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Monday, January 30, 2012

Ablaze



The church bell was banging non-stop and there was a commotion downstairs. I went down lazily in my green striped pajamas and asked what was happening. We all went out and people are pointing up at the sky.

There it was, high atop beyond the towering houses are massive black smokes trailing up relentlessly. People are shouting and running everywhere. Then came sprinting towards us was my cousin’s house helper.

“Nasusunog yung bahay sa harap ni Ate Grace! (The house in front is under fire!)”

I quickly went back inside the house, grabbed my bike and hopped on it. Ate Grace’s house is a few kilometers away from us. It was very windy that day and I thought it’s not impossible that the fire might jump onto other houses around.

The scene was pandemonium. Even at a certain distance, the heat of the blazing fire was overwhelming, countering that of the cold morning breeze of January. I saw my cousin, Ate Grace, holding my four year old niece, Miel, in her arms. She was crying as she handed Miel who quickly enveloped me in a tight embrace. She’s scared, I thought.

I tweeted about the situation, made a Facebook status and called someone at work.

The house where the fire started is home to seven families. It was half concrete but mostly old lumbers and plywood. Old tarpaulins with faces of last election runners used to cover the front for some afternoon shade. Seven siblings, with a family of their own, sharing a single house. They have no electricity, I was told. They could afford no more of the monthly bills. Most of the siblings have no jobs, even their spouses, and are merely depending from the mercy of other siblings working aboroad. Now, fire is rapidly eating them up, turning everything into ashes and smokes.

The air is thick with helplessness. Men carrying pails of water are scurrying, trying to splash down the glaring fire to no effect. Children are crying in a distance as they watch their home tearing down in front of them. After a while or so, trucks of firemen came. Their siren sending more chills to the neighborhood than relief.

Then came a man, crying, walking towards us. His name is Manny. He dissolved in front of us.

“’Yung pera ko. Lahat ng ipon ko, wala na. Nasunog na. (My savings, all burned down. All gone.)”

No one muttered a single word as we all watch Manny lament the loss of his possessions. One could probably understand the frustration, having a one year old kid and a wife, with nothing for shelter, nothing for food. He quickly got up, punches the concrete wall with his dank fists as she shouts incomprehensible words. The men pulled him away. Both of his fists went bleeding.

Then a sound of a woman, wailing. She just came from work only to find out her house also burned down. She held her chest, as if catching air to breath with difficulty. She passed out as people shouted for an ambulance. Authorities are shouting instructions. Some are managing the traffic, others maneuvering firemen’s operation. Out of nowhere, a small voice spoke in my ears.

“Tito, wawa. (Uncle, it’s pitiful.”)

It was Miel, my niece. I hugged her tight and decided we should just go inside their house. I gave her to their maid.

People watched from a distance. We all did. And I knew all of us wanted to do something, but just couldn’t think of anything, as if the world stopped for that moment. When the fire is still angry, the smokes trailing up, children, women and even men crying, sirens and red lights trying to drown out the scene.

Then a call, and that time I knew what to do. I composed myself, waited for my cue, and in my modulated voice, I spoke…

“Kasalukuyang tinutupok ng apoy ang may hindi bababa sa apat na kabahayan dito sa Barangay Mambog, Malolos, Bulacan…” (At least four houses are under fire here in the town of Malolos, province of Bulacan.)

_____________

Caedite, vexate, ligate vinculis! 
(Murder, harass, bind into chains!) 
Caedite, vexate, ligate vinculis! 
(Murder, harass, bind into chains!) 
Caedite, vexate, ligate vinculis! Saul! 
(Murder, harass, bind into chains! Saul) 
Caedite, caedite! Ligate! Saul! 
(Murder, harass, bind into chains! Saul) 
Vexate, vexate, vexate Saul! Saul! 
(Harass, harass, harass Saul! Saul!) 
Vinculis, condemnate vexate! 
(Chain, prosecute and harass!) 
Condemnate! Condemnate! 
(Prosecute! Prosecute!) 
Why do you persecute me? 
Why do you persecute me? 
Why why why? 
Fall down on your knees, turn hatred into love. 
Turn darkness into light. 
Bow down, Saul! Bow down, Saul! 
Saul, Saul, Saul. 

-from Z. Randall Stroope's "Conversion of Saul" (an SSAATTBB choral piece)

listen here
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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Javier

Regret, they say, always comes when it’s too late. But for the seventy year old Tatay Javier, regrets, he said, are futile. In the fading years of his life, he’s not even asking for forgiveness. All he wants is a quiet life, to reminisce his golden years of prime while relishing the remaining days in this world who can’t seem to forgive him.

“Ako si Javier, sitenta anyos. October 2007 nang dalhin ako dito sa Anawim Home of the Abandoned Elderly.”

Among the over fifty elderly of Anawim, Tatay Javier is different. He actually has a family living in Mandaluyong in a house he built by his years of working abroad. Not rich, but with a wife and three professional daughters, life should be a lot easier for him.

“Naging ano ako…pumunta ako sa giyera sa Vietnam, nag-trabaho ako sa Saudi. After that nung nawalan ako ng trabaho, nag-litson ako, nag-manok ako, nag-gulayan ako. Lahat ng hanap buhay pinasok natin.”

But Tatay Javier is no saint. He admits having his fair share of trailing the damned path.

“Noong araw nagmamaneho ako ng jeepney may baon akong alak, umiinom ako. Kung saan huminto ang jeep ko puntahan mo ako doon, nakikipag-mahjong ako. ‘Yan marahil ang ikinagalit nila sa akin. Wala akong nalalaman na dapat ikagalit kundi yung bisyo ko nga na inom ng alak at sugal.”

His family deserted him. Tatay Javier didn’t utter a word. He packed his things, armed with only a folding bed, he camped in the street just across the very same house he built for his family.

“Yung anak ko dadaanan ako dyan ni hindi man lang magmano o gumalang, oh tatay andyan ka pala, o yung kumakain halika na kumain ka na. Wala na. Ano pa nga bang pag-uusapan namin? Wala na siguro.”

It was Lucita, Tatay Javier’s younger sister, who arranged matters with Anawim to have his brother taken under its custody. Of five siblings, they are the closest, she says.

“Masakit. Napakasakit para sa ‘kin. Nung unang gabi nga, umiiyak ako, kaya lang tinanggap ko na rin. Siya namismo nagbo-volunteer kaya sumang-ayon na ‘ko. Mas masakit naman na makita ko siya sa kalye.”

Anawim, for Tatay Javier, is his second chance to live a simple life, away from the bustling crowds and demons that the city brought him.

“Nandito ako ngayon…tawagin ko itong Paraisong Lupa. Oras-oras nagdarasal ka at oras-oras kumakain ka. Pagkakain mo matutulog ka. Ano pa bang tawag mo dyan, di pa ba paraiso yan?

He even boasted that since he took shelter in Anawim, his health just got better and better.

"Aba, malakas tayo, malakas! Malakas tayo! Nakita ninyo nakapanhik ako nang walang alalay, pumanhik ako diyan nang walang alalay. Pero noong kararating ko lang, hindi ako makapanhik dyan, nanginginig ang buong katawan ko. Pero ngayon, panhik panaog na ako dyan. Hindi naman tayo si Fernando Poe na maraming kwarta eh. Ang kinukuha lang ang maraming kwarta (laughs).”

But beneath the jokes and Tatay Javier’s boastings of his famous lechon, as he stares beyond the towering trees of Anawim, there’s a faint twinge that he’s still hiding somewhere.

“Nakiusap ako na kung may dadalaw isa man sa pamilya ko, ‘wag nang patuluyin. Ayaw kong maalala ang mga pangyayari." 

Tatay Javier paused for a long silence.

“Isa lang ang matatanggap ko dito, ‘yung apo kong lalaki tsaka yung kapatid kong bunso (Lucita). Yung batang yun mula pagkabata nun ‘pagka umui yan at nagbakasyon, pupuntahan ako sa aking higaan, aakayin ako nun at ‘tay halika na manood tayo ng basketball’ kaya napamahal ako. Siya ang susi. Kung hilingin ng bata na ang nanay niya papasukin, baka bumigay ako.”

“Kung itinuturo ng Panginoon bakit hindi? Walang magulang na ‘di nakaka-alala ng anak. Anak mo pa rin ‘yan. Ngayon kapag magulang ang sumama, masamang-masama.

Despite having witnessed the shoutings and ill-treatment of his brother’s family, Lucita got one wish.

“Gusto kong patawin siya ng pamilya niya. Nadudurog ang kwan ko. Naaawa ako. Hindi ko pinapakita. Dito (puso) lang lahat.”

At the end, we asked Tatay Javier what is his prayer now.

“Panginoong Hesus patawarin po ako sa aking mga sala at nawa’y gabayan ninyo po ako sa magdamag na pamamahinga ko. Huwag mo po silang pabayaan, ang aking pamilya. Salamat po ng marami." 

___


*** 

Our team managed to find one of Tatay Javier’s daughters, a top professor in some distinguished private college institution within the Metro, for her side of the story.

She declined. 

She said she doesn't want to talk about his father anymore. 

***

Anawim is a lay mission foundation that provides shelter for the abandoned poor elders. For donations and information please visit their website at www.anawim.com.ph

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I am a man, not a saint

I intended this to be a letter of apology. I wanted to take back many things I’ve said, things I’ve done which cost both of us much, then and now. But sometimes, even writers don’t have a command on words. They fly fast nowadays; stubborn yet canoodling. 

So this, ladies and gentlemen, is where words brought me. Once again, to a concert of boorish words stringed together without a hint of decency to provide coherence, I bring you this. 

I’m not saying sorry anymore. I’d rather be a painfully arrogant man than betray myself, again, with such humble words. I won’t say sorry for holding on to hate, for it drove me far from where I was before; stripped of dignity and of person. I won’t say sorry for sabotaging my happiness, even his. I just couldn’t allow the fact that while the world is happy, while the world is kind to him, to them, I’m being whipped mercilessly as I count the stone slabs in my cold cell. Seventy two thousand five hundred nineteen. I’ve counted them many times. 

I’m not taking back those, my words, my rage, the curses even the prayers. I have given the world so much and as much as I would defy anything to take many things back, I know I just couldn’t. Like time, those faithful nights, that part of me in him, my youth, and of course…love. But one thing I’ll take back and in great effort I swear I will: my forgiveness. 

The thing about saying sorry is you tend to forget yourself just for that moment to think of others; an admirable trait in a world slave to Narcissus. So I’ll give myself some good this time. 

Last night when I was walking home from work, tired and all from the complicated battle of speeches and papers and from a two-sentence message that slapped me late, I noticed it was a clear night sky. The staggering infinite constellation of stars before me was overwhelming. It was a very long time since I last look up at the night sky and admire the splendor of those distant creatures of the universe. They’re like sparkling tears threatening to fall from a woman’s beautiful face. I wondered what have I been doing for the past years that I didn’t stop, all those nights that were spent wandering on the cold streets under the shade of electric stars, instead of dreaming about open skies. 

I wanted to say sorry to myself because of the many things I did, the many wrong turns despite the many cautions. But it will break my recent proclamation against it. Besides, what will it accomplish? 

“He’s told me a lot of times how sorry he was. But he never asked, not even a single time, for my forgiveness. Or admit what he did to me was wrong.”

-Hidden Journal

I have no new words for myself or for anyone. Here I am, counting stars in my limited fingers. I’m not saying sorry anymore. For there is truth to my rage, to my selfishness, to late night phone calls, to novenas, to stolen touches, to excruciating pains of betrayal, of spite, and of condescending lies. Maybe in another life, or in another universe, we’ll find a new way to say sorry. Or better, a new way of forgiving. 

Weekend, around 5 in the afternoon, on our way home, we stopped by in a restaurant along North Luzon Expressway. After dining, we just sat there at the van while the kids play and ran around. My 2 year old niece, Miel, who shrieks in high commanding voice as her cousins leave her behind, fat legs and uncomfy Pampers just couldn't make up in catching speed, always finds herself at lost when the youngesters start to rumble as she was the youngest. She would yell and say “stars! stars! stars!” jumping, a finger pointing up to the fading sky above. This, her older cousins, would just ignore, thinking she’s making it up just to be able to catch up. The sun, after all, is still streaming its golden-before-dawn streaks of light. But as I look up, I saw them. There they are, stars, sparkling in their faintest light before the powerful sun. In a while, as darkness begins to unfurl, their beauty is unmatched. 


___________


Tu vois, j’suis pas un homme 
(You see I’m not a man) 
Je suis le roi de l’illussion 
(I am the king of illusion) 
Au fond qu’on me pardonne 
(After all, I may be forgiven) 
Je suis le roi, le roides cons 
(I am the king, the king of the fools) 

J’ai fait le monde a ma facon 
(I’ve built the world in my way) 
Coulé dans l’or et le béton 
(In concrete lined with gold) 
Corps en cage et coeur en prison
(A caged body, a prisoned heart) 
Moi je tourney, en rond, je tourney en rond
(Yes, I go round in circles, round in circles) 

-from Je Suis Un Homme (I am a man) by Zazie
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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Paper faces



He was wearing a faded red trouser and even from afar, I can see the tiny holes near the right shoulder, a black maong shorts that used to be long pants, and on his neck, a plastic sling bag that says Nike in front, with its usual huge check trademark. 

He was crouched beside two plastic bag-full of garbage. On his other side were his stack of pirated DVDs he sells to some sleepy commuter like me waiting for a ride in that bus station at the howling center of Cubao. He was counting money, more twenty bills and few hundred bucks. He folded them a few more times then tucked it in the inside of his underwear garter. 

As he rises, the orange ray of the halogen light hits the boy’s face. I noticed he was handsome, not too far from JM de Guzman’s boyish face, dark, one who always have this ready cute smile to anyone who approaches. He has this small black mole near his mouth, hair spiked atop, lean body and probably stands between 5 feet and 6 or 7 inches. He looks younger than me, 20 or 22, I supposed. 

And then I had to wonder , cursed with an imagination that transcends reasons and logic, I saw the same boy wearing tight vintage jeans, a short sleeved polo with buttons open enough to boast his young budding chests. He’s to be seen strutting his stuff, flashing his youthful charm to loitering men and ladies of the quiet night. 

When dark is over, he is to sit in some fast food restaurant, drinking coffee or perhaps some early morning breakfast, counting his money. This time, there are no more few twenty peso bills, but few hundred bucks and more of thousands. 

He could pass as a masseur. He could be an escort boy, a boy toy of some bored family guy in his mid forties, a hustler or a con artist. He got the looks others would simply die for just to have them. So I wonder why he chose to sell pirated DVD movies. 

I wonder why people choose to do things that they choose to do and why choose not to do the things that people don’t. I used to believe that we pattern this parallel to our definition of what’s good and what’s not. But I do not believe that people are naturally good anymore. In fact, I don’t even believe in my own goodness. 

There is this woman who refuses to believe her husband is dead. For the rest of her life, she would lay on bed his morning clothes, prepare dinner and would wait on the door at night for him to arrive. But he never will for he really died in some stupid car accident in some curved road with a sign beside that says “accident prone area, beware.” Yet she will choose to believe in a promise her husband once said. “Forever I will come home to you.” So she will spend the remaining of her life waiting. 

Maybe that’s why the handsome boy in the bus station chose to be a pirated DVD vendor. He chose it not because he’s good, or that he knows that selling pirated goods is just as wrong. Maybe because he simply believes he has to be a pirated DVD vendor. The same way that hustlers choose to be a hustler, that junkies choose to be a junkie or that writers choose to be mad. 

I know they say it’s our choices that defines us. But I think it’s not enough. I think it’s our choices and the way we stand by it. How one stood his ground, that's what really defines us. After all, there’s not much of a difference between a pirated DVD vendor and a sleep deprived news writer.
________

Masquerade!
Paper faces on parade
Masquerade!
Hide your face so the world will never find you
Masquerade!
Every face a different shade
Masquerade!
Look around - 
there's another
mask behind you. 
Flash of mauve.
Splash of puce.
Fool and king.
Ghoul and goose.
Green and black.
Queen and priest.
Trace of rogue.
Face of beast.
Faces.

-Masquerade by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the Phantom of the Opera
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Sunday, January 1, 2012

We beheld once again the stars

I write this when, I think, most of you are already asleep. The last greeting on my phone beeped and it’s already dying. The lights are dimmed and the last slabs of Buffalo wings were swallowed mercilessly. Outside, the air is thick with the stench of gun powder. Inside, there is a revolution going on.

When I was young, I used to think that bangs and smokes are brought to celebrate the New Year. For good luck and in a way, to say “hey New Year, be good to us, eh.”

We did everything, every charm, every tradition with tables pouring and the usual 13-piece fruit tray – we mastered them yearly. Yet tragedies always find their way no matter.

I wish not to be a killjoy and write you about hope, about carols and left and right parties. So let me begin first by telling you this:

Within the span of 2011, billions have died. 15, 842 of them fell down in an earthquake followed by a Tsunami in Northeastern Japan. In February, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, Australia killed at least 182 people; 12 of them Filipinos. Many people also lost their lives in a series of Arab protests. In Syria alone there are at least 1, 300 casualties, 846 in Egypt, 219 in Tunisia, 200 in Yemen and 29 in Bahrain. 

Last March, the People’s Republic of China executed Sally Villanueva, Ramon Credo and Elizabeth Batain due to drug related cases. And then, add up another one who was also executed last December 8. Just yesterday, a conjoined twin, actually a baby with a single body and two heads died out of complications. 

And there are the storms. In May 6, Bebang came and claimed at least 48 people. September 24, Pedring swept away most of the towns in Bulacan and killed at least 83 people. Presently, in Northern Mindanao and some parts of Visayas, we’re still counting cadavers and as of recent count, at least 2, 000 are confirmed dead.

So congratulations to us! Not because we are not part of the figures above. But because we’re not, we have a daunting task at hand.

Imagination is what brings us storytellers to hunt for the next one. So it’s the same imagination we employ now. Imagine the dead. Imagine the suffered. Imagine the dispossessed. Sometimes you don’t need to put more effort in doing so.

Whenever I close my eyes, I still see and hear that wailing lady. They say she’s on the verge of losing her mind. She keeps telling story of a one stormy night, when flood suddenly surge into their home and her kids’ faces went all blue. Clutching each other’s hands, they traverse the mighty rain and the crossing mud. At some point, she loses her 7 year old kid’s clutch and everything went hazy. As she cries and narrates this story, the lady’s conjecture would be: “Ako ang may kasalanan kung ba’t namatay yung anak ko. Nabitiwan ko siya. Nabitiwan ko.”

It’s true that we cannot give them all faces. It’s true that we cannot help all who need help. But once cannot resist his own thoughts. So I write them. Or if you’re a friend, you probably are already tired of hearing almost same stories yet different names in it.

This I’ve learned: We look up at the stars and we see history. For those faraway, stars are long dead, but their lives remain alive, travelling distances of thousands of years to reach our night skies. And so the very moment of gazing, of wishing, is converging past and present.

This is where lies my hopes, my dreams and my convictions. The bangs and smokes are celebration, not to a new, but to a leaving year that brought so many tears and have claimed so many. It is in the same tales and the same figures that I am reminded, my story shall continue. Not because my story is that great, but because I have the task of telling people’s story that they may not be forgotten.

To a new year!

________

Ma la notte risurge
(But soon it will be night and we must rise to the stars)
Oramai e da parti
(Now is the time to depart this place)
Che tutto veduto 
(For we have seen and experienced it all)
Ritonar!
("Keep moving" -return to paradise)
Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni!
(The wings of hell's monarch are heard nearby)
(We must leave quickly)
Ma la notte risurge
(But soon in it will be night)
Salimmo su, tanto ch'i vidi
(I climbed towards paradise with no thought of looking back)
De la cose belle che porta 
(I passed through a small opening)
Ciel, per un pertugio tondo
(And finally saw heaven and the supreme light)
Quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle
(And beheld once again the stars)

-Riveder le Stelle (We beheld once again the stars) by Z. Randall Stroope
 

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