This, above all:

This, above all: To be God's best for The Coach and for Anna

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Broken Road

My husband and I would like to share our story, which was published in a lovely anthology, Against All Odds: Coincidence of Miracle? Volume IV, produced by Flor Gozon Tarriela and Butch Jimenez. It was one of the hardest stories I had to write, not because I didn’t know how to tell it, but because the road we’d traveled, from there to here, had been pockmarked with hope and despair. It was hard to relive the journey, and much harder not to break down in tears for how God had blessed the broken road that led us straight to our Anna. (Thank you, Rascall Flatts, for letting me borrow your words.)

God Is in the Details
In 2007, after a 13-year rollercoaster of fertility workups, a doctor issued death words to me and my husband, Jojo: we would never have children. A myoma the size of a five-month-old fetus had taken over my uterus. The doctor recommended hysterectomy.
Jo was taken aback, but only for a while. He told the doctor we would get a second opinion. He took over, doing all the paperwork and shepherding me from the clinic to billing to ultrasound. I kept bursting in tears—not just for the loss of a dream, but also for how I had failed my husband, for my inadequacy as a woman.
When all hospital work was done, Jo brought me with him to his basketball practice at St. Stephen. I was supposed to attend bible study, but he knew I was grieving far too much.
Jo had never been late for practice. Yet there he was, more than an hour late. The boys sensed something was wrong. Usually rambunctious, they were quiet as they huddled around him.
Jo was blinking back tears when he told them that I needed an operation, and he couldn’t leave me alone while I struggled with the news. Then he choked. He took a full minute to just breathe, in and out. He squared his shoulders and motioned for the boys to resume practice. “OK, boys, let’s move,” he said, but his voice was breaking.
After practice, the boys huddled around him. Jo held out his hand to me and asked me to join them. “Boys,” he said, “I want you to meet the most beautiful woman in the world. This is my wife, the love of my life.” He put his arm around me and introduced the kids one by one—Theodore, Pique, Malcolm, Patrick, so many names. They were so young, so hopeful, so beautiful. “This is my baby girl,” he said, pulling me closer.
I cried: I wasn’t diminished in his eyes. I was still beautiful to him.
Before we went to bed, Jo prayed for our via dolorosa to draw us closer. He told me that if the Lord didn’t will a child for us, then he would just have to love me more. The Lord Jesus was right: love is the distinctive among His people. My husband’s love lighted my path in the valley of the shadow of death.
That week it almost hurt to hope. The list of OB-GYNs recommended by family and friends stretched to 20—it was overwhelming. But Jojo said, “We are not looking for the best doctor. We are looking for the RIGHT doctor.” We needed the one whom God wanted for us.
Before praying for us, some friends asked us for our wish list. I wanted a doctor, preferably Christian, who believed in miracles and who could journey with us—no matter if God’s answer to us was no. Jo, if he had the money, would have brought me to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, Baltimore—the no. 1 hospital in obstetrics-gynecology.
Of the 20 OB-GYNs recommended to us, only one was male: Dr. Rafael Tomacruz. He was the last one I’d consider: I didn’t want a man probing and invading my body. Jo, of course, chose him.
Dr. Tomacruz, it turned out, specialized in tumors—and in assuaging my fears. His voice and hands were gentle as he examined me. True to form, Jo grilled him. “What school did you go to, Doc?” Jo asked. “In Baltimore,” Dr. Tomacruz said. Jojo could barely contain himself, “Which one in Baltimore?” And Dr. Tomacruz said, “Johns Hopkins Hospital.” Jo was overjoyed. Since Jo couldn’t bring me to Johns Hopkins, God brought Johns Hopkins to him.
Dr. Tomacruz also specialized in the near impossible: he would save my uterus and remove the myoma—a procedure more difficult than a hysterectomy and entailing considerable blood loss. But that feat, for me, wasn’t the good news. It was when Dr. Tomacruz said that though my childbearing chances might be slim, he would journey with us. “Who knows what the Lord will do?” he said. “I believe in miracles.” Those were the words I had asked God for.
Raising money for the surgery required a bigger mustard seed of faith. One day Jo called me from the hospital where he was making arrangements: “Honey, we need to raise an additional P70,000.” I didn’t know what to say. We didn’t have that much that time; our savings had been depleted. “Jan,” Jo said. “As long as we’re together, we’re fine.” The next day, a friend e-mailed me. She had borrowed money from us several years back, and she was, miraculously, not only paying her debt, she also volunteered to add interest. The amount: P69,998. All we had to raise for my surgery was two pesos.
Such bounty is vintage God. A few years before, Jo had whispered to me in the middle of a dinner party, “We have only 245 pesos in the bank.” “That much?” I deadpanned. A few days later, our missionary friend, Benji, called us. He was getting married in a few months, and all he had was P6,000. Desperate, he had prayed, “Lord, what do I do?” God told him: Give a fifth of your money to Jojo and Janet. That is how personal God has been: He knows us by name.
A week before my surgery, Jo and I attended Healing Room, a prayer-healing forum. The ministers praying for us weren’t told what was ailing us; they would rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal what healing was required. I was there to ask God why He had denied us a child even before I grew a myoma. Perhaps my heart was the problem?
When it was my turn to be prayed for, a woman minister—a stranger to me and unknowing of my petition—gently touched my womb and said, “God wants me to tell you that you have a mother’s heart.” I wept, bearing the burden of the barren years. Then she said, “He says that this country has many children that need a mother.”
God’s answer: my child wouldn’t come from my body and wouldn’t inherit my crooked left ear. Adoption—I wasn’t prepared for this new twist, so Jo and I proceeded with my surgery. Yet even as I was wheeled into the operating room, God continued to affirm us. While I was lying on the gurney, frantically praying Psalm 23, a doctor leaned over me. “Hi,” he said. “I’m your anesthesiologist. My name is Christian Doctor.” I got my wish: a Christian doctor. God does have a sense of humor.
Three years after the surgery that successfully rehabilitated my uterus, Jo and I had somewhat given up on our having children. But God didn’t mind our lack of faith: He had been working on our baby project all along. In 2010, Working Mom editor Leah Nemil-San Jose asked me to edit an adoption special. I had to research on adoption, interview adoptive families and children, and talk to a therapist.
In the two months that I worked on the special, I finally understood how sanctified adoption is—a beautiful way of building a family much like birth is. Jesus had been more forthright when He took a little child and said, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes Me.”
When Jo and I opened our hearts to adoption, our daughter was already living, breathing, somewhere. We prayed for her, and asked God to choose her for us.
We had a checklist (of course). Jo prayed that our daughter would be healthy, loved by her caregivers, given proper nutrition, and live in a clean and decent Christian home. His clincher: that she would look like me. I demurred. “No, God,” I interrupted Jojo’s prayer. “Please let her look like Jo.” And I asked God for birds: winged minstrels—unusual in our condo mired in the city’s pollution—to sing to our daughter every day.
We also prayed for a name. I campaigned for something original, something only she would have, something not Janet, something we cannot find in a souvenir keychain. But God had other plans. He directed us to the gospel of Luke, to the only three verses in the entire bible that referred to Anna, a prophet. Not so original a name, true, but what a woman this Anna was. Denied entry into the Inner Court, she fasted for the Messiah in the noisy temple grounds for several decades, never leaving, always praying among those haggling over doves and transgressions. When the infant Jesus finally arrived, she, at 84 years, recognized him immediately, and she gave thanks to the Lord. Our daughter was to be named after a woman whose heart had been sensitive to Jesus, patient and faithful—Anna the prophet had been the first witness.
Three months after we had filed the adoption papers, we received an SMS message: The DSWD social worker had matched us to a baby. Without having met the baby, Jo and I said yes. We had trusted God to choose His Best for us—this gift born from the heart, but also the flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood.
Our Anna was ten months old and perfect. She looked so much like Jo that the caregivers teased him for merely reclaiming her. It was when I met Anna that I experienced what John Donne had said in The Good Morrow: “If ever any beauty I did see,/ Which I desired, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.”
God had taken note of our checklist: Anna was healthy; lived with Christian caregivers in Ministries Without Borders, a beautiful home set up by Norwegian missionaries; and was entrusted by a Christian woman when Anna was only a week old. When we picked Anna up, her caregivers cried: she had been carved in their hearts, and they wrote her letters for her to read when she grew up. As we celebrated with the caregivers with cake and Coke, my sister-in-law, Gay, took Anna in her arms and sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Our social worker, Myrna Pineda, joined her. Jojo and I chimed in, and one by one the caregivers and missionaries sang with us: a celestial chorus.
The name our daughter had been given at the orphanage was Grace. The name Anna is the Hebrew word (hanan) for grace. Our daughter’s name had been preordained.
In the first few months that Anna came home to us, two birds visited our tenth-floor home every day. They’d stay for hours, flying by, perching on our windowsill, singing. Today those birds—symbols of hope and God’s faithfulness—built a nest outside our living-room window, choosing to stay with us for the long haul.
God is in the details.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Writing on the go

Traveled three hours this afternoon to Bataan, where I will hold a technical writing workshop in the next two days. I was the only passenger in a comfortable rental van.

The drive, though pleasant, wasn't how I wanted to use my very limited me-time. So I got out my laptop and started writing. I got carsick--I often do--so I positioned my index fingers to find the trusty ridges on letters F and J, and wrote while looking out the window.

I didn't care about errors and typos; I couldn't, anyway. So I just wrote, the mobile equivalent of Julia Cameron's morning pages--seat-of-my-pants and stream-of-consciousness writing. I unfettered my thoughts, undeterred by bumps in the road or in my mind.

I came out with so much. Especially a truth I had not recognized in something so familiar. As my mind leapt from my mother to my daughter to magic, I suddenly realized this:
Before Jesus miraculously multiplied a little boy's lunch to feed 5,000, He first lifted up the boy's lunch basket and thanked God. He gave thanks for five tiny fish and two pieces of bread before they amounted to anything.

Before we can ask for more, perhaps we should first be grateful for what we have. How can we be entrusted with much when we cannot appreciate less?
The writing exercise underscores three things:

1. I should write. My memory is weak, and my thoughts are mercurial. I think of something one minute, and I'd lose it to the void the next. I need to tether my thoughts to the ground.

2. I can write anywhere.

3. I will be OK with first drafts (Anne Lamott calls them "shitty first drafts"). I will rewrite them later; the real writing is in the rewriting.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mothering Heights

I wrote my first column on mothering for the startup online magazine OSM! (read Awesome!). Only 536 words. I agonized over them all afternoon last Thursday. While I played tea party with my three-year-old, wearing a hat and saying the right things that made her laugh and snuggle close to me, my thoughts chased after words. I was overwhelmed by all that I had to say, by the ordinariness of all I felt.

Sometimes writing is like picking a scab: painful, grotesque, self-mutilating, but you just gotta.

Hot off the press: here's the article.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Them Bones

Thinking of writing a memoir. But how far can I go without hurting those I love? Bernard Shaw said, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeletons, you may as well make it dance.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Photo taken on March 31, 2012 at Sonya's Garden, Tagaytay City
Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumble bee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams.

–Ashley Smith

Friday, April 06, 2012

Why I should journal

Breakfast with Charlotte and Vincent.

Vincent sounded muted beside Charlotte, like a superscript or a color washed in white. I knew that if Charlotte were not there, he would be more voluble, more like the Vincent who would lapse into song because it rains. I am a part of the world that he keeps free from job downsizing, laundry, bills and son’s tantrums. When he is away from his family, he becomes the Vincent of old.

He loves Charlotte, adores her. But perhaps in all of us there lies a part that we keep away from family: the part that isn’t weighed down by maturity.

It was a tad strange to see them interact with Anna. They liked her and took and posed for photos, but there was a distance, a reservation, as if they’d had enough of children at this time, thank you.

I left breakfast feeling a little foolish, perhaps a little let down.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Begin again

I have ink-stained fingers.
On this lazy Sunday afternoon, while Hubby and child rest from the week's labors, I take this time to recharge: Why do I want to write?

When I told my mother I was abandoning law practice for writing (and teaching), she mourned, "I did not raise you to be a writer." Writing, for her, was a hobby, something I could do on weekends, on my free time, when I had finished with everything else more important, like earning a living. She thought that I was being too indulgent.

I could not give her--or myself--any easy answers.

Writing connects me to parts of myself buried by deadlines or harassed by daily cares. It shapes thoughts that defy form. I find the words that hide in my heart; by this I relive or grieve moments. My life, sometimes painfully, falls into place. I am a fractal; I need words to find me.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Anna enjoys the breeze on Malapascua Island (March 2012)
A child kicks its legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, Do it again; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough… It is possible that God says every morning, Do it again, to the sun; and every evening, Do it again, to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. 
–G. K. Chesterton

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Woman, food and God

I understand, fully, why the first temptation to sin came in the form of food.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I have over 50 notebooks and journals. Beautiful ones, with leather covers or thick, cream pages. They hold such promise.

They terrify me. They are too pure, too pristine, and I feel my words are not sufficient, not worthy. I have to forgive myself for marring their pages.

Today I exorcise this writing fear rooted in perfectionism. I embrace Chilton Pearce's words: "To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong."

These are my freedoms:

1. I am free to make mistakes--no apologies.
2. I do not always have grand ideas.
3. I am ordinary.
4. I commit grammatical errors.
5. I will allow my handwriting to go haywire.
6. I do not have to fill the pages.
7. I will not edit what I have handwritten.
8. I forgive myself for starting only now and am grateful for this 45th second chance.
9. I do not have to please anybody, even me.
10. Relax.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Food and writing

I start my Food Diary today, praying it will make me more mindful not just of what I invest in my body, but also of how I value myself and God’s workmanship. May this exercise strengthen my ability to say NO to what harms me. I extend this discipline to my writing and pray for the Spirit to gently guide me in a journey that requires more mental and spiritual calisthenics than physical.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Briefly, wondrously

Sat my butt down at a coffeeshop. Turned off my auto-guilt mode and put my mombligations on standby. Brought a book on editing fiction and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Laptop, ready. Coffee, hot. Soul, squashed by a run-in. I was glad for Hubby, who had reached out for my hand and told me to write, to not let a bad afternoon get in the way of writing.

I love you, Hubby.

You too, Oscar Wao. Because the story I had been agonizing over sounds a little better for my having read about you. You see, there’s this story I’ve been wanting to write. It has an incredible premise and a kickass first paragraph. Even I want to read it. But the story just doesn’t fly. The characters are cardboard. This story is in its third iteration, and it’s still as dry as day-old pizza. I haven’t touched it in years. But you make me want to finish it. You–made on paper and of a writer’s dreams–are alive, the way the heart of a book is. Yours is a story that makes me want to create another. To me that’s the best kind.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

And then Hemingway

Sometime in March, Good Housekeeping asked me to submit an essay for the Mother's Day issue, just 700 words. I was a mom only a few weeks old. The long wait for a child—16 years—had led us to Anna, whom The Coach calls "God's Best." GH was hoping that maybe I had grand truths to share?

I wrestled with the essay, perhaps the hardest I ever had to write. Motherhood is too big to reduce to words. My heart had been reeling from tenderness, from bruising, from doubt.

The Wordsworth on my shoulder was no help: any spontaneous overflow of emotions, he said, had to be "recollected in tranquility." I shushed him: a mother is hardly tranquil.

By the third deadline, I still hadn't written much. The words sounded cheap, sentimental.

And then there was Hemingway: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."

Writing is at once egotistic and humbling, a struggle between vanity and vulnerability. The truest sentence—my truest sentence—is the one I will tell my daughter.

A Mother's Heart
Dear Anna,

Two years ago, when my fertility workups seemed futile and our faith was flailing, your father and I attended Healing Room, a prayer-healing forum. The ministers praying for us weren’t told what was ailing us; they would rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal what healing was required.

When it was my turn to be prayed for, a woman minister—a stranger to me and unknowing of my petition—gently touched my womb and said, “God wants me to tell you that you have a mother’s heart.” I wept, bearing the burden of the barren years.

Last week, you finally came home to us, 10 months old and perfect. A gift from God and born from the heart. Though our infanticipation wasn’t coursed through my womb, how could we not burst out in praise, as Adam did, that you are flesh of our flesh, and blood of our blood? It was then I lived out what John Donne said in The Good Morrow: “If ever any beauty I did see,/ Which I desired, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.”

The second day we had you, I forgot to give you your vitamins, fed you two hours too late, and bathed in you in water too cold your lips started shivering even as you loved playing in the water. That night I cried in your father’s arms. “I’m a bad mommy,” I blubbered. What made me think I am able to nurture and care for another life?

In C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, when Aslan asks Prince Caspian to rise to his leadership, the boy says, “I do not think I am ready.” And Aslan replies, “It is for that very reason that I think you are.” I’d like to own that truth in your father and me. It is humbling, overwhelming, to be your parents. The more we read on parenting, the more we realize how inadequate we are, how much we do not know. All we have is this certainty that you make us want to be better people. This time we aren’t just living for ourselves: we live for you.

A few nights ago while I was singing you to sleep in Mommy’s home, the light of a star filtered through the trees, and it hit me: the God who created Canis Majoris—the hypergiant star so immense it would take 7 quadrillion Earths to fill it—is the same God who breathed life into you with a Word, and when He did, He saw that you were very good. He will not fail you or me, dear Anna. All my inadequacies as a mother He will assuage; He will fill in the blanks.

I wish for you, Anna, to be awed by a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” that you would easily find joy even in a can of sardines as you would in Bach’s Air on the G String. There is a magic to this world, and it takes a special set of eyes to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Your Ninang Germaine once said that all we need is Jesus, family and ministry—everything else is a bonus. Revel in that bonus, dear Anna. When we realize that God’s grace operates in the everyday, that it is only by His tender mercies that I am able to write this and hear your breath as you sleep, that every day is God-breathed and God-allowed—only then will we have a heart that finds joy even in the direst of circumstances.

What a privilege it is to be your mother.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Taking the good and the bad

In safe company I sometimes kid my Papa that I can summarize my relationship with him and with Mama in a single sentence: All the bad in me I got from him; all the good in me I got from my mother.

Which is a massive misstatement, of course, but one laden with a few non-negotiable truths about the good and the bad that I inherited from Papa.

My love for words came from Papa. He is not averse to filching a book from his friends’ or children's shelves, reading and keeping it until you forget you ever had such a book. He is like a Rottweiler: he grabs a book and doesn’t let go even after gnashing of teeth. Before there were National bookstores or bookshops of previously owned books in Cebu, Papa already knew where to find those dumped by U.S. public libraries and middle schools.

Books were the priority. Our house, built in the ‘60s on Mama’s GSIS loan, had only two-and-a-half rooms for six growing kids. Space was limited, but my parents invested wholeheartedly in a library, on a mezzanine that overlooked the living room and the dining area. The library was bigger than my sister’s teeny-tiny half-of-a-room (I didn’t even have a room), with Britannica volumes that lined the shelves, Reader’s Digests since the ‘50s, and a huge atlas that was bigger than one of the windows. And books. Oh, the books. I know now that part of my almost manic stockpiling of (unread) books in my home is the need to recall the best part of my childhood. They are my one true link—sad, there is no other—to my father.

Papa thought and wrote in images; maybe that was why he could never find, even now, the words to tell us he loves us. (He gave me an awkward pat a few times.) When I needed assurance that he loved me, I should just have asked him to write me an image, instead of creating a card that began with If you truly loved me (I was only nine, and I never gave the card). He took great pleasure in language, and in my wedding, he took to the stage with much pleasure, piling on the audience the image of him and my mother riding into the sunset, and talking much about Will Durant. A philosopher.

In my junior year in law school, I wrote an impassioned plea for him to fund my extracurricular studies in French. Money was hard to come by—Papa worked for the local government, Mama was a public school teacher, one brother had just finished medicine, and yet another was finishing med proper—and he replied with the only letter I ever received from him, one I keep in my Happy Box. He wrote that if he were an outsider looking in on my life, he would give his eyeteeth to be my father.

He signed his letter not with his name or with Papa—he has lovely, elegant and extravagant penmanship, eruptions of his creativity—but with a drawing of his square glasses, the lines heavily etched onto the paper. I would often feel the ridges it had created on the other side. “I am old, decrepit,” he wrote.

He didn’t end his letter with the usual, familial complimentary close, Love or With love. He came from the old school where parents were strictly figures of authority. My eldest brother, Manoy Uriel, had told us, “Papa wants to be respected, not loved.” It was the same likeness I projected onto God—He was a Father, after all, and I used to cringe before Him, even in prayer. Jesus I can deal with, he was a brother, see; God, well, He had an iron hand. It took several years of patient loving from my uncle (my Papa Danny, my father’s younger brother) and from The Coach for me to accept that though all the power in the whole universe is God’s, still He has chosen to be tender. That though the Holy God should be the righteous judge of sin in me, He has chosen to love me, gently.

Oh, the gentleness I craved, for Papa had quicksilver moods, shifting always to his default mode: anger. I know how rage tastes. But I don’t know how it looks like: it has no color, not the red that angers the bull or the white heat that blinds. It has a burning that starts from between the shoulder blades that flares down in an instant to the palms, where it seeks release.

I’m now middle-aged, but there’s still this little girl in me who needs her father’s approval. Some years ago I sent Papa drafts of a few stories, needing the father-writer to affirm me at that crucial turn in my life when I spurned his and Mama's advice and took the road less traveled by. He never said anything.

Then I got an SMS from my sister, a year or so ago. Jan, she said, Papa wanted me to text you that he thinks your stories are good.

That almost beat the eyeteeth line.

I am now in my Mama’s house—we call it that even if they built it together, that’s another story—and I see my father struggle to remember if he already put sugar in his coffee. Sometimes he doesn’t know how to prepare instant-mix oatmeal anymore. He talks to me a lot, genuinely interested, and I wonder when I’ll have the guts to tell him I love him.


My boy, the Polymath, and my girl, Sandra—writers that they are—married six months ago in a library. Tears, hugs, a botched kiss, laughter, a gangster hat, good wine, fantastic pesto, poetry from Vim Nadera, the word for the day from Neil Garcia (“vicissitudes,” and everybody had to use the word in his or her toast to the couple)—such a beautiful wedding.

With the union comes a merger of books: each one probably having about a thousand books each.

So they gave away books they have multiple copies of—good ones!—to the guests, with a special Paul & Sandra bookmark sandwiched in the pages. One book for every guest. But which to choose? There was Ondaatje, Calvino, Loorie Moore, David Foster Wallace, Hornby, Rushdie, Byatt, whew. You gotta make a decision, quick, because while the rest of the guests were lining up to get food, the writers were already circling the pile of books. As soon as it was considered, well, appropriate, we snatched the books we like. Paul gave me the blessing to get a lot, yeah, plus Paul and Sandra’s choice for me (Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain—which I still have to open, sorry, sweeties).

We, of course, knew that we hardly have the time to read our loot. “This is greed,” Butch Guerrero said, with his horde tucked safely away in a corner. We were shameless. (Now, six months later, I am merely midway into Midnight’s Children. Love it. Hate my schedule.)

For the godparents, Paul and Sandra gave a beautiful Parker pen.

Mine is engraved Ninang Janet.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

You've been ninang-ed!

I was just 35 when I was first slapped with a wedding ninang assignment. I thought, Yikes, me a godmother? Like those with the wildly poofy bouffant dyed the wrong shade of brown and in a one-size-fits-all suman gown made of piƱa? Me? (And here I thought I had sufficiently covered my wrinkles with night cream.)

Alas, I couldn't say no, can't even think it, not without my mother's doomsday prophecy that it is bad luck to reject a ninang invitation. I should've asked her who would earn the bad luck: me or the couple?

Besides, I love the couple, especially the groom, my nephew Jimi, who's now finishing his orthopedics residency, and there was no saying no. No.

So I lost weight and bought a stunning gown--too stunning, said my brother's friend, who chided me for wearing a dress more lavish that those of the entire entourage combined. Heck, I was determined to look "too young to be a ninang."

But something in me is probably ninang-like because since then I've had six ninang assignments in the last five years: three from Jo's side and three from mine.

I've manufactured enough equanimity to find the humor in all this, as well as gained the requisite weight and wrinkles for the job. (Yes, dear, that's why this blog post has no photographs.)

I'm changing my night cream.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Return of the Fellowship

Months after we bonded at the UP National Writers Workshop in 2003, a bunch of the fellows met up at our house. I am their Mudra, designated mother goddess, which only means, really, that I am responsible for stocking enough food and drink on my table and cleaning up after their mess. (And, yeah, I am way older than they are.)

Jay Fernando, one of two beautiful writers who facilitated the workshop, had predicted that our post-workshop camaraderie would last only so long; we had been tight, true, but he said the fellowship would wane.

He was right, in a way. Some of us formed deeper attachments and some stalwarts could be counted on to attend get-togethers, but through the years it became harder to gather warm bodies. Our yahoogroups conversations have dwindled to a trickle.

I miss my kids. I read about them a lot, in their blogs and in others', where they and their work are praised. I am proud of them and their achievements and accolades, as if theirs were my own.

I'm thinking of mustering the brood again, just to catch up. I'm hoping this post on that Octoberfest at our house will help rekindle the fellowship.

That night we played Taboo 'til kingdom come—you know, that game where you're supposed to describe the word to your teammates but there are some terms that are taboo, words you cannot use. No gestures or actions allowed.

Here are snippets of our game:

(trying to describe the word PLATINUM): This is better than gold!

(shouting): Sex!

* * *

U: This is what I'll never find!

: LOVE!!! [True enough, the word was LOVE!]

* * *

(describing SADDLE to his teammates): Assholder!! Assholder!!

His teammates
(confused, of course): Chair?

(getting more incensed and raising his palms to cup the air): Assholder!! Assholder!!

* * *

U (describing FINGER): F**k you! F**k you!

: Whaaat?

: This is what you use when you F**k you! F**k you!

* * *

Me (describing POEM): This is what G writes!

E: Poetry?

Someone (I forgot who): Trash?

* * *

U (nagmamarunong, after G found it difficult to describe SALMON): Dapat sinabi mo, G, "Blank Rushdie."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Most of the time I work at S.O.H.O.—Small Office, Home Office.

I don't receive 13th month pay or health insurance or a sack of rice. I have no Kris Kringle during Christmas. I miss the jump-up-and-down joy over non-working holidays that suddenly sprout during the week. I buy my own stapler, envelopes and toner. I pick up stray paper clips because, hey, when you're paying for your office supplies those clips can dent the budget. I suffer the commute and long lines to file my income tax, get a cedula, claim registered mail, photocopy documents, pay my IBP dues. I'm my own janitor when the cup of coffee crashes to the floor.

Before I junked law for writing, I had my own secretary to spurn cold calls, make restaurant reservations, assign a messenger to pay my credit card bills, tally my expenses, or find a spare safety pin while I frantically hold on a skirt that unraveled. I had the entire office machinery and budget behind me, so smoothly run and accommodating that even golf lessons (over which I chose diving instead) or Japanese language lessons (Bengoshi desu!) came for free.

I should've had a harder time adjusting to going solo.

I didn't.

I love working from home.

I avoid office politics, run-ins with colleagues, and the obligatory participation in some ghastly Christmas party program. I am allowed to deduct certain expenses from my gross income and lower my taxes. I can drop anything I'm doing when The Coach needs me. And when I'm gnashing my teeth editing a particularly horrendous article, I take a break without guilt: TV, a story, a household chore, a trip to the grocery or the Starbucks hidden inside Cybergate.

I don't have to wake up too early (read: before noon). The most of traffic I encounter is when the sounds of altercating drivers below intrude into my reading or when the turtle pace of cars lining the Guadalupe Bridge catches my eye.

Tackling emails in my nightshirt, without having to brush my hair or teeth, is also pretty neat.

When I crave company, I log onto Twitter to check what my friends are doing. It's my version of the chatter around the water cooler: consultants decrying their clients, new music discovered, reading junkies finishing a book, a touchscreen eee PC being sold.

Every now and then, friends come over to the house and work—fellow freelancers who share a procrastination gene. The mood is relaxed, even with the doom of deadlines, and we put up our feet. It is like working with officemates you are fond of. (There is no such word in American English, but, yeah, I’m not about to edit that.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I'm on forced rest—a happy conspiracy between The Coach and my OB-gyne to ensure the success of our baby program, launched this month to mounting pressure from the family and the clamor of well-meaning friends (and a maternal instinct kicking waaay this late, Julia Roberts be darned). I am to avoid any possible stressor. I try not to bother with crumbs that fall from the table or remember a beloved niece’s unplanned pregnancy. I have license to laze.

But what the hey. Hotwired in my system is a happy-go-lucky stress lever. It activates even when I am happy or on a vacation. It takes a lot for me to keep still. (I, of course, prefer to call it ebullience.)

I hate working; ergo, in my mind, I am not a workaholic. So when my writer-friend Sandra sent me an email from Korea on how God desires me for me to rest, it jarred me, but only a bit. A workaholic, I thought, is one who enjoys working hard and long hours. I don’t. A workaholic is compulsive. I’m not.

But friends—the good ones—they don’t let us get away with specious arguments. Germaine staged an intervention in her apartment last year.

“You’re a workaholic,” she said.

“No, I’m not.” I said. “I just always have a lot of work.”

Silence. And then laughter: much of it incredulous, much of it from me.

The thing is I feel guilty when I rest. I feel guilty when I’m not productive. Mix that with unrelenting slothfulness and a massive dose of procrastination (perhaps arising from perfectionism?), and we’ve got a Janet waiting to explode.

I get my guilt from my mother, whose love language is service. She has borne much of the burden for the family, and there is never time for her, for us, much less for rest. Six children on a schoolteacher’s salary meant there was much to do, much to finish. Her busyness told me: if she stops, the house, our home, our family, will fall apart.

The laziness is all my own, a shortcoming that has hardened into an attitude because I was, growing up, pretty much left to my own devices. “Suma nimo,” my mother would say whenever I asked permission. It’s up to you—appealing to one’s maturity, one’s discretion—you decide. I guess I decided to be lazy, to not exert myself. It was easier, fun, that way. I was a child. I still am, that way.

The perfectionism—the fear of failing—I suffered from my father. Papa, a closet writer, has elegant, extravagant handwriting, with the curlicues and whorls of his letters all set in a flourish. Mama’s writing was neat and coordinated, like that of a schoolteacher who knew she was meant to be one. There was such a tenderness to her letters. I was ten when my father asked me to write in a card meant for my uncle in Marikina. My writing was still finding its place, my hand unsteady in its youth. He took one look at what I wrote, clucked, and said, “Kabati nimo’g agi!” Your handwriting is awful.

Three years ago I finally understood it was around that time I stopped writing the stories and poems I started when I was seven. I didn’t plan on stopping. I didn’t even realize I did. And I had forgotten that incident. It took me twenty-four years to return to that first love, to acknowledge it as such. I am glad I rediscovered writing, though now I still struggle to allow myself to fail. (I thank Joseph Chilton Pearce who said, “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”)

The beauty of God’s love—which I discover in fresher, very real ways each day—is that it allows me to see myself the way He does, unsullied by my own unforgiving eyes or those of my parents. I don’t have to do anything to merit His grace. I give Him joy, just as I am, and there is nothing I can do to add to or take away from that incomprehensible, all-encompassing love. I do not need to perform for Him.

It is true, what Sandra sent my way last year, that God does want me to rest, not just from my labors, but also from my mixed-up conceptions of what I ought to be and what I ought to do. To cut the ties of a past that can torment the present, I pray in the Spirit to break the yoke of guilt, burden-bearing, laziness and perfectionism I find in myself. I forgive myself—are we not often tougher on ourselves than on others?—even for the ways I responded to negative things in my life, and those who allowed those things in my life.

And I will rest.

The lovely cartoon is by the talented and inspiring Inkygirl.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Just like that

Writing here feels strange. I'm not the same person I was since my last post.

How to explain?

My closest friend in law school died on a Wednesday late September. Or a Thursday. We're still not sure when. I rushed to the hotel where she was discovered, but I couldn't go up to her room to help identify the body. I didn't want to remember her steeped in blood and in what looked like signs of struggle. Three days later, ABS-CBN would flash scenes of her and the lacerations, the tangled sheets, the knife, the cord, the cutter, the duct tape. And I couldn't look away. It had been a year since I saw her last, and in the mess of the moment, all I could think of was if her left shoulder was still higher than her right.

We shared the same name. We imposed the same acid test for our dates: their inner thighs must not rub against each other and they must know how to kiss. (Alas, The Coach had cornered me early in my life, so I never had the opportunity to try out the test.) We created our own vocabulary, like twins, and earmarked certain legal provisions (Article 25, Civil Code, on “thoughtless extravagance in expenses for pleasure”; Article 247, Revised Penal Code, on crimes of passion)—it was one of the ways to survive law school. In the summers between semesters, she in Manila and I in Cebu, we wrote each other 20-page letters, back when there was no email or easy access to computers. Then we started working, and this time we shared summers. Each January we'd bring out our Filofaxes, plot the holidays, save money, and on all long weekends we'd hie off somewhere, often to the beach where she’d swim and I’d dive. Even when I married we still kept to a few of our yearly jaunts.

We were easy with the term best friend, back when it didn't seem to require too much of each other. Somewhere along the way, the term sounded high-schoolish, uncertain, like a trend that didn’t catch up with the times. Our differences—did they multiply? were they there in the first place?—caught up with us: she couldn’t understand what she called my “extra long good faith,” and I couldn’t understand why she frowned, hard, when applying her makeup.

Her leaving was sudden—what leaving isn’t? But this, this was all for the wrong reasons, reasons I could’ve gauged had we been in each other’s lives the last year, extending our communication beyond texting and calls and gifts left with the lobby guards. Perhaps I wouldn’t have understood—I still don’t—but I would’ve at least been there.

I'm still saying goodbye, and haven't found the words for it.