A Quarantine Reflection

A Quarantine Reflection Nancy Cudis Ucag

When I join online meetings, my ears would itch and turn numb each time someone would mention how we must learn to cope in this “new normal,” hence, we must meet online temporarily until current circumstances permit us to do otherwise.

Nobody seems to question the validity of the phrase or doubt the deflated impact that the term “new normal” aims to encompass. There is nothing new about meeting online when 70 million Filipinos are using chat apps to communicate on a daily basis. And there is absolutely nothing normal about a situation wherein I cannot stop, stand in close range, and complain comfortably with a neighbor about the price of rice on my way to the supermarket because I have to brisk-walk my way through all of my errands and come home with an ardent prayer that will last for a week, hoping that I did not contract the virus.

The term is a lie I will use to convince myself that the popular synonym these days for an unacceptable abnormality is “new normal.” While words such as these are normally important for me to make sense of things, I have been too busy processing the magnitude and coping with the effects of COVID-19 on my personal environment to give credence to new word coinage. The busyness has to do with overwhelming simultaneous shifts with the way we think, act, and do things.

The most beautiful can be the most aggressive

I have been meaning to share my gardening experience with purple queens, a special kind of plant, early this week. However, my roller-coaster thoughts on COVID-19 took over the blank sheet and before I knew it, I kept appealing to people to stay at home and to stay strong. My personal plea from the heart remains the same: Stay home. Stay put. Stay strong. Stay safe. Stay hopeful. Stay. Stay. And live.

As the entire province of Cebu, including its component cities, is now under lockdown, forcing residents to stay within the confines of their homes, people are sharing through social media how they are turning to reading and gardening to pass the time. To do any one of these things despite the constant barrage of news about COVID-19 hovering behind our necks like an eerie whisper in the wind is already a feat in itself.

Some of us work from home on top of worrying about food supply and the overall well-being of our family members. In my case, I work from home. I have always worked from a home office for the past six years, but the set-up pre-coronavirus has been generally worry-free. I teach from home now as well and the shift has been a pick-and-shovel experience for the class in the past two weeks because of the additional administrative requirements we need to fulfill. However, no matter how busy it can get, there is always time for gardening.

Stay strong. Stay hopeful. Stay.

Stay home. Stay safe. Against COVID-19.
In these abnormal times, as we try to live through the motions of time with an infectious disease in the pervasive backdrop, the life of bookworms and micro-business owners like me is also disrupted. In my case, the world is distracting me from reading, from working and even from writing with my usual focus and absorption. I am frequently tempted to leech off information, both negative and positive, from social media every other hour, hoping to connect dots of rationality and logic in human behavior, to discover glimmers of government action, to temper my fears. Each time, I would be overwhelmed by the amount of fake news and by the capacity of the people to produce negative energy and go against basic prevention tips. That search for hope, for a speck of silver lining is replaced by gut-depth dread that we will be our own sad undoing in the future.

These past two weeks are the longest I have ever lived through, longer than the time I spent with my husband-then-boyfriend when he was shot, nearly went into critical condition, and spent two weeks in recovery. I grapple to make sense of what is happening and, when I couldn’t, I would channel my tears to my heart and hold them tight there because my focus now for my family is one grateful day of home quarantine at a time. My appeal to you is to be strong, physically and mentally, while you stay safe and secure in your home. Eat properly, exercise, sleep enough, listen to positive music, pray, laugh, enjoy each moment. Find strength in God and in meditation, tend your inner peace, focus on the important. Even when the news of the infectious disease steals your time when you worry, it should not rob you of the opportunity to live as a blessed human being, a creation of God, gifted with a new day of sun, land, air, water, and the constant hearts of those who love you.

Stay home. Stay put. Stay strong. Stay safe. Stay hopeful. Stay.

Stay. And live.

My Bible reading experience, from childhood to the present

Nancy Cudis Ucag Bible Reading Bible Studies
If asked to name a book I have read that I will never forget in my lifetime, I will probably request for allowances and ask that I can name not one but a few. This is because I read more while working through my businessmore than I possibly could if I am working in an 8-hour office job and commuting through a two-hour traffic 20 times a month. After I left a stable job in 2014 to venture into a path with only God as my heart’s companion, I read 30 books within a year. It is nothing to brag about, of course, because, in my perspective, it showed how deprived, how starved for reading I was during the years I was intensely focused and almost horse-blindered on my corporate work.

To answer the question on the unforgettable books I have read, I am at a crossroads, just like when I am asked where my favorite places to go are or what my favorite desserts are. I can mention many books. In fact, I can say the books I have finished reading are my favorite books. After all, why and how did I manage to complete them? There must be something in it that got me hooked to the first word to the last. That something may be the moral lessons the story contained or the entertainment value it offered or the graceful composition of words that warm the heart and boost the mind.

However, there is one book that never ceases to amaze me. Over the years, I have built a connection with this book, a connection too mysterious, too deep, even too complex for words. When I was a child, I carried it around because I was told to. When I was a teenager, I took mail lessons about it because I wanted to understand it. When I was an ignorant young adult, I criticized it for the violence it contains. And when I have become an adult with a free will, I open it for guidance and inspiration without a nun or a teacher dictating behind my back.

Yiyun Li’s golden trove of emerald gems

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl chinese literature fiction short stories China Asia
Loneliness beyond words, pain beyond understanding, sadness beyond control. Their “beyond-ness” is what makes them challenging to write and to read. And yet, in her short story collection titled Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li was able to reveal lonely characters in her own words and made them too skin-prickly real, fill the stories with seas of painful experiences for readers to dive in and discover understanding in their depths, and describe the human condition called sadness so acutely one can almost taste it at the tip of one’s tongue, grasp it, and then, perhaps, contain it.

This was my experience within and after reading Gold Boy, Emerald Girl in January, a tearjerker start to my reading experience this year, a serious deviation in my plan to take it easy and, hence, read subjectively easy-to-read books. If anything, the book made me feel too much, from an Asian perspective while living in a country heavily influenced by the Chinese, to the point that I physically and strongly set it aside once I got to the middle of the third short story titled Prison. Then I stopped for a few days, almost ready to give it up. What more can there possibly be? What more can I possibly feel? I already read some sad short stories by Gilda Cordero-Fernando or those found in Manila Noir. But like a person with a tiny bothersome splinter inside a finger that needs to be removed in order to feel relieved, I returned to Li’s stories with a heavy heart and finished them in the same state.

A glimpse of my short story reading experience and my personal Deal Me In challenge

#DMI2020 deal me in challenge short stories Philippine literature Japanese short stories
I remember someone who asked me what short stories I would recommend for her to read given that, in her words, the short story is not as popular as the other genres. I was at the time ready to steel myself up to defend the literary form I love and enjoy so much. Of course, my argument would have been out of context. Perhaps she was talking from experience or from something she had read or from a global perspective. Instead of sparking a debate, I gave the names of writers whose works I found very memorable, like Filipino writer Estrella Alfon who was an embodiment of a talent that was too advanced for the period she lived in and like 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature winner and Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, because I thought, everyone loves Munro’s works, right? (I know I do.)

I cannot remember when I started reading short stories. It just happened. I probably picked up a book and read a short story, perhaps a work by American short story writer O. Henry. Without profound self-awareness, I then turned to other books that have short stories in them and have been reading this literary form since. What I can recall clearly is the birth and growth of my excitement over Philippine literature maybe around six years ago. When I was still enrolled in a couple of courses in a postgraduate degree I did not finish, I scoured the main library during a sleepy lunch break and discovered masterpieces by Alejandro Roces, Francisco Arellana, Paz Latorena, Aida Rivera-Ford, Paz Marquez Benitez, Alfon, and more in the Filipiniana section. I returned to this section almost every Saturday for the remainder of the semester.

I continue to read Philippine literature, especially short stories in English, to this day. Along the way, I discovered the works of Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Gregorio Brillantes, among others. All their stories are reflective of the Filipino life and indicative of the common Filipino traits: optimistic and resilient in the face of adversity, family-oriented, religious, independent, and hospitable. When I read their works, I am always awestruck by the writers’ fluid mastery in English writing. Literary critic Gémino Abad described this as Filipinos’ colonization of the English language to which we were exposed during the brief British invasion of the Philippines and which has become an integral part of the education system enforced under the American rule.

Joining the Japanese Literature Challenge for the first time

japanese literature 13 dolce bellezza #JapaneseLitChallenge13 Yukio Mishima Donald Keene Ryūnosuke Akutagawa Jay Rubin
You may have heard of people who say they had trudged into certain paths because of certain life-changing events, like how a moving speech of a leader can prompt one to take the route of a public servant. Sometimes, it only takes one moment to change a pathway in one’s history. I had a similar experience with Japanese literature. I only heard that Japanese writers have had very good literary yields and yet my interest was tepid at best. Many years ago, I started reading Tokyo: A Biography by Stephen Mansfield, but, despite my profound appreciation for the richness of Japan’s culture and heritage, I remained inattentive to its literature and focused my immersion elsewhere, such as in the works by Agatha Christie and Filipino writers Estrella Alfon and Gilda Cordero-Fernando.

japanese literature 13 dolce bellezza the hunting gun yasushi inoue #JapaneseLitChallenge13
This changed. And it’s because of one book: The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue. I bought my copy from a local online seller for two reasons. While other buyers were scrambling to beat each other for books on philosophy, poetry and feminism, this little beautiful green book published by Pushkin Press went with almost little attention. Then I thought about starting small in my repassage into Japanese literature. I bought it, read it and unexpectedly broke my heart over it. I talked with my patient husband about The Hunting Gun for hours and used it as reference as I plowed to understand men’s libertine affairs apart from and beyond those with their wives.

2019 literary fortunes, 2020 reading thoughts, and book wishes in between

When I will look back on this year, I know I will remember it with content. At this point, I can already describe 2019 as my period of serious self-care, which I hope to continue in 2020: I was able to eat properly, sleep well and longer under the pressure of deadlines, exercise several days a week, take walks around the neighborhood, attend events I want to go, read books I want to read, nurture a potted garden of ferns, write about the things that are special to me, and connect more with people I choose to be with. I’m in my thirties now and, at my age, I am fortunate to be living with heartwarming consciousness what I perceive to be a simple life, one that is a preferred contrast to my rushed existence during my teens and twenties.

One of my fortunes in 2019 was becoming a member of the Women in Literary Arts (WILA)-Cebu. I attended my first monthly meeting of the group in November during which exciting plans were put forward for 2020, whetting my interests in creative nonfiction and short story writing. Another good thing that happened to me this year is the reading of books I wanted to read either by design or by impulse. These books are:

Becoming a WILA member

Women in Disaster Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop Women in Literary Arts WILA Cebu
Participants and panelists of the "Women in Disaster" 
Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop in 2015 
(Photo by Dr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu)
Four years ago, I sat by the edge of the horseshoe seating arrangement in a workshop that would propel my membership application to the Women in Literary Arts-Cebu. To my right was poet Mrs. Ma. Milagros “Gingging” T. Dumdum. In 2018, she successfully launched a book of poems titled Falling on Quiet Water (Haiku Sequence). She is also a former president of WILA. To my left was Prof. Lilia T. Tio, associate professor of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu College of Communication, Art and Design. She received the Gawad Paz Marquez Benitez 2019 from the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas or Umpil.

Before me was a panel of first-rate experts and award-winning writers: Dr. Marjorie Evasco, Prof. Susan Lara, Prof. Victor Peñaranda, and retired Judge Simeon Dumdum Jr. The room we occupied at St. Mark Hotel for the Women in Disaster creative nonfiction writing seminar-workshop was filled with people I admire. There was the late Ms. Erma Cuizon, co-founder of WILA, whose Sunday column in SunStar Cebu I had enjoyed reading. There was Prof. Erlinda Kintanar-Alburo, a literary scholar and my teacher when I took up some units in literature at the University of San Carlos (USC). There was Dr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu, director of the USC Cebuano Studies Center. And there was my former supervisor at work, Ms. Haidee Palapar, former president of WILA and whose strength and leadership I respect.

I felt both misplaced and humbled to be in the same room with all of them. It was not the first literary workshop I attended. Many years ago, when I was a dense and ignorant college student, I was miraculously accepted as a fellow to a workshop where Prof. Alburo and esteemed poet Prof. Merlie Alunan sat as panelists. I submitted silly short stories about death and sex, and how I got accepted still boggles my mind to this day.

13 short stories of hunger, desperation, arrogance

The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker by Gilda Cordero-Fernando
You can attribute my past lack of knowledge on Filipino artists to the degree I completed in college where I was so focused on media and its relationships with the world. Even as a child, I was already reading books by foreign writers. When I took some units in literature during my erratic journey to some sort of a postgraduate degree, I missed the opportunity to sharpen my knowledge on Philippine literature. This changed a little when I hoarded as many as I can Filipiniana books I stumbled upon at Booksale a few years ago. And I started reading more.

One of these hoarded books is The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker, a collection of 13 short stories by Gilda Cordero-Fernando. I first read A Love Story from the same collection as my participation in the #DealMeIn2019 challenge. In the past week, I finished reading the rest, often taking pauses in between short stories and engaging in a bewildering reflection that the previous short story read demands.