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The missing piece |

Sunday Lifestyle

The missing piece

Armi Millare - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - A few weeks ago, I got a call from a good friend of mine who works at Oxfam: Interim Media, Advocacy and Campaigns coordinator Maya Quirino. She asked me if Up Dharma Down had a schedule for the first week of November; she wanted us to do a show in Tacloban City, where we actually had just come from a week before, and I said, “Yes, we can; it’s a tight week but we can probably work out something if we coordinate it with our manager.”

A few phone calls later the date was set. I thought it would be a good chance for me to see Tacloban again. But I was also exhausted, not to mention limping from a back injury that made me unable to walk for weeks. When on tour, we normally don’t get to go around much. First to fly in, first to fly out, and hotel transfers from airports to concert venues are the only places we get to visit and for the past three years it has been that way. It had come to a point that I was afraid to admit I was beginning to feel burned out. But this was Oxfam, I thought: I know these people and I’ve always had a soft spot for Tacloban City in particular.

The first time I visited Tacloban during Christmas of 2013 was with friends. Actors Ping Medina, Alessandra de Rossi and chef Jetro Rafael (from Van Gogh Is Bipolar) and I went around the town of San Juan and we cooked them a huge pot of balbacua and ordered some lechon for their Noche Buena. As soon as I got out of Tacloban, I found I’d left behind a (broken) piece of myself, but I took home insights that helped me get through what I admittedly thought then was a heartache that would last me decades. But just like magic, it took a little over two months, and I was back on my feet. I suppose that trip showed me that I was in need of a reminder of how lucky I was. Though my (health and other) issues were legitimate, I still had my basic needs in life met without interruption, and I had family and friends I could still run to if I couldn’t get it together on some days, while they had lost everything and were helpless in rebuilding from scratch.

Here we are, two years after my first visit. Looking back, those issues from when I first started joining on-site advocacies with Oxfam seem so little now; some of the instances I honestly have trouble remembering at this point. It seemed to me that the way to fix a broken heart was to visit a broken city; and since then, I’ve found it to be true in gaining the perspective that was spawned by that experience. But this time, it wasn’t some boy who had broken my heart. It was no one, or maybe I’m not as afraid to admit it was me — I broke my own heart, having acquired a certain point of view in life that no longer matched the times. I did not adapt well to the changes, being a creature of habit and a lover of all things normal and of a life of simplicity, and I couldn’t accept the fact that the passion I had applied to my work would be the very enemy of my obtuseness and social anxiety — I would panic at the sight of huge crowds; some days I would find myself tearing up minutes before going up onstage; and to be very honest, I still have trouble understanding the need for others to still have me around when I’m done singing and giving it my all up there. Not long after, it manifested in my body without much faith to help me get by.

Before the show in Tacloban, I had a casual talk with Leah Payud, the program manager of Speak Out, Stand Up. She explained to me the reason why we were needed there: 85 percent of the internally displaced people of Tacloban City (those still living in the coastal areas and in transitional homes) have to be relocated at the soonest possible time. To be fair to the local government, and with the help of various non-profit organizations, homes were built; but the fact that the homes are slowly deteriorating due to foundational problems and the lack of fresh running water, make them uninhabitable. There had been reports of domestic violence and early pregnancies due to the living conditions that are not safe for young women and children, and those who are part of the LGBT community or living without dependents come last on the list of those waiting to be shuttled to new homes.

Oxfam’s Program called TRIP (Tacloban Resettlement Integrated Program) tackles exactly the needs of the IDPs — from gender-sensitive programs, to creating a dialogue between the local government and those directly involved in the day-to-day challenges of living in a danger zone, to educating them with adaptation programs to know what to do in case another disaster strikes while the resettlement problems get fixed. While all of these have been figured out for us, we must take part and act on it by sharing and putting Tacloban’s rehabilitation watch on the forefront of national concerns.

While I understood the urgency, it did not quite hit me that strongly — until I slowly walked to the stage. The people stood up from their seats, all smiles, anticipating our performance that night. I instantly thought that I had finally found the missing piece to balancing out the sometimes crazy and almost unrealistic state of mind the nature of my job often brings. I was awestruck by their love for the music, and that their wish to be entertained and to be uplifted made them come to the Astrodome despite what was lacking in their lives — comfortable homes — and that for a moment, I felt, the songs I loved to write would leave a gentle cushion for the everyday blows of life

In fact, from where I sit now, I realize that this need is almost as important as having a healthy understanding of one’s sense of purpose. I learned so much from that night and it changed so many things inside of me. The dose of reality I was fed showed me this: that perhaps my true calling is to round up this many people through something I can do with such ease — writing these songs and singing them — and this helped me to realize that, at some point, the amount of “success” one achieves in life is only emptiness, unless it’s used to open up to others — that opening up can fill the emptiness, and nothing else.

Writing this took me many drafts, trying to conceal my purest sentiments at first, but it had to come down to the very basic truth for it to flow naturally. Now I realize that being able to connect to people through music on a spiritual level is a gift that I should never be ashamed of, or take for granted. I also saw the importance of taking care of one’s body and to speak up, because nobody will do this for me. The way the people in that audience thanked us, by looking at us in the eye with pride and excitement, are only some of the things I will forever take with me from every show we perform. It seems everything can be easily broken in life, but the spirit is something that can be rebuilt by one magical moment as well. And for everything I once did with pessimism and doubt, or with an exhaustion that resulted in irrational decisions and emotions, I now instead began to believe in a power so strong that it can only be expressed through something I finally understand as a gift and not just a skill.

This is my offering to the very people who have taught me the virtue of plodding on and to search deep within me, no matter what the circumstances; to remember my roots and to remind myself during moments of doubt that I did want this and that I must adapt to the changes and continuously work hard to find a purpose bigger than I am; and I am certain that this is it. Perhaps if we sound this message out on a national level — which the people of Tacloban told me they needed badly — then they would somehow be complete; and I can’t wait for that day when they start truly living again, body and spirit.

I’m slowly recovering on both ends, but I see things coming full circle. Now it is clear to me that everything can be seen with precision through science; but its corresponding mysteries will only make sense when we strip ourselves of the unnecessary and open ourselves to compassion and gratefulness.


I would also like to ask for your help to sign a petition for the ASEAN leaders to fight for our right to Adaptation Funds this coming December for the Paris Climate Talks. If we are able to collect 5,000 signatures before Nov. 27, 2015 the whole of Southeast Asia will benefit and be protected with technology and supplies for cyclones, storms and floods in the coming years. Kindly log on to my Instagram account and click the link to participate. Thank you for your support.


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