At Sea for a Week!

Dar she goes. . .

The brochure read, “Carrying only 800 passengers, the intimate Costa Allegra cruise ship is a vessel of imagination . . . art and artistry around every corner.”

Every bit of it is true, plus much more. I was on board this Italian ship with seven of my girl friends (plus two more, a son and a daughter, accompanying their moms) for almost a week.

I was figuratively and literally at sea. There was no internet connection and no cable TV. Most of the cruisers spoke either Spanish, Italian, French, or German. One had to spend in euro and a can of diet coke cost P350!

The library was small—or smaller than my own at home, with only one fourth of the books in English. But here I would spend my own quiet, special half hour, daily, while my friends attended mass in the chapel.

I took over a hundred photos (yes, this cruise taught me how to operate my digicam at record speed for those hurried snapshot land tours) and I have over a hundred anecdotes and reflections written in my head.

But at the moment, after flying from Singapore—last stop— in the wee hours of the morning, I neither have the energy nor the will to keep my eyes open even if I am back in my favorite corner at home with my computer and books which I missed terribly.

Yawwwwwn. I pray that the amazing grace which kept me wonderfully at sea for a week will keep me freshly alert on terra firma tomorrow.


(The two top photos are from the brochure. The bottom three [right, I missed the final show of American Idol!] are by moi, trying to capture the breathless moments.)


A Mother's Day Like No Other

To say that my children are unusual is an understatement. They don’t try to be, they just are.

On Mother’s Day this year, I got no bouquet of fresh flowers or a Hallmark card with a touching note; no invitation to a fancy lunch or a dress-up dinner.

Two hours before lunch, I was told to remain as I was, in my work uniform—shorts, tees, flip-flops, and a stay-at-home face—by my two sons (JC and JR, first and third; second son JB is in Michigan, USA).

“Hop in the car, mom,” they said and drove me all the way to—you’ll never guess, Chinatown!

The deadliest heat was on in that busy part of Binondo district—you could fry potatoes, bake pies, or roast hot dogs on the dusty, narrow street leading to Sincerity, a small, crowded restaurant that seemed exactly the same as it was 60 years ago, only older, like a senior citizen looking his age. But it’s a Mecca of every foodie worth the name.

Third son had the menu all planned—fried chicken, oyster cake, and ngoyong (a spring roll look-alike but longer, meatier, and better).

I wanted to order fried noodles and spinach as well but they said, nope, there’s more to come elsewhere. All three dishes were served on mismatched bowls, plates and saucers; there were no place mats, just undersized paper napkins; the spoons and forks, bent here and there, showed years of relentless use.

But once my mouth took the first bite, all it wanted to do was relish and savor the taste till the last bit of morsel. No conversation could exist in this place. And burping was part of dessert.

From there, I was hustled back to the steaming main road, Ongpin, and we padded to a building that’s a leftover from the Art Deco era. This restaurant that serves special Chinese fresh spring roll (minced carrot, celery, cabbage, pork, shrimp, onion; topped with crushed peanuts and garlic) has a ceiling two stories high, making one feel summer never comes. Two orders for the three of us, plus tall cold glasses of Chinese tea, capped that eating lap.

Three blocks and a dozen more burps later, I spotted the large faux emerald stone I’ve always wanted to complete my medium and small sizes at home, to match my collection of green bottles. I heard no grunt of impatience while I haggled and got the piece for P280.00 or $5.20.

We then walked through booths of the freshest fruits. Again, I stalled to haggle and buy a large grapefruit. They waited nearby, with none of the restless whining that completes their apparel when they accompany me shopping.

With my purchases safely ensconced in their hands, I was led up the stairs of an old wooden house with creaky floor. There, JC and JR order maki (sticky meat with brown sauce) for all three of us. By this time, my tummy told me, enough, but my mouth insisted, more.

Finding our bowls empty, we filed out of Manosa, the name of the decrepit house cum eatery, and back to the long hair dryer masquerading as street.

We saw sugar cane bundled in the sidewalk and we dreamed of cold sugar cane juice. Lo and behold, right before our eyes was a sugar cane vendor. Glug, glug, glug. Aaahhhh.

Next pit stop, a store that sold dried meat or Chinese tapa for the husband (who defaulted in this trip because he doesn’t answer to the name mommy; and also because I am not his mother).

And yet another pit stop, the hopia (mongo/bean cake) rickety factory for its latest sugar-free offering, reserved for my marathon writing events in the coming days.

And one more, the chocolate (drink) factory for old-fashioned beverage treats at breakfast.

Then they hauled me to the gold jewelry section to indulge my fondness for glitters. But as I scanned the glimmering filigrees and chains, they had suddenly lost their luster (pun intended). For one brief shining moment, I realized these glitzy treasures had fallen to the lowest rung of my life’s priorities—a fact still unknown to them, and to me till that minute. But I couldn’t tell them, could I? It was a part of their itinerary.

Back to the stretch of an oven, we snaked through the increasing traffic, where the temperature was constant even at 3:30 PM. But by now, my skin was acclimatized, rewarded with a second wind in time for one, last pit stop—iced taro and black beans! Both concoctions washed down all the previous dishes neatly, like a period, at last, to a complex-compound sentence.

On our way back to the parking lot at 4:30 PM, my shirt was soaked and dripping with five-hour sweat, needing a quick change; my knees were buckling from the long walk, needing a massage.

And I never felt better! I felt dunked in grace, as though I had been gifted with a bouquet of fresh flowers, a Hallmark card with a touching note, and an invitation to a fancy lunch or a dressed-up dinner—all at one time.

My quiet song of thanksgiving was Lamentations 3:22 and 23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”

Right now I couldn’t find a single adjective that accurately describes that Mother’s Day. So let me steal a line from Randy Jackson of American Idol, after hearing an excellent performance from a contestant, “That was hot!”

Yeah, it was so unusually hot it was really cool. It was perfect.

(Photos in Chinatown: by JC, first son, taken with his mobile phone camera with almost zero mega-pixel. Photos of my emerald gems: by me as soon as we got home, with traces of my quivering, happy spirit still lingering and showing in the blur.)


As for Me and My House

These past months in the Philippines, posters and streamers have covered building facades, walls, tree trunks, and fences; leaflets and sample ballots are strewn all over. On TV and radio, the political ads dominate the airwaves. The dailies brim with news of political campaigns, debates, and killings.

Finally, today, everything comes to a head. It is Election Day. An estimated 45 million voters will troop to the polls and choose their senators, governors, congressmen, mayors and other local officials.

A number of voters—wise ones—whom I personally know are NOT voting. In fact, only 10% of those who are abroad are going to participate in the “absentee voting” scheme in this election. They have their reasons:

“I have been voting every single time and what do we get? Officials who are in there for their own selfish reasons, never for the people.”

“Useless exercise! Nothing will ever change anyway. Once candidates taste power, they get sucked into the system of bad governance—corruption is ingrained in government.”

“Most of the candidates for senators are turncoats. They can’t be trusted. We are left with no choices.”

“We have been a developing country for so long. No election will ever make us into a developed one. The winners, most of them members of political dynasties, will drag us further down.”

“We have become one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In terms of progress, we’re trailing way behind countries which were once at the bottom.”

“It’s a sham! Cheating is in place. The powers-that-be will rig the elections the way they did the last time. Voting will just legitimize evil schemes."
These are big and strong arguments for one to be frustrated. And to lose hope! In the last five years, we have seen the greatest exodus of Filipinos—to find jobs and relocate their families in other lands.

But as for me and my house, we will vote.

Although we are just as frustrated, sometimes angry, as those who have given up on elections, we see this exercise as one chance—no matter how slim—to move forward and to bring about change. Out of the 37 candidates for senators, whose platforms we have discussed lengthily (with passion) among ourselves, we now have a list of 12. But each of our lists is different from the other.

Well, while we are a family, we are also individuals with differing, well substantiated opinions. But on one thing we agree: we will vote.

My son, JB and his wife Gianina, who are in the USA, have asked my husband for his list. I don’t know if they agree with that list, but they too, will vote.

I guess we believe in doing something to effect change. Up until we can come up with an alternative to elections, we will vote. I don’t begrudge those who refuse to vote, for this is democracy after all, but I feel that not voting is abdicating one’s duty as a citizen. I remember my late father, a lawyer, who used to remind me, “Voting is your right. Don’t squander it.”

It took America 200 years to get to where they are today—a world power. The Philippines is not even a hundred years old (I am counting from the time we were truly free from colonizers).

Is there hope? It may seem like there is none; like a prayer unanswered for so long. The Psalmist in Chapter 31 lamented, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

We’ve echoed this lament as a nation for so long, as well. We took to the streets and marched for what we believed in. In our Wednesday prayer meetings, our country and leaders always top our concerns.

Yet 70% of our countrymen are living below the poverty line (the government figures are different), squalor is everywhere, children are begging and sleeping in the streets.

For how long?

Will this election solve it? Will any election for that matter? For one thing, there are three righteous men in the list of candidates for senators. They belong to an independent party which has no machinery to wage a campaign, much less to win: Bautista, Paredes, and Sison. But I see them as symbols of change (one columnist calls them her conscience votes), and for as long as there are symbols, there is hope.

Like David, we lament and we get impatient seeing the Philippines as it is today, but we who believe in a God who is just and merciful know—there is hope indeed. Elections provide the teeniest of flickers, but it’s a sign of light nonetheless.



Years ago I lost a son. His name was Adrian.

Over time, the pain has dulled. But the what-might-have-been never really goes away. Not totally. Although my husband, Tony, and I never talk about that dark episode in our lives, Adrian's memory has a permanent place in each of our hearts.

It was a delicate pregnancy from the very beginning. With due care and complete medical attention, however, I completed my sixth month and was advised to stay in the hospital until I completed my seventh month. By then, Adrian would be ready for Cesarean section. Tony and I had a long list of names to choose from—one column for boys and one column for girls. In those days, the first question one asked after a delivery was, “Boy or girl?” The ultrasound was just an inspired thought.

But after only ten days in the hospital, my water broke. Adrian bounded out. Again, in those days, incubators or whatever you call those thingamajigs were not as equipped, as they are today, to save lives. Adrian’s lungs collapsed.

Tony and I shared a quiet, very quiet, grief. For there was nothing left to talk about. Close to seven months, we both talked all we could and tried to do everything so I might come into full term. But it was not to be.

My three living children are oblivious to this grief. JC was barely four years old when that happened. And JB was only conceived six months later. It took another five years before JR was born.

About the only connection they had with Adrian was our few-and-far-between visits to the Holy Cross Memorial Park where we would play a little game of searching for Adrian’s marble slab among the hundreds of similar slabs, sit under a tall tree nearby, and pan with our eyes the stretch of the cemetery. All this in a few minutes and we would leave again. Those trips were some kind of an informal ritual of remembering, nothing more.

Adrian’s name would also surface during our clan’s annual family reunion when we remember the clan members who have gone ahead. Again, this was another family ritual of remembering and an act of thanksgiving for their lives. Nothing more.

So, what next? How does this post end? It ends not of darkness that shadows loss; but with grace, it ends of brilliance that comes with gain.

A few days ago, Tony and I have been blessed with our very first grandson. JB’s wife, Gianina, gave birth to a healthy eight-pound baby boy! Born in a hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, where JB is an internist, our grandson is beautiful. JB couldn’t quite describe him on the phone but I knew so—I am his grandmother. When his photos came in today, I have been proven right. For me, he has to be the best looking baby in the world!

His name is Adrian.

Of all the millions of existing or possible names, his parents chose Adrian for reasons only they know. It has never been verbalized, or maybe it was, but I didn’t hear. “Adrian lives on,” I think I heard Tony murmur, or was it just my imagination?

No matter.

Adrian, our son, and Adrian, our grandson—two separate beings, two separate blessings. One should not take the place of the other.

One’s life ended before it could start. And the other one’s life has just begun. But the fact that my grandson’s name is also Adrian makes my heart swell. I feel love flying from across the seas, welcomed home warmly; then on the return flight, we (I speak on Tony's behalf) send ours.

What’s in a name? Love cannot be dissected or analyzed. It is something that so wrenches and wrings your heart words need not be said.

Writing has taught me that people vary in how they express love. I find difficulty in expressing it sometimes—in words, anyway. Sometimes I don’t quite know how to receive it, or how to react to it.

Writing has taught me that humans fall short of love—in its giving or receiving. Only God, despite His power and authority over everyone, was willing to demonstrate love totally by dedicating His life and death on the cross to His sinful, mindless children, us, whom He loves.

Writing has taught me that we spend our lives looking for love and yet, when it is found, it couldn't be seized. Which is probably why I am writing, and continue to write till the Lord takes me home, because I can write about love better than I can show it.

I hope JB and Gianina read this post, because I don’t know how to thank them enough for naming their first son, Adrian. And for giving Tony and me a grandson we can dote on (wait till he comes to the Philippines!) and who will teach us how to love—with no reservation, inhibition, or condition.


Like a Fruitcake

My aunt, an American, warned me to never ask anyone his or her weight. "People will really take offense," she said. But her close friend, Elizabeth, whose body was twice wider than her height, never did. She had a great sense of self-deprecating humor and often laughed about her weight.

“Oh, Gracie,” she would coo, “you are sooo tiny. Me? Ooooh, I weigh ten pounds less than a cow!”

That’s why when I am poised to take myself too seriously, I would think of Elizabeth and attempt to see her humor above it all. Laughing at oneself is liberating.

Yet there was one time I simply could not summon Elizabeth, even if I chanted, whistled and yodeled in my mind.

I had just launched my first “Gifts of Grace” book. It was attended by over 200 guests, a lot of books were sold, and I signed them all. I was enjoying my new title: Author. It had a nice ring and nobility to it. To my mind, it ranked among the most respected careers in the world.

When I attended my husband’s Rotary meeting, where the Anns (wives) were invited, I put a box of my books (24 in all) in the trunk of the car. It was two weeks before Christmas and I was sure my fellow Anns would be looking for great gifts for their friends and family. The Anns occupied one table and the pleasantries were like a good game of ping-pong, exciting and unending.

Between one very short pause, I chimed in, “Hey, I just launched my first inspirational gift book. If you’re looking for gift items – this would be perfect. On cue I brought out a copy from my bag.

“How much?” one of them immediately asked.

I was expecting questions like, “What’s it about?” “Oh, you’re an author?” Not, “How much?”??!!

"P195,” I replied.

“Hey, I am making special fruitcakes for Christmas!” one other Ann said. “For you around this table, I am selling them at a very special price.”

“How much?” all of them asked, sight unseen.

“Hey, that’s very reasonable,” I heard a duet, a trio, a quartet.

“Yeah, put my order at five!” another added.

“Ten for me, please!” one other Ann said.



Elizabeth’s image suddenly became very vaguely familiar, quickly fading from my range of vision. I dug into my bag for my cell phone and sent a text message to my husband who was in another table: "They like fruitcakes more than my book!"

His text reply: "Sharon Cuneta is more popular than Shakespeare." (Sharon is a very famous actress/singer in our country.)

Elizabeth’s huge image, her cow’s weight in 3-D and glowing colors, popped out of my cell phone. And I laughed.

I still think that “Author” has a nice ring and nobility to it. And I feel blessed that I have been given this role after a totally different career. It is precisely because I am an author that I get invited to many places to talk about creative writing—meeting new friends along the way.

Only a handful of them are book lovers but that is a fact in developing countries I must accept. Of the many roles I play, author comes close to being a mother and wife.

Each time I am asked how I feel about writing books, my heart sings: No other job has ever made me more aware that everything stands in relation to my Creator; now I am acutely sensitive to the joyful moments of daily living; it’s a reflective life that gives me immeasurable flashes of awe and wonder, through the old friends I have and the new friends I meet; now I am keenly aware that every little or big thing I can do is a gift of grace; and I am puzzled why it took me so long to take writing on . . .

But my voice pipe does an Elizabeth and says, “Feel? Like a fruitcake!”


Surprise Oasis

Right smack in the busy area of Phom Penh was a surprise.

Just off the beaten tracks, some meters away from the main road, is a tall, nondescript fence that hid everything beyond it. Unlike the ornate gilded ones that were in abundance, and seemed to be in vogue, lining the major avenue from the airport, this colorless fence wouldn’t merit a second glance.

But as the gate opened, I gasped more audibly than I intended. This was what I saw.

And at that very minute I knew I had a home away from home. The two-storey house is all-wood, looking like the twin of the house I grew up in, except that this one is well kept and in tip-top condition, with a complete, vibrant family—American missionaries—living in it.

Since my parents went to glory, our family house has been decaying, and were it not for my sister who has decided to convert it into a public library, it would stand lonely and remain a relic of a happy, distant past. (Ooops, this is not about that crumbling house. It’s about the surprising oasis that pulsed with life in Cambodia.)

The chocolate brown house was surrounded with tall fruit trees, bushes, flowers of many different kinds and a walkway—all reminders of the province where I made my first steps and attended my first Sunday School. It also has a patio, roofed with nipa, tucked away at the rear which seemed to have been built for quiet times.

This private, unpretentious compound with its wide orchard and grounds (and a bedroom with walls that had luminous jumping sheep for counting, if sleep doesn't come), was my haven for seven nights and seven days.

Beats any five-star hotel anytime. After long, hot, energy-sapping hours of sharing all I know about creative writing to a group of fourteen, composed of mostly of locals and some expatriates, this was my home—replete with adorable children, ages 12 and 10 and their gracious parents; and a golden Labrador.

Here, my earlier fevered thoughts could take flight and come back stilled, as though God built this place for this purpose.

It wasn’t the “teaching” that melted my candle. I could teach all day and come out unscathed. It was the stories—the many, endless tales of pain from my “students.” Unbidden, these stories would creep in because they are integral parts of who they are.

So why do bad things happen to good people? I asked this oft repeated question again.

Ken Gire, in his book, “Seeing What is Sacred,” explains it so succinctly.

“This is the dark side of Christianity, the side we don’t see when we sign up. That if we want to be like Christ, we have to embrace both sides of his life.”

Gire’s examples of contrasts: the Christ who turned water into wine and the Christ who died on the cross. The clothed Christ and the one whose garment was stripped and gambled away. The Christ who fed the five thousand and the one who hungered for forty days in the wilderness. The free Christ, walking through wheat fields with his disciples, and the imprisoned Christ who was deserted by them.

At the end of the seminar/workshop, I was gifted with many stories that showed these two sides: the ache of suffering and the beauty of hope. And right in the patio on my last day, with the Labrador sitting on the floor by my side, the bouquet of roses they gave me distilled my thoughts—only a grace-filled life can enable one to understand and accept these permutations: thorns and beauty come together; or thorns bring out beauty; or beauty has thorns.

While we are on the subject of roses, and now that I am back at my home base in the Philippines, let me end with this text message I just received, “God did not promise a bed of roses. But He promised—'I will never leave you nor forsake you.'"