Sunday, June 29, 2008

Like Father...

Five years ago, I don’t think I would have ever admitted to myself, much less to anyone else, that I took after my father. I thought he was too stubborn for his own good, too proud to admit he was wrong or to apologize for a mistake, too rigid in his beliefs and so quick to judge others who did not share the same values as him.

Then beginning in 2003, my life fell apart so many times that I began to develop a most effective coping mechanism—looking inward. And I went poking about inside my psyche, inside my thoughts and motivations, as seriously and as determinedly as a CSI agent. Out of this inward curiosity, I discovered that there was inside me a too-stubborn, too-proud, too-rigid, too-judgmental person and that it was this part of me that was attracting and causing the pain and misery and confusion of which I was suffering. No wonder my father and I didn’t get along—we were so alike, we shared too many of the same negative traits that we clashed.

I decided I was going to change.

I willfully altered my habits and thought-patterns (repeatedly telling myself as a mantra: “You don’t always have to be right”) and before long the miracle happened: my father and I managed to stay at the same table without arguing. Looking at my father from a more open, more accepting vantage point—and not always trying to exert my own will--I saw that he was a kind, funny, irreverent, pure-hearted, deep, thoughtful, intelligent, honest romantic idealist who was always trying to do the “right thing”. And this allowed me to get in touch with the part of me that was all that, too. The more I liked my father, the more I liked myself. I developed such a deep, unwavering affection and respect for this man who happened to be my father—and what all that was doing for me--that I found a kind of peace that I never even imagined. And for a few years, we were doing fine. That is, until I fell in love with a man with whom my father was so violently opposed.

The new man in my life had been married before and had two kids from that marriage. For my staunchly Catholic father, who didn’t believe in annulment and who saw me as the loose, immoral woman who was coming between a man and his family, this was a definite no-no. I thought I could change his mind once he’d hear from me how happy I was in this new relationship. But in our first meeting after he learned (from my sister) that I was dating a “married man with kids”, he told me in his straightforward manner: “I just want you to know that if this relationship ends up in marriage, I don’t want to be there.”

It was too late to hate my father for that or to think that he was just saying it to hurt me. I had already seen a more complete picture of him—I could never go back to thinking he was just put on this earth to make my life a living hell. We were at an Italian restaurant, sharing a pizza while he sipped his cappuccino when I brought up the subject of my new relationship. Almost instantly, storm clouds gathered around him, his expression darkened. He looked like he couldn’t wait to get away from the table, from the restaurant, from me, from the whole idea that his eldest child was devaluing herself by being with a man who did not value marriage and family. He suddenly looked old and lost, and my heart went out to him. I found myself saying gently, “I understand, Pops.” The strange thing there was that I meant it. Knowing him, I did understand his position. He was consistent. He was acting according to his own strong personal beliefs, according to what he believed was right. He didn’t mean any harm. In fact, to his mind, he was trying to protect me from harm. He reminded me so much of someone—he reminded me of myself.

Right then I vowed to myself that I wasn’t going to change how I treat him. I would continue to respect his position and his beliefs even as they were the direct opposite of mine. I would treat him the way I wanted to be treated. I would never again try to change his mind. For almost a year, he refused to speak to me and I let him be.

During that time, I became a writing teacher and discovered that I loved teaching almost as much as writing. Teaching revealed to me my own capacity to be a safe place for my students, that I was a person with whom they felt free to be their most natural, authentic selves. I couldn’t help thinking it was my experience with my father that made me into such a person.

After almost a year of not speaking, my father turned up in one of my workshops. It wasn’t as dramatic as it may sound because he isn’t a very dramatic or sentimental person. He simply sat, matter-of-factly, in class and was the most enthusiastic student. Whenever I asked my students if they would like to share what they had written, my father would raise his hand like an eager little boy and proceed to spill his guts. In one heart-wrenching essay, told in his trademark straight-up, unapologetic, unsentimental, irreverent, funny and unflinchingly honest style, my father shared with me, his writing teacher, the story of his life—his dreams and disappointments and the peace he was trying to make with all of these.

It took us three drafts, a few more cups of coffee in a café and plenty of trust and respect on both sides to get us back on track.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Finding My Way Again...And Again

(For 100 Kwentong Peyups on the occasion of the University of the Philippines' Centennial Celebration. Submit your own UP story in 1,500 words or less to ;)

Right after taking the U.P. College Admission Test (UPCAT) in 1990, I made a pact with myself: If I were to fail the exam, I would take it as a sign that I was not meant to pursue higher formal education. And that, instead, I was to happily be on my way to learning from the only place that, to me, could rival U.P. on the excitement scale—the “real” (a.k.a. “working”) world.

It may have seemed like a radical decision for a high school student, but for me, it only seemed natural, given the feelings I had nurtured towards U.P. for years.

The university had first taken hold of my imagination early in my adolescent years when I saw old pictures of my mom as a young, pretty U.P. student in the 1960’s. She was in teensy miniskirts that reached up to her butt, a cheeky grin on her face, hamming it up with friends and looking like she was having the time of her life. I became very curious about the school that gave me a completely different picture of my otherwise proper, ladylike, conventional mother—the French-speaking, American Field Scholar student activist who made Molotov bombs and was chased down University Avenue by the Metrocom. Like a person’s first great love, the university seemed to have brought out the bold, fearless, astig aspect of my mom, and I wanted to believe that, as soon as I shed my plaid Catholic high school uniform for the college outfit of my choice, it would coax the same brilliant traits from me.

For this reason, U.P. held an intensely romantic, almost mythical aura for me. I decided it was The One. (And I think this marked my first ever all-or-nothing bet.) I wasn’t going to play safe by applying to other schools. And I certainly wasn’t going to settle.

It was an attitude that allowed me to apply to the university without a sense of desperation or fear of rejection. So even before the letter of acceptance from U.P. arrived in the mail, I had already decided there was no way I could lose. No wonder I entered the university with a kind of swaggering confidence and an abiding belief that nothing in the world could go wrong for me. I felt invincible and this feeling liberated me to do the first few bold, courageous/crazy things I’ve ever done.

I joined the U.P. Mountaineers almost as a test of how far I could handle the notoriously rigorous application process (five-, ten-, fifteen-kilometer runs under time pressure; a battery of written and practical exams; climbs of escalating difficulty). I was inducted that summer at the summit of Mindoro’s Mt. Halcon, otherwise known as the “Macho Mountain”, and felt like I grew balls.

(What I had to do to secure my parents’ blessing for that induction climb was another character-building battle altogether.)

I joined the women’s football team even as I knew nothing about the sport except that the players sometimes got to do a really fun thing like sliding in the mud. I attended my first and only rally ever--in support of a total log ban. I faced down a professor—my first time to stand up to an authority figure who was not one of my parents. I survived a sexual assault by a stranger as I walked from my freshman dorm to the Arts and Sciences building early one morning. Instead of being cowed and avoiding that path after the incident (which, to my mind, would have been a victory for the attacker), I continued to take the same route to class but now holding an uncapped Pilot pen and seriously looking forward to stabbing the next pervert who came near me.

In U.P., I knew exactly who I was. And who I was in that school was someone I really liked and respected.

It seems fitting then that later on, as a wage-earner assailed by self-doubt and annoying existential questions (“Is this what my life is about?” “What do I really, really want?”), I would find reprieve in the place that first showed me my possibilities. When the otherwise manageable undercurrent of indecision, confusion and fear would swell into a great wave, carrying me and then slamming me down on the shores of some desert island, I would be left no other choice but to try to regain my bearings. During these times, I would pick myself up from my island of misery, skip work and make my pilgrimage to U.P., as though to get in touch once again with the bold, uncompromising, spirited girl that I seemed to have left there. And always, during the course of my short visit, the school would remind me of who I am.

It doesn’t matter what I’d do in U.P.; I could be joining the late Sunday afternoon crowd brisk walking, jogging, biking or skateboarding around the Academic Oval; sharing a slice of Devil’s Food Cake with an equally “lost and confused” U.P. alum friend or sibling (three younger sibs were undergrads at UP, one took her Master's) at Chocolate Kiss Café; catching another wild stage performance by my never-say-die friend and iconic campus figure Romeo Lee; or just planting myself on one of the benches scattered around the campus like the village grouch, scowling at the carefree students who walked by and relishing my cynical old-timer mode as I mutter disdainfully, “Bagets.” The answers may not come to me at that point, but the memories of my four fabulous years in U.P. would crowd around me like old, solid cheerleading friends recalling the moments in my college years where I was most proud of myself. And then the crippling doubts and fears would be replaced by an unshakeable confidence that, as that unofficial U.P. Humanities professor Bob Marley sagely sang, “Everything’s gonna be alright.” Relax lang, the vibe around me seemed to say. Aabot din tayo diyan. You already know you got it in you to make it.

And I would always trust that feeling. The strange, almost drug-induced powerful feeling that never once failed me the past eighteen years since I first felt it.

Everything was gonna be alright.