2015, thank you for the surprises

The celebration of Chinese New Year is the perfect excuse to share my long overdue personal review of 2015. I scribbled this list in my sketchbook while on vacation last month and never got around to typing it up. But here it is finally:

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2015 was a standout.

I put up my first solo art show at a local cafe, if the ground moves, a collection of poetry and paintings. I nicknamed it my exercise in vulnerability. On opening night, I held a reading and friends played music. At first I was frightened, then overwhelmed, then grateful – for all good reasons.
I traveled. For a wedding. For Buhay Makulay. For myself.
I paid more bills.
I wrote more checks.
I met a boy.
I taught a lot of fitness classes.
I lost my phone. And flipped my room over trying to look for it.
I got my first nephew.
I started a daily writing project as creative exercise and called it #StoriesOnSquares. I have yet to get back into it again.
I continued to cut my own hair, about once a month in my bathroom. Except once when I decided it might be good to clean up the cut professionally. The haircut I paid for ended up to be nothing special.
I had many sleepovers. And a couple picnics.
I worked on my artist website and shared my work online.
I made plans. Changed some.
I cooked a lot, but mostly for just me.
I ran my first “race.” 10k.
I began to read my Bible. Really read it.
I bought two pairs of shoes. (Only two!) One for work and one for the run.
I watched many sunsets.
I sat in countless meetings. I led many of them.
I went back to communities that Buhay Makulay had traveled to in 2014. Mom and I facilitated free training for teachers, community leaders, volunteers and even teenagers – a crash course child-centered and creative programming. These trips kept life in perspective.
I made time to read books. And finally finished my fasting challenge from the previous year – to abstain from any book purchases until I had read ten books already gathering dust on my own shelf.
I drew in my journal.
I painted by the mountains. I painted by the beach. I painted by my window.
I turned 26.
I led our operations team through some unforgettable challenges at the Paper Project. By the end of the year, I was keenly aware and grateful for the trust and respect given to me by the people I manage. Their openness to my leadership and mentoring despite being the (almost) youngest in the group humbled and inspired me.
I moved to a new apartment.
I sold a few paintings – my first sale of personal work since college.
I cried every now and then. At a few movies. In the middle of two different books.
After two and a half years of teaching fitness, I finished a contract and decided to take a break.
I relaunched Thread & Vine in partnership with my mom.
I started a Bible study group with women in my neighborhood.
I went out dancing.
I witnessed how much time it can take for an idea to sink in. After three years of working at The Paper Project, a few seeds planted when I started working there finally bore some fruit in others. It was wonderful to see.
I got very tense over travel visa applications.
I took a lot of Uber rides. I was stuck in a lot of traffic.
I walked a lot, but not enough.
I ate a lot of memorable meals.
I visited our fish farm and got to witness a harvest after many years.
I drank a lot of coffee.
I spoke at my church’s Youth lock-in about how our God does not change.
I didn’t dance enough.
I tried muay thai and loved it. Even the bruises.
I learned how to use a vintage letterpress machine.
I made the smoke alarm go off on my floor and panicked. It was just chicken in the toaster.
I traveled to Europe for the first time.
I went to Spain and got my luggage lost on the way. I fell in love with their ham and the tradition of the sobremesa.

I closed off the year in Rome, of all unexpected cities. I bid 2015 goodbye in the middle of the street by the famous Coliseum. And in the warm embrace of friends I hadn’t seen in almost eight years (and cheap wine), I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for another year full of great stories.

Those final moments of 2015 are hard to forget because Rome and that whimsical reunion hadn’t even been part of the plan. In fact it was only made possible because other plans hadn’t worked out. (An emerging trend of that year.) That new year’s eve was a great reminder to allow life to happen without holding on too tightly for control. Despite anxiety and impatience, things turned out just as they should have, and beautifully.

From one year of surprises to the next, may I carry that patience and sense of adventure this year. 2016, I dare you to be incredible.

 

 

 

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Don’t steal your own Christmas!

 

No matter how early you prepare for Christmas, it has its unfailing manner of sneaking up on you. Though the season has clearly made its presence known (especially when you live in the Philippines!), suddenly you wake up and there’s just four sleeps left. You wonder where the time has gone? Stolen by too many moments that weren’t really about Christmas at all!

It’s the yearly cycle of getting caught up in the busyness. The anticipation, annual traditions and the brightened eyes of those around you (Brightened mostly from receiving presents… Mostly from the mere thought…  Mostly from the mere promise of the thought of receiving presents!)

And we, or I at least, often arrive at a moment, sometimes too late (a day after Christmas or later still), thinking: how quickly it all comes and goes! Was I present at Christmas? Or had I let it blow through me like the cyclical tropical storm?

I liken this diversion to what we often see these days: Take a special event (a wedding, birthday or show,) and people are caught up in taking photos of the moment, keepsakes for later, videos that may never be re-watched. The effort and attention go to the storing (for later sharing), and too little to the actual experience. Instead of keeping our senses open, we hold a camera up and make sure nothing gets in the way of our frame. How many Christmases have gone by with too much of it through a middleman frame? How many significant moments?

What better “thing” to get in the way of your frame, than purely, humanly, genuinely treasuring an experience? No matter how short! Eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch – open!

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My little origami tree!

I try this sometimes, storing mental pictures of things, mostly people.

I’ve clicked the shutter of my mind’s eye to save the way friends look back at me. After a long distance apart, while sharing good news, celebrating a milestone, across a table over a meal, or in the moments that we say goodbye before parting lives. The expression in their eyes, their body language – something honest that I can’t quite capture with a lens in between us. (Others can.) I take a few moments, breathe it all in, try to remember all I can, hoping my memory is awake.

If the visuals fail, I think about how civilizations survived without photographs or the internet, and all those people have lived and loved with seemingly unmatchable intensity through battles, victories and ruin. And without photographs, their passion, their stories have transcended generations! So sometimes I defer to words, describe the scene, my feelings, to myself. Some of my favorite stories have come from authored books, not reality TV or media feeds, but they are as vivid to me in memory as my own experiences.

On Sunday morning I had my own mini-battle of pure sensory experience vs digital stowage. At my church, there’s a tradition of the choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus on special occasions. The fourth Sunday of advent, right around the corner from Christmas eve, was one of those days. The choir invites members of the congregation to come up and join the choir onstage, with copies of the sheet music in hand. I’ve never gone up to sing, but I enjoy the tradition very much! It’s beautiful! A taste of Heaven! Since I sat quite close to the front today, I contemplated pulling out my phone and taking a video, even though I had heard the music multiple times before.

I had a discussion with myself – would I ever even watch the video again? The sound quality is never as good on a video! Why would I want to ruin the moment with a device in my hand? What if I wanted to sing along for a bit, I wouldn’t want my voice recorded over the choir’s? Haven’t they done this multiple times this year? There’ll be another time if you need it!

In the end, I decided I wanted to relish the moment in full analog style. (Not always the case these days…)

Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch and heart – open!

I almost cried just listening.

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The Christmas corner of my little home!

 

Today, it’s just a few days before Christmas and I am once again in the flurry of the season. I’ve spent a good part of the advent season worrying about a myriad of things, as always. And the worries always solve themselves in the end (without any help from the wasted hours of worrying!)

More than in previous years, I have cherished my quite moments in advent anticipation. And yet, I write in this moment still feeling like I have missed out on Christmas, that I have skimmed over the season in eagerness, and let another Christmas go! But I guess at this point in the day, it’s just a bit of fear.

Thankfully, I still have a few more days: To sit in the glow of the tree and the Cross. To listen to the angels singing. To let Christmas unfold first in my heart through the Light of the manger.

And then later, much later, and only as measly afterthoughts in the afterglow, to unfold in the unwrapping of presents and to swell in the wrapping of family and loved ones.

 

First look is to the Light.

Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch and heart – open!

 

 

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.

Haiyan/Yolanda 003: Hope From the Storm-Tackled Kalachuchi Tree

Today, the trees are forever blowing in one direction near the shore of Capiz. Ever since the super typhoon hit in November, all their branches sling away from the sea. Like a cartoon character’s long hair when someone yells in their face, or when it’s been electrocuted. But the trees aren’t cartoons, and Yolanda wasn’t playing around when she howled at the Philippines.

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Sustained winds were reported at at 195 mph, with gusts reaching even 235. Internationally called Haiyan, the storm was locally known as Yolanda. In Roxas City, Capiz – glass shattered, signage torn off buildings, roofs whipped clear off their structures. Yolanda left a mess.

In June last year I climbed a kalachuchi tree in our friend’s front yard in Roxas City. The kids, Carrie and Iggy, showed me the tree, and did tricks as I watched from a branch. It was a beautiful and strong tree.20140128-133054.jpg

After Yolanda, this same kalachuchi tree now tilts, bowing away from shore, toward the mountain. It’s roots held on in the howling wind that brought down shanties, nipa huts, electric posts and uprooted many other old trees. Instead of helping the kalachuchi tree upright as they thought they might, our friends decided to let it grow as it was, now leaning at an angle.

Two days later, in the storm’s wake, new green sprouted on the kalachuchi tree! The comfort of new life to come. This tree became the inspiration for the art we made with the children of  Capiz.

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The secondary inspiration was the Buhay Makulay Children’s Fair we held in November 2013, at a girls’ shelter in Marillac Hills. One of the highlights was a mural collage of butterflies made out of recycled magazine paper. I prepared a painting of tree – just trunk and branches. The rest was up to our special guests of the day, the girls of the shelter. We taught them how to make these butterflies, and in the process, to consider the things they are thankful for. Each completed butterfly would represent something for which they give thanks – family, safety, a roof over their heads. As the morning went on, each girl went up to the tree and added their butterfly.

The result was beyond what I had imagined. A breathtaking tree of thanksgiving, from girls recovering from abuse, abandonment or homelessness.

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So last week, as we quickly planned the Children’s Fair for Capiz, we thought it would be great to bring a similar activity to the kids who experienced the storm. At that time, we hadn’t yet heard about kalachuchi tree story, and had no idea how it would later shape our afternoon with the children.

On Friday morning, the day of our fair, I laid out the brown paper on the floor and began to paint a tree. I held down the paper in the strong wind, with jars, magazines and chairs. In my line of sight, the storm-pitched kalachuchi tree.

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When we put it up on location, it was much larger than I had realized! We were on the third floor and because windows had not yet been replaced from the storm, steady strong winds blew through the space. We were worried the brown paper would tear.

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Then came 130 children! All from poor communities surrounding the school we were in. As we started the fair – an afternoon of singing, games and fun crafts, I had a chance to talk to the children. I told them about all the fun we were about to have, but more importantly of the tree that on the far end of the room.

What was missing? I asked them. “Leaves!!” they told me. “Fruit!!” they exclaimed.

We would have a chance to fill in the missing pieces! They’ll trace their own hands, decorate their handprint and cut it out. Their hands will be the leaves of the tree.

They’ll fold butterflies out of recycled magazine paper and tie them together with pipe cleaners. Their butterflies will be the fruit of the tree.

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I had the joy of manning the mural station, where kids came up with their finished leaf-hand or butterfly-fruit, ready to add to the tree. They all came shyly forward, craft in hand. Some were too shy to paint on the glue themselves and even more embarrassed to glue it on the collage on their own. After putting their work up, I would give them high fives which would stir up their smiles. Others had scuttled away before I could turn around to face them from the collage!

At the end of the day, we had a tree full of life and hope!

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Before dinner, we gathered them and told the story of the tree’s inspiration.

Much of their world is now changed because of the storm. These kids may not have lost family, but they have lost food supply, a parent’s livelihood, a room, a roof, their whole home, or electrical power. We drew their attention to our own tree in the room.

Nothing more was missing! Their own hands and fruit have filled in the space.

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Look at our tree! It may be leaning over, still bearing the weight of a historically catastrophic storm, but despite that, their is hope blooming.

Just like the kalachuchi tree who shared new green in just two days, new fruit can be born of life that has been tackled down.

Today, after the storm, perhaps we can see the tilt as beautiful and in time even find that the tree, and we, have grown stronger.

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Love and special thanks to the Conlu family, the Grand Gazebo in Baybay beach, Our Mother of Mercy Learning School Inc., and the Sister Servants of the Poor in Lawaan Capiz.

Haiyan/Yolanda 002: The offering of Thread&Vine

After a long and busy day, there will be no real sleep tonight. In just a few hours I will be on the first flight to Roxas City, Capiz. Capiz was among the areas hit by the super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in November. Though Capiz was not hit with the same devastation as others and was spared of grievous bloodshed, the island survives but completely altered. According to this report, 95% of the province has suffered damage to agriculture, infrastructure and livelihood.

In October, my mom and I launched a pilot livelihood program for mothers in need. With the Christmas season then fast approaching, and knowing a few mothers seriously in need of a source of income, we launched Thread & Vine.

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During my childhood in the 90’s, my mom ran a great business for the handmade hair accessories. Not only did this provide for our family’s day to day needs, but the business gave work to many mothers from the slums near our home. The business thrived for many years, producing beautiful headbands, scrunchies and clips designed by my mom, and made by the women workers right in our home. These products sold well in large department stores in Metro Manila, until we could no longer compete with the rise of factory-made, mass-produced plastic merchandise.

Fast forward to 2013 and Thread & Vine.

Taking cues from our family’s love for social businesses, we launched a pilot season with a simple objective: Give fair employment to moms-in-need. Make beautiful, handmade Christmas decor. Sell to friends. Share Christmas joy! 10% of the proceeds would go to the Buhay Makulay Children’s Project Inc.

With a small seed capital, we bought materials from Divisoria and Quiapo, and my mom reopened her beloved workshop (our large kitchen counter) to begin the design process. My mom and I love this stuff! Give us ribbons, beads and string, and we’d be happy all day.

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A few weeks later, while Thread &Vine’s humble production and sales were underway, the Philippines was hit by one of the most brutal storms it has ever experienced. We soon decided that all proceeds from our pilot season would be given to victims of the super typhoon. With our family’s close ties to dear friends in Capiz, and the news that despite the post-storm ruin, aid was slow to arrive –  we determined Capiz as the best recipient for our small gift.

And that is what the upcoming two-day trip is all about! We’ll be contributing to the rebuilding of homes and even running the quickest Buhay Makulay Children’s Fair that we have ever planned. (It may also be the biggest. Our initial number of 100 kids rose to 115. Then earlier today, jumped to 122!)

More in a few hours.