Monday, October 20, 2008

Back to Zero

In Yoga, there is a concept called “going back to zero”, which means going back to a state of rest, of stillness. Yogis believe that this state is a way of wiping the slate clean, erasing past regrets and “mistakes” as well as fears and anxieties about the future; there is no yesterday nor “earlier”, no tomorrow nor “later”. There is only today, “now”, the present moment—also known in metaphysics as “the point of power” or the point at which we are able to make things happen.

Like a blank canvas, focusing on the present, in the “now” (as in, “What do I feel now? What do I think now? What would I like to do now? Who would I like to be with now?) or “zero”, is a necessary state for creation to begin—for something new and vital to emerge. Nay, more: it makes creation inevitable.

Put more simply: If we just STOP for a moment—you know, just stop whatever it is we’ve been feverishly pursuing, incessantly occupying our minds with (that promotion, that salary increase, the esteem of our colleagues, the girl or guy of our dreams, the attention of our spouses, the respect of our parents and children…), we might actually see that we’re just trying too damn hard and we may proceed or start up again in a more relaxed, more intelligent, less do-or-die fashion. As Salma Hayek once said, “The universe doesn’t operate on desperation.” (As the lead and producer of the difficult-to-make Frida, she would know.)

Last year, without realizing it, I went back to this zero in a big way: Tired (OK, exhausted) from years of trying to live my ideal of the strong, independent, self-sufficient woman, I finally decided to give the whole thing—and myself—a much-needed rest. At thirty-four, I gave up my independent single-girl life in the city and temporarily moved back with my parents in the suburban south of Metro Manila. At that time, I already had a feeling that this homecoming was different from all the other ones in the past, when I’d show up at my parents’ door, bags of clothes and boxes of books in tow, feeling every bit the way my brother had summed me up: “Para ka’ng OFW na di pumatok sa Saudi.” 


All the elements of the big production called Tweet’s Return were still there—the bags, the boxes, my brother’s pang-asar—except for one conspicuous thing: the huge Balikbayan-box sense of failure at not having made it out there that I also used to lug home on such occasions.

As soon as I moved back into my old room in November last year, I marveled at how different everything felt. Instead of feeling smothered and defensive, I was surprised at how right it felt to be at my parents’ house--the house I’d been forever plotting to leave, to escape from. Although I suspected something like this would happen the moment I decided to go home, it was still something of a shock to realize how truly happy I was to be at the place that, as Pico Iyer called it, I had “always longed to flee.”

I was hyper aware of how grateful I was that breakfast would be on the table when I woke up, that I had no rent and utilities to pay and to stress over, that a laundry woman comes to the house every Friday to wash our clothes, that I have family to sit with me at the table and who I know will be there, ready to join me for tea and boiled bananas, when I emerge from my room after a day of writing. It struck me as silly that I had spent most of my supposed adult years running away from my family, pulling myself free of their clutches because they had seemed to stand in the way of my pursuit of complete freedom. But I suppose that was necessary then. My family seemed to have changed a great deal. I no longer felt them encroaching on my space, of feeling entitled to my time or sucking out my energy.

But while I knew something had definitely changed, I didn’t have the words for it then.

It wasn’t until I had been back in my old room for five months that a whole new way of looking at zero—that it didn’t necessarily equate “loser”--was introduced in Yoga class and I realized that something of a miracle had taken place: My mind had changed. (Woooow.) And so I had changed. That was it! While the act of coming home was the same as all the other times in the past, I was no longer the same person. No longer the same person who walked in her parents’ door with the long face of someone who felt and acted as if she were there by no choice of hers. No longer the same person who lay in bed sighing heavily, feeling the walls close in on her as if she were a prisoner. No longer the same feeling-kawawz girl who spent her days wondering when and how she’d be able to leave her parents’ house again.

Somehow, my perspective had shifted so that instead of looking at my situation as the depressing dead-end it always had seemed to me and, thus, was always something I was desperately trying to get out of, I now saw it as a beginning, a starting point. Of what, I wasn’t so sure. I only knew that I wanted to approach my family and my role in it differently. I didn’t want the old drama playing in my head, anymore. It was definitely time for a new script. 

Hmm…what was it about this place that made me want to escape it so much? What was it about my family that stirred up such strong mixed emotions? Why did I have such a great need to prove my strength, independence and self-sufficiency? Was I not convinced of it?

 Soon, it became clearer to me why I really came home: I wanted to stop running—running away from people, circumstances and feelings I didn’t like, on one hand, and running towards my ideal, on the other. I wanted to just stop and catch my breath for a while. To learn to be happy just sitting still, enjoying the calm. But old habits do die hard and I complained about this a lot in my journal. In an August entry, for instance, I complained about an unwieldy tendency: “Sometimes I still find myself looking for something to do, as if I don’t have enough to do at the moment. As if I’m not in the middle of a project. We really do tend to seek out the obvious highs and lows, and are suspicious about cruising calmly along. Some people are lucky enough to trust the calm. I’ve wanted to be one of those people for some years now…” I found it both poetic and practical that I learn to do that in the one place I had, for the longest time, been trying to get away from because I just couldn’t be peaceful in it.

It turns out that by coming home, by “going back to zero”—a place and a state of being that many of us have learned to fear and try so hard to avoid--I was actually, if subconsciously, setting the stage for new things to happen to me. Nay, more: I had made myself a blank canvas on which the creation of a new and vital (a.k.a. more mature) life now seemed inevitable.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Personal Is Political

I’m feeling it. The November 4 US presidential election has got me nail-bitingly excited that I sometimes find myself having to walk off excess energy around the house, my mind swirling with fabulous images of an Obama presidency and all the amazing, ground-breaking effects that will have for the rest of the world.

It’s such an optimistic time. Even for someone like me from the Third World Philippines. For some reason, this election is very personal to me, especially when I began reading Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope”. I had become quite intrigued with the charismatic African American who was giving my girl Hillary Clinton some stiff competition and I wanted to know more. (When Hillary announced her candidacy with the now famous line, “I’m IN to WIN!” I thought her nomination was in the bag.) Soon, I found out I had more in common with this man than even Hillary, whose struggle to break glass ceilings I’ve always admired and cheered on and tried to emulate. (Although I really, really think she should have left Bill; he’s the one that’s bringing her down).    

Before Barack Obama, the only other political figure I felt this personally connected to wasn’t even officially in politics yet—Eddie Villanueva, during his bid for the Philippine presidency in 2004.

As his campaign platform, Villanueva called for a “revolution of the heart”. And while many people rolled their eyes at this, wondering what the hell kind of sappy Hallmark Channel call-to-action this was, I remember a strange feeling coursing through me and ending in my brain with this thought: This guy is the real thingWe have a true leader here.

So for the first time in my voter’s life, I found a candidate who I would not only vote for but would actively campaign for. OK, maybe “actively” is being slightly off the mark here because the truth was that I was rabidly campaigning for the man. I became one of those annoying people who had discovered something “so astigtangina!” that they just couldn’t stop talking about it to anyone who’d listen—or to anyone who did not actually tell them point-blank to shut up.

And I wouldn’t shut up. I talked about Eddie Villanueva during meals, parties, gallery openings, and, when I mustered enough nerve, to some commuters on the MRT who probably thought I was some overworked yuppy who had experienced a meltdown and had gone mad. A friend and another Villanueva die-hard and I would hop in and out of MRT trains and stand outside bus terminals to hand out campaign flyers and brochures—all on our own dime. When we’d run out of campaign materials, we’d go to the Villanueva campaign office in Makati, get some more and efficiently walk out the door to continue our work. I even constructed a long impassioned letter, urging people to go to his website and read about him. I was sure that once they found out more about him, they’d feel exactly as I did.

The biggest stumbling block many people encountered about Eddie Villanueva was the fact that he was a pastor and the founder of a Catholic charismatic group, Jesus is Lord. I admit that my initial reaction to the news that a “Brother Eddie” was running for president was, What the hell--? Just when you think things couldn’t get any more bizarre in the Philippines…

But I also heard that this “Brother Eddie” accepted an invitation to a presidential debate organized by UP-Diliman and that he showed up alone as all the other candidates canceled their appearances. He could have left. And people were going to understand because he came for a debate, after all, yet there was no one to debate with. Instead of leaving, though, he bravely—and honestly, I heard—fielded questions from the notoriously cerebral, non-religious, skeptical UP student body until there were no more questions. Many in the audience were converted, I was told. (Not to the Jesus is Lord group or Christianity--let’s just make that clear--but to the idea of Eddie Villanueva as a real contender for the presidency.) One of them was my then boyfriend, an archaeologist and UP professor who was one of the biggest skeptics of organized religion—and politics--I’ve ever met. Yet when he came from that debate-turned-Q&A, it was clear the evangelist had made quite an impression on him. “Galing ‘yung Eddie Villanueva na ‘yun, ah,” I remember him saying in amazement. Which is what drove me to find out as much as I could about the man.

Obviously, what I discovered had me hooked. A former labor leader who resorted to armed struggle, he was on Marcos’ hit list, which drove him to the mountains. It was while he was in hiding that he began to question everything that he was fighting for, as well as the means by which he was trying to achieve them. Cliché as the following may sound (again, hello Hallmark Channel), but this is when he began to “turn to God” via the words of the Bible. He took those words to heart and because it was those words that “saved” him from his despair and sense of hopelessness, these were the words he wanted to save people with. And with the same energy that I imagine he must have shown when he tried to free laborers from oppressive labor practices, he went on and tried to free people from their own oppressive, limiting mindsets and their crippling fears. Indeed, as I once read, no one exhibits more zeal than the convert.

So when he spoke of the need for a “revolution of the heart”—or, as Gloria Steinem once put it, a “revolution from within”--these weren’t hollow words; they weren’t just a campaign strategy the way that most pronouncements during election time are nothing more than weightless words--I knew that he knew exactly what that meant. He had lived—and was living—those words. He embodied them.

Which is why I completely understood people’s skepticism about him—an overwhelming number of people who pepper their words with “God” or “Praise Jesus”  or “Amen” (sans irony) do not embody their words. They’re the ones at whom so-called “thinking” people roll their eyes exasperatedly. Their thoughts, words and actions have nothing at all to do with one another. They say one thing, mean another and do still yet another thing. The same goes for politicians--which is why nobody who isn’t on their payroll really trusts them. Eddie Villanueva’s running, then, seemed like a double-whammy.

Many of my friends and family questioned my choice of candidate, especially when there was another intellectual in the fray—the late Senator Raul Roco, a close friend and admirer of Eddie Villanueva. Both men took the same stance on most of the important issues (not that Philippine politics has ever been about issues; perhaps it was in the very very distant past, but certainly not when I was old enough to vote), but, at least, Roco was NOT an evangelist—and this last word was usually spat out, in disdain.

I’ve never seen the wisdom is separating my politics from my personal life. I believe that what you do in your daily life even when no one is looking is what you stand for, and what you stand for—that’s your politics. So when someone who shares what you stand for runs for public office, that’s who you should vote for. Not because of what the surveys or your religious affiliation or your family says. Michelle Obama, soon-to-be U.S. First Lady (please, Lord!) said in a magazine interview that “if folks don’t like what we stand for, then they shouldn’t vote for us.”

Between Roco and Villanueva, it was what the latter stood for that I loved and related to more. To my mind, electing him into office would bring to government everything I most value: decency, a healthy self-esteem, a belief in individuals—and individual growth and transformation--as the basis and driving force of any country’s growth and transformation, thoughtfulness and introspection, an openness to new and unprecedented things (a willingness to step outside convention and conventional thought), independent thought, a commitment to go out there and do what needs to be done, sacredness, living or practicing what you preach but never requiring anyone else to believe in what you believe.

This has once again affirmed to me that the ties that really bind people go deep. They go deeper than gender (I am a woman but I do not relate at all to our current woman president nor to the female vice presidential candidate of the US Republican party), than race (Barack Obama is African-American, so is Oprah Winfrey; Angelina Jolie, my girl, is white; yet I totally relate and connect to these people), than social and economic class (I’m middle-class and, obviously, the above three people are way out of my league in terms of economic status), than religious affiliation (I was raised Catholic, but the spiritual leader I most love, along with Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, is His Holiness the Dalai Lama). It’s shared valueand dreams and vision that most holds us together.

Politics, I believe, should be as intensely personal as that. 


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Newest Member of A.B.E.R.

My youngest sister left yesterday morning to start her new job at a spa in Boracay--and, thereby, becoming an official member of A.B.E.R. (Asosasyon ng mga Babaeng um-Eskapo sa Realidad). At least, that is how my brother and his friends see it.

The unofficial group started when my brother and his guy friends noticed a pattern among their female friends: burned by a romantic relationship, the girls would flee to Boracay to recoup and would invariably quit their jobs (and their city life), find work in the island and relocate there. When enough girls from my brother's circle of friends had done this, the boys lumped the girls together and called them A.B.E.R. (pronounced ah-bear).  

I recently met one of the group's "pioneers" (the young woman that my brother's friend jokingly pinpointed as my sister's "recruiter") at a restaurant one evening when she had just returned from a trip to India for a Yoga teacher's training at an ashram. Tanned, toned and lithe, the A.B.E.R. grand dame glowed with a luminosity and vitality that I don't get to see very often. She had a lovely smile that she flashed generously, lighting up her pretty face so that my sister and I found ourselves naturally drawn to her like teenage girls to a Topshop store.

When she spoke of her India experience, her voice rang with barely contained excitement and her eyes twinkled (twinkled!) like those of a fairy tale princess talking about the prince she had met at the palace ball. My sister and I were transfixed. I thought, This girl don't look like no escapist to me. If anything, she looked like she went after something, brought it home with her, boiled it, chopped and pureed it, added some mint and honey and crushed ice and, I don't know, drank the stuff. She looked like somebody who was concocting her own life, her own "realidad", and deriving immense pleasure from it. She didn't just take it as it was--she was adding her own flair, making it into a palatable thing for her and was taking it all in, so that there she was in her thin-strapped dress and sandals, brimming with the effect of her own special concoction and inspiring at least two women at the table simply by being her fabulous self. My sister and I couldn't take our eyes off her. For my part, I wanted to fold her up, stuff her in my bag and prop her on my shelf at home.

People who are creating their own life in a way that makes it reflect who they are inside glow with an incandescent quality that stretches out and seems to switch on the light in others. I feel my own light switch on and grow brighter when I'm with such people, many of whom I'm lucky enough to call my friends. And that girl, with her wry humor and refreshing earnestness, did switch on some pretty bright lights in my sister and me that night at the restaurant so that we were glowing like...OK, a couple of scary Jack O' Lanterns. But still.  

If there were any lingering doubts in my sister's mind regarding her decision to step off the paved road of her burgeoning fashion design career and walk down one little dirt path just because it looked interesting, that night chatting with the Astigirl erased all of it.

There is always that kind of worry that is reserved for the youngest child who tries to strike out on her own, no matter how much self-sufficiency and level-headedness that child may exhibit. But perhaps because we're so much older now (that sister is 25, hardly a "child")--and my parents have gotten used to us doing what we will, anyway--the worry over my sister's move has been almost imperceptible. Still, it's there. So as an older sister, I'm glad to know she's in Boracay with that Astigirl and driven to the island by reasons that I suspect aren't that different from when the latter left the comfortable familiarity of her own city life years ago.

Perhaps people who up and leave a life that they are used to are escaping reality. But I think it's the "reality" of others--that is, other people's idea of what life is supposed to be and how it's supposed to be lived--that they are actually shedding, so that they can make space for the kind of life, a way of living, that takes into consideration the things that they most value. A life, in other words, that reflects who they really are.

I speak as a proud ate when I say I'm glad to see that my sister is making space for that kind of life now. ;)