The day after Christmas and the urgent gift we must offer our world

My books from my childhood and adolescence now boast the smell I love so much — the toasty, musty scent of old books. On Christmas day, standing in the bedroom I grew up in, I scanned my shelf looking for a good book to re-read as a Christmas treat. I pulled out Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which I hadn’t opened in over ten years.

Even as a young reader, I already knew this book was one I would have to revisit as an adult. When the movie came out not too long ago, I purposefully missed it, remembering the promise I had made when my copy of the book still smelled clean and bookstore-fresh.

So on this Christmas Day, to satisfy the hope of my younger self, I opened up the pages, already browning and spotted with a bit of age. This hope was that as I grew up and grew older, I would continue to open my heart to precious stories like these; that I would revisit their chapters and let their wisdom reveal something new with each reading.

The incredible thing is that the moment I finished the book this time, soon after waking this morning, I ached to read it over. It is a perfectly-timed read, as I continue to wrestle with the polarizing impressions of the daily news — safety and violence, injustice and the eager Christmas spirit.

In The Giver, Lois Lowry brings us to a version of our world that lives in Sameness. It is a safer, more organized world where people feel no pain, where everyone has their duty and place in society at any given time. Those that do not, due to weakness at birth or old age, or because of disobedience of the rules, were released from the community.

It was a secure society, where people shared their feelings, offered and accepted verbal apologies when wrong was committed, and never found themselves wanting.

While all of that made for a peaceful “life,” these people could not see colors, had never heard music, and more painfully to consider, had never known love. Could we still call this living? They had no knowledge of sunshine, of snow, of flowers or of birds. They had unknowingly traded the splendor of these simple, lovely things, for the absence of any discomfort, ache or inadequacy.

Only one member of their community held all memory and history — really he was the only one that knew of and lived with the beauty, pleasure, sorrow and pain that ever existed. That person was the Receiver of Memory. Jonas, our twelve-year old protagonist, was selected to be the new Receiver, by the former one, now known as the Giver.

And right in the pages of this book sits a beautiful memory of Christmas:

“Jonas felt the joy of it as soon as the memory began. Sometimes it took a while for him to get his bearings, to find his place. But this time he fit right in and felt the happiness that pervaded the memory.

He was in a room filled with people, and it was warm, with firelight glowing on a hearth. He could see through a window that outside it was night, and snowing. There were colored lights: red and green and yellow, twinkling from a tree which was, oddly, inside the room. On a table, lighted candles stood in a polished golden holder and cast a soft, flickering glow. He could smell things cooking, and he heard soft laughter. A golden-haired dog lay sleeping on the floor.

On the floor there were packages wrapped in brightly colored paper and tied with gleaming ribbons. As Jonas watched, a small child began to pick up the packages and pass them around the room…. While Jonas watched, the people began one by one to untie the ribbons on the packages, to unwrap the bright papers, open the boxes and reveal toys and clothing and books. There were cries of delight. They hugged one another….

Jonas opened his eyes and lay contentedly on the bed, still luxuriating in the warm and comforting memory. It had all been there, all the things he had learned to treasure.

“What did you perceive,” The Giver asked.

“Warmth,” Jonas replied, “and happiness. And — let me think. Family.”*

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On this stormy day after Christmas, I think of all those around the world who are not surrounded by the ideal Christmas or holiday. There are many among us who sit in evacuation centers, crowd in refugee camps, cower in the fear or aftermath of violence, run breathless in search for peace, shrink in hunger, or face their grief alone. Even as many of us have joyfully celebrated in the company of loved ones this Christmas, safe by a glowing fire, bathed in sweet sunlight, or in the embrace of joy, there are too many in the world that live the exact opposite of this story.

Though we raise our banners of generosity and cheer this holiday season, there is no denying the hatred, suffering, and overwhelming grief that runs in the bloodstream of humanity. It seems our love is not enough to heal the wounds, to ease the torment, or to undo the wrongs that have been committed in our generation alone. I fear our own hypocrisy.

And yet, I find myself still clinging to hope, even with the deafening noise and discouragement of reality. I cling to the true Gift of this season — the Love that heals, the Love that saves. The Hope in Whom Christmas began.

Because we are human, we will continue to carry the weight of anguish and heartache, but with it, the lightness of love and compassion. In a time when justice can feel like a sad, mocking idea to the suffering multitudes around the world, I insist that there is still a fighting army of us who can love, forgive and heal. Help me prove that this is true. These are the days when we must courageously show up in defense, in solidarity, out of love for others.

“… Jonas, the community will be left with no one to help them. They’ll be thrown into chaos. They’ll destroy themselves. I can’t go.

“Giver,” Jonas suggested, “you and I don’t need to care about the rest of them.”

The Giver looked at him with a questioning smile. Jonas hung his head. Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.”*

As I closed the pages of The Giver, I held on to these words. It is simple, but far from easy place to begin.

We start by caring. Truly caring for one another. We may not live in the Sameness of Jonas’ community, but the need for us to care is even greater today. It is so important that we reflect on how we are tangibly called to do this today and that we act on it with purpose and urgency.

May we never let our colors mute to gray, our music unravel into silence, our dancing slow down to stillness, our love disfigure into hatred, or our sense of justice crumble into indifference.

Merry Christmas!

[*Quotes in italics are from the novel, The Giver, by Lois Lowry, published in 1993, by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers in New York.]

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Parallel Reality

Haven’t all the breaking hearts at one point considered the existence of a parallel universe where things go right? We find consolation in the thought that somewhere else a grief-stricken chapter of our lives ends in rejoicing. There is balance, peace restored by our alter egos, all of whom are conveniently better versions of our selves. Wealthier, better looking, content, unbreakable. 

We seldom admit it in so few words, but we hate to be on the side of reality that loses. Perhaps it is a soothing balm for the sorrowful to imagine some other world where it all breaks even.

We hope, even in the most trivial moments of anguish: it will all break even. 

I pause in that thought, remember what we often try to forget, that our honest world is profoundly broken. And isn’t that more important than a reality that exists only in hypothesis?

We dare to dream of a place where our poor hearts are ever-mended, but today my heart is fixated on a different parallel reality, more real than any science fiction multiverse. In the world there are alternate versions of us that live a life of less.

Sorry to disappoint, I write not on love or heartbreak, but on the daunting divide between rich and poor, wealthy and wanting, luxury and scarcity. This is the parallel reality. IMG_6093

Recently I had the moving experience of walking through one of Manila’s poorest neighborhoods, the community world-famous for the tons of trash that created it, Smokey Mountain. The place is dense with people and activity. Under our feet the ground has been levelled to allow for housing to be built, but you don’t have too look far to see the still mountainous remnants of the significant waste, accumulated over decades. They form the facade that welcomes the locals to their homes.

Every few streets or so sit fresh mounds of garbage waiting to be sorted, moved or stolen. Families sift and pore over the trash as I might nonchalantly sift and pore over a pile of my clothes ready for the wash.

Later, back at my apartment I tie up my supposed biodegradable garbage bag and painfully wonder whose hands will tear this bag open some days later, looking for something good to eat, sell or save. Out of my discarded mess, a family may build a moment of living.

This is not news. It’s the way it’s been, the way it is. And yet today, I criticize it with fresh eyes and my heart breaks continuously for this reality that coexists with mine.

We are not shocked it exists. We are shocked when it is front of us, when none of our comforts can conveniently tuck it away.

Consider that parallel reality.

Challenge Accepted: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge + Other Intimate & Worldwide Battles

I knew it was only a matter of time before the challenge knocked on my door.

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Friends, if you are able, do more than just throw a bucket of ice water on your head. Let this viral wave of social media activism deepen in significance and impact. Don’t get me wrong, I believe every effort counts no matter how small (I enjoyed this read: Think The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Is Stupid? You’re Wrong.) But with every effort, give it your best shot. 

It’s not about the money, although money will help. And it shouldn’t be about the novelty of the challenge, the vanity of posting a video that features just you, or because you can’t help but get on the bandwagon or be dragged along by it. 

Read up on the disease. Strike up conversations about it beyond the comments that follow someone’s recent posting of their Ice Bucket Challenge video. Check out the research being done.  Find out if there are people in your own circle of family, friends, friends of family, or family of friends that may be directly affected by ALS. 

When I told my brother yesterday that I had been nominated for the challenge, I didn’t even know how to explain what ALS was, and neither did he. Let’s change that about ALS, and while we’re on it: let’s change that about other relevant challenges and crises that humanity faces today. We should be able to talk about what’s happening – make current events matter. [Check out Breaking News that delivers reports on ongoing stories such as: the Ebola outbreak, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Ukraine & Russia’s Political Conflict, the Iraq crisis and the tension in Ferguson, MO, USA. Or Vox, that goes beyond the usual reporting to help you really understand the news in context and present circumstances. For example: Everything You Need to Know About Israel-Palestine or 16 Things About ISIS and Iraq You Need to Know.]

There are real people hurting behind these headlines. There are real people hurting from ALS and other chronic or terminal illnesses. There are real people hurting in your immediate circle of family and friends. 

Look outside your circle of worries and acknowledge the battles that other people face. Remind yourself that everyone has a story that goes much deeper than a scratch at the surface – and each story is distinct, nuanced but also never possibly singular. We’ve all got hurdles. 

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

ALS is a disease that can affect anyone in the world – regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. ALS attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary movement, making moving the arms, legs and face increasingly difficult over time. It is not contagious. (For more facts on ALS, read: What Is ALS. To donate, get to know more about the disease and the community fighting it: ALS Association.)

Here’s my go at the #ALSIceBucketChallenge from earlier today:

And the text I posted on Facebook with my video:

Thank you Gino Ong for nominating me for the #ALSIceBucketChallenge. I will be donating $10 to the ALS Association for their continued research. I would like to nominate Kenya Bryant, David Opoku, Rishi Mandhyan and Nina Skagerlind to take the challenge.You have 24 hours! I’ll donate another $10 for each of you that successfully completes the challenge!

Thank you Chelsea Delfin for filming and Kuya Ricky for graciously dumping the bucket over my head (despite of his fear that any one of the lawyers in my family might file a case against him…)

(Disclaimer: In the video I said that ALS affects everyone in the world, but really meant to say that it can occur anywhere and to anyone in the world. Sorry about the misrepresentation, but I was nervous about the bucket!)

The Trees We Lost to Glenda

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A crazy storm hit the Philippines last Wednesday morning. Unlike recent storms, rain was not the leading lady, and flooding not the looming horror. In its place, the strong winds that took the title role, shaking fear into the metro.

Everyone in Metro Manila felt the storm, some more than others. It woke most of us from our sleep with whistling and howling. The power was out. Everything swayed and shook in the wind. From the window, I watched our trees in our yard dance and swing, still graceful in the violence of the wind.

It seems everyone has lost a tree they know, or part of one at least. Either a tree in their front yard, one they know in their neighborhood, one on their path to work, or one from the house they grew up in. Some trees lost branches, or suffered irreparable fractures and splits at their trunk, or experienced complete uprooting from the ground. In addition to the lost trees – people have lost their roofs, ceilings, walls, windows, paint, gates, and fences. The busy cities also felt the disruption of black outs – for days straight, or in rotating breaks as managed by the local power provider. There are areas where power has not yet been restored.

Still, this storm had winds only half as strong as the super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda experienced by the Visayan regions in November last year.

Over the past months, I’ve spent much time reflecting of falling and fallen trees. I remember riding around the different Yolanda-affected Visayan regions of Cebu, Roxas and Leyte; surveying the change in the lanscape, peppered with fallen trees. There is sadness and wonder.

Now, my own surroundings in the city and home have altered. Everything storm-blown as well.

 

Speak soon,

T

 

The photo above is a fallen tree at the center of a town in Laguna. Below is three-quarters of the beloved mango tree in our front yard. 

 

tree glenda

 

 

How many decades could you bear to wait, before seeing your brother again?

I’ve been following this story: the rare family reunions that some Koreans have waited over six decades for! Since the Korean War over sixty years ago, the border between North Korea and South Korea  became more than just a line drawn in the earth. It became an impenetrable boundary, dividing families, casting a shadow on generations. Some 72,000 South Koreans remain on the waiting list, hoping for a reunion with a brother, sister, cousin or child living in North Korea. About half are over the age of 80.

In a society where we are bombarded with the double-edged power/curse of instant connectivity, it is both refreshing and heartbreaking to see the force of a human bond that transcends any technology invented for communication. The human bond to another, can endure 64 birthdays worth of separation with zero communication. No exchange of sight, touch, sound, or even written message.

In fact, it can endure much longer. But I can hardly bear the thought of putting that to the test!

South Korean Lee Young-sil (right), 87, cries after meeting her North Korean sister Lee Jung-sil, 84, during their family reunion at the resort in North Korea. [From the Daily Mail]
The reunions are a rare occasion.  The actual reunion between families lasts only hours! Only about a hundred relatives have been able to take part at a time. There is a lottery system  in South Korea to determine who is invited, while in the North, people say that politics are involved. The most recent round of reunions concluded just yesterday, and they do not happen often enough. In the past, reunions were cancelled or heavily threatened months prior, when North Korea would disapprove of something going in the South. People must also undergo medical check-ups before being cleared to see their relatives.

Brothers, sisters and families –  separated as young children – now come to meet each other with cane in hand, sitting in a wheelchair, or transported via ambulance.

Here’s a quote from a man meeting his brother after 64 birthdays. He was twelve when he last saw his older brother:

“It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like when you’ve been separated so long, but it’s a true miracle; I’m so elated. All that was missing in my life was my brother, and now that I can see him again, I’d have no regrets whatsoever if I were to die tomorrow.” -Lee Du-young, South Korean

A 100-year old woman, for a reunion a few years ago, prepared to see her daughter after over half a century of separation! Her daughter was sixteen when she last saw her, and she had thought of her every day since.

After the war (1950-1953), Korean family members were separated by the division of the peninsula. There was no peace treaty, just a ceasefire. Who knew that the separation would be a constant in their lives? They wait not just years, but full lifetimes. They continue to wait today. 

This file photo taken on 31 October 2010 shows an elderly South Korean man wiping his tears as a North Korean relative (in the bus) waves to say good-bye after a luncheon during a separated family reunion meeting
South Korean Namgung Bong-ja (right) and her North Korean father Namgung Ryul, 87,
cry as they say goodbye to each other. [From the Daily Mail.]
Tearful: South Koreans hold hands with their North Korean family members (pictured inside bus)
before they are separated again. [From the Daily Mail]

 

What joy to be back together with a loved one, for even a moment. But how deep, too, the grief over the lifetime spent without, and the continued separation of the years to follow. Reunited families separate knowing they may never see each other again. 

How often we take for granted and abuse the capacity to reach a loved one at the touch of a device. With technology today, it takes a split second for a message, call or video feed to reach someone you care about on the other side of the planet. We hardly realize this continuous exchange of communication and what a privilege it actually is. 

But do not rely on only that, not only on the connectivity infrastructure that society has built. Break it down a bit. Though we may never be subject to such harsh and extreme separation against our will, we have every reason to treasure each touch, word and moment with relative and friend.

Elderly South Koreans travelled through falling snow with their families to North Korea’s Diamond Mountain to reunite with relatives they had not seen since the Korean War. Pictured is South Korean Park Yang-gon, left, and his North Korean brother Park Yang Soo. [From the Daily Mail.]
A South Korean man selected to attend joint North and South family reunions sits in the lobby of a hotel as he prepares to depart for the North Korean border, in the eastern port city of Sokcho. [From the Daily Mail]
Read about this story on the news: here, here or here. 

Based on reports and photographs as published by BBC News and the Daily Mail.