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

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.