Stop. Look. Listen. Feel. Be grateful. Move on. 

   

Sunset at Dalipuga, Iligan, Philippines 


One of my favorite poems that I can recite by heart is Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I kept reciting this poem to my baby when I was still pregnant, and even after my son was born. HBO’s Classical Baby The Poetry Show includes a reading of this poem by Susan Sarandon, and it is now my 5-year old son’s favorite part of the video.

A thought came to mind today as I watched my son give me the sweetest smile when the video clip began. A few months after our son was diagnosed with Autism, my husband wished Eli would not grow so quickly. Today, only for a moment I wished Eli would never grow up, so people can excuse his strange stimming habits, his speech delay and other autistic traits. Every now and then  I worry about whether or not he will be able to live independently, when my husband and I won’t be around to look after him anymore.

Frost’s poem talks about how we, once in a while, encounter something that make us wish could last at least a lifetime, but we all have other things to do — duties, responsibilities, roles to play in other people’s lives — so we have to move on, continue living our lives.

The speaker in this poem though was truly in the moment. He   noticed his surroundings: the snow-covered woods, the frozen lake; he heard the sound of the harness bells and the wind. He also used his imagination (“My little horse must think it queer…”), and was quite aware not only of the lack of danger (…He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow), but also of his responsibilities and of the life he had to live,   (But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.) 

Oftentimes I look at my son and wonder what life will be like for him. Will he ever be able to speak like a neurotypical person? Will he be able to read by himself the books that he loves for me to read to him? Will he be able to write down his own name?  But then I stop myself from doing this, and instead do things with him. Not much use wondering about the future when so much of it depends on the present.

What I liked most about Frost’s poem is the idea that though we can (and we should) live our lives — face our responsibilities, fulfill our duties, find our way in the darkness — we can stop once in a while and just enjoy what we have in our lives: food on our table, clothes to keep us warm (or cool), roof over our heads,  air we breathe, water we drink, family, friendship. And love. And faith that everything will be all right in the end.

Thank you. Salamat. 谢谢。

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Are we really what we eat? 

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Does coffee have any effect on you? Does chocolate?

Coffee is my non-human best friend. It gave me energy when I most needed it after my son was born. Though sleep-deprived, I still needed to function efficiently and coffee made it possible to stay awake and teach at eight in the morning, come home and feed the baby, and do housework, and prepare lessons, etc. I am forever grateful to the person that invented coffee drink.

My son used to have laughing fits even when there’s nothing visibly funny, especially after having his then favorite breakfast of peanut butter on toast. Several people told me back then to just let it be because he’s a “happy boy.” I also witnessed how chocolate could make him unbearably hyperactive.  His laughing fits and hyperactivity stopped when we put him on GF/CF diet. I am forever grateful to the person that came up with the GF/CF diet for people with ASD.

Reading about autism and diet, and books on neurology especially by Dr. Oliver Sacks, and witnessing firsthand the effects of medicine on my leukemic mother’s mind,  made me wonder if we are nothing but mere slaves to every single thing that is already in or enters our body — food, medicine, bacteria, chemicals, etc.

For example, what we call personality can easily be changed, not by our will to change (that’s not easy at all), but by lesions in the  brain.

In his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, Dr. Sacks wrote about Greg who, as a young man in the 60’s, rebelled against convention, took drugs to seek a “higher consciousness,” later dropped drugs to seek this “higher consciousness” in religion, namely Hare Krishna. His first year at the temple saw him as obedient, pious. Then he started losing his eyesight which the temple residents took to mean his “inner light was growing. ” Greg was also becoming more withdrawn which again, people interpreted as becoming “enlightened.” Long story short, it was only when his parents insisted on taking him to the doctor that it was discovered that Greg had a growing tumor in his brain.

     “Brain imaging had shown an enormous midline tumor, destroying the pituitary gland and the adjacent optic chiasm and tracts and extending on both sides into the frontal lobes. It also reached backward to the temporal lobes, and downward to the diencephalon, or forebrain. At surgery, the tumor was found to be benign, a meningioma—but it had swollen to the size of a small grapefruit or orange, and though the surgeons were able to remove it almost entirely, they could not undo the damage it had already done.”

This brain damage radically changed Greg’s personality. In the hospital “his seeming serenity (actually blandness), gave him an appearance of innocence and wisdom combined, gave him a special status on the ward, ambiguous but respected, a Holy Fool.”

Many other patients written about in this book showed major changes in their personalities after suffering from brain injury.

This, then, made me wonder if we have any independent will of our own at all? If the decisions that we make are truly our own, or are mere results of these little things in our body that ultimately feed our brain and change the way we think, speak and behave.

Alcohol and drugs sure can influence the way we think or behave. Children with ASD behave differently and sense things differently when they are overstimulated or not. Neurotypical people take all kinds of medication or drinks to make them feel better or think more clearly.

I used to think that the expression “You are what you eat” only referred to physical health. Now I’m beginning to think that that applies to our mental health as well.

(This is just a draft of what I really wanted to write. I’ll rewrite this when I have more time to be alone and think!)

Travel Woes

 

Afternoon clouds over Visayas, Philippines. I was so excited to see this cloud formation. Looks like a duck, don’t you think?

 

Pack. 
Unpack. 
Pack. 
Unpack. 

I could fill this page 
With the same words
According to the number of times
I had to 

Pack. 
Unpack. 

Barely had the time to start shedding 
The pounds from stress eating  
And I’m stressing and stress eating again. 

Someone once said to me, 
When tragedies pile up
Then you have a comedy. 

How come I’m not laughing? 

March 3, 2016

On Living to be 100

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A few weeks ago, a friend and I exchanged thoughts about living to be 100, and this was my reply: “Nah. I really don’t want to live that long. Not even if I’m healthy. I’m curious about what’s on the other side. If there’s nothing, then at least I won’t be disappointed. ” 

And my friend replied: “Consciousness is probably overrated. “

For Christians and other believers of an afterlife, death is not scary as it means reunion with the Creator. It means eternal life of happiness. (I came across this post about death a few weeks ago, and the writer beautifully expresses, not exactly the same but similar, thoughts that I have about life and death.)

I have no idea how many there are like me , but I am one of those who are more curious about what’s on the other side, rather than prolonging our earthly life. I am not saying though that I would willingly abandon my responsibilities as a mother, daughter, wife, sister, aunt. My point is, I simply prefer not to live too long.

However, I have thought about the possibility of living a longer life. I once met an 86-year old medical doctor, who was quite spry — travellling back and forth from the US to Asia, attending medical conferences, seeing patients, doing Zumba. She’s enjoying her life at 86. Would I want to be able to do that at 86?

With discoveries and inventions in the fields of science and technology, people are living longer and healthier lives.  Not only that, it probably won’t be long before immortality ceases to be mere imagination and becomes reality with the ability of human beings to create cyborgs.

If I could stay fit till I’m 100, perhaps I would be able to do all the things I would like to do but in which at the moment I am unable to indulge. I have talked about this with a friend. We both could not understand how people could be at a loss as to what to do when there’s so many interesting things to do when you have the time and health to do them

I’m not sporty nor sociable, so I do not need to be with so many people all the time. If I could live to be 100, I would spend my time reading all the books I’ve been meaning to read. I would take photographs of beautiful flowers and landscapes, learn more about the human brain, study astronomy, volunteer to help children with special needs and starving children, go.out for morning walks, watch the sunset, and write down my thoughts about all these things.

So does this mean I want to live to be 100?

No. Not at this time when humanity’s mortality is still very real, when one can still witness the human body aging, when you can still hear people groaning in pain and watch them suffer emotionally , as they struggle to remember dates and names of people they used to love so passionately,  and suffer physically as they can no longer move what used to be nimble limbs that made them jump, run, throw or catch or hit a ball.

Having a body that slowly stops functioning one part at a time is torture. Seeing it happen to others is a scary enough reminder that it can happen to you too.

So, no. I do not want to live to be 100. “Consciousness is overrated.”

How about you?

On living, loving and leaving

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Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou may’st in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day, 
As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 
As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. 
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

There has been much debate on the meaning of this sonnet, particularly the last couplet:

   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

What is the young man supposed to eventually leave before long: his friend or his own youth?

I will not join in the debate, but I am quoting the sonnet here because I was reminded of it (and John Donne’s Sonnet 10) twice today: first, when I read this poem by John White called Laughing about it ; second, when I read Temple Grandin’s tribute to Oliver Sacks, who also wrote a moving article reflecting on his relationship with his Orthodox family and the Sabbath.

Whether the speaker meant that the young man had to leave his friend or his youth, to me, is not the point, rather that the knowledge that one is leaving something valuable makes one appreciate it or love it even more.

My first real understanding of this line happened one summer day when my best friend and I stood in a forest, listening to the sound of the leaves of the trees as the breeze was passing through, and I said it was beautiful I wish it could last forever; and he said it was beautiful simply because it was not going to last.

(Not long after that my best friend left, and for a while, that memory always made me cry. But with time, I have learned to call on that memory, and it just brings a beautiful feeling.)

If we truly love someone or something –a place, a person, a pet or life itself —  the knowledge of our imminent leaving of it/them will make our love for it/them even stronger.

Perhaps it is the best way to live every minute of our short life here: to always remember that we won’t be here forever, that we are always about to leave. Perhaps then we can love wholeheartedly, not only for a minute or an hour or for a day, but for a lifetime.

On Choosing Whom to Love

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“All my life, as soon as a person got attached to me, I did everything to distance them. The first person whom I loved and I was faithful to escaped me through drugs, through betrayal. Maybe many things came from this, from vanity, from fear of suffering further, and yet I have accepted so much suffering. But I have in turn escaped from everyone since and, in a certain way I wanted everyone to escape from me.”

“I sometimes accuse myself of being incapable of love. Maybe this is true, but I have also been able to select a few people and to take care of them faithfully, with the best of myself, no matter what they do.

– Albert Camus as quoted in Camus, A Romance by Elizabeth Hawes (I bought a hardbound copy of this book years ago, but I saw the book again yesterday as my husband and I were sorting books to throw and to keep!)

Camus was a known womanizer, he talked about loving the many women in his life in the love letters he wrote them, yet in his journals he wrote of distancing himself from them. He sometimes wondered if he was incapable of love, yet admitted to “taking care” of a few people faithfully the best he could no matter what these people did.

I am not writing to justify nor excuse Camus’ womanizing, but rereading this quote from him reminded me of how simple it can be to love somebody, truly love somebody, anybody; but people, especially men like Camus make it so complicated. To me, he WAS capable of love, and indeed he loved those whom he faithfully took care of no matter what they did.

You cannot choose who to like or dislike or be physically/sexually attracted to, it’s a feeling. But you can definitely choose whom you give your time, energy and yourself (body and soul) to – and that’s love.

You cannot choose your biological family (not yet, anyway, perhaps with technology it will be possible), but you can choose to love or not love your family. You may like your family, but you may not love them. (“Yeah, they’re alright. They’re cool. I haven’t heard from my folks for a month!) You may not like your family sometimes, but you may love them because you take care of them, you provide for them, and make sure they are all right.

Now I can totally understand when young people make the mistake of “falling in love” with someone who everyone thinks is the wrong person, because as recent findings reveal, the brain, particularly the pre-frontal cortex responsible for regulation of emotions, does not reach full maturity until mid-20s. Young people may not be able to “think ahead” and “make mature decisions”, and it’s perfectly understandable because neurologically speaking, they are not of that age yet.

But if you are a “typical” (I no longer like using the word “normal” because, really, what does it mean these days?) adult, you should be able to think and choose whether or not to invest in a person or a relationship. If a part of you is doubtful whether you should give more of your time, energy (and money) to be with a person who doesn’t seem to give the same to be with you,  you don’t need to pray to the gods or ask your friends over and over again whether this person loves you or not. Get that pre-frontal cortex working and figure it out yourself. It will be good exercise for your brain. 🙂

Game of Life: Excitement, Fear, Exhilaration, and then Reality Bites 

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

 I’ve never been an adventurous person. When I was younger, I only dared to do crazy things out of love for or silly attraction to some guy, like going up alone to a military camp located on a remote hill in a city where a bomb exploded just the day before, just to get the signature of a colonel on my then-boyfriend’s clearance, or going to a city that was in the middle of a war just because an attractive journalist-friend had asked me if I could go with him, and I couldn’t say no. Sigh. So 15-17 years ago.

I’ve only been in a pendulum ride once, and I am very, very sure I will die if I try it again. The only thing I ever felt the whole time I was in that monstrous thing was FEAR. And after a minute or two of that fear, I mustered the energy to just meditate. So I did, and my two guy friends who were with me and having so much fun, were yelling, “Therese, are you OK?” They thought I had died. Ha!

But a couple of weeks ago, when I saw the zip line at the amusement park my former students had invited me to, I just wanted to give it a try. It didn’t look scary because it wasn’t too high nor too long, and below was a calm river with people on pedal boats. It looked non-threatening enough that I excitedly volunteered we go. So we did. I was the first to get up on the platform, but then insisted that a colleague go first. I was having second thoughts.

And then it was my turn. I wanted to back out, but there was a line of young people behind me, the same ones I had rallied to join me. How could I ever back out? I made the sign of the cross at least five times! Then I said to myself in the same way I did as I was being wheeled to the delivery room to have my first (and only) child, “OK, Therese. You’re doing this. You can never back out on this one!”

So I jumped.

And I screamed in fear. Waaaahhhh.

Then I yelled in exhilaration. Wooo-hoo!

I know it was probably less than a minute, but it was a moment I will never forget. I waved at the people on the river, threw my head back and consequently, spun and saw everything around me. After all that fear, I felt the most beautiful, exhilarating feeling. Andthen it was over. My knees were shaking, but I couldn’t shake off that excitement right away.

Even weeks after that experience, the feeling is still quite vivid for me — those few seconds of joy. And one day, as I thought about that moment I remembered a few lines from three of Dostoevsky’s works.

In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin talks about what actually goes on in his head while he’s having a seizure. He sees beauty and feels immense joy that he’s never felt in his waking life that sometimes he actually wishes he can have a seizure again just so he can experience that happiness, that joy.

In White Nights, the sentimental hero of the story after witnessing the happiness of Nastenka, who asks him not to be unhappy because of her happiness, says he will never do anything to ruin her joy, because he knows how precious that moment is. “My God, a moment of bliss. Why, isn’t that enough for a whole lifetime?”

In A Faint Heart, Vasya is overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness that he goes insane. His friend, Arkady, on his way home pauses by the Neva and, ” A strange thought came to poor Vasya’s forlorn friend. He started, and his heart seemed at that instant flooded with a hot rush of blood kindled by a powerful, overwhelming sensation he had never known before. He seemed only now to understand all the trouble, and to know why his poor Vasya had gone out of his mind, unable to bear his happiness.”

Perhaps Arkady himself experienced this few seconds of happiness or he wouldn’t have understood the cause of Vasya’s insanity.

Some happiness-es just happen. Others can be had by choice. If by choice, we then have to be ready for the consequences which can be either harmless, productive or disastrous.

So many people will tell you to “follow your heart, pursue whatever makes you happy, don’t think, just do it.” If everything turns out fine from an uninformed decision, perhaps it’s only due to luck or coincidence. One cannot predict the future but one can try to make an intelligent guess or infer from the current situation as to the consequences of a particular decision.

When something or someone new comes to our lives, they may bring us so much excitement, and we may feel fear as we think of the changes they will bring to our lives. Some have experienced just abandoning everything for the sake of “love,” throwing caution to the wind, and they make it sound so romantic. And it sounds like it is all good, but life is not a fairy tale that ends with “they live happily ever after.” After that brief moment of bliss, comes reality and more often than not, it is ugly.

If I have the certainty that the consequences of my action would be harmless, not seriously hurt anybody whether I care about them or not, I wouldn’t mind experiencing that few seconds of bliss. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I wouldn’t mind rolling that huge boulder on top of a hill just to be happy.

But how often are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration harmless? Or, how harmless are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration?

I really enjoyed my first time on a zip line, but even though I know it’s safe and exciting, I think once is good enough for me. (Not adventurous!)