2015: MAY YOUR CHOICES REFLECT YOUR HOPES, NOT YOUR FEARS
My resolution for 2015: To grow.
Part I: Intro
Part II: My Merry Little Christmas
Part III: May Your Choices Reflect Your Hopes, Not Your Fears
Part IV: Growth
Part V, A: Ten Lessons I’ve Learned on Hurt
Part V, B: My New Japanese Friend and Her Simple Words of Wisdom
Part V, C: Leap of faith
Part VI: Begin Again
Part VII: A Mantra for the New Year
Part I: Intro
I rejoice in gratitude for having entered 2015 ready to leap from one cliff, and having left it on the other side. It’s true what they say – sometimes the only mode of transportation is that leap of faith for what is life if lived in regret?
Part II: My Merry Little Christmas
I found it strange to be celebrating this Christmas season alone – naturally, of course, since I am in a foreign land far from loved ones. Every year since I can remember, my holidays would brim with shopping, wrapping presents, preparing music for choirs, organizing fundraisers and caroling events, volunteering, decorating – you know, all that holiday jazz. Most importantly, my days would brim with laughter and togetherness with the special people who bring joy into my life. And growing up Catholic, I always knew Christ is to be at the center of Christmas, but this year, I felt that center truly crystallize. Archbishop Fulton Sheen expresses my sentiments best when he wrote: “We cannot have the word Christmas without Christ: so neither can we be Merry on the inside without Him.” How true this was to me. Neither can we be merry on the inside without Him. Hence, despite the absence of my loved ones, I felt…merry. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe Christmas is best spent with loved ones, but celebrating the newborn King in the stillness of this new land transported me to that quiet and unadorned night, thousands of years ago, in Bethlehem, where a child – who would one day save us all – was born. I fixed my gaze on the tiny wooden nativity display I had purchased from my visit to Bethlehem last year, and softly, I began to sing: O Holy Night…it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. No Christmas trees or carolers or fancy adornments; just me on this new tatami (a rush-covered straw mat forming traditional Japanese flooring) and past Christmas memories, yet I was joyful – and humbled. In the patch of moonlight, I began to cry tears of gratitude. I had a merry little Christmas indeed. Happy Birthday Jesus, I quietly whispered to heaven, then drifted off to sleep.
Part III: May Your Choices Reflect Your Hopes, Not Your Fears
Nelson Mandela once said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” At the start of 2015, I had one resolution: to live out those words. Doing that meant trying new things; it meant learning; letting go and letting God; it meant being as graceful as possible in times of defeat; it meant making and embracing mistakes, forgiving, and asking to be forgiven; it meant staying true to myself despite resistance; it meant acceptance; it meant choosing what’s right, not easy; it meant losing; it meant…to grow. And choosing what I’d hoped for instead of what I feared, I hoped, would enable me to grow.
Part IV: Growth
2015 did not start out easy. After nearly ten years of directing music at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (OLMC) church, the time came for me to leave. I had enjoyed my creative freedom and the people I’d worked with, so it was a difficult decision. Nevertheless, I realized that if I wanted to grow as a musician and in my faith, I had to gain experience in working with other people and groups, and get involved with other ministries. Moreover, I needed to get involved in a church much closer to home, not over an hour away! Thus, when the opportunity to become a Faith Formation Teacher at All Saints – the church across the street from where I was living – arose, I took it. Even so, I remember a sense of panic descend inside when I decided to resign from OLMC, which is accurately described in this quote: “I think part of the reason why we hold onto something so tight is because we fear that something that good won’t happen again.” It was true: I wanted to hold onto OLMC, but having stayed meant being afraid of the unknown; being afraid that I wouldn’t have that opportunity again. Where would growth be if I stayed in my comfort zone? So, I let go for the sake of growth. And in retrospect, growth – along with unforgettable experiences – surely followed.
I found it strange to be committed to a different parish, but the novelty was invigorating. OLMC was all I’ve known, and now, here I was, at All Saints, every Sunday; which turned into Tuesdays and Sundays; until I was practically there nearly four times a week, involved in multiple ministries. I surmise living across the street fostered my involvement. During this time, I learned a great deal about the Catholic faith through serving as a Faith Formation Teacher (a.k.a. Catechist), attending and giving talks, and participating in workshops and retreats. All this had definitely been contributing to my spiritual growth, but one thing was still missing to feeling fulfilled at All Saints: serving at mass through music. Having done this every Sunday at OLMC was incredibly rewarding, both spiritually and emotionally; it made me feel alive; not doing it made me feel like a puzzle piece was missing, which, obviously, was needed to complete the picture. I’d like to report that I took a proactive approach in securing a spot on the liturgical music roster of this parish, but by this time, I’d found myself juggling various tasks and commitments due to my involvement in other ministries, leaving me with little to no time for pursuit of this puzzle piece. But I did pray to God about this. To my pleasant surprise, the music director (whom I knew as he’d been pointed out to me numerous times) of this church approached me at some meeting (I forget which one). “You’re Monica right?” he asked, with much gusto. “I heard that you have music experience directing choirs. Is that right?” “Why yes, I do,” I replied, trying to remain calm since I had a feeling of where this was going. “That’s terrific!” He exclaimed. “How would you like to fill in for me on these dates. I am in such need of a pianist. You’ll be paid.” Without a hint of hesitation, I accepted. Honestly, I didn’t need to be paid to sub. I would’ve done it just so I could provide music for mass again! So the compensation was merely a cherry on top, or in my case, an extra side of bacon (mmm!). He probably heard about me from one of the ministries I’d been involved with, for which I provided music on numerous occasions.
Shortly thereafter, the music director proposed I become a regular musician. Needless to say, I accepted his proposal! During this time, I also started playing (the piano) for a choir (apart from the director’s choirs and cantors) led by one of the musicians on the music roster, who I had met through John. This musician, who also happened to be friends with John’s sponsors (old fellow OLMC choir-members-turned-into family), invited me and John to join their group to serve at mass every month. Without pause, I joined, grateful for yet another opportunity. In retrospect, I had been doing what I was afraid I would never do again (or at least for a long time) when I was deciding whether or not to let go of OLMC: play at mass regularly. I finally had my last puzzle piece.
As if my time at All Saints wasn’t fruitful enough, I started attending Pastoral Ministry School where ministers and coordinators at a Diocesan and University level taught; for the first time, I was receiving formal training in studying scripture, understanding Church history, theology, and more. Encouraged by one of the church leaders I’d been working with, I applied last December, and was accepted. So, I decided to go.
Amid all the things that All Saints has contributed to my spiritual journey and growth, the deepest impact was Good Friday (a.k.a. Christ’s passions and death (the Friday before Easter Sunday)). For the Good Friday service, I was asked to give a reflection on one of Jesus’s last words: I Thirst. After much prayer, I decided that, in this reflection, it was time to openly share a tragic event from my past in hopes of helping others heal. I almost failed. As I stood at the podium overlooking a sea of glaring eyes, I felt myself shrink. My voice began to tremble. My tears began to well. I could not say the word rape for the life of me. I tried three times, but reverted back to silence. I did not want to burst into tears. Do I walk off the podium? I thought. Instead, I looked behind me. In the shadows was Jesus, hanging on the cross. For a split second, I forgot where I was. Was I giving a reflection at all? Staring at the cross, I felt myself transported to the Via Dolorosa – the path Jesus walked in Jerusalem, carrying his cross to his crucifixion – and began to release a string of internal questions: How did you do it? How did you get up in the midst of your wounds? In the midst of the whipping and wailing? How? In that moment, I heard Jesus say: through. Through what? I thought, puzzled. And then it hit me: I had to cry – it was the only way I would get through this reflection. St. Paul’s words from scripture suddenly echoed from my depths and into my consciousness: for when I am weak, I am strong. I turned back to the congregation before me and continued – in tears. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry so as to not look weak, but it was in this weakness that allowed me the strength to go on. I couldn’t believe it, but I finished. Unexpectedly, a handful of people came up to me. Some said they would come forward with their own stories of abuse; one lady told me that, after listening to me, she has decided to pursue her business endeavors; others shared how they simply found healing in my testimony. I felt profoundly touched and humbled by this experience, officially closing a dark chapter in my life. Somewhere, I read that it isn’t what you did or what happened in the past that will affect the present – it’s what you do in the present that will redeem the past and thereby change the future. I believed it. The next day was Easter Vigil, which was more extra bacon for me: John got baptized! Along with receiving his other sacraments (Eucharist (or communion) and Confirmation). He was finally Catholic! I’d waited for this moment since my decision to fully surrender my life to Jesus, and here it was. Truly, God answers prayers!
Looking back, as much as I wanted to stay at OLMC, I wouldn’t have learned and experienced everything I did if I had stayed. Essentially, the question was this: did I want to stay comfortable or did I want to grow? I wanted to grow. Giving up something I truly loved to commit to All Saints was definitely hard, and it invariably produced many challenges, or in spiritual terms – spiritual warfare – that caused much anguish, but through these challenges, as well as learning new things, interacting with different and new people, and ultimately trusting an unforeseen future, made growth inevitable. Which was perfect because that aligned with my resolution this year, right? Right. It turns out that I loved All Saints just the same and in dedicating myself to this place, I found a new community…and true friends.
Part V, A: Ten Lessons I’ve Learned On Hurt
Hence, like voyaging around the world in the olden days, a year is not a year without its storms: loss, disappointment, hurt, failures, strife; but it is in those storms – our deepest pains and sufferings – that, in my experience, allows us to grow stronger and wiser. It is in those storms that teach us the greatest lessons of life, that equip us to overcome new storms ahead.
I will not divulge the personal nature of my storms this past year, but here are the lessons I’ve learned from a handful of them:
1. “You just have to accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in what will be.”
2. We are not called to trust and like everyone, but we are called to love and treat everyone with respect and dignity.
3. Be kind and forgiving to those who hurt you – they usually need it more. But just as you are so, be kind to and forgiving of yourself – you deserve more.
4. You must always be driven by love. Sometimes, it means letting go and loving from a distance; for what purpose does it serve to remain tied when it only causes anguish that taints the sincerity of your actions? Remember, letting go does not mean loving less, it just means preserving your ability to love.
5. Service is sacrifice – sometimes you don’t want to do it, but you know you must, despite the pain, for the greater good.
6. One of the hardest decisions in life is whether or not we should fight to hang on or fight to let go.
7. There are no “buts” in apologizing.
8. Some of the most treasured people in your life aren’t meant to stay in your life forever. Your paths crossed for a reason, and then it’s done crossing. You can’t pinpoint where it went wrong; you can’t change the situation, or answer all the questions. And you certainly cannot despair. So just as you loved, you must also let go. All you can do is be glad your paths crossed because it gave you wonderful memories to cherish, and taught you valuable life lessons you will carry forever.
9. It’s ok to grieve, but don’t choose to stay stuck there. Even if it takes forever, choose to be happy.
10. Trust God. He has a plan.
Basically, to sum up those 10 lessons, hurt is part of life. You will get hurt. You will hurt others. You can’t avoid it. It’s inevitable. But we can choose to learn from it. All I know is that sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. And when you learn, you grow.
Part V, B: My New Japanese Friend and Her Simple Words of Wisdom
The other night, I had dinner with my new Japanese friend Yuka. We fed our appetite with Italian food after an exhausting day of shopping! I did not expect to bring up my grief, but her adequate English-speaking skills made me confident that she would understand (though in her modesty, she claimed her English was not very good. I begged to differ). I did not disclose details, but merely mentioned that I was sad because I felt hurt. Talk about heavy for our first dinner together! I guess I couldn’t help it. “That’s why I bought The Happiness Project book,” I told her, in reference to earlier in the day, when she had asked to see the book I was buying. “So I can be happy.” “You must feel sad,” Yuka responded. “Only when you have sadness do you know happiness.” I smiled at the unexpected wisdom in her simple words. I’m glad I opened up to her because she did understand. I rendered her advice as this: take this time to grieve; it’s a sad thing to be hurt, but these sad moments are what make the happy moments even happier. I couldn’t help but feel better after that. And boy did I miss pasta!
Part V, C: Leap of Faith
Speaking of my new Japanese friend, I cannot fail to mention that I moved to Japan this year – the epitome of my 2015. This leap of faith ultimately reflected my hopes for I’d dreamed of living here since I was 19 years old (holy toledo that was ten years ago!). I applied to teach English in the summer of 2015 (which was a third attempt throughout the years since wanting to live in Japan), but I didn’t expect to get it, let alone do it. Well, as you know, I did and now I’m here! Let’s be honest though: before I had grasped that going would be a dream come true, I was scared. SO scared. Was I finally ready to leave my career in Social Services? Indeed, I’d grown weary of working there, but thinking about the sacrifices I’d made for that job and the difficulty in securing it made me feel incredibly hesitant. I remember feeling like an Israelite or hebrew slave in Exodus (though, of course, not in their extremes) later in my career: miserable but found comfort in the certainty of tomorrow. And then I was reminded of the scripture passage from Matthew: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat…what you will wear…look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow and reap, they do not gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they? Can any of you, by worrying, add a single moment to your life span?” When that sunk in, I finally admitted to myself that deciding to stay at this job would only be reflecting my fears. One of my biggest fears was potential unemployment, which could mean financial difficulty. God knows I know how hard unemployment is – I’ve been there. A valid fear, right? Essentially, what becomes of me after a year, trading in a job that “secures a future” for a job that ends in 365 days? But more importantly, I realized, what becomes of me if I didn’t go? I wouldn’t be staying true to myself; I wouldn’t be trusting God – did Matthew not say “don’t worry” after all, telling us to trust that God will provide? Moreover, not going would go against my resolution. Again, my life needed to reflect my hopes, not my fears. So, after much discernment and prayer, I accepted the offer to teach in Japan, and resigned from my old job. I decided to live a dream I had harbored for so long. It’s true what they say: sometimes what you’re afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free. I certainly feel free now as I am writing this. No matter what happens, I know this was the right decision. And should I face adversity ahead, I know this dream will have been worth it. I guess the Israelites grasped the aforementioned scripture passage from Matthew long before his gospel, when they trusted Moses to lead them out of Egypt. I’m sure the Israelites were scared of the unknown – what was beyond Egypt anyway?
After I gave my reflection on Good Friday, I thought about Moses and the Israelites. When they arrived at a dead end – the sea – with the Pharaoh and his army thundering behind them, they surely panicked. What were they going to do? Did they all escape from bondage only to meet their doom shortly thereafter? That was Pharaoh’s intent after all: to kill them. But what happened? Instead, they would be given a way, a path, a bridge to the other side. But not over the sea, or under it –through it. The only way to do what was necessary but difficult was through it. Wasn’t it Walt Disney who said if you’re in hell, keep going? Back when I was at the podium during Good Friday – on the verge of walking away – the only way to give that reflection was through the tears and the pain. Was it worth it in the end? Absolutely because it helped others, especially me. Ultimately, if something is worth it, sometimes there’s no choice but to go through the seemingly impossible, but then, nothing shall be impossible with God (Luke 1:37). And now, here I was again, going through – the letting go of my security blanket that was my job and my home – to get to the other side. Here I was, about to leap into the unknown. What was beyond there anyway? Just like the Israelites, I would later find that what had been awaiting on the other side all along was…freedom. A new start.
In retrospect, perhaps resigning as Music Director from OLMC was really preparing me to leave something bigger: my job in Social Services. I found it paradoxical that I left a job I once dreamed of having, but it showed me that dreams change, and that it’s ok to chase new dreams (or in my case, old dreams), even being on the brink of the big 3-0. I think part of why I struggled so much to accept this change of heart regarding my Social Services career was because I was insistent on trying to hang on – more so for practical reasons – when I knew it was time to move on. Just like in most relationships and friendships, you just know when it’s time to move on. Perhaps Elsa said it best (or should I say sang it best?): Let It Go. I could say: how fortuitous that 2015 started with closing my OLMC chapter and opening a new one at All Saints, and ended with closing my Social Services chapter and opening a new one in Japan. But I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe everything happens for a reason (cliched right? But so true!). Call those my bookends of 2015! To God be all the glory!
Part VI: Begin Again
In the summer of 2015, I was fortunate enough to travel to Japan for a second time, Spain, and France (with a long enough layover to see Dubai!). It was also a treat to witness John’s dream come true: experiencing France (he’d dreamed of going to France since middle school, and even took French)! My odyssey to these new places was rich with life lessons and new revelations, but what resonated the most was the revealing of a personal life mission I was unaware of, but now needed to be realized so as to live a meaningful life. My happiness depended on consciously honoring and fulfilling that mission.
On my flight to Madrid, I stumbled upon a movie haphazardly playing in front of me. With my phone dead and books read, I began to watch. Cool, it’s about music, I thought. Kiera Knightly embodies a soft-spoken but passionate songwriter, and Mark Ruffalo plays a worn-out music producer. Unfortunately, the plane landed before I could finish the movie. But it certainly left me intrigued since it dabbled with the notion of creating music. To my dismay, I did not catch the title of the film, so I promised myself that I would later retrieve it. A few days later, my friend Myrna and I paid Ávila a visit in honor of the great Saint Teresa (of Avila), who was known for reforming the Carmelite order, among other works that contributed to her canonization to sainthood. In one of the stoned walls at this beautifully preserved medieval city, I read this carving: Begin Again. Did this resonate because I just turned 29 years old two days ago? That’s what we do when another year is given to us – we begin again, right? I couldn’t exactly identify why this truly resonated, but for whatever reason, it did.
A week later, John joined me in Barcelona. Together we experienced the glorious architecture of Anotni Gaudí: the La Segrada Familia Basilica. Of all the European churches I’ve beheld, including the famous St. Peter’s Basilica and the Notre Dame, this was undisputedly (in my opinion) the most unique, magnificent, and transcending: all the colors, the reflection and integration of nature delicately and strategically woven inside the church; the mysteriously haunting facade, the minute details of every nook and cranny, the height, the obscure shapes, the sculptures; the eccentric asymmetry, yet it’s still harmonious. I learned that in the process of building this majestic basilica, Gaudí became Catholic and outpoured himself into this project as a form of prayer, glorifying God with his gifts. This deeply moved me. I felt my insides stirring, igniting in me a profound need to outpour my gifts into something…into my own creation…to glorify God.
Upon returning from my travels, I remembered the promise I made: search for the movie I began to watch en route to Spain. I entered “Kiera Knightly Mark Ruffalo music movie” in the Google search box. My jaw dropped in astonishment. There, below the search box, was the movie title: Begin Again. What did all this mean? Again, I could have rendered this fortuitous, but I do not believe in coincidences. Thus, through prayer, the deep need to create ignited from my marveling of Gaudi’s masterpiece and the unexplained resonance of the carved “Begin Again” at Avila only to discover that that was the title of the movie I was keenly drawn to on the plane, a movie about songWRITING and music and staying true to those, led me to conclude this: I needed to create words first, then music. This conclusion initially mystified me (and seemed trivial) since I’d created before. As a previous journalist, many of the stories and articles I’d written were published.As a musician, I had composed music on numerous occasions and incorporated them in my various music affiliations. What made this epiphany different? As I scrutinized the past few years trying to make sense of this newfound conclusion, I was pleased to find my answer, my revelation: I needed to create…again. Begin…Again. To be a creator means to never stop creating. Once a project is finished, begin again. This is a cycle creators must adopt to stay true to themselves regardless of the outcome. Authors repeatedly fail to publish a book, yet, they begin again. Aspiring actors and artists and dancers are repeatedly rejected in the midst of their creations, yet, they begin again. It’s because creating is in their blood. It is their identity. Not to create would be to live a meaningless life. Creators do not create to earn a living, they create because they simply…must. I realized that part of why I had been feeling incomplete these past few years was because I stopped creating music; I stopped writing. I wrote here and there, but never in earnest. I got caught up with the busyness of life, burying an important element that significantly contributed to my fulfillment. Instead of actually creating, I often found myself with my cheek in my palm, elbows firmly planted on my desk, eyes lost and large, daydreaming during break (at my old job) about having an abundance of time to write a memoir or a string of songs that would make up some sort of personal concert (I would have professionals sing it though, but imagine that, my life experiences told in song); and in these daydreams, I would often be in a foreign place (since I’d always wanted to live abroad). Thus, with my clarified revelation, I promised myself that I would never neglect my creative spirit again, but to constantly cultivate it; that no matter how chaotic life got, I would make time. This became my personal life mission. Establishing this suddenly made me feel complete. And why wouldn’t it? It is in the process of creating that gives my life purpose, and the actual creation – the manifestation of the imagination – that makes me feel alive. It’s not a question of wanting to create, it’s simply that I must. Even if only for myself. This feeling of “I must” is so eloquently described by Rainer Maria Rilke in his book, Letters to a Young Poet: “There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.”
So, I need to continue creating words and music, I thought. This was vague, so I worked on becoming more specific. I needed to give this revived creative spirit structure and direction in which to outpour myself. I came up with these: 1) Write a memoir (details TBD) + maintain a daily blog for a year (that hopefully contributes to the memoir) 2) Write 12 songs to form a personal, intimate musical/concert (details to be brainstormed and determined). And then go from there. I had come up with those last September, before I knew I was Japan-bound, so naturally, I struggled to find time for them. With the holidays looming, I decided I would save them for the new year. Well, how fitting that I am now in this foreign place with time and space, in the new year. I’m pleased to report that I am no longer daydreaming.
On that account, 2016 shall be my road to completing my creative endeavors in Japan (or at least getting it seriously started); along with new journeys, failures, discoveries, disappointments, lessons, dreams, and hopes.
Part VII: A Mantra for the New Year
After assessing this past year, I discovered that making a list of resolutions did not work for me, but having a mantra – a quote, scripture passage, what your mom says, whatever; and that mantra was what I applied in all aspects of my life, which aided me in achieving my goals and coping with my failures. I embarked on 2015 with the conscious effort to make choices that truly reflected my hopes, even if it meant failing; even if it meant looking foolish, or losing. Because throughout all the discomfort and worrying and wondering, I truly…grew. Was that not my prayer after all? To grow? And we cannot grow where we are comfortable. We must always strive to push ourselves for it is in our hours of sweating and crying that we find healing, that we discover our true inner strength. And it is in the using of that strength that we grow. That’s why it is said: it’s not the destination, but the journey. It is in the journey that makes us. Once we arrive at our destination – achieve a dream – a new journey begins. A new chapter is written. We begin again. And so, in this new year, I will do just that, not only in my creative endeavors, but in all my endeavors, to inspire new hope. Perhaps that will be my mantra this year.
Did I grow in 2015? Yes. Resolution achieved.
It’s time to begin again in 2016.
Happy New Year everyone.
La Segrada Familia Basilica (LSFB) in Barcelona, Spain