Friday, September 25, 2015

Remembering Ivy

I’m not sure why I remembered her today. Maybe all the Facebook posts of friends having friends who passed away triggered it.

I met her way before the Facebook age and in a lot of ways I’m glad we did. At the time, writing real letters was the only way to keep in touch without spending a ton of money, and I remember how I eagerly awaited all her letters and postcards from a place that seemed so alien yet so fascinating to me.

Her name is Ivy.  I met her in 1992 when I was a sophomore in the university and I had just shifted majors from Molecular Biology to Sociology.  I didn’t know any of the other students but Ivy took it upon herself to be my ‘buddy’.  She was very friendly and I just remember her making me feel at ease.  As the semesters passed, we would always find ourselves in the same classes and we’d always sit together, mostly in the front row.  We would share notes, be project team mates, review buddies during exams and whenever I had to miss class due to illness or for whatever reason, she would always be there for me to tell me what I’ve missed and let me borrow her notes so I won’t fall behind.  She was that kind of personvery helpful, accommodating, reliable, and highly intelligent.

It did not take long for us to become friends.  Sometimes we would hang out in campus or even go to the mall to catch a movie during our long breaks.  I later found out that she had a Japanese boyfriend ("T") at the time and that things were pretty serious.  Soon after our college graduation, she got married and I was one of her bridesmaids.  It was a quiet yet meaningful ceremony.

A part of me felt it may have been too early. She was fresh out of college and she could still do a lot of things and accomplish much.  Was she ready?  But at the same time, a part of me knew that she was a mature person, strong and capable of whatever life threw at her.

She migrated with T to Japan after getting married.  T’s job was there and of course it was the practical choice.  When Ivy moved, our correspondence began.  I’m pretty sure she was the one who sent the very first letter.  She would send one, I’d reply and send one out.  Then I’d eagerly await her next letter, telling me of her new life in a foreign country.  It was helpful for her adjustment to be in touch with me and it was a wonderful experience for me as she opened my eyes to a bigger world filled with possibilities.  I was a curious and indulging friend and audience and I was always thrilled to learn about her adventures.  We were both in our early 20s yet I knew how vastly different our paths were.  I have always found living abroad on my own a seductive thought, attending a foreign university an exhilarating possibility, and there was my friend living all that.  The choice to live vicariously was a no-brainer for me. 

Her earlier letters were mostly about adjusting to a foreign culture (language, customs, religion, etc).  Then there were letters about adjusting to married life and it did not take long for her letters to then shift to motherhood.  Eventually it became about balancing family life and career as she found work as a teacher and writer and I am certain she excelled in both.  At the time, these were not my realities.  But now that I am also with family and living in a foreign country, I realize that I can find a wealth of wisdom in her letters.  I read her words now and they might as well had been written by me!  Her angst, her struggles with motherhood and its rewards, issues with her spouse, all seem like my own echoes, only these echoes preceded my realities.

In late 2004, the same year I migrated here to the U.S., a devastating tsunami hit various countries in Southeast Asia.  Ivy, with her husband and three children were vacationing in Phuket, Thailand at the time.  It was around Christmas when all this happened and by the New Year, I received news that she died when the tsunami hit. Her husband and three very young children were never found and eventually presumed dead.

None of this made sense to me.  How can this happen?  She was so young, had so much promise, was just starting out, had such young children.  How can this wonderful, almost magical human being leave this earth so soon, so tragically?

Still, none of this makes sense and eleven years after the fact, I still feel my insides grieving for her and her lovely family. I now imagine how it would have been if we were both on Facebook, constantly sharing our writing online, pictures of our children, and inviting each other’s families to visit. I’ll never know, will never find the answers.  All I am grateful for is that in the short time she lived, I knew her and was touched by her beautiful spirit and wisdom she always so selflessly shared. She may be physically gone, yet her presence, her mark, lives on in each life she has touched along the way.  That, I am certain of. 

In one of the science shows I watch, where the topic was the possibility of life after death, someone suggested that this merely refers to the legacy we leave behind after dying. An idea was proposed that each life can be likened to a mosaic, an image made of tiny pieces, details put together in a beautiful way.  While we are alive, those we touch around us, those special to us or to whom we are special, are able to make a ‘copy’ of that mosaic. Though the pieces are much larger, less complex, less intricate, and therefore more blurry and less precise, what results is still a copy of the original, albeit less perfect.

I find comfort in this idea. Now that Ivy is gone and I read her words as she shared her life as a mother, wife, writer and thinker in a foreign country, I realize that she has been living within me and through me all this time. She died young but I could never say that her life could have been better, could have been fuller or more meaningful. She took great risks, loved deeply, thought profoundly and lived passionately. Is there really anything to regret?

She continues to inspire me, nudging me to do my best to try to make as many worthwhile copies of my own mosaic while I still have time. And the numbers don’t matter as much to me as the quality of these copies. I wish them to be as intricate and as pronounced as they could possibly be. After all, life is indeed measured not by its length but by its beauty, by how you touched others' lives and the value you have added to the world during your borrowed time. In the end, it boils down to lovehow much and how deeply you knew love and never feared to live it and be in its presence in all that you do.

Thank you, my friend. Thank you, Ivy, for loving life and allowing me to witness how gracefully you did it.

*This essay was previously published on Catharsis on 8.5.2011 under the title Her Vibrant Mosaic. It has been modified for this current publication.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Beware of the Hulk at Morning Drop Off

Have you ever had one of those days when you just feel angry? You wake up angry and it's not because of a dream you had, but just some unexplained, uneasy feeling that lingers and simmers inside. 

Have you gotten one of those days when your chest feels hollow and tight at the same time, and you keep trying to inhale and exhale to see if it will make a difference but instead fear that fire will burst out of you? You are standing on the precipice and one tiny step will turn that anger seamlessly into hostility.

Do you know what I'm talking about?

Well, recently I've been having such days and there really is no clear rhyme or reason to it. It could be hormonal, who knows? I haven't really dug deep enough but one thing has certainly become clear to me. On such days, it becomes imperative for my son to catch his school bus in the mornings. On these angry, hostile days, I've now realized that it's just too unwise of me to choose to expose myself to the morning drop off line in school. That would be like confining Bruce Banner in a torture cell and think nothing would happen.

Here's what I mean...

In my son's school, you'll find two car lanes when you enter the premisesone lane for cars entering to drop off, and the opposite lane going the opposite direction for cars exiting the school after drop off. Pretty simple, right? 


The rules are simple for smart and decent adults. But as expected, there are always those few who think they're special and to whom the rules never apply. Personally, I think they're just stupid. The sad thing is, as I always say, stupidity and arrogance always go together. And this completely drives me insane! There are always those who, for whatever reason, don't think at all—don't think about the consequences of their actions, are oblivious to their surroundings, or simply don't give a sh*t about anyone else but themselves. Stupid and arrogant, like I said.

Three mornings ago, I was there. I dropped off my son and as I was driving through the exit lane, I noticed a white SUV stopped a few feet in front me, blocking my lane. This vehicle, though in the same direction as those just about to drop off, was parked on the exit lane, my lane, blocking drivers like me who needed to leave. In other words, the driver went against the traffic flow. The driver, a female, was stopped side by side another SUV and they were chatting. I was stopped just a few feet away from this jerk, waiting for her to feel embarrassed. I saw her look my way and then looked back at her other driver friend and proceeded to chat. Clearly she took her time to wrap up their conversation and I swear that when she finally moved her vehicle, I did not detect any sense of urgency from her and neither did she wave at me to apologize for the inconvenience she's caused. It took every ounce of will power on my part to resist the temptation to keep driving and just hit her head on. Just sayin'...

Then yesterday morning, I witnessed something similar. By the time I got to the school, the line was already getting long and there were already a number of cars waiting. Things were crawling but I knew we still had a lot of time and there was no reason to get stressed out. I was actually having a nice chat with my son while we were waiting when this pick-up truck drove past me on my left side. To reiterate, that lane is only for cars exiting. This pick-up truck had no business going against the flow, bypassing everyone who was already lined up. I watched to see and gave the male driver the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe he would turn towards the parking lot. No, I was wrong. I kept watching and saw that he kept driving and basically cut the line. He stopped right by the school doors and dropped off his daughter. A**h*le!! Another arrogant jerk who thinks the rules don't apply to him because he's so freakin' special!

And let's not forget that of course on a daily basis there are parents who just refuse to be considerate and continue to take their sweet time during drop off. They open doors for their kids who appear perfectly capable of doing it themselves. They hug and kiss and chat a little, and gracefully waltz back towards their vehicles as if time has magically stood still. WTF!! They never seem to care that the line behind them has extended to close to a mile and that there are other students who would not make it on time, thanks to their stupid, oblivious, inconsiderate brains!

So yes, morning drop off is clearly very unhealthy for me. For someone who already suffers from periodic angry days, I think it's best I minimize contact with idiots who have unbelievable levels of self-entitlement. I just don't have the patience and I can't promise I'd have the will to stay well-behaved at all times. Don't say you've not been warned.

 Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry...

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Summery Summary

Summer’s inches away from the finish line
And I hear it panting, desperate for a break
Or maybe it’s me grunting, rushing time
Aching for a shift, my sanity at stake.
It’s been a busy summer, 
much crazier than those before
The good and the bad, the fun and excruciating
I really can’t ask for more.

My mom surprised me,
flew across the seas to visit.
She wanted to show up for my son’s First Communion.
She said she couldn’t miss it!

Mom’s vacation is never long enough for me
This time only a hundred days she stayed
We had to make full use of every moment
So all summer long we all played.

We took a week-long vacation,
A once-in-a-lifetime cross-country trip
Driving three days from Nashville to Vegas
I’m surprised I didn’t flip!

We saw a huge meteor crater,
the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam,
Explored casinos in Las Vegas,
And had a blast with the group Blue Man!

And then on the drive back
a different adventure,
Passing through Texas
We all felt real fear and danger.

A major car accident,
our Honda Pilot got hit
By a red truck that lost control
When traffic wasn’t moving, not one bit.

You’d think my bad luck
would stop just about there
But no, no, no, no!
There’s actually more to share.

I also got called for jury service
And had to show up twice
Then my dentist put a crown on my molar
Only to be further sent for a root canal…Oh how nice!

I couldn't eat, a pain to chew
and then there were days, I felt so blue
Had serious fights with those I love,
Said "I've had enough!", to the Heavens above.

Sure, things got patched up
and everyone moved on
Love is tough and stubborn that way
always ready for a new dawn.

But I'm seriously tired
Am so ready for Fall
I need to chill and lose the heat
I hope this week is its last call.

A new season, a change of pace
although I'm sure of new challenges to face
At least we have lots of Holidays to look forward to
So lets be positive and may the Force be with you, too!

Friday, August 28, 2015

My Parenting Recipe Disaster

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His words shocked me to the core and I stood trying to process what I just heard. How can something so trivial have such a piercing effect on me? I heard his verdict and I simply refused to believe it. I knew deep down he didn't mean any harm but I took serious offense and felt unsure if it was something I could recover from.

"I think you put too much chicken meat in this. It's overpowering", my father spoke after he tasted the chicken soup straight from the boiling pot.

Too much?! How can it be too much? I've made this a million times and everyone always says how much they love it! Don't you enjoy how much flavor it has?

Before I saw what happens next, I woke up with a lingering feeling of self-doubt and wondered if it was more than just about the soup. It's never just about the soup is it?

Original Image from Wikimedia Commons

I know its strange that I can feel this way about a soup dream but let me further explain. My dream involved my 'Sopas', the Filipino Chicken Macaroni Soup, which I'm known to be an expert on. I pride myself in making really good sopas and have always done my best to replicate my grandmother's version (which to me is the best, of course!). This is one comfort food that I know I cook damn well and, considering how I consistently work so hard to perfect it every time I make it, you can pretty much expect that any criticism of my soup will crush me one way or the other. 

Once I narrated it that way it became clear that my dream simply translated for me remnants of the hurt I felt when my husband 'critiqued' my parenting style the previous night. I took offense in what I 'heard' him saythat I'm too intense, that I expect too much from our 8-year old and seem to forget that he's just a child, that I'm always angry and might just be driving our son away, that I never seem to know when to just walk away to cool down and let things go.

I knew he made sense but no one enjoys being criticized or corrected on something that you swear you're an expert on. As a matter of fact, my first thought bubble was "How dare you?! I'm more of the expert between the two of us and you can't judge me on the basis of what you witness for only a few minutes!" After occupying the same job position for years and having a huge chunk of your identity be defined by it, surely it would hurt to be told that what you're doing is not working. Most of all, for someone who just has a natural tendency to believe that going all out and taking things most seriously are the only routes to achieving success and then be told that her performance is less than stellar and is clearly not producing the desired results, is a painful blow to the ego. My ego. My mommy heart.

But I can't and won't resign from this job. Motherhood doesn't work that way. I know I'm very good at this, just as I know excellent sopas when I taste it. I just have to stop over-complicating things and go back to the basics. Just as is true for my soup, I have to focus on parenting as a source of comfort, a no-fail source of a sense of home, a warm embrace of love. 

So yes, I'm learning that sometimes less is better and knowing when to stop might actually create a better experience and produce something more palatable. It's not going to be easy for me to step away, relax and know when to stop giving and expecting too much. But I have to remind myself that there is wisdom in restraint and that the real end goal to parenting is not perfection but simply unconditional love. 

Highly skilled and seasoned cooks are those who are not constrained by set recipes. The great ones are those who can improvise, adapt to the conditions and ingredients available to them and still come up with something remarkable yet wonderfully balanced. I'm humble enough to admit that I'm not there yet as a parent but being open to critique and swallowing bitter reviews are always good first steps. I'll never quit and I know I won't ever tire of trying because there's an undying certainty within me that this is where my heart resides. This is what I'm meant to be.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Real Reason Why This Mom Hates Homework

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"I'm surprised at the amount of homework my third grader has! Is it just me??"

"I need some alcohol to deal with all this!"

My son just started third grade two weeks ago. Barely two weeks into the school year, I’ve already read Facebook posts from parents of the other third graders complaining about the amount of homework these kids are given. I get it, believe me I do. I would much rather go for a root canal than sit with my son and lecture him on what needs to be done NOW instead of later and that he needs to do it PROPERLY and never sloppily. I wish we could just sit side by side peacefully watching our respective favorite YouTube videos, or have him play Minecraft while I research where I could pitch my writing to. But no. I have to dread 4 p.m. every week day and brace myself for frustration and tears (and I’m not admitting whose they are).

In spite of this daily struggle though, I still won’t go so far as to say that we’re faced with an unreasonable amount of homework. I’m aware of the 10-minute rule as endorsed by the National Education Association. This means that depending on the child’s grade level, starting with 1st grade, there should be a maximum of 10 minutes of homework per day and this increases as the child goes up a grade level. Therefore, 2nd graders should only have 20 minutes of homework, 30 minutes for 3rd graders and so on and so forth. Yes there have been days when my son definitely had to work way beyond the 30 minute mark. But there were also days when he was done within 20 minutes or less. Time limits aside, the real reason why I don’t feel justified with the complaints is because I’m coming from my own perspective as someone who was educated abroad.

Growing up in the Philippines and attending a private Catholic school from elementary to high school, I can confidently say that I had way more homework than what my son is dealing with. From as early as first grade, we had a different teacher for each subject matter and there were days when it felt like there was homework assigned by each teacher. We just had to deal with it, organize our schedule, and be accountable.

Original (unmodified) Image by Grigory Kravchenko via Flickr Creative Commons

And herein lies the crux of my argument. What I resent most about this whole homework situation now is not the volume of the work required of our children, but the expectation of the current school system regarding the level of parental involvement. I wish I could say this is all imagined and merely subjective perception. But when the school repeatedly says that 'parental involvement enhances the child’s academic success', one can’t help but take that as something that’s extremely open to various interpretations. What kind of involvement? How much or to what extent? Though I'm certain the school wants us to encourage our children to work independently and to not lose sight of the fact that homework is meant to give the children more practice at home, I still can't help but feel that what we have now only fosters helicopter parenting. It definitely has that effect on me and I know it's harming both me and my son.

From the moment my son enters the door in the afternoon, I start sounding like a drill sergeant. We both go through his bag, his folders, his journals. We both go through instructions. I help him review. I ask him questions or dictate items to be answered. God forbid there is some craft project that needs completion, which then naturally forces me to become even more hands-on than with his usual daily assignments. I really don’t understand it and definitely don’t recall my parents doing the same to me and my siblings when we were young. We had homework and dealt with it ourselves, with my mother taking pride in the fact that not once did she have to tutor any of us.

I’m sure a lot of you are thinking that it’s my fault, that I’m the one who has to stay away and control my impulse to hover. I acknowledge that and know that letting go of the reins is something I need to address. However, if I let go or step back even just a little, is this to say that the other parents will let go and step back as well, hover less, hence leveling the playing field? Or would my decision to let go and be less involved simply put my son at a clear disadvantage academically? As a former overachiever and a recovering perfectionist, it’s a risk that’s not so easy for me to take.

So yes, I hate homework because it brings out that side of me I swore I’d never be as a parent. It brings out nothing but ambivalence in me as I do the dance of balancing involvement or support with trying to teach my child accountability, autonomy and self-discipline while still have him excel in all that he does. This current norm of hyper-involved parenting reinforced by the education institutions is driving me insane and makes me ask myself on a daily basis existential questions such as how far should I go, what can I change to make this better for everyone, or am I being a good parent with the choices I make? 

I suppose the only logical thing for me to do right now is to experiment. Clearly I need to define for myself just what 'parental involvement' means and start implementing what is necessary, no matter how painful it might be in the beginning. If the school won't spell it out, then we as parents need to decide what works best for our families, what is the healthiest and most beneficial for our children not only in the short-term but mostly for the human beings they need to become in the future. I need to remember that my parents standing back never made me feel unloved and that I still did pretty damn well in school. Most of all, parents need to remember that our success as parents lies not in our children's academic success or 'perfection', but in their level of resilience. Let's not be that group that raised a generation of cripples.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Romantic's Guide to Meteor Showers

Ever since I can remember, I've always been fascinated by anything celestial. Outer space is simply a topic I can never grow tired of, so my excitement over news of meteor showers should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me. After all, I've been waiting to see one all my life.

Growing up in the Philippines, I've never had the privilege of witnessing this celestial event. There was always something that kept me from viewing and it could be anything from the event being too late for my bedtime, or I didn't hear about it, it was too cloudy or stormy, or it was just impossible to see because I was in the Southern hemisphere. All these frustrated me and so this time around, when all the conditions seemed ripe, I vowed not to miss it. 

I marked it on my calendar. I made sure to stay informed on the best hours for viewing. They said the Perseid meteor shower this year would be very visible since it would be a dark, moonless night. Add to that the fact that I live in the boonies so there's not much light pollution to compete with. I felt optimistic to the bone and was giddy at the thought that this would be my lucky night!

The first time I stepped out last night was around 10 p.m. I went to our front porch, looked up, kept looking up until my neck got strained. Nothing. No shooting stars. Regular stars were abundant and I still felt happy and blessed to have such a stunning view of the constellations from my front yard. But tonight I wanted more but it wasn't there yet. So I stepped back inside and tried to keep myself awake as best I could. I read that the peak viewing time would be around 1 a.m. central time and so I watched a movie and set an alarm.

At exactly 1 a.m. I grabbed a chair and sat by the window of an upstairs room on the front of our house. From there I had a good view of the vast sky. While waiting for my light show to begin, the romantic in me kicked in (as it always does, 90% of the time) and realized that this experience has a lot of parallelisms with falling in love.

Perseid Meteor Shower 2012
Image by: Tucker Hammerstrom

You have to be in the right place at the right time. You can wait and stare and strain your neck looking out for this rare event, keep yourself awake, consumed by eager anticipation, but if you've got the time or location wrong, you won't see a thing. You simply won't find it. As is true with Love, a graceful confluence of different elements is necessary for everything to work out. 

You have to decide if you really want it. Most often than not, seeing a shooting star means staying up really late and at least for me, that requires serious effort and dedication. Patience is also certainly required because you don't know exactly when and where you'll see it appear. Last night, I almost gave up but I kept telling myself that I'm almost 42 and have never, ever seen a single shooting star all my life. It was time, I knew I wanted it badly and was certain I'd only regret it if I didn't try at all. The same is true for love. It's never easy and only those who are sure of what they want and that they really want it are bound to find it. Love demands dedication and sacrifice.

It's rare, but if you miss it, don't beat yourself up. It will happen again. On the slim chance that it doesn't, at least not within your lifetime, then remember that there are other important things to keep you busy. Remember that you can still beor actually already are—a complete person even without your meteor shower sighting, or a romantic relationship for that matter. 

Enjoy it while it lasts and just be in the moment. You know that when you see a shooting star it's fleeting. This is why you just have to keep your eyes on the sky, enjoy the experience and the privilege of witnessing this rare event. Embrace that the promise of forever and constancy are impossible in all things. The sooner you accept this, the deeper the joy you might derive in every moment.

The special ones, the truly bright, distinctive ones, will take your breath away and will leave an impression that could last forever. Last night, I felt truly lucky and blessed that the very first one I saw streak across the sky was a large and bright one. It almost seemed like a fireball that dissipated just as quickly as it appeared. I was beyond fascinated and I know I'll never forget that magical sight. Sometimes some of us get lucky too with the people who love us and with whom we build relationships. Sometimes we cross paths with remarkable souls who are not that easy to forget and change us forever. Treasure that and treasure the fact that though it might have been fleeting, loving and being loved by such exceptional people are enduring gifts. As for the forgettable ones, well, they were still there for a reason and if anything, at least they must have been entertaining...somehow.

Did you enjoy last night's light show? Did you get into a romantic mode as well? If you want to watch the Perseid meteor shower, you might still catch it tonight. You may not see as much, but I've read you can still get lucky!