24 June 2014

Silent story-keepers

It's one thing to feel lucky for being able to do what you love (say, write) for a living and quite another to do it on your own terms (say, write about what you actually love the way you want to).

Browsing through my photo albums, I came across the beautiful images of Manila American Cemetary and Memorial. I was assigned to do a story on it for Rektikano Magazine and, to date, it's been one of my favorite published works. Below is the original/unedited draft.


Silent story-keepers
Appreciating the bitter-sweet beauty of the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial with John Silva
We may need to have made an indelible mark on our lives, to have married the wrong person, pursued an unfulfilling career into middle age or lost a loved one before architecture can begin to have any perceptible impact on us, for when we speak of being ‘moved’ by a building, we allude to a bitter-sweet feeling of contrast between the noble qualities written into a structure and the sadder wider reality within which we know them to exist. A lump rises in our throat at the sight of beauty from an implicit knowledge that the happiness it hints at is the exception.

—Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, 2006

Among the many stories hidden under the grand narrative that is World War II is the story of the Sullivan brothers from Iowa. Francis, George, Joseph, Madison and William Sullivan signed up for the navy. When the recruiter told them they had to board different ships, the oldest Sullivan said no. “Either you have us together or not have us at all,” he insisted, and on to the war they went, travelling in one ship.

In September of 1943, the ship carrying the Sullivans was hit by a Japanese torpedo. Three of the five brothers instantly died while two hung on a life raft with the other passengers. One of the two brothers was so weak that he had to let go. The remaining Sullivan, after seeing each of his brother die, decided to let go himself and sink to his death.

Back in Iowa, Mr and Mrs Sullivan opened the door of their house to two Navy officers wearing a grave expression on their faces. The Sullivan parents, knowing what this all meant, asked, “Which one?” And the Navy men answered them with the fact: “All of them.”

The night was spent in national mourning. President Roosevelt phoned the Sullivans’s parents to apologize and give his condolences. Days later a law exempting siblings of men who already died in the war was passed.


Walls of names
When the war ended, the American government inquired the relatives of those who died if they wish to have the remains of their loved ones sent back to their homes. Most agreed, but the others suggested burying them with their comrades in arms. The suggestion prevailed and 14 military American cemeteries around the world were built and administered by the American government, one of which is the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in Fort Bonifacio (then Fort William McKinley), Metro Manila, the largest and the only one in the Pacific.

17,502 marble crosses are arranged in concentric rows in the memorial. The names on the crosses face outward. Of these remains, around 3,000 are un-identified—but only by humans. On their crosses is a poignant inscription: Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God. The un-named are interspersed with the named, signifying how they are all equally remembered. About 20 to 40 bodies were interlocked and could not be dismantled that they had to be buried together. On the cross they share is the inscription: Here rest in honored glory two comrade in arms. Whether they were intertwined in an embrace or in a last effort to protect one another, only they and God knew.

There are, however, those who had nothing left of them but their names. 36,285 bodies were still missing after the war, the five Sullivan brothers included. For them, two hemicycles containing 24 pairs of travertine fin walls were erected. Their names chiseled for posterity on the walls.

19 June 2014

Dressing problems

Wednesday 11am, managed to drag myself out of bed, showered brushed teeth put on whatever clothes. A glance at the mirror—out of habit—didn't like what I saw, changed outfits three or four times.

Walang gana, we say in Tagalog. That's how I felt. Despite this lack of enthusiasm or better yet a mental readiness to face the day, I couldn't go out looking pangit.

And that was something to be happy about. That I still cared. That I haven't accepted defeat and instead 'dressed up, fought, [made] amends'.


On a related note, I came across this article about Elizabeth Hawes today. I haven't heard of her and, as the author remarked, neither have you. The piece, however, served as a good introduction to the American fashion designer. Let me end this blog with Hawes' words so you can begin reading her:
If you’ve solved your dressing problems satisfactorily for yourself, you are bound to attract the people you want to attract and for the reasons you want to attract them: a better job, a new mate, a competent lover, a fresh friend.

15 June 2014

A lonely office

Sadness is saddest when quiet. When you find it inside a cold house, when love has learned late how to express itself.
Those winter Sundays
Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
To me and a couple of friends, the above is our go-to Father's Day poem. Regardless of season and kind of relationship, though, the poem speaks of the unglamorous, everyday—even administrative—nature of love.

As pointed out in this essay (about knowing when one is ready to marry), 'love' has two varieties: being loved and loving, yet we have this 'immature fixation on the former'. Whether we are children, friend, or the other half of a couple, we are guilty of this.

It does take work. Love's effects which are obvious to us may seem magical, but we must remember the momentary magic is borne out of meticulous planning and tedious practice. Not even a blood bond can warrant love's endurance.

07 June 2014


Colors of the Wind didn't hold my attention during the time Pocahontas became popular. Last Thursday, though, I was at an event with a musicals theme and the song was performed. Then it hit me: Paint with all the colors of the wind is such a beautiful line.

Well, the proper thing to do afterwards is search for it on the net—music and lyrics—listen a hundred times then sing along.

So I discovered more stunning lines. Sing with all the voices of the mountain... Roll in all the riches all around you / and, for once, never wonder what they're worth... You'll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon / for whether we are white- or copper-skinned...

More surprise. Further research taught me that Stephen Schwartz was the one who wrote it. But I saved the best for last. Below is my favorite part of the song, where 'colors of the wind' is placed in context and turned into poetry:
You can own the Earth and still
All you'll own is earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind.

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