Prudence.

Climbing Advice.Great advice from climbers at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. At times, I feel my work–and the adventures I tend to find myself having–to be akin to climbing mountains.

It’s not enough that we are courageous. Exercising prudence matters too.

Embarking on another long journey. Hope this time I might be prepared as I was when I was in India–at least to handle what might come.

What is Gained in the Telling.

I submitted this piece to the Iligan National Writer’s Workshop–they responded positively and I should have been on a plane today, setting off to learn at the feet of writers whose words give meaning and voice to the regions of the Philippines. Unfortunately, the road couldn’t lead to Iligan as I am scheduled for a visa interview tomorrow.

My heart’s a bit broken over this. Writing means a lot to me and this week would have been a great opportunity to improve my craft. But anyway, there will be other opportunities.

———–

What is Gained in the Telling.

Ti nalaka ti pannakasapulna, nalaka met ti pannakapukawna.
What is easily acquired is easily lost.

The language poured into me without even a sieve between us.

My grandmother, tugging at my arms, would lead me through the maze of the Baguio Public Market. We would go from dark, dingy alleys to the bright luminescence of the butcher’s strip, globes of incandescent lamps hanging over chunks of meat. I watched the sweat trickle down from their faces. Their eyes glimmered in recognition of my grandmother, who at five feet tall maintained her poise and lady-like demeanor. She would smile knowingly at them triggering a collective gesture of meat sorting. They knew which cuts she would need to make her month-lasting adobo, a dish my sisters and I loved and feared at the same time. How long could meat really last—vinegar or no? At some point in my childhood, when I was still young enough to allow fantasy to take over reason, I courted the possibility that my grandmother had employed magic in her kitchen. We were by no means affluent yet we never ran out of food. The refrigerator was always bursting at the seams, jars of jam and butter struggling to keep the door ajar.

Back at the market, the smell of day-butchered pig wafted in the air. I was too young to be self-conscious but old enough to know how embarrassed my grandmother would be if I spat or vomited on account of it. There would be none of that. If you are old enough to go to the market, an accomplice of the Lady of the House, then the nonsense of nausea is dealt with in silence. I swallowed to keep from throwing up and made a nary a sound for fear of breakfast sputtering out along with my words.

So, I learned to listen. The Iloko words my grandmother used to conduct her business didn’t easily arrest me, at first. These were exigencies of living in Benguet. English could not be the sole currency in this economy of words because a lot of those who spoke it were no longer the tillers of the land. The missionaries had come to preach the Good Word and under their tutelage, the local Kankana-ey and vernacular Iloko, were submerged in a bigger pool of language, English defining the perimeter and slowly moving into the heart of the people’s being. It was faith after all that the Catholics preached—faith to conquer, to banish the savage. There was some salvation being preached here but my grandmother knew that nothing, not even God, could save a farmer from the lowlands where nothing of value grew. Their English might have rooted itself deeply in their expression but it could not beat the indigenous wisdom of knowing the planting season like someone who had lived it.

Life within the language is also worth noting. I knew the words only passively and I struggled to forget them. Gentle as my grandmother might have been in her use of the language to acquire goods, my mother was not so. She said so few things in that tongue but her words captured me, locked me in submission. I knew the dragon in her when she said her piece in Iloko.

“Agtalna kan.”

Roughly translated, the phrase commands the listener to have peace—but when voiced by an angry mother to quell my own childish rebelliousness, I knew I could not have any. I carried the weight of her words on my shoulders for as long as I could remember. I gained no interest in learning to say things in the language that oppressed me as a child. I feared that inhabiting it might render me oppressive, too. Who would want to pass that on? The fear, the anxiety, the secret bond between mother and child that wounds, that breaks.

She stopped using that tongue in my adolescence. Perhaps she thought I had outgrown the need to be told off. Naturally, I hadn’t but it relieved me to not be reprimanded in public, in this language or another.

When my grandmother died, I was all of eighteen. Only now made aware of the value of a regional language, of a vocabulary that colored my growing years. When she was cremated, I worried that the words burned with her. I was saddened to see the language carried over to the grave.

At least I thought this was the end.

Lately, I have been visiting the mountains in search of butchers who might know my kind of meat from others. They are few and far between but once they slice the meat, partitioning the animal and designating which of its parts I must claim, I surprise them with conversation. They are baffled at first, watching someone with fair skin speak a tongue so seemingly foreign but also lived in, accent and all. I am invited for gin in their homes. The spirits leap out of glasses in homage to those that have gone before us.

In between drinks they tell elaborate tales in Iloko and I am astonished by my comprehension. I have never heard some of these words before but they speak to a side of me I have never really attempted to know.

What is easily acquired is easily lost.

 

Difficult Questions: What I Struggle to Understand.

New Path

The deeper I go into this line of work I’m in, the more I realize the need to constantly examine what it is I truly believe in. There are many voices that speak up and all of them are equally correct, the challenge is to listen to the one that speaks closest to the truth in my heart.

A few days ago, after a 12-hour bus ride back home, I stole time to think about nothing. Sometimes the mind needs to be stilled. The fast pace of decision-making and reaction often compels me to speed up my absorption of information. Countless hours I now recall having wasted worrying about the amount of things I don’t yet know and could if I only kept still enough to read–but even then, the lists I draw up overwhelm me. Everything that interests me deeply offers an embarrassment of riches in the form of text that’s all yearning to be processed somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind.

Yesterday, though, in the attempt to return to the beginner’s mind, I flipped channels and paused to watch Whale Wars. In it I saw passionate individuals driving a van into the heart of the Faroese Islands during a festival known as the Grind. During this event, the people of the islands set out to sea capturing and killing pilot whales to retrieve meat for their survival. In the course of time, this practice has formed what is now their culture and though there are multiple ways of surviving apart from hunting whale, it’s become something symbolic for them. Naturally, this is questioned by members of the Sea Shepherd who have made it their mission to prevent humans from killing whales.

This may not be the best example of its kind but before dozing off last night, I recall understanding (profoundly!) a very simple truth: People act according to what they value and though values change over time, they aren’t always immediately right or wrong. Again, perhaps Whale Wars is really not the best example because if I had used Rwanda instead as an issue to ponder, I would have said with absolute certainty that the massacre of Tutsi’s by the Hutu majority was just wrong, TOTALLY wrong. [Excuse my digression but this is still something I'm trying to grasp.]

But yes, interests and values. We all have these as human beings and the more deeply I work with communities–both in the grassroots and middle-management, even top-leader groups–the more clear it is to me that a judgment of right and wrong is not the first recourse…at least I should teach myself this.

If I’ve learned anything from history it’s that our judgments have compelled us to act in certain ways that have often excluded and marginalized more people as opposed to liberating them.

When I was younger, I knew I had a lot of angst–some I’ve carried over into my adulthood–and I used to think angst alone and a sense of right and wrong were enough to realize certain fundamental things about being…but now I’m not so sure.

My anger has kept the fire in my belly burning but experience has tempered my desire to cast blame and I’m now beginning to see a different side of justice that my younger self would never have contemplated–something I still struggle with today and am often blind to understanding. It’s the possibility of reconciliation knowing fully what the crimes have been but understanding that moving forward requires not forgetfulness but embracing persons in their totality as human beings.

I often think of what dignity truly means and how, as we restore this to the poorest among us, there should also be room to view those that hurt us as greater than the crimes they commit.

It’s so difficult–especially because often, our biggest problems are ethical ones that hang on the balance of social justice. It’s usually the case that we know the perpetrators of poverty and the wardens of corruption–but as I look them in the eye, I feel my own blood-stained hands and ponder the depth of my own complicity. How much of these collective sins are my own? What don’t I say that allows things to go on as they are, that sows hatred instead of goodness?

If there’s anything worth praying for this Lenten season, it’s probably this. I hope to examine Christ’s passion and anticipate Easter, desiring only that I might come to the faintest understanding of what it truly means to be fully alive and present to fellow men and women whom I encounter—the hope also is that I preserve the essence of the encounter that I might discern better and judge less.

Faith in Trees.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.  -T.S. Eliot

I left for Dumaguete not knowing why I had to visit except because I purchased a ticket. It was my first plane ride alone and I had hoped, as most young people do, that it would signal my transition from adolescence into adulthood. At least, I hoped my parents would see it that way.

At a very young age, I knew that leaving home was something I always felt I needed to do but I could never say when the journey ought to begin. The end of college sorted it out for me. It came with some finality. I went up stage, retrieved my diploma, and bowed. Therefore, it was time to travel. It was time for life to begin, or so I hear my younger self explain.

Trees, 2.

I chose Dumaguete because all my favorite local writers raved about the romance of its trees (and God knows I would go anywhere for trees).  They set up the allure of this literary hamlet defined by its proximity to towering acacias.

I was hooked, obviously, so I booked my flight and waited months to leave.

What I didn’t expect was that I would visit the island to convalesce. Some months prior to my trip, I had undergone surgery to remove my left eye and replaced it with a prosthetic. I decided it had to be done so I did it. I arrived in Dumaguete a pirate, eye patch firmly tied around my head. The bluest of skies welcomed me but even that was no match for the shade of blue I felt inside. Losing something that defines you can leave you feeling unmoored, floating aimlessly in a vast and empty sea.

I was hoping that this, along with my knapsack, would be the only luggage I would take on this trip but I was wrong.

Three days before my flight, I caught my mother scrubbing the same portion of floor for a good twenty minutes before starting to sob. She explained that my uncle was perishing on account of lung cancer which he told no one about.

Tree, 3.

I packed my sadness with me on the plane bound for Dumaguete and immediately felt selfish at the sight of the blue sea that effortlessly crossed over to a cloudless sky. When there is so much darkness, how can one deserve such a stunning sight?

Pondering the depth of this water, I wanted to know if it matched my sorrow—or at least the depth to bottom of my heart for don’t we all say we love from here? I love you from the bottom of my heart.

In Dumaguete, a friend adopted me. I lived in her ancestral home. She and her brother took me away from my loneliness and placed me on the back of a motorcycle where only the wind brushed against me. It was a maddening few days of challenging the distance a motorcycle could travel.

Casaroro.

On the first day, we drove from the city to Valencia and further on west until we hit a fork in the road and had to make our way by foot in pursuit of waterfalls. Neither of us had been to Casaroro Falls and the thick expanse of green that led to it made us wonder if it was there at all.

On the second day, we took off again from the city but this time we headed south. We sat on the bike longest that day and made headway into the towns of Bacong, Dauin, and Zamboanguita until we were finally in Siaton. Each town blurred into the next and we drove until there was no more road.

On the third day, we woke in time to catch a ferry to Siquijor. It was a trip I was desperate to make. Childhood mythology classes taught by nannies included stories about the island being home to witches and warlocks guarding portals to the supernatural. People who were ill came to heal here.

Ferrying toward the island, gasoline wafting in the air, I was convinced I could sell my soul to any being in exchange for a few more of my uncle’s good years.

When we arrived in Siquijor, I did away with all the warnings and gazed into the eyes of every old woman whom we happened upon. I secretly hoped that one or any of them—astute as they are in healing and sensing—would read into my predicament and take interest in my offer.

No one did—none but the trees.

Only we noticed each other.

I recall the magnificence of mangroves, roots jutting out from the earth, appearing to walk toward us. There were lanes of fire trees that grew to a medium height and bloomed excessively, painting an entire row of trees bright, bright orange. In Lazi, home to the church and convent dedicated to St. Isidore Labrador, acacias competed with the structures in size, grandeur, and age.

We met no other people but I hardly felt their absence—especially in the presence of the old Balete tree. Hiding from my companions, I crawled between its many arms, lodging myself into one of its rooms to hurriedly whisper:

“I don’t want him to die. I don’t want to die either. I’m afraid to leave because things will change. What do I do when things change? What do any of us do, in the face of death?”

I stepped out reasoning that I disappeared to photograph the tree from another angle—a bad excuse from the get-go, since I hadn’t taken any photos. None I could show, anyway.

We mounted the bike once more and drove along the coast from Lazi to San Juan until we were back again where we started.

In Manila a week later, my uncle called from his deathbed announcing travel plans.

“When I come home, we can go anywhere you want to go.”

Trees, Dumaguete.

How to Live & Die.

Rowing down the Ganges at twilight.

Rowing down the Ganges at twilight.

Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians—or the Pakistanis.

Khushwant Singh writes those lines in his Train to Pakistan. He died today at the age of 99 and it saddened me. Last year, after my Indian sojourn, an old friend of mine who used to be a journalist and is himself also in his twilight years, invited me to his office. He had heard that I was going to India and he wondered if I could visit a friend of his.

When we met in his office, I revealed that I had already returned.

“Ah, never mind. Maybe you’ll go another time. It’s just that my friend Khushwant Singh is in Delhi and since you were going, I thought you might want to visit him.”

My face fell, as you can imagine. In Delhi, my favorite bookshop had all of his books but I hesitated to pick them up because I feared my luggage would not close. I returned home with Tagore and other authors whom I felt spoke to me then.

At the airport, I saw Singh’s books again and hesitated. I can’t understand why but maybe, as a consolation, I can think of regret as an invitation to return.

This quote above helps me understand why my friend found kinship in Singh. He’s among the writer’s I would really like to be like someday. And because his words matter so much to me, I leave you with an excerpt from the piece, How to Live & Die, published for Outlook India in August 2010 (I’m taking liberties and borrowing the title for my entry. If you work for Outlook and would prefer I change it, please let me know.):

I don’t believe in rebirth or in reincarnation, in the day of judgement or in heaven or hell. I accept the finality of death. We do not know what happens to us after we die but one should help a person go in peace—at peace with himself and with the world.

I’ve lived a reasonably contented life. I’ve often thought about what it is that makes people happy—what one has to do in order to achieve happiness.

First and foremost is good health. If you do not enjoy good health, you can never be happy. Any ailment, however trivial, will deduct something from your happiness.

Second, a healthy bank balance. It need not run into crores, but it should be enough to provide for comforts, and there should be something to spare for recreation—eating out, going to the movies, travel and holidays in the hills or by the sea. Shortage of money can be demoralising. Living on credit or borrowing is demeaning and lowers one in one’s own eyes.

Third, your own home. Rented places can never give you the comfort or security of a home that is yours for keeps. If it has garden space, all the better. Plant your own trees and flowers, see them grow and blossom, and cultivate a sense of kinship with them.

Fourth, an understanding companion, be it your spouse or a friend. If you have too many misunderstandings, it robs you of your peace of mind. It is better to be divorced than to be quarrelling all the time.

Fifth, stop envying those who have done better than you in life—risen higher, made more money, or earned more fame. Envy can be corroding; avoid comparing yourself with others.

Sixth, do not allow people to descend on you for gup-shup. By the time you get rid of them, you will feel exhausted and poisoned by their gossip-mongering.

Seventh, cultivate a hobby or two that will fulfil you—gardening, reading, writing, painting, playing or listening to music. Going to clubs or parties to get free drinks, or to meet celebrities, is a criminal waste of time. It’s important to concentrate on something that keeps you occupied meaningfully. I have family members and friends who spend their entire day caring for stray dogs, giving them food and medicines. There are others who run mobile clinics, treating sick people and animals free of charge.

Eighth, every morning and evening devote 15 minutes to introspection. In the mornings, 10 minutes should be spent in keeping the mind absolutely still, and five listing the things you have to do that day. In the evenings, five minutes should be set aside to keep the mind still and 10 to go over the tasks you had intended to do.

Ninth, don’t lose your temper. Try not to be short-tempered, or vengeful. Even when a friend has been rude, just move on.

Above all, when the time comes to go, one should go like a man without any regret or grievance against anyone.  Iqbal said it beautifully in a couplet in Persian: “You ask me about the signs of a man of faith? When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips.”

Giving up absolutes for Lent.

Absolutes.

(Which is the truer image of the houses? That which actually is or that which we perceive reflected in the water?)

In a surprise conversation with friends on religion, faith, and assumptions, it occurred to me that if there was anything I should give up this Lent, it should be absolutes.

In a sudden twist of plot, the phrase “you teach that which you want to learn” became real to me when I was confronted by a friend and asked to express what it is I believe in. Mysticism is my default answer because of several instances that didn’t lend themselves to explanation but now, more than ever, I’m ashamed of my laziness. Geez. Of course I need to articulate what I mean by believing in such and such–and if there isn’t a vocabulary for these feelings, I will accept the experience being beyond my grasp. Certainly not after attempting to explain, though.

I feel it is my duty as a writer to be honest with experiences. Often, I worry about writing because I don’t want to be inaccessible. What I need to learn, though, is that this is not a call I have to make. I must leave the decision to my readers and trust them to make sense of my writing.

As for faith and absolutes, it’s ironic how I “problematize” the ideas of my students. As soon as they feel surest of their answers in class, I throw in a monkey wrench–not with the intention of rendering them incorrect, but simply challenging them to reconsider their ideas and the many ways they could be wrong. I much prefer this over the singular way we feel we are right. [My logic here being, I trust more the person who is wrong than the person who lacks conviction in his or her views.]

Yet, yet, yet, I find it is the hardest lesson I must teach myself. Criticality has made me doubtful of most things and most people–but slowly I feel I also need to distance myself from the temptation to pass over all-encompassing judgments. This even if sometimes I feel I was right all along…

Judgment and assumptions truly bother me. We operate on so many wrong ones and in my own desperate attempt at understanding this problem I have, I wrote a friend asking:

Can I pick your brain a bit? –Thinking about judgment today and found myself debating (internally) how and who we judge–also, do we judge thought or action? Or both? I recall Buddhists championing the totality of acts as they relate to thoughts and intentions but then if it’s all of these, how do we judge? Are we still worthy of judging? –And if the answer is no, we should not judge, how do we call out mistakes creatively: creating a kinder space?

The response was to consider the fine line between judgment and discernment. Though an also puzzling thing to digest at first, I think there is value here. More on this later–after reading bits of a book that discusses this.
For now though, back to absolutes. I will be more mindful of them because the more we are taught to worship them, the deeper the borders are drawn between what we think is correct and what is actually correct.