Love, Unexpectedly (Part 1)

I looked up at the steep staircase, small and dimly lighted. Behind me was the rush Sunday activity of vendors eager to call on the churchgoers leaving the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño de Cebu just across from where I was standing.

I climbed up the stairs and walked the familiar hallway. Obscure lighting from the high ceiling failed to flood every corner of the corridor. The indistinct paint was coming off the old walls. The floor was unswept, with unbundled trash and a couple of cockroaches just off the corner at the top of the stairs. I immediately turned my eyes to the direction I was going, lest I would feel a bile of disgust coming out of my throat.

I entered the office of the review center I enrolled in. It was a bright contrast to the hallway. Almost everything was white—the sofa, table, chairs, and walls—like a comfortable clinic for adults. The air conditioning was working well, a balm to my heat-cloaked skin. I found a corner as I listened to my classmates talking with the teacher, as we all waited for the time to reach one. Most of my classmates were old, more than 35 years old, many of them vying for permanent positions in the government. To them, failing the civil service examination was not an option.

When it was time for the class, we moved to another room, a classroom, passing another section of the dark hallway. The classroom was not what I expected it to be: some windows were broken, the poorly maintained armchairs were scattered across the floor, the blackboard already turned yellowish green, and the wall paint was peeling off badly. The entire area was fit for an emotional video documentary. It was my third time in the room so I wasn’t surprised at the sight anymore.

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The lost children’s garden

Before St. Joseph’s Academy (SJA) become what it is today, all concrete from bottom up, there was a brown patch of land by the main gate, beside the National Shrine of Saint Joseph (formerly St. Joseph Parish). It was small but big enough for about 20 to 30 children to play catch in.

Thinking about it now, I’m sure it was meant to be a garden with a statue in the middle and trees surrounding it. The trees, thick with dark bark and coated with ground dust, stood bent and drooping, like a decreasing army of wounded soldiers.

A bit of trimmed grass, parlored bushes and a keep off sign would have made that piece of land a peaceful sanctuary in the middle of a bustling city, a modest remake of the garden of Gethsemane, something you could expect from the ICM Sisters who managed the school in its early years.

But there was no stopping us, still young and jaunty schoolchildren at the time, from entering this well-shaded garden whose mere presence unceasingly taunted us to play. Dust rose from the ground as we chased each other in this garden during class breaks and at the end of the school day.

We were oblivious to the health hazards the garden posed on us: dusty air that was as thick as the bark of the trees, undried sweat on the back of our white cotton uniforms and the verbal onslaught by mothers who thought more about laundry than the benefits of play.

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Remembering Coleen, the girl of joy

What is now a paved road outside my parents’ house used to be uncovered soil with stones and weeds. This rough plot of land, with only trees on one side serving as a sort of boundary and a concrete wall on the other, welcomed the restless feet of 8- and 10-year-old children jumping and thrashing against the hard ground.

Among them was Coleen. She was a short, frail-looking girl with a pair of sad eyes. Her appearance was a sobersided contrast to the meaning of her complete name: Coleen Joy, or a girl of joy. But appearances can be deceiving.

During one of our games of catch or hide and seek with the neighborhood children—Manny, Toto, Nonoy, Christine, and Alwin—Coleen would come out of her house pale and tired. She must had had one of her “nebulizer sessions” to ease her asthma attacks.

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Benedict Anderson: A global person

It is impossible to meet Professor Benedict Anderson now. He died in December 2015, around 16 months before I even heard of him.

If he were alive, he would have this languid walk toward the residents of Indonesia, his posture leaning forward to listen as his mind scrambled for the proper Javanese translation of his response. He wouldn’t take notes or carry a voice recorder; his mind would be too sharp and well-trained for that. But when he would reach home or the university or his sponsor’s house, he would pick a pen and notebook and write down all his mental notes in a rush and then carefully. These notes would soon serve him well for his current research and, if not, for his future research whose thesis would be borne out of a single statement made by a fellow instructor who would pass by his opened office door at the university.

At least this is the picture I have gathered from reading Anderson’s memoir, A Life Beyond Boundaries. He died soon after he had finished correcting the proofs of the latest edition of this book. It was originally published in Japanese by NTT Publishing Co., Ltd. in 2009. Then it was published in English for the first time by Verso in 2016. I read the copy published by Anvil Publishing in the same year.

Anderson is successful in pointing out to me, a simple reader, the two major themes of his book. “The first is the importance of translation for individuals and societies,” he says in the Preface.

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Celine Dion and some memories

I was already singing her songs before I got to know the tall, flawless singer. The songs came out through my elongated radio, a black cassette tape player I had bought with the money I had received from an aunt who married a retired American soldier.

That player was fixed in the third row of my bookshelf, sometimes dusty and mostly immovable. In the same way it was fixed on a spot, the player-sleek, curvy and almost inconspicuous-was almost always fixed on one radio station, 96.3 WRock.

I can only count the times I changed the dial to an AM station to listen to “golden music,” as the disc jockeys called it, of Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Dan Hill, Jim Croce, Abba, Bee Gees, Cascades, Tom Jones, Kenny Rogers, and Air Supply. They were our Sunday best friends over a feast of guso, lato and a kilo of lechon (roasted pig).

But I always go back to 96.3 WRock’s light tunes and a variety of songs for easy listening. Until now, the songs I listened to stuck. Each time my husband belts out a song with his guitar, I can sing some of the lyrics. I surprise him when I do since he knows I’m tone-deaf. When I can’t get the lyrics out, the melody is an annoying buzzing bee in my head. When I try to at least give a hum, I go about it wrongly. Still, I can remember some of the words. When I read them, I can sing them for my own pleasure. 

Of all the songs I’ve listened to through my player, it was Celine Dion’s heart-reaching, heart-turning and heart-squeezing voice who made music more memorable for me.

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Twiddling with needles and threads

I walked into a shop of paper, thread and beads. By the door, little jars of paper flowers, yellow beads and other craft supplies were laid out, taunting me to buy one or two of them. The walls showed off bright handmade creations, daring me to pause and take a look. But my feet were resolute, kindled with a purpose and I went straight to the clear books.

I flipped pattern after pattern, waiting for an image to capture my attention and immediate interest. I was absorbed with cross-stitch designs of fruits, prayers, angels, and Precious Moments figures that it took me some time to notice another woman, petite, quiet and somber-dressed, at the opposite side of the table.

Her eyes were fixed on two patterns that were rubbing shoulders with each other. With balmy eyes darting left to right and back, the woman looked like she has arrived at a crossroad, like many crafts enthusiasts who are willing to buy everything in the store but have to restrain themselves because of lack of money, if not lack of storage space.

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