On the Hazards of Roadtrips

Sunday, 31 July 2011, 8:08 a.m.

I’m off to Tagaytay today—the self-proclaimed City of Character (a moniker whose pretension to gravitas is as hilarious as it is ambiguous) known more prosaically as one of several local shrines to weekend gluttony. This is my nth visit in so many months—a fact that still has not spared me from missing the appropriate exit on an occasion or two. This time, I will be trucking a carload of foreigners, exposure to whom should brush up my rusty basic German and my pidgin Queen’s English. It should be fun, it should involve lots of pineapple farms, loads of coconut pies, heaps of Spanish bread—and hopefully, just hopefully—NOT a drop of rain.

Sunday, 31 July 2011, 12:04 p.m.

I’m running late, it’s raining cats and dogs and the drenched foreigners in my back seat are risking pneumonia because shutting down the car’s air conditioning causes the windshield to fog (an issue which, on a scale of 1-10 for risk factors, rates 8 versus pneumonia’s 5). I still have one more passenger to pick up and the guards at the entrance of San Lorenzo Village are possibly on the phone with the CIA, the MI5 and possibly even the FSB, to conduct a background check on me given how long I’ve had to wait at the curb. The worst part is: I’ve only just realized that I don’t know how to get to the South Luzon Expressway coming from EDSA. Eeeek.

Sunday, 31 July 2011, 2:17 p.m.

We’ve made it to Sonya’s Garden without incident—suspicious guards, unfamiliar routes, sleeting rain, intermittent fog, hazy windshields, navigational quirks, hypothermic passengers and crazy drivers notwithstanding. The pineapple farms and coconut pies were unfortunate casualties, but Sonya’s Panaderia is open and Spanish bread remains a distinct possibility.

I think I’m going to go there now and eat my weight in carbs.


On the Pleasures of Lightman

Few books have ever been as exquisitely written as Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.

The genius of some novelists lies in presenting ideas (Kundera); others in painting pictures (Winterson); a few others in evoking moods (Woolf). Mr. Lightman does all three without a trace of effort.

The book, which is essentially a series of (melancholy, pensive, yet quietly celebratory) meditations on time, is thoroughly thought-provoking—if one wishes to read it that way. But Mr. Lightman’s prose is distractingly beautiful: I find myself losing sense of the words (there’s apprehension, yes; assimilation, no), in the same way that I’ve memorized the lyrics of songs whose melodies I love without having ever really grasped the meaning of the piece (the song may just as well be foreign given my total lack of comprehension).

Here are just three of my favorite thought experiments:

Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly. . . . In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, ever kiss, every birth, every word will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time that a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior’s jealousy, every promise not kept. And just as all things will be repeated in the future, all things now happening happened a million times before. Some few people in every town, in their dreams, are vaguely aware that all has occurred in the past. These are the people with unhappy lives . . . stricken with the knowledge that they cannot change a single action, a single gesture. Their mistakes will be repeated precisely in this life as in the life before. And it is these double unfortunates who give the only sign that time is a circle. . . .


In this world, time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make connection backstream. When this happens, birds, soil, people caught in the branching tributary find themselves carried to the past. . . . When a traveler from the future must talk, he does not talk but whimpers. He whispers tortured sounds. He is agonized. For if he makes the slightest alteration in anything, he may destroy the future. At the same time, he is forced to witness events without being part of them, without changing them. He envies the people who live in their own time, who can act at will, oblivious of the future, ignorant of the effects of their actions. But he cannot act. He is an inert gas, a ghost, a sheet without soul. He has lost his personhood. He is an exile of time. . . .


Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometimes the second the first. Or perhaps cause lies forever in the past while effect in the future, but future and past are entwined. . . . Most people have learned to live in the moment. The argument goes that if the past has uncertain effect on the present, there is no need to dwell on the past. And if the present has little effect on the future, present actions need not be weighed for their consequence. Rather, each act is an island in time, to be judged on its own. . . . It is a world of impulse. It is a world of sincerity. It is a world in which every word spoken speaks just to that moment, every glance given has only one meaning, each touch has no past or no future, each kiss is a kiss of immediacy.

Like I said: melancholy, pensive, yet quietly celebratory. If that’s not exquisite writing, I don’t know what is.

On the Pleasures of Miles (Part 2)

I couldn’t help myself. After posting yesterday’s entry, I found myself reeaching for my copy of Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. And there they were again: those two provocative paragraphs in the Prologue that forever changed how I view the icon of Christ on the Cross:

The Crucifixion, the primal scene of Western religion and Western art, has lost much of its power to shock. At this late date, prhaps only a non-Western eye can truly see it. A Japanese artist now living in Los Angeles once recalled the horror most Japanese feel at seeing a corpse displayed as a religious icon, and of their further revulsion when the icon is explained to them. They ask, she said: “If he was so good, why did he die like that?” In Japanese culture, “good people end their lives with a good death, even a beautiful death, like the Buddha. Someone dying such a hideous way—for us, he could only be a criminal.”

Her perception is correct. The crucifix is a violently obscene icon. To recover its visceral power, children of the twenty-first century must imagine a lynching, the body of the victim swollen and distorted, his head hanging askew above a broken neck, while the bystanders smile their twisted smiles. Then they must imagine that grisly spectacle reproduced at the holiest spot in whatever edifice they call holy. And yet to go even this far is still to miss the meaning of the image, for this victim is not just innocent: He is God Incarnate, the Lord himself in human form.

Picture if you can—I once told my philosophy students after recalling the passage above through some obscure association—a man slumped in an electric chair, head lolling lifeless, arms and legs strapped, and having this image enshrined in your homes and in your places of worship. Because that’s what the image of Christ on the Cross is when translated across the barriers of time, space and culture. We know from countless hours spent in catechism that the Lord died as a common criminal, but the knowledge doesn’t quite sink in—is rendered meaningless and banal from ubiquity and repetition. It takes someone like Miles with a genius for metaphor to revitalize an age-old narrative and renew (if not incite) our understanding.

So now the question is: what does the icon now mean for you?

On the Pleasures of Miles (Part 1)

So, a cursory glance at my bookshelf reveals a surprising number of titles that contain the word “God.” There’s Matthew Alper’s The God Part of the Brain; Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and The Battle for God; Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great; Jack Miles’ God: A Biography; Robert Winston’s The Story of God; and Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God.

To date, I’ve read 3.5 of the 7.0 books mentioned above (both Armstrong books and the Miles book, and a bit of the Hitchens book) and I’m perpetually on the lookout for the minor miracle that will grant me the time to read the remaining 3.5. Five of the titles (Alper’s, Armstrong’s, Miles’ and Winston’s) were acquired at a single purchase—at the point in my life when I finally accepted the fact that I tended to be happiest when engaging in unprofitable pursuits (like the study of philosophy and religion); one was acquired fairly recently (Wright’s); and the last was given to me as some sort of perpetual loan (Hitchens’—a book so stridently monolithic in its views that it’s almost embarrassing to read it).

Apart from Hitchens’ work, the other books I’ve read were thoroughly enjoyable. Ms. Armstrong’s work deserves a separate blog post—maybe even several—given how largely she eventually influenced the direction of my life. (I have possibly every single one of her titles, and her books Islam: A Short History and  Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet are must-reads for anyone remotely concerned about that religion in today’s socio-political climate.) 

For sheer novelty of insight, however, I’d have to credit Mr. Miles. A former Jesuit (surprise, surprise) with a Harvard doctorate degree in Near Eastern languages (his credentials just get better and better the farther you read into the sentence), his book God: A Biography won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1996. The question behind his book is astoundingly original: if one were to think of God as a literary character—the major character in the Bible, actually—what insights would this kind of reading yield, not just about God, but about the religions that revere that Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and the people that adhere to these religions? It’s been seven years since I read his book, and I still marvel at the seismic shift it triggered in my views about my religion. (The tenth chapter which deals with the character of God in the book of Job is especially provocative.)

Now if only I could find the time to read his second book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

On the Pleasures of Whyte (Part 3)

by David Whyte

Get up from your bed,
go out from your house,
follow the path you know so well,
so well that you now see nothing
and hear nothing
unless something can cry loudly to you,
and for you it seems
even then
no cry is louder than yours
and in your own darkness
cries have gone unheard
as long as you can remember.

These are hard paths we tread
but they are green
and lined with leaf mould
and we must love their contours
as we love the body branching
with its veins and tunnels of dark earth.

I know that sometimes
your body is hard like a stone
on a path that storms break over,
embedded deeply
into that something that you think is you,
and you will not move
while the voice all around
tears the air
and fills the sky with jagged light.

But sometimes unawares
those sounds seem to descend
as if kneeling down into you
and you listen strangely caught
as the terrible voice moving closer
and in the silence
now arriving

Get up, I depend
on you utterly.
Everything you need
you had
the moment before
you were born.

On the Pleasures of Whyte (Part 2)

by David Whyte

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
if you can know despair or see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eye,
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living,
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

On the Pleasures of Whyte (Part 1)

by David Whyte

All the true vows
are secret vows
the ones we speak out loud
are the ones we break.

There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.

Hold to the truth you make
every day with your own body,
don’t turn your face away.

Hold to your own truth
at the center of the image
you were born with.

Those who do not understand
their destiny will never understand
the friends they have made
nor the work they have chosen

nor the one life that waits
beyond all the others.

By the lake in the wood
in the shadows
you can
whisper that truth
to the quiet reflection
you see in the water.

Whatever you hear from
the water, remember,

it wants you to carry
the sound of its truth on your lips.

in this place
no one can hear you

and out of the silence
you can make a promise
it will kill you to break,

that way you’ll find
what is real and what is not.

I know what I am saying.
Time almost forsook me
and I looked again.

Seeing my reflection
I broke a promise
and spoke
for the first time
after all these years

in my own voice,

before it was too late
to turn my face again.