Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes


Becoming a digital teacher 0

Posted on July 19, 2020 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star ) – July 19, 2020 – 12:00am

I have been teaching online for one and a half months now. I opened two classes on songwriting last end of May.

I have always loved teaching. I enjoy teaching especially in a classroom setting. I love the interaction between me and my students. I have been teaching on and off since 2001 and I have always showed up for every class prepared and ready to share everything I know about the subjects I teach.

Since the start of the pandemic, mostly everything has changed drastically. It seems like everything we used to do before has been altered somewhat by the dictates of safety and survival. And since social distancing is now the new normal, the traditional classroom setup, for the most part, has become a danger zone.

But because education must continue, it has now been reinvented to respond to the COVID-19 threat. Whereas before, a teacher had to be physically present teaching students face to face, all interactions now have been strictly online.

The Zoom app is now the new classroom. When I announced I was offering songwriting classes on social media, I was immediately amazed. Students of different ages signed up. My youngest student in class is 10 years old and the oldest is probably in her mid-50s. Geographically, there are no boundaries except for the time differences. Students signed up from places around the globe — the Philippines, US, Canada and Australia. I limited the total to 15 students per class to make sure I can pay attention to each student.

I hold one class on Mondays and Wednesdays, and another on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In Manila, classes start at 11 a.m. up to 12:30 p.m. Australia is two hours ahead and begins at 1 p.m. Meanwhile the time’s around 7 p.m. in California and almost midnight in Toronto. It is a prerequisite that all students must be able to play an instrument.

My biggest worry before deciding to hold classes online was whether I could adjust to a situation where I was not physically present for my students. I imagined that it would be quite “cold” compared to a traditional classroom setting that was warm and lively. I had also read articles about how Zoom meetings can be so draining. I have friends who run their businesses and meetings through Zoom and they complain that constantly looking at the monitor for hours can be vey tiring and energy draining.

Anticipating all this, I made sure that certain things were set up in a way that made conversation and exchanges less trying and more pleasant. For one, I make sure that I am properly lit so that people do not have to strain to see me onscreen. I also ask my students to face a good light source so that everyone can read each other’s facial expressions better.

I also make sure everyone is given their time to share their homework with everyone else and have the opportunity to ask questions as often as they wish. I also put up Messenger groups, and a page on Facebook for each class to make announcements, get feedback and comments on each other‘s creative work. They are encouraged to post their songs for everyone to listen and learn from one another. Lastly, I encourage everyone to consult with me privately about the class if they feel they need to.

I open the Zoom classroom about 15 minutes before class to make sure that everyone can fix whatever technical glitches they may experience before the session starts.

I have noticed that by constantly asking for feedback, my students are encouraged to share their thoughts about the lessons. I would hate to attend a class where a teacher talks for 20 minutes straight (or even longer) without interruption. I like rapport and I see it as essential for both teacher and students to develop. In truth, student and teacher are both changed after every session. Each one in the digital classroom takes something home.

In many ways, the methods I used to employ in a physical classroom also work in a digital online setting. A subject must still be presented in an interesting way. A teacher must be lively, and probing. He/she must be able to actively listen. And a teacher must ask students to “playback” the lessons to make sure they understood them.

A month and a half of online teaching has given me a purpose, a sense of being alive every day as I spend 90 minutes with my students from four countries. COVID has paralyzed us into fear for too long. I am happy to teach, and even happier my students are learning. I know that some of them will excel in songwriting someday soon. And I know all of my students will at the very least develop a keener perspective on how to listen to songs and write their own.

Throughout the ages, there have always been teachers and mentors. I imagine that centuries ago, teachers used the ground, slabs of stone or walls on caves to draw and communicate their thoughts to their students. It was a long jump from there to the use of papyrus paper, and another leap before man invented the blackboard. And now we have the digital classroom.

Throughout all the ages and eons of time, one mysterious truth remains true. It is this: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. It also goes the other way around.

Only this time, it is virtual.

Feeling good despite everything 0

Posted on June 28, 2020 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star ) – June 28, 2020 – 12:00am
I know we don’t hear this very often from friends nor do we come across this sentiment easily these days. But here it goes:

I feel good.

At this exact moment while I am writing this, I can say I even feel great in all aspects.

It is the season of winter here in Sydney where I am living right now. I am happy, motivated, and feel a surge of energy returning to me. My body is strong. My disposition is positive. My spirit feels uplifted.

The specter of COVID-19 does not haunt us here in the way it does everyone in the Philippines and in many parts of the world. We have had zero cases in the entire state of New South Wales for more than two weeks now. I have not even worn a mask in days. And we pretty much live our lives almost the same way that we used to in pre-pandemic times. Even social distancing here is quite relaxed compared to how people practice it in Manila.

I am not sure if that is the main reason why I feel the way I do right now, although I know it surely brings a sense of relief knowing I and my family will most likely not be infected by this deadly virus. That is practically a certainty. And that is a big deal.

Or maybe it’s because it is winter. I have always liked the crisp air, the cold, the transformation that the season brings to everything. Winter makes me feel insulated and safe, perhaps because I am covered up in warm clothes, safe like a newly born infant all wrapped up in a hospital.

Or maybe because I may unknowingly be in a new cosmic cycle of life I don’t know about yet. Whatever it is, I am grateful that I feel the way I do these days.

Last night, I wrote a song the way I used to write 20 years ago. I put down the melody and lyrics very quickly. Done without too much effort. I felt a laser-like concentrated focus as I sat down with my guitar and a pen in hand while scribbling the words. The lyrics flowed abundantly. They left my hand so freely and naturally and rushed to affix themselves on the paper. The process was elegantly wonderful. And almost effortless.

The art of doing anything well is to do it with the least resistance. You simply flow into it. In many ways, you become it. You can compare yourself to a river. It knows where it should go. It knows its purpose. It does not make decisions nor feel any compulsion to do anything else. Its existence is its purpose. When I wrote the song last night, it was like self-validation.

I am happy because I have been in The Flow for the past few days. My mind has not been entertaining dramas and complications lately. This is not something I have willed to happen. I may have just unconsciously found myself not entertaining misgivings, or doubts or negativities that can often take over when I am in a creative mode. The dark forces are out of the room. Right now, I do not want intellectual analysis, self-criticism or ego to run my life. I just want things to simply unfold as they should. A flower blooms. The rain falls. The wind blows. All these happen without permission, reason or will. Life is as it is.

There is poetry and enchantment in everything. That is the vibe I have been getting from the Universe. And I have been in tune with this lately.

There are house chores that always need to be done again and again. I simply try to do them without fuss. Hanging the laundry, folding clothes, mopping the floor, sweeping the dust, fixing the bed, cooking breakfast —all these I embrace. And because I do, I have learned to delight in them. They only hurt when I try to resist or escape from the inevitable.

One of my favorite activities the past few months is exercise. I do this three or four times a week for more than an hour. I have been consistent for months now. I can proudly and truthfully say I am committed to exercising my body and to taking care of myself. I consider it a noble task each time I exercise. I am delighted when I defy gravity. It means I am alive. And each time I do it is a special time. Doing the routines is a challenge for my 68-year-old physique. At times, I am almost out of breath. But breathing in all that air while trying to slow down the pace and consciously watching my heart rate go down to normal gives me a psychological rush. There is so much going on inside of me. The mindfulness I apply to understanding my body can feel like a spiritual experience.

In exercise, there is the struggle to keep your body in good form, to do the reps, to finish each routine religiously. I have learned that I do not just withstand the pain; I thrive on it. The “No pain, no gain” mantra is real. The power of great effort indeed brings rewards. There is the release of endorphins that gives me a happy mood for many hours after. And there is also the feeling of achievement when I conquer myself.

I started this article by saying I feel great. I really do. But please don’t get me wrong.

I still am very much in touch with the news of what’s happening in the world, especially the Philippines. I hear from classmates, relatives and friends back home who are undergoing great financial and health crises. I read about the pain, fear and anxiety of life back home in these times. I also harbor some guilt that I am not suffering as much as the rest of my countrymen. Yes, I also feel all these negative emotions. I get frustrated, angry, anxious about where the country is going. Like many people. I also feel helpless.

But I notice that the more I feel the suffering of others, the better I can handle my own feelings of helplessness. For one, I do something however small to ease suffering when I see it. I write messages to people who cry out on social media. I condole with people I don’t know who have lost their loved ones. I help in fundraising efforts for the poor who face the specter of hunger. The irony is, while I open myself to more suffering, I feel the pain less. Why is that? I don’t know. Maybe an inner strength takes over when we accept how things are.

I have never attended as many Masses as I have these days. Thanks to the internet, we can have Masses daily without fear of getting the virus. This helps me feel calm down and feel connected to the Ultimate Power behind all things.

As we all watch and wonder what the future of life will be because of this pandemic, I have learned to continue living and figuring things out in my own little life. There is so much life to live. I cannot worry about the past and the future. Neither can I solve the big problems in this world. I know there is only the present to be lived. There is only THIS. Who knows with certainty how things will turn out? All I know is that in this life, there are tasks to do, moments to enjoy, causes to pursue and people to love.

Right now, I am grateful I am in this state.

On the cusp of change 0

Posted on May 31, 2020 by jimparedes

SUNDAY LIFESTYLE

Life always finds a way. I still believe this.

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star ) – May 31, 2020 – 12:00am
COVID-19 has been on our minds since January. It is now the eve of June and, more than ever, this deadly scourge continues to rule over all aspects of our lives.

The poor are helplessly trying to survive this pandemic. Many are falling into the cracks. The middle class is struggling. The rich and powerful are also not spared. Surely, they are also shaken in many ways, maybe even more than everyone.

In the future, the year 2020 will be remembered as the time when those who ruled the world economically, politically and even militarily found themselves humbled by this virus that has wreaked instability in everyone’s lives. They realized that they are not in control of everything. The year 2020 is the year of changing fortunes — mostly for the worst.

It’s unnerving for those in power to realize there is a limit to what they can do. What good is wealth when everyone else is sick? Travel is restricted almost everywhere. And even if you had your own plane, where in the world can you go where it is completely safe? With all your money in the world, you can’t even shop, eat out, or have a good time the ways you used to. For the moneyed class, the only great way to splurge these days is by giving to charity. Donating is one way to feel good while responding to a higher calling.

Nobody knows what the future may bring, but I do know it will not be the same future we imagined in 2019. A big lesson many are learning is that we can only plan so much. This pandemic is an extraordinarily shocking lesson for those who run the world. I am talking of presidents, CEOs, business, social, political and church leaders, scientists, men and women who wield power over the life and death of entire communities.

The pandemic has changed the world. There is no going back whether we like it or not. Many of the world’s old leaders, including those who created the virus, must step aside. They do not have the solutions to the problems. They are a big part of the problem. They must be stopped from shaping the future.

Barack Obama addressed a graduation class recently and told them that they may have to mature faster to be able to engage, survive and even thrive in this new reality. It is time to put an end to things that divide people. We must say no to racism, respect religious differences, accept ethnic diversity, solve the gap between the rich and poor, improve education and make economic opportunities more accessible to everyone, etc.

From all over the world, some of the most successful leaders who were able to contain the pandemic in their own countries have been women. They are Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Angela Merkel of Germany, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, Sanna Marin of Finland. They are all exceptional leaders. I do not wish to draw a conclusion here about the sexes. But I do wish to say that we should not limit ourselves when choosing our leaders. Jacinda was also an actress and a disk jockey before becoming a politician. Merkel had a doctorate in quantum chemistry.

In many places in the world, societies are tentatively lifting quarantine restrictions hoping that the worst is over. But nobody really knows what the outcome will be at this point. I do understand the cautious advice of scientists who wish to proceed slowly and safely. I also get it that people need to go back to work, and that businesses have to run and services must get back to some level of normality. Whichever road we travel is fraught with what ifs and doubts.

I am still optimistic that we can restructure the world to something immensely more livable for everyone. COVID-19 has opened everyone’s eyes.

Life always finds a way. I still believe this. We are on the cusp of change.

I was quarantined in two countries 0

Posted on May 17, 2020 by jimparedes
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Meals would be brought three times a day and left outside my hotel room door.

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HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star 

) – May 17, 2020 – 12:00am

Last April 25, I got a call from Philippine Airlines asking me if I wanted to book a seat to Sydney. Airport activity in Manila had mostly ceased but the Australian embassy had commissioned PAL to allow flights for its citizens and permanent residents. The government wanted them to return to Australia ASAP.

Australia had already banned its citizens from leaving the country as a response to the pandemic. Except for its own people, no one was allowed to enter. And so I was very keen on PAL’s offer since I longed to join my wife and kids during this time of COVID-19. But upon arrival I would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine in a hotel before we could rejoin our families.

Almost two months earlier, I had sent Lydia to Sydney. She had just recovered from severe pneumonia last January after being hospitalised for five days. I thought that her being in Australia would be safer for her. She left hesitantly before the lockdown not knowing when we would be together again. It was uncertain how things would progress in the Philippines, and in the rest of the world. So when I told her about the call from PAL, she pleaded for me to take it.

I left at midnight on April 28, bound for Sydney. Every seat was taken. There was no social distancing. Thank God everyone was wearing masks. The crew on the flight wore something similar to hazmat suits, gloves, masks and see-through face covers.

We landed in Sydney on April 29 at 8:30 a.m. We were lined up and went through initial testing with thermo scanners, and after a brief interview we were brought to our quarantine residence for the next 14 days, the Park Royal Hotel in Darling Harbour.

We landed in Sydney on April 29, 8:30 a.m. Straight from the plane, we were lined up a meter and half apart in groups of 50 and went through initial testing with thermo scanners and a brief interview where we gave our names and seat numbers. Then we proceeded to immigration. After our passports were stamped, we picked up our luggage and boarded large buses that carried, at most, 10 people each to our destination.

We soon arrived at Park Royal hotel, a four-star facility near Darling Harbour. We were met by a police officer who entered the bus and told us to disembark one by one as instructed. When I got out I was asked to point out my luggage and a woman in military fatigue carried my bag inside the hotel.

Inside the lobby, police officers got our personal details and asked us to designate someone to call in case anything happened to us. After a lengthy interview, we were led to the elevators one person at a time. The woman soldier put my bag inside and pressed the 3rd floor button. When I got to my floor, I was met by another soldier who took my luggage and led me to Room 326. He had the key and opened the door. After I entered with my luggage, he closed it.

My room had two queen beds and a large window. This would be my world for the next 14 days. Definitely no visitors allowed. I was also prohibited from leaving my room. Meals outsourced from outside the hotel were brought in three times a day and left outside my door. We could not order from the hotel menu.

To be truthful, I was quite anxious about this forced isolation. I had already been in isolation in Manila for a few weeks and here I was at the start of another one in a smaller, more compact space compared to my house. I would not be breathing fresh air. I was afraid I would get claustrophobic soon.

Three times a day every day, nurses would call to ask if I noticed any symptoms like coughing, sniffles, fever, etc. I would always say no. But on the third day, I casually mentioned that I sneezed three times and ventured that it was due to aircon allergy. That triggered an alarm that got me tested for COVID-19. The very next morning, they swabbed my throat and probed deep inside my nostrils to get mucus samples. It did not hurt but it was uncomfortable. It was all done in about two minutes. They said it would take 24 hours for the results. Yes, I got a little anxious waiting. The next day, they informed me that I tested negative. Thank God.

Before the isolation, I made sure I had some definite routine and activities to do to fill up my days. I wanted to establish some sort of regularity, which I knew would help me. I vowed that I would not allow myself to fall into a depression. If you spend 14 days aimless, without any purpose or achievement, you can get very listless and depressed. I made sure I had a more or less predictable schedule to follow.

Exercising did me a lot of good. I would do four complete exercise routines every other day. On days without exercise, I would do some walking or would run in place. I actually made a path that traversed all across my tiny room; it took 100 steps to complete. In one five-day period, I was able to walk over 20,000 steps. I laughed when I saw the figure on my exercise gadget: I had walked so many kilometers without actually going anywhere!

In the mornings at 10 a.m. local time, I usually attended an online Mass by the Ateneo Jesuits. Sometime during the day, I would sign in online and join an international group of Zen meditators and do a 25-minute session sitting in lotus position. Those two activities were very helpful in maintaining my psycho-spiritual wellbeing.

All in all I had 40 meals throughout my stay. Breakfast was usually corn flakes, bread, yoghurt, a fruit and instant coffee in a paper bag. At noon, it was instant noodles, crispy sushi, salad and a huge sandwich. Dinner was steamed veggies, rice and beef cooked in a variety of Indian flavours, and some canned fruits for dessert. For variety, Lydia sent me some cheese, ham, biscuits, cookies, fruits, mixed nuts, etc. This augmented the nutritious but taste-challenged meals I was having daily. I am also thankful that my daughter Ala sent me two hot Asian meals via UberEats as a respite from the boringly predictable meals I was having.

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I spent hours looking out my window. The view to my right was a very limited view of the picturesque Darling Harbour, mostly blocked by a fence. In front of me was a skinny tall building, and on the right of it was an ongoing construction of a building that looked like a humongous ship made of glass and steel. On the left were two identical buildings owned by the Commonwealth Bank, which was dark and empty during the day but lighted and bustling in the evenings.

The days moved on, sometimes quickly, sometimes very slowly. On certain days, I could feel loneliness and ennui creeping in. But I probably drove them away each time by generating feel-good endorphins through exercise.

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My son Mio sent my guitar over. I was glad. I played it daily at whatever time I felt like. I was able to finish composing a song I had started in Manila and wrote an entirely new one.

On the 13th day, the morning before I left, the doctors and nurses went to my room to check on me one last time. My temperature was 36 degrees. Perfect. They then gave me my police and medical clearance and told me I could leave the next day. That afternoon, the hotel staff sent me a bottle of sparkling wine as a gift for finishing the isolation. I thought that was a wonderful, classy way to end my stay.

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I am safe and warm in our Sydney home as I write this. I am grateful to God that I am over this 14-day isolation. I know it wasn’t anything close to a Survivor episode or anything physically challenging. It was mostly a mind game that I overcame and won. In short, I was able to maintain my sanity.

In 14 days, I consumed less than a bar of soap and one small hotel-sized tube of shampoo. I used up less than two rolls of toilet paper, less than half of a regular sized toothpaste tube. I had one change of bed sheets, used three towels and only had two changes of clothing. I washed them alternately. To get my fix of vitamin D, I would occasionally open the curtains in the afternoon and bask in the sun for three hours while running in place or lying in bed. Unbelievably, I watched a total of less than two hours of TV all that time. I spent about 350 minutes or 5.83 hours in meditation, and countless hours doing jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, cardio and core strengthening exercises, walking, running, playing the guitar, singing and writing new stuff. I also slept a lot and chatted with my siblings and friends.

I have gone through almost 56 days of quarantine in two countries, which means I ate 168 meals all alone. I know that, by itself, this is not so dramatic. But I am proud to have won this little battle against the imperatives brought about by COVID-19. The war is still going on and nowhere near ending. But I triumphed in reuniting with most of my family. We are safe and sound and without physical distancing. Wonderful.

The God of small things 0

Posted on April 26, 2020 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star ) – April 26, 2020 – 12:00am
The big story is still COVID-19. Practically 80 percent of all content in regular and social media is still about the latest updates on deaths, recoveries and new infections. Add the conspiracy theories, fake news and funny memes about COVID-19. That is what people are preoccupied with.

I notice that I have begun to turn off and drop out of the obsession, hysteria and preoccupation with this awful disease. I think I know enough about it. I have probably read too much and know a lot more than most people. And I am tired of being brought into a constant state of fear and being reminded to be vigilant daily. I have decided to ignore a lot of the articles passed on by friends, relatives especially those about the latest, newest concoctions to prevent or cure this disease.

Enough. No more.

People are stuck in their homes paranoid and bored. I think it was Marshal McLuhan, philosopher and ’60s media guru, who said that the price for eternal vigilance is boredom. He is absolutely correct.

Lately, I have started to become more interested in the little human stories I come across on social media about people I don’t even know.

I remember just weeks ago, I used to offer my condolences to the families of people who have died of COVID-19 perhaps once every three days or so on Facebook. Now I come across such stories so often that I actually offer my condolences a few times a day now. When I come across calls for prayer on Facebook, I actually answer back to let them now I am praying for them. At the end of the day when I say my prayers, the list of people I am praying for has become longer and longer.

One story that really affected me was about a young doctor from UST who got COVID-19. She was a young front liner. About 2 weeks ago, when the post first came out calling out for prayers, it seemed like she was a goner by the way they described her situation. She was so weak, and was intubated. Thousands of people must have read the call for prayers. I was one of them. I reposted her story on Facebook, Twitter and a few groups on Viber. The response was overwhelming.

Five days ago, her parents announced on FB that she had turned the corner and was being transferred to a regular room away from those who were still fighting for their lives in ICU.

I was also touched by pictures, photos and personal observations from ordinary people who have posted before-and-after shots of cities, countrysides, Manila Bay, rivers, etc — all showing palpable signs of environmental recovery. The air seems much cleaner. The absence of smog now allows people to see monuments and landmarks from far away, things that had stopped being visible decades ago.

I also notice people posting messages during their birthdays that decidedly have a more spiritual message of gratitude than the usual materialistic wishes.

In our own neighborhood, people have been sharing information on where to get vegetables, meats, juices, fruits, masks and other protective gear. Some kindly neighbors have even offered to give food to anyone who is unable to eat. Our neighborhood has called for idle hands to help pack goods (while observing social distancing and wearing masks) for the few communities of informal settlers near us. Things have changed. All of a sudden, you realise the abundance of good in the world.

My small stories go something like this: I go out to the garden daily and notice the minute changes Lydia’s plants are undergoing. I check on our big Lanka tree with seven hanging fruits. I walk on the grass without slippers to feel connected to the earth while I expose myself under the sun for a few minutes to get my daily dose of vitamin D.

As I do all these, I find myself being so thankful for everything around me.

I am once again sitting in meditation daily as I join dozens, if not thousands, of people around the world who are doing the same thing. We check in online when we start, and check out when we end. I also belong to many Viber groups where I catch up with friends and family daily, and so I still feel a sense of community, even in my isolation.

One thing I do to keep sane is to ask myself the moment I wake up what my goals for the day are. I am talking about specific things I need to do. They do not have to be many. What is important is to get them done to prevent myself from drifting day to day without purpose. Because of this, I have been able to establish some routine that help keeps me sane.

I have made exercise an important goal every other day. Not only do I feel strong, I feel good afterward with all these endorphins swimming around in my body. It is a struggle against laziness that I must overcome all the time. It makes me feel powerful to declare something and to actually do it. I have also become some sort of gym instructor to my kasambahays. I lead daily to exercise and help them keep fit and busy. Another thing we do every day is pray the rosary promptly at 6 p.m.

The rest of the time, I play the piano or guitar and try to learn something new, or even try to write new songs. I also sing a few songs a day to keep me in performance shape. I try to minimise my time on social media and have been successful.

This enhanced quarantine has made me more aware of the little stories that are happening to people everywhere, including my own little stories.

If you have a religious bent, you probably see the hand of God playing throughout the events all over the world. Right now, my life is in micro mode: I am more focused these days on how the God of small things inspires people to do the tiny but important chore of staying alive and sane.

How things are changing right now 0

Posted on April 05, 2020 by jimparedes
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star  April 5, 2020 – 12:00am

Indeed, the world is changing because of the COVID-19 virus. This is the growing observation and conclusion of many. There is fear and sadness and suffering all around. And people expect things to get even worse from this point until they get better. When we as a species get over this, I feel things will not go back to how they were. We are changing right now and, yes, the world is, too. We may be learning a few good things along the way.

On a personal level, here is what I am experiencing.

Because of fear of catching COVID, many families are now showing concern for the state of health of everyone in their household, including their kasambahays. People are checking on each other’s health daily. I have started giving vitamins to my maids and driver and getting them to do a few exercises with me every morning. I know they are getting bored. For their mental health, I have brought out our family collection of jigsaw puzzles so they can spend time doing something together. In our house, we have all become a “family” because of our concern for each other. We all know that any person in the household who gets sick threatens the health of everyone.

We also do one common spiritual activity. We all pray the rosary together every evening at six in front of our gate. This has been going on since Day 1 of the lockdown. I have learned to recite most of the rosary in Tagalog since my kasambahays recite them in the vernacular. This has become an important activity for us. Many in the neighborhood come out of their gates, too, and do the same thing. While observing distancing, we wave at each other as we pray together. We feel a unity with everyone on our street as we struggle to stay alive and safe in this age of coronavirus.

I notice, too, that people are more connected than ever through social media. News passes around instantaneously. Verification is fast. Fake news can easily be debunked. Everyone has become some sort of a media center. And just as quickly, requests for prayers, donations, and all sorts of support are quickly disseminated. There are many fundraising activities going on now and help is coming from many sectors. People are getting out of their immediate circles and are showing greater concern for those who are suffering the most in our society. People are also posting messages thanking our medical frontliners. This can only be good.

I feel that in little ways we be planting the seeds of genuine love and concern for others.

I have not worn shoes since the quarantine started. I have been going through my clothes lately and I noticed I have been wearing the same four sets of T-shirts and shorts in rotation for almost three weeks now. The value I used to put on a whole lot of things is now suddenly under scrutiny and review. And I do not even own a lot of nice stuff.

Take a look at the expensive stuff that you own. What good are your new clothes, shoes, fine bags, jewelry, your expensive car right now? Are they of any value in this time of quarantine? You can’t flaunt or even enjoy them, not when you can’t even go out anywhere. And not when you get news about friends, classmates, neighbors and relatives getting sick and dying. Enjoying your material possessions is probably the last thing on your mind as your own fragility and mortality continue to dawn upon you almost daily. You are now probably more appreciative and thankful for the simpler things — food on the table, another day without sickness. We probably notice acts of kindness more now than ever before.

We may be developing the attitude of gratitude on a massive scale. This can only be better for everyone.

COVID-19 has made us pay attention to the little things we do every day. More specifically, we must pay attention to what we do and how we act almost every moment. To some, it my feel like paranoia since we have to be constantly aware of everything we touch such as groceries, inanimate objects, bannisters, light switches, door knobs, etc. And of course, there is physical proximity to other people. All these may spell life or death.

In the beginning, it may be unsettling. But paying attention is actually an important step in living a higher quality of life.  Paying attention opens you to a higher consciousness because it makes you see a lot more of what’s really going on in your own life. I am talking of things beyond the manifest world.

Think of this quarantine as a forced retreat. It shouldn’t be hard to do since we are actually in the season of Lent right now. It is a good time to take stock of what we really value, and what the meaning of everything is. It is an opportunity to go beyond simply reciting prayers, into actually pondering what our mostly inherited religious beliefs really mean to us.

It is a time to meet our inner selves and get deeply honest.

Reflections during a lockdown 0

Posted on March 22, 2020 by jimparedes
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star 

) – March 22, 2020 – 12:00am

I find myself thinking and reflecting many times a day about the COVID-19 virus that continues to wreak havoc on everyone’s lives. I am trying to observe and understand everything I can beyond the daily reports about the sick, the dying, the dead, the recovered, the local geographical spread and projections. I wish to understand what is going on beyond the economic, political and health consequences. I am more interested in the psychological, philosophical, spiritual undercurrents that are playing here.

This will not be one coherent essay. It will be a collection of thoughts that came to me during the first few days of the lockdown.

Here they are.

March 17

COVID-19 is forcing us to physically stay away from friends, workmates, crowds, places to eat, concerts, movie houses, etc. It is forcing us to be alone, to be quiet and reflect amidst all the noise in the world. The unraveling of the virus is leading each one of us to get in touch with our inner life.

The fear is palpable. People are panic buying. And they do so because they feel helpless about the situation. They delude themselves into thinking they are empowered when they throw money at the problem. Strangely, it makes them feel that, somehow, they can and are doing something to control it. This is, of course, an absurdity, a false consolation. The truth is, panic buyers prevent other people from purchasing their own supplies. They are depriving others of the chance to protect themselves. Thus, those who buy wantonly out of fear of the virus are actually allowing the virus to multiply faster and infect other people.

March 18

God threw humanity a spiritual monkey wrench. All of a sudden, the rules have changed. The first law of life which used to be survival should now be set aside. The greater reality that we are facing runs on different rules. And the reality is, this virus can only be stopped if it is eliminated everywhere. Otherwise, it will keep spreading and may even come back. Nothing else will suffice. Only by saving everyone will this virus be eradicated. We are ALL vulnerable. And so ALL countries must be rendered virus- free. It’s an all-or-nothing scenario. There is no doubt in my mind now that the first rule of life is this: We are all one.

It is so amazing how dedicated the frontliners (doctors, nurses, hospital staff, technicians, and all those under direct exposure to the virus) are for showing up every day and risking their lives to save others. It is a sure thing that we are all going to die sooner or later. But no one wants to die voluntarily. And yet that is what they are ready to sacrifice: they are voluntarily risking their lives so that others may live. That is heroism and greatness. It is the same as what Christ did.

March 19

COVID-19 is already changing the world and life as we know it. And it is happening faster than we realize. Consider that each person alive is actually personally threatened by it. We are all forced to think about our own mortality AT THE SAME TIME. No one is exempted. Social class, race, age, nationality and any other categorization you can think of: these do not matter. This has never happened in human history. The experience is globally felt.

Do I believe that some unseen power is behind all this? Without material proof, I am willing to say yes, definitely! I feel it in the deepest part of me that God is once again entering history to alter its course. We are trapped in a historical trajectory where we are going to end up with a whole planet destroyed by greed, selfishness and alienation. This virus is hopefully getting everyone thinking about their own lives and future. It is forcing a lot of people to think of others. And people are realizing now that we can’t go on living the way we have been living. Mankind is in reflection mode, dreading what will become of all of us after this. And we as one humanity will have to make a collective decision about that.

March 20

Whatever decision we make these days, big or small, is subject to health or sanitation considerations. You can’t behave or live your life like you used to. Every action now has potentially serious health repercussions. For example, every object you touch could potentially have the COVID-19 virus. Or you could have the virus and you could be passing on the infection to something or someone. You can’t do things on a whim like visit a friend, or go to the mall, or just hang out. You must always be alert and conscious. We need to remind ourselves constantly that we now live in a world with new social protocols. What used to be paranoid thinking has become normal.

Social distancing will be especially hard for us Filipinos since we love to socialize with friends, family. We are quite touchy-feely as a people. Almost overnight, many activities, innocent as they used to be, suddenly have become potentially dangerous and threatening. We can’t “beso-beso,” “mano po,” spontaneously hug anymore and not feel we are exposing ourselves and others to COVID-19. In fact, we can’t even go now to birthday parties, baptisms, weddings, graduations, etc.

It is especially sad for us Filipinos to know that what used to be big important family events such as funerals and wakes have become devoid of relatives, friends and other mourners. As much as the immediate family and friends of the departed need people who can give them sympathy, consolation and physical expressions of condolences, they will have to be deprived of it till this pandemic is over.

March 21

We may understand the science of how we can be infected, and what the virus will do to our bodies. We may have figured out what to do to protect ourselves. But it is so hard to understand WHY it is happening.

Just a month ago, life seemed to be so different. Now everything seems bleak, tentative. Our lives are not only on hold as we stay at home to save ourselves and others from infection. Many things that we used to rely on are now uncertain. Will we still have jobs after this? How many of our friends and relatives will survive this? How many years will it take us to recover economically and psychologically?

One thing I am sure of though is once we begin to accept that the sudden decline of the world’s fortunes (including ours) is the start of mankind’s new spiritual journey, we will adapt and learn faster.

Ironically, what is threatening to kill us may in fact make us better people and ultimately save the human race.

Neale Donald Walsch, one of my favorite authors and spiritual teachers, once wrote that all our thoughts, actions, feelings and decisions come from only two sponsoring thoughts: love and fear.

We are watching fear playing out every, day and it is making everyone more fearful. Fear gives us feelings of insecurity and scarcity. And fear is highly contagious.

Let’s try to imagine how we would think, feel and act if we consciously decide to come from love. People will be calmer, more patient and giving. I am sure we can help many more people survive this. We can change the world into something better for the earth’s environment and inhabitants.

As simple as it is, perhaps love is the answer.

Covid19 gone viral 0

Posted on March 08, 2020 by jimparedes
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star 

) – March 8, 2020 – 12:00am

It is the preoccupation of the entire world. It is our biggest worry, fear, and concern. I am talking about the Coronavirus. It has cast fear all over the world. Almost everywhere, people are showing signs of panic as the spread of Covid19 is racing beyond the epidemic stage and becoming a full-blown pandemic. Paranoia has begun in many places and it is manifesting in panic-buying, fear of crowds and even racial discrimination against Chinese since everyone knows that China is the origin of this deadly virus.

I do not know anyone who does not follow the stories and news reports daily about the development and spread of the virus. Many people have started to avoid crowds by shunning malls, concerts, movie houses, etc. People are washing their hands many times every day. People are wearing masks. Travel has slowed down considerably as more people just opt to be safe by staying at home.

I have been thinking about this. In many ways, this is THE virus of our particular era. In the age of globalization, it has spread and infected people on a global scale and is debilitating many nations. At this time where everything is almost communicated instantaneously, the speed of its transmission is faster than other viruses man has known. And those infected may not even show signs of symptoms; Covid19 has literally gone viral in every sense of the word.

For many years now, movies and media have exploited the themes of alien and zombie invasions. People have been consuming such themes as entertainment for a long times. Because of this, I am not surprised that their reaction to the pandemic is the way it is. In such movies, there is a sickness or a virus that is so horrible it transforms infected people into zombies or some deadly, ugly creature. Transmission is via contact with another zombie. In these stories, nobody really knows who the zombies or the monsters are since the infected look like normal, ordinary people until the infection becomes full-blown. And then they become ugly and terrorizing.

People seem to be looking at Covid19 much like a zombie infestation. It can drive people into great fear because the virus-stricken person can appear totally asymptomatic. To a nervous, fearful public, everyone in the world is suspect.

At this stage, there is still a lot we do not know about Covid19. But one sure thing is, it strikes fear in the hearts of a great number of people and causes them to be in a state of panic. Panic itself has also become a pandemic.

As I write this, it is good to know that as of RIGHT NOW, the chances of getting the virus are still lower than someone winning the lotto, except if you live in China. The other thing to know is, the survival rate so far is pretty big except for older and sickly people. Many can take temporary comfort in this until we know more about the virus and where it’s spreading.

This is certainly not merely a health issue. Covid19’s economic impact is already being felt in practically all economies all over the world. Factory closures, megacities are on lockdown; the closing down of many offices and services, travel restrictions, etc. are negatively affecting markets, companies, and trade all over. Financially, socially, psychologically and, of course, health-wise, many will suffer everywhere.

But as in every situation, there is also the bright side.

On the other hand, the closure of millions of manufacturing factories, businesses in China since the end of January has cleaned the air in many places and many cities in China. Where there used to be heavy pollution hanging in the air, the air quality has greatly improved in Beijing and many other locations. People say the haze is gone. Oil imports all over the world have slowed down considerably. Polluted rivers are showing signs of some recovery. This sudden major interruption in manufacturing and economic activity has been beneficial to the environment.

I confess I have asked myself if this virus is nature’s way of reminding us to take pause and see what we have been doing to the earth. Is nature striking back? Is she “correcting” or healing the world by releasing such a virus? I am sure I am not the only person who has asked these questions. And I really do not know the answer.

But I do know that endless march to ever-greater material progress, the obsession with an ever-growing economy, the creation and pursuit of more and more wealth has not been good for the planet. Unbridled greed and capitalism are killing it.

The past 100 years have turned people into consumers enslaved by the thought that the newest, the latest, the upgrade, the “improved,” the next generation of products, the quest for more, more, more are what we must strive for. This has defined for many what the pursuit of happiness is all about. This insatiable thirst for material pleasures has caused so much garbage, pollution, and destruction of the environment. It has also caused so much alienation, meaninglessness, and depression among many people.

And now comes Covid19, which has disrupted the chain that runs the whole mean machine of greed. It is doing severe damage to the manufacturing center of the world. It is putting great pressure on its social balance and threatens its authoritarian grip on its people. And I am not just talking about China. The impact of all this seems cataclysmic and biblical in proportions. I am not a religious man but the recent massive flooding, fires, volcanic threats and now the onslaught of viruses bring to mind the plagues of the Old Testament.

It will be quite long before things get back to normal if they ever do. The worst-case scenarios keep changing almost weekly as scientists continue to learn more about Covid19. One thing sure is, we humans are NOT in control of the situation right now. I do hope we can get a grip on it. But even if we do eventually, the human cost is already great right now.

And since the virus is a direct threat to human life, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the spiritual dimension of our experience of it. An Australian psychologist has pointed out the reason why people have engaged in panic buying. It is because we want to control the situation by throwing money at it. I am sorry to say that a complete stock of toilet paper, canned goods and other groceries, etc. will not save you. Depriving other people of basic needs just so you can survive is NOT the answer.

Maybe writer Joseph Campbell was right when he said that the first rule in life is not the survival of the fittest. The first rule is that we are one! As one humanity, we must solve this. If we think along these lines, maybe more of us will survive this plague.

COVID19

Family! 0

Posted on February 23, 2020 by jimparedes
The author Jim Paredes with (from left) Ala, Zadie, Mio, Lydia,
and Erica

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) – February 23, 2020 – 12:00am

The past three weeks have been all about family. Lydia’s brother Ricky, the doctor in the family, and his wife Chato came over to visit from the US. He was supposed to be here for a medical mission in Taal, but the plan was aborted when it seemed like the volcano was going to erupt anytime soon. It was too late to change plans so they just decided to push through with their trip home. Meanwhile, Lydia’s eldest sister Rosanne and her friend Lorna Ejercito who were supposed to stay in our house for just four days decided to cancel their trip to Thailand due to the coronavirus scare and just stay put in Manila before returning to California.

My daughter Ala, her husband John and their baby Zadie had been staying with us the past three weeks before the rest arrived. My son Mio also flew in from Sydney to attend the wedding of a childhood friend. Our eldest, Erica, decided to fly in from Paris to be with family even just for five days.

It is an understatement to say we had a full house. We had a stream of visitors practically non-stop.

Lydia and I come from big families. On both sides, we have 10 sibs each. We are used to having many people around. Practically every day, our house was brimming with visitors. We all mostly sat around our huge dining table that can seat 22 people. We talked, reconnected, reminisced, laughed and caught up with each others’ lives. There were always at least four to as many as 18 people gathered there at any waking hour.

I enjoy being with Lydia’s sibs. Rosanne, the eldest girl in the Mabanta family, with whom we have traveled abroad on a few occasions, is always great company. She is a real ate who likes to look after everyone. She is also a joyful, generous, funny person who is always great to have around.

The biggest deal for Lydia and I was having all our kids at home. We had not been together since five years ago when Ala and John got married in Sydney. Seeing them around our dining table was such a special occasion. Our children are all grown up and have lives of their own. I mostly just listened to their conversation to see where they were at. I enjoyed hearing their banter, laughter, their stories. It was good to know that at least at this point in time, they all seem to be in a good, happy place.

One highlight was a dinner where Erica, who is slowly making a name for herself as a chef in Paris, whipped up a steak and mashed potato meal. As simple as it sounds, the meal was actually superbly delicious. Her degree at Le Cordon Bleu and her four-month stint at a two-star Michelin Robuchon resto in Paris (Joel Robuchon is a legend in the chef world) had paid off. She learned the secret to making the best steak and mashed potatoes you will ever taste in your entire life.

Ala and John, as a young couple and new parents, are a joy to watch. They are good and very nurturing partners in all ways, especially in their nurture and care of Zadie. As grandparents, we enjoyed Zadie day in day out. She is almost three years old now. We liked staying home babysitting when the couple wanted to have their own time. Zadie is a happy, delightful kid who, we discovered, has great language skills. She uses words like “perhaps,” “otherwise” and “either” with an Aussie accent in their right contexts. She talks incessantly and is quite playful. She loves the company of sisters who are crazy about her.

Mio spent a lot of time with friends. It was good that they liked hanging out at our home just like when they were kids in grade school and high school. They have certainly grown up and are now in their very early 30s with budding careers. From their stories, I was surprised to realize how much their early lives actually revolved around our home. It was great to see them now as adults. Their enduring love and friendship for each other were palpable. They laughed, teased and enjoyed each other. They made each other ninongs to their children and best men at their weddings.

Zadie had an advanced birthday party last Saturday with all the bells and whistles. We hired a big bouncing castle, a huge piñata, good food and tons of children running around everywhere. I remember gathering a few of Ala’s friends and their kids for a photo before they left. Amid the din, everyone heard Zadie say, “Family” right before I took the photo. You could hear a collective “Aww” after.

Every night, Lydia and I would be exhausted and plop into bed only to wake up early and excited to be with family the next day.

What can be a greater happiness than to be with loved ones? A family is something Lydia and I committed to having and nurturing when we decided to spend our lives together. Of course, like all parents, we had no idea what our children would be like or how they would turn out. Just as we raised them, they also raised us in many ways. We learned a lot as we became family.

I think God smiled at Lydia and me and blessed us with great kids. Surely, they are not perfect kids. But we feel that we have raised good human beings who love and have compassion. And two of them have given us wonderful, intelligent and beautiful grandchildren. I hope a few more will come along not too long from now. We can only be so thankful.

All the visitors have gone. We are empty nesters again. It is quiet in the house. But it is not sad. There is a lingering feeling of contentment. We started with just the two us. The children came along. And then the grandchildren. And it is just the two of us again.

We have contributed good people into this world. We as a family have touched the lives of friends, relatives and even strangers. Our home has gifted them with reminiscences to keep and treasure. The memories of this visit will tide us through until we see them all again.

Life is so good.

Writing in ordinary places 0

Posted on February 09, 2020 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) – February 9, 2020 – 12:00am

Although decades have passed, I can still remember when I wrote one of my first songs. I was in my teens on a bus going home from Ateneo de Manila High School. It was around 4 p.m. I had this melody in my head. I kept singing it quietly so I would not forget it. I had already figured out the chords even without my guitar. The song was titled New Day.

When I got home, I immediately picked up my guitar, played the song practically all night to make sure I had memorized it. I remember how great the feeling was to create something out of thin air. I was ecstatic.

I played it for my high school friends a few days later, and soon enough we were singing it during breaks in class, and in the few school gigs we were invited to.

Things were so simple then. If I had a song in my mind, I could remember them by doing exactly as I did when I wrote New Day. And, boy, did I have songs in my head. I was constantly picking up melodies from out of the blue. It was much later, maybe a complete decade or more when I got myself a tape recorder that was small enough to carry around to record the melodies and lyrics in my head.

When I started to make some serious money from writing and performing, I built myself a recording studio. The idea behind it was to have my own ideal place to write and record my compositions. I thought it was a great idea then. I had a beautiful and complete creative space that I hoped would inspire me to keep creating.

Well, it worked for a few years. The novelty of owning a studio got me to write a few songs. It was so easy to get a decent study going with instruments and voices stacked together to make a song sound great. When I would write commercial jingles, I wrote them with ease since I did not have to reserve and rent a studio outside. I could do it at home where my studio was.

After a few years though, the whole setup started to lose its charm. The idea itself of having to sustain a studio started to run counter to my creative process. Yes, it was good that I had a room with great acoustics to write without the outside world coming in to interrupt me while I was writing. But having to be dependent on my technician to turn on the entire studio with all that expensive equipment just for me to hear a simple melody playing in my head was getting to me. It was too much trouble, I thought. I soon realized that having a studio was good for song production but not necessary during the songwriting stage. In truth, I did not need it. I could write without owning a studio before — why did I need this special room now?

Soon, I found myself writing more and more outside the studio. I felt freer. My output actually increased. I wrote in my room, in school, in church during the homily, in my car while driving, etc. as I used to before.

This realization taught me something valuable about being an artist. I did not need an elaborate setup to do what actually came naturally to me. All I needed to do was to open myself, observe and listen to my thoughts and feelings, and just allow my creativity to express them in song.

My artist daughter told me of a similar experience. Ala had been drawing ever since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Growing up, she made journals of drawings. I remember her constantly illustrating something.

When I told her about my experience of having my own studio, she could relate immediately. As an art student years later at Enmore College in Sydney, and later on as a working artist, she used to rent art studios to be able to draw undisturbed. Sure, she could draw at home but she felt she could be more prolific inside a quieter setting. Or so she thought. Looking back, she told me that she actually painted less when she rented those studios. These days, she paints in her one-bedroom apartment that she shares with her husband and baby.

Before she can spread her drawing paper on the floor, she has to pick up all the scattered toys, books, and other stuff to make space. She says that, surprisingly, she is more prolific now than when she had a private place to paint.

I find I have to constantly learn and relearn that the creative impulse I need to access lies inside myself. I do not need an elaborate setup to be able to create anything. But it also does not mean that the world outside cannot move me to write songs and stuff. Events, people, scenery, travel, etc. can and have moved me many times to write books, songs, and articles.

National Artist BenCab showed me his elaborately beautiful studio on his Baguio property where his museum is located. But he said he still prefers to use his old, cramped, less-than-ideal studio where he did most of his earlier paintings.

American author Stephen King, in his book On Writing, notes how his early books were written under rough conditions. He wrote them on the backs of used paper during his free time in between jobs that paid the rent. When he had earned his first few millions, he bought a beautiful huge desk and set it up in a room with perfect lighting in his new house. It was to be his exclusive creative space. He banned anyone from entering it. The room was for his writing only.

Soon, he realized that he could not get himself to write like he used to. Eventually, he moved the desk to a corner and settled for a smaller one, and he allowed his kids to play in the room whenever they wanted. He eventually got his mojo back. “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around,” he wrote.

There is also a Zen saying that I’ll paraphrase: “You do not need to cover the world in leather. Just wear shoes.”

You do not need perfect conditions to do art. You do not even need inspiration. This idea of having to feel inspired is so trite and unrealistic. You can be your own source of inspiration. I know I do not need an earth-shaking experience to move me to write although it helps when muses do show up. I cannot expect the world to adjust to me. I have to do my work almost under any conditions. I just have to get in touch with myself.

Everything I need is already inside me. I just have to actually do the work.

NEW DAY

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