On sex, God and time

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated October 02, 2011

There are areas of our lives that need constant watching and evaluation, that need our attention in a conscious way. These are not duties in themselves although there are some responsibilities involved. We are instinctively and primordially drawn to them and so we cannot help but deal with them. I am talking of sex, God and time.

Our personal growth and evolution are closely tied to how we face issues related to them and how we navigate the stages and levels of understanding and accommodation of these powerful ingredients in our lives.

I remember watching the Ms. Universe Pageant with my daughter and her friend, who were both 12 years old, and I openly commented on how gorgeous and sexy one of the contestants was. My daughter and her friend immediately responded (jokingly) that they were going to “tell Mom” what I just said. I felt that their comment was a signal for me to finally but deliberately talk to my age-appropriate daughter about the birds and the bees.

One of the first things I told her was that sexual attraction is something everyone experiences and, in fact, is a mainstay in our lives. We will all be dealing with the sex urge for as long as we are alive. Sex is an unlimited, renewable resource, one of the key factors that make us feel alive. And we will always find people who are beautiful and even desirable, but we cannot always have access to them for obvious reasons. And so the earlier we find ways to control the sexual urge, the better for us.

As a grown man, I have a different view of sex than I did when I was, say, 14. At 14 and up to my 30s, my mind may have been preoccupied with it 90 percent of the time. These days, it preoccupies me less although I still feel it is one of the most marvelous things about being alive. I can still look at a beautiful woman and feel that rush. But now, I feel that more of the woman must be present. It is not just her physical attributes, but also her mind, emotions, conversation, life’s work or purpose, humor, passion, empathy, etc. that will make me even remotely want to get interested in any allowable intimate way.

A wife or a life partner can be continuously interesting because over time, all of the above can show up in them. And all of them are “on the table,” so to speak, when it comes to sex. The act itself can have a different meaning and flavor because the points of intersection are greater and wider.

When one is young, the physical aspect seems like it is everything. The urge can be “oceanic” and can encompass everything for a while. But as we get older, the struggles and phases we have lived through over the years may unleash new energies that make the experience of sex different. If the metaphor is wine, it would be less tangy, more subdued perhaps, and more full-bodied. Sex as a 10-, 20-, 30-year affair is way different than the one-night stand every young guy fantasizes about.

Does this mean that one is better than the other? The point is, sex is so wide an area of human activity that we will be meeting and dealing with it until we stop breathing. When we change, it too changes. And through the years, its pleasures can become more nuanced, or we may even choose to have less of it, depending on where we are at given times in our lives.

The same thing happens in our relationship with the divine. A man I met once told me that his faith had not changed since he was nine years old. The catechism he knew then is the same as what he knows now and he has never questioned it. My experience is the opposite of his. I do believe in God. I have never doubted His existence. The world and life itself are too awesome and there are too many questions that pop up which the rational mind cannot fathom.

And therein lies the rub. The more our knowledge grows and the more we fathom and solve the mysteries of the universe, the more we realize how much we do not know. With every step forward in our understanding of life, the divine seems to pull us deeper into its eternally spacious, vast and endlessly amazing mystery. The ground of God is endless and will never be fully covered. I feel that my understanding of God just gets bigger and greater and there is no end in sight. This leads me sometimes to realize that maybe there is nothing that is not God.

That may be a bit too pagan for some people, but one thing I know is, the more I question or ask about God, the bigger God gets.

From my personal journey on this subject, the topic of God is elastic. God can be as small or big, meaningless or meaningful, kind or cruel, etc. as we want Him/Her/It to be. It’s one of those topics one will never ever outgrow because, strangely enough, God seems to stop growing only when we stop growing.
Now, let’s talk about time. We are all born in the field of time and space. And while we may defy the limitations of space and geography through modern technology, like air and space travel and the Internet and other great new wonders, we cannot defy time. Not even Belo can do that. We are here for just a lifetime. And that is not the same for everyone.

When I was a child many years ago, time always seemed too long. Christmases, birthdays only arrived after months and months of waiting. The three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday seemed excruciatingly long since my mom imposed a ban on music, TV, radio and other media on those days. School took forever and a day. Being “grown up” was never going to happen.

As a teen, it did not get any better. The angst that accompanied passions of lust, ambition and dreams made any waiting unforgivably difficult. It’s a “now” world for young people. I meet fewer kids today who are willing to put in extra years at the university to get more than just one degree.

Even as a young husband then, I felt that the nine months that pregnancies took were just too long. After about the sixth month, I would reach my limit of waiting and almost “forget” my wife was even pregnant. In my mind, I must have half-considered her state a semi-permanent condition and found an accommodation with it. Then I would be utterly surprised when the moment would finally come and she would deliver.

These days, time is an hourglass with the grains descending to the bottom faster than ever. There is little time left for the many things I still want to do. How much of the past should I concern myself with? How much of myself should I still invest in the future? Or should I just spend every waking hour being in the moment?

Truth to tell, that has been my strategy for some time now. When I think of my childhood and the small God I knew then, it seems like a time lost forever, a story told with judgment and finality, a closed book. The jury has spoken.

But when I review my life and everything else with the understanding of God as I know Him now, I look at the past as connected to where I am now and where I will be tomorrow. My life story is not linear in its narrative but spiral, ascending still in a continuing unfolding of new, expanded meanings and understanding. God is still revealing Himself and, yes, He is also still revealing me to myself in this limited field of time and space. I still love life and much of my libidinous energy continues to drive many of my life’s passions in new, creative ways.

I love it that the fascination, and accommodation with sex, God and time isn’t anywhere near ending.

* * *

1) Join me in a Songwriting Workshop on Saturday, Oct. 8. Learn what comprises good songs and songwriting from melodic, structure, lyrics, arrangements, etc. in a very hands-on workshop. Students will actually write songs during class. It is from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 0916-855-4303 or write to jpfotojim@gmail.com for questions and reservations. P5,000.

2) The Art of the Nude — A photography workshop on Oct. 15 from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Write to jpfotojim@gmail.com for questions and reservations. Limited class.

3) Walking Photography Class — Explore a place and learn to capture light, tell a story, frame a photo, and more under different lighting conditions and settings. Class is on Oct. 22. Venue to be announced.

My silver lining

Last Saturday, I flew to Davao to attend the Silver Linings 2011 gathering of breast cancer survivors. Weeks before, Kara Alikpala, its founder and dynamo, had asked me to come and address the crowd.

I must admit I was hesitant for a couple of reasons.

One, although my wife is a breast cancer survivor, I feel unworthy to talk about it before people who have suffered so much more than we have. I do not feel comfortable speaking about cancer with any authority.

Two, it is painful to talk about it even years later, and I did not want to find myself in a situation where my emotions can get the better of me in public.

But at the same time, there was a voice within me that said I should go and speak, just from my experience and not from the stance of some learned authority, and trust that my message would get through to some people who may need to hear about what we went through. At the very least, I would not do any harm and I could even do some good.

And so, I found myself at the Royal Hotel in Davao City on Sept. 17 before a large gathering of cancer survivors.

I was to speak in one module and moderate another. I was to share the topic “How husbands cope” with Bobbit Suntay. I had given a talk about this before and so I knew it would be a breeze. But Bobbit Suntay’s experience is infinitely deeper than mine and, truth to tell, I don’t know if I could have risen to the occasion as courageously, as wisely and gracefully as he did, had I faced his situation.

I cannot forget my memory of him years ago, outside the office of my wife Lydia’s oncologist Dr. Lopez, which he and his wife Jackie also visited. We were leaving the doctor’s office with smiles on our faces because she had just declared Lydia cancer-free after chemo and radiation. Bobbit and Jackie were about to enter the office but they were to hear the unexpected opposite news: that Jackie’s cancer had spread aggressively and had reached the tipping point.

I spoke first. I had no notes, mental or physical, preferring to be totally spontaneous. I told the story of how Lydia first noticed a concave indentation on her left breast while we were in New Zealand on a holiday. True to her procrastinating nature, it took her months to get herself tested and when she finally did, she was devastated to learn she had a malignant tumor.

The morning she told me, I had to leave for Baguio for a show that evening. Having to leave her and drive, perform, and then drive back was one of the hardest things I ever did. We also had to tell our kids, family and friends soon after. Then there was the surgery, the shaving of her locks in anticipation of the effects of five cycles of chemo and radiation which she would have to undergo.

Midway during my talk, I mustered a few funny moments to share to lighten the mood, like the feeling that ran through me as I watched Lydia throw up an anti-vomiting tablet that cost P700. I wanted to pick it up and give it back to her. But soon enough, the pain of it all came flooding back and I had to pause awhile a few times as I held back my tears.

Soon after, the questions came. To summarize my responses to the many queries, I said that the way we coped was that Lydia and I shared the experience like we both had cancer. Lydia did not have cancer alone. We had cancer. It was a struggle that we faced together, trying to give each other unconditional support.

Bobbit pointed out the need to not play the hero. He said that husbands of cancer patients must not hesitate to ask for help because even the strongest pillars of strength need support. He also advised husbands to learn all there is about the disease, and to take care of themselves because two sick people cannot possibly improve the situation.

I felt inadequate and even powerless trying to answer a question of a woman who was obviously of little means about how she could cope better financially. Cancer is an expensive illness. I felt financially challenged by it, and I wonder how the poor manage, if at all.

The module I moderated was about the topic, “How to tell loved ones about cancer” given by Dr. Karen de la Cruz, a psychologist and a second kidney survivor. I found the session quite interesting since there were some in the audience who shared their stories. When telling children they have cancer, she said it is better that the parent who is closer breaks the news. Also, it is important to be at the same height physically when you break the news, meaning the parent and child must be seated. Also, you do not have to paint the entire picture. Just give them enough facts that they can understand as of now.

There were 1,600 women at the gathering from all over the country. Many came from Manila, such as the members of Icanserve, a cancer support group who came to help. The symposium was a constant stream of meeting people, hearing their stories of shock and pain and the faith they discovered to believe in healing and the courage to deal with their disease.

Many women speakers spoke of “hot flashes” caused by the medicines they were taking. It may have sounded like a joke but I pointed out that these were probably more like “power surges” since they were fighting for their lives. This gathering of cancer warriors was no different from a group of war veterans sharing their battle stories. I detected the glint in many a teary eye as they recounted their ordeal and shared their pride in having fought and won their battle against breast cancer.

But in a way, the battle is never won decisively. After the cancer surgery, chemo, radiation and years of taking medicines, cancer can still come back and, at times, it does. One may be clear for years until one day, a new lump is discovered in the breast area or somewhere else. Vigilance is really the key.

We will all die someday. This is a truism that everyone understands and accepts intellectually until we are confronted with the possible death of a precious one. As I shared in my talk, prior to Lydia’s diagnosis, I believed cancer was something that happened only to other people until it happened to us.

I was happy to have met husbands of new breast cancer patients who sought me out to ask questions on how they could be of better help in their new situation. I know it takes courage to open up since most men are not easily eloquent, talking about their personal suffering, or anything intimate for that matter. We also heard a male breast cancer patient who must have mustered a lot of courage to openly share his experience. I salute them all for being there.

On the way home, I thought about my initial hesitation about attending the Silver Linings event. I asked myself again the reasons why I hesitated against my actual experience of being here. Was I uncomfortable as I thought I would be? Yes. Did my worst fears materialize, that I would cry while sharing my experience? Yes. But was I happy I did it? A resounding YES. Why? Because there I met truly brave people who were unconditional about their desire to be alive. They did what it took to stay alive.

On my end, I was happy to have shared my relatively small experience that will hopefully help a few more men, women and their families find their silver lining to cope better with cancer, and live longer.

* * *

1) Join me in a Songwriting Workshop on Saturday, Oct. 8. Learn what comprise good songs and songwriting from melodic, structure, lyrics, arrangements, etc. It uses a very hands-on approach. Students will actually write songs during class. It is from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 0916-855-4303 or write to jpfotojim@gmail.com for questions and reservations. Classes are P5,000.

2) The Art of the Nude — A photography workshop on Oct. 15 from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Write to jpfotojim@gmail.com for questions and reservations. Limited class.

3) Walking Photography Class — Explore a place and learn to capture light, tell a story, frame a photo, and more under different lighting conditions and settings. Class is on Oct. 22. Venue to be announced.