The Art of Slow Travel

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I wanted to go places. I saw to my bucket list then: Rome, Florence and Venice, Madrid and Barcelona, and London. I must have visited the Duomo. I have a hazy picture of pigeons atop my head.  Perhaps I was in Florence.  There’s a snapshot of the Arno river and I imagine I saw David. But that holiday was a flurry of sites and scenes.  And the only vivid memory I have is running after a train, the stuffed Samsonite with a busted zipper on my back.

And then I learned how to take a trip down memory lane. It isn’t that iconic spot. It isn’t the must-see, the X you marked on your guidebook. Those, you accomplish for pictures that end up on the pianoforte.  It’s not even the towers and gargoyles, or the river running through it. Your moment there would often be swift, as you follow the crowd to the next must-do. And if not for the snapshot, you won’t even remember being there.

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Instead, you will remember people. Look back on your night out with the locals, as they shucked and hurled oyster shells to the floor. And recall that for breakfast, your friends mopped the bread with olive oil and a slice of tomato, and then sprinkled it with rock salt. You will remember feelings. Summon pain and discomfort, the uncertainty of being lost. When you entered the side street so you’re neither on your marked trail nor will you ever find Shakespeare and Co. But that you were wet and cold, and that this was the square where you first saw a musician begging for coins. How you scalded yourself in the shower because the dials said C for hot. Or how the peppers metamorphosed to a sweet cream as it hit your tongue. And you will remember life stories. Think of the harsh life of the Fjord that made for stunning sceneries but left you shivering and reeking of fish.

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And so began my art of slow travelling. I would search out sleepy hamlets or villages with narrow streets. I stayed put, opting for two places (instead of 5) for two weeks, settling on an easy romance instead of a whirlwind affair. Stayed in B&Bs, cottages and working farms, so I could linger with the hosts for breakfast, and then toast with them at night.  Sketched out routes but took to beguiling side streets, or wandered aimlessly. Sat on benches or dallied in squares, returned smiles or chatted with strangers. I’d try to catch people on their way to work, ogling the men with their hats, who gulped Prosecco and aperol in place of coffee. And I’d go on a hunt for little restaurants where the husband cooks while his wife and children serve you large platters of what wasn’t in the menu but in the garden. And then I’d explore the village market, squares with old ladies and their shopping trolleys, listen to them banter about le pâté and les paupiettes, while I’m gaping at the half-alive bird hanging by its blue feet. I’d make my way around town by foot, or journey to little known places in buses and trains like the locals do. There, I would glimpse the everyday life of a stranger. And sometimes, I would do nothing at all.

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And as I stopped looking at my maps and must-lists, I reshaped my relationship to a place and to time. It pays not to follow the way of the crowd.  What you lose in photographs of hyped-up destinations and tick-off lists, you earn in real time.  Because now I have a sense of a place by its village square.  I know what they have for breakfast and what they do after lunch. Why they decorate the rooftops with storks and nests, or why the yearly Mistral determines the shape of windows. The way they haggle over truffles like gold. How they have put an end to dairy farming after 100 years, desperate for a vacation just like I do. How cuckoo clocks were born out of bored farmers in wintertime.  Why the Italian fancies a Filipina wife and if I could please find him someone to love?  There’s quite just one language for humanity. Everywhere, people will marvel at the different life you have. Everywhere, there’s a story to tell, and a story to hear.

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You don’t have to empty your bucket list or see those 100 places before you die. There is time, when it is spent slowly. Find a place, know it well.  Map it out, get lost too. Delight in the familiar, get a kick out of the unexpected.  Make plans, disobey them. And then earn the true stories, the goodness of people, the soul of a place: and take it home with you. You will see how time stands still. And you can keep walking.

“A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.” Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

If I had dinner with the Presumptive President

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You know how it is when the only thing on the table is bitter gourd? And you don’t eat gourd. And so you gulp it down with water, and then put on a false front, that lingering taste still in your mouth?

Well that’s how I feel about the president elect. I am without choice except to graciously accept that this is what’s on the table, and I’ll have to shove it down my throat the next 6 years. And yet, I am willing to hang around. Sit. Sometimes, it takes more than just a bite to have a taste for something. You need to nibble, chomp and grind your teeth. I wonder if I could hack my taste and begin to like what I currently dislike.  And my fellow citizens (at least 40% of them) will say I can’t have my democracy cake and eat it too.

And so if I had the honour of dinner with the presumptive president, I might say this bit:

[If you hate dissent, the kind that holds your President as a public servant and accountable, please do not read beyond this line.]

We are your sovereign.  All your authority emanates from us. You said so yourself. Thus, please stand for us. Think, feel and then act carrying that mandate we have granted to you.  Hand over the reins of our most vital departments to those who will embody our aspirations, they be friend or foe. That power belongs to you for now. Change the crumbling institutions at the core. Do not let it be a mere changing of the guard.

Ease away from that leadership that claims force or the threat of hanging will keep us in check, and hand you a peaceful country (in chains.) Trust us enough. Stop hammering into our heads that we are in dire need of watching over. You do not want a docile yet compliant citizenry.  Instead, inspire us to our highest possibilities.  There may be the lawless and the stray among us, but be a shepherd, not the wolf.

I implore you, think twice before you pronounce the curbing of personal autonomy with more bans and curfews, or a return to death penalty. Some of us take you on your word. Seriously. And for us, these as shackles on the very freedom we shed blood and offered rosaries for.

Hear the pulse of the land before leading us further into more and more restraints on civil liberties. For y I dare say our greatest threat is poverty; our greatest peril, corruption. And often, poverty begets crime. Let us begin then by combating destitution. Embark on staking out the bigger thieves. Then perhaps, peace and order will follow.

Ours is a republic with 3 co-EQUAL branches of government. You are the executive. We do not have a monarchy or a dictatorship. Not just yet. And so the Senate, the House, the Judiciary, they remain equal to you. They will tell you when you do wrong. You can tell them when they do wrong. Please do not padlock them if you feel ridiculed or if you don’t get your way.

The Legislature enacts the laws, you execute (and please not by hanging) them.  And if someone does wrong, the People of the Philippines will take them to the court, and the Judiciary will apply the laws of our land. Please do not determine guilt or crime. Not you.  Not your police.

Policemen may justifiably use proportionate force to repel force, proportionate violence to repel violence. But please do not nonchalantly proclaim they can “shoot to kill” if a criminal resists arrest. The legal authority to take someone into custody is a powerful charge. But that same power can be gravely abused. Especially when armed. Most especially if they are already exonerated for a homicide they have yet to make.

Also remember one is not a criminal. Not just yet. Until beyond any reasonable doubt, the People of the Philippines have proven him guilty. Until then, he is suspect. No matter what your own investigation says. Despite probable cause. And yes, I subscribe to that despite the number of felonious people tramping the streets. My right to life, liberty and property depends on it.

And I know you take these liberties to heart too. We’ve set them in stone, enshrined in our Constitution. That supreme law you swore by as a public servant. The same law you will swear by, as you assume your high seat.

Lastly please,  grant me my right to freely speak.  I come to the table. Hoping you are not going to lord it over me, with the same iron fist that propelled your campaign.

Because when you do offer me lasting change on a platter, I will graciously eat humble pie.

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.” ~ John Lennon

Election Post Mortem: Multiple Parties, Personality and Patronage Politics

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A race of five with shifting affiliations caused confusion; drove us mad; and now, no more than 30% of us got to station a new president.  We are in dire need of a political system (or the lack of any system) reform.  I am not sourgraping.  But see, the will of the people shouldn’t be a mere 30% of the voting populace. That is not a representative majority. In any other contest, a majority vote is 50% or more.  It wasn’t the new President’s fault.  It was the outcome of a political system of multiple parties, with temporary alliances and no clear-cut agendas. I daresay, ours is a malfunctioning system of personality-based, even money-based politics. We don’t vote for platforms. We have fan clubs. Did we even know what their parties stood for? I didn’t. Was anyone able to articulate a clear agenda, representative of a people?  I don’t know. Perhaps there was. But I was fumbling up to the finish. A platform may have been buried under the pile of persona or mudslinging. And how can we trust a candidate when they kept turning coat?  Leaders who pledge allegiance and then jump ship when the tides turn. I couldn’t keep up with the party names.  Gave up. Somehow, the party is a now mere name that grants one a bandwagon, perhaps a loot bag. Except that a true political party should serve as a link between the state and its people. In a perfect world, parties would recruit members who aspire to their ideals, formulate goals and programs, create public discourse and a political culture, and if they gain the vote, organize government.  But not here. Not in our political non-system. We have temporary alliances. Unstable coalitions. Multiple ones too. Agendas to gain a foothold, and then keep it. And support based on patronage (and sometimes pork.) Perhaps that is why our politicians behave the way they do.  Really, we don’t cast our vote based on party platforms or a program of government. We vote for the most flamboyant personality. How many actors do we have for statesmen? We have taken “popular” vote to heart. And so what about a government by the people? I think, a functioning democracy needs a functioning party system. If we had real parties, they would have screened our numerous candidates for us and then presented us with the one best qualified to serve. Instead, what we have are a myriad of party names that seemingly represent the interests of the prevailing elite and not really ours. The common lament during the elections was that “I didn’t have a choice.”  And I reckon we would have had that choice- if we clamoured for political party reform, years before and not in the last hour. Our politics, the one that runs on personality, patronage and the amount of money at one’s disposal, might have undermined our sovereignty. We had a few real options (or perhaps did not know enough for a pragmatic choice.) Some only had the least evil to pick. And so they did.

Dearest 16 year old self

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  1. Eat bread. Bacon. Chocolate. Take ample portions. Your body will eventually tire of burning fat. But not yet.
  2. Wear leather, the bicycle shorts, your teeny bikini. “Put it on until you’re 34 ~Nora Ephron” Yes now, when you’re still a sylph.
  3. Burn the phone lines, you’ll never have that same abundance of time doing nothing.
  4. Be friendly with the boys. One day, all they will think about is getting you in bed. But today, they think you’re a goddess paying them heed, giving them goose-bumps.
  5. Play that game with your little brother. Even if he chopped off Barbie’s hair.
  6. Delight in having your mom at the breakfast table, and your family complete.
  7. Don’t settle on Legal Management for your Bachelor’s Degree. Take literature or Philosophy instead.
  8. The friends and the memories stay. They will lift you through toil and trouble, or help you die laughing.
  9. Dance on stage, at every party, on that ledge, at every turn.
  10. We won’t have flying cars by 2000. Don’t sell the Combi.
  11. You’re still going to remember every word of that song 25 years later. (Don’t throw out the vinyl either.)
  12. No one keeps their heart in one piece, love anyway.
  13. You’re going to be besotted with your children. And you’re going to doll them up in pink. I swear by it.
  14. Love recklessly. It’s the whirlwind way to undergo the full brunt of life’s colors and darkness. It’s harrowing, it’s daunting, it’s blissful, it’s exquisite, and you’ll be beside yourself with joy.  And here’s a little secret: a broken heart actually swells.
  15. Boobs are overrated.
  16. Don’t worry now about being skinny. Trust me.
  17. The clothes will still matter someday. The mania doesn’t end in high school.
  18. Try not to hurry. You’ll work that 8 hour shift someday. Not yet. Today, sit in the hut. Hang out at the parking lot. Laugh till your sides hurt. Drink Bartles and James. Light the fire.
  19. You may obsess about what to wear and cheering practice. Saving the world will never be as easy as it is today.
  20. Pay no heed to what anyone says about your mother. Or you. It doesn’t add up to or portend anything unless you make it so.
  21. Some Kind of Wonderful doesn’t cut it in real life. Try Goonies instead.
  22. Being in that infamous group, standing out, writing that controversial article, or watching a movie in your uniform, won’t spell the end of it for you. Even if your mother was called to the Disciplinarian’s office twice.  Instead, it will set the course of your life. Have faith.
  23. Invest in a company called Apple.
  24. You don’t have to blend in. Be the lone nut dancing in the room. If you dance it well, someone will follow.
  25. Love- that corny thing -is actually hot.
  26. It’s all right to miss a Kundirana concert.
  27. You can’t have enough books.
  28. Don’t bother learning how to find a book in the library. Don’t buy an encyclopedia. Everything will be up in the Cloud. I’m not kidding.
  29. Listen to your gut. That hairstyle and spray net are bad for you.
  30. Be fearless about dispensing kindness. The well never runs out.
  31. You will have a voice. Speak your truth. It matters to some, it makes a difference to you.
  32. You’ll treasure the dark bits and shadowy times. These will be your badges of honor. And stories to tell.
  33. They’re often not the man of your dreams. But they will be your teachers.
  34. Take that road and find your own way. You don’t need to drag anyone there. Except you won’t be alone. You will meet fellow travelers. Companions too.
  35. And perhaps just this, life is always too short.

“Non, je ne regrette rien.” –Edith Pilaf

You Can Bet the Farm

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They say: “You’re living my dream.” They have fantasies of moving to the country and growing their food. They picture sitting in the patio nestled in green with a breakfast of just-hatched orange yolk eggs, a salad of sun-warmed tomatoes, or a fluffy omelet of just picked herbs and arugula.  They imagine waking up to the chirping of birds, the whiff of fresh air, and then tending to the sprouts in the garden with a nice straw hat and a cotton tee. Later, they will sit in their lawn chair and sip iced tea made from the climbing blue vine, take an afternoon nap, and then read a homesteading book in a cozy garden nook, with magnificent dragonflies dancing.

Not.

This idyllic life does not exist. Alright I’m eating just hatched golden eggs. But to get to that, I rouse to 7 roosters crowing- when the sun rises. And right, I do get a crisp salad with the colors of the rainbow. But to get to lunch, I need to get a whiff of manure, listen to the hens every clucking minute as they lay the golden egg, and the dragonflies? They dance alongside flies the size of of raisins. There’s no sound of quiet. Instead there is a cacophony of: the bee humming; the noisier buzz of the fly who deems best to buzz in my ear; the white noise of the grass cutter; someone sawing and hammering; workers chattering (and playing sad love songs); alright a bird chirping; and chickens squawking. So what, if backyard chickens are the new “it” pet?

Honestly, someone has to lay it bare. And who else but a girl from the city who married into farming and is now living with 70 chickens and 4 compost heaps.

Like you, I didn’t think farming required such drudgery and dirt. My father was a farmer. Well, a farmer from Negros, where hacienderos didn’t do a great deal except have long conversations about vast landholdings over gin and and hunt the fields. And like you, I fancied a countryside home with a kitchen garden.  Except that there’s a huge gap between browsing through hipster farm pictures and shovelling compost.

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First, you will never have your garden back. The chickens will scratch and dig up your lawn and even your ornamental plants. The chicken coop is only cute on Instagram. It’s dark and messy, and it has you breaking your back every day as you clean it. And months before I got my leafy beds of turmeric, corn, okra and eggplant, or the climbing vines of squashes and beans, I lived in misery. I would stare at beds that resembled burial mounds, and mourn a garden that was now a dirt yard with black seedling trays. You can dream all you want, but that pumpkin won’t turn into a coach. It won’t even become a pumpkin so easily.

Second, no one gardens with a nice straw hat and a pretty shovel. (Even when my yard work consists of just weeding and keeping the garden neat and trim.) You need to wear pants and long sleeves or you’re all bites and scraped knees. You don’t wear flip flops or nice boots either. It’s the cheap water-resistant ones you need. The hat is a hindrance and so I’ve cast it for a bandana instead. It’s not for shade, it’s for the leaky faucet on my head.

Third, there’s no hobby farm. Farm life, the one that gives you golden eggs and salad days, is tedious. It’s muddy boots that houses a frog. It’s the same shit on different days. It’s a hallway of dirt tracks, and where tracks lead to the bathroom, to the yard, and back again. It’s a truck, a van, a car caked with soil. It’s a backyard hobby that gets out of control. It’s the whole gamut of an ecosystem: climate change, and soil, and seed, and sapling, and tree and fruit. And while I admit the rewards are worth their weight in golden eggs, still you will need a shitload (pun intended) of patience, some tears, the ringing of ears, muscle power and spotted legs.

And so this is my advice to you: urban dweller, city kid with a tract of land somewhere, hipster, or another gal who wants to save the world one food garden at a time: To embrace this idyllic life, you will need grit and you will need soul. You’ll need to be bitten hard by the farming bug. And I know the hubby will shoot me for nipping some people’s farming dreams, but I daresay: before throwing it all for the farm life, try it first. Muck around with it.  Don’t quit your day job until your feet are long wet. Perhaps spend days in a working farm, the School of Hard Knocks. Try ingesting the daily rhythms of a farm life (try ingesting the dung too.) If there’s no way to volunteer or apprentice, start with a small parcel and befriend soil and sweat. Small and slow. Do it for a year or two. Then, you’ll know if you’re infected by the bug and if eggs are worth all the trouble; if you prefer flocks to your gadgets; or collecting eggs to collecting antiques; or the bitter smell of manure to air-conditioning.

Your gut will know. And especially, your heart will know if it’s the right place. You should yearn for it the way you crave black coffee or the sea. The way you don’t mind a racing heart and being revved up all day. The way you won’t mind sunburn and welts, or stings and sand mites. I have a husband whose eyes light up when he sees a brood of chickens, and whose nose will follow the scent of manure anywhere. He wakes up at 4:00 AM to shovel earth, and yes he yearns for it like an exquisite cup of coffee. Otherwise, throw away well laid-out plans for the vegetable beds, let the farm go, and return to watching nice farm videos.

And I’ll bet the farm on this one.

Bird in the Hand: On Daughters and Swift Time

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My daughter just turned 11. She’s stretched so tall; she seems to be sprouting wings.  She now stares at me each time I mispronounce a word from the storybook. I can see the dimming in her eyes.  My mama isn’t perfect. My younger daughter asks me a question. She pricks her ears up. And I could no longer guess or hatch a plot. She’s listening for the truth. Hanging on to my word. “Does my mother truly know, or is she merely making things up?”

I lent her my phone. Deleted YouTube and Safari and yet permitted her Viber. Sometimes I see her messaging her friends. They label it SCOOPS. I humor myself. It’s literature and cute, and she’s learning letters.  But I’ve been quite erratic about how much free rein or restraint I give. On some days, she’s rid of a mother bird looking over her shoulder.  On other days, I wrestle with: have I granted her too much autonomy? Her wings are unfettered, and too soon.

How do you choreograph this brand new dance?  And I’m afraid my books only supplied me enough wisdom till the 10th mark. She seems neither child nor adult. Not yet an adolescent. She’s a sapling. Slender and too young and yet quite ready for transplanting. She’s grown wings and if she stepped farther away from our nest, I know she could fly. Clumsily onto a branch, wing her way into the garden, but then flit back again.

She still plays make-believe. Today she invented a wizard and witch school. She’s wearing make-up. Her eyes are perfectly lined with kohl; her eyelids shadowed a misty blue. I don’t own lipstick. Where did that misty blue shadow come from? Who taught her how to paint herself like that?

I teach her math. She giggles at my mistakes. Shows me how to do long division.

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Already she’s discovering worlds on her own. Already there are tricks that are were not mine to teach. Lessons where I was not the teacher.

She still believes in St. Nicholas.  I wondered about that. Wondered whether she had a hint, or if she was merely bluffing for a trinket inside her stocking. And yet her eyes still sparkled as she reached down and pulled up a toy.  I see her playing with it. Her dolls still talk. They have tea. She still fabricates them a bed and cucumber eye patches so they can wake up without eye bags. And when we paint, she still colours her trees with leaves of rosy peach and her sky is a sapphire blue streaked with orange.

This life with her is rare, and short, and miraculous. The clock ticks, our world spins, and it’s another turn around the sun.

I’m afraid next year my little bird will take wing higher and farther.  Someday she’ll be hopping off to the piercing call of the bird next door. And her face painting will metamorphose to plumage feathers for a courtship ritual. Perhaps next year would be a year without Santa or talking dolls.

I don’t know what to do then.  She will glide, spread her wings, and soar. Off to try trainer bras and even longer division. Off to learn about the world of dolled-up people who drink tea. Off to master the piercing call of the bird next door who might pierce her heart.

But I pray I’ve woven enough of magic and the sacred into her tapestry of life. That I’ve stitched and knotted and glued it tightly with wisdom, and compassion, and bravery. And that she remembers a nest that was carefully built with reverence, tied with laughter (and tears,) and cushioned with a whole lot of mud and feathers. And that wherever she soars, she will find that the trees are always praying with their rosy peach branches and that the sky remains a shimmering sapphire.

My daughter is 11 and she’s sprouting wings.

 

Caption This

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“The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.” –Annie Dillard

Except no one looks about for pennies anymore. We make our way, merely glancing, inattentive, the phone in our hand.

My 8-year old showed off her wrist. I muttered: “Oh nice, sweetheart.” Somehow she knew I was replying on auto-pilot so she raised it higher and announced again: “Mama, LOOK!” And then I spotted it, a dainty daisy chain, wrapped around her wrist like trimmings on Christmas.

We’re missing the pennies cast on all sides from a generous hand.   

I could tell what this is. It’s the mania to immortalise every fragment of my charmed life with a photograph. And the only time I am free of this mad scramble for a snapshot and the obsession to caption it, is when I’m up in the air, switched to airplane mode. Then I could make out angels on clouds, feast on the gloaming sky, and marvel at my daughter, as she strings her daisy chain. 

We strolled up a hill. The trees bended gracefully and I could frame every scene with overarching branches. A thick canopy cradled the harsh midday light, granting me otherworldly shots of a seeming forest trail. Picture-perfect. I snapped a photo of my 11-year old. “Mom!” she bellowed. Shoot, because that would have been incredibly composed: a forest backdrop on a dirt road with the sun beaming on all the right places. 

Now I don’t remember much of the hike but for the path my phone took. I missed the forest for the trees. I’m wandering off-the-beaten paths with a filter. And so what of the songbird or the whispering trees as they cradled the sun? What of the scent of burning wood, as a lone hut built a fire pit for lunch? And what of my 8-year old who climbed up a slope, skidded and had only a stranger to hold her hand?

This world is awash with color, texture, scents and sounds, and pennies we miss with wide open eyes.

I’m floating past trails, past the trees and my daughters, past life itself, by the iPhone in my hand and the blinders it has erected over my eyes. My memory up the hill is patchy and incomplete. Marred by this need to exist and be validated in virtual space. And as I zoomed in and cropped, I missed the vastness of the world I walked on, of what happened in the distance and even of what happened on my path. On top of that, I am endlessly on a pilgrimage, off to see new worlds, writhing and whirling to leave home. Over there is a brand new caption, another filter to play with, another fragment of a life to curate. And if I didn’t frame it in a border, I wasn’t there.

My little one is in the garden with snips of flowers, a rock she decrees is a crystal, and burnt sienna leaves. She’s on a wooden stool, immersed in a world she has created. She pronounces herself Chef. My mouth waters. I am tempted to take a snapshot. Here it comes. This mania, this addiction to give proof of life in a virtual world. Except this time, I break free. Disconnected from the Net and connected to my child’s incredible world of “Tindlenut” soup with shredded buds and dried-up nuts. I could now overhear her humming, as she stirs flowers in a clay pot, kindling sienna leaves for fire. She serves me Instagram worthy Tindlenut soup, accented with a bamboo stick and on the fringe- a juice of tiny purple flowers. And then once more, this pull, this lure, the bait for the Net. “Take a photo or the moment’s gone!” But no, I yearn to see this unfiltered world in front of me and no longer through a looking glass. I want this immense, wild, and unbounded world. This life as it lives through me. And I want to be in it.  Not as an onlooker, and neither as a hashtag nor a caption. The moment is here, I lived through it. My proof of life.  

And perhaps tomorrow I will be reeled in again, float, and partake of moments veiled or refined by a filter. But today I am ravenously devouring Tindlenut soup and sipping purple nectar. And I will sup on this entrée and not tarry until after a photo’s been snapped.

Because today, I am collecting pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.

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.

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.

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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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

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

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.)

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

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?”

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

On Lawlessness and the Saint of the Gutters

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I wanted to say fear begets fear. Violence begets violence.  All the same, that wouldn’t achieve anything to undo the thousands dead, whether by the hands of our police, the lawless or even ourselves.

The deed is done, the doers undone.

Terror means the “instilling of fear.” And if this consuming fear besiege us, we will fight back with more violence or fly back into the solitude of our gated homes.

Our President has just declared our entire state as without the rule of law. He may call on men in uniform, to “the country according to [his] specifications.”  A state of lawlessness is a pronouncement that we are without any civic order and that we may need soldiers to battle against anarchy.

This bombing, this explosion, is shaking us awake.  But instead of waking up, the bombing is inflaming our fears, our distrust, our prejudices, and our sense of insecurity. It is terrorizing us. And If the intention of those who bombed Davao and killed 14 was the sowing of fear, the hatred, and the warring of all sides; then they have already won.

And yet this shouldn’t be our story. This isn’t the narrative one yearns for.  Wasn’t our strongest suit our big-heartedness as a people? The EDSA revolution is still the world’s exemplar for a peaceful revolution. Isn’t it our very people’s compassionate hands that care for the world’s sick and elderly? And aren’t we the most merciful people in the planet? 

It is uncanny that on the same day our headlines proclaim our country in a state of “lawless violence,” the same headlines trumpet Mother Teresa of Calcutta, as “saint of the gutters.” 

[Mother Teresa] was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded…She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity. She made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created… ~Pope Francis

And so, there is another way. There can be a lance of light in the gutters. How do we duel with thousands murdered in a “state of lawlessness?”

The root word of courage is “couer” the Latin word for heart. Courage asks us to take heart. To cleave to love as a force. Do not take out your swords from its sheaths, your guns from the armoury, or build higher gates.  Instead, find the good, the God-given dignity, in every man, woman and child. Speak and listen from the heart. Ask why. Why this conflict? What is at the core of this senseless waste of life? Where do we find the common ground?

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Photo credit: Philippine Daily Inquirer

Our narrative should be about awakened compassion.  Rage, aggression, condemnation, or finger-pointing, this is not our story. Terror leads us to the temptation of condemning others, with yellow armies and fist-fights, with proving who is right and who is wrong.  Darkness cannot cast away darkness. Hate cannot cast away hate. How can evil be the necessary path to crime free streets? We are what we make. And so we need to cease hunting and make our way searching for truth and social justice.  We need to desist critiquing the absence of humanity in others, and then unearth our own capacity for empathy and compassionate action.

This is how we can rewrite our story.  This is the same way we have battled and tamed every storm that has come our way.  This is the same way we stood up to each conqueror, dictator and tyrant we have come up against.

And so let your love stream through. Have courage. And take heart.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Small Things, Everyday Deeds, Ordinary Folks, and The Darkness at Bay

Another mass shooting incident. I thought: “what a dark world to wake up to.” The urge was to curtain off and shut it out. Lay the blame on their social order, the easy access to guns, the numbing violence, flawed ideologies, or raving madness.  Sigh and lament the loss of life and a world gone mad, and then go about my day like clockwork.

Over crepes and coffee, a friend sketched out to us the LGBT world, a realm we don’t see or are too indifferent to see. We listened in surprise and shock. There’s another side to the world we live in: cloaked; with those living in the fringes; a vast chasm from my brightly-lit home. Once again, sigh and lament, and then arrive home to the safe space of this bright screen.

Heinous crimes and shadowy worlds: they loom large but stay veiled and far removed from me that I can stay put, carry on being and life goes on.

Because how do I, quite sheltered in a brightly-lit home, fix a broken world? My home has 5 damaged bulbs and a leaking roof. Today my 11-year-old had to wear tight shoes to school because once again, I forgot to buy her a new pair. Already, it is broken, it is imperfect, it is flawed where I live.  How can I dare fix what’s outside my door?

The world is so damn big; I am utterly helpless. I can choose to stay small.

Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. ~Marianne Williamson

How can I shut it out, look the other way, pretend humanity shooting humanity never happened?  This is our world. It is the world of heinous crimes, the world of shadows, the world where fear is bent on conquering all.

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Photo: Getty

But what am I to do, when the world shifts and it shifts in epic proportions and I am the small, helpless spectator who only wakes up, attends meetings, and sips coffee while she writes? Who is responsible for healing the death of humanity, the separateness, the ungodliness?  Pray tell, what is good, what is evil?  What ails the world? Where is the Holy Grail?

Should I begin championing LGBT rights, or take up arms against arms? I don’t know how to do that. I will be lost in that world. I do not know how to fight a war.

What I do know is write, raise my children with soul, care for the land and earth, and channel this unmerited grace to words about wonder, and compassion, and goodness.  And while I can’t be on the streets wearing rainbow colors or waging war, I can in my teensy-weensy world of white screens and brightly lit homes, paint the rainbow too.

And perhaps this is all we are called to do?  This is our quest for the holy grail. Pull off small feats where you are planted, where you are called, and where your work finds roots or sprouts wings.  Not in Congress lobbying for equal rights or a gun policy (unless that’s what you do best) but in lobbying for run-of-the-mill, ordinary, everyday lives that are true, beautiful and good. That we wake up, walk the earth, and in the middle of our own roads, shine our souls. Be shafts of light in shadowy places. We are in a position to make ripples; however minuscule that first drop will be. Not to fix the entirety of this immense world, but its pieces, those parts within our reach.

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Picture: Reuters

We can choose fear, and stay small. Close the shutters, stay home, staring at the virtual white screen. “Shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire.” Leave the world to the hands of fate and shadows.

Or we can have a hand in the unfolding of this shifting world.  Show up. Shine our soul. Channel grace. However unremarkable a role, however ordinary, however meagre in scale.  You are: a lawyer; a farmer; a mother; you paint imaginary worlds; you build thriving businesses from nothing; you’re a magician in the kitchen; numbers bend to your will; people love you and will follow where you go. What is your genius?  What superpower or even uncanny mutation, have you been blessed with? There is work to fulfil, transforming and healing to be made. We are needed and we could be a beacon, a firelight, a blaze in times like these.

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AP Photo/David Goldman

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.” J.R.R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Photographs and Letters

The way we share today. There’s so much out there. So we don’t bother to sift through the junk. Content to glance at photographs and read the 1, 2 status posts. A picture and a few words seem to be the only medium to get a story told.  A picture, without your thousand words.

Today there was a huge, bright yellow perched on a branch by my window. She was golden, or maybe the color of a daffodil.  She was magnificent I let out a tiny whisper, “oh my.” I wanted to take a photo but she was too far, too fast for my lens.

And then there’s this row of white flowering trees lining my road. I pass through the same path every day and three times already stopped and took a shot.  The trees are filled to the brim with flowers overpowering the leaves that are barely there. Different times on different days I try to capture the glory of trees that bear crisp white stars on silver branches. But I cannot fit the row in my frame and the colors are stark, not subtle and silver like I see on my road.

Then almost everyday since March, the breeze catches a dandelion, and a faint ball of white fuzz, the size of my fist, wafts swiftly by.    How do you take a snapshot of that?

There’s a temptation to take photographs of everything. I’m itching to tell you things. A cloud, 7 dogs playing outside with 20 chickens, the leaves that fall like rain.

Except that there are too many shots I miss. And I could only fit frames in seconds. And instead, moments drift. The dandelion passes swiftly. The bird flies away. The rows of flowering trees won’t tell me their secret in a shot.

And so I write these down instead. I write for me and for sharing a bit of the world that lives in me. Hoping that one day, I am bestowed the gift, lent the Genius, to capture moments in prose, in a thousand words. And that someone somewhere reads them. Without pictures.

The Weakness of Pacquiao

I had envied Manny Pacquiao.  To have had the awe, the reverence and esteem of every Filipino was a formidable gift from the heavens.  Our streets are empty when there is a Pacquiao fight.  In fact, the crime rates go down. Every Filipino is glued to the screen, in wonder and respect, watching their idol battle his foe. But what has Manny Pacquiao done with fame? With his gold and his might? Yes he makes the sign of the cross at every fight and ends with “Praise the Lord” at every win but yet, what gift has he bequeathed to every Filipino who watches his every move?  That having gone from rags to riches, his mother now wears a Birkin?  That his wife has built her dream house? Or that if you have money and fame, you can run for Congress?  Forget that you’re a boxer and the only thing you know about politics are the congressmen who watch your games. And especially, that he neglects the sheer power of his words, quoting the Bible to diminish his fellowmen as worse than animals.

I have often wished Manny Pacquiao would wake up from his fantasy world and realize that his power is not lordship over money and fame, it is not his closeness to his Creator.  His power lies in his capacity to move people to goodness, to greatness, to being more than what they think they are.  To have their own “rags to riches” stories. Not in gold or in the bliss of finally buying your every whim and fancy. Not in another feather in your cap. And especially not in a warrant to say what you will. Those are mere spoils of war. Manny Pacquiao should be an inspiring story about fighting his way out of poverty, of training and perseverance, struggling against adversity, opponent after opponent, and conquering them.  It should be words on the joy of conquering one’s fears and then emerging your battled, weary, and scarred but highest self.  Instead, Pacquiao trivializes his legacy with mansions, a seat in the House, and twiddling with the truth and humanity, as though just another opponent to slaughter.