40 years

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated October 29, 2017 – 12:00am

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The author Jim Paredes and wife Lydia Mabanta on their wedding day.

It was 40 years ago today when Lydia Mabanta and I got married. She was a beautiful, innocent, wide-eyed 20-year-old girl who marched to the altar for her father to give away to a 25-year-old man waiting at the end of the aisle.

We met in 1976. My cousin Robbie was dating her sister Nandy and he had this idea that if I could date his girlfriend’s sister, this awkward chaperone practice would be less of a drag for them. He invited me to a party at Nandy’s house. Lydia and I were instantly attracted to each other. The next night, the four of us went out to watch a movie. It was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicolson.

We dated for seven months before she had to migrate to the US. We thought it would be the end. But during the next seven months, we wrote each other almost every other day via snail mail. They were intense letters expressing how much we were missing each other. The Internet had not been invented, of course. Long-distance calls were very expensive. Almost daily, I would wait for the mailman to pass by and ask him if he had a letter from her. I would read and reread every letter for days.

I finally mustered the decision to call her one night and ask her to marry me. She wasn’t home. She was out on a date. At 4 a.m. San Francisco time, I called again and she had just got home. After we talked, she decided to come home to the Philippines.

As much as we wanted to marry immediately, we could not decide where to have the wedding since I was also waiting for my papers to migrate to the US then. After a few months of waiting for my petition to come through, we decided that we would stop waiting and just marry here in the Philippines.

We chose the Church of Mary the Queen to have the wedding. The priest, however, refused us because Lydia was only 20 years old. I politely but firmly told the priest that we could go to other churches where we could most likely find a priest to allow us to marry. After talking to us for about an hour, he gave us his blessing.

It was not to be a grand wedding. I was a poor young man who had P30,000 savings to my name. I had a budget of about P1,000 for her wedding gown. My brother Gabby gave me clothing material and had a new suit made. I borrowed a necktie from my soon-to-be father-in-law. My mother-in-law had me made a nice white long-sleeved shirt.

On the day of the wedding, Lydia showed up radiant in a classic, gorgeous Gang Gomez gown. She had modeled for him before and he practically gave it to her for a song. Father Kull, a favorite Jesuit teacher of mine, officiated the wedding.

The reception was held at my mom’s house. We had a big garden. The day before, the very tall glass was cut and cleared, and we strung bare bulbs to light up the place. We served cocktails, which was all we could afford. There were no decorations or anything fancy. The garden was not even spruced up. We had our friends and immediate relatives over and that was enough. When it rained, we all rushed inside the house to continue the celebration. We were even delighted. We saw rain as a blessing.

Our parents and godparents gave us cash gifts. My father-in-law had estimated how much we spent for everything and gave us P18,000. We got P6,000 from our ninong Chito Ayala. We got a few more from other guests. We felt rich enough to start life with about P30,000!

I was working for Jem Recording Company, a start-up then that played a big role in the history of OPM. Half off my salary went to rent for an apartment within the Balete area. Before every fortnight ended, we would be eating meals at my in-laws since we usually had very little money left. After we spent on groceries, gasoline, and things for the house, we would watch movies at the Arcega’s theater along Aurora Boulevard.

It was the ’70s. We did not want to start a family right away. We wanted to be a couple and do things without the responsibility of having to raise a family. We wanted to venture into life together. We had no maids. We wanted to be independent.

But after only nine months, we felt like we were just “playing house,” and decided it was time to change plans. Nine months later, Erica came into the world.

The hungry years were great, memorable years. We had very few worries. We had no great ambitions to be rich and buy a big house. We had a nice secondhand car. We were happy to have a stereo set and listen to records we liked. We made love, watched movies, ate at very modest restaurants and hung around with friends. What else could we possibly want or need? We were content to live in our little apartment except for the fact that thieves were always trying to attempt to steal our car radio.

Not too long after, my career as a singer-songwriter with a then-unknown group called Apolinario Mabini Hiking Society started to take off. We bought a modest shell of a house in Fairview. At that time, North Fairview was the last place you wanted to live in. It was in the middle of nowhere. You had to go through bad roads to get there. It had no streetlights and it was a dumping ground for dead bodies.

But it was our own house. It required no down payment. We bought it without help from anyone. We fixed it up into something beautiful that felt comfortable and safe like a real home. We were happy there.

We had two more children, Ala and Mio, after Erica, and two grandchildren over the course of 40 years. We have moved up in the world. We have had other homes and have done a lot of traveling. All our children live away from us now and have acquired citizenships and residencies in other countries.

Time passes by quickly. Forty years seem like a flash, a blink. The young girl I knew and married is now a doting grandma. She is the light of our lives. She has made every place we have lived in a comfortable, warm home.

The frail young girl I had married 40 years ago has become a strong, independent and caring human being. She is also a fierce cancer survivor.

As a couple, we are still adjusting to each other even after 40 years. That’s because marriage is the most radical of all human relationships. It is a blank check you sign and you never know what the payments are, nor the terms. Anything can happen. It is full of surprises.

We continue to walk on through the long aisle of life before we get to the altar at the end. Forty years have brought us closer to each other and to the inevitable end of life.

We look back with gratitude that we have been blessed. Life has been generally good and abundant. We have good children and grandchildren. Most importantly, we continue to learn a lot about acceptance, give and take, forgiveness, patience. Every day, we learn a new facet of what we understand as love with all its joys, pains and blessings. We still have plans for the future. We still plan to do the Compostela Pilgrimage, and we look forward to seeing our grandchildren as adults.

But today, we celebrate and toast cheers to ourselves.

I love you, Lydia.

Finding your sacred spaces

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated October 15, 2017 – 12:00am

Sometimes, things can really take their toll on you. The almost non-stop daily traffic can be suffocating as you feel trapped between buses and big trucks for hours. It can cause anxiety attacks especially after a long day at work. Listening to the President on TV rambling on about non-sensical stuff and lying outright almost daily now can really upset you as a citizen of this country. A lot of our politicians contribute to the wretchedness of life with their stupidity, insincerity and total lack of decency. They are liars, cheats who seem to be focused on nothing but ambition and power. The daily news of scandals, murders, and negative news can really drag down your spirit.

I have been living practically alone in our huge house for a month now with my grand daughter Ananda who is out all day in school. On weekends, she has different activities too. Lydia is in Sydney helping our daughter Ala with her new baby. I eat breakfast and lunch alone. For dinner, I practically have to order Ananda to sit with me around the long dinner table. Almost daily, I spend a lot of time at home, except to teach at the Ateneo twice a week, and go to Gold’s Gym near my neighborhood in the afternoons.

The stress, the boring routine and the loneliness can get to me. The political developments have been so upsetting lately that one feels alternating emotions of anger and hopelessness.

Early last week, I thought of going away for two nights and three days and chill out near the beach. I just wanted a change of scene. So last Thursday, I made a quick getaway to Bohol. I took an Air Asia flight to Tagbilaran and checked in at the Ananyana Resort, one of my favorite places on earth.

I left Manila with hardly any sleep, with a heaviness in my heart, and with a disposition bordering on depression and anxiety. I was tired and weary.

It is only a one hour and 15 minutes flight to Tagbilaran. And yet it is a different world. It is refreshing not to hear horns of cars. Driving to the resort was completely traffic free. The driver was pleasant and I did not feel any stress even when he was driving quite fast. No one is overtaking. You can hardly find any big and annoying ad signs dotting the side of the streets that hovers over you and covers the world. There are hardly any people nor buildings. There is so much open space.

When I went down from the car and walked into the resort, I immediately felt my tense shoulders relax as I heard the waves of the ocean and felt the sea breeze. It was very calming. When you are surrounded by things like the eternal sea, and the wind, one can’t help but surrender to them. I did without putting up a struggle. Everything about me felt relief. The warm staff greeted me and I felt like I was back home. I have always enjoyed my stays here at Ananyana.

It is evening. Right now, I am typing this in the open lobby of the resort. There are no walls around it. There is the night wind rustling the leaves and when you look out into the sea, you can’t help but see a few dots of light in the darkness as fishermen in their boats move about the ocean trying to make a catch.

I ask myself, ‘Does it get any better than this?’ The answer right now is ‘no’.

Relaxation is what everyone needs. In the big bad monstrosity that is Manila, everyone seems to be locked into some sort of rat race for more money and things. Everyone is madly trying to make a living to survive or searching for next bigger, better, newer, latest modern thing to buy.

If we only we could all find our own ‘‘sacred space’’ and access it any time we want, the world could be a more pleasant and more humane one.

Meanwhile, we must find a way to cope with all this stress.

I am not always stressed out. Sometimes, I actually feel great and so ‘together’ that I can find and tap my quiet powerful center inside of me and deal with whatever life throws at me. At other times, I can lose it and feel so unsettled that I don’t even realize how much stress has been building up inside. Soon, it takes over and I start getting poor sleep. I wake up two or three times a night for no reason. I also find myself eating without really tasting the food. I gobble it all up quickly. When I ask myself two or three hours later what I had for breakfast, I can’t even remember. I also get easily irritated and lose my patience quickly.

Going to the gym helps me a lot. After a session, my endorphins kick in and it gives me a good feeling about my body. I also do zen meditation and that really calms me down.

More and more, I also turn to prayer. I used to have a hard time convincing myself that there was anyone out there who actually listens. Now I am sure there is. I realize that the two best prayers for me are about forgiveness and surrender. Everything else we need God knows already. We don’t need to ask. What we must do is ask to be forgiven and to forgive others, so we are more humbled. It becomes easier to detect His presence and accept any outcome. Admitting that we can’t solve or control everything is also a good prayer. We must be humble enough to surrender our problems completely and let God figure things out. It is that simple for me.

Lastly, I also try to take care of myself. Sometimes we do too many things for other people that we forget we, too, need care and love. Running on empty can deplete us and make us feel bitter about constantly giving without replenishing ourselves.

I took a 45-minute break from writing this. I walked by the beach and returned just now. There was a little drizzle but the dark and the slight wind were too inviting to refuse. In the dark, you can hear your thoughts better, and ironically, you see things clearer. And you realize your consciousness is as big as the darkness that engulfs you. As you stare at the nothingness, you realize that you are also the nothingness. To me it was a strangely comforting thought. I feel I am in touch with who and what I am on a really basic level.

I came here to Ananyana to de-stress. I know I am not the stress that clings to me. It is something that I unconsciously allow to control me. It is like affectation. It is with you but not really part of you. You only acquired it without knowing you did. If it were really a part of me, then why can’t I feel it right now here in the darkness?

Yes, we must learn to rediscover the enchantment in everyday life to counter the propensity for falling into the seeming meaninglessness of modern living. We need to pay attention more and cultivate self-awareness.

And that’s why we need to have a few sacred spaces to run to, and get our lives back. There are such places. Some are far. Some are near. Some are outside of us, and some are inside.

We must find all of them.

I remember my teachers with fondness

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated October 8, 2017 – 12:00am

Last Oct. 5 was World Teachers Day. It made me remember and reflect on the many teachers I had in school.

I spent my formal education at the Ateneo de Manila from my first day in prep till my graduation with a communications degree in 1973. I have met teachers whom I grew to love and respect, and I also had some whom I never warmed up to, and even disliked.

I would like to talk about those who influenced me in positive, indelible ways. They were the ones who showed patience with me as a young boy who (in my estimation) was slow to learn in the beginning but managed to pick up speed later on.

In grade school, I remember teachers who not only patiently taught us our lessons, but shepherded and cared for us as they nurtured our minds. They were kind and loving. Teachers like Mrs. Belleza, Ms. Lardizabal and Ms. Sandoval were memorable. Mrs. Belleza was my teacher in prep. She helped allay the fears of this six-year-old who cautiously entered a classroom for the first time. Ms. Lardizabal was beautiful. And thoughtful. She was sweet and occasionally received flowers from some students who had a crush on her.

I remember Ms. Sandoval with extra fondness. She was my teacher in fourth grade. She chose me to represent the class in an elocution contest. I was mortified. I was too insecure at that time to even talk in public, much less join a contest. She assured me I could do it and made sure I was trained well.

She and her boyfriend who had a radio announcer’s voice trained me for many days after class. Daily, they would correct my diction, improve my projection and remind me not to swallow my words. They were trying times. I remember crying out in frustration because I could not perform the material the way they wanted me to. After a week of practicing, they felt I was ready. I was in great doubt. To my surprise, I won the top place in the elocution contest delivering a speech on “The Despair of Judas.” I can still remember Ms. Sandoval flashing a big smile and being so proud of me.

Many of my high school teachers had an impact on my life. There was Onofre Pagsanghan, or Pagsi as he was called, who founded Dulaan Sibol, a theater group that presented the play Doon Po Sa Amin. It was a “transplanted” version of the American play Our Town written by Thornton Wilder, translated and directed by Pagsi. After its Manila run, we toured some provinces.

He believed in me enough to assign me the role of director during the tour. I learned not just theater from him but also openness, love, respect and sensitivity. He was truly a teacher who shaped me.

There was also Mr. Justino Roque, a math teacher who taught a subject I never liked. But he was so creative and funny that I managed not just to like math, but to get the most decent grades I ever received in this subject. He would sing the multiplication tables. He wanted us to call him “Justine Rock”! He was a cool guy.

In college, I had two teachers who became National Artists. They were Rolando Tinio and Bien Lumbera. Rolando was loud, dramatic, challenging and brilliant. He challenged the way we thought. He opened our minds and pointed out our bias towards the west and how our mastery of English but our lack of skills in speaking Filipino was isolating us from the rest of the country. And he did this while teaching us English literature.

Bien Lumbera was the opposite. He spoke softly, and was more patient. But my memories of him extended outside the classroom. I remember visiting him in YRC, a big government facility that was converted into a detention center for political prisoners during the early days of martial law. I boldly asked him to collaborate on a musical I had in mind then. It was a “historical fantasy” about the what-could-have-beens during the time of Rizal.

By the time we started working on it, he had already settled in Hawaii. He sent me the lyrics via snail mail. Our musical called Bayani was staged in 1983, a few months after Ninoy was killed. He never got to see it since he was abroad and it hasn’t been restaged ever since. I had already started writing songs in Pilipino then. His lyrics encouraged me to write with more elegance.

A professor of philosophy, Tony Romualdez, opened me up to a deeper understanding of life. He was responsible for setting me on my life path with a profound yearning for the metaphysical and the spiritual. I remember attending every class and thinking a lot about the lessons and discussions for days, weeks and even months after.

On our 50th anniversary year as graduates of grade school, our class threw a party in honor our teachers who were still around. It was great seeing them. They beamed with pride at how we had turned out. There was a teacher who asked for forgiveness for the physical pain he had inflicted on some of us then. It was politically correct at that time for teachers to spank us or even punch us in the arms. I found it strange but touching to listen to his apology, even if we had mostly forgiven and forgotten what was done to us.

As a teacher, I realize how important my role is in shaping the hearts and minds and attitudes of my students. Quality time spent in the classroom and the teacher-student relationships are critical elements in influencing young people. I listen to them a lot. As a teacher, I learn a lot from my students and I know that a lot of what I teach is also something they can keep for life.

I have been teaching for almost 10 years now. I have students who have excelled in their work. I don’t claim much of the credit. But I fancy that I may have had something to do with the success of some of them. Receiving letters of gratitude from some who changed career directions after attending my class has encouraged and inspired me.

I have been lucky in having great teachers in school who taught me things I have kept for life. These lessons were not necessarily about the subjects they taught. Sometimes it was more about the way they modeled adulthood and how they permanently awakened my curiosity to learn as much as I can while I am alive. They had passion, patience, and yes, they loved what they did and it showed.

What a teacher leaves behind may not be noticeable until years after. Seeds are planted. Sometimes, they grow into deeply rooted trees just as a student with good teachers later on excels in his profession. There is a saying that goes, “teaching creates all other professions.” It is true.

Without inspiring teachers, I ask my generation what kind of people would we have become and what kind of lives would we be living today?

I Feel close to panic

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated October 1, 2017 – 12:00am

Sometimes I look at a blank page with excitement and promise. I look at it and smile and can’t wait to write something on it. I am carefree, spontaneous and I feel like I am staring at the limitless sky. I can fly inside the page. It feels great. I can create worlds with words. I can make my own universe. I can define the reality that I want. And I want nothing more than to let the world know what I have written.

I feel like God rhetorically asking what I want to create today. “What experiences do I want today?” I confidently ask myself!

There is a palpable current of energy running inside me that wants not just to type words but to imbue the blank page with magic and inspiration. I feel very powerful. I know my place in the world. I am attuned to the spontaneity of “the flow” — that divine force that runs everything we know in the universe. And I ride it effortlessly.

But sadly, it is not always like this.

There are also times when I look at the blank monitor and feel a sense of fear and nausea. I feel dread. The blank page is luring me in with an urgency and I am balking at the invitation. I feel I am not worthy nor talented enough to enter the page. But the blank page is demanding that I write something on it, and it better be good. In times like these, I want to run away and hide, and never look at the blank page again.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and my deadline for the article looms closer and closer.

I feel close to panic. I feel like the girl in the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale who was tasked to produce gold every night under great duress. It can be very distressing.

Every writer finds him/herself in these alternating situations often. I know. I’ve been here many times.

Every artist has the calling to do art, but with the forces of doubt and fear not far behind. These two opposite forces that pull artists will always be there. A part of me wants to fly. The other is too afraid to fall. I like to engage the world freely and shape it to my own image and likeness. But I am also too afraid to completely reveal myself and be criticized.

Lately, I have been mostly feeling the latter. Sometimes, I feel like I am running on empty. I have nothing new to say. I have no muse to inspire me.

Throughout the week, I think of topics to write about. Sometimes, I find something to write about and so I submit my article to my editor early before the deadline. This week, I could not think of anything. I had started writing an article this morning to catch today’s deadline but for some reason, I quickly lost interest in the topic and abandoned what I had already written.

I decided not to write about anything that I was not really that interested in. I wanted to write about something real. And so I followed the urge to write about what is true for me at this very moment.

I am writing about something that is happening to me right now. I am scared because I have no great “safe” topic to thrill my audience with. And I am afraid to admit that I feel defeated. Surely, I am suffering from writer’s block right now.

Art and fear are two things that go together with being a creative person. One is a force out to talk and dialogue with world. The other is a force of restraint, a force that tells you that you are not good enough, and that you never will be.

Art is about beauty and authenticity. For any work to be authentic, one must from time to time directly bare one’s soul just as it is. If it means showing up as the lesser version of you on the page then so be it.

One must also accept that at that moment you are writing whatever it is you are writing, you are doing your best. You always are coming from the best of you, considering that your moods, psychological state and spiritual barometers are always in constant flux.

Don’t beat yourself up when you feel you’re not as inspired as you want to be. Be kind to yourself. You are always, at any given moment, the “state of the art” of who you are. Right now. Nothing less. Nothing more. Accept with humility that your present output will always be either greater or lesser than what you have done before, or what you may do tomorrow. And that’s perfectly okay.

Fear exists in everyday life. But you also have your life to live. And you must do what you must do whatever the conditions are. In short, while the fear is there, go beyond it so you can do the job that you are tasked to do. As a writer, the very act of showing up on the page, especially against the odds, is a real act of courage.

Often, we think of drawing inspiration from the world outside. But you can also draw it from inside of you, from the most powerful force in you.

That is your vulnerability.

Show your weakness. Show your pain and doubt. Be real. Be true. You may be surprised how healing and powerful that can be.