Saturday, 1 October 2011

Osashiburi desu!

Hey guys, what's up?  Haven't blogged in ages.  That's because a lot of stuff went on in the past few months: Mom's death, finals, deadlines, writing part one of my thesis, revising part one of my thesis, and so on and so forth.  So anyway, it's been two months now and I thought I'd post some updates here:

We're now in our final module of the Masters in Development Management program.  Part one of the thesis is over and done with, now we have to come up with part two by Monday, then there will be revisions, plus two more advisory defense sessions, then final revisions and printing.  But that's not all.  We also have our electives to deal with - and the challenge facing me now is how to manage the conflicting schedules.  I actually have all my absences planned - as in, "On Monday I'll be absent in this class so I can attend this class".  Man why couldn't they have given us the schedules ahead of time so we could better choose what electives to take up?

Anyway, that's not the most interesting thing about school.  The most interesting thing was that last September 9, the entire class flew to Indonesia for the Center for Development Management's first ever International Field Trip.  We spent a week there visiting various project sites with our learning teams, taking lots of pictures and videos, interviewing the locals (with the help of our Indonesian classmates of course), and writing our reports.  Then we flew back to Manila and spent the next week going to classes and finalizing both the written reports and the Powerpoint presentations.  Then we presented to the whole class and our professors.  I stitched together some of the best pictures and clips of our team and made a movie, which you'll see below.

Anyway, I have to clean my apartment and write part two of my thesis so I'll end it here.  More updates to follow soon.  Bye for now! :)

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Eulogy Part Two

Note: This is the second time this year that I've written a eulogy.  The first was for my father.  This one's for my mother.

Let me start by sharing with you a MaFe moment.

By now you’ve already heard and exchanged countless MaFe moments: true stories with our beloved MaFe as the protagonist, stories so funny and so many that they have become the stuff of legend, meant to be orally passed on from generation to generation.  And earlier tonight we all heard there’s gonna be a book coming out.  So: from oral tradition to written tradition.  It’s gonna be our sacred scripture.  I can just imagine our descendants many years from now going, “A reading from the Book of MaFe, Chapter One, Verse 29.”  Okay I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. I know we’ve all had our share of funny and embarrassing moments, but for some reason nothing beats a MaFe moment.

Of course not all MaFe moments were hilarious.  A few of them were quite profound.  The story I’m about to share is one such MaFe moment:

I was twelve years old at that time, and Dad had just scolded me.  Mom came to me and talked to me.  She asked me how I felt and I answered that I felt bad.  She responded by gently asking: “Then why don’t you cry?”

You see I grew up with the notion that boys didn’t cry.  Very young boys were excused from this rule, but after a certain point a boy did not cry - ever.  Crying was a sign of weakness, and weakness was not allowed in men.  Men were strong, not weak.  Boys aspired to be men; ergo, boys aspired to be strong, not weak.  Ergo boys didn’t cry.  At the very least if they did, they tried their best not to.  I got this message from just about everyone around me at that time: classmates, other kids, even grownups. 

“Don’t cry!  You’re a boy.”

“Bakla ka ba?  Huwag kang umiyak.  Babae at bakla lang ang umiiyak.”

So before she asked me that question I didn’t cry.  I didn’t even struggle to keep myself from crying.  I was a boy determined to be a man.  I wanted to take Dad’s scolding like a man.  And when she asked me that question that was the only time that the tears formed in my eyes and began to fall.

With that simple question Mom challenged a dysfunctional idea and showed me a new one: it’s okay to cry.  It’s okay even for men and boys to shed tears.  Tears signify weakness, but they also signify humility and honesty – because nobody is strong all the time, and it takes humility and honesty to acknowledge that.  Ironically, this becomes real strength.

Looking back now I realize that there is more to that lesson, a deeper lesson: the lesson of having an open heart.  When you are willing to shed tears, to be vulnerable and weak, then your heart opens up.  And what are the benefits of having an open heart?  Well, an open heart is the biggest container.  It can contain as much love and as much life as we are willing to welcome. 

The open heart is so big it’s not even right to say, “I have an open heart.”  Rather, it is more appropriate to say, “I dwell in the open heart.”  Just look at Mom’s life.  Look at how she lived.  She lived in the open heart and let everyone inside.  Look at everyone here.  We were all let inside MaFe’s open heart.  In my case, it took me a few years before I could call her my mother, but she called me her son almost immediately – that was the open heart in action.  The late Corazon Aquino called Mom “Santa Fe.”  She certainly earned that title.

At this point allow me to digress for a little bit to talk about karma.  There are two popular definitions of karma: one is fate or predetermined destiny; the other is that it is a form of divine reward or punishment (gaba in our dialect).  But the original meaning is neither of these definitions.  The original definition is action.  Karma is the Sanskrit word for action.  When we refer to a person’s karma, we are not talking about that person’s fate or divine reward or punishment – we are talking about her actions.  Now actions cannot really be separated from consequences.  Drop a pebble into a pond and it creates ripples – it is impossible to drop a pebble into a pond without creating even one ripple.  That’s how inseparable actions are from consequences.  And that is what karma really is: it is the pebble dropping and creating – and it is the ripples being created and radiating outwards.

Mom’s karma, her pebbles and ripples, are still with us.  In a sense, she is alive in them.  She is alive in the gardens she cared for, alive in the songs she wrote, alive in Quile, her masterpiece.  And look around you now: she is alive in us.  Alive in the children she helped Dad to raise.  Alive in our laughter and smiles.  Alive in our tears.  Alive in our kisses and embraces.  Alive in our memories.  Alive in every MaFe moment that we never tire of telling and remembering.  Look around you: do you see her pebbles?  Do you see her ripples?  That’s MaFe right there.

Let us now go back to MaFe’s lesson of the open heart: when we live in the open heart, we are never alone.  MaFe is there, along with everybody we love. 

May we all live in the open heart.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Mom's Death

Originally posted in Treeleaf.

Just as an update:

As I posted here about two months ago my mother was sick of cancer. We converted one room in my parents' house into a hospital room, complete with the necessary medical equipment and a team of doctors and nurses. One of the doctors happened to be married to an older cousin of mine so there was a mix of professionalism and personal care.

Last week my wife called me to say that Mom was in a coma. I asked her if I should go back home (I'd been flying back and forth between Manila and Davao every weekend for the past several weeks, and I'd just got back in Manila the night before). She said she didn't know but that she would call me later that night then we'd decide. After a couple of hours she called back and said that Mom had woken up. So we figured I'd stick to the original plan, which was to fly in on Thursday evening and stay there until Sunday. But then later my sister called and told me I'd better come home immediately. According to the doctor, Mom was going to slip in and out of the comatose state, and each time it was going to be deeper and deeper until she wouldn't wake up anymore. So I took the afternoon flight to Davao on Tuesday. I spent the next few days spending time with my Mom, holding her hand, talking to her. 

The doctor said she could hear us even in the coma state so we would whisper in her ear. Sometimes we'd sing to her. One time I recited the Metta prayer in her ear. Several times I chanted - once in her ear and other times while holding her hand. Many times I just sat there holding her hand, stroking her hair, looking into her barely-open eyes (when she was awake). Mostly I told her I loved her and thanked her for being my mother, and that I didn't want her to suffer anymore so while nobody wanted her to die, we all didn't want her to hold on for our sake. 

On Saturday night the doctors told us she would likely die in the early morning. So we spent the night there waiting. In the early morning we gathered around her. I was already chanting with my juzu, when my aunt told everyone in the room that this was a sacred moment and got everyone to pray. Picture this: you have a room full of Catholics praying the prayers for the dying, many of them clutching rosaries and prayer books, and there's my wife and I holding our juzu and I'm chanting the Nembutsu. And somehow it all fit. There was no division in my mind between Catholic and Buddhist, between the rosaries with crosses on them and the rosary in my hand, between what they were praying and what I was chanting. On one level, there was me, wife, my family, and there was my mom on her deathbed. At the same time, there was only chanting, only praying, only watching, only dying. All-at-once. It was like listening to an orchestra - different instruments making different sounds yet all in harmony. There was the sound of my mother's struggle to breathe, the whirr of the machines, the beeps of the monitor, our voices. There was her heart rate on the monitor dropping gradually from fifty beats per minute. Finally, she stopped breathing. The monitor still registered her heart rate as 22 beats per minute - but that was just her pacemaker. Her heart had finally stopped.



Thursday, 30 June 2011

"Move On?" Fuck That Shit!

My father is dead and my mother is dying. What a matter-of-fact statement this is. Does this sentence convey everything I feel, what I and the rest of my family are going through? Can you, the reader, feel the pain that permeates every word I type here? As you read this, can you see my tears? Do you hear my sobs punctuating the text? The pain of loss, the pain of seeing a loved one fight a losing battle with a terminal illness right before my very eyes - does this single paragraph convey all this to you?

Maybe you've also gone through this. Maybe you're also going through this right now. Maybe you too, know very well the difficulties of losing a loved one and watching another die. Welcome to the club, then. You and I know the pain all too well. And we are, hopefully, each doing our best to live with this.

To live with pain and grief - I think this is pretty much all we can do. To be with my dying mother and with my suffering family - this is all I can do. It's not like I have the power to magically heal the sick and raise the dead.

My sister mentioned something a few weeks ago while we were in the hospital. Seems like some well-meaning folks had been telling her to move on, and her attitude was, understandably, "that's easier said than done." I couldn't agree more.

I hate that phrase, by the way. "Move on?" Fuck that shit! You don't "move on" away from grief. You don't get to dictate what your heart ought to feel, no matter how rational and sensible it may sound. It's not a linear thing where point A is "grief" and point B is "not grief", and we can will ourselves to travel from A to B. Emotions don't work that way. More importantly - and indeed, fundamentally - dukkha does not behave in that manner.

To quote the First Noble Truth:

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful."

The translation uses "stress" instead of dukkha. I, however, prefer to retain the Pali form because it is more encompassing. Dukkha is stress, but it goes beyond our usual ideas of stress. It is suffering, but it goes beyond our usual ideas of suffering. It is the suffering that ensues when we want life to be a certain way, and life does not conform to our desire. What's more, dukkha is an inescapable fact of existence.

And that's why I have a problem with the idea of "moving on". Move on to where? To a place where there's no dukkha? Sorry, ain't no such thing - not here, not in the next life. Anyone who tells you otherwise is deluded because you cannot escape dukkha.

Now if you're a Buddhist like me, you might say, "that's not true! There is a way, it's called the Eightfold Path." That's true, of course. But that path is not your typical linear, "from point A to point B" path. We use the word "path" but actually it is not a path. A path will take me away from point A and lead me to point B. The Eightfold Path does not do this - instead, it leads me to where I am right now. This is because point A is point B, and point B is point A. In other words, the path is my life just as it is in this very moment. If I am filled with grief, that is my path. If there is pain, that is my path. It is the path of no escape, because there is no place to escape to. The path is being here right now with my life, warts and all, tears and all.

So no, I am not moving on. Rather, I choosing something else: I am choosing to live - that is, to be with my life and all its joys and sorrows and everything in between. That is the path.

The pain has subsided for now. My tears have stopped for now. They'll be back, just like the ocean tide. But that's okay. High tide or low, I am still here. I won't always be here, but while I am I will not waste my life trying to escape the unpleasant bits while clinging to the pleasant ones. I will embrace them all.

Sunday, 1 May 2011


Dear Everyone:

Thank you all for coming today.  I want to start by sharing with you my favorite Latin saying: “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit - Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.”

I first came across that line in my favorite comic book called The Sandman. There’s another translation that I found in Google that goes: “Everything changes, nothing perishes.” 

But I like the Sandman translation much better.  Maybe Google’s is a more accurate translation, but I still like the comic book translation.  Why?  Because things can and do perish.  Death is real, and we’re all headed there.  Everything changes and everything perishes.  But – and this is a very big BUT – nothing is truly lost.  Not even us when we die. 

“Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.”  I firmly believe this.  My father is dead and my life will never be the same, but I have not truly lost him.  He is still with me.  And I have a very strong hunch that you will all agree with me on this regardless of religious belief.

Anyway, let me share with you a few of the things I have not lost: my memories of Dad.  I want to share a few from my childhood, plus a few of the most recent ones.

Much of my childhood memories are hazy.  Still, some of them remain clear.  I clearly remember the way I viewed my Dad.  As far as I was concerned, he was the coolest guy in the world.  He had a rifle that he kept in a bag next to the TV in the master bedroom in our house in Quezon City.  He had a bodyguard who also had a gun.  (If you’re wondering why having guns made him the coolest guy in the world, let me point out to you that I grew up on a steady television diet of GI Joe, Transformers, Voltes V, BioMan, Shaider, etc.  Guns and swords were cool, period.) 

Anyway when he was home, he would often take my sister and I to ride in his car – a black Toyota Corolla.  On the glove compartment were his initials in silver: JVA.  In the backseat he had a bulletproof vest.  I never saw him wear it, but I would always slip it on whenever I rode with him.  It had a front pocket with a metal plate inside, and it was very heavy.  I would imagine being in a war and someone would shoot me and nothing would happen because I was wearing that bulletproof vest.

My sister and I had this game with Dad.  We always knew when he was coming home because we had a radio.  We would hide in the storage closet in the second floor and wait for him to come up the stairs.  As soon as he opened the door to the family room we would burst out and “surprise” him.  He always acted surprised, but we knew that he knew that we were there because that’s where we always hid.

I have many other memories: the way he used to drink Coke along with every meal, the Almond chocolates and Toblerone sitting together with the cartons of Marlboro in his mini ref (this was before he quit smoking), his incredibly loud snoring.  It was Dad who first taught me how to dribble, pass, and shoot – although I never really enjoyed basketball that much.  It was Dad who taught me how to properly dive into the water so that it didn’t hurt.

When I grew much older, I found that we didn’t have a lot in common in terms of interests and viewpoints. But we did have two very important things that brought us together.

The first was Eden.  It wasn’t easy working with Dad because as a boss he really expected you to deliver what he wanted.  Whenever he went up to Eden, everyone including me would be tense because the Big Boss was there.  But it was fun too. Our weekly executive meetings were particularly enjoyable when he was there.  For one thing, the snacks were better.  Pag wala siya, ang merienda namin saging at kamote.  Pag nandiyan siya, club sandwich o di kaya pizza.  Sosyal, diba?  But it wasn’t just the food – it was him.  He would often joke with us and tease us.  Sometimes our meeting wouldn’t even be about the business.  He’d just sit there and tell us stories of the old days – sometimes about his days in Hijo, or his experiences in the war, or his time with Cory or the Yellow Friday Movement.  He was a gifted storyteller.

The second thing that brought us closer was my son.  I will never forget the look on his face when my wife and I told him that we were expecting a baby.  To say that he looked so happy would be an understatement.  And ever since my son was born I have found it easier to understand Dad because now I am also a dad.  I only wish he had more time to spend with his grandson.  Still, I’m grateful for that short time that they had.  I’m glad that even for a short time, my son brought my father much joy.

I’ve been away for four months taking up my masters in AIM.  The last time I saw Dad in person was just a few days after the New Year.  As soon as I moved with my wife and son to Makati and classes started, I got very busy.  I couldn’t even make it to either of my parents’ birthday.  So I was really looking forward to coming back here for the Holy Week and spending time with him and the rest of the family.  Of course things didn’t go according to plan.

I know however that he was happy with my decision to go back to school.  I know that although he missed having my family and I around for dinner, he was proud and happy.  So although it breaks my heart knowing that I wasn’t here during his last months, I can still console myself with the fact that in my own small way I made him happy.

Anyway, this has gone on long enough.  I just wanted to share a little of what’s in my heart: a glimpse of things that are gone, but not really gone – and a few of my memories of a man who is not truly lost and never will be.

April 26, 2011

Monday, 21 March 2011

Bored now...

This is me doing nothing much.  Sitting here listening to Green Day on my iTunes while waiting for the next class.  This is me being bored and tired of dealing with boredom by checking Facebook, Twitter, and what-have-you.  And really, boredom is not so bad.  There are worse things than boredom - as the people of Japan would readily tell you.  Hell, after having recently had my wisdom tooth removed, I can definitely tell you there are a lot of things worse than boredom!  So instead of trying to escape being bored I think I'll just stay bored, thank you very much.  The thing about allowing myself to be bored is that I often end up not so bored after all.

To rephrase a popular Zen saying, "when bored just be bored."  No big deal.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Sex, Beer and Dialectics

The following is something that I wrote as an assignment for Development Communication class yesterday.  The assignment was to write about any - ANY - topic in a dialectic fashion.  I lay in my bed at around 3 in the morning, having not written anything.  Then I remembered joking with my classmates that the easiest way to explain dialectics was sex.  So at around 6 am, after zazen, I sat down in front of the laptop and wrote this.

Sex, Beer and Dialectics

 1st round: Thesis

Let’s pretend that you and I are talking while drinking beer in a bar, and that our topic is dialectics and how to explain it using a simple model.  “Here’s an idea,” I say as I finish the first bottle.  “We can use sex.  There’s the man who we’ll call the thesis, and he gets together with the woman – the antithesis – and together they produce a synthesis: a baby.  Pretty neat, right?” 

And of course, because we’re in a bar and drinking together, we both laugh at the idea.  But at the same time we both agree that it does make the matter simple and easy to understand.  We signal the bartender for another two beers.

2nd round: Antithesis

“But wait,” you say, sipping your second bottle.  “People don’t have children after every time they have sex.  In fact, producing a ‘synthesis’ isn’t always our goal when we unite with our ‘antithesis’ – a drunken one-night stand, for example.  Plus what about gay or lesbian sex?  Neither of those will produce a ‘synthesis.’  And don’t get me started on group sex!” 

To which I reply, “yeah that’s a good point” and we both chuckle at the mock seriousness of our discussion.  We both finish our beers pondering the matter, and I signal to the bartender for another round.
3rd round: Synthesis

“Actually,” I say after gulping down half of my beer.  “The synthesis doesn’t have to be a child.  The point is that when thesis and antithesis meet, there is always a resulting synthesis – what that is will depend on the context.  In the case of your drunken one-night stand, the synthesis might be you waking up in the morning and realizing that your ‘antithesis’ looked much better the night before when you were drunk.”

“That’s right!” you agree.  “And in the case of gay sex, no two partners will be alike even if they are of the same sex so the roles of thesis and antithesis will still apply.  And again the resulting synthesis will vary according to the context – in this case, we can say it’s increased affection and bonding.”

“Can we therefore conclude that sex is an effective model for explaining dialectics,” I ask, “and, furthermore, that we have improved on my earlier thesis by taking into consideration your antithesis, therefore arriving at a synthesis?”

You nod in agreement.  We both finish our beers. 

“Wait,” you say.  “What about group sex?”  And so our synthesis has become the new thesis.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Memorial March for Mothers

This afternoon I joined the Memorial March for Mothers, which was a pro-RH bill rally held in front of the CBCP compound inside Intramuros.  It's getting late and I have to wake up early tomorrow so instead of writing a few hundred words, here are a few pictures.  I promise to write a more thorough blog (maybe with more pictures, if you say pretty please!) within the week. 

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Some Thoughts On Being A Student Again

Halfway through the second week of graduate school and I've pretty much established a routine.  It may need a little tweaking here and there, but I've more or less settled into a rhythm.  I haven't been a student in years.  And now here I am, going to classes again, struggling at times to pay attention to the lecture, trying (this early) to think of a topic for my MRR (which is a Masters degree thesis of sorts).

This time things are different.  In college, I would look forward to getting drunk with my buddies after class.  Sometimes we'd drink in between classes.  Now, I look forward to quickly scanning my notes for the next class after the previous class has ended.  I look forward to a coffee break while reading.  I look forward to going home to our unit to be with my wife and son.

Some things haven't changed.  We still pass notes and jokes and carry on conversations while the teacher is talking.  But now we're doing it through our secret Facebook group using our laptops.  That's a long way from passing notes surreptitiously or whispering to each other.

Regardless of the goofing off (which helps to keep us sane) I can tell that each of us is serious.  We have a lot more to lose this time than just a grade.  We've had to sacrifice a lot just to be here, after all.  And that's one of the things that keep me studying at night when all I want to do is sleep.

Talking about keeping our sanity, I've started to do daily ten-minute zazen sessions twice a day: once in the morning when I wake up and once at night before I go to bed.  I have a feeling this practice will help a lot in the months to come.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

2011 updates

It's time for an overdue blog post.  Let me just give an update on my current living situation:

I am now staying with my wife and child in a rented condo in Makati.  We transferred here a little over a week ago and we'll be staying here for a year while I pursue my Masters degree in Development Management.  We've adjusted pretty well this past week, all things considered.

I've learned some new things about myself.  For one thing, I no longer find accounting and finance that bad - at least not compared to many of my classmates.  Maybe this is because I've had real world experience working with accountants and accountant-types in the corporate environment where I came from.  Back where I came from, any time someone would bring out the financial statements I'd groan inwardly because I knew it was time for yet another discussion in which a lot of the terms would go sailing over my head.  But here, it's not so bad.  Turns out most development managers who take up the course don't have a clue when it comes to finance (with the exception of one guy who got a perfect score during a diagnostic quiz at the beginning).

Our class is the most diverse one in the school, with about fourteen different nationalities.  We can all speak English with varying degrees of fluency.  Some, like the Indians, are really fluent - but their accents take getting used to.  (And that's what I get for always trying to mimic their accent!)  Others, like this one Nepalese guy are practically incomprehensible - I find that I have to listen VERY carefully, and even then sometimes I still can't understand what is being said.  Still, the diversity of nationality and culture was one of the reasons I chose to pursue an MDM instead of the more-expected MBA.  I just never felt interested in getting an MBA.

Anyway, it's almost time for class so I will have to stop.