chicago

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After wrapping up the last meeting for this work trip, I spent the rest of the day walking around downtown Chicago. Until now, I don’t think I have ever seen architecture I wanted to taste. And I don’t think I have ever enjoyed parks more than I have today. Almost got to the lake had the heat not dissuaded me.

Now I’m seated comfortably at the cafe of a Barnes & Noble. This place has a library vibe to it—the tables and chairs, the people with their books and laptops. And the relative silence. I like this place.

I think I like Chicago more than the Big Apple. There are fewer people. It’s urban but with more soul. I was admiring the flowers at the park earlier and thought, “Somebody upped the filter!” The flowers were beautiful, even in their imperfection. They stood there in the foreground, swaying with the wind, in stark contrast to the mighty, unmoving skyscrapers.

The train ride into the city was painless. Turns out my hotel is conveniently linked to the train station. Onboard the Blue Line, I listened to my Spotify playlist. Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” made me smile. Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten. It was an apt soundtrack for this short exploration of new things.

Then John Lennon’s “Imagine” followed, and that too was apt as the train carried people from many ethnicities. The black woman in front of me with one earbud dangling. The white man in the orange shirt who had movie-star hair and who misted his aviators with his breath. The two middle-aged men in animated conversation and who were almost mirror images of each other—plaid shirt and khakis. I looked around searching for an Asian person to complete the international picture in my head. Then I realized that I was the Asian representation in this car!

Imagine all the people.

I took Daphne on a FaceTime date at the Millennium Park. We admired the Cloud (which should really be called the Bean). I am looking forward to when we can travel overseas together. My hand ached for her hand. Several times I caught myself wanting to turn to my side to make a comment about a flower, a sculpture, or how blue the sky is….

I picked a leaf which I would press in a book to bring home to her.

I’m not really good at being a tourist, I get tired easily. I vacillate between spontaneity and anxious scheduling. I want to try new things but find myself worrying about awkward situations, getting lost, or looking out of place. Each time I speak to people, I rehearse the lines in my mind, hoping to sound as local as possible. 

Earlier, while I was walking, I listened to the soundtrack of “Chicago” the musicale. I smiled. It was fun experiencing you —”and all that jazz”— again, Chicago.

Excerpted from a sparse travel journal written during a recent trip to the US. Every time I leave for an overseas trip, I resolve to journal religiously. And then I come home only to chide myself for not having journaled more; sometimes not at all. Given the chance, I hope to do much better in succeeding trips.

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repent

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” -Martin Luther (first of 95 theses)

To true followers of Christ, repentance must be a constant, daily thing; an activity of life as natural and necessary as breathing.

It ought not to be a cumbersome and occasional aside that we engage in when we realize, perhaps after hearing a powerful sermon or reading a good book, that we’ve slipped from “acceptable Christian lifestyle”. Repentance is not a tedious and ceremonial proof-reading and light editing of an otherwise perfect text.

Martin Luther’s recorded last words before his death were: “We are beggars! This is true.” A life of repentance makes of us beggars — who, by the miracle of Christ’s sacrifice and victory, are recipients of immeasurable mercy.

Repentance is a life-giving privilege bought by the cross and the empty tomb. It is the open, needy hands of a beggar before a compassionate and rich King who gives, gives, and gives.

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joy

So this is how it feels.

I thought to myself while I looked up at my brother as he spoke into the microphone. He held his open Bible in one hand, a handkerchief close by in case tears came. In that moment, Kuya Arnel wasn’t the sibling who teased me by making slurping sounds with his hot drink because he knows it irritates me inexplicably. No—that June afternoon by the lake, he was Rev. Arnel C. Tan, a Minister of the Gospel in the middle of performing holy matrimonial rites.

And I was the groom.

Beside me, mesmerizingly radiant and basking in sunset hues, was my bride, Daphne. We held hands underneath her veil, our backs to a small gathering of dear friends and family. Unless they laughed at my brother’s jokes, sighed audibly at something touching, or howled like sports fans, I would not think there were people behind us. It felt like we were alone, just the three of us—myself, my bride, and my minister-brother—in the presence of the Divine. For months, we planned this event, ticking off item after item from a long list. But in truth all we did was create space for something sacred to happen. All that our many hours of work achieved was to prepare the physical vessel to contain something spiritual.

That day, “in the presence of God and witnesses,” Daphne and I stood face to face to declare our vows of love and faithfulness to each other. The wind carried our worded promises, spoken with voices overcome by deep emotion, to the ears and heart of the Heavenly Father. He took two very different hearts and bound them into one heart with Agape’s cord, one twined by His very hands and which only death could sever. Daphne and I prayed, laughed, and cried. So did many of our guests.

Joy had come to us that day without needing an invitation.

I have been graced by moments of deep joy in my life. But the joy of my wedding day—ten months ago to this day—holds a special place in my heart. Joy showed up, beautifully dressed in the smiles of our dear guests. She embraced us with every word of blessing spoken to us. Joy served us through the hands and feet of friends and family who came together to manage the countless details of a wedding.

I was humbled and honored that such gifts would be lavished on us that Sunday afternoon. As waves of joy came upon us, I remember feeling the urge to do something, anything. Freeze the moments, bottle the tears, turn the laughters into song, make coats out of the warm hugs—I’m not sure what exactly, but surely I must not just stand there and take it all in, right?

But, why shouldn’t I just take it all in?

Joy is grace. Ergo, it does not demand; it gives. We desire and pursue it and yet when we finally hold it in our hands, we realize we do not know what to do with it. Instinctively, we want to make it last forever, manage it, and even manufacture it. Joy resists these maneuvers because it is meant to be received as a gift from a loving Father. Oftentimes, like the morning dew after the sun has risen high enough, joy is soon gone.

This need not be a sad thing. Joy’s fleeting visitations in this life ought to remind us to look forward to another life, another wedding day, where Christ is the bridegroom and we, along with Christ’s redeemed, are His bride. That day, joy will not be a mere guest; she will live with us for eternity.

Oh to know how that feels.

Photo by Sheila Catilo

Photo by Sheila Catilo

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emcee

I am feeling under the weather and, per wife’s orders, being quarantined today. To pass time and take my mind away from a wonky body, I revisited past journal entries. Found this list of 7 things I learned from emceeing a national conference of a government agency a few years ago. I had to chuckle as I recalled that fun experience.

  1. Study your spiels and practice saying potentially problematic words backstage. Otherwise, you’ll end up saying “thinthesith” when you ought to say “synthesis”.
  2. Remember that large-venue events now oftentimes employ video walls. That means your face is magnified a thousandfold on a video screen behind you. And when you make a face after mispronouncing (see No. 1), it becomes an even bigger blooper. (Also, you must convince yourself that the audience won’t really mind that zit on your face because they’ll think it’s a dead pixel on the video wall. Just don’t move your head too much.)
  3. Bring your own tumbler for coffee, one that can be sealed tight. Because you want the caffeine, but you don’t want to be spilling coffee on your shirt and/or pants.
  4. Make friends with your stage manager because he or she has the power to make your life a breeze or a tropical depression. Also, excessive ad-libbing makes your production crew sweat.
  5. Whether you like it or not, you should refer to government officials as “Honorable” when you call them to the podium to deliver monotonous speeches.
  6. Speaking of monotonous speeches, consider it your duty as master of ceremony to redeem your audience from these tragedies. You must use your time backstage to plot the rescue of your audience from the clutches of boredom after they had survived these lullabies disguised as speeches.
  7. When your director/producer/stage manager tells you to do a voice-over with more energy, you have to do it even if you fear sounding like a campy variety show host.

I miss emceeing. In another life, I make a living doing stand-up comedy, hosting a game show, or touring with a circus. I almost included “being a preacher” in that list, but remembered what a seasoned pastor friend told me after hearing my emceeing jokes at a ministers’ event: “Oh, Aleks, you’re too funny to be a pastor!”

Amen. I guess.

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rewriting

I have long suspected that my writing engine is fueled by melancholia. It seems that the sadder I am, the more freely and skillfully my fingers tap on the keyboard to create prose (or, on very rare occasions, poetry). And so you must know that I write this now with great difficulty and almost-physical pain because, well, I am happy.

Maybe happy is too—how should I put it—ah, small, to describe my present state of being. I am not giddy or ecstatic. There is no silly grin on my face, at least not right at this moment. I have no reason to think I have become delusional; I still see clearly the life and work issues that beset me. But when I reflect, there is no internal angst that yearns release on screen or paper. Neither is there a phantom of the mind that begs to be given form with words. What I have now, I gather, is a deep sense of contentment… hope… groundedness.

In that sense, happiness.

I struggled to choose those words. And as I did, I took quick glances at the woman right in front of me in this coffee shop who is herself immersed in writing. It makes sense to look at her when I muse about happiness because she, my wife of almost ten months, is the source of much of this feeling that has halted my gloom-fueled wordsmithing. Last June in Tagaytay, on a perfect Sunday afternoon, Daphne and I gathered our dear family and friends and, as sunset hues bathed all of us, we took turns reading our vows from our iPhones.

Since that time, I have not written anything interesting.

So, yes, I blame my lovely wife for this dearth of writing. She has not given me grief to take to the proverbial pen and paper. When she smiles at me, I am rendered wordless. Have you heard her laughter? It cannot be properly described by any word I know. She has gifted me with togetherness so that time hunched in front of a computer suddenly isn’t so appealing. When I hold her in my arms, I cannot think of anything but the present moment and how blessed I am to have the duty and delight to love and protect this daughter of Abba.

“You should write again, love,” my Daphne has told me a few times now. I do not have the heart to tell her it’s her fault that I have parked the pen. Maybe I can find a new place from which to write. As I grow friendlier with this blessing of happiness and togetherness I might be able to cajole the writing wheels to turn yet again. This time, with new fuel.

I think I will call that fuel with the same name I call my bride: Love. And by no measure is that a small word.

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this

“Lovest thou Me more than this?”

The question, originally posed by the Resurrected Lord to Peter over their breakfast of smoked fish, visits me while I digest my Wednesday lunch.

“What ‘this’, Lord?” I stall, taking a sip of orange juice and wiping my mouth with napkin.

“This,” the Spirit points out.

“Oh, You mean this?

“Yes, that.

I ponder for a moment, my mind refusing to wrap itself around the boundaries of this

Could it be that it—this—has grown too big inside of me to be easily surveyed? Or, perhaps, it has become too precious, and therefore painful, that I revolt at even the slightest contact of a measuring tape.

My head drops. Even though I am unable (or unwilling?) to take this and place it squarely side-by-side with my affections for the Lord, I know the answer to the Master’s piercing question.

“No,” I whisper. “I’m afraid I do not love You more than… this.

Shame gathers above my heart like thick, dark clouds that totally eclipse the sun.

“But I want to, Lord. Oh, I want to.,” comes the last, faint ray of light.

The Master smiles.

“Good. Now we begin.”

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meet kaiyel

The icing on the cake of my recent Davao vacation was a little girl named Kaiyel, my brother Bong’s firstborn. When Kaiyel is not injecting or feeding her doll, Momay, she takes pleasure in sneaking up on people and jolting them with a hearty “Bulaga!”—complete with hand gestures and a mischievous grin that turns her eyes into two jovial slants. Most times we play along and feign surprise, but sometimes the little prankster really makes us jump. (We have had to gently warn her against surprising her Lola Lils in her sleep.) It’s quite apt considering that this little blessing graced our family quite surprisingly. A new granddaughter and niece? Bulaga!

Kaiyel is a few months short of three years, but if you listen to her, you would think she’s five, sometimes even twenty-five. She is gregarious and does not understand the meaning of “shy”. Like a boss, she walks around with her hands on her hips, and will dance Gangnam-style at the drop of a hat. Her favorite greeting is not “Hi” or “Hello” but “Ano’ng gawa mo?” (“What are you doing?”). She is quick to remember names and never forgets to say, “Ingat ka ha!” (“You take care, okay?”) whenever someone leaves the house. She hardly stutters and is quite a sponge with words. It’s apparent that my niece has the gift of gab, and I can’t wait for when she starts reading.

Now, little Kaiyel has a yellow piggy bank that she requires people to feed. Her Angkong (Chinese for paternal grandfather) enjoys giving her coins to feed her piggy. Sometimes she thinks that all coins belong to her piggy; if you leave coins unattended and later find they’re no longer where you had left them, you should know they’ve been fed to Piggy.

A few days before New Year’s Day, my brother traveled to GenSan with wife Mikay and little Kaiyel. I had hatched a plan that only a heartless uncle could think of – I would kidnap Piggy and see how his little mistress reacts. My brother laughed when I told him about it, which I took as an endorsement. (It’s important that he was in on the plan because the last thing I wanted was to be on the receiving end of a karate instructor’s mean kick!)

A day after New Year’s Day we heard the red gate rattle followed by a knock on the door and a squeaky voice declaring, “Andito na ako!” (“I’m back!”). Kaiyel, cute in pink leggings, kissed everyone with the flair of a movie star in the company of adoring fans. She went to her Angkong to announce her return and promptly received coins to feed Piggy. I hadn’t expected Kuya and family to be back so early, so I rushed to nab Piggy from his usual place under the computer table and hid him under the coffee table in the living room.

New Piggy fodder in her small hands, Kaiyel headed straight to where she thought Piggy was, and it didn’t take long for her to discover that her yellow treasure was missing. “Asan ang baboy ko?”  (“Where’s my pig?”) she inquired with a a small pout and a hint of sadness. Her tone wasn’t accusatory; it was pleading.

My heart was soon crushed by guilt. So I “helped” her launch a search-and-rescue operation for Piggy. “Check under the throw pillow,” I instructed. Kaiyel brushed the throw pillow aside, looked up to me, and said, “Wala ‘man” (“Nothing there.”). She checked one or two other places I had led her to, without success, of course. Then I finally told her to check under the coffee table.

Kaiyel squatted on the floor, lifted the red table cloth, and finally found the object of her search. What followed had us all in stitches. In a voice not unlike a mother reprimanding her child, she quipped—to Piggy: “Ano ka ba? Anong gawa mo d’yan?” (“What’s wrong with you, why are you there?”). The inflection of her voice reflected both the relief of finding and the exasperation of searching. “How innocent,” my sister Liza reflected. “She never thought ill of anyone, and instead ended up blaming Piggy for wandering off.”

After feeding Piggy with new coins from Angkong, grinning Kaiyel tried lifting Piggy so she could bring him to his home under the computer table. She grimaced with the attempt, unable to lift Piggy more than an inch above the floor. So being the good and repentant uncle that I was, I carried Piggy for my little niece.

Piggy was heavy, Kaiyel’s heart light.

Kaiyel discovers a new ride, and his Kuya Paul and Tito Aleks discover back pain.

On Christmas Eve, Kaiyel discovers a new ride, and his drivers, Kuya Paul and Tito Aleks, discover back pain.

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