My arrival into the Philippines was more harrowing than I had expected. Less of circumstances and more of mindset, I was exceptionally homesick for my partner, and my gorgeous 19 month old daughter. So much so I was miserable. “Why have I uprooted myself; I’m pregnant, life’s circumstances are so in the air right now, and here I am on the other side of the world without my loves and those whom give me purpose far behind me.” I wanted to politely excuse myself from my upcoming business meetings and u-turn. Never before I had felt so compelled to run back home.
And then I remembered the many trips around the world solo to strange places, and I delved deeper past the gloss and positive memories into the realities of what my journeys had been and felt like, and I remembered the pain, the upheaval and afterwards the satisfaction of pushing faaaar out of my comfort zone to seek. I remembered how I enjoy building new relationships and questioning my thoughts and beliefs. I recalled how I am a sucker for challenges, and slowly after sleep and many tearful Facetimes, I began to return into myself.
Perhaps it’s appropriate to point out at this period to those of you who have followed my many sojourns around the world, at how violent this process really is. In hindsight I believe I may have not imparted this clearly, and so lulled my readers into thinking that these trips have been easy; cushy almost; flights of fancy perhaps. They have never been so, and seem to have got harder if anything now that my heart has multiplied into bouncing bundles of joy. Travelling for me is rough going; my body gets knackered, my mind gets muddled, my emotions heightened and I shake any former sense of balance into complete chaos. Not to mention the enormous amount of work it takes on limited budgets to negotiate deals, meet with clients and prospective collaborators aaaand navigate new environments with new social customs and expectations. There is something addictive about this process, yes it is intense, but also immensely satisfying because I love seeing and feeling how much I have grown and learned post process.
So, arriving at my AirBnB in Manila, after 11+ hours of travel I was relived for a soft bed and a place to put up my swollen and aching pregnant feet. As I surveyed the room I came across a book- ‘What Does It Mean To Be Human’ by Frederick Frank, Janis Roze and Richard Connolly, and started to flick through.
“To be human is to break the ties of cultural conformity and group-think and to use one’s own mind. It is to recognise good and evil and to choose good. It is to consider with the heart. It is to act with conscience.
To be human is to be courageous. It is to choose the path of compassion, rather than the path of complacency. It is to break the silence and be an unrelenting advocate of human decency and human dignity. It is to sacrifice for what is just.
To be human is to breathe with the rhythm of life and so recognise our kinship with all forms of life. It is to appreciate every drop of water. It is to feel the warmth of the sun and to marvel at the beauty and expanse of the night sky. It is to stand in awe of who we are and where we live. It is to see the Earth with the eyes of an astronaut.
To be human is to be aware of our dependence upon the whole of the universe, of the miracle that we are. It is to open our eyes to the simple and the extraordinary beauty that is all about us. It is to live with deep respect for the sacred gift of life. It is to love…
To be human is not always to succeed, but it is always to learn. It is to move forward despite the obstacles.
We are all born with the potential to become human. How we choose to live will be the measure of our humanness. Civilisation does not assure our civility. Nor does being born into the human species assure our humanity. We must each find our own path to becoming human.”
David Krieger - Founder & president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
I found enormous comfort in these words. I had just spent over 11 hours berating my confused psyche for different choices. I felt guilty about my decisions to come overseas and I was being haunted by hindsight on some of my decision making in the previous 24 months. I felt I could have done better, I was upset I hadn’t picked up on the subtle nuances of confronting and complicated situations I had been presented with and I was uncertain standing on the precipice of enormous change in my personal circumstances; I was agitated and worried. I felt compressed under the weight of responsibility which had hit me in full relief on the flights; for my daughters, for my family, for my future.
Frankly I was panicked. I had slipped into great anxiety- the what if’s, the should of’s and the racing brain pacing back and forward trying to patch together what I thought the future would hold. I was shocked after many years of managing this condition, at the ferocity it was overtaking me and the corkscrew it was sending my mind into. I needed to reset, to breathe, to strip back to basics; to faith and to logic.
And then there was this prose. I felt as if I had entered a cathedral. My heart rate returned. I valued that my decisions had been made with the best of intentions at the time with the information available. I had tried to choose what was right and was just, I had fought for love and for truth. Sadly even with these positive cornerstones, the outcomes to my choices had been devastating for my family and my partner. I had watched him being persecuted, harassed and bullied. I had watched others lie, withhold evidence and use their financial power to overwhelm us and restrict all available resources. I had watched first hand the power of evil and corruption in full force and the impact this had on others. I felt spiritually eroded, we both felt beaten.
So when the opportunity arose for me to travel to the Philippines to meet with some rather heavy shakers in creative empowerment, I jumped at the opportunity. I needed to grow my cashmere scarves business and I had other projects in mind where I could involve the indigenous weaving communities in the Philippines. I was excited to meet with female power players inspiring other women to create sustainable business practices which could provide for their families. I needed time to think, to heal and to plan how I was going to provide for my family going forwards.
Anxiety maligns what it means to be human; to try, to fail, to try again with better intentions. It rears up at times of uncertainty and distress. It is that voice in you head, albeit sometimes wanting the best, that is critical and judgmental. It can harass and berate but it must be calmed for life is full of uncertainty and obstacles. It can be seen as a road of problems strung together with lights of happiness and wonder, but it is by no measure, for most people, smooth sailing. As they say; God laughs at those who make plans. We need to be kind to ourselves when these divert or take a corner, the other way was simply not where we were meant to go. One has to be prepared to take chances, be courageous within these and deal with the consequences. That can be heartbreaking at times and downright discouraging. Yet without these pitfalls, we wouldn’t learn the true meaning to value, respect, bravery and resilience; we would underestimate what it means to cherish life.
I had also continued the cycle of persecution. I had become so used to this being enforced by others I had slipped into doing this internally. I was angry and I was unforgiving to my soul, I was being eaten by regret. I endlessly went in loops reprimanding and criticising myself. Effectively I was continuing to let those who had hurt me continue to do so. I was letting the monster of their presence invade my psyche and overwhelm my ability to rise above the pain of the past. I was forgetting to action the greatest human gift of all upon myself; forgiveness and mercy.
…”Once upon a time there was an old woman who used to meditate early on the bank of the Ganges. One morning, finishing her meditation, she saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the strong current. As the scorpion was pulled closer, it got caught in roots that branched out far into the river. The scorpion struggled frantically to free itself but got more and more entangled.
She immediately reached out to the drowning scorpion, which, as soon as she touched it, stung her. The old woman withdrew her hand but, having regained her balance, once again tried to save the creature. Every time she tried however, the scorpion’s tail stung her so badly that her hands became bloody and her face distorted with pain.
A passerby who saw the old woman struggling with the scorpion shouted, “What’s wrong with you, fool! Do you want to kill yourself to save that ugly thing?”
Looking into the stranger’s eye, she answered, “Because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I deny my own nature to save it?” Then I understood… I saw that Reverence for Life is the essence of humanity.
And that is what we have lost. We “defend” ourselves by threatening the globe and our own level of civilised humanness with it. We have chosen technological progress and financial profits over the needs of human beings. We have bartered the quality of our own souls; we live the denial of Reverence for Life.
But we have become a society of machines and business degrees, of stocks and bonds, of world power and world devastation, of what works and what makes money. We train our young to get ahead, our middle-aged to consume, and our elderly to be silent. We are sophisticated now. We live in stadiums, not galleries. We listen to rap music, not Mozart. We talk about ideas for getting ahead rather than about our ideas for touching God. We are miles from our roots and light-years away from our upbringings. We have abandoned the concerns of civilisations before us. We have forsaken the good, the true, and the beautiful for the effective, the powerful and the opulent. We have abandoned enough-ness for the sake of consumption. We are modern. We are progressive. And we are lost.
So what do I believe in? What do I define as human? I believe in the pursuit of the spiritual, the presence of pain and the sacredness of life. Without these, life is useless and humanity a farce.
To be human it is necessary to think again about what matters in life, to ask always why what it is to be human is to listen to the rest of the world with a tender heart and learn to live life with our arms open and our souls seared with a sense of responsibility for everything that is.
Without a doubt, given those criteria, we may indeed not live the ‘better life’, but we may, at the end, at least have lived a fully human one.”
Joan Chittister, OSB - Joan is executive director of Bentivision, a resource centre for contemporary spirituality. She is an international lecturer and widely published author.
Manila has great poverty nestled in-between towering high rises, ancient churches and people hungry for the trappings of commercialism. I felt heavily the Chineses influence on interaction; an environment where one needs to be on their game and lacks the bubbliness and joviality of it’s neighbouring Buddhist asian nations. It feels by comparison on initial impression, quieter and more reserved. Manila is the most densely populated city in the world (42,857 people per square kilometre), almost twice it’s closest counterpart Mumbai, and once here it’s not hard to see why this city throbs with an ache and longing.
Manila’s history has been bloody and fractured. Filipinos are intimately acquainted with persecution, being taken over by Brunei, the Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, British and bombed by the Americans. This history is harrowing and recent. I was intrigued how my own recent experiences of oppression and abuse were being mirrored in my environment. I felt compassion and empathy and started to understand better their polite reservedness and determination.
At the National Museum I was enthralled with their contemporary art collections, in particular the Art Protis textile works of National Artist, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz. But I was most moved by the large scale paintings of the wars and invasions in Manila. They were distressing, shocking and tragic and moved me to tears. I was haunted by the rendered faces of the children slain and the women raped. I cried, and cried for those caught unfairly in the middle, for my own misfortunes, for the unfairness of conflict and the collateral damage of those caught in crossfire.
And then I felt consoled. I was in an environment where I was not alone and one that had much to teach me. People here are intimately acquainted with tyrannization and they had fought forwards for their culture, for their families and for a better life. If anyone knew the heartbreak of leaving my family behind in NZ it is the women and men of the Philippines. People here are intimately acquainted with having to rebuild from nothing or split up to work for the greater good of all. Overseas Filipino Workers or OFW’s as they are known make up 2.3 million (2017) people who are exported to overseas nations to work and send income back to their families in the Philippines. That’s 1/2 the population of New Zealand. Often they work in substandard conditions and are frequently taken advantage of yet, in order for their families to get ahead they rely on this international income to help their families out of poverty, provide income for education and hope for a better life.
“I call the high and light aspects of my being SPIRIT and the dark and heavy aspects SOUL.
Soul is at home in the deep shaded valleys.
Heavy torpid flowers saturated with lack grow there.
The rivers flow like warm syrup. They empty in huge oceans of soul.
Spirit is a land of high, white peaks and glittering jew like lakes and flowers.
Life is sparse and sounds travel great distances.
There is soul music, soul food, and soul love.
People need to climb the mountain not simply because it is there.
But because the soulful divinity needs to be mated with the Spirit.
Deep down we must have real affection for each other, a clear recognition of our shared human status. At the same time we must openly accept all ideologies and systems as means of solving humanity’s problems. No matter how strong the wind of evil may blow, the flame of truth cannot be extinguished.”
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
It is with now being located further South in the Philippines that these writings from the Dalai Lama have an even greater effect. Being here reminds me of Bali. Great towering high-rises lay unfinished and dormant next to shacks and slums and then a mega mall. It’s grubby and grimy and raw with a stretched infrastructure and yet within all of this is undisputed beauty. His writings made me remember two poems I had written a few years ago.
This being my first trip back to South East Asia since having Adira and being pregnant with Babushka #2 has affected my awareness of the poverty in this area of the world in a pronounced way. I am deeply saddened seeing the street kids and beggars, I find it increasingly hard to navigate. I ache for my daughter and I am distressed for these souls. It strikes at the core of my maternal compass and I find it forcing me to reflect on the harsh realities of life and the luck of some and not others; of dissatisfaction; our human compulsion to want more and our desires to provide and protect our loved ones.
It was a breath of fresh air, literally, to get out onto the city fringe to see the Taoist Temple, The Temple of Leah and visit the Jumalon Butterfly Sanctuary. My guide at the latter was a gorgeous, well spoken and intellectual 17 year old woman who had recently moved from the country to live in Cebu and attend University. I had the good fortune to meet one of Prof. Jumalon’s elderly daughters and visiting the sanctuary was one of the cultural highlights of Cebu. Next time I return, I need more time to relax- a must go is the Mövenpick resort and to Bohol to see my tiny furry little friends, the Tarsier.
The butterfly’s are mainly free to come and go from the wild garden, and I was lucky to view many while sitting in the shade and taking in some peace while protected from the calamity of the city. Prof. Jumalon was a fascinating man, he was a lepidopterist, accomplished artist, traveller, researcher, graduate teacher, and even at one point, designed the Philippine Peso. His passion for beauty is evident in his artworks and the legacy he built for his family and community.
The Temple of Leah is not a homage to the Star Wars character, but rather a newly built (2012) shrine to Leah Albino-Adarna, the late wife of Teodorico Soriano Adarna. They were married for 53 years and this building has been dubbed Cebu’s Taj Mahal. Located on top of a hill in Cebu City, Temple of Leah is seven storeys high. The gate opens to a driveway that leads to the main courtyard, with granite floors and a marble fountain at the center.
The structure was inspired by ancient Roman architecture complete with Doric columns made of granite. Various Grecian statues adorn the corners and different parts of the building. Although there is not much to do once here, it really is only the entrance way and the facade, there is a terrific view of Cebu and nice benches to indulge in an ice-cream or two.
Argao Weaving Community- Cebu
I was extremely excited to be invited by Anya Lim of Anthill Fabric Gallery to visit one of their local Cebu weaving communities. Anya was one of the main reasons I had traveled to the Philippines. Anthill is a trading and training hub for indigenous/ ingenious livelihood seekers. Anthill is a social enterprise which believes in local, sustainable production and creating zero-waste fabrics. These materials are then fashioned in to garments, accessories and home-wears for local and international markets and designers. They are empowered to give women purpose, skill and the opportunity to build a livelihood from creative textile application. Anthill actively promotes buying local, to buy indigenous and consciously consume.
Anthill brings enormous value and purpose to the communities it collaborates with across The Philippines. Hearing the stories from the women in Argao first hand of what it means to be able to provide for their families and loved ones, was extremely moving and emotional. One of the elder weavers was moved to tears when she explained how she had been able to buy herself, for the first time, a refrigerator and what that had meant to her and her family. She no longer endured the shame and judgment of having to share her neighbours. Other women had been able to repair their houses, buy better food and move their children to better schools.
Making a difference in peoples lives, by considering how and what you buy is a powerful way to combat mass consumerism. It is impossible to want to live any other way after you have seen the positive impact, considered choice can have on our communities.
So now nearing the end of my trip to The Philippines, I feel greatly developed from my experiences. Has it been easy?- no, but I have had time to think and to heal, to reprioritise and consider my options going forwards, and this really is a luxury. I have new opportunities with fascinating forward thinking companies headed by passionate, educated and empowered women who want to make a change in the world. I feel lucky that I have had, at this most difficult time in my life, the opportunity to stand outside myself and gain new perspectives.
It is a wonderful thing to want, to desire to grow and to yearn for the best for those around us. Without this drive fortified by passion and love, we would remain complacent and happy to settle. Change requires energy, dedication and vision, qualities which take an enormous amount of energy themselves to sustain from a creative or their team. The most productive thing that can result from great pain is to compassionately recognise what has happened, then refocus on what is most valuable and make positive change to create more of this.