In search of solace

‘You’re reminded that this life is just a fleeting illusion; that you’re a humble traveler; and that this may come to an end in a snap. Today, you’re a towering figure of physique and fitness; tomorrow could be a different story. It’s not promised.’

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I STARED at it for about five minutes yesterday at one in the morning. An untitled painting that measures roughly 4 feet by 3, it was displayed on a private hospital’s wall on the third floor with a maelstrom of kaleidoscopic koi of divergent sizes swimming around an imaginary cylinder clockwise under a dark blue water. The artwork was strangely cut into half vertically and was hanging slightly slanted 15 degrees to the right. The others which boasted abstract flashes of colors and astronomic designs stationed at different sections of the corridor were not presented the same way. I was absorbed and drawn by it; its peculiarity intrigued me.

I was all alone, wide awake, sitting on a brown, foamy bench outside the capacious visitors’ room, where my mom was sleeping, just ten feet away from the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The breeze was frigid; it was raining outside. I was waiting for the doctor to come out of the ICU to check for an update on one of my brothers’ condition. He had a mild stroke while sharing a meal with his own family in their house in Cavite City, south of Manila. Coincidentally, I was on a three-day vacation leave for my birthday. But how would you celebrate your birthday knowing that your family is amid a crisis?

 “Kuya Jun Jun is in the hospital” my youngest brother Ronnel said. 

“Why?” I uttered. “What happened?”

“High blood, probably” he said. “He had seizure.” In a heartbeat, my mother and I swiftly stuffed our bags with clothes and toiletries like soldiers about to engage in a daring hunt in a deserted forest. 

It must be very serious, I said to myself.

“To a hospital in General Trias, Cavite” I told the first cab driver who halted outside our small, white gate when he inquired where we’re headed at around ten on a Sunday evening. “Please, it’s an emergency, sir.”

“I’m not going south” he answered. And just like that with one of the side windows still half-open, he hastily left.

A huge weight of our exasperation and distress vanished when the next cab driver accepted our pleas. He had brought us to a terminal in Pasay City where we instantly found a bus that took us to our destination.

While travelling, thoughts came rushing on my mind like bolts of lightning in a stormy sky: it’s kuya Jun Jun and our memories together. Yes, our late-night conversations about religion, spirituality, wisdom, mysteries, science and technology, work. His brilliance and depth on a range of topics is impeccable. Tears abruptly rolled down my face. My mother did not witness it. 

When we arrived at the hospital, my mother and I were met with stories on what had transpired earlier that day. Plates flying in the air. Chicken tinola splattering all over. Convulsion. Lips turning black. Eyes moving involuntarily. Wailing children. Panic. Chaos.

But Emergency Rooms, ICUs, Dialysis Centers, and others put everything in perspective. In those moments that you’re encapsulated by impenetrable brick structures painted white all over, everything boils down to that quiet conversation between you and God. The rest of the universe becomes irrelevant: traffic and scandals on EDSA, inflation, MRT woes, #MeToo, possibilities with the person you admire most, child abuse, fake news, typhoons, President Duterte, war on drugs, Facebook and Instagram, poverty, corruption, politics, education, South West Monsoon, career aspirations, a taxicab’s plate number. You forget about them like transitory slides in your memory not to invalidate their value but to solve and face what’s urgent. Maybe, it’s the brain’s natural response in emergency situations. 

You’ve probably been there before. You asked why and wondered why it all happened. Yes, why it had to be you or your family.

You know all the answers to these inquiries by heart, but still, there’s a strange, ineluctable sensation when you’re amid it all – existing, breathing, and convincing yourself to be brave in the challenge given to you. You’re reminded that this life is just a fleeting illusion; that you’re a humble traveler; and that this may come to an end in a snap. Today, you’re a towering figure of physique and fitness; tomorrow could be a different story. It’s not promised.

You hope. You say your prayer without anybody noticing. You reach out to a higher being in spite of all your flaws, faults, and shortcomings, Because the situation is beyond the grasp of your hands, of your humanity, of everyone who knows you.

Then, you pause. You can see the minute, fine details. Paths become clearer. Because you believe that everything happens for a reason. You try to make sense of the test you’re faced with. With the waves of life arriving from every direction, it’s facile to forget the essence of one’s existence. Sometimes, in order for us to be reawakened and to reevaluate our decisions, our steps, and our mindset, inexplicable events have to transpire. And right there, in the mist of confusion, doubts, and tears, is where we can only genuinely ruminate what we’re made of.

In the hit thriller movie, A Quiet Place, a family must live life in silence while hiding from sightless extraterrestrial creatures with hypersensitive hearing, indestructible armored skin and attack anything that makes noise. In parallel to the reality, there are monsters in life that we have to deal with whether we like them or not. We have no idea how they look like, their form, or how they would affect us, but to survive and get through them, we have to stick with our principles and with our loved ones as a unit with trust, courage, and faith. 

In the end, after I had convinced myself to stand in front of the painting and equably fixed it in its place, the doctor informed me that kuya was no longer in the critical state. I expeditiously thanked God for his help and mercy. Then, I took a second look at the painting and discovered that there was a total of twenty-eight kaleidoscopic koi swimming around the imaginary cylinder. To my astonishment, it’s the same number of years I just turned to carry across my name on a frigid morning on my birthday. A coincidence? I refuse to think so. For me, it’s an incalculable gift sent from heaven.

In my grief, I found solace.

Dear Kuya Manny: Please retire at 60

‘Sports breathes from hope and to engage in sports is a way to relieve the different forms of stress of life. However, if used the improper way, it can be lethal. A promise of solace can be turned into a nightmare that can haunt the minds of people. That’s exactly what you did, Kuya.’

Dear Kuya Manny,

In a true Filipino fashion, can I call you ‘Kuya’ since I’ve always seen you as an older brother? How are you? How are the bruises? I hope you’re recovering well.

I learned that you had another bout when my sister’s husband called and inquired about its result while we’re having lunch last Sunday.

“Have you watched the fight?” my sister asked while holding her smartphone. “Who won?”

“What fight?” I responded.

“The Pacquiao fight” she replied. “You don’t know?”

I paused for a moment not just because of cluelessness but also because every little reason why I stopped caring about any news about you all came back to me. The horror you single-handedly inflicted into my consciousness three years ago saw the light of the tunnel again. Piece by piece. Detail by detail. Pound for pound.

May 3, 2015. Sunday. “The Fight of the Century.” It’s you versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. SM Megamall Cinema 3. Pay per view. 2 tickets. I was sitting next to my younger brother Ronnel. The 12-round match has ended. Jimmy Lennon Jr. announced the winner. Cheers were replaced by sighs. Nobody wanted to leave the theater. We were shocked. “Is that it?” the old man sitting across me shouted in exasperation. We waited for the climax of the movie pictured mentally by hundreds of millions of fans all over the world: Mayweather, the nemesis – blank-faced, defeated on the canvas after being hit by you in a barrage of uppercuts and right hooks. It never happened.

No, it’s not that we lost that made it unforgettable. It’s the difficult truth hidden behind the curtain that consumed me. You made me despise boxing. The sport died for me on that day.

During a post-fight interview, you revealed that you had entered that fight with a pre-existing shoulder injury and then further injured that area during the fourth round of the contest. When I heard this, my heart wanted to explode. I couldn’t believe it. It felt like I have been deceived with my two eyes wide open by you, the same man who had told in his pre-fight interview: “Don’t get nervous… I’m the one fighting, so relax.”

I watched every possible discussion that one can view online because of the hype everyone has poured for that momentous event. Boxing greats, analysts, and even superstars from other sports became involved and gave their take on who would emerge victorious. It was billed as the modern era’s Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali contest. But nobody saw it coming – the lie of the century.

Kuya, it was the first time in my entire life that I decided to buy tickets and watch a fight of yours on pay per view. I had watched all your previous fights on tv and on Youtube. To me and probably just like the million others around the world, it was an attempt to be part of history; to be able to tell myself decades later, if God will permit, that I was there with you in every blow, in every jab, in every hook. It was my humble way of supporting you. But again, I was wrong. You and your camp had a different view the entire time. The world expected a clash of titans with no injury report divulged to the public. Everyone assumed that you were at 100% or almost at the peak of your strength and so tickets have been sold out.

Kuya Manny, a few days after your Mayweather fight, I tried to convince myself that you had hidden the truth for the fight to not be postponed because the other camp might use it a reason to back out. I understand that you had been luring Mayweather for the fight to be realized for so many years. Is that more important than your integrity, reputation and dignity as a man? And just like that, you moved on from one fight to another as if nothing happened.

Sports breathes from hope and to engage in sports is a way to relieve the different forms of stress of life. However, if used the improper way, it can be lethal. A promise of solace can be turned into a nightmare that can haunt the minds of people. That’s exactly what you did, Kuya.

But who am I compared to your greatness? Why should I hold a grudge to you after everything that you’ve done? Is it too hard to forgive another human being and forget all the heartaches?

Whenever I see you in the news or whenever your name surfaces in my conversations with my colleagues and friends, I remember how you made me feel. You brought another exceptional dimension to the word “Filipino” in the international stage. You’re “The Filipino Pride” and “The People’s Champ” and you’ve shown the world what we’re made of.

Yours is a beautiful rags-to-riches story: a mighty warrior who became affluent because of his grit, passion, persistence, and determination. As a storyteller, I fell in love with it. Is it too much to ask for a story book ending in your part?

In his final NBA game, your good friend Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant astoundingly scored 60 points on 22 of 50 shooting against Utah Jazz in 2016. A number of spectators were standing and jumping in the Staples Center arena out of excitement. The mood was festive. Hollywood A-listers were in attendance. He was blessed with an epic ending which is rare for sports legends in history. He retired a winner. After bagging your 60th career win, you have the power to retire a champion.

At 2:43 of the 7th round, you convincingly showed the world what’s left in your tank after defeating the much younger Argentine boxer Lucas Matthysse by TKO and earned the WBA Welterweight title.

But just like a younger brother to his kuya, I hope you retire now from boxing and enjoy more time with your family and loved ones. I’m worried that you might seriously get hurt on your next fight and bid goodbye to the sport you’re passionate about because your mind and body have given up on you. I’m concerned about how your wife Jinkee, your kids, and mommy Dionisia would react if they’ll see you in an unspeakable state. You have nothing else to prove.

Also, please reach out to the LGBTQ+ community and all of those you have offended before. Embrace them with open arms and patiently search for the common ground for us to move forward. I believe you have the heart to spark a real change to the sufferings of our fellowmen. I pray that your health will be at its summit to battle against the more valuable, salient, and pressing issues and challenges that we face as a people in the future. Because your loss is our loss and your win is our win.

Finally, I hope you lend your ears this time.

Sincerely yours,

Ben

(Various versions of this piece appeared on The Sports Column, Read Boxing, Boxing Insider, and United States Sports Academy’s The Sport Digest in July, 2018.)

For Those Who Are Still Hurting, You Are Not Alone

NO, I’M not going to ask you to forget those who caused you pain; those who made you feel small; those who crumpled your person like a piece of paper with their declarations and actions. No, not now.

You know deep within you that you treated them fairly. You undressed your soul under the scorching heat of their presence even if little by little, you’re being burnt. When you smiled at them and whispered your dreams, all you were thinking was the future you’ll subtly paint together on a blank canvas; you were firmly holding your brush without knowing that they were about to let go of theirs.

You accepted them for their persistence. There was a radiant glow in your eyes. They cherished you more than anyone you crossed paths with. And for the first time, someone stared at you the same way you peer at the sunset. Heartfelt. Intimate. Poetic…

You remember everything like it happened yesterday: endless late-night conversations; surprises; secrets; passwords; contact numbers; favorite song, color, artist, coffee flavor, and travel destination; and yes, surreal moments.

You thought they were the one. You saw the signs you were looking for since childhood. You’ve been showered with sunrises. You sincerely whispered to the universe that if you’ll ever meet them, you’ll love them with all you have, with every cell of your body. You expected to set sail smoothly with them while holding their hands and you found yourself in a pit of desperation when you realized that you’ve mistaken; that everything was a fleeting illusion to your preconceived idea of romantic love.

Yes, doubts pierced through your heart. You shut off your closest friends and family and sought for an end to your sufferings. You imagined things you’ve never anticipated to ever invade your awareness.

They disrespected and betrayed you. They didn’t hear your pleas. They were self-absorbed. You convinced yourself that you’re supposed to suffer because that’s what the protagonists in some of the famed movies, novellas, and stories dictated the whole of humanity to be. Suddenly, you could no longer recognize who you are. Every snippet of your conviction, principle, and idealism was gone. And in your core, a burrow scored by their absence lurks like a fictional character who’s about to consume the remaining rays of hope you have. It was dark, murky, and leaden. But please, do not give in.

Let your pillows be witnesses to your grief. Cry and weep and wail until the river of tears dry up. Be consumed with the majestic beauty of literature and the arts. Courageously go on an adventure in other fields and dimensions you’ve never encountered before. Reinvigorate your to-do list. Do things at your own pace. Listen.

Listen to your friends and family when they attempt to comfort you. They’ve always been there for you at the glimpses of your best performances and achievements. Don’t deprive them to be with you at your worst. They saw you at the extent you can never visualize and translate into words in the past; they’ll surely accept you.

Listen to the one gazing at you from the future: the fiercer you. What is life if we get everything we want and prayed for at the moment we expected them to greet us? Where’s thrill, excitement, and pleasure in not challenging the maelstrom of hardships around us? Didn’t we question everything at one point, our decisions, our gifts, our value as a person?

Because today, I’m not asking you to forget the hurt and pain and trouble they inflicted on you; no, not even to show you the path and steps to forgiveness. Instead, may this remind you that there’s someone who believes in you; that in time, all wounds will be healed.

Meaning breathes from tales of triumphs, overcoming of odds, and facing life’s battles head-on. I hope you embrace the process and rediscover yourself all over again. And when the ashes of frustrations of the past subside on the horizon, may your desire to be a comeback story the same way millions of people on the face of this planet strive to do each day overwhelm your heart with interminable virility.

This is a gasping proof that you are not alone.

(Thought Catalog published this piece on the 3rd of May 2018.)

When You Finally Find Her, Fight For Her

WHEN YOU at long last met her, don’t expect her to instantly reciprocate your smile, affection, and care. She’s been through a lot and she wouldn’t deftly bare the fountain of her being for you to quench your thirst for every imaginable speck of curiosity you have about her. She’s witnessed them all: the mundane, the humdrum, and the lackluster. The passing of time made her deeply understand the footnotes for every arrival and departure; that the goodbyes of some are inevitable and to be replaced in someone’s heart is a thriving possibility.

When you ultimately decided to solemnly know her, expect her to push you away. Prepare not to cruise on a newly furnished highway complete with post lights and signs but be introduced into a concrete jungle of questions and uncertainties. There will be bricks and tests and sobbing. She easily trusted some people before but they betrayed her and like the morning mist along the shores, no trace of them can be found anymore. Yes, they left without any explanation with all their vows and promises.

When your paths at length crossed, always remind yourself that you only have one chance to be with her. In a world clad with so many options and choices, it’s facile and tempting to believe that someone will come along after her; that there’s a better, more alluring, and more brilliant soul waiting for you; that beyond the horizon is somebody else who’s a better fit to your personality. The truth is, there will always be someone more quick-witted, funnier, and exquisite than her. But remember that she’s more than the generalizations you can imagine. She’s greater than every conceivable affirmative adjective that your mind can pinpoint and grasp.

When your hearts eventually encounter each other, do everything to keep her. Focus on the little things and then to the complex, the grandeur, the complicated differences in your beliefs, principles, and roots. There’s excitement in novelty, in the realization that after a long time of waiting, you’re in each other’s arms. The days and the nights will be unlike before. The sun will shine brighter, everything will feel lighter, and the moon and stars will be clothed with poetry and rhymes. The clouds will have rejuvenated meanings and symbolism and together, you’ll joyfully search for their formations rudderless flowing above. Suddenly, you’ll dance with her under the pouring rain with a kind of music not dictated by external devices but by the voices entangled within you to celebrate life, to forget for a moment all the worries and frustrations both of you should endure.

When you, at last, see her, you may sense discomfort, banishment, and dismissal on her part. Over time, she has convinced herself that she won’t be needing anybody else in her life. She’s strong and confident and equipped with her dreams and passions. Doubts will enter your consciousness on whether you’ll pursue her or not. Recognize that if she’s gone this far, why would she crave for someone to be with her? But no matter how strenuous she is, be there for her. Be courageous and determined. Show your sincerity. Cheer her up, support her, and open her mind to a world she’s never been to before. Prove to her that being alone can be a thing of the past; that you have arrived.

Because when you finally found her, no matter how thirsty and yearning and hankering you are to discover the reservoir of the fountain of her being, you have to be patient. Brace yourself. Stand next to her. Pitch your most cherished coin. Listen. Splatter…

And when you’re both ready, drink.

(Thought Catalog published this piece on the 19th of April 2018.)

If You Genuinely And Sincerely Love Her, You Will Love Her Like This

IF YOU love her without pretense, you will welcome the thick, towering walls she had built for herself even before you met her. You’ll not try to shatter or see them as adversaries you have to defeat to find her, to finally have a glimpse of the beguiling soul contently breathing in its innermost and deepest realm. Instead, you’ll embrace them as august fragments of her being. You’ll be patient until she greets you with her infectious laughter and beaming smile because you never deserted her.

If you really love her, you will not entertain the idea of dating anybody else who obviously showed their intent to be with you, to talk to you, to get to know you better. Just the idea of you being with someone else will haunt you. You’ll mightily close your eyes and shut your ears whenever a temptation knocks on your door and windows and imagination. Yes, she’s onerous to decipher but you’ll not stop and give her up just because you’re uncertain about how she feels about you. You’ll not make excuses to forget the words and promises you uttered while holding her hands when you were starting. You’ll hope and wait for her ‘Yes’. You’ll continue to court her even after she confessed that the feeling is mutual.

If you truly love her, you will not leave her hanging. You’ll be brave to tell her how you feel even if your whole body is trembling and the cup of coffee or hot lemon tea you’re holding is splattering brought by her presence. You’ll be honest with her even if you’re scared of being rejected because you know she’s worth it.

If you fervently love her, you will accept her flaws and imperfections. You’ll not use them as your reserved ammunitions and weapons in times of misunderstanding and quarrel. You’ll not bring up her past for you know it will hurt her. You’ll think about what’s best for her and treat her as a valuable vessel, a gift, an answered prayer. You’ll forgive her the same way you exonerate yourself when you commit mistakes and shortcomings.

If you earnestly love her, you will recognize her talents, dreams, and aspirations. You’ll not regard her as a blind, emotionless follower to all your wants and needs. You’ll honor and respect her all the time and view her as a partner in facing each morning’s challenges and surprises. You’ll celebrate her triumphs as yours and will be an unfailing shoulder to cry on in times of grief. You’ll support her in her own endeavors for you know that her success and yours are key ingredients for your connection to continue to flourish and bloom to a greater form.

If you authentically love her, you will set aside your ego and will listen to her thoughts and views. You’ll not degrade her person or abuse her confidence in you. You’ll be transparent in all your dealings and you’ll not hide critical information to her that has a direct effect on your relationship. You’ll safeguard her trust all days of your life.

If you seriously love her, you will shower her with your warmth, artistry, and poetry. With joy, you’ll write her essays and lyrics and letters not just on days or nights you feel like it. You’ll secretly take photographs of her or paint the minute details of her personage on a canvas. Yes, there will be times when you’re occupied, tired, and fed up with life’s expectations and demands, but you’ll make time to be with her even if she doesn’t ask for it. You’ll relentlessly remind her of her beauty, of her strengths, of her brilliance when you sense that she forgets them. You’ll vibrantly reminisce the moments in your past when she made you feel unsure whether she’ll accept you or not; how she single-handedly brought you into a peculiar world you’ve never been before. You’ll sing her songs and dance with her when she’s weary and frustrated and jaded; when failures unceasingly try to put her down and make her doubt the glaring possibilities of tomorrow.

And if you genuinely and sincerely love her, you will be faithful in her presence or absence; whether you hear her voice or not; whether she’s sitting next to you or hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

Because if the kind of love you have for her is pure and untainted, it will reveal itself over time and if you’re fated to be together, she will stay with you with all her thick, towering walls vanished forever.

(Thought Catalog published this piece on the 3rd of April 2018.)

Running after a Big Bag Wolf

‘Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate’

HAVE YOU ever been to a novel place where you felt like you want to stay there forever?

That is exactly what I experienced when I arrived at the World Trade Center in Pasay City more than a week ago to chase the first ever Big Bad Wolf event in the country.

It’s the brainchild of BookXcess leads Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng, whose main mission is to extend the doors of opportunity to book readers and book lovers who normally couldn’t afford to buy one.

As soon as I stepped foot on the entrance of the building at around one in the morning, a pleasant aroma greeted me which emanated from the smorgasbord of books stationed per category across the 2-hectare floor area of the venue. The chill in my body was something I’ve never experienced before from the throngs of book sales I had been to.

“This one is different,” I said to myself. “A glimpse of heaven.”

I can still recall how my eyes glowed like the sun when I saw the sea of people walking and running and pushing their carts with the same exhilaration I’ve been curbing inside for days leading to opening day. I even thought for a moment that I was in an airport when I saw that some of the shoppers were carrying large bags and boxes, as if they’re going to travel to a remote destination or roam around the world.

The mood was convivial. Pop songs encompassed the enclosed space. The ushers wore their best smiles and first-rate patience. A stranger handed me his own basket. I unhurriedly checked the piles of titles from the right wing of the entryway to the section close to the center.

I read the texts written on the back covers. I smelled them. Secretly. Memoirs. Novels. Non-fiction.

I bought a total of 8 books for about P1,800: Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, David J. Linden’s Touch, Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, Scott Christianson’s 100 Documents that Changed the World, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of A LionDivisadero, and a winner of the Booker Prize, The English Patient.

While the books being sold at the Big Bad Wolf are “remaindered” and launched about 6 months or one year ago (which is why they are priced 60% to 80% lower than in regular bookstores), I still can’t help but feel sorry for the scarce presence of Filipino literature in this mammoth book sale.

As I was about to pay at the cashier, I thought: “Would it be possible to see Filipino authors’ works being sold and showcased at a colossal and noteworthy affair like this someday? Will they be received the same way as J.K. Rowling and R.R. Martin?”

Truth be told, most of the of books I currently have were written by foreign authors. While I read F.H. Batacan, Bob Ong, Laurel Fantauzzo, and Miguel Syjuco, my ignorance on the content, tone, voice and structure of the worlds created by National Artists for Literature F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin, Cirilo F. Bautista and the others is undeniable. I was in high school when I first heard of their names because we were required to read snippets of their artistry in our Filipino class. But when we graduated, and with no quizzes to take, time passed by, and I forgot about them.

When you visit a branch of the Phlippines’ biggest bookstore these days, the themes of their top selling local books revolve around these 3: how to fall in love, how to move on, and how to be loved by your crush. These are the thin, self-help, mind-numbing books that can leave one to ask: “Hanggang dito na lang ba tayo (Is this all we’re capable of)?

The day after I watched his interview with Boy Abunda for National Arts Month, I swiftly searched for copies of National Artist Virgilio Almario’s poem collections in a luxurious mall just a couple of kilometers away from our home. I was appalled that I did not find any trace of his genius; instead I saw Leavs, Faudets, and Kaurs taking over the shelves.

In the face of globalization, English is considered as the most valuable means of communication. As Filipinos, we take pride in our level of proficiency in this language. But with it comes the growing practice of degrading our roots and creativity, and the maltreatment of Filipino poems, essays, and novels, labelling them as corny, subpar, and insignificant. We have so many writers and creators who are discouraged by the feedback they receive from the people around them. There’s no money in writing. It’s useless. You’ll just be a slave all your life. Don’t waste your time in nonsense. Art is dead.

Jose Rizal once said: “On this battlefield man has no better weapon than his intelligence, no other force but his heart.”

Literature and the arts are the soul and heart of a country. They help us unravel some of the unspoken, subdued, and hidden truths around us so that we may understand ourselves better and be introduced to the richness of our history, which will fuel us to act, reevaluate our views, or change our course if the situation demands for it.

If we do not embrace our own gifts and treasures, and if we forget who we are, we may end up cruising on a highway with no direction or maps as references, and unknowingly get into a collision with our fellow travellers.

Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate. I am convinced that we’re still searching for that spark of transcendence, of the drive to take another sound, earnest look at our dying local publishing industry.

We have to change our mindset that the works of foreign authors are innately superior and finer and more magnificent than what we can produce. We have to debunk the colonial mentality that’s deeply ingrained in our culture, or else we’ll live in an endless search for our identity.

Not everyone can declare that they ran after a Big Bad Wolf at one in the morning on a Saturday. With all the courage I have, I did, and I hope you do, too. Forever.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com’s IMHO on February 24, 2018.)

Photo credit: http://www.bigbadwolfbooks.com

Mayon volcano and its remains in memory

‘As I held a cup of chili-pili ice cream with the Cagsawa Ruins as my backdrop, I glanced at Kuya. The unfamiliarity and awkwardness forged by his long absence vanished instantaneously.’

WHENEVER I see Mayon volcano in the news these days because of its eruption, I don’t just see ashes and smoke compulsively kissing the sky or lava flowing down its slope. I don’t just sense the fear, pain, or panic of its surrounding residents. It also reminds me of my eldest brother.

In May of last year, the day after one of my sisters got married in Daet, Camarines Norte, I, together with my eldest brother Kuya Oni, his wife and two kids, and my youngest brother Ronnel went on a journey to transform the Google images in our heads into a real one of Mayon, one of the nominees for 2008 New 7 Wonders of Nature located in Albay in the Bicol region about 500 kilometers south of Manila.

I can still clearly remember how I jumped from one humongous rock to another in my attempt to capture the quintessential shot of its perfect cone as Kazuo Ishiguro’s captivating words in his book, The Remains of the Day, flashed in my memory: “What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”

It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision but a planned adventure to witness with our own eyes Mayon’s grandiosity. Spending time with our kuya – an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in Qatar – is unpredictable. Sometimes, it would take two or 3 years before we see each other again.

“Who would like to join us tomorrow?” Kuya Oni asked the other members of my family. “Let’s finalize it tonight.”

“Where are we going?” I asked him with excitement.

“To Mayon, Ben,” he answered. “Prepare your things, we’ll leave early in the morning.”

“At last, we’ll see the ‘perfect cone’!” I said.

This conversation may just be a mundane for you. But not for us.

When my father died about a couple of decades ago, Kuya had to mature fast and help my mother in taking care of the family. He was still in college then and I was 9. I was oblivious to the encumbrance that had been swiftly heaped on his shoulders. I thought my father would return someday, that he just had to rest for a while. But after months passed by, little by little, the reality of his death dawned on me.

Kuya was a force of nature, a stratovolcano like Mayon if you will, with his periodic eruptions. In his attempt to discipline us, he imposed his own version of martial law at home. Don’t play outside when it’s already dark or when it’s raining. Take a nap in the afternoon after school. Don’t get into a fight with your siblings. No noise or chitchat. Buy me this and that. When I call out your name, run and stand in front of me.

When you’re a child and you’re forced to stay inside the house while your playmates are enjoying basketball or you hear them giggling and shouting at the top of their lungs under the pouring rain, you question everything even though you’re frightened. Why is he doing this to us?

We didn’t talk that much. He was preoccupied with a lot of things: work, relationship, friends. Looking back, I couldn’t recall a time he divulged his true self or his softer side to me. Rather, there was a wall I couldn’t get through. But as I grew older, I understood why he was like that.

He had to project a strong image for us or else we could have broken down. We needed a source of inspiration, courage, and strength and he provided all that. He finished his degree on time and he is continuously developing himself as a professional in a foreign land. In college, he was considered as one of the outstanding students in his electrical engineering class. The back cover of his thesis is scribbled with praises on how well he handled himself with his peers, professors, and yes, even admirers. He achieved a lot despite the financial challenges he had to face.

During our trip to Mayon, while driving, he made jokes about the distinct smell which emanated from the rows of carabao poop at the side of the road. Like a TV announcer, he gave a blow-by-blow update on the remaining time before we reached our destination. We screamed when we had a first look of the cone-shaped land formation at the right side of our car as we cruised the highway. But seconds later, to our dismay, the vision disappeared as clouds devoured the volcano.

As I held a cup of chili-pili ice cream with the Cagsawa Ruins as my backdrop, I glanced at Kuya. The unfamiliarity and awkwardness forged by his long absence vanished instantaneously. I saw him smile while he carried his daughter and I smiled back at them. It was then that it occurred to me how much he has changed in his ways, actions, and temper. I sensed calmness, peace, and serenity in his eyes. Time and distance indubitably help us transform ourselves for the better.

While Mayon continues to spew multi-storey plumes of smoke and ash and hurl pyroclastic material down its slopes, I don’t just see its wrath. What it reminds me more than anything is that one crisp afternoon in May of last year. It was that peculiar, tranquil moment when I, together with my eldest kuya, stared at Mayon with a sense of hope that someday, if given a chance, we’ll go on another adventure together, share stories of triumphs and failures, and invigorate the sleeping strands between us hanging above the vast ocean or the incalculable, free-flowing molten lava.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com’s IMHO on February 3, 2018.)