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.