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"

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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!
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