Christmas Turkey Tradition

Last year, when the economic meltdown was just a niggling rumor, we bought a 9.3-kilo turkey. It was too big—for the four of us—we had it for six meals.

Our chef JR’s ingenuity made each meal different from the other. So I guess you could say, the turkey was worth it.

This year, it seems sinful, if not unconscionable, to buy another gargantuan turkey. The peso has weakened and a shaky 2009 looms. We entertain the idea of scrapping an almost twenty-year tradition, and instead buy the biggest chicken. But in the end we compromise on a 6.5-kilo turkey.

It’s not as if we are turkey fanatics. But the bird keeps us working together for at least twenty four hours, which is rare. From the supermarket, we go to three other stores, battling holiday traffic, to buy the ingredients for the stuffing. As JR prepares and cooks, we kibitz and give our unsolicited opinions, which are often left as, well, opinions. While the turkey is in the oven, we wait with high expectation and fevered anticipation.

JR does not disappoint; this is his best year yet! The turkey is melt-in-your-mouth perfection. The meat is so tender, it renders a carving knife useless.

Around the table, we give thanks to the Messiah for our family and the provision and, most of all, for His grace to come and save wretched souls on that very first Christmas.


From Our Family to Yours

Merry Christmas!  
May our God of grace continue to sustain us in the days ahead.


Thanksgiving Tree

“The first Christmas was in a lowly manger; it was not luxurious,” was my friend Sonia's yearly reminder to me before she went home to Jesus. On the dot, she'd say this on or before November 30, the time I would be preparing to put up my tree.

“My tree is never luxurious!" I would retort. She knew of my personal tradition of putting up a differently-themed tree every year. “It’s festive because that's how I feel on Christmas." 

“Just make sure your tree—or any décor—captures the true meaning of Christmas.”

Every Christmas after her passing, I am reminded of her words when I put up my tree. This year, I kept it as  simple as I possibly could. 

I put up a thanksgiving tree. I trimmed it with blinking lights used many times over in the past, and green and red stockings (old stocks on sale), and stuffed these stockings with all the blessings I want to thank the Lord for.

As some stories of Christmas celebrations of yore tell us—“red” stands for the blood Jesus shed for sinful mankind. And “green” stands for the new life we have if we believe in Him.

Into these stockings went replicas of my new books, photos of family, little presents from friends, and tiny gift boxes representing all the other blessings I couldn’t shrink to hang up the tree.

“For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 (KJV)

That, in a nutshell, had been my friend Sonia’s yearly Christmas reminder.

Thank you, Sonia.


Door Knockers on Christmas

Christmas is almost here. Capiz parols are brightly shining.

And one thing is bothering me. Medicants are ringing our doorbell and knocking at our gate, singing a line from a Christmas carol and yelling "Merry Christmas," asking for alms. Some don't even bother singing at all. They just incessantly ring the doorbell till they get a response. If there is no response, they exclaim in loud voices, "Hey, Merry Christmas!"

They're the rough, serious version of "trick or treat."

I am ambivalent about this: whether to give cash or a gift or a goodie; or simply ignore them; or report them to the police for invasion of privacy. Moving to a gated community or an exclusive enclave is not a viable option.

Last Christmas and the other Christmases before that, we gave goodies to the first knocker on our door and in minutes, more knockers flocked to our gate. Every knocker in all the slum areas of surrounding neighborhoods suddenly descended upon us—every single hour, and every single day till the New Year.

The security guard simply scratches his head when admonished about allowing people "caroling." He mutters sheepishly, "Ma'am," it is Christmas."

Our speaker in last Sunday's worship service adds to my ambivalence. He asked, "Would a millionaire from Forbes Park give up everything for a lazy beggar in Payatas (a very poor area in Manila)? He wouldn't. Nobody would. No millionaire would part with anything he owns for someone so undeserving. But two thousand years ago, Someone did. He who owns the world shed His blood and gave up everything—including his life—to sinful people on earth.

"That Someone taught us what love is all about. It is that love which we celebrate at Christmas.”

What's a measly sum to give to door knockers? What's a small gift to hand out to beggars? What's a small smile to mask our annoyance?

I have no energy or enough gray matter to intellectualize or argue the point. But two thousand years ago, people didn't ask for favors. They didn't go knocking at heaven's door, asking for God's love.

God loved us first, and it was totally and purely out of this love for us that He chose to become poor, so that through his poverty, we might become rich.

So how do we emulate God's love on Christmas? By turning away door knockers? And in so doing, we tell them that they shouldn't make Christmas an excuse to extort and blackmail people into giving as the God of love did?

"Enrich others this Christmas," our speaker ended his talk, "give to someone undeserving."

I am asking for extra grace to do that, as I now hear yet another ringing of our doorbell, with yet another irreverent shout of "Merry Christmas!"    


"No Lipstick" on Front Page?!

Anything and everything Kris Aquino does make the headlines. So when she chooses to read my book, “No Lipstick for Mother,” to children at the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Read-along, the book lands on the front page.

Now I can say I am in the same league as Manny Pacquiao, the Senate, the pushers and users of the Con-Ass, the First Gentleman, and Kris Aquino. Oh, the company I keep!

Seriously, when I start to get cynical, I pray hard for a grateful heart.

Early last Friday morning, as I scan (a daily ritual) the front pages of about five newspapers—before reading the details and columns and digging in the crosswords—I find this!

I text Aleks of OMF. He is just as surprised. Before I could finish one puzzle, he e-mails me the scanned front page and the e-versions of the same news.

My heart bubbles over with gratitude for all the surprises the God of grace continues to spring on me. This latest one is the headline on the front page of my mind.

(Photos by Philippine Daily Inquirer)


The Power of Radio

“Sister Grace!” chirped a youthful voice on the phone.

“Who is this please?” I asked, thinking it might be one of the young people in our church, where everyone calls me Sister.

“Sister Remy!” she said, her vibrant voice belying her age. She is in her 90’s.

Remy was a church mate long, long ago. But she moved to a new place and we never saw her again.

“I was just listening to the radio and the announcers were talking to someone named Grace Chong who has written several books. Could that be, by any chance, you?”

“Yup,” I said, chuckling. Her voice’s subtext was it-isn’t-you-but-it’s-a-good-reason-to-reconnect.

“Wow!” she said, still unbelieving. “So many things have happened since I left the church. I’m glad I found your phone number." And she went on to talk about her good health and continuing journey with the Lord in her twilight years.

The radio is indeed a powerful medium. Advertisers prefer television, but radio can reach exact markets more intimately.

Remy’s call reminded me of my radio days when I was in college. My parents were sending me a monthly allowance that could last only a week or so. My stint at DZUP (and the UP Philippine Collegian, the University of the Philippines' newspaper) would tide me over from month to month.

I must have had a good radio voice in those days because I was one of two chosen to host two programs a day. A believer of grace, I think it was God’s way of helping me survive. It was an experience I relished, mostly because I got to write my own scripts. The writing charmed me more than the announcing.

After graduation, I taught in a university in Baguio. Again, the Giver of grace led me to the local radio station and there I got a job as a DJ; again, to augment the beginning income of a fresh graduate.

And today, as I write books (and blogs), I get to be interviewed on radio.

It never fails. People call to say they heard me on the air.

Talking to the mike, I could see images of the radio booths of my youth. I think that’s one reason why I have always been an advocate of and for radio.


What Kept Me Awake

I’ve always been proud of the fact that I can sleep at will—anywhere, anytime. My friends who have problems with insomnia say it is a gift.

Sleep, or power nap, as corporate people prefer to call it—in the car between meetings, in receiving halls before meetings, in boardrooms during meetings—made me survive the rigors of the workplace.

In the last three days, however, I have had no power nap. I was out of town for Compassion International’s Selection Camp.

That meant we had to do interviews all day. Those interviews were so heart wrenching (choosing only 40 among 70 needy students to be supported through college), I stayed awake, holding back tears over and over again.

Those kids (15 to 17), who walk to school, barefoot sometimes because they have no money for shoes or transportation, and who still have to taste fried chicken, gave poverty a face. They all have one desire: to go to college, hoping to make something of themselves with nothing but determination to forge ahead.

We started the interviews at nine AM and knocked off at six PM. After an early supper, because there was no internet connection, one had nothing else to do but sleep—for 10 hours straight, two nights in a row. Those were gifts, too.

For how could one sleep after listening to a series of heartbreaking stories—stories that make you angry and helpless and guilty at the same time? I read the morning papers and saw the other side of the track—gloating politicians, wallowing in wealth and promising to help the poor.

On my long ride home, I didn’t doze off as I often do. I talked to the God of grace. And I gawked at buildings. Architecture in this country is extremely varied and each block is different. Two buildings made me smile. One was McDonald’s. It looked like a pack of French Fries!

And the other was OMF Lit's. It has a billboard of my latest book.

At the Compassion Selection Camp, I learned that you don’t find joy. It finds you. It also found me in traffic watching these buildings—which were a balm to a heavy heart.


The Shocking Launch Lounge

Returning to the scene of the Gifts of Grace Book 3 launching, I am shocked anew. Gone is the beautiful Executive Lounge where about 200 people celebrated the new book on grace.

It's back to where it was 48 hours before the event! Empty, dusty, work in progress. The gaggle of construction workers are also back with a vengeance. I click my camera to record the images my eyes can't believe.

“What happened to my venue?!” I shriek, turning to my friend Lita, the building owner/developer, who flashes her laser pen on the crevices up the ceiling and down the floor, twirling it around every corner.

“Oh,” she replies sweetly, “that was temporary, Grace. I just put it up for your book launching.”


The female version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde barks orders to about 20 burly architects and engineers who follow us around with pad and pen as we go up and down floors during one of her surprise inspection of the construction.

“Install those mirrors tomorrow morning!” “Follow up the tile supplier!” “Security has been lax!”

“Yes, ma’am,” they say, as their names are called. I hear slurred excuses for delays.

“No excuses!” she groans, catching on.

“That’s where the grand piano will be, Grace,” she coos.

"Wow." All I see is an indentation on the wall.

“And up there will be the oil paintings of dancers. It will be beautiful!” she adds.

“Oh, I’m sure, b-b-b-ut,” I can't get over my launch venue—where I cried and laughed with thanksgiving—getting whammed just like that.

To her, that was last week, over and out. Today is another day.

Getting back to cool, clean fairyland that is her office, I give her this, with my scrawled note of thanks.

(Back copy reads: "You are receiving this card from someone whose life you have touched, as inspired by Grace D. Chong's book, Gifts of Grace. OMF Literature Inc.)

This is three postcards in one given away by OMF during the book launching. I also give her a small album of photos taken at the now-gone beautiful lounge of the launch.

“For documentation,” I try to sound all-business because she hates mush. “Thank you for everything,” I say with rehearsed nonchalance.

“Pooh!” she waves me off, and serves a scrumptious strawberry shortcake from her fridge. She calls out to her staff to help us finish off the sugar bomber.


An Avalanche of Grace:

Gifts of Grace Book 3 Launching

“When the heart is full, the mouth cannot speak,” the saying goes. My own version is, “When the heart is full, the mouth can certainly speak.”

I’ve been speaking of nothing but the Gifts of Grace Book 3 launching to friends and foe, or to anyone within earshot, the last few days.

I have reasons to do so. Nov. 21 was a day the Lord drenched us with grace—for all to see!

Truth to tell, I had been anxious about this launch.

Months earlier, a friend volunteered to host it (“On me,” she said) in her still-being-built building. Although the idea was grand, and the building promises to be one of the most beautiful ever erected, I didn’t want to put any pressure on her. I’ve always said that a simple fare of pansit (noodles) and puto (rice cake) in a function room would be perfect for a book on grace. She wouldn’t hear of it. Immediately, she conducted a series of food tasting sessions and had her whole staff do the preps (she is meticulous to the bone).

The OMFLit marketing staff went to work simultaneously. Forty-eight hours before the launch, at our last pre-production meeting, we visited the venue: the Executive Lounge of the Marajo Tower, Global City. It was still dust and rubble! Trusses and rough walls were all we could see.

“It will be ready,” my friend insisted. And she pointed to the herd of busy workers. I reminded myself of my own herd of busy prayer partners, both at OMF and in my home church.

Only 56 people confirmed to come, out of the 150 invited. Well, I said, 56 is a good number.

Nov. 21 came and from dawn till lunchtime, I did nothing but pray. Tony and I went to the venue one hour ahead of schedule.

My eyes popped. The place was transformed into um . . . er . . . uh . . . one word came to mind: heaven. It was how I felt. There were walls, lights, carpets, tables, tapestries, paintings, a piano, multi-media equipment, buffet tables, and a hundred blue and white angels. The place was exquisite—warm and welcoming.

And I needn’t have worried about guests. They came, probably 95% of them, bringing along even friends of friends. The place was bursting at the seams—with people (from the ad industry, Rotary, church, school, and all other groups I ever belonged to), family, food, music, plus the euphoria one feels in receiving grace.

Concerned friends have warned me never to mention real names on blogs so I won’t. I can’t help but say, though, that the surprises came one after the other:

The invocation, “Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi” by a famed tenor, accompanied by another famed concert pianist, and the opening remarks by OMF’s CEO, set the tone.

Tony gave me flowers!? The last time he did was in . . . it has been so long I can’t remember.

Three friends read from all three books; OMF’s ManCom unveiled the books; a moving slide show played while the tenor sang “Let them see Christ in Me.” The program was perfect.

But it wouldn’t end there—there was more to perfection. The creative OMF staff always comes up with off-the-wall, unexpected ideas.

JR read an essay he was asked to write behind my back entitled, “My Mother Grace.” It was so hilarious the whole room went crazy; the raucous laughter from beginning to end was deafening, leaving our eyes moist from too much roaring. And there was more.

After the reading, JR presented me with a replica of my Gifts of Grace Book 3 (but with my photos on the cover). “The only one-chapter book ever published,” he said.

God does not answer prayers in ways we think He will. Sometimes He surprises, sometimes He overwhelms, and sometimes He touches people’s hearts in ways unfathomable by the human mind.

For the launching of Gifts of Grace Book 3, He chose to drop an avalanche of grace from heaven. What a mighty God I serve.            


I Have Turned Two!

I was all set to blog about my Gifts of Grace 3 book launching when it suddenly dawned on me that today is my 2nd blogging anniversary.

At this very hour, I complete my second year. Reviewing my past posts, I am surprised that I have been blogging consistently—an average of one every four days. The only times I lapsed were when I was out of town or abroad. Not bad for a grandma, huh?

Well, it helped that I chose blogger.com. It is simple enough for simple me to manage; it allows me to concentrate on blogging, instead of uploading photos and the like. I've said it often enough that if there's anything I like doing tenaciously for hours on end, it's writing.

To celebrate my 2nd year, I am re-posting my very first entry, Why Leaves of Grace? as a word cloud.

You don't want to read it again, do you? In case you do (I can be delusional), click here.

My friend Socky introduced me to word clouds through her site. I was instantly hooked and before long, I was doing my own word clouds. I saved the one that I liked most and it seems like today is the best time to share it with you.

I also would like to show you my visitors' map for one year (maps are wiped clean after 12 months and begun again).      

The bigger the dot, the more frequent the visit. This map is the other reason I am glued to blogging. To date: 110 countries have come a-visiting. My statistics are modest—37,376 hits (peaking on Fridays and when the blog’s about three topics: food, Adrian, and our dog), but that’s 1000% more than the readers of my books. I still have to figure out why.

To all my dear friends on blogosphere, thank you for dropping by. You have all been an e-conduit of grace.


Flowers for or of?

The launching of the third book in the Gifts of Grace Series (published by OMF Literature) happened last night at the Executive Lounge of the Marajo Tower.

I still can’t think of how to record every single miracle that happened due to lack of sleep. I will, after I have napped long enough—that would be in two or three days (?)

For now, I’ll talk about the flowers, the gay profusion of colorful flowers!
The greeting cards read, Flowers for Grace. But I am changing the preposition to of. (Flowers of grace.)

The series of books is after all about His grace, not about me.

Psalm 115:1 “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory, for the sake of Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness!”

The launching was too marvelous for words (at the moment). It was above and beyond what I imagined it to be. Little faith?

Well, as my friend Yna said in jest, "Your name is Grace, not Faith."

To God be all the glory!


Pursuing God's Agenda

(In two days, my "Gifts of Grace Book 3" will be formally launched; "Gifts of Grace Books 1 and 2" will be re-launched. How do I feel? This article which I wrote for Evangelicals Today, the official magazine of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, says it all.)

“I don’t believe in writer’s block,” I’d tell young writers whom I encourage to write. “If you want to write, you must write—every day. If you feel like you have nothing to write about, write about why you think you are stumped.”

Up here in cool Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I’m one of the resource speakers for new Christian writers, I am eating those words.

I sat staring on my computer screen for an hour earlier and no word came. Overwhelmed by this new place? Worried about the workshop? Blog instead?

Then I realized that what stumps me is when I am asked to expound on the scriptures. Philippians 3:7-11, I was told. I have always felt inadequate to do that. I am neither a theologian nor a Bible scholar. And I’ve always been wary about preaching.

What qualifies me then as a Christian writer? One who has written to date devotionals for children, books on Christian values, and books for adults on grace? Why am I here, attending the first Asia Christian Writer’s Conference?

I can only write from and within the realm of my experience—snippets of my life, my darkness and light, my brokenness and wholeness.

But reading the above verses, I realize the words are deeply personal. Paul speaks of following God and turning away from what he thought were important. He says that nothing else is more important than the Word, and being servants of Jesus. I am throwing away everything I used to take credit for, Paul says.

Why, it sounds like the story of my career—that which I left behind and the new assignment I embraced since the year 2000. Everything I once thought defined me is gone from my life.

The corporate world gave me no choices. I either had to toe the corporate line or get out. I toed the line for over 20 years, up until I pursued my ancient dream—writing.

Often asked in my book talks how I became a published writer, I would tell this story:

The multi-national advertising agency where I was EVP started merging with another biggie. And we in management were being lured into early retirement with a juicy offer. I balked.

About this time, two of my young writers, knowing how I loved writing, prodded me to join the Palanca awards. They gave me a copy of the contest rules. I was charmed by the Short Story for Children category. Between meetings and at night, I worked on a story; turned it in as my entry. Months later, I froze for eternity when I was told I won first prize.

That made me turn the corner. “There is life after advertising.”

After advertising, there was no “life”—no rush and no deadlines. So I kept busy by writing and writing, and rewriting the manuscripts I had written as a closet writer for years.

Came the International Book Fair which I now had the luxury of visiting. One of the hundreds of booths was OMF Literature’s. There I found a copy of its brochure. My eyes spotted item one in Prayer Concerns: Praying for young and fresh writers.

I am not young but I am definitely fresh, I chuckled. So the next day I sent OMF some manuscripts. From that day forward, I have been writing—no longer about shampoos, toothpastes, refrigerators, or other consumer goods—but about God’s grace.

It was never in my agenda to become a full-time writer. It wasn’t in my agenda to turn my back on the career that trained me to communicate to various markets.

It wasn’t in my agenda to be in Chiang Mai, teaching would-be writers all I know about writing, so they—in their own way—may unleash words that will bring light to the stronghold of darkness.

I never imagined I’d one day partner with a Christian publisher to pursue God’s agenda. But I might have taken a cue from Paul. I have gone miles away from the things I used to take credit for.

Concerned about the unity of the Christians in Philippi, Paul spoke of his travails in prison, challenging them to seize the high privilege of working together to serve Christ.

Paul was Paul, and nobody could ever duplicate the great things he had done for Jesus. But he empowers and pushes. Reading his letter, I stand in awe at the vast amount of grace Jesus poured upon Paul’s life—and to those who stay united to lift up God’s name.

Clearly, I want to unite with all Christian writers in Asia, and around the globe, to experience the gift of grace that comes with embracing Christ, and being embraced by Him.


A Dog Is a Dog Is a Dog

Since the death of our last dog Brady (a Labrador), and the death of our dog before him—Gordy (a Dalmatian)—we had no desire to have any other dog. We feared going through another period of grief. Our dogs before them (German Shepherds all) had died of old age.

We have been dog-less for over a year. Well, pure-bred dogs can’t be bought from the store. Okay, we have not been looking hard enough.

Then the early morning knock at our gate:

“Would you like a dog?” One of our neighbors asks, holding a brown puppy not much bigger than a rat. “Our pet dog gave birth to six puppies two months ago and every one, but this one, has already been adopted. She’s yours if you want her. Oh, she’s unlike your other dogs before—this one’s a mutt.”

That much I know. Every morning when I go for my daily walk, this mutt’s mother runs out of their gate and follows me, barking incessantly, till I turn the corner to another block. I have learned to suffer her presence and noises. And now we are being offered to adopt her puppy?! And the runt of the litter!

The puppy looks at me with soulful eyes and raises one little paw.

“Yes!” I yelp, deciding for the household. The household wakes up and upon seeing the runt, and being told of the adoption, they grin and race to cuddle her.

Naming our new pet dog is quick. We all agree on “Attorney.” Why not? A mutt is as respectable as any other pure-bred dog.

Our Attorney—like the over 150 dog breeds and millions of mongrels in the world—is God’s creation, and therefore another drop in our daily rainfall of grace from the heavens.


My 200th Song:

Change has come to this site

Avid bloggers like me (that’s how people think I am these days) have the compulsion to celebrate tiny milestones. I say “tiny” because they’re not as earthshaking or historical as President-elect Barrack Obama’s victory in the US polls.

This is my 200th post.

There will be no violins or champagne. But, just like in America, change has come to this site. If you’ve been a frequent or an occasional guest, you’ll notice the new header. Fresher leaves! My old one comes down.

I am replacing it with this:
Blogging has been a big blessing for me. When I am tired, I blog. When I am stressed, I blog. When I am bored, I blog. When I am busy, I blog. When I am angry, I blog. When I am happy, I blog. When I celebrate, I blog. After publishing one post, I feel renewed and soaked in grace.

If you think that all I do is blog, well, you haven’t seen my tiny notebook.

The one I carry in my purse all the time; the one where I jot down practically every thought; the one where my un-posted blogs are—“cast-off blogs” I call them.

As part of my celebration, I am allowing myself a “tiny” discourse on blogging.

I believe the beauty of blogging is—choice. That’s a euphemism for censorship. Because you have the potential of being read by anyone—of a different persuasion, interest, creed, opinion, or thought—you write gingerly, you hedge, you keep private things private, you self-censor.I used to think that blogging is baring oneself. But after reading hundreds of sites, I now know that isn’t true. Writing in a little notebook is.

With a pen in hand, you write down your lowliest angst, deadliest fears, bitterest opinions, harshest criticisms, boldest predictions, silliest indecisions, deepest frustrations, and loftiest dreams. Never mind if they’re in unfinished sentences and fragmented phrases, or in inspired prose and energized verses.

Only the writer and a forgiving God know about what is written in the privacy of a journal.

Blogging is the glossy, techno part of a private journal. It is a lot like writing a book. The author tackles only what the book title says for the world to read. The only difference is, in blogging you’re on your own. You are your own editor, layout artist, and typesetter; you are your own publisher. As publisher-editor-writer in one, you self-edit and self-guide.

A decision I made when I started blogging was to keep to “Leaves of Grace.” Any state of un-grace or disgrace stay in my little notebook. Those are between me and the grace Giver. Those are my private prayers needing assurance and comfort and strength and mercy.

Lest I be accused of duplicity, may I quote my covenant with myself and my Creator in my very first post:

“. . . every letter, punctuation mark, and word that come together in a cohesive paragraph, will eventually sit proudly in a leaf... and then, leaves.

“These are leaves of grace.

“. . . as you e-flip through my leaves, you'll find nothing but songs of grace.”

Yes, this is my 200th song. Nothing’s really changed except the fresh, new header!


Voices from the Next Room

What can this tiny phone gadget do?

It allows me to talk to my cousin Minna and Auntie Pat in New York—and friends Lucy in California and Amor in Michigan—for hours on end. Toll free.

They are like voices coming from the next room. Our chats range from our health woes to what has happened to this and that, or anything under the sun (Philippines) or the moon (USA), or vice versa.

It also allows me to listen to Adrian say his new words.

Adrian’s mom: “How does a lion sound?”

Adrian: “Rrrrrrrr.”

Adrian’s mom: “How does a dinosaur sound?”

Adrian: “Rrrrrrrrr.”

Adrian’s mom: “How does a dog sound?”

Adrian: “Rrrrrrrrr.”

Those wonderful sounds, courtesy of this thingamajig, are like caffeine that keeps one wide awake while working.

Vonage was sent to us from the US by Adrian’s parents through a nephew. Tony didn’t really want it. Let me rephrase that—he didn’t think it was necessary. Neither did the boys. When they wish to speak to someone somewhere in the world, they use the VOIPs available in the net. “In this day of computers, there is hardly any need for the phone,” they said.

But the Vonage had arrived, and I saw in it countless possibilities. So I did what I couldn’t do before it came to our lives. I called Minna and Auntie Pat and Lucy and Amor and of course, the gift givers, JB and Gianina, with the big bonus of talking to Adrian who will, in no time, progress from sounds to words. I was in no hurry to hang up. Neither were they.

Week after week, I glance at this thingy and still can’t get over the thought that I can lift the phone anytime, talk to loved ones in some place yonder, and fret not about phone bills.

It is a gadget of grace.


The Shoes, the Bag, and Black Coffee

When I left the workplace and embraced writing, I vowed to spend less. Okay, much, much less. I repeated to moi my frequent admonition to my kids, “We’ll scrimp on everything but food and books."

For my personal things, I deliberately stayed away from expensive shops and visited only flea markets.

But came the ides of March. In a show window, a beautiful, beige fabric bag (purse) with matching shoes caught my eye. I drooled. Somehow, the gravity shifted from under me to inside the store. The saleslady said, “Ma’am, they’re on special sale—20% off.” Hmmm . . . It would still cost me an arm and a leg, but I closed my eyes and mumbled the famous last words, “Just this once.”

I ignored the verse I had memorized to help me ward off the shopping bug: Matthew 6:19-20, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal."

I took care of these beige items like the devout would the Holy Grail. I’d wear them only on special occasions.


Tony and I bring JR to a very early seminar at TESDA.

“After dropping off JR, let’s have breakfast somewhere,” Tony says. It promises to be a special, relaxing day after weeks of running around. It deserves a special bag and shoes.

I carefully place my bag on the seat beside me so I can watch it as I eat while Tony reads the morning paper. Then the rock of my life turns the page—and wham! His hand hits his coffee cup and the coffee spills down the table to my special bag!

In seconds, my treasure gets bathed in black coffee. I jerk it up. And the pool of black coffee drips down to one shoe! I have no energy to cry. Or even gasp.

The waiter immediately replaces the coffee. And my voice resurrects, “Will he replace my shoes and bag too?”

I wiggle my toes in my wet shoe and carry my dripping bag, both properly stained, to Tony’s office where I wash them with soap and water. Tony offers a box of the miracle product, baking soda. But a miracle doesn’t take place.

My shoe and bag story doesn’t end happily ever after.

I recite from memory the verse above and replace the words moth, rust and thieves with black coffee.

Live and learn, they say.

Live by grace, I say.


Singing in Tongues

You’ve sung “Amazing Grace” before, I know. Written by John Newton way back in 1776, it is the world’s most familiar hymn today—partially because famous singers like Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez and many more have recorded it. And mainly because the lyrics have a profound message for those who want to turn their wretched lives around.

You’ve probably heard it sung in many different languages as well.

But have you heard the hymn sung by 14 different nationalities all at the same time? In one room?

I have.

There were 14 countries represented in the recent conference which I attended. Although most of us spoke English, we were encouraged to lead prayers in our own language. And so when we sang “Amazing Grace” we did so in our own tongue.

Awe inspiring.

Imagine a 45-voice choir singing a tune so familiar, but in accents so disparate and strange. Yet you feel as though the words are coming from your own mind; your own voice is praying aloud, and your own soul is connecting to the same Source of divine grace.

Based on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, the lyrics are a prayer of King David in which he marvels at God's choosing him and his house.

Then the same lyrics in the same tune are a prayer over 3,000 years later in a function room occupied by about 45 people somewhere in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The experience taught me that       many different languages we may have, but when we speak to the One who made races, tribes, nations, and people different from each other, He hears only one language—that which is spoken by our heart.


While I Was Away

I was gone for eight days and on those days (above) I had no time to watch television; neither could I read Thai newspapers. It was like being in limbo, not knowing what was happening in beloved motherland.

“So tell me all about the news I missed,” I asked Ate Vi, my long-time househelp who can put newscasters to shame.

“Oh, those Filipino generals!” she said, smirking. “They were on their way home from Russia with their wives and brought our country great shame! One of them had in his possession, undeclared, over six million pesos (105,000 euros) in cash. They were detained by top Russian police.”

“Not possible,” I said. “How could they have spirited out that huge amount of money? I had just gone through our airport twice and I was frisked thoroughly. I was asked how much dollars I had ($202). I was told to take off my shoes, and even my little notebook had to go through the x-ray machine! I signed a custom’s declaration, attesting I had no more than $10,000."

“Well, you are a law-abiding citizen,” she said.

“And those generals aren’t? They are the defenders of our constitution,” I countered, saddened by her story.

“Money and power corrupt,” she said tersely. “You have neither.”

Ate Vi’s tells it like it is.

“One other thing,” she added. “Our president gleefully announced that the IMF was giving us a ten-billion-dollar aid. IMF denied it.”

“My president wouldn’t lie,” I said, getting sadder and sadder.

“Well, believe what you want. Stay naïve,” she said and left for the kitchen.

I will review old copies of our newspapers, hoping she misread the news. But Ate Vi tells the truth. People with money and power don’t get punished for their excesses and abuses. They get investigated for a week or two then nada.

Well, justice, as we know it, will not come in this lifetime. No wonder a growing number of people in this country are finding it more and more difficult to be optimistic.

That’s saddest of all.

But I believe that all the money and power that corrupt the revered leaders of our land will all turn to nada. Only divine grace gives us hope.

When the Lord returns, justice will be meted out; and by His grace, God’s people will bask in nothing but righteousness—and will never feel sad again.


Last Trip abroad?

This is going to be my last trip out of the country, I told myself as I packed for my eight-day trip to attend the Asia Christian Writers Conference in Chang Mai.

I had just recovered from two successive illnesses, throat infection and UTI, both debilitating, confining me at home for what seemed like years. They were traumatic! The thought of getting sick abroad spooked me.

I spoke aloud (within Tony’s hearing distance) that I needed travel insurance in case I fell ill in faraway Thailand. He laughed, of course, but encouraged maybe by being my beneficiary, he got me one.

With friends Ramon, Chair of MAI Asia (sponsor of the event), and Tito Dok, multi-awarded children’s book writer, I lugged my overweight bag in three airports: our own NAIA, Bangkok’s and finally Chiang Mai’s.

I imagined the place to be as cool as Baguio so I packed five thick coats, plus heavy pants and blouses. I also threw in a copy each of my books to show and give fellow writers. Those were, yes, over 20 kilos! I had heard about traveling light but I have senior moments.

I slept through all the hassle and delayed flights, except when Tito Dok took pictures and asked Ramon and me to pose before every conceivable matter or moving object. I’ve met photography buffs in my life but Tito Dok beats them all by a thousand mile. I didn’t have to bang my head for forgetting to charge my own camera.

Arriving at Suan Bua Resort, I was totally charmed—by every noun known in English: place, people, thing, categorized into common, proper, abstract, collective, etc. I should come back here with my boys . . .

I itched to post one blog after another but internet connection was non-existent. Journal writing, I thought, is different from blogging. Keyboard clicking and wrist flicking somehow capture peak, fleeting moments better.

Looking at it another way, though, the unconnection was unexpected grace. It allowed my fellow writers and me to soak in moments. We had time to look in each other's eyes and see the stories behind them.

Stories, powerful stories, would turn into verses or prose in novels, magazine articles, devotionals, children’s story books—and many more types of writing—telling of God’s righteousness; of His grace that saved Christian writers’ (and mankind’s) soul.

(P.S. Now that I am home, my insurance policy turned out to be an unnecessary expense, and not having enough faith.)


Unconnected in Chiang Mai

“I'm breaking out in cold sweat. My hands are trembling. My heart is racing. I am puffing and panting even while doing nothing. And I feel like I am going to pass out.”

These are what characterize withdrawal syndrome, according to someone I know who has battled an addiction successfully.

If I were not in fresh, airy Chang Mai, Thailand the past five days, I should be feeling these symptoms as well. There has been no internet connection and I feel like I had been cut off from my lifeline, the net, particularly Leaves of Grace.

And there's this article due for submission. I couldn't shoot it out.

But just now, while waiting for the van that will take us to the airport for Bangkok, I turn on my lap top, and bang. Connection! Ooops, the characters are in Thai.

Let’s see if I can post this one with my first photo at the Chiang Mai airport . . .     



Ha-Ha-Hah! Ha-Ha-Hah!

You’re a caricaturist,” my new friend, Sam, said after reading my just re-launched book, Gifts of Grace Book 1.

“I am?” I blanched, unsure whether it was a compliment or a criticism. It was a word not once used to describe me.

“Ha-ha-ha-hah!” he laughed as though someone was tickling him.

“Ha-ha-ha-hah!” I echoed, snared by his contagious laughter. I am an easy prey—when someone laughs, I laugh; when someone cries I cry.

“Your son, JC, ha-ha-ha! The way you described him as a logo, ha-ha-ha! What a riot!”

“Oh, that,” I said, remembering my thoughts when I wrote it. “Ha-ha-hah!”

“And your husband, Tony, ha-ha-hah! You know, when I met you at our faculty meeting last month, I thought you were prim and proper. Ha-ha-hah! I didn’t know you are so funny, ha-ha-hah!”

(Sam is a new member of the faculty of the university where I teach part-time.)

“Ha-ha-hah!” he roared as he recalled one scene after another. Not much later we both had tears in our eyes. He was wiping his with a white handkerchief. I was wiping mine with my sleeves.

“You are amazing, Grace! You have a way with words. Ha-ha-hah! How do you do it?”

“Ha-ha-hah!” Now we were both in a laughing fit that couldn’t be stopped, not even by the Security Guard who shushed us by the door of the faculty room where we were waiting for our class hours. The exhilaration I felt as I wrote Gifts of Grace Book 1, eight years ago, swirled over me like tsunami.

“You take one facet of a person, and make it larger than life! Ha-ha-hah!” Sam sputtered between gales of laughter.

Caricaturist. It suddenly seemed like a rave review, and a word of privilege and honor.

And laughter is grace that comes even when the newspaper headlines read: World markets plunge.


The Colors I Eat

Colors perk me up. They liven up even the bluest of days. But like anything on terra firma, colors are relative.

Brown, for instance, looks good on vases, floors, shoes, and tree trunks.

Green, on the other hand, looks good on leaves, grass, clothes, and accessories.

But on food?!

I recently had dinuguan (blood stew) in the ickiest of browns. But, but. It was the best dinuguan I ever had in my life.

The pork was crunchy (very crunchy!) even if it was swimming in, yeah, icky brown sauce. Yes, it’s unlike any dinuguan I ever tasted. The place which serves it is called Kanin Club (kanin is boiled rice).

Fortunately, one branch happens to be in our neighborhood. To dine there, you have to make an early reservation because the place is always packed with gourmands. Many don’t mind waiting (I don’t) in the lawn outside for their turn to be seated.

Two friends invited me to Flavors of China in a mall on my birthday. They said the spinach soup in that place is super scrumptious. They did not lie. The soup came in yucky green but it was truly divine.

These two dishes remind me of the turkey we had at home one Christmas. Tony was the chef (this was before JR took over) and as such, he liked to improvise. He threw away recipe books and relied on his “ear” for cooking.

What do you know? We had a purple turkey! Instead of white wine, he generously poured red wine over the bird. I refrained from taking any photo.

It wasn’t bad, the turkey that is. But the color was.

“Christmas is supposed to be a colorful occasion,” Tony deadpanned.

Someday I may find an indigo lumpia (egg foo young), fuchsia fried chicken, or a aquamarine milk shake. And they’ll be oooh-la-lah!


Severe September

“Now I have no excuse to be grumpy, bossy and self-centered,” JR says on the evening of September’s last Sunday.

His lids are droopy, his skin sallow, and his body stooped, but he is never more relaxed and nice and kind—a look alien to us in the past four months while he reviewed for the bar exams.

The bar took all of his September Sundays—and ours, too. He pored over his law books, while we (kith and kin) prayed for him night and day. We never (or so we tried) as much as tell him any news that might distract his focus.

And now it is all over. We welcome him back. And the long wait for the results begins.

Every Sunday afternoon, the mood on Taft Ave. (La Salle is the venue of The Bar), cordoned off from vehicles, is festive and delightfully chaotic. Professors, students, relatives of the bar takers are there in droves, chanting and cheering the harassed, spent examinees as they emerge from the exam rooms. Whoever started this age-old tradition called Bar Op (operations) must be awarded a medal for creativity.

The night before that, the bar candidates are served hand and foot by their schoolmates and concerned friends in the hotels where they are billeted. In Ateneo’s case, it’s Sofitel Philippine Plaza. Then on the morning of the bar, the examinees are pampered with breakfast, last-minute legal opinions summarized on paper, and sent off in a special bus with prayers, blessings, and words of encouragement.

Back on Taft Ave. on that last Sunday afternoon: bands played, balloons danced, hands clapped, cameras flashed, banners waved, and people leaped and laughed. Waiting for JR on the sidelines, squashed between energized people of all kinds, I find God’s grace—sustaining all of those around us and those bar tortured souls before us.

“There’s JR,” JC nudges me. I look around to remind Tony to take his picture but he is lost in the crowd.

JR walks slowly with the rest of his compatriots, relief written all over his face. He animatedly talks to a similarly relieved, and refreshingly cute, girl to his left. He doesn’t look around. Like the rest of the examinees walking with him to the exit, he is in no hurry to go anywhere. He simply strolls. Again I find ample grace to savor the moment.

Severe September it might have been, but God’s merciful grace ended it all with anticipation of many good nights’ sleep, serene days, more smiles, and being our simple selves once again.


Name for a Dog

A dog’s name is infinitely harder to find than grace. Grace, which I continue to write about week after week on these e-leaves, is in every breath we take and every blink we make.

But a dog’s name? It should be there somewhere.

I am not talking about this dog.

This friendly biggie just happened to walk to where I was. I posed long enough for a friend to take my photo because this is easily the biggest dog that came within petting distance. The real big ones are untouchable on  National Geographic, the pages of Encyclopedia, and the internet.

For one of my writing projects for children, I am creating a dog character. And this huge dog seems like a good benchmark for a pet that kids (or kids at heart) would love to play with, and talk with, and discuss things with.

The dog in my imagination is white as clouds, with a spot of black shaped like a heart. It's a bit bigger and furrier than this one and just as cuddly.

Now, if only I could find a name for it!


Two Books, Two Sleepless Nights

“Buy it,” Anna said when she spotted A Thousand Splendid Suns on the shelf. “I couldn’t put it down,” she added.

A cursory reading of the rave reviews on the back cover (second book by Khaled Hosseini) didn't bite. I wasn’t keenly interested. I avoided books with depressing subjects. What has happened and been happening at Afghanistan is, at best, disturbing.

But I trusted Anna’s taste. By taste I mean, she likes many of the books I like and she shares the values I hold dear. Anna is a fellow believer of unlimited grace coming from everywhere, books among them. But, “couldn’t put it down”?! I have a great appetite for sleep; I catnap all the time.

In short, I bought it. 

After supper that night, I decided to read just the foreword and one chapter—like a sampler—as I am wont to do when I buy books. The rest of the pages I usually savor slowly over the next few days.

That was my undoing. After the first chapter, I rushed to the next, and the next, and the next. Suddenly, my clock said 3 AM, and I had an 8 AM class the next day! It took gargantuan will power to put it down in favor of what was left of the night.

Every bit of the rave reviews is true. The book is riveting, with excellent story-telling that weaves together characters and events in a seamless, surprising manner. Nothing is predictable. And the emotions it elicits are raw and unsettling.

I rushed to the nearest book store the day after I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns and bought myself Hosseini’s first book, Kite Runner. Only on page 104 and already, I had cried 104 buckets of tears.

Two books—worth the dark circles around one’s eyes.


The Egret in My Garden

When you’re sick and you have no energy—or desire—to move, you stare into space.

I was sick all right but I didn’t stare into space. This egret kept my fevered eyes transfixed for, oh, maybe a few hours for three straight days . . .   

Instead of staying in the bedroom cooled by a humming air conditioner, I decided to stay in the veranda cooled by whistling, and sometimes cooing, fresh wind—and marvel at this man-made egret.

Sometimes it spun around quickly, sometimes it swiveled from side to side, and sometimes it just turned slowly with the tempo of the wind. This graceful bird was hand-carried by my sister Aie all the way from Germany. She said it is no ordinary bird. It was painstakingly made by people with Down Syndrome.

As I stared at this simple representation of creation, I Imagined how it must have been so slowly drawn, cut, planed, smoothened, and painted by bare, unprofessional hands. And how it magically landed in my garden.

It’s like getting sick and getting well, I thought. It takes time to get to the promise of the ending we hope for. Each critical, small step has to be fueled by grace.


Book Fair Fever

Fever indeed! Literally.

Two days after the wonderful book fair, just when the second semester begins, I am down with a fever. Not too high, not even 38 degrees centigrade, but fever nevertheless. And those .7’s and .8’s can really bog you down. Enough to keep you so lethargic you don’t want to do anything but lie down and sleep.

So here I am, still in bed for three straight days. The cough has loosened, and the headache has dulled, but the fever is a tad too stubborn.

And so I stay in bed, as my doctor advised, take my fluids and fruits and now, anti-biotics—and rest. How much rest can one have?! I just have to post this one blog and then back to sleep.

I will be better tomorrow. My prayer warriors have been begging heaven to heal me. And grace never fails.


Youngest Fan

Fan?! Now that’s a word I am not very comfortable in using. It is a bit too presumptuous for someone who went into writing with no illusions of coming into fame or fortune.

Instead, I refer to those who like my books as readers. Even if some of them say when I meet them, “I am a fan.” To which, I cringe.

But at the fair, I don’t think I can refer to a six-month-old baby as a reader, can I? So let me refer to him as a “fan.” His name is Sebastian and he came with his parents, grandparents, uncle and auntie. In short, he came with the whole family! And this whole entourage bought for Sebastian my latest children’s book. Easily he was the youngest, er, fan who came to the OMFLit booth.

Until the fourth day. A young father came to the OMFLit booth looking for me, and wouldn’t leave till he met me. (I was on what we call in this country, a CR break, or a short trip to the bathroom.) He had earlier heard me on radio extolling the benefits of reading. So he bought all my children’s books and wanted my signature on each one of them.

“It’s for my baby girl,” he said.

“What’s her name?” I asked, my hand poised with my signing pen on the air.

“We don’t know yet. She will be born in November, two months from today,” he said grinning.

“O,” I said. It’s the best word that comes to mind when I am overwhelmed.

“I want your books to be my wife’s and my gifts to her when she is born.”

“O.” My eyes pooled.

Now, can a “fan” come any younger? There is only one word that can take the place of “O.”

Grace. Overwhelming grace.


Busy Book Body

I'm headed to the Book Fair for the 4th straight day. Can't have any post till after tomorrow when the Book Fair closes.