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.


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.


(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.

Missing India.


I and the barber of Varanasi.

I need another excuse to see this place. If you know of a way, please tell me.

In between book transactions, a friend expressed his desire to visit India. I was dumbstruck, capable only of telling him to just please go! It’s past two in the morning over here and I’m looking at photos wondering why I wrote so little in public about this beautiful, beautiful place and the grand adventure I had when I was there.

I used Facebook statuses as proof of life for my parents and in the coming days, I hope to share photos and stories of all the people and places I saw.

Everyone should visit India once in their lives.

An Education: Why Feminism Matters, Why I Travel.

Kapihan.I had the privilege of addressing some undergrads today. They recently put up a gender society in order to talk about feminism and whether it is still relevant to us in this day and age. Below are excerpts of my remarks:



First, I objectify men too sometimes—There’s this guy, he’s known in South Africa as the Shadow Minister of Finance, a title he gave himself which made me tell my mother, “Well, that’s one shadow I wouldn’t mind being under.”—to which we both laughed. Proof enough that I’m not about to cut anyone’s balls or declare war against the men. I like men—a lot. They’re great equals and I can’t imagine a world without them—Y The Last Man was nightmarish for me, despite the awesome storytelling.

Mr. Tim Harris, Shadow Minister of Finance, DA, South Africa.

Mr. Tim Harris, Shadow Minister of Finance, DA, South Africa.

Let me start with this excerpt taken off the Ateneo de Manila Secret Files Page (emphasis mine):

Yes, there is sexism in Ateneo. This page has enough proof of that. But how exactly is the Sanggunian supposed to address that issue? Maybe the candidates weren’t right to dismiss it entirely, but if they had been elected into power, what, exactly, could they have done to promote gender equality? Honestly, I don’t think it’s Sanggunian’s job. More importantly, those pushing for gender equality should realize that while it exists in Ateneo, it does not interfere with the main reason we are all here: education. Experience. Guys who think your short shorts make you a slut do not (at least they should not) interfere with your academic performance. They will not stop you from participating actively in your organizations.

Lastly, please realize that sexism is a mindset that is extremely difficult to change. It’s not something that can be done by a home org the Sanggunian with projects and promos. If you want to fight sexism, do it yourself. Be that girl in short shorts who scores higher than the misogynist in corporate attire. A leader who can make people look past what she’s wearing. If you want to stop sexism, stop complaining, live your life, meet your goals and prove to everyone you’re not one to be ignored. If you want to stop sexism, it’s still up to you.

- First-generation feminist, SOM, BS MGT, 2016

Maybe this says more about the Sanggunian than it does about women, noh? Concerned as the student government is with projects and promos? But today the student government is the farthest from my mind.

Today, I can only think about my privileged education and how in many cases, it has failed me as both an educator and a woman myself.

The system has taught me to want success and it has defined success as being better than everyone at everything. Using that scale, it becomes acceptable to flaunt my body, be gawked at and maligned for it behind my back—for as long as I outperform. I have to be better than all of you and all of them.

I constantly have to prove myself to be accepted, let alone respected by peers and students, it seems. Everyone believes in successful women who have carved a niche for themselves in this man’s world and all of the female heroes we’re taught to aspire to be occupy places of great power. Kudos to them, really, but what I want to know more than anything is: what happens to the millions of women out there who are fighting just to be considered human?

What truly gets my goat about this excerpt I read on the SF page is the suggestion that sexism does not interfere with one’s education—what exactly do you get from yours anyway? A degree that says you went to a prestigious university—that all of a sudden you are qualified you to be better than everyone else?  This mentality worried me a lot as a student and it continues to worry me today because in no way is “where you went for college” enough to justify the kind of person you are.

And might I remind you, I, being a woman, AM YOUR EDUCATION. The “woman problem” isn’t going to stop you from learning your maths or acquiring great research skills—but if you let the data speak to you, you’ll find that the exclusion of women, the poor, and other marginalized groups is actually at the root of the world’s biggest development problems.

But let’s not worry first about things that may be too abstract for our comprehension.

Is there room for feminism in today’s world, you might ask? Is there room for this in our campus?

Photo by KC.

Photo by KC.

Tell me: What is the worst insult you have for a woman? Be very honest. (She is a ________) whore, bitch, slut, cunt! And a man? (He is _________) a fag, bitch, pussy, girl!

See?! My very essence as a woman insults you whether you are a girl or a guy and even when you act out your gayness, you get called out for it because you act like a woman. Too soft, too effeminate, right?

Why is this right?

Women are said to outperform men in school and in the workplace and yet, AND YET, most of what determines job security is what you look like on your application form—Sometimes it’s not even about wearing the right clothes but looking a certain way.

If you think there is no room for feminism today, why is there so much stress in this country to be whiter, thinner? Why so many billboards selling you the farce that women are only good one way and not the other?

#WHIPIT—really? Rappler partnered with Pantene some months ago—and I do appreciate the message but not the language. Why does being strong mean wielding a whip?

How many men have expressed the desire to see us clad in leather holding whips, ready to rein them in? “Baby, I like you on top,” my guy friend once said—it’s a nice place to be, admittedly, but I certainly don’t want to have to whip it…because I should be able to negotiate power even and especially from a position of weakness. I should be able to say no and you should all respect that. Some men want to be whipped because they like “strong women”—but do you all really know what a strong woman is and can you love her for her honest self?

The person said it plainly: Sexism exists on campus—It’s your right to not care but I suggest you do because silence and apathy affects all of us.  Just look at how the state controls our bodies. Reproductive health here is defined by a group of men who are themselves cloistered from the human experience of sexuality. Why do we still need priests to be celibate? Maybe if they enjoyed sex like we do, we wouldn’t be judged for being such animals.

I, personally, can have access to proper reproductive health because I can afford it and I can look it up on the internet—albeit after sifting through the garbage and the myths.

There is clearly something wrong with this…

One last note—a brief story—I once read that my silence would not protect me and that I was taught to respect fear more than my own voice. [The original quote reads:]

I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”

I began to ask each time: “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, “disappeared” or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.

Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.

And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.

- Audre Lorde

In the Philippines, this wasn’t as real to me because I speak out a lot anyway but last year, I went to Delhi a few months after the death of this woman who was brutally raped and all my assumption about how to act were challenged. Everyone told me not to go for fear of getting raped. Truthfully, I sat a mere three hours away from landing and began to cry. Part of me regretted having to go at all because I placed myself in a very vulnerable situation. The man next to me, a father himself, reminded me to take the necessary precautions: Don’t go out alone and don’t go out at night.

Comforted as I was by his advice, I felt more relaxed when I found the voice to question the people themselves about whether or not it was right to live in fear of getting raped. I remember taking to the podium during the ADB Youth Conference and asking those present if there was any reason for me to fear traveling alone in this country of theirs.

There was silence and some applause but afterwards, both the women and the men approached me and assured me that there was certainly some danger–but that this could happen anywhere. They pushed me to continue on, to travel anyway.

Worried as I was to receive this advice, the road itself proved instructive and my interactions with the people validated claims made by the participants. There was no reason to fear–and even when I was most afraid, sitting by myself at a restaurant, enduring the long stare of a man I would later invite to sit with me and confront about both his staring and the idea of rape in India–the people proved to me that there was more to them than just the headlines, that not all Indian men are out to rape me.

[End of speech--sort of, I still expounded...The points can be found below, I think?]

India--May all beings...

In Sarnath, India where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma.

My insight here, and it’s in no way complete, is that often we are taught to fear that which we don’t fully understand–and our language and culture often cement our respect for fear when what we really should be doing is finding a voice and speaking out against it.

Travel has taught me that if one lives perpetually in fear of what might happen, we miss out on what is happening–and, trite as this might sound, life is quite beautiful. Our assumptions aren’t always true–and that’s a very, very good thing.

SONY DSCHopefully, the discussion continues–a lot of the points I made still need to be properly framed and articulated but there will be time for that.