For My Students: A Note on Plato.

To my dearest students who graduated yesterday–CONGRATULATIONS!

Seeing you all donning togas, looking fresh and alive made me so hopeful and excited! The adventure is just about to begin, finally! But before I release you (for real, this time, kasi nag-dry run na tayo last year, diba? Hahaha!), please stick around for one last note on Plato. 🙂

Let me confess that the Allegory of the Cave was merely a point of departure. We didn’t need to spend too much time with it but I chose to stay because it was a good place to start. You were sophomores then and as a young teacher, I was more convinced to have you interested in learning than to teach you concepts you would surely forget in time. This is how “dogness” and that Cave came to be so finely etched in my memory. Now, why is it so important and what will it mean for the future?

Just two things.

First, if you still have your copies, please return to Book Seven of The Republic where Plato features Glaucon in conversation with Socrates. Recall the idea of people living in this cave and perceiving reality based on shadows reflected on its walls. They were chained to face the dark side while behind them was the entrance where eventually, one of them would make it outside. The light was blinding at first and then as his eyes gradually adjusted, the man, once imprisoned, saw things as they were. He returned excitedly into the cave hoping to share what he had seen and free the other prisoners but alas, they would not have it. They thought he had gone mad and were not willing, as he was, to be free.

Now before you use your Ateneo education to evangelize and free others on the basis of what you now know, make sure you first use your intellectual gifts to free yourselves from the chains you wear (willingly or unwillingly) as they have been handed to you by family and society. Choose what you decide to believe in but err on the side of truth, even if we cannot all agree on what that is. That is the point. Trust in your deep curiosities, even if, and especially if, these make you look and feel silly from time to time. The gift of an education isn’t just a job and the sooner you know this, the less intimidated you will feel about the world of work.

Remember too that Plato concerned himself with a dialectical method. Discussion and debate mattered because precisely, in the Cave, it’s easy to grow comfortable in our ignorance. Never be satisfied with yours–hold opinions but have them questioned and do not fear the use of your minds. Discover the truth of opinions but let the pool of your search be wide enough to encompass even the people you dislike. The point is not to win the argument but to have it and to enrich your lives with ideas. I doubt, too, if Plato would judge history on the basis of a meme or on what he could read on Facebook? So, please, pick up a book or two or three or many even if no one is around to quiz you on them anymore.

Second, and last, remember that Plato’s politics was grounded in his experience of injustice. He was the student of Socrates. You remember him right? Socrates was the guy whom the Athenian government put to death by ingesting hemlock just because he disrupted social order and questioned most things believed to be true.

I do not wish for you to see or experience injustice but something tells me that if you truly live in this world, you are bound to sense it. If you do, take a page off Plato’s playbook and remember that things need not be as they are. You can and must use the truths you know and those you discover to live a different way. Don’t let fear or anyone else tell you otherwise.

There’s life outside of that cave and it is full of all the wonders we might not have known or imagined when we were still in our classroom, thinking of poor Plato.

Okay, class dismissed. Go already! I miss you guys very, very much but in case I don’t see you soon, know that I’m super proud of you! ❤ I could not have asked for a better set of students! +AMDG

Notes on Tattoo Etiquette and Community Life

Beauty.
It’s an emotional bond that I have with Buscalan, Kalinga. It was here, on Valentine’s Day, a few years back, that I marched a broken heart up a path, uncertain of where it led. I had just lost my left eye completely and I wasn’t sure if I’d still be myself without it. At the time, I needed a talisman of sorts to guard me and some marker to signify something that once was. Tattoos had not occurred to me at all. No one in the family had any and I recall my parents being vehemently against them when the eldest sister floated the idea of having one. But then, there I was, one afternoon, seated on the ledge of Fang Od’s house, sipping hot Kalinga coffee and contemplating this Gayaman (centipede) that had crawled its way to a woman’s breast. I pointed to the image and in broken Iloko said, “This is the one. On the left shoulder please.” We sat for three hours. She hardly said anything but when the rain poured she began to sing and that’s when I knew that this had been a pilgrimage and that, as in ritual, she had taken some blood and purified me.

These days, I overhear many things about Buscalan in Manila. Everyone seems to want a piece of the mambabatok and know so much about her and her community. Entire mythologies are being passed around by way of mouth: “You know she isn’t good anymore. Grace is better.” “The tattoo she makes fades.” “Ah, so you’re joining this fad?” “There’s really nothing to see in Buscalan except her and once you’re done getting inked, you might as well go.” “The people there don’t do anything. They’re a lazy bunch and for a little money, they can house you and do stuff for you.” “Good luck getting a tattoo. The lines are so long and sometimes there are people who singit!” “We didn’t announce that we would come. Just call C, he can accommodate as many people, no problem.”

I thought these were all myths until I visited Buscalan again last weekend. I was welcomed by a vandalized shed and four vans parked beside it. “There are over 50 visitors, you know?” No, I don’t know. We climbed up the snaking footway. I was relieved to visit in the dry season having recalled going once in boots that had no traction and nearly paying the price of a pig for would-be injuries. Nothing seemed different, at first. Fang-Od’s house was still where it was but no one was home. I scanned the porch where we once sat and seeing no one, figured they had all gone to nap.

We kept walking until suddenly, I bumped into all of them. Master Fang-Od wore her usual: a scarf elegantly tied around her head. She looked stately and so much younger than her advertised age. Grace had grown tall and beautiful. She squealed when she recognized me and had become quite tall. I could sense that over the years her confidence had grown by leaps and bounds. Her mother and some of the boys were all familiar faces–we were home at last.

It was not clear where we would stay because there were so many people but I had so much faith in G, our guide. He had been saying, since we made the trek, “Basta here in Buscalan, no province, no province.” Of course, no problem. I handed him a small sack of vegetables to tide us over for the duration of our stay and asked if I could bathe. The room we were given had just been vacated, the tourists left coffee cups and garbage lying around. They were quite filthy and I wondered if the homeowner was bothered. Downstairs, after showering, G told me again, “No province.” Of course, I’m sorry I asked.

We took our time the next day. I know well enough that the guides speak among themselves and set schedules with Fang-Od and Grace. Waiting was the order of the day and certainly, what a gift to wait for the Master to be ready, noh? The boys led us to a little shed where all the tattooing was now being done. There was a real line and I was shocked to see others waiting and watching as each person sat to be inked. How odd to sit, as if in confession, but have all your sins air-dried for others to see. Signs of the times, I figured, but I knew I had to be there. For all that had changed, Buscalan is still special. The people make it so.

On the same day, a young boy had turned six and everyone I passed from the village who recognized me made an invitation, “Come up this afternoon. We will go dancing to the sound of gongs and there will be lots of food.” How auspicious, I thought, to be here for another ritual.

I watched Fang-Od and Grace work for six hours that morning. There is no truth to the myth that her lines have gone askew, only that tourists have made a thing of mixing and matching designs so naturally, the drawing takes time. While sitting and eavesdropping on strangers, I was touched seeing how many had traveled great lengths just to meet Fang-Od. I was told of a Chilean tattoo artist who came all the way, machine in tow, to experience the traditional in exchange for his contemporary. The traditional tattoos are a link to this generation of seekers eager to discover and deepen their roots. Once upon a time, these marks were only for the people of Kalinga–a testament to their brave warriors and strong women. They were rites of passage now considered rites of belonging by a majority of young, city-folk who need not be told what it means to be Filipino because they are comfortable claiming it for themselves.

The story of Fang-Od goes beyond the nostalgia for a lost tradition or the attempt to “save” one from dying. She has bypassed entombment in a museum and surpassed the anthropological gaze. In her ripe old age, she is at her prime, peaking by giving people roots in exchange for rice. This is a transaction we are able to enjoy despite the pretentious value of our city currencies–for what does one really do with paper money in the mountains where people would rather have your weight in rice? Yet, for a few thousand pesos and a different form of toiling away in our bland offices, we are able to purchase our way into tradition, into the life of this community. Fang-Od grants us that privilege as bearer of her gifts and this is why my tattoo means everything and nothing. She allows me to inherit her art despite my being an outsider. She does it because she knows how to do it, because it is beautiful, and because I tell her I want it. It is my want–our collective desire–that translates the old symbols into new ones and keeps the taktaktak-ing sound alive in the mountains.

You can imagine my anger then when some prick of a politico-wannabe, also from Kalinga, brought a sorority to Buscalan and attempted not only to cut the line (to accommodate his guests), but also advised his guests to feel free to haggle with the mambabatoks. Are you truly from Kalinga, Sir, and are you not ashamed to have exploited your own? Kaili mo isu da ngem sika pay ti lastog.

First, the line. The logic of waiting is not only to appease the visitors that have arrived before you. It is the due respect you afford the woman who has sacrificed much in the mastery of this art. I have never asked but I know she is single to this day–a price I am guessing she had to pay to fulfil her role as mababatok. I will verify but as far as I know, there are only pigs in her custody and a ragtag set of grand-nieces and nephews. In tattooing, she uses no machines and employs no artist. She is both and there is a science to her skill. She knows the movements of the body well enough to decide the best, most regal placement of the tattoos. Yet, despite embodying the soul of this art, I watch people rush her into attending to them. “The bus will leave me.” “I have no time.” “I came just for this, what is taking so long.” “She can sleep when I am not here. I mean, what else is she going to do here anyway?”

Fang-Od wipes the water in her eyes and touches her head. She is tired, with a recurring headache, and I know she has not eaten. It’s my turn. The visitors are anxious. They want to know if I’ve given up my slot for them. The politician continues to berate the guides, nagging them to tell the Master that someone else wishes to sit. They are tense, understandably, and a little surprised by my protest. I apologize to them profusely under my breath but the one next to me taps me in the arm and smiles, “No province.” Meanwhile, in a language so foreign but a tone understandable, I hear her give a firm, “No.” She is gesturing at me to come over and telling the guides in a not-so-sweet way that I have been waiting and it is my turn. I’m so ashamed to cause this stir. If the politician and his insistent guest had just found the nerve to speak to me directly, I would have perhaps let them cut the line? Who knows?

I am seated half-naked, surrounded by this throng of people eager to see and get it over with–very much unlike the first time. There is no intimacy here at all except forthe passing looks of the gentlemen, now gentle dogs, keen on seeing if the grip I have on my shirt betrays the breasts I am trying to conceal. Soon, Grace arrives and the insistent visitor permits her to begin a tattoo that she is told Fang-Od will later finish.

We are so near each other now with the insistent lady–just the karma I deserve for having caused the stir. She sees the work to be done on me and understands (or so she says). I am peeved to say the least, but having felt the needle on my back and heard the music of the Master’s laugh, I am happy to make small talk with this lady. We are fine until she asks me about cost, “How much will this cost, Ate? Hindi ba mahal yun?”

“I don’t know. How much does your life cost, Ading?”

She didn’t hear me because she was already asking Grace if it was okay to have her tattoo some Alibata.

“Nagpunta ka dito sa Buscalan para lang magpabatok ng Alibata?! Dapat pala sa Manila ka nalang nagpa-tattoo.”

What is (G)race, truly?
——————————–
This has gone on longer than expected and still, I feel I have not said what I need to say so I will try again tomorrow. Perhaps then I’ll tell you a bit about the community gathering and the words exchanged there. But simply, I wish only that we saw visits to communities as a person-to-person exchange. I wish we appreciated more the time our guides spend with us especially when they could be working the fields, raising their own set of kids and pigs. Our money can afford us space in their homes but it is not commensurate to their service and hospitality i.e. go home with your own damn garbage and don’t vandalize–don’t call them lazy either.

I wish we regarded our homestays less like hotel rooms we can pay to trash and more like homes. To accommodate the bulk of visitors, I overheard a friend tell his wife to sleep next door and bring the kids. They gave up their own rooms because there were too many people to house. “No province. No province.” I know but in my province, that shit will not fly. My mother will have none of it and I understand why.

Lastly, as a tourist, I have grown so aware of the impact I have on the communities I visit. When I cause a stir by not having the sensitivity to inquire about the ways of the people, I go home blissfully ignorant thinking that I had the best trip ever. Meanwhile, I leave the people I have stirred to face the consequences of my actions alone. We take our fond memories home with us and in exchange, we leave headaches for people to deal with. What shall that man tell his wife in the coming evenings before they make love? How shall he explain, once more, that though she is Queen in his heart and in his home, it is the green gold of the city that can sometimes buy her a home? Hay.

Serious Question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Fears.

Fear is a paralyzing force and yet, I don’t understand why I’ve lived with it for so long. Someone once shared a photo of bears and said, “Don’t feed the Fears.” This stuck with me a lot because everyday, I find a piece of myself to sacrifice to the Fears.

Why? It’s not wise to do things when we already know their negative consequences and you’d think, like Pavlov’s dog, we could wean ourselves off fear especially when we become aware of how fear conditions us to live a certain way. I like to say I act according to reason but if my experiences have anything to show for themselves, it’s that I don’t really. Otherwise, why would I let fear get the best of me–as it often does?

George Addair offers compelling food for thought. He says, “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”  So, I’ve asked myself (and others) this question:

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I noticed, judging by the first few answers that I got, that this was indeed a deep, fundamental question–and as these things go in our culture, we make a quip of it first to test the waters. I do this often, offering a small dose of comedy in serious situations, just to ease the mood. Then, when it seems like people have gotten over the initial awkwardness, a space is built to house genuine conversation.

Today’s topic? The truth about who we are as we know ourselves to be.

I noticed too that though others genuinely made the effort and wore their hearts on their sleeves, some were not as forthcoming. It’s also the nature of the question to be so arresting that we can no longer come to terms with it–or we become afraid of the abyss we are staring into, because secretly we know that it, too, is staring at us! Jeepers creepers!

As for me, I asked this question publicly because I wanted to confront myself privately. I acknowledge my own need for witnesses–friends–to see what I’m struggling with and help me discover what this question is trying to arouse in me.

Here is my shortlist in no particular order:

If I were not afraid, I would…

  1. Apply to the graduate schools of my dreams and study what I want. Poetry, Literature, Security Studies…the list goes on.
  2. See more of the Philippines! Buy a ticket to Tawi-Tawi and work my way up to Luzon slowly, deliberately–using any and all modes of transportation.
  3. Own up to my scars and tell those who hurt me that they did (to let it go, you know?)
  4. Write for National Geographic. Legitimately, in honour of my grandfather who shared his collection with me and of my uncle who so kindly funded our addiction.
  5. Learn to dive and swim in the open sea–because I’m a blind bat who freezes when the bottom disappears.
  6. Go WWOOFing in a county where no one speaks English.
  7. Travel solo for six months without a plan and let only curiosity move me…but I have to see the desert.
  8. Be a journalist–live with outcasts–migrants, gypsies, pirates, trace the Filipino diaspora, and chase after every story I’ve ever dreamt of writing about. (God, there are so many.)
  9. Learn enough of a language to speak confidently (because speaking broken French and Spanish out loud terrifies me)
  10. Say NO so that my YES retains its potency.

Fear will not disappear magically if I choose to pursue any of these things. If anything, I’ve learned that it will only intensify because the closer we are to being our authentic selves, the more the world rubs against us abrasively. I can live with that for as long as I remember where I came from and how, at 18, I wrote down a similar list of fears that no longer frighten me today.

Perhaps this is really all we need every now and then? To acknowledge what scares us, tip our hats to these fears, and carry on.

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.

Missing India.

varanasi

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.

Critically, yours.

Critically yours. Outside of the travelling, or even within it, there’s a deep recognition that I’m trying my best to come to terms with what is and what ought to be. Call it justice or maybe fear for the unpredictable manifestations of karmic energy, whatever name you give it, it’s there. Movement and an oscillation from place to place dulls my critical nerve a bit in favor of openness. I find myself baring the lines of my palms, fingers outstretched, yearning to touch, to feel, to hold all of what I can. In return, I’m surprised by the logic of reciprocity that claims: whatever I touch, feel, and hold does the same to me.

Often, in the places I am curious about, the gut reaction for some is to close one’s fists in defense against the uncertain and in so doing pose to deliver a punch. What we know little about forces us to fight and before we can learn any, our tiny hearts are blackened by prejudice, fists still aching from punches we believe to have been offensive.

I have been this way about people for a while now. If you see them as I do, you begin to regard them as places on an infinite map. Each one an island, props to Donne. From where I stand, I can see far into the horizon, into each slither of land. It’s a limited view but I take it because I’m taught to believe only in what has been traditionally known.

I close my fists at the sight of certain people because of certain things they say at certain instances in time. I see only what my limited shoreline-view would like me to see.

But tonight is different. I surround myself with people whom I know can see right through me. A friend casts a look toward the direction of my likeness and I’m reminded of reciprocity again.  I am who I am in part because of my friends–and what good friends they are, to be so honest and also vulnerable in my presence.

I reveal my palms slowly and understand now some Buddhist koans that had previously escaped me. Opening is not just about receiving grace, though sometimes we are hard-pressed to accept it. It is, more importantly, a reminder to give–in and of oneself. The emptying of the mortal shell through physical actions directed toward others makes room for to fill the spirit. It’s all in the giving and this is painful too.

Criticality which requires honesty is more likely to burn bridges rather than mend them. But I’m reminded of someone long gone who once taught me that being critical is not a close-fisted gesture but an open one, done out of love.

So, let’s get critical, critical.

One With Sulu.

It’s finally here! This is just a teaser! We’ve worked on a short documentary to help raise funds for classrooms that we’re building in partnership with the Philippine Marines and the Tausug community in Sulu.

In a few hours we’ll be launching an exhibit and the premiere of our little film just to show people how beautiful it is in these parts. While I may not blog much about things I work on apart from my personality and my inner life, I do wish to share an advocacy I have. Ever since I could appreciate having the opportunity to get educated–whether formally or informally–I’ve seen the value in making sure everyone has access to education, no matter what their age, nationality, or gender.

This year I have been fortunate to join kindred spirits in making the journey to our southern shores and I’ve found that education still makes the biggest difference in the lives of children and their parents. Learning increases participation in community life which in turn revitalizes the understanding of civic duties and responsibility. In Sulu, we do not aspire to save but rather enable children to live dignified, happy lives by providing them first with the spaces conducive to learning.

We’ve dreamt of bringing together children, the military, and civil society–except we’ve done all our dreaming with eyes wide open and hands quick to build. Today, our hearts are full because we’re marking a year of wandering and being found at that point Frederick Buechner describes as the place where our deepest gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet. This is where we have been called and it’s a fantastic place to be.

As for the future of these beautiful islands? Well, this is only the beginning. The work continues!

OWS

Ending this post I realize it’s been half a year since I quit my job and as we go through the motions later, I’ll be quick to say a prayer in gratitude for the months that were. Scary and daunting as it was, I believe now, more than ever that leaving too had its purpose. This is the junction where fate and faith meet.