Saturday, December 26, 2009

Halfway place

A few days before Christmas, our family returned to Alegria in the southwest of Cebu.

On the last day, after we achieved our purpose for going upland, my husband broached an interest to visit the sitio chapel.

Just as the sun began its visible descent and the air nibbled with metal teeth, we, along with our two sons, hiked up a slope.

I’ve yet to go around our country, but I feel this must be true anywhere: to the outsider, the “kapilya” always seems to be constructed in the remotest, most forsaken spot.

Yet to the community, their “little church” is where it should be: nearer in physical and emotional terms to them than the historic edifice the Spanish colonizers ensconced in the town center down by the coast.

A mountain barangay usually has at least one but can also have as many as three “kapilya,” depending on the distance and terrain separating households.

Though a “kapilya” is removed from the daily ministration of the parish priest and loiters only around the periphery of parish life, the chapel is but a short walk from upland homes and farms.

Perspectives differ, of course.

To an uplander used since childhood to carrying farm produce twice or thrice his body weight down slippery gorges or up steep slopes, a “short walk” may not even warrant the pursing of the lips that, in the mountains, translates to a fair amount of strenuous activity a city dweller will associate with Olympian quests.

We refused our friends’ offer to accompany us as there still was livestock to feed and keep away for the night. But when we took their advice to “just go beyond the hill,” we realized how much we took for granted when, after cresting one hill, we saw, as far as the eye could see, how many more hills there were behind it.
We found the chapel before the fireflies came out.

To the outsider’s eye, made more critical by the gut-squeezing travails to locate it, a “kapilya” looks emaciated and forlorn beside its more substantial brother, the monumental cathedrals erected by conscripted labor, hewing stones and gouging forests out of the virgin pagan heart of centuries ago.

In constrast, this chapel was a diminution.

Just as the eye is challenged to guess at the span of waistlines of priests regularly plied a steady stream of eggs, native chicken, sea catch and other offerings by a devoted flock, there was so little of the “kapilya” for our eyes to grasp.

Perhaps it was because we searched for stained glass windows, the marbleized flesh of saints and martyrs bleeding rosebuds of blood, or, following the vogue in the city, overwrought chandeliers and boxes spewing artificially cooled air.

This chapel did not even have a cross.

Until a new priest replaced the previous one, this chapel never even witnessed a mass. Apparently the failure of the lot owner to donate to the parish prevented the parish vehicle from reaching this spot during fiesta.

So the flock had to go down to the coast to seek its shepherd.

Did this denial reduce this little church to the bare insubstantiality of a soul?

In October, when the hand-carved icon of San Miguel is taken from the safekeeping of a local family and restored to its spot in the altar and the nocturnal fog is dissipated by the heat from Petromax lamps and bodies compressed inside that crude dwelling, the “kapilya” is a lidless eye mirroring the moon in the dark sea.

Then, many of the locals walk for an hour or two after supper to come here for the novena, sing, talk. Sometimes, strangers join them, outsiders drawn to the beckoning warmth, the beacon of belief. Eleven years ago, my husband turned up and dedicated our infant son, born with a hole in the heart, to the celestial guardian squashing a serpent underfoot.

In December, when the dawn masses draw the faithful to the churches along the coast, many a “kapilya” in the mountains are empty shells.

This halfway place in Talayong did not even harbor the stray nest of a chicken.

In the twilight, I saw the silhouetted rows of sawn coconut trunks, barks still intact. Parallel to these crude pews was a bare altar. Nothing distracts, in the manner of a community, tied to the soil, follows a rhythm that varies little from getting up to work and lying down to rest.

In the darkening, I heard the nonstop chatter of my sons and was comforted. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 27, 2009 “Matamata” column

Dear Father

I LOOK forward to the dawn masses every year.

I can’t say I feel the same for many of the priests that challenge my miniscule piety, if not my attention.

Apparently, a lot of them think it is humor that will keep the faithful wide awake.

Maybe. I suppose, in the land of Wowowee, a company is bound to work the pulpit as if it were playing to the gallery for a grin a minute.

Had I wanted to be entertained, wouldn’t it make better sense to sleep until noon for the usual TV variety fare?

At the blue hour of 2 a.m., a shower lashes like a recollection of sins, accumulated, entangling, stinging.

Those who put the flesh to death to heed the 4 a.m. tolling of the bells in the blue dawn must deserve something a little more than St. Peter jokes.

Such as a priest who comes on time.

A shepherd who chooses what he says, knowing very well the human limits of his flock: their attention span and sleep deprivation, school and work schedules, traffic and public transport, even lack of a seat.

A pleasant, smiling visage on the wide screen is a reassuring visual for those of us following the mass from outside the church. Wouldn’t it even be better to have someone who does not belabor the point that he could have been God’s gift to Eve and her sisters had he not embraced theological studies, obedience and celibacy (no mention of humility)?

Also at the top of my wish list is a shepherd who cares for the community, truly.

One who will not only request for order from the crowd outside the church so that “the collectors can pass without obstruction.”

Hearing this announcement said without variation during three dawns in a row makes me conclude that some priests see no farther than the pulpit. Or the collection plate.

Do these fathers not see the crowd spontaneously make way for the old and the young, for people carrying their own chairs, for pregnant women, women with infants, children running after their parents, teenagers looking for their friends, parents running after their children?

For several years, there’s been an unspoken segregation observed in our parish during dawn mass. Even in the farthest reaches of the crowd milling outside the church, you will smell someone smoking a cigarette only seldom, if at all.

That’s because the smokers—mostly men whose tired, hard visages banish thoughts of political correctness—voluntarily cordon themselves in a spot across the street, away from the church grounds where women and children congregate. I’ve yet to see a public sign or a tanod direct this spontaneously eddying pool of nicotine lovers.

Despite the lack of divine intervention, the puff addicts and the rest of us take part in the mass. They can hold on to their ciggies to keep the cold and sleep at bay. We keep our lungs.

That must be why the priests in the parish make special mention of the collectors’ access to the crowd; that might be the only view from the pulpit.

Lucky for us, with only the night’s dome above our heads, we have something even better than a wide-screen monitor: a star-studded infinity that brings everyone—saint and sinner, joker and whiner— under one family. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 20, 2009 “Matamata” column

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Martial law redux

“I am so not getting this.”

Seemingly among words, the trigger-happy senator, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, has few peers.

During the joint session of Congress on Proclamation 1959, the senator questioned the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao.

“Show me the rebellion,” she fired off, according to Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec.11, 2009 story.

But I like better her broadside skewering the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, also contained in Presidential Proclamation 1959: “I am so not getting this.”
“Sakto”: the senator pins it down for me.

But unlike Santiago, who suffers from no inferiority complex in her grasp of the political and the acerbic, I grapple with sentiments that may be the reverse of what she means.

Befuddlement: I am so not getting what’s happening in Maguindanao. Or to the whole country, for that matter. Am I seeing the big picture?

Paranoia: Where’s the rebellion? may be the cry of those who doubt the constitutionality of Proclamation 1959. Mine is: where’s the opposition who confidently predicted that the Filipino people will never allow martial law to be imposed again in the country? “Tama na, sobra na.”

During this year’s Cebu Press Freedom Week celebration, I listened to University of the Philippines (UP) professor and martial law survivor Randy David tell a rapt audience of students and teachers that today, unlike in 1972, guarantees “instant public resistance to any attempt to impose martial law.”

The rise of technology-enabled social media—cell phones, the Internet—gives people the power to monitor, mobilize and prevent the government and the military from overriding civil law.

David shared this belief with fellow journalist and blogger Manuel L. Quezon III, who also spoke about New Media’s empowerment of citizen journalists in a different forum during the Cebu press’ annual commemoration of press freedom and other civil liberties suspended by Ferdinand Marcos when he signed Proclamation No. 1081.

Yet, when President Gloria Arroyo signed Proclamation 1959 last Dec. 4, the immediate reaction against her imposition of martial law was—nothing.

I do not know what you were doing on this day, but I was listening to Newsbreak’s multi-awarded investigative journalist Miriam Grace Go challenge local Mass Communication students assembled during the McLuhan Forum at the St. Theresa’s College Little Theater to “watch the watchdogs.”

From Gigi and other working press colleagues I heard the questions I did not see anywhere on print or on cyberspace: why were there so many journalists, many of them from the same outfit, joining the ill-fated convoy massacred in Ampatuan? If the objective of the news coverage was the filing of Buluan Vice Mayor Ismael “Toto” Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy at Shariff Aguak, why did the press not go directly to the Comelec provincial office located there?

I am so not getting this.

The irrelevance of lesson plans for learning journalism was set on Nov. 23. In the morning, Mass Communication students listened to the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network (Pecojon) talk about the “invisible” victims maimed, killed, displaced by war in Mindanao.

“It is a story that has not been fully told even inside the country,” Pecojon’s Antonia Koop told an academic audience that viewed a sampling of the works of Mindanao photojournalists as if we were viewing the last rainforest tribe, so absent are these pictures from the local and national press.

That evening, we went home and watched the killing fields of Ampatuan yield the first bodies of the massacred 57. Last Dec. 11, I saw my first Facebook photos showing the uncovered remains of Ampatuan victims.

Melting and oozing, the bodies were none too fresh but, in a sense, still meat displayed on an online slab. It took me 15 minutes to read fellow-journalists’ tagged notes on Cebuanos’ concern over martial law in Maguindanao, but less than a minute to scan the ripe body shots.

In Journ 101, I learned and now teach writing captions to contextualize photos. On Facebook, no cutlines are required; visuals talk. My students who come from Mindanao or who visited parts of it complain that what’s hogging the news media is not all of Mindanao, not even 1/99th. It’s just that what bleeds, leads. That’s Journ 101, too.

As I write, it’s 13 days till Christmas. I am so not getting this.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 13, 2009 “Matamata” column

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Of mice and women

THE TINY dirty kitchen at the back of our house has, shall we say, been colonized by tiny invaders.

Tiny meanies. Big ears. Or plain mice.

The euphemisms I think up primarily consider the feelings of my mother, who believes naming Them aloud will dispatch Them on a frenzy of ratty destruction.

Nibbled a favorite pair of pants that can never be worn unless I want people staring at the oddly placed holes. Left in my Mary Janes fuschia pellets so pretty I thought of windblown seeds until they melted and smelled.

Though oblique, the evil we bear against Them is sleepless and undying.

Of us all, no one is colder and more calculating than our companion, Puring.

When the supermarkets seemed to run out of this fast-selling poison that dimmed the rodents’ sight so they sought the light and died conveniently out in the open, Puring discovered that a pail filled with a little water was as efficient and a lot cheaper.

Placed overnight under a tracery of branches from where They usually divebombed, the pail was a death chamber that always had two or three floaters, who gave up the ghost after swimming all night. Though masters of escape, even They could not scale the murderously smooth insides of the pail.

Any morning survivor was thrown out with the water in our garden, where a cartel of cats controls all operations.

Winning our war against the rodents just bugs me a little.

You cannot be around rats and not know how smart, or smarter, they are.

You think you run a clean place? One day, the floor drain you always figured was stuck suddenly pops us and black beady eyes look you up and down.

So I wonder why They always fall for the death-by-drowning extreme challenge nightly plotted out, with no variation, by our companion.

Are They becoming intellectually sluggish from eating what we’re also eating?

Do They regularly prune the clan of the bad and useless sort so the plastic death chamber is actually a convenience, a ready pit into which they can toss off their rubbish?

Without a doubt, the bodies I glimpsed before the cats took them away for processing were tiny and immature. I didn’t see the corpse of one of the semi-bald, battle-scarred veterans that are as big as cats, they think they are the cats and cuff around my spitting and bottlebrush-tailed felines as if they were kindergarten kitties.

So, Sherlock, what can we conclude? Adult rats never take a swim?

Or it’s only the babes that fall to their deaths, and the survivors simply watch and take their cue and endure.

I wonder if this is one of the pitfalls of naivete or just natural selection among rats?

Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu is challenging Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. in next year’s Maguindanao gubernatorial election.
Reports reached Mangudadatu that his political rival will chop him to pieces if he files his certificate of candidacy (COC).

What does a man do when someone threatens his life?

On Nov. 23, 2009, Mangudadatu sends his wife, sisters, aunts, aides, lawyers and journalists to file his COC at the Commission on Elections office in Shariff Aguak.
Mangudadatu believed that the women and the journalists would “deter” an attack.

In the tragedy that has come to be known as the Maguindanao Massacre, at least 57 people were abducted, tortured, buried alive and desecrated, not just in the killing fields of Ampatuan but in invasive news images and reports.

In more than one interview with the media, Mangudadatu does his version of breast-beating: he enumerates, by each harrowing detail, the atrocities carried out on his wife, Genalyn. He keens for justice before seguing into his political ambitions.

I am a woman and my instinct, in danger, is to gather my loved ones and shield them. I do not understand Mangudadatu.

But as with our Tiny Meanies, I will not give up observing and drawing the parallelisms of mice and women. 09173226131

* First published as Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 6, 2009 “Matamata” column