Reaching the future

Do you have kids? I do. My son is now 5 years old and my daughter 3 years old. I know I won’t always be there for them, at least not physically. Writing them letters is one way for me of reaching them when I may no longer be around to give them advise.

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December 6, 2017

Wednesday, 11:58 PM

Dear Luke and Lizzy,

The goal of every man and woman should be the development and perfection of his or her character. That should be your goal, too. That is one of the greatest truths you will ever learn in life — that character matters. That most of everything in life worth having — happiness, joy, peace, love, and so on — depend on a good, if not excellent, character.

Read Jane Austen and watch some of the adaptations of her novels. Many of them are quite good. My favorite is the 1995 adaptation of P&P. One of the central themes of all of Austen’s works is character. Her characters, heroes, and heroines find love and happiness in the measure that they stayed true to their principles and virtues and strove to guard and improve their characters.

That is one of the most important things worth having in life, Ahia and Shobe, a good character. Jane Austen is a great teacher.

Lizzy, that is the reason why we named you Darci Elizabeth, after Lizzy Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Austen’s second novel. We want you to be a real lady, just like the fictional Lizzy. She possesses a lot of admirable qualities — strength and independence of mind, elegant and modest manners, and a steady and well-controlled temperament. We also want you to see what a real gentleman looks like. Mr. Darcy has many faults and imperfections, but as Austen’s Lizzy said, “he improves on closer acquaintance.” You should judge your friends, in particular your male ones, and especially your future husband, if you will so choose marriage as a vocation, against the standard of a Mr. Darcy. There are many scoundrels out there, baby girl, so if a girl lowers her standards and accept a Mr. Wickham, she will surely, without question, not find happiness and joy.

And Luke, I wished I named you Fitzwilliam or Darcy, but I haven’t thought of that when Mommy was pregnant with you. Good thing, though, that we found you an even better and more superior person to name after — St. Thomas Aquinas. He is one of the most intelligent and pious men to ever walk the earth. We want you to always love learning, thinking, and studying. Rather, that is my hope and prayer for your shobe as well. We want you both, regardless of the paths, vocations, and professions you may pursue, to always cultivate a “life of the mind”: a love for reading, thinking or contemplation, writing, and speaking. May an intellectual life be your lifelong pursuit in addition to the cultivation, of course, of a healthy physical, spiritual, emotional, social, and financial life.

Let me correct myself. We named you after two great personages: St. Aquinas and St. Luke, the writer of one of the Gospels. We named you after these two great saints because we want you to pursue holiness. We want you to be saintly no matter what work or venture you will embark on in life. It’s the only thing worth aiming for — sanctity. The secret to happiness and joy is holiness. You find joy and peace in the measure that you are holy. Jane Austen’s characters found happiness in the measure that they lived holy lives. Perfecting one’s character and seeking holiness are both the same, or identical, pursuits. The more you practice the virtues and develop your character, the more holy you become, and the more you find peace and joy.

Who are better models of character than Mr. Darcy? St. Luke, St. Aquinas, and the great saints.

But who is the ultimate model of character, better than the best of the saints? Jesus, whom the saints followed and whose character they measured their own lives against.

Love,
Mommy and Daddy

Post Script

Don’t waste your life. You waste it on distractions. The most horrifying thing you will realize as you grow up and advance in age is that life and time are terrible things to waste. Rid yourselves of every distraction, no matter how “small”, “minor”, or “harmless” they may seem, and focus only on the most important things: love, family, friendships, pursuing your most worthy goals and dreams, and so on.

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Norah Jones*

It was his girlfriend who introduced him to Norah Jones. The year was 2002 and they both were working for a BPO company.

“Listen to this,” his girlfriend said to him one day, and she inserted a cassette tape into the player of his car. They had just finished their shifts and were on their way to get some breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s. Outside, it was still a bit dark, but the sun had begun to rise in the horizon.

When the music began playing, he listened. Norah Jones’ voice captured him the moment he heard it. It was smooth, languid, and smoky, and it hit him like a breath of fresh air. He smiled and rolled down the window to let in the scent of the morning. Everything looked and felt new and beautiful.

He borrowed the tape from his girlfriend and played it as often as he could: He played it every night in the car on his way to the office. He played it every morning when he and his girlfriend would look for a place to eat. And he played it at home when he was alone. In fact, he played nothing but Norah Jones wherever he was and whatever he was doing. He listened to her when he washed the dishes, did the laundry, read a book, clean the car, buy the groceries, pay the bills. Pretty soon, the lyrics stuck to his memory and he would hum along to every song, often adjusting his voice so that it could “blend” with Norah Jones’ voice. He wasn’t a singer, not by a long shot, but it pleased him to hear his voice merge with her voice.

He played Norah Jones so much that it began to annoy his girlfriend.

“Can we play something else, please?” she said in an agitated tone one afternoon. And she would switch the radio to an FM station without waiting for his reply.

Norah Jones also almost always came up in their conversations.

“Did you know that Norah Jones is half-Indian?” he would ask his girlfriend. Or, “Did you know that her father is the famous sitar player Ravi Shankar? Did you know that she’s only 21? Did you know that she has sold more copies of her album in a year than any other female artist in a decade? Did you know that so far she’s won 5 Grammys? Did you know that she used to wait on tables? Don’t you find her low-key, down-to-earth, self-effacing, and modest manner very intriguing?” And other such questions.

“Do you know how sick I am of Norah Jones?” his girlfriend finally told him one day. “That’s right, I’m sick of her. I’m so sick of her. I’m tired of hearing her name and you talking about her over and over again.”

Then she looked at him squarely in the face. “Norah Jones is getting in the way of our relationship. You must make a choice right now. Either you lose her or you lose me.”

And that’s how he lost his girlfriend. But he did not stop listening to Norah Jones. In fact, he listened to her even more frequently. If there’s such a thing as comfort food, she was his comfort music. He especially clung to her after the break up. Those were the darkest months of his life and Norah Jones pulled him through it. He would play her album over and over and over again, even while sleeping, so that Norah Jones began invading his dreams.

He would dream that he was riding her 1971 Cadillac, the very car you see in one of her music videos. He would glance at Norah Jones, the locks of her hair blowing in the wind, and he would remark, “I love your great tumble of black hair.” And Norah Jones would move her lips and sing, “Come away with me in the night…” And his answer would always be, “Of course, Norah, I’ll come away with you.” She would continue, paying him no attention, “Come away with me and I will write you a song…” And he would exclaim, “Oh, yes, Norah, please! Write me songs. Write as many as you want.” And she would sing on with her smoky twang, “I wanna walk with you on a cloudy day, in fields where the yellow grass grows knee-high, so won’t you try to come?” And he would answer with even greater excitement, “Oh yes, I will come. You know I will. Wherever you like — fields, mountains, seas — you name it. I’ll go wherever you want to go. Just tell me.” And he would then wake up.

He followed her career over the years. She made more albums and he bought them all. He watched every single one of her Youtube videos and kept track of her interviews and public appearances.

He really only had one great desire in life, and that is to meet Norah Jones in person. He had no idea how this is supposed to happen considering that he’s at least 10,000 miles away from her. She lived halfway across the globe, and there seemed to be little to zero chance that she will ever visit his country for a concert. All he really wanted was to hear her live, then somehow see her up close and shake her hands, and then have a photo taken with her so that in the future he will have proof that none of it was a dream, that it really happened, that he really did meet her, that he even shook her hand, and she shook his, and he felt her hand in his, and they exchanged words; it was so fleeting but he really met her and he heard her voice and she heard his and he was brimming with joy, and here’s the proof, a photograph.

But he knew that none of that is ever going to happen. However, he was free to daydream.

Fourteen years passed. He matured and therefore became less dreamy and romantic. He never married. The trauma of losing his first and only girlfriend never left him. It was still there inside him, gnawing at him like a black hole. He still listened to Norah Jones every now and then, but the playlist of his life now included musicians Norah Jones herself considered as her heroes: Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan.

Then one day, while browsing through one of Norah Jones’ social media pages, he came across a post. She was at her house and she was inviting her fans to send her requests so that she may play some of her songs through Facebook Live. This was to thank them for supporting her just-released new album. He almost choked with excitement. He jumped at the chance and commented on her post, asking if she could play an old track of hers. His comment traveled electronically across the globe and reached her smartphone almost instantaneously. It was one among thousands of requests which poured in that day. And this is what happened next:

The light particles from the afternoon sun which entered Norah Jones’ window at her house in New York City bounced off every solid surface and illuminated her room. There were thousands of other comments in her smartphone screaming for her attention but somehow her eyes fell on his message in particular. She trained her eyes on his message and the light particles bounced off the letters of his name and entered her corneas. The light particles then passed through her pupils and were “caught” by the lens inside her pupils. They then went straight to her retinas and her retinas sent impulses to her optic nerves. The optic nerves then carried the impulses to her brain and there images of his name were created. She must have seen his name in her head. Oh, how he wanted to dwell there in her head for a few moments longer. How he longed to linger there and sift through the contents of her mind. It must have been filled with words, images, and musical notes. She must have tons of songs stashed away there, pieces she hasn’t sung in public, tracks she hasn’t even recorded. But a fraction of a second later, her brain shot his name to her vocal cords, signaling them to enunciate his name.

Then, gloriously, his name vibrated down her larynx, tumbled luxuriously on the surface of her tongue, and joyfully, albeit unwillingly, escaped her mouth and lips, riding ecstatically upon the gust of her breath.

This is what she said, exactly: “This next song is from my third album,” and she peered into the sheet of paper on her piano, “it’s called My Dear Country and it’s requested by Darcy Cuevas from the Philippines.” She then paused and looked at the camera and said, “Well, Darcy, I don’t know if you’ve experienced election fatigue in your country, but here we do. This song has been on my mind lately.”

She then placed her fingers on the keys of her piano and sang him the song he requested. The notes which flew from her lips were detected by the mic in her smartphone, and it then sent electronic signals across the world, which then ended up in his smartphone. Her notes then jumped from his smartphone and shot to his ears and into his brain.

He stared at the video and couldn’t believe it. Is this really happening? he asked himself. Did she really mention my name and address me? He pressed the rewind button and played the video again. Then he did it again and got the same result. Joy welled up inside him and he burst out laughing. It was the most surreal and magical thing that’s ever happened to him. It felt as if he was inside Norah Jones’ living room and she was giving a private mini-concert for a handful of people and he handed her a note with his request. Or it felt like he was reading a fairy tale and the princess suddenly popped out of the book and called him by name.

Her performance lasted for only 3 minutes, but those 3 minutes were addressed to him and therefore belonged to him and him alone. Those 3 minutes took only a tiny fraction of her time but no one can ever undo it. Those 3 minutes are irreversibly, irrevocably, and eternally his.

He smiled. He may never have a photo taken with Norah Jones, but he has something way better. He may never actually shake her hand, but his name passed through her eyes, mind, and lips. You can’t get any closer to Norah Jones than that, he told himself.

*This story was published in the September 3 issue of The Philippines Graphic.

“For Bookworms, It’s Much Simpler”

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For bookworms, things were much simpler, she thought. You always knew what to give them during Christmas: books. And you always knew what to expect from them in return: books. So there’s no need to agonize about whether this or that item will qualify as a good gift, since for bookworms, books are always the best gifts.

She smiled as she passed by the dreadfully long queues at the boutiques, dress and shoe shops, and department stores. There were virtually no lines at the bookshop.

She carried with her two paper bags full of books. They were quite heavy, but she didn’t mind the exercise. Her thoughts were fixed on the items she has purchased. She already knew which title belonged to which friend. The collection was diverse as always: fiction for that friend of hers who’s a writer, poetry for that friend who’s love-struck, self-help for that friend who is undergoing his monthly mid-life crisis, leadership for that friend who recently got promoted, religion for that friend who’s very conservative, business for that friend who’s an entrepreneur, philosophy for her boyfriend who’s very cerebral and weird, and so on. She can’t wait to bring them home and wrap them. She can’t wait to give them to her friends and see their reactions. Of course, they’re going to pretend that they don’t know what she’s giving them this year, even though they’ve been receiving the exact same things year after year – books. And of course, she’s also going to pretend that she doesn’t know what she’ll receive from them this year, even though she’s received the exact same gifts she has received for as long as she have been friends with her friends – books. But the amazing thing is that, even though she knows what’s inside that gold, red, and silver package, she always opens them with genuine surprise and delight.

It was the second week of December and the mall was awashed with people. The mad rush was everywhere. You could barely hear the Christmas songs in the background. As for her, she was done with shopping, and she couldn’t be happier.

The Three Feet Rule

She permitted him to see her on one condition: that he would always maintain a distance of at least three feet from her at any given time that they were together. He found that condition to be very odd, even amusing, but he agreed, for it was better than nothing. So wherever they went, they were always at least three feet apart: at restaurants, the office, malls, or wherever they happened to be.

Everything went well for the first few weeks, until that night when he offered to take her home after a very long day at the company where they worked.

He parked his car across her apartment, got out, and opened the door for her. It was drizzling, so he also held out his umbrella above her. He made the mistake of extending his arm to shake her hand after she said, “Thank you very much,” so that he could emphasize his reply, “No problem, don’t mention it,” with a friendly gesture.

She withdrew her hand as soon as his fingers touched hers and glared at him accusingly without saying a word.

He was petrified by his error and apologized profusely, “I’m so sorry, I forgot!” but it was already too late. She was already at her door and she slammed it behind her.

That was three months ago. She hasn’t spoken to him since.

It doesn’t help that his friends constantly remind him of it: “You were one of only a handful of males whom she allowed to be in speaking terms with her, but you blew it. You had the whole universe at your finger tips, but you messed it up. All because you forgot the Three Feet Rule. How could you forget the Three Feet Rule?”

“Arms, Necks, Locks”

Haven’t you noticed
How arms fit perfectly to necks
Like keys to locks?
My son wrapped his arms
Around my neck
This evening
And I thought
If his arms were bigger
Or my neck smaller
Neither would have fit
The other.
But his arms were just
Perfectly small
And my neck perfectly curved
To meet them.
Arms then are meant
For necks
And necks are meant
For arms
And we are meant
To give and receive
Hugs.
Each time a hug is
Given
Two hearts are opened
And unlocked.

Martina by the Window

Martina had been leaning by the window of their house for some time now, her elbows resting on the wooden sill, one hand supporting her chin. She did not notice Alonso, who was standing down below. She did not notice him for he was well hidden behind the rose bushes in the garden. But from his vantage point, he could see her very clearly. She always wore baro’t saya, but it differed in color and beadwork according to what day of the week it was. Today was a Tuesday, so her blouse had a purple hue. The pattern of the beadwork was floral. Tomorrow, the color will be cream and gold, and the pattern will be circular. Yes, he can see her clearly, even from that great distance, for he has perfect eyesight. He could see her earrings very well. He could see her necklace, too. Her neck was white. He could see her jaw and wrists. Her bracelet was new.

Alonso had prepared for this very day for months now, practicing in front of the mirror the songs he was going to sing to her. But try as he might, he couldn’t move away from the rose bushes. His feet seemed fastened to the ground. His knees felt weak and frozen. And his voice escaped him altogether. How was he ever going to pull this off? But there was no turning back now, and he must do it soon, for the sun was setting, and Martina had begun to close the Capiz windows.

Finally, he jumped from the bushes and in his excitement dropped and tripped over his guitar. He fell facedown into the gravel.

Martina gasped.

He stood up casually as if tripping over guitars was a normal, everyday thing with him, dusted off his Barong Tagalog, took out his comb, smoothened his thickly-pomaded hair, picked up his instrument, struck a strong and decided chord, and prefaced his song by declaring in a solemn and formal tone, “O, Martina Santiago de Soledad, you have haunted me long enough with your beauty! If I will not unburden myself with this song right now, I will surely and irreversibly go insane. Thus, señorita…”

And so he sang his song. It was the first of eight, followed by eight more poems, and one very long monologue. It started with just one audience, Martina, and when it was all over, the whole neighborhood was watching. Suffice it to say, it changed both their lives forever.

Dagger

Yes, he had always thought of her as a dagger. No imagery came close to capturing the kind of girl she is. She is, and has always been, sharp and lethal, and every single time she’d come within a few inches near him, which only happened accidentally, he always felt like he was being pierced to the very marrow of his being. It literally felt like dying, but it was a death he gladly embraced every single Friday evening at the club where she worked.