6 nuggets of life-wisdom from my 4th grade Sunday School students

Every Sunday at 10:15 am, I walk over to the room with a purple door to see my Sunday school class of 4th graders. For the next hour and a half, we talk, tell stories, make crafts, play games. We talk about the Bible, about Jesus, and about what it means to follow God in their own lives today.

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When I started teaching Sunday school for the first time, almost two years ago; it took a bit of time for me to figure out how to best relate to the 4th graders. How smart they are!

I’m still learning. And a handful of nine and ten-year old kids sure can teach you many things. They continue to surprise me with their thoughts, their imagination, and the way the world looks in their eyes. (Their world is, in many ways, profoundly different from the world I grew up in. Sometimes I am astounded. Read: One of the most important things you need to take on a camping trip to survive is your iPad!??)

Still each week, I am often left fascinated by the wonderful ways these little humans are just themselves.

 

“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong.”  Exodus 23:2

 

Yesterday, after storytelling and discussion about a Bible story, we did a craft that the kids got to do in pairs. They were to come up with slogans that would encourage them to do do what is right, especially when the wrong choice is the easy choice. The example we gave them was straight out of our curriculum, ” Be wise about what you see with their eyes.”  We encouraged them to rhyme, but more importantly to make their work applicable in their own lives.

After much thought and animated, even heated, discussions, each pair of students came up with some fantastic nuggets of wisdom. Catchier and spunkier than I could’ve ever come up with at their age.

Meet my fourth graders!

1. If you litter, your Future will be bitter. 

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2. Don’t be a fool and don’t cheat in school. Challengers 3

 

 

 

3. Fear isn’t evil, it tells you what your Weakness is. 

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4. Loyalty makes your friends HAPPY. (And makes them trust you and God will be proud of you.)

 

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5. Know the fact before you act.

(In the context of placing the blame on others.)

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6. Honesty is the best way to be TRUSTWORTHY. 

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Pretty awesome, right?

 

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.

Buhay Makulay 002: Treasure Simplicity

Some things in life can be simple.

There is so much on my mind these days. Things to accomplish, ideas to share, blessings to be thankful for. How often I have sat in front of this tab on my browser, “Add New Post,” eager to write a new blog entry. Yet each time I am tangled between so many different threads of life and thought, that my mind is left speechless. Numb, even.

I type a line or a phrase. Pause. Then highlight and delete it. Before I can complete a thought, I am taken away by a work meeting, an errand to run, a class to teach, or just boring old exhaustion. Hours, days, weeks later; I have a few empty drafts and nothing new. So here come my few centavos worth of thoughts, hoping to break this cycle of silence. And like most of my writing, it is less for the sake of being heard by others, and more to able to hear myself.

Yesterday, was the seventh workshop day of Buhay Makulay’s Likha Workshop series (7/10). To close off our volunteer’s debrief after lunch, I asked my team to go around the circle and share how the children pointed them to God that morning. One sentence.

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After they had all shared such beautiful and sweet spoonfuls of joy and learning, I was left with a reminder for my own heart that I in turn shared with them: Some things in life can just be simple.

There are things in life that will choose to be complicated. They will complicate themselves on their own without your help or desire. They will even refuse to be anything except complicated. A problem at work. A quarrel with your best friend. What to order at your favorite restaurant.

But, there are things in life that don’t have to be complicated at all, even if our human minds perceive them so. Like the truth that God is good. The human longing to belong. The desire to achieve a lifelong dream. The love of a father for a child. How to get to your afternoon meeting. Who to invite to your birthday celebration. Or what to cook for breakfast.

I have been very very very busy for the past few months. Probably the busiest I have been in the past year. In the midst of the craziness, I am finding clarity. In the overabundance of life happenings, I am almost forced to sift through all of it, looking carefully for the things that actually carry weight, to keep me grounded. The things that are worth holding on to, worth setting my eyes on.

I’d like to think I am continuously in the process of simplifying my life. This is not only the process of removing objects from my possession. Neither is it a mere reduction of activities, commitments or hobbies. It goes deeper into the surface than that: It is a paring down of the things that I regard with value. These, we can choose. When those things are clear and simple in your heart, no earthly complication can corrode it. Through the complexity, the truth will speak simply.

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How did I come to reflect about simplicity with my Buhay Makulay kids? I don’t know exactly. But in their company, the world somehow simplifies itself. Perhaps it is because we are taken away from our usual hectic daily-grind environments, where we are eaten up by worries both big and small. For the children, these worries on any given day could include where their next meal will come from, how they cannot go to school because of a parent’s illness, or a recent death of a family member. Mine, though not as grave and often tied less to immediate need, tend to feel just as urgent.

Yet the joy on the children’s faces will seldom reveal the losses of which they suffer or the needs that cannot be fulfilled. They will leave their worries at the door and enjoy a moment with you. With the swing of their voices in my ear as they tell me about their artwork, I know we are friends. And this friendship is simple. This moment is simple and true.

Let the world be complicated; but draw near to the things that keep you simply and genuinely you, without muddling for achievement, recognition, prize or gain.

 

(P.S. Happy 25th post, Speak Soon! YAY!)

What I Learned About Process + Learning, from the Process of Creating Art

Yesterday I had nowhere to be.

I could barely wrap my head around this predicament. For the first time in a long time, I had the luxury of having a whole day to myself! When was the last day I had nothing scheduled? No children’s workshop to run, no fitness classes to teach, no work to supervise, no meeting to attend, no reports to write, no spreadsheets to look over. Not a single pressing deadline! The daily grind could wait until tomorrow. Or even the day after. I was beginning to fear I was forgetting something!

You should probably stay home and do nothing then,” my brother told me when I shared my bare-boned Saturday plans, “This is rare.” With two day jobs and a number of volunteer positions – a quiet, slow day is a treasure!

Despite the day off, I was determined to do a number of things; a number of restful, enjoyable, life-enriching things:

1. Wake up slowly, but not too late in the day.  
2. Not do anything work-related – not even problem solving in my head, checking emails or reading work-related articles.
3. Write, read, or draw.  
4. Not waste away the day scrolling down social media news feeds.
5. Watch a film.
6. Do some chores. 

I don’t think I did too bad. I woke up a little after nine in the morning – not too early nor too late, with many free hours ahead of me! I steered away from even thinking of work obligations, and except for checking my email twice (just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything urgent!) I didn’t even look at my favorite management or leadership blogs. I wrote, read and drew. I spent very little time on the typical social media sites, even less than I do on a regular day. I watched multiple films, not just one – great sappy background to my drawing session, pairing well with the heavy rain outside. I even got my laundry done! (I had to feel at least a little bit useful!)

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A drawing by yours truly.
Original photograph by Tim Barker, captioned, “At Petra in Jordan, a man wears the traditional costume of the Nabataean culture that established Petra as their capital around the 6th century BC.”

But really, I spent the entirety of my day drawing. (Read more about it here.) All the hours working in my sketchbook yesterday reminded me of the wealth of time I spent simply working on art in college. I had to, it was my major. And for every hour of class in college, you were expected to work a minimum of four more hours outside. More often than not, that wasn’t really enough time to get your work done. Making art is really much more time consuming than most people expect. You could be working on a square inch of space for days! A small piece of art is sometimes made up of thousands of tiny strokes, all patiently put together by hand.

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Slice of my senior year studio at college.

It was this process of creating art that really helped me understand more about the process of learning. Here are a few reflections:

1. Just put in the hours.
When you don’t, it shows. Sometimes the hours are spent staring into space or doodling aimlessly, your mind experiencing a drought of inspiration. Sometimes the hours are spent making “bad” work. Sometimes the hours are spent in tedium, drawing dot beside dot beside dot, or drawing and redrawing and redrawing the same darn green pepper. Put in the hours, even when you feel like there is no learning or no progress. It’s practice, it’s all an investment. Those hours clear the path for a mind-blowing moment later, that breakthrough you thought would never come.

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2. Walk away from your work and come back. Then step back. Look at it from a different part of the room.
If you’ve ever stared at a single word long enough for it to become the most absurb collection of letters you have ever seen, then you know what a difference it makes to spend some time looking away. Stand too close to your work for too long, slaving over whether you have drawn that crease in the paper just right, and you may later discover that you obsessed over something of little importance to the sum of all parts. Stand too close to your work for far too long and it may appear absurd, flawed and out of proportion. Walk away for a minute and come back. Walk away for a day and come back. The space between you and your work will give you a fresh perspective, a point from which you can see how to move forward.

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3. Don’t be too precious about your work.
There was a time when I was given this advice often. I valued each simple sketch and drawing too much, instead of dismissing them to practice and process. If you’ve been able to draw it once, you can draw it again, my friend told me. I wasn’t accidentally making bad or good drawings. A single well-proportioned drawing wasn’t the last. They told me to trust in my skill and ability. I soon began to enjoy the impermanence of my sketches. I would draw a figure on the canvas with charcoal, then spray it with water, so that the charcoal dancer would dissolve and drip away. Then I would do it again. I would draw, then spray, And again. It was a healthy practice. When I began to let go of my work, it opened up my learning ability. Instead of hanging on to small victories, I was practicing towards creating work more profound than any of the quick sketches I had drawn and let drip away before it.

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4. Let someone have a look and give a word – even when it is still in progress.
We learned, worked and progressed in public space. We failed, fussed and made ugly mistakes in that public space too. This was an important difference between the studio art department and other academic departments. There was less private time for you to get an acceptable draft before eyes landed on the budding fruit of your labor. You can’t hide your embarrassing scribble of a portrait when your professor tells the class to take a walk around the room to see everyone’s progress (or your lack thereof!). You just have to surrender to the rawness.

Art students worked in the studios – day, night or both. Someone could be looking over your shoulder at any point from first pencil sketch to final painting, a witness to every awkward, misplaced, discolored mark in between. Of course this wasn’t always the case, but it encouraged humility. It was never just your best foot forward. Your dirty laundry was often in plain sight too. I ended up loving this process and even relying on it. I sought out the feedback from others to better understand and approach my work. You need people to respond to what you do, whether or not you’ll take their advice in the end. The friends I invited back to see my work or my studio, were those who took the time to form an opinion about my work and give a critique, no matter how brief or informal. Those that only had praises, they weren’t half as interesting or valuable to have around.

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Friends visiting my studio late one night. We all needed a break, a walk, maybe some extra hours of sleep.

I may spend less time on my art these days, but these lessons enrich my work. It’s no matter that I work in an environment so removed from the me that drew on a canvas with a stick of charcoal in one hand and a spray bottle in the other.

Thank you, Grant Snider and Bill Patterson for the comic strips in this post. 

Buhay Makulay: From Single Session to Season of Service

For the seventh year in a row, we celebrated our love for children with Buhay Makulay’s annual Children’s Fair. The  festivities were held two Saturdays back. This tradition began years ago, and ignited for me a deeper, lifelong commitment to community service in my home country. This coming Saturday, Buhay Makulay will be opening it’s first season of workshops ever, a dream I have held in my heart since the early days of Buhay Makulay.  This is the same dream that brought me back here to Manila. I am beyond excited!

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Getting ready to welcome the kids! June 22, 2013.

This present phase is very special for our organization. We are crossing over from single events to a more sustained presence in the life of the kids we reach out to. In the past, due to the restrictions of distance (I lived overseas!) or manpower, the work has been limited to stand-alone events – a morning fair, an afternoon workshop, or an evening performance concert (all valuable contributions to the existing work of our partner organizations, but never enough!). And although we have grown alongside some of our kids through the years, we still yearn for more. The time is ripe for bigger movement and deeper involvement. We want to form relationships, opening up real opportunities to mentor kids, and not just see them once a year. That’s where all of this was always headed!

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So here comes our first season ever! It’s called Likha. In english that means “to create.”  Our inspiration is taken from Isaiah 64:8 “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. “

Likha will give children the space to express themselves through visual and performance art. More than teaching about the arts, we will nurture a healthy community of children where each child feels loved and cared for. Our children represent the country’s poorest communities, families living with terminal illnesses like HIV/AIDS, or households torn down by abuse or abandonment.

We have been working on this for a long time and I cannot wait to see how the children respond to our pilot program. For the past few months, I have been meeting with my team of volunteers and our partners at the Precious Jewels Ministry. Slowly we’ve been pulling together ideas but more importantly, we’ve been knitting our hearts together as a team of volunteers, ready to serve and pour out love on these kids.

Some people behind Buhay Makulay and Precious Jewels Ministry. What a fun collaboration!
Some people behind Buhay Makulay and Precious Jewels Ministry. What a fun collaboration!

Looking forward to seeing the children this Saturday. We’ll be meeting twice a month all the way until December! We’re no strangers to the kids, but I am looking forward to being called their friend.

(On a fundraising note, we are still in need of sponsors for Likha. If you are interested to donate in cash or in kind, your gifts will go a long way. Please get in touch with me, or email buhaymakulaymanila@gmail.com for more info. To sponsor one child for the full program costs only P10,000 or $240. For a single session P1,000 or $24. )