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.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

What hangs on your Christmas tree?

What hangs on your Christmas tree?

Souvenirs from many traveled Christmases? Gifts from friends or passed-down pieces? Tiny photo frames or colored popcorn on string? Homemade crafts or shiny store-bought steals?

Our home tree is adorned with ornaments collected over the years. But some of the most special pieces are the ones our mom made by hand.

Two Christmases ago, my mom and I worked on a pilot livelihood project for mothers we know from poor communities. We called it Thread & Vine. Mom designed beautiful ornaments, much like the pieces she would make for our home tree. With the help of a few other mothers, we made and sold hundreds of ornaments! The work gave income to mothers that were struggling to make ends meet and mothers from the slums.

Our first season went very well, and in the end we even raised money that my mom generously donated to victims of Typhoon Yolanda and the rebuilding of damaged homes. It was wonderful to witness our simple project give work to mothers in their time of need and even help restore homes in broken villages. I treasured the idea that their careful handiwork decorated the trees of many families across the city, for one season or more!

This year Thread & Vine is back with a new collection of lovely ornaments. If you haven’t finished up decorating your tree, or would like to give a gift that also gives back to the community, please check out our work. 20% of all proceeds goes into creative programs for children at risk through the Buhay Makulay Children’s Project Inc. Here are a few samples of the elegant items!

2015 Christmas Catalog. Email hello@threadandvine.co for orders, or simply send me a message. 🙂
It is a special tradition for me to put up our family Christmas tree with mom. We’ve done it most years together since I was very young, barely able to reach the middle branches of our tall tree. Last year, aside from putting up our big family tree, I had the joy of putting up my own little tree in my first apartment. My dad surprised me with the little tree one day. I joyfully decorated it with colorful folded paper pieces, short knotted ribbons on the little branches, a few special ornaments given by friends, and long red ribbons cascading the green. But best of all, it was charmingly lit with light, bringing a sweet glow to the room. Looking forward to decorating our home tree and my little tree once more!

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My little tree from 2014.
What hangs on your Christmas tree?

Life Lately is a Long List

Life lately is a long list.

The list is made up of things to do, to remember, to start, to finish; things that seem eternally in progress. On most days, I can only tick off a few items out of the lengthy roll.

It’s the important things we often forget to put down. They get pushed out by misleadingly pressing items – your grocery list, bills to pay, broken appliances that need fixing, chores, errands, and a train of things you dread doing. The mundane but unavoidable tasks exhaust brain space and patience. They easily win a spot on your list. But not the essentials.

We rely on the idea that the important things, those critical for survival and integral to our existence, are naturally remembered. Like breathing. Having a meal. Taking a dump. Or even having your morning coffee. It would be crazy to forget anything so simple and necessary. And yet we do.

Over time some of the significant stuff gets overlooked.

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First, it’s the non-essential essentials that go. The things that can wait once a deadline looms ahead or when a financial responsibility stands over your shoulder.

Play. Daydreaming. Listening to your favorite song. Your sport. Writing in your journal. Calling up an old friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Stargazing, cloud watching, or sun spying. A strong drink at the end of a long day. Whatever gives you a refreshing time out.

Anything that can wait another day will wait another day. (And another, and another…Who needs fresh air, right?)

Once those are edged out of your schedule, the pressure begins to cook.

To focus on just one thing at a time soon becomes a luxury that you mock. You decide that multitasking your way through the day works just fine.

Then it’s the non-negotiables that are neglected.

You shave an hour off your daily log of sleep. You barely sit down to enjoy a meal. Everything is eaten on the go, or in between one thing and another. An hour does not exist without glancing at a gadget, screen or checking one of your five active social media accounts. You drop your weekend hobby. You forget about quiet time. You never have a conversation that doesn’t have an agenda, a list of tangible outcomes, or a connected social media post. You forget to pray.

Then we’re at a rolling boil.

You shave two to three hours off your daily log of sleep. You replace each hour with a shot of espresso, or two. Or with your poison of choice.

The invisible, but fundamentally important, list grows longer, (who needs sleep, proper meals and long showers anyway?) and you remain fixated on your list of things to do.

You wonder why the to-do list never runs out, and feel certain that the solar system has been taunting you by shortening the days. coffee to do 2

It’s the trivial things that we usually put first on the list and dare not to overlook. The more difficult items stay a while, because it takes us so long to get to them. The meaningful items are compelled into the list when friends call us out on abandoning the pack, when we’ve forgotten a birthday (even with the help of Facebook notifications or your Google calendar), or when we chance upon the list of dreams we wrote in adolescence (read: must achieve this before 30, or 40 or 50 years of age!)

Now maybe you don’t keep a written list of anything. Not a calendar. Not an agenda. No to do list in sight. No reminders. And yes, I may write in exaggerated theory. But take a look at your busy day, and I’m almost certain you will find that there is something wobbling dangerously close to the edge. A friendship. A childhood dream. An unpaid bill.

There are threads in your life that will naturally fray and come loose. But there are also threads that we must fight to keep in the loom, threads that we must keep untangled, and weave in with the rest.

Time to rewrite my to-do list. How’s yours?

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.