One Last Look

I wanted to change my mind, but I had already given my word.

It was a choice between losing a treasured relationship and keeping my treasured painting. I grudgingly decided, relationship is more important than a framed acrylic rendition of a perfect day I tried to freeze in time.

In Cebu, where my family and I had our once-a-year vacation, one of the places we went to was the butterfly farm. More than the colorful butterflies, it was the flowers on which they fluttered that riveted my eyes. And more than the flowers, I loved the way my boys enjoyed the nature scenes normally appreciated only by their flower-crazed mom.

I took a shot of the bird of paradise, a flower which always fascinates me, to remind me of that idyllic day.

When we got back home, I rendered the photo on canvas, replete with the feelings still intact. After my Bird of Paradise was framed, I hang it along my other paintings on our wall. But it was my favorite of all.

The days that followed were tragic. We lost my sis-in-law and mom-in-law (Amah) one month apart.

In our grief, one elderly but very strong lady, Auntie Hedy, held our hand. She made decisions where we couldn’t, provided assistance where needed, and in between events, comforted my mom-in-law more than all of us combined.

All my married life, Auntie Hedy had been a fixture in Amah's life; they were each other’s phone pal and best friend. She gave of herself in ways one could never replicate, even if one tried.

In one of her visits to Amah in our home (they talked for hours!), I wanted to give her a gift (a token of appreciation is more like it) and wracked my brain on what it could be, she being one of those who has everything.

No ideas came. On her way out she stopped by my paintings, looked at them very closely, nodded appreciatively, and remarked, “These are good!”

My mouth moved before my mind could think, “Take one."

She went straight to my Bird of Paradise without buts, ifs, or maybes and said, “I love this,” taking it down.

I was stunned that an octogenarian would see what I saw and put in that painting. She hugged it like it always belonged to her and walked off to her waiting limo.

Separation anxiety ate me up for days, easing only with my mind’s promise that, “I’ll paint one just like it.”

Psychologists invented the term separation anxiety because, well, there's no such thing as reconciliation anxiety, is there? Beginning with Adam's ouster from the Garden of Eden, separation has become a word so cruel it causes modern man wrinkles and ulcers, if not early death.

I look back and laugh at it now (my face red with embarrassment). It is never a choicerelationship is up in the treasure list and a favorite painting is nowhere near it.

I also chuckle at a column I wrote about this same exact feeling. I am uploading it here with the hope that you, too, will laugh at some dark experience in the past when you had to say good-bye to a part of you.

One Last Look

"Take one last look," my husband said one day. I did—and my eyes smarted, my nose sniveled, and my lungs contracted. I was two seconds close to bawling.Now, what would you call someone who drivels over an aging and ailing bundle of metal and motor, in fading green, labeled Toyota Corolla? Hilarious, they said. Serious, I said.

"What's wrong? You sound awful!" my sister, the queen of tact, spewed when I called her soon after that.

"Separation anxiety," I moaned.
"Tony left you?!"

"Worse. My car left me."


I bawled.

Despite tender loving care, that green, fading thing had lately been acting up—whining, gurgling, making too many trips to the casa. It had been gas guzzling and throwing temper tantrums anywhere it wanted to.

But it was six years of my life
when I found myself at the crossroads of a long-running career, vacillating for months on end whether to drive past it. It provided literally the space I needed to think a million thoughts, replay in my mind a million memories, pray a million prayers, and finally answer my biggest what if.

Quite poetic, if not melodramatic: greenie was my refuge, where I could shut myself from the rest of traffic, make life-changing decisions and come to terms with them, with no change of lanes or u-turn. We were together through my last years on an old, well-traveled path (my career) and through my first years on a new, unfamiliar terrain (my retirement).

It even carried my favorite things
wall hangings and mementosand me, from office to home for good.

Years ago, when I was due for a new car (of my choice for the first time), in lieu of the one belonging to the company pool, I waived the privilege. Management had just announced that raises for the staff were cut because finances fell below benchmarks. I told the boss it wasn't a good time. He gave me that look that comes when you find a ride after walking for hours wearing new shoes, "Whew!"

Months later, our client Toyota had a sale-of-the-century where cars were practically given away. "Now's a good time, Grace," the boss said. "Take your pick.”

Still concerned about the staff's non-raise, I focused on the cheapest model and spotted a bright green. From that day forward, greenie and I were together every single day until that one time when I took "one last look."

As you read, I hope you're laughing with me and not at me. Separation Anxiety is for real and wreaks havoc on one's equilibrium.

Like traffic, separation anxiety has variants—light, moderately heavy, heavy, or all, intermittently. We can only get past it to where we should be by seeking God's grace.
In Isaiah 43:18-19 ". . . the Lord says, 'Do not cling to the events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now! I will make a road through the wilderness and give you streams of water there.'"

(BTW, from that old road, I still keep one other attachment—a huge key chain collection. As I am now traveling a new drive with new interests, and vowing to disallow another separation anxiety, I am giving this collection "one last look" without bawling. If you're interested, let's talk. I need reassurance that you'll care for them as much as I did.)

I did let go of that entire collection—gave it away to about a dozen people whom I knew would also let each item go someday—with no ifs, buts, and maybes.


A Great Read!

Writing has a shadow: reading.

If you are into writing, reading follows you wherever you go. The other way around may not be true, but definitely, writers—shoot me if there are exceptions—are stuck on reading.

There’s something about reading someone else’s thoughts, opinions, experiences; getting lost in a time other than your own; unraveling webs of mystery and matrices of human confusion; deciphering codes and enjoying metaphors; discovering new schools of thought; I could go on.

Before the year ended I read a book on management (and you thought I logged off from that one —well, so did I) which was so interesting I knew I had to internalize it and, whenever possible, soak in its essence.

The book is: The Way of the Shepherd by Dr. Kevin Leman and William Pentak. It is timeless as well as timely. It speaks of management principles as old as sheep and as new as buyouts.

Of the many management books I have either taken seriously or simply nosed through, this one stands alone.

A rapid—too rapid—read, The Way of the Shepherd’s imagery is vivid and its imprint, lasting. It’s a book on people management principles as old as the hills, yet works as the latest software.

Lamb chops ordered for a quick business lunch are about the only images of the sheep in today’s corporate world. These days, to have an imagined business savvy, one has to have an MBA diploma, quote the latest management books, and fly to business meetings in the big cities of the world.

The Way of the Shepherd takes us back in an old, rickety beat-up pickup, to the sheep yard, where the stench and bleat of this ancient animal, which has existed since over 4000 B.C., is analyzed, experienced—and, yes, rediscovered.

It is a rediscovery one can feel, smell, and enshrine in one’s heart, long after the pages of this small book has been closed and lent to others.

Theodore McBride, the CEO of General Technologies reveals—and unselfishly hands down to the author, and us, on the eve of his retirement—the seven greatest management principles which, he avows, are the reasons his company is “the number one place to work for in America.” The spirit of teamwork in General Technologies appears to be patented. The company has the highest retention rate among businesses of the same magnitude.

The seven greatest management principles are not originally McBride’s. They were likewise handed down to him by his mentor, one of his professors in MBA, Dr. Jack Neumann—a shepherd at heart. McBride did not receive these principles through lecture in an air-conditioned classroom, but in situ and in the company of live, stinking sheep.

At the end of his lessons, McBride says these principles—more than any other management program he ever learned—unlocked for him the secrets of becoming a great leader, outstanding by any standard.

These principles, at first blush, seem like old proverbs or a wise-old-man’s homespun tales: Know the condition of your flock; Discover the shape of your sheep; Help your sheep identify with you; Make your pasture a safe place; The staff of direction; The rod of correction; and, The heart of the shepherd.

They’re not. Unearthed from that long-ago workplace, dependent on unpredictable nature and fickle weather, these principles are amazingly modern, and, in today’s lingo, doable. Like a bug-free scalable software, there are (albeit in simple analogy) in the menu familiar management tools—grids, timetables, leadership strategies, reward and punishment, feedback system, and research protocols.

And the best news is, these sheepherding principles can work for anyone — a CEO of a mega company, a small-venture entrepreneur, a manufacturing manager, or even a Sunday school teacher.

The fast-paced prose and interesting storytelling allows one to self-evaluate and reflect on his own management style. The shepherd’s way leads people in a way that they want to follow. It instills in them loyalty and commitment.
How could something as ancient as the way of the shepherd still work in this modern era of blogs and self-indulgence? McBride explains that the basic needs of human nature remain essentially the same.

As to why a number of managers don’t shepherd their people, the book explains that great leadership comes at a great price—and few people are willing to pay for it. That great price is modeling. To demand excellence, one must be excellent himself.

Great leadership and people skills cannot be taught. They have to be modeled as did McBride’s mentor in a sheep yard.

It worked then and it can work now.


What Sunshine Means

One day a week, I get a good dose of sunshine.

More than warming my computer-humped back and keyboard-cramped fingers, it illumines my mind. I leave the enclosed room where my desk top (and for emergencies, my laptop) and I sit snugly together, and for three to six hours I come eyeball-to-eyeball with the young and the restless: college students in a trans-national business school.

Depending on the trimester, I teach the subjects—from Case Studies in Advertising to Business English to Strategic Marketing and Management—which consumed me in my other life. Okay, it’s a way of conveniently re-living past glory in the corporate world which I turned my back on when I plunged into my second act.

It’s also a diversion I seek out because it teaches me the one thing I am still learning despite two decades in the business world: patience.

It’s not that bad, really. For where in the world can you have a captive audience who hangs on to your every word (I exaggerate; make that every other word) and wonders aloud why the textbook says otherwise.

I remember my very first day. I wore my red power suit and talked with the stance of someone who’s been there, done that. In seconds I got questions coming from some part of the world I never thought existed, and suddenly, I was at sea. I made a mental note—these punks couldn’t be treated like peers or clients. In marketing language, they’re a niche target: a handful, inquisitive aliens whose knowledge of advertising is “that icky shampoo ad on MTV” or the “blah billboard on SLEX” or the “cool dude on radio” and say it with unabashed vigor.

I had to go back two decades and started pointing out the differences between a headline and a tagline; a storyboard and an audio-visual script; Copy Research and Research and Development.  

By and large, they are a quick, very quick, study. Can you think of anything sunnier?

I can’t complain. I can now grin even after someone asks, “Miss, can you explain again what you mean by ‘big idea?’” These days, instead of saying, “Trash that thought, it stinks,” I say, “Hmmm, that’s interesting, can you explain it a bit more,” meaning it.

In teaching, one has the luxury of time: to nurture, to motivate, to lead, to listen, and most of all, to watch—as your students grow before your eyes—and to look forward to a future when they become excellent men and women in the workplace, better than I ever was.

If that isn’t sunshine, what is? And here’s more—a page from my journal some trimesters ago.

“Your parents named you well,” I tell her after reading the essay she wrote about herself in my English for Business class. She beams. That’s my first encounter with Sunshine, one of the eight 17-year-old freshmen in the classroom.

From day one, Sunshine has been a ray of, guess what, sunshine. She has that sunny glow—listening intently, giving her opinions on the subject being discussed, informally leading any of the case study groups she is assigned to, and smiling brightly. She also gets an A in every quiz. And when she is called upon to talk about her work, she does not present. She performs.

I’ve had outstanding students, achievers who put pressures on themselves. But only one is named Sunshine; she who has such a sparkling demeanor it shifts your mood from crabby to cheery. And it intrigues me that someone with that name would reflect the word so uncannily. A walking metaphor, Sunshine is.

No cloud, dark or dense, seems able to hide her spark. In one of the school’s activities—Parents’ Night—she regaled the audience with her sweet singing voice and dancing prowess.

“Is there anything you can’t do?” I asked facetiously, facing her. Then I asked further, facing her mom, “How does it feel to have such a multi-talented daughter?

“Blessed. I feel really blessed,” she grinned, her pride showing through her eyes. I took note: Sunshine has her genes.

All the days the rest of the trimester have been pretty much the same. Sunshine always shines.

Then comes a major class activity which I had created to help my students tackle the final exam, moderated in London, Great Britain. I nicknamed it “Mock Test” because it mimics the tone of test which was to happen in two weeks.

I expect Sunshine to get an A. She does.

The following day after giving my students back their papers, I get a text message from Sunshine. “Miss, there has been an error in my grade. I’d like to show it to you tomorrow.”

Gee, what nerve, I say to myself. My impulse is to text back, “You got an A. Anything higher than that won’t make any difference!” But my once-a-week teaching stint, and aging, have tamed my temper and tongue. After counting from one to ten, my fingers text back, “Ok, see you tomorrow.”

I see her in the lobby, beaming as usual and rushing to me with her test paper in tow. We take the nearest bench.

“Miss,” she says, without missing a beat, “you made a mistake in your addition. You gave me additional four points!”

With this new, and correct, computation, Sunshine’s grade goes down to B. That’s a first, that can’t be.

I blanch and pale, like a castaway who has been kept in a dark, musty dungeon too long.

On impulse, I hug her—a gesture instructors are discouraged to make (in the campus at least) to give that student-teacher relationship a semblance of respectability. “Good girl!” But it is an act far better than what I had in mind—bang my head on the wall.

In her final report card, I write in the space that says, Comments: “Apart from excellence, Sunshine also means: integrity.”

Yes, one day a week, God’s grace allows the sun to shine on me, and I find a new meaning to the word sunshine.


Creative Writing: The NINE Chongisms

In my book talks, one of the frequently-asked questions is: “How do I become a published writer?” I am surprised that there are so many closet writers—like I was—out there.

Had there been a sure-fire formula on how this is done, I’d have followed it years ago. But each published
writer, I have discovered, has his own unique story to tell. Mine is a series of fortunate events.

But that is another story.

I’ve mulled over that question and I’d like to help usher budding writers to the joy of creative writing—in my own small way. I summarized my thoughts on creative writing and what I’m doing to give it justice. 

I call them The NINE Chongisms, first discussed in my talk to young writers, participants in an Essay Writing Contest sponsored by OMF Literature, launched at the National Book Fair late last year.

Why nine? Odd. Why not ten? Because they’re no commandments; punishment comes not to those who disobey them. They’re for anyone or no one to treasure or trash.

The beauty of creative writing is—there are no how-tos. Every writer has
his own voice. 
Creative writing cannot be taught, it can only be nurtured.

The gift is not the ability to write; it is the passion to write. You can’t be forced, or made to go to writing school and emerge a creative writer. Like a pianist or an athlete who constantly practices with discipline before he becomes a virtuoso or Olympian, the writer likewise must go through the same practice and discipline. That means, writing every single day.

2) The perfect time to write is now.

How much writing are you doing? If you wait till you have more time, more money, or when you’re older, or more experienced, then kiss publishing good-bye. If you have stories to tell, tell them now. If you want to write, write now. Waiting is an extravagance a creative writer can’t afford. I splurged on waiting and now I seem to have very little time to write the many stories still untold.

3) Creative writing must help heal.

I live and wish for happy endings. I believe that when this earthly life ends, God’s children will move to eternal life. I feel that each written work—be it for kids, adults, the world—must uplift a reader’s (or my) sagging spirit.

At some point in our lives, we hurt. Surely the human spirit has the capacity to bear pain and rise from it, but it can use a little help to hasten the healing process.
The characters in my stories are drawn from real life. Except for Alvin Patrimonio, my nephew, they are ordinary beings who have made an extraordinary impact on how I think and feel. While reading these stories, others—from their letters—have found their own.

“Thank you, my pasaway little boy is trying to be like Teo!” (Teo is the main character in the Oh Mateo! Series of 11 books to date.)

What’s for Breakfast? is bringing me closer to God.”

Gifts of Grace lifts the heart and makes me think of how fortunate I am with so many people around me making my life meaningful everyday.”

4) A writer needs to keep the wildness in him alive.

The wildness in us is our daring attitude, opinions and feelings which we call imagination—it can go where others don’t want to go. Imagination is circular, not linear. It can begin with any character or action at any point of your story.

It’s thinking out of the box, thinking in the box, thinking in another box, and thinking in new boxes. I guess it’s courageously trying out all kinds of boxes to weave tapestries of daily living.

5) Creative writing is not about words or syntax, it is about life.

Polyglots, grammarians, linguists, and philosophers can write. Anybody who has mastered a language can write. But only a creative writer can put his soul on paper: the connections he has built, gaps he has bridged, failures he has learned from, and successes he has celebrated.

Creative writing is looking for the good in people, reconciling differences and solving conflicts, in a unique voice that is yours alone—not preaching, just testifying.

6) A creative writer needs ten senses, not five.

Behind every sound, touch, scent, image, and taste is a story. Someone said that when a writer hears a whisper, he hears a thunder.

Creative writing is looking beyond the beauty in the ordinary. It’s seeing the buds bloom, enjoying the birds' chorus, hearing the leaves wail, re-reading the books that have inspired you and dipping into them. It’s feeling the texture of paint and the ouch of a needle.

7) A creative writer must embrace solitude, including tedium.

Creative work requires a good deal of time alone. Often, I need to withdraw from the hubbub of the world—and be with my shadow.

Enjoy the tedium. Go over a paragraph ten, twenty, fifty times until it sings.

8) Every piece uses your brain, but has your heart.

Brain: We’ve been told that the brain controls everything—our actions, thoughts, emotions. True. How do ideas come? At the base of our brain is the Reticular Activating System (RAS). These cells help us decide what to be conscious of, filtering out other information.
When my husband bought an Innova car, I never thought there were so many Innova owners. People didn't rush out to buy the same car. They were always there. I just made it important to me and my RAS allowed that information through.

When I decided that creative writing is more important to me than advertising writing, I saw many ideas I missed before.

Everything we experience is in our brain. The challenge for a creative writer is to retrieve this information.

Heart: Is the heart mushy? Facts: The heart's electromagnetic field is actually 5,000 times stronger than that of the brain. Research shows that our heart perceives and transmits information in much the same way that our brains do.

We use our heart to read others and through electrical impulses, pressure waves and hormones, our intuition enables us to feel empathy for others.
By no coincidence, our vocabulary is filled with expressions, such as: Broken-hearted, Change of heart, All heart, Take heart, Heart-to-heart, Hard-hearted, Tender-hearted, and Half-hearted.

9) Creative writing is for God’s glory.

Creative writing is honoring the light within me, letting it shine, to glorify its Source. It is baring what chaos and choices have taught me, so others may find their own light.
Creative writing emerges only from a center. So then every page is a celebration of the beauty of noon, midnight, and all hours in between. Every leaf is a rediscovery of blessings and a conduit to our Creator.

The NINE Chongisms in a nutshell: Creative writing makes me lose myself in the excitement of the imagination; only to find myself ensconced in the warmth of His grace.


Mother Noise

Six years of walking seems forever. I feel as though I’ve been walking all my life for at least one hour every day (from 5 to 6 AM), except on rare occasions when I’m dead beat from the previous night’s activity, the latest of which was the New Year celebration.

I do an average of six to seven kilometers daily, depending on my pace—from very brisk to too-brisk-people-think-I-am-running. So if I roughly compute those distances, multiplying them with the number of days (say, an average of 320 days a year), I would have walked, as of today, over 13,000 kilometers! 
On weekdays, homes wake up as early as I do. From block to block, I hear mothers holler, “You’ll be late for school!” Wake up!” “Go take a bath!”

Kids whimper and yawn, reluctant to leave their beds. If I listened closely enough, I’d hear what I smell, tocino, eggs, and sinangag sizzling or frying. I’d also hear bed sheets folding, faucets running, and lunch boxes, doors, gates opening and closing.

I call these “mother noise.” The kind of sounds mothers with growing-up children hear every day of their lives. These real-life audio at dawn I don’t hear in my home anymore. But once upon a time I did, part of the time. Most times I was busy minding my own needs, hearing my own thoughts—about what to do with my clients and what to expect from my staff in the office—that those sounds were heard by my kids’ yayas instead.

In my pile of writings, I have a piece on this important phase of my mothering, which I’d like to share with those parents today who are so busy briskly walking the same treadmill—building a career or making a living—I walked on, up until six years ago when I decided I’ve earned my dues and stayed home to do what I love doing best, writing. This essay I tagged:

Part-time Mother

It is an ordinary weekday morning. After a leisurely breakfast with my husband, who drives off to his office in Makati, I glide into my own office a few steps away. In faded tee and frayed shorts, I am all set to string my words. I log on to my computer and play a Broadway musicale CD to keep my feet tapping. All my senses begin to key in. But just when I think I am in utopia, I hear the un-ordinary.

Noise. A fusion of disparate sounds all around. Wispy voices of the Lotus Eaters (80s hit band); heavy clanks of barbell plates accompanied by grunts and groans; and loud organ music with unabashed singing—all at the same time.

Well, eldest son JC, a software designer, holds office in the music room so I am used to his music played at hysterical level. But middle son JB (who came by to rest after passing the Medical Exam Board)doing noisy weights, youngest son JR (who is awaiting his final trimester in Legal Management)practicing organ pieces this hour are both something new. Suddenly it hits me. All my three boys are home.

I try, and try hard, to visualize the last time they were home with me on an ordinary weekday. No images come. I slither to the living room, where their noises clash in a crazy cacophony, and I sit up straight on the couch.

“Mom, why are your eyes closed?’ JR asks, chuckling.

“Shhh, I am trying to remember...”

All my Mommy Years were spent mostly at the workplace.          

The only images of weekday togetherness I now see in my mind are: Hurried mornings—hustling sleepy Sons One and Two into a honking school bus, then kissing crying Son Three goodbye; and tired evenings—reviewing Son One's homework, then whispering a prayer over sleeping Sons Two and Three.

On sacred weekends, I'd cram into two precious days all the missed five days. And mouthed my defensive buzzword, quality time.

What that made me was plain and simple, part-time mother. A moonlighter who knew deep down that she couldn’t excel in both jobs equally. It also meant that nothing could ever make up for a lost chance to answer a question, or straighten a knitted brow, or kiss a little ache away.

But today, at ages when they turn all red if hugged or bussed in public, and would rather have a pretty girl's company instead of their mother's, I am here for them. On call night and day!

More than ever, with years of management practice and client service, I can now answer their questions—any question; straighten their knitted brows, even conjure smiles; kiss away their little aches—physical or emotional. Finally, I am equipped to do topnotch mothering.

Unfortunately, they don't know that. Worse, they don't need it anymore.

It's like a joke about life's ironies. As adolescents short on cash, we could then only gawk at pricey clothes on mannequins. Now in our golden years, we can buy them but can't fit into them. My husband rues about his lot, as well. In his youth, he couldn't afford lechon in a menu. Now he can, but his cardiologist and oncologist and surgeon have ordered him to shun it, or else.

Often, when I talk to my friends who are full-time mothers, I verbalize my envy (okay, guilt). "I wish I had also stayed home when my children were growing up."

"Hey, go easy on yourself," they say as friends should. "You did very well."

No, my children (whose mommy was there only part of the time) did very well. From what I see, they each have a good heart.

No, not because of me. But because of—and only by—God's grace. He promised in 2 Corinthians 12:9, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness . . ."

Awesome, His grace never failed when I did. Amazing, it was always there when I wasn't.

copyright © 2002 by Grace D. Chong