Both Sides Now

At our age, we don’t mull. We move!
                               advice from a friend 

Ugh! I hate being reminded of my age. One has only to stand in front of the mirror to see that time has wrought changes that do not reflect the Me I am inside. Then again. With age comes a certain point in time at which one looks back. When Gail Sheehy did so, she chose the favorite song of my childhood. In a testament to the enduring appeal of the song, Sheehy wrote an article on how Joni Mitchell’s iconic folk song Both Sides Now carried her through the different stages of her life.

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View of Taal Volcano (I think)

Listening to it again after a lapse of several years, likewise, I, too, could relate to the “many sides of Both Sides Now” that Sheehy explored (none of which I care to discuss publicly). Because. Despite growing old, I really don’t know clouds … at all … or love, or life – for that matter.

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way.

But now they only block the sun,
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done,
But clouds got in my way.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels,
The dizzy dancing way that you feel
As every fairy tale comes real,
I’ve looked at love that way.

But now it’s just another show,
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know,
Don’t give yourself away.

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud,
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds,
I’ve looked at life that way.

Oh but now old friends they’re acting strange,
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life
I really don’t know life at all

Note: This post was originally written on November 8, 2014.

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My roses, how they grow!
Ask me not, I do not know.

Crimson, fuschia, burgundy
Pale pink, old rose, almost white
My roses, though a glorious sight –
In winter, they cannot be but a blight.

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Was it only yesterday?
When you declared, as your fingers
Gently snapped off each velvet petal
And cupped them in your hand for me
To savor their whimsical, fleeting fragrance:
The brave cannot fail because they’ve got 
     courage enough for a crowd to stand up
again and again and again.

Well, I never was and still am. Not. Brave.

Oh!
To be you and me
In a universe that cannot see
Helios charging his chariot across the sky
Or the moonbeam’s kiss upon your eye.

Oh!
To be with you and sail,
Pen the plot of a thousand tales.
But fate unkind uttered a decree:
There never more will be a We.

If you can, see me now:
Limping along life’s highway, being careful
Plucking hope from the barren, rotten soil,
Planting love and kindness to be faithful
In the midst of never-ending, grinding toil.

Ask me not to forget:
I will mourn, dance and sing
Till the crying clouds part and bring
A whiff of sweet sunset borne
On a gale from a meteor torn.

Ask me not to forget:
I will write, write and weep
Till your laughter thunders down from heaven and flings
Away these wet and buried, waxen tears
Wrought so long ago by death’s sting.

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My roses, how they grow-
Ask me not, I do not know …

Maguindanao in my mind

Can a land be cursed?

Oh, Maguindanao!
Why is your earth so hungry to swallow souls?
Why does your soil bear graveyards
That torch a nation’s psyche?
Why does your name conjure up
Visions of fallen men and women –
Their voices silenced before their prime?
Why is peace so elusive in your air?
How much more can your people bear?

Oh, Maguindanao!
When will justice be done?
And so it goes, when hope is gone ….
Farmers, tired of tilling from dawn till end of light,
Stow rifles at their sides, ready to fight.
Tired of waiting for a government with promises to keep,
They moonlight as militia, forsaking their sleep, 
While in their bosoms: mothers, wives, daughters and sisters weep.

It may seem odd that a matron who largely spends her time outside the house shopping should write about a place that she has never visited much less mingled with its residents. Let me explain. Twenty years ago, I married a farmer’s son. Thereafter, a world that was hiherto unknown opened itself up to me. Alien to city dwellers, the rural life remains living reality for the majority of people in the Philippines. That it is a daily experience for so many Filipinos still astounds me to this day.

With each visit, I had to keep my mouth shut from complaining and reach out to find a common ground with folks with whom I had little in common. Thus, I know. About farmers who get up two hours before sunrise, drink a mug of hot coffee then go out to till their fields or mind their livestock before having breakfast at daybreak. About walking a kilometer or two to fetch water or wash clothes when the water pump runs dry during summer. About barking dogs that signal the presence of Communist guerrillas lurking around at midnight. Frankly, I doubt whether those commuters and motorists cursing the traffic in Metro Manila will readily trade places with a farmer living in a barrio without electricity or water flowing from a faucet.

Then again, I’m a journalist’s daughter. And. The audacity of the perpetrators behind the Ampatuan Massacre six years ago still leaves me gagging. So much so that I promised to pen a poem after reading about the Mamasapano clash last year and the Christmas Eve murder of farmers by the BIFF.

Can a land be cursed? I don’t know but Maguindanao sure seems to be …

The Painted Veil

If there’s one film that has been on my bucket list for the longest time, it’s the screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. Well. I finally watched it the other night. And. Oh, how my heart was beautifully broken!

It was pure cinematic perfection from the breathtaking cinematography to the acting to the musical score. Halfway through, Naomi Watt’s luminescent beauty reminded me of the actress who played Julia Flyte in the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, perhaps because of the hair style during the prewar years.

The title, of course, comes from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet below:

Lift Not The Painted Veil 

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,-behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it-he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Discussing the poem is beyond my present powers. Here is an analysis by Stephanie Huff. Don’t let it, however, detract from your own interpretation/enjoyment of the poem.

January Thoughts: Deconstructing My Feminist Self

An artist must, after all, speak of his own experience.”
                                                                        Li Tianbing, Chinese painter

‘Twas nearly a month ago when it happened. I was waiting at our gathering spot at the mall after we’d watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens and mulling over the film’s convoluted plot (which today I can’t recall) when I witnessed a practice that is common to Arabs in the Gulf Region: two men leaned forward until their noses joined, then swung their head from side to side in the traditional greeting between members of the male sex. They were one meter away from me.  The act was repeated again between friends A and C (the first was between A and B who was with C) before the men held each other’s hands in an exuberance telling of the warm friendship that existed between them.

Witnessing the nose kiss so up close and personal had me wondering at the vagaries of a society with strict codes for dress and conduct for both men and women. I’ve seen the hubby warmly embraced by a kandura-wearing friend whom he had not seen in a year. So. Men are able to freely express their friendship without arousing suspicions that they are gay. But women? Well, I’ve seen many, many women flaunt their figures underneath the abaya, their shopping bags breezily dangling from their arms as they cheerfully chatter away. I’ve also seen women publicly dance with other women because there were no men present to be their partners. But never have I seen women greet each other the way men embrace each other in public.

If men can engage in PDA’s of the intimate sort in the public sphere, what about the women? That got me thinking. And wondering. Then thinking again. About the engineer who was called home by her father so she would not be corrupted by the West. About how social change is inevitable in a country used to satellite television. About the thirty-something woman I met who spends her days watching television. About how Emirati women are fortunate to have a government that cares, truly cares, about them (local women are encouraged to get a university degree and are offered technical/financial help if they want to set up a business). About how the road to lasting social change is paved with potholes and craters literally and figuratively. Lastly, about my journey to and from feminism.

                                                                      ♣♣♣

I first became enamored with the feminist movement’s ideals after reading Collette Dowling’s The Cinderella Complex at the age of thirteen.  That it happened just when Cyndi Lauper was singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in a society where female university graduates were being encouraged via tax incentives to procreate with fellow graduates may have been a contributing factor. That I was a rebellious daughter may have been another contributing factor. I don’t know. All I can now say is …

I’ve done it. I’ve attended university classes where I was one of three girls in a class of 33 without wearing a bra. I’ve worn clothes that would not be considered revealing today but which, given the time and place, caused my classmates to joke “Athena, your dressmaker must have been short of fabric once again!” I’ve smoked but quit just to get my best friend off my back. It was easier to quit than tolerate her constant nagging that it was bad for my health. You might even say that the course I managed to finish at university – electrical engineering – arose from a desire not to constrain myself to a female profession.

Eventually,  I realized that these were shallow displays, the external trappings of a feminism not deep enough to flout society’s norms. (Why must feminists break through boundaries and flout cultural conventions to be lauded for their achievements?)

Becoming a Christian a year before graduating from university was responsible for the latter, of course. Who knows what I might have done had I not found Christ? Years and years later, reading the Bible enabled me to view the secular writings in magazines from the perspective of one who had found freedom in Christ. That only Christ’s truth – not the church, not religion – liberates was truly liberating in a way that is hard to explain.

I also realized that men have used religion (or lack of it as in the case with China) to perpetuate gender inequality in all forms throughout history long before Jimmy Carter famously declared his withdrawal from the Southern Baptist Convention (notice he did not say he abandoned his faith). As an aside, did you know that women in East Germany had a better life under the old Communist regime?

My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants.”                                                                           Lana del Rey

And so here I am: a housewife with plenty of fat and white hair to spare who’s now able to proudly proclaim “Hey, I’ve been a feminist all this time!” without shame. Except, except …. I’m not. Not really. Because I think. You see, real feminists just do. They don’t sit around, intellectualizing the debate over bridging the gap in the salaries of men and women. They don’t give speeches lamenting their lower pay or bragging that they’re successful because they did not get pregnant/got an abortion. They’re not the women who carefully plot a course to upset the male status quo. Because. Real feminists can’t afford to think. At least those who do not live in the developed Western world can’t. So. They simply act. Just to survive.

I learned feminism disproportionately from black women.
Gloria Steinem

To me, right now, the true feminists are not the women who are accustomed to privilege and want to have more. The face of a feminist is that of the child bride who refuses the marriage arranged between her and a man three times her age. She is the Indian widow who defies society’s expectation that she die with her husband by choosing to exist, struggling to maintain dignity while living a beggar’s life. She is the Chinese mother who, after giving birth to a girl, hides her and gives her up for adoption to give her child a better life. She is the rape victim who has boldly shown her face to the world. She is the student who bravely utters words that she knows could get her a bullet in her body.  She may be the lawyer who gives up a lucrative job to join an NGO and defend girls in court. She could be the mother figure in a village livelihood project. Heck, she may even be the whore in a brothel struggling to maintain some semblance of self-respect while looking for a way to get out of her pimp’s protection.

In all cases, they are either trying to or have bucked cultural conventions and hierarchical patterns set down by external authorities. Their life shows no signs of the external trappings of feminism that is associated with the movement in the West. Perhaps I think like this because I come from the Far East, no? I don’t know. Anyway ….

In the 1990s, Dustin Hoffman starred in Accidental Hero with Geena Davis and Andy Garcia. It’s a nondescript gem of a movie. Still, it stayed with me through the years for questioning American culture’s fixation with heroes and the general definition of a hero. Perhaps we should do the same when it comes to feminists? I’m not saying that those who vigorously campaigned for equal pay, workplace childcare, access to contraceptives, and other issues did not advance the movement. They did. But. There’s a Me-ness to their activism that is lacking in the examples I mentioned above.

Today, I am largely disillusioned at the Western framework for female liberation or what exactly constitutes a feminist. I look at Gloria Steinem and Camille Paglia and their ilk and wonder whether the achievements for which they are lauded actually did us any good in the long run. Don’t get me wrong. I deeply admire Steinem for walking her talk. But sometimes I do wonder if the women’s movement would have progressed without their activism and rhetoric, pushed along by the waves of fresh female graduates and women seeking employment after a divorce. Or if, in seeking parity with men, women traded something better for something that is simply good. Because. The reality is we can’t have it all. (I could expand what I mean by this statement but this post is already very long) If we could, then why do women today face so many problems that our parents and grandparents never had?

In the end, what ultimately nailed the coffin on my regard for the feminist movement was Mallory Millett’s Marxist Feminism’s Ruined Lives: The Horror I Witnessed Inside the Women’s “Liberation” Movement. Millett is the sister of Kate Millett, a feminist icon. In it, she reveals the man-hating family-destroying agenda of the feminist movement. Reading it brought up many questions …

Why must women act like sluts to gain freedom from men? Where is the self-respect in that? Can’t one have a liberal mind without flouting societal norms? Another thing. Men do not work their butts to trade places with us. Have you heard of a guy expressing a wish to get pregnant and give birth?

We were uniquely made to carry a life and childbirth. Why then, do we aspire to jobs traditionally held by men? (Again, I’m not saying it’s wrong – just that if you’re not called and uniquely suited for it, it’s a travesty to do so just to advance a movement). Why do we reject the physical limitations placed on our bodies? Menstruation is a pain, yes, but there’s no point in wishing that men experience it. They can’t and that should be the end of it.

So what, exactly, does a feminist mean to me right now? It’s hard to explain. The feminist movement has embraced all sorts of causes (gay rights, racial equality) that the average person would have a hard time grasping its tail, especially since identifying with it is now so fraught with emotion. Celebrities declaring that they’re not feminists have not helped the cause, either.

So. Let me revise my opinion once again. The real feminists, the way I see it, are not necessarily those who proclaim their feminism in their writings or actions. They are the women who, in forging an identity true to their nature, have paved the way to something better for the rest of womankind. They may not be wildly successful in their fields. But. In extending the boundaries for what women are capable of – and I’m not talking about the glass ceiling only here – they have made the world a better place for their daughters and daughters-in-law. This definition is not limited to powerful women like Hilary Clinton whose ability to concurrently inspire disgust and admiration leaves me in awe. It embraces females of all color and creed and may even include – gasp! – your mother.

In the end, the true feminist may be the mother who educates her sons and daughters about the value of human life, showing that gender equality, when marked by a recognition and celebration of the distinct differences between male and female, is biblically compatible. Because. Come to think of it, if all men grew up thinking that women deserve equal pay as men … if all boys became men believing that women’s differences do not make them inferior but in fact superior to men, we wouldn’t be waging a war in the workplace and judiciary, would we?

As for me, well, don’t label me a feminist. Or wife. Or mother. Just one word will do: woman. After all, it’s what I was created to be. And. It’s the only word that captures the essence of Me.

PS. Please be kind when commenting. I have no wish to start a debate; I am merely sharing my thoughts.

A few film suggestions beyond Sufragette:
Not Without My Daughter
Girl Rising
I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced
Water 

For Earl

Our lives are stories.
                       Hilary Mantel, The Present Tense

Come December, it never fails. I’ll hear the strains of a Christmas ditty and suddenly, the memories come. And wash over me like rain dropping on a garden in summer. With them a melancholic fog settles while I do everyday household chores. Because. I was not able to say goodbye to a friend whose death brought so much grief I buried all memories deep within for more than a decade.

It’s different now, though. Having lived away from our country for so long, I play Christmas songs from back home even though one particular song induces memories that rise up from some forsaken pit of the mind. For the past few years, I’ve fought the urge to write them down. Thus, this post has actually been in gestation for several years.

Like I said, it’s different now. My gray cells are graying. With no physical memento or photograph to hold on to (except that taken at my wedding), memories are all I have. So write I must if I want to remember anything ten years from now of a friend who was more than a pleasant companion during a period of my life when I was young and gauche and insecure about so many things in life.

                                                                     ♥♥♥

Having graduated from an unknown university and surrounded by English-speaking (English is not my native language) colleagues who appeared sophisticated beyond their years, I often felt like the country mouse in the office where I’d worked briefly before deciding to become a stay-at-home mom. Earl was the antidote to all the loneliness of a young girl alone with few friends in the big city.

We were compatible companions in that we both knew we were safe in each other’s company: he had a wife in America and I had a boyfriend back home. Thus, we were able to be freely converse. And talk we did. Over endless cups of coffee. Opera. Asthma. Shakespeare. Nursery rhymes. Audrey Hepburn. Pranic healing. Christianity. Aerobic exercise. You name it, either he knew it or had an opinion about it.

Once, I expressed admiration for an opera singer whose voice soared like an eagle and told him that all I could recall was her name “Flicka.” He readily supplied her full name: Fredericka von Stadt.

It was obvious that he loved his wife. Whether she did, I do not know. At university, we’d discussed setting free people you love during angst-filled days. Here before me was a living embodiment who’d actually done it: he’d allowed his wife to work in America, pursuing her career goals, while he languished at home doing work that was not conducive to upward mobility. It was a partnership that I with my young mind could not comprehend. Once, I probed deeper. He explained that to him, marital faithfulness was all that mattered, not sex.

And so he proudly talked about Irma and her idiosyncracies. How she wore a new pair of shoes everyday of the two weeks she’d been home to visit him. How she was apprehended by police one time when she threw out the garbage and called him from the police station. How she sued her former employer, Bank of America, for racial discrimination and won. How she called him “My lord.” How she … I can’t remember anymore.

What I do remember, though, were our eating sessions which most often occurred at my instigation. Whenever I was frustrated at work, I’d invite him to accompany me to eat out. Almost always, he’d come and introduce me to another dining spot in Makati.

He had a houseboy, Orly, who cleaned his house but did not cook (so it seemed). Thus, he knew all the best eating places in town for different cuisines. We dined at Mother Saatchi’s (vegetarian), Kashmir (Indian), Dayrit’s (hamburger), and other restaurants and cafes whose names I can’t remember anymore. When he started praising the kebabs and other Middle Eastern dishes of a restaurant in the red light district, I begged “Take me there, please!” but he declined “Ermita is not a place for young girls like you.”

How I wish I could tell him now “See, you didn’t want to take me there but here I am, able to taste any Middle Eastern dish I want!”

Singing. I am out of tune. But. Despite knowing that he played the piano (he’d once narrated how he’d scared two maids with his piano playing at midnight at their ancestral home in Bicol), I had no reserves when it came to singing in his presence. I sang while we walked down the street. Then he’d flash that devilish grin. Still, I’d sing. I sang until the day we were eating at a dine-and-sing restaurant and I heard another patron come up onstage to sing that Christmas song.

When a friend broke news of his death, my initial reaction was “Now don’t you go dying on me – you’re going to be my firstborn’s godfather!” But. It was meant to be.

                                                                         ♥♥♥

Is it so bad, to hold on to memories? I don’t know. All I know is that next Christmas, hopefully the memories won’t come.

Earl Calleja, this is for you.

Letter to a sister in Christ

My dear, your long response took me by surprise! It was the longest reply to a Christmas greeting that I ever got. So much so that I couldn’t help but gather my thoughts into a post. And no, I don’t think your feelings are invalid; your predicament is not uncommon to people who grew up inside a church.

You know, my initial reaction to your missive was “Why listen to them? You don’t have to! They’re thousands of miles away.” In a sense, aren’t you thankful that you’ve been blessed to be given that much distance between you and family?

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that your mother-in-law has a point. Oh not that part about holding on to the standards that you were raised with. I’ll say more about that later on. Ultimately – in the long run as others might say – one can’t divorce the external from the internal. Our appearance, our behavior, our words only reflect the convictions of our heart. How we project ourselves to others may depend on what we’re feeling at the moment, yes, but ultimately, our image is shaped by what is in our heart. That applies to an homemaker (and I know many homemakers who are very fashionable despite being saddled with little children – how they do it remains a mystery to me) as well as an abaya-wearing maiden or a sari-clad Indian lady.

Yes, you’re right. To focus only on the external is wrong even though that’s how we are primarily judged. That is why Jesus again and again targeted the heart. It’s just like parenting: if we don’t get ahold of our children’s heart, they will obey externally while rebelling internally. That is why many children wander away from their parents’ faith after leaving the nest. Nobody can truly legislate morality beyond the home – not the school, not the church, not the government – though God knows many continue to try.

In the epistles, Paul speaks of legalism in the context of circumcision and talks about being free in Christ. We talk so much about freedom in Christ yet we’re still chained in our way of thinking. We shouldn’t be. We’ve been set free.

The trouble, I feel, arises when men (some would say “the church”) impose their standards (some would say “their interpretation of Scripture”) on the flock of which they are shepherds. But consider. Isn’t it telling that Jesus never said anything about outward appearances or how to clothe ourselves or how we ought to look? Correct me if I’m wrong but the only verses I can find are Matthew 6:28-30 and they concern the provision, not the use, of clothing. As an aside, isn’t it also telling that the verses we Christians hold on to as biblical standards for dressing were written by men? Why do you think God did not use women writers to record his message?

You know, I wrote about my standards for dressing two posts ago for a secular audience. That piece came about after much reflection on the evolution of my fashion sense through the years and how it reflected my Christian walk. So. Please believe me when I say I totally get your frustration. Your problem is: How do you get the message across that they should not worry so much about the external trappings of religion (in this case Christianity) because you’ve finally found joy in being liberated from oppressive standards that smack of legalism?

The tension between finding freedom in Christ and breaking free from what you’ve been trained to be and do while growing up is real. Believe me. I’ve been through it. Where I come from (and may I just say that I do miss the way you preface every explanation with that phrase), legalism did not come from church – it came from the convent school where I finished high school. Where one had to button up to the neck and you could be penalized for wearing hair down your shoulders (it took a long time but when I did, I wore my hair down all the time without feeling any guilt).

But we’re not talking about me. So let’s get back to your problem. My dear, there’s only one solution: with love. The particulars of which He will instruct you.

You’d love our devotional group. I’ve never found a group permeated with so much honesty. A few weeks ago, I told the girls “There’s a benefit to growing old: one attains the wisdom one lacked in youth. One also dispenses with others’ standards and finally gets comfortable with being accountable to only Him above.” 

You’ll get there, my friend. You’ll get there, eventually,  though the path will require you to make some hard decisions. Finding freedom in Christ, you’ll also find the confidence to be YOU, the unique you God created you to be without feeling apologetic to anyone. And when you do, you’ll be free to decide whether to make a statement or conform to society’s norms. IMHO, it’s more convenient to take into account the cultural context of one’s environment but what do I know? I live in a desert town deep in Arabia where men outnumber women ten to one.

I have to stop here. The sun has now come up and I have to smell my roses.

Lots of love,
Athena