Friday, December 24, 2010
Having come home at 2 am from a night-out with friends, I woke up late for an early-morning appointment. I had to to meet my friend, an architect, with whom I was going to Sta. Rosa Laguna . We were going to check on the progress of a house I was having constructed.
A few minutes after getting into my friend's car (she had offered to drive), I felt back pains and a heavy sensation in the center my chest area. These were familiar discomforts as I had been experiencing the same pains intermittently over the past few weeks.
As in the past, I expected the pain to subside gradually. It did not.
I did not want to worry my friend needlessly so I tried to stay calm and take several deep breaths. When the pain remained, I realized that something was very wrong. It was at this point that I asked my friend to take me to the hospital.
While the pain was constant, it was not excruciating. And while my friend was obviously concerned about me, we both remained relatively calm and even managed to exchange a few jokes along the way. I remember thinking to myself how inconvenient this all was for me and how screwed up my schedule was going to be because of the unexpected development. More so when we took a couple of wrong turns before finding our way back towards the right direction.
Upon finally reaching the hospital, I walked myself to the ER while my friend parked the car. I told the receiving clerk of my chest pains. My blood pressure was taken. After that, everything just sort of happened all at once.
I was hooked up to several machines. Needles were inserted in my arms. Tubes were pushed up my nose. Doctors started milling and moving frantically around me. In my mind, I pictured one of those typical chaotic scenes in the medical emergency shows.
I was told I was having a heart attack and that there was a small window of time to minimize any further damage to my system. I could die within the next few minutes.
I don't remember panicking. If anything, I went into full control mode. I started organizing things in my head. As the doctors fought to save my life, I was making a list of people to call and arrangements to make.
I had to be sure that everything was going to be in order even if that was the last thing I did. At one point, I even asked my friend to take my picture with my mobile phone - me lying on a gurney smiling and waving at the camera as everything was going crazy around me. I was not going to let anyone know that I was scared. That would have been unsightly and uncool.
After my vital signs had stabilized, I was brought to the ICU for closer monitoring as I remained in critical condition.
While in the ICU, one of my visitors -a friend from work - gave me a daily devotional. "Grace for the Moment" by Max Lucado. I had received a copy of the same book about two years ago which I had hardly read.
This new copy remained unread in the hospital. A couple of days after, while waiting for the results of yet another medical test, I took the book and just listlessly opened it to the reading for October 9, the day of my attack.
The reading's heading was "A Home for your Heart". It began with Psalm 91.1, "Those who go to God Most High for Safety will be protected by the Almighty".
While those words were inspiring, the accompanying thoughts hit me like a ton of bricks. I am going to have to quote in full, as follows: " Chances are you've given little thought to housing your soul. We create elaborate houses for our bodies but our souls are relegated to a hillside shanty where the night winds chill us ad the rain soaks us".
I had my heart attack on the way to check on the progress of my house construction. God was trying to tell me something! But, na-uh, I wasn't going to be convinced that easily. Not me.
I could say that these were just weird coincidences.
It was a coincidence that I had received two copies of the same book.It was a coincidence that the reading fell on October 9, the day of my attack.
And then again, maybe not.
For several months, maybe years, I have been occupied - obsessed even - with the idea of building this house according to my specifications . I could even go as far as saying I was obssessed with living my life according to some Grand Plan.
But, in order for me to do this, I felt I had to be on top of my game all the time. I was spending almost all of my time at work. I hardly had time for family and friends. I had to have people's admiration and recognition.
So much so that, even at my most vulnerable moment, in the face of death, I was still trying to be in control. I was making calls while in the ER to make arrangements and giving instructions! I was discussing with the doctors about what was to be done with me and how I should be treated! I even had my picture taken!!!
What kind of person has his picture taken while having a heart attack?
To my shame, I don't think I prayed or asked for God's help until after there were no more calls to make or doctors to speak to.
You would think I should have learned my lesson already. I had a near-fatal car accident a few years back when I missed a sharp turn on an incline. My car summersaulted at least twice before landing upside-down at a 45 degree angle to the ground just a few feet away from a deep ravine. I was not wearing a seatbelt. I crawled out of the car without a bruise. People who saw the wreck would ask how many people had died. They would then say what a coincidence it was that, next to my wrecked car, there was a huge sign on which were printed the words "JESUS SAVES"
There were just too many coincidences to ignore.
I had to consider the possibility that God has been trying to send me a message through all these years. A message that I had been ignoring . He had had to resort to pretty drastic measures to call my attention.
After my heart attack, I opted to invest in the healing of my heart, I realized that I was, in fact, giving myself a chance to have a more meaningful life. But, first - God wanted me to start with a clean slate. He had to teach me to let go of my attachments. I realized that the house was just a representation of all the things that I had grown attached to - my pride, my worldly possessions, my ambition, my desire for recognition. I suppose in a way, God wanted me to realize how temporary these are and how they could just be taken away in one instant. He also had to teach me to be humble. While in the hospital, I was stripped bare - literally and figuratively - of my clothes and finery. I had to be totally dependent on others even for my toilet needs. For someone who is as vain and proud as I am, that was a difficult lesson to learn.
These are lessons that I would have resisted under different conditions. So, it is true - God had to take pretty drastic measures to make sure He had my attention!
I suspect He wanted me to ask myself these questions- "Why me?", "What is it that You want me to do?", "What is this all leading up to?" "What reason is there that I'm still alive?". Lying on the hospital pondering on these thoughts, I guess I half expected the answers to come to me in the form of an angel coming down from the ceiling.
True to form, God hasn't me any quick answers. I don't think that is His style. Even now, several years after, I'm still trying to figure things out. Through all this, I feel an Invisible Hand intervening by presenting the opportunities to let go of my attachments and be clear on my priorities. I've made several interesting choices since then in my search for answers.
I don't think I'm any holier or more profound that I was before my heart attack. But I have noticed a few changes. I have a greater sensitivity to the things around me. I think maybe I'm just a little bit kinder , a little bit more gentle, maybe even a little bit more patient and forgiving..
Partly, I suppose this comes from a keen awareness of how temporary life is, that all this could end at the snap of a finger. But, mostly, I believe that its part of God's process.
I know I also have to learn the virtues of patience and obedience. If I had my way, I would want to fast-forward and get to the stage where I'm like super-wise and enjoying my rewards from Him for going through my experience. But God cannot be rushed. His work with me is not done yet. His lessons continue.
As 2010 comes to a close, I find myself asking the same questions all over again. What positive changes have I made in the last year? How can I make my life more meaningful in 2011?
I am thinking that I would like to simplify my life by just focusing on the essentials and letting go of everything else. I think it is fitting that I have decided to sell the house that I was having constructed when I had my heart attack. In my mind, I am going through a list of other things I should just let go of
What I do know is that the things that were so important to me before don't seem to matter as much anymore. I don't think that means I'm any less dedicated to doing my job, for example. I still take satisfaction is being able to do it well. It's just that I have a better understanding of what I can and cannot do and I accept that my work is not the be-all and end-all of everything.
I am grateful that I still feel a sense of hope and anticipation for what is going to come next. God is teaching me all these lessons to build a home for my heart and prepare me for even greater things. Not for my glory. But for His.
Merry Christmas, my family and friends. And may God continue to bless and guide us in the year ahead.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
June 30, 10:30 am
waiting for my flight back to Manila
Culion, Palawan is one of the most remote islands in the Philippines. Because of its location, it was once chosen to house one of the largest leper colonies n the world. The "outside world's" fear of contamination was so fierce that the island even had to print its own currency that could not be circulated anywhere else.
Leprosy is no longer a most dreaded disease but Culion can boast of at least one other superlative - it has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.
I stayed at the Hotel Maya, which is the training center for the Tourism Entrepreneurship program of the Loyola College of Culion, "the poorest Jesuit school in the Philippines".
Hotel Maya, under the leadership of Father Javy Alpasa, my new personal hero, is in the forefront of promoting Culion as a Healing Island and as an eco-tourism site.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
Monday, July 5, 2010
Saturday, May 1, 2010
Even before leaving Zambia, my friends would already frequently ask me whether I would want to volunteer again.
My answer has always been the same: Yes, but: a) it would have to be another short-term stint as I need to go back to gainful employment soon, otherwise re-volunteering will have to wait for several more years; b ) I would like to have more direct interaction with the program beneficiaries and not just be stuck behind a table drafting policies; and c) it would have to be in the Philippines as this is where I would like to make a lasting contribution.
Shortly after coming back to Manila (and in between shoving food into my mouth), a friend told me about Community and Family Services International (CFSI), a Philippine-based NGO with the mission to provide assistance to people displaced by conflict - especially those in areas like Mindanao, East Timor and Myanmar.
I got interested, asked for more information , set-up a meeting with the CEO and basically went thru a super-anal due-diligence process. It didn't take me long to decide that, if CFSI would have me and the timing could work out, this was an organization I would be proud to be a part of.
Since then, I've managed to extend my sabbatical for a few more weeks. My good fortune continues with CFSI's acceptance of my application as a short-term volunteer.
And so, the next few weeks will see me taking the MRT/LRT about four to five times a week. This way, I'm able to avoid the stress of driving thru traffic and navigating through the labyrinth of one-way streets in Pasay City where CFSI's office is located. I like.
I've met most of the people with whom I'll be working. They're all very supportive and welcoming, I know I'm going to learn a lot from them. I like even more.
The program to which I've been assigned is called the Park Avenue Initiative (PAI) after the street in which the CFSI office is located - Park Avenue. While the street name may sound posh, let me just say that the street itself is not and let's leave it at that,
The PAI program aims to protect youth and children that have been displaced from mainstream society because of various forms of exploitation - sexual abuse, child labor, prostitution, drugs. This is accomplished not just by providing a "safe place" within the CFSI premises but also by providing the kids with counseling, life-skills coaching, livelihood training and other forms of assistance and intervention
I've heard some of the kid's stories. They are heart-wrenching. Once again, I am reminded of how blessed and sheltered my life has been and how important it is to give backMy time here is limited and I'm going to have to return to regular work in a few weeks. So, I want to make sure that I'm able to do as much as I can while I can.
My responsibilities as a volunteer are still evolving. But right now, my skill sets seem to be best suited to helping PAI in resource mobilization. I network and approach individuals and organizations who may be able to support our programs (like maybe...uhhh.... mmm....hopefully...you? ) More on how you might be able to help at the end of this entry:-)
I'm also given the opportunity to participate in different community activities. For example, this afternoon, I attended a meeting where the barangay officials presented their 1st quarter accomplishments to the residents. It was raining. We were sitting under a make-shift tent in the middle of a market. There were wet dogs and little children running around. It was almost eight pm and I hadn't had dinner yet. But I was very glad to be there. Tomorrow, I'm going to be working with a group of children finalizing their script for a puppet show to highlight children's rights. I like what I'm doing.
For more on CFSI, please visit their website by following this link. Check out the tabs for Partners and Leadership - pretty impressive and an indication of the credibility and integrity of the organization.
For more on the PAI program and the children it aims to serve, please watch this short youtube video thru this link,
After going through the site and viewing the video, you might be interested in finding out how you can help or be involved.
If so, please send me a private message so I could send you more info. I can also link you with a more senior member of the CFSI management team if you want a more in-depth discussion about CFSI's various programs and how you can help.
But, just off the top of my head, following are a few areas where support or assistance (in any form - donations, scholarships, your expertise and time, introductions to potential donors, etc) are needed:
- Livelihood training (especially for the older kids) i.e. cosmetology, culinary arts, auto mechanic, food processing, basic computer skills, etc.
- Job matching for graduates of the livelihood training courses
- Life-skills training (i.e. self awareness, collaboration, communication skills, etc)
- Books and educational tools for the CFSI children's library - kids come in regularly to use the limited facilities
- Computer equipment
- Tutorials on elementary and high school subjects
- Public relations - just getting the word out about CFSI, what it does and how it can be supported.
The above list is by no means exhaustive so if you have any ideas of how you might be able to help, please let me know so we can schedule a discussion.
Thanks very much and wish me luck so I can do good work, please!
Monday, March 15, 2010
As of today, I have 16 days left in Zambia. My remaining time will be spent completing a few more projects and saying goodbye to the friends I have made
The experience has been everything that I expected. It has been difficult and challenging. Oftentimes, I felt isolated and lonely.Conversely, it has also been everything I did not expect. I made a lot of new friends that I would not have been able to meet elsewhere. I learned new things, most especially about what I can do without. I look at my end-of-placement review document and, on paper at least, it seems I have done a lot in the past five and a half months. At the same time, I feel like I have not done much at all.
In the bus this morning on the way to the big city for a final workshop, I realized that It may take some time before I could process my entire experience and understand how exactly it has changed me. Maybe someday, after having made another one of my strange life choices, that is when I will suddenly realize – ah, this is what I learned in Africa, this is how Africa has transformed me.
For now, I have my curios and my experiences to remind me of the time I have spent here. When I am alone, I take out and admire the African souvenirs . I imagine how I would put them up back home or how to explain their provenance to my friends. But, a thing is a thing. I quickly get bored with this activity.
I spend more time running through my memories. I hold each one in my consciousness, considering their value against the bright light of hindsight Which ones are most precious to me? Which ones do I want to take home with me?
I could remember:
- the wretchedness of a diarrhea attack in a place with limited toilet facilities (dear God, the wretchedness).
- the 2 kilometer walk to get to the nearest hospital and the stench of sweat and sickness while waiting in line for my malaria test results (negative, but I was scared)
- the appetizing mixture of mud and manure on which I could just not avoid stepping during rainy days
- the frustrations from a work environment with limited resources and a different ethic
- the feeling of helpless anger and the lost of my sense of complacent security after having my things stolen
- the homesickness that was never more acute as during the cold nights when I would be shivering under a thick blanket, listening to the sound of scurrying rats in the ceiling, wishing I were home – warm, clean, stomach full - instead.
I could remember grievances, inconveniences, hardships, annoyances, irritants.
I could. But I don’t think I would want to. Even now, the details of these memories are starting to get fuzzy. How many times did I get diarrhea? Was it in November or December that I had malaria-like symptoms? What exactly were the things that were stolen from me?
I brush these memories aside. I survived. That is what matters. I have suffered thru shit, theft, stomach problems and homesickness before. They are not unique to my African experience.
Fortunately, there are many more memories from which to choose. These are the ones that will always seem like they only happened an hour ago. No matter what the future holds for me, these are the ones that will make me want to come back to this time and place.
I will remember
- the many nights when I drifted off to sleep listening to the sound of distant drums, imagining people dancing around a bonfire, wondering what it was they might be celebrating.
- that hot day, sitting under the shade of a tree when a hungry boy fell asleep in my arms - his rhythmic breathing against my chest, his little fingers clutched tightly around mine
- that first day in Church when, after being introduced as a new member of the parish, a grandfatherly man came up to me, held my hands and said “You are home. We are your family here”
- that late afternoon when, on the way home from work, I chanced upon a group of women standing at the back of a slowly moving truck. They were softly singing . The words were foreign but the melody was so evocative of sadness and longing. I was struck still in the middle of the street, suddenly remembering everything that I too have lost and miss as I watched them disappear into the dusk
- the thrill of riding in a car moving carefully along a deserted road late at night, careful not to hit any elephant that may cross our way, thinking to myself, “Only in Africa”
- the awe inspired by the gentle gaze of a fawn or the perfect beauty of a zebra ambling casually in front of me.
- the joy in the faces of the children who would run up to greet me every single day that I have been in Kalomo. “Muzungu, muzungu”, they would shout, racing against each other in their ragged clothes, to be the first to touch me.
- the simple, inspired meals cooked in small, cramped kitchens and shared happily with friends, all the more special because the occasions were so rare.
- telling a group of Zambians that my hero is the ordinary Filipino in times of crisis; saying how proud I am of my countrymen who, regardless of the odds and the difficulties, still manage to laugh and to share; realizing as I was speaking how much it meant to me to be able to say this.
I will remember faces and names and smiles, each special, each distinct and separate from the other. I will remember every life story that was shared with me,.
I will remember magnificent, MAGNIFICENT, sunsets, and thundering waterfalls.
I will remember a rare rainbow seen in the faint glow of the moonlight; colorful trees that seemed to reach up to the sky; verdant landscapes dotted with settlements of mud-huts;
I will remember. Perhaps, while remembering, I might even hear the sound of distant drums again.
I have come full circle. This is Africa. This is my Africa.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Singapore's Changi Class Magazine, February 2010 issue
And that, dear readers, is what is called scraping-the-bottom-of-the-content barrel. Just doing my bit to keep this blog updated. Thanks, by the way, to Jacqueline Danam of the magazine for the feature. Going through some stuff right now but I should be able to post something more interesting in a week or two.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I toss and turn at night. What should I do about these strange feelings I’m having?
How much of a shithole am I when I spend the morning visiting malnourished children and then, later on in the day, go on a food binge because the experience depressed me?
Should I even complain about the skills of the people with whom I’m working when I’m here precisely because they recognize that they need help?
Should I feel guilty about having a rare night out with volunteer friends if what I’m going to pay for dinner and drinks is more than what a family of six from my program’s target beneficiaries spends on food for a week? Should it make a difference when I’m not in development work anymore?
Am I perpetuating the practice of sitting allowances by receiving mine without question or am I justified by spending it on necessary work-related expenses (like paper or internet connection) that I won’t be able to reimburse otherwise?
When everyone in a meeting – men and women, young and old – starts deeply probing inside their noses with their forefingers - am I the one who is impolite because I flinch, look away and still can’t accept this as normal behavior in this part of the world?
Between being a tourist and a zealot, which side of the scale am I closer to? Since I’m here for only a short while, should I be spending more of my time taking pretty pictures for my album or should I spend every single second trying to save someone, anyone? Does one choice make me a flake and the other delusional?
Should I just go ahead and offer my help when I can – especially if what’s needed isn’t something that’ll put a significant dent in my resources – or would I just be propagating a sense of entitlement and dependence that’s going to boomerang back in the future?
What am I doing here when there are millions of people in my own country who need help? How do I go back home and make this experience mean something?
And lastly, dear Advice Giver, are there more creative ways to say “No” the next time I’m asked any of these questions: “Is the Philippines in America?”; “Aren’t you from South America/ Central America/ the Caribbean ?”; “Can you give me money for my circumcision/ a water pump in my village/ carpentry tools?”; and “Do you want another helping of delicious nshima?”