“Just like startin’ over…” in this week’s issue of the MANILA MAIL (April 8-14, 2015; page A5)

Pilipinasblitz Forever
A column by Bles Carmona

For the week of Apr. 8-14, 2015

“JUST LIKE STARTIN’ OVER…”

As part of this John Lennon song goes: “It’s time to spread our wings and fly/ Don’t let another day go by, my love/ It’ll be just like starting over.”

Now volumes have already been written about what John Lennon meant. Was this song his last paean to his eternal muse, Yoko Ono? People have said that this must be the gist of the song. They may have wanted to recapture a former vibrancy to their love. Still another view was that it wasn’t about John and Yoko at all – that it was actually John’s rediscovered love for music after he left the Beatles. Well, in a world where Libras like John Lennon were and still are free to imagine, let us craft another meaning into this idea of “starting over.”

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have the great Easter parable of Jesus Christ’s birth-death-and-resurrection. Another concept of starting over was the Deluge of Noah’s time, where everything on earth was cleared out prior to the seeding of new life via the Ark. In Japanese history we may talk of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 or the rising up from ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our home country, the Philippines, is a picture of starting over and over again after each onslaught of a typhoon or thunderstorm. The idea I’m building with these examples is that in each event of adversity, the strengths and good nature of the people involved truly emerged in outstanding ways to restore what was lost (the status quo) or even improve on the common ground.

You can say that what I’ve just been through this past Lenten season is my rapid-burst crash course in “starting over.” First of all, I almost did not make it to my 45th birthday last April 4. I literally dropped dead, stone-cold, jaw-achingly blue around the gills on Palm Sunday. And for what? Apparently it was a lethal mix of pneumonia and asthma. I went into a respiratory arrest while my family rallied, led by my youngest sister Edna who took care of updating my one big Facebook family (which means some of you who are reading this). According to my sister, she can only attend to one thing at a time, so when she wasn’t making decisions about my care with our family’s help, then she was updating my Facebook status by listening closely to what the doctors and nurses were reporting to her. I will be forever grateful to Edna for rallying what I call my “community of faithful prayer warriors.”

Here’s how I put on my FB Wall post a couple of days after I got home from Kaiser Permanente San Leandro:
“Mabuhay! This is Blesilda. Thank you very much to my family and friends who have been with praying with us during my scary health ordeal. I see obvious parallels between the Judeo-Christian death-and-resurrection parable and what I’ve been through – but lest you think of how presumptuous I am, please bear with me as I articulate how simply humbled and blessed I am, ever so grateful for my second chance at LIFE because of the power of GOD. I was at my lowest when I lost my breath. But it took a COMMUNITY of FAITHFUL PRAYER WARRIORS like each of you to bring me back because GOD LISTENS. Was it just another great coincidence that my birthday this year was on Black Saturday, the day before Easter? Many messages are intersecting in my mind and heart, but for now, what could be more apropros than: GOD IS RISEN INDEED! PRAISE BE TO GOD!”

You know, there are lessons to be learned from my experience on so many levels. I won’t force my own realizations on anyone, but let’s attempt to make sense of this “reset-button” type of experience into a bio-psycho-socio-spiritual framework. In the realm of body and mind, what happened to me was a wakeup call about taking even more care of my physiological and psychological health, since nothing can be taken for granted anymore, even a random community-acquired Pneumonia pathogen or even a possible coronavirus as suggested by my Manila Science High School batch mate Ms. Gigi De Jesus-Kidary who is now studying these illnesses at a Nurse Practitioner student in Florida. Sociologically, my health scare united sincere and faithful prayers from ALL OVER, I kid you not! My sister Cherry Santiago posted from Manila, “To my most beloved sister Blesilda. Today, you literally gave me a ‘heart attack’. It is a turning point in my life. You made me realize how valuable you really are to me. And no matter the distance, always remember we are one in spirit. I love you, Ate. You continue to be an inspiration and a stronghold to me. Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Gigi Kidary prays for me from Florida, Pereg Rina Pepito prays for me from Italy, Rei Laue prays for me from Zurich, literally hundreds of family and friends all over California, the USA, and the Philippines! Guys, if Facebook is here with us for life, then let’s utilize it for some spankin’ hot meaningful mass-movement! If this social medium can wrought miracles on behalf of one plain and simple person, then imagine what we could truly pray for, think about, and mobilize about – en masse!

Spiritually – oh! The last frontier and the trickiest of all. Here’s the bottom line if my Facebook family are right, and I know they are: I was brought back to life because something in my “life mission” is not done yet. Logically easy enough to make that leap, right? But as my friend Tres Roque posted in his prayer for me, “May you know what your mission is.” Coming for me through a time of a literal rebirth, I do sincerely hope that I may find that mission soon.

However, if my mission involves continuing to write for the Manila Mail for many weeks and months to come, giving me a platform from which I can contribute my views and research – to educate sometimes, but to entertain always – then I can say that FOR NOW, I am indeed fulfilling part of my life plan here on Earth. How blessed I am!

Another perspective was shared to me by my best friend and fiancé Lean Dela Rosa, when I asked him, “Puro na lang ba pagsubok?” (“Is it just going to be one trial after another?”) Lean replied, “Ganun talaga ang buhay, di nawawala ang pagsubok para patuloy tayong kumapit sa Kanya.” (“That’s the way life goes, trials will always be there so that we can continue to cling upon Him.”) Lean and his mother belong to the “Ang Dating Daan” Christian congregation.

I started with a fragment of a song. Now please help me end this column with a Latin song we used to chant in a former charismatic episcopal church to which I belonged. As translated by my brother-in-law Angelito T. (Jerry) Santiago, who is a Deacon of the Roman Catholic Church, the song goes:
Non nobis Domine, Domine, /Non nobis Domine. /Sed nomine, sed nomine, / Tuoda Gloriam!
“Not unto us but to God be all the glory!” Amen and Amen!

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Find advisor Blesilda44 at KEEN.com, 1-800-ASK-KEEN (1-800-275-5336), extension 05226567 either by phone or chat: Mon-Fri 7-10 pm, Sat-Sun 7-11 pm Pacific. I speak English, Tagalog, and some Spanish. For personal readings (fee required), email me here: blessingsandlight725@gmail.com

“UNDAS” THE WAY WE DO IT IN THE PHILIPPINES in this week’s issue of the MANILA MAIL (Oct. 29-Nov.4, 2014)

Pilipinasblitz Forever
A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of Oct. 29-Nov. 4, 2014

“UNDAS” THE WAY WE DO IT IN THE PHILIPPINES

With prayers, candles, flowers – that’s the way we commemorate All Saints Day (a.k.a. undas) in my country of birth, Pilipinas. In the Catholic world, the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day is not until Nov. 2 but in the Philippines, it has become a long-standing tradition for the faithful to flock to the cemetery on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, with some of them opting to go a day early on Oct. 31 to avoid the crowds by visiting early, or they go a day early in order to stay overnight until the following day.

One week prior to Nov. 1, families go to the cemeteries to clean up and repaint the tombs of their loved ones, or they can contract with experienced tomb cleaners to do the job, sprucing up the area a little bit and doing whatever it takes to get the tomb or crypt ready for All Saints Day. Then on Nov. 1, that’s when the Catholic faithful troop to the cemeteries to have reunions with their family, say the rosary and other prayers, offer bouquets of flowers, and light candles. In our family, we light our candles, let them stand on the sconces and the top of the tombs, and we do not leave until the last candle has gone out and melted completely. We also bring some sandwiches and drinks to share and if we run out, there are always roaming food vendors who may charge an arm and a leg for their wares. But what can we do if we’re already hungry or thirsty, right?

Other families who have whole crypts that could be already be considered small houses bring their sound system and play blaring music. Other families bring their karaoke machines and sing out loud to their heart’s content. Some play cards or dance. Since some of these families plan to stay the night or even stay for a couple of days in the cemetery (the so-called lamay), these are the various ways for them to keep themselves energized and awake. Around Nov. 1, there is indeed a fiesta-like atmosphere in the cemeteries around the Philippines.

My previous personal experiences with All Saints Day revolve around the La Loma Cemetery. Let’s have a situationer. According to Wikipedia, “The La Loma Catholic Cemetery was opened in 1884 and is located mostly in the city of Manila and the northwestern part of Caloocan. The La Loma Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Manila with an area of slightly less than 54 hectares.” How does our family get there? It’s a yearly trek we’ve had to make and my branch of the family had relied on me in the past to get us there without getting lost. From our house in Guadalupe Bliss, we have to ride a jeepney to Buendia (Gil Puyat) Avenue, then ride the Light Rail Transit (LRT) until we arrive at the Jose Abad Santos station where we get off. Down the stairs, walk for a bit until we reach the cemetery’s main entrance with that distinctive arch facing Taft Avenue. From there, we have to walk past the church (upon which wall states, “Ako ngayon, ikaw naman bukas” (My turn today, your turn tomorrow) which my sister Cherry and I find morbidly hilarious), past the Barredo family crypt, then turn left, find the multi-level crypts for the dead nuns of a certain order, find the tomb with ascending pillars high on top of it. That’s my final landmark. When I see it, it’s time to shepherd my family to the narrow walkway in between this tomb and the ones on the same and opposite side of it. Pretty soon, we locate a certain tree on the left and identify the iron roof over our family’s mini-crypt, so far having two levels. And there you go: we have arrived.

Once we arrive at our tomb, we may say things like, “Hello, Lolo, Lola, nandito na naman po kami, dumadalaw sa inyo.” (Hello, Grandpa, Grandma, here we are again, visiting you.) We break out the candles, bring out the food to share, maybe even say the rosary and other prayers for the dearly departed. And the flowers of course! Catholics believe that this is that important day of the year when we, the living, commune with those who already passed, and it’s true for our family back then. We reminisce about our great-grandparents (ground-level of the tomb), our grandparents who are my Mom’s and her siblings’ (my aunts’ and uncle’s) parents (second-level of the tomb). The recollections we rehash could either send us laughing or crying due to those fond memories borne out of our shared experiences with our dead loved ones. Celebrating Undas is also celebrating family unity, a way of acknowledging that hey, we’re still here, we’re still alive so let’s make the most out of our shared identities and relationships as a family.

At the end of the day, our family makes the trek back home. Once it gets dark, it’s time to bring out the candles again, this time lining them up in a safe manner outside, near the doorstep of the house or outside the gate if the house has one. According to tradition, these lighted candles will help the souls which are roaming around on that night to have a guided path back to heaven. I used to go outside and walk up to a certain distance so that I can see all those lighted candles forming a path in our neighborhood. As I watch the lighted candles flicker and glow, I am comforted by the realization that those who have gone ahead of me, family and friends, are not really gone completely. For as long as my heart and mind periodically refresh my memories of them, they will continue to live within me, until it’s my turn to join them.

Ako ngayon, ikaw naman bukas. Undas (And that’s) the way we do it in the Philippines.

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Find advisor Blesilda44 at KEEN.com, 1-800-ASK-KEEN (1-800-275-5336), extension 05226567 either by phone or chat: Mon-Fri 7-10 pm, Sat-Sun 7-11 pm Pacific. I speak English, Tagalog, and some Spanish. For personal readings, email me here: pilipinasblitz@gmail.com

“Educating Myself on Islam: The Beginning” in this week’s issue of the MANILA MAIL (Oct. 8-14, 2014) (Image courtesy of nocompulsion.com)

Pilipinasblitz Forever
A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of Oct. 8-14, 2014

EDUCATING MYSELF ON ISLAM: THE BEGINNING

I am currently taking a class called “The Nature of Islam” at Chabot College because I wanted to gain knowledge about this widely misunderstood culture. There are several requirements for the course. One of them was to watch a PBS documentary called “Islam: Empire of Faith.”

The religion and people of Islam have had a bad rap since 9/11. Islam’s reputation took a nosedive, becoming “evil.” In my mind, I compared this negative reaction to Muslims to an event centuries ago as described in the documentary. When Al-Hakim (described by a scholar in the film as “a madman”) ordered the burning of the Christian church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the year 1009, immediately the backlash was the impression that Muslims are intolerant, mad, heretics. By year 1095 there was a widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, and in my mind, this sentiment was what contributed to the massive downplaying of Islamic contributions to the culture of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

In “Empire of Faith,” Islam was portrayed in a positive light by showing Muslim developments and inventions in the second part of the documentary. This period of high achievement even predates the European Renaissance by hundreds of years. Starting with the concept of trade as an instrument for transmission of beliefs, Islam was shown to spread from Mecca to Europe and China. The film tackles Baghdad, a city of wealth rivaled only by ancient Athens or Rome, being made the best city in the world at that time by the presence of scholars. These scholars came from all over the world: Muslims, Christians, and Jewish alike, all searching for answers to some of the most daunting problems of the community at that time. Muslim scholars recognized the need for science and thus came up with the scientific method to solve problems in engineering, public hygiene, and commerce, among others.

Among the Islamic inventions and concepts mentioned in the film were Arabic numerals; algebra, engineering, and astronomy; germ theory to explain disease; separating patients with different diagnoses into different wards; a system of human anatomy; optics; treating cataracts using the needle; paper; and of course the exquisite architecture in Baghdad and Cordoba used for their mosques, hospitals, libraries, and parks. The film talked about Alhambra as the most famous example of Islamic architecture, and it was truly a wonderful sight to see!

Honestly, my reaction to the recounting of Muslim inventions was one of surprise. I have been “brain-washed” to believe that all the good inventions came from Europe. I grew up in the Philippines and even in my own country, we Catholics and Christians tended to look askance at Muslims. Since I was small, my impression of Muslims, based on a few neighbors and acquaintances, was that Muslims were hard to deal with, easily angered, and could “run amok” at any time. These are, of course, unfair generalizations on my part.

Since 9/11, Muslims have been portrayed in a negative light, lumped together as if they were not unique individuals. It is the negative slant of the media that makes unfair assumptions. For example, journalists are quick to label “Islamic extremists” as such but if those from other religions are the perpetrators, we don’t see them identified as “Catholic extremists” or “white fundamentalists.” Is the media’s use of certain words to describe Islam and Muslims a deliberate attempt to demonize this specific religion and culture?

Last week, I was invited to share lunch with my good friend Ahmed and his wife Aisha (not their real names) who graciously welcomed me to their modest home. Since Aisha knew only some English, Ahmed had to translate between his wife and me. She cooked some wonderful authentic Afghan cuisine items which Ahmed complemented with “Afghan wine,” which is actually an in-joke to describe yogurt milk due to its tendency to make a person drowsy after a meal. The couple also showed me their beautiful, healthy, and well-behaved almost 2-month old baby daughter Samirah. Their pride in that little bundle of joy is justified.

Last week, too, Muslims all over the world were celebrating the Eid al-Adha or the Festival of the Sacrifice. I think that we as non-Muslims are more familiar with the Eid al-Fitr (Lesser Eid) at the end of Ramadan, and together with the Eid al-Adha (Greater Eid), they comprise the two official holidays in Islam. Eid al-Adha occurs around 2.5 months after Eid al-Fitr, coming at the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims commemorate God’s mercy to Abraham, allowing the patriarch to substitute an animal instead of his son for sacrifice. In honor of this, Muslims worldwide sacrifice goats, cows, and lambs on the Greater Eid and distribute the meat among family, friends, neighbors, and the poor.

Here is a paragraph from the book “American Muslims: A Journalist’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims” issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR): “Journalists can use these celebrations and holy days to showcase the positive aspects of Muslim life. For instance, journalists can write about Ramadan dinners in the mosque or interfaith events, Muslims feeding the hungry, Muslims distributing meat to the poor, Muslims celebrating Eid, Muslim family life during Ramadan, how different cultures break the fast, or children praying and fasting despite intense school schedules (p. 31).”

In one of our professor’s early lectures, we learned that the first commandment of Islam is for people to educate themselves. Its aim is to produce individuals who have faith and knowledge, one sustaining the other. Knowledge without faith is not only partial knowledge but can be a kind of new ignorance. Acknowledging that wisdom is the fruit of true knowledge, Islamic education insists on the fact that piety and faith must be recognized as integrated parts of the educational system. (Prof. H. Siddiqi’s lecture, 8/27/14)

There is no compulsion in religion (Qur’an 2/256) and indeed, Muslims have been taught to coexist peacefully with people from other religions. Man always has free will and freedom of choice. “If it had been your Lord’s will, all who are in the earth would have believed together. Will you then compel humankind against their will to believe?” (Qur’an 10/99).

Let’s educate ourselves about Islam before being overcome by the stereotypes we foist on it. Interacting with Muslim individuals, families, and communities may just open your mind. Did you know that the literal meaning of the Arabic word “Islam” means “to be safe and secure, to submit and surrender, and peace?” Assalamu Alaikum (Peace be upon you.)

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Find advisor Blesilda44 at KEEN.com, 1-800-ASK-KEEN (1-800-275-5336), extension 05226567 either by phone or chat: Mon-Fri 7-10 pm, Sat-Sun 7-11 pm Pacific. I speak English, Tagalog, and some Spanish. For personal readings, email me here: pilipinasblitz@gmail.com