2011 July 21
by Melinda Roos

cc Image Courtesy Erik Charlton ❘ Flickr

Mid thirties is a strange age to be in.  I first knew about the concept of death when I was 8 and my grandfather passed away.  He was 54 years old.  Until his passing, he was the only man I ever looked up to.  I grew up with him teaching me tennis and holding my hand.  And though while we were told that he had died at the time, I never really felt grief until I became a teenager and started missing him.

I kept wondering what life would have been with him around.  Oh how the dynamics in our family would have changed because he was such a central force to reckon with, a lynchpin.

The second death in my immediate circle was the passing of my grandmother at 90 years old a year ago.  A death that comes naturally with a life that’s lived and in the natural order of things is easier to accept.

But all around me for two years now friends, colleagues and acquaintances have slipped to the after life, like a house of cards falling slowly one by one.  When people die in their mid thirties or forties or fifties, we say, they’re too young to go.

It makes me wonder how far is this dark harvest from taking away anyone I know in my closest circle?  I wonder if we are courting death too much at our age with our lifestyle choices or is it simply, as fatalists would say, when it’s your time to go, it’s time to go?  Death keeps getting younger. Or have we just grown older?

And as grim and morbid as this subject may be, it’s a reality that we all have to face.  Every person’s passing is a stark reminder of how fragile, how thin is the line that divides dying from living.  We could be gone in an instant, leaving just memories behind.

It makes me want to fly home and attend every friend’s birthday, wedding or homecoming.  It makes me want to not miss anything for fear it might be the last.  It makes me want to reach out and iron every kink there ever was in any relationship I have with others and say, “Whatever it is that’s putting this wedge between us, it’s alright and it’s not significant. My love for you trumps everything else. Everything.”

It makes me want to huddle close to my children and hold them dearly so that my embrace will stay in their memory; so they feel loved with all of my life, long after I’ll be gone.  It makes me want to put down in writing all the stories swirling in my head. To make a mark, to leave a legacy that will forever live in the hearts I hope will be touched.

It makes me see how precious each day can be and the only way to go is to not waste talent, to love life and above all, to live it fully.

The paradox of having too much

2011 July 14

Chicken and ginger congee is my comfort food in times of sickness.  Burning from a high fever a week ago, I woke up with a squeamish stomach so I asked our house help to make one.

She made it deliciously, but there was too much chicken in the porridge.  I could taste its meat in every spoonful of soup I put into my mouth.  That “ruined” it for me, somehow.

You see, I flew with Philippine Airlines quite a lot in the past.  And I used to hang out in their business class lounges while waiting for the flight announcement.  They have a beautiful spread of canapés, open faced sandwiches and a huge pot, the kind you see in soup kitchens, of delicious chicken congee.  There wasn’t always a lot of chicken so part of the challenge was how to dip the ladle deep into the pot to come up with as much chicken meat at one go – for the ladle was huge and one ladle was all you need lest the bowl will overflow.

cc Image courtesy davemorris on flickr

I usually stirred the pot first to feel the chicken bits, tried to get a few pieces into the ladle and pour it into my bowl.  A squeeze of half a calamansi juice, a dash of black pepper and a sprinkling of dried garlic and fresh spring onions… I remember it vividly now as I brought the spoon to my lips and tasted the chicken meat I “triumphantly” caught, for I usually get four to five small slices on a bowl of ten spoonfuls.  It was heaven on an airport lounge.  I couldn’t go for a second for one bowl was filling enough.

Kind of reminds me when we were young children.  Hotdogs, chorizos and any processed meat never made it to my grandmother’s market basket.  She bought everything fresh from the vegetables to the live organic native chicken, which was slaughtered at home, much to our fascination.  Our father was the red meat guy, so on those very rare occasions he’d come home with hotdogs, corned beef and the like, it was party time for my sister and me.

Because of the scarcity of finding such on our table, my sister and I used to bury our hotdogs under our rice so we can get seconds or thirds.  We ate it with gusto much to the chagrin and consternation of my grandmother for she always said,

“Oh no, those kinds of food are really bad for you.  You don’t know where it’s coming from and what they put in there. It’s unhealthy.”  She never took so much as a single bite of any processed meat in all the years I lived with her.

Her choices weren’t a question of money for my grandfather left her a sizeable inheritance back in the day.  But she never really acquired much stuff.  And hardly threw anything away either.

Today, we live in a world where everything is at our fingertips.  I can’t even begin to count the hotdog varieties available from Frankfurter, kosher, Hungarian, German bratwurst, Mexican-style, Chicago and the list can go on forever.  There are more than 200 kinds of cookies in the supermarket. And when I want to just go for a quick grab of salad dressing I have to make up my mind on the following:  ranch, thousand island, Italian, Mediterranean, Greek, vinaigrette, reduced-calorie, low fat… it’s dizzying.

Supermarket shelves make me suffer from choice paralysis.  I’ve tried this so many times and I end up going home and whipping up my own dressing.  Two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, a spoonful of balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard from my fridge, sprinkling a bit of black pepper, salt and any chopped fresh herb on hand works every time. It doesn’t stress me out and I’m satisfied.

It is easy to acquire stuff these days, but do we really need most of it? When we take stock of what we have now, we don’t even use half of the things we already have in our possession. This irony is not lost on the soaring sales on how-to books on de-cluttering, Zen-like and minimalist living.

When something comes too easy and acquiring it doesn’t entail much work and sacrifice, the level of satisfaction it provides is fleeting.  Paradoxically, when we know we can’t have too much of something, our tendency to appreciate it dramatically increases.

Having less makes room for creativity and experience. And experience, as opposed to material things, are the stuff wonderful memories are made of.  Ten years on, who knew a pot of congee could make so much impression and elicit happy memories just from the sheer enjoyment of not having too much chicken in it?

On friendships, love and marriage

2011 June 21

cc Image Courtesy mendhak ❘ Flickr

A friendship can only last if everyone is on equal footing; no one should feel in competition or be threatened by another.  Not even when it exists only in one’s head.

The deeper the angst, the more aggression it manifests.  A deeply tormented soul spews equally lethal venom. And you can question the intentions of your best-est friends, no matter how well they mean.  But honesty – even just to yourself, can release you from all the heavy weight of denial you carry around with you.

I’ve learned that you can be in a happy marriage, or relationship, and still be tempted. Everything can change in a single moment depending on how you act or react to it.  In matters of the heart, one should love with complete abandon, and above all, have the courage to show it.

I’ve learned that even the best husband or wife can break your heart through inaction, disregard or thoughtlessness.

Relationships require a lot of effort. Even the most beautiful flower can only bloom with constant attention and care.

There are people you adore because of the sunshine they bring to your life; and there are those you love because they are your dearest friends – sunshine or not.  But at times it can be equally taxing being around the latter and there are days you need to pull away if only to recover your strength from the dark energy that surrounds them.

But you treasure them anyway, no matter what.

No one wants to deal with the unpleasantries and everybody avoids drama or confrontation because it is uncool.  I believe in keeping it truthful about sorrow just as we unequivocally squeal in joy and show the world our delight.

We don’t hide happiness, why should we hide sadness?

People have a hard time accepting that pain must be acknowledged alongside joy, or that falling in love is also an invitation to heartache.  One has to exist for the other to be true. It goes hand in hand.  It is what it is.

Still, the universe loves happy people; those who wear halos so vibrant a whole room just lights up when they enter it.  It is but human nature.

The people who love you will love you no matter what.  But there’s a limit to how far you can push them.  Challenging that love constantly may cause it to end.  Even the best of friends can annoy each other.

And when your moral compass flies out the window and no sense of reason or logic can seem to guide you, I’ve learned that if you look at the eyes of your child, you’ll find truth and meaning.  You will be capable of selflessness and be willing to do what is right once again.

The silence that leads to outrage

2011 May 21

I have been witness to the inherent goodness and decency of humanity in my lifetime.  And yet I’m still in disbelief that so much malice and rudeness can coexist at the same time.

A Malaysian guy who allegedly works for an ex-immigration official, posed as a “visa agent” who was supposed to facilitate our family’s expat and dependent visas together with our nanny’s extension of length of stay. He ran off with our nanny’s passport instead.  He singled out her passport probably because it was a Filipino one, and he endorsed our family’s Dutch passports to the proper agencies because those were obviously Dutch.

On the one hand, I breathe a sigh of relief that my family’s passports are safe; on the other hand, our nanny is not just any dispensable house help one may replace at any employment agency at a moment’s notice, though that would have been the more convenient alternative.  Nanny is part of our family, her mother has been working for us for almost two decades and she has watched over my daughters every time we go and visit the Philippines.  And despite other more enticing job offers, they have always chosen to stay with us.  That kind of commitment and loyalty is hard to replace so I take this personally.

While I battle with the outrage on how this could have happened and while I wrestle with the conflict this has caused between me and my husband whom I blame in some ways for letting this happen – maybe unfairly perhaps, a thousand other questions run through my mind.

cc Image Courtesy AlexBobica ❘ Flickr

How is it possible for any human being to think it is okay to fool one into giving him money in exchange for a service that he was never intent on delivering in the first place? How does one look at another in the eye and act legitimately having already the full intent to screw?  What is it in a person’s background and upbringing that makes him turn out this way?

In the course of the investigations and as things slowly begin to unravel, the modus operandi becomes clear.  For every lost passport and for every day of overstaying as a consequence, the immigration office charges RM30 per day.  So for as long as the impostor agent continually promises to deliver the “approved” visa and passport and doesn’t show up, and for as long as there are gullible people who think this is okay and accept this as just part of the norm -– then business is good for those involved.

Except for the poor and distraught victims of this kind of scam, of course.

How do civil servants of government agencies arrive at the thought of organising themselves to exploit the very position they are supposed to carry out with honour and integrity? When did it become acceptable practice that anyone who works for the government is synonymous to be corrupt? And majority of the people take this resignedly with a shrug of their shoulders.

We accompanied our nanny to the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur to file the necessary papers to apply for a replacement passport.  A guy in his fifties mans the lost passport counter.  When my husband’s turn came, he was professional and pleasant while my husband was explaining the situation.  Then he asked, “Where’s your maid?”

Our nanny, who was standing from behind my husband all this time, stepped toward the counter.  And just like that, as if the clouds opened up and showered its ire on him, Mr. Philippine Embassy raised his voice and bellowed at her in Tagalog, condescendingly, like a dog, “Where’s the copy of your lost passport! You come here and step forward because this is your problem!”

Nanny cowered in fear.  Taken completely by surprise and not quite understanding what brought on the assault, Nanny lost her voice prompting the guy to shout again, “do you have a copy of your lost passport!”

I was watching the proceedings all this time and something exploded in me.  I moved towards the counter, stood next to Nanny, looked him in the eye and asked him point blank and as loudly as he did, “Excuse me! Why are you talking to her like that?!”

All eyes in the waiting room and those of his colleagues turned towards us.  Mr. Philippine Embassy looked at me as if someone doused his face with cold water.  He shifted his gaze down and started shuffling papers on the counter and replied, “That’s my natural, that’s my natural”… but in a much more subdued tone.  Nanny was addressed with much more respect after that.

How twisted is it that it always has to take outrage before those who are in the position of power and authority wake up to the indignities and injustices they are inflicting on the citizens they should be serving?

Bless the child

2011 April 14

My two fellow writers in The Hague became full-pledged authors with the recent publication of their memoirs.

Niamh Ni Bhroin’s The Singing Warrior is a haunting account that chronicles her journey on finding happiness after a past filled with sorrow. Niamh was nine when the father of her school friend raped her during her first sleepover.  The nuns in her catholic school called her the whore of Babylon because she was left-handed.  She writes about all the other abuses that follows and how she coped with it through her singing. It took her fifty years to face the demons of her past and resolve to live a life of happiness despite all the pain. It is a heart-wrenching story of resilience and strength.

Carolyn Vines is an award-winning blogger who writes movingly about growing up being a black American amidst the backdrop of her family’s economic and emotional hardships. The events surrounding her tragic childhood have influenced greatly how she perceived herself as a black woman travelling and living abroad -– and how those events somehow stand in the way of her fully embracing the graces coming her way. She writes all these in a matter-of-fact, retrospective way devoid of self-pity in her book black and Abroad.  It is a journey of triumphant self-discovery.

cc Image Courtesy eflon ❘ Flickr

Their stories and countless others are testaments to how our childhood shapes our choices and the way we perceive our identities in adult life. It also reminds us how the pains we inflict on children, knowingly or not, lead to lifelong scars.

No matter how grown up you are there will be moments like when you are standing at your kitchen sink and memories from your childhood will flash before your eyes.  At times they are funny and they make you smile.  But the worst kind are those that make you cry.  Bittersweet recollections of a scathing insult an aunt hurled at you unendingly, a mother’s absence and that feeling of emptiness accompanying it, or a father’s unfulfilled promises.  They all come in waves. Caught off guard, they feel as hurtful as the day they were inflicted on you.  They lie down low but they never really go away.  They linger on and stay with the child in you.

It continues on to this day.  Somewhere out there are religions and political opportunists claiming to represent the rights of the unborn child proclaiming each sperm that unites with an egg must lead to ovulation and reproduction, regardless of the consequences. As if bearing a child out of poverty or of unfit mental state is a lesser crime.  And what happens next? A six-year-old son is made to perform a lewd macho dance in the guise of comedy and entertainment in exchange for a quick buck.  A mother, out of desperation, drives her children and herself into the river to drown. And behind every dictator is a deprived, traumatized or abused little child.

If we want to have a better world, we need to start by treating children right.  Children deserve the best opportunities that enable them to become the best persons they can be.  They deserve the kind of childhood that makes them look back and smile at their fondest memories.  It isn’t right to burden them with our pains; they will have their own when they are all grown up.  It isn’t right to make them work at such a young age; they will have to work for the rest of their lives.

Kahlil Gibran once wrote: “The things which the child love remains in the domain of the heart until old age.  The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remain over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves.”

And so it goes too for childhood sorrows.  So bless the child, honor her and give her a happy life.