Sunday, April 29, 2007

Spaces of Solitude

Truly nothing happens by chance. Even the messages and readings sent to us by God are so perfectly timed. In today's issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I wrote about spaces where mothers could find solitude. Lately I've been doing a lot of this myself, pondering on the recent events of my life and the choices that I have made.

I'm on my own now, professionally that is, and it is a choice I have made after much counselling, prayer and discernment in order to make room in my life for other things to come in. I like to joke that I am "poorer" now but all the more happier for it. My good friend told me tonight that the wealth that comes from serving God is reaped not in this life but in the next. So I told him that yes, I believed that and that contentment is a state we all need to strive for. Contentment with God is the best place to be.

After this discussion, I came upon one of my email devotionals by well-respected and much-loved Christian author Elizabeth Elliot, in it she writes -- "I have tried, throughout most of my life, to maintain a quiet time with God, with many lapses and failures. Occasionally, but only occasionally, it is impossible. Our Heavenly Father knows all about those occasions. He understands perfectly why mothers with small children bring them along when they talk to him.

Nearly always it is possible for most of us, with effort and planning and the will to do his will, to set aside time for God alone. I am sure I have lost out spiritually when I have missed that time. And I can say with the psalmist, "I have found more joy along the path of thy instruction than in any kind of wealth" (Psalms 119:14).

On that note, God answered some of my anxieties, and with that, I share with you this article on finding God in the sacred spaces of solitude...

Sanctuaries of Solitude

By Cathy S. Babao Guballa

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Mark 6:31

For some mothers shopping and an hour at Starbuck’s does the trick. For others it’s an hour at the salon, or better yet an hour at the spa. Whatever it is that brings you solitude, keeps you sane and helps make a better mother out of you, go ahead and just do it.

Why are solitude breaks important for mothers?

Lynn Hybels, wife of pastor and famous Christian author Bill Hybels says that if there’s anything that mothers of all ages need as we move into the complex world of the 21st century, it is a passionate and empowering, grounding relationship with God. I have a room in my house that my son calls my Fortress of Solitude akin to Superman’s headquarters in the Arctic where he would retreat when life in the Metropolis became to much to bear. My own “fortress” is where I run off to whenever I want some genuine peace and quiet. It is a place where I can be alone with my thoughts and a quiet corner where I can reflect and pray.

Once in a while, I like to seek out new spaces of solitude away from my home to get refreshed and inspired. A mother’s work is never done, more so if she has a career and a home to balance. Taking care of oneself, I have learned, has become a necessity if I want to be able to take care of others well. There is nothing selfish about going away for a few hours, a day, or even overnight, if that is what it takes for you to replenish your energy in order to parent well.

Here are some of the few quiet places I have discovered in and around the city where mothers can go to find rest and inspiration.

Field of Faith

If you have half a day to spare, hie off to the Field of Faith (FOF) in Calauan, Laguna where you can sit at the foothills of the mountains and reflect by the chapel or the meditation pond. FOF, which is privately owned by the Singson family, was set up by Moonyeen Retizos Singson, a two-time cancer survivor and her daughter Carissa. There is a beautiful rendition of the stations of the cross throughout the property where the sound of birds and a gentle brook fill the lush gardens of the field. It is a retreat complex with an 850 meter rosary path with renditions and installations of the different mysteries.

In addition, there is a labyrinth hall, an early Christian meditative and prayer tool made of tiles that can accommodate up to 200 people. The complex has ten air-conditioned rooms with individual bathrooms and terraces that can accommodate up to 36 people at one time. Visitors who wish to spend time communing with the Lord, can come for the day or spend a night in one of the well-appointed cottages in the retreat complex. Prior reservations are required. Email or call Nene Quintos at 919-378-1664 for inquiries.

The Good Shepherd Convent in Tagaytay

My children know whenever I need to make an important decision that has major repercussions on my life or my career. “Mommy’s going up to the nuns,” is how my son likes to put it. The Good Shepherd is my place of rest. High above the hills and with a majestic view of Taal volcano, a night or day spent with the sisters in deep thought and prayer never fails in helping me get back my bearings.

I usually leave Manila very early in the morning and take breakfast somewhere in Tagaytay then go and spend the day with the sisters in their beautiful garden that overlooks the lake. I can spend hours just lazing by the hammock, contemplating my life, trying to discern what it is that God wants me to do next. In the early mornings, or late afternoons, it is soothing to walk the labyrinth and in the process try to unclutter the mind and spirit. The author Sue Monk Kidd says that moments with oneself are essential to one’s well-being. Often we are used to drowning or numbing our pain and confusion with a flurry of activities because it is not easy to be still. However, and this I have learned the hard way, it is always in the stillness that God speaks. But yes, it takes a lot of practice getting there. On my way back from the convent, after spending a day or a night there, I bring home delicious Good Shepherd buko pie or their famous jam and some other home made treats then, I’m ready to be a mommy and a wife again. Call 046-413-4287 for more information on their personal one on one retreats.

The Garden Shelter & Tea Spa at the Crossroads

On my last visit to the Crossroads building on Mother Ignacia street in Quezon City, my life was exactly in that state – at a crossroads. It was a pleasant surprise to find a soothing place to rest in the midst of bustling Quezon City. The best time to come here is late in the afternoon, a few hours before the sun sets. On the outside the building is non-descript. It is home to the Bread of Life Fellowship but within it are several pockets of solitude that are open to the public.

Begin your visit by reading a good book over at the Tea Spa which is a quiet place that serves healthy food and refreshing teas. From there, you can spend some time in the serene and air-conditioned prayer room where people of various faiths – Catholic, Protestant, Born-again – can rest a while and quietly commune with God in prayer. If you are troubled, feel free to unburden yourself here. If you are in a joyous mood, you can give thanks and praise (quietly though) in a relaxed atmosphere. And just as twilight begins to fall, you can cap your visit by spending an hour in the Garden Shelter to meditate. Over here you can sit a while to ponder and be by yourself without worrying about bumping into someone you know. People at the Crossroads center are very respectful of your privacy so be assured that you will not be bothered while you are soaking in some precious solitude. Visit the Garden Shelter and Tea Spa at 77 Crossroads Building, Mother Ignacia Avenue, Quezon City

This article was published in the Lifestyle Section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on April 29, 2007

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Proudly Pinay - First Filipina To Graduate West Point

My good friend Roxanne Estrellado Limjoco and I first wrote about Ice Achanzar back in 2004 when I was still editing a magazine called "Me" and Rox was one of our monthly contributors. Early this month, while doing a story on PMA graduates, I thought of checking out the West Point website and check if there were any Filipino graduating this year. Lo and behold -- I re-discovered Ice Achanzar and immediately, I got in touch with Rox to ask if they were still in touch. True enough, Rox continued to touch base with her. We sent Ice an emaiil and wrote the story together. And this is how the Philippine Daily Inquirer story today on page one came about --

MANILA, Philippines -- She had only asked to be part of the Philippine Military Academy, “but God gave me West Point.”

This is how Christy Isis “Ice” Achanzar, a 24-year-old native of Davao City, explains why she feels “extremely blessed” as she looks back on her three years at the premier military academy in the United States.

Next year, Achanzar will make history at the academy in New York as the first Filipino woman born and raised in the Philippines to graduate from its hallowed halls.

The US Military Academy at West Point has been in existence for over two centuries but it was only in 1975 that it began admitting female cadets.

Achanzar entered West Point in June 2004—the first Filipino woman to do so.

“The top 50 from our class during our plebe year at the PMA were asked to take an initial test,” she relates in an e-mail interview. “That number was whittled down to 16, and all of us underwent interviews [with] the respective US service academies we had chosen.” (For her, it was the Army.)

Achanzar and the others took physical tests as well as the SAT and TOEFL exams. The results came out in April when she was in Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija, for summer training.

Huge surprise

Through a rigorous process of elimination, Achanzar and Filipino-Iranian Mario Feliciano, a native of Zamboanga City, were picked from the batch.

“It was a huge surprise for me since I am a female, and I know that it has always been a competition between males,” Achanzar says.

When she first heard that she had been accepted, she thought it was a joke. “I didn’t believe it until the command personally informed me about it,” she says.

Achanzar was initially plagued by doubts about pursuing her dream of going to West Point: “I didn’t want to be so far away from my family, losing the peers I had established at the PMA and doing the cadet basic training all over again, which would make me fall behind by 14 months. The different culture and environment to adjust to, the language barrier, and the thought that I was not the best in my class were all floating in my head at that point.”

But in the end she conquered her fears, and together with Feliciano, became part of West Point.

Lifelong dream

Joining the military had been a lifelong dream for the young woman who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communications engineering from the University of the Immaculate Conception in Davao.

“I had always been fascinated with the bearing and principles of men in uniform. And my question has always been how I can be an instrument of God. Our parents brought us up to be service-oriented and prayerful, and the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi has always guided my decision-making,” she says.

According to Achanzar, the most difficult aspect of being at West Point is the physical distance from her family.

“Here at the academy, we are granted more leaves than when I was at PMA. However, I’m not really that excited about it since it’s almost always impossible for me to go home and spend it with my family and friends,” she says.

On her days off, Achanzar spends time with the other Filipinos at West Point—Cadet Carl Liwanag, who will graduate in May, and Feliciano, her classmate.

She talks of the “boodle fight,” a social dining activity that sees the cadets scrambling for the boodles (or food) made up of rice, pancit canton and other Filipino dishes brought by their sponsor, Nympha Leano. “The American cadets are welcome to join us,” she says.

The Filipinos’ long weekends are sometimes spent with their host families—the Laysons in Maryland or the Floreses in New Jersey.

“These families have generously opened their homes to us cadets,” Achanzar says.

Achanzar, Liwanag and Feliciano regularly check up on one another through e-mail, phone calls and the occasional get-together.

Sharing notes, techniques

“We share notes and academic books, and techniques on physical development in the areas of swimming, gymnastics, indoor obstacle course tests, and the Army physical fitness test,” Achanzar says.

She jokes that her male Filipino classmates are “studs,” in the sense that they are extremely physically fit.

Among Achanzar’s most memorable times at the academy was when she saw her squad shine: “One summer, my squad successfully finished [its] basic training with zero-percent attrition rate and was awarded the best squad in our summer company for first detail. Three members were chosen Soldier of the Quarter for their class. I was very happy for them.”

Another memorable event was when she “shot” the enemy during a “raid operation” after what she describes as an “exciting” Black Hawk helicopter ride.

“My buddy left me when he needed to stop the enemy movement. I took a shot and both the ‘enemies’ went down. Their MILES gear (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) beeped when they got hit by my laser,” she relates.

Up until then, Achanzar had doubts about her ability to actually point and shoot. “I realized that when you are in the situation, you’ve just got to do it,” she says.

Equal opportunities

Being female and Filipino in a male-dominated academy does not faze Achanzar.

“Equal opportunities are granted and we get the same training. Admittedly, at certain points you cannot disregard the physical limitations of being female. It really takes a good amount of perseverance and more effort to catch up with the rest of your peers here, and so I have to train harder. People here are respectful and the environment is culturally diverse,” she says.

Achanzar says that as Filipinos at West Point, she and the other two cadets continue to keep the values imparted to them by their families and their alma mater.

“The PMA taught us not to complain about our difficulties but to try harder to get through that particular trial. You don’t always succeed in everything. When you fail, stand up and redeem yourself,” she says.

The thought of being the first Filipino woman to graduate from West Point in the near future continues to give Achanzar goose bumps and challenges her to do better so that she can promote the status of Filipino women and females in general.


And she has not forgotten the faith that carried her through the PMA and now West Point. As a PMA cadet, she remembers that in her low days, she simply prayed: “Lord, take charge and remove all the difficulties.”

After almost three years at West Point, Achanzar says her sentiments remain the same.

“My parents are my main prayer warriors,” she says. “If it wasn’t through their support and prayers and the trust of the people who gave me this opportunity ... I would not be here now.”

Story originally published on page one of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 1, 2007