When I say I am a painter, it is more of chutzpah than of talent. My very first painting on canvas elicited these comments:
"Mom, they look like objects from outer space."
"What on earth are they, Mom?"
My life has always been intertwined with visual arts. My school, the Art Institute of Chicago, was a huge art complex. With a student ID, I could go to and from school through a spectacular shortcut route—the museum. Then when I took on a job in advertising as a concept writer, I worked closely with artists.
Unfortunately, one can't be a painter through osmosis.
One slow writing day, I left my computer, bought brushes and paint, and unleashed my energy on canvas. What my children see as creatures from twilight zone are actually lilac bougainvillea, lush and fresh, swaying with the nippy wind.
Painting gave me new eyes. It has made me look at a zillion things to which I never paid enough attention before. Now I see patterns, shadows, shapes, rhythm, rhyme, reason. I see love coming from above.
So how come my handiwork doesn't come close?
Well, you can't expect more from hands made for the keyboard rather than the canvas. And this isn't about being a great painter. This is about new eyes seeing more grace than the old pair ever did.
“To you I lift up my eyes, O You who are enthroned in the heavens.” Psalm 123:1
(The above is an excerpt from my defunct e-column, "Gifts of Grace: the Column," which I suddenly remembered while window shopping for acrylic paints.)
From out of the blue, Tere emailed me.
She is now a part-time teacher in journalism and was wondering if I had a window in my schedule to meet with her and her students. I pushed and pulled a few of my commitments and found a window!
Frankly, I was more interested in meeting Tere again after all these years. Kindred spirits we were, in the ad agency where we created ads. She, plus a few more writers, and I were pals, more than co-workers. We had something deep in common: love affair with words.
She picked me up on schedule and was I surprised to find her whole class in her van. I imagined a slew of students; unfortunately, not too many kids these days share our passion for the printed page.
It was familiar territory; I usually have the same number of students in each of my classes, too.
"Where are you going?" were Tere's first words when she saw the handcarry-on-wheels I lugged behind me.
"With you!" I replied, explaining that the thing contained my props—my books.
The cafe, which was our venue for the next two and a half hours, was still empty. After ordering our breakfast, the gabfest was on.
We discussed anything and everything about writing: how one's heart should be in each written piece; why a writer should have a unique voice; what a writer should bring into his work not found in others'; who the writer should tap from his many resources; when the writer needs to work (all his waking hours, including sleeping, when necessary); where the writer can work (anywhere, noisy or quiet); and what the writer's rewards are (imaginary or monetary).
In short, when one comes into the altar of writing—be it fiction or non-fiction—his vow of love must be explicit, "For better or for worse."
My audience of six scanned my books as they asked questions, expressed assumptions, and verbalized apprehensions. Palpable was their earnestness in seriously going into writing.
In between the writing seminar/lecture/forum, Tere and I talked shop and tried to catch up on the years we had lost touch. We discovered we had become grandmothers, and traced mutual friends.
My morning turned out to be a double treat: I had not only met Tere again, I also met six new young friends who have now entered my special inner sanctum named "writing pals."
Talking to young, would-be writers, especially those who are into non-fiction, always poses a challenge. I came into the writing field with absolutely no formal training. All I had in the beginning was the unquenchable passion (since birth, I guess) to write.
But then, I think, that is where it all begins. Then grace comes and helps you get cracking.
There is a tree beside our front gate—lush and tall. It was not always so.
Once upon a time it was a tiny plant in a tiny green ceramic pot. It was given to me as a gift by a reader after I spoke to a group of book lovers about my reading advocacy. After a few weeks, my husband made the sublime decision of uprooting the tiny plant from the tiny pot and planting it on the ground.
How did it grow so tall? Where did it get its sturdy branches and big leaves?
Quite simply, people would explain that sunshine and rain has been nourishing the soil on which it is rooted. But, for me, there is so much more to it than that—it's a living testimonial of the awesome power and grace of the One who created it.
Looking at this tree every time I enter and exit our gate, and pondering its exceptional growth from a small plant in a small pot, I can't help but be amazed at His marvelous handiwork.
Look around you—there are trees and trees and trees, lush and tall. They all were, sometime ago, just seeds or tiny plants from tiny pots.
“LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom have You made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures.” Psalm 104:24
Very, very vividly, as though it happened only yesterday instead of years ago, I remember the first time I won a Palanca (Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, a much-coveted prize among the literati).
Together with around 30 of my bosom buddies at Dentsu, Young & Rubicam-Alcantara, I was at Lucy's home (20 miles away from my own)—having a raucous time in her terrace, eating and bantering and wishing Lucy good wishes for a safe trip to the US in a few days.
Her house helper called from the sala and said I had a call from JR. My heart went lub-dub, lub-dub. My family calls only when there is an emergency.
"Mom, we received a notification. I won a Palanca," JR announced.
My lungs went on overdrive and my scream reached the next city.
"Mom, first prize!" he added.
My next scream reached the heavens.
"Mom, you won a Palanca, too!"
Now my scream must have broken a million eardrums.
One last scream and my lungs, throat, larynx and other body parts snapped.
Everyone came in from the terrace, "What's wrong, Grace? Are you okay?"
"I'm okay, very okay, absolutely okay," I said, now totally dysfunctional with a hoarse voice not louder than a whisper.
That was a life-changing moment; grace found me in August, on Friday the 13th . That was when I finally made the decision (see-sawing in my mind for over a year) to quit advertising and take up creative writing.
Just two days ago, I went through the same lub-dub, lub-dub experience for the 5th time. I was solving a crossword puzzle after a long day in school when Ate Vi entered my bedroom.
"Did you join the Palanca again?!" she said, brandishing the familiar yellow plastic courier envelope containing the congratulatory letter and formal invitation to the awards night.
My throat and other body parts are no longer as spry as they were that first time. But I screamed anyway—silently—and wiped a tear that flowed down unbidden.
Winning a Palanca, for me, is always a moment of surprise. At that precise, precious second when grace finds me, I ponder my nothingness.
"I wonder why You care, God—
why do You bother with us at all?
All we are is a puff of air;
we're like shadows in a campfire."
Psalm 144:3-4 (The Message)
(I have blogged about how Baguio has changed for me. And now, here is another post on changes. Bear with me. When you reach a certain age, you tend to long for the days of old.)
Going home isn't the same. Nothing is the same in the little town where I grew up.
I had successfully conditioned my mind to the absence of my mother at home. But coming face to face with a structure that had fallen into decay—now, that crushes the heart to smithereens. It's a 48-year-old house, with my mom's stamp all over it, which sometime in the future has to go, especially because nobody regularly lives there anymore, but not now.
Not this soon!
The flood in November, which almost wiped out Umingan from the face of the earth, hastened the house's decline. That catastrophe of epic proportions was thrown in the hands of my sister, who tried to salvage what was left of the public library which she was trying to put up.
Only two familiar items remained on the wall: the six-foot Vergara family tree (mom's side) which greets every guest at the front door,
and my very first painting (stamping on wood) which I bequeathed to Aie.
The house's decay is irreversible and unless something major is done, the structure will soon tumble down like a deck of cards.
Going out of the decrepit house, I walk a few meters to Burubor, the river where we used to swim as children. If our bar soap, then, happened to slip through our fingers, there was no problem diving for it. One could spot exactly where it was. This is how Burubor looks today.
I lament the changes in my hometown, the once-serene and refreshing Umingan where Mateo, the eight-year-old hero in my "Oh, Mateo!" book series, lives happily with friends and family.
But I realize that Mateo's and my Umingan could stay that way forever only in my books. Because everything on this planet changes; nothing remains constant, except God's grace.
We have a new member in the family. She is not young, but still much younger than Ate Vi, whom she is charged to help with the household chores I am too busy (or too lazy?) to do.
Her name is Pandak (Shorty). It is not her real name, of course; but when she was a little girl, in grade school, she was the shortest in class. So everyone started calling her Pandak, and the name stuck.
The funny thing is, Pandak is much taller than the women in our home, namely Ate Vi and me.
Labels. We live in a world preoccupied with people labels. Since time immemorial, man has separated people into categories. We have labels for all types of behavior, labels for all sorts of personalities, labels for all sorts of people.
Is it the way we're wired? Is it the way we make sense of things?
People tend to judge other people—consciously or unconsciously. Although this judgment is unfair, it is a reality which is constantly present on earth. We have impressions about people we see for the first time, predict the way they are, and label them—weird, nerd, goth, racist, bigot, pandak—the list is endless.
Sociologists say that labeling someone may actually change his behavior, adapting to the label. Fortunately for Pandak, her genes didn't allow her childhood name to stunt her.
Labeling people is not necessarily a bad thing. Not all of it dehumanizes. I once met someone whom everyone called Einstein because he could answer every question. Now a successful scientist, he has lived up to that label.
We are encouraged to label anyone, for as long as the label is positive and encourages him to live up to it. The Bible labeled Jesus many names—Savior, Emmanuel, Salt, Light, Lamb, Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, Truth, etc.
Think of all the greatest words ever invented. Those are labels for Christ.
The Scriptures likewise exhort Christians the world over to take the straight path of Jesus and so, eventually, they will have all the positive labels they could ever wish for, though undeserved, through grace.
Let me call her by a different name—Sam. I don't think she'll take kindly to being identified on cyburbia.
Because of Sam I broke a university rule, something I feel half guilty of. I will do it again—off campus, if necessary.
Sam had been having difficulty in my subject. She always had furrowed brows when I lectured. She stuttered when she was called upon to discuss an issue.
Reading her first exam paper one day, I was appalled that she had no understanding of the topic we had discussed and debated ad infinitum in class.
My confidence in my ability to teach took a nose dive. Where could have I gone wrong?
I talked to her in private after class. "Sam, tell me how I could be a better teacher to you."
"Miss, it isn't you. It's me. I am not very good in English."
"You mean, you are not very good writing in English?" I said, holding up her test paper.
"I mean, I am not very good in understanding spoken English, especially when there are strange terms. The high school where I graduated from spoke mostly Chinese and Filipino."
I quickly looked around. Students were busy doing their thing, unmindful of the two of us.
As a gut reaction, I decided to break the speak-only-English-in-campus rule! With best effort, in my less-than-perfect Filipino (I am an Ilocana), I explained the topic in question.
Her furrowed brows went back to normal and her lips broke into a big smile. Then, after thirty minutes of my Filipino soliloquy, she echoed back to me exactly what I said—in better Filipino! And with examples of her own to illustrate every point.
She was not as dense as I perceived her to be. She was smart, very smart, in fact.
"Now that I clearly understand everything," she said, "I will re-do my exam, if you will allow me."
I allowed her.
What I read later made me proud; proud of Sam, proud of being given a second chance as a teacher.
It made me think of how grace seeps into our lives through every person sent our path. It made me marvel at how we are moved to see things more clearly than we ever did before.