Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If I Can Make It Here, I’ll Make It Anywhere

Last week, at an event called Pecha Kucha Night, I sat in the audience of about 300, listening to one amazing speaker after another share something about their work or personal project. Pecha Kucha, according to the organizers, is Japanese for “chit-chat.” There were fourteen speakers—“chit-chatters”--from diverse fields. There was a Jungian psychotherapist (my wonderful shrink, for whom I all but waved pom-poms at, heehee ☺) sharing her thoughts on Pinoy “woundology” or our collective victimhood psyche—our “Ph.D. on pain”, the captain of the historic balangay sailing expedition, the creator of the popular comic book Trese, a green architect, a green urban planner, an underwater photographer, a writer sharing his concept of “wasak” or “ang mga taong sumira ng buhay ko” (super loved that!). All Pinoys. All doing their own astig thing.

As I chomped on my popcorn, I thought, Mehhhn…I’m so glad I’m here. And I didn’t just mean in the Shangri-La mall theatre, where the event was taking place. I meant, in this 7,100-something-island Southeast Asian archipelago.

See, once upon a time, I was obsessed, like a lot of Filipinos, with leaving the Philippines. At 24, I wanted nothing more than to get out of here. Think Vietnamese boat people desperately scrambling out of war-torn Saigon.

My life was nowhere like I imagined it to be when I was a teenager looking forward to being in my 20’s. I didn’t harbor particularly ambitious dreams at that time; all I wanted in my 20’s was to be able to afford my own place and to travel at least twice a year. Westerners my age—those I met and those I saw in films—had those things that I wanted even when they held blue-collar jobs while my friends and I, college graduates from really good schools working in advertising, did not. I was convinced that this was due to our having been born in the wrong country. In a Third World country. (My sisters and I were watching The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 yesterday and we kept complaining loudly how easy it was for the American college girls in the story to travel to Greece. “Pucha, ano yan? Saan sila ng pera?”)

Unlike my friends, however, who seemed to not be losing sleep over our situation, the idea that I was getting the raw end of the deal was eating me up. I was desperate to leave the sinking ship of a country that I happen to have been born in—without my permission!--and get me to a First World one.

My adoptive land of choice was New Zealand. Long before Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson added a cooler dimension to the country’s more-sheep-than-people reputation, the land of Kiwis (the fruit, the bird, the people), Greenpeace, Neil Finn and Crowded House, and Jane Campion had already taken hold of me largely because of its strong environmental streak. And I just found the Kiwis—the people, that is--so cool.

After I spent three weeks in New Zealand, however, in 1998, as a sort of ocular inspection, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be completely content there, either, until I knew what I was going to do for work. By then, my infatuation with advertising had fizzled out, but I was staying on for lack of a better place to go. Now that I had found my dream country, I needed to find me my dream job next. I returned to Manila with a firmer resolve to figure that out.

When I finally faced the—scary--fact that I wanted to make films, I decided that the only place to learn to make them was in New York City—in particular, at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I had this fantasy of being an NYU alum like M. Night Shyamalan and Ang Lee, having my films reach an audience beyond the Metro Manila Film Festival…and having something to talk about with former NYU teacher Martin Scorsese when I would later bump into him at a party ☺. Spurred by that NYU alumni scenario in my head, I quit advertising to focus my efforts at getting myself into the school. Not once during that time did it occur to me to learn filmmaking here in the Philippines.

I was consumed by the notion that my real life—the life that I wanted to have—could only start there, at a place far from where I was. This was reinforced by the belief that where I was was not where I was supposed to be.

Filling up the NYU application form that first time was a revelation, a resounding whack on the head. I hadn’t realized until then how unremarkable my life was. Gaping at me was too much empty white space where a rundown of my “achievements” should have been. Shit…what had I been doing all that time? I was almost tempted to write down the spelling bee win in high school just to have something to put in there.

Without much ado—and here is where it pays to be obsessive--I went out and tried to get myself “awards”—the outer, tangible proof of the kind of achievements the world recognizes. This meant, for me, joining writing contests that I didn’t have the nerve to even consider before. And so the following year, the empty white spaces in the application form were, at least, half-filled. So what if I had to write down what little I had in big bold capital letters to achieve that? I thought, Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Two years and two rejection letters later, I was more than a little surprised that I had not yet penned my suicide note. At that point, trying to get into NYU film school was the hardest thing I had ever attempted. I had practically put my life on hold those two years and developed tunnel vision. My existence was defined by the pursuit of qualifying to the school, which I had seen as the beginning of all my filmmaking aspirations and, indeed, all my creative dreams. I felt stretched out to almost snapping point in every way--physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.

That is why it struck me as rather curious that I hadn’t spiraled into bottomless depression. I had failed, hadn’t I? Failed quite spectacularly, too. I was stuck here in the Philippines. And that, to me, had meant being stuck forever in mediocrity and regression and soap operaland and everything that made this a Third World country. Weren't depression and hopelessness the appropriate responses to that?

Of course, there were breakdowns and crying jags and days when I couldn’t get up from bed, gripped by a paralyzing fear that I would be forever chasing—and never getting—what I want. But these spells never lasted long enough for me to seriously worry. In fact, I was more worried that my real affliction was over-optimism or, ehem, delusion because of the way I seemed to bounce back with a vengeance. Before I knew it, I was excited again and raring to have another go at it. I felt like one of those inflatable mascots that, no matter how hard you punch them so that they kiss the ground, always float back up and never stay down for long. That was what I found more worrisome—a bit freaky, actually; that I didn’t seem to react normally to the tragedy of my failure.

It turned out that there was a solid reason why I couldn’t muster the supposed appropriate misery and it was this: In my single-minded pursuit of qualifying to NYU, I ended up doing things that I never had before. And because of that, I saw a part of me that I had never seen before, either.

I saw that I could wake up at 6:00 AM, sit at my desk and type away at a screenplay everyday for a month and submit it on time for a contest. I saw that I could gather talented, dedicated, supportive friends and family together to make a short film. I saw that I could learn to write a play that literary judges could appreciate. I saw that I could be thick-faced enough to borrow money from my parents and other relatives in order to fund my personal projects and workshops. I saw that I could pare down my lifestyle and not need a lot of material things so that I could afford the training that I needed. I saw that I could be disciplined, organized, resourceful, confident, courageous, tenacious, trusting in the unseen forces—if that’s what it took to do the work that I love, to make it exist.

All the things that I was hoping to see in myself--the traits I was hoping to develop--once I was in New York, the city whose operative word, as Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out, was “ACHIEVE”, I learned to see, learned to develop right here, in the place that I didn’t think could give me anything good or worthwhile.

I think maybe we’re born into our circumstances—our ethnicity, our family, our body, our gender and, yes, our country—in order to overcome it, to not ever be held back by it. It’s so easy to make ourselves believe that other people got their break because they were born rich, thin, tall, a man, a woman, good-looking, a child of a rich/famous/influential person, American, French, Brazilian…But I do think that’s just us making excuses for—and, thus, compromising--ourselves. As Art Valdez, expedition leader of the Filipino Mt. Everest team and of Team Balangay, said, “Everyone has their own Mt. Everest.” Everyone has their own seemingly insurmountable challenge. Kanya-kanyang hassle lang ‘yan. Nobody has it easy, even if it may seem that way. I’m pretty sure none of the 14 speakers at last week’s Pecha Kucha Night have it easy, even if some of them make it look that way—like Lourd de Veyra’s riffing on “wasak”. (Did I say I super loved that? ☺)

I do believe that our particular circumstances are designed specifically for us to develop the skills we need in crafting the lives we imagined for ourselves. Kind of like having our own personal Navy Seal training camp. It may seem like useless torture while we’re in it, but when we’re in the jungles of enemy territory, trying to do our job, all those killer push-ups and food and oxygen deprivation and Command Master Chief Viggo Mortensen-in-pekpek-shorts yelling at our faces suddenly make sense. You realize this is the scenario you’ve been priming your mind, your body and your spirit for. As Steve Jobs put it in his Stanford speech, “You can only connect the dots backwards.”

I firmly and truly believe that if we can make something worthwhile out of the things we were born with, we will have created the deepest, most unshakable, most solid foundation for our lives. And life will be a little less difficult and impossible. I mean, with what else are we going to construct our dream lives? What we have right now is our raw material. It is our starting point. We begin our work with the givens and for me, this is one of those givens: I was born Filipino. This is what I have for sure, among other things. And after those two years of trying to be anywhere but here, I’ve slowly learned to not only live with that fact, but to use it is a layer in the foundation of my life and my work and, quite surprisingly, for my happiness and peace of mind.

The Sundays perfectly captured this sentiment in the following lyrics: “When you’re searching your soul/ when you’re searching for pleasure/ how often pain is all you find/ When you’re coasting along/ and nobody’s trying too hard/ you can turn around and like where you are…”

I still think of New Zealand. I still dream of living there one day. And I’m still looking forward to making my first full-length film, even as the NYU dream has died. I figure I can always find another topic to discuss with Scorsese, anyway. “So, um, Marty—I was a former Catholic, too…”

However, that country and that Scorsese conversation will just have to wait. For now I’ve still got stuff to do. Right here, in my own personal Navy Seal training camp called the Philippines.

Please watch the speakers on the third Pecha Kucha Night in Manila—they’re all too astig to miss! Log on to pechakuchamanila.com. ☺

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Luckiest Girl in the World

My grandparents, Felix and Nena Tiukinhoy

If I were to allow myself one regret, it would be that I didn’t write my grandparents’ love story, as my grandfather requested.

I was in college when my maternal grandfather, my Lolo Daddy, during my family’s visits to our hometown of Surigao City, started pulling me aside to recount the story of how he met “that girl”, pointing affectionately at my grandmother, my Lola Mama. They were then in their 70’s, but my grandfather spoke of my grandmother as if she were still his 19-year-old bride.

“That girl,” he’d say, loud enough for her to hear. And, exactly like a teenager, she’d stick her tongue out at him in response.

It wasn’t that I didn’t find their love story interesting enough or worth writing. In fact, I never tired of hearing it no matter how many times my grandfather told it. I would imagine the handsome 22-year-old young man driving an army jeep while stealing glances through the rearview mirror at the 19-year-old teacher who had flagged him down for a ride into town and who now sat at the backseat, trying not to stare back. Their story was dramatic and funny and beautiful--and that was my problem. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to adequately capture it, terrified that I would invariably ruin the telling.

Why me? I agonized onto several pages of my journal. I wasn’t the grandchild studying creative writing or joining writing workshops—that was my sister Tara. I was a mass communications student, majoring in hanging out. I had not written a story since high school and even then those stories were largely confined to my drawer. I didn’t know why my grandfather thought I could actually write a story—his story--as he’d never even read any of mine. I remember wishing I’d fall asleep one night and wake up as Joyce Carol Oates. She couldn’t ruin anything even if she tried.

I was too young and too insecure about everything, especially about my ability at the thing I most loved to do—writing—to see that my grandfather’s request wasn’t about me. In particular, it wasn’t about whether or not I thought I had any talent or capability. It was about a story that needed to be told—because it was a story that was very dear to someone. And that someone was very dear to me.

He must have felt that his life was coming to a close and he wanted his children and grandchildren, at least, to know him and my grandmother a little bit more.

So what if I didn’t think I was talented or skilled enough? That wasn’t the point. The point was that I was supposed to learn some storytelling skills so that my grandfather’s story—the story that I fell in love with—could be told.

My grandfather died six years ago, but I never really dwelled on the thought of not having written his story because I do not indulge regrets; my personal philosophy is that everything that happened—and did not happen--was meant to happen—and not happen. Which, as far as I’m concerned, makes regret—like guilt—useless.

So when my grandmother asked me to edit her autobiography, I was surprised at the feeling of déjà vu it triggered in me. It was my grandfather’s story all over again, especially when a familiar protest echoed in my mind: “Why me? I’m not the editor in this family.” Editing is not my strongest suit, which is why I’m obsessive about rereading my work over and over so that an 800-word article often takes weeks to “get right”. And even then, after having subjected the piece to countless drafts, I still find a few things that have slipped my merciless blood-red Pilot V5 pen long after I’ve sent it off.

But my grandmother’s request strangely felt like a chance for me to rectify a past misdeed I didn’t know I had committed. So I took a deep breath and said yes.

“This isn’t about you,” I kept reminding myself as I sweated over my grandmother’s manuscript. “Who cares if you think you’re bad at editing? Tough shit. Just do it already.”

As soon as I threw myself into the editing work, which my editor sister Tara and I split between us, the this-isn’t-about-me mantra had another important use: it kept me from turning my grandmother’s book into mine. We have very different aesthetics and ways of expressing ourselves and sometimes I had to fight really hard with myself to not completely change what she’s written just because I didn’t like the sound of it. Sometimes, for instance, her references to God have a Carlo J. Caparas tenor to them. But I know where she’s coming from—and it’s not the place that Carlo J. (God Help Us) is coming from, I think—and this is her book and, again this isn’t about me. So I step aside and let her tell her story the way she wants to tell it.

And I’m so glad that I did. Because it cleared the way for my grandmother’s brand of charming, guileless storytelling. Far from sophisticated, her voice is disarmingly child-like, girly—innocent and wide-eyed and excitable. As she usually carries herself with such unerring ladylike poise, I’m not sure if her children and other grandchildren are acquainted with this little-girl side of her.

In her book, she talks about her Intramuros childhood, her family, her teaching with the deep affection of someone who sees what she has and is grateful. And the way she gushes about the love of her life, her Felix, and the 60-plus years they were married reminds me of Bella frothing at the mouth about Edward. (Kelangan talagang isingit ‘yun, di ba? ☺)

“I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” she often says. “I had the best husband. He took very good care of me.” He built her a large, rambling house, enough to accommodate their 13 children (yes—13!). He wrote her passionate love letters, which she keeps under her pillow (and which my sister Dang, the book’s art director and lay-out artist, has been eyeing; she has already asked my grandmother to leave them to her in my grandmother’s will.) He was an old-fashioned man who provided everything she could ever want and need and never let her worry about the practical things, like money. My mom and my aunts, married self-providers, say, like an accusation, that my grandfather spoiled my grandmother. “Talaga,” my grandmother assents, no shame in her whatsoever.

My dad once wondered aloud about my grandmother’s obsession with her book project. He said he couldn’t understand why people want to write about themselves. Was it vanity?

I said, Yes, as with everything we do, the need to tell our own story is motivated by both vanity and something else. I saw that something else in both grandfathers (my paternal one, my dad’s dad, wrote his own autobiography and gave it as a gift to friends and family before he died) and I see it now in my grandmother:When we near the end of a journey, there is a need to remember it from the beginning. There is a need to cradle in our hands the memory of every single thing that defined that journey, that made it what it is. This loving, painstaking remembrance is a way of reassuring ourselves that the journey was worth it.

I see in my grandmother’s book her need to know that her life mattered, that she spent it well.

She still has a lot of spirit in her, which I hope will carry her all the way to her book launch in January 2010, on her 87th birthday. She’s been saying that she sees my grandfather in her room, smiling at her. I sometimes find myself asking my grandfather, in the darkness of my room, to hold off taking my grandmother until she’s signed her book and sipped her champagne and let her friends and family toast her full life.

His girl—and my girl—deserves it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Earning the Ending

My mom has a thyroid problem, we learned recently. None of us in the family, including my mom, know exactly just what that “problem” is because, despite her doctor’s suggestion, she refuses to undergo a biopsy. She said that the word “biopsy” sounds scary.

“It’s just a way of knowing what’s in there, mom”, I tried to reassure her as she shook her head, grimacing like a stubborn little girl, not in the least reassured.

So, instead of finding out what was wrong with her thyroid—how and why it wasn’t functioning in the way that it should--my mom went to a healing mass and healing session conducted by “healing priest” Father Suarez, after which she promptly declared herself “healed.”

Assuming that her approach to her health works for her, I still can’t help feeling that it’s somewhat...anticlimactic. Kind of like skipping to the end of the DVD and catching only the final happy-ending scene of a movie.

I mean, where was the joy in that? Where was the satisfaction in having an ending—no matter how good—to a story that you did not sit through or participate in? How happy can you really be with a happy ending that you did not earn?

Just how convinced can you be of your healing if it’s not something you’ve worked hard for?

About eleven years ago, when I was twenty-five, I discovered that I had what doctors call “cystic fibrosis” in both breasts—benign cysts or, in layman’s terms, non-cancerous marble-like lumps of fat. Of course, the first time I noticed them through a breast self-exam, “benign” and “non-cancerous” were the furthest words from my mind. I had panicked, cried, imagined the worst—saw my bald head wrapped in a bandanna and all.
When a biopsy was suggested, “to be sure”, I had immediately agreed, for my peace of mind.

But even as my doctor confirmed his initial diagnosis (“Just a fibro-adenoma. Nothing to worry about.”) and I stared at the strange yet harmless-looking little white thing that he dangled in front of me, at my request, as I lay on the operating table, I knew it wasn’t over. I had questions. Lots of them.

Questions like: How do these cysts develop? Why was I the only one among the girls in my family to have these? And when I was told, after I prodded and prodded, that, yes, they may or may not turn cancerous--How do I prevent these benign cysts from one day turning malignant?

No matter how calmly my doctors told me that fibro-adenomas are “just like pimples. Some people are prone to them, others aren’t. And you happen to be one of those people who are prone to them” I couldn’t quite make myself mirror their calmness. The cysts were growing, multiplying, as my regular annual check-ups revealed, and yet I was told the same thing—“Nothing to worry about. Still benign. Come back next year.”

For seven years, I felt like a sitting duck, just bobbing over the waters, blinking stupidly, awaiting the fatal gunshot. Every time I went in for my annual check-up, I braced myself for the possibility that I would be told I had cancer. Between check-ups, I tentatively tried other healing methods: pranic healing, herbs, yoga, healing nuns and priests.

But the operative word there was “tentative”. Even as I disliked its reliance on drugs and their curative rather than preventive approach to health, I was still a little afraid to fully venture out of conventional Western medicine—and the thinking that it fostered, intentionally or not, which is that you cede control over your health to your doctor because they would always know better. Your state of health is what they say it is: if they declared you healthy, that means you are healthy. If they declared you otherwise, that means...exactly what it means.

As I was also going through so many major changes in my career and my relationships, I didn’t feel confident enough about changing doctors or changing my mindset about doctors. I figured I had to keep some things in my life familiar and, therefore, safe.

By 2005, I felt I had no choice. My hair was falling in alarming clumps, I was losing so much weight, I was having nightmares. I was walking around with an Alfred Hitchcock sense of dread and doom; I had no idea exactly what horrible thing was coming at me—I only knew that it was coming.

I also knew I had to do something other than submit myself to a doctor’s reassurance--a reassurance that became more hollow with every year—and drug prescription. I deeply suspected that my own sense of helplessness was making me sick—and I wanted to stop feeling so helpless and powerless. I wanted to stop feeling that the shit was about to hit me, and that I had absolutely no way of keeping it from happening.

I finally focused on getting serious help and tracked down an Ayurveda practitioner. I had read about this 3,0000-year-old medical system that developed in India and its whole-person view and approach to health—regarding a person as not merely a physical being, but also an emotional, spiritual one—sat very well with me.

On our first session, my Ayurveda doctor threw questions –and so many of them, too—at me that no other doctor had ever asked me before. What work do I do? What time do I wake up? What time do I go to bed? What do I eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner? What form of regular physical activity do I do? How many siblings do I have? Where do I live? Some questions I found too personal that at one point, I almost stopped to say, out loud, “Wait lang. Close ba tayo?

In turn, she told me…quite an earful. I was hormonally imbalanced and the hair fall, the weight loss, the cystic fibrosis were all physical symptoms of that. I wasn’t grounded enough, I lived too much in my head. I was too spontaneous, I had no daily routine. I was having a difficult time transitioning from my 20’s to my 30’s because I was still lugging around too much baggage from childhood. I was still too tied to my family. I had an incredibly stressful, even traumatic past year, experiencing different kinds of loss that had taken its toll on my body and my psyche, yet I wasn’t giving myself enough time to rest and recover. I was lactose-intolerant, yet my diet consisted of a lot of dairy. My body wasn’t built to digest a lot of red meat—it cost me too much effort and energy—and yet…

I staggered out of her clinic overwhelmed, bewildered, intrigued and most of all, relieved. I was right all along: something was very wrong with me. A professional had told me point-blank what I had all these years been feeling: that I was off balance, out of sync. No pat on the arm telling me I was alright. No soothing words saying that my condition was “normal”. It was as if my new doctor had lit a candle in a dark room and I was beginning to see, for the first time, what was in it.

I realized that what had really frightened me was the idea of not seeing, not knowing who or what the enemy was. I had no idea just what I was up against. And when I saw it, when I saw that the enemy was me—that it was my habits, my thought patterns, my choices, my lifestyle that were threatening my health and undermining me, I began to feel less hopeless, more in control. For the first time in seven years, I felt I had a real say in how my health, how my life was going to turn out.

My doctor didn’t stop with giving me a laundry list of what was wrong with me. The woman was on a roll. She gave me another long list, this time of all the things I was to do—a tacit order for me to get to work. Eat only freshly-cooked, organic dishes, no leftovers. Cook with ghee, a low fat cooking oil made from clarified butter. Eat mostly brown rice, grapefruit, papaya, avocado, seafood. Yoga sun salutations in the morning and early evenings. Stick to a regular breakfast, lunch and dinner schedule. Go to bed before10:00 PM, get up before 6:00 AM. Shower with warm water from the neck down, cool water from the neck up. And that was just for grounding me physically, which was the most urgent concern. Once I’ve done that, I would have to ground myself emotionally and psychically by seeing a psychotherapist. Also, I was to submit myself to a thermography and a breast ultrasound…

Of course, my stress level spiked those first few weeks at the thought of the amount of work involved and I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake by taking this on. I mean…ghee? The nearest Indian grocery was all the way on the other side of town…

However, when my mind and my body had gotten over the initial shock of my new diet and daily routine, the realization of what all this was for finally dawned on me: I would be able to sleep at night…at the least.

Hell, bring it! I was glad to finally have something real to do; something to do besides wait, twiddle my thumbs and hope for the best. The work, though daunting at first, gave me such a great sense of power and control over my life that I threw myself fully at it, with the zeal of a fanatic.

This is the work I’ve been on for the past four years—that of knowing me and of consolidating the seemingly disparate parts of myself into one solid unit. During that time, I tried other healing systems as naturopathy and homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, Jungian psychotherapy…investigated other philosophies and belief systems as Kabbalah, Buddhism, Wicca…got to study the Christian story from the Protestant angle aside from my family’s Roman Catholic one…

All of these have helped me to slowly unfold, revealing parts of me to myself that I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered had I stuck to what was familiar.

I will not gloss over the difficulty of such work. Coming face to face with certain truths about ourselves carries with it its own unique trauma, which some people just aren’t ready for, no matter how much liberation and enlightenment it may promise them. As Sue Monk Kidd succinctly put it, “The truth may set you free. But first, it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I wish I could present a Hollywood ending to this particular story—an obvious, if often simplistic, clear-cut resolution--and say that, after all my effort, I’ve rid myself of those pesky fibro-adenomas. But they’re still there. They still may or may not turn cancerous.

Yet in the most fundamental, most essential way, in a way that is hard for me to explain, I feel healed. And I say that with the awareness of its striking similarity to my mom’s own declaration. Like her, I have no tangible, measurable proof. Like her, my test results may refute what I feel. I am due for a check-up again and my results may be as they were a year ago.

But I am not the person that I was a year ago—I made sure of that, just as I have been doing since 2005. Every year I know myself a little more. And so every year I’ve become much better, more efficient at giving myself what I need and removing from my life what no longer works, whether it is a piece of clothing, a thought pattern or a toxic relationship. That discipline has been making me feel stronger, more in control, less susceptible to the paranoia and sense of imminent doom that had once stalked me.

I wish all that could show up on a medical test.

How would a sense of freedom and lightness register, I wonder?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Now?

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” – Theodore Roosevelt

For the past week, as I packed emergency goods for drop-off at a flood relief center in our area, I have been racking my brain for the best way—that is, the most long-term way—for me to respond to the latest natural disaster to hit the Philippines.

The two public responses I was most glad for came from architects: Jun Palafox’s statement that the flood that swallowed up many areas of Metro Manila is “man-made” and Dan Lichauco’s reminder for personal accountability.

“We should remember,” Lichauco said in a newspaper article, “that all of us are contributors to this disaster. From the plastic bags we throw into the sewers, to the trash in the streets, to the indiscriminate abuse of unsustainable resources and our reliance on a government that is not working, we all play a part in this disaster.

In the same way that the great earthquake and fire of San Francisco in 1906 changed the standards of that city’s urban planning, Manila will have to reevaluate and revisit its standards, too.”

We have to use this disaster as an opportunity to evaluate and change the necessary building design and urban designs in the country.”

Use this disaster as an opportunity to evaluate and change.

I am not an architect, an engineer or an urban planner, but five years ago, after a personal disaster struck and my life, much to my bewilderment and horror, went under, that was what I found myself doing: I found myself using that disaster as a golden opportunity to evaluate my life and to change the things in it that needed changing.

I found myself promising to never let something like that happen to me again, ever. More accurately, I promised myself that, if I absolutely could not keep horrible things from my life—though that was definitely Plan A--I would, at least, see them coming. Still a very good Plan B.

I would face my worst storms, prepared, better equipped in the manner of one who expects them. Never again would they take me by surprise.

I would be a more involved participant in both the joys and the sorrows of my life.

I daresay I’ve not done such a bad job. There are still storms, of course—now very few and far between. But I find that I can now detect them when they are only still low pressure areas in my life and I can sort of visualize its pathway and assess the possible damage should I be foolish enough to stand in its way. So I’ve learned to calmly sidestep them and I watch in awe as these storms, which could have easily swept me high off the ground again and violently toss me every which way like they used to, blow past me, leaving me—thankfully—unscathed.

Unfortunately, I see others—many of them people I care very deeply for—routinely get swept up in and badly battered by their own super typhoons. I throw them a rope--give or lend them my “savior” books and “savior” DVDs, write them rah-rah letters, offer them rah-rah speeches, give them a journal, forward my shrink’s phone number (“Please, please, see Tita Rose”, I beg them), sit quietly and listen as they once again go over the details of their latest heartbreaking trauma.

I always wished, though, that I could do more for them. Like slice open their skull and rewire their brain.

Because you have to act to steer your life towards a healthier, less disaster-prone direction. But in order for you to act differently, your mind has to think differently from how it used to. It’s our thinking that directs our actions. And you can’t change your thinking unless you first know exactly what you think.

This is what writing has done and continues to do for me—it lets me know what I think. It lets me know what my biases are, what my current fears are—all the things that could be keeping me from making the choices necessary for real change to occur in my life—so that I may pick them apart and find the deeper thoughts that fuel or strengthen these fears and biases.

This is why I urge people to write. Writing has been the tool that has most helped me understand my nature—and thus, my life—a bit more. And understanding this nature has helped me embrace it—the most natural tendencies and inclinations that I used to judge, deny or stifle because they made me feel like such a freak--so that I now work with it, not against it. This has been the key to my lesser-storm and lesser-damage scenario. But more importantly, this has been the key to my peace, the peace that allows me to do the things I’ve always wanted to do without too much fuss and anxiety. As my friend Cecilia so wonderfully put it, “Your highest potential is found in your most miserable traits.”

Learn, I urge the people I love. Endeavor to know who you are and use that knowledge to pull yourself from your dark pit of despair and propel you forward. Please learn. And I want them to, not only for their own sake, but for mine, too. Because it hurts to watch the people you love and good people with good intentions flounder and go under again. I never expected to be so affected by it (I used to think nothing could hurt me other than my pain) but I am.

Write about your troubles and your desires and your dreams, I tell anyone who staggers to me from the rubble of some great personal devastation or to one I see is headed in that direction. I know you don’t see the point now—or the coming danger that all this writing and introspection and reflection are supposed to help you guard against or, at least, ride out—but, believe me, it will serve you well.

Write. And along with that, read. Travel. Discover and try new things. Volunteer your time, your effort, your talents, your material resources. Get your blood circulating with physical exercise. Question things. Keep questioning things until you find the answers that satisfy you, until you find the answers that, to paraphrase Anita Roddick, don't insult your soul.

Why this focus on the inner life when addressing the recent typhoon-wrought devastation? Because I do believe that, to take some liberty with one religious song, all the disasters around us are mere reflections of what’s within. If our physical world doesn’t make sense to us, if to us it seems terrifying and out of control, it is because we do not understand it and feel disconnected from it—in the same manner that our lives spin out of control when we no longer understand it and feel connected to it.

Mother Nature—our natural physical world that we have continued to indiscriminately raze and over which we build humongous malls, among many such abuses—is much like our own individual natures: we have to find a way to work with it, not against it. Because to do the latter, as we've been shown over and over and over, is to ask for it; it is to ask the heavens to crash down on us and the earth to swallow us.

The first step towards working with this awesome, powerful force is to take the time and effort to understand it, to see how it works.

And understanding only comes with deliberate intention and the willingness and foresight to stop all our feverish activity in order to take stock, to “reevaluate and revisit” what we know, what we think we know and how we conduct ourselves.

As long as we are alive, we are part of this world. And so how we live—whether it be thoughtfully and responsibly or mindlessly and carelessly--affects this world, for better or for worse. Whatever we do in our own lives, whatever choices we make, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant we may find them, matter in the big scheme of things.

And as long we acknowledge that we are part of the problems that wrack our world, we can begin to embrace the idea that we are also part of the solution.

The question that we should throw ourselves, then, is: "What particular part do I play?"

I write. And I introduce people to the tool of writing so that, hopefully, it empowers them to handle their own storms and to figure out what they were meant to do while on this fragile planet in a way that ensures that this planet continues to be the home of many generations that will come after us.

This is what I do. This is what I have. This is where I am right now.

This is what came to me as I contemplated Teddy Roosevelt’s words while packing relief goods for the victims of the latest man-made disaster to hit us.

And so this is what I offer to the massive effort of steering this country, this world, in a new, better—and, dare I say it, exciting--direction.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The How Of It

I’m more than halfway through Eclipse now and all the unabashed love talk in there—by teenagers!—has caused me to meditate on the L word yet again. Like I need an excuse. I thought that somehow, by now, I’d have nothing to say about it, anymore. But, alas, the purging continues…

I got to thinking about Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where Spanish painter Juan Antonio (played by Javier Bardem) tells American tourist Vicky (Rebecca Hall) that the reason his poet father didn’t want his own poems published was that the latter didn’t think humans deserved anything beautiful because, after all these years, “they still haven’t learned how to love.”

Ah, strong words. The kind that are uttered by someone who is absolutely certain of something valuable. It was all I could do then to keep from crawling into the TV screen and into the living room of the old poet in a kind of reverse-Sadako maneuver, and ask in breathless desperation, So…hhhow? How are we supposed to love?

The answer could very well be in that word “how”--or the manner with which we express love. I do think there’s some kind of clue there. Having been an avid, dedicated--“shameless”, my therapist’s word for me--student of love (meaning, spending a huge chunk of my time, attention and effort trying to figure out what “love” means and how it works) since God-knows-when, I have come to think that there are really as many ways to love as there are individuals in the world. And that our myriad problems with love stem from the assumption that there is only one or, at most, only a handful of legitimate ways to express it.

“If you really love me, you wouldn’t forget our anniversary.” “If you really love me, you should try to make more money than me because, after all, you’re the man.” “If you really love me, you’d be more patient when we’re out on a date and I’m on my cellphone half the time.” “If you really love me, you’d call me everyday just to ask how my day went.” “If you really love me, you’d compliment me all the time.” “If you really love me, you’d marry me.” “If you really love me, you won’t break up with me.”

And the litany of what love should look like, how it should be, goes on and on. I look at what we’ve made of it and can sort of understand Juan Antonio’s father’s lament. We’ve made love so small, so narrow, so limited. We’ve confined its essence and meaning to our own notions of it, to ways we recognize and are familiar and comfortable with. We try to bend and fashion love to our will (believing, of course, that we can) then we hold up this bent, shaped—or misshapen--thing and declare it as “love”. Worse, we impose this prototype upon others. Anything that doesn’t look like this, we further declare, is not love.

So when the people in our lives express their love in a way that seems unfamiliar or different from ours, in a manner that does not meet our description and characterization of what love is supposed to be, in a manner that doesn’t adhere to our prototype, we assume the worst: that they don’t love us. Or, at least, that they don’t love us as much as we love them. (As if love were a contest, as if it could really be quantified.)

I’ve been accused of not loving someone enough and I have, myself, accused someone of not loving me enough. Neither position—whether I was cast in the role of heartless biyatch or I cast myself as the KMV (Kinawawz Martyr/Victim)--was fun for me. Sure, I found the role of KMV shockingly inebriating. Like someone who’s had too much to drink and suddenly has a wonderful excuse to make an ass of herself, the role of martyr/victim can be a convenient way to vent all your life’s frustrations at one person (“It’s your fault I’m not living the life that I want!”), not to mention a fabulous modus operandi for washing yourself of any responsibility or accountability for your misery and unhappiness.

After I went through that experience, I can understand why lots of people just looooove inhabiting the kinawawz role. By staying in that role, by making themselves thoroughly at home in it like some Method actor, everything that ever happens to them—or doesn’t happen to them--is someone else’ fault, never their own. How lovely. And how tempting to want to stay in it for, oh, maybe three more lifetimes.

But even then—even as I was relishing the KMV role like Johnny Depp--I felt the strong visceral falseness of it, like watching one of those TV soap operas or worse, Wowowee. Indeed, like a party pooper, the truth of what I was really doing planted itself stubbornly in my being so that I couldn’t thoroughly enjoy my state of victimhood. I knew I couldn’t stay contented as the “wronged party” or “long-suffering partner” forever. For doing so would not only constitute a grave disservice to both my partner and myself, it would be a great insult to love itself. I would be making it small, mean, limited. Or as Bon Jovi once accused—not me, let’s just make that clear—I would be giving love “a bad name.” If I really wanted to understand and know love, nothing could be more off the mark than wanting to stay a victim forever.

Back when an ex-boyfriend and I--trying so very hard to make our relationship work--were going to couple’s therapy, our shrink, perhaps sensing the outcome of our sessions, e-mailed me the following piece, which she found on the Internet:

“We all have unchangeable parts of our hearts that we will not betray and private commitments to a vision of life that we will not deny. If you fall in love with someone who cannot nourish those inviolable parts of you, or if you cannot nourish them in her, you will find yourselves growing further apart until you live in separate worlds where you share the business of life, but never touch each other where the heart lives and dreams. From there, it is only a small leap to the cataloguing of petty hurts and daily failures that leaves so many couples bitter and unsatisfied with their mates.”

I’ve become quite convinced that knowing oneself--what one needs and wants, what one’s personal vision of life is--and then finding another person who not only shares those needs and wants, but is actually aware of those things—and not love--is the key to successful, lasting relationships. I look at my parents’ marriage and, though I know it’s not the kind of relationship I want for myself, it works marvelously for them. They still really enjoy each other’s company, laugh at the other person’s jokes and can be such an annoying tag-team. Young as they were when they got hitched—my mom was 21, my dad, 22—I do think they were lucky enough to meet a person that early who wanted the same thing that they knew they already wanted for themselves: to start a family.

I have felt, in all my past relationships, that my partner and I wanted some of the same things. I had always thought that those similarities and, of course, the desire to make it work with the other person, were enough. The thing is, even those things would later come up short. Something else, something seemingly unexpected would crop up—a need in me that I hadn’t even been aware of before or perhaps had dismissed as inconsequential but was now undeniable, urgent, in-your-face. A need that just wasn’t being fulfilled where I was and got increasingly desperate the more it was denied. But I stayed, sometimes much longer than I probably should’ve, because that’s what I thought love meant: you stay, no matter what. No matter how wild-eyed and restless and desperate you become. No matter if you’ve made a nightly ritual of locking yourself in the bathroom and crying silently while you brush your teeth.

Loving someone, I’ve realized, should never be confused with sustaining a relationship with that person. One of the truly liberating discoveries for me, about love, is that you can actually love someone with everything you have in you yet can’t stand being in the same room as that person. Love is more than physical proximity. Or sweet text messages or romantic candle-lit dinners at expensive out-of-town restaurants or no-occasion surprise gifts or promise rings or marriage contracts or fabulous, sunset Boracay weddings. Love is all of that, yes, but it is so much more than that, too. Love can also be the courage you need to do the right thing—whether the right thing is to stay or to leave.

I’ve come to know that we give love its due when we see it, not in terms of degrees, but in variations—because, really, just how does one measure love? It can take on an infinite variety of shapes and sizes and situations and arrangements. Married, unmarried, single, widowed, remarried—love can inhabit these stations in life, if you so wish it, and not one of them is more superior or inferior to the other. Different people love differently. And we are all different.

I have promised myself to no longer assume to know another person’s capacity for love. The only capacity for love that I should know of is my own. I’ve seen me in action over the years so I pretty much know what I’m capable of. I now know for sure just how I love—I rather tend to give everything or, as Elizabeth Gilbert put it, to not only give away my hand, but “to give away the farm”, too. And so I do tend to ask for everything in return: Unswerving commitment and devotion. A solid friendship. Constant companionship. Equal partnership and teamwork. Headboard-banging, uh, chemistry. And the room to grow and evolve as individuals and as partners.

I’ve realized that, for me, it’s got to be all of the above…or nothing at all.

I have also promised myself to no longer get all bent out of shape trying to prove my love to others. Whether or not they believe me or feel my love is not my problem. I’ve learned from experience that people who can’t feel another person’s love should go to therapy or do the babaylan healing dance or get on a plane to Batanes and build boats with the Ivatans…or whatever it takes to shed the defensive armor, to remove the blinders from their eyes, to spit out the ball of bitterness from their mouth—to get some perspective, mehn!--because it’s their problem, not the other person’s. So it’s theirs to solve, not someone else’.

I should know. I kept hearing my partner’s words of love, saw him mouth them all the time. But somehow, they couldn’t reach me. His words seemed to lose steam on their way to me and dissolve to dust at my feet—I couldn’t believe them, couldn’t feel them. And I saw what that was doing to us.


I danced the dance that our priestess ancestors used for healing the villagers. Spilled my guts, bawled my eyes out and drew mandalas in my therapist’s office. Vented onto pages and pages in my journal and, when that wasn’t enough, set up a blog. Chanted Hindu deities’ names. Said novenas to Mother Mary and Saint Therese. Thrashed and spluttered through surfing lessons. Watched go-girl movies. Reread my favorite books and splurged on new ones. Started a book project. Met for tea and endless chika with good-vibe friends. Did innumerable sun salutations and warrior poses. Sang—or rather, screamed—Bono’s empowering lyrics almost every morning, upon waking, “I want you to know / That you don’t need me anymore/ I want you to know / YOU DON’T NEED ANYONE OR ANYTHING AT ALL…”

Then, one day, I felt it again. I felt loved.

And so I did what only love could give me the strength to do: I finally freed the both of us from each other.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Let Bella Be Chaka

It’s my fault, of course. No one put a gun to my head and ordered me to read Twilight (and its sequel, New Moon)…or else. I picked it up on my own volition after watching the film with no expectations and coming out of the cinema catatonic, my whole supposedly grown-up psyche run over and totally mangled by the juvenile love train. Wha—! I thought. What just happened there?

Also, I had been sufficiently warned by friends who have read the phenomenally popular four-book vampire romance series by Stephenie Meyer. “It’s going to suck you in,” my friend Kat said. And, when I started complaining about Bella’s over-the-topness in book one, my sister Jof said, “Naku, wala pa ‘yan.

So I only had my unquenchable curiosity to blame when, in the middle of New Moon, a heat crept from the center of my body, spreading out towards my neck, my arms, my legs until I felt it on my face, my scalp, my hands. My breathing came out shallow and labored and I was thinking in a panic, I can’t take this, anymore. I was gripped by an uncontrollable urge to grab Bella, the book’s 18-year-old heroine, by her hair and slam her head against the wall. As I looked down at my hands, clenching and unclenching them as I paced my room (I didn’t notice I had gotten up from my bed), I was almost surprised that I didn’t, er, transform. (Jabob, is that you?)

But I had to do something with my hands, so I snatched my phone from my bedside table and typed out an SMS to both Jof and Kat: “WHAT’S WITH THIS SUPER LOW SELF-ESTEEM LOSER GIRL?!!!”


I wanted to punch Bella in the face REALLY HARD—nang matauhan—even as I took note of my violent reaction with a mixture of shock, mortification and fascination. Aba, overly affected ang lola. All I wanted was to know how the story was going to end—it was too late for me now to not care about it, I was in too deep; I had, as Kat predicted, been sucked it--but…did I really have to endure this? This horrifically pathetic display of I’m-not-good-enough-for-you-Edward and I’ll-give-up-my-life-for-you-even-if-you-don’t-want-me-because-I-don’t-really-matter-anyway?


“Yes,” was Kat’s grim response. “You have to suffer through Bella’s un-boongzeehness! And it WILL get worse!” I gulped. It will? And did I detect a sadistic glee there, as if my friend was glad she could share the painful experience of watching Bella slowly chip away at her own self-worth? “But plod on, it will be worth it in the end!!!” She ended that text message with a smiley face icon. I stared at the icon closely, trying to make sure that there was sincerity behind those black-dot eyes and that the smile wasn’t, in fact, a sneer.

Please let it be worth it, I prayed, rather desperately. I didn’t want my curiosity to be the only thing spurring me on—that reason sounded too much like an addict’s. Just one more hit, just to see how that feels. And I am still a recovering love-junkie. I wondered if maybe it was too early to be taking on unapologetic, do-or-die romantic stories such as this one; I wondered if maybe I was pushing it. And that’s why I needed to believe that there was something big, something awesome waiting for me as a reader at the end of this story. I needed to believe that Bella’s self-destructive idea of true love was just a phase she would eventually get over, that she would later on “break on through to the other side.” I knew I would hate it, hate it, hate it if, after staying with her through this very dark, utterly frustrating and downright moronic part of her journey, she would remain as stupid and suicidal and spectacularly twisted about love.

I took a deep breath, sat back down on my bed, picked up the book, gritted my teeth and, as Kat urged, plodded on.

An hour later, I took another much-needed break. By then, I was ready to drag Bella up to the rooftop of a 30-storey building (I was racking my brain for one nearest my house) and kick her off the ledge—nang matapos na. So we can both be done with her already.

I also took this break as an opportunity to ask myself why. Why was this fictional girl getting to me this way?

I didn’t have to wait long for the answer to come to me. In fact, hardly had the question formed in my head than the answer pushed past it like an overeager, know-it-all class nerd (Hermione, is that you?). The answer made so much sense that I didn’t even try to deny its validity. Yeah, yeah, I thought, rolling my eyes. Then I sent Jof another SMS, admitting to her why think I was so pissed at Bella I could barely see straight. She agreed with my reason, recalling her own experience with books two (New Moon) and three (Eclipse) when she’d skip pages—the alternative to hurling the book across the room--because she was so “ASAR, mehn! Punyeta sha!”

“That’s why we’re so bothered by her,” she said in her SMS. “Because we were her before. Haha, shucks.”

Shucks, indeed.

OK, Bella darling, you can relax now. I promise I won’t slam your head against the wall or push you off a building. It’s not about you, dear. I know you’re only eighteen and, of course, it’s natural to go totally wacko over your first love and all. So, you know…go ahead, knock yourself out.

Really, I understand what you’re going through. Listen, when I was 20—the first time I was in a relationship—I went through the horror of having my boyfriend’s three beloved Great Danes attack me. He and I had tearfully broken up the night before, so of course, I didn’t sleep all through that night, until at 5:00 AM I decided to take the bus from my house in Las Pinas all the way to my boyfriend’s house in Fairview (trust me, dear--that’s far) to try to get back together. He didn’t know I was coming, so he wasn’t expecting me. But more importantly, I didn’t know the dogs were let out of their cages for breakfast, and so I didn’t expect them to come barreling at me when I was inside the gate. Yup. Rar! Rar! Rar! I was screaming my head off, woke up his whole house and the neighbors, too…but it’s a lucky thing my boyfriend was able to throw himself between me and his hungry dogs AND I was in a jacket. Thank God, that jacket was the only thing that got ripped.

I know it’s nothing like being attacked by a vampire, but in my world seeing extreme close-ups of three sets of bared Great Dane teeth snapping and lunging at you can be pretty intense. The things we do for love, right?

Now, that’s fine when you’re young—we can somehow forgive ourselves our insanity when we were a certain age, laugh about it even. But I think that when we find ourselves acting irrationally sometime in our supposedly mature, level-headed mid-20’s and 30’s, it’s just harder to laugh about it. Maybe because most of us expect to have shed that crazy nature, leaving it in our teens or early 20’s. It can be incredibly unsettling to realize that, despite the years added and the experiences gained, something of that will-do-anything-for-love crazy teenager still lives and breathes in us. And that it can be triggered again…when the next person we ordain The One comes along.

You see, some of us reading your story are in our 20’s and 30’s and we desperately want to believe that we don’t do wacko, anymore; that we’re so over that. Except that our most recent experiences resoundingly refute that belief. For some of us, it’s not been that long since we last lost our head over someone. In fact, my own recovery began only less than two years ago. The wounds may not be all that fresh or exposed, anymore, but they are still scabs. And reading about your, um, walk through that pitch-black, seemingly endless, hopeless tunnel—reminding us all too well of our own walk—is like rrripping off the scabs and revealing the still wet wound underneath. The pain—and the furious awareness that it’s all really quite unnecessary and stupid (why the hell would you do that to a scab?!)--is such that you want to lash out, grab someone by the hair and slam—!


It’s not your hair I want to grab, really—I know that now. It’s mine. Because I still get angry sometimes when I remember how I let myself get so self-destructive, when I remember how I disregarded my own deepest needs and desires, how I all but trampled on everything that was sacred and important to me…just because I had this idea in my head that that’s how you prove you love someone. That you have to feel all hollowed out, emptied of everything—including your soul—to prove to yourself just how much and how deep you can love. When I think of all the things I’ve put myself through, it does make me sometimes want to drag me up to the rooftop of a building and kick my stupid-ass, sappy self off the ledge.

But at the same, I have to admit that, during those recollections, I also can’t help marveling at myself: Wow…kinaya ko ‘yun? I have sat through some really seemingly interminable awful times, when, with every step forward, the way just got darker and more hopeless than I ever thought was possible. And I marvel that I have pulled through, that I’m here. I’m in one piece. I’m happy. And—most amazing of all--I’m more hopeful than I’ve ever been. I think that’s usually what happens when you feel you’ve been to hell and back. Hope gets a real beating in hell. When you’re in there, burning and yelping and hopping around like Yosemite Sam (“Sure is hot in here!”), the part of you that doesn’t really expect to survive seems more overwhelming than the hope that you will. So that if and when you do make it, that small hopeful part of you packs on more muscle and gains serious leverage. There’s nothing like surviving your own personal inferno to transform that hope in you from a naïve belief into an unshakeable, solid certainty.

Was this certainty in myself--and in the things I most value--perhaps the thing that I was expecting to gain, if subconsciously, when I entered a relationship that scared me--a relationship I once compared, in my journal, to “throwing myself into a furnace”? Were all those tears and crumbling self-worth and claustrophobic emptiness and nervous break-downs in movie theatre toilet stalls really worth it? Were they necessary?

The answer, I have to admit, is YES. Looking back from where I stand, there is not one thing I wish I could have done differently. Everything was really a step forward, even when I couldn’t feel or see it then. I had to go through the chaka parts—I had to be chaka. I had to be the complete opposite of strong and clear-minded and confident. Much as I wanted then to have skipped those parts—to not have to see the ugly, the unflattering, the self-denigrating and soul-insulting parts of me--there was just no way around them. Not if I wanted to be where I now find myself: altered from the inside out, possibly forever.

So, fine, Bella—be chaka. Stay there as long as you need to. Annoy people, make them uncomfortable, remind them of their not-so-great selves—and show them how to embrace it because that, too, is part of the process of becoming whole. Isn’t that why we love—to feel whole? Show them not to fear getting lost because we do have to be lost first in order to be found, right? And isn't that why we allow ourselves to be loved--to be "found", to know that we are seen and accepted for who we really are, including the deepest, darkest parts of us?

Hey, why don’t you download Alicia Keys’ song “Lesson Learned”. I think you’ll like it. “Yes, I was burned/ But I call it a lesson learned/ My soul has returned/ so I call it a lesson learned”. Nice, noh? ☺

It's been six days since I finished New Moon. I'm feeling calmer now, less agitated. So I take Eclipse, which I bought along with Breaking Dawn two days ago (thus, still covered in plastic), down from my bookshelf with a mixture of dread and anticipation. Kat’s words ring in my ears: “It WILL get worse!” Shet, kaya ko ba ‘to? But also…”It will be worth it in the end!”

OK. I will sit through this next book with you, Bella. And I will try my very best not to judge you—because I realize that would be judging me—so harshly.

I tear off the plastic wrapping of Eclipse and flip to the first page.

Here we go…

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What I Talk About When I Talk About "Making A Difference"

Over the weekend, at a youth leadership forum in Misamis Oriental for “sustainable peace and development in Mindanao”--between being star-struck at meeting Governor Ed Panlilio of Pampanga, Governor Grace Padaca of Isabela, and Tony Meloto of Gawad Kalinga--I collected myself enough to give the following speech ;):

Good afternoon and thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you today.

I was asked to speak on the topic of “Leaders in Readers” and that the group I am to address is comprised of student council leaders who have been tapped to contribute to the effort of achieving sustainable peace and development in Cagayan de Oro and in the rest of Mindanao.

As I’m sure you are aware, the vision you have set for yourselves is quite noble; the mission, ambitious. Lasting peace has always seemed elusive in this country, especially in Mindanao. And because peace has been slow to come, so has progress.

I'm also sure that the young participants here are raring to change all that. I'm sure you can't wait to make things different, to make things better. But before you go out there and seek to make your individual and collective contributions to this enormous task, let me share with you a few things I've learned about wanting to make a difference.

If it may sound like a deviation from the topic—and not what you had expected to hear--bear with me, as I feel called to share this with young idealists like you.

When I was about your age (not too long ago, I swear), I was impatient to start changing the world. I couldn’t wait to start doing the great things that I felt I was destined to do. The problem, though, was that I didn’t know where or how to begin. More importantly, I had not the faintest idea what those supposed “great things” were.

So I did the next big thing that a U.P. graduate could do: I got myself a job. I became a copywriter at a big advertising agency. It was a fun job. I was earning some money and not sponging on my parents, anymore, and I loved my funny, creative, irreverent officemates, most of whom were also from U.P. So my work just felt like an extension of my university days—except that I was getting paid to have fun. What a deal, diba?

Then in 1998, my father ran for Congress, representing our home province of Surigao del Norte. I was never a great fan of politics, so I fought that decision as hard and as loudly as I could until it was obvious that my father had made up his mind about running, hysterical eldest daughter notwithstanding. The rest of the family threw their support behind my father and so I finally decided that the mature thing was to go and do the same.

I took a two-month leave from work and, along with my four younger siblings, left for Surigao City to help my parents run the campaign. In the course of that campaign summer, however, I found myself becoming more involved than I had originally intended. I sat with mothers as they told me their wishes for their barangays—a school, more teachers, college scholarships for their children; nothing high falluting. I sat with smart, funny, energetic young girls who, I felt, could grow up to be amazing adults when given more opportunities to apply themselves. And at some point in the campaign, I began to think that politics may not be so horrible, after all, or government so irrelevant if it can help us fulfill all our wonderful plans for the province. I had just been to a visit to New Zealand some months before and was so impressed with that country’s efficient, robust eco-tourism industry. And I thought how wonderful it would be to adopt the same well-thought-out and highly evolved scheme to our province, which was already enjoying a fair amount of local and international visitors because of its world-class surf spots. What could be more ambitious, I thought, than adopting a First World eco-tourism structure to a very Third World province.

I became so excited at the thought of making a real difference in my home province, the place where I had grown up, that I was convinced this was my opportunity, finally, to do something great, something big and important. I decided that if my father won, I would quit my job and apply as his chief of staff or as his environment chief. I naturally—and naively--thought that my years as a member of the environmental group the U.P. Mountaineers was enough experience.

Then my father lost the elections. Of course, it was heartbreaking. But not as heartbreaking, not quite as devastating, as when those mothers I had spoken to and made great big plans with--many of whom were the leaders in their island barangays--came to the mainland with the intention of congratulating their new congressman, my father, whom they honestly thought had won as no news of the election results could reach their islands.

It was humbling to see the anguish on their faces. It was as if all hope for them had disappeared from the face of the earth. I had not fully realized the extent of their reliance on my father’s winning. While my family could pick up the pieces and carry on with our lives in Manila, the people from the province who supported and campaigned for us as if their lives depended on it were left with nothing but the faint echo of our promises. Aligning themselves with a politician, I realized with a sick feeling, had been the only way they knew to survive. Their lives really did depend on it.

I wanted to tell them that, really, all was not lost. It was just an election, for God’s sake. They still had themselves--their health, their imagination, their spirit. They were alive. I wanted to tell them, “Listen. You are still your own best hope.” But I didn’t know how to say it without sounding like a sheltered woman, a stupid burgis, who was out-of-touch with the realities around her. The more painful truth, however, was that I wasn’t sure I believed it myself.

I had never felt more useless in my life than I did that day, as I tried, along with my family, to comfort the weeping mothers. My education from some of the best of schools in the country could do nothing for them. I had never felt more powerless to do anything. I felt I had nothing real, nothing of value to offer them or anyone.

One of the lasting lessons for me from that experience is that while politics or the government can be a powerful, effective way of changing people’s lives for the better, it is, by no means, the only way. Mariane Pearl, journalist and author of the memoir A Mighty Heart, about the slaying by Islamic extremists of her husband, Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl, said that, “Personally, I believe there is a limitation to how much politics can change the world—but there’s no limitation to how much individuals can change the world.”

Personally—and especially after that sobering experience in Surigao--I couldn’t agree more.

Trouble was, this particular individual had no idea how she was going to change the world. It was this awareness of my cluelessness that haunted me when I returned to Manila and went back to my office desk and to my copywriting job. Nothing was the same, anymore. I didn’t feel I was the same person who left for Surigao two months ago. Everything that used to make me happy just felt hollow and meaningless. I felt hollow and meaningless, as though there was no real point to my existence. Writing ads for shampoos and conditioners and candies and underwear—something I really enjoyed before—began to feel to me like some kind of slow death.

I realized that I didn't love advertising enough, and that lack of love, that lack of passion for what I was doing showed in the mediocrity of my work. While my friends threw themselves at their work, investing it with attention and creativity and care—clearly doing something they love--I would grouse or growl at the sight of a new job order form on my desk. I would come to work late and leave early, had very long lunches, would go back to the office just to show my face, and then leave again for a very long coffee or tea break. I knew I was dragging my friends and my family down with my listlessness and boredom and sucking them into my black hole of misery—and it wasn't fair to them. I knew I had to leave. But where would I go? And what would I do? I didn’t know how to do anything except write and tell stories.

The faces of those mothers stayed with me. I badly wanted to help them, but how could I when I couldn’t even help myself? I couldn’t even figure out what it was that I wanted to do.

And so it was that, as I began to consciously figure out what it was that I really, truly wanted to do, I also naturally began to turn inward. I became more introspective and more reflective. I began to read more about the things that interested me, I wrote almost everyday in my journal about my observations, I asked the difficult questions. And because of all that, I became more aware of my thoughts, about my perceptions and my notions of things. In other words, I got to know myself a lot more.

I realized that, if I wasn’t so hell-bent on making a “contribution to society”--to do all the obviously important things like creating livelihood projects, building better schools, roads, etc.--what I really, truly wanted to do was to make films…and write books…and stage plays…and travel…and meet all sorts of interesting people. None of these pursuits sounded world-changing to me, none of them seemed to have any direct contribution to “nation-building”, but if I was truly honest with myself, those were the things I most wanted to do.

It was a lucky thing that among the many books I was then devouring was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. In it he said that “to realize one’s destiny”—to fulfill one’s biggest dreams—“is a person’s only real obligation”. You can imagine how liberating it was for me to read that.

So in July 1999, after a little over a year of intense introspection and reflection, of feeling more and more lost and out-of-place at client meetings, of more “meaning of life” discussions with my friends than they could tolerate, I finally tendered my resignation and left advertising. I vowed, from then on, to write only about the things I cared about.

For the next several years, I rabidly pursued my dreams: I made short films. I applied to NYU Film School twice—and was rejected as many times. I wrote screenplays. I entered all sorts of writing contests—winning some, and losing most. I wrote stage plays. I contributed articles to magazines. During those years, when my rent money would run out, I’d go and get a regular job, making sure that it was the kind that would enhance my skills as a writer or as a filmmaker. Whenever I had saved up enough money to sustain me for a few months while I wrote or took short classes and workshops or made a short film, I’d quit my regular job and focus on what I regarded as my real work, my soul work.

In 2004, my first novel was published. Many young women tracked me down on the Internet to say “thank you” and to detail how much the book “changed their life”. I was shocked and delirious when I made the connection--when I realized that by simply doing what I most loved to do, I was making my own contribution to the world. That by making my life better, I was inevitably making other people's lives better. I was amazed to realize that “making a difference” can be as simple as figuring out what you are most passionate about and then going out and following that passion.

Of course, there's nothing really “simple” about that. You run up against all sorts of personal issues, all sorts of fears that you never even thought you had. Am I talented enough, smart enough, attractive enough for the profession I want to pursue? What if I go do what I love—and fail? It's scary, it's risky—and that's why many people don't do it. Po Bronson, author of the book What Should I Do With My Life? (The True Story of People Who Asked the Ultimate Question) writes that, “Finding out what we believe in and what we can do about it is one of life's great dramas. It can be an endless process of discovery and one that should be appreciated for its difficulty. Don't cheat. Treat this as the one true life you have.”

It is what we achieve in our personal lives that we bring to the table. It is the lessons we've learned in our own lives that we offer as solutions to the larger problems in our community because it's what we know. It's saying, “How about we try this? It worked for me and, who knows, it might just work for you.” We cannot offer solutions we don't know, we cannot offer solutions we've not tested ourselves and proved to be effective. Otherwise, it's all just rhetoric. We have to first practice in our own lives what we want to preach. Our lives and the way we live it are the most persuasive argument for what we believe.

I've come to know that showing others what’s possible, by the example of our own lives, is the most effective way to lead.

Before President Barack Obama was catapulted into the position he is now in—as an inspirational leader to an America that is experiencing its worst economic crisis and a world that is going through unprecedented challenges--he was a young man with a lot of questions about his identity. He didn't look like his classmates in the school he attended in Indonesia nor did he look like his Indonesian stepfather, neither did he look like his white mother and the white grandparents who raised him. According to a Newsweek article, Obama was “an undistinguished student, distracted by the diverse ethnic and ideological impulses that muddled his mind. As a teenager, he resorted to cigarettes, drink, pot, blues and basketball. His salvation was in books, a world of ideas where the young Obama could explore his conflicts about race and identity, service and selfishness, without fear of reprisal. At Columbia University, this obsessive reading became a monkish habit. Steeped in the works of Nietzsche, Saint Augustine, Lincoln and Graham Greene, Obama forged conclusions in solitude, sometimes shunning human contact for days.”

It is the conclusions he forged in solitude that he applied to his work as community organizer in Chicago's tough and unglamorous South Side. It is here in this neighborhood that he “perfected the skill he'd learned alone in his room: creating unity from diversity. He could urge parties who disagreed on almost everything to agree on coherent action. And so he found his vocation. Ten years later, armed with a degree from Harvard Law School, Obama had made unity his particular specialty. Now an undivided self, he could use his narrative to bring other people together.”

Reading about the lives of the people I most admire, like President Obama, has validated and strengthened one of the most, if not the most, important lessons I've learned: that all meaningful work out there, begins in here. That “all meaningful change in the world begins in the individual life”. That whatever we wish to see out there—whether it is peace or progress or security or all of that—we should first be able to see within ourselves, within our own lives.

Our work begins with finding out who we are. We have to recognize our own potential in order for us to fulfill that potential. No one will do that for us.

We have to keep educating ourselves and developing our own skills and talents. We have to keep evolving and growing as individuals. Inevitably, as others become curious about what it is we're doing right, our circle of influence expands so that we are able to positively affect more and more people. Our personal power—the power that drives our life from within—expands from ourselves, to our family and personal relationships, to our community, to the larger community of our country, and to the even larger community of the world. When we are authentically empowered, we can't help but empower others.

Over the years, as I've paid more attention to my life and to the world around me, I've noticed that there are six things that help people develop and empower themselves:

1. Reading…anything and everything that interests you. As the writer Joyce Carol Oates said, “Be guided by instinct and not
design.” Don't discriminate among reading materials. “Anything that gets people to read is worthwhile”, wrote author Po
2. Writing…regularly in a journal, as well writing letters to friends and family. It helps clarify and organize your thoughts and
keeps you in touch with what you're thinking and feeling. It helps you become more self-aware.
3. Traveling…within and outside your country. It develops tolerance, a love and appreciation for diversity. It broadens both
your mind and your heart. It literally expands your horizons.
4. Volunteering…to causes you personally believe in and not just to what's popular. It keeps you in touch with the generous,
big-hearted part of yourself. Give of your time, your understanding, your energy, your attention, your money.
5. Questioning…everything. Anita Roddick, social and environmental activist and founder of The Body Shop said, “Re-
examine all you have been told. DISMISS what insults your soul.”
6. Exercising…regularly. The Buddha said, “To keep the body active and in good health is a duty. Otherwise, we will not be
able to keep the mind strong and clear.”

I'll wrap up this talk with a wish that each of you will strive to be all that you were meant to be. Because that, I firmly believe, is your best gift to the world. Thank you. :)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Boxing People

A few days after Manny Pacquiao knocked Ricky Hatton out cold, I found myself in a fiery discussion with my grandmother and my dad about Pacquaio’s political plans. As with many Filipinos, my dad and my grandmother were of the view that Pacquaio had no business entering politics. My dad: “He should know his limitations.” My grandmother: “He’s just a boxer.”

My response to my dad: “Maybe he does. And boxing or politics is not it.”

My response to my grandmother: “So you’re belittling boxing…and boxers.”

It didn’t end there, of course. A back-and-forth ensued—me versus my dad and grandmother—and quickly heated up. Pretty soon, the discussion degenerated into our taking a swipe at one another.

Me to my dad: “Of course, you’d think you know Pacquaio’s limitations more than he does. That’s all you see in people—their limitations, not their potential. Because all you see in yourself are your limitations and not your potential.”

My dad to me: “And you don’t know your limitations. If I didn’t tell you that your nose is crooked, you won’t know that your nose is crooked.”

A week rebuttal, I know. But this was all done in exaggerated, talo-ang-pikon, half-kidding fashion, so we each dangled what we thought were the sharpest--if illogical and baseless--hooks out there and tried not to take the other’s bait. It was trash-talking Floyd Mayweather-style.

Me to my grandmother: “Oh, that’s such old-school thinking—that people can only be and do one thing. Expand your mind, Mrs. Tiukinhoy.”

My grandmother to me: (Glaring) “It’s useless talking to you because you don’t listen. You think you know better.” Later, when my dad had walked off and left the two of us at the kitchen table, my grandmother peered at something on my face. “Why did he say your nose is crooked? It’s not.”


For the sake of argument-- because, really, it’s not as if we have any real bearing on Pacquaio’s decisions—let me just say that I don’t think anyone is in a better position than Pacquaio to know, with certainty, what he’s capable of and what his limitations are. I find it arrogant and presumptuous and self-delusional, this idea that someone other than Pacquaio can know for sure all that he can actually be.

Whether people are putting him down (as my grandmother did—she’s so not a fan) or putting him on a pedestal (calling him a “national treasure”, a “national hero”, the “best boxer that ever lived”), they are still putting him in a box, each trying to define him according to an easily recognizable mold. Either way, it is essentially saying the same thing: “This is all you can do, so stay there” or “That is what you are. So be that and that alone.” The terms “authentic, living hero” and “unifying force”—which a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial gave him—no matter how flattering and ego-inflating, are still no more than a trap, a constriction of his full potential as an individual, if these seek to keep him where people are used to seeing him—in the boxing ring—and discourage him from following the other things that call to him, like politics.

I remember having a similar argument years ago—with about the same degree of passion—with a friend about Richard Gomez. (Uh-huh.) Gomez had just been appointed to a government post in sports and my friend carried on about the former’s not knowing his place, about his “overreaching”. My friend wondered derisively why the guy just can’t stick to movies and acting and stop trying to be some kind of Renaissance Man—kayaking, fencing, directing and now holding a government post.

I found that statement more revealing of my friend’s state of mind and world view than it was of Gomez’ supposedly overweening ambitions—and I told my friend so. Which, of course, led to a “why are you defending him?” kind of discussion. But as I said then, it wasn’t about my “defending” Richard Gomez. Nor was it about my later on “defending” Ethan Hawke when he published his novel The Hottest State, of which I have a copy and which I found to be a terrific read—subtle, sensitively-observed, honest—but which, of course, some people derided as Hawke’s delusion by trying to be something he’s not. And most of these people have not even read his book. (How dare he think he can be a novelist, too, besides being an actor?) Or Angelina Jolie when she became an active crusader for refugees aside from being an Oscar-winning actress, a blockbuster action heroine, a pilot and mother.

It was, rather, about my defending—and making a strong case—of my personal world view: that you simply cannot box people in. That you cannot slap a label on them and expect them to act according to that label. People are too complex—and every single person’s potential, boundless—to be narrowed down to one thing or to be pinned down to a cliché. Richard Gomez, Ethan Hawke, Angelina Jolie—and most, recently—Manny Pacquaio, were simply Exhibit A, B, C, D in those conversations. They were merely the strong evidence and examples of what I mean; they were not the main issue.

For me, there are so many more such examples of people who do not easily conform to a clear, recognizable mold: the bestselling (and astoundingly eloquent, elegant) author who also happens to be the current US President--Barack Obama. The teacher with no business degree who went on to create The Body Shop, one of the most successful global businesses--Anita Roddick. The immigrant bodybuilder, actor, Republican Governor who married a Kennedy and is also his party’s “most powerful voice for green living”--Arnold Schwarzenegger. The high-profile member of the Kennedy clan whom people have been urging to run for office but who chose to be a journalist and is now an author and one of the most outspoken supporters of Barack Obama but who is married to a Republican Governor who supported John McCain--Maria Shriver. The playwright who became the president of the Czech Republic--Vaclav Havel; the Mexican TV soap star who didn’t speak English but became a Hollywood director, producer and Oscar-nominated actress--Salma Hayek.

I can go on and on, but...you get the picture. I hope.

My world view has strengthened over the years as I’ve seen and experienced the evidence for it countless times—in other people’s lives as well as in my own. People still continue to surprise me, even the ones I’ve known for a long, long time. And I continue to surprise myself, even when I begin to think I’ve seen everything there is to see about me.

I’m not a fan of boxing—never have been. There’s something I find quite barbaric, even if it’s done under certain rules, about trying to punch each other on the head as hard as you can—and getting paid for it. I’m no great fan of Richard Gomez or Ethan Hawke, either, even as I am one of the biggest admirers of Angelina Jolie ☺. But I am in awe of strong individuals—people who defy labels, who refuse to stay put in one place, who continue to discover and learn and grow, and frustrate those who try to pin them down. And the story of Manny Pacquaio is looking to me like a story of an individual who is becoming stronger and stronger, someone who is becoming more and more authentic to himself.

There is something I find quite riveting about Manny Pacquaio’s journey, especially with the news, shortly after his stunningly decisive win over Hatton, of his intention to join politics. People may interpret it however they want, but for me, it is about a person finding out that the boxing ring--no matter how much fame, fortune, titles and adulation it has brought him—is not big enough. It is about an individual who still needs to discover all that he’s made of.

If the news is true, I suspect that’s what’s driving Pacquaio out of the comfort zone of the ring, the hero-status, the adulation and into the uncharted territory of politics—he has to test himself in other ways as he probably hasn’t yet seen his true strength, awesome as his power may already appear to the world. He hasn’t yet experienced his full capacity as an individual. Besides, if Pacquiao approaches politics the way he boxes—that is, by using his mind (“planning, preparing and executing”) and his heart—I think he just might surprise the naysayers, yet again. I do think his desire and capacity to learn (which requires curiosity and humility—two things that seem to be glaringly absent in an overwhelming number of so-called public servants)—as evidenced by his adoption of a new boxing style—will serve him well.

It takes guts to step off that familiar, comfortable pedestal and discover what else you’re made of. (Think of John Lennon leaving the “more popular than Jesus Christ” Beatles to free himself to discover other talents and other passions he may be harboring). Many people simply aren’t able to muster that guts—which is why the very few who do, stand out, become great and, in so doing, inspire others. By their example, they show the rest of us what’s possible.

Whether Manny Pacquaio reaches greater heights in politics or crashes and burns is not my concern. The point here is that he is not allowing the very real possibility of the latter—that he may turn out to be a complete disgrace—to kill the equally real possibility of the former—that he just may turn out to be a great public servant. (Because the truth is that, as with anyone else, he can really go either way). At least, give that to the guy. Most people let their fear of the unknown stop them from straying outside their familiar surroundings and into new territory.

I say go for it, Manny. And I wish you well.

Because it’s tough out there…you know. ☺

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

...And the Super Sappy Girl Finally Snapped Out of It

Written in November, 1995:

I am stung
by your obliviousness
How could you not want
to share
a little of your space
a little of your breath
a little of your self
with me?
It's dark again
too soon
Daylight is
my only reprieve
from damning thoughts
of why, why, why
you can't love me
as I love you.

Written in February, 2009:

I will no longer try
To slay your monsters for you
I can’t be your hero
I can’t be your saviour, anymore
I will try to slay my own monsters now
(and they are many)
You watch me
Very closely
And you

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Winging It

 More than two weeks have passed since I stood onstage, facing a barangay of family and friends and strangers (and one heckler aunt), and delivered my monologue. (My friend Kat later on said that our guy friends seemed most impressed by the fact that I remembered all those lines—“Ang galing ni Tweet mag-memorize!” Uh…OK. Gotta be grateful for whatever compliment is thrown atcha.) It’s been more than two weeks, but I still kind of levitate off the bed when I think of the miracle of getting through my first ever theatre performance without a hitch.

There was no gagging, no words catching in my throat and me running off the stage in tears because I completely blacked out and forgot my lines—all the horrific scenarios I had played in my head just so I wouldn’t be completely shocked if any of it did happen. There was none of that. As I stood there onstage, I was quite frankly amazed by how relaxed I felt. In fact, I was so relaxed, and thoroughly enjoying myself, that when I bent down to reach for a prop--a lighter--to supposedly light my cigarette and found that it wasn’t there, I couldn’t even muster the energy to panic. My then seemingly Zen, in-the-moment brain quickly told me to mime the lighting and the smoking as if that’s what I had intended to do and my body did just that, quite effortlessly. As I delivered the rest of my monologue--while fake-smoking an unlit cigarette and feeling like that was exactly what I was meant to do, in the first place--I thought, with a shock of recognition (and just plain shock, actually), This is it! This is what Michelle—our director—was talking about! I’m—nakanampu--WINGING IT!

About a couple of weeks before opening night, in the middle of a rehearsal marked by flubbed lines--with performers stopping in mid-act and calling “Line!” to the stage manager Joan too many times--Michelle had swept the entire all-women cast with a somber look and said, in a tone that was as grave as her expression, “Ladies. I need for you to start winging it. I won’t be there with you, anymore, and nor will Joan. No one’s going to be feeding you the lines that you don’t remember. Now, you are going to have to find a way to get through your act without the audience noticing your mistakes. If you make a mistake, if anything should go wrong, the audience doesn’t have to know that. You understand me? Make it work. Do whatever you need to do to make it work. You’re on your own.”

I don’t remember a speech sending more chills of terror down my spine.

No Joan feeding the first—or second or third or fourth—word of the next line when I momentarily black out in the middle of my monologue? No Michelle calling to me that I’m staying too long in stage right, as if I were stuck there, and that I need to move around in order to not bore my audience and lose them? No comforting thought of me being in rehearsals, anyway, so I can screw up and just grin sheepishly and say, “Oh, sorry, sorry. Can I do that over?” The scenario of me standing by myself onstage, under a spotlight, doing what I need to do to make my performance work, on my own, made the blood rush to my head that I thought for a moment, I can still back out…right? I mean, it’s a free country. Right?

Start winging it, Michelle had said. Somehow it sounded no different to me than if she had told me to jump off a building without my Spidey suit.

The fear that that injunction struck in me, however piercing, was short-lived. By then, I’d already come to see that every endeavor I’ve ever attempted, especially the ones that meant a great deal to me, ends with the same final requirement for its completion—Jump! It’s been that way with my romantic relationships, with my work, with the places I’ve dreamed of traveling to…There would always come a point in my wishing, planning, researching, analyzing, visualizing, talking endlessly to friends and family about this thing that I really, really want to try where the only thing left to do would be to actually go do it already with conviction. To not try to control or second-guess the outcome or dwell too much on doomsday what-ifs and just go for it.

Two weeks before my stage debut, I felt the lesson over the past several years repeating itself to me yet another time:

We can keep practicing and practicing, train for months (even years) in order to prepare ourselves for The Big Day, for The Moment of Truth. We may know all the facts, memorized all the lines, learned all the necessary skills, argued the case and analyzed the issue from every possible angle, but in itself none of that will amount to anything. None of that will get us what we want or bring us where we want to be…unless we let go of our crutches and trust that we already have within us exactly what we need to make it. That we are on our own precisely because we are capable of being on our own. That whatever the results, whatever the outcome, we can hack it. So, you know…jump already.

I have to admit in here—as I did to the props person who later came to the dressing room, pale and apologizing profusely about forgetting to put the lighter on the table onstage—that not seeing that lighter was the best thing to happen to me that night. In fact, I saw it as an answered prayer. Being the kind of non-smoker who simply cannot stand cigarette smoke, I was worried that, despite having feverishly practiced my smoking for days, I would not be able to pull off authenticity onstage. I was anxious that my discomfort would show. One smoker friend had watched me, bemused--and more than a little alarmed--as I struggled with a lighter and anxiously, unconvincingly, puffed away. As performance night neared and I still was nowhere near feeling like a real smoker, I did the only other thing left for me to do: I let it go. Bahala na si Batman. Bahala ka na, Lord (haaaaaay, Lohhhhrd…pleeeeeazzzzz….)

“To have control, you have to lose control,” Billy Bob Thornton’s character tells John Cusack’s in Pushing Tin, a film about spiraling-out-of-control air traffic controllers. For me, that paradoxical line is precisely what “winging it” means: to not try to control everything. To acknowledge that some things in our life will always remain mysterious, unseen, hidden--beyond the grasp of even our most sharpened senses and our rational, logical brains. So that however meticulously and determinedly we visualize and plan our lives, it won’t always go exactly the way we want it to go. That is its way of reminding us—a reminder that hurts the more we resist—that we just aren’t in control. Something bigger, something infinitely wiser and more powerful, is. And that it will always out-plan, out-smart, out-strategize, out-visualize us.

And so the only way to handle this mysterious, unseen, hidden aspect of life is to trust it. To trust that it’s working for us, not against us; that--and this seems to be the toughtest thing for many people to accept--it is working within us, so, of course, it only has our best interests at heart. To be absolutely certain that it doesn’t seek to thwart our most beloved plans nor to frustrate our most cherished dreams, but to deliver them to us in the most expedient, most startlingly fuck!-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? genius way possible.

I couldn’t thank the props person enough for the missing lighter. When I thought about it later on, pretending to smoke actually worked better for the monologue because the character was imagining herself in her own movie and had been miming scenes in her tiny apartment since the beginning of the act. Plus, not having to pretend to like smoking—which, I realize, might tax my beginner’s acting skill more than it can handle—made me even more relaxed and my performance, I felt, more natural. So for my second performance night, I incorporated that fake-smoking move, all the while marveling at the sheer genius of it--“Fuck! Why didn’t I think of this myself?”

So it didn’t go the way you have planned, the way you have imagined it--so what? Make it work. Do what you need to do to make it work.

I realize that I have been winging it for several years now. I have been adjusting my responses according to the particular requirements of a moment. I have, in other words, been making my life work for me, no matter what. My life has not at all turned out the way I had originally planned—it has taken turns in a way that I never imagined or thought I’d have the constitution for. Let me put it this way: the ideal life that I wrote about in my grade school slum book (Ideal Age for Marriage: 25, Ideal Mate: Tall, dark, handsome, Ideal Number of Children: 3 to 5, Ideal Profession: President of Coca-Cola—I’m not kidding ☺)? It is sooo NOT the life that I have now, and yet I look at what I have and think, in amazement, Wow, that’s really me. It’s so uniquely mine. Every single part in it I chose. Even the ones that seemed to have landed on my lap, that seemed to have chosen me, I chose back, I embraced. There’s not one thing in it—and this isn’t something that I would have been able to say in the past—that I regret or would have otherwise.

Here’s another thing I wouldn’t have been able to say before, either: I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s in the world. (Hmm…OK, except maybe for Angelina Jolie’s or Kate Winslet’s or J.K. Rowling’s ☺.)

“We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “Everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it.” My life so far has certainly proven to me countless times that it is not limited—nor can it be limited—to scenarios or situations that I’m used to or comfortable with. It is not limited to things I’ve learned from the family, the religion, the culture, the society that I grew up in. Life is much bigger than all of that combined. Some new surprise, something I’ve never encountered before, will always spring out at me. Curveballs will always zing towards me from seemingly out of nowhere. The question is: do I develop the flexibility, the mental and emotional openness and agility to adjust my stance—adjust my perceptions and recalibrate my responses--in order to catch it? Or do I stubbornly root myself in my old position—in my usual thinking, in the way I’ve always done things—and helplessly watch that ball painfully hit me on the head yet another time?

I’ve learned the hard (a.k.a. painful) way that just because a situation or an event is something I’ve not seen nor experienced before doesn’t mean it’s “impossible” or “wrong” or “a mistake” or “not for me”. In other words, I have come to embrace the reality, the fact, that anything can happen, anything at all is possible. And while that idea used to scare the shit out of me, it is now the one promise—the one constant--in life that I rely on, that I know I can always count on. And that no matter what other new, unprecedented things life may throw at me, I know—with absolute certainty--that, as my friend Erin (in Barcelona now, hyper-consciously experiencing this whole concept) says, “it’s going to be awesome.”

I know because, well…it already is.

The cast of SALLY'S SHORTS (a night of one-act plays by American playwright Sally Nemeth) with our fabulous director, Michelle Washington (the bald-headed Superwoman beside me). 
Cast and crew 

With co-actress (for one-act play LILY) LaRita Hamilton