Dios ti Agngina, Manang Vi

This Ilocano phrase, when literally translated, asks for the Lord’s grace in saying “thank you,” with a prayer that the person being thanked is blessed a thousandfold.

We say Dios ti agngina, Manang* Vi, our househelp of many years—she who watched our three mischievous little boys grow up into responsible young men; she who had served all my siblings and their families when they came to visit.

She was a member of the family, and we feel deeply indebted to her.

Manang Vi passed on yesterday, just days after her 70th birthday, in her hometown. After supper she said, “I want to sleep now.” She never woke up.

It was about this time last year when she left us for good. Before then, she’d been worrying over her sister, Francing, who suffered from terminal cancer. She would regularly send money to the province for medication and called the shots over the phone. Unfortunately, Francing didn’t make it.

She went home for Francing's funeral and when she came back, she was never the same again. She would stare into space, feel all sorts of aches, and worse, she was testy with everyone.

On her last Christmas with us
I had to talk to her, “You don’t smile anymore. Sometimes we don’t know how to –“  

She snapped, “How can I smile when I am not feeling well!”

I took the chance to tell her what we’ve been afraid to say years earlier (since she turned 65), “Maybe you need to take a rest; you’ve been working all your life and--”

“No,” she said curtly. But days later, her sister came to pick her up. Her retirement money had been advanced years before, because she wanted to put up a business. But we felt we still owed her, and pooled our resources (Tony and I are now both retired) to send her off with a decent farewell gift. 

My sister, brother and sister-in-law would visit her once in a while since my family lives so far away. They would bring a pastor to pray for her. “She doesn’t look good,” they’d tell us.   

Son #3 made time to visit her, too, and his prognosis was the same.

What grieves me now is the phone call that her family cannot afford the down payment for funeral services. She had money—she’d been able to buy a farm, build a house, and send her nieces and nephews to school. Often, I would tease her, “Hey, Miss Moneybags, save some money for your funeral expenses.” Did she ever listen?

But now is not the time for questions. She had always been there for us; we will be there—as we pool our resources one last time—for her.   
Rest now, Manang Vi. “You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, and you have remained faithful.” 2 Timothy 4:7 (NLT)

Dios ti agngina.

*an Ilocano honorific for older sister; Ate in Filipno



Unlikely Winner

It’s a common belief that students who have the money—and therefore have access to better schools, gadgets, expensive books and activities such as workshops and travels—will outperform those who have nothing.  

Carol, who graduated valedictorian in our church's school, proved this wrong.   

A slum dweller, Carol was a beneficiary of the church's outreach program, called the "afternoon class." It is a free, abbreviated grade school curriculum for indigent children who pass the entrance exam.

Carol excelled above everyone, including those in the paying sections. She was also an earnest learner, joining all school contests and activities, such as one of my creative writing workshops for children.   

Months later, our pastor surprised me, "One of your workshop kids, Carol, won the writing contest among all private school students in the city!” 

My heart soared. I asked our pastor to tell me more about Carol; only then did I know about her background.

Here was a kid who walked to and from school, perhaps malnourished, clothed and shod in hand-me-downs, and survived on irregular meals, besting all contestants in a writing competition!

It would be so easy for me, who taught her the basics of good writing; her teachers, who nurtured her talents in class; her donors, who financed her school needs in the "afternoon class;" or her parents, who birthed her, to claim the credit for her success. 

But wait.

Scripture says, "For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen." Romans 11:36

Only God can endow anyone with anything that can help children like Carol to fulfill their God-given purpose in life. May God alone be praised.  

Photo credit


MIBF 39: Crowded and Congested

People, people, people everywhere.

Old and young, toddlers and retirees, students and teachers lined up for hours to enter the MIBF venue on the event’s last day. The guards turned all exits into entrances just to accommodate everyone who forced their way in.

I had to leave our 42nd anniversary celebration in church immediately after a quick lunch to catch my 3:30 PM schedule for “Grace under Pressure” book signing at the CSM booth.

How I got in was magic, made possible by an official MIBF ID. One after the other, I received text messages from friends, who had earlier set a date with me, that they turned around, “Can’t swim in the sea of people!” 

Since it was still too early for my book signing, I dawdled in the Hiyas booth, where I met readers of all kinds and friends.

The air-conditioning was almost non-existent and to go from one place to another, you’d have to walk like a Chinese Amah with bound feet, or you’d crush into someone before, behind, or beside you.  Were it not for the joy I feel when surrounded with books and book lovers, I’d have whined.

I almost didn’t make it to the CSM booth in time because of the crowd. But once there, seeing and chatting with old and new friends, time stopped. The 30-minute schedule whizzed by and I overstayed by another 30. 

It took two hours for my driver to find me and help me with my purchases. A person of lesser mettle (or someone who does not love books as much as those who bore the inconveniences) would have passed up that last day or passed out. 

The unprecedented turnout on MIBF’s last day only meant one thing: more and more people are reading. And that falls under the category, “Wow!"


Grand Book Tasting

Avid readers went gaga over the smorgasbord of book resources offered and served by CSM (Church Strengthening Ministry) Publishing all through the Manila International Book Fair (MIBF) in September. The streamer around its booth screamed: Book Buffet!

To dovetail with this theme, the traditional grand book launching was dubbed Grand Book Tasting. The parallelism is seamless. Food nourishes the body; books nourish the soul.

When my kids were little, Tony and I made this policy statement, “We will scrimp on everything except on two things: food and books.”

They readily downed the dictum. Each time we went into a book store, they would each have a pile of books that made us dig deep into our pockets. Each time we ate out, they knew exactly what to have. When the prices of food and books spiraled, there was no way we could rescind the contract.

That’s how they grew up to be voracious readers—and eaters, too. Which was why my daughter-in-law, after becoming a part of the family, coined the term “Chong palate.”

But I digress.

The Grand Book Tasting at the MIBF was grand indeed. CSM Publishing launched more than 20 new book titles, my Grace under Pressure being one of them. The event gathered a crowd representing many churches—pastors, lay ministers, elders, Sunday school teachers, deacons, outreach volunteers, etc. It was a visual demonstration of the publishing house’s mission: To strengthen the Church, equip the saints, and reach mankind.

All the authors briefly introduced his/her book, after which the books were unveiled, prayed over, and offered to the Lord.

Introduction of "Grace under Pressure"

I echo the prayer of Joy, CSM Publishing’s editorial manager, at the Grand Launching: May these books (pored over for one whole year by authors, designers, editors, printers and the CSM Publishing staff) become vital resources in feeding and empowering the church and the saints to reach mankind.  

"Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him." Psalm 34:8


Turning into a Three-toed Sloth

Three-toed sloths are the slowest animals in the world, moving only with a maximum speed of 0.003 miles per hour.

That’s how I felt on the day Dump Truck in My Heart was launched at the Manila International Book fair.

For months, I had looked forward to this important event. In fact, I wrote the date in big, bold letters on my white board.
Finally it arrived. I woke up, bathed, dressed up, and was ready, giving the driver at least three hours (the distance between our home and the venue is 20 minutes) lead time.

As soon as we got to the highway, we creeped. There was an accident two kilometers away and the vehicles before and behind us impatiently honked their horns. Before long, the highway turned into a parking lot—for more than an hour.

I must have glanced at my watch ten times every second, as though it would tick-tock more quickly if I looked often. When we finally got going at the speed of a three-toed sloth, we only had 20 minutes left.

I repeatedly texted Joan, my editor, updating her on our progress. My tummy knotted, my toes curled, and my breath stopped when, with just 10 minutes left, we were still about 500 meters away.

At two minutes before the appointed time, I reached the escalator, skipping rungs, bumping onto people, and praying.

The God of all grace answered my prayer to get me there on time!

The woes of traffic were soon ancient history when I saw kids from St. Stephen’s School trooping in line to the Hiyas Booth, and Dominic Agsaway, the illustrator, greeting me with a smile.

That was the day Dump Truck in My Heart first moved, very quickly, from the shelves to young readers’ hands—much unlike a three-toed sloth.                        
"Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness." Psalm 115: 1 (NIV)



One of the things I terribly miss about working in advertising is diarrhea—of ideas.   

In the creative and accounts departments, all you had to do was to begin your statement with “What if?” and you get a torrent of ideas that surge faster than you could write them down.

It was as though everyone had in his brain disc a grace-rich mine from where he extracts out-of-the-box ideas 24/7.

Why do I miss this so?

Today I teach college students part-time and I often conduct creative writing workshops. Brainstorming is a part of the curriculum/program.

In advertising, brainstorming was (I write in the past tense because I don’t know the state of advertising today) a noisy, garrulous affair. It takes gargantuan guts to say, “Enough!” 

Where I am today, brainstorming is mostly a quiet, stare-at-nowhere, scroll- down-the-phone, google-the-topic, unexciting non-event. Except for a few exceptions, millennials in brainstorming sessions seem to have an ellipse on their foreheads that denotes, Nothing is forthcoming. It's a serious case of constipation, and it makes my heart (or tummy) bleed.

I pray that I may not lose my sanity, snap, and suffer from anemia.
Have ideas suddenly flown out of the window and left us forever? Have they gone into a dark, deep covered pit where they can no longer be found?

Plato said, “Thinking is the talking of the soul with self.”  Is it possible that the young people in this generation, these digital natives, have lost their soul? And self?

Just having fits of nostalgia.  


Judge a Book by Its Cover

That is an axiom in advertising. Packaging plays a big role in product choice.
In like manner, readers do judge a book by its cover. In fact, book covers spell the difference between abysmal and astounding sales. Why do some books fly off the shelf and why do some remain there?

The cover of one of my books, Grace Found Me (365 Thoughts for Busy Women), was changed in time for the Manila International Book Fair.

It was not exactly gathering dust in book shelves, but for some reason, it went out of print. This award-winning book (Gintong Aklat Awards, 2012) occupied a special place in my heart, which ached when it disappeared.

During this time, a friend wanted to purchase a hundred copies for abroad and another wanted it as a give-away at her birthday party.  I combed all bookstores to find it, but found none.

“That only means, it was saleable,” Tony tried to make me feel better.

But more than a year later, at the faculty lounge in the university where I teach, I got an email from Yna, publishing director of OMF Lit. “We need your vote to break the tie between these two cover studies for Grace Found Me.” 

(Left: Study 1; right, Study 2)
It is going to be re-launched! I screamed silently.  

Immediately, I downloaded both designs and did a quick poll among female peers and some students. (Yes, advertising taught me that consumers are the judge, not my gut feeling.) Study 1 (left) won hands down.

I asked, “Which one would you most likely buy?”

Some of the comments were:

“This has a come-on appeal.”

“This gives me a nice feeling.”

“This is happy and fresh!”

It was my personal choice, too—my gut reaction was right! 

Readers loved the old cover (by Jon de Vera) when the book was launched. But because it vanished from the marketplace, it needed to appear again, not as it was, but in an all-new, attractive frock (by Amor Aurelio Alvarez).

Now that we’ve judged the book by its cover, may I invite you to read (and judge) its content? 


Goodbye Time

It’s the end of the first school term. I have just said goodbye to my students.

Last days are sort of sentimental. They say “thank you” and make you feel you have been the best teacher in the world, and that under your wing their lives are changed forever—for the better.
This tugs at the heart even if I know that this scene is replicated in other classrooms with other teachers as well.

In all the years that I have been teaching, nobody seemed to dare ask if we could take a class photo. Maybe I have a detached demeanor (?) But there was that one and only time two years ago when someone tried.

I think I might have dismissed the class a little early because of a speaking and book signing engagement, and there was time for them to dawdle before their next class.

 “Okay,” I said, “make it quick. I need to go somewhere.”

In two seconds flat we had these two shots. I had forgotten all about them until it popped out of my Facebook Memories. 
I peer at each face, and I am surprised that after two years, I still remember all their names—and their grades.

It was an extraordinary class—so extraordinary they even got me to say, “Cheese.”

In another year, they should be marching with their togas and receiving their diplomas. And I would be in the audience praying that their journey into the big, wide world to face the big, bad wolves be a little less intimidating and that they will put to use everything they have learned to achieve what they have set out to do.

And as I am wont to do during graduation ceremonies (the real good-bye time), like a personal ritual, I’d whisper my wish for those graduates, who were once denizens in my classroom, May grace find you wherever you go.