Stories Need To Be Told...

...lest they dissolve into oblivion.
There are moments that need to be captured and made eternal simply because there is a wealth of emotions and spirituality in them. Painting a picture with words is one of the ways to immortalize these for people who were not there and for the future generation.
This is my contribution....



Friday, December 16, 2011

LIBERTY





The character of Brooks in the movie Shawshank Redemption, hanged himself shortly after being released from prison. He was there for fifty years. Imprisonment was all he knew. He got out, an old, frail little man, unable to adjust to the world outside, where liberty existed.

For most of us who are free, liberty is just a word we use liberally. The true meaning of it is not wholly appreciated or even throroughly understood.

We breathe, we eat, we shower, we work, we sing, we read, we go to Starbucks for coffee. These are ordinary things we do and take for granted.

In Palawan, recently, I visited the Iwahig Penal Colony. Although there have been many stories written about it, mostly comparing it to other penal centers of the country, there is more to it than meets the eye.

For most of us, Iwahig, being geographically located at the last frontier of the country, it almost seems like paradise. It is indeed, for some. Paradise. But does the word take on a different meaning when liberty is taken away?

Romy, an inmate, jailed for drug possession, was interred at the age of 21. He is now 49. Studying him, frail, dark skinned and meek, I can't imagine now, how he was at 21. Probably just like any young man, who thought they were invincible, thinking they can get away with anything, no matter what the motivation was. He has served his minimum sentence and has been eligible for parole for three years now. He said he still holds on to hope, even if now, it was just a single strand. He has three children, whom he last saw in 1987 - five presidents ago. He is one of the longest term servers in Iwahig.

Rene was imprisoned for murder. He killed a neighbor who kept killing his pigeons. Yes, pigeons. He has been in Iwahig for 18 years now. He was a big bulk of a man, chinky eyed, strong personality, determined and a hard worker. He was a good salesman too. He cajoled me into buying an alligator artwork of his, made from melted cups of Jollibee. He is scheduled to be released this month and he said he needed a big bag to put his meager belongings in. For good behavior, he was "living out" and even served as some sort of martial at the Iwahig Recreational Center/Novelty Store. I asked him what his plans were. He said he can't tell yet, that he didn't really know what was out there.

While taking pictures of the colony, a man motioned me into a shack. He was selling halo-halo. His hands were trembling and he had a pronounced limp. He couldn't, or wouldn't look me in the eye. It was as if he was ashamed and believed he has lost that privilege or right to be level with another human. I requested him to take my picture on the face-in-hole structure. Afterwards, I gave him the burger I had stashed in my bag. His surprise was touching. He wasn't expecting anything from me at all.

Up the stairs, into the dilapidated Recreation Building/Novelty Store, men were selling merienda and pomelo, grown within the colony. One man who was selling siopao was mumbling for me to buy his merchandise. What surprised me was his selling line. He said, "Ma'am, you can give it to the prisoners inside - they will dance for you."

Sure enough, nine men dressed in prison orange, were dancing at the far end of the huge hall. It was Iwahig's version of the Cebu Inmates who garnered world-wide popularity. There was a donation box, if a visitor felt satisfied or just felt like giving. They would dance every time a tourist would wander in. They would dance even more enthusiastically, complete with smiles and showmanship, if a visitor stopped and watched.

Near the entrance, at a corner, a man was seated, oblivious to the world and quite focused on what he was doing. He was etching wood with a make shift burning tool. His hands were so steady, that as the image is revealed, I was awed. He was an artist. He didn't speak a word. Some words of inquiry from me were answered by another guy who was serving as his assistant. He didn't even want to tell me his name. I guess he found his liberty in his art. Lucky him.

Allowing the cat-side (curious) in me, we ventured to the Maximum Security Area of Iwahig. That was where the word "paradise" got lost for me.

Corralled into an area, were prisoners, whose excitement at the sight of us was palpable. Not many visit there - strangers or relatives. These men are almost forgotten - by everyone, by the world. They are the "lost" ones.

At the request of a friend who was with us, five men were let out into the visitor's area. Their behavior was that of sheep being herded into an enclosed fence. They sat against the wall, gently jostling at each other for space. They were far more curious about us, than we were about them, it seemed. They were smelly and dirty and hungry and gaunt. We brought some snacks, asked the warden if it was allowed, and after getting his green light, the prisoners started to gobble it up. One mumbled that it has been years since he last tasted soda and he had forgotten that it would sting a bit as it touched his tongue. The others giggled.

As things settled, I realized what the excitement was about - they wanted to tell their story. The story they probably have told each other thousands of times. A new pair of ears must be a relief.

One by one they would answer questions; sometimes with embarassment, sometimes with surprising soberness.

One thing was apparent. Notwithstanding what they did, years ago, all of them were hungry and thirsty for liberty again. I will not venture into whether they deserve liberty or not, or whether they have paid their dues. I was merely looking at them as another human. Albeit reduced to this livestock-like behavior.

Liberty is something a human will always, always need.

Remembering another scene from the movie, where Red (played by Morgan Freeman) was also set free and was working as a bagboy at a grocery store, he would holler at this manager for permission to go to the toilet. Exasperated the manager said "You don't have to ask permission every time you take a piss."

It dawned on me that when liberty is taken away, it becomes a way of life, that not even the person himself could tell he doesn't have it. Handed liberty, he still adheres to the old ways as if he still didn't have it. Lack of liberty has become a comfort blanket instead of a choke-tool.

The Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, off the harbor of New York City, welcomed many immigrants who came from countries ravaged by war from 1886-1933. To them it symbolized a new life, a new beginning... true LIBERTY. Lady Liberty was a beacon for travelers to find home.

I imagine myself now, imprisoned in some way or another - for there are many forms of prison. It could be a job, a sickness, a dysfunctional marriage or family, poverty, beliefs, trauma, a past, a present, an unrealized dream, an unrequited love...

A prison is anything that prevents us from reaching our potential - our destiny that we could have grown into. Humans are designed to reach what used to be unreachable. We are designed to be free. We have free will. Admittedly, this free-will, sometimes takes us to the wrong decisions. The good thing is that, as long as we are alive, we are given the chance to rectify.

The trick is, recognizing that chance and taking it - before it's too late, when Liberty takes on a different meaning, where we are set free, from living and death has finally claimed us.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

MAKING IT RIGHT


Walking into the room, it seemed to brighten up as several beautiful, angelic faces light up. You can almost feel their excitement, coupled with anticipation and curiosity.

Jeffrey, two years old and small for his age, surveys me then quickly limbers towards me with arms extended upwards – asking to be picked up. My heart is suddenly a puddle. I pick him up, hug him with all the love I hoped he can feel from me. He hugs me briefly and pulls away, not to far though, but just enough to survey my face. He looks deep into my eyes. I almost cry.

Was he trying to find his mother in me? Was he secretly hoping it WAS me? Was he hoping that I wouldn’t leave after a few hours of playing with him? Was he praying he would sleep in my arms and wake up still in my arms, for days and days to come?

Still in my arms, he continued to study me, taking in the small details. He grabs a tuft of my hair, then he finds my earring, then my necklace. His gaze comes back to my face and he traces my mouth.

Was he trying to commit my face to memory? Or was he trying to remember if I had come before, held him before?

My heart broke.

Another toddler, a girl, Nica was tugging at my blouse. The pretty scarf tied on my bag caught her attention. She is a girl’s girl, that’s for sure. I bent down, and tried to set Jeffrey on the floor. He lifted his legs, not wanting to touch the floor. He didn’t want to be put down. His gaze searched for my face and the expression on his face was clear. It was a plea, for me not to let go. Ruth our guide, herself carrying another child smiled at me wryly. In an almost whisper, she said most of the kids are like that. Once picked up, they milk the time for all it’s worth. They won’t let go. Not easily anyway.

I set my bag down on the floor, and immediately Nica’s tiny hands were on it, curious as a cat...or kitten, in this case: a tiny, beautiful, innocent kitten. My filofax seemed to hold a special attention for her and her eyes were silently asking for permission, as her hands reached for it. When I didn’t protest, she smiled that wide smile. I would have gladly given her anything if I could have that smile again, bottle it and take it home with me. It was so sweet...

Across the room, Joshua had found Noel and had taken him hostage: a willing one. Joshua, at four years old is smaller than my son, Zuri, who just turned three. He was not supposed to be at the center anymore since they are for kids 3 years old below. But he hasn’t been adopted. The center has relaxed the rules a bit for him. He was just happy that Noel was carrying him. Ruth said, the kids are particularly craving for ‘male presence’ since majority of the staff and volunteers are female. Noel was a rare commodity.

If Jeffrey was a clinger, Joshua is a master clinger. Being older, he knew better than to let go, even if it was in exchange of a nice toy. He clung to Noel, like Noel was the last plane out of Saigon.

So we stayed a little longer. I played with Nica a little bit, while Jeffrey was magnanimously content just being in my arms.

But then, we were sent there for a mission, and we had to deliver.

We went back to the adjoining room where the Crawlers were. Crawlers’ meaning what it says, little kids who are crawling and learning how to walk steady on their feet. There were ten of them. Four girls and six boys.

The little critters are the cutest: each one, in the enchanting process of developing their unique personalities. There was Paul who was playing with a ball. I smiled at the rhyme; Paul with the Ball. The ball bounced towards me, I caught it and I extended it towards him. He totters tentatively towards me, grabs the ball and runs back to the other volunteer he was originally playing with. He hides behind him and takes furtive little peeks at me. I smile at him and he hides his face again, but I could see he was smiling. ADORABLE!

Then there is Tina. Oh she is no push over. As I sat on the floor, she walked towards me and my filofax and promptly thumped it with her teeny fingers. She looked at me and smiled widely, with all of her four teeth showing, so delighted at the deed. She completely grabs my filofax and hugs it close to her chest as if it was her favourite toy. Along comes Sephora, beautiful name, isn’t it? The origin? She was born on September the fourth. She was momentarily given up by her mom when she was a month old. Now, one year old, she is in the process of being re-integrated back with her birth mother. Yes, the mother changed her mind and wants her child back. I was silently hoping that it turns out good for this little angel.

Sephora is a fair child, mestiza with soulful eyes. She had seen my filofax and she wanted it for herself. Before I knew it, she and Tina are in a tug of war. Tina was already whimpering and whining, while Sephora was single-minded in her goal. She emitted no sound. In her eyes: determination. I couldn’t help thinking, hey I am getting a glimpse of these two as grown ups! A clue, at the least!

Tina was not going to let go. Neither was Sephora. Noel thankfully came to the rescue and picked up Sephora. They remained together for a while. Sephora safely cradled tenderly in Noel’s expert arms, while he was softly talking to her.

Another girl, Angelica wakes up from her nap and asks to be taken out of her crib. Once on the floor, she picked up a rattle and ran around the room, banging it on her head playfully. Good thing it was a rubber rattle. Paul, the elusive one suddenly sat on my other lap as if it were a bench. His back was to me as if he was refusing to acknowledge he has finally decided to come to me. He continued to play with his ball. Tina decides she wanted to stash my filofax in her crib, so she got up from my other lap, limbered over to the crib and tried to throw my filofax over to the mattress. Paul takes this opportunity to nestle himself securely on my lap, claiming it as his territory now. Then, he turns his head and smiles at me. He had only one tooth!!

Of course I couldn’t resist. Nobody with a beating heart could! I picked him up and immedaitely realized he is a pointer. He was pointing to all directions, asking to be taken here and there and back here again. He accompanied each instruction with an impatient grunt, and a nudge, followed by his single toothed smile.

I look over to where Noel was, and imagine my surprise when I find two little ones, on each his arms. He was eating it up! He was busier than I was! It made me feel good to know I was not the only sucker for these little critters. Haha

In the next room with a glass panel were three infants. The youngest was 1 month old. Visitors are not encouraged due to their delicate condition. I just secretly blew a kiss in the direction of the glass window, for the sleeping little angels. I would have stayed there all day if I could.
But, again, we were on a mission.

So we bid goodbye as we were guided to the other building. The New Beginnings building is where sexually abused children, aged 7-17 are sheltered, for a maximum of two years. Here they receive counselling and therapy. Here they are protected. Here, they are given the chance and the tools to heal. Here they are allowed to reclaim their childhood.

Several girls in matching green school uniforms cheerfully greeted us with a “Good Afternoon po!”

Looking at them, one would never have guessed the horrors they had been through. They were acting like sisters. Hugging each other and horsing around. Some of them were engaged in menial chores like cleaning fish intended for their evening meal. Each girl was genuinely solicitous, albeit in varying levels and styles.

Each of them has a story. Given the chance, I would want to write about it, being discreet about their real identity, but documenting their experience for lessons that may be garnered from it. Something good has to come out of those nightmares. This is the way the universe is designed.

One particular nightmare was a girl, ten years old. Let’s call her Anne. She was found on a riverbank, covered up by leaves and left for dead. She was raped by five gang members when they intercepted her on her way home from school. She is pretty, dark skinned, with a shy smile. For the life of me, I could not imagine the horrific experience. I wanted to hug her because I could see my daughter in her. But I had to hold myself back.

Another one was raped by an uncle, another, by a neighbour, two others, by their stepfathers. The youngest ward they had is seven years old. Seven. SEVEN!
My heart broke all over again.

Ruth took us around the dormitory-style shelter. Everything was simple. Everything was in order. Everything was comforting. It felt safe. For these girls, that was the most important thing.

Noel noticed the artworks on the wall and started to take pictures. It was by the girls from before who have stayed, healed and moved on in their lives. The house mother whom the girls called “nanay ko” was busy but was very gracious. She was trying to organize a little meeting downstairs at the dining area.

When we came down, most of the 27 girls were already seated and were quite curious who we were. When Ruth made informal introductions, one of the more gregarious girls commented that she thought Noel was an actor. No less than Mr. Jackie Chan himself.

Oh I didn’t escape unscathed. Another girl, a shier one, asked if I knew who Vina Morales was. I said yes I did, and she said I looked like her. Oh boy.

On the ride back to where we would finally meet up with Trixie (she was supposed to be with us at the orphanage, but the life-and-death situation of needing to shop for shoes interfered), Noel and I were silent. I guess we were both still processing the gamut of emotions we felt, after being immersed in the shelter’s environment.

Eventually I spoke up. I said, “I believe it is a good day.”

With eyes firmly on the road, his hands steady on the wheel, he answered “Yes, I believe it is.”

On the dashboard, was the shelter’s newsletter. I could read part of the cover:

“When things go wrong, God finds a way of making them right.”

I felt even better, knowing, we may be part of God’s way of ‘making them right.’


(The photo accompanying this article is not that of the kids at CRIBS, to protect their privacy. It is just to add a visual to the innocence that the writer was trying to paint of the children.)









MOON



The night came,
Soft as a blanket.
The moon, furtive in day
A faint watermark in the sky,
Has now started to smile, and shine an eerie light.

SHE sat and watched,
As another day
Fell off the calendar’s like a leaf
As the world tried to wind down
Ready for a moment of slumber.

The utter loneliness
That ruled all day...
The craving for that one soul,
Gained even more strength at dusk
And tears well up, ready to fall.

The sounds and noise
Fade away into silence...
As HER beating heart drowns everything,
Speaking out loud, screaming
The words locked up inside declares.

Across the distance
From where HE sat
HIS thoughts were of HER and HER ALONE...
HE sends a piece of his heart, his soul,
A wish, a thought, carried upon the lightest breeze.

SHE takes a breath,
Just as the breeze comes in...
SHE senses it and HER chest freeze; mid-rise
HER throat constricts as SHE takes in the air
Filled with love and hope and promise, from HIM.

SHE... understands,
The breadth and depth and width and height
Of spirit , of soul... and of heart
She looks up at the moon, now almost full,
Yellow against the blue -black sky; she sighs.

On the other side...
HE looks up
At the very same moon; HE sees HER face
HE feels HER tender embrace.
HE hears HER whisper true loving thoughts,
That no words can ever say.

Amidst the pain
A smile is born, joy...for HIM and HER.
They know they hold each other’s hearts
And distance is just a word, where souls and hearts are one.
They know, however wide the gap in between, they can look up
And see the same one moon, under the same one blue-black sky

And that is enough...
FOR NOW.

Friday, March 11, 2011

BLAST FROM THE PAST


The concrete/steel fence looked the same. Even the paint looked the same. But inside, I could tell there were a lot of improvements. My heart started to beat a little faster as I caught a glimpse of the Amang Rodriguez Building. An avalanche of flashbacks from my youth hit me. I had to pull out a breath from deep within. Amang Building was were I spent my junior and senior years of high school. The most challenging, the most fruitful and life changing moments of my school years. It was during these years that it was decided, I was to be in the profession I practice now. It was when my first few feathers of the gangly wings were born. Now, I am in full flight - able to migrate and go back. I owe a lot to this mother.

The huge steel gates opened and I manoeuvred my car into the campus. Twenty eight years ago, I came through these same gates on foot. I was one of 29,000 students.

To visit, in a car, with the gates being opened to me with gracious greetings of “Magandang umaga po Ma’am!” gave me both pride and humility, all in the same space and time.

I parked my car in front of the new structure – The Alumni Building. This was a product of the joint generosity of those who, like me spent four years of their lives in this campus – learning, developing, and growing.

They say high school is a crucial turning point in any person’s life. This is where the transition between child-hood to teen-hood happens. Now that, in itself is a whole universe to the one going through the process. Names like, Rene Saguisag, Bobbit Sanchez, Neptali Gonzales. Gel Santos Relos, resonate in my head, and pride swells within me. These are my brothers and sisters, once cradled in the arms of this generous alma mater

Across the street is the Caruncho Gymnasium, named after the Mayor who was in office at that time. It is a huge edifice and I distinctly remember how our PE class were the first to use it, even before it was completed. I closed my eyes and an old familiar rhythm slowly came back.

"We will... we will... ROCK YOU... ROCK YOU....” the old cheering competition between year levels.. My batch always won. On my first year, we tied with the seniors (which was a first). Then from my sophomore to my senior year, my batch always took the gold home.

There were a myriad of other memories. Some made me smile. Some made me cringe at the stupidity of youth. Some just... took me down memory lane, to how I was before I was me, today. I won't go into details as I am sure most, if not all of them hold relevance only to me. Perhaps, relevant to those who I shared them with - my classmates, my batch mates. Suddenly, I miss them. The old dear familiar faces...

The uniform is the same from my time. I call it cherry red plaid. Our competitor school called it ‘gulaman at sago’ . Haha. We called theirs, bagoong-alamang. Arellano High School’s uniform was maroon.

The view from the second floor of the three-floor Alumni Building was perfect. It was cleverly designed that it had balconies both in front and the back. The front balcony gave the view of the academic part of the campus-the old and new buildings. The back balcony gave a magnificent view of the oval track and field. All green, luscious, well kept. The tracks were regulation standards. The bleachers were just...perfect.

She was just beautiful.

All around, the old trees whose shades we enjoyed twenty some years ago are still there... Childishly, I greeted them a silent hello. Even more childlikely, I wondered if they remembered me. The wind was blowing gently and the leaves were rustling. I smiled and took it as their greeting for one of their old friends. It was a beautiful day.

In a way, this was home, and it felt good.

HERO


My deep telephone conversation with a friend was interrupted by the shrill trill of sirens.

Looking out the window, i saw a flock of motorcycles, about 50 of them, in formation. Then I saw firetrucks, red and shiny, in formation as well. There were white balloons tied on the sides, doing a boogie with the wind.

Then I spotted it.

The mightiest looking firetruck among the group. Atop it, perched on a ladder was a coffin, draped in the Philippine Flag. It was surrounded by 'honor guards' - men from the fire bureau in their dark blue office attire, complete with cap. They stood sturdily at the sides of the coffin, with a stoic expression on their faces.

Something tugged at my heart as I took in the whole scene. Fifty motorbikes, each with a single white balloon tied to it; a parade of firetrucks, about eight of them with lights flashing; this one remarkable firetruck with its precious cargo; and about thirty more vehicles at the tail end.

I stared at the big firetruck with the flag-draped coffin. The bumper was covered by a tarpaulin where a picture of who I supposed was the deceased was printed. He was in uniform. He looked distinguished. He looked kind. He was smiling. He looked like someone's father, brother, husband, son. I couldn't help but wonder though, who he was in the context of all these people who came out on a Sunday, prepared for all this, to send him off.

Like a camera lens, I zoomed out to take in the whole scene again and I thought to myself "Boy, this man must be loved, to be accorded this kind of ceremony. Simple but very dignified. What a way to be sent off."

That is when the word came to the fore of my consciousness.

HERO.

He must be one. At least to all these people who came out on a Sunday to say goodbye to him, with this much respect. He must have carried his duty to the hilt. He can't have been a VIP, not to the general population anyway, because I am quite sure I would have heard about him, and his consequent death.

I looked at this somber parade. I tried to study the faces, specially of his 'honor guards'. I did not know him- this dead man. I did not even know his name. But I felt a sense of loss in his death.

Maybe it is just the times in this little archipelago I call home. Where an accomplished general goes to the tomb of his mother to shoot himself in the heart. While, another faces yet more seemlingly endless inquiries while the country endures another whiplash from corruption.

Maybe my heart was in desperate need of a hero. One who is just one, for the sake of it.

Maybe this firefighter, whose name I did not even know.

I hoped he was a good man.

I still want to believe they exist.

HEROES.

We could use some.

Right about now.