All my bags are packed…I’m ready to go…

Well…not quite.

It’s 5 am on my last day in the Philippines.  I hear birds chirping outside the windows of my Aunt’s vacation home where I’ve been staying at for the last 2 months.  Across the island, 25 minutes away, is my Lola’s house where I spent many summers playing ninja games and catching spiders with my Uncle.  Another 40 minutes farther is my Momcy’s home, a quaint green structure without central airconditioning that was “home” to me in so many ways.  And a few minutes’ drive from there in the other direction is my parents’ home where my dad, mom, and younger sister all live. As I look over the deep blue waters of Samal Island, towards the old buildings and stilt houses of Davao City, I can’t help taking a deep breath and sigh. The idea of traveling over 6000 miles to another country came with many mixed emotions, and was a lot easier said than done. In a few hours I’ll be saying goodbye to all these. The places, people, things, and experiences that make up my childhood and the person that I am today. I need to take a moment. Or two.

Speaking of, I’ve been “taking moments,” lately.  Breathing in lung-fulls of Davao City air and breathing out the kind of gratitude that brings tears to my eyes.  After so many years of preparing myself for transition out of here, it is a weird feeling to be actually leaving this time for real.  We like to say that leaving is the easiest part—it’s those who are left behind who suffer most.  I beg to differ.  I was born and raised here. True, I spent some time traveling, and seeing a bigger world than my hometown, but I eventually returned home and very rarely left for long periods.  So it isn’t just a country I’m leaving.  It is everything that has defined me since my birth.

The meandering memory lane I’ve traveled since my pack-up-and-go return in June has been bright with recollection, emphasizing again the marrow-deep significance of the places I’ve revisited.

My home is peppered with intimate memories, much like the tiny villages that dot its lush green flanks.  The school I spent half of my student life in.  The path where my little Japanese Spitz, Mytto, got mauled by neighborhood dogs during a late afternoon walk (we cowered in a neighbor’s garage until my dad came to pick us up: dog shaking, walker bawling).  The park where, at 16, I discovered being “sweet” was overrated, and the nearby bench where I collapsed, heart beating, and dopey smile on my face, after my first awkward kiss.  The dirt path behind my Aunt’s house, where my sister and I used to go to catch spiders and other creepy crawlies (well, actually it was me doing the catching and my sister doing the screaming).  The Chinese temple and other places my dad and I used to visit to “soak up some culture”.  All the restaurants I frequented with my mom and sister to satisfy our delectable tastes and the malls we shopped at (my mom and sister both being certified shopaholics). The coffee shops and local digs where my friends and I spent a third of our lives in. The pedestrian “over pass” I cross all the time to get from school to my grandmother’s place at lunch time so I can eat her delicious home-cooked meals made with love.

Even the dirty, noisy downtown area holds memory-treasures for me.  The soccer  field near the river where my high school pals and I ate cardboard pizza during my first year in high school, then reenacted scenes from The Sound of Music as we pranced, full and joyful, through wild flowers and tall grass.  My sophomore year classroom in Juna with its view of the crowded streets of Matina and the colorful rooftops of the houses that peppered S.I.R.  The shrine where we used to go to “reflect”, Jack’s Ridge and acres of grass spread out, soft and strong, at our feet.  My favorite picnic table high atop Shrine Hill—how many times have I sat there trying to figure out which of the homes stacked steeply across the valley is mine?  The dorm room I stayed at briefly in college  where 10 pm, Saturdays, marked the beginning of meal prep for the next week…the Jim Brickman tunes and friendship made those late night hours enchanted ones.  The Redemptorist church and the clacking birds nested on its roof.  My first apartment (dreary and mold-darkened, now that it’s empty) where dozens of meals were made for students eager for conversation: death, faith, morality, blockbuster movies and relationship issues…no subject was taboo.  The doorway where police officers gathered, guns drawn, when a romantic prank went tragically (and comically) awry.

And then there’s the school where I first discovered the joys of teaching.  The non-descript hallways where miracles happened on some level every day.  The entertainment hall where crowd-control and music danced around each other and “herding sheep” became my most-prized skill.  Where the guys in the back row transferred an entire drum set from one side to the other without my knowledge during class—big bass drum included.  Oh, the pride on the delinquents’ faces!  And oh, the laughter and mayhem and effort and extraordinary achievements that happened there.  Down the hall, the Creative Writing sanctum, where literary souls poured their hearts in black ink over thirsty pages…or leapt from desks into each other’s arms—just because they could.  Ms. Marie’s office, where quick stops turned into long conversations filled with laughter, rants or de-stressing silliness.  The cafeteria where I ate my fill of Korean barbecue every Friday.  The stage where mini school plays whooped and whispered and strutted their stuff.  The corners and nooks where life-altering exchanges happened lightening-fast, between classes, and the classroom where my small groups sought and lived big change.

There have been times in the past few weeks, as I have stuffed, coaxed and prayed every last item of my past into boxes bound for L.A., when I’ve taken a sudden, involuntary breath—realizing again, in that moment, that this is truly the end.  As that breath bled into tightening lungs, I felt the enormity of the challenge ahead.  The full, weighty substance of a departure from more than a place of childhood—from My Life.  But even as the waves of realization swept over me, equally solid waves of certitude swept through me.  It’s my turn, now, to heed my own transition admonitions—live it fully, embrace the emotions (they’re a testament to wonderfuls remembered), mark the memories, be grateful for the past and expectant of the future.

My new life, the life the Universe has prepared for me and prepared me for, will begin tomorrow, as my plane rises above Davao City one last time and carries me to my new home, my new friends—and my new calling.  Every place I’ve visited during this brief return to my hometown has reminded me that the learning I’ve done here, the knowledge I’ve acquired, is too valuable to keep comfortably ensconced in this familiar and fulfilling place.  It is across the ocean that my life’s purpose can have its greatest impact.  So with a deep breath of Davao City air, on this typically foggy morning, and with birds chirping outside my window, it is with a tearful but grateful spirit that I say “Yes.”  I will follow the voice inside me, I will leave, I will rejoice in the new adventure to which the Universe has so clearly called me and I will remain steadfast, confident that the Universe will guide me.  I will grieve the ending and celebrate the beginning.  I will carry this place—this home—with me.  It is in my heart.  Imprinted in my very core.  It is forever part of me.

Journey to the Past – the soundtrack to the movie Anastasia, has been the soundtrack in my mind these past few days.  It’s in the video above: an ode to my life here, to leaving home…and to seeking new adventures.


(BTW, I know when I will be back again.)