Of Fire and Faith

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It had been 5 years since I’d visited the Philippines. All this time, I’d had an aversion for my homeland. My last memory of the Philippines was a painful one. I’d gone there with my then boyfriend so we could meet each other’s families. The trip was all a façade and a last ditch effort at a flailing relationship. On the outside we were a picture-perfect couple who was halfway down the aisle. On the inside we were miserable. We’d grown desperate to keep the relationship going and we planned the trip in hopes it would bring us closer together, but instead it drew us further apart.  In the last few days of our trip there, his love for home was reinvigorated, so much so that he broke down in tears. He confessed that he had no wish to get married and build a life in California with me. His heart was there in the Philippines, where his family was. I flew back to the States alone.

I love my country. I love my culture. But that memory alone kept me away from visiting the homeland for so long. I summoned all my courage and decided to return there.

I de-boarded the plane at Ninoy Aquino International Airport and walked into a wall of heat. The air was thick with humidity and the smell of home. Although this wasn’t my first time as a balikbayan, I knew it would take me a couple days to get accustomed to certain things; lack of warm water, using a tabo, being careful with the water I drank, these were things that I had to consciously account for.

Our main agenda was to go to a friend’s wedding in Boracay, do some site-seeing around the capital, and visit my family near Manila in Marikina. Little did I know that I would also spontaneously find myself in Pangasinan and Palawan!

Boracay was beautiful and fun. The 100 Islands in Pangasinan were enchanting. The Underground River in Palawan, now the newest wonder of the world, is a feat of nature. I had a great time at these amazing tourist meccas. But what I really want to share are the moments that transformed me- and those were the times I spent with the local people.

From walking by beggars and street vendors, to spending time with my own family, these were the times that affected me the most and reminded me about why it was so very important to come home.

Every time we’d see the shanty houses balanced on stilts over the water, I’d think for a moment and formulate a plan about how to stop the tremendous poverty of my country.  Seeing high-rise condominiums literally next to such devastating poverty, would break my heart. Did anyone not see the grave contrast? Maybe people had, but had come to the point of growing indifference or feeling that nothing could be done to change it.

I’d think up various schemes of fixing the country: If we put money into rehabilitating the metropolitan areas then we could pump money into tourism, and in turn the money generated there could go towards bettering the quality of living for the poor. But wait- if we fixed the metropolitan areas, wouldn’t we be displacing all the poor people who lived there?

I’d try again and think- maybe if we developed a better welfare system and educate the impoverished with trade skills, they might be able to find a better life. But wait- what about the corrupt government officials? How could we make sure the money went to the right place?

Every time I’d think of a plan, there was always some factor that I hadn’t thought of and I would get discouraged. My heart ached for my brothers and sisters. But the one thing that I admired most was the uncanny and strictly Filipino ability for joyfulness and laughter. Life is so very hard in the Philippines, but everywhere I looked there was a sense of optimism.

Amidst the shanty towns there are gatherings filled with dancing, food and karaoke.  People make do with what they have. They are grateful for the handful of blessings they can call their own. They carry a joy in their hearts that can only come from deep-rooted faith and hope.

We visited a barangay in Pangasinan where the people there prepared lunch for us. I was so touched; they had spent all day preparing the food and spent the very little they had to make a feast for us. They were so very gracious and wanted to wait till we had gotten our fill before beginning to eat their share. We took some members of the barangay on our trip to 100 Islands and they were so happy and grateful to come along.

Towards the end of the trip I went to visit my family. I wasn’t sure how I would feel after not seeing them for 5 years. I hadn’t even gotten off my cousin’s motorcycle when my uncle rushed outside and lifted me off of it and carried me into the house, singing all the while. It made me laugh so hard and made me feel so humbled that I had such a grand welcome.

They put out a whole spread of food in my cousin’s room, which was the only room with AC, just so that we’d be more comfortable. After we ate, we spent the rest of the night, drinking, laughing, doing karaoke and reminiscing on the last time I had visited. Right then, I missed my own immediate family so much, and wished they could be there to share that moment.

Probably the last and most important part of our trip was our visit to the Rizal Museum in Fort Santiago. All this time, I’d been reading up on our national hero, Jose Rizal, and had become fascinated with his life and his role in inspiring Filipinos to revolution.

We saw pages of his diary and various books he’d written and artwork he’d created.  How any one person was so gifted, eloquent and brilliant was just beyond me. Most chilling of all was when we stood outside his prison cell, his last testament was illuminated on the wall:

I have always loved my poor country. And I am sure I shall love her until my last moments, should men prove unjust to me. I shall die happy, satisfied with the thought that all I have suffered, my past, my present and my future, my life, my loves, my joys, everything, I have sacrificed for love her.

I admired this man who was prepared to die for love of his country.  Like any young imperialist conquest, the Philippines had its flaws, but the ambition to be free from colonial rule was fervent and unstoppable. Rizal had hope for this. He was willing to die for this. And as we walked out of the museum and walked his last steps to his execution – I looked beyond the walls of Fort Santiago to the city and saw his dream realized.

In my short time there, I found myself transformed. My country is born of volcanoes, a shifting and twisting land, ever being re-made. I think back on my last trip here and realized what was once a painful memory had now become a time of wonder and clarity. I marvel at the generosity of spirit amongst family and complete strangers. I see not the shanties and beggars, but a defiant hope. One day I pray my people will no longer be slave to staggering poverty. But no matter the fate of my country, I know that its people will continually adapt and transform to their surroundings. We are a people of change. No matter the circumstances surrounding us, within us is always the fire of hope.

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TIME

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I wrote this after a break-up as I impatiently waited for the pain to pass. It was a gentle but firm reminder to appreciate the moment for what it was and not what I longed for it to be.

TIME. The word itself in all its capital glory is ominous. There’s never enough of it, and we are in agony when there’s just too much of it.  At 7.5 years old I was no longer a mere 7 years resident on this earth, I was clearly halfway to being 8. And what eager 20 year old is not already making plans for a monumental 21st birthday? We’re always in a rush to get somewhere else.

We never enjoy where we already are. Sometimes the moment itself is so painful and difficult to climb from, so we launch our thoughts, our actions forward and away, catapulting us and pulling us from the misery.  But why should the passing of time be agonizing to begin with? After all, what is a moment but a collection of minutes? A year, but a collection of months? And time, but a construct of the weary mind? Why should time be so long?

Icarus

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I’ve always had a fascination with the Myth of Icarus. I submitted this piece for a magazine and it unfortunately didn’t make the cut. Some may call that a failure but I believe Icarus would feel differently. Here’s a snippet of that flight.

… Now, more than ever, I think about my fascination with the Myth of Icarus.  It’s so strange because even as a kid, I felt drawn to the story and to the image of this boy flying into the clouds and plummeting into the sea. Later in middle school, my teacher showed us the painting of Henri Matisse’s Fall of Icarus. Again this image of this single body falling from the sky greatly affected me. I never understood why until I read Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce, in high school. We had to scrutinize the work for all the different allusions to previous works, one of them pointing to the Myth of Icarus.

I remember thinking what a strange coincidence. I was already enjoying the book because it was chronicling the genesis and evolution of a writer, much like I had imagined I would write about my life. The more I read, the more it hit closer to home.  The protagonist, Stephen Daedalus is torn between appeasing his family by going into a ‘regular’ job, or following his dream to be a writer. His entire life is about his struggle, this ebb and flow between what he wants and what he has to do.

My last and most powerful encounter with this myth was quite recently.  I was staying at a friend’s for the weekend and was paging through a book of artwork by Filipino artists.  I came across the sketches of Fernando Zobel, one of them entitled Icaro.  I stared at it for a long while.  To anyone it could look like scribble, but again, something drew me to it.

Icarus’ father, Daedalus, fashioned the wings from wax for Icarus to help them escape from prison. Daedalus instructed his son not to fly too low, or the water would wet his wings, and not too high, or the sun would melt it away.  Icarus had to fly just at the right height, lest he fall.  But how did Icarus decide to take that flight?

Enthralled by the thrill of flight, he went higher and higher, closer and closer to the sun.  His desire, to go beyond what others could see, was his ultimate downfall.  I long to write, but if I do dedicate myself to this, will I suffer the same fate as poor Icarus? Will the desire to follow my passion melt all sensibility and have me fall away? I look at this story every which way and can see it as nothing but a tragedy. But what would Icarus say?

I’d only ask Icarus one thing, “Was it worth it?” I’d like to think he’d smile and say yes. His story is immortalized as tragedy, and that is how history remembers that flight.  But how would Icarus recount his own journey? I imagine and can only hope that he’d look back on it as a victory. He did what no one would dare to do.  And in doing so, he got to fly through the clouds and see the world like no one else would.

I believe that one moment of freedom could outweigh a lifetime of imprisonment. I believe that one moment of being who you are, could easily outweigh a lifetime of pretending who you aren’t. If all I have is one flight, one moment- let it be this. Let it be every single moment after this. Icarus has made himself known to me ever since I was a child, the image of his flight forever emblazoned on my mind. I’ve spent a lifetime denying who I am, my passions, my beliefs, the only tragedy is not that I plummet into the ocean like Icarus. The tragedy is that I never realize who I am and I never even take that leap of faith.

No one remembers a lifetime. People only remember moments, little spaces of time that change the entire course of their lives. If I can only have this moment to change, let it be this.

The Addiction

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This is the last of my submission to Miami VONA. This may be too revealing but I believe in telling the truth.

I got down on my knees and reached for the stash of pills underneath my bed.  This nightly ritual had become my prayer.  I genuflect before you Prozac, I hope you hear my penance and my prayer.  I rummaged through the buffet of happiness and wondered what my selection would be that evening.  Paxil or Zoloft? I looked at the clock on my wall and it ticked one notch after 2:30 A.M.   It’s so late, do you really want have to take one? It’s been 2 months.  You can do it, you don’t really need it, do you? You’ve been doing so well lately. 

I flipped through the packets and saw one pill at the bottom of the bag without a plastic casing.  I reached for it and examined the small purple pill.  It had a jagged “x” etched onto its side.  Unlike the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills, this one was specifically designed for a purpose higher than that.  It was meant to skyrocket you into the upper echelon, up to the K2 of happiness.  It was meant for Xtacy.  But after you hit that moment of extreme happiness, all you’ll want to do is leap off that mountain without a parachute.

This was a pill I had meant to throw away.  In the last few months of our relationship John and I would take frequent trips up this mountain.  This was our escape.  If our relationship was falling apart, at least we were numbing ourselves to the pain.  It would happen almost every weekend.  We never went to the same dealer twice.  But in the end in didn’t matter because this wasn’t an addiction.  This was a way for both of us to stay up and talk endlessly into the night; the X filled our minds and our mouths with something to talk about, now that we had nothing left to say.

Sex was more like vengeance.  There was no joy.  It was quite literally putting a square peg in a round hole.  I didn’t want to do it.   It had become mechanical for me,  and maniacal for him.  X made me forget that.  And after the high, we’d spend whole weekends in bed, attempting to recover.  The whole weekend, lost to one little pill.

I realized that taking these anti-depressants now was no different than when I was taking the X with John.  I was still leaning.  I was still using something else to make me happy, to make me forget.   I held up the blue Prozac in one hand and the purple X in the other.  I looked at the clock again and it spun faster towards morning.  I grabbed the stash and a pair of scissors.  I went to the bathroom and closed the door behind me and slid down against it.  I stared at the X and the pair of scissors and wondered for a moment what it would feel like to hurt myself.  Would the X play tricks on me and tell me it would feel good to have blood spilling from my wrists? The idea was tempting but X had lied to me before.  John had abandoned me.  No pill could change that now.

I sat up on my knees staring at the open toilet bowl.  I spoke to it.

“Sorry to have to do this to you.  But you’re gonna have to take this whole bag down.  Do you think you can handle that?”

It said nothing.

“Well, it’s one big bag full of happiness.  It shouldn’t be too difficult to swallow.”

I cut open each casing and dumped each of the pills one by one into the toilet.  I wrapped all the casings in a paper towel and stuffed it deep into the trashcan.  I pulled out the X for last.

“Bye ecstasy.  It was nice knowing you.”

I flushed the toilet and watched the rainbow of pills swirl into the septic abyss.   I got up slowly, one knee at a time and reached for the light switch as I walked out.  I looked back at the toilet and spoke again.

“Bye, John.”

I went back to my room and looked for another kind of medicine underneath my bed.  Throughout this whole mess, my journals lay untouched.  It had been months since I’d written.  I picked up my pen and began again.

6 Word Memoirs

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According to popular legend, Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in six words. He brilliantly came up with the following, “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” Smith Magazine took on this idea and spawned a series called 6 Word Memoirs. Six years ago, (yes, six) I stumbled on their website and submitted a couple flash memoirs of my own. I will shush now, as brevity is the soul of wit.

  • Six words? i don’t think i…
  • I think i should be happy.
  • I’ll get there; wherever that is.
  • I really shouldn’t have said that.
  • Not lost, just finding my way.
  • I really should’ve thought this through..
  • “i want to, but i can’t”.
  • Live life to give it definition.
  • Graduated, educated, but nowhere near placated.
  • How to plan for the unexpected…
  • It shouldn’t be this hard.
  • I made all the perfect mistakes
  • To every end, is a beginning.

Happily (N)ever After

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And now, we’re peeling the onion on to the good stuff. I kinda feel like this journey is evolving like the Harry Potter series: at first everything seems pleasant on the outside, but when you dig deeper there’s something dark and sad. Not everything is as it seems.

I will certainly be the first bride to wear pink.  The coordinator said it was good to throw a curveball, give them something they don’t expect.  I smoothed down the front of the wrinkled gown.  We really should have taken more time to iron this.  We just simply ran out of time.  I frowned at the mirror.  My hair was pulled tightly back in a bun.  I looked like a school marm, but it was the easiest way to get the veil to stay firmly in place.  This was not at all how I wanted this to go, but there was no way to change it now.

“Are you ready?” The coordinator asked.

I turned around slowly, “I think so.”

“Here, let me help with your train.”

“Thanks, I don’t really know what I’m doing here.”

“That’s fine, we get that all the time.  You look beautiful.”

She was reassuring me; I knew she’d seen me frowning.  “I bet you’re excited!”

“Sure,” I said timidly.  Now we were both lying.

I gently kicked the inside of the dress to avoid tripping on it and we stood at the doorway.

She put her fingers to her headset and said, “Ok we’re on in 3, 2, 1 – GO!”

I stepped forward into the blinding spotlight.  John stood there, smiling as best he could.  I put my hand out and he gently guided me down the walkway.  We walked down slowly, never once looking at the other, keeping our laser-focus ahead.  The camera flashes were blinding.  I could feel his sweaty palms and I never felt more disgusted.

When it was over he whispered, “I think we have to kiss.”

“That wasn’t part of the plan.”

“It’ll look good.  Besides, they’re all clapping and I think we should do something.”

“Alright then.” I said reluctantly.

We turned to one another and locked eyes.  This was the first we really looked at one another since this whole charade.  My eyes watered.

“I’m really sorry,” he said.

“Me, too.”  I sniffled.

We kissed and the crowd roared with applause.  John guided me down the steps to the backstage area.

“You guys were great! Almost like a real engaged couple! So when is the big day anyway?”

John and I smiled uneasily.

Thankfully, he answered for me. “Oh you know, when the time is right.” He leaned into me and whispered, “I’ll be by to pick up my stuff later.”

I nodded silently.

Backstage, the coordinator helped me out of my dress.

“Are you sure you don’t want to buy this? This is his best wedding collection yet.  I’m sure the designer can give you a very good discount.  I hear you’re close to being married anyway, so good timing!”

I pulled the veil from my hair and undid the bun.  My hair fell into disarray.  I looked into the mirror, my stage makeup melting away.  I slowly slipped off the ring mom had lent me and placed it on the vanity.

“It’s alright.  I don’t think I’ll be needing one anytime soon.”

Walden Pond and the Secret of Life

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Some will wonder if this is a true story and I will be happy to say that is. For this reason, I have changed the name of my male companion and only hope that he thinks of this story as a compliment. Have I piqued your interest? 🙂 Without further ado, here is my visit to Walden Pond.

I wandered through Walden Pond trying to find my date. No, his name was not Henry, nor was it David.

His name was Lucas, and he drove me to Walden Pond Books on Grand Avenue for the second part of our date.  Earlier, we started the evening at an upscale vegetarian restaurant.  Lucas was cleansing his body of all meat and asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing the same, at least for the evening.  I hesitated at first, considering my Filipino carnivorous upbringing.  In my experience, veggies were always on the side of: a side of green beans for your ground beef, veggies (in)side of eggrolls.  But veggies side-by-side and beside itself, seemed absurd.  I eventually agreed to his choice of dining because I wanted to impress him with my worldliness and openness to all things.

I peeked between the aisles of the bookstore. With each step I could hear my stomach growl.  I was hungry.  The white tofu micro-green concoction was hardly a meal.  Lucas chomped heartily and happily about life in the East Coast, while I had done my best to keep my food down and smile at the same time.

And now it seemed he had lost his away amid the stacks.  And I had lost my date.  “This is no way to treat a date,” I grumbled.  But I realized that he had taken me here because he knew I’d enjoy it.  I gave up the search party and began navigating Walden Pond instead.  I crisscrossed from aisle to aisle, scanning the spines and inhaling the damp and weathered smell of years and dust.  I gently took a red leather-bound off the shelf and opened it carefully.  It reminded me of my lolo, my grandfather.  It looked like one of the books he had rescued.

While Manila burned in the midst of World War II and everyone fled the city, my lolo, like a madman, went into the flames and into the Manila public library.  With his bare hands, he gathered all the books he could.  They were handed down to my father, and then eventually to me.

The red leather-bound that I held reminded me of the 1930 Almanac that we frequently referred to while I was growing up.  When we first arrived to the U.S., my brother and I referred to the Star Spangled Banner to help my mom with her citizenship test.  But among the books my favorite was a collection of poetry containing works by Keats, Shakespeare, Shelley and other classic poets.  It lay on my lamp stand and I’d fall asleep to it at night.  It was falling apart at the seams, but it was the sole reminder of a man I’d never known, but whose passion for literature I intimately understood.

What drives a man to walk into an inferno to save books? That sort of madness always intrigued me.  It reminded me of what Jack Kerouac once said, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” I wondered if I could ever have that same, dizzying, self-sacrificing madness.

What I had been doing with my life had been anything but mad.  Just that semester I had dropped my English major.  My parents were worried about my choice of career.  The occupation of ‘writer’ didn’t seem to resonate well at family gatherings.  Aside from that, they were struggling to pay for my tuition.  I wish I had been smarter to earn more scholarships.  I wish I had been smarter to get into a cheaper, public university.  Mostly I felt guilty for wasting my parents’ money on what they thought of as a hobby.  After plenty of deliberation, I chose Communications; a major that would allow me to write but sounded a bit more respectable.

At night though, after all the essays had been written and the studying done, I’d reach for my journal.  Like a secret a lover, I’d return there and nourish my longing for writing.  I wondered if there would ever be a chance for me to truly pursue my creative urges.

I returned the leather-bound and explored some more.  I walked where I was compelled, side-stepping the owners’ giant huskies, Amos and Kip, and around couples snickering at Freud’s obsessions.  Somewhere on the corner of Self-Help and Religious, I stumbled on a title called, “Work: Making a Life, Making a Living.”

I opened it up to the introduction.

A Native American Legend

The gods, just before the creation of the world, deliberated where they should hide the secret of life. One god suggested hiding it on the peak of the highest mountain. But another said that humans, in their curiosity would find a way to trek there. Another suggested they hide it in the depths of the ocean.  Again, they argued that humans would somehow find a way to even go there. One god finally suggested they hide the secret of life inside the human heart. That way, they would never think to search there.

What did work have to do with the secret of life? I paused to think about what it could mean.  I could feel my lolo through the pages, beckoning and calling with a different kind of fire.

“Find anything good?”

“No, not really,” as I quickly shelved the book.  “Did you get anything?”

Lucas proudly brandished a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.  I smirked and commended him on his choice.

“Are you sure you don’t want to grab that book? You seemed really into it.”

“No it’s ok.  I already have it in here,” and valiantly placed my hand over my heart.

He looked at me, puzzled and pulled the book from the shelf.  “You have ‘work’ in your heart?”

I laughed and thought, perhaps it would have been better to have Henry David as my date.  Maybe even Jack.  I’m sure they would’ve sat and shared a burger with me.