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.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

On Latin

                                                              Image from

I was talking to my ninang the other day, and I expressed my amazement at the few Latin songs that are being sung in masses today (well, I mean, in the usual Filipino masses, where the go-to fare is contemporary worship music). Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Bukas Palad and Hillsong, and right now my favorite worship song is the very contemporary “I Love the Lord.” But mass songs sung in Latin are something else entirely. As my ninang put it, “They remind you that you’re part of something very old.”

Besides, everything sounds cooler in Latin! Instead of saying ‘the best among the rest,’ why not say “primus inter pares?” Instead of “Bayan, muling magtipon, awitan ang Panginoon,” the choir sang a while ago: “Laudate omnes gentes, laudate Dominum.” See what I mean?

Our own book club motto just HAD to be Latin-ized into: “Ad libris et ad vita.” (Of books and of life)

Latin is so beautiful. Almost as beautiful as Filipino. And truly, nothing draws people to God more than beauty, in any form.

The beauty found in a ray of light illuminating a stained glass window, shining on the face of a ten year old girl as she is about to receive Panis Angelicus for the first time.

The beauty of a choir singing as a church choir ought; with perfect blending… the soprano floating lightly as a dove above the profound, secure notes of the bass, the alto sweetly supporting, the tenor earnestly sighing. Never overpowering the congregation, but gently encouraging them to come and worship God through song, for as Augustine said: “Singing is prayer heard twice.”

In the book I’m currently reading, Karen Armstrong writes about certain faiths that put great value on the spoken word, on sound, on music. Irrelevant of its meaning, sound itself, like the transcendent “om,” is believed to contain the essence of life, creation itself. Xunzi, a Chinese philosopher, said: “Through the performance of music the will is made pure, and through the practice of rites the conduct is brought to perfection.”

And I think this is why it is good to hear mass, if only once a week. This highly stylized ritual between priest and congregation has less devotees in more recent times. But I’d like to argue FOR it. Even if you take away the religious aspect, just the fact that you are in a quiet and calm environment with hundreds of your fellow human beings puts you in a meditative mood that takes one away from our tendency to obsess with ourselves, our petty problems, our selfish sensibilities. We become more than what we think we are, we become part of something greater.

But of course, when you consider the religious part of the equation, then what was merely a psychological easing of the mind becomes a transcendent experience, charged with life-giving meaning, when the crowd around you becomes your brothers and sisters in Him whose presence permeates your being in the mystical sacrament of Holy Communion. More than merely an hour’s recess from labor, it becomes a brief but powerful reminder that the “drudgery” of life is nothing less than our individual contribution to spreading His Kingdom on earth. Wherever we love, wherever we show compassion, He is there. And as our basketball team pummels it out with the Persians in the MOA Arena, He is there.

P.S. Lord, Team Gilas ka, diba?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cherry Eye

I’ve always thought I was a simple person with “shallow joys” and few needs. Give me a good book and coffee and all is right in the world. But lately, something’s happened that made me realize that, simple as my joys are, they’re not inexpensive (due to my tendency to visit Fully Booked more often than Booksale). Nor have I been a very good steward of my finances. L

Luna, my Rottweiler princess, suddenly developed “cherry eye,” or, a prolapsed third gland. At first we thought that she pierced her eye accidentally on something sharp, but as it turns out, cherry eye does not have an exterior cause. It’s got something to do with the weak connective tissues of certain dogs. In other words, some dogs are simply born with it.

The thing is, cherry eye is not painful for the dog, but if left untreated, it can lead to further infections, pus, and eventual blindness. So I immediately arranged for her to undergo surgery at the vet’s.

The logical part of me knows that, if you remove all sentiment and romantic notions about our furry best friends, a dog is a dog and a pet is simply a pet. But my heart does not recognize that fact, and even though the cost of the surgery was a third of my teacher’s salary, I paid it gladly. And I shall never forget the terror I felt as I brought my trembling Luna inside the operating room.

Thankfully, the operation went well, and Luna is now recovering at home, with a daily dose of antibiotics and some topical ointment to help her recuperate. However, it looks like her OTHER eye’s third gland is about to pop out as well. L And so I fear I shall be bringing her back to the vet’s very soon.

My dad got the three of us siblings our own dogs because he wanted to teach us responsibility. I’m beginning to realize the wisdom behind his decision.

Bringing up a dog is not for the faint of heart. It really requires a great deal of commitment, emotionally and financially. (And chronologically?... I mean, you have to make TIME for your dog)

Someone once said that “Money is a good thing, for two reasons: it’s nice to have money so you can help others out of a jam, and it’s nice to have when you get sick.”

I’ve always believed in the first, but it’s only now I’m realizing how nice it is to be able to afford decent health care, not just for myself but for my dog.

So… yes, I’m afraid this whole affair has made me very money-conscious… but for the RIGHT reasons. Sayonara, Fully Booked. Adios, fancy coffee. Now… how to make more of it?
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