Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Tears of Joy

The true meaning of Christmas is often thought to be found in the fleeting happiness of life. Society tells us it exists in riches, well-being, fame, power, achievements, and many other temporal things.  This Christmas season, its meaning stares at me in its purest earthly form . . . tears.

Christmas tears that arise from the hearts of fear and loss bear strong witness to the great promise of Christmas. The news of a friend being thrown back onto the battlefield of life to take on the return of cancer; the sudden death of an inspirational father-in-law; the death of a wonderful brother-in-Christ; knowing young children are now father-less; the sudden death of an Igorota sister’s father; the recent loss of a dear uncle; the brokenness of unity within loved ones; all of these produce the tears that drown the flame of happiness during the Christmas season.

Why then do I feel the way I do? Why is my heart leaping in great joy?

Christ never promised us happiness. This is an emotion that comes and goes. Society markets and commercializes Christmas with smiles and laughter, but we all know too well the stark temporary nature of happiness. Where is it after the gifts are opened? More than often it disappears like the Christmas tree that is thrown out into the street mere hours after gifts are opened. This is temporary DNA of happiness.

God promised us something more substantive and everlasting: Joy.  Different from happiness, joy is the response of our soul to the great and wonderful discovery of God, and our communion with Him. The birth of Christ makes it possible for us to experience joy, and this is why one can experience it despite the puddles of tears that flow from our heart.

A successful surgery; the legacy my father-in-law left his son and grandchildren; my brother-in-Christ’s recent baptism and acceptance of Christ’s fullness; new found forgiveness and unity; these are real reasons for joy. So, if you know of anyone needing some joy in their life this Christmas season, remind them that Christ loves them and He wants nothing more than for them to experience His joy.

In the words of Chris Tomlin’s song, “Unspeakable Joy”:
"Joy to the world, the Savior reigns
That all their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
 Repeat the sounding joy
Joy, unspeakable joy
And overflowing where no tongue can tell
Joy, unspeakable joy
Rises in my soul, never lets me go."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Legacies Built on Igorot Attributes

Originally published on BIBAKBOH 9/3/14

More than twenty years ago, I once stood in the midst of greatness; in between two men who made the decision to do great things with their lives. That day, they wore fluorescent green jackets with matching “snapback” hats, way before snapbacks were conceived. It was a time when their past business and personal achievements culminated into a moment of celebration for what they had accomplished. Both celebrated by raising their fists, which bore huge-gaudy gold rings the size of NFL Superbowl Championship rings. As their rings broke the atmosphere of complacency and laziness, the inscribed names of Delson and Longid glistened.

Ninteen years ago, I was deeply touched by the number of positive comments, testimonies, and stories about the first man shortly after his passing. They all seemed to repeat in one way or another, how he made a positive impact on their lives and those of so many. Recently, on August 25, 2014, the latter passed away.  Immediately after his death, stories about him began surfacing within the social media world. The first man was my father, Crisanto Delson, who died along with my mother and sister in a car accident in 1995. The second was Norman Longid, whom I always referred to as “Uncle Norm.”

It’s hard to talk about one without talking about the other. Anyone who knew them could tell you how they lived strong faith-based lies, valued their marriages and family, had positive attitudes, had a great sense of purpose in life, possessed excellent work ethics, inspired others to become better people, and loved their neighbors to the best of their abilities. There is, however, something very special about them that many people are not aware of; qualities and attributes that made up the backbone of their very identity.

Within the marrow of this backbone existed their true sense of identity. More than just ethnicity or culture, their identity was rooted in the DNA of being indigenous Igorots. For untold generations, Igorots have passed down certain attributes that are innate to their identity, more so than outside features. The following seven particular attributes always come to mind when I reflect on my ancestors.

Life Purpose

Unlike countless of people today, whose lives lack purpose; the daily lives of our ancestors were driven with purpose. Their sense of purpose was a selfless kind that focused on serving others in their family and community. Uncle Norm and dad managed to hold on to this dear attribute as they strove to help others through their spiritual, business, and everyday life. It was clear to them that they were put on this earth with certain gifts and talents, and that these things were meant to help others. For them, it was expected of them to contribute to the greater good of this world, to live with purpose, and to do something special with their lives in the eyes of God.


From the stories I’ve heard about their childhood and adolescent years, it is clear that they strove to live lives of high moral standards. For example, both realized the dangers of falling into the corruption and immorality that surrounded them during the Marcos dictatorship. They were disillusioned with the government and knew that by staying in the Philippines, they too could succumb to things that would compromise their moral fiber. Yes, their upbringing in the Christian faith (Episcopalian for Norm and Catholicism for dad) had plenty to do with this, but what many don’t realize; their indigenous ancestry played the most important part.

It is the soil that nurtured their seeds of Christianty. Long before Christianity, a moral code or way for Igorots known as “inayan” existed (and still does). Doing things that are right, valuing marriage and family, selflessness, and treating others the way one wants to be treated all combine to make for fertile soil to cultivate higher spiritualities. Unfortunately, the portrayal of Igorots as savages by Filipino lowlanders and western cultures have overshadowed the true goodness and virtues of our people. Fortunately, there are those like Uncle Norm and dad who still exemplified our inayan.

Courage and Bravery

The ability to enter a known or unknown situation, despite whatever dangers may exist, is also innate to Igorots. This has well been documented by westerners during World War II, especially by General Douglas MacArthur when he was quoted as saying:

“Many desperate acts of courage and heroism have fallen under my observation on many fields of battle in many parts of the world. I have seen forlorn hopes become realities. I have seen last-ditch stands and innumerable acts of personal heroism that defy description. but for sheer breathtaking and heart stopping desperation, I have never known the equal of those Igorots riding the tanks. Gentlemen, when you tell the story stand in tribute to those gallant Igorots.”

Although Uncle Norm and dad did not fight on the battlefields of war, they fought on many other battlefields. One battlefield that comes to mind is their decision to enter the unknown world of entrepreneurialism. The decision to leave the “security” blanket of a steady job is one that many lack the courage and bravery to do.

Fortitude and Resilience

For more than 300 years, Spain colonized the archipelago and branded it with the name Philippines, which was named after King “Phillip.” Igorots, on the other hand were never colonized. They successfully fought off Spain’s attempts to conquer them, and as a result, their culture still remains intact.

The fortitude and resilience that protected their culture for centuries also helped both men in their everyday challenges and struggles. When they decided to pass on social events because of the more important priorities of God, family, and business; it took both attributes to ignore criticisms and rumors. When my father was told he could not succeed in business because of his strong accent, these attributes kicked in. When Uncle Norm was diagnosed with cancer, it took the same to get as far as he did. When they decided to give up alcohol for the sake of their health and their families, the fortitude and resilience within enabled them to stay the course despite what others thought or said. For both, it’s impossible to hear stories about them without hearing about  their toughness, backbone, strong-mindedness, steadfastness, mettle, and endurance against adversity.

Cultural Heritage

The last time I spent with both men alone was at a restaurant twenty one years ago. It was over a casual lunch near the office. Naturally, I thought they would talk about their Primerica businesses because it was always the topic of the day. Surprisingly, as Uncle Norm cut into his liver and grilled onions plate, he started talking about an experience in his Igorot hometown of Sagada that somehow related to the food. This led to an exchange of more experiences from both about their hometowns, which turned into an imparting of their “Igorotness” to me. I recall my dad saying something about Filipino time versus Igorot time, in that if Igorots lived their lives always being late for things (which Filipinos are known to have adopted from Spain – the “manana” habit); the rice terraces wouldn’t be an eighth wonder of the world. They clearly wanted me to know how their Igorotness played a part in their daily lives.

Here in America, people rarely pay attention to their cultural heritage. It is often lost in the strong currents of assimilation. This was not the case for these men. Although it wasn’t always apparent on the outside, both men truly treasured their indigenous ancestry and would attribute who they were to where they came from.

In a book review of the novel, Igorotdo: The Enlightened Warrior Within, an American anthropologist captured my attention with these words:

“Alex's [main character] voyage of self discovery appeals to the Igorot in all of us, in that it appeals to the American search for our heritage. We're a young melting pot country, not yet old enough to have completely established our own cultural identity; and yet many of us derive from people of so many heritages that we're not sure what to call ourselves except "American." Add to that the fact that so many of our ancestors deliberately suppressed their origins in the effort to assimilate, and many of us feel lost at a deep level.”

Unlike many other cultures, Igorots have relied on passing down their culture by word of mouth. As more and more of the elders who possess such treasures die, countless amounts of indigenous knowledge also go with them. These days, Igorots are increasingly adopting the ways of lowlanders, westerners, and other cultures. As a result, the measure of an Igorot is often skewed. The measure of a great Igorot should not only be measured by their language, what they wear, how well they play gangsa instruments, the music they listen to, and any other outward features and characteristics. Rather, it needs to be measured by how they lived their lives. Next time you meet an Igorot, look at their relationship with God above all, then look at their marriages, families, and all the selfless good they have done. If you smile as a result, then you know you are in the presence of a great Igorot.

When you think about men mounted on tanks in the field of battle, think of Igorots. When you think of two men mounted on the above attributes in life’s fields of battle, think of these two Igorots and the legacy they have left behind. Both men are true enlightened warriors in the sense that they fought wrong doing and sacrificed themselves for the goodness of others. When you hear about how their businesses helped countless of widows and orphans with hundreds of millions of dollars, don’t just think about two great men. Instead, think about two great Igorots. When you think about the countless of people they inspired to become better in whatever they did, think of two great Igorots. When you think of all the less-than-fortunate they helped in many ways, think of these two great Igorots.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nakashima Sensei: May She Rest In Peace

Nakashima sensei (center)

It was during the fall of 1996. After several months of looking for a credible person to teach me about Japanese gardens, a store owner of a local bonsai store gave me the phone number of a lady, who did a presentation about Japanese gardens at the University of Illinois. Her name was Dr. Ikka Nakashima.

I vividly remember my first conversation with her on the phone. Her Japanese accent was difficult to understand at first, but I managed to understand most of what she said. I was disappointed to hear she no longer did Japanese garden presentations at the university. Instead, she taught Chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) and Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) at her house. When she detected my disappointment, she told me I could learn much about the gardens through Chanoyu.

Chanoyu and Chaniwa (tea garden) same spirt,” she told me several times. “Both are harmony,” she continued. “You come next week to see, I no charge tuition first time,okay?”

Without hesitation, I accepted her invitation and attended my first Chanoyu class that following week .

It took me a little more than an hour to reach her house in Chicago’s north side, but it seemed much shorter because of my combined excitement and anticipation. With my Zafu (Japanese Zen meditation cushion) under one arm and my Zabutan (meditation mat) rolled under the other, I pressed the doorbell. Nobody answered. After a minute or so, I pressed it again. Still nobody answered. I clenched my fist to knock on the door when suddenly, it slowly opened.

A short lady with dark black hair and very pale skin appeared as the door opened. She looked up at me with a big smile, bent forward and nodded. Awkwardly, I nodded in return.

“Hello Mrs. Nakashima,” I said. “I’m Rex, the one who talked with you on the phone last week.”
“Ahso, Hai,” she replied in Japanese. “Please come in Alex.”

“Did she not hear me correctly?” I thought.  It wasn’t until she repeated my name several times more that I realized she couldn’t pronounce the letter “R” with words that began with “R.”  Instead, she pronounced the letter “L” with a brief “Ah” in front of it, much like how Filipinos interchange their “F” and “P”s.

She looked at what I was holding under my arms and smiled. “You won’t need those,” she said. “Chanoyu is not zazen. Our meditation is not sitting. It is moving meditation,” she continued as she smiled.

She had me take my shoes off and instructed me to place them neatly against the wall facing outward so that I can easily slip back into them on my way out. We then entered the house and sat down as she gave me a brief introduction to Chanoyu. After about twenty minutes, her students began filtering in to attend class.

There were five people including myself that night. Four of us were the guests and the fifth person was the host. He was the person who performed the actual ceremony, which included the making and serving of tea.

Inside the tea room, us four guests sat on our knees next to each other as we watched the host carefully and gracefully prepare tea like I’ve never seen before. Every movement he made was precise and graceful. I knew right then that Chanoyu involved a great level of discipline. Unfortunately, just when I began experiencing the serenity of the ceremony, a million ants seemed to fill every crevice of my feet.

I was not used to sitting on my knees, so after only ten minutes, the discomfort associated with one’s legs falling asleep overtook me. Thankfully, I was allowed to sit cross legged for the remainder of that night. At the end of the evening, I was so impressed that I enrolled in her classes.

Two years into my training with her, she helped make it possible for me to travel to Kyoto, Japan to attend an intensive course on Japanese gardens geared specifically for international students. After returning from Japan, I continued with my Chanoyu training. After my third year of training, an opportunity to work for master gardener, Hoichi Kurisu, in Florida came my way. Naturally, I seized the opportunity and move my family to Florida.

With the new opportunity, also came the end of my Chanoyu training with Nakashima sensei. I kept touch with her through hand written letters and an occasional visit or phone call. Of the several people who made an impact in my life, she is definitely one I will never forget. Sadly, I learned today of her recent death.

She was more than a Chanoyu teacher to me, and I will always hold a special place in my heart for her. When we first met, I was still dealing with the fresh and heavy pains of losing my parents and sister. She was there to both comfort me and encourage me to move forward in life. She always referred to me as her “boy.” When she asked me how I was, she would say, “How’s my boy doing?” Even with others, I heard her refer to me as such.

She taught me about the importance of living what we believed through our actions, living each day in the present moment, choosing a path in life that serves others, selflessness, compassion, dedication, and discipline. She was a living example of someone who lived a life of vocation; a life that centered on helping others.

She will be missed, but never forgotten. Her spirit will continue to live on through the good things she passed onto me and many others. May eternal rest be granted upon her, and may perpetual light shine upon her forever.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Inspirational Artifacts for Today’s Generation

My debut novel, “Igorotdo: The Enlightened Warrior Within,” is based on the premise that one’s cultural heritage could be a catalyst for personal and spiritual development. It combines real historical events and fictional storytelling to inspire readers towards realizing this idea. Recently, these ideas of connecting cultural heritage to personal development found their way into the world of historical artifacts. 

A few days before my book’s release in November, I learned about 10,000 Filipino artifacts inside the hidden vaults of the Chicago Field museum.  To my amazement, I discovered that roughly 4,000 of them are of Cordillera / Igorot origin. It happened during an event at the Chicago Field Museum called “Marae Encounter,” where the Chicago Filipino-American community met with the museum staff in the tradition of a Maori Marae encounter. During the event, I met Nepia Mahuika, an indigenous Maori from New Zealand. I never met a Maori, but what I knew of them earned my utmost respect.

Last year I helped promote the fund-raising event to helpthe indigenous Ainu of Japan travel to New Zealand so they can learn from the Maori how to better revitalize and ensure the survival of their dying culture. The thought of one indigenous culture learning from another intrigued me so much that I began doing some research on the Maori. I quickly became impressed by the Maori and their successful efforts to preserve their culture.

After listening to Nepia Mahuika’s inspiring speech that night, I had a conversation with him that followed with a haka lesson. He complimented me on my efforts to promote my Igorot heritage. I was so moved that I gave him my very first signed copy of my book. Because of him I became inspired to take an active role in promoting the artifacts that came from the land of my ancestors. On my way home, I began mentally forming what is now the 4K Breaths of Heritage Crusade.

With the help of my cousin, Maria Luz Fang-asan, and friends from abroad; I steeped myself in researching the first few artifacts featured in our website’s first gallery. In the process, I was surprised to discover that many present-day Igorots either have little knowledge of old artifacts or lack the interest to learn about them. Though surprising, the first doesn’t bother me because I know ignorance is simple to solve through education. The latter, however, is quite disturbing simply because “interest” is the foundation of anything worthwhile.   

I believe the greatest obstacle this project has in gaining the interest of many Igorots is the fact that they come from and represent our “old ways.” In general, society discourages traditional ways by labeling them “old fashion.” As a result, people easily to fall into the false notion that there’s no room in our modern society for the old ways. To combat this, I created Alex, my book’s main character.

Alex was anything but old fashioned. He was a contemporary and progressive man surrounded by material success. It took head-on collisions with events of old for him to realize how unsuccessful he truly was. By connecting with the historical past, he discovers the enlightened warrior within him and thus, becomes a better person.

Like the historical events in Alex’s journey, the 4,000 Cordillera / Igorot artifacts posses valuable things that can also help individuals connect with something within, thus helping them become a better person. It’s this “inward” connection that counts most. On the “outside” one can appear connected to their culture by their ability to speak, eat, and dress the part, but if they are disconnected from the core values and virtues of their heritage; they are essentially disconnected.  The artifacts can help us discover and connect with new meanings in our lives.

For example, some of my favorite artifacts are those that relate to the art of weaving native textiles. Things like the enabel (backstrap looms) and lilidsan (cotton gin), and pinakpagan (blanket) speak of a culture in where identity and meaning are woven into the mere fabrics of their souls. This is what sets them apart from today’s textile world. Personally, I draw particular inspiration from the symbols woven into the Bontoc fabrics. In fact, these symbols are the primary inspiration behind the magic blanket that takes Alex through his journey in my book.

Historically, the eye, human figure, spear, lizard, snake, and star have their own traditional meanings, but I applied a fictional touch by having them represent certain characteristic traits of Igorots. The eye represents cultural heritage, the human figure – life purpose, shield – courage, lizard – resilience, spear – bravery, snake – fortitude, and star – virtue. All of these things are important in life, yet are all too often ignored or taken for granted.

Another artifact that inspires me is the simple farming tools such as the Tinguian planting stick. In my book, I describe a group of women turning soil and how they find joy in it. How many of us can truly say we enjoy our work? Statistics in America say that the majority of Americans hate their jobs. Forbes says that 70% of Americans hate their jobs. This shouldn’t be. We should all strive to work hard and enjoy doing what we do.

In addition, the simplicity of life that these planting tools imply is desperately needed in today’s society. How much material “stuff” do we really need? We keep collecting stuff upon stuff upon stuff. Parents work double jobs just to keep up with the payments of their stuff, while quality time for children and spouse are unnecessarily sacrificed. It’s sad to see how materialism often plays a major role in the number of broken families and marriages today.

Strangely, as a devout Catholic, I also find inspiration in the artifacts that relate to our pagan origins such as the carved anito, bulul spirits and deities.  Many Cordillerans have converted to Christianity since the turn of the twentieth century. My mother was one of them. In fact, she was the first Christian in her family. Her father, a pagan priest, was the second as he was converted by my mother just prior to his death.  She rejected the old pagan practices and wanted nothing to do with them.

For a long time, I too shared her feelings, but the more I learn about our pagan ways; the more I appreciate the old adage “something is better than nothing.”  When I consider the rampant spread of narcissism, selfishness, and rejection of a supreme being in our society; I find consolation that my ancestors recognized something other than themselves. In fact, their beliefs and spiritual nature helps me appreciate the old ways while strengthening my personal Catholic faith.

If people allow themselves to appreciate these artifacts, they can discover new meaning and inspiration that not only draws them closer to their cultural heritage, but can ultimately help them become a better person. These 4,000 hidden Cordilleran / Igorot artifacts need the support of the generations that followed so that our indigenous cultural heritage can thrive as that of the Maori.

Kindly, take this moment to view the 4k Breaths of Heritage Crusade website to see how you can support their efforts.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The MLK of Igorotdo

When it comes to speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., most people only know his “I Have a Dream” speech.  They don’t know the other lesser-known, yet powerful ones. One of his most underrated speeches is the one about the “Three Dimensions of Life that Make Life Complete.” The three dimensions come from the twenty first chapter of the biblical book of Revelation. They are: 1) the length of life, 2) the breath of life, and 3) the height of life. 

MLK describes the length of life as “accepting ourselves and our tools.” The breath of life is the “outward concern for the welfare of others,” and finally, the height of life is the “upward reach for God.” In his words, “Now you got to have all three of these to have a complete life.”

Upon listening to his speech, which I’ve heard many years ago, I couldn’t help but reflect on my novel, “Igorotdo: The Enlightened Warrior Within.” Throughout the entire process of writing the book, MLK’s speech never came to mind. Yet, like the ebb and flow of tides; its words splash onto the literary shores of my story and pull its themes back into its body of meanings. When seen through the perspective of MLK’s speech, the novel bears strong similarities to the three dimensions of life.

In the book, Alex, the protagonist, encounters and inhabits various characters. These people help him re-connect to his estranged cultural heritage, resulting in the understanding of his “length of life.” These same characters, particularly the enlightened samurai, also help him discover the self-centeredness of his being and guide him to his “breath of life.” As both dimensions become a part of him, Alex’s “height of life” comes naturally, thus allowing him to become “complete.”

Read MLK's "Three Dimensions of a Complete Life" here.

The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life from Sweet Speeches on Vimeo.