all 4 kilometers.

Yet. You can’t rant and rave or curse under your breath without an audience. You’re all alone stomping and there’s no one to watch the drama. And so you feel absolutely stupid. Add to that the backdrop of a forest (yes, there’s a forest where I live) and feathered friends. I was being serenaded.  Chirps, trills, a hoot, chirrup, and, the wind, in tandem with the leaves, was playing percussion.

And so the rage had to end. I was furious about someone’s indifference, and yet here I was mad at the world, oblivious to singing trees and a bird symphony.

There are a great deal of things that meet you when you walk for 4 kilometers. Especially when you’ve been carted off on wheels your entire life.

  • 200px-Oh,_the_Places_You'll_GoThose appendages you call legs are absolutely amazing. You suddenly notice how wonderfully it carries you, its throbs and twitches, and the thankful sigh of limbs long underutilized but for showing off a tan.
  • There’s beauty absolutely everywhere. Everything moves. Everything sings too. And I was blessed with a sunshade of clouds (it was about to rain but I’d like to think it held up for me). I saw sky blue overhead and not the gray stretch of endless road.
  • There was no gas to step on and hasten things. I was unhurried. Time slowed down its pace, strolled along.  Had my chariot been there to carry me, I would have been lost in thought, running after time, with 100 things to still do. But today, there was nothing to do but walk. And notice. So this was what leisurely felt like. And somehow, it is not about getting from place to place. There was something to do here. Right now. On this road.
  • I savored the in-betweens.  I welcomed the wait at the bank. It was the time of rest for aching legs. Any other day and I would have grumbled, restlessly moving back and forth, dying to do the next thing on the list.

And so here I am an hour later, contentedly munching on my burrito. When you’ve walked for miles with birds for company, everything is a treat.

Perhaps we should shush rage and take blunders (like people forgetting keys to the luxury chariot) as an opening for magic. 

Perhaps everything (blunders included) are just being in the scheme of things.  Trust the boo-boo. Otherwise, I’d never take that road. Nor would this piece ever be written.

Perhaps we should take heed of the roads we are on, even when they are long and lined with mulch. They can be filled with splendor, the kind that dances and sings.

Perhaps you could actually bid time to take it slow and grant you leisure.

Perhaps there are delightful things to do too between destinations. And life happens now.

Perhaps if you paid attention, trees do sing, birds do serenade, clouds will give you canopies and rains won’t fall until you reach safe ground.

Oh I would have really enjoyed a reason to flip out and be right when Mr. Dreamy returns home tonight, my keys in his hand. And yet now, I’d have to thank him for 3 Steiner exercises* and 4 kilometers of heavenly gifts. And I’m certain he will wonder what in heaven’s name happened because suddenly, all is well. (Despite an hour’s walk and tired feet.)

*Three Steiner Exercises:

Equanimity. Quiet reactive emotions.

Positivity. See the positive aspects of everything, and make the best out of every situation.

Open-mindedness. Be open to new experiences and ideas, never letting expectations based upon the past close your mind to the lessons of the moment

Title borrowed from Dr. Suess

The World in a Plate

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“If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.” J.R.R. Tolkien

Thousand Gardens in Africa Project

And so began merry. My otherwise unquenchable appetite finally had its fill. My senses were filled to the brim with tastes and aroma, and an abundance of color and sound in several languages. It was so overwhelming I panicked. I was being handed the entire world in a plate and my plate was too full. But there on my plate was culture and gastronomy in its vivid and authentic state. “Devour and digest everything slowly”: I told myself. I would be there for days and there was no sense hurrying a “SLOW Food” market. There should be enough time to behold, sniff and savor. And so, my palate savored one country after another, sampling food in its extraordinary diversity, ingesting the pleasures of the planet. There were figs from Afghanistan, baobabs from Sri Lanka, spiced coffee from Egypt, black salt from Russia, couscous from Palestine, and flower concoctions from Mali. I had to try the citrus wine from Croatia. And I couldn’t count the number of times I dropped by the Provencal 45 nougat flavors booth. They had stacks of nougat with Inca berries and dark chocolate you can buy by the kilo. I had never tasted nougat so soft; you could actually sense the kneading that came it.

45 Flavors of Nougat

The entire world’s cuisine was there for me to devour. Belarus had wild fruit. There were dates from Al Jufrah in Libya. Slovenia had herbs I didn’t know existed. Portugal had some dried flowers and figs while Uruguay asked me to sample their chilies. Then there was Motal, cheese in terracotta, ash and beeswax from Armenia. By the time I inched my way to Ecuador for coffee, my stomach was about ready to give up. But I had to try Huehuetenango coffee from Guatemala; it was in the “top 10 things to try” list. That one burned my tongue. Too bitter and I couldn’t find the promised hint of chocolate. I had to sample two more Joes, one from Costa Rica, another from Nicaragua. The coffee was too sharp or maybe I wasn’t quite the coffee connoisseur I thought I was. Then there were the salts from Iceland, so queerly and delightfully flat. I had to sample every bit. Smoked salt would be delightful on the next steak I would grill. I bought those, and added the white onion salt, that would be delish on my fish.

Paper-thin Flavored salts

We dined on forgotten food and tastes: raw milk cheeses from small dairies. The stench was awful, the taste divine. There was meat from native animal breeds and the Euskal Txerria pig and my husband doted on the Basque jamon. We even sniffed and sipped wines from grapes long forgotten and rediscovered. Now my taste buds have been elevated to be partial to the Sangiovese grapes. There were still 1000 wines to experience at the Enoteca and I had a workshop to sip 5 different Lambrusco wines fermented inside the bottle. If I had to write about all the ales, the birras and the hops I got to try, I won’t be able to end this article. And let me not start telling you about the chocolates or the cheese. These artisanal products, I had an abundance of.

Artisan Cheese from Raw Milk

So on to the sausages. There was a pretty girl in a costume from the Slovak Republic and men were lining up to sample, the sausage or the beauty, I don’t know. I finally got a shot of Cachaca from Peru, the drink my brother-in-law once raved about on a tour to South America. The Peruvian man who insisted I chugged his 40% organic corn liquor and I couldn’t quite understand each other. But the hand signals and the alcohol were easily understood. And I kept drifting back to the Domaine a Lafitte booth. They had Armagnac brandy aged in oak barrels this was one drink I definitely wanted to understand.

Sausages!!!

Our (Philippine) booth had a culinary offering (courtesy of Margarita, Tricia, and Monica) as well. We had overbooked tables as diners feasted on Adobo, Sinigang, traditional mountain rice, lechon and suman. These and they we’re serenaded hours on end by the ethnic beats and Igorot moves of Django and Manny.

I am now home with a bounty of dulce de leche liquor and Polish honey wine, the rose, cypress and poppy chocolates, lavender jams, Armagnac brandy, truffle crèmes, salted butter and pistachio pates, spicy pork and flavored salts. And, I, finally understand humanity’s perennial obsession with food.

Food is immensely rich as it is full of wisdom and pleasure. Every bite is a history and a story. And each person’s, each country’s, and each region’s identity lies in their food. Sample a simple dish from Norway and you are somehow linked to the Fjords and its past of salting herring. Imagine how every wine you sup is a memory of a place, of the seasons and the heat and the cold it had to go through, of an entire landscape, or the exquisite taste of a single vine. And isn’t it fascinating how one can go places, relocate and live in another place, but will always hunger for the tastes of home?

7 continents, 1 table

Rushing through all the trappings of modern life, we forget how rich and vivid food tastes like. Everything is fast, often cheap, even easy. But food is so much more than just the food we gobble up. It can be an entire culture and whatever we chose to consume, spells the life or death of animal breeds, seed varieties, or even a small farm or community. And now I know why eating should be slow: unhurried in the way one delights in it, and especially in the way it gets to the plate. It is only when we see the wisdom and rewards of eating will we realize how much is at stake at the plate. And I say anew, “if more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.” J.R.R. Tolkien

And so, have a merry feast!

My Walden

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Company and drinks. Two things I miss about city life. And, that: a missed item on my grocery list was just right across the street; I had immaculately clean legs without bruises or bites; I could forget to lock my flat and not worry; or keep my windows open without fear of alien looking creatures in my room. Now I suddenly have to be skillful at assembling rattraps and memorizing the lifecycles of mosquitoes.

And yet.

I wouldn’t trade unblemished legs and would yield to having a rat as a house guest, for: the indulgence of quiet; the sapphire sky and the kingfisher; the morning bird call; spent minutes on a bike picking flowers, or digging dirt and watching shoots grow; and my daughters’ firsts, first fish, first bike, and oh, the ampleness of time and space. I’m just beginning to know where certain birds live, how they call, and which ones frequent my window every morning. And then, there was an owl outside my house. Now I know why we think them wise. They look enlightened, like grandmothers and advice. There are wild pigeons and ducks on the road. I’ve been startled daily, by a freaky bug I’ve never seen, a gargantuan spider, or two birds in rapid flight.
Everything moves here. I’ve gaped at a little mouse nibbling the vines on my hedge. I’ve seen leaves jump down from trees. I’ve been stopped on my tracks, by a family of golden birds I yet have to know their names. Just yesterday, there was a black and white-spotted butterfly unhurriedly opening and closing its wings as if in a sort of dance. I can tell time now by the sun’s shadows. Or smell the rain a mile away. You should see our perfect canopy of stars at night. And we’ve been feasting on bananas from the front yard, have pickled our first papaya, and I can finally learn to make chili paste and jam from the garden.

Everything’s richer and fuller here. Colors are not muted, you can almost breath the trees, fancy that you begin to hear nature’s secrets, and especially experience time. As though days stretch for you, granting you more spaces to fill. No longer a luxury, the time is there. And suddenly, everything has a story to tell. And suddenly, you can catch the words.

Well, I do miss the city. Company and drinks, most of all. But I find that there are things here I could no longer live without. And so I should stop pinning for a night out in the city. Start learning rattraps instead. Or memorize the lifecycles of mosquitoes.

September 19, 2012

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Diet Dictum

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Seems like every conversation now includes a discourse about diet and health. Someone’s on this diet, another friend lost 40 pounds, what to eat and not eat, and whether I follow Primal, HGC, Cohen, vegan, or raw. “What diet are you on?” And I honestly don’t know what to say because I have a hodgepodge of sorts. I have rules, which I often break anyway. I don’t count calories, measure grams or make non-negotiable lists. And I might even have an excess of coffee, chocolate and red wine.

But these are my guiding principles:

1. There is no one true “diet.” Just with everything else in this life, your body is unique, and so while one is blessed with fast metabolism and slender genes, another has to try a little harder. Read through all the literature about health and nutrition. Find the diet that is true for you, really understand it, and then shape up. Don’t follow a diet because it worked for someone you know. You will be on it at least 3 times a day for the rest of your life, you should at least know why.

2. Eating should be a joyful experience. It shouldn’t make you feel bad. Or guilty. Or afraid. If you see certain food as sinful indulgence, you will always crave, be tempted to eat, give in, and then relentlessly repent. And the cycle will go on.

3. Food should nourish you, make you glow, put a twinkle in your eyes. So, you have to be happy with the diet you pick. For example, eat healthy because you love it, not because it keeps off the pounds. Otherwise, you’d be walking around mad at the world everyday because it deprived you of chocolate.

4. Don’t obsess about it. When you are obsessed about every part of your diet, you lose the joy in it. There are some people who claim to follow the healthiest diets on earth, but they look so frail with dark circles under their eyes. They get obsessed about every ingredient and snap when they can’t get this or that. (No wonder they look like that.) I don’t want to be them. I want the glow and rosy cheeks, not be a stick with gray skin.

5. You don’t have to pay a lot of money to know that you should be eating a lot of vegetables (Hint: biodynamic vegetables especially), avoid sugar and processed food, and get good protein. (Hint: pasture-raised meat.)

6. If you eat when you’re hungry, and begin to stop starving or depriving yourself, the bingeing stops. So will overeating. As your body knows it will be nourished every time, it won’t find the need to gorge. And how ever can you sustain a very restrictive, lower than required calorie diet? The day you go off this diet is the day you will overindulge because you felt so deprived for weeks, months on end. (Also, eating so few calories a day is dangerous. When the body is starved for calories, the body’s metabolism slows down to preserve energy. And then you’re in big trouble.)

7. Once we start equating food with “shoulds”, it becomes dogma. And who wants to eat dogma? I have had enough of that elsewhere. Food ought to be joie de vivre. Of course it should be. It’s what you put in your mouth. And there has to be butter, chocolate and wine in that equation. Although not exactly measured.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.” ―A.A. Milne

Clearing out Sentiment

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We’re moving to a new home and I just realized I am a sentimental junkie. Found boxes of memories, stashed away in my cabinets. Years of greeting cards, ticket stubs, restaurant napkins, birthday candles, crumbling rose petals, a beat-up carousel, gummy balloons, even my daughters moth-eaten horse puppet. Who keeps these things and what was I thinking? What birthday was I celebrating, what did I toast to, who was the man I loved? Add to that the folders beside my table, crammed with my children’s artwork: sticks, spirals, and today’s portraits of me in rainbow dresses.

The Sentimental Junkie’s To Do List

Sentimental clutter. Somehow, I imagined that if I kept the fragments conserved somewhere, I could keep the magic that was that moment. Years hence open it and have a whiff of a memory once more.

But what’s so great about a movie stub? Or a budging envelope of travel keepsakes I haven’t even peered at in 7, make than 10 years! Anyone going through my clutter will definitely throw them in the trash without hesitation. I should know better. Objects are just objects. But what happens when an object becomes part of a history? We’d pay thousands for Michael Jackson’s scruffy glove right? (Oh yeah, he is Michael Jackson.) How did I ever decide that a Paula Zayco moment in time could be ascribed to a napkin? Is the memory forgotten if I finally threw the disintegrating napkin in the trash? Would I rather keep the memory alive in a song, or poetry, or here, on my screen, and not tucked away in a box somewhere? I thought opening the sentimental box would create magic anew. And yet years later, it doesn’t happen. I am not in that moment at all. The past isn’t relived. Magical moments I guess you can’t keep and uncover in boxes.

Still, there are actually mementos that should be kept. Because I truly can’t imagine a life without sentimentality, or the objects that represent them. Nostalgia will make me keep the butterfly puppet I worked on for days for my daughter’s first birthday. Or the one letter that told me I passed the bar. Those I could keep, not in a box, but to cherish or share. These are the treasures I would rescue and bring with me in case of fire. This was going to be my rule, painful as it may be. If the keepsake wiill seemingly be kept in a box, stowed away in the attic that means it is junk and not something I want to keep. Seriously, I wouldn’t have the time to look at those cards, ticket stubs and letters again anyway. As for the rest, I’m going digital (will photograph the objects I want to remember I bet there’s an app for that) or trashing them. And then I just have to constantly remind myself objects don’t have magical properties. The memories inside my head and felt deep in the heart will do. I really don’t want so much baggage this time. And I will need lots of free space for my new moments in time.

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues”

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“Mister!”, he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues
,
And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs” –
He was very upset as he shouted and puffed –
“What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?” -Dr. Suess

I don’t get it.  Why cut pine and Alnus trees to build a parking lot?  Are they attempting to remake the Counting Crows “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” song? And, yet we’re not just paving Baguio.   Our mountains and beaches, our rivers and lakes, our tremendous biodiversity and wild creatures, everything that other less-endowed countries would fiercely protect, we have paved to degradation.  Pristine beaches, two of the worlds natural wonders, the most biodiversity in the world, even giant creatures casually dropping by our waters, and yet: we pour concrete on mountain trails; paint “Jhun love Mhel” on rocks; make sewage out of rivers; erect makeshift stalls that peddle everything from frog keychains to fake bags; tie up and ride whale sharks; build resorts atop fragile ecosystems; and fashion life-sized statues of Disney and dinosaurs, as if the mountains, the waters and the sharks were not enough.  What is wrong with us?

Have you been to Baguio, the city of pines?  There’s neither the sight nor the scent of pines but concrete and smog. Where’s the view at Mines View, because all I see is a market and horses with pink hair? What is it about us that we have to turn everything into a market or a circus?  Oh, we find it so cute that our kids ride on them, and we take photographs too.

Have you been to Boracay? I was and didn’t swim at all.  All three days I spent mourning the demise of old Boracay where the waters were sapphire blue and not overrun by foul-smelling algae with flies. Can you imagine how much leaching to the sea happens from overflowing septic tanks (if there are sewage treatment plants at all!)? There ought to be an outbreak of hepatitis and gastroenteritis, these might drive out the swarm, serve nature well. (If you don’t know: excess sewage that flows directly to the sea stimulates the growth of algae.)

What about all the facilities that make it a luxury vacation? We don’t see it when they destroy mangroves and reefs to make way for roads, a nearby airport, marinas, and your room with the view. Look at SM.  182 felled a.k.a. earth-balled trees to pave the way for a parking lot and an entertainment center.  Well, come to think of it, we love malls more than we do the outdoors.

And then there’s the hiking up the mountain to see not one but 2, 3, even 7 waterfalls.  But I’m yet to see a mountain resort without graffiti on the rocks.  What is it with the “Boy was here!” scribbling?  Why show off your dirty crime? And what about packing after your merienda? Our trails are dotted with sardines cans and Chippy wrappers.  We once hiked up Mt. Makiling and lost count of the candy wrappers we picked on the trail.

And just as we like to eat, we like to feed animals as well, from adorable tarsiers to the novel hand feeding of gigantic whale sharks.  What happens when you tamper with the wild, when you alter feeding patterns, or take them out of their migration routes?  Visit Oslob and we now have wildlife nudging boats, begging for food.

And there isn’t anyone watching out for what goes on below either.  So much trampling happens underwater.  As a country with the most biodiversity in the world (in the world!), we take our multicolored reefs for granted. But I’ve seen many go bonkers over the site of a tiny nudibranch or a Spanish dancer.  Can we just stop selling or buying corals and cowrie shells as souvenirs?

Why do we would bite the hand that feeds us? You don’t even have to do the math to understand the economics.  Preserve the natural environment and you draw tourists. Having an unspoiled natural wonder increases its value, so it then becomes your largest source of income.   Instead of lugging tourists around paved walkways (oh boy, they even carry you in Styrofoam boxes so you don’t get wet!), distracting them with wares or obscuring their views, why not leave it all up to raw, wild, and glorious nature? And because you will have their undivided attention, tell them about the folklore, where places get their names, natural cycles, kingfishers, slates, sea stars and banyan trees.  It didn’t take much incitement or prodding for my kids to adore the sea, or dote on the endangered spotted deer, even understand how you can grow worms for birdfeed.  All I had to do was bring them there.

Yes there are still a few patches of unspoiled paradise with daring stewards here and there.  I enjoyed Coron (7 years ago), Siargao, Siquijor and Isla Naburot, have a high regard for Danjugan Island, the School of the Seas and Siliman University, even admire how organized Donsol is now.  I’m pinning my hopes that someday, we can see perfect coned mountains, our sapphire waters, the spotted gentle giants, even our verdant pine trees, for exactly for what they are worth. Until then, tourism will choose creature comforts at nature’s expense, so one day you’re swimming in sludge, captive in a strange paradise of pink horses and domesticated sharks, with a parking lot for a tree.

*Pictures posted here are not mine.

SUMMER ARSENAL: Some au naturale tips against the summer’s scorching side

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JELLYFISH

Jellyfish stings cannot be treated with pee.  Really.  Instead, the urine might even make it worse as it causes the nematocysts (the stingers that jellyfish leave behind on your skin) to inject more venom into you.

Best natural remedy: Wipe with a towel and rinse with vinegar.

The trick is to remove the nematocysts without triggering them. Water and urine may trigger them so the best way is to use sand or a towel to remove the tentacles without touching.  I have even removed the tentacles with a shell. (Touching with your bare hands may result in more stings!)

Then rinse the area with vinegar or if that’s not available, use saltwater (not fresh). Note that this is the remedy for box jellyfish (not Man of War or other deadly jellyfishes.)

SANDMITES

If you’re sitting by a beautiful sandy shore and suddenly find yourself itching like crazy with tiny red welts on your skin, chances are, sand mites have attacked you.  You can’t see them but I assure you, they are there.

Best natural remedy: To get the itch out, soak the skin in a bath (oatmeal in the water relieves the itch).  A natural way is to make a paste of baking soda and water and applying it on your skin.  Or use Aloe Vera: just pull leaf off the plant and dab the gel on your itch-ies.

SUNBURN

Sunburn DOES NOT fade into a beautiful tan.  If you burn your skin and nature will definitely not reward you with a tan. Instead, you get freckles, sunspots and wrinkles, (worst, you’re on your way to skin cancer.)

Sunburn happens because your skin is inflamed from the ultraviolet rays you have just soaked up.  Some natural ways to boost your skin’s reaction to the sun is to load up on antioxidants.

Best natural remedy: They say antioxidants raise your sunburn threshold. So eating your bright colored vegetables (and red wine of course) might help.  Still, you should always wear sunscreen! My picks: Healthy Options has Nature’s Gate, Jasons and Alba Botanica, some alternative sunscreens you may want to try.  For kids, there’s also Earth’s Best and Badger’s you can get from Rustan’s.  Also note that there is no sunscreen that can block all 100% of the sun.  Your best block is still a hat and clothes!  SPF 30 cuts out 97% of the sun while SPF 50 cuts out 98%.  So, actually, we don’t need to buy more than 30SPF.

To treat sunburn, cool off with Aloe Vera or I read you can soak a washcloth in milk and make a cold compress. One thing I have done is to soak in a tub with baking soda and also by putting cucumber slices on my sunburn.

SUN-DAMAGED HAIR

Hair can get too much sun exposure and get dry or even break.  Another culprit is chlorine or saltwater.

Best natural remedy:  Some people like to wear a hat or a ponytail.  You can put some coconut oil on your hair or a leave-in conditioner. But after a day spent in the sun, what you can do is put some olive oil on your hair. You can even mix some drops of rosemary or jasmine oil.  Leave it for an hour or so then wash it off.

MOSQUITOES

The bugs are definitely out and about this summer.  Here are some secrets: You can ward off mosquitoes by taking a shower and wearing light colored clothes. Really.  I heard mosquitoes are attracted to sweat and dark colored clothing.

Best natural mosquito-repellant:  Don’t sweat.  Wear light colored clothing.  Use plant-based repellants.  My best bet so far has been citronella oil mixed with coconut oil.  (A formula: 25 drops essential oil + 2 tbsp. coconut oil.) or buy a good natural repellant (just make sure the blend has about 10% citronella oil.) I always like the oil-based ones rather than the spray. Other essential oils that help (even repels ticks) are eucalyptus and lavender oils.

A good local insect repellant brand is Bug Off made of coconut oil, citronella, lemongrass and lavender.   I have found the bottles at EchoStore and also at Sesou Nature Source.  To help with the itch, I use Weleda’s Combudron Ointment.  But some natural remedies are: rubbing garlic on the itch, aloe vera gel (again!), or squeezing juice from a lemon. 

A good Summer Aid Kit: Vinegar, Oatmeal or Baking Soda, an Aloe Vera plant, Olive and Coconut Oil, and Essential Oils: Citronella, Lavender or Jasmine

(Information from years of a beach fetish and Whole Living magazine)

Why Farmers Live Forever

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The rickety Karumata

A bumpy Carabao ride, trees filled with the promise of fruit, pigs romping in muddied pools, dragonflies I couldn’t count, a gulp of milk from cows we milked ourselves, and feeding the ducks, that was our morning. It was granddad’s 82nd birthday and Wowo had spent his morning at the farm, up before everyone else. I was wondering why so. On my birthday, I would skip work and perhaps do something special. But, as he did every day all his life, granddad started his day to the rooster’s crow, taking in the scent of cows (and dung), and walking the entire stretch of his farm, jubilant, just like his fruit trees bursting with flowers. We followed him to the farm, my daughters and I riding the “Karumata”, a rickety wagon driven by a carabao, because one farmer thought it was too far a walk for our feeble city legs and we couldn’t take icky mud. First stop was the pigsty. The pigs had just moved to a new romp and rollick pen. In the world of pig, this was the castle of your dreams.

The pigs had two mud pools, wide open spaces, rich green grass and an expansive backdrop of sky. Although, my 4 year old kept asking me what happened to them after they had “pigged out.” To which I said: “shh.” (After all, one greedy pig ended up on my father-in-law’s birthday buffet.)

We found their grandfather 2 hours later in his hat and boots, cheerfully romping around in his version of castle. I was watching him from afar, in awe at how at 82 he could still hike up his entire farm, steep, lumpy and muddy in places, with just a walking stick for company. Not to be outdone by an 82-year old cowboy, we ditched our very bumpy ride to stroll with Wowo. We walked for another half hour, surrounded by Mango, Guava, Pomelo (too many trees I couldn’t name,) and alongside Mother Goose and Jemina Puddle Duck. Wowo stopped a few times to cackle call the hens and ducks, who amazingly came waddling, patiently waiting for breakfast. The sun was scorching when we got out of the trees. But there were still cows to be milked and Wowo had promised my girls they were going to feed the ducks together.

Domeka's eyeing this pony.

Enjoying their stroll

It was the perfect birthday for their cowboy and gentleman grand-farmer. The trees were full to bursting with yellow flowers, there was abundant grass for the cattle, the milk was flowing, the pigs were enjoying their swimming pools, and the ducks just had breakfast. My 4-year was now strolling around with a stick, mirroring her granddad. She was at her best self, because Wowo promised her the brown colt we just passed. My 7-year old proudly declared: “Mommy, I’m going to be a cowgirl when I grow up.” Perhaps my children understood as only children could, what was left unsaid but deeply felt. Here was a contented man who lives, as he ought to. As himself. Working his passion, doing what he loved to do, not an hour or two a day, or just on the weekends. Here was someone spending his everyday “surrounded by cows and china.” (Thank you Charles Dickens.) Which brings me to this conclusion: Flossing, sunscreen and watching what you eat won’t get you to 82 and still able to walk for miles in rough, muddied and uneven ground. Waking up to a rooster crow, breathing in fresh air, working the land, and doing exactly what you love, everyday for the rest of your life, is the only age-old secret you need. (That, and of course, and beautiful grandchildren to feed the ducks with.)

At the hen (and duck) house

Bad Food Gone Good

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I thought I’d write a bit about misconceptions about “bad” food.  Politically correct nutrition says these are the food you shouldn’t be eating.  I dare-say these are actually food you SHOULD be eating. Really,  not everything that tastes wickedly delicious is sinful.

  1. Butter

Myth: Butter is dangerous. It causes chronic high cholesterol levels. Anything that is tastes exquisitely divine should be bad for you right?

Truth: The French were right. Good old-fashioned butter is good for you. It has in fact always been a staple, valued by countless traditional diets.

Why? Butter is your best source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K and E.  Vitamin A is actually best absorbed and utilized from butter than from any other source.  These vitamins are “catalysts” or “activators” that utilize the minerals we ingest. Butter also contains anti-oxidants, everyone’s favorite health word. In fact, “it is a rich source of selenium, a vital anti-oxidant–containing more per gram than herring or wheat germ.”

Best of all, that butter makes you fat is a misconception.  “The short and medium chain fatty acids in butter are not stored in the adipose tissue, but are used for quick energy.  That’s why butter makes you feel full and satisfied and you don’t need to crave or binge after.

*And research does not actually support the claim that butter causes high cholesterol. “Stearic acid, the main component of butterfat, actually lowers cholesterol!”  (Weston Price Foundation, “The Skinny on Fats”)

2.    Eggs

Myth: Eggs are high in cholesterol and bad for your heart.

Truth: (Disclaimer: only for free range poultry): Eggs contain dietary cholesterol. The culprit for raising your blood cholesterol and giving you heart disease is not really dietary cholesterol.   It is a number of other factors in modern diets like your excess consumption of vegetable oils and refined carbohydrates. Trans fats are bigger culprits in raising your blood cholesterol.  Not only that. Eggs “constitute the most complete, nutritious and economical form of animal protein available.” (Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon)

3.    Red Meat

Myth: full of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol and bad for the heart.

The truth: Lean beef, and beef from grass fed or pastured cows are a low-fat source of protein and iron, essential minerals that will help get oxygen from your lungs to the cells in your body. Pick meat that is a deep red (not bright red) color with very little fat or marbling.  Chances are these are lean and or raised with little or no grain.

4.    Chocolate

The myth: fatty and filled with sugar. And of course anything that tastes wonderful should be bad right?

The truth: Dark chocolate is the key. It contains antioxidants that seem to help with blood-thinning, another good thing for your heart.  “Researchers in Switzerland reported that eating dark chocolate (1.4 ounces of it) every day for two weeks reduced stress hormones, including cortisol, in highly stressed people.”

5.    Coconut Oil

The myth: High in saturated fat and hated by those who diet.

The Truth: Not all fats are created equal. There is good fat and bad fat. Truly. Coconut oil is made of medium-chain triglycerides, fats that can be metabolized faster than the long-chain variety found in other oils like sunflower. “They’re rarely stored as fat because the body prefers to use them for energy,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.  Good saturated fats such as those you find in coconut oil, animal fat, (butter, lard, tallow) are the carriers of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and are needed to convert carotene to Vitamin A. Good fats will also help your body incorporate calcium into your skeletal structure, protects your liver from alcohol and toxins (yes that’s why they say eat oily food when you drink) and enhance your immune system. Lastly, these fatty acids have antimicrobial properties that protect you from harmful microorganisms in the gut.

Now here are some health food you should be wary of.

Sources:  

http://www.eatingwell.com “Bad Foods you should be eating” 

http://www.menshealth.com “Junk Food that’s Good for you”

Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions

Photo from: http://blog.soliditytrade.com/dark-chocolate-prevents-damage-from-strokes/

Breaking Through

Why do you stay in prison when the door is wide open?” –Rumi’

But I could give you so many answers to that question.

Because I like it inside.

Because I am terrified of stepping out.

Because this sadness is so large and intense, it climbs up and then hovers over me: like a gray cloud that will not depart even with the wind blowing. 

You wake up without a reason to be born, preferring sleep. Drive around in your car, deliberating whether the windshield’s unwashed because the day’s engulfed in gray. You desperately want to be rid of the heaviness that gnaws at you, clutches at your heart and drags you down. Into a sinkhole. You feel stuck. You brood. Grieve over the bits and pieces that are trying to break free. Mope over the strangeness that’s now calling for attention. And there are days when brooding and being stuck is what you want and so you don’t seek sunlight or the open. And the prison, the cloud, the grays are bosom buddies and so you stay in your thick haze, cocooned. 

I did not want to write you a cliché. I wanted to put it in black and white, my prison time stripped naked of flowery words, rainbows and sunshine. I would have. I began writing months ago. Except that the muses wouldn’t let me finish then. I kept having to rewrite, evolve tenses and recast pronouns, jump paragraphs, until I could hit on a worthwhile ending.  

Because life refuses to leave you there- cocooned, wet, cold, holed up in your darkness. Help comes. It does. Someone sees you. You see yourself. A book falls. An angel calls. You see your children as though for the first time. And cliché, the mists recede, you break through, and bit by bit the light returns.

It fascinates me to no end that seeds germinate under a mantle of darkness. Or, that a child is born emerging from a pitch-black hole, through shooting pain, coated in goo. And it’s the same narrative every time: the raising of Lazarus; the resurrection; spring. Or that diamonds are created out of intense burning underneath the earth’s crust. And that the bulging worm inside the chrysalis needs to digest itself in its own soup before it can shoot wings.

But until you are stuck doing figure eights or find yourself 6 feet underground, cocooned for weeks, and swimming in your own gunk, you won’t get it.

And so despite writhing in agony, I am writing you a cliché. The process of transformation unfailingly begins with decay. Evolution is set in motion by a crisis. (In fact the word crisis comes from the Greek krisis or a decisive point.) First a fullness, and then a slip, then withering, a steep decline, followed by numbness, and the stripping of colors. It is messy. It is dark. It is lonely.

But something happens in the isolating darkness.   Seeds germinate, the diamond embarks on its alchemy, Lazarus lives, the worm remembers how to wear wings, and the heart beats for the first time. Because just when it gets so dark and you feel so dead, your eyes adjust, the heart remembers a split second of joy. You see your children playing under a patch and it’s that ray of sun. And you will want to confront the suffocating prison, the gray cloud, and the starless pit.

And so it comes to pass.

You, you glorious being behind bars, numb or thinking yourself dead, unable to see through the mist, slogging through the gray, cocooned: life has not forgotten you. The pit has a bottom. Help comes. The steep decline curves up.

And the door’s wide open when you are ready to see.

Homemaker, Mover, Shaker

morning-breath-cartoonThere we were again, the first ones to arrive. They called us the “Desperate Housewives.” We were all the time too early for dinner. Every one else would arrive late. They were shuttling to and fro and a prestigious job does not end early. One housewife desperately speaks:

“I had dinner with college friends the other day. One is now head honcho of this multinational firm. The other has made her way up the ladder too. I’m thinking my life has not moved much in 10 years. I am still just at home, keeping house.”

And so I declared: “You are raising two human beings. You want a stamp of achievement? I tell you I have a madhouse when Laguna announces a school holiday and my kids have to stay home all day. (She’s a mother of 2. And she home-schools her children.) You, you are mother, housewife, teacher, and school! That’s as top a honcho and up a ladder as anyone can get.”

Though I too recognize how often we undervalue Motherhood and Homemaking. How we tend to downgrade the noteworthy enterprise of keeping house.

We put much value on work that is done outside the home, measure stature by pay and certificates or gauge worth by the hierarchical scale. Except, mothers and homemakers have to see how they measure up too.

You work overtime, even on night shifts, with no Sabbath day.   Every vacation leave implies a trip with the bosses, homemaking with just a change of scenery. And someday you imagine you might retire, except that there will always be one last thing to do, and you’re eternally on call. You do the whole lot- from making policy to picking up trash. And you are chairman of the board, secretary, human relations officer, accountant, cafeteria, doctor, inventory manager, and quite often, janitor. And maybe your tank gets full with kisses, hugs and unconditional love, but outside the home, it doesn’t bear its weight in gold. You still count these as nothing. You are in the same place ten years after with nothing to show for. Except that you have raised a kind hearted soul who can now draw you perfectly with crayons. Why can’t you put that in your resume?

At a gathering the other day, we were asked to say a few words about ourselves. I admire and applaud a friend who said: I am a mother to 2 boys. And when the host pressed on and asked: “ASIDE from being a mother, what DO YOU DO?” She proudly declared again: “I am a mother to 2.”

And truly, the occupation is Mother/Homemaker, with nothing to append. What becomes of homes, what becomes of human beings, those are the tasks that should upstage any man at the top. Schedules, grocery lists and recipes- that’s an unrivalled Operations Manual. Paying attention to what world a child takes in and wrestling with the distorted world that escapes anyway- that calls for more than just knowing supply and demand. And that we are the starting point, “the bow that sends forth living arrows,” to the men who will later climb ladders and stay at the top, I say that trumps them all.

Let us do ourselves proud. It’s 10, 20 years after and we are still at home but we have quite outdone ourselves. We’re still clocking in hours without rest days and holidays, without pay checks or certificates of recognition, nothing on the 13th month, not even retirement pay. Except we show up for work everyday, with our suitcases of lists, the sheer force of love, and a glimmer that perhaps someday, everything bears its true weight in gold too.

We are the world’s movers and shakers. The first ones there, yes we are.