Sunday, December 8, 2013

Life's Grace Notes

"My joy is much greater than my tiredness." -- Pope Francis

It has been one super duper hectic week. And yet, in the midst of life's busyness, there is always joy to be found. 

"Grace notes" in music function as ornaments, and are defined as "less important" notes that preempt or anticipate the actual note.

In life, God gives us so many grace notes, instances when we suddenly glimpse a perfection beyond words, His way of showing us slivers of the joy and happiness that we can expect in the heavenly kingdom. Each day sings its song of small grace notes, and we should always be alert so we can catch them. It is as C.S. Lewis said: "To let no bird fly past unnoticed, to spell patiently the stones and weeks, to have the mind in a storehouse of sunset, requires a discipline in pleasure and an education in gratitude."

I am grateful that, as I grow older, I am able to cherish more and more of these grace notes, something I was too rash and impatient to do when I was younger.

This past week's grace notes include seeing the angelic faces of the third graders during their First Communion, the joy of discussing "Ender's Game" with students who identify so closely with the protagonist (while the classic book offers something for everyone, I maintain that the book is truly FOR children), being able to mingle and celebrate the joys of reading amongst fellow readers in the 3rd ReaderCon, the huge blessing of catching the movie of the aforementioned novel in the newly opened cinema fifteen minutes away from our school, and the wonder of being able to rehearse onstage for our school drama club production of ROMEO AND JULIET.

Grace-filled moments, full of anticipation... and how timely, too, now that Christmas is nearly upon us! And how wonderful it was to hear mass earlier, and see that the second candle of the Advent Wreath has been lit! I've brought out my Christmas pieces, and after a year of not playing them, have begun to practice our household favorites so my fingers will be ready for the "grand concert" in our humble sala on Christmas eve (it's tradition! Along with watching Nigella Lawson Christmas specials to make ourselves hungrier for noche buena). 

Here's one of my favorite Christmas songs, not only because it is so beautiful but also because it also happens to be a Marian hymn (Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!!). It is sung by the peerless Kathleen Battle:

May we be able to catch all the grace notes that He sends our way!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Music of Forgiveness

Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"
I am a teacher, but for several years in my youth, I studied music. And once upon a time, I seriously considered it as a career, until I took a Music Practicum Teaching class in college and fell in love with my present vocation. Years later, I am still drawn to music in a very primal way… I even THINK in music, at times!

I associate people with certain types of music… for instance, there’s this special person, my equivalent of Beethoven’s "Unsterbliche Geliebte,” and whenever I think of that person I always seem to hear Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” in my head. J (Yes, I’m weird that way.) Or when I’m in a particularly melancholic mood, the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony.


For my family, I always associate Boccherini’s Minuet from his E Major String Quintet (Op. 11), just because everything is light and cheery whenever I am with them. :)

But for several years now, I’ve been living in fear of a certain person who besmirched my happy memories of college life and forever made me distrustful and wary of men. Whenever I encountered a person who resembled him physically, or just the mention of his name, the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th symphony would play in the orchestra of my mind!!

It was only recently that I’ve been able to speak about “the incident” that occurred on Sept. 12, 2006, to others apart from my most intimate friends. Just last week, in our class discussion about Mozart, I spoke about it to my senior high school students with the goal of warning them not to be so trusting and naïve when they go to college. I also mentioned that I found it very hard to forgive this person because no apology was ever made, and that the incident was even swept under the rug by the institution I belonged to, at the time. “But whenever I hear this melody by Mozart, I find myself closer to being able to forgive,” I said, and proceeded to let them hear two minutes of some of the most exquisite music ever written, “the music of God’s absolution,” according to Salieri in the movie Amadeus. Truly, “Contessa, perdono” is the voice of God.

In her reaction paper, one of my students expressed her outrage at what had happened to me. She also encouraged me to forgive, not for his sake, but for my own mental health. And because of Mark 11:25.

And finally, finally… I have forgiven. It took seven years, but at last, it is done. For he has passed away, you see. And in death, there is new life.

I was thinking that for several years, I’d been yearning for some sort of ‘closure,’ the one we’ve been taught to expect from watching Hollywood movies with happy endings, or ones where people receive the consequences of their actions. But now I realize that, from a Christian point of view, there is no closure in the human sense, for if one believes in eternal life and in the communion of saints, then it is very clear that our actions in this world will reverberate in the next. And we shall all see each other, at the end of time, in a better place, when we are our better selves after having been purified and made better in this “valley of soul-making.”

So, thank you, Mozart. And thanks to the person who bade me forgive at a time when I found it impossible to do so. And now I have. And now my soul is truly free.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

On Death and Fear

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch

These past few days have been utter bliss! I’m getting 8-9 hours of sleep each night, a rare luxury! And it’s SUCH a blessing to be able to continue reading that page-turner until past 9:30 p.m., to spend more time playing with our three romping rottweilers (who are too darn GIGANTIC nowadays to be called “puppies” any longer), to savor a cup of coffee and chocolate Belgian waffles with former students.

Even more luxurious, we got to spend some time at the beach during our faculty outing last weekend! However, I confess I didn’t get to go in the water at all because of two reasons: 1) I couldn’t put down my Patrick O’Brian books (a nautical theme to match the setting!), and 2) of fear. Specifically, I was afraid that the jellyfish and sharks would get me.

You see, that morning, a baby shark had been caught swimming near the shore, and one of my co-teachers also got attacked by jellyfish. Having survived a jellyfish attack myself, which occurred while snorkeling two years ago, I knew how painful and potentially dangerous another attack could be, especially when swimming in deep waters! So I was in no hurry to experience it anew. However, I DO regret passing up the chance to go cliff-diving with my siblings and some co-teachers.

“Put those books down and get in the water!” they said. It occurs to me now that I SHOULD have. I’ve been looking at it the wrong way. Not just because of the experience of exposing oneself to surf and sun (and sharks and other nasty sea creatures), but because the water is a metaphor for life itself. I passed up an opportunity to live my life more fully.

Yet another great Filipino passed away recently. THE F. Landa Jocano, the foremost anthropologist of our nation, author and a great educator besides, has gone on to a better place. He was a former teacher of our dad’s, and so my sister and I paid our respects at his wake. It was a solemn occasion, but I couldn’t help but reflect how wonderful it was to live out such a meaningful life! For as we gazed about the room, we saw joy, love, laughter and LIFE all around. We saw his beautiful family, his amazing son, his daughter, his grandson… we saw so many others like us who went to the wake of a great man who may not have accumulated a great deal of material wealth, but left behind something far better for his family: the legacy of a great name.

And with it being All Saints’ Day tomorrow (and All Souls’ day the day after), it is the great annual tradition of UNDAS for Filipinos, the time when families go back home to their provinces to hold grand family reunions over the graves of their loved ones. Cemeteries are filled to the brim with overnighters who feast, drink and often gamble while remembering their dearly departed. And while I may not personally agree with the practice of what (I think) is too much and unseemly merrymaking, I do agree with the idea behind it: that the way to face death is to celebrate life. That the best way to honor our dead is to live honorable, meaningful lives.

Tonight, as we were feeding our three romping rotties their dinner, we got approached by several neighbor’s kids in costume: “Trick or treat!” We apologized for our lack of candy, and thankfully our three huge rottweilers looked menacing enough that they didn’t pressure us any further. J But how do you say to your neighbor that this house’s inhabitants don’t believe in the Western foreign practice of Halloween?

Perhaps I’ll feel differently about Halloween when I have a child of my own. Dressing him/her up would be great fun, I imagine! But even then, I wouldn’t dress him/her up as a monster or fantastical creature. If she was a girl, I’d dress her up as Gabriela Silang. If a boy, as Macario Sakay or Andres Bonifacio (no Emilio Aguinaldo for me, thank you!). Heroes for their country… or perhaps, heroes for other people’s souls. But then again, walking around the village at night is no longer safe these days, so maybe we’ll just take pictures of each other in costume and have our family dinner and obligatory candy fest in the safety of our home.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the Feast of All Saints (and All Souls’)? It’s really worthwhile to pause and reflect on how much we owe the martyrs of the past. I think one of the most beautiful teachings of the Catholic faith is the Communion of Saints, of how the church triumphant in Heaven can continue to have a huge impact on the church militant on earth. It gives us comfort and hope to know that our departed loved ones continue to pray and watch over us, that we can communicate our love for them through prayer and make them proud with the way we live our lives.

And so, here’s wishing everyone a blessed All Saints’, and All Souls’! And may our lives be filled with more happiness and chocolate (yes, I firmly believe there is a direct correlation between the two!).

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Baclayon, Bohol

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There are few sights I shall never forget. One is the wonder that was Baclayon Church, Bohol, which I was lucky enough to visit after a seminar in Tagbilaran, two years ago. I can still remember the utter smallness I felt when I beheld its soaring arches as I entered into its dim interior, which made the sunlight streaming in its windows all the more dramatic. Centuries had not diminished its grandeur… not the flashy, gaudy kind in some modern churches in wealthy neighborhoods in Metro Manila where, as my dad puts it, “Jesus wears an Americana,” with their spotless, nigh-near-sterile white domed palaces and gold-plated decorations. But the grandeur of old churches like Baclayon comes from its sheer majesty, from their mere existence after centuries of storms and punishing tropical weather. Imagine… a place that was built in 1595! It boggles the mind!

Grand old churches and cathedrals, “places between heaven and earth,” inspire awe in us not just because of the visual and sensual feast they provide, but because of what they stand for. They are the work of generations. Throughout the years, the workers toiled unceasingly as they cut stone and laid them lovingly onto places so high that no mortal man would ever see them again. But then, these workers didn’t mind. They knew that their labor was for the sight of God. Their perfect bricks and tiles were their loving prayers, their offerings borne out of love and toil, blood and sweat. Each man knew he wouldn’t live to see the finished result of this labor of love, but worked hard all the same, knowing that his children and children’s children would be baptized under the roof of his labors, would be married before the sacred altar he lovingly crafted.

I thought those thoughts as I quietly meandered from one end of Baclayon to another, envious of the lucky Boholanos who could pray and visit this historic monument, this place that seemed to make souls bigger simply by one’s entering. The idea that this historic church is now nothing more than a pile of rubble is heartbreaking!

The other sight I cannot ever, ever erase from my memory is the sight of our family’s favorite priest overcome with emotions, weeping in front of the congregation during today’s homily. You see, he hails from Tagbilaran, Bohol. And this past week, Bohol was one of the hardest hit areas in a devastatingly powerful earthquake (with a magnitude of 7.2) that not only claimed hundreds of lives, but also destroyed national heritage churches like Baclayon. Apart from being known for being a musical province, Bohol is also famous for its old churches. Boholanos IDENTIFY themselves with their churches! Their loss is a terrible psychic scar, comparable to what the Jews felt upon the destruction of Solomon’s temple.

I can’t forget how Father Ted had to pause several times, to collect himself, but tears streaked down his face all the same as he recounted the damage his hometown had endured. “Churches that took generations to build… all gone in 30 seconds,” he lamented. People have lost their homes, centuries old buildings are reduced to mere rubble, and they lack even drinking water and food. The homeless are sleeping beneath the ruins of their old churches, simply because they have no other place to go.

He appealed to us for help, of course, but he did it in a very powerful way, not from a position of weakness, but from strength. He was confident that fellow Filipinos would come to the aid of fellow Filipino, and reminded us that faith is not identified with orthodoxy, but with orthopraxy: faith is made manifest in action.

I remember seeing Father Ted on TV on the fateful day of the earthquake. One of the news reporters asked him: “Father, has this terrible incident made you lose faith?”

“Of course not!” Father Ted said, “It has increased it.”

And in his homily today, he reiterated his message: “We have faith in our countrymen, in Bohol. God has given us this opportunity to arise from the ashes like a phoenix, to come together to rebuild His church. And just like in today’s homily (Luke 18:1-8), we are asked: But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Oh, when he comes to Bohol, he will… he truly will. He will find Bohol overflowing with faith.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For those who are interested in helping Bohol directly, here are some numbers and contact information that you might find useful. They are from Father Ted, the musical priest from Bohol, whose weekly sermons give strength and guidance to so many.

Metrobank-Tagbilaran Branch
Account Name: Social Action Center- Diocese of Tagbilaran
Account Number: 712-3-712-04324-6

Metrobank Account Name: The Roman Catholic Bishop of Tagbilaran
Account Number: 123-3-123-51030-6

Donations through “Kwarta Padala” are welcome. Please address them to Fr. Valentino U. Pinlac, Director of the Pastoral Program of the Diocese of Tagbilaran)

M-Lhuiller-Tagbilaran 1 & 2 Branches
Cebuana Tagbilaran Branch

Saturday, October 12, 2013

On Aristocracy and Vulgarity

Author Muriel Barbery once wrote: “What is an aristocrat? Someone who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it.”

As a young girl, I thought being an aristocrat involved material wealth. And so my six-year-old self gazed in rapture upon bejeweled matrons with earrings and fingers dripping with gold and jewels, closely shadowed by uniformed body guards and maids… thinking to myself that these were aristocrats going about their daily business in Makati.

As I grew older, I felt that aristocracy had more to do with wealth of the mind, of intellectual ability and “elevated” tastes in all things artistic, literal, mineral and vegetable. Going to U.P., I was surrounded by such aristocrats and felt so lucky and proud to walk amongst them on a daily basis. U.P. was and will always be that golden haven where my horizons were broadened, intellectually and spiritually. I learned never to judge people solely by what they wore, for that tambay with the mohawk, in a wife-beater sando and slippers might turn out to be your brilliant-if-a-bit-eccentric professor for the semester. At any given time in any class I was in, I’d be sitting with a high school valedictorian in front of me, a high school salutatorian beside me, and a genius-classmate-who-needed-no-notes-because-he-had-a-photographic-memory sat behind me. It was where I learned humility, and where I learned to accept the harsh reality that, no matter how awesome you think you are, there will always be someone better, brighter, prettier, younger, than you.

But it is only now that I am realizing that true aristocracy is a matter of virtue. And all of us are called to it… not to be elitist snobs, to sneer at the vulgar, pedestrian mass of humanity. But as a matter of morality, for the sake of our souls. Because He, the Utmost Aristocrat, gave no less than His life so that we may all be aristocrats for all eternity with Him.

Daily, we all face the all-too human temptation to resort to maliciousness and pettiness of thought and deed. I confess I, with my passionate and rash nature, am still only beginning at my lessons in self-control, even at my advanced age. It is SO easy to let slip that uncharitable comment, that unforgiving remark especially among family and friends. And though it might do no harm in the sense that, given the private audience, the malicious thought will never reach the ears of the one being spoken about… the harm HAS been done, to me. To my soul. For each unchristian thought or word has marred my character, and has probably left an ugly blemish that will take eons to cleanse. Where charity enlargens the soul, pettiness and malice crush it. But we must always remember that we are all called to goodness, to be great souls in a fallen world.

I used to think having the stomach for speaking strong angry words was a sign of strength. But now I realize it is NOT strength, but weakness, to let Malice control me even if only for a little while. And is it not harder to bite one’s tongue, both physically and mentally? For as I keep saying to my students, “Hatred is borne of ignorance.” I myself am guilty of perpetrating that ignorance whenever I let myself be ruled by hate, whenever I allow myself to think uncharitable thoughts that render what little virtues I have for naught.

And so I dream my little dream… when as a child I once dreamt of fame and fortune (either by writing the great Filipino novel of my generation or by capturing the hearts of audiences in La Scala with my rendition of Puccini’s Tosca), now it is this: to live in such a way that I bring even the tiniest bit of joy to my students, to add even some small amount of beauty to their lives by helping them see the glory in art, in poetry, in music… and perhaps, someday, when I am worthy of him, to be the helpmate to my future beloved and help make his life happier and easier.

“To live more nobly,” as Anne Shirley says… is this not a wonderful dream?

                …Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
                Is our destined end or way;
                But to act, that each tomorrow
                Find us farther than today…

                … Lives of great men all remind us
                We can make our lives sublime,
                And, departing, leave behind us
                Footprints on the sands of time…”

We studied Longfellow’s majestic “Psalm of Life” in our Grade Six English class last week, and I thought the two verses quote above were quite splendid! And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the footprints we left behind, when we are gone, are hearts made happier, minds made clearer, souls left richer? Such is my prayer.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Tidbits of Heaven

There are golden moments that we hold on to, precious minutes that simultaneously pass all too quickly and yet are illuminated with eternity’s golden light. These “tidbits of heaven” are what we remember when we face their opposite: days when nothing seems to go right, when it seems the whole universe is conspiring against you. During these dark and gloomy times, we need to hold on to the golden times all the more, for they remind us of who we are, of our purpose in life, of why we do what we do, why we tread the path we’ve chosen.

Teacher’s Day is always full of these golden tidbits of precious time.

The chocolates are quickly consumed, the flowers will wilt in a few days’ time. But the precious cards (some written on art paper, some hastily scrawled on intermediate pad) will be treasured by the recipients forever. I have yet to meet a teacher who placed more value on the gift than the accompanying note. It’s those precious tidbits of paper that we keep hidden away in secret places, that we read whenever we’re down or feeling blue. We will NEVER part with these invaluable treasures, for these cannot be bought even with Napoles’ 10 billion pesos. These are expressions of love from our beloved pupils, and we teachers hold them to be sacred items.

They are physical manifestations of golden moments, of the time when a handsome ten-year-old boy danced with his much taller and older teacher under the heat of the sun, right beside the sound system that blared out a Miley Cyrus song. Of the time when a bespectacled third grader sweetly sang to her teacher how much she learned from us. Of the time when a dozen children surrounded their teacher and hugged her tightly, almost to the point of suffocation, and greeted her “Happy Teacher’s Day!”

We teachers may be considered “poor” in terms of finances, but oh, how rich we are in love. And how blessed we are to teach!

In my life, I’ve had several tidbits of heaven… afternoons spent talking to a kindred soul about poetry and philosophy… evenings overwhelmed by majestic, magnificent music performed live by the best artists in the country… but none can compare with a teacher’s golden moments spent in the company of innocent, loving hearts.

Happy Teacher’s Day to all the teachers in the world!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Our" House

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It’s common knowledge among our family friends that we don’t own our own house. We’re not ashamed of that fact… if anything, we’re proud of it. We’re proud to say that all our lives, we’ve lived in a rented house, one where my Mom lived whilst she was still single, so you can imagine how old the house is.

It’s so old that parts of the ceiling are leaky, and when it rains, I have three mini waterfalls inside my room. I wouldn’t mind so much were it not for the fact that I have to move my book shelves away from the walls to protect my treasured tomes from getting wet.

Going back to not owning our house… it came as a bit of shock to me when, as an adult, I realized how sentimental and nigh-near obsessive the typical Filipino is when it comes to owning one’s own home. I can understand why. It symbolizes stability and financial freedom. However, I’ve observed that the quest to owning a home can put one in greater financial straits when it is something one cannot truly afford yet. One applies for loans one cannot hope to pay off soon, and so instead of stability, one incurs huge debt.

“You’re not rich unless you have your own house.” That’s what most Filipinos believe. It’s a sign of our times… “You are what you own/wear/possess.” And in today’s modern age of the triumph of capitalism, where consumerism is the new religion, it devastates me to see how conscious my high school students are about the clothes they wear, the gadgets they own. When basketball players focus more on what “elite socks” or shoes to wear to a basketball competition instead of thinking about ways to train more so they can be more competitive, when female athletes spend more time thinking about ways to hike up their volleyball shorts, exposing a scandalous amount of skin, rather than how to improve their game … well, I think there’s something wrong there somewhere. When we focus more on appearances rather than substance, then we become shallow and petty. And we lose sight of what’s important in life. When we allow our possessions to define who we are, then we lose our sense of self-respect. We become unthinking products of a materialistic society, part of a teeming crowd of humanity, losing our individuality.

Why am I proud to say that we don’t own our house? Well, for starters, it represents proof of our commitment to our simple but meaningful way of life: a family of teachers, all of us chose this path, knowing we’ll never be as financially well-off had we gone into the corporate world. My parents giving up their more lucrative jobs in order to be hands-on parents and educators.

As I type this, it started raining again. Pretty soon I’ll have to adjust the bookshelves once more. But it’s hard to feel sorry for myself, living in this “leaky old house,” when I consider myself so rich in the things that matter.

I am rich and blessed to belong to the most loving family ever. How many families can say that they eat all three daily meals together, 24/ 7?

I am rich in psychic income, as all teachers are. I think this is the only job where one leaps out of bed each day, excited to see the faces of one’s pupils, eager to spend time with innocent and adorable cuties! An exhausting one, to be sure, but one where I get to make a difference… every single day.

I am rich in health. A teacher’s life style is, by necessity, a very clean one. Early to bed and early to rise. No wild nights spent carousing about the town, painting Makati red. No gambling, drinking, smoking. A “wild” night out for me would probably be one where I stay up late to watch a concert or a play, and an exciting weekend consists of spending time with my book club friends. Yes, I’m a veritable Mata Hari! J

And I have no cause to complain when I have never gone hungry in my life, when there is more than enough food to eat every day (in fact my problem is: how do I STOP eating??!!). I have never known want, and I have my parents to thank for that.

And now… to move the bookshelves away from the wall. (Yet another important thing I’m rich in… Books!!!)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mad World

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All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races, going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses, no expression, no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow, no tomorrow, no tomorrow

And I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad
The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it’s a very very mad world…

I remember the first time I heard this song as interpreted by Adam Lambert… it was so simple yet eerily beautiful. And it is true that one can love one aspect of the song (in this case, the haunting melody in D minor) and despise another (the hopeless tone of the lyrics).

I guess it’s very easy to become apathetic and/or pessimistic in this day we live in. One only has to check the news to get one’s daily dose of depressing news. Take the case of 25 year old Kae Davantes, a tragic victim of random crime. Abducted at the gate of her own home inside a gated subdivision only a few minutes away from our own. Mercilessly killed because she saw the faces of the five unemployed youth who were out to make a few bucks… P3,000 is the worth of her life, it would seem.

And it seems the horror and madness of the world spares no one. The eight-year-old Yemeni child bride who died from internal bleeding on her wedding night. The five-year-old Pakistani girl who was raped and killed. And just last night, a five-year-old Filipina girl who was raped (apparently by a relative) in one of Zamboanga’s evacuation centers.

Yes, oh yes, it IS a mad world.

It’s really not difficult to understand why some parents, religious groups and educational institutions expressly forbid their children any exposure to media, whether it be through television, radio or the Internet. The news is just so terrible, the risk so great. Philippine streets are no longer safe for our children, and trouble follows them home via social media.

And I can understand why my parents forbid me to go to certain places because of the peace and order situation. While at times I may feel penned in, they’re only doing their job as my parents: to protect me, for as long as they can, from this mad world.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of hopeless despair, or its brother: apathy. Oh yes, it’s a big bad world out there, so I’m just going to look out for my own selfish interests. I’m going to be an atheist, because how can there be a God who allows such horrible things to happen? (For the record, there’s a boy in my Grade 8 class now who claims he’s an atheist. It horrifies me to think that 13-year-olds nowadays can be so cynical. “Life is pointless… studying is pointless. What’s the point of everything? One person cannot do anything,” he keeps saying.)

It’s becoming more of a challenge in these cruel days to find God in the everyday routines of life. We have to search, to really LOOK for Him. But once we do, we find that He is in the small beauties of life.

He is in the smiles of the parents I meet in our school, when they come for Parent-Teacher conferences. I see His image reflected upon the matching visages of mothers, fathers and their children. He is in the piece of good news I just read: a World War II soldier’s letter finally reaches his daughter 70 years after it was written, weeks after she was born and just before he died. He is everywhere, if we only care to look.

He can be found in poetry and books, in music and song (the right kind).  In Ancient Greek musical theory, the doctrine of ethos holds that music directly affects our characters, bodies, minds and souls. I believe there is a great truth in this, and not just with music. But with all of art and literature.

One of my 4th year high school music students asked me this question after we had spent 2 hours of class time watching the movie Farinelli (about the greatest castrati of all time), and after listening to great Handel arias like Lascia ch’io pianga: “What’s the point? What’s the use?”

The Ancient Greeks knew why. They knew that exposure to what was good, true and beautiful molded young minds, held forth a standard of excellence, of virtue that may not be (and may no longer be) present in today’s callous world.

And so, goodbye to beautiful but dangerous music like Mad World. You may be a pretty tune, but you do nothing for my soul.

Time and time again, I keep going back to classics like Handel’s immortal Come Unto Him from the oratorio MESSIAH.

Come unto Him, all ye that labor
Come unto Him, ye that are heavy laden
And He will give you rest.

Take His yoke upon you and learn of Him
For He is meek and lowly of heart
And ye shall find rest unto your souls.

Classical music. It’s good for the soul. It draws me closer to God, and when I listen to arias such as this one, I FEEL the certainty of his love and I know everything will turn out alright.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Define "Good"

Image from

The title comes from a movie we watched as a family this weekend, “Beautiful Creatures.” (Think Twilight but with more mature protagonists. And yes, what’s up with all the Romeo & Juliet + Twilight supernatural lover plots nowadays? The phenomenon deserves a blog entry unto itself, but that’s for another time.)

Wholesome boy-next-door takes an interest in the female newcomer-to-the-small-town and notices that she’s reading a book. Striking up a conversation with her, he asks about the author: “Is he any good?”

The girl meets his interested gaze in a challenging way and says, “Define good.

(Now if only that happened in real life… haha!)

The Manila International Book Fair was held this week, and we got to go on Saturday! Sadly, we couldn’t spend as much time as we wanted because a) of our busy schedule and b) our limited teacher’s salaries could only accommodate a limited amount of splurging. (I justify my book expenditures this way: “I’m building my future children’s library!”)

The book I was MOST excited about purchasing was a copy of St. Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography, “The Story of A Soul.” My ninang has highly recommended it to me, and I keep reading about this book as well in the writings of other writers. I’ve been looking for a copy for AGES, and I finally found one yesterday!! Finished reading it this morning, and oh MY! It’s definitely “good,” oh so sooooo goooood!!

When I was a lot younger, I used to think that “good” books were either downright fluffy and juicy, like addicting cotton candy (as in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series) or esoteric, high-brow and intellectual (yes, I WAS rather a snob back then).

St. Therese’s book falls in neither of these two categories, but unto a third category (and, I think, a more authentic definition of what is “good”). I have come to discover that there are some books that make one a better person by reading them. By letting your soul come into contact with another’s, one so holy and perfect, that the fragrance of their divine saintliness is dusted onto yours, leaving it cleaner, purer, and simpler than before.

In St. Therese’s words: “Sometimes Jesus chooses to link together two souls for His glory and then He lets them exchange their thoughts to stir each other to a greater love of God.” Of course, merely reading the book makes for just a one-way flow of thoughts, but when one believes in the Communion of Saints, well then, reading St. Therese’s book and praying to her for intercession is a very beautiful two-way highway!

I cannot put all of my reflections in this public blog, as St. Therese said: “Some things lose their fragrance when opened to the air, and there are stirrings of the soul which cannot be put into words without destroying their delicacy.” But suffice it for me to say that those stirrings were great indeed, and I will definitely keep rereading this treasure of a book for the rest of my life!

It is a very simple book, and cannot lay claim to great literary value nor intellectual depth. But it strikes the heart as if with a samurai’s sword, laying it bare, and flooding it with light, joy and peace the way good, true and beautiful things do.

St. Therese is truly an inspiration! Despite her unremarkable background, despite living in an obscure province, despite dying of tuberculosis at the young age of 24, and despite being “imprisoned” in a monastery all her life from the time she was 15 years old, she bloomed where she was planted and has been a blessing to countless millions all over the world. Her life is the ultimate proof of perhaps her most famous saying: “Perfection consists in doing His will, in being that which He wants us to be.”

I'd like to end this entry with the excerpt I especially fell in love with: “I’ll surely sing my hymn of love. Yes, my Beloved, this is how I’ll spend my life… I shall sing, sing without ceasing even if I have to gather my roses from the midst of thorns. And the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter my song will be.”

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Good Old-Fashioned Days

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In the past couple of months, quite a few of my friends have given up Facebook. The amount of dismay it caused their Facebook friends is a pretty good reflection of how much this social media site has come to mean to us modern-day Filipinos. Their giving up Facebook has given me cause to reflect on just how much Facebook has impacted my life…. And the answer is: A LOT.

Let’s take an ordinary lunch break as an example. During our brief work lunches together, my dad commented on how my brother and I spent most of the ten-minute lunch break on our smart phones, checking Facebook and Twitter, and hastily gobbling down our humble meal in as little as two or three minutes. “I see the same thing in restaurants!” said he. And it’s true. You see families gathered around a table, but most (if not all) have their heads bowed, fiddling with their gadgets instead of conversing.

I admire people who can take Facebook breaks, and I admire those who can quit it, cold turkey, all the more. I don’t think I can!

I suppose it depends on how you use it. Facebook can be a HUGE time suck if you let your guard down. But if you spend only a couple of minutes a day, I think it can do a world of good!

I mainly use Facebook for work, believe it or not. J Part of being a teacher is knowing one’s students, and knowing how to bring information to them. In our school, we don’t forbid our teachers the use of Facebook precisely because we know how useful it is! We have groups for our classes, our clubs, and of course, we teachers also use Facebook to communicate with the parents of our students (especially OFW’s, whose sole means of seeing their children grow is through the pictures of class activities posted online by our Principal and their child’s teacher).

Another reason I use it is to help me keep track of what’s happening in the lives of friends. As one grows older, one’s friends tend to scatter all over the world. I marvel at how the internet can make us feel as if we’re only a few meters apart, instead of thousands of kilometers. And I’ve met some of my closest friends through the Internet, so I’m forever a fan.

I really wonder how they did things back in the good ol’ days without technology. Life was much simpler and went at a slower pace, but the same essential, existential problems faced us, even then. Questions like “What is the good life? What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose for which I was born?” will be perpetually asked for as long as the human race exists. And perpetually, we will continuously FEEL the huge divide between the world of ideas, of the soul… and the world of the flesh, of harsh physical reality. It’s part of what makes us human. Poets like Longfellow chafed at the tensions of life brought about by the daily human struggle.

“The scholar and the world! The endless strife,
The discord in the harmonies of life!
The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books;
The market-place, the eager love of gain,
Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!”

My profession is an old-fashioned one, and it’s a perfect fit! Old-fashioned people are drawn to teaching because education is the last bastion against lawlessness and looseness of morals, against worldliness and secularism. I guess that’s why I’m drawn to old-fashioned things like brewed tea in pretty tea cups, physically hand-held books over e-books, pianos over electronic keyboards, snail-mail letters over hastily-typed PM’s, glasses over lenses.

But for communication, nothing beats the usefulness of Facebook. The challenge, I suppose, is to limit the use modern technology and not let it rule us. The tyranny of technology only occurs when  we let it.

On a side note: It’s the Manila International Book Fair next week! Sept. 11-15, 2013, at the SMX Convention Center in SM Mall of Asia! See y’all there!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On Life's Tensions

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I think teachers everywhere would agree that one of the most stressful times of a teacher’s usually peaceful and quiet life is the Exam-Making and the consequential Exam-Checking Period. These are the days when inner and social lives disappear, Facebook statuses are either nonexistent or cover their owner’s wall with moans and groans of protest, and teachers bring home three or four bags of work instead of the usual two.

This being a Checking weekend, after hearing mass, my twinnie and I will plunk our derrieres down on a café somewhere in the mall while the rest of the family watches KICK-ASS 2. (Sorry, Chloe, will have to see your balisong wielding skills some other time!)

But this week’s reminder of mortality also made me remember that, as stressful as our lives can get, we should always be grateful that we are still ALIVE. That God woke us up this morning instead of bringing us to Heaven. That we can still feel heat when we perspire in our uniforms, that we can still hear the noise and bustle of the city we live in, that we can still feel adrenaline pump through our bodies when we push ourselves to meet that deadly deadline. That we can still feel the blissful warmth of a cup of coffee after work, that we can still appreciate the incomparable blessing of throwing our exhausted bodies down our soft beds and sleep the sweet slumber of consciences at rest.

Life is full of tension, between Carpe diem and waiting on and trusting in His perfect time, between periods of peace and strife, between calm and discord. The thing is, we will never fully appreciate the quiet times if it weren’t for our brushes with stress and sleepless nights. We cannot appreciate the tranquility of the Andante or Adagio without comparing it to the tumultuous Sturm und Drang.  We will never appreciate the comforting rhythms of routine until it is majorly disrupted, interrupted. We will never appreciate the blessing of a peaceful, quiet life until it is threatened.

At present, the tension that I am struggling with the most is the first one I mentioned above. And it goes to show how far I have yet to go on faith, trust and patience. Worrying is a sin, I know, and so is pride. We should welcome and be grateful for the challenges He sends that chip away at these two enormous blemishes in our souls.

I read somewhere that “There are no interruptions. There are only moments when God uses others to knock on our souls.” I especially hate it when things don’t go according to plan, and so this is particularly helpful to me.

As for another helpful motto for contemplation… The Benedictines nailed it on the head with “Ora et labora.” How wonderful that I get the chance to do both today! And we should pray that we can do this, everyday.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Teacher Behn

Sometimes all it takes is a brush with genius to forever change a life.

I am no one special. I am a teacher, nothing more and nothing less. But I’d like to say a couple of words about one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the honor to study under during my stint in UP Diliman. His name is Sir Behn, and he passed away this morning.

Even in death, Sir Behn didn’t do things like other people. There was a great deal of confusion because apparently he had instructed his family to delay the bad news for a week, but the loss of so great a man is inevitably impossible to hide.

Sir Behn is more known by his colleagues and close friends as “Direk,” because of his immense stature in the world of theater and film. I cannot speak of his professional achievements because others can do a better job of it than me. We were not close, and I didn’t know him very well, for my twin sister and I were only two of his several hundred students over the years. And we only studied under him for one semester. But I CAN boast of being one of his very last students. The Theater class we took under Sir Behn, an elective, was for beginners. In fact, there were only three theater majors out of the eight of us who enrolled that semester.

I should clarify. On the first day of class, I remember there were about 20 or 25 of us students who enlisted and showed up in the Teatro Hermogenes Ylagan (THY) at the Faculty Center for his Theater 131 Beginning Acting class.

It was quite warm, and ignorant, presumptuous, naïve college student that I was, I walked to the nearby airconditioning unit and turned it on.

At that precise instant, an elderly man walked in with powerful strides. He had an indefinable quality that makes a room full of strangers stare at him. He had that kind of aura, a presence that was impossible to ignore. And it wasn’t because of physical attractiveness or the way he dressed. It was the man himself.

He stood glaring at me and thundered: “Who are you? How dare you turn on the aircon? Are you the one paying for the electricity bill? Huh? TURN THAT OFF!”

I had just had my first taste of the infamous Sir Behn temper.

(Later on, after speaking with others closer to him, I learned that he had already mellowed down quite a bit by the time our paths crossed. In short, mas mabait na siya. And still, he made all of us quiver with fear.)

I can no longer remember what happened that first day, all I remember is that the classroom was nearly empty when we came for the following meeting. The others had dropped or “changed-mat.” To put it bluntly, the teacher had scared off most of his students. It was a credit to Sir Behn that he chose not to dissolve the class (by UP rules, a minimum of 10 students to a class was required) despite having only eight pupils remaining.

Quite honestly, there were quite a few times in the first couple of weeks under Sir Behn that a similar course of action had crossed my mind. He wasn’t exactly the easiest person to be around. It took quite a while before I learned that, for our teacher, his bark was worse than his bite.

That unforgettable semester taught us, the few remaining brave stalwart souls, SO MUCH… not just about Theater, but about life. And for me, about what it meant to be a teacher.

Sir Behn was not my first Theater teacher, nor my last. I was lucky enough to have taken classes under other luminaries in the Theater field, but Sir Behn really stood out (I thought) because of his dedication to teaching. He made no distinction between the professional theater directing world of his, and his teaching world. In fact, I always felt that he prioritized his teaching responsibilities more than his directing ones. I remember there were several times during that semester that the rest of the UP professors would allow their students free cut (perhaps to attend a student council forum, or go to an “ACLE” (Alternative Classroom Learning Experience), but Sir Behn would ALWAYS meet us, his class of 8, and say: “Well, I DID think of not going to class today, but then I thought, why deprive the faithful?”

I was always humbled that this titan would deign to give the best of himself, every time, with eight struggling, immature college students. We frustrated him, we knew, because we were not excellent. Not at the start. But we learned to be, from him.

He worked us hard. I worked harder than I ever did, in my entire existence (and considering that we were raised by our parents to get used to tough schedules early on in life, that was NO small thing). Sir Behn did teach us about acting, about the intoxicating discipline and art that is theater. He taught us to love it, and even the shyest among us was coaxed by him to unleash her inner passionate Fury in an unforgettable display that made us vow to never to underestimate the quiet ones again.

I remember the drills he taught us, the improvisation exercises. But most of all, I remember the non-Theater lessons with fondness.

He would photocopy certain news articles and bring them to class. He’d ask for our opinion, and give us assignments that were “totally unrelated to Theater,” or so we thought at the time: He made us write weekly snail mail letters to our senators, to our congressmen, over issues that he made us passionate about. “What dissatisfies you about your country?!” he’d ask us in that trademark voice. “Stop bitching about it and do something about it!”

He displayed a love for country that I thought was remarkable for one in his field. Unfortunately, the Philippines is not exactly the most welcoming country for artists to find suitable employment, or to hone their craft. Several in the performing arts have chosen to pursue careers abroad, and in fact, there was this mentality being propagated that if you’re good, then you should go abroad!

Sir Behn was one of the most patriotic Filipinos I ever met. Sometimes he’d share stories about his experiences during the Martial Law, and what I thought was wonderful was the fact that he always highlighted the funny parts, never the sad or painful ones.

On learning that we lived in Bicutan, he reminisced: “I was incarcerated there once. During the preliminary interrogation, they kept asking me if I knew any of the others that were imprisoned there already. I told them I never met any of the others in my life. But when they put me in the prison cell, everyone starting dancing, clapping their hands, and singing “Welcome, kapatid!” I was furiously shushing everyone and screaming, “Ssssh! SHATAP! Hindi ko kayo kilala!!!” J I remember this with fondness because he enacted everything out, dancing and singing and furious shushing included!

He made us love and appreciate ourselves, through his signature mix of tough love and genuine caring. At that particular time, I had a severe acne problem and my self-esteem was quite non-existent. He reached out to me and shared how he, too, struggled with acne in his youth. He even gave me kikay advice: “Do you use soap on your face? I was quite allergic to soap and I wish I had discovered that sooner! Just stop using soap!” I followed his advice (I now use Cetaphil) and both my skin and self-esteem are now back to socially-accepted levels of normalcy.

Behind the grouchy director-mode exterior was a sentimental idealist who pushed our class to perform – not in the regular student recital venues of the university – but in far-flung places like the Anawim Home for the Aged, as outreach. And apparently, every Christmas, he organizes a similar outreach caroling project to sing in various hospitals. He taught us the wonders of performing, of sharing whatever little talent we possessed, not for money nor fame, but for the sheer joy of bringing comfort to others who were less fortunate than us.

I also remember observing him speak to security guards, drivers, and vendors. He was genuinely interested in them and their lives, and always spoke to them as equals. No trace of the "terror director" was to be seen, for he was simply a Filipino who was truly curious about how other Filipinos lived their lives.

I have other quotes from him, and of course, these are not verbatim but these are as close to his original words as my poor memory can recall.

On picture-taking: “What a waste of time! I HATE people who pose and pose and take picture after picture. Your best camera is your brain! Just STOP and appreciate the moment. You show greater respect to Nature and to the Almighty that way.”

On death: “When I pass on, I don’t want a traditional wake where people will cry and mourn my passing. When I go, I want people to dance! And sing! And make merry!”

Meeting him, if only for a short time, enriched my life immeasurably. Every time I encounter the words “culture” and “war,” I remember him because he, perfectionist that he was, corrected my English diction on those two particular words (“culture” with the /u/ pronounced as in “up,” and “war” with the /a/ being dark, not a digraph).

Every time I listen to Handel’s Messiah, “How Great Thou Art” or any of the other classical favorites and hymns that he spoke passionately about, I will remember him.

Every time I feel passion for something… for a treasure find of a book, for an Immortal Beloved, for my school, for my vocation… I will remember Sir Behn, the most passionate individual I have ever met.

And no, Sir Behn, you did not want us to weep at your passing, so this is us keeping a stiff upper lip as we bid farewell to a giant of man, who forsook material goods and greater wordly recognition for the sake of country, of the university.

We should remember him for his great accomplishments. But most of all, we lucky few who studied under him remember him for what he taught us: how to live and love fully, and how to give back to school and country.
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