My Journey as a Writer
"The Spirit of truth will testify to me, says the Lord, and you also will testify."
- John 15:26b, 27a -
- John 15:26b, 27a -
I love writing reviews on Travel Advisor under the pen name Pilgrim Pinay, and when I got an email from them, it came as a surprise because I didn't realize they were tracking my reviews.
I observed that the reviews that gave directions and tips tend to get the most helpful thumbs up from readers.
It was the same with blogging. I started this hobby in 2008 and maintained two blog sites, now both inactive: The Sentiments of a Young Filipino MD Turned US Migrant Nurse and Readrunner. The most read article was on How We Passed the Road Test for Driver's License on our First Take.
The first blog site was an offshoot of an article I wrote, The Sentiments of a Young Filipino MD, sort of an advocacy piece that went "viral" on yahoogroups. The other blog site was a result of running that later gave birth to my book Running the Millionaire Lane. Both blogs would also have tips and advice.
Looking further back, my first published article on the international level was featured in the Union Catholic Asian News regarding the plight of the Vietnamese refugees in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, an advocacy piece.
What do these all mean? I can't help but ask myself as I continue to journey and discover the writer's life.
In the gospel last Sunday, the Lord led Elijah to the mouth of the cave and said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and rending wind came, but He was not in there; neither was he in the earthquake and the fire. Then Elijah heard a tiny whispering sound. And there he found the Lord's presence.
In my life, I often look for the Lord in heart-rending moments, in shaking events or in fiery discourses; but I've learned these past years, that He'd often speak in the silence of my heart.
Two years have gone by from the time He led me to my sabbatical. I have seen His presence in my writing. I'm at peace and certain that where I am right now is His will for me. My current disposition, habits, and practices are conducive to listening to this tiny whispering sound that Elijah heard.
When I visited the Philippines over the summer, I only intended to meet up with friends and family and visit the northern region. Yet within those three weeks, I've become more observant. I've become a pilgrim and not a tourist.
Pilgrim vs. Tourist
Matthew Kelly, in his book, “Resisting Happiness” wrote: Tourists want everything to go exactly as they have planned and imagined it; rush around from one place to another; cram everything in; busy buying souvenirs; get upset with delays; demand prompt attention and service; focus on themselves; go sightseeing; count the cost.”
“Pilgrims look for signs; concerned with things they feel called to see and do; aware of needs of others; look for meaning in everything; count their blessings; spend loving moments with people around them.”
In this recent travel, I realized I have become a pilgrim and learned to listen and watch out for signs without actively intending to.
There were many changes from the last time we visited in 2013, and yet many things remained the same. With the many rises in condominium units and commercial buildings, the poor congested areas seemed to increase as well.
Traffic had gone from bad to worse. We moved at 5-10mph on the main thoroughfare.
Is it a traffic crisis?
Well, that would depend on whose point of view.
I recalled the chemistry experiment about the two frogs that reacted differently in a boiling pot of water. One frog was put inside a cold pot of water which was heated on a stove. This frog swam in comfort. Slowly the fire increased the water's temperature approaching the boiling point, but the frog barely noticed the change until it was too late; whereas the other frog kicked and panicked as soon as it was immersed in the already heated and near-boiling water.
As immigrant balikbayans, we were the latter frogs. The traffic was intolerable. Even coming from a city where traffic is probably considered bad compared to another metropolis, we found this type of congestion severely energy- draining.
We wove through 10-15-mph-moving vehicles while motorcycles wove in between car gaps. At intersections, throngs of pedestrians would join the party. I realized how I had changed these past years when the sight of people crossing the streets at a kissing distance from the car actually scared me. It had been a long time since I had seen such a thing. This would happen throughout the day and the week and would worsen during rush hours on weekdays. A 5-min walk could take a car 30 minutes to cover the same distance.
So why weren't the people walking?
My husband and I decided to walk one day and recalled why. Hello, steaming humidity and heat! Amidst the spa-like condition, we had to weave through narrow sidewalks with oncoming cars appearing in surprise from parking garages at every building we crossed. It was like playing this game Froggy where the risk of getting smashed in the middle of traffic was as high as the humidity of the air. As we walked, my husband complained not of sweating but “sapping.” I laughed at the apt description of sticky sweat dripping from his back like a rubber tree trickling out sap.I had to put a paper towel under his wet shirt as we approached the bank.
So yes, that made walking less desirable than sitting in the air-conditioned car on an almost-parking mode.
When we drove outskirts, we thought we had escaped the crawl of the congested metropolis only to be confronted with yet another one—the tricycles driving at 5mph on the National Highway. My husband gritted his teeth in exasperation as he wove in and out of his lane to avoid the creeping vehicles.
This long haul to what could have easily been a two-hour drive to our scenic destination gave way to long conversations with my tween and teenage daughters.
We passed by rice paddies where farmers manually planted rice under the heat of the sun.
"When we were student nurses, part of our curriculum was to live for one semester in one of those far flung poor communities," I told them. "We'd cross the rice fields along the pilapil, the mound of dry land in between the paddies to get from one cluster of houses to another. We conducted health surveys, community consultations, home visits, and health education. Some of my classmates even home-delivered a baby. I used to pray that I wouldn’t have to do that, although my health bag was always ready. I regularly boiled my instruments to keep them sterile and wrapped them in ironed cloth. That was the most practical way of sterilization back then," I said.
We passed by a town, and my husband commented, "Look at how the shacks and huts are standing right beside new houses built of concrete."
A pang of sadness hit me. True, some have managed to make a good living, perhaps from working abroad as an OFW, but many town folks are farmers who could barely make ends meet.
"Being a farmer means being poor because they don't own the land. And even if they do, the harvest could barely cover the costs of farming," I told my daughters. "They would tend to bear many children so they would have helping hands on the rice field but that also increased the number of mouths to feed."
As we passed by a public school and students in uniforms came out, I looked at their faces.
How many of them would end up in congested Manila or go abroad and work as a domestic helper in Dubai or Hong Kong?
I voiced out my thoughts and said, "If only the suburbs were developed enough, so people didn’t have to throng in Manila or work abroad. But that would mean providing better opportunities and providing better services outside the city—not just work but education opportunities like good schools, and competent teachers. This would need smart and intelligent students pursuing degrees in education. Yet this would not happen if salaries for teachers are not attractive. Thus the rippling effect. Doctors and nurses wouldn't stay in the provinces if there were no good quality schools and services available for their children. That would partially explain the inadequacy of health care services in the outskirts, which would further push the people to move to the cities."
"Stop," my husband said.
Yes, thinking about the problem was energy draining. We drove out of town to recharge and not drain our batteries. So I kept my thoughts to myself.
The problem is so much deeper and complex.
There was no simple solution to a systemic problem that had metastasized at every cell in the society.
Of complacency and lack of urgency
As I lie down on the beach with a book in my hand, enjoying the sound of the waves and the wind blowing on my hair, I thought of the events that had happened over the previous days.
The Philippines is an archipelago and is composed of more than 7,000 islands. I should have thought of this when I complained about how slow things move.
Time drags. Time is relative. Perhaps when I retire and am no longer in a hurry to get things done, I might settle on a remote island in the Philippines, but right now when I crave efficient use of my time, I cannot tolerate all the redundancies of steps. Such a waste of energy and resources. It must be the humidity, the heat, and the traffic. People have no energy to speed up.
Even bank transactions took hours and sometimes days when one had to come back and personally pick up a check that needed to clear. Even when entering malls, we had to fall in a queue because of the manual bag inspection and body frisk or pat down at the door. Paying for purchases in the malls also involved extra steps: after the cashier had punched in the price of the item, and the customer swiped the credit card or paid in cash, another staff would inspect the item, mark the receipt with a pen, and staple the receipt on the bag. I had to hold my breath, one time when the phone rang just when the cashier was in the middle of performing these arduous steps all by herself, and she just had to take that call! No wonder the queue was just as long.
Yes, this was one thing we noticed and had forgotten: how long things get processed in the Philippines.
I recalled another incident when my husband and I sat in a bank, waiting for our turn to make a simple payment transaction.
"Look at how that one man hovers around the two tellers, signing something they've done. For one transaction to happen, a pen needs to sign a paper, then a stamp pad needs to hit the same paper, then another pen then the machine and then finally the pen of the customer. Too many steps for a single transaction, like they fear that simplicity would lead to errors. It's crazy!"
We went out of the bank, thirty minutes after. The whole transaction could have been processed in less than five minutes if only there was a sense of urgency and efficiency. I guess they have not heard of the wisdom of the mantra, "Less is more." Or perhaps people have gotten used to this pace, and so everyone appeared contented.
"Everything moves too slow! I just can’t take it," my sister-in-law, also a US immigrant once commented. I smiled. She's right. We've been so used to efficient living where we can plan our day ahead of time that the traffic and slow processes were intolerable.
"I guess it's also good that Filipinos migrate and experience how things are done abroad. Perhaps it'll broaden their perspectives and realize, things can improve and everything need not be complex and hard and run at a turtle's pace," I told my husband. "Weren't we surprised too when we moved to the US that obtaining a driver's license and a vehicle plate would only take us less than five or ten minutes?"
He laughed at the memory. We were ready to spend the entire day at the BMV and came out so fast, we spent more time at a nearby mall than our original business for the day.
Having worked at large institutions in the US, I have experienced the culture of process improvement. We regularly ask the question, "How can we improve the process? How can we make things faster and more efficient? How can we make things easier and create a better experience for our customers, patients or end-users?" This could mean decreasing steps, taking out redundant processes, automating things, providing guidelines, constantly evaluating and re-evaluating. In the end, these resulted in greater productivity, cut down cost and increased profitability and value of the company.
I guess that culture still needs to seep in. Slowly it's happening in certain sectors.
You wished too there was a sense of urgency.
"But life is so easy here," a local friend contradicted. "When I wake up, breakfast is ready. When I come home, my laundry is done and my clothes pressed and ironed. When I need something, the driver can run my errands. I go to the bank and tell the clerk to come out and take my paperwork. You just have to set up a system for yourself. As long as you have the money, things are easy."
It was the same for my aunt. She loved how she could weave her way around the system. She knew the right people to approach who could meet her needs.
And another friend, a US citizen would rave about wanting to retire in the Philippines. She loved how she could easily arrange for services to meet her needs: a driver to bring her to places, maid to prepare her food and run her errands.
I hate to think that the common thread that would draw people to stay in the country is what money and influence could buy: affordable help and service, no matter how slow or fast.
I am ashamed to admit that I am a better person in the US than in the Philippines. I am more generous, kind, and peaceful. When I was in the Philippines, I felt like I was in the jungle and I played by the rule of the Survival of the Fittest where dog eats dog. In all my endeavors, I had my own selfish interest in mind. "What's in it for me?" was the primal question whenever opportunities come up. I recognized it as the Poverty Mentality.
I also do not like to think that only three kinds of people would thrive in the Philippines: those who have the three Ps—Power, Popularity, and Peso, and that for the middle and low-income groups, all there was left was that one P that the have-nots would hold on for dear life.
But I could not help it because when I attended mass in this country, I sensed an air of heaviness and despair. It was a starting contrast to the atmosphere that I would sense at mass here in the US, where people simply go to worship and give thanks. This particular chapel in Manila vibrated of pain and suffering. I came out exhausted.
I have also observed how the lowly serving people are so tolerant of impatient customers or employers. They remain unfazed even with abusive words, or have they just gotten used to it?
The more I pondered about this, the more I sensed a system that's deeply rooted in a culture of colonialism.
Could it be that the three hundred years of Spanish colonization and oppression, followed by more years of servitude to foreign nations, would only lead to an independence that did not really mean much but just a change in the color and face of those who'd oppress the poor, now no longer foreigners but Filipino elites?
Will it take another three hundred or more years to undo the damage that was done to this culture? It seems the bondage is deeply rooted. It may take more than just economic liberation, but also mental, social, cultural and spiritual liberation.
Should that stop people from doing anything about a problem that seemed Leviathan in size?
"We cannot help everybody, but that shouldn't stop us from helping those whom we can."
Those words came from my socially-conscious 18-year-old niece who lives in the Philippines. I take my hats off her.
She's the same niece who chose to spend her grand debut birthday celebration in the Jesus Loved the Children Foundation at the Riverspring School. Most well-off girls would splurge money for a grand 18th birthday celebration, but she chose to spend it in a worthy cause. She organized her family and close friends to be part of this outreach program. With simple games to entertain the kids, snacks, and lunch, she made a difference in the lives of everyone. One good deed breeds and inspires more good deeds. This is the rippling effect. Whether you're a small stone or huge one, you will create a ripple in a body of water.
I have seen other similar efforts of social initiatives, personal advocacies, underground and behind-the-scene reforms in the political arena, and creative business strategies geared towards poverty alleviation. The results are not yet apparent and striking, but I sensed the rippling effect.
What kind of ripple am I creating?
Writing for advocacy. It's all coming back to me.
Perhaps it’s time to get inspiration from the national hero of the Philippines, Jose Rizal. Did he not expose and lament over the situation of the country while living abroad while Andres Bonifacio led the revolution from within?
I know there’s a reason why God would lead some people to migrate while the others to stay. These past few days, He seems to be reminding me of the words He spoke before we migrated to the US.
“When the LORD, your God, brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he would give you, a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, with houses full of goods of all sorts that you did not garner, with cisterns that you did not dig, with vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant; and when, therefore, you eat your fill, take care not to forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. The LORD, your God, shall you fear; him shall you serve, and by his name shall you swear.
The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.
The LORD, your God, shall you fear, and Him shall you serve; hold fast to him and swear by his name. He is your glory, he, your God, who has done for you those great and terrible things which your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy strong, and now the LORD, your God, has made you as numerous as the stars of the sky.”
As an immigrant and a dual citizen, I hear a soft whisper within me: “A time will come when you will have to take a position to help My little ones. You have to push and prod big people, those with the three P's, to make them move and help My little voiceless ones.”
"How, my Lord?" I asked.
“You too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”
Is this another call within a call?
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