Stories Waiting to be Told

This Cambodian Independence Monument stands proudly at the center of Phnom Penh.     

 There is a park on one side (where I took the photo) and a shopping center on the other.

The serene park, with its lush plants, colorful flowers, and tall, shady trees, landscaped to perfection, seem to deny and defy the violence and brutality that once destroyed this small Asian country, and which are still too raw in our memory (at least in mine).

Here I stood in prayer that the re-emerging cultural, economic, social and political life of Cambodia—which was reduced to almost nothing and is undergoing reconstruction with the help of the UN, and economically, Europe, North America and Australia (and in our own small way, the Philippines)—will grow at a faster pace.

I did not cross over to the side which usually excites me. At that hot, humid hour, shopping seemed like a crime—or too insignificant to consider—in a place that is saddled with issues like illiteracy and poverty.

I had just made friends with a few Khmers whose life stories could melt even the coldest of hearts. I met—and got to know—them through the themes of their writings in an orphanage’s main hall where I conducted a Creative Writing for Children workshop.

Before I set foot on Phnom Penh, I was given a thorough briefing by the organization that invited me. I was to be given two translators to make it through 14 participants—ages 21 to 64. For their privacy, I will not mention names. Khmers are new at writing—at everything—since they are still rising from the ashes of devastation. I prepared a module (translated to Khmer way ahead of time) which was as basic as basic can be: from creation or ideation (as used in the ad industry) to wherever the four full days would take me.

I was prepared—for the worst.

What I was not prepared for was the excitement with which they embraced the idea of writing for children. And their speed in seizing concepts from each lesson. They were bursting with many, many stories waiting to be told. On our second day, they had created big ideas to leap from. And at the end of four days, they each had written a story, complete with conflict, action, and resolution.

I don’t know about their writing skills—for that comes with time, experience, and massive reading. But I know about their heart, which is what creative writing is all about. At the start of the first session, I talked about happiness and how a writer could translate his heart’s joy into powerful prose that touches young readers. Yet, as the day wore on, they wrote about sadness and ache and struggle that tore at their one captive reader: me.

How does one teach happiness? It can’t be taught—not even mandated; it can only be felt. And it will take some time before each of these new writers, some of them orphaned by parents slaughtered in the war, and all of them witnesses to other orphans who live in orphanages (the venue of our workshop included) run by missionaries, would know for sure.

But they know about hope. They believe, as I do, that beyond and beneath pain, there is Something far more important, and that happiness is forthcoming. These are 14 of the very small percentage of Christians in the whole country. Despite the sad tales of their themes, their endings speak of hope; of a Savior who understands because He did feel what they feel.

This is what makes them truly unique and remarkable. And what makes them astounding is the thought that—they are the core group of writers who will inspire young readers through books that brim with hope. It was, and is, our collective prayer that these books will usher in wounded children to a world of joy.

A part of the workshop was to read their drafts or tell their stories to the children in the orphanage. As I watched from the balcony, I could hear intermittent gasps and giggles. And I was, I am, certain that someday soon—when their works eventually get published—the underprivileged children who are their readers, would have more of the brief joy my own ears have heard.

(Last photo shows my foot on Cambodian ground.)


Sizzling Hot

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is at its warmest this time of the year. And I am here. I have abandoned my early morning walk because I don't think I can last the hour. Every day is in the 40's at noon. Don't even try to imagine it, you'll sweat.

But the friendships I am blessed with are even warmer. I may not understand Kmer but I do understand the warm welcome extended to me at every turn. Cambodian food is yummyjust like Thai food, minus the sting.

I have tons of photos in my digicamI am slowly becoming good at fiddling with itbut I am using my host's computer (a Mac) and I don't quite know how to download them. There is no wi-fi connection so my laptop is sitting on my bed feeling useless. I hope to post a few of them when I get back home.

The creative writing workshop I am conducting is proceeding extremely well, way beyond my expectations. Creativity is cross-cultural and it is enriched by our differences.

I could write more but my sweat is getting in the way. I think this post has to stop here . . . at least for now.


Graduation Blues

For the first time, since I started teaching part-time in a transnational business school four years ago, I missed the graduation ceremony.      

I am in Cambodia conducting a creative writing seminar/workshop.

Had I been there, I know I’d feel exactly the same way I did every year. Which is why I am posting the piece I wrote four years ago. Thanks to computers, it’s not rotting or misplaced in some drawer or box. It might have well been written today.

On Cloud Ten

With much interest, I watch the solemn graduation ceremony. Since it has nothing to do with any of my three sons, I am not focused on one face, but a sea of faces.

Edgy and expectant, the mothers (fathers have better muscle control) have their necks permanently cranked in the direction of their son or daughter. Their eyes, shiny and wide, blink rapidly. They are poised to watch their children walk to the last door of childhood, as they themselves struggle to contain overwhelming joy. The diploma is as much theirs as their children's. 

On cloud ninethat's the idiom that best describes this extreme elation. As a race and nation, we put a high premium on a college degree. 

"Education is all I could bequeath to you," is repeated in Filipino homes for generations. 

Even lacking in material wealth, parents work hard to send their children to college. A lot of walls are adorned with diplomas. Parents say with pride, "My children are all professionals."          
But to some us (okay, me), graduation is the great divide. Before that, our children must toe the line. After that, they can do what they want (read: get married or leave home). Done, finis

I have a problem with that. 

In fact, I have a personal metaphor for college graduation. It is a prism through which light passes, then separates into all colors, going in all directions. At least that was what I felt when each of my children graduated. Not on cloud nine, but a bit beyond that—on cloud ten? This feeling includes ardent pleas for grace from our Father—to unclutter my heart with the fear of "letting go"; to help these once tiny hunks continue to embrace the values I would have legislated if I could.  
There I am on cloud ten all over again. A good thing I am wearing a bulky toga with a hood that keeps sliding backwards, choking me. It was a welcome diversion, a perfect time to be reminded of God's admonition in Matthew 6:27, "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?"
The graduates, some of them my students, are wearing their best frocks underneath their black robes. Fresh from the beauty parlors of their moms, the girls are in Nine West heels. Wearing their dad's Armani neckties, the boys have abandoned their Nikes. Now clutching the rolled white paper that is their diploma, they display their retainers before the cameras while their perfumed mothers, clean-shaven fathers and bejeweled grandparents (with nurses in tow), grin beside them.

A very special day indeed.

Elsewhere, whether in very modest (or equally posh) surroundings, the same scenes are being reenacted. Having crossed the great divide, the graduates are high in spirits, teeming with smiles. Congratulations have never been uttered with more volume and exuberance.                                                                                                     

On cloud ten I feel all alone. I think none of the mothers in the hall has the same niggling dread about the future their children and they will have without each other.

Surely, they must know that the household landscape will henceforth change and will take some getting used to?

I spot the mother of the most outstanding student. "Your daughter will surely have a great future," my mouth moves on its own.

"You really think so?" she asks, her fearful eyes awaiting reassurance.

She is on cloud ten, I say silently, relieved that I am not alone. 



Early Morning Guests

A few minutes before 5 AM, every day, I put on my rubber shoes, sweatshirt and jogging pants.   

Then I am off to my one-hour prayer walk. At this hour, all is quiet and dark—the better to enjoy my own sen-surround: the rustling of leaves, the crowing of roosters afar, and chirping of birds above.

Before my hour is up, just when the sun slowly rises, my husband, Tony, goes on his. Unlike me, he likes to dawdle in bed, walk under the rays of the morning sun, and listen to human footsteps. During his hour, he sends off many people to work and greets fellow walkers.

This morning, he meets three children pushing a small cart, rummaging through garbage bins and looking for anything that may still be of value.

As he is wont to do, he invites them over to our home, saying he has a few things for them which may never make it to the garbage bins. When he comes in the gate with three little children in ascending heights, I wonder why the parents of these tiny tots would send them off walking around so early. My children, thrice their ages, won't be up till maybe another hour.

I hear my husband ask, “Have you had breakfast?”

And I hear three small voices reply, “No, sir.”

“Do you ever have breakfast?” I can’t help but come near and butt in.

“Sometimes,” they reply.

We get to work, Tony and I. (These days, we are on crisis mode. Ate Vi is on her two-week annual leave and Jen, with whom she left instructions, is busiest early in the morning.) We prepare three glasses of hot chocolate and make three sandwiches. Then he sits and chats with them in our little garden.

Between the two of us, Tony should be the children’s book writer. He dotes on children, anybody’s children. He hisses, "No child should ever work" whenever he sees street children peddling newspapers and sampaguita. No, he doesn't work for the Dept. of Labor or the Dept. of Social Welfare.

They’re not as young as I thought; their sizes belie their ages. They are siblings: Alberto, the eldest, is 12; Roberto is 10; and Mary Jane is 8. They live in the slums a few kilometers from our place. And they’re working during the summer break to help their parents.

I am getting a little better with my digicam now so I took shots of our guests while Tony gives them a discourse on the importance of education. We can't keep them longer than breakfast time; they’re out on an errand for their parents. And we respect that.

Tomorrow, they may be in another neighborhood, or off to some other errand elsewhere.

But today, the privilege to have them as guests is ours.

It is our early morning grace. 


"One Afternoon of Friendship" Happened!

Yes, “XDYR ROBingo” (Bingo event by friends of Robbie for Robbie) happened—in a magical sort of way. 

Friends of Robbie came in full force—with their families in tow. The babies, whose births and first birthdays we celebrated, and the toddlers whom we used to carry, are now ladies and gentlemen, all taller than we are.

Not many of us are bingo enthusiasts. I, for one, pass by the bingo section in the three big malls in our neighborhood each malling day, but never really give it much thought or attention. If someone invited me to play the game, I’d probably say “No, thank you” and head to the nearest bookstore or coffee shop for a cup of tea.

Playing bingo for Robbie’s sake, however, is another story. I’d slave and sweat over the numbers and patterns, and sit through our emcee’s (I’d mention his name—every person in the advertising industry knows him—but it would be unfair to all the others who remain nameless) call outs, and recycled jokes, even if it killed me.

The organizing committee did a good—no, excellent—job in soliciting really valuable prizes and pledges: huge cash and some appliances. But they did even better in getting together old peers (friends and foes) in one venue to play good-old-bingo. They would have talked those who are abroad into flying in, given enough time.

Why bingo? Fundraising events are not the easiest and fastest to mount. And time is of the essence. The clock is ticking and if we needed to move, it had to be—now. All that was required was a venue, which we got through a benefactor; and prizes, which we got through more benefactors.

What about bingo players? Well, there are plenty of us—who are not necessarily players, but are willing to buy bingo tickets in lieu of a week's taxi ride, or dine-outs, or shopping, or movies; and spend an afternoon together, fiddling with numbered rectangular cards while chatting and eating and laughing and reminiscing the glory of our fevered and competitive youth.

DYR was big on that. We used to brainstorm on the most creative of parties that ended all parties. We could easily re-create one—for a cause.

And we did. One of us prepared a table of the yummiest spaghetti and sandwiches; some carted to the place bags and bags of ukay-ukay (slightly used items), donated by more benefactors; and some went around selling more bingo tickets and collecting loose change to add to the funds. Iced tea and other soft drinks flowed, again from more benefactors.

Aside from the bingo prizes, other goodies were raffled off in between games. And there were four special games—for additional sales. The patterns one had to form were X-D-Y-R (see diagrams). For me, these patterns were excruciating tests of IQ and concentration. My brain has the uncanny ability to shut off when my eyes glimpse numbers.

Finally, at 5 PM, when it was time to vacate the venue, we played the last game called ‘blackout.’ This was a no-brainer; no pattern to form or follow. To win, one had to have all the numbers in his card called out.

And guess who won? You won’t believe this—it’s like someone’s idea of a silly joke: I won. I really did—with two others, splitting the grand prize three ways.

Will I now play more bingo?

No, thank you. But for Robbie, or any XDYR, I will. I'd drop everything for one afternoon of friendship.

Photos by someone we fondly call KO; (above) XDYR family; (below) the Grand Prize winners


One Group, One Letter, One Afternoon of Friendship

Two months ago, I posted an appeal to all my reader guests to please pray for my friend and former colleague, Rob, who was rushed to the hospital because of pneumonia and complications from kidney problems.

He survived that. But not without a price: exorbitant medical expenses, an urgent need for a kidney transplant, and the daily risk of infections and complications.

Like a tap turned on full blast, and not likely to be turned off anytime soon, the price is getting steeper as Rob fights for his life.

Aside from continuous prayers, his former colleagues—who rarely see each other except in blogs and e-mail photo attachments—have decided to be shakers and movers to help make Rob’s (and his family’s) load a bit lighter. Through emails and text messages, plus one or two meetings attended by a motley group of organizers, the move was on—beginning with a letter.

If you are a part of the Philippine Advertising Industry, chances are, you already have a copy of this letter. But if you don’t, please read it though and help us make it happen for Rob.

Dear (someone),

Once there was an Advertising Agency named Dentsu, Young & Rubicam-Alcantara (DYR, for short). You might remember it a little or a lot. It's gone now, but the force that drove it (the many people who came and went) is alive.

Now in competing agencies or focused on individual persuasions, we have somehow remained bonded, naming ourselves XDYR.

Cut the bull, you say. What’s the point?

The point is – urgent. We badly need your help. One of our colleagues, Robbie David, has been confined at the Makati Medical Center for sometime now, undergoing dialysis and expensive, painful medical procedures. Doctors recommend a kidney transplant soonest.

We’ve joined hands in mounting XDYR ROBingo! A bingo event by friends of Robbie for Robbie. It will be held at the San Lorenzo Gym on April 15, from 1 to 5 PM.

We appeal to your generou
s heart to choose from any of the following:

- Donate Bingo Prize(s) for the said occasion;

- Buy tickets;

- Commit to come and support the ROBingo plus other activities during the bingo.

The ROI is way beyond what we can see. As one of us used to say before client meetings, “May a thousand angels light your path.” It is our very same prayer for you.

For and on behalf of XDYR

(Signed, Organizing Committee)
I wish I could name names and let you know who did this or who spent for that. But the names are many and irrelevant—as everyone has done something in his own way. Let me then just use indefinite pronouns and identify this group simply as XDYR.

Please take note of the backdrop streamer, which was done by someone, and will be printed by another someone, and as of this writing, yet another someone in the XDYR e-groups shows us updates and status reports of what is happening from different ends. Prizes, pledges, and other forms of help are coming in. It feels as though an event is being mounted by everyone and no one.  

Tomorrow, someone will man an Ukay-Ukay (a flea market of sorts that will vend wares at reasonable prizes) while others will prepare snacks for sale in a food booth. Someone has persuaded professional talents to emcee the affair, and then someone is using his/her networks to solicit whatever there is to solicit.

ROBingo is not until tomorrow but nothing is ever too early to give of ourselves. As early as now, please say a little prayer for its success. Any other kind of assistance will likewise be appreciated.

And if you come, you will see and feel what friendship is all about. I like to think it’s God’s grace shining through all those nameless someone(s)—including you—who have held each other’s hand to make it happen for Robbie.


Blank Sheet of Paper

Among all the messages and commentaries that celebrate Easter, the most eloquent for me came from the mouth of a special child.

Although James was ten years old, he was still in kindergarten. And even in that class, James was not at par with his classmates. His motor skills and speech were way below those of children four years his junior.

That week, James’ teacher spoke to the class about Easter and what it means to Christians. "Jesus rose from the grave," she said. "The only Leader in all the world who did so. He is risen. He lives." She also spoke of eggs, bunnies, the naked cross, and all the symbols of Easter familiar to the children.

At the end of that week, she asked her class to draw anything they can remember about their lesson on Easter. She gave them each a blank sheet of paper.

Everyone went to work with excitement. Except James. He just sat there and stared at the piece of paper.

“C’mon, James, draw something,” the teacher coaxed him. But James wouldn't move. After an hour, the teacher asked the children to explain what they had drawn on their papers.

“Eggs!” one said. “My brother and I go egg-hunting on Easter.”

“Easter bunny!” another said. “It hops!”

"Flowers." "Church." "Jesus." "Cross." "More eggs." And the answers went on and on.

After everyone had explained his drawing, the children all looked at James who remained totally still and quiet. The teacher, concerned that James might be embarrassed, tried to make excuses for him, "Well, class, James doesn’t feel like drawing today-"

James raised his paper and said haltingly, “T-this is Je-sus’ t-tomb. Th-there’s n-nothing there b-because Jesus is n-not d-dead. H-he’s alive!”

What could the teacher say? Nothing more. Nothing less.

Let me end this post with “He Lives,” an old Easter Hymn:

I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today;
I know that He is living, whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy, I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him, He’s always near.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart. 

Photo by:  photos8.org


"Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?"

"My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" Jesus cried out on the cross (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).

To unbelievers, this lament proves that Jesus is therefore not the Messiah. For how can God Almighty forsake His only Son? 

In my research before the Holy Week, I was moved, more than ever, over the fact that He who created me suffered and died upon the cross for my sake. There is no doubt in my mind that He is my Savior and Messiah.

Psalm 22, which was written 300 years before Jesus was born, begins with “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

On the cross, Jesus drew attention to it so that we may know that the prophesy has been fulfilled. In verses 11 to 18 of the same Psalm, we read exactly what happens during the crucifixion, “They look, they stare at me. They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

“My God, My God” showed that He was totally powerless. Like me, the whole of mankind, when we are in the throes of great pain or problem, we feel that God has forsaken us. This showed His humanity. When He came to earth, He was 100% man who was 100% dependent on God.

“My God, My God demonstrated an-all powerful God, creator of the universe, who had chosen the way of weakness, so totally opposite of the powers-that-be who live and exercise their dominion over others. Jesus gave up power and defined for me what kind of a God He is.

"My God, My God" also illustrated that Jesus was not an innocent victim. He was guilty—He was totally evil at that point because He absorbed all the evils of the world. And in Habakuk 1:13, we read that God is too pure to look upon evil.

When Jesus took on the evils and sins of the world, when Jesus became sin on our behalf, it is possible that at some moment on the cross, God the Father spiritually turned His back upon the Son.

How could the Author of Life, who lived in a perfect place before coming to this insignificant planet, be subjected to the most cruel indignity by the very people whom He created? Unthinkable? He could have unleashed His power and punished all sinners to oblivion.

But He didn’t. He cried, “Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?"—endured it all, and died, so I may be clean and free. Unthinkable indeed.

Oh, what grace.


Triple Bubble

It’s incredible how one tiny bubble can ruin a thing of value.    

I was once offered a diamond ring for a song. It looked very similar to the other ring the jeweler (a friend) was selling for ten times the prize.

The difference? If you look at the cheapy with a magnifying glass, you’d see a bubble, and therefore imperfect. “And therefore not as brilliant as the perfect one,” she added.

That’s how I felt last month, a stone with a bubble—for three consecutive times.

One after the other, three invitations from different schools in different parts of the country came. They were to be held exactly two days apart from each other. Owing to my experience in children’s literature, these schools wanted me to talk about my journey as a writer to inspire the children.

Similar invitations last year gave me rich and delightful memories of talking to children ages 3 to 6. I cherish those times and given a chance, I’d do them again.

And so I accepted these three invitations. Since I was to talk about the same topic, I prepared only one speech. Out of habit—or what I’d rather call passion for excellence (others call this Obsessive/Compulsive syndrome)—it took me days to write my speech as I researched, revised, rewrote, and converted it to a power point presentation.

From the fonts to the images to the slide transitions/effects and timing, I wanted everything to be just right. Although I usually prefer to speak extemporaneously—and sound spontaneous and informal—the process to get there is deliberate, calculated and long.

First bubble.

I was armed with my thumb drive, a back-up CD, and colored cue sheets. No need for a laptop—I had everything down pat. From the airport I was met with a bouquet of fresh GenSan flowers. During the short drive to my hotel, I found out that the graduation exercises were for grade school not prep school, as I had wrongly assumed! These would be 11 to 12 year-old tweens.

The hotel had a spare computer with hazy monitor, badly needing a replacement; its software had not been upgraded since it was bought in, well, give or take 10 years. All my fonts morphed into Times New Roman, running in all directions. And my carefully-laid out images danced and pranced. I had to revise, edit, and re-layout in record time.

Second bubble.

This time I made sure what level I was speaking to: prep school. I also brought my laptop along, just in case. But when I got there, the program read: guest speaker—Josephine Chiong! That certainly wasn’t me! The reason given was hilarious (I toted my sense of humor along and it came in handy). The person-in-charge was insisting my name was Josephine. Then when I showed him one of my books, he slapped his forehead. It’s the book the school has been using for the kids’ daily devotions for two years! And was I really the author?

They were quick to rectify the error—the big screen was revised to display my name. But I had to alter the first part of my speech to add a joke or two about “Josephine.” This part was totally impromptu—and was rewarded with laughter. Then their computer refused to move.

Third bubble.

I made sure lower grade meant grade school, not prep school. There were two streamers in the school’s two entrances with my correct name on them. A welcoming committee pinned a corsage on my lapel, then ushered me into a gym decked with red carpet and fresh flowers. The principal who gave the welcome remarks talked about “excellence” and “what it takes to win awards.” That should have been a clue to what was coming, but you know how it is when you’re having pre-speaking jitters. You’re not wired to be sensitive.

My speech was impeccable I thought. I got the laughter in the right places and had the audience nodding on every point made. When I got back to my seat, I felt my blood drain and ooze out of my soles.

It was Recognition Day, not Graduation Day! No wonder the almost 200 kids were in all sizes—they were aged 7 to 12! I immediately reviewed my cue sheets and heaved a sigh of relief when I saw no slide with “graduation” on it, but it was a bubble nonetheless.

And I thought I was thorough—absolutely and positively! My son (I can’t remember which one at this point), quickly changed this to “posolutely and absitively” to dramatize my state of frustration.

Are there lessons to be learned from these? Tons, but the biggest one, I think, is the one reason I blog in the first place: grace.

Every speaking engagement is a one-time occasion involving a different cast of characters in a different play on a different stage. Nights and days of preparation do not guarantee a flawless run. Bubbles cam appear before and during the show.

What is guaranteed though is that the message, through painstaking preparation, is a seed planted in young minds. For only by grace can one ponder, examine, and reflect on the words and visuals that make concepts chewable for a young audience.

And as I blog this minute, grace has allowed me to go beyond the bubble and see the remaining facets that shine. On these three occasions, they were the undivided attention, big hugs, cheery smiles, brazen nudges, and light touches from a host of little angels who were my audience.


If you see me wearing a sparkling diamond ring sometimes, don't be misled. That's the cheapy with a tiny bubble in it.