Spirited Away

“It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.”

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WEEKS AFTER my father passed away when I was in grade school, I raised a question to our catechist, Ms. Y: “Where does a spirit go after a person dies?” My classmates and I were then sitting on the steps in front of a Catholic church in the financial capital. Ms. Y responded: “Ben, he’s in heaven with God. He’s watching over you. Pray to him every time.” Still baffled, I followed up with more questions: “But will he be bothered if he sees me getting low scores or failing grades, or unable to submit projects on time because of his absence? Does that mean that the dead still think about us, the living? Do they still have problems in heaven, a supposed worry-free paradise?”

At a loss for answers, she moved on with her discussion. But I did not.

In this Catholic nation, it’s instilled in the majority that we should observe Undas, a holiday where families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their loved ones, to honor them.

I still vividly remember how every year after my father’s death, I took on the task of repainting his grave a week before the holiday at the Manila South Cemetery. With a small towel covering my nose to avoid inhaling the vapors from the white paint, I gleefully sang to my father some Fernando Poe Jr. songs, to bond with him, to reminisce on the old days, to feel his presence. FPJ, known as “the King of Philippine Cinema,” was his favorite actor.

After painstakingly removing the wild grass that had grown around his grave, I talked to him, whispered my dreams that I hoped he’d help me realize, and asked him to guard and guide us, especially my mom who had to take on the gargantuan role of being father and mother of the family after he left.

It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.

Years later, I questioned everything.

As a once devoted and proud Catholic, I became more inquisitive about things of the spirit, religion, faith, and the Bible when I entered college. After rereading Jose Rizal’s novels, “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere,” confusion plagued my mind. Rizal is our national hero but I wondered why most of us don’t heed his words. We even have “Rizal” as a required subject in tertiary education, to delve deeper and study his life and works, to learn from him, to inculcate in us the virtues of an exemplar of Filipino brilliance and excellence. But do we understand him? Have we realized the principal reason he was banished, with all his might and courage, from the face of the earth, which we commemorate every Dec. 30? Are we blind to historical facts?

On page 72 of the “Noli,” Rizal wrote: “But now, let’s see how the idea of Purgatory, which is absent from both the Old and the New Testaments, became Catholic doctrine. Neither Moses nor Jesus Christ make the slightest mention of Purgatory…” Yes, purgatory is never mentioned in the Bible. A quick search in your electronic Bible can prove this to you. The question then is: Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?

What about the scrapping of the doctrine of limbo by then Pope Benedict XVI when he authorized the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission on April 22, 2007, to publish a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized”? In an article written in Rome for Telegraph.co.uk, Nick Pisa reported: “Babies who die before being baptized will no longer be trapped in Limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”

Why do we have to light some candles, thick and thin, big and small, during Undas? Why do some Catholics steal and disrespectfully recycle the very candles of their fellow Catholics that are believed to illuminate the path for their deceased? Why are we made to believe that our departed loved ones are guarding and guiding us from heaven? Isn’t it true that the dead know nothing, as what’s written in Ecclesiastes 9:5 (New International Version), “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”?

For hundreds of years people have been made to believe in doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. Worse, these are just invented teachings that go against the principles of truth and justice. But to no surprise, when I brought this up to the other members of my Catholic family, they were caught uninformed. Because of fear for our souls to be condemned, we grew up following our leaders without testing or asking them, and, like a sail in a vast ocean with no map, GPS tracker, or a virtuoso captain to follow, we’re clueless on why we practice or celebrate centuries-old traditions.

While it is true that we’re a democracy and that our Constitution protects our freedom to choose and practice a religion, it is time to rethink our stand and course. We’re living in a world where access to information is encouraged—something nonexistent when the greatest Filipino who ever lived challenged those in authority in his time using his proverbial pen as his sword. Yes, there’s fake news. Yes, deception is rampant. Yes, it’s an uphill battle to get to the bottom of things. But today, more than ever, we have a duty to get to the truth, for veracity to shine, not just for other people but for our own sake—for our souls.

The choice is in our hands.

And with God’s grace and mercy, someday I hope to talk to my father again. No, not in this world, not next to his grave, or while sitting in front of another Ms. Y, but with the almighty Father in heaven, in his paradise.

(This piece has been published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Op-Ed section – Young Blood – on the 31st of October, 2017.)

Tanaw

Pilit niyakap ang katahimikan
sa pagitan, sa kawalan ng
salita na nag-uugnay sa
mga kaluluwa

Naglaho ang dating pagsinta,
ang galak sa puso sa tuwing
naririnig ang tinig, ang
tuwa na hindi maisaysay
ng bibig

Dumarating ang araw na
gaya ng magnanakaw –
pino ang kilos, tumakas ang
kaluskos, ‘di mabanaag na
pagbabadya

Dito natatapos ang lahat –
sa paggapos sa idinidikta
ng puso, sa pagkitil sa pagasa
ng pagsasama, sa pagtitig sa mata
nang ilang sandali pa at ang pagtalikod
sa mga pangarap na hinabi ng panahon

Nagtatalo ang isip kung saan nagkamali,
kung anong dapat baguhin, ang dapat ibawas
at idagdag sa sarili, bagama’t nalalaman na
wala nang iba sapagka’t iniisip na ang pagdating
ay dulot ng taimtim na paghihintay,
sa pagiwas, sa kusang pagtalima

Nguni’t ipakikilala ng araw ang
nakatakda, ang nararapat maganap, ang
hindi maabot ng tanaw, ang nasa
malayo – ang hiling
sa dalangin.

#PrideMonth

AS VARIOUS sectors around the world celebrate the ‘Pride Month’ that aims to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on history locally, nationally, and internationally, I can’t help but remember one fact that has been shared during the most recent HIV/AIDS seminar at work and on my readings on the data from DOH: “Sexual contact remains to be the main mode of transmission with 942, most of which are from the male-having-sex-with-male (MSM) population with 820.” Again, ‘male-having-sex-with-male (MSM)’. I believe that facts like this hinder the Filipino society from accepting the LGBT community as a whole including the quest of some of them for same sex marriage to be legalized in the Philippines.

Yes, they are some of the most creative people that you’ll ever meet. Vibrant. Colorful. Some of the tv personalities, writers and thinkers I look up to are advocates for this cause. But in a machismo world where Strongmen rule, it would still be a major challenge for the LGBT community to be seen differently, as an equal. No, not when ‘male-having-sex-with-male’ ranks first on the causes of transmission of HIV/AIDS.

As I see it, until the number becomes close to zero and when the majority of us finally see them beyond the statistics, will this country jump with joy to celebrate with pride with them.

Photo credit: JakartaPost.net

More than the crown

“That matters more than awarding her a crown with a shape reminiscent of Manhattan skyline made up of 311 pieces of diamonds, 5 pieces of blue topaz, 198 pieces of blue sapphire, 33 pieces of crystal and 220 grams of gold.”

UNLIKE SO many Filipino fanatics who watched the whole Miss Universe 2016 coronation last Monday, I watched only the Q&A portion in the replay out of curiosity. I chose to protect myself from getting hurt because days before the event, I had a pulse, after keenly observing her answers to interview questions, that the Philippines’ bet will lose for failing to provide a satisfactory and impressive answer in the Q&A portion. I hoped like former Miss Universe Gloria Diaz that I be proven wrong.

Since I did not watch the event on live TV, I learned of the outcome when I logged in on my Facebook account. Barrage of comments and posts of netizens stunned me on how Maxine Medina should have answered the question: “What is the most significant change you have seen in the world in the last 10 years?”

“Nasa huli ang pagsisisi” as the saying goes and we proved time and again how debilitated we are in accepting defeat. For a country that long craves to be recognized in the international scene, 7,107 islands – strong, another failure is a no-no.

“Sana, nag-tagalog na lang siya” one of my FB friends said. “Ang bobo ng interpreter. ‘Pangyayari’ ang sinabi imbes na ‘Pagbabago.’ And worse, another one commented: “It should have been Kylie Verzosa (the reigning Miss International 2016). She’s way better than her!” Have you ever wondered how we became this harsh online?

When Manny Pacquiao fought Juan Manuel Marquez for the fourth time and tasted another loss in his illustrious career, we were quick to wear our boxing analyst hat to declare that he should retire to not have his record tainted and to preserve his legacy. But how did we react when it has been announced that his “The Fight of the Century” bout against Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been inked? We were thrilled and exuberant. Some of us even watched the fight in pay-per-view in malls and bought pricey tickets.

Some of the most common answers to the question for Maxine Medina that have been shared by netizens range from the growth of social media, to advancement in technology, and to climate change. But what did they miss as they brag their wit online? What did they forget when they suddenly personified the character of the most prolific pageant expert in the world, the universe rather when they posted their status updates on what Maxine should have uttered? It’s that they shared those thoughts while they were in the confines of their room, in their home, with their family and friends or in some other place where pressure was nonexistent. They were not on stage, with millions of people watching and cheering from different parts of the world. They were not in a chaotic situation. No drama. No one to compete against. No judges.

Can those people even speak in public to share their thoughts given that they are as graceful as Maxine?

In a way, answering the question in Q&A portion in Miss Universe is a form of public speaking which is one of the top fears of the human race, alongside heights and bugs. It is no surprise that all the rational thinking of a person vanishes when in front of a huge audience. But like other skills, it can be harnessed. The mastery of the skill is not obtained overnight or in a few months, but this fact is something that we have forgotten. It is not a walk in the park. Miss Universe is a competition which requires its candidates to be confidently beautiful and to possess deep grasp of what’s going on; to be socially and politically aware as ambassadors for change and meaningful advocacy. It’s not just about what to say but how to say it.

And again, how did we become harsh online?

Alain de Botton, a Swiss-born, British author, observed that due to the increasing popularity of social media, people have shifted from keeping secret diaries inside their locked cabinets in which no one else has access to online bashing and bullying. It’s convenient. In just one click and a few brain cells, instant exchange of ideas of people they know and do not know happens. Internet is a free space for now. Unlike the real world, people treat their actions in the online world as an independent dimension with no direct impact into their lives which is scary. People experience relief after expressing their disappointments. The profane, degrading words that we see in the comments section of an article or at the homepage of social media accounts of different people like bobo, tanga, walang isip are just on the surface of what’s really going on in the psyche of some Filipinos.

At the end of the day, we should debate not what went wrong in the pageant, or what the perfect answer is to the Q&A portion, or what the correct translation is to the question but what’s happening on the ground to our Filipino women. Some of them are being raped, abused, and butchered. Even at this point in our history, we still hear news reports of sexual violence to our women in public spaces and public transport – jeepneys, buses, and taxicabs. We should direct our energy instead in addressing these issues and help preserve the purity of our women in which we Filipinos have been known in the past. Let us instill and strengthen the culture of respect to them which has significantly been overlooked in the past few years.

I know we have changed a lot as a nation. But is it too much to ask to treat every decent, classy, and dignified woman as Miss Universe? That matters more than awarding her a crown with a shape reminiscent of Manhattan skyline made up of 311 pieces of diamonds, 5 pieces of blue topaz, 198 pieces of blue sapphire, 33 pieces of crystal and 220 grams of gold.

We are what we watch

“Film as a form of art serves as a catalyst for the audience to take a sound look at what’s going on, to reflect, to empathize, and to act for personal and social development.”

WHEN DID you last watch a locally produced film in a theater not so much for the stars who are in it as for its story, production values and technical excellence?

While the country goes through national cleansing from illegal drugs and criminality fueled by “The Duterte Revolution,” as termed by National Artist F. Sionil Jose, the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has revealed its own version of metamorphosis. As bravely announced by University of the Philippines professor Nic Tiongson, eight official entries were named, which the members of the MMFF board unanimously chose for the public’s viewing pleasure.

Surprising for me was the exclusion for the first time in the festival of “Enteng Kabisote” and “Mano Po,” which are on their tenth and seventh installments this year, respectively. That’s right: tenth and seventh. MMFF Goliaths “Mother” Lily Monteverde and “Bossing” Vic Sotto were shocked and frustrated. But should they be?

I visited the MMFF website and read its mission: “A festival that celebrates Filipino artistic excellence, promotes audience development, and champions the sustainability of the Philippine film industry.” And here’s its vision: “To develop audiences for and encourage the production of quality Filipino films, and to promote the welfare of its workers.”

Where is “Filipino artistic excellence” in a film that you expect to showcase, for the nth time, the same old formula: scenes of running, shooting and fighting fantastic creatures and other beings? Where is “quality Filipino films” in movies that time and again use the defense “Christmas is for kids” to justify poor storytelling and absence of creativity?

Are some of us that dumb that they make do with eating the same Noche Buena and Media Noche every MMFF season, with recycled concepts and forced twists in the script?

Renowned astrophysicist and thinker Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “If there is a country without art, it’s not a country I want to live in. If there’s a country without science, you’re living in a cave. We measure the success of a civilization by how much … how well they treated their creative people.”

When I heard this, I remembered what Lily Monteverde had said: “You know, there is a time for the indie movies, but not the Christmas season. Christmas is for the family.” Are we treating our creative people rightfully if we seclude them from a festival over which she has been reigning as a queen for a long time? Isn’t that a degrading statement to indie filmmakers, who mightily try to survive in a country that has a trifling regard for the beauty of the arts and quality films?

So far this year, I’ve watched only one Filipino movie. A colleague invited me to join her family one Friday evening days before my birthday in July to watch a historical drama based on the memoirs of St. Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. I was thrilled and curious.

“At last! A sensible movie!” was my reaction when the plot summary was introduced. “Ignatio de Loyola” kindled hope in me that Filipinos are too capable, competent and imaginative to be dismissed from the international stage. Truth be told, most of the mainstream movies shown after the blockbuster “Heneral Luna” in 2015 were not outstanding.

Are we not tired of the trend of our local films that, by just the title, reveals what the stories are, the flows of events, and their endings? Boy meets girl. Flirtation. Betrayal. They hook up even if one of them is in another relationship. Beach scenes. Sensual exchanges. Bodies colliding. Morning kiss. Characters dressed in white clothes. Reality kicks in. Guilt enters the picture. The forbidden relationship has to end. One asks for forgiveness. To move on, or to hold on? Frustration. Car accident. Amnesia. Final kiss. 5 seconds. Happy song. 20 seconds. The end. And the bloopers, for the members of the audience to believe that they had a great time.

Film as a form of art serves as a catalyst for the audience to take a sound look at what’s going on, to reflect, to empathize, and to act for personal and social development. We’ve heard the saying, you are what you eat. But isn’t it true that we are also what we watch? If we’re just content to spend our time watching rubbish posing as films and not have the curiosity to look beyond the horizon for better fare, maybe we deserve the chaos we’re in right now—a forgetful and gullible nation.

We have an opportunity in the coming MMFF to experience an unforgettable Noche Buena and Media Noche of high-caliber films. Let’s embrace the chance. It could be that the decades of slavery to mediocrity are gone, and we are independent, at last!

(This piece has been published in Young Blood, Opinion, Philippine Daily Inquirer on the 15th of December, 2016.)