Father needed an extra set of hands to harvest some calamansi in one of our gardens at home, so I went with him like any good son would do.

Until now, I can’t tell how tall the tree really is. Typhoon Yolanda nearly uprooted the calamansi tree when it ravaged the country all those years ago. I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia back then, so all I knew were Leyte’s photos, fractured and broken vignettes of what Leyte was, including stories from my brother and late paternal Lola who lived with him at the time. In short, my recollection of the terrible ordeal was nothing short of an experience that was twice removed from my reality.

“We had to use pails to keep the flood from entering our home,” Kuya said, narrating what happened the day the typhoon hit the Philippines. “But, because of the torrential rains, water rushed into our home.” It was not as bad as the rest of the country; both he and Lola lived in our family home in Biñan, Laguna.

Kuya worried that our calamansi tree would no longer bear fruit, much less live in its poor state, but it remained alive to his surprise (and Lola’s). It withstood the storm. The calamansi tree—our very own Leaning Tower of Pisa—lived through one of the worst typhoons in the history of mankind.

So, it continued living and bearing fruit. Robins had made it into a home along with colonies of red ants, which explains the swelling, itchy bites on our arms and legs whenever we tried picking calamansi for our meals.

“Watch your step,” Father cautioned me. “There are seedlings over there.” He and my mother busied themselves by planting more seedlings in the garden in the past few months, a result of the lengthy nationwide lockdown caused by the pandemic.

I had to carefully skip over mounds of black soil to stand next to the tree. Its breadth was like an outstretched arm with long, crooked fingers, leaning against our pointy white fence. The tree looked tired, exhausted even.

My father didn’t bring the ladder, which we kept in our storage room. Instead, he got a long, steel pole. The calamansi nearest to the tree’s trunk were unripe and too small to pick, so he stepped on the ledge of our fence to reach the tree’s higher branches. He proceeded to thwack branch after branch with it. It was an unusual method, I know.

He nudged me to pick the calamansi as they fell on the ground. This left me very confused as some of the overripe ones had already fallen beforehand; they looked yellow with tinges of green left in them, similar to what I had to collect. They all got mixed up and addled me to no end.

Like a teacher with a long ruler, my father ended up gesturing to me with his long pole to locate the calamansi I was supposed to pick. Mother came to my aid, bringing with her a strainer to use as a basket of sorts. She took over the pitiful job I started and sent me away.

Later, for lunch, I learned about why we had to pick calamansi in the first place. Mother had planned to make calamansi juice. The meal, which consisted of roasted fish and boiled camote leaves, was a hearty one, and we all washed it down with iced calamansi juice. It looked copper or bronze in the glass pitcher. The ice tinkled as we were served the juice.

As sour as it was, I couldn’t help but notice how sweet it had become. We ran out of honey months ago. That much I knew. There could only be one other reason why it tasted the way it tasted:

Mother may have used sugar to sweeten it instead.

Hezekiah Louie Zaraspe is currently finishing his M.A. in Creative Writing at the UST Graduate School. He teaches language and literature classes at Miriam College Nuvali. His short stories, “Private Mirage” and “Nirvana”, have been featured by Miriam College’s “Bukad”. His poems have been published by Revolt Magazine. UP Manila’s forthcoming anthology, “Locked Down, Lit Up: An Anthology of Creative Work in a Time of Quarantine”, will feature his flash fiction piece, “Sleep is a Truce, Dreams its Succor”. Inquirer published his first essay in Filipino, “Pagbili ng barbecue, paglunok ng katotohanan”.

Day of my Avatar: The road to Sixtyhood

The road to sixtyhood is never easy. Though it must have been paved with good intention in the early beginning, the road is long and winding, full of ruts, dusts and muddy trails and before you know it the thrill of the walk or the journey of your day has long gone past its prime and you find yourself at some end like this particular road to sixtyhood. But to sound hip and celebratory that you have reached this far, seemingly a milestone of your life, you call it the ‘Day of my Avatar’.

You have nothing else to do much of this day but engage in some slow-mo recollection, in remembering of the days gone by, and of some quiet nights drinking alone somewhere, nursing some beer or raising unsteady a mug of your favorite coffee to your quivering lips while the time ticks by and the night goes on, goes cold and digs deeper and deeper and your thoughts—dark and depressing—swirl down along with it.

Here, you tell yourself, is what it is all about and all you only have is yourself, with your good old unreliable memories and your dark and depressing thoughts. Ah to write like this in the very day of your avatar about trying to take stock and get some sense of the road you have taken to sixtyhood. Or to sound hip, light and flippant, the road to “sextyhood.”

Sixtyhood, who knows, can also pave the way to “sextyhood”, you are hoping, even if there is the little likelihood of its connect whatsoever. ‘Coz, though of course, you have experienced a heapful of the young kind of, ehem, sextripping, in your callow untamed years, who knows what kind of joyful experience is the old taste of it in your tamed years of sixtyhood and beyond? Others don’t have to take your word for it but as you have heard tales about its possibility, of getting enough dose of it in their sixtyhood, here is your looking up to it with, uhmm, eager anticipation, barring any ill health, ill luck or nasty misfortune, God forbid.

Here, for lack of something definite to write, for lack of anything really of consequence to write in the day of your avatar you decide to take some leaf from the past, particularly of your past life as a journo, a journo journeyman just churning out news story after another and beating the deadline, or donning your hat once a week as a local opinion columnist writing about a journalist’s meditation….

Being a journalist, being a chronicler of events along with personalities who help shape those events, could either make or break you at the seams. Being a witness to the changes or sameness, the monotony or speed of the shifting events, the meanness or boorishness of people in the corridors of power, and of course, those power-hungry and ego-tripping politicians who have an eye always and forever, for the next vote if not the media mileage of it all, cannot but reduce the poor journalist to a jaded and cynical guy and before he knows it, can make him a smart ass, almost rotten to the core.

Being a journalist is risky if he is soft to the core, if he is not careful, if he easily blends or kowtows to the blandishment of power or money, if in short, he has not enough moral backbone to say no, for himself or his integrity—or whatever is left of it. Being a journalist is to know the pervasiveness of ignorance, mendacity and mediocrity all around and the dehumanizing effect of these all to his inner and professional growth. Being a journalist is to come face to face finally with yourself and to ask the terrifying question, have I sunk this low with myself?

Take that, when those lines of about 10 years ago perhaps in your ‘Bystander’ column of a local weekly newspaper now sadly vanished into thin air, when you were still brimming with high-minded ideas and grand emotions and not yet seemingly saturated with corrosive cynicism as you are now.

And here, to continue with that particular piece of your opinionated self, these concluding lines that sound like a bang or a sob softly heard like a whimper but still resonate until today, even today.

Now, after a fairly long enough time of hounding the news, of chasing headlines and beating deadlines, of hobnobbing with the mighty and bearing up with the petty, what do all these add up to? Nothing, perhaps. Experience, maybe. Or the sheer joy of saying, ‘Been there, done that, buddy.’ Just that, nothing big or spectacular.

Nowadays, every time you get your good wretched self into a real fix you get to recall a fallen character soliloquizing in the popular novel of the American writer Lawrence Sanders titled The Case of Lucy B:

“Life was a pisser. You could start out with the best intentions in the world, but sooner or later they all turned to shit. Then you ended up with a couple of freaky dames pounding on your skull while you ran for your life, trying to hold up your pants.”

Ah, the ingrained wit and bitter wisdom of those lines never fail to elicit a chuckle from you and yet they shock into recognition about the fickleness of fate and the imperfection of human beings such as you and your twin Tumbas Manipis persona that happens to be me.

Fast forward to today and what this manner of taking up this quiet persona of Tumbas Manipis has really gotten of me, of my whole goddamn writing life and what it is all about.

Here, for whatever, let me engage in quiet soliloquy, for whatever this is worth:

I reckon it is not for nothing that I write, even if I get to write some trash, sometimes. I write perhaps so I can get lost with myself, so that perhaps, I can spit out some of my venom that have collected in my innards about the many senseless things that forever weigh me down, and finally, perhaps just to have my quiet vengeance on the dullness and arbitrariness of the hour that oppress and possessed me despite all my efforts to make myself free and somehow, writing about it enables me to get even or allows me the sheer folly to act nonchalant and undaunted of it all.

John Abaincia Bello has written as news correspondent for Quezon province in Philippine Daily Inquirer, Today, and Business Mirror. He dishes out opinion column (Tumbas Manipis) in local weekly newspaper Quezon Chronos based in Lucena City. He also writes literary pieces both in Filipino and English and has published three short stories and a number of poems in Liwayway magazine and also in Philippines Graphic. He has self-published three books: “Tumbas Manipis na Ulat Mula sa Quezon at Iba Pang Kalatas ng Aking Panahon” (2011), “Tumbas Manipis: A Journo’s Life and Literary Jottings in Cocolandia” (2014) and “Tumbas Manipis: Kronikol sa Panahon ng Tokhang” (2017). Bello is wrapping up his latest manuscript titled “Pastilan, Bes: Mga Pesteng Tala ng Aking Letseng Pagsinta.”

A myriad of feelings, a plethora of activities

I have experienced a myriad of emotions since the pandemic broke out. Add to that a plethora of online activities. I learned to shop online. Harry Potter toys. Taylor Swift mugs, ref magnets, key chains, 3 of her journals with her CDs Lover Era, which I didn’t get to buy before, and of course, her latest, her folklore album. Dangling earrings because I saw the ones on my life coach. A foam pillow for my back. An egg seater for my derriere. A lovely book stand with the drawing of a pretty girl. Just like meeeeeeee. 

I learned to cook. The certified Undomesticated Gal learned to peruse the recipes on the net, and even have the IG pictures as proof.

I’m on my second Harvard University EDX Course. I earned a Certificate of Achievement for the course- the Art of Rhetoric in Writing and Public Speaking. The second one I’m about to finish soon is Storytelling in the Workplace.

In my first Harvard course, I got to write about the drug war in our country. I wrote a speech on why it’s crucial to vote wisely. My first draft included the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s “Only the Young,” which I scrapped, replacing it with a simple but more nuanced use of a metaphor in the final version.

The haphazard handling or lack of a plan to contain the virus, the pronouncements of the president that only lead to more confusion and stress, the way his people would explain for the umpteenth time that he was just joking as if life and death now is just a notion to be laughed at.

I cried and still find myself crying when I get to read our less fortunate brothers and sisters’ stories, the very alarming rise of COVID-19 cases each day. Of Ronel Mas being released, the Anti-Terror Bill, which can be the death of us all. The haphazard handling or lack of a plan to contain the virus, the pronouncements of the president that only lead to more confusion and stress, the way his people would explain for the umpteenth time that he was just joking as if life and death now is just a notion to be laughed at. On mere suspicion, we can be detained for being outspoken on social media, red-tagging at its best.

This week, for the very first time, I signed up for a week-long Reading Webinar sponsored by Vibal Publishing. It’s up my alley because I’m an M.A. Reading graduate of UP Diliman, a national trainer of the National Educators Academy of the Philippines (NEAP), DepEd’s training arm, and the Foundation of Upgrading Standards in Education (FUSE). And because I also give trainings in my own turf in DepEd Makati.

I had a teeny weeny crush on the speaker this Wednesday, but I was in denial. He spoke this Friday again, and my crush was confirmed. He’s brilliant. Erudite. Outspoken. Principled. His command of the Queen’s language is wicked, flawless. His accent is to live for. I hang on to his every word. I nodded in agreement with his ideas. I laughed at his jokes. He does not lack in the looks department either. He’s perfection. But he’s a religious brother. I don’t have a chance with him. So I’m asking the universe to conspire. If I marry again – I want a teacher, a writer, a lawyer, or a docter – any of those human permutations!

The speaker, the day before my crush, spoke said these words, “These are tough times. You can’t disregard the societal gap. Destroy the gap”. My tears flowed. Then he said again, “More than just a gap in words, vocabulary deficit is a gap in society.” He crushed my heart. I died there. Call me what you want, but as I typed those words, I find myself crying all over again. I feel for the marginalized, the lost, the last, the least.

But I don’t want to ever lose hope because even if that Darryl Yap releases a thousand in-your-face content like he did with his most recent video “Online Class”, I still believe in teachers’ innate goodness. It’s wired in our DNA to strive for what is good. My daughter-in-law has headaches after spending so much time in Google Meet sessions and countless webinars.

Everyone has a story to tell of valor, something heroic, that can move us if only we have ears and hearts that listen. 

It has to be told that in the last week of May and the first week of June, I got depressed. But the magic pill my doctor prescribed lifted me out of the doldrums. For two weeks, I did things mechanically, after which I would lie down in bed. I forgot about Monster RX 93.1, Chico Garcia, who I love for his fantastic, funny bone, and the other deejays who never fail to put a smile on my face or elicit maniacal laughter from me. I even forgot to play my Taylor Swift CDs. Depression keeps you quiet and tied down to your bed. But during those times, I never failed to draw outline animal drawings I googled plus the hopeful quotes that I would send to to give cheer to the patients and frontliners. I did it depressed. I asked myself, “How can I give hope to someone when I require it myself?” But I pushed on. I would usually send my drawings with hope-filled quotes on a Wednesday. I felt that it was the only useful thing I did that dark, dark time.

I pray for everyone, and that includes my enemies and those who have conflicted feelings about me. My faith increased in this pandemic. Before, I thought that I was praying too little, like five minutes tops. Until my life coach pointed out that everything she does is not separated from her prayer life. Although theoretically, I knew that our work is also a form of prayer, it didn’t really sink in. Until I affirmed within myself that my every breath, my very life is a prayer.

At the onset of the pandemic, I started a weekly FREE teaching series on grammar for anybody who wished to learn, but I started concentrating on poetry on my fourth mini-lesson.

When DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones urged the adults to work around their fears, I wrote an article on my Facebook account that runs counter to her ideas. I spoke on behalf of the teachers that they should not be going around the communities in no way, distributing the modules. Of course, I do not agree with an academic freeze because the children will lose out on so much. But if I’m a parent of those little ones, I wouldn’t let my child step foot or be within the school’s ten-meter radius. I attended the SEAMEO webinar on how Southeast Asian schools coped with the onset of the pandemic. I listened aghast at how some countries made their teachers go to the communities to teach! Education is important, but safety should be foremost in everybody’s mind.

In one of the writing communities I belong to, someone pointed out that I’m swamped and yet so productive. It’s a way of coping. I’m a Type A personality, a Popular Sanguine, and Powerful Choleric, so I run true to form. Every minute counts. I have a to-do-list every day. I get a kick by checking those little boxes, signs of my wins for the day.

Since the Cenacle Retreat House started their virtual retreats, I’m always an attendee.

In one of the writing communities I belong to, someone pointed out that I’m swamped and yet so productive. It’s a way of coping.

First to Dr. Maria Teresa Gustilo-Villasor’s “Uncertainty, Stress, and Spirituality. I followed it up next with “Dealing with Our Feelings: The Place of Emotions in Spirituality.” Last weekend, I attended “Transitions in the Midpoint of Life.” By month’s end, I would have had participated in the “Praying in the Time of Pandemic” retreat.

I joined the Unlock the Diva Community of Life Coach Ning Barcelo-Tadena. I signed up the other day and won a slot in a virtual Wine Night on August 21, 2020. In the morning of that day, I would also attend Go, Guro’s free seminar on “Strategies on Active Learning.” I am one of those who often send invites, announcements to anything good in the city, paid or otherwise. Some of my friends tell me that I expend so much energy in inviting people to these events. It’s inherent in me to have people enjoy the perks of something good, of something that will hopefully bring out everyone’s best versions. Maybe, it’s because I hate apathy. Or perhaps it’s the leader in me. I hate to see people miss out on opportunities out there. But I’m choosing to let other people be. Not everyone has the energy, the inclination, or even strength of mind, to cope with so many things. I choose to remind myself that there’s such a thing called different strokes for different folks. Plus, I learned in one of the retreats I attended that an immature person’s hallmarks are impulsiveness and rigidity. I am immature in some aspects, but I have one saving grace- I have a great sense of humor. 

I think it’s been three weeks that I haven’t prayed the rosary. But I’m trying to be flexible.

Tomorrow, I will attend the Zoom webinar, “Confidence in Public Speaking,” by Vertical Parallel Asia. Although I’m a reasonably good speaker in my own estimation and bolstered by the testimonials of my audience, I continue to sharpen the saw. I am so in love with learning. My approach in life is 17 Forever in my heart.

At the ripe old age of 57, I am so enamored with life, interests, and passion projects. I’m currently writing my memoir- “Coming Out of the Dark: A Life Under Construction.” The laughter of my first grandson gives me pure unadulterated joy. He turns a year old next month. I pray to God that I’ll get a negative result when I have my Rapid Testing done, a requirement for one to travel to the provinces.

These past three weeks, I can feel the Jill in me not having some sort of fun. Months ago, I managed to read Lang Leav’s Poemsia, it’s YA fare that had the heroine losing her cherry in the car’s front seat. The conservative me did not like having the kids read about that, although it’s one of my fantasies. But I think I’d like to get it on in the back seat of a car. Shades of “Summer Nights.” Last month, I got to read Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey.” I have several ebooks waiting to be read. I have a physical copy of Neale Donald Walsh’s “Conversations with God.” It’s an assignment reading given by my coach.

My copy of “Midnight Sun,” showing Edward Cullen’s POV, is waiting for me at Fullybooked Rockwell. These days, I’m a slave to my grueling writing deadlines. I wake up, eat, take a bath, and then face another day of watching webinars and try to squeeze in time to write. My sleeping pattern is shot. My beauty regimen is not complete. After taking a bath, I put some gunk on my face, and that’s all I could manage. Even my prayer life has taken a different turn. It’s a good day if I manage to write on my journals, answer my 200 Prayer Prompts Journal, read my favorite prayers, read Didache, and my Bible. I think it’s been three weeks that I haven’t prayed the rosary. But I’m trying to be flexible. I whisper my little prayers to God throughout the day. I talk to him in my mind, sometimes I even find myself talking to Him out loud. 

I look at the pictures of my first grandson. I watch his videos; of him laughing, his two front teeth peeking out. He’s a happy baby. He is a slice of heaven on earth. I think back to when I was pregnant with my elder son, I was too depressed, but I marvel at how he turned out. Although we quarrel and have our differences, it’s God’s grace that he survived our hard, poverty-stricken life and my limitations as a mother.

 We will see this pandemic through with our family, with a little help from our friends, our faith, our sense of humor, and God, who is bigger than our problems. 

Before the year ends, she would have self-published her first book of poetry, “The Moment I Knew I’m So Into You” and her memoir, “Coming Out of the Dark: A Life Under Construction.” She’s a proud witch of Gryffindor House in Hogwarts Philippines, and a stan of both Taylor Swift and Lea Salonga. Imelda Caravaca Ferrer rose from the ranks of being a teacher, a principal, and now Public Schools District Supervisor. An M.A. Reading graduate of the University of the Philippines, Diliman. She’s also a national trainer of DepEd’s National Educators Academy of the Philippines (NEAP) and Foundation of Upgrading Standards in Education (FUSE).